My flight landed at Moscow Domodedovo Airport Thursday, as the sun was beginning to set–a pale, winter sunset, pinkish on the horizon beyond flat white fields and black woods fringing the airstrip. Jets with exotic names like Dubai Airways and Transaero in Cyrillic script standing on the snow. It’s the first time in my travels that I’ve landed in a country openly at odds with the USA, but I get through passport control and customs without a blink.
Boris and Kirril, my hosts, meet me and we battle our way to the hotel through two hours of Moscow rush-hour traffic, which is overabundant despite the economic downturn of the past year brought on by plummeting oil prices and sanctions against Russia’s policy toward Ukraine. They settle me into the hotel to recoup my lost sleep from the overnight flight. It’s a Best Western and we joke about that before parting. The plan for the next day is to visit Moscow’s Central Synagogue near Red Square, and then Red Square itself.
When we drive into the center of the city the next day, we battle traffic again. It’s car-packed and dreary until we reach the center of the city, where the streets are wider and the buildings are beautiful. Kirril takes a quick detour around Lubyanka Square, site of the former KGB headquarters with its notorious underground prison. (It still houses Russia’s intelligence services, under a different name.) Kirril’s grandfather, Vladimir Polonskiy, was a high official under Stalin, First Secretary of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan, who fell out of favor, as did so many officials of that era, and was imprisoned in Lubyanka in 1937, where he was executed by firing squad at the age of 44. Kirril sends me a photo of his grandfather in a small group with Stalin on what looks like a picnic.
Vladimir’s fall probably didn’t anything to do with his Jewish ethnicity. His fate was shared by countless officials of the Stalinist era, whether Jewish or not. Still, the visit to the central synagogue was a happier note. With stories of attacks on synagogues and Jewish institutions coming in every few days, I was struck by the relaxed security at the synagogue. As we approached, a couple of Jews in kippas were casually conversing on the sidewalk. There was a quick bag check and we went right in, free to explore the synagogue, read the inscriptions on the walls, the nameplates on the pews, and the Hebrew text embroidered on the curtain of the ark, “This is the gate of the Lord, the righteous shall enter in” (Psalm 118:20). We even take a few photos.
After we leave, Kirril and Boris tell me that Russia no longer has the highest rate of Aliyah in the world. It’s been surpassed by France, Belgium, and Ukraine. The Russian Empire was the seedbed of the Zionist movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and was also the home of early Messianic Jewish expressions in the same period. The Soviets ended all that, but Jewish life is back in Russia, including a small Messianic contingent, which I’ll check out tomorrow. So, although I always like to see a healthy rate of immigration to Israel, I find myself cheering for Russian Jewry to maintain a hold in this land that is so rich in our history and a spirit of perseverance.
We also walk through Red Square and the GUM shopping mall before going back to the hotel, but I’ll settle for some pictures and let you Google the rest.