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Russian Jewish Congress

Organization created in January 1996 at a founding congress in Moscow with the declared goal of unifying all Jewish organizations in Russia. The charter of the Russian Jewish Congress (Rossiiskii Evreiskii Kongress; REK) declares it to be “a Jewish social and nonpolitical organization operating on the territory of the Russian Federation.” It is registered as a welfare fund.

The membership list of REK’s first presidium (containing 15 names) indicated immediately how the organization differed from similar associations abroad and reflected its aspiration to become an umbrella structure representing all of Russian Jewry. REK’s first president (1996–2001) was Vladimir Gusinskii (1952– ), president of Most Bank and vice president of the Association of Russian Banks. He was at the time one of the most influential Russian “oligarchs.” From January 1997, he headed the Media-Most holding company and information empire. In January 2000, he was elected vice president of the World Jewish Congress for Eastern Europe and Russia. One of REK’s four vice presidents was Mikhail Fridman (1964– ), from 1996 chair of the board of directors of the Alfa Group consortium. Another vice president, Lev Levaev (1956– ), was an Israeli diamond magnate and head of the Or Avner Fund, sponsor of the activities of the Lubavitch movement in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Aleksandr Osovtsov (1957– ), a business adviser of Gusinskii, became REK’s executive vice president (1996–2002). Evgenii Satanovskii (1959– ), chair of both the Ariel Metal and Chemical Corporation and the Institute for the Study of Israel and the Near East, became the chair of the board of directors (and from 1997, a vice president as well).

Prominent representatives of the intelligentsia and two Orthodox rabbis—chief rabbi of Russia Adol’f Shaevich (1937– ); and rabbi of the Mar’ina Roshcha synagogue and chair of the Lubavitch Rabbinical Alliance of the CIS Berl Lazar (1964– )—also were members of the presidium, as, in 1997, was the head of the Va‘ad (Federation of Jewish Communities and Organizations), Mikhail Chlenov. By 2000, a total of 40 prominent members of Russian Jewry had become presidium members.

Various persons have been credited with the idea of creating the congress. It would seem, indeed, that the initiative came from different quarters and matured gradually, in conformity with the needs of the communities and of Jewish secular and religious organizations. REK’s creation signaled a new stage in the development of Jewish organizational life in Russia. Leadership passed to the new elite of Jewish businessmen, figures influential in Russian society who were prepared to contribute financially to Jewish activity provided they could control it. Their involvement in Jewish public life was advantageous to them personally since it opened up new possibilities for their business interests.

Gusinskii had not previously taken much interest in Jewish affairs, but he provided REK with energetic and prestigious leadership and a strong financial base, contributing to the first serious endeavor to create stable, domestically produced leadership for the Jewish community. One of REK’s basic aspirations was to develop a Jewish community in Russia that would be independent and self-sufficient and acquire a status of equality with Jewish communities the world over. However, REK suffered from growing differences of opinion among its leaders, a factor that hindered the realization of its long-term strategic goals. In 1997, Lev Levaev resigned from the post of vice president and withdrew from the “wars” of the “oligarchic” and bureaucratic clans within the Jewish community and in Russian society in general.

During the first years of its activities, REK played a leading role in the Jewish community and contributed to raising its social and political status. Among the noteworthy events of those years were the 1996 laying of the cornerstone for the synagogue and Jewish Heritage and Holocaust Museum complex on Poklonnaia Hill in Moscow, with the participation of Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, and the September 1998 official inauguration of the memorial, with the participation of Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

REK’s second congress (in September 1998) took place in an atmosphere of economic and political crisis. More than 300 persons attended—members of the permanent committees and commissions and representatives of 45 regional branches, as well as some 200 activists from foreign Jewish organizations. In addition to charitable activities, the congress discussed the growth of antisemitism. Gusinskii, who was unanimously reelected president, emphasized the role of REK’s Antidefamation Commission in fighting such forces. REK’s third congress was planned for September 2000 but was postponed to 2001.

REK, in contrast to branches of international charitable funds active in Russia, was the first purely Russian Jewish charitable organization to sponsor a number of humanitarian, religious, cultural, educational, and scholarly programs, as well as antidefamation projects. Its most significant features were its inclusion of the main trends in Judaism in Russia, the financial assistance it gave to communities, and its insistence that local communities also organize fund-raising in order to involve more local Jews in their communities. Between 1996 and 2000, REK’s regional branches collected more than $11 million, approximately 25 percent of all funds collected by REK for communal programs. However, REK met only a very small portion of the needs of the Russian Jewish community.

Nor was REK able to reach its goal of uniting all the Russian Jewish communities and organizations. Some were not affiliated with the congress, although most were represented on its presidium. The relationship, moreover, between REK—which was primarily a philanthropic institution—and the other organizations was that between benefactor and beneficiary. Toward the end of 1999 REK’s position began to weaken. Several circumstances accounted for this: the organization’s excessive financial dependency on its president, its close ties with Gusinskii’s business and media empire, Gusinskii’s conspicuous role in Russian politics, and REK’s own inveiglement in them.

In essence, the emerging conflict between the Kremlin and Gusinskii had nothing to do directly with REK. It was really about the desire of the upper echelons of the Russian state bureaucracy to limit the political influence of certain “oligarchs.” However, the circumstances quickly affected relations between REK and the regime. The authorities assailed REK, with the aim of depriving Gusinskii of a political instrument that would guarantee him the status of top-ranking Jewish leader in Russia who enjoyed both national and international stature. The Kremlin’s opposition to REK exacerbated the growing conflict between REK and its rival organization, the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia (FEOR), which enjoyed President Vladimir Putin’s favor.

REK’s position deteriorated seriously in summer 2000 after Gusinskii’s arrest and subsequent departure abroad. REK then faced a financial crisis. In late 2000–early 2001, REK’s upper-echelon leaders began rethinking the organization’s strategy and discussed whether to replace the president. In March 2001, Gusinskii tendered his resignation, explaining that he could no longer work effectively in the organization since he was not living in Russia. A new stage in REK’s politics now began, and over the following period it devoted itself primarily to financing secular projects.

However, REK’s position and status continued to be affected negatively by developments in the Russian political scene when Putin turned against the YUKOS Oil Company headed by Mikhail Khodorkovskii and Gusinskii’s successor at REK, Leonid Nevzlin. The latter was duly replaced in late 2001 by Evgenii Satanovskii. His presidency of REK was marked by attempts to mitigate the conflict with the regime and by financial constraints that led to the abandonment of religious activity in favor of educational, social, and charitable work and support of the localities, and by defections to FEOR by both businessmen and communities. Late in 2004 he, in turn, was ousted by Vladimir Slutsker, who clearly had regime approval, but he too was replaced after just a year by Viacheslav (Mosheh) Kantor. Both these men had had connections in the past with FEOR, yet the latter made attempts to restore a more balanced situation within the Jewish community by seeking to restore to REK something of its earlier hegemonic status.

Suggested Reading

Theodore H. Friedgut, “The Phoenix Revisited: The Jewish Community of Russia since Perestroika; A View from Jerusalem,” Jewish Political Studies Review 14.1–2 (Spring 2002): 47–80; Vladimir (Ze’ev) Khanin, “Institutionalization of the Post-Communist Jewish Movement: Organizational Structures, Ruling Elites, and Political Conflicts,” Jewish Political Studies Review 14.1–2 (Spring 2002): 5–28; Yevgenii (Eugene) Satanovskii, “Organized National Life of Russian Jews in the Late Soviet and Post-Soviet Era: A View from Moscow,” Jewish Political Studies Review 14.1–2 (Spring 2002): 29–45.



Translated from Russian by I. Michael Aronson