MOSCOW (Reuters) - Allegations by nationalists that Vladimir Putin’s chosen successor, Dmitry Medvedev, has Jewish roots have brought anti-Semitism to the surface on the margins of Russia’s presidential election campaign.
The first deputy prime minister, who is all but assured of victory on Sunday because he has Putin’s support, has said he belongs to the Russian Orthodox faith.
But some nationalist groups say his mother’s maiden name, Shaposhnikova, is Jewish, and that he is unfit to be president because of this.
Medvedev’s campaign staff declined to confirm or deny he has Jewish roots. The Kremlin condemns all forms of anti-Semitism.
Medvedev’s faith has not been raised by mainstream media but has been widely discussed on far-right Internet discussion groups in postings that are a reminder of the discrimination and persecution Jews in Russia have faced for hundreds of years.
“It’s common knowledge. Medvedev never hid his sympathy towards Judaism,” Nikolai Bondarik, who heads the nationalist Russian Party in Medvedev’s home town of St Petersburg, told Reuters.
“A president ought to be related by blood with his people. Imagine if Japan was run by a Chinese president,” he said.
Moscow’s chief rabbi said the suggestions that Medvedev has Jewish roots offered a new take on a well-worn theme among Russian nationalists.
“In the ‘90s groups said (President Boris) Yeltsin was Jewish. The same has been said of (U.S. President) George Bush,” said Pinchas Goldschmidt, who is also Chairman of the European Conference of Rabbis.
“Anyone who is against xenophobia and racism is seen by some circles as ‘internationalist’, or 3somewhat Jewish”, he said.
Other political figures have been targeted by far-right groups. A video montage on the www.youtube.com Internet site shows a photograph of one election rival, Andrei Bogdanov, covered with a large Star of David.
Anti-Kremlin campaigner Garry Kasparov, a former world chess champion, is part-Jewish. One far-right website said he was not qualified to criticize a pro-Kremlin politician because of his origins.
Leaders of Russia’s Jewish community say there are about one million Jews living in the country, a quarter of them in Moscow. They are no strangers to discrimination.
Under empress Catherine the Great, Jews were confined to the Pale of Settlement in western Russia. In 19th century pogroms in such western provinces, Jews were beaten, raped and had their villages burnt down, forcing many to flee.
Russia’s Soviet rulers were suspicious of the Jewish community’s links to the West through the world Jewish movement. Thousands of Jews had to conceal their identity and about one million fled to the West and Israel in the 1970s and 80s.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, much of the anti-Semitism focused on the “oligarchs” — businessmen who made huge fortunes almost overnight from the privatization of state property. Many of them are Jewish.
One far-right group, the Movement Against Illegal Immigration, has a forum on its Internet site where dozens of users debate Medvedev’s roots, many using pejorative slang words for Jews.
One viewer posted pictures of two Russian Jewish oligarchs, Roman Abramovich and Boris Berezovsky, asking surfers to compare facial features with Medvedev.
There were about 20 recorded attacks last year on Jewish people and property in Russia, according to the National Conference on Soviet Jewry (NCSJ), a U.S. non-governmental organization.
They included graffiti on Jewish gravestones saying “Holocaust 2007”, a vandalized synagogue in the far eastern port of Vladivostok and an assault on a visiting rabbi from Canada.
But thousands of Jews who left the Soviet Union and moved to the West are coming back to Russia, many of them attracted by jobs and opportunities in the country’s booming economy.
Additional reporting by Denis Pinchuk in St Petersburg; Editing by Timothy Heritage