Pyotr Tolstoy, great grandson of writer Leo Tolstoy and deputy speaker of parliament, has blamed Jews for the campaign to prevent the return of St. Petersburg’s famed St. Isaac’s Cathedral to the Russian Orthodox Church.
Russians have been embroiled for weeks in a raging controversy about a decision of the St. Petersburg Governor Georgy Poltavchenko to return the cathedral, long a public monument and popular tourist destination, to the ownership of the Russian Orthodox Church for 49 years.
At a press conference on Monday, Tolstoy shocked many Russians by making an openly antisemitic remark about the campaign not to return the church to the ROC:
“People who are the grandsons and great grandsons of those who destroyed our cathedrals, jumping out of the Pale of Settlement with a Nagan in 1917, and who are today working in various very respected places — at radio stations, in legislative assemblies, continue the cause of their grandfathers and great-grandfathers.”
The Pale of Settlement was when the tsar allowed permanent residency for Jews, who with few exceptions were barred from living elsewhere in the Russian Empire. The Nagan pistol was used by the Bolsheviks in their revolution of 1917, in which some Jews, who were the victims of pogroms under the tsars, took part and were scapegoated for the atrocities of communism in Russia, which involved massacres, closures of monasteries and churches and execution of clergy. The reference to Jews supposedly dominating the media and politics is a long-standing antisemitic prejudice.
Vyacheslav Volodin, former chief of staff of Russian President Vladimir Putin and now the speaker of parliament, suggested there was no antisemitic intent in Tolstoy’s remarks. Regarding the Pale of Settlement, while it is widely associated with Jews, Volodin said: “First, this term is not only relevant to the Jews. Second, it was applied toward forced labourers, so here again is the question of what a person had in mind.”
He said he was prepared to meet with Aleksandr Boroda, head of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, who condemned Tolstoy’s statement as “blatant antisemitism”.
Tolstoy immediately began back-peddling on his innuendos, saying that he had not meant any specific ethnic group in his remarks and that “only people with a sick imagination who do not know the history of their country could see signs of antisemitism in this.”
More than three million tourists from all over the world visit the Cathedral every year, which was turned into a Museum of Atheism during the Soviet period and then revised after the fall of the Soviet Union both for religious services in the side chapel and events such as classical music concerts.