In a grim reminder of the Soviet Union’s history of scapegoating Jews, Russia has arrested and jailed a Jewish theater director for justifying terrorism.
The director, Evgenia Berkovich — who also is a writer, poet, and activist — was put into pretrial detention at Lefortovo Prison in Moscow. That’s the infamous place where the KGB, the Soviet secret police, used to interrogate — or to be straightforward, to torture — the people they called enemies of the state — Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Raoul Wallenberg — and the ones Russian Jews called prisoners of Zion, including Natan Sharansky.
It’s where the Russians are holding the American Jewish journalist Evan Gershkovich, a fully accredited Wall Street Journal reporter who’s unconvincingly charged with espionage.
And now Zhenya Berkovich — Zhenya’s the nickname for Evgenia, and it’s what people call her — has joined Mr. Gershkovich.
Alexander Smukler of Montclair is outraged, and he feels compelled to make sure that the world in general and American Jews in particular hear Ms. Berkovich’s story, and remember it as they remember Mr. Gershkovich’s. He hopes that the community will fight to have both of them released.
Ms. Berkovich’s story is particularly personal to Mr. Smukler because it intersects with his own. Mr. Smukler was active in the Soviet Jewry movement in the 1980s; he was born in 1960, so he is a little younger than the movement’s standard-bearers, but he fought for freedom for Jews in Russia until 1991, when he immigrated to the United States. Then he maintained the fight from North America, where he became president of the National Coalition Supporting
Eurasian Jewry. (The group was formerly and perhaps still is better known as the National Conference on Soviet Jewry.)
“Zhenya is the granddaughter of the famous Russian writer and human rights activist Nina Katerly, who was very much involved in human rights activism back in the early 1980s through the 1990s,” Mr. Smukler said. “She was famous not only because of her books, but because of her famous pamphlet and article called ‘The Way to Monuments.’
“I am trying to raise my voice for freedom for Zhenya because I have to pay tribute to her grandmother, who played an enormous role in the fight against Russian fascism and antisemitism.”
He described the situation in the Soviet Union in 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev became president. “There was a very strong group inside the Politburo, led by Grigory Romanov and Yegor Ligachyov, who both were hardline antisemites and anti-Zionists.”
Back then, Mr. Smukler said, a rapidly growing nationalist Russian movement called Pamyat promoted the worldview that we see in Russia now — the country as the source of pure Christian Slavic masculine spiritual values, battling the decadent West — with a huge lode of antisemitism running through its bedrock. “They wanted to restore Russia’s great empire, based on traditional Russian and monarchist values, and they blamed Jews for everything that happened after Gorbachev took power.” The stores were empty, people were hungry, the country was in chaos — and it was all because of the Jews.
“Romanov had a Russian political journalist,
Alexander Romanenko, write a book called ‘Class Essence of Zionism’ in 1986, and that book became a textbook for every history department in every university in the country,” Mr. Smukler said. “It became the bible for the Communist leaders in different regions of the Soviet Union.
“Briefly, the book was dedicated to the idea of describing Zionism as a world conspiracy. It said that Judaism is an antihuman religion, and that Jews use their enormous underground network to lead the world.”
Then Mr. Smukler “received an order from the underground steering committee, which I was on, to contact distinguished leaders of the human rights movement and Russian dissidents who would appeal to Gorbachev and the Politburo to explain how dangerous Pamyat was.”
That committee was called Mashka and led by Yuli Kosharovsky, he added.
“Our opinion was that it was very dangerous for Jews, but fighting against modern antisemitism was not a Jewish issue. The Jewish leaders who were struggling for freedom for immigration said that this is a Russian problem. It’s Gorbachev’s problem.
“We could not raise our voices against Pamyat, because that would strengthen Pamyat.” If Jews were to deny Pamyat’s accusations publicly, in the circular logic of such hate groups that would just prove the charges’ accuracy, because it showed that the Jews had the power to control the media to spread their lies.
“Pamyat said that we were using Masonic lodges to try to take over Russia.” In other words, the group deployed every antisemitic trope its members could disinter.
“So the steering committee decided that we would not raise our voices. The Russian intelligentsia and human rights movements and leadership would have to do it instead.
“So I contacted a group of major leaders from different organizations, Russian non-Jews. A lot of them published strong statements and articles, which we publicized through every possible source of samizdat.”
Enter Nina Katerly. She was one of a number of people in different fields, including the journalist Sergei Losev and the mathematician and human rights activist Svetlana Gannushkina, who wrote strongly worded, well-argued briefs against antisemitism. “The strong statements appealed to the Politburo to stop disseminating antizionism, which is a form of modern antisemitism.
“She wrote the strongest pamphlet,” Mr. Smukler said. “It became a very important tool to help educate people. It opened the eyes of Gorbachev and his allies to understanding how dangerous it is to allow a movement based on Romanenko’s book to flourish in the time of perestroika.
“Years later, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev himself told me that Nina’s pamphlet entirely changed his view of the anti-Zionist propaganda that was being disseminated.”
Mr. Smukler recommends a book about Gorbachev, Pamyat, and the fight against antisemitism during the Soviet Union’s last years. It’s called “Russian Antisemitism, Pamyat, and the Demonology of Zionism,” a 1995 work by his friend and mentor Bill Korey. “There are a lot of details about this very complicated operation there,” he said. “It explains how we changed Gorbachev’s mind about antisemitism, stopping the propaganda, and turning him toward Israel.”
So if Ms. Katerly’s pamphlet came from a non-Jew, how does she come to have a Jewish granddaughter?
There’s another story there.
Nina Farfel was the daughter of Solomon Farfel, “a very famous Soviet journalist who spent five years on the front lines against the Nazis and after that wrote stories and books about the Second World War,” Mr. Smukler said.
“Her mother was a Russian-Polish aristocrat, from an aristocratic family.
“Nina never positioned herself as Jewish, because she came from a mixed family. Even now, at 88, she is the quintessence of the Russian intelligentsia in Saint Petersburg, the crème de la crème of Russian intelligentsia.”
Nina’s daughter, Yelena Efros, married a Jewish man. “She’s a well-known journalist and theater critic.” And yes, without belaboring the obvious, “Efros is a very Jewish name,” Mr. Smukler said. “Yelena married someone Jewish.” He lives in Israel now, Mr. Smukler added.
When Nina Katerly’s granddaughter, Elena Efros’ daughter, Evgenia Berkovich, was arrested, “the FSB went to Nina’s apartment in Saint Petersburg and searched it,” Mr. Smukler said. “They also searched Yelena’s apartment.”
Ms. Berkovich and the play’s author, Svetlana Petriichuk, both were arrested and are being held in pretrial detention; when Ms. Berkovich went to a preliminary hearing, she was handcuffed.
The play for which the two women were arrested, “Finist, the Brave Falcon,” was staged in 2020. It’s the story of women whose hours on the internet took them down the rabbit holes that eventually caused them to leave home for Syria, where they converted to Islam, married ISIS fighters and bore their children. The play examined why the women made those choices. “It’s a very feminist play,” Mr. Smukler said. “It’s a deeply psychological play about the transitions of women who are looking for love, no matter where, and how they were misled by the internet, by ISIS propaganda.
“It has nothing to do with terrorism. It is not glorifying Muslim fundamentalism. But in May 2023, both women were arrested.”
Although he’s not sure if the reports he’s found online are correct, “the internet say that Zhenya is divorced and raising two kids; some posts say that they have special needs.” He has no idea if those reports are accurate, though, Mr. Smukler caveated.
What he does know for sure is that “I want to raise my voice and call for action,” he said. “I call for the world’s Jewish leadership to stand up for her and demand her freedom.
“I am paying tribute to her grandmother and to her incredible family, because of what her grandmother and her family did for us and for Israel.”
It’s important to remember that “Zhenya is the second Jew who was arrested in Russia during the last month,” Mr. Smukler said.
The more he thinks about Evan Gershkovich, the “more I think about the parallels to the Dreyfus case,” he said. “The innocent journalist soon will be sentenced for espionage, and we’ll witness those similarities very soon.”
Alfred Dreyfus, a 35-year-old French army officer, who was Jewish, was convicted of treason in 1894 and sent to the apparently aptly named Devil’s Island, where he was meant to spend the rest of life, but after five years he was retried, and again he was found guilty.
But Dreyfus was not guilty, as the court should have known all along had it not been blinded by antisemitism. By 1896 there was real proof not only of his innocence but of the actual villain’s guilt. Still, he was imprisoned until 1899 and not exonerated until 1906.
Dreyfus’s situation roiled French society; most famously, the writer Emile Zola wrote an open letter, J’accuse, blasting French society for allowing this miscarriage of justice to continue.
Mr. Smukler thinks that just as Alfred Dreyfus eventually was released from prison, where he had been jailed for something he did not do, so too will the equally innocent Evan Gershkovich eventually go free.
“But Zhenya’s case is less well-known,” he said. He feels a responsibility to her because of her grandmother’s importance to the Jewish community across the former Soviet Union. “Not many people understand how important Nina Katerly’s role was in stopping anti-Zionist propaganda,” he said.
“It’s an example of how journalism can change the world.”
“Zhenya obviously is not a prisoner of Zion,” he continued. “She was not arrested for her Zionist ideas. But she is Jewish.” Given that, and “with such a background, I am calling on the Jewish leadership around the world to stand up for Zhenya Berkovich.”