You Don’t Have to Be Jewish (But Maybe You Are)

When Igor Shafarevich re-introduced the term “Russophobia” to a new generation, he could not have known just how perfectly timed this reintroduction was. [1]  Shafarevich, a world-renowned mathematician and dissident, wrote Russophobia in 1982 as samizdat, but only seven years later, his (abridged) text would be published in Nash sovremennik. [2]  Shafarevich’s elaboration of Russophobia would prove useful not just as a term waiting the wings to replace “Anti-Sovietism” (a concept derided by Shafarevich himself), but as a possibly inadvertent contribution to Russian conspiracy theory in the wake of the Soviet collapse only two years later. 

The debate surrounding Russophobia is partly based on the question of revealing the nation’s “enemy” by name or inference; the term that gives the book its title allows for the “enemy” to be renamed, expanded, or inferred in a manner far more productive than traditional Russian conspiratorial thought provided.  Critics of Russophobia accuse Shafarevich of framing the Jews as Russia’s enemies, a charge Shafarevich roundly rejects.  But whether or not Russophobia is anti-Semitic in content, it proves to be anti-Semitic in structure.  The Jews may or may not be Russia’s enemies, but, thanks to the framework of Russophobia, all of Russia’s enemies can essentially occupy the discursive space traditionally carved out for Jews. 

Shafarevich begins his tract with a critique of the most extreme “anti-Russian” historians and polemicists, those who argue that Russian culture and the Russian people are, by nature, slavish. His most frequent targets are emigre historian Alexander Yanov (whom he accuses of desiring Russia’s “occupation” by foreign powers) and Vasily Grossman (author of Life and Fate and Forever Flowing).  Both men are Jewish, which I could chalk up to coincidence, but, since Shafarevich himself sees something significant wherever 2 or more Jews are found, I don’t really have to. In any case, his argument is with their ideas: Yanov’s rejection of Russian nationalism and embrace of Western liberalism, and Grossman’s identification of Russia with the figure of the slave. [3]

The crux of Shafarevich’s argument involves the notion of the “Lesser People” (malyi narod, sometimes translated as “Small People,” a term he borrowed from Augustin Cochin.    For Shafarevich, the Lesser People are an elite group who look at the larger masses (the Great People) with disdain, and therefore see their own role as guiding the Great People’s historical development. [4] In Russia, the Lesser  People are the Russophobes, whose liberal ideals are based on their hatred of Russia. Who, exactly, are the Lesser People, the Russophobes?  

Do you really have to ask? 

Yes, it’s the Jews.  More specifically, the Jewish intellectuals whom he sees as not only the core of dissidence and of emigre politics (strangely, their concern for the plight of other minorities gives them away), but as the people directly responsible for the disastrous October Revolution and the triumph of Bolshevism.  Shafarevich is quick to defend himself against charges of anti-Semitism, both within Russophobia and in subsequent interviews. [5]   His main defense is to reject anti-Semitism as a category:

But no one has ever explained what one should seemingly begin with: what is anti-Semitism, and what does the word imply? In essence, what is involved here is that same ban: do not allow even the hypothesis that the actions of certain Jewish groups, tendencies or individuals could have negative consequences for others. But one cannot, of course, formulate it so openly. Therefore, it is also vain to try to get an answer; none will be given, for herein lies the explosive power of the atomic bomb: in the fact that the question is removed from the sphere of reason to the realm of emotions and suggestion. We are dealing with a symbol, a sign whose function is to mobilize irrational emotions and arouse, on signal, a tide of aggravation, indignation and hatred.

My point here is not to make an argument about Shafarevich’s anti-Semitism; it seems self-evident to most Western and Russian liberal critics.  Robert Horvath provides a good overview, while Krista Berglund wrote an entire book in defense of Shafarevich, with particular attention to the question of anti-Semitism. [6]  Berglund rejects the label, both because Shafarevich himself claims not to be anti-Semitic, and because she does not find explicit anti-Semitism in Shafarevich’s writings.[7]  While it is certainly true that Russophobia is exceedingly careful in its terminology, it is nonetheless rather clear in its intent. Berglund has a keen eye for the literal meaning of words, and a tin ear for dog whistles. 

Instead, Shafarevich’s own preoccupations, when it comes to both Jews and Russophobia, demonstrate how a basic conspiratorial structure can simultaneously reinforce an existing prejudice (anti-Semitism) and become so portable that it no longer relies on the initial target of its hatred as the source of its power.

Shafarevich’s critique of the Jewish people is based on a set of misguided notions familiar to anyone who has followed the history of Russian anti-Semitism, the most important of which is the idea of the “Chosen People.”  Before the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah) movement, Jews were often denounced as “tribal;” if they kept to themselves, it was out of disdain for gentiles (see the emphasis on the “goyim” in The Protocols).  The “Chosen People” works as the perfect rhetorical contrast to Christian ecumenicalism:  Christians proselytize (welcoming the stranger), and Jews do not (keeping strangers out).  Shafarevich seems to assume that the idea of the “Chosen People” is not only key to the development of Judaism, but to Jewish attitudes towards others in virtually any context.  

The irony here is that, in his attack on Jews and his critique of anti-Semitism, Shafarevich emphasizes “chosenness” because he clearly has “Chosen People-envy.”  This is how he responds to “Russophobia” attacks by Jewish writers:

But here is what is striking: although the authors are for the most part Jews, they NEVER try to apply to their own people and its state the criticisms that they level at Russians and Russia. For example, practically all the authors accuse Russians of “messianism” and of the arrogance of feeling themselves to be a “chosen people.” Whether Russians have such feelings and how strongly they have manifested themselves is a debatable question. But after all, “Messiah” is not a Russian word!

Yet Shafarevich’s entire project is based on the “specialness” of Russia and Russians, both in terms of their historic destiny and their function as international scapegoat.   We saw that Shafarevich sees anti-Semitism as a much-publicized myth, while Russophobia is the unspoken reality.  Not only can Shafarevich not conceive of Russian history without the Jews as villains, he cannot imagine Russophobia without anti-Semitism (myth or not). If you took the text of Russophobia and replaced all references to“Russophobia” with "anti-Semitism,” the argument wouldn’t suffer. 

Sharevich doesn’t merely want to appropriate messianism on behalf of Russians; he wants ownership of anti-Semitism as well.  Not to own up to anti-Semitism, but to reject it and then seize all its attributes for the construction of Russophobia.  If I could speak on behalf of all Jews, I’d be tempted to let him have it.  Lord knows it hasn’t done the Jews any good.  And yet...

If we look at the “Lesser People” not in terms of ethnography, but in terms of Vladimir Propp’s plot functions, we find a role open to an infinite variety of substitutions.  As presaged by Shafarevich’s own disdain for Jewish support of other minorities, the “Lesser People” is a model for the subsequent figuration of “minority rights” as “minority tyranny” (more on this in the next chapter).  More important, it takes the all-important trope of the cabal, so crucial to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and deracinates it.   Any group can serve this function for a conspiracy theory.  As the old American comedy album put it, “You don’t have to be Jewish.” [8] 

Structurally, anti-Semitism works just fine without Jews.  The problem is: does anti-Semitic content haunt the anti-Semitic structure?  If, for example,  the villains of a popular thriller have all the traditional demonological attributes of Jews and Masons, but are never identified as such, are the stories advancing an unspoken chauvinist agenda (itself a conspiracy hidden behind the text), or has the representation of the enemy been so conditioned along classic conspiratorial lines that he is virtually unimaginable in any other way? Can popular narratives borrow the trappings of neo-fascist storytelling without opening the door to neo-fascist content?

Next: Fascism with a Human Face


[1] The term can be found in samizdat prior to Shafarevich’s essay; as Robert Horvath notes, it had even been used by perestroika architect Aleksandr Yakovlev (The Legacy of Soviet Dissent: Dissidents, Democratisation, and Radical Nationalism in Russia. Routledge 2005).  But the word’s subsequent popularity is clearly because of Shafarevich. 

[2] Page 167-192 of the June issue contained the bulk of Shafarevich’s essay.  “A Painful Question,” the section most directly dealing with Jews in Russia, was omitted, only to be published in the November issue (162-172), allegedly in response to readers’ complaints about its absence.  Krista Berglund notes that Russophobia had been circulating widely in samizdat by 1988 (The Vexing Case of Igor Shafarevich, a Russian Political Thinker. Birkhauser 2012).   

[3] A more nuanced, fascinating, but still problematic, version of this argument is made by Daniel Rancour-Laferriere in The Slave Soul of Russia (NYU Press, 1995). 

[4] Could Shafarevich’s “Lesser People” be the post-Strugatsky  “Progressors” ? Calling Mark Lipovetsky!

[5] He notes that he worked with many Jews throughout his career. 

[6] Horvath is unstinting in his condemnation of Russophobia, which he calls “the most original contribution to the literature of prejudice since The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”  

[7] Berglund's defense  of Shafarevich is so total that she finds the very question of his anti-Semitism offensive:

Having not lowered himself to directly answer in the negative to Bogert’s earlier question “Are you an anti-Semite?”– which of course was naively schematic to the point of being almost comically insulting – Shafarevich probably wanted to make it clear that of course he had Jewish friends and of course Jews enjoyed his full trust and respect just like any other people, and that this fact ought to be so evident that it would be merely embarrassing to everyone to state it any more directly.

  [8] But it helps.