Many Americans believes Russian President Vladimir Putin is an evil man. Rabbi Berel Lazar disagrees. Rabbi Lazar, who has been the chief rabbi of Russia since 2000, enjoys a close relationship with Putin and believes the Russian president is not only “very good for the Jews,” but also “very good for Russia…and the rest of the world.”
To learn more about his background, his friendship with Putin, and other matters, The Jewish Press recently spoke with him.
The Jewish Press: You were born in Italy and went to yeshiva in America. How did you wind up in Russia?
“Mei’Hashem mitzadei gever konenu.” Hashem runs the world and decides where somebody should be today, tomorrow, and in a week.
When I was a child I never dreamt I’d be a shaliach in Russia. But I always had a strong feeling for Russian Jews and was in awe of their mesirus nefesh. It all started when I was a yeshiva student and went to teach refuseniks and activists in the underground in the Soviet Union. It was really an eye-opener for me to see these special Jews who went beyond the letter of the law to keep the smallest chumra.
So after I got married, we had offers to go on shlichus to different places and we were lucky that the [Lubavitcher] Rebbe chose Russia as the place we should go to. The rest is history.
How many Jews live in Russia today?
That’s the million-dollar question. Nobody really knows. The Lubavitcher Rebbe said there are millions and millions of Jews and many of them sadly don’t even know that they’re Jewish.
A non-governmental statistics company, the Levada-Center, claims there are a million and a half Jews in Russia plus more in other republics that were part of the Soviet Union like Ukraine, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Moldova, etc. So altogether there are probably two-and-a-half to three million Jews.
I’ve heard that some non-Jews claim Jewish ancestry in Russia. Is that true? If so, why?
It’s very much in style and cool to be Jewish in Russia today. In the past, people were afraid to let others know they were Jewish; today, they are very proud – and many non-Jews want to be part of it too. So we have to figure out who’s telling the truth and who’s fantasizing. We actually have a special department in the chief rabbinate that deals with this issue. One of the methods we use is DNA testing.
In Europe, anti-Semitism is rearing its ugly head but that doesn’t seem to be the case in Russia. How do you explain that?
Twenty-five years ago, there were many of cases of anti-Semitism in Russia, and many politicians used anti-Semitic rhetoric during election campaigns. But today, thanks to President Putin – who said that he’s going to have zero tolerance for anti-Semitism – there is less and less of it.
Everybody knows you enjoy a very close relationship President Putin. How did that come about?
The beginning was really Siyata D’Shmaya. In the years of Gorbachev and Yeltsin, there were many anti-Semitic attacks but we were unsuccessful in getting the government to do anything about it or [even securing a meeting].
Two weeks after Putin was appointed prime minister, though, we asked for a meeting and he said yes. During that meeting, he said his goal was to support the Jewish community in fighting anti-Semitism and that he would do everything possible to make Jews feel comfortable in Russia. From that time on he has been a really close friend and has done a lot to bring about the changes that we see today.
Is it true that he donated his salary to the construction of Russia’s Jewish museum, which opened in 2012?
Not only did he contribute, it was actually his idea to build the museum. He was visiting Israel, and after an emotional visit to Yad Vashem, he turned to me and he said, “We have to think of building a Jewish museum.”
I told him we had plans in that direction, so he said, “Very good. Next time we meet let’s discuss it.”
At the next meeting, he told me that although he could not help build the entire museum, he could contribute. It is the only time that we know of that he contributed his own salary for a project – which is a very strong sign of how much he supports the museum. He has already visited it four or five times.
It’s been reported that you were the one who made the connection between Putin and Netanyahu. Is that true?
The first time they met it was in our shul. In 2000, we planned a big Chanukah celebration and we invited President Putin to come. A few days later, we heard that Netanyahu was visiting Moscow – he wasn’t prime minister at the time – so we invited him as well.
After the event was over, they asked if they could have a quiet place to chat and of course I offered them my office. They sat there for an hour and a half and that was the first time they met.
Since then, Prime Minister Netanyahu has visited Russia many times. Just in the past year, he has been to Russia five times. I think they really respect each other, and there are many [issues that concern both of them], especially with what’s going on with Syria.
You mentioned Syria: To the world it looks like Russia is supporting Syria against Israel. Is that a fair characterization?
According to Russia, the alternative to not having Assad running Syria is having terrorist organizations run the country, and that would be much worse for Israel.
I think Israel recognizes the biggest problem in Syria is Iranian involvement and this has been an ongoing discussion between President Putin and Prime Minister Netanyahu.
I know that Israel and Russia are in touch on a daily basis regarding what’s going on [in Syria] militarily.
Why do you think Putin and Netanyahu get along so well?
I think there’s a strong trust between the two of them. I think they both respect strong leaders and strong leadership, and I think there’s a lot in common between Russia and Israel. Europe and the United States are putting sanctions on Russia, but Israel is actually working with Russia on many different projects.
I’ll just add one more point. A regular Russian sees what Israel is doing to defend itself against the Palestinians and strongly believes that the security of Israel comes first. We see all these BDS and other attacks against Israel in Europe and the States, but Russia fully supports Israel, and I think that has brought a lot of positive feelings between the two countries.
As you know, Russia is in the news every single day here in America with many seeing it as a dangerous country with a dangerous leader. What would you say to them in response?
We actually live in Russia and see what Russia is like. I think there’s a paranoia about Russia in the West.
Is there anything America should be worried about? Possibly. I really have no idea because it’s not my expertise. But one thing I know for sure. Russia wants to get along with the United States and is looking for a better relationship. The feeling in Russia is that America is out to get the Russians, and no matter what they do, they’re going to be considered the “evil Russian empire.”
I really think Russia has changed and I think the same goes for the president. President Putin is looking to create an understanding and cooperation with the United States and sadly I think the media or the Democratic party or the establishment are in the way.
Whenever I meet with U.S. officials, I tell them that I think it’s time to stop using the stick and start using the carrot. You can’t force Russia to do what you want by using the stick. But if you find common language, they’re going to be happy to work together.
Have you ever heard Putin comment on Trump? Do you think Trump has the right approach vis-à-vis Russia?
I think Putin trusts and respects Trump. But I think Trump, at least today, is not capable of bringing a change in the relationship. I think whenever he tries to move a drop closer to Russia he gets attacked from all sides – so much so that he’s probably even scared to take any steps in that direction. It’s very sad.
Is there any conversation you’ve had with President Putin that you’re allowed to recount?
Right before Rosh Hashanah this year, I met with the president, and as I was leaving, he suddenly stopped me and said, “Rebbe, maybe you can answer something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. Can you tell me what the secret of the Jewish people is?
“There have been many strong and large nations with rich cultures, but they completely disappeared, while the Jewish people, which is so small and didn’t have a country most of the time, has [survived] for so many centuries.”
Since he’d been thinking about this question for a long time, I figured he probably had his own thoughts, so I said, “Mr. President, please first give me your answer and then I’ll give you mine.”
He said, “I believe nations disappear because their foundations are not based on eternal values. The Jewish people’s foundation is something eternal, the Torah. It’s because of these eternal values that the people is going to be eternal. A nation that is founded – not on language, culture, or an army – but on eternal values is going to last for eternity.”
Under Putin, both Russia and Russian Jews have experienced something of a rejuvenation – with flourishing yeshivos, shuls, community centers, restaurants, and even local Chalav Yisrael milk – but matters were different when you first moved to Russia in 1990. I’ve heard that family friends who visited you back then would bring you tuna fish due to the shortage of food.
Yes, tuna fish was really a big luxury. In the beginning, there were days when we were hungry just for a piece of bread. There was really nothing. There was no food, no money, no Jews. Everybody was afraid of coming out as a Jew. Whoever was Jewish was leaving for Israel. And things didn’t look too positive.
But we knew that if the [Lubavitcher] Rebbe sent us, there had to be a potential for change and things would get better. And today we see this miracle in front of our eyes, and we are thankful for the Rebbe’s vision and for giving us the zechus to be part of this.
How did your wife adjust to life in Russia in the beginning?
It wasn’t easy. For me, it actually wasn’t so bad. You’re out at work, in shul, busy meeting people, etc. But for my wife who was sitting at home thinking about how she was going to feed her children and take care of them without proper doctors, it was a different story.
How do you live in an apartment filled with rats and mice? How do you serve a meal for 40 people when there’s no food in the stores? How do you adjust without friends and without knowing the language? It wasn’t easy. I’ll never forget these early years.
But we always knew there was no going back – that we were going to stick it out and, G-d willing, things were going to change and we were going to bring about that change.
And today, I think if you paid us a million dollars there’s no place in the world that we would move to outside of Russia. We love the place, we love the Jews there, and we think it’s the greatest place in the world.