In Big New Museum, Russia Has a Message for Jews: We Like You

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MOSCOW -- A stream of elegant visitors stopped in their tracks on Thursday as they toured Moscow's new Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, a sprawling, state-of-the-art complex underwritten by oligarchs close to President Vladimir V. Putin. They had never seen a shtetl like this one.

Touch the screen in one exhibit in this vast building and a visitor can appear in a mirror dressed in the garb of a 19th-century blacksmith, or a trader or a "representative of the intelligentsia." Tap a Torah in a virtual synagogue, and a cantor's voice rings in the air. In a virtual Odessa, one can sit down in an interactive cafe to chat with long-dead writers.

Mr. Putin has extended his personal support to the lavish project, donating a month's salary for its construction, which cost around $50 million. In part because of its scale -- organizers say it is the largest Jewish history museum in the world -- the project is meant to convey a powerful message to Jews whose ancestors fled or emigrated: Russia wants you back.

President Shimon Peres of Israel, who attended the opening, said it affected him deeply.

"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," said Mr. Peres, 89, 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 Mr. Putin to rehabilitate Russia's image among diaspora Jews who, as descendants of refugees or refuseniks, may have been raised on dark stories about Russia. The country's Jews were confined to densely populated settlements, or shtetls, for long stretches under the czars. Then 70 years of Communism all but extinguished Jewish life and religious instruction, leaving in its wake an ingrained anti-Semitism.

One donor, the billionaire Viktor Vekselberg, said on Thursday that he hoped the museum would convey to outsiders the good health of Jewish society in Putin-era Russia, and perhaps ease 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 Mr. Vekselberg, who is Russia's richest 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."

Mr. Vekselberg said the project had a personal aspect, since his father's relatives, who lived in western Ukraine, were all shot in a single day during World War II. He said it was a "conscious decision" not to focus the museum on the Holocaust, as many such museums in the West do. The displays here mingle brighter historical material, about thriving village life and the high status of Jews in the Soviet intellectual firmament, 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 described the museum, created by the New York-based designer Ralph Appelbaum, as a "Jewish Disneyland."

On Thursday, Russia's chief rabbi -- a close ally of Mr. Putin's -- said that Jews "have never felt as comfortable in Russia as today," and that 100,000 Jews have returned from Israel as conditions in Russia have improved. He gave a guided tour of the museum to Mr. Peres, noting instances 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," the rabbi, Berel Lazar, said. He then pointed out a Soviet T-34 tank, saying "with this tank, which was built by a Jewish person, Jews were saved from concentration camps."

Mr. Putin had been expected to attend the ceremony but canceled several days ago, instead inviting Mr. Peres to meet him for lunch afterward. Israeli reporters said they had been told Mr. Putin could not attend because of back problems, a widespread rumor that the Kremlin has denied.

Whether Russia has become fully welcoming to Jews is a matter of opinion. The country's Jewish population began to melt away because of emigration after the collapse of the Soviet Union. More than 500,000 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 far higher.

After Thursday's ceremony, when speakers praised the welcoming atmosphere, some commentators reacted skeptically. "It's so comfortable that everyone has left," wrote one Facebook user, recalling that last weekend, a column of Russian ethnic nationalists marched through the center of Moscow.

Others were deeply impressed, though. David Rozenson, whose family left Russia in 1978, said his mother was astonished when he told her about it.

"She said, 'That's crazy, it can't be,' " said Mr. Rozenson, the director of the AVI CHAI Foundation, which underwrites 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 his eyes welled up when he saw the exhibit of Odessa, where he had visited his grandparents as a child. He gave Mr. Putin, who has been linked to the project for more than five years, much of the credit.

"What the president has done, I simply tip my hat to him," Mr. 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."

Andrew Roth contributed reporting.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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