The Russian Jewish Museum and the Center of Tolerance – a high-tech, state-of-the-art showplace highlighting the history of Jewish life in Russia – opened in Moscow late last week. Visiting Israeli President Shimon Peres and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attended the opening ceremony.
Addressing the ceremony, Sergei Lavrov pointed out that the participation of Nobel Peace Prize winner Peres in the event was a symbolic act of particular significance. The Russian foreign minister read out a message of greetings to participants in the ceremony from President Vladimir Putin.
“Any attempts to revise the results of World War II and deny the Holocaust are not merely a cynical lie, but also an act of oblivion of the lessons taught by history,” President Putin said in the message.
“I express my congratulations upon opening the Jewish Museum and the Center of Tolerance. I am convinced that this is one more proof of special relations between the two countries and their people. The biggest world museum of the history of the Jewish people is unique in many aspects and has its own peculiarity. Its vast collection covers historically important epochs and events of key importance from the Biblical period to the modern epoch. Archive documents dedicated to the victims of World War II occupy a prominent place in the museum collection,” Putin stated.
“Both Russia and Israel cherish the memories of the past war. We should clearly realize that attempts to revise Russia’s contribution into the great victory and deny the Holocaust, which was a page of disgrace in the world history, are not merely a cynical and unscrupulous lie, but also an act of oblivion of the lessons taught by history,” Putin said. “Our moral duty is to uphold the truth, defend honor, dignity and the honest name of the live and the dead. I am confident that the museum will be a vivid embodiment of the ideas of an international dialogue and accord.”
A stream of visitors stood transfixed as they toured the new museum on its opening day. The displays alternate brighter historical material with darker chapters. A touch of a screen in one exhibit in this mammoth building conjures up a visitor in a mirror dressed as a 19th-century blacksmith, or a trader, or a “representative of the intelligentsia.” Touch a Torah in a virtual synagogue, and a cantor’s melodious voice fills the air. In a virtual Odessa, a visitor can sit down in an interactive cafe to converse with long-deceased writers.
Putin has given his personal support to the magnanimous project, donating a month’s salary towards its construction, which cost approximately $50 million. In part because of its huge scale — those behind it claim that it is the largest Jewish history museum in the world — the project is meant to convey a powerful message to Jews whose ancestors had to leave the region – Russia wants you back.
Peres said that the new museum affected him on a deep personal level. “My mother sang to me in Russian, and at the entrance to this museum, memories of my childhood flooded through my mind, and my mother’s voice played in my heart,” declared the 89-year-old Israeli president, who was born in what is now Belarus. “I came here to say thank you. Thank you for a thousand years of hospitality.”
There are practical reasons for Putin to revitalize Russia’s image among Diaspora Jews who, as descendants of refugees or political “refuseniks,” were likely raised on unsettling stories about Russia. The country’s Jews were restricted to densely populated settlements, or shtetls, for lengthy periods under the tight-fisted rulership of the czars. The subsequent 70 years of Communism virtually wiped out Jewish life and religious instruction, leaving only an ingrained sensibility of anti-Semitism.
One donor, billionaire Viktor Vekselberg, said he hoped the museum would send a message to outsiders about the healthy status of Jewish society in Putin-era Russia, and thus it might soften recent tensions between Moscow and the United States.
“The average American has developed this stereotype. They have a very wary approach to Russia, with the story of the evil empire and so forth,” said Vekselberg, who is Russia’s wealthiest man, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. “Americans who come here to work or visit, often for business, and come to this museum will assess what is going on in Russia in a different way.”
Vekselberg noted that the project had a personal aspect for him, since his father’s relatives, who resided in western Ukraine, were all shot to death in a single day during World War II. He said it was a “conscious decision” not to especially focus the museum on the Holocaust, as many similar museums in the West do. The displays mingle more positive historical material, about thriving village life and the prominent status of Jews in the Soviet intellectual scene, with darker chapters.
In the Odessa cafe, for example, the viewer can tap on a table to answer the question, “If your store were destroyed by a pogrom, what would you do? A) Give up and emigrate to the West, B) Stay in my hometown and try to rebuild the store, C) Join a Jewish self-defense league and prepare for the next pogrom or, D) I am still in shock.” The Internet television channel Dozhd termed the museum, created by the New York-based designer Ralph Applebaum, a “Jewish Disneyland.”
On Thursday, Russia’s chief rabbi Berel Lazar, who is a close ally of Putin’s, said that Jews “have never felt as comfortable in Russia as today,” and that 100,000 Jews have moved back to the country from Israel as conditions in Russia have improved. The rabbinical leader gave a guided tour of the museum to Peres, noting certain times when Moscow acted in Jewish interests.
“This is the story of World War II, and what the Soviet and Red Army did to save the Jewish people,” Rabbi Lazar said. He then noted a Soviet T-34 tank, saying “with this tank, which was built by a Jewish person, Jews were saved from concentration camps.”
Whether Russia has become completely welcoming to Jews is a matter of opinion. The country’s Jewish population began to drop as a result of emigration after the collapse of the Soviet Union. More than 500,000 Russian citizens identified themselves as Jews in 1989, according to the census; by 2010 the census count had dropped to 150,000, or 0.11 percent of Russia’s population, though Jewish organizations say the actual number is much higher.
David Rozenson, whose family left Russia in 1978, said his mother was shocked when he told her about it. “She said, ‘That’s crazy, it can’t be,’ ” said Rozenson, the director of the Avi Chai Foundation, which bankrolls research into Jewish life in Russia. “For her, it is unthinkable that a museum like this is opening in Moscow, that Russian politicians would be there, the Israeli president. It’s very easy to become cynical and say that this museum is just a political statement, but I think this museum and the interest in it are real.”
Aleksandr A. Dobrovinsky, a lawyer, said he became visibly emotional when he saw the exhibit of Odessa, where he had visited his grandparents as a youngster. He gave Putin, who has been linked to the project for more than five years, a great deal of the credit.
“What the president has done, I simply tip my hat to him,” Dobrovinsky said. “They say, though I don’t know if it’s true, that he grew up in a communal apartment in St. Petersburg, and when his parents were working and had no one to leave him with, they left him with some older people who lived in the apartment, and they were Jews. That’s what they say. I don’t know.”