On a jetlagged June morning in downtown Kiev, I briefly but completely lost my mind.
Three hundred of us had been flown in for the founding conference of a new Moscow-based watchdog organization, World Without Nazism. For the event’s kick-off, conference participants gathered in a sun-dappled Vichnoyi Slavy Park, home to the city’s Monument of Eternal Glory at the Grave of the Unknown Soldier. We were each handed a red carnation, arranged in parade formation, and led 100 yards toward a massive obelisk memorial. My moment of supreme disorientation occurred just a few steps into the procession, when from behind the bushes came a jolting martial thunder: Previously unseen Brezhnev-era trucks topped with what looked like air-raid sirens had begun blasting the opening chords of “People, Awake!” a 1941 hit from the back catalog of the Red Army Choir. After we reached the obelisk, the very loud Soviet anthem gave way to another, and then another.
“We’ll come back with victory!” promised the all-male choir. “The Red Army is the strongest!”
Under this siege of Soviet orchestral swells, I struggled to remember my purpose in Kiev. Was I here for a conference on combating anti-Semitism? Or had I been cast in a shitty remake of Battle at Kursk?
A similar schizophrenia defined the rest of the inaugural conference of World Without Nazism (WWN), a new initiative from the World Congress of Russian Jewry and its president, the Kremlin-connected mini-oligarch Boris Shpigel. On the opening morning of proceedings, the event distinguished itself by becoming what might be the only conference to receive official letters of support from both Hillary Clinton and the autonomous government of South Ossetia. At the podium, speakers spoke of trivialization and denial, though it was not always clear whether they were referring to the Holocaust, or the decisive sacrifice of millions of Red Army soldiers. At the Hotel Prezidente, where the conference was taking place, whores prowled the muzak-cursed lobby as aggressively as they would have 15 years ago.
The most potent symbol of this schizophrenia is also its primary source. While the new organization aspires to global influence and credibility—a kind of Moscow-based Anti-Defamation League that would partner with the European Union and the United Nations—its founding president and public face is a man whose fortunes depend in part on framing Jewish interests to fit the view from the Kremlin.
Boris Shpigel is a bald, round man who looks older than his 57 years and is given to slumping in his seat. He emerged early in the Boris Yeltsin era. Like others who prospered during the 1990s, he anticipated the coming curve and founded the pharmaceuticals firm Biotek shortly before the dissolution of the Soviet Union. By the time Vladimir Putin assumed power, Shpigel had grown his firm from a small research outfit south of Moscow to a major producer dominant in more than 70 markets across the Eurasian expanse. In 2002, he helped found and lead the Party of Russia’s Rebirth, a centrist social-democratic party that enjoyed the blessing of Mikhail Gorbachev (and, thought some, the Kremlin, which had been known to fund center-left parties designed to siphon off support from the Communists). By the time Shpigel was elected president of the World Congress of Russian Jewry in 2007, he was a major player at the nexus of business, diplomacy, and culture among Russia, Israel, and the Russian-speaking Jewish Diaspora. Today, as a Duma member, Shpigel sits on committees that handle everything from public institutions to the funding of science, culture, education, and health care.
Concerns over coziness with the Kremlin have dogged WWN’s parent organization, the World Congress of Russian Jewry. When it was founded in 2002 as an outgrowth of the Lubavitch-led Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS, some worried the WCRJ was too intertwined with the Russian government to be an effective advocate. Since assuming the WCRJ presidency, Shpigel has only helped validate these concerns. During Russia’s conflict with Georgia over South Ossetia in the summer 2008, Shpigel issued an overheated statement on WCRJ letterhead calling for a tribunal to investigate what he termed acts of “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” committed by the Georgian military. Though the casual use of such language is anathema to responsible Jewish leadership, Shpigel did not hesitate to echo the Kremlin’s bombast. It was left to Shpigel’s deputy at the Congress, Israeli Knesset Member Ze’ev Elkin, to dial back the statement. The role of the WCRJ, an exasperated Elkin told Haaretz, is to worry about the well-being of Jews worldwide, not get involved in “geo-political conflicts.”
Yet viewed from Moscow, the growth of far-right activity in the former Eastern bloc is hard to disentangle from geo-politics. This is especially true when this activity bubbles up behind NATO lines, embodied by groups espousing anti-Russian and anti-Semitic rhetoric. WWN’s early fire has been directed toward the Baltics, where attacks on Soviet war monuments are increasingly accompanied by efforts to celebrate the Nazis (as well as their local collaborators) and edit the history of the Holocaust. In July, WWN’s first official statement targeted a decision by Riga’s Administrative Court to sanction a public demonstration honoring the Nazi occupation government. WWN was quick and correct to publicize and condemn the decision. But its letter contained a whiff of Kremlin anti-Western boilerplate, blaming EU leniency for the rise of far-right nationalism in the region.
That the European Union has indeed failed to rigorously enforce laws on extremism and denial does not change the fact that the WWN’s condemnations, if they are to be taken seriously, must be matched by efforts to shame authorities in Russia itself, which is home to a growing culture of far-right street violence targeting Jews, activists, and, especially, migrant workers from Central Asia. Notably, WWN was silent in late August when 100 skinheads attacked a concert in the central Russian city of Miass, resulting in dozens of injuries and the death of a 14-year-old girl. (The organization did, however, find time in August to issue a statement in opposition to Manhattan’s Park51 development, aka the “Ground Zero Mosque.”)
One speaker in Kiev publicly addressed these issues and urged the new organization to recognize the historical crimes of communism, even as it challenges official efforts in Eastern Europe to equate and conflate those crimes with those of the Nazis. That speaker was Dovid Katz, a former professor at the University of Vilnius (and Tablet contributor) and the curator of HolocaustInTheBaltics.com. “While we reject the theories of ‘equivalence’ of Nazi and Soviet crimes,” said Katz, “we must be careful never to join those who would deny or mitigate or trivialize the enormous crimes committed by Stalinism and Soviet domination of many lands and peoples against their will.”
“It is also very important that our movement has a democratic Western atmosphere,” he continued. “It must never be seen to be in any way subservient to today’s Russian area politics. We should be meeting in Amsterdam, London, and Paris, not just Kiev, Moscow, and Minsk.”
Regardless of where it holds future meetings, and however compromised by Kremlin ties it may be, WWN hardly lacks for urgent work. As the multinational cast of speakers in Kiev made clear, there is a rising “brown tide” in Eastern Europe and throughout the continent. Well-organized neo-fascist political movements are on the march in Hungary and Italy. In the Baltics, monuments to the Holocaust are being removed and the Nazi occupations publicly glorified. Far-right thugs and activists prowl the streets, march on capitals, speak in universities, and organize online, often in flagrant violation of the law.
If World Without Nazism is to join the fight against these developments, it must overcome suspicions that it is little more than just a PR operation for the Russian foreign ministry. Here’s hoping that it does.
Alexander Zaitchik, a writer living in Brooklyn, is the author of Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance.