December 5, 2002
Go My People, Go Now!
The handling of the October hostage crisis in a Moscow theater is only one of the examples of a Russian attitude that is incomprehensible to the average Westerner.
Unquestionably, the rescue of the 750 or so hostages did prevent a probable blood bath. But Russian security forces planned and executed the operation with just one goal in mind -- the elimination of the terrorists.
No thought was given to the care of the rescued hostages who were affected by the disabling gas pumped into the theater. They were carried out and laid out on the sidewalk. There were no antidotes, no oxygen masks, no attempts at artificial respiration. Hospitals were never informed of what incapacitating agents were used.
This tragic episode does not surprise me. What surprises me is that even those who should know better seem to see this most recent tragedy as an aberration, an atypical return to Soviet times, to communist mentality, to a brutal government.
The cliche that the more things change the more they remain the same is especially true in regards to Russia. Russia came into being almost 1,000 years ago when local warlords and other small-time gangsters joined a larger organization under the most powerful gangster of them all -- the czar.
The resulting state -- Russia -- was cursed from the very beginning. It was invaded, occupied, partitioned time and time again. The czars regularly murdered relatives, spouses and their own children, while oppressing the population, institutionalizing slavery and engaging in costly military adventures.
From time to time, there were efforts to lift the curse that tormented Russia, to create a better life but to no avail.
And something else never changed -- Russia was never good for the Jews. Anti-Semitism was encouraged by the government and the church and was partially responsible for the great Jewish immigrations of the 19th and 20th centuries.
The rapid and unexpected collapse of the Soviet empire and the unique success of the Soviet Jewry movement resulted in yet another exodus. Close to 2 million Jews left to settle in the United States, Israel, Germany and elsewhere, but many remained.
Today, there are between 500,000 and 2 million Jews in the former Soviet Union -- the difference in numbers is caused by the difficulty of defining a Jew -- and most have no intention of leaving. The reasons are many: fear of war in Israel, reluctance to start all over in an unfamiliar culture, increased income in the new free-market economy and often an unwillingness or inability to face reality.
There are even some who honestly believe that a viable Jewish community can be created, that there is a future for Jews there, that the bad times are gone forever and that the movement toward becoming a civilized, law-abiding, human-rights-respecting society cannot be reversed.
The hope for a brighter Jewish future has been sold to and accepted by U.S. organizations. It is difficult to assess how many of those who supposedly strive to build a Jewish community in the former Soviet Union are genuinely motivated by ideology, religion or altruism.
But I beleive that they are a tiny, insignificant minority, but tens of millions of dollars are being spent on cultural centers, synagogues, welfare and Jewish education. Thousands of well-meaning professionals are crisscrossing the former Soviet Union, meeting with self-appointed community leaders and self-taught rabbis.
Optimistic forecasts for Jewish revival and economic and cultural gains are heard from those who have a stake in the multimillion Russian Jewry recovery effort. Meanwhile, most participants regard it simply as a source of profit or organizational prestige and snicker at U.S. naivete.
There is no bright future for Jews in the former Soviet Union. Russia's curse has not been lifted. History, especially Russian history, does repeat itself, and all signs point to a replay.
Russia, with its enormous natural resources and a well-educated population, should have been by now a prosperous economic superpower with a productive industrial base. Instead, it is an economic cripple that survives by exporting oil, has a life expectancy and infant mortality rate of a third-world African country, accepts corruption and bribery in every area of life as normal and unavoidable and blames its problems on ethnic minorities.
Democracy, free-market economy and all those other Western ideas are regarded with hostility by the majority of the population. There is a yearning, a nostalgia even, for the law and order of the communist times.
Over generations, the Russians have opted for a strong and cruel czar. Oppression and injustice are acceptable, maybe even desirable.
While tens of millions of innocents died in Soviet concentration camps and tens of millions more starved in famines plaguing a country that had at one time fed all of Europe, not a single trial has taken place for even one camp commandant, judge, executioner or official responsible. In fact, the Communist Party is now the second largest party in the Russian parliament, and the approval rating of the Russian president -- a former KGB colonel -- is high and rising.
The first steps of limiting free expression by the television and printed media have already been taken, the cult of personality for Vladimir Putin is growing with a plethora of pictures, books and statues springing up, there is growing intimidation of dissenters by the heirs of the KGB operating under a different name.
I spoke to the parents of Los Angeles resident, Gregory Burban, who was one of the victims of the Moscow tragedy. They are collecting signatures for a petition calling for international investigation in the deaths of Moscow hostages. They demand justice.
They want a recognition that, in their words, "The Russian government murdered our son." I sympathize, but I have little hope. The Russian curse will not be reversed by American petitions.
There is no hope for a bright future for Jews in the former Soviet Union. Their only opportunity is to leave as soon as possible, while it is still possible.
There was no emigration from Russia for half a century after the revolution. The gates were forced open in 1970 and are still open today. There is no way to know when they will be shut again.
The new czar -- be it Putin or someone like him -- will surely use the Jews as scapegoats for all that goes wrong. By then, it will be too late.
Israel is ready to accept Jews from the former Soviet Union. The United States could be persuaded to increase admissions by popular pressure. There are many other destinations -- all of them better than the future they face in the former Soviet Union. Let us stop wasting money and effort by encouraging Jews to stay where they will have no future.
Si Frumkin is chairman of the Southern California Council for Soviet Jews.