RUSSIA: Communism, anti-Semitism and the Kremlin

Issue 

Boris Kagarlitsky, Moscow

Nineteen State Duma deputies have petitioned the prosecutor-general to ban Jews. The letter was published on January 27, right on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and coincided with President Vladimir Putin's appearance at a somber commemoration at the death camp. The president was forced to apologise. The whole thing was a scandal.

Three weeks later the scandal went further. State-controlled television gave prime time space to anti-Semitic deputies, allowing them to explain their views in confrontation with orthodox Jews or with deliberately weak liberal opponents. The Duma put the issue to a vote. The pro-government "United Russia" party proposed a very soft resolution against anti-Semitism and the Communist Party voted against it, supporting "the letter of 19".

Yet in fact, this was all nothing new. Only someone extremely naive could have failed to notice what kind of people make up the parliament. It is common knowledge that the "Rodina" bloc was cooked up using the leftovers of the political process. And no-one should be surprised by the nationalist sentiments reigning in the upper echelons of the Communist Party (KPRF).

I was amazed to read in the press and online that some authors find the letter particularly alarming because the deputies have voters behind them. Yet the only people supporting Duma deputies are their party bosses, who are in turn supported by their sponsors and the Kremlin. Has everyone forgotten how elections are conducted in this country? Hasn't anyone ever heard of administrative resources?

The quality of the anti-Semitic deputies' petition left something to be desired. It revealed deputies' complete illiteracy and lack of familiarity with legal issues. But do any of the other documents, bills and laws created in the Duma prove anything to the contrary?

No one needed to wait for these deputies to put pen to paper to notice that there is anti-Semitism in Russia. You can get books on the Jewish conspiracy against the Russian people in almost any Moscow underpass, some even put out by fairly respectable publishers. However, these same publishers also put out books on the Israeli secret service, romance novels and basically anything else in demand.

If the current scandal in any way stands out from the boring string of similar scandals in the history of the Duma opposition, then it is because this is the first time in the history of the Russian Communist Party that high-ranking anti-Semites have been rebuffed by those below.

On the same day, activists from the youth wing of the party began to collect signatures for a response from the leftist community condemning the deputies. The internationalists' letter was also signed by almost all important left-wing figures on the left outside the KPRF. Among those who signed it we find Aleksei Kondaurov (an independent member of Communist Duma faction), Aleksandr Buzgalin, editor of the theoretical Alternativy journal, Heydar Dzemal, Islamic theologian of Liberation, even Anton Surikov, intelligence veteran often publishing his articles in the nationalist Zavtra weekly. The youth wing of the Communist Party expressed solidarity with the rest of the left, not with the deputies from "its own" faction.

The authors of the internationalists' letter believed the deputies' anti-Semitic petition was a clear provocation compromising the opposition, and allowing the Kremlin to pose as a defender of democratic values. They also pointed to the fact that anti-Semitism is the ideology of far right inseparable from anti-Communism.

This strong reaction must have come as a surprise to the party leadership, which is used to a submissive rank-and-file. But the events of this January, when opposition actions unexpectedly swelled into mass protests, boosted the young communists' self-confidence. They found their voice. At the same time, the response demonstrated a new solidarity between numerous left-wing groups, politicians and intellectuals, at least when it comes to the question of whether you can be a communist and a fascist simultaneously.

You have to hand it to the Communist Party's leaders, however. First, they were heroically silent. Of course, they did begin to exert pressure on the party members who were speaking out against anti-Semitism. In private, party representatives explained that the party was based on pluralism and therefore would not repress any supporters of internationalist views. Later, however, they had to speak up at Duma sessions, defending the "petition of the 19".

The nationalism in the top ranks of the Communist Party is an anomaly, even in the post-Soviet world. Across Eastern Europe, neoliberal reforms have come under fire from both the left, protesting against incursions into workers' rights, and from the nationalist right, which sees globalisation as an extension of the Jewish conspiracy or as a backhanded attempt to make local owners bow to the will of international capital. As one leftist journalist noted, these right-wingers want only homegrown vampires to suck their blood.

Russia is the only country where these two approaches have not only been united, but where the first approach is subordinate to the second.

The political ineffectiveness of the Communists is no secret. However, the party bureaucracy is still capable of successfully working against its own activists. Letting rightist ideology dominate the left is an incredibly effective way to demoralise and paralyse the left wing.

Now the ball is on Kremlin's side. Putin's administration can be satisfied with simply compromising the KPRF and splitting the protest movement. It can, however, go further. Putin is known for his "asymmetric responses". After the deputies' petition he may even dissolve the Duma, ban some political parties and even abolish the parliamentary system altogether.

[Boris Kagarlitsky is the director of the Institute for Globalization Studies.]

From Green Left Weekly, February 23, 2005.

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