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'Alarming And Dangerous For Everyone': St. Petersburg Jews Anxious Following Anti-Semitic Outbursts In Russia's North Caucasus

A mob of some 1,000 people shouting anti-Semitic slogans stormed the main airport in Muslim-majority Daghestan on October 29 looking to block entry to "refugees from Israel."
A mob of some 1,000 people shouting anti-Semitic slogans stormed the main airport in Muslim-majority Daghestan on October 29 looking to block entry to "refugees from Israel."

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- In the hours after a mob of some 1,000 people shouting anti-Semitic slogans stormed the main airport in Muslim-majority Daghestan looking to block entry to "refugees from Israel," the chief rabbi of the southern Russian region said he was considering evacuating its Jewish population.

"But is it worth leaving? There is no salvation in Russia," Ovadya Isakov told the online publication Podyom, referring to more northerly parts of the country where ethnic Russians are in the majority.

"Russia has also had pogroms," said the rabbi, who was stabbed by an assailant at his home in Daghestan in 2007 and was shot and seriously injured in 2013. "We don't know where to run."

Some 2,200 kilometers to the north in St. Petersburg, many in the Jewish community are alarmed, if not necessarily surprised, by the October 29 airport attack-- the most dramatic in a string of anti-Semitic incidents in Daghestan and other North Caucasus regions since the invasion of Israel by Hamas -- designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. and EU -- sparked a new war in the Middle East.

"I catch myself looking around," actor and poet Vadim Zhuk, 76, told RFE/RL. "I get in the elevator, and I look around."

There is nothing sinister about the people in his apartment building, Zhuk said, but he feels "warned by this terrible thunderclap, by a bolt of lightning from out of the blue."

Jews 'Afraid' After 'Attempted Pogrom' In Daghestan
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Aleksandr, a sculptor and lifelong resident of St. Petersburg, sounded less shocked by scenes of an angry mob rampaging though the Makhachkala airport looking for Jews. "It is a continuation of what has been going on for 2,000 years," said Aleksandr, who did not want his last name published. "It is already boring. Xenophobia and anti-Semitism -- I'm sick to death of them."

At the same time, he said that "you find such scenarios anywhere on the planet" and that he doesn't think the situation for Jews in St. Petersburg has become "more dangerous" -- but he's ready if it does.

"I won't be a victim," he told RFE/RL's North.Realities. "If something happens, I will go into the woods, shoot back. I'll fight back."

In Russia's 2021 census, 82,644 citizens identified themselves as Jewish, about 0.6 percent of the population. The Jewish Agency for Israel the same year put the Jewish population of Russia at 150,000.

Boris Smolkin, 77, an award-winning actor, remembers how the Soviet government turned a blind eye to anti-Semitism during his childhood. He recalls living in a communal apartment with six other families, including a Russian woman named Dora Pavlovna whose anti-Semitism, he said, was expressed by "spitting in pots and such things."

"She was the only one like that," Smolkin said. "But she felt unassailable because the party and the government were with her. There was state anti-Semitism."

Now, Smolkin says, he sees something similar going on, noting that Moscow has failed to condemn Hamas and even welcomed a senior delegation from the militant group on October 26.

"I think the pogromists in Makhachkala felt the same way," Smolkin said. "That the party and government were on their side. It was just like Dora Pavlovna, only on a larger scale. If we have such a friend as Hamas, what else is there to say? We have chosen a most indecent friend."

Smolkin adds that he's surprised to see such events in Daghestan, a place "where dozens of ethnic groups have always lived in peace and harmony." At the same time, he's suspicious of Russian government claims that the rioting was the result of "outside interference" and the "machinations of the West."

The day after the airport attack, President Vladimir Putin asserted without evidence that it was "inspired, including through social networks, not least from the territory of Ukraine, by the hands of agents of Western intelligence services."

Efforts to make political capital from the attempted pogrom, Smolkin believes, "are the first sign our leadership had a hand in this."

One longtime member of St. Petersburg's Jewish community, who asked that his name be withheld due to concerns about repercussions, said many Jews have been investigating their ancestry since Russia launched its massive invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, most likely as a prelude to possible emigration to Israel.

"I'm not inclined to divide people up based on ethnicity," he said. "I think that things in Russia these days are alarming and dangerous for everyone."

"As odd as it might seem, maybe things are a little better for Jews, since they have the opportunity to leave because of their heritage. But it's obvious that things are bad in this country," he said, citing the short-lived mutiny by the Wagner mercenary group in June "and now the pogrom in Makhachkala."

Zhuk, the actor and poet, says it's not just about the level of danger on any given day: The recent violence in Israel, Gaza, and Daghestan has shaken his faith in humanity. "Civilization, history, experience are worthless," he said. "Why are things being invented or civilized? Why is life made more convenient if it all breaks down in a single moment?"

When the veneer of civilization drops away, people are easily reduced to a prehistoric "hatred for the people in another cave," he said. "I don't need a fancy new phone that smells nice and sounds like an orchestra. I need the goodwill of my neighbors around the globe."

Robert Coalson contributed to this report. This story is based on reporting by correspondents from RFE/RL's North.Realities on the ground in Russia. Their names are being withheld for their protection

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