One hundred years since the abolition of discrimination

Because of a recent attempt by the Russian Orthodox Church to seize St. Petersburg St. Isaac’s Cathedral in February 2017, many people remembered the events of a century ago. The patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church also apparently considered the centenary of the Russian revolution to be a good moment for getting the cathedral into the church’s full ownership, even hinting at some sort of indemnity for the suffering of the church and stating that “the peaceful atmosphere surrounding the return of the churches should become the symbol of harmony and mutual forgiveness”. An anecdotal illustration of this vision of “peace between the Reds and the Whites” appeared as the church procession around St. Isaac’s on February 19 was also attended by some activists wearing badges of “Krasnogvardeysky diocese” [a reference to the name of the district, which in turn refers to the Red Guards of 1917].

There is obviously no consent among the contemporaries about whether St. Isaac’s should remain a museum or should become a church. (Consent on combining the museum with some religious functions has long been reached). People are rebelling against turning St. Isaac’s into a church, the museum is trying to resist, and even the authorities are divided on this issue.

As for forgiveness, I’m afraid the situation is even more difficult. During a heated debate about the fate of the cathedral vs. museum, forgiveness was referred to at least on two occasions. First, by Duma deputy Piotr Tolstoy, who recently had to make a lot of manoeuvres because of the public reaction to his infamous statement that the revolution was made by people “who had jumped out from the Pale of Settlement” and say that “if I have hurt someone, then I’m sorry”. Then it was the infamous Duma deputy Milonov, who picked up the idea that the ancestors of some contemporary oppositional deputies had been supposedly responsible for the persecution of Christians. Further excuses of both of these State Duma deputies rang hollow, as they tried to assure everybody that they had not been referring to the Jews, but to some other people, who somehow had revolvers and arenas for feeding the ancestors of Milonov to the wild beasts. People hurt by the statements of these two elected officials may be having hard time forgiving them. And it seems that these two particular elected officials are not easily forgiving people either, as certainly they are far from reconciliation with the journalists and bloggers, whom they blame for the “wrong interpretation” of their supposedly innocent attempts to protect the church from its “enemies” (as well as from the descendants of the “enemies”).

Each of us, it would seem, has his own “family memories” about the events of bygone days and his own personal reaction to the February revolution of 1917. The main event of one hundred years ago for me is the abolition of discrimination. Even before the tsar abdicated, even before the Provisional Government was established, the first document of the revolutionary government, prepared jointly by the Interim Committee of the State Duma and the Petrograd Soviet, announced the abolition of “all class, religious and ethnic restrictions”. A little later, the abolition of state discrimination against ethnic, religious and social groups was adopted by the Provisional Government. And it was back then, in the spring of 1917, that Russian women got their rights, including “the right to vote, without the distinction of gender”.

My ancestors – although they had neither revolvers nor arenas at their disposal – acquired rights which were denied to them under monarchy. Two of my grandmothers were able to fulfill themselves in their chosen profession: one to become a lawyer, the other – a doctor. By 1917, both of them were already adult, have completed additional studies after school, but could not get the university diploma (these were not given to women before 1917), nor the possibility to work in court or state hospital (these were jobs prohibited to Jews before the revolution).

Then there were a lot of horrors – their fathers were deprived of voting rights (abolition of discrimination according to social class did not last long), there was a famine, the horrors of the civil war, the loss of the status of lawyer and the arrest of one of their sons in the 1930, superhuman work during the siege of Leningrad in the hospital – and the untimely death of both of them. During their relatively short lives (a little more than 50 years) they witnessed two world wars and a civil war, terror and hunger, the siege and the Gulag. And back in the times of their childhood and adolescence they had been victims of discrimination, humiliating inequality, discrimination in “rights and dignity”, impossibility to pursue the chosen professional path because of the “restrictions” which were cancelled only in 1917.

Some people, apparently, still dislike these “achievements of the February revolution”, when the so-called members of the so-called parliament insist that their remarks have been “misunderstood” and that they didn’t refer to the “ethnic context”. But perhaps they referred to religion? After all, the pre-revolutionary “restrictions” formally had to do not with ethnicity, but religious persuasion, and it was on religious grounds that the Pale of Settlement was organized. However for many people back then it was not a question of faith, but an issue of human dignity, the inability to renounce one’s fate and its misfortunes, the refusal to be baptized for the sake of gaining liberation from restrictions. Discrimination based on ethnic origin and religious beliefs is often so similar that the difference is simply overlooked. It is often believed that up to Hitler’s ascent to power discrimination against Jews had always been religious, and it was the Nazis who introduced “blood” (or ethnicity in other words) as the main criteria. This opinion is misguided – even at the time of the persecution of the Jews by the Spanish Inquisition, “blood” interested the persecutors the most, and even families which had professed Christianity for many generations were often denounced because they had not disclosed their Jewish ancestors and it was for this reason that they were exiled (at best).

It is obvious that the present-day anti-Semites do not particularly distinguish the religious and the ethnic “context” (as Mr. Milonov so accurately refers to it). They mix up not only a church with a museum, they can even mix up the regional parliament of the cultural capital of the country with a place of worship: those who wish to read Milonov’s fake apologies have but to see his Facebook account, where he pointed out that before becoming deputy in the State Duma, he had been “a priest in the Legislative Assembly of St. Petersburg”.

Stefania Kulaeva

First published in the blog on “Radio Liberty” website