The Jewish Museum in Russia

By Slava Tsukerman

On November 8, 2012 in Moscow an opening ceremony of a cultural institution with a strange double-name: “The Jewish Museum and the Centre of Tolerance” was held.

The President of Israel Shimon Peres came to Moscow to participate in the event. Prior to the opening ceremony Peres had a long official meeting with Vladimir Putin.

Russian media stressed one detail: Putin served to the Israeli President wine of the 1948 – year of creation of Israel.

Also it was reported that two Presidents had an hour and a half long private meeting.

The event involved a lot of controversy.

The opening of a Jewish Museum in Russia, not so long ago an openly anti-Semitic country, is obviously a symbolic action. Very significant is the fact that the museum is in one of the biggest and most famous exhibition spaces in Moscow. The so called “Bakhmetiev Garage” was built in 1926 by the famous Soviet vanguard architect Konstantin Melnikov as the first city bus park. Lately this space was used for the biggest modern art expositions.

The museum has a very big exposition showing World Jewish history and the history of Jews in Russia in detail. Now it’s a biggest Jewish Museum in Europe.

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It’s construction cost 50 million dollars; the funds were provided mainly by Russian Jewish billionaires.

On the other hand the name of the museum: “The Jewish Museum and the Centre of Tolerance” provokes obvious question: do Russians consider their presentation of Jewish history and culture a symbolic sign of their “tolerance” towards Jews?

Russian State was represented by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. (On the photo he is on the right to Presedent Peres). President Putin had not come to the opening ceremony.

Shimon Peres made a speech that shocked many people and became a subject of a hot discussion in Russian Internet.

Shimon Peres said (translated from the Russian translation): “I came here as the President of the State of the Jewish people … I came here to say to you and to the whole Russian people – thank you. Thank you for a thousand years of hospitality. A thousand years of existence, the great Russia has presented to my little people.”

It is commonly known that Jewish population was obtained by Russia in 18th century as a result of occupation of Polish territories. Throughout all the years before Bolshevik revolution this Jewish population was deprived of the most of human rights. Jewish children were forcefully taken from their parents, christened and made solders in the army. Thousand of Jews were killed in pogroms.  

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Over the past 125 years, hundreds of thousands of Jews fled from persecution of the tsars, the Bolsheviks, and even after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since 1989, the number of Jews in Russia has decreased by 350,000. According to the New York Times, as of 2010 the proportion of Jews in Russia’s population stood at 0.11 percent (approximately 150,000 people).

In connection with the Shimon Peres speech one Russian journalist asked his readers:  “Can one imagine a President of Armenia who would came to Istanbul in order to thank the Turks for their hospitality toward Armenians?”

What was the exchange between the two presidents during their hour and a half meeting behind closed doors?

Updated: November 19, 2012 — 6:56 pm © 2016