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Messengers from the Russian moral abyss

At our Shabbat table, cousins of mine embarking on their new life in Israel shared chilling accounts of a country that resembles prewar Germany
Russian President Vladimir Putin greets people after his speech at the concert marking the eighth anniversary of the referendum on the state status of Crimea and Sevastopol and its reunification with Russia, in Moscow, March 18, 2022. (Ramil Sitdikov/Sputnik Pool Photo via AP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin greets people after his speech at the concert marking the eighth anniversary of the referendum on the state status of Crimea and Sevastopol and its reunification with Russia, in Moscow, March 18, 2022. (Ramil Sitdikov/Sputnik Pool Photo via AP)

It was February 25th, the day after the Russian invasion of Ukraine and Yevgeny and Anastasia Dubov, a Moscow couple in their early 20s, were in a panic. Recently married, both had just begun wellpaid positions in graphic design. But they had taken leadership roles as student activists in the public demonstrations in support of Alexei Navalny, champion of the opposition in Russia and nemesis of Vladimir Putin. Acquaintances of theirs had been rounded up and jailed. It was time – they had to flee.

The next day they were on a plane to Istanbul, hoping that the situation would quickly return to normal. After a month, and with no end in sight to the war now in its sixth month, they made the move that Yevgeny had toyed with since the eight-month Nativ program he had attended here for Russian university students in 2019 – they would move to Israel on Aliyah.

As Yevgeny and Anastasia related their journey at our Friday night Shabbat table, I was brought back in time. It was forty years ago that we stood in Dag Hammarskjold Plaza in New York in support of Soviet Jewry, chanting the movement’s anthem, “when they come for us, we’ll be gone.” Never could I have believed that all these years later this would be the fate of distant cousins of mine, the ages of my own children.

Their Jewish journey is a fascinating one. Yevgeny had one Jewish grandfather in Russia whom he didn’t know well, and who himself was highly assimilated. Anastasia has no Jewish relatives at all; her mother goes to church. Over dinner, though, it was clear how much they relish everything Jewish. The day of their aliyah they changed the family name, from Dubov to the surname of Yevgeny’s one assimilated Jewish grandfather. Given a choice of pumpkin soup or chicken soup – they went with chicken soup because that’s what Jews traditionally eat on Friday night. Yevgeny remembered with fondness my wife’s vegan whole wheat challah from his previous visit with us while on his Nativ program. After dinner, they commented how much it had meant to them to join a family for a Friday night dinner, and that the idea of a weekly family reunion is something you rarely ever see in Russia. “We loved watching you give the blessings to your grown children – it’s such a connection to a deep tradition.”

I was puzzled: Where does this thirst and enthusiasm for things Jewish come from?

Yevgeny is Russian, but can no longer comfortably identify as a Russian with the decline and deprivation of political culture under Putin. “They’ve stolen the home we knew,” Anastasia says about recent events in Russia. And so, with a deep yearning to identify with an untainted identity, they are seeking to reconnect with the vestige of another culture and another heritage that they know is buried somewhere in their past – their Jewish heritage.

But our conversation took a dark turn when I asked what their parents think of the war.

“We try not to talk about it with them,” Yevgeny answered. “We, of course, are horrified – all our friends are. But my parents’ generation still has delusions of Soviet pride in them. They dream of a return to supposed glory and eminence in the world. It’s a generation that just laps up what the government spews out, and it’s all that they know. For them, this is not a war against Ukraine. It’s a war against the United States. And it’s a war to the finish. ‘Our very survival is on the line’ – that’s what they’re told,” he said.

“But when you send them photos of children’s corpses, schools and hospitals blown to bits – how can they possibly support that?” I asked.

“They laugh at us,” Yevgeny explained, “that we are so naïve as to fall for that fake news.”

I was speechless. How could Yevgeny’s parents, who had raised such a sensitive and intelligent young man, be so easily duped?

I had always wondered how ordinary Wiemar republic Germans descended into a moral abyss. Surely it must have been the perfect storm of culture, history economics and the communication technologies of the time. A black swan, a confluence of events unlikely to ever repeat itself and entirely beyond comprehension. Who would have thought that in 2022 such a quick descent into collective moral depravity could overtake a culture with a strong economy, and where the internet guarantees that no atrocity is a secret from public view.

It was the Nazi chief propagandist Joseph Goebbels who once said, “We shall reach our goal when we have the power to laugh as we destroy, as we smash, whatever was sacred to us as tradition, as education, and as human affection.” And it was Goebbels who said, “This is the secret of propaganda: Those who are to be persuaded by it should be completely immersed in the ideas of the propaganda, without ever noticing that they are being immersed in it.”

It is an utterly unsettling thought. Goebbels’ ideas were instrumental in the deaths of 25-million Russians during World War II. And now, seemingly, good Russians like Yevgeny’s parents can dismiss the images of destruction, convinced of the purity of it all, entirely without noticing the propaganda within which they are immersed.

We remember so many tragedies during these three weeks of mourning between 17 Tammuz and 9 Av, but relate to them as events of the past. Recalling these dark episodes in history and watching what is unfolding today before our eyes is a sobering reminder that the rapid collective descent into the moral abyss is ever a threat lurking just beneath the surface.

About the Author
Joshua Berman is a professor of Bible at Bar-Ilan University and is the author most recently of Ani Maamin: Biblical Criticism, Historical Truth and the Thirteen Principles of Faith (Maggid).

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