MOSCOW — There are no giant government billboards displaying Vladimir Putin’s balding, smooth-cheeked, cold-eyed visage on the streets of Moscow. No colossal statues, ripe for toppling come the day. No murals covering the entire sides of buildings. In 2014, the president doesn’t need to promote the cult of personality in the style of Bashar Assad, Saddam Hussein, or dare one say Joseph Stalin.

He’s all over the Internet, the papers, the TV — a 5 foot, 7 inch dynamo running the largest country in the world, apparently single-handedly, taking on a superpower-in-retreat and laughing all the way to a revived Russian empire.

In Red Square, at the Resurrection Gate, a pair of Lenin and Stalin impersonators pose for hours with groups of passing domestic tourists (there are very few foreigners among the crowds), taking a small fee, thank you very much, for each snap.

A briefcase-carrying Putin lookalike also puts in an appearance every now and then — briskly shaking hands, looking preoccupied — but then disappears again. Even pretend Putins, it seems, have no time for frivolity.

Chabad’s chief rabbi

The Jewish leader closest to Putin is Chabad’s Berel Lazar, one of Russia’s two chief rabbis, a Milan-born, New York-ordained emissary, who first came here in the late 1980s on several trips to teach Judaism to refuseniks and was then appointed by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, to help revive and strengthen the Jewish community as the Soviet Union entered its death throes in 1990.

A father of 12 aged 49, with a graying beard and the trademark Chabad warmth — he immediately invites me for Shabbat dinner when we meet — Lazar works from a book-lined sixth-floor office in the Moscow Jewish Community Center building that houses his now-thriving Maryina Roshcha District synagogue.

When he arrived, Lazar recalls, there was “an underground” of people leading a return to Judaism. By 1989 Mikhail Gorbachev had granted “unofficial permission to open a school and a yeshiva.” And when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, most everyone whose Judaism was important to them was leaving. “The place was emptying out. The Israeli embassy was sure there’d be no Jews left,” says Lazar. “They laughed at us as we tried to fix up synagogues. It was a conveyor belt: come to shul, learn Hebrew, go to Israel. No one thought there’d be a future here.”

So, formally, the Lazars came for a year. “But the Rebbe told us to stay, to invest in education, Jewish community. From 1994 to 1996 the place was empty. The old synagogue had burned down” — firebombed by unknown attackers in 1993. “We only had a minyan [prayer quorum] once a week, on Shabbat. Sometimes we had to stand in the street to find a Jew for a minyan. All that was left were old people who couldn’t leave and disconnected youth. Whoever had a real Jewish connection had left. But, it turns out, there were Jews in the closet who had remained. And nowadays, every day, more come out.”

Indeed, in the shul downstairs, at mid-morning on a Friday, several dozen young men are praying, studying and milling around. Across town, in the Choral Synagogue — Russia’s main shul, which stayed open through the Soviet period — the congregation on Friday evening is also overwhelmingly young, men in their late teens and 20s.

If, in the mid-90s, there were basically no self-identified Jews left, official estimates today put Russia’s Jewish population at almost half a million. But the rabbi believes the true figure may be a million or more.

‘For the Jews in Russia, things have changed drastically. It’s nothing short of a miracle. And that’s why Jews have come out [to acknowledge their faith]‘ — Rabbi Berel Lazar

Why the boom? “It’s in, cool, to be Jewish,” he says. “It’s more accepted. It’s not dangerous. In the past the shul was burned down, there were attacks at cemeteries. Today, thank God, things are quiet. The Jewish issue is not an issue anymore. People will tell you that there are enemies [of the community], but the fact is that people come up to us sometimes and say, We love you.

“Just last night on TV there was a reality show about Pessah. It was very positive. It talked about matzah, about the story of Pessah. The Jews were presented as friends and as good for Russia. It’s almost surreal. This is on prime-time state TV in Russia.”

Russian President Boris Yeltsin (right) leaves the Kremlin after announcing his early resignation as head of state and the temporary transfer of his powers to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (left), December 31, 1999. (Photograph:  ITAR-TASS/Wikipedia)

Russian President Boris Yeltsin (right) leaves the Kremlin after announcing his early resignation as head of state and the temporary transfer of his powers to prime minister Vladimir Putin (left), December 31, 1999. (Photograph: ITAR-TASS/Wikipedia)

And where does Putin fit in to all this? “I believe he brought a lot of change [for the Jewish community and its well-being]. Gorbachev and [first Russian Federation president Boris] Yeltsin changed a lot, but Putin really came out and tackled anti-Semitism. Under Yeltsin [1991-99], if there were anti-Semitic incidents, he said, Ignore it, it will go away. Putin confronted it, head-on. His message is, Don’t harm the Jews. You’ll be arrested and punished. A young boy came into the shul with a knife. He was 17-18. He was jailed for sixteen years.

“A non-Jewish lady saw a sign by the side of the road that said ‘Death to the Jews.’ She went to take it down and it exploded in her face. There were nails in it. We flew her to Israel because the doctors here said they couldn’t save her eyesight. In Israel, the doctors made miracles and she came back with her eyesight restored. Putin called her in and thanked her for her heroism.”

“He sends a message of not tolerating anti-Semitism. That he meets with us sends a strong message to the people. For the Jews in Russia, things have changed drastically. It’s nothing short of a miracle. And that’s why Jews have come out [to acknowledge their faith]. Every day, hundreds come.”

Chief Rabbi of Russia Berel Lazar and Israeli President Shimon Peres read from a Torah scroll at an opening ceremony of Russia’s Jewish Museum in Moscow, Thursday, Nov. 8, 2012.  (photo credit: AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Chief Rabbi of Russia Berel Lazar and Israeli President Shimon Peres read from a Torah scroll at an opening ceremony of Russia’s Jewish Museum in Moscow, Thursday, Nov. 8, 2012. (photo credit: AP/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

I ask Lazar about concerns that he’s too close to Putin — that he offers a kind of Jewish certification for Putin’s activities. “That’s ridiculous,” he says quietly but firmly. “People think I pick up the phone and just speak to him.” He shakes his head at the absurdity of the notion. “There are four main religions in the Russian tradition: the Russian Orthodox church, the Muslims, the Buddhists and the Jews. I can’t say we’re his favorites. We’re similar to the way he treats any of the religions.”

“He’s done a lot for Russia and for the Jews,” the rabbi goes on. “We respect him and thank him for that. What he thinks of me, I don’t know. We don’t go out to dinner or play golf. When the Russian government wants to talk to the Jewish community, it talks to the rabbi. It’s the same with all religions. They talk to the religious leaders. With the Jews, it’s not the Federation or the rich Jews. So yes, they speak to me.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet in the Kremlin in Moscow on November 20, 2013. (Photo credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO/FLASH90)

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet in the Kremlin in Moscow on November 20, 2013. (Photo credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO/FLASH90)

Nonetheless, Lazar is unapologetic in his enthusiasm for the president, though wary about patriotism metamorphosing into a dangerous nationalistic drive. Asked where Putin is taking Russia, he replies: “He’s a strong Russian patriot. Without him, geopolitically, I don’t know where Russia would be. Before he came around, Russia was battered. Russian Jews were ashamed to say they were Russian. Today there’s a new pride. I’m not saying it’s all good. He’s very popular. He broadcasts this message: Don’t tangle with Russia. What we in the Jewish community care for is that it not turn into a nationalistic feeling. Today we’re comfortable. But we’re watching. We watch out for [anti-Semitic] rhetoric. People sometimes say things on TV and we sometimes go out strongly against it.”

Such as? The populist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky “made a [troubling] speech in the Duma. It turned out his father was Jewish. We found his father’s grave in Israel. He came and asked his forgiveness. There was a lady on TV hinting at Holocaust denial, saying that the Jews are exaggerating. The TV clarified the next day. This is Russia and you don’t know how things can shift. I’m not saying Russians are anti-Semites, but it only takes a small spark to ignite nationalistic feelings.”

Hasn’t Putin ignited nationalistic feelings? “I think he’s a Russian patriot. There’s a small divide between patriotism and nationalistic sentiment. You have to be very careful everywhere, especially in Russia. When you see it expressed ‘just’ against foreigners, against Asians, there are those who say, ‘Look they’re busy with them. You’re safe.’ No, any nationalistic sentiment is not good.”

Russia's President Vladimir Putin (L) listens to the head of the Russian army's main department of combat preparation, Ivan Buvaltsev (R), while observing military exercises at the Kirillovsky firing ground in the Leningrad region, Monday, March 3, 2014. (photo credit: Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP)

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (L) listens to the head of the Russian army’s main department of combat preparation, Ivan Buvaltsev (R), while observing military exercises at the Kirillovsky firing ground in the Leningrad region, Monday, March 3, 2014. (photo credit: Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP)

I ask the rabbi whether Russia is a democracy. “Through American eyes, one wouldn’t say so. A lot of institutions are not democratic by American standards. Is it ready for full-fledged democracy? I’m not sure. As we saw in some Arab countries, people aren’t always ready. After 78 years of communism, a lot of people here aren’t ready for democracy. In Yeltsin’s time, there was a feeling that Russia was entering full democracy, but it was like the Wild West. Jews were being killed once a week. Not because they were Jewish, but because it was a jungle. There was anti-Semitism, extortion — we felt insecure. Putin restored order. He used a strong hand; some would say too strong. There’s still a lot of corruption, there are a lot of human rights issues, but there is more order and people feel more secure. I believe he will bring more democracy. The Internet is open. (*See bottom of this article.) The young generation was born under freedom and they are open. You can’t brainwash them. Eighty percent of the country feels things have gotten better. But there are still things that are so backward — in medicine, in the courts, police corruption, other levels.”

Is he concerned Putin might ever turn against the Jews? “I don’t think so. He appreciates what Jews stand for — our values, our contribution to the country. A few months after becoming president, he came to the opening of our synagogue. That was not popular. It didn’t gain him any votes, but this was one of his first events and he said that day, Of course Jews had left [Russia] when they could. Look at how they were treated. He said we have to do everything to make Jews feel comfortable — whether it’s in education, community centers, fighting anti-Semitism. They have to have a feeling of belonging.

“I got a call last week that he wants to see me on the 15th of April. I explained that I couldn’t, because it was a Jewish holiday” — the first day of Passover. “So they moved around his calendar and asked me on the 14th at 6 p.m. instead. I had to explain it wouldn’t work because it would be too late for me to get back before the start of the festival that evening. His days were packed. But they moved everything around again and he met me at 5 p.m. The point is they went out of their way, and it was just to wish a happy Passover.”

Smoking city

To a complete outsider like myself, Moscow is a curious city. It is strikingly quiet, bar the constant hum of traffic — no horns blaring, little music seeping out from cars or homes. In the center of the capital, its people are extremely well-dressed, and it boasts shopping centers filled with top-end stores. The GUM department store in Red Square — now a collection of leading-brand boutiques — is eye-wateringly expensive and there’s almost nobody buying. Remoter neighborhoods are crammed with palpably poor, dense housing projects.

Slavyansky Bulvar, Moscow metro station (photo credit: Van Elsing.16/Wikipedia)

Slavyansky Bulvar, Moscow metro station (photo credit: Van Elsing.16/Wikipedia)

Moscow’s Metro, which dates from the 1930s, is an evolving architectural masterpiece — magnificent station entrances leading deep, deep down to glittering platforms and marbled corridors, some boasting statuary, others stained-glass installations. It is clearly signed, even for the Cyrillicly challenged; Wi-Fi connected — everybody’s reading iPads on the long escalator journeys down; clean, and brightly lit — barely a single dead light among the thousands of bulbs in fittings that include outrageously ornate chandeliers. It is also spectacularly efficient, carrying more passengers than the Tube in London and the NYC subway combined. Nobody runs for a train, because they know the next one is bound to be along in a minute.

Very few people speak any English, though some seem to labor under the delusion that speaking Russian louder might boost comprehension

Almost everybody in Moscow seems to smoke, almost everywhere, most certainly including restaurants (though not the Metro). And most everybody looks unhappy — glum, even on unexpectedly sunny days in April.

The language barrier is sky-high. Very few people speak any English, though some seem to labor under the delusion that speaking Russian louder might boost comprehension.

I go to a gig by a Beatles tribute band — the Cavern Beatles. I assume it’ll be in a grimy club in the middle of nowhere. Actually, it’s at Moscow’s International House of Music, an elegant 1,700-seat concert hall packed with Muscovites of all ages in their finery — men in suits, women bejeweled. Every song is warmly applauded. Only a handful of people dance. The “Beatles” play “Back in the USSR”; nobody cheers or otherwise demonstrably acknowledges the locational relevance. (Evidently, they don’t know how lucky they are.) When the concert ends, the audience spills out in pin-drop silence, as though emerging from a funeral.

I go to Red Square. The line to see embalmed Lenin is not signposted and turns out to begin several hundred yards away from his mausoleum. The ticket office to enter the Kremlin, with its Armory and cathedrals, is even further afield. The ticket booths are covered in darkened glass. It is impossible to know if anyone is inside. The ticket windows are tiny apertures via which it would be difficult to conduct any kind of conversation even if one did know the language. A body-less voice at one of these windows repeatedly barks out the single word “Bank!” in response to my polite but increasingly plaintive inquiries.

A view across Red Square (photo credit: Christophe Meneboeuf)

A view across Red Square (photo credit: Christophe Meneboeuf)

It’s 12:30 and I ultimately establish that I cannot go see the Armory, with its collection of Faberge eggs and other glories, until 2:30. And I can’t buy the ticket to enter the Armory at 2:30 until 1:45. And no, I cannot tour the rest of the distant Kremlin first, and buy the ticket at the Armory itself closer to the time, so that I don’t have to wait pointlessly here or schlep back here. I am saved by an English-speaking tour guide named Alexandra — “easy to remember, like Alexander the Great,” she chirps — who tells me, “Of course you can buy the ticket at the Armory. There’s a little ticket office there that nobody tells you about. You’re in Russia remember? There’s the legal way, and the illegal way.”

For a moment, I feel almost at home.

Sharansky’s Hebrew teacher

Venturing with increasing confidence into the Metro, I set off to meet Michael Chlenov, the secretary-general of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress (which represents Jewish communities in the region), and put to him some of the questions I’d asked Lazar.

Chlenov, 73, is an avuncular academic and veteran Jewish leader who also happens to have been Natan Sharansky’s first Hebrew teacher. (I’m not sure I’d admit to that.) He was called in and interrogated by the KGB when Sharansky was arrested, he tells me lackadaisically; “it wasn’t my worst experience.”

‘With Putin, it’s curious. He’s trying to create a certain Russian empire, but he’s not an anti-Semite’ — Michael Chlenov

Professor Chlenov offers a more historical perspective than Lazar of Putin’s Russia, having lived through decades of Soviet transition and, for his Jewish activities, persecution. He, too, nonetheless, regards the current state of Jews in Russia to be relatively good, and Putin’s rule to be relatively benevolent. “If you look at the hard statistics, there were 27 incidents [of anti-Semitic attacks] last year, including six violent attacks. There were 25 in Ukraine. In France, I think there were 600. The West assumes that there’s lots of anti-Semitism. It exists. It poses a threat. But it’s modest and not at the levels usually perceived. And also, immigrants from elsewhere in the former Soviet Union are drawing attacks.”

Invoking a historical perspective, Chlenov notes that anti-Semitism was “sponsored by the mighty here from the 16th century until the end of the Soviet Union. That stopped at the end of the 1990s. To date, none of the governments of the FSU countries is sponsoring anti-Semitism; quite the reverse. With Putin, it’s curious. He’s trying to create a certain Russian empire, but he’s not an anti-Semite. Everyone knows he has friends in Israel and visits Israel.”

He puts the number of Jews in Russia today a little lower than does Lazar, but chuckles at the impossibilities of estimation. “Look, 25 years ago, there were 1.5 million Jews… of whom 3 million left. Now there are probably 700,000 or 800,000 in Russia, and maybe 1.5 million more in the rest of the FSU, who are eligible [for Israeli citizenship] under the Law of Return [by virtue of having at least one Jewish grandparent]. In the 2010 Russia census, 155,000 said they were Jewish when asked their nationality. There’s a difference of mentality between Russian Jews and the West, the Christian countries. In the West, the Jews think of themselves as Jewish by religion. In the Soviet Union where the Jews were forbidden to practice their religion, Jewish identity is based on nationality.”

Michael Chlenov (photo credit: Euro-Asian Jewish Congress)

Michael Chlenov (photo credit: Euro-Asian Jewish Congress)

I ask Chlenov to explain Putin’s warm relationship with Lazar. “Putin chose to look to Chabad as the Jewish leadership of Russia, not because he knew about them, but because they helped him in 2000″ when he was establishing himself as Yeltsin’s successor, Chlenov begins. “Putin was struggling and fighting against [a political rival, the Jewish leader and media magnate Vladimir] Gusinsky. Chabad came to him. They said, Here’s our rabbi and he can be your rabbi. Lazar was elected as Russia’s second chief rabbi, and the first chief rabbi [Adolf Shayevich, who was closely linked to Gusinsky] was forgotten. It’s a strategic alliance — political and economic. The Kremlin has encouraged Jewish businessmen in Russia’s provinces to give funds to Chabad.”

How did Chabad help Putin exactly? Gusinsky, who headed the Russian Jewish Congress, was arrested and charged with various offenses in the course of 2000, including theft and embezzlement from state-owned companies, “and he intended to go to the US and to Israel and denounce Putin as an anti-Semitic president of Russia,” says Chlenov. “At the same time, Putin goes to the hyped opening of the Chabad synagogue” — Lazar’s Community Center in September 2000. “He also lit a candle” in the shul there on Hanukkah that December. “He made a long speech about the role of Jews and their contribution to mankind. He recalled that he’d lived in a flat in Leningrad with six other families, including Jews, and remembered their Hanukkah lights.”

Putin also promised a crowd of hundreds that night that “the light and the kindness that this (menorah) will radiate will always illuminate the Kremlin” — remarks that drew an elated response from Benjamin Netanyahu, who was on a private visit to Russia at the time (having lost the prime ministership the previous year). “If you want powerful evidence of the change that has happened in Russia, then come here tonight, see what is happening here tonight,” Netanyahu said. “Today the president of Russia is coming here, in a new Jewish community center, and is lighting the first candle of our ancient holiday, Hanukkah. This is change, big change, positive change, powerful change,” he said.

Vladimir Gusinsky (photo credit: Anton Nossik/Wikipedia)

Vladimir Gusinsky (photo credit: Anton Nossik/Wikipedia)

Gusinsky was in jail in Spain at the time, fighting extradition to Russia to face the embezzlement charges, which he insisted were politically motivated. He won that battle, but was later stripped of his Russian citizenship. Numerous Jewish leaders had denounced what they called the harassment of Gusinky, expressing concerns that it heralded wider pressure on Russia’s Jews. Sharansky had warned that “it raised all kinds of fears over civil liberties in Russia.” That changed, says Chlenov, when Putin allied himself so prominently with Chabad.

“Chabad helped Putin because now world Jewry stopped accusing him of crushing Gusinsky’s Russian Jewish Congress. World Jewish hostility disappeared, and that really mattered.”

Is Putin anti-Semitic? Chlenov delivers a firm “no” and says the president’s focus on Gusinsky was because “Gusinsky financed some of his rivals. Putin is not only not anti-Semitic, he’s philo-Semitic.”

What’s he up to in the Ukraine? “Putin wants to restore aspects of Russian glory.”

How much? “That’s a good question.”

‘In Russian politics, it is thought that Israel is exaggerating the Iranian threat or is trying to make political capital out of it’

Is he moving Russia toward democracy or away? “Certainly away. He wants to create a combination of the ideology of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Russia, and of the Soviet Union — the Soviet Union as he thinks it should have existed — without anti-Semitism.” (Putin said in a 2005 German TV interview, “Anyone who doesn’t regret the passing of the Soviet Union has no heart. Anyone who wants it restored has no brains.”)

Putin wants Russia as a rival superpower on the world stage? “He wants that Russia should get off its knees, that Russia should regain her glory in a multipolar world.”

And his goals in Syria, Iran? “He’s reasserting Russia in the Middle East.”

Is this good for Israel? “Maybe not too bad. His instinct is friendly to Israel. Assad is his last ally, and who might replace Assad? Not good, right? As for Iran, there’s a 300-year history of relationships of rivalry. Iran is always a rival. Iran is somehow part of Russian culture. Iran is a familiar neighbor — not comfortable, but familiar. In Russian politics, it is thought that Israel is exaggerating the Iranian threat or is trying to make political capital out of it. Of course it’s not only Russia that thinks that. [Ex-Israeli security chiefs Meir] Dagan and [Yuval] Diskin say the same thing.

“Putin looks at the world and he says that on Crimea, the world did nothing. In Geneva, just now, did they say, get out of east Ukraine? No, they issued a weak statement that showed that the West is ready to swallow these ambitions. He’s not an idiot. He’s not a Genghis Khan, he’s not a Mao. He takes big steps forward, small steps back.”

Putin’s one good quality

On Friday night at Moscow’s main Choral Synagogue, I get talking to a group of young Russian men, several of whom have returned to the city after years in Israel. Some cite family reasons for their journey home. One or two say they couldn’t make it financially.

Moscow Choral Synagogue (photo credit: Mikhail Yakovlev/Wikipedia)

Moscow Choral Synagogue (photo credit: Mikhail Yakovlev/Wikipedia)

President on and off since 2000, and plainly planning to stay on for the foreseeable future, Vladimir Putin is enjoying extraordinary popularity in Russia right now — 80 percent levels, according to a poll cited last month by the Washington Post. But there are doubters in this group of young Jews, and a couple of them express unease at what they say is the perception, created by Lazar’s prominent solidarity with the president, that the Jewish community as a whole unstintingly backs Putin.

“Putin controls the media. Putin’s Russia is so corrupt. Putin is destroying democracy,” says one of the young men. “His only good quality is that he likes Jews.”

__________________

* On April 24, Putin declared that the Internet was “a CIA project,” and “is still developing as such.” To resist that influence, Putin said, Russia needed to “fight for its interests” online. AP reported that the Kremlin has been anxious to exert greater control over the Internet, which opposition activists — barred from national television — have used to promote their ideas and organize protests. Russia’s parliament last week passed a law requiring social media websites to keep their servers in Russia and save all information about their users for at least half a year. Also, businessmen close to Putin now control Russia’s leading social media network, VKontakte.