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Top Russian security official apologizes after deputy calls Chabad a cult

Spokesman for Russian Jewish community says he appreciates the retraction, notes historical rarity of a Russian general apologizing for antisemitism

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Secretary of the Russian Security Council Nikolai Patrushev speaks at a trilateral summit with Israel and the United States at the Orient Hotel in Jerusalem on June 25, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton\Flash90)
Secretary of the Russian Security Council Nikolai Patrushev speaks at a trilateral summit with Israel and the United States at the Orient Hotel in Jerusalem on June 25, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton\Flash90)

The head of Russia’s Security Council on Friday apologized for comments made by his deputy against the Chabad-Lubavitch movement earlier in the week, in which he referred to the Hassidic sect as a supremacist cult, drawing fierce criticism from the country’s chief rabbi and raising concerns of institutional antisemitism among Russian Jews.

In an article for the government-owned Argumenty i Fakty weekly newspaper calling for the “desatanization” of Ukraine, assistant secretary of the Russian Security Council Aleksey Pavlov wrote on Tuesday that the country was home to hundreds of neo-pagan cults, including in his list the Chabad-Lubavitch movement.

Chabad was founded in what was then the Russian Empire in the 18th century and is currently the dominant Jewish movement in the former Soviet Union, particularly in Ukraine and Russia. Russia’s own chief rabbi, Berel Lazar, is a member of the movement, as are the vast majority of the country’s religious leaders.

Lazar immediately denounced Pavlov’s claims as “vulgar antisemitism” and called for Russian officials to do so as well.

A spokesman for the Russian Jewish community, Baruch Gorin, said the remarks potentially indicated a return of the institutionalized, official antisemitism in Russia that was rampant in the Soviet Union and before it in the Russian Empire.

Speaking to Israel’s Kan broadcaster, Gorin said a return of such antisemitism “would be the end of a Jewish presence in Russia.”

Russian chief rabbi Berel Lazar addresses a gathering of Russian rabbis in Moscow on September 5, 2022. (Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia)

In response to this wave of criticism against Pavlov, his superior, Secretary of the Security Council Nikolai Patrushev issued a follow-up statement to Argumenty i Fakty, calling his assistant’s comments about Chabad false.

“The article by Assistant Secretary of the Security Council of Russia, A.A. Pavlov that was published here included lines that were erroneous about Lubavitch Hasidim,” he wrote.

“I apologize to those who read the article and I wish to note that this analysis does not reflect the personal views of A.A. Pavlov and does not in any way represent the official position of the Security Council of the Russian Federation,” he added.

“Appropriate work has been done with the author of the article,” said Patrushev, a former head of the FSB, the successor of the Soviet KGB.

Since Russia launched its war against Ukraine in February, the Chabad movement in Russia has attempted to keep itself out of the crosshairs on all sides.

Its rabbis in Russia have denounced the war and the bloodshed, calling for it to end, but have refrained from blaming Moscow for it, leaving vague the issue of culpability for the conflict.

Pavlov’s claims demonstrated the precariousness of Chabad’s status in Russia in general and calls into question the success of its balancing act regarding the war.

Asked if he was convinced by Patrushev’s apology, that the article did not reflect Pavlov’s views, and was less concerned about the fate of Russia’s Jews, Gorin told The Times of Israel that he was, but only to a certain extent.

“The answer to the first part [if he was convinced] is no. The answer to the second part [if he’s less concerned] is yes.”

“It was an apology. This was the first time in my life and I think the first time in many generations’ lives that a [Russian] general has apologized to Jews. But this was a partial apology. [Pavlov] will continue to work there, so I’m not fully convinced. But he apologized so I’m less worried,” Gorin said.

In response to Pavlov’s article, as well as other recent steps against Russian Jewish groups, former chief rabbi of Moscow Pinchas Goldschmidt on Thursday called on Russian Jews to flee the country.

“An attack by the Russian government against Chabad, as well as the attacks against the Jewish Agency for Israel, are antisemitic acts against all of us,” said Goldschmidt, who fled Russia earlier this year after working in the country for decades.

Goldschmidt was referring to an ongoing legal battle that Russian authorities launched against the Jewish Agency, a group that encourages Jewish immigration to Israel and also organizes Jewish cultural and educational activities in Russia.

“We reiterate our call to all of our brothers and sisters still remaining in Russia and able to leave the country to do so,” said Goldschmidt, who also serves as the president of the Conference of European Rabbis.

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