MOSCOW -- Leaders of Russia's Jewish community have accused a top lawmaker of making anti-Semitic remarks when he criticized ongoing protests against the handover of St. Petersburg's iconic St. Isaac's Cathedral to the Russian Orthodox Church.
Fueling a dispute that emerged after local authorities announced the handover of the city-owned cathedral earlier this month, State Duma deputy speaker Pyotr Tolstoy on January 23 called the protesters descendants of the inhabitants of the Pale of Settlement, a western territory of imperial Russia where Jews were permitted to live.
The lawmaker, a great grandson of the renowned writer Lev Tolstoy, said protesters were "continuing the work" of their forebears, "who destroyed our cathedrals after jumping over from the Pale of Settlement with revolvers in 1917."
The comments appeared to echo an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory holding that Jews fomented the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, although Tolstoy has denied any such intention.
Aleksandr Borod, chairman of the Federation of Jewish Communities, demanded a firm response from the State Duma and the United Russia party Tolstoy represents. "We usually have to endure such statements from irresponsible instigators of anti-Semitic campaigns," Borod said in comments carried by Interfax.
"When we hear such things from the mouth of the deputy speaker of the State Duma at an official press conference, it directly undermines interethnic peace in the country and foments tension. The words of Mr. Tolstoy, as in all similar cases, are an old and lying anti-Semitic myth."
A St. Petersburg city councilor has said he would demand law enforcement open an investigation into possible extremism. Other Jewish leaders and bloggers, including Anton Nossik and Dmitry Aleshkovsky joined the condemnation, prompting a response from the speaker of the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, but one that stopped short of denouncing Tolstoy's comments.
Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin said it was "unacceptable and incorrect" to attack ethnicities or people, but said he saw no problem with Tolstoy's comment, Interfax reported.
Volodin said he was prepared to meet representatives of the Jewish community, but noted the speed of the reaction to Tolstoy's comments and called this "unacceptable." He added that Tolstoy had not mentioned any ethnicity in his comments and noted that convicts also lived in the Pale of Settlement and that Tolstoy may have had them -- not Jews -- in mind.
The dispute comes as observers watch closely for what interpretation of the centenary of the revolution the Kremlin and state TV networks will present.
Speaking at state news agency TASS on January 23, Tolstoy had been asked to comment on the row over the ownership of St. Petersburg's St. Isaac's Cathedral, a UNESCO heritage site visited by 3.5 million tourists annually.
The construction of St. Isaac's, the country's largest Russian Orthodox cathedral and one of the largest cathedrals in the world, began in 1818 under Tsar Aleksandr I and was completed two monarchs later under Tsar Aleksandr II in 1858.
Under the Bolsheviks, the site housed an antireligion museum. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, room was allocated in St. Isaac's for worship, but it was maintained as a popular state museum that generated tourist revenue for the city.
When St. Petersburg Governor Georgy Poltavchenko announced on January 10 that the site would be transferred to the church for a period of 49 years, public outrage ensued.
Conservationist critics believe the handover, under which the city will still be responsible for maintenance, could see the landmark fall into disrepair because fewer funds will be available. They also fear that access could be restricted at certain times.
Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky on January 23 said he approved of the handover, provided it increased access to the site for the public. Asked by Interfax where money would be generated for upkeep, Medinsky said that was Poltavchenko's responsibility.
Protesters say Poltavchenko's decision highlights how the church is amassing wealth and political influence under President Vladimir Putin, who has advocated traditional values and social conservativism as an antidote to Western liberalism and individualism.
On January 23, an activist pictured outside the cathedral called on protesters to attend a rally against the handover slated for January 28. He posed as a cleric sitting behind green sacks adorned with dollar signs, and held aloft signs saying "Don't come to the rally on January 28" and "I want even more."
The petition on the Change.Org website has been signed by just shy of 200,000 people.
Tolstoy railed against the petition at the press conference on January 23, casting it as "sofa" activism. "Unfortunately, our Facebook public, while knowing nothing, with wild speed exchanges SOS signals from one sofa to the other, believing that they are going to manage the state in this way."
Writing on Facebook after his comments, Tolstoy said the outcry showed only that people do not know their history, and that he was "extremely surprised" by accusations of anti-Semitism.
Later, on January 24, in comments to Interfax, Tolstoy blamed media that reported on the story for the scandal. "I think these headlines that came out on Ekho Moskvy and Nezavisimaya Gazeta -- this actually is anti-Semitism," he said. "I, to be honest, was really surprised.... They for some reason took this to refer to ethnicity, although I didn't mean anything of the sort."