Crowd Forces Judge to Halt Soviet Anti-Semitism Trial

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rowdy supporters of a man charged with inciting hostility against Jews forced a Soviet judge Tuesday to adjourn the man's trial almost before it began in a case that has become the symbol of blatant and growing anti-Semitism among Russian nationalists.

Hundreds of unruly spectators sitting on wooden benches and packed into the aisles of the steamy courtroom repeatedly interrupted the short proceedings by loudly clapping in response to comments made by defendant Konstantin Smirnov-Ostashvili, 64, and shouting angry demands such as "Toss out the liberal journalists!"

Smirnov-Ostashvili, a charismatic leader of Russian ultranationalists, is the first person in the Soviet Union to face charges of inciting ethnic strife, according to the official news agency Tass. Soviet law prohibits inciting ethnic violence, racial hostility or religious animosity. If convicted, Smirnov-Ostashvili could spend up to 10 years in prison.

Smirnov-Ostashvili, a blue-collar worker, is accused of organizing a group of Russian nationalists who interrupted a political forum of liberals at the Central House of Writers in January. The intruders roughed up the participants, called them "Yids" and shouted, "Go to Tel Aviv!"

No one was seriously injured, and Smirnov-Ostashvili, who used a megaphone to shout down the speakers at the forum, is the only one charged.

But the case was so controversial that the investigation took several months and interviews with 400 witnesses.

The prosecutor's decision on whether to try Smirnov-Ostashvili and the others involved in the fracas became a test of the government's willingness to confront increasing anti-Semitism here.

With the trial as a political battlefield between ultranationalists and liberals, the courtroom was packed even before the proceedings began.

Arguments broke out almost immediately between the defendant's supporters and his opponents. Several television crews and dozens of Soviet and foreign journalists flooded into the front of the courtroom, surrounding the judge and the defendant and adding to the mayhem.

Smirnov-Ostashvili, a fiery man with a wreath of gray hair surrounding a large bald spot, started off the proceedings by brashly demanding that the judge oust Yuri D. Chernichenko, a liberal member of Parliament acting as the public prosecutor, from the front of the courtroom.

The nationalists in the crowd, many of whom had straggly beards and wore black clothing, cheered loudly when the judge, Andrei I. Muratov, agreed.

Smirnov-Ostashvili next asked to have his publicly appointed lawyer taken off his case, claiming that she is part of the Jewish-dominated Moscow lawyers association.

He said that he would like to be represented by a lawyer from West Germany, Finland, Sweden or Norway. His followers in the hall chanted "Shame!" when Muratov denied the request for the dismissal of his attorney.

The tumult was so great that Muratov announced a 30-minute recess in an effort to restore order in the crowded courtroom. But the confrontation between the nationalists and the liberals over the merits of the case only grew hotter during the break.

When Muratov returned, he asked the spectators to clear the aisles, but they only retreated a few steps. With no control over his courtroom, Muratov adjourned the case until today.

The defendant's supporters included young, old and middle-aged men and women. Many said they were members of Russian Patriots or Pamyat, two ultranationalist groups.

"I have heard a lot about him, and I support him because he is fighting for Russia," Liliya I. Bogoroditskaya, 58, a grandmotherly woman wearing a popular Russian nationalist pin of St. George slaying a dragon, said of Smirnov-Ostashvili.

"I like his platform. He's fighting against Zionism, and this is necessary because the news media is totally in their hands--television, radio and the press. And culture and art, too. You won't find one of them (Jews) working. Not one in a factory nor in a village."

Liberals in the courtroom said a guilty verdict is necessary to fight the popular trend of blaming Jews for everything from food shortages to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.

"This is very important," Stella I. Aleinikova, a tiny woman in her 70s who had videotaped the original incident at the House of Writers, said as she walked out of the courthouse with her camera again on her arm. "It would be the start of a very strong anti-fascist movement."

Oleg Fainstein, 32, a liberal writer who witnessed the January incident, commented: "I hope anti-Semitism, which has so far been denied to exist at all, will at least be acknowledged. It will set a precedent."

But supporters of Smirnov-Ostashvili contended that a verdict of innocent will enshrine the right to freedom of expression in a country where speaking out has often been paid for with death.

"Human freedom is being tried here," Alexander Kulakov, the 28-year-old executive secretary of the People's Orthodox Movement, said. "It is a human right to say what you are thinking. They are trying to do away with someone who just said what he thought."

Even Pravda, the Communist Party daily, has acknowledged that anti-Semitism is rising and threatens to undermine the country's political and economic reforms.

Jews had long been victims of official discrimination in the Soviet Union, which kept them out of universities and top-level political jobs and prevented them from openly practicing their faith. But the discrimination has been significantly reduced in the last five years.

OVERHAULING A NATION: Soviets rethink state of their union, consider new treaty. A4

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
57°