Sunday, September 8, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Chechens and Tajiks in Russia Now Find Themselves in a Situation Like That of Pre-1917 Jews, Researchers Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 8 – The terrible problems that Chechens and Tajiks now encounter in the Russian Federation and the stereotypes many Russians hold about members of those two nationalities recall the experiences of Jews in the last years of tsarist Russia, according to a Chechen historian who once served as a Kremlin advisor and a Moscow sociologist.

            Speaking at a Moscow roundtable last week on “Stereotypes about Chechens: Myths and Realities,” Yavus Akhmadov said that “the problem of Chechens in the Russian federation recalls the problems of Jews at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century,” a time when Russian nationalists targeted Jews as the enemies of Russia (

            At that time, he continued, “the Jews were subjects of Russia; but on the other hand, they were restricted as far as their civil rights were concerned.” As a result, many Jews took part in the revolutionary movement.  “The years have passed, but the nature, consciousness, mentality and essence of problems for Russia remain exactly the same.”

            Antagonism among Russians toward Chechens or “Chechenophobia” is currently so great, Akhmadov said, that there is nothing comparable to it anywhere in the world.  Indeed, he said, “we are approaching to a situation like that on thieve of the outburst of aggression in Rwanda,” in which a million people died.

            What makes this situation all the more appalling, he noted, is that “despite the stereotypes” Russians have about them, “Chechens are supporters of Russia and …feel themselves to be [non-ethnic] Russians” ( and

            In a parallel development last week, Aleksey Levinson, a senior researcher at the Levada Center, drew an analogy between the persecution of the Jews at the end of the Russian imperial period and that of the Tajiks and other Central Asians and North Caucasians at the present time (

            During an extensive interview with Anna Nemzer of Booknik, Levinson talked about his own experience as a Jew in Soviet times and more generally about the fate of the Jewish people in the USSR and how Muslim groups have largely but not completely supplanted the Jews as “the main enemy” among Russian nationalists.

            According to Levinson, “the Jewish people in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus was destroyed as a people” at the end of Russian imperial times, under the Soviets and during the Nazi occupation.  “It existed in the Russian Empire,” and Jews had every reason to be called “a nation or a people.”  But today, while Jews remain; the Jewish people in the Slavic countries doesn’t.

            The situation has only become worse compared since Gorbachev and Yeltsin’s times, Levinson suggests. Then, assimilated Jews played a key role in the modernizing effort those two leaders represented. But Putin regime is not interested in modernization but only in maintaining itself in power.

            As a result, he said, there is little room even for assimilated Jews in its ranks, and those who have been there – the Berezovskys, the Khodorokhovskys, and the Abramoviches – have played “doubtful roles.” For ordinary Jews, there is no place: they no longer are the chief target of the nationalists – the Tajiks and Caucasians are – but they are not welcome either.

            Many Jews are “uniting, not as a real community but as a virtual one” around websites like Booknik. “This is a healthy and interesting process,” Levinson added. “But it isn’t ethnic.”

            The reason that Jews are not today the main target of nationalists now lies in the nature of xenophobia and the presence of more obvious ones.  “Xenophobia is a reaction of a society to an national element that is alien to it: If this element ceases to be national, if from the ethnic remains only the shape of the nose and a last name which doesn’t sound Russia, it loses” its force in this regard – especially when Central Asian and Caucasian migrants are more obvious ones.

            “One has to be a very professional anti-Semite” to focus on Jews when they are so few in number. That can happen as it has happened in places where the Nazis destroyed the entire Jewish population, Levinson said.  But “we so far are not Germany.”   

            Asked by Booknik’s Nemzer whether the Russian authorities are behind the pogroms of today as tsarist officials were a century ago, Levinson replied “of course.” The powers that be give extensive coverage to “the real or imaginary crimes of the Caucasians,” and they don’t try very hard to stop those who then attack members of these groups.

            What is especially disturbing at present, the sociologist observed, is that society has been relatively quiet about all this, a silence that will only encourage the authorities to drift further “in this direction,” perhaps to horrors like those of “the Stalin years.”

            But again, Levinsky argued, the Jews not likely to be the primary target although that does not mean they won’t be attacked.  Anti-Semitism, he pointed out, is “an instrument which now is not very effective” both because of the horrors of the past and because “there are stronger means.”  In sum, for xenophobes now, anti-Semitism is like aspirin. There are more powerful “medicines” available, but if things get worse, they might “take aspirin also.”

            If the current Russian powers are replaced by “a still more fundamentalist one” – and there are reasons to fear that possibility – then, Levinson concluded, that regime could turn again to anti-Semitism because tragically there is “no immunity” to that horrible disease in the Russian body politic.

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