The Parable of Tolstoy and the Jews

January 31, 2017


The Parable of Tolstoy and the Jews

President Trump “forgot” to mention the Jews on Holocaust Memorial Day. If only Pyotr Tolstoy had done the same…

Pyotr Tolstoy

On January 27, the world commemorated Holocaust Memorial Day,while Russia also marked the seventieth anniversary of the end of the Siege of Leningrad. On that same day, it was officially announced that Pyotr Tolsoy – great-grandson of Leo, erstwhile scandalous TV presenter, and the current Deputy Speaker of the State Duma – would be heading Russia’s delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). By cruel coincidence (we’d hate to think that some evil genius in the Kremlin deliberately orchestrated the whole thing; let’s not glorify human stupidity), the most brazenly anti-Semitic outburst to have left the lips of a high-standing Russian government official in decades had been made just a few days previously… by none other than Pyotr Tolstoy.

Here is what happened. For several weeks now, the domestic socio-political agenda has been dominated by the controversy surrounding the handover of St Isaac’s Cathedral in St Petersburg to the Russian Orthodox Church. St Isaac’s is currently a major museum whose ticket revenue is crucial to the budgets of virtually all the city’s theatres. Tens of thousands of people have signed online petitions, thousands have attended protest rallies, and local deputies have voiced their objections to the plans. Even the director of the Hermitage Museum, who tends to steer clear of politics, spoke out against the move – only to receive an earful from the church (“don’t stick your oar in, and, better yet, have a hard think about your own obscene exhibitions”).

Speaking at state news agency TASS on January 23, Pyotr Tolstoy was asked, predictably enough, to comment on the St Isaac’s row. His response drew a country-wide gasp. He was (natch) in favour of transferring the cathedral to the ROC – but that’s entirely by the by. What’s truly shocking is this: Tolstoy went on to claim that the people currently protesting against the handover are “the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those who destroyed our churches and who jumped, revolvers in hand, out of the Pale of Settlement in 1917.” In addition to accusing the Jews of destroying “our” churches a century ago – and simultaneously equating them with Bolsheviks (a truly Hitlerian gambit) – Tolstoy has labelled the current protesters “Jews” as well. For the Pale of Settlement was, of course, the western region of the Russian Empire that Jews were officially allowed to inhabit, and beyond whose borders they were generally prohibited from travelling.

Tolstoy’s words did, of course, outrage some. A dozen or so of Russia’s remaining independent (“liberal”) media outlets; intellectuals in Moscow, Petersburg and other big cities; Jewish organisations across the country. But we can identify with absolute certainty the people his words didn’t outrage. They didn’t outrage Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin. They didn’t outrage other Duma deputies. They didn’t outrage any senators. They didn’t outrage the presidential administration, or, indeed, the president himself. Tolstoy offered an unconvincing, vague apology and that was that: case closed, conflict over, moving swiftly on. No consequences: he gets away scot-free, and off to Vienna he flies, the head of Russia’s delegation to PACE.

Holocaust Memorial Day, as mentioned above, coincides in Russia with the commemoration of the Siege of Leningrad, which claimed over a million victims. Three years ago, in 2014, independent TV channel Dozhd used the occasion to conduct an historic round-table discussion, asking whether the city could have been evacuated, or even, horribile dictu, surrendered entirely in an effort to avoid loss of life. This, of course, drew gasps of outrage from everyone: deputies, officials, the Kremlin, and Pyotr Tolstoy himself. Dozhd was promptly dumped from all major cable networks.

Is there a moral to this story? Only you can decide.

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