ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — In the basement of one of Europe’s largest synagogues, 100 Jews are waiting to meet local film star Boris Smolkin.
The crowd applauds enthusiastically as the 66-year-old funnyman, who gave his voice to Master Yoda in the Russian-language version of the “Star Wars” trilogy, sucks daintily on an electronic cigarette during a public interview about growing up Jewish and chasing stardom in communist Leningrad, as this city was called in Soviet times.
“As far as career moves go, advertising one’s Jewishness was not a very good strategy back then,” Smolkin said in the Nov. 30 appearance at the Choral Synagogue, drawing chuckles from Jews who remember the virulent anti-Semitism of Soviet governments.
“It’s incomparable with how Jews are now free to practice their faith and tradition in Russia, like we are meeting right now,” Smolkin added.
Despite fears from a government increasingly intolerant of dissent and supportive of illiberal legislation, Jewish cultural life is in full flower in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The evaporation of institutionalized anti-Semitism has triggered a broad regeneration, with dozens of star-studded events hosted every month in Moscow and St. Petersburg — a far cry from the more religion-oriented Jewish revival promoted elsewhere by emissaries of the Chabad movement.
At the Choral Synagogue’s restaurant, casually dressed Jews in their 30s, some carrying guitars, meet up before going out to a pub or to someone’s home. At one table, a few younger patrons nibble on vegetables as they sit in a semicircle around a laptop playing a video of a TED lecture on drone robotics.
“This a low-key and intellectual community that follows a northern paradigm,” said Roman Kogan, executive director of Limmud FSU, which organizes Jewish learning conferences for Russian speakers. “The flashiness and materialism that are associated with Moscow are less valued here.”
In both cities, Jewish cultural life has evolved way past the basic formula of lectures and community-building events that is helping Jews come out of the shadows across the former Soviet Union.
In addition to Moscow’s celebrity-laden Limmud conference, which this year drew a record 1,200 participants, the capital this year hosted Russia’s first Miss Jewish Star beauty pageant, which was held at the five-star Metropol Hotel for a crowd of 400 spectators.
And in June, dozens of Jewish celebrities and oligarchs gathered at a Moscow studio to record a three-hour rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in an attempt to break the Guinness Book of World Records entry for longest officially released song.
Russia’s Jews appear little affected by what Human Rights Watch this year called a “crackdown on civil society and government critics.” Russia’s SOVA watchdog on extremism meanwhile fingered government policy for “a notable surge in ethnic violence” in 2013, when 21 people died and 178 were injured as a result of racist violence, much of it directed at Muslims and immigrants from central Asia.
“A shift in the government policies inspired the ultra-right to utilize more open and aggressive tactics against migrants,” SOVA wrote.
The problem worsened after Moscow annexed Crimea from Ukraine in March, triggering both surging nationalism and Western sanctions. Coupled with plummeting oil prices, the move sent the Russian economy into free fall and caused the ruble to lose 45 percent of its worth against the dollar.
Though they worry about the economy, many members of both Russia’s Jewish elite and the community’s rank-and-file feel largely insulated from rising xenophobia, a situation that many attribute to the government’s strong stance against anti-Semitism. Putin repeatedly invoked the need to combat Ukrainian anti-Semitism to justify Russian intervention there.
“Despite hearing a lot about xenophobia, despite seeing it on the street even, we ourselves don’t feel it,” said Raya Gutin, a Jewish ophthalmologist who attended the Smolkin event. “I am the only Jewish doctor in my department and, for the first time in a long time, I’m not in the least apprehensive about identifying myself as such.”
If anything, Russian Jews see the worsening economic situation as the greater threat to their well-being. Aliyah officials in the region speak of a compounding effect in which the economic crisis combines with growing disquiet over the Kremlin’s politics to tip the scales in favor of emigration.
“If the financial crisis continues for even another few months, I may leave for Israel regardless of politics just to make a living,” said Ilya Agron, a software engineer and businessman from Moscow.
Howard Flower, the St. Petersburg-based director of aliyah for the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, said the enormity of the economic hit on the country has not yet been fully absorbed and he is bracing for the fallout once it does.
“Once this sinks in,” Fowler said, “I expect we’ll see a major increase in aliyah from here.”
Even Smolkin, who in 1999 received the Russian state’s highest honor for artistic excellence, seems to have his eye on the exit.
“Tell me,” he said in jest, “if you have interesting gigs for me abroad.”