On 23 January, former Channel One host, State Duma Deputy Speaker Pyotr Tolstoy, in commenting on the protests against transferring St. Isaac’s Cathedral to the Russian Orthodox Church, referred to the opponents of the actions by Petersburg authorities as the descendants of people who had “sprung from the Pale of Settlement.” An audio transcript of what he said was published by Ekho Moskvy.
“I want to add from myself, personally, that while observing the protests around the handing over of St. Isaac’s, I can’t help but notice an amazing paradox: the people who are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those who destroyed our churches, having sprung from there . . . from the Pale of Settlement holding a revolver in ’17, today their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, working in various other very respected places—radio stations, legislative assemblies—are carrying on the cause of their grandfathers and great-grandfathers,” Tolstoy said.
The Pale of Settlement is the territory in the Russian Empire beyond whose boundaries Jews were forbidden to live. The deputy speaker’s statement and the mention of these words of Tolstoy’s has been perceived by many as anti-Semitic. For example, this was how Tolstoy’s statement was characterized by Borukh Gorin, press secretary of the Russian Federation of Jewish Communities.
Gorin went on to say: “If a person ascribes views to an ethnic group exclusively on the basis of its ethnicity, then, of course, these are not simply generalizations but ethnic generalizations, in this case, Judeo-phobia,” Gorin added.
Rabbi Aleksandr Boroda, president of the Russian Federation of Jewish Communities, noted that these kinds of statements by the parliament’s deputy speaker undermine interethnic peace in the country and increase tension.
Boris Vishnevsky, a deputy in the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly, called Tolstoy’s statements “cannibalistic” and proposed that for this he should be stripped not only of his post as deputy speaker but also of his seat in the Assembly.
Mikhail Fedotov, chair of the Russian Presidential Council on Human Rights, also condemned the deputy speaker. “Anti-Semitism is as shameful a disease as syphilis; in decent society, you’re supposed to hide it, not set it out on view,” he emphasized.
Pyotr Tolstoy himself sees nothing insulting in his words. In a post on Facebook, he wrote that “only people with a sick imagination who do not know their country’s history can see ‘signs of anti-Semitism’ in what I said.” He believes that this attention to what he said can be explained by the fact that “someone” wants very much “to bring another line of schism into the public discussion, this time along ethnic lines.”
Translation, Marian Schwartz