The warning signs were visible in Russia from the early days of Vladimir Putin’s presidency, but few in the West were looking for them. Instead, US President George W Bush famously said of him in 2001, “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. I was able to get a sense of his soul.” The UK prime minister at the time, Tony Blair, engaged in a charm offensive with Putin, arguing that he should be allowed “a position on the top table” of international affairs and describing him as "an intelligent man [whose] reform programme is the right reform programme.”
And yet this was at a time when the Russian armed forces had already flattened the Chechen capital, Grozny, a tactic it repeated later in Aleppo and more recently in Mariupol and Bakhmut. The roots of Putin’s crackdown on dissent at home can also be traced back to his early years in office.
To mark the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt – who served as Chief Rabbi of Moscow from 1993 until his departure from Russia following its invasion of Ukraine – published a fascinating article in the American news publication Foreign Policy that sheds light on the Kremlin’s infiltration of religious leadership.
“I arrived in Soviet Russia in 1989, as perestroika and glasnost were in full swing, to help rebuild the Jewish community destroyed by 70 years of Communist rule,” he writes.
“One winter day in 2003, the Federal Security Service (FSB) official who was assigned to the Moscow Choral Synagogue at the time—a man I’ll call Oleg (his name has been changed purposely)—invited me to come to a police station at 40 Sadovnichevskaya Street. Oleg and his colleague started saying that I, a Swiss citizen, had been using a business multiple entry visa to stay in Russia, which is illegal since I was a religious worker; however, they were ready to overlook this issue if I started reporting to them. They pressed me to sign something, yet I refused categorically, saying that it is against Jewish law to inform on others.
“After badgering me for over an hour, they finally let me go. I was shaken to the core of my being. Oleg came back twice to try to convince me. Once he even stopped my car in the street—from that moment on, I understood that the driver might be working for the FSB as well.”
Rabbi Goldschmidt was briefly deported from Russia in 2005 and notes that at least 11 other rabbis have been forced out of the country over the last decade because they failed to toe the party line.
Rabbi Goldschmidt was aware of many attempts by the FSB to recruit leading figures in the Jewish community, and described how FSB agents “regularly monitored, visited, and intimidated” religious leaders. As early as 2000, the Kremlin formed an alliance with the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, which Putin was able to use to manipulate support from Jewish leaders at home and get them to do his bidding abroad, effectively silencing dissent from the Jewish community. The Federation’s chairman, Rabbi Alexander Boroda, spoke out last year in support of the need for the “denazification” of Ukraine.
The Kremlin’s success in controlling and instrumentalising Russia’s Jewish community mirrors the tactics it employed on the Russian Orthodox Church, which has played a leading role in the war narrative. As Rabbi Goldschmidt says, “Religion has been weaponised—and perverted—to justify crimes against humanity”.
“The Russian Orthodox Church, decimated and almost destroyed after seventy years of Communist rule, finally found its voice with the creation of the Russian Federation in 1991, but experienced a real renaissance only with the ascent of Vladimir Putin to power in 2000. By 2020, the Church had built as many churches and monasteries (roughly 10,000) in Russia as before the 1917 revolution,” the rabbi writes.
He quotes James Billington, a US academic and Russia expert, who described how the Orthodox Church could choose to become a vehicle of democratisation, or it could side with an authoritarian government and reap the benefits, such as the building of magnificent churches all over the country. The Russian Orthodox Church leader, Patriarch Kirill, chose the latter.
“In a country devoid of ideology, the Church paired with the state to provide a new ideology for the regime’s anti-Western propaganda and, to some extent, replaced the Communist Party in its creation of culture and values. The Church’s mandate evolved to provide ideological backing for the regime’s lack of support for human rights, democracy, and free elections, directing it to attack the West’s support for gay rights and sexual permissiveness,” the rabbi continues.
Patriarch Kirill gave his blessing to Putin’s quest to recreate the Soviet Union, mobilising the clergy to exert influence on their congregations to support this goal. The Patriarch himself is a fervent advocate of the “special military operation” in Ukraine, giving it the status of a holy war.
Rabbi Goldschmidt points out that, “the voices in the Church that did not support the invasion were immediately silenced—Metropolitan Hilarion, the head of external relations and essentially the number two in the Moscow Patriarchate, was exiled to the Orthodox backwater of Budapest, Hungary, over his refusal to support the war.”
The Kremlin has successfully managed the FSB’s infiltration of Russia’s Muslim leaders as well as the leadership of the Russian Orthodox and Jewish communities. The Grand Mufti of Russia, Talgat Tadzhuddin has voiced support for the war, while the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov is a key Putin ally.
The full article can be found here: https://foreignpolicy.com/2023/02/28/moscow-chief-rabbi-putin-fsb-religion-patriarch-kirill/
Keeping stories alive
This blog aims to discuss historical events relating to the Jewish communities of Ukraine, and of Eastern Europe more widely. As a storyteller, I hope to keep alive stories of the past and remember those who told or experienced them. Like so many others, I am deeply troubled by the war in Ukraine and for the foreseeable future, most articles published here will focus on the war, with an emphasis on parallels with other tumultuous periods in Ukraine's tragic history.