It was February 25, the day after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and Yevgeny and Anastasia Dubov, a couple in their twenties from Moscow, were in a panic. Recently married, both had just started high-paying positions in graphic design. But they had taken prominent roles as student activists in public demonstrations of support for Alexei Navalny, champion of the opposition in Russia and sworn enemy of Vladimir Putin. Acquaintances of theirs had been arrested and imprisoned. It was time, we had to flee.
The next day they were on a plane to Istanbul, hoping that the situation would quickly return to normal. After a month, and with no end in view of the war now in its sixth month, they made the decision that Yevgeny had been playing with since the eight-month Nativ program he had done here for Russian university students in 2019 – they would move to Israel on Aliyah.
As Yevgeny and Anastasia recounted their journey at our Friday night Shabbat table, I was taken back in time. Forty years ago, we stood at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza in New York in support of Soviet Jewry, chanting the movement’s anthem, “When they come for us, we’ll be gone.” Never could I have believed that all these years later would be the fate of my distant cousins, the age of my own children.
Their Jewish journey is fascinating. Yevgeny had a Jewish grandfather in Russia whom he did not know well and who was very assimilated himself. Anastasia has no Jewish relatives; his mother goes to church. Over dinner, however, it was clear how much they relished all things Jewish. On their aliyah day, they changed the family name from Dubov to Udovitch – my mother’s maiden name and the family name of Evgeny’s only assimilated Jewish grandfather. Given a choice between pumpkin soup or chicken soup, they opted for chicken soup because that’s what Jews traditionally eat on Friday nights. Yevgeny fondly remembered my wife’s whole wheat vegan challah from her previous visit with us on her Nativ program. After dinner, they commented on how much it meant to them to join a family for a Friday night dinner, and that the idea of a weekly family gathering is something you rarely see in Russia. “We loved watching you give the blessings to your adult children – it’s such a connection to a deep tradition.”
I was puzzled: where does this thirst and enthusiasm for Jewish things come from?
Yevgeny is Russian, but can no longer comfortably identify as Russian with the decline and deprivation of political culture under Putin. “They stole the house we knew,” Anastasia says of recent events in Russia. Thus, with a deep desire to identify with an intact identity, they seek to reconnect with the vestige of another culture and another heritage which they know is buried somewhere in their past: their Jewish heritage. .
But our conversation took a dark turn when I asked what their parents thought of the war.
“We try not to talk about it with them,” Yevgeny replied. “We are of course horrified – all of our friends are. But my parents’ generation still has illusions of Soviet pride in them. They dream of a return to so-called glory and eminence in the world. This is a generation that just swallows what the government pours out, and that’s all they know. For them, this is not a war against Ukraine. It is a war against the United States. And it’s a war until the end. ‘Our very survival is at stake’ – they are told that,” he said.
“But when you send them pictures of dead children, destroyed schools and hospitals, how can they support that?” I asked.
“They laugh at us,” Yevgeny explained, “that we are so naive that we fall for this fake news.”
I was speechless. How could Yevgeny’s parents, who had raised such a sensitive and intelligent young man, be so easily fooled?
I had always wondered how ordinary Germans in the Republic of Wiemar had fallen into a moral abyss. Surely it was to be the perfect storm of the culture, history, economy and communication technologies of the time. A black swan, a confluence of events unlikely to repeat and totally incomprehensible. Who would have thought that in 2022, such a rapid descent into collective moral depravity could overtake a culture with a strong economy, and where the internet ensures no atrocity is kept a secret from the public.
It was Nazi chief propagandist Joseph Goebbels who once said, “We will achieve our goal when we have the power to laugh while destroying, shattering all that was sacred to us as tradition, education and human affection. . And it was Goebbels who said, “This is the secret of propaganda: those who are to be persuaded by it must be completely immersed in the ideas of the propaganda, without ever realizing that they are immersed in it.
It is quite a troubling thought. Goebbels’ ideas contributed to the deaths of 25 million Russians during World War II. And now, apparently, good Russians like Yevgeny’s parents can dismiss the images of destruction, convinced of the purity of it all, without noticing the propaganda in which they are immersed.
We remember so many tragedies during those three weeks of mourning between Tammuz 17 and Av 9, but we recount them as events of the past. Remembering these dark episodes of history and looking at what is unfolding before our eyes today is a sobering reminder that the rapid collective descent into the moral abyss is still a threat lurking just below the surface. .
Joshua Berman is Professor of Bible Studies at Bar-Ilan University and is the most recent author of Ani Maamin: Biblical Criticism, Historical Truth, and the Thirteen Principles of Faith (Maggid).