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The Buried Jewish Past of Boris Nemtsov

The murdered opposition leader represented the dilemmas of the Jewish politician in Putin’s Russia

Pinchas Goldschmidt
March 05, 2015
Boris Nemtsov in Moscow, March 2010.(Dmitry Korotayev/Epsilon/Getty Images)

Boris Nemtsov in Moscow, March 2010.(Dmitry Korotayev/Epsilon/Getty Images)

Boris Nemtsov was killed on Friday, a mere few hundred meters from the Kremlin walls, not far from his apartment in Bolshaya Ordinka, on the same street as the Israeli embassy. The place of this murder could not be more symbolic for Russian Jewry, a community that after forced secularization under Communism redefined itself with the onset of the modern Russian state.

When the Russian Jewish Congress was created by leading Jewish bankers in 1996, Nemtsov was then a young and promising politician under Boris Yeltsin—Nemtsov, son of a Jewish woman, was of course asked to join. Nemtsov declined the invitation, quoting his mother that the creation of a Jewish community would be dangerous.

When I approached friends and relatives of Nemtsov, offering to organize the Jewish component of the funeral, my offer was declined, since Nemtsov had converted to Russian Orthodoxy.

Nemtsov and many other Russian politicians of Jewish descent, whether part of the opposition or supporters of Putin, are more reluctant today than ever before to express their Jewishness openly, trying to hide their Jewish descent behind the façade of a religious conversion, not unlike the Jews in 19th-century Germany, and not unlike Heinrich Heine, the famous German Jewish writer who considered his conversion to Christianity as the entrance ticket to European culture.

With each passing day, the Orthodox Church is becoming more visible and present in the Russian state and government, not unlike pre-revolutionary times, where the state and the church were one.

This state of affairs has also had many ramifications on different levels. Practicing Jews in higher government positions are afraid to hold public life-cycle events, and Jews in higher government positions are being approached by representatives of the church with soft-sell advice to convert to the state church.

Jews who converted do not necessarily find the pastures greener on the other side of the fence, and there is no guarantee that they will not be considered Jews by anti-Semites. Furthermore, Israeli law is much stricter than Jewish religious law with a convert: A Jew who converted to another religion forever loses his right of return to Israel, while halakha allows for returning souls to rejoin the Jewish people.

Nemtsov was killed between the Kremlin and Red Square, St Basil’s, and the Bolshaya Ordinka street, which is home to the Israeli Embassy. Nemtsov’s choice, such as many Russians of Jewish descent who are in the public eye, was to put his future with the cathedral and not with the Jewish people. But was Nemtsov’s mother right? Did this bring security and a future for Russian Jews?

Leo Tolstoy, who had an ambivalent relationship to Jews, described the Jew as “a pioneer of freedom, as a symbol of civil and religious tolerance, ‘So show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.’ In terms of tolerance, the Jewish religion is far from recruiting adherents. Quite the opposite, the Talmud prescribes that if a non-Jew wants to convert to the Jewish faith, then it has to be explained to him how difficult it is to be a Jew and that the righteous of other religions also inherit the heavenly kingdom.”

When Nemtsov was asked after his conversion why he was involved in dissident politics, his reply was: “We are Jewish, we have to fight for truth and freedom.”

While the quest of Russia’s Jews to bring democracy and a Western orientation might be honorable and might even bring some tangible results, the flight from their Jewish roots to the bosom of the Orthodox Church will bring neither security nor recognition from anti-Semites. Even those Jews who ended up serving the church, have found themselves suffering from discrimination, some of them, such as the highly popular Father Alexander Men, sharing the fate of Boris Nemtsov.

The life and trials of Boris Nemtsov represent to some extent the challenges of modern-day Russian Jewry: The contradicting centrifugal powers pulling between Red Square and the Israeli Embassy on Bolshaya Ordinka are dividing hundreds of thousands of Russians of Jewish descent, further weakening and diminishing a historic community. Some of the more prominent Jews think they may fare better under the shadow of the cathedral, while others grow more affiliated with synagogues and Jewish organizations such as the Russian Jewish Congress, expressing their Judaism openly.

That tension, between St. Basil’s Cathedral and the synagogue, will continue to define the lives of many Russians of Jewish descent. Boris Nemtsov was one of them.

I think that time has come for the Jewish financial and political elites in Russia to wake up and stop hiding themselves behind masks, which hardly disguise their origins and their creed, exchanging Communist Party membership for a baptismal certificate. If they do not respect themselves, they cannot expect others to respect them.


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Pinchas Goldschmidt is the Chief Rabbi of Moscow and President of the Conference of European Rabbis.

Pinchas Goldschmidt is the Chief Rabbi of Moscow and President of the Conference of European Rabbis.

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