«Jewish Observer»
September 2002
5763 Tishrei

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Natalia Yukhneva is a doctor of historic sciences, leading specialist of the Saint-Petersburg Museum of anthropology and ethnography ("Kunstkamera"), author of many scientific works on ethnography of Russian Jewry. At present her new book - album "Jews in Petersburg" from a series "Northern capital on old post-cards" - is about to come out.

- When did you take to the Jewish theme in ethnography? Was it, at all, possible to work on this theme in the Soviet times?

- My keenness on this theme was caused by the tragic fate of Jews in the wartime. I began unbiasedly writing about the Jewish life after I had become aware of both everyday and state anti-Semitism's existing in the country. I decided to oppose this. It is even funny to recall today how many people asked me, astonishingly, one and the same question, "Why are you interested in the history of Jews?" Should I had taken to studying a rare African tribe they would have considered this more natural... Back in 1970's I understood perfectly well that an important role of Jews in the Russian history is purposely silenced. And I, probably, a bit arrogantly decided to return Jews to our home history. Naturally, I don't mean a real history; Jews are inseparably linked to it, but a written one. To publish something on the Jewish theme in those years was very difficult, almost impossible. I was dealing then with a multinational Petersburg and, in particular, among other national groups, with Jews, published articles. In 1984 I published a monograph on the ethnic structure of city's population. It included a separate chapter on Jews.

Since 1987 our institute is publishing small collections of materials of scientific conferences "Ethnography of Saint-Petersburg - Leningrad". They included several articles of different authors on the history of Petersburg's Jewry. But the problems of current Jewish life were forcibly neglected. I once intended to include into the second issue of the collection a small note on the way they mark a day of Holocaust victims' memory in the Jewish cemetery. The note was due to be published in the heading "Leningrad today: facts of city national cultural life". This heading also contained news of the Tatar cultural initiatives, modern Veps's, the Yakut national group. That was in 1988. Despite all my efforts the institute board forbade to publish this note being apprehensive to excess.

- Tell, please, about your participation in an independent Jewish movement in the years of perestroika.

- Already prior to perestroika I took part in the work of the underground Jewish historical seminar chaired by Mikhail Beizer. Today, Mikhail is an Israeli historian, lecturer at the Jerusalem University, author of the monograph on the history of Leningrad Jewry in the period between two wars. But then, in mid-1980's, he was a "refusenik", worked as a programmer, tried to unite around himself those busy restoring the history of their nation... One of my institute's colleagues brought me to him. In 1984 I invited Beizer to the meeting of Geographic society where I was to deliver a report on the Prague Jewish museum at the section "Museum in the open air". Very many "refuseniks" attended the meeting. But KGB forbade this lecture. Before the very beginning the administration informed me the light had unexpectedly gone off. That was still daytime, so I replied I would make a report without slides. Yet, I was not allowed to do it. In that situation Mikhail Chlenov, another reader, and I came out with small emotional speeches with regards to the failed reports. KGB, as it seemed, tried too hard - if they had allowed the report there would have been much less anxiety. The forbidden report, naturally, became an event attracting attention of the city scientific circles. After this the director of the institute invited me to his cabinet and said, "Natalia Vasiljevna, you are said to have intended to come out in the Geographic society with an offer on creating a Jewish museum". I replied everything was confused there - the Jewish museum already existed in Prague, and I just wanted to tell about it. I heard in response, "How can you dare to interfere into the affairs of another state?" It was clear KGB had sanctioned the talk... They again got interested in me in 1986 after my speech in the Jewish cemetery at a mourning meeting on the Day of Catastrophe. Two KGB officers came to my work and held an "educational" talk with me: they told me I was doing wrong things. To be candid, I should say they behaved themselves and only mildly reproved me. They also recommended I stop communicating with Beizer since "our archive materials will depart God knows where". Aftermath of this talk became obvious rather soon: I was forbidden to go abroad... When I held annual readings on ethnography of Petersburg - Leningrad several readers from Beizer's seminar delivered lectures at our institute. Part of the reports was successfully published. In 1988 the "samizdat" "Leningrad Jewish almanac" published my report "On modern anti-Semitism" I came out with at scientific readings in our institute. Perestroika was in full swing in the country but even a liberal "Ogonyok" did not dare to publish this report. Only a Tallin journal "Raduga" ventured to do this late that year... In 1988-1989 I took part in the work of several initiative groups on legalizing a Jewish life in Leningrad and Moscow. In December 1989 I attended the first Congress of Jewish communities and organizations of the USSR where, finally, the first Jewish legal independent all-Union structure - Vaad - was founded. I was a member of Council of Vaad, a council member of the society of Jewish culture created in Leningrad. Later Galina Starovoitova invited me to Moscow to the meeting of Interregional deputy's group for discussing national issues. As an expert in anti-Semitism I was later invited to the Supreme Soviet of RSFSR. I dispatched my report there but was not present at the debates, as I had left for Israel to take part in a scientific conference... Till now I am happy to recall those years, sincere enthusiasm of Jewish activists of an early perestroika. They wrote, made speeches and visited other cities absolutely disinterestedly.

- Your colleague, sociologist Rosalina Ryvkina asserts in her "Jews in post-Soviet Russia - who are they?" (Moscow, 1996) that "there are no grounds to speak of Russia's Jewry as of a national cultural community in the strict sense of this notion". In her other works she even declares that "in early XXI century there will be no Jews left in Russia". But already the beginning of XXI century is out-of-doors, and you give an interview to the Jewish magazine which editors and readers are chiefly Russian Jews... How will you comment on such prognoses?

- Of course, I have read the book by Ryvkina, moreover, I have a published article on it. I am critical of this study and of those conclusions you have mentioned. On the one hand, Ryvkina writes Jews retain national mentality, their national awareness, on the other - they, somehow, do not represent a national cultural community. We observe here an obvious contradiction. Ryvkina's exaggerated estimate of the level of assimilation is the result, in my opinion, of a methodical mistake. She included in her sample many children from mixed marriages - one third of the polled. Ryvkina didn't notice this and gives no comments. Though, it would be interesting to analyze the course of assimilation in two groups - among children from mononational and mixed marriages... Assimilation, its tempo and mechanisms are a serious ethnographic problem. It demands thorough studying, not hasty conclusions.

To be continued
Interview by Lev Aizenshtat
"Nation of Book in the world of books"
Saint Petersburg

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