" ... upon their arrival in the US Russian Jews would paint the USSR and Russia with a broad brush loaded with dark colors: oppression, antisemitism, pogroms, plus the general backwardness, drunkenness and awfulness.
Had they resisted the urge to play the victim, their narrative might, by default, become something like this:
'We wrecked Russia, rearranged it to our advantage, made out like bandits, pretty much bankrupted the place… and so now we are over here in the US, together with our prized possessions, elderly relatives and pets, claiming to be refugees, and are ready to do it again.'
That just doesn’t sound sufficiently refugee-like, now, does it? Add to this the fact that there is considerable money to be made in the US by lambasting Russia, and the urge to lambaste becomes irresistible."
Orlov is one of our favorite essayists on Russia and all sorts of other things. He moved to the US as a child, and lives in the Boston area.
He is one of the better-known thinkers The New Yorker has dubbed 'The Dystopians' in an excellent 2009 profile, along with James Howard Kunstler, another regular contributor to RI (archive). These theorists believe that modern society is headed for a jarring and painful crack-up.
He is best known for his 2011 book comparing Soviet and American collapse (he thinks America's will be worse). He is a prolific author on a wide array of subjects, and you can see his work by searching him on Amazon.
His current project is organizing the production of affordable house boats for living on. He lives on a boat himself.
If you haven't discovered his work yet, please take a look at his archive of articles on RI. They are a real treasure, full of invaluable insight into both the US and Russia and how they are related.
In trying to disentangle the current fraught state of relations between the US and Russia, one group that deserves a higher level of scrutiny is American Jews.
It is an unfortunate accident of history that a group of around a million has ... soured relations between half a billion people.
This is the single largest population group that the two countries have in common: of the some 5 or 6 million Jews currently living in the US (numbers vary depending on how one measures “Jewishness”) around a million immigrated to the US from the Former Soviet Union, either directly or after a sojourn in Israel. The US government readily accepted all of them, granting them refugee status; thus, they entered American society with a politicized, distinctly anti-Russian identity, and their anti-Russian attitudes have had an effect on the opinions of many non-Russian Jews and other Americans.
It is an unfortunate accident of history that a group of around a million has, more or less inadvertently, soured relations between half a billion people.
There are a lot of tricky bits and pieces to this story. Part of it is the Cold War legacy, which generated a great deal of institutional inertia within the US, which in turn causes the US to continue to treat Russia as the enemy. Part of it is the strangely disproportionate influence of Israeli Jews specifically, and of Jews in general, on US politics. Yet another piece of the puzzle has to do with the benefits that accrued to the Russian Jews in the US who talked up their having been victimized by the Soviet government or by Russian antisemitism. A final, particularly tricky aspect has to do with the nature of Jewish identity and how it has historically clashed, and continues to clash, with what it means to be a Russian Jew.
I will talk about each of these in turn, but first I want to disclose what it is that makes me qualified to write on this subject. I was born and grew up in Russia in the 60s and 70s, then emigrated as part of a wave of mainly Jewish emigration, entered the US as a refugee and was naturalized five years later. A fictional Israeli relative or two were featured in our application for the exit visa, although we had no intention of ever going to Israel.
A lot has already been written on the topic of American Cold War inertia, so I will sum it up in just a few of sentences. The US is being held hostage by a bloated, ineffectual and generally incompetent military bureaucracy whose only area of overwhelming superiority is in extorting exorbitant sums of money for its projects, many of which are failures. In order for this extortion to work, one must be able to argue that there is an enemy to defend the country against.
During the Cold War the enemy was, most conveniently, the USSR. After the USSR collapsed, there was a period of vacillation, during which “Russian mafia” got a lot of attention, just to keep the image of the enemy fresh. But a felicitous new opportunity presented itself after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 (which, many claim, were contrived for just this purpose) to present international terrorism as the new enemy. This ruse has by now outlived its usefulness because the terrorists are now doing better than ever, and so it is time to shut up about terrorism and to go back to Plan A: cultivating russophobia (with China now thrown in for good measure).
It is true that Russia, having recovered from the devastation of the Soviet collapse, is a bit more formidable as an enemy than it was in the “Russian mafia” days, but russophobia is still key, and it requires a steady stream of negative news stories and commentary on Russia. It is here Russian Jews, some living in the US, some traveling back and forth between the US and Russia, are happy to oblige, since they are, arguably, America’s subject matter experts on all things Russian.
The strangely disproportionate influence of Israeli Jews, and of Jews in general, on American politics is also a hot topic of discussion, and so here I will once again summarize briefly. First the obvious: Israel is not part of the United States; it is a separate sovereign nation and a UN member. And yet American politicians can pledge allegiance to Israel without being arrested and tried for treason. Lots of US-Israeli dual citizens circulate through both US and Israeli institutions, and nobody ever bothers to ask which one of them is spying on whose behalf. Within the US, Israel, and Jews generally, receive special treatment: anyone who dares to criticize Israel is more or less automatically accused of antisemitism and ostracized. Also, it has been made illegal to boycott Israeli products or companies, which some people want to do in support of the Palestinian cause. Some analysts go as far as to say that Israel has colonized the US, much as Britain had colonized India, with a few thousand British controlling the entire subcontinent to their own advantage.
But within Israel the situation is a bit different. About a third of the Jewish population of Israel is made up of Russian Jews. Many of them are actual citizens of the Russian Federation; most of the rest can claim Russian citizenship as a birthright. Lots of of them go back and forth between Russia and Israel, to work, for medical treatments, to visit relatives, on vacations, etc. A steady stream of Israelis is going back to Russia, mainly because Russia is in some ways more prosperous than Israel, where opportunities for social advancement are growing increasingly limited. Relations between Russia and Israel are very friendly and cooperative. When the Israeli defense minister flies to Moscow for talks, he doesn’t take a translator along because he is, in fact, Russian.
Right now relations between the US and Russia are in a dismal state. At the same time, relations between Russia and Israel are the warmest that they have ever been. “Russia and Israel can take pride in our high level of partnership, fruitful cooperation and far-reaching business contacts,” said Vladimir Putin while taking Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu to the Bolshoi Ballet. In spite of all of the complexities of the Middle East—the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Syria, Iran’s growing influence, Turkey’s traditional treachery, strange goings on in Saudi Arabia—the Russian-Israeli relationship is just ticking along.
If you wanted to get just a tiny bit conspiratorial, you could perhaps imagine that Israel is Russia’s Trojan horse in the US. What is its purpose? To keep the US squandering borrowed money on military junk and misadventures, of course, until it’s all gone! To push the US toward the same cliff over which the USSR went back in 1990, obviously! But let us not get side-tracked into conspiracy theory and simply say that the asymmetry between US-Russian, US-Israeli and Israeli-Russian relations is extremely significant and begs for an explanation. It’s a three-legged stool that rocks—a geometric conundrum.
A relatively obvious reason for Israel cozying up to Russia is this: it is a US protectorate, but the US is becoming increasingly erratic, unreliable, militarily enfeebled and prone to catastrophic failure. Israel needs a new patron, and since Israel is a significant part of the mighty Russian diaspora (a third of Israelis are in fact Russians) reaching out to Russia is an obvious step. From their own perspective, the Russians sense that the the Israeli project may be temporary and may last only as long as American support for it.
The piece of the puzzle that has to do with the benefits that accrued to the Russian Jews in the US who talked up their having been victimized by the Soviet government or by Russian antisemitism is riddled with contradictions as well. Take on board the fact that Russian-speaking Jews are by far the most educated group ever to immigrate to the US. Also, Russia is one of the least antisemitic countries, with Jews well represented in every profession and at all levels of government, with Judaism flourishing and respected, and with no social problems specifically or disproportionately affecting Jews.
The reason Russian Jews were well-educated and ready to start prosperous careers more or less the moment they landed in the US was that they were extremely well-educated and prosperous before they left Russia. Much oppressed under the pre-revolutionary regime, Jews were instrumental during the Russian Revolution of 1917, and they and their children reaped tremendous benefits from their involvement in it during the subsequent decades. In fact, Jews did so well in the USSR that they crowded out Russians from many top jobs: although they made up just 1.5% of the population, by the 1950s over half of all directors at the many institutes, research centers and laboratories of the Soviet Academy of Sciences were Jewish. Jews made up a third of the Soviet Writers’ Union; a quarter of all university lecturers; and so on.
Members of my own family followed this trajectory. My grandfather grew up in a shtetl, spoke Yiddish with his mother, moved to St. Petersburg after the revolution, joined the Communist Party and eventually became a professor of Russian literature with a grand apartment on a city square and a country mansion. both stuffed with art and priceless antiques, a live-in housekeeper and nanny and a private limousine with a chauffeur. Jews like my grandfather dislodged the old aristocracy and became la crème de la crème of Soviet society.
Here is a fascinating bit of trivia: recognizing that Jews are a nation without a territory and wishing to fix this problem, the USSR became the only country in the world to freely offer Jews their own homeland—the Jewish Autonomous Region, strategically located on the Chinese border. Most of its Jewish residents have by now emigrated to Israel, leaving behind public buildings with plaques in two languages: Russian and Yiddish.In time there started a bit of a backlash from all the Russians that the Jews had been squeezing out of the universities and the professions. Some of the tricks that were employed to fend off the relentless onslaught of their well-tutored children were, shall we say, less than kosher; for instance, a Jewish relative of mine wasn’t admitted to Moscow State University by being given a known unsolved problem to solve on the math entrance exam and—horror of horrors!—ended up becoming an architect instead. Many Jews saw in this backlash a sign of incipient antisemitism, and some of them decided that the pastures would be greener on the other side of the ocean.
From this it should be obvious why upon their arrival in the US Russian Jews would paint the USSR and Russia with a broad brush loaded with dark colors: oppression, antisemitism, pogroms, plus the general backwardness, drunkenness and awfulness. Had they resisted the urge to play the victim, their narrative might, by default, become something like this: “We wrecked Russia, rearranged it to our advantage, made out like bandits, pretty much bankrupted the place… and so now we are over here in the US, together with our prized possessions, elderly relatives and pets, claiming to be refugees, and are ready to do it again.” That just doesn’t sound sufficiently refugee-like, now, does it? Add to this the fact that there is considerable money to be made in the US by lambasting Russia, and the urge to lambaste becomes irresistible.
The final, particularly tricky aspect to this story has to do with the nature of Jewish identity and how it has historically clashed, and continues to clash, with what it means to be Russian. Jewish identity is rather strange and different, and to elucidate this point it is easier to compare Jews not to some garden variety group like the Irish or the Italians but to another similarly non-garden-variety group: the Gypsies. I have been acquainted with some Gypsies, and I have also researched them extensively for a case study on cultural collapse (and resistance thereto) in my book The Five Stages of Collapse.
The word “gypsy” is a corruption of “Egyptian,” which the Gypsies definitely are not, having come out of Northern India at some point in time well over a thousand years ago. (Incidentally, it is the Jews, according to their biblical mythology, who came out of Egypt via a magic hole in the Red Sea, so perhaps it is the Jews who should be called “Gypsies.”) What the Gypsies in fact are, and what they call themselves, is Roma, and their language is Romani.
The Roma share a great number of similarities with the Jews. Both are diaspora nations without a territory (excepting the rather small internationally recognized Israeli bits of Palestine); instead, they colonize various countries, migrating from country to country over time. Both Jews and Roma are traditionally xenophobic: the Jewish word for “non-Jewish” is “goy” (plural “goyim”). In Romani, it is “gadjo” (plural “gadje”). Both Jews and Roma have specific, and rather curious, taboos and purification rituals as ways of resisting contamination or corruption spread by outsiders, most of which is symbolic rather than physical.
And both were victims of the Holocaust: a quarter of Europe’s Roma population was wiped out in that event, but with a difference: while the Jews received restitution for the Nazi atrocities, the Roma did not. Only in 1979 did the West German Bundestag acknowledge the fact that Nazi persecution of Roma was racist, making them eligible to receive compensation, but by then most of the victims had already died.
Both Roma and Jewish identities are to some extent secret. The Roma usually disguise themselves by taking on local-sounding names; in Anglo countries they go by generic-sounding English names like Bob Jones or Cathy Smith; in private, they call each other exotic, Roma-sounding names like Ruslan or Zemfira. And then each Roma has a secret name known only to that person and that person’s mother.
At various times Jews have likewise found it advantageous to obscure their identities behind local-sounding names. My other grandfather is a case in point. He was born in Zhitomir, in the Ukraine. When, around the time of the Russian Revolution, his parents and sisters decamped for Brooklyn, leaving him behind, he saw it fit to change his name to the very generically Russian Alexander Orlov and led everyone to believe that he was an orphaned Russian. He lived a good long life, first in Kiev, then in Leningrad, under an assumed identity, but some time after he retired he suddenly shocked his children with the news that he was in fact Jewish, that his name was not Alexander but Abraham, and that he is moving to Israel where it’s warmer and sunnier.
He eventually met up with one of his sisters, but the other was by then shunned by the whole family, having become a Jehova’s Witness. Not that the remaining sister or her family were the least bit religious; at one time, they attempted a Passover ritual, for our benefit, I suppose, and it was such a travesty that it made me cry. (I was young and impressionable back then; now I would probably just laugh.)
Both Roma and Jewish identities are matrilineal: one cannot be a Roma, or a Jew, unless one’s mother is a Roma, or a Jew, respectively. This works to their advantage within the societies they colonize, which are all patrilineal. The rate of intermarriage is much greater in the case of Jews; the Roma do not seem to intermarry all that much because of their very negative attitude toward the “gadje.” The considerable extent of Jewish intermarriage is obvious from their appearance: the Roma often look quite North Indian, while European (Ashkenazi) Jews look European rather than like the Arabs and other Middle Eastern tribes. They are not exactly a race or an ethnic group; half of the X (female) chromosomes may be of a Jewish origin, but the Y (male) chromosomes may have been, more often than not, borrowed from some other group. Since the Y chromosome is an evolutionary hotbed, such genetic borrowing confers a considerable advantage as far as inclusive fitness.
Thus, in mixed marriages, Jewish women function a bit like cuckoo birds, which lay their eggs in other birds’ nests, forcing other birds to rear cuckoo chicks alongside theirs. The “shiketz” (a “goy” husband) may think that his children add to the numbers of his own tribe, but is sadly mistaken. Jewish women can help colonize societies by marrying local men and having them bring up Jews (in secret if necessary) at their own expense. This salient detail wasn’t lost on everyone; in particular the Cossacks, who patrolled the margins of the Russian Empire and were fond of bride-snatching Persian, Turkish and Caucasian women, then baptizing and Russianizing them, would have nothing to do with Jewish women. On the other hand, until quite recently bringing home a “shiksa” (a “goy” female) was very much disapproved of in Jewish families, because children from such a union could not be counted as Jews.
If Jews are not a race or an ethnic group, are they are religion? Notably, there is no freedom of religion among Jews: according to most Jews, one cannot be a Moslem Jew or a Christian Jew and still be a Jew. But over half of the Jews in both the US and Israel are atheist, and there are far more Atheists among American Jews than among the general population. One ritual—bris (circumcision) is generally required as a condition for social inclusion, but it does not carry much religious significance in a society that (somewhat inexplicably) tries to circumcise all of the male infants regardless of their parents’ religion.
If Jews are neither a race/ethnicity nor a religion, then what are they? By process of elimination, they are the same as the Roma: a nomadic caste. Many of the elements that signal caste membership are the same: the xenophobia inherent in terms such as “goy”/“gadjo”; the insistence on matrilineality even within generally patrilineal societies; the tendency to cultivate a secret identity; and the tendency to move on and colonize new countries as conditions warrant.
Jews can function as a nomadic caste in the US, which is full of transience and of clannish, cultish, class-based social divisions, of segregation by race, income and religion and of many other castelike social distinctions. They could function as a caste in pre-revolutionary Russia as well—admitted and tolerated but kept apart because they would not praise the Holy Trinity and venerate the Holy Cross in a country where Orthodox Christianity was a precondition for full citizenship. But post-revolutionary Russia is not so conducive to preserving the Jewish caste.
First, a Russian has the right to pick the nationality of either parent (the Russian Federation is made up of 160 nationalities, each with its own language), the default one—Russian—or to not declare one at all. Religious or secular laws that interfere with this freedom of choice infringe on this right. Second, a Russian has the right to practice any religion, independent of the choice of nationality. Thus, religious or other laws that tie one’s religion to one’s nationality infringe on this right. Third, it is generally accepted that the Russian identity suffuses all the others. There is a linguistic distinction between “Rossiysky” (pertaining to the country) and “Russky” (pertaining to the nationality) but in practice they are used interchangeably. Thus, a Russian Jew is a Russian first (linguistically, culturally, socially, possibly religiously) and a Jew second. Being Jewish is like holding a rose between your teeth: an interesting, idiosyncratic fashion accessory.
If you think that these are small details, you should see the hysterical, xenophobic reactions I can provoke more or less at will in almost any group of Jews simply by saying that I am Jewish by dint of having two Jewish grandfathers. Sure, my mother is Russian, but I am a Russian Jew, and in Russia nationality can pass from father to son, and usually does. Oh, and by the way I am a Christian, so Jewish laws don’t apply to me.
The cognitive dissonance of being brought face to face with the fact that Jews are a caste must be most painful to its members. So, fine, I am not a Jew; nor do I have a rose in my teeth. In fact, it is disingenuous of me to flippantly provoke Jews by saying that I might be Jewish, because I don’t feel even the tiniest bit Jewish and I am perfectly at peace with just being Russian.
The point of all this is that for all of the above-stated reasons you should never, ever again listen to what American Jews have to say about Russia. All they have to deliver in that department is damaged, tainted goods. It is absolutely essential for the safety and security of the entire planet that the US and Russia maintain good, cooperative, professional, friendly relations based on up-to-date facts rather than falsehoods, bigotry, innuendos or outdated tales of woe. It is incredibly self-destructive to use the lies being spread about Russia as an excuse to continue feeding the US/Israeli military monster.
If Americans are in need of a perfectly good example of how to have good relations with Russia, here it is: it’s called Israel.
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