Are Russian-Speaking Jews Less Worthy? No Way!

by Arkadijus Vinokuras

You have to have malice to call me a Russophobe. I am addressing several Russian-speaking Jews of Vilnius who are spreading this lie. I have the highest regard for all kinds of Russian art. By personal invitation of legendary clown Yuri Nikulin I performed in his circus in Moscow. Also at the invitation of legendary Taganka Theater director Yuri Lubimov, I performed in his presentation of Master and Margarita at Sweden’s Royal Dramatic Theater. Several of my best poems were written in Russian. Incidentally, I write poetry in Lithuanian, Russian, Swedish, English and Spanish.

So what horrible thing has happened to begin this malicious campaign against my person? Is it that I have foundation to say the Vilnius Jewish Community elections for chairman initiated by Simonas Gurevičius have nothing in common with democratic principles? If that’s it, no one has even attempted to rebut my arguments. So what else is left? To turn my well-founded criticism into the accusation that I am insulting the Russian-speaking Jews of Vilnius. That’s just cheap. But if anyone does feel falsely “suspected” of something, I sincerely apologize.

The accusation is without basis. When the fascists of any European state murdered our parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, they didn’t care a bit which language they were speaking. After the 1917 Revolution around 100,000 Jews were murdered in pogroms. When Lithuanian Jews were deported to the gulag by order of Josef Stalin, it didn’t matter what language they spoke. Before and after World War II Russian Jews were subject to “cleansing” and tens of thousands of Russian Jews died in the gulags.

This is my statement which brought on the storm: “There is another problem, that of mentality, afflicting the Vilnius Jewish Community. For instance, the majority of those 260 VJC members who assembled speak Russian exclusively among themselves. They only watch Russian television channels. The don’t understand terms such as democratic elections and democratic election and democratic election campaign procedures.” I am clearly talking only about 260 people and I stress “the majority of them.” In other words, my statement has nothing to do with the 2,000 other Jews in Vilnius, many of whom are Russian speakers. On what considerations was my statement based? I wanted to explain what I believed were the reasons the democratic rules of the game were violated and ignored. After all, 260 people voted in elections which clearly violated the principles of fair elections and the community was divided. The easiest thing to do was to reject my arguments at a primitive and emotional level, shouting “Gospodin Vinokuras padsadnaya utka Faini.” And also by accusing me of belittling Russian-speaking Jews.

I could also shout back emotionally: Whose proxy is Simonas Gurevičius? He doesn’t seem to have the funds to organize such expensive elections. So if the elections were democratic and transparent, he should provide a full accounting of financing. I want to know who supported Simonas Gurevičius financially, how much he got, from whom and whether taxes were paid. Transparent elections are impossible without public financial accounting. That’s the law in Lithuania. But the arrogant rejoinder to this critique I made is, “We are the community, so we can make up our own rules.” I say the rules of communities in Lithuania must reflect the laws of democratic Lithuania, otherwise they are not binding and lead to internal conflict and speculation. My intelligent opponents, capable of thinking without getting emotional, know this full well. They accept my proposal of changing the regulations as a good idea. I would love to communicate with them in any language. My opponents are not my enemies.

But that kind of realization is still quite rare. We saw that in the disinformation campaign directed against Faina Kukliansky attempting to scandalize the adoption of a one institution, one vote principle in elections for the chair of the Lithuanian Jewish Community. But the votes of the corporate entities who make up the LJC are defined in the Lithuanian law on associations. All other earlier agreements which violated that law are illegal. Is that painful? Yes, it was to me at first sight. But at the UN Lithuania and the USA have one vote each. Lithuania and China have one vote each. In the EU Lithuania and all other member-states have one vote apiece, regardless of population.

So why the attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of people who don’t understand the situation? They retort: “I don’t want Faina because she behaves disrespectfully. She is this, she is that.” Others are accusing Kukliansky of corruption. My response to those criticizing the LJC chairwoman’s behavior: yes, without a doubt, sober behavior and respect is required in dealing with members of the community. And to those accusing the LJC chairwoman of corruption, I would suggest they immediately address their concerns to the prosecutor’s office. No problem. And no one has banned public criticism of actions by the chairwoman, nor of the accountability of the board of directors and the executive board. Stop trying to place the blame on one person alone. This is a typical expression of the Soviet slave mentality: “Vot pridot noviy tsar i vso budet khorosho.” Really? Without changing the outdated regulations of the Vilnius Jewish Community?

I want to return to the topic of Russian and Lithuanian-speaking Jews. I am a Kaunas Jew and here I am again only speaking for myself. My family roots in Lithuania go back 200 years. All the people who surround me, from my grandparents to about 40 relatives in Israel, speak Yiddish and Lithuanian. Kaunas is a very specific Lithuanian city with Jewish roots. Even the great maestro of the schlager, Daniel Dolski, learned Lithuanian in Kaunas before the war over the course of several months and sang in the language so well that his songs are still sung today.

Our greatest artists, teachers, scenographers, musicians, singers, historians, businesspeople and doctors live in Vilnius. All of them speak Lithuanian and Russian fluently. No one ever thought to tell me to speak with them only in Russian. When I see that it is easier for someone to communicate in Russian, I speak Russian happily. But when a Russian-speaking Jew, not a Chinese or English or Russian person, tells me there is more democracy in Russia than in Lithuania and almost grabs me by the collar? Or the complaint that I write in Lithuanian on a facebook discussion begun in Russian (although all the correspondents know this language and English as well). They even accuse me of barbaric behavior, even though Jews in all countries speak the language of their country. It doesn’t matter if they’re French Jews or Swedish Jews.

When I arrived in Israel in 1975 my ulpan teacher said: “anakhnu ba’aretz midabrim rak ivrit” (here we only speak Hebrew). My opinion is this: it is barbaric and rude to demand Russian or another language be used when the national language is freely spoken. If someone suggested I speak Yiddish or Hebrew, I’d understand, but no, the pressure is to speak Russian. In the end we decided to speak English, because they didn’t know Spanish.

We live in Lithuania. Our children at the Sholem Aleichem school aren’t being taught Lithuanian for no reason. Our grandparents fought and died for Lithuania between 1918 and 1920. My grandfather is buried in Lithuania, my father’s mother murdered by Lithuanian fascists and my aunt are buried in Lithuania. I don’t know where their graves are. This is our painful lot, that of Jews, living in Diaspora. It wasn’t only Lithuanian fascists who murdered Jews. They murdered throughout Europe. But after the fall of the Berlin Wall Jews are travelling to Germany en masse to live, and what? If they don’t learn German, they won’t get decent work.

So how does the idea arise in someone’s head that one doesn’t need to learn Lithuanian in Lithuania, or that, knowing the language, one should avoid using it? Why do they think they can push Russian on you when you’re neither Russian nor Polish? Let’s remember we are Lithuanian citizens, and if someone can’t stand the language of the country, even though they know it well and live in Lithuania, Russia is right next door, and if it’s better for someone there, why put yourself through all this suffering? Everyone has freedom of choice. What our contemporary younger generations needs least of all is to close themselves up in a Jewish ghetto. Knowledge of languages is the key to a more fulfilling world (I speak seven languages and can get by in another three).

So that’s it about the attempt to maliciously accuse me of wanting to demean the Russian-speaking Jews of Vilnius. It’s not true and they don’t deserve any such thing. A Jew remains a Jew regardless of language. We would do better to talk about real democracy, and how to enshrine that concept in the regulations of the Vilnius Jewish Community. That’s a big challenge requiring some serious Jewish brains. I suggest we not get mired in emotions stirred up by primitive demagogues incapable of self-criticism. When emotions get the upper hand, intelligence takes a holiday. We are, after all, whether we speak Russian or Lithuanian, Litvak Jews, Jews of Lithuania. And that’s what our community is called: the Lithuanian Jewish (Litvak) Community We shouldn’t forget it.

Full blog post in Lithuanian here.