When the leaders of a medium-sized Russian city received a rash of letters earlier this month from Jewish organizations asking them to publish detailed statistics about Jews associated with the local government, they were perplexed.
Not entirely sure how to respond to the requests, city officials contacted a local Jewish activist for advice. That set off an investigation that led to an alarming conclusion: the Jewish organizations had never sent the letters — and no one knew who did. Some suspected ultra-nationalist groups faked the documents, seeking information about Jews in Russia.
The letters, five of them, were addressed to the administrator of Bryansk, a city of about 400,000 — including 7,000 Jews — located 200 miles southwest of Moscow. Each was purportedly sent by a legitimate Jewish organization in Russia.
The letters are each marked with different official logos – the emblem of The State of Israel, the Israeli flag, the logos of the city of Jerusalem, the central Israeli city of Holon and the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia. The letters ask the city to “publish on the websites of the city and the region the following statistics: The number of people with Jewish last names currently in key administrative positions; The number of people with Jewish last names who were either fired from their jobs or left of their own volition in 2012-2013; The number of citizens with Jewish last names that ran for public office in the city of Bryansk and the Bryansk region in 2012-2013 and the number of people with Jewish last names that received awards of excellence from the city of Bryansk or the Bryansk region.” At least one of the letters has a stamp confirming it was received by the Bryansk city administration on April 23rd.
The letters also invited the city to join a Russia-wide festival of “Jewish culture and art under the patronage of the multinational organization World Without Nazism, by helping with the monitoring done by our organization.”
Russian politician Alexander Pochinok, a former minister of labor and a current vice president of World Without Nazism, was the first to publicly report the existence of the fake letters. He had been tipped off by the Russian Jewish Congress, which was looking into them. “I would like to underline that neither World Without Nazism nor any associated organizations organized any event [which these letters reference],” Pochin wrote on his blog for the popular news site, Echo of Moscow.
Vocativ contacted most of the organizations listed as authors of the forged letters. All of them said they had no knowledge of their origins.
Alexander Engels, head of one of the Jewish organizations Dor Revii (“Fourth Generation”), told Vocativ the letters were likely the work of “amateur provocateurs.”
A spokesman for the Russian Jewish Congress says the Jewish community has dismissed it as a “poorly organized scam.”
But to what end?
Pochinok offered a theory: “It has been a long time since we have seen the likes of such dastardly provocations by [ultra] nationalists,” he writes on his blog. “It is obvious why they want lists of Jews. This has happened before in Nazi Germany and in other countries.”