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A Brave Jewish Voice in Putin’s Russia

Yevgenia Albats was called ‘kikeface’ as a kid in the Soviet Union and went on to become an intrepid reporter in Moscow. Visiting the U.S. recently, she spoke with Tablet about the state of Russian politics and what it’s like for Jews there today.

Cathy Young
January 28, 2020
Photo: Mikhail Tereshchenko/TASS via Getty Images
Boris Nemtsov's son Anton (second from left) and Russian journalist Yevgenia Albats during a ceremony to unveil a plaque in memory of Russian politician Boris Nemtsov in 2018Photo: Mikhail Tereshchenko/TASS via Getty Images
Photo: Mikhail Tereshchenko/TASS via Getty Images
Boris Nemtsov's son Anton (second from left) and Russian journalist Yevgenia Albats during a ceremony to unveil a plaque in memory of Russian politician Boris Nemtsov in 2018Photo: Mikhail Tereshchenko/TASS via Getty Images

I first tried to interview Yevgenia Albats in 1990 when I was a journalist on my first trip back to Moscow, the city where I was born and had left 10 years earlier when I emigrated to the U.S. at the age of 16. I was doing research for an article about women and politics in the Soviet Union at a time when the country was in political flux, just before the fall of the Soviet Union, and spaces for political activity had opened up; Albats was one of the leading female voices in the male-dominated field of political journalism. When I approached her at some event and asked for an interview, she was friendly enough but showed little interest in anything that could be labeled as women’s issues.

That interview never happened, but over the years I continued to follow Albats’ work both in print and on the radio; she has hosted a weekly show on Ekho Moskvy (“Moscow Echo”), one of Russia’s few remaining independent radio stations, for the past 15 years. She has been a Nieman fellow at Harvard University, earned a Ph.D. in political science from the same, and authored a much-praised book on the history of the KGB (a subject she had pursued in the late 1980s as an intrepid reporter in Moscow, tracking down retired torturers for interviews and ignoring death threats to herself and her young daughter). Since 2009, she has been editor in chief of Russia’s most prominent dissident magazine, New Times—now online-only—after joining in 2007 as deputy chief editor.

Earlier this month, Albats was in New York speaking at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research on the subject of “Jewish Life in Putin’s Russia”—from her vantage point as a journalist, a member of the Russian Jewish Congress board, and simply a Russian Jewish citizen.

The evening at YIVO turned out to be fascinating. Albats, who speaks accented but excellent English, talked about everything from crying when she first visited the United States in 1990 and saw black-garbed Orthodox Jews (“I had never imagined that Jews could walk about so freely and so openly”) to the excellence of modern Russia’s kosher supermarket chain, The Kosher Gourmet, to breaking the rules by sitting in the men’s section of a Moscow shul wearing tallit and kippah. (“The males were terrified, but the rabbi said, ‘This is a great day—Yevgenia Albats has come to pray with us!,’ and then they suddenly decided that it was fine.”) She talked about her involvement in the Jewish community’s efforts to reclaim Torah scrolls and her own Torah study circle for secular Jews. She “called out,” as we would say, a Moscow Chabad rabbi who turned down her request to visit a detained Jewish opposition activist just before Hanukkah, first questioning whether the man was really a Jew and then openly refusing to help “one of those people who are putting us all in danger by speaking against [Vladimir] Putin.” She talked about the disturbing fact that right now, it seems safer to be a Jew in Moscow than in Munich, where synagogues and Jewish cultural centers are now under heavy guard. She talked about the tendency of former Soviet Jews to embrace right-wing populism wherever they go, be it Donald Trump or Binyamin Netanyahu. (“This illiberal politics is a part of what Soviet Jews brought with them, both to the United States and to Israel.”)

To my pleasant surprise, Albats recognized—or at least vaguely remembered meeting me—when I approached her at the post-event reception. Picking up from the interview that never happened 20 years ago, we spent over an hour speaking by phone a few days later.

That conversation has been translated from Russian into English edited for length and for clarity.

Cathy Young: You mentioned in your talk that even as a child going to school on public transport, [in Moscow in the 1960s] you had a sense of being vulnerable as a Jew.

Yevgenia Albats: When we were little, everyday anti-Semitism was incredibly widespread in the Soviet Union, in Moscow, and anywhere you went it was very easy to get a “zhidovskaya morda” [literally “kikeface,” a common Russian anti-Semitic slur—ed.] thrown at you. When we rode the tram or the bus to school—my sister and I and another Jewish friend—we had a habit of looking around and finding the Jews: “Ayid, ayid, ayid.” [“Ayid,” from the Yiddish “a yid,” was a common euphemism among Soviet Jews.—Tablet] They were people from whom we could expect protection. Why? Because one day when I was about 9, my sister and I were coming home from school and several girls in the yard of our building, who had been our playmates, jumped us and ripped off our Young Pioneer scarves, shouting, “You Yids have no right to wear Pioneer scarves.” [Members of the Young Pioneers, the Communist schoolchildren’s organization, wore red neck scarves with their school uniforms.—Tablet] We ran home and started asking our parents who we were and what Yids were, and our parents got a lovely introduction to “the Ethnic Question” in our building. Years later, I started wondering what was going on; children don’t just start ripping Pioneer scarves off their friends. And then I realized that it was the year of the Six-Day War. The Soviet Union had severed diplomatic relations with Israel, and the newspapers were full of talk about those evil Zionists. And there was, of course, a massive tide of anti-Semitism.

CY: When did you first realize that being Jewish—simply having a Jewish last name—would be an obstacle in your career?

YA: In 1975, I graduated from high school, and my father and I went to file my application to Moscow State University for the department of journalism. A man from the admissions board took my dad aside and explained that I didn’t have a chance, given my ethnicity issues. My dad was a true-believer communist, but he also lived in the ivory tower, working for a top-secret research institute and rarely poking his nose out of that world. To him, this was a stunning revelation.

At the time in Moscow, there were tutors who coached Jewish kids for the entrance exam. My history tutor, a wonderful historian, Aleksandr Samuilovich Zavadier, said to me, “You need to know twice as much as any Slavic kid. It’s the only way you can get in.” My English tutor, Abram Alperin, was also a remarkable man. He was an American Jew; in 1935, he and his uncle had the brilliant idea to come to the Soviet Union to build communism. The uncle was shot the following year. [Alperin] fought at Stalingrad and was a violinist in Solomon Mikhoels’ [Jewish theater]. He was an amazingly well-educated man. It was thanks to these two Jewish men that I got into the university.

I was the top student in my class, and when still in college I started writing for Komsomolskaya Pravda; I wrote about crazy things like mountains and skydiving. Then I graduated [in 1980] and, naturally, couldn’t find a job. The people at Komsomolskaya Pravda liked me. But the new editor in chief, a well-known anti-Semite, explicitly said that he wanted young journalists with a different kind of last name, and that was it. Of course, by then I also had ties to refuseniks and yeshiva; that baggage didn’t help.

I ended up getting hired as secretary for the letters section of Nedelya, the weekly supplement to Izvestia. It’s hard to think of a lowlier job. However, I also started to write about science, the only field where I could get a foot in the door. They still tried to make me change my last name [to something] that sounded ethnically Russian. But I had just lost my dad, and that was out of the question.

CY: So you were involved in Jewish cultural life even before perestroika.

YA: Long before. I was probably 14 when I got to know some kids who attended an underground yeshiva in Moscow. We all hung together, celebrated Pesach, did readings of Jewish texts, and so on. My English tutor’s son, who was about to emigrate to the United States, gave me my first Torah, in Hebrew and in English; all this was, naturally, banned in the Soviet Union. He also introduced me to some other clandestine Jewish groups.

CY: At what point did it become evident that one could now be openly involved in Jewish cultural life?

YA: To be honest, when perestroika began, Jewish cultural life didn’t interest me one bit. I was interested in politics; I’m a classic political animal, and what was happening in politics at the time was just fantastically interesting. That they had also started allowing Jewish refuseniks to leave was just another thing.

Jewish life in Russia really began later, [in the mid-1990s], when Jews had amassed enough wealth to make it possible. That was when Jewish oligarchs appeared in the picture—above all, Vladimir Gusinsky, the founder of the MOST financial group which owned the NTV channel. He had grown up in a working-class neighborhood in Moscow, and as a kid he got beaten up without mercy. He had learned to fight back, he wasn’t scared of anything, and he loathed anti-Semites.

I remember when I got the call in Cambridge, where I was taking classes for my Ph.D., saying that there was going to be a Russian Jewish Congress, and did I want to attend. It was amazing. That first Russian Jewish Congress really did a tremendous amount for Jewish life in Russia. In terms of Jewish self-awareness—Jews realized that they didn’t need to be afraid, that someone would stand up for them. Of course, by then, a million and a half Jews had also emigrated to Israel in the early 1990s, and that was another thing: You knew that there was a country that would protect you.

Later in the conversation, Albats and I moved on to the current situation with regard to anti-Semitism in Vladimir Putin’s Russia and to the general state of the contemporary Russian political scene.

YA: The thing to understand is that in Russia, there is imperial nationalism and ethnic nationalism. At one point, there was a surge in ethnonationalist groups; the majority of them were directed from the Kremlin. I always said that nationalist groups weren’t dangerous as such: In a politically unstructured society, it’s natural to unite on an ethnic basis. What’s scary is when the banner of nationalism is raised by the state. And that’s what happened under Putin, when nationalist rhetoric became the rhetoric of the regime.

The thing is, though, Putin is an imperial nationalist. That whole KGB crowd around him, they’re the same; their golden dream is the rebirth of the Soviet Union. But the rebirth of empire does not tolerate ethnic nationalism, [which] drives people in the empire to kill each other over ethnic hostilities. That is why Putin has done everything he can to destroy ethnonationalism. All the leaders of Russian nationalist and Nazi groups have been either jailed or recruited and co-opted. There is no Russian nationalist movement apart from the state. And the anti-Semitism that does periodically flare up does, of course, come from the top. I have no doubt that at some point, it will surge. An authoritarian state has to single out an enemy.

CY: Haven’t there already been moves to insinuate that the “treasonous” liberal opposition is mostly Jewish?

YA: So far, not much. Of course, at the [Soviet-era] KGB, anti-Semitism was a very strong ideological component. For the KGB, the Jews were a fifth column because they were people who finished Soviet universities and then took off for their “historical home,” always ready to sell out the Motherland. But today, until such time as the state signs off on it, this is going to be fairly muted.

Putin is not an anti-Semite; this is a known fact. But [some of his top allies] are. A wave of anti-Semitism will inevitably come unless we succeed in defeating this regime before it becomes openly fascist.

CY: What’s the role of Jewish communities and leaders in Putin’s relationship with religious groups?

YA: He has really used Rabbi Ber Lazar, from the Chabad Lubavitcher movement. This is because the chekists [from “CheKa,” original name of the future KGB] devoutly believe in a global Jewish conspiracy and a world Jewish government. When they searched the offices of our magazine [in 2007-2008], the colonel who was in charge said to me, “I realize, Yevgenia Markovna, that you’re going to get the entire Jewish world on its feet. We know [Edgar] Bronfman is a friend of yours.” I may have met Bronfman twice in my life. But I never try to disabuse them of this notion. I tell them, “Yes, we run the world.” Let them believe it.

CY: Russia’s relations with Israel are also a tangled story.

YA: Putin and Netanyahu are buddies. Putin has been happy to use Netanyahu. He eventually realized that Netanyahu could not help him get the sanctions lifted; even so, he’s flirted with Netanyahu a lot as leverage in the Russian-Turkish relationship. But now, there is this Israeli girl who got arrested with marijuana in her luggage, just in transit through Russia, and now she’s been given a prison sentence of seven or eight years. A nightmare. Netanyahu has personally pleaded with Putin several times. For Putin, it would cost nothing. He could even do it lawfully, because the Russian president has the power to issue pardons. But he’s playing games with Netanyahu, of course.

Putin is very popular in Israel [among former Soviet Jews], so Netanyahu uses that; posters of Putin and Netanyahu were everywhere during the election. Many of those Jews emigrated before perestroika, before they had this crucial education about what the Soviet Union really was—even though they may have known this truth in their bones. The Russian “street” in Israel is appalling. It’s very reactionary, utterly ignorant of the Torah and Jewish texts. They think any leftist rhetoric is “socialism,” and socialism is anti-Semitism and empty shops.

I never try to disabuse them of this notion. I tell them, ‘Yes, we run the world.’ Let them believe it.

CY: What do you think of claims that Donald Trump is an “American Putin,” or even a Kremlin asset?

YA: No, of course Trump is not an American Putin. I don’t think Trump is Putin’s project. The fact that Russian special services meddled in the American election is well documented in the Mueller report. The idea was to show that elections mean chaos. It was meant, above all, for internal Russian consumption, and no one expected Trump to win. When he did, all of bureaucratic Moscow celebrated his victory. They all hated Hillary, because she said that Putin is essentially a KGB agent, and Putin gets very hurt by personal slights. At the Duma, they actually drank champagne to celebrate Trump’s win. They were totally convinced that he’d lift the sanctions, that he’d listen to Putin, since he was always talking about how much he liked Putin and how great Putin was.

They just freaked out when they realized that the United States has institutions like Congress, like the Supreme Court and federal district courts. They were flabbergasted when Trump’s [“Muslim ban”] was struck down: A district court can strike down the president’s order?

Was there a connection between the Trump campaign and Putin? There was a lot of talk about it. But no evidence was ever found, and if it did exist, it’s too late; it’s been destroyed long ago.

CY: What do you think of the Obama administration’s policies toward Russia?

YA: Their big mistake was betting on Medvedev. They decided that Medvedev was a serious figure, that Medvedev would run for a second term. They weren’t entirely wrong, because Medvedev did want to run. They simply didn’t factor in that he was so weak that the moment Putin said, “Down, boy!” he was down. The other thing—they had a completely false conception of the Russian regime. They kept saying, “Mafia state.” But the problem of the Russian regime is not that it’s a mafia state, it’s that the state is run by the political police, the KGB, just under a different name. Once you realize that, you can understand what tools they use, what they’re doing, what to expect. Yet for a very long time, no one understood this. They all focused, and rightly, on corruption. But corruption is only one side of it. What’s really frightening is that power is in the hands of the KGB, the most repressive institution of the Soviet regime which, in the Soviet era, was at least somewhat held in check by the Central Committee of the Communist Party for the simple reason of self-preservation.

I think in 2017, I spoke at Harvard about the KGB’s rise to power, and Tim Colton, a well-known academic who had been my dissertation adviser, said when he introduced me, “I remember how in 1993, Zhenya, who was then a Nieman fellow, gave a talk in which she said that if the KGB is not destroyed, the Soviet regime will return, just in a different form. I listened to her and thought, of course she’s wrong, it’s her bias speaking. Now, I must admit she was right and I was wrong.”

CY: Have things actually returned to the way they used to be? Are they just as bad?

YA: No, of course not. What we have right now is not the Soviet Union. The problem is, chekists are control freaks, and they gradually try to bring everything under their control. Hence the curbs on the media. That’s why in June 2017 I had to shut down our print edition. We couldn’t make any money; no advertising, no sales, they choked off everything. Print subscribers were asking us to send the magazine in a brown paper envelope so that the concierge could not see that they were getting an opposition magazine. We’re not censored, but right now we exist in a half-dead state on the website.

CY: You were also hit with a massive fine in late 2018, supposedly for failing to report foreign funding …

YA: Yes, but we raised that money in 96 hours. We were fined 22,240,000 rubles, I talked about it on the Dozhd web channel, and 18,000 people donated money. People in Russia will respond when someone is really in trouble. We are, after all, a country of survivors, a country of zeks. So when we see that the state, this big pack of wolves, is attacking one person, people will rally to that person’s defense. This happened with New Times, and with journalist Ivan Golunov in May-June 2019 [when the police tried to frame him for drug possession]; it happened with the young activist Yegor Zhukov in August-September 2019 [after he was charged with inciting riots]. This is very important: Russia now has a civil society that can, in moments of crisis, come together, fight back and protect its own. But so far, it doesn’t have the strength or the know-how to do this on a regular basis. As soon as the civil society in Russia learns to not just rise up from time to time but stand constantly and defend itself against this KGB regime, that’s when we will win. And we will absolutely win. Believe me.


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Cathy Young is a contributor to Reason magazine and an associate editor for Arc Digital. Born in the Soviet Union, she immigrated to the United States in 1980 and is the author of Growing Up in Moscow: Memories of a Soviet Girlhood.