“Inclusion isn’t really a thing in Russia,” says Israel-born Sasha between gulps of Evraiskaia Vodka. Religious practice was once a punishable offence in Moscow. But here, in a palatial apartment above Prospekt Mira, traditional symbols and Hebrew calendars accessorise kitchen cabinets. It’s a Friday night in December and we have gathered at Moishe House, a young people’s religious organisation in Moscow, to welcome the Jewish Sabbath. Two dozen young adults squeeze around a small table to bless the wine. They sing mournful melodies of spiritual praise late into the night.
The neighbourhood of Marina Roscha lies 3km to the northwest of the city centre. On Obraztsova Street, a man wearing a white dress shirt and long solitary curls in front of his ears walks slowly with his young daughter. They pass a kosher grocery store where, days earlier, neighbours rushed to make their purchases before sundown. The aisles are filled with Israeli snacks and traditional Jewish foods. A flyer near the door lists Shabbat times in Russian. Across the street, menorah-like designs punctuate the high metal fence that surrounds the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Centre.
The new Jewish Museum occupies the restored Bakhmetevsky Bus Garage. The 8,500-square-metre space is a landmark of the avant-garde 1920s. Designed by artist Konstantin Melnikov and structural engineer Vladimir Shukhov in 1926, the angled parallelogram building went from blueprint to structure in just one year. Vaulted ceilings and clean architectural angles echo an early Soviet mantra: ever higher, comrades, toward the radiant future. Melnikov and Shukhov even designed the interior lighting to resemble slanted rays of sunshine.
The Bakhmetevsky Bus Garage. Photograph: Alexis Lerner
In the 1990s, a fire left the garage decrepit and dysfunctional. Following mass restoration efforts it re-opened in 2008, initially to house the Garage Centre for Contemporary Culture. And then in 2012, thanks to generous funding from oligarchs like Roman Abramovich and Viktor Vekselberg, from Jewish organisations like FEOR and Chabad Lubavitch — even with the support President Vladimir Putin himself - a site that had once represented another aspect of Soviet state control became home to the world’s largest Jewish museum.
“[Marina Roscha] could easily have been lifted from the pages of a Platonov novel with the Russian literary cliché that trains never bring anything good”
The space is state of the art. Through holograms, interactive projections, and a 4D cinema, the visitor connects intimately with the human emotions of Russia’s tumultuous history. Touch the candlesticks to see an 18th-century Shabbat dinner table come to life. Witness a Torah passage illustrated on the page. Watch as the walls of your Odessa cafe burst into flames. A pogrom can strike at any time, booms the exhibit. There is no warning and no escape. An unadorned room and wrap-around screen make the Second World War and Holocaust era feel cold and endless. Inside of a concrete post-war apartment building, a hologram of an older woman stands by a stove, humming the sad tune of Avinu Malkeinu, a traditional Jewish prayer. The eeriness of her song serves as a commentary on lost Jewish identity during the Soviet era.
Inside the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Centre
Marina Roscha, the neighbourhood that houses the Jewish Museum, is unique. Thanks largely to a cross-cutting railroad, it sits relatively central but geographically isolated from the rest of Moscow. “It feels far away from Moscow although it’s only 15 minutes from Pushkin Square, says Rebecca Johnston, an American who was based in Moscow. “No matter how new, everything there feels ages old. It could easily have been lifted from the pages of a Platonov novel with the Russian literary cliché that trains never bring anything good.” A Moscow émigré laughed upon hearing that Marina Roscha had become the “Jewish neighbourhood” of Moscow. It used to be an incredibly impoverished and mafia-ridden slum, she explained. “I suppose that makes it kind of like Brooklyn.”
While Moscow uses this museum as an impressive apology to the Jewish people for past treatment, cases of Russian intolerance prevail. Whether political intolerance for outspoken groups like Pussy Riot, intolerance for sexual orientation, or ethnic intolerance for the many Central Asian migrants working throughout the city, Putin’s Russia has a long way to go before it practices equal treatment of all its people. Just this week, the Anti-Defamation League published its global public opinion survey, revealing that roughly one-third of the Russian population harbours anti-Semitic attitudes. The Jewish Museum includes a Tolerance Centre dedicated to changing that situation. The centre routinely screens a collection of hard-hitting short films about intolerance in Russia. After visiting the museum and viewing a film or two, participants are encouraged to answer multiple-choice questions on topics such as: the appropriate way to fight violence, how to react to betrayal, and how to identify a hero. The system then offers personalised pointers on how to become more tolerant toward other cultures and ways of thinking. Perhaps the Russian Federation’s leadership might consider a visit.