The traditions of Jewish community life, which developed over centuries, were lost completely during Soviet rule in Russia. It will take much time to revive and develop the Jewish community, though the process is energetically underway and is vivid proof of the political and economic changes in Russia.
In the early 1990s, Jewish life in Russia was kept up nearly entirely by the international Jewish organisations, in particular the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. But Yuri Raskin, executive vice-president of the Russian Jewish Congress (REK) and director general of Avers Media, says the Jewish community has progressed since the mid-1990s largely thanks to the financial and organisational efforts of Russian Jews. From 1996 to 2003, the REK alone collected and distributed over $70 million in Russia, which is a vast sum by Russian standards.
Jewish community life in Russia is centred on the REK and the FEOR - the Federation of Jewish Organisations and Communities of Russia. REK president Yevgeny Satanovsky, head of the Ariel Group industrial trading company and the Institute of Israel and the Middle East, explained to your correspondent the difference between the two organisations:
"The REK is a system created by Soviet Jews in Russia, which worked on the idea of Vladimir Gusinsky, its first president, to rally all Jewish organisations around one table.
"The FEOR is a Jewish project of Boris Berezovsky. FEOR's sponsors took over from Berezovsky and his partners. The largest of them are Lev Levayev, Roman Abramovich and Arkady Gaidamak. The latter is one of the largest, though not public, figures in the Jewish business in Russia. His individual contribution to Jewish programme is much larger than the donations of many of those who have openly taken up a position in the Jewish world. Levayev, who is associated with Hamad and Bukhara Jews, likes to work solo, unlike Roman Abramovich, who is a bright and strong figure on the global level.
"The FEOR encourages the division of business into clans, which goes back to the religious precepts of the Middle Ages. The Jewish historical tradition includes the temptation to say: I am a Jew standing close to the powers-that-be; keep with me and I will ensure an income for you. We had it a thousand years ago and a century ago - and it always ended badly. When 'our' Jew at the top was replaced with somebody else, he lost everything and the community suffered together with him. In the REK, businessmen are responsible for their businesses. The community can help them but this does not mean feudal clan obligations. Within the framework of the community you can learn why you should earn and spend money - not only on yourself and your family but also on those who are not businessmen and hence cannot earn for themselves. This is the common principle of Jewish charity and justification of the businessman's existence to himself and the people around him."
And here is what Yuri Raskin says: "So far, the tradition of donating one tenth of your income to charity has not taken root in the Jewish business community." This is one reason why Raskin created the Congressman business club at the REK, whose members can use the information support of the club. Only top-class specialists from the Russian and Moscow City governments, leading lawyers and economists take part in Club sessions to discuss burning problems of the Russian economy.
Today, Congressman includes representatives of more than 100 corporations, as well as medium and small business. It is a unique place for unofficial interaction; fees are spent on charity and Club shows. It is a vital element of community life, says Grigory Altshuler, president of the VIP Bank. President of DealMore Leonid Gilman confirmed that many businessmen who know nothing about Jewish traditions first learn about the culture and history of their people at the Club.
Those businessmen who grew up in the communist era want their children to be proud of their nationality, to know the traditions of their forefathers and to be part of the Jewish people and yet citizens of Russia. This is one of the main reasons why they donate money to the community.
On the other hand, all of them said Congressman's doors are open to people of all nationalities and that any person or firm can become a member. Moreover, Club members take part in other business communities and are involved in charity programmes outside the Jewish community.
The FEOR set up its business club, Osher, in the spring of 2003, mostly for small and medium-sized businessmen. It has about 700 members now. Its organisers say Osher offers businessmen working in different industries in Russia and abroad a chance to interact and establish useful contacts, and assistance in the implementation of their business ideas.
Jewish businessmen are very different people. Some are aware of their responsibility to the community, while others have never stopped to think about it. Still others do not see themselves as Jews, for example Boris Berezovsky, who embraced Orthodoxy, and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who used to describe himself as a "Russian with Jewish roots."
But the trouble is that they will always be Jews in the eyes of anti-Semitic groups. This is why the Jewish community in Russia is watching with alarm what is happening to these two men, fearing that their hardships could have an adverse effect on the community as a whole.
Satanovsky explains, "The personal and business tragedy of Khodorkovsky is not a specific problem of the Jewish community, to whose work he has never contributed. But the 'Yukos case' can easily be used as a pretext for fanning anti-Semitism in Russia."
In his opinion, "problems in the relations of Khodorkovsky and some other oligarchs with the state are specific, because they are connected with the national leadership by certain obligations concerning the nation's development strategy, which they as oligarchs should honour. If they violate their obligations, the state complicates the conditions for their work. This explains the oligarchs' conflicts with the authorities and the emigration of some of them."
The official definition of "oligarchy" as a group of people owning industrial and banking monopolies de facto ruling the economic and political life of the country is not quite true for Russia now, at least not in its latter part. But few of those who use the word look up its dictionary meaning. As a result, the label has been stuck on all wealthy people and sounds like a curse. However, "most of those who are called oligarchs now are clever, hard-working and talented businessmen who have made money," says Raskin. "As to how they did it, this is a question that should be put to each of them separately."
"One of the strict rules of the Congressman is that business must not be criminal," says Yevgeny Satanovsky. This does not mean that the businessmen must be completely angelic, but the Russian business community as a whole and the Jewish community in particular have reasons to renounce the Western belief that all wealthy Russians belong to the mafia. Reputation in the business community is the crucial factor in business."
According to Satanovsky, "the transition in the 1990s of vast chunks of state property into the hands of several talented managers closely connected with the authorities, the property which they own de facto, while being state-appointed managers de jure, led to the creation of the group of oligarchs. More oligarchs could appear in the future, though not in the oil sector, where the main resources have been divided and the players have been determined for years ahead."
Today, according to Satanovsky, "the mind-boggling wealth, which the oligarchs accumulated in the 1990s largely by exporting raw materials, is being diversified because the consumer market is growing quickly in Russia, above all thanks to domestic production. The world prices of raw materials and the balance of national currencies are favourable for the growth of the Russian economy and its transition to the post-industrial phase."
President of VIP Bank Grigory Altshuler thinks it is much more interesting to do business in Russia than in the West, where everything has become too stable. This view is shared by Leonid Gilman, president of DealMore, who emigrated to the USA in 1989 but returned to Moscow several years ago when he saw the vast possibilities of the Russian market. Big business has been divided in Russia, but unlike in the West, there are still gaps in small and medium business.
Mr Altshuler never emigrated and moved from one stage of Russia's economic development to another together with the country. Businessmen beckoned to him in 1992 when he held a highly paid (by Soviet standards) post of section head at a Moscow factory. He recalls now that at that time he, 45 and well off, found it extremely difficult to begin from scratch and learn together with youngsters who were still relatively inexperienced. But to survive in that situation, he had to learn to change together with the country. Few people in Russia in 1992 knew what financial reports and currency transactions were and very few ever had foreign currency. Today, even pensioners are worried by the dollar exchange rate. As for the businessmen who survived those difficult 12 years, they are working not to accumulate more money or prove something to somebody, but because business is a state of mind, as Mr Altshuler says.
Today when there are no limitations for Jews in Russia, they work in all spheres of social and economic life of the country. The state anti-Semitism of the Soviet era is dead, says Yevgeny Satanovsky. "There are anti-Semites at all levels of power, but they have to tolerate Jews. Putin is philosemitic and has a warm feeling for Israel, though he is a pragmatist. There are quite a few Jews among his close associates and personal friends."
"Jews can be found in the business and state elite at all levels of power," added the REK president. "Such ranking officials are Vice-Premier of the Moscow Government Vladimir Resin, Energy Minister Igor Yusufov, first deputy minister of property Alexander Braverman, deputy economic development minister Arkady Dvorkovich are Jews. The heads of major state corporations - president of Transneft Semyon Vainshtok and deputy board chairmen of RAO UES Andrei Rappoport, Leonid Melamed and Yakov Urinson are Jews. The owners of industrial, finance and trade empires - board chairman of Alfa Group Mikhail Fridman, executive director of TNK-BP German Khan, president of Alfa Bank Group Pyotr Aven, board chairman of Wimm-Bill-Dann David Iacobachvili are Jews. And lastly, a vast number of businessmen and financiers whose banks and corporations would have had a high rating in any country are Jews. But they are not very well known abroad because they do business here in Russia."
These businessmen do not plan to emigrate and they are proud to be part of the Russian Jewish community. Russian Jews have become fully integrated in the Russian economy and public life. Most of them were brought up on Russian intellectual traditions and Russian culture and they cannot imagine their life or business without Russia, where they have applied their talents and yet preserved their national self-identification.
They are working energetically to implement the state policy of the social responsibility of business. For example, Alfa Bank is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Bolshoi Theatre, which helps talented children from poor families, while TNK-BP funds children's sports clubs and creative groups and helps several children's homes. In August 2003, Transneft became a sponsor of a festival of Russian art in Cannes. There are many more such examples. These companies allocate money for the restoration of monuments of culture and architecture, and it does not matter if they are Russian Orthodox or Jewish. For they are above all Russian companies and their managers, whatever their nationality, are citizens of Russia. And the more prosperous their business, the more they can contribute to the development of Russian society, including its Jewish community.
The views and opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.