Seeking scapegoats Russia: As bleak winter begins, some blame all hardships of life on Jews and other 'alien' elements.

November 23, 1998

ANTI-SEMITISM HAS been such a constant in Russian history that the recent bigoted rhetoric of a Communist member of parliament, retired Gen. Albert Makashov, was not particularly surprising. Unusual, though, was the virulence of his remarks -- and his use of slurs that normally are not uttered in public. They have created a scandal in Moscow and demands for a law banning "political extremism."

It is difficult to see what good such a law would do. Russia's constitution forbids incitement of ethnic strife, as did the Soviet-era basic law. Nevertheless, bigotry persists. Aside from Jews, its targets are "chornie" ("blacks"), a blanket term applied to the darker-skinned people of the Caucasus region or Central Asia.

Because their physical appearance differs from that of ethnic Russians, they have become easy scapegoats for hardships. Chechens and Azeris in particular are commonly blamed for everything from immorality to organized crime. Virtual pogroms are conducted in many cities to evict them from their homes. Among politicians and other opinion leaders, they have few defenders.

As for Jews, recent emigration has drastically cut their numbers. Defining one in Russia is often a complicated matter. After decades of communist atheism, few people have any religious affiliation or cultural identification. Mixed marriages have long been common.

A number of leading politicians appear to have Jewish family ties, including Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov; his predecessor, Sergei Kiriyenko, and Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the ultranationalist who now is among General Makashov's defenders. Yet their family backgrounds are not an issue.

Anti-Semitism in Russia often is a political reflex that occurs when times are tough and people are airing their frustrations. It has to be taken seriously not because it is so ingrained but because past history shows it can easily escalate from ugly words to unspeakable deeds.

Pub Date: 11/23/98

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