Putin and Chief Rabbi in Medal Exchange

One of Russia’s two rival Chief Rabbis has been awarded a medal (hyperlink added):

MOSCOW, Russia – Chief Rabbi of Russia Berel Lazar was awarded with the ‘Peter the Great’ First Class Order. The diploma attached to the Order explains that the Chief Rabbi was honored with this award “considering his activities in advancing inter-ethnic and inter-religious relations, and his great contribution to the spiritual rebirth of Russia’s Jewish community and to strengthening Russian state”…

Previous figures to have been awarded this Order include the Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow and Russia, Alexiy II, UN General Secretary Kofi Annan, Russia’s first President Boris Yeltsin, Nobel Prize winner Zhores Alfyorov and the first woman astronaut Valentina Tereshkova.

So why has the award been given now? One would like to think that this shows that Putin is making a stand against the recent upsurge of anti-Semitism in the country; Failed Messiah, however, suggests a less noble motive:

Chabad’s ‘chief rabbi’ of Russia, Berel Lazar has been given a medal by Russia in an apparent quid pro quo for Chabad’s notorious medal awarded in Auschwitz to Vladimir Putin.

That occurred early this year, during a ceremony marking the liberation of the camp. That medal was awarded to Putin in recognition of the Soviet army’s role in the liberation; however, the award was only added to the ceremony at the last minute, and Poland’s chief rabbi and Israeli officials both distanced themselves from it.

On the other hand, Lazar has been a significant figure for a number of years. One profile (from the Federation of Jewish Communities in the CIS, which Lazar helped to found) notes:

When the policies of Perestroika and Glasnost were first implemented by Gorbachov in 1987 heralding the end of the Soviet era, Rabbi Lazar was among the first rabbinical students to travel to Russia to run underground yeshivot and religious classes…Today, Rabbi Lazar and the Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS oversee 62 Jewish Educational Institutions in 48 cities throughout the former Soviet Union with an aggregate enrollment exceeding 12,000 students.

However, this profile passes over the conflict with the rival chief rabbi, Adolf Shayevich, and makes a rather contentious statement:

…he has made his voice heard as an advocate for total religious freedom.

I think not. This the same man who has also said:

Reports available to us suggest that more than one million Russian citizens are members of various sects. This is a serious threat. We shouldn’t sit back and wait until something bad happens. We don’t need such sects.

And, when Jehovah’s Witnesses came under ban in Moscow, could only add that:

there are serious questions about the practice of the Jehovists in Russia.

(Shayevich matched this with an attack on ISKCON). So how does this square with Lazar’s “activities in advancing inter-ethnic and inter-religious relations”? That seems to be based on his participation in various official bodies, such as the Interreligious Council of Russia, and a Kremlim advisory group. Last year this latter grouping came together to discuss terrorism; Pravda listed the members as Patriarch Alexy II, along with

Metropolitan Andrian of the Orthodox Old Believers Church; Pandito Hambo Lama, the 25th, Damba Ayusheyev of the Buddhist community; Bishop Ezras of the Armenian Apostolic Church; Ravil Gainutdin of the Islamic Council of Mufti; Metropolit Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, head of the Roman Catholic Church in Russia; Rabbi Berl Lazar, Chief Rabbi of Russia; and Bishop Sergei Ryakhovsky, Chairman of the Russian Pentecostal Union.

It is interesting to compare Ryakhovsky with Lazar. Lazar’s dodgy election was backed by the Kremlin, since when Lazar has been continually close to Putin; various Pentecostal groups have complained about enforced membership of Ryakhovsky’s Union, while Ryakhovsky has accused critics of Putin of working for foreigners and has denounced the change of government in the Ukraine (see my blog entry here). There seems to be a lot of quid pro quo-ing going on…Back in May Interfax reported:

The head of the Moscow Helsinki group, Liudmila Alekseeva, and the director of the Slavic Legal Center, Anatoly Pchelintsev, accused Russian authorities of cooperating with selected religions and infringing upon the rights of other confessions.

“In our country there has been observed a colossal growth of intolerance and xenophobia in both the ethnic and religious areas. All religions except for those that are increasingly more joined to the state, have suffered repression,” Alekseeva said on Thursday at a press conference in Moscow.

The Interreligious Council dismissed these concerns on the grounds that the real danger came from wahabis and Satanists, and because the same human rights organisations had defended the right of non-believers to create anti-religious art.

Maybe this difficult political situation should mitigate Lazar and Ryakhovsky’s apparent toadying of Putin. But I wouldn’t think it deserves a medal.