Washington, Feb. 28 (RFE/RL) - Several prominent American scholars, together with human rights activists and eyewitnesses from Russia say anti-semitism in Russia is spreading and threatens to become worse.
More than half a dozen witnesses reached this conclusion in testimony Tuesday before a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee. The International Relations subcommittee was inquiring into the worldwide persecution of Jews but most of the proceedings centered on Russia.
Congressman Christopher Smith (R-New Jersey), subcommittee chairman, said the situation of Jews in the former Soviet Union is particularly important because, as he put it "the story could still end badly."
He says the year in which ultra-nationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky begins a campaign for Russia's presidency is not the year in which Americans should cease efforts on behalf of Russian Jewry.
"We must avoid slamming the door too soon," he said in a reference to a U.S.congressional proposal to restrict immigration and repeal amendments giving preferential treatment to persecuted Jews.
Peter Stavrakis from the Washington-based Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies said "Russian society and politics are moving decisively away from the West," and that "the coercive practices of the old Russia are returning."
He says agents of the Russian Federal Security Service, one of the successor organizations to the old KGB, visited most of the people he interviewed during a recent trip to the Republic of Karelia, and Russian scholars that study at the Kennan Institute are now worried about the consequences of having an affiliation with the West.
Stavrakis says "these individuals are overlooked heroes of Russia's reforms, as they have placed their professional and personal future in jeopardy for the opportunity to acquire new knowledge through contact with the West."
Paul Goble, a former U.S. State Department specialist on Soviet nationalities, says the two main reasons for intensifying anti-semitism in Russia are "the worsening economic situation throughout the region that is leading to a search for scapegoats," and "an increasing number of politicians who see anti-semitism as a useful tool to advance their causes."
He says in Russia and other countries of the region, governments do not exert the same controls they did three years ago and often are unable to enforce the laws. Goble says local officials are often implicated in anti-semitism and there's little the central authorities can do.
He says interethnic and what he calls "interconfessional hostlities" in general, are on the rise because of the deep economic recession in the country and a tendency to look for a scapegoat to blame.
Goble says "the inheritance of Soviet-sponsored ethnicity leads many people in the region to blame others...for their problems."
Because anti-semitism is now so widespread, Goble says many politicians in Russia, and elsewhere in the region, are exploiting it to take power.
He points out that "the openly anti-semitic Zhirinovsky" heads Russia's second largest political party, and the largest party -- the Communists -- has many members who played the anti-semitic card in the past.
A former member of the Russian Duma, Alla Gerber, told the subcommittee that she used to get anti-semitic leaflets in her mail box in parliament.
She said, "anti-semitic publications are openly distributed throughout the country, including the State Duma," and delivered free of charge to government offices, factories and universities.
Other witnesses from Russia appearing before the committee included Sergei Sirotkin, deputy chairman of Yeltsin's Human Rights Comission. He says he has tendered his resignation but it has not yet been formally accepted.
Speaking as a private person, Sirotkin said he believes "the problem of nationalist extremism and anti-semitism will remain acute in Russia in the near future."
He and other witnesses told the subcommittee of experiences they had suffered or seen directly in recent weeks and months.
The National Conference on Soviet Jewry, a nationwide american coalition of Jewish organizations and local communities, said in a statement to the House subcommittee that "the security and wellbeing of (former) Soviet Jewry is inextricably linked with the successful democratization of Russia and the other successor states."
The statement says that state-sponsored anti-semitism has been largely eliminated but a negative development is "an upsurge in popular anti-Semitism visible and vocal at the street level, in segments of the press, academia, the intelligentsia and amongst ultra-nationalist extremists."