Asher Krichevsky is the Chief Rabbi of the Omsk Region. He studied in Israel and New York, and did his practical training in Argentina before being ordained in Germany. At the invitation of the Omsk region’s Jewish community, he was appointed by the Chief Rabbi of Russia, Berel Lazar. He is a member of the Conference of European Rabbis, the Rabbinical Council of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Russia, and the Committee of Ambassadors of the Lubavitcher Rebbe in the CIS; he is also a member of the Governor of Omsk's consultative committee on inter-ethnic and inter-confessional relations. He chose to work in Russia on the advice of his grandfather, the Honorary Israeli Consul in the Russian Federation; Siberia was his own choice, although he was offered Sochi, where, as a southerner, the climate would have suited him better. But there are more Jews in Siberia, and so more people needing his help.
In 2003, Asher Krichevsky set up a charitable foundation to help the needy, irrespective of their religion – the many who lost everything after the 2011 fire in Bryansk, for example, or the flood in the Russian Far East in 2013. And it was on his initiative that the Omsk regional authorities built a Jewish School, the dream for many years of the Or Khadash community.
Chief Rabbi Asher Krichevsky has been living in Omsk for the past 13 years.
Krichevsky is 36-years-old, and his six children were all born in the Omsk region; he jokes that he has not yet matched his elder brother Dan, the Chief Rabbi of Ufa and the Republic of Bashkortostan, who has eight children. A cultured man with a beard and a high foreign-looking hat with a hard brim, he is to be seen at all important events in the city and the region, but he does not push himself forward, particularly because he has a strong accent when he speaks Russian; his parents emigrated to Israel from the USSR, but their disenchantment with that country led them to speak only Hebrew at home. He still, however, attracts attention: in 2001, when he had just been appointed, some unknown local lads tried to beat him up, shouting 'Heil Hitler!' But Asher was not afraid and said that he would not leave Omsk while there was one Jew left in the region.
There are more Jews in Siberia, and so more people needing his help.
The deportation order
At the end of August, the Russian Federal Migration Service suddenly ordered Krichevsky to leave Russia within 15 days. No one could understand why. Krichevsky responded by bringing a case against the Service’s Regional Directorate to contest his deportation.
The first court hearing, on 1 September, granted the rabbi two weeks deferment. Journalists were excluded from the courtroom. The clerk to the court, Marina Ovcharenko, spent a long time explaining to me over the telephone that the date for the case was not yet set, and that the court had five days to decide on the date, so it would be better to ring the next week. It subsequently transpired that the hearing took place two minutes after our conversation.
The rabbi tried to establish in what way he, after 13 years in Omsk, had fallen foul of the Migration Service. Barrister Marina Khripushina complained that she could not defend the Krichevsky family as she had no idea what the charge was – the Migration Service had produced no documents to justify their decision to cancel his residence permit. Aleksandr Sokolov, representing the regional Migration Service department, offered an explanation, but in a whisper, gabbling and looking over his shoulder at the journalists. Fortunately, the judge was too busy studying some papers to listen to him. Krichevsky, it turned out, had allegedly committed four administrative offences and his wife Rachel two.
The 'Super Kosher' shop
Back in early June, the local press had reported that the Chief Rabbi had been caught engaging in unlawful trade in the ‘Super Kosher’ shop housed in the synagogue building. Wine was, apparently, being sold without the necessary licence, and sausage past its sell-by date. The inspection had been carried out at the instigation of an anonymous informer, its findings almost instantly investigated by Rospotrebnadzor (the federal consumer rights body), and the rabbi received a fine of 2000 roubles. The papers relating to the offence were, however, sent to his old address, so he only found out about them at the same time as the deportation order. But the most surprising thing about it was that as a clergyman the rabbi had nothing to do with finance, nor was he the owner of the shop.
The next court session heard a statement by the well-known Omsk businessman Gennady Fridman, which included the following: 'I am the chairman of the Or Khadash community and the founder of the 'Super Kosher' shop. The community also has an executive director. But no charges have been brought against us; for some reason it is the rabbi who is to blame. It would have made as much sense to accuse any old passer-by.'
Fridman produced a copy of a statement made by Krichevsky during the inspection and taken down by the Rospotrebnadzor official; Krichevsky had signed it, thus apparently admitting his guilt. He explained that this was due to his insufficient knowledge of Russian law – and, especially, the Russian language. The Rospotrebnadzor document is couched in language quite unlike ordinary spoken Russian and the text is so small that neither the printed nor the handwritten text can be made out without a magnifying glass.
After his deportation order was served, the rabbi lodged two complaints with the magistrates' court, which, while it recognised that Krichevsky was not liable for prosecution, it only threw out the first charge, of breaking a technical regulation (sausage on sale past its sell-by date). The second point, relating to illegal trade in alcohol, was left in place, although there had not actually been any trade.
‘It would have made as much sense to accuse any old passer-by.’
‘Super Kosher can hardly be called a store, nor even a church shop such as exist in Orthodox churches (which for some reason are not subject to inspection)’ explained Fridman. ‘It is based on a different relationship with its customers: people do not buy, they take what they need and leave a donation.’
Aleksandr Sokolov defended Rospotrebnadzor with the passion of an officer who had witnessed an affront to a beautiful woman. 'Do you think it's normal to sell sausage that is past its sell-by date? And the Krichevskys speak excellent Russian, to judge by their bank documents!'
Sokolov’s tone changed, however, after hearing Gennady Fridman explain that the community was disturbed by the 'persecution' of the rabbi. Inter-ethic relations are, after all, a very sensitive matter. Sokolov jumped up from his seat, declaring that 'there is no anti-Semitic subtext to our actions. We stick to the letter of the law!'
Alas, it turned out that in this case there was a letter too far: Krichevsky's defence lawyer pointed out that one of the documents before the court – detailing an extra charge – bore the date 2009, whereas the court only deals with offences committed within the last three years.
Enemies of the people
It was only on 3 October, after several hearings, that the clerk to the court Marina Ovcharenko read out the verdict, which was not what the Omsk law enforcement agencies had expected to hear. The court threw out the Migration Service deportation orders for Asher and Rachel Krichevsky. But the rabbi's praising of the fairness of the Russian judicial system was spoken too soon, because on 7 October the regional court turned down Rachel's appeal against a speeding charge; even if such a charge seems unlikely, given that Rachel does not drive – she has no licence, and there was a hired driver at the wheel. Yet the mother of six is still under threat of deportation from Russia, although foreigners are not usually deported for offences of this kind.
'The Migration Service based its claims on documents from the traffic police and Rospotrebnadzor, but how is it that they were working together? ‘Or did someone inform on the Krichevskys?' wonders Igor Chernobylsky, an Or Khadash elder.
At the end of August, the Russian Federal Migration Service suddenly ordered Krichevsky to leave Russia within 15 days.
'The Chief Rabbi of Russia, Berel Lazar, is very disturbed, as he considers that the punishment is not proportionate to any offences which might have taken place,’ says Gennady Fridman. To his mind, decisions like this disturb the Jewish community and bring instability to the whole of society. ‘The Federation of Jewish Communities in Russia asked the government to involve itself in the situation as long ago as 5 September. Meanwhile, the internet is abuzz with rumours that Krichevsky is a foreign spy, a US agent, and a hardened criminal with three revolvers in his belt. What we are witnessing is a search for enemies of the people.’
‘What we are witnessing is a search for enemies of the people.’
So far, not one Omsk official has commented on the situation. Rumour has it that the governor, Viktor Nazarov, wished Asher Krichevsky a Happy New Year at Rosh Hashanah (24 September – between two court hearings), but did so quietly and without any publicity. Other rumours in Omsk suggest that the reason for the attacks on the rabbi is his friendship with influential people – Fridman, for instance, who is not only a well-known businessman but widely considered one of the richest people in Siberia, if not the richest. According to another version, Krichevsky never hid the fact that he preaches the ideas of (Lubavitch) Chabad, a Jewish religious movement known for its loyalty to the Russian government, although followers of Chabad are also said to have bankrolled the Euromaidan in Kyiv. Russian media describes the Israeli-Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoiskyi, for example, as a member of both Chabad and the global Jewish community.
It is the same old story: an external enemy is better than a friend because he can be blamed for any shortcomings or problems. And today the fires of patriotism are burning ever more brightly. 'The more patriotic an official, the better he will work; and soldiers can only progress their careers during a patriotic war,' wrote Lev Tolstoy more than a century ago, describing state-imposed patriotism as ‘the ‘last refuge of scoundrels.'
History is repeating itself. The Omsk Migration Service has had serious problems over the past few years. For one, they have been caught with their hand in the till. A former director, Vladimir Alles is now in a maximum-security prison for taking bribes; another, Aleksandr Denisov, is under investigation for shady business operations while in the service of the state. Colonel Tatyana Pivneva became head of the regional Migration Service quite recently, since when the department has not distinguished itself by either hard work or loyalty to the government. At one of the court hearings, Aleksandr Sokolov unintentionally came out with the probable real reason for the attacks on Asher Krichevsky: 'He’s been in Russia for 13 years, and hasn’t once applied for citizenship!'
I very much doubt that these attacks were ordered from the top, though hints may have been dropped. It has suddenly become the fashion for people to accuse each other of insufficient love for the Motherland, to look for State Department or Mossad intrigues in everything, and to shun hamburgers and Cola. Even as I put on an Andrei Makarevich record in the morning, I catch myself thinking that the neighbours might hear it....
Photos: (c) Natalya Yakovleva