Israel Shamir

The Fighting Optimist

Moscow Snowbound, Litvinenko Poisoned, and the Syrian War

FRENCH TRANSLATION: Moscou sous la neige, Litvinenko empoisonné, et la guerre en Syrie

TOP NEWS: Feeling Pinch of Oil Collapse, Some Russians Take to Streets , reported The New York Times . Indeed, at that time thousands of Russians were queuing in Central Moscow. The enormous line snaked around in the park, despite frost and snow. People stood three and four hours, braving winter weather: old ladies in furs and gentlemen in greatcoats, young people in anoraks, all sort of Russians from Moscow and from provinces. Do you think they were queueing for a fire sale to buy discount products or to change their depreciating roubles for dollars or whatever these desperate people were supposed to desire? Nope. This was the queue for theretrospective exhibition of Valentin Serov’s paintings, a Russian fin-de-siècle painter, in the New Tretyakov Gallery.

Valentin Serov (1865-1911) is a Russian equivalent of Edgar Degas or Edouard Manet or perhaps of James McNeill Whistler, hardly the names to steer Western masses from midwinter slumber. His art is figurative, embedded in Russian classical tradition yet aware of new trends of his time – he was an Art Nouveau founder – but still impeccably humane. Serov is a very Russian painter of the kind despised by the modern conceptual connoisseurs of art who prefer a Warhol’s tin , a Hirst’s shark or a Pussy Riot’s scream. The queue was not a fruit of a successful spin campaign – this was quite a low profile operation. Rather, it was a manifestation of the unpredictable Russian revolt against the Brave New World, on a par with Russians’ rejection of the gender politics, their open celebration of their Christian religiosity and their disapproval of migration, legal and illegal.

They can’t understand why the Germans invite Syrians, why the US judge sentences a woman to years of jail for sex with 17-year old boy, why officials have to officiate at gay marriages, why people must hide their crosses. The whole modern setup of the West annoys them as much as it perhaps annoys you.

En masse, Russians are traditional in their attitudes; and their country drifts further away from the Atlantic consensus under the sanctions. The pro-Western Russians, a.k.a. “liberals” (the term is quite misleading as they admire Pinochet and Thatcher, NATO and Israel ) are flabbergasted by their fellow countrymen’s backward preferences. For them, Serov is a low-brow painter for rednecks; Tretyakov Gallery is too demotic. The Moscow Jewish Museum of Tolerance is their preferred exhibition venue. In a typical response, a prominent “liberal” artist and journalist Xenia Larina wrote that the only line she liked was the one for the just opened McDonald’s in Moscow 1990 “as this symbolised our admittance to the civilised world”, in her words. Putin visited the retrospective, thus sealing its fate in the “liberals” eyes, as he can’t do anything right in their view. “This is the 86% queueing,” they say, referring to the high rating of the president.

Probably this is not the way the Russians were supposed to take to the streets, according to The New York Times , but they are unpredictable. It is not that they do not feel the pinch of oil prices falling and rouble going down. They do, and they complain about prices of vegetables, but meanwhile they take it in their stride.

Jews back to Russia?

One of the best and most famous paintings of Valentin Serov did not make it to the retrospective. The Abduction of Europa has been abducted and carried away to Europe. For decades, it was presented in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, but in roaring Nineties, a Jewish oligarch Vyacheslav Moshe Kantor managed to get his hands on it and carry it abroad. This was a small thing for him: he managed to get hold of a sizeable bit of Russian industry, as well. Now, he lives in Switzerland and fights the anti-Semitism(!) he so much increased. He has even his own European Jewish Congress – such grand-names-but-few-members bodies are established by every self-respected Jewish oligarch.

He did not return the painting, nor did he loan it to the exhibition to be shown, but he himself made his way to Moscow, to Putin. He complained about European anti-Semitism, and VVP invited European Jews to migrate to Russia, to escape Hitlerite hordes prowling on Champs-Élysées.

Many European Jews moved to Russia in 1930s, among them Menachem Begin, the Israel i Prime Minister, and my father. They escaped Hitler, and found a safe refuge in the Soviet Russia. So the idea is not that crazy as it sounds. In a private conversation, Putin promised Netanyahu to accept Israel i refugees if the things will go badly for the Zionist state.

However, this is quite unlikely eventuality. Meanwhile, the Jews are not endangered anywhere, though they are a source of danger for their neighbours in Palestine. European Jews are doing fine, despite Israel i attempts to scare them into Aliyah , immigration to Israel .

Putin does such odd meetings and declarations as he really wants to be friends with Jews. The problem is, he meets the wrong Jews. Moshe Kantor is the least popular Jewish oligarch, greatly disliked by Jews of all walks of life. There is no positive publicity in such encounters.

Putin has even less success with Russian Jews. The Russian Jewish community practically disappeared in Soviet days. There are descendants of Jews, but no community. Putin thought he needs one, so he invited the Chabad Hassids to organise the communities. They came from New York and from Europe and began to create Jewish communities. They know how to do it: a lot of modern Jewish communities all over the world are new creations of Chabad.

The Hassids made a lot of successful real estate deals. Now the Jewish communities of Russia are very rich and prosperous; they own vast tracts of expensive land. Just in Moscow they have over thirty synagogues and communal centres, the biggest Jewish museum in the world, and a new centre in Moscow’s Beverley Hills, Rublevka. They lack just one thing: they have no Russian Jews. They all gone to Israel , or abandoned the faith of their fathers.

This does not stop the Chabad Hassids from building more synagogues and importing more and more pious Jews from abroad. They carry out their missionary activity, trying to bring descendants of Jews back to faith, in the meantime enriching themselves. They are politically neutral; they never speak against Putin. They present photo ops, sitting around him in their fedoras. Who knows, perhaps in some fifty years they will rebuild the Russian Jewish community. Meanwhile it seems an exercise in futility, at best.

Completely outside this artificially constructed community, there are very active political Jews, doing usual Jewish things: public relations, banking, finances, television. Some of them are Putin-friendly, even sycophantic towards the President. If you ever watch a truly obsequious till nausea film on Putin, chances are it is a Jewish production. On the other hand, other descendants of Jews are active in the opposition, both on the left and on the right. None of them needs the Chabad-created communities.


I was contacted by Israel i Army Radio, as a Hebrew-speaking journalist in Moscow. What do I think about British justice accusing Vladimir Putin personally of Litvinenko’s murder? What do people of Moscow think of their President being a murderer?

People of Moscow do not believe the story, said I. Putin kills nobody, at least since he became President. Litvinenko was a very minor figure, an FSB (Russian FBI) operative dealing with organised crime in a provincial city, until his defection. He was not likely to have access to any of Putin’s dark secrets, provided they exist. His accusations were previously vented, and none of the accusers have yet succumbed. For this reason, the Russians do not take the British allegations seriously.

Thank you, that will be all, the radio anchor person hastily stopped me. Would you know of a Hebrew-speaking person in Moscow with a different point of view? Of somebody who is sure Putin bumped him off?..

I will never become a successful foreign journalist, alas. I always say and write what I think and what I see, independently of what the editors want. In the long gone 1990, during my previous stint in Moscow, I was asked whether Jewish pogroms are coming anytime soon. In my reports, I denied that, though my writing brethren from the Newsweek and the Times duly filed storm warnings. I did not observe anything of this sort. The only danger for a Jew in Russia in 1990 was in over-consumption, as that was the time when all the Jewish oligarchs came to prominence.

Alas, such observation was not conductive to a good career in Russia reporting. Successful foreign journalists in Moscow were always doomsayers, like the infamous Luke Harding who reported of the bloody KGB rule and mafia state, and he has been promoted to the very top of his profession. But I’d rather stick to truth, in the interests of my readers.

Coming back to Litvinenko, the Russians are not in the world league for political assassinations. President Obama kills more political enemies by his drones in a month than the Russians do in their lifetime. Israel i leaders lead the league: they kill every political figure that does not take their orders. Perhaps you remember Khaled Mashaal assassination attempt in 1997 that ended with a huge fiasco? Mossad agents posing as Canadian tourists sprayed poison into his ear, in the Shakespearean fashion, but were caught red-handed. In 2004, they allegedly poisoned Yasser Arafat by the same radioactive substance Litvinenko was supposedly killed with.

For this reason, some people in the Russian-Jewish circles subscribed killing of Litvinenko to his erstwhile patron, the demonic billionaire Mr Berezovsky. He had the reasons, and he had the means, as he had first class access to Mossad killing tools.

Still, no British judge ever attempted to censure an Israel i Prime Minister for an assassination, or for kidnapping, like when Mordechai Vanunu was kidnapped under orders of Mr Shimon Peres.

Anyway Mr Litvinenko’s ghost does not disturb the Muscovites’ beauty sleep: he was not a figure people were aware of, even when he was alive.

Syrian War

The Syrian war is going well. So many things could go wrong, but meanwhile the Russian army is happy, and relations with the Syrians are next to perfect. The army is happy because they have an opportunity to use all their bright new toys. The spirit of the expeditionary force is high. The Syrian climate is much better than central Russia; there are many pretty Syrian girls who are friendly with Russian pilots and marines. Latakia is peaceful; restaurants are open. They even plan to bring the famed Russian circus to cheer the troops. Damascus is peaceful, too. In central Damascus you are lulled into a false feeling of security. You may forget about the war but for intermittent sounds of explosions from far away.

The real warfare is concentrated around the Azaz corridor, a narrow strip of land connecting Turkey to the rebel forces in Aleppo. Though it has been narrowed down to four miles in some places, the Syrian [government] Army can’t take it, despite the Russian aerial support. For the success of the whole operation, it is paramount to seize the corridor and cut the supply lines, but there is a heavy political flak and military difficulties.

At the last Lavrov-Kerry meeting, the American State Secretary six times implored his Russian counterpart to keep hands off the Azaz corridor. The Americans do not want to see Russian victory; besides, the Turks threaten to invade if the corridor is blocked. The Kurds could help the Army cut the corridor, but they do not rush to enter such a bloody and dangerous confrontation. They prefer to sit tight and wait for somebody else to do the job.

The Kurds are afraid of the Turks just across the border and do not want to upset them too much. They do not feel they have much to gain from President Assad’s victory. Syrian Christians told me the Kurds go into their territory and shoot at the Daesh forces, thus causing Daesh’s ferocious retort to the Christians. This is the sectarian reality of Syria, where only the Syrian Army fights for the whole country.

The threats and requests would not stay the advance of the Army, but taking the Azaz corridor is a formidable task anyway. The rebels are dug in; the Islamists use suicide bombers to stem the army offensive. They created deeply entrenched defensive lines and the Russian-Syrian coalition forces advance very slowly, if at all.

The Russians say that the Syrian soldiers are tired, and they do not want to fight hard. The Syrian Mukhabarat (Intelligence Services), a very important independent player, believe that Russia and Iran are committed to preserving Syria, so let them fight. This attitude seeps into the Syrian army. They, like the Kurds, prefer to sit tight and wait. Young men in danger of being drafted prefer to go to Germany or Sweden – this is the first war in history where such an option exists.

In some places the Russian specnaz (airborne, special troops and marines) dislodged the rebels, took their positions and transferred them to the Syrian Army, but the army failed to hold the positions and retreated at the first enemy shelling.

An Iranian brigade made a try and suffered very heavy losses. Some Iranian units were decimated, and since then the Iranians prefer to act as military advisers. They still have many casualties, including high-ranking ones. Iran spends some ten billion dollar a year on Syrian war, according to some sources.

The Russian ground forces are estimated at some two thousand soldiers and officers; they are needed for the defense of the Latakia area. It seems that the Russians and Iranians would have to bring more troops to win the war, but meanwhile it is not going to happen.

The Russian bombing campaign has been successful in one way: it convinced many rebel units to sue for peace. Before the bombs, they were all against any dealing with Assad government; now, they are for settling the conflict peacefully. As I wrote in my previous reports, the real purpose of Russian aerial operations is to force a peaceful solution on the rebels. Well, on some rebels, as the Daesh and an-Nusra appear quite immune to persuasion.

The Russians and the Americans do not fight Daesh too much, as if they are afraid to destroy the force they used to justify their involvement. The Syrian army attempts to advance in Palmyra were repelled by Daesh. The Daesh counteroffensive in Deir al Zour has been accompanied by a mass slaughter of civilians; the army stopped it but could not advance. So the political solution seems to be imperative for conclusion of the war.

Dealing with the armed opposition goes on two levels: local and international. Locally, Russian commissars meet with local rebel commanders and try to convince them to switch sides. Internationally, Russian diplomats argue with their counterparts from the US, Germany, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia about the agenda and personalities for the forthcoming conference.

I have met with a Russian representative who concluded his tour of duty meeting the rebel commanders. He told me that the rebels trust Bashar Assad but do not trust his officers and intelligence agents. There is much bad blood between the rebels and the Army officers. The rebels ask for Russian intermediaries and even for Russian officers to accompany them. Otherwise, they say, Assad forces will renege on promises. They often ask for money to change their allegiance. It seems that (aside from the Islamist fanatics) the rebels look for a way out of the war.

On the international level, there is hard bargaining between Russia and the rest. Moscow is a hub for negotiations: all Middle Eastern rulers and European high-ranking diplomats visited Moscow recently to discuss Syria.

Among them, there was the Emir of Qatar, who was very polite and gentle with the Russian president. He promised to attend to Russian interests in Syria. Putin presented him a fine falcon, but did not give in on his support of Assad.

There were more rumours of Russians demanding that Assad retire. These rumours usually appear in Russian opposition newspapers. From what I learned from Russian high-ranking personalities, these are just rumours created to saw distrust between the Russians and the Syrians. Russia stands by Assad, at least until the Syrian people will elect another ruler.

The conference on Syria was supposed to get together on January 25; at writing of these lines, it did not convene yet. It is not clear who will come. The Turks object to the Kurdish presence, Saudis reject some Moscow-approved persons, the US basically supports the Saudi list.

The greatest chance for peace lies in exhaustion. The Syrians are tired of war, and the Russian involvement convinced the rebels they can not win. Now they are trying to make a deal, but this is also a time-consuming operation.

However, until now the Russians have no reason to regret their decision to save Bashar Assad. Syria is more fun than the Eastern Ukraine, and the climate is better.

Israel Shamir is based in Moscow and can be reached at israel

This article was first published at The Unz Review

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