For many historical and cultural reasons, there is no polite way of saying “a Jew” or “Jewish” in Russian. Even the name of this newspaper The Canadian Jewish News appears slightly mocking in Russian translation. For decades, Russian speakers of all backgrounds used to lower their voice when they said evrei (a Russian word for “a Jew”), as if it were a swear word. In today’s Russia, basic knowledge of Jewish history and culture is still not a part of an “educated person’s kit,” even for Jews.
A new five-and-a-half hour long, three-part documentary film, created and directed by Leonid Parfenov, the celebrated Russian liberal journalist and a TV legend of the 1990s, promised to break away from the stereotype, first by the magnitude of the undertaking, and second, by actually calling the trilogy, Russian Jews. The project was funded by the Genesis Philanthropy Group whose mission is to develop and enhance a sense of Jewish identity among Russian-speaking Jews worldwide. The sensationalism of Parfenov making such a film, and its premise: Jewish contributions to culture, politics and society in Imperial and Soviet Russia brought an incredible hype.
A few weeks ago, the grand finale of the series, “Russian Jews: After 1948” was screened at Toronto’s George Weston Recital Hall, followed by Q&A with Parfenov. Most of the 600+ person spectators spoke Russian, but others relied on subtitles and parallel translation of the subsequent discussion.
Both of us, professional historians of Russian Jews, did not know whether we were more troubled by the documentary itself, or how the audience reacted to it.
At first glance, the film celebrated the achievements of Soviet Jewish scientists, actors, musicians, comedians and activists. But Jews seemed only relevant insofar as they contributed to building Russian state and society. None of their own culture, in Yiddish, Hebrew, or even Russian is mentioned. The Holocaust, that claimed over 2.5 million Soviet Jewish lives, is barely discussed. Despite the misleadingly positive tone, the film leaves the impression that Jews, often in disguise, manipulated the Soviet system, first took control over its creation and later its disintegration.
No archives, libraries, monographs or academic advisers were mentioned in the film credits. It is a shame, because consulting these sources might have helped to avoid statements such as “almost all Soviet Communist leaders, with the exception of Stalin and Kalinin, had Jewish wives” and “Soviet pop music, ever since the times of [Matvei] Blanter and [Isaak] Dunaevsky [1930s], featured even more Jewish creators”, almost verbatim repeating the cliches of Nazi-sponsored propaganda.
A friend reminded us of an old joke about this misguided approach: “A Soviet orchestra conductor boasts to his American counterpart: ‘There is no anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union. Our orchestra has five Jewish violinists! How many does yours have?’ An American answers: ‘We do not count ours!’”
We were curious how the audience would respond to this film. But it turned out that the Russian-speaking viewers seemed to love it! They nostalgically delighted in seeing Soviet celebrities and thanked the filmmaker for turning his attention to Jews. But English-speaking spectators were confused. One of them asked Parfenov (through a written question) why the film projected so many stereotypes. Visibly irritated, the filmmaker replied that all stereotypes have a portion of truth in them, and thus should not be feared.
After that, Parfenov, a veteran champion of free speech in Russia, blatantly censored his conversation with the audience, eventually forcing the translator off the stage, and taking control of what was asked and answered. But the audience still cheered for him – maybe some saw this behavior as an act of bravery, rather than cowardliness; visualizing him as a hero, fighting norms of politeness, inclusion, and political correctness.
Avoiding difficult questions cannot hide the sad truth: Parfenov’s film essentially framed old stereotypes into a fancy package. Russian Jews would have to continue to lower their voices when they speak about Jewish topics in public. After all, there might be a filmmaker around the corner making a movie about their disguised influence on the world.
Vassili Schedrin, Alfred and Isabel Bader post-doctoral fellow, Queens University.
Anna Shternshis, director, Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies, University of Toronto.