The Putin Anomaly.
In modern European history, Vladimir Putin is the first classically reactionary and even revanchist leader who is not, or at least not yet, an anti-Semite.
Vladimir Putin in a January 27, 2005 ceremony at Auschwitz, Poland, to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the camp by the Soviet Red Army. (Photo by Julian Herbert/Getty Images).
In his edifying and heartfelt essay, “The Prospect for Russia’s Jews,” Maxim Shrayer raises a number of issues that invite further reflection. I’ll touch on a couple of them.
A few years back, at what I was told was a “very closed” meeting in the Kremlin, an unusually expansive Vladimir Putin regaled the gathering with an elaborate anekdot (a joke). The gist, as related to me by a reliable first-hand source, and shorn here of its colorful verbal trimmings, was this: another Great Flood is about to engulf the earth, extinguishing the human race. It will happen within a month, and cannot be forestalled or prevented. To soften the blow, the clergy of every religious denomination have allowed the faithful to break all taboos. Muslims are given leave to drink alcohol, Catholics to indulge every deadly sin from sloth and gluttony to wrath and lust. Rabbis, by contrast, are urging their congregants: “We have a whole month. Jews! We must learn to live under water!”
If it seems to you that this anekdot was meant not just to amuse but to express respect and even admiration for the last-named group, you’re quite correct. Several of the Russian Jewish interlocutors in Shrayer’s report stress the importance of this same element in Vladimir Putin’s personal makeup. The Russian president may be almost certain to pick a fight with NATO on the alliance’s eastern flank, but, rather miraculously, he is also the first classically reactionary and even revanchist leader in modern European history who is not an anti-Semite. Putin’s Russia is the best non-revolutionary Russia that Jews have known since the 1770s, when Catherine the Great acquired them in the first partition of Poland.
“Non-revolutionary” is an important qualifier. Jews, or at least some Jews, have done well in revolutions and their immediate aftermaths. In the 1650s, Oliver Cromwell re-admitted Jews to England, from which they had been expelled almost four centuries earlier. In 1791, the French National Assembly granted Jews equal rights. And Russia’s four revolutions fit this pattern as well.
In 1905, the twenty-six-year-old Lev Davidovich Trotsky (né Bronshteyn) became the chairman of the St. Petersburg soviet, or council of workers’ delegates. The February 1917 revolution abolished the Pale of Settlement, and the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries, whose leaderships were overwhelmingly Jewish, had by far more deputies in local soviets and in the short-lived Constituent Assembly than did any other party. And, of course, the early Bolshevik Russia, like its contemporary Weimar Germany, saw an advancement of Jews to positions of political influence in numbers unprecedented in modern European history.
Then there was Russia’s fourth, most recent revolution (some would say counter-revolution), the one that began in 1987 and ran until 1999. In this period, which saw the undoing of Soviet Communism, Jews or half-Jews served as first deputy prime minister (Boris Nemtsov and Anatoly Chubais), president’s chief of staff (Chubais again), and minister of finance and personal economic adviser to the president (Alexander Livshits). Yegor Gaidar, economic reformer and acting prime minister under Boris Yeltsin, had Jewish grandmothers on both his father’s and his mother’s side.
Needless to add, these facts did not escape the Russian left. (European anti-Semitism began to migrate from right to left toward the end of the 1960s, and post-Soviet Russia followed suit.) Surfacing most prominently among supporters of Gennady Zyuganov, first secretary of the Communist party of the Russian Federation and Boris Yeltsin’s main rival in the 1996 presidential election, anti-Semitism has remained a staple of leftist propaganda ever since.
That Putin has refrained from tapping into this rich store of ammunition is all the more impressive given that condemnation of the “cursed” 1990s has otherwise been a key component in the stock narrative that undergirds the legitimacy of his own regime. A leading target in this litany has been the period’s splurge of so-called “bandit privatization,” among the most prominent beneficiaries of which were a number of Jews or half-Jews including the billionaires Roman Abramovich, Boris Berezovsky, Mikhail Fridman, Vladimir Gusinsky, and Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
In the early 2000’s, as I entered Moscow’s Jewish Community Center on my way to breakfast with Rabbi Berel Lazar (who figures importantly in Shrayer’s essay), I came upon the plaques commemorating the philanthropic contributions of these men to Jewish causes. Abramovich’s, at least two-feet square in size, dwarfed them all. Given Rabbi Lazar’s well-earned reputation for political astuteness, I can’t help wondering whether the names of Gusinsky and Berezovsky, outspoken opponents and specific targets of Vladimir Putin, are still there today. Abramovich, who is still in Putin’s favor, has nothing to worry about.
What makes Putin so happy an anomaly? What has kept him from the well-trodden path of European anti-Semitism? Was it, as some say, the Orthodox Jewish neighbors who often sheltered and fed him in the crummy communal apartment building where he grew up? Was it his favorite Jewish high-school teacher of German? According to Moscow and Jerusalem lore, after a teary reunion with this teacher on his 2005 visit to Israel, the first such visit ever by a Soviet or Russian head of state, Putin instructed an aide: “Buy her an apartment in Jerusalem!” (And so it was done.) Or was it his judo coach, Anatoly Rakhlin, for whose funeral, Putin, already president, traveled to St. Petersburg and after the interment abandoned his bodyguards and limo for a lone meditative stroll? Or Boris and Arkady Rotenberg, fellow judo enthusiasts and sparring partners whom he made billionaires?
Even at critical moments like the lightning annexation of Crimea and the ongoing war on Ukraine, with the country submerged in a deafening din of patriotic mobilization (or “mobilized patriotism,” in the coinage of the leading Russian political sociologist Igor Kliamkin), the inevitable accompanying rise in populist anti-Semitic sentiment has effectively been nipped in the bud. In the absence of an “official directive” (goszakaz), as Yuri Kanner, president of the Russian Jewish Congress, noted last October, anti-Semitic propaganda has been withering on the vine.
The results can be traced in surveys of public opinion. In a 2015 survey by the Anti-Defamation League, Putin’s Russia was found not only to be the least anti-Semitic of all East European countries but also to register less anti-Semitism than Italy, Spain, and Argentina (not to mention Greece). Last October, a Levada Center poll, commissioned for the international conference in Moscow that Shrayer attended and reports on, found only between 8 and 16 percent of Russians harboring “hard” anti-Semitic feelings.
Could Judeophobia nevertheless be unleashed? If, following several more years of an anemic economy, or after an embarrassing military defeat, Putin should find his back against the wall, might he yet turn to the old, tried and true formula for rallying national support? Almost certainly. Nor would the fact that there are at most 200,000 “self-identified” Jews in a nation of 140 million present a problem. In 1968, the Communist regime in Poland, where there were at most 30,000 Jews in a population of 32 million, managed to whip up a frenzy against the “Zionist Fifth Column.”
This past January, Petr Tolstoy, deputy chair of the Duma, mused openly about the “descendants of those who in 1917 jumped with guns out of the Pale of Settlement and proceeded to destroy our [Russian Orthodox] churches.” A trial balloon? A preemptive move by a shrewd courtier seeking later recognition as the first to have nudged the ship of state in the “right” direction?
So, to rehearse Maxim Shrayer’s overarching question: why are Jews staying?
Adjacent funerary niches in a wall at Moscow’s New Donskoy crematorium, next to the 16th-century cemetery of the Donskoy monastery, hold the ashes of my grandfather Lazar Abramovich Berenshteyn and my grandmother Rozaliya Efimovna Atlas. Son of a “merchant of the first [highest] guild” and thus privileged to reside outside the Pale of Settlement, Grandpa was educated in Heidelberg and New York, where he earned a medical degree. He then returned to Russia, ostensibly because his mother and sisters refused to leave but largely, I suspect, because he himself was loath to abandon the motherland. He volunteered in World War I, and received a commission as a praporshchik (the equivalent of a warrant officer) in the Tsar’s army. (Jewish doctors, dentists, or pharmacists were not required to convert in order to qualify for a commission.) He was injured and decorated.
Grandma Roza, among the first women to be admitted to the department of medicine at Kharkov University, graduated in 1914 and worked as a physician for 40 years. A popular song as I was growing up went like this: “Love Russia, love Russia! For the Russian heart, there is no better land.” Whenever she heard it on the radio or later on TV, Grandma would add, loudly and emphatically, “And for the Jewish heart as well!”
What would my grandparents say about their grandson who left Moscow for New York at the age of twenty-three with a suitcase and $100? Would they understand, let alone approve, his reasons and intentions? Frankly, I’m not sure, although I have my doubts.
Would it have helped their grandson plead his defense to note that his head was full of samizdat like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, which had disabused him of any hope that the motherland would ever become a normal state? Or that, in addition to the $100 and the suitcase, he was taking with him the complete works of Pushkin, Lermontov, Chekhov, and Gogol? Or that in subsequent years, outside his main vocation, he would write essays about Pushkin’s “Elegy” and Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, translate passages from Osip Mandelstam and Fyodor Tyutchev to serve as epigraphs to his books and articles, and weave Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Platonov, Mandelstam and Yuri Dombrovsky, into his policy analyses?
Or that, on the other side of the ledger, and despite having graduated with a “red diploma” (the equivalent of a summa cum laude), their grandson had received orders to work above the Arctic Circle in Yakutia, today the Sakha Republic—Eurasia’s coldest region, where winter temperatures average negative-30 degrees Fahrenheit—while his ethnic-Russian classmates, including those with a C- average, won jobs in Moscow?
Again, I’m not sure. As Maxim Shrayer knows and well chronicles, we Russian Jews are an odd and complicated lot.
In the early days of commercial flight, when a transatlantic plane trip could take you 20 hours, there wasn’t much to do but read, nap, and eat. There was no in-flight movie to stare at and try to lip read because you refused to purchase headphones. You could look at the clouds, I guess.
To keep passengers entertained, airlines copied other modes of transportation—trains, boats—and turned to food. It was not uncommon, in the post-World War II era, to be served a multi-course meal on a flight. A fancy one, too. We’re talking carved roast beef, lobster, prime rib. Real glassware, not those plastic cups filled with those ice cubes that have inexplicable holes that we get now. Airlines were falling all over each other trying to offer special dining experiences to passengers.
“The other entertainment was, of course, to drink,” says Guillaume de Syon, a professor of history at Albright College who has researched the history of airline food. “These propeller aircraft were not always very reliable. If [passengers] knew they’d have to land in Reykjavik to have the engine checked, they’d be happy because they knew they could stock up on booze. It was not uncommon to have passengers come off transatlantic flights completely drunk.”
As flying got cheaper and easier, these airborne boozehounds soon found themselves with more company in the cabin, and airlines found themselves with more mouths to feed, making that level of fine dining unsustainable.
“It gets more expensive,” de Syon says, “flight technology gets better, it gets faster, and you can carry more people. You no longer have the same economies of scale. If you’re trying to feed 60 passengers, it’s one thing, but the moment you’re trying to feed four flights of 150, you have yourself a huge logistical problem.”
And thus, in 1952, economy class was born, and with it came a decline in the quality of the food for the masses. While at first airlines tried to compete by continuing to offer special food in economy class, the International Air Transport Association quickly stepped in to regulate what could be offered, to the point of reprimanding an airline for providing an extra roll of bread.
First class fliers, then as now, could still get an elaborate meal, since they paid for the privilege. But their enjoyment of their food likely declined with the advancement of airplane technology as well. Though old-timey flights were slower and bumpier, when it comes to dining, they had one distinct advantage: The planes weren’t pressurized.
Today’s planes, which reach altitudes of 35,000 feet or more, are pressurized so you only feel like you’re about 6,000 to 8,000 feet above sea level. This helps keep you, you know, breathing at those high altitudes, but it also numbs your taste buds, making food taste blander. Older aircraft didn’t fly as high, meaning the prime cuts of steak being served on those early flights tasted more like they would have on the ground.
Other aspects of the airplane environment make it less than gastronomically ideal—cabin humidity is typically lower than 20 percent (as opposed to the 30 percent or more that is normal in homes), which can dry out your nose, weakening your sense of smell. And smell is inextricably linked to taste. (The dryness of the cabin makes you thirsty, too.) Also, the air in the cabin is recycled about every two to three minutes. That, plus air conditioning, can dry up and cool down food very quickly, according to de Syon.
Sauce protects the meat from sawdusting out when reheated and served in the bone-dry airplane cabin.
French chef Raymond Oliver is credited with devising this strategy for modern airline food. In 1973, French airline Union de Transports Aériens asked Oliver to design its menu, and he suggested three staple items: beef bourguignon, coq au vin, and veal in a cream sauce. All of these dishes are covered in sauce, which protects the meat from sawdusting out when reheated and served in the bone-dry environment of an airplane cabin.
This “wetter is better” theory is still largely adhered to, even for meatless dishes. So that takes care of moisture, but the question remains: How best to flavor food so that we might have a chance of tasting it with our papery, lifeless plane-tongues?
Luckily, the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany is on it. They have a “simulated aircraft cabin environment” that is literally the front half of an old Airbus plunked into a low-pressure chamber. Scientists can manipulate the air pressure, humidity, temperature, noise, vibration, and lighting, to make being in the simulator feel just like cruising up in the wild blue yonder, as long as you don’t look out the window.
In a paper published in 2010, the institute had a handful of subjects take a simulated flight and tested their ability to smell and taste different flavors. Researchers dissolved the compounds in water, in increasing concentrations, to test how much of a smell or flavor would need to be present before subjects could detect it.
Salty and sweet tastes are significantly impaired in the air. Bitter and umami tastes survive better.
The study found that “at low pressure the detection and recognition thresholds of…odorants are higher,” confirming that sense of smell is impaired in the air. When it came to flavors, the threshold for detecting salty and sweet tastes was much higher in low pressure, while bitter tastes weren’t noticeably affected. The threshold for monosodium glutamate (MSG), the additive commonly associated with “the fifth taste,” umami (or savoriness), was only slightly higher.
This lends credence to the (only anecdotal) observation that many people seem to order tomato juice (or tomato juice’s boozy cousin, the Bloody Mary) on planes. Tomatoes are chock-full of umami, and if their flavor is strong where others’ are weak, it stands to reason that they’d be more appealing above the clouds than beneath them.
There’s some evidence that planes’ white noise, as well as their low pressure, could contribute to reduced taste. Research has shown that white noise in a non-airplane context suppresses some basic tastes, and considering that, as well as research that shows umami is the most intense of the five tastes, a recent op-ed published in Flavour suggests researching whether umami is a taste that withstands the white noise effect.
The Fraunhofer study recommends that airline caterers spice food more to make it more palatable—curries tend to survive well, and also follow the cardinal rule of wetness. But adding more salt and sugar to meals to make up for the muting of taste buds in the air would make the meals less healthy, and they’re already not great for you.
Dr. Charles Platkin, a lecturer at Hunter College and the City University of New York School of Public Health does an annual analysis of the calorie count of foods offered on major airlines. His 2013 analysis found that the average number of calories per food item was 360, down from 388 in 2012, and while some airlines are moving toward healthier food, he says that overall, progress has been slow.
“One of their missions is to increase the tastiness of the food,” Platkin says. “But there are so many things popping up [on land] that are focusing on healthy foods, and the airlines generally aren’t doing that.”
He also notes that making the food taste better could reflect negatively on the airlines in another way.
“Many scientists have found that food directly impacts mood,” he says. “When somebody is in the air traveling and they eat a lot of fat and sugar, it affects them in a negative way.” Feeling bad after a salt and sugar-heavy meal, even if it’s delicious, could make passengers grumpier about the entire travel experience.
But though food has been an essential part of that experience since passengers first packed themselves into flying metal tubes to get from one place to another, it’s becoming increasingly less so. As complimentary meal service disappears from more flights, on anything shorter than an international flight, you’re likely to have to make do with peanuts or a sandwich bought for extra off a cart. De Syon says airlines are shifting from food-as-entertainment to, well, entertainment-as-entertainment. Hence the personalized movie screens on the back of the seat in front of you, and the push to install Wi-Fi on more planes.
While installing these technologies might be a large initial investment, once they’re there, passengers are placated with no further effort required. Considering the cost and logistical issues involved in serving food on planes—food the passengers might not even like much of the time—de Syon says it makes sense.
“Passengers are happier spending two hours watching a movie than getting bored of the food, or getting too drunk,” he says. “A big problem airlines encounter is that the drunkenness often leads to air rage. [Better to] have them focus on a screen or enjoy themselves on the Internet.”