“Nvogorod [is] the village where my grandparents were from in Belarus,” clarified Jared Kushner in the eight page of his 11-page testimony to the United States Senate, seeming to intend to reference Novgorod, but not following the best lesson in Belarusian geography or Kushner family history. In describing an ancient Russian city somewhat near Moscow but long part of Lithuania that was the residence of many Jews, Kushner seems to have revealed his hazy purchase on a site dear to his father Charles, whose parents had once been members of the city’s large Jewish community. Kushner’s admission to receiving a ceremonial “bag of dirt” from Russian banker Sergey Gorkov not only played down its ceremonial status quite adroitly–“he gave me two gifts–one was a piece of art from Nvgorod, the village where my grandparents were from in Belarus, and the other was a bag of dirt from that same village”–but seemed to obscure whatever significance it might have by underscoring its incidental nature for a public audience.
Kushner’s orthodox religion is well known. But he cloaked whatever significance his family might have assigned the dirt–and whatever Gorkov thought he was doing carrying the earth to New York City–a bit too smoothly. Kushner’s grandparents had fled the walled ghetto of Novogrudok in 1941, as the German troops arrived in the city near Minsk, to join a Jewish partisan squad in the Belarus–escaping the ghetto via a tunnel of over two hundred yards dug over weeks by his brave grandmother Rae, then seventeen, with her brother Chonom, below electric fencing surrounding the ghetto, a conduit through which some 350 Jewish men and women fled the ghetto to nearby forests. The path of her flight from Novogrudok in the underground tunnel she dug commemorated by an overground path and in the Museum of Jewish Resistance situated in the tunnel which the Kushner family has long helped to support with its deep pockets. Rae arrived in Czechoslovakia, months after clawing her way through the tunnel with her brother, using hand-made instruments to tunnel to escape Novogrudok’s ghetto, and she probably had little attachment to her place of birth or its non-Jewish residents.
Jared conflated the name as Nvogorod in somewhat surprising ways. For Charles Kushner, Jared’s father, preserved the memory of Rae’s escape on family journeys there with his sons as they reached adulthood, presumably before their Bar Mitzvah; somewhat predictably, given these ties, most Belarusian media openly crowed over the arrival of Kushner, given his ties to Belarus, in the Trump White House. And so it made some sense for the head of Russia’s state bank, the Vnesheconombank, to arrive to meet Jared Kushner in New York before the inauguration bearing a bag of dirt from the town that the Kushner’s had maintained a close tie, but which Jared seems to have misidentified. Perhaps for Jared, the memory just didn’t stick, partly due to the differences between the Belarusian place-name from that transmitted in Jewish memory and the Russian toponym: Kushner’s testimony to Congress described his family as hailing from the authentic-sounding but imagined hybridized non-place of Nvgorod, notwithstanding Charles’ best intentions, rather than Navahrudak,–a city is in fact much closer to Minsk, Belarus’ capital, than Moscow, and pronounced quite differently.
Donald Trump’s candidacy was fed by Russian media, although it remained unpopular in the Baltic states and Ukraine, nonetheless developed a considerable Belarus following partly based on the appeal of Trump’s populism. When Trump unexpectedly won the Presidential election, the President of Belarus, Aliaksandr Lukashenka, a survivor from the Soviet era, warmly congratulated him–assuring Trump “You shook up American society and returned it to a real democracy,” even as he warned Russians against taking too much pleasure for Trump’s victory. Lukashenka, a wily politician, demonstrating political acuity by summoning with a sense of sageness to observe “Trump wants to make America great again–but where does that put Russia?” He has already concluded to his nation that “American society is not yet ready to elect a female president, even one as experienced as Hillary,” but more attention derived from the ties to Navahrudak. “Of course I am very proud that there is someone from Navahrudak in the White House,” said the fifty-seven year old businessman Boris Semyonov when approached what Navahrudak (the city’s Belarusian name) felt for the prominent post a Kushner would hold in a Trump White House: “I am waiting for him to visit us.”
Eager for how Trump has been portrayed in Russian media that is widely consumed there, even while noting the clear similarities between local strongman Lukashenka and the prominence of faux populist themes in Trump’s Presidential candidacy, the notion that “Of course, Trump is closer to Russia–and hence to us,” even if little trade between Belarus and the United States seems likely to emerge. Rae, of course, understood her own town as in north Poland in a community of 6,000 integrated but religious Jews, possessing an independent yeshiva, hospitals and strong cultural life, and were often schooled in Cracow; her hat-maker father shared a particular antipathy to Poles, who treated the family badly. Rae intensity in digging that tunnel to safety and survival from the Novgrugok ghetto that may reveal the intensity and tenacity of the Kushners. But Jared’s geographical vagueness ended up trying to place this “village” in a major Russian city, probably as the intent of the gifts was basically to suggest his ostensibly Russian roots. While Jared Kushner tried to cast the arrival of a bag of soil from Belarus as “the normal course of events in a unique campaign,” it fit into a plan to encourage US-American friendship, although it was cast by the not-so-quick-on-the-symbolism Kushner as “a bag of dirt,” which he probably threw somewhere on the White House lawn.
Novgrudok was in the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, although the region between Pinsk and Minsk was to change hands a few times, being subsumed into Russian empire before reverting to Poland in the 1920s, before it was absorbed into the U.S.S.R.–but was a clear site, carefully and precisely evoked by Rae in her life, though it remained a “village” that was probably pretty unspecific to Jared. (There has been an absence of public reactions to the transportation of Belarus’ sovereign soil out of the country from Lukashenka, which may have come from a nearby Russian military base Russia runs in Baranavichy, but also wouldn’t have helped his relations to Trump, Kushner, or Putin. But it seemed very Putin-esque to play on an old spatial imaginary of the Russian Empire and of the USSR at a time when he is seeking to redefine his country’s geopolitical status.)
George Matthius Seutter, Polonio seraphico observans (Poland and Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth), 1753
The imperial imaginary that the trans-Atlantic transportation and presentation of soil from Mother Russia must have had some meaning for Gorkov or his compatriot Kislyak didn’t have much truck with Kushner, for whom Gorkov remained but a “banker” and Moscow existed as a Trump-friendly place, rather than ever having been an empire.
What all the symbolism of the soil might have meant to Kushner is most unclear: if someone in Moscow must have taken the classy banker, with western tastes, as best able to display a sense of kinship to Trump’s son-in-law, who had so tried to cast himself as a cosmopolite from New York, the Kushner’s much-vaunted orthodoxy is perhaps the best known thing about him save his problematic relation to the New York Observer.
Kushner’s orthodoxy is well-known. He regularly takes a day of rest on the Sabbath as Special Advisor to the President, and during the Trump campaign took the time to make a widely publicized pilgrimage to the Lubavitcher shrine of the grave of the late Rebbe Menachem Scheerson or “Ohel” with Ivanka–at the same time that an alleged attempt on The Donald’s life was averted in Reno, leading to much speculation that the visit brought divine intervention forestalling the threat on his life due to Schneerson’s intervention as election day approached: “Ivanka Prays – The Donald Saved! As Ivanka Was At Ohel Of Rebbe, Secret Service Rushed Him Off Stage,” exulted an ultra-orthodox website on November 5, playing with notions of salvation and the efficacy of prayer to the Rebbe; Trump returned triumphantly to the stage from which he had been whisked by Secret Service to pronounce “Nobody said it would be easy for us. But we will never be stopped. Never ever be stopped,” thanking law enforcement and his protection before vowing solemnly to the audience of believers to “Make America Great Again.”
While Trump’s cultivation of the legend of the “assassination attempt” seemed a media ploy, and appeared conveniently timed, it seems to have been interpreted in some circles as a benefit of a back-channel Jared had opened by gaining the blessing of the immortal Rebbe, whose favor for the Father-in-Law was evident in his life-saving intervention.
The sense of intercession perhaps provided some sign that the orthodox Kushner would appreciate receiving a bag of Belarusian earth later brought to him from Belarus by Sergei Gorkov, chairman of the Russian VEB, or state-owned Vnesheconombank, or ‘Bank for Development and Foreign Economic Affairs,’ still under United States sanctions for its involvement in Ukraine–whose cash flow has recently turned negative, as it holds increasing state debt. When Gorkov arrived at the meeting bearing gifts of particular significance, as Kushner innocently recalled, as if he did not recognize the care that Gorkov hoped to communicate by selecting such items as a sign of his interest in the boy prince: “a piece of art from Nvogorod, the village where my grandparents were from in Belarus” and, curiously, “a bag of dirt from the same village.” If only mentioned in passing to show their lack of any suggestion of collusion, the specificity of these gifts the revealed the research and sense of familiarity Gorkov took care to communicate to young Jared, suggested the message’s importance, though what it said hasn’t been clear.
Vnesheconombank has long focussed on Russian exports, and it was perhaps recalling this function that Gorkov, deeply tied to the Russian FSB and apparently having cut a deal with them, in December, 2016, brought a bag of Belarusian earth to the orthodox Kushner as a highly symbolic–and oddly personal–note from a man Kushner would only saw was important to meet since he was “someone with a direct line to the Russian President who could give insight into how Putin was viewing the new administration” at the time Kushner sought to set up a “back-channel” to Moscow. In a December 12 meeting with Kushner’s assistant, the promise of meeting with Sergey Gorkov–who Kushner described as just “a banker and someone with a direct line to the Russian President who could give insight into how Putin was viewing the new administration and best ways to work together,” rather than a state agent with complicated ties to the Kremlin and head of Russia’s largest economic stimulus agency, funded directly by the state budget and a tool go national leadership–with a branch in Nizhniy Novgorod, not Vileky Novgorod, but raising questions of whether Jared might have mis-recognized the city from which his family hailed with this branch location.
But VEB is not just a bank of the sort that Trump or the Kushners are both used to taking loans and borrowing billions, but something far closer to an office of state, able to disburse funds in circumstances deemed necessary. Locations round the Russian periphery and near its eastern border suggest its status as a sort of para-state operation to pump funds into local economies; a broader range of covert government activities are suggested by charges against Vnecheconombank’s New York City employees recruiting foreign spies. Putin appoints and is in lose contact with its director, and the bank has been tied to the state despite its recently declining fortunes and net income–
Jared Kushner’s sense of innocence is not only an odd contrast to Gorkov’s tenacity. He seems to have been played with through the promise of ties to Moscow for the incoming administration, and his ambitions for a Russian Reset through his own backchannel. Kushner felt “Ambassador [Kislyak] has been so insistent” that he meet Gorkov “because Mr. Gorkov was only in New York for a few days.” But it’s hard to believe Kushner didn’t Google Gorkov before their half-hour meeting; Gorkov seems an attempt at an evocation of kinship if the presentation of a bag of Belarusian earth wasn’t recognized as a carefully planned sign, as well as a talisman by which Gorkov must have believed the diaspora Jew would be affected as a signal of his respect and recognition of Kushner’s tie to the city–although most Jews in Belarus’ ghettoes dreamt only of Eretz Israel in 1941–in ways that Gorkov may have believed analogous to the treasured earth from the Mount of Olives kept for scattering over burial sites in the diaspora, but remained a powerful symbolic tie for Jews before the war.
Jerusalem, c. 1920-30/Earth from Burial Ground in Mt. of Olives, Jewish Museum in Prague
The bag of soil from the land of Kusher’s forefathers was rich with a symbolism that didn’t grab Kushner’s attention or his sympathy nearly as strongly as Gorkov and his circle had hoped. Of course, Belarus is not in Russia, but in the former empire; even if Gorkov would claim clear access to the city in the former Soviet, even if it was “close to Moscow” and militarily tied to Russia, their bonds aren’t clear. Did the “gift” of a bag of soil from the former imperial territory of Mother Russia which Kushner received in mid-December in New York City a proposal that the new administration in which he was to playa prominent role recognize Russia’s relation to the nearby city, and, by analogy, to Ukraine? Putin’s hopes to regain old imperial lands within the new Russian Federation is rarely openly stated or so prominently mapped, the presentation of the token of soil from outside of Russian bounds but in the old imperial territory recalls the hopes to recover a notion of nationhood rooted firmly in the nineteenth century–long predating the USSR. Reclaiming land outside of current state boundaries is closely tied to the mission statement of the VEB and to the “blood and iron” image of Russian Empire in which Estonia, Lithuania, Belarus, and Latvia are central as part of the Baltic States. The presentation of this earth was part of a geopolitical vision, as well as providing an oddly off-beat appeal to the Jewish origins of Trump’s most trusted Presidential advisor.
Whatever the answer, the Special Assistant to the U.S. President only remembered the considered gift as a “bag of dirt”–without attaching symbolic or spiritual significance to its presentation. But the gift seems to have been carefully selected by Kushner’s visitor, probably with high-level approval, and the consideration about transporting a bag of earth from a region from where his family hailed seems intended as an attempted tie of affection. It also might reveal a bizarre post-Cold War political geography, seeking to create dialogue with the faith of the orthodox Jewish son of a real estate magnate in New Jersey in ways that carried messages about Russia’s newly expansive claims over areas of central Europe once part of the Russian Empire.
The centrality of Belarus to the Eurasian Economic Union has become increasingly clear, although Belarus is not eager to accept Russian annexation of Crimea. Why the head of the VEB decided to carry a bag of dirt from the former imperial territories, if not in the hopes to end the sanctions that had hurt his country, as well as to establish Russia’s prominent place in the EEU? VEB described the meeting as part of its ‘development strategy,’ rather than an innocuous encounter. Gorkov seems to have been sent to meet Kushner as something of an analog–a modern businessman–who Kushner would recognize, as not brash if owning two Porsches and a Mercedes Benz, both more worldly, down-to-earth and western than most oligarchs, and closely tied to IT, as well as being a tough deal-maker able to close agreements. The VEB presents a unique view of the Russian Federation, as well, mirroring geopolitical ambitions, closely tied to the Eurasian Economic Union.
The survival of the sanctions would have surely been on his mind when he met with Trump’s son-in-law, on the eve of the inauguration of the new United States President, with an open agenda. The issues of sanctions and Belarus are closely tied: not only has Putin been attempting, ever since the invasion of Ukraine in 2014, to control the independence that Belorus has shown since that year, when Lukashenko fears the possibility of a simultaneous invasion or Russian military operation inside Belarus–but the greater proximity of Belarus to Europe–but Belarus has grown militarily close to China, as a joint missile system was developed between Minsk and Beijing, and trade with the EU declined significantly. “Not everything always goes smoothly in our relations with brotherly Russia,” Lukashenko observed on Belarus’ July 1 Independence Day, as he compared Belarusian-Russian political strains with its positive economic and military ties with China, amazed at Belarus’ “luck that we have established such friendly relations with this great empire . . . practically at the level of our relations with Russia.”
The relations between the countries were not easy, and long fraught, as Belarus sought to position itself with new alliances. Russia’s Sputnik railed against Belarus; in a July 9 article entitled ‘The EU’s “Eastern Partnership” Threatens to Turn Belarus Into a “Second Ukraine,‘” published by Russia’s government-affiliated Sputnik in English, to struggle against the transformation of “Minsk, following Kiev, into an instrument of anti-Russian forces” by the ‘siren call’ of the “forces of globalism and modern-day fascism,” embodied by the EU’s ambitious Eastern Partnership. Gorkov would have been familiar with the same sentiments in December, and was irked by the annoyance of Belarusian neutrality.
The earth from Belarus was, in other words, highly charged for Gorkov–both as a sign of his investigation of the Kushner family and Jared’s family values, and as a message about the geopolitics of Europe and the possible future relation of the incoming United States administration to the expansion of the European Union and the place in it of Belarus. (Lukashenko was very quick to refuse to recognize Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, while allowing joint military exercises and making public displays of affability with his former compatriot.)
Putin with Lukashenko, reviewing troops in Belarus in 2013
But Lukashenko may not have much choice, even if he is one of the world’s few remaining dictators. Did Kushner? Kushner may have professed to have not known what the meeting was “about,” but the longstanding fears of secret Russian involvement in the spread of ultra-nationalist parties in Belarus, apparently to destabilize the government of nationalist strongman Lukashenko by fomenting non-violent governmental change, revealed Putin’s attempt to influence the former Soviet republic run by the former leader of a Soviet, who cannily maintained his power while affirming independence from Putin’s Russia. Belarus is treading a fine line of independence, foreign economic cooperation with the Eurasian Economic Union is something the European Union is far more interested to pursue than, say, VEB; Russia would also very much like to see the EU sanctions lifted on trade. Lukashenko’s nationalist proclamations, and rejection of Russian as a state language and use of Belarusian–“We are not Russian — we are Belarusians“–heightened tensions around trade disputes on energy pipelines, prices, and transit of gas to Poland and the European Union.
The question is not whether bright eyed Jared Kushner colluded–a term without definite legal meaning, but how he failed to pick up on an invitation for colluding, and why he missed it. Unless the mention of “Nvogorod” was more than a slip, and a signal of some sort of rejection of a proposal that didn’t seem worth the attention Gorkov had hoped. But Gorkov and his superiors clearly had some other level of collusion in mind by inviting a tacit recognition of a proximity akin to kinship over a month before the inauguration, and seem to have been looking forward to a newly proximate sort of relation to the thirty-six year old advisor to the incoming President: Kushner’s title as Senior Advisor was made official on January 9, reportedly without salary, before being named to head an Office of Innovation, although the Russian government seemed to anticipate his unexpected role as a sort of “Shadow Secretary of State” far more powerful in the administration than a Special Assistant. Despite insistence of no “improper contacts,” the propriety of the bag of Belarusian soil might be questioned beyond its clear symbolic value. For a President who had promised “improved relations with Russia” and committed to “make a deal that’s great” not only for “America, but also good for Russia,” the stakes were probably pretty high, and Gorkov’s mission on December 13 would have been delicate, probably involving the immediate loosening of sanctions.
The absence of any actual meaning in criminal law of a term like “collusion” suggests that his denial was a way of dancing around the issue, or just of keeping the conspiracy vague. Kushner is quite well-connected to Russians, and particularly Russian Jews with ties to Chabad, and perhaps over-eager for an Orthodox Jew to lump Russians and Jews: he is closely tied financially to a real estate money launderer of Russian heritage and birth, Lev Leviev, a colorful Uzbeki who allegedly transferred the skills of his father, a mohel, to diamond cutting, to which he dedicated himself after leaving a Yeshiva two months after he began his studies in Israel, who helped Kushner out with some massive loans and real estate transfers–including the purchase of the former New York Times building–and was until recently involved in construction projects in the West Bank and East Jerusalem: Leviev, known as the “King of Diamonds,” amassed an empire around the importing, cutting and polishing diamonds from Angola, Russia, and Namibia in Israel and Russia, raising many questions about the labor practices in his mines: despite trepidation returning to the former Soviets and Russia, Leviev did so after the intervention of none other than the Lubavitcher Rebbe Schneerson, who earnestly encouraged him not to forget his fellow Jews,–perhaps a banality that assumed some significance in his career. Leviev not only continues to be tied to both Putin and Chabad, and is a partner of the Russian Prevezon Holdings, who recently settled a money laundering case in the United States on light terms and was under investigation for some time by the office of Preet Bharara.
The weird geography of international finance overlaps in odd ways with Rae Kushner’s heroic escape through a tunnel she dug through Belarusian earth underneath the walls of the ghetto of Novogrudok to escape from the ghetto has been improbably linked to the playing out of a conspiratorial drama of international proportions, in which a bit of Belarusian soil was brought, some seventy seven years later, to New York City, maybe as a carry-on item of the chairman of VEB, to be presented as a “gift” to Rae’s grandson. This wasn’t a simple gift, and was carefully selected. But if the bag of soil somehow procured from Belarus–and specifically from “the village where my grandparents were from in Belarus”–before being brought to an off-the-record meeting with the trusted adviser who was already central to Trump’s transition team as VEB feared facing the continued imposition of sanctions over Russia’s invasion of Crimea. The desire to lift such sanctions immediately raises questions of the propriety the “gift.” “He told me a little about his bank,” Kushner testified to the Senate while not under oath, “and made some statements about the Russian economy.” Was the discussion not apt to range to topics closely related to the issues on the table for the bank, and did the oddly misplaced attempts to tug at Kushner’s heart strings not suggest a tone-deaf “restart” button? The anthropological oddity of the offering of earth, as much as a considered gift, not only fell on deaf ears but seems to have misread the ties to Novogrudok as a family residence.
Much as the activities of VEB are not those of a regular bank, or even a bank, the relationship they sought to cultivate with Jared Kushner had little propriety at any event. We’ll probably never know about whatever statements Gorkov made as he presented the bag of Belarusian soil which later became a “bag of dirt.” The new descriptor diminishes its symbolic significance, and paints Jared as having made time in a busy schedule for an amicable meeting. But it’s hard to believe that the symbolism was not lost, or that Jared could even consider placing the Belarusian earth atop Rae’s grave. Despite the deep paradoxes of Rae’s grandson placing earth reminiscent of the very earth through which she had clawed out of the ghetto over her final resting place in New Jersey–wouldn’t Rae have scolded him with some incredulity?–whatever the hopes of the higher-ups of VEB, they seem to have escaped Kushner. The late Rae Kushner had quite vividly recalled–and which she must have described in terms Jared must have often heard her retell–the blood-soaked earth of the shooting of the Novogrudok suburb where many of the 30,000 men and women brought from a ten mile radius around the city–after soldiers executed Jewish doctors, teachers, and lawyers in 1941 in a public square in a suburb of the city, staining its paving stones with blood as an orchestra played, Rae was brutally ordered to wash the stones in preparation for a public ball in the city. While an articulate woman, she would probably have scolded Jared wordlessly for accepting the bag of earth as if it were a friendship offering.
The location of the earth was very significant to the Russian Federation higher ups, if its significance or sybmolism may have passed Jared by. As Russia seeks to expand its imperial past, presenting the gift of a bag of earth from the old empire seems more of a demand to recognize the new geopolitics they intend to pursue. Such are the perils of having advisers without experience in international politics. Such is also the bizarrely shifting map of a post-post-Cold War world, where VEB hopes to forge ties to a new American administration by offering something close to a caricature of nourishing a spiritual attachment to a place of origin in the service of expansionist ends–as if transmuting Kushner familial pietas to affirm an expanding Russian military presence in what was once Eastern Europe grater than since the Soviet Union collapsed. The notion of appealing to Kushner’s alleged Belarusian roots seems a poorly judged symbol, but it was a potent one for a Russian Federation eager to remap broader European influence. Gorkov’s presentation of this bag of dirt might not have been recognized as a statement of geopolitics, but suggests one: it paralleled the long-planned military exercises of Russian military presence in Belarus and along the NATO border–a zone of influence on the western front of the Russian Federation–or “Zapad”–defended with increasing aggressiveness from 2014 with surface-to-air and anti-ship missiles, from around the same time that Putin directed increasing attention to destabilizing the European Union. The planned 2017 military exercises of 60,000-100,000 air and naval units to be held from September 14-20, around the Baltic and North Sea, is widely seen as a test of NATO’s interest in protecting its member-states of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Poland–and Donald Trump’s interest in endorsing Article 5 promising NATO’s collective defense. The Zapad exercises of staging a staging a military invasion of the Baltic without allowing any outside observation of the same 800 tanks involved in the exercises that appears a clear show of force in the very region from which Kushner’s family hails.
The longstanding exercises of the Russian military in the “Russian West” have acquired increasingly offensive tones. Recent “Zapad” exercises of the Russian military in 2017 that are based in Belarus–and although the joint exercises Russia and Belarus will conduct to simulate a NATO invasion will pack in an unknown number of troops and although Belarus is not eager to accept many more permanent Russian troops, Zapad 2013 involved an uncertain number of troops–Russians declared “12,000” or perhaps “12,500,” but reports indicating the presence of up to 75,000 boots on the ground, as Belarus became something of a military staging ground for Russian strength–if not in actual preparation for the invasion of Crimea that occurred shortly afterwards.
–will include the greatest number of military troops to be involved in a military exercise without the observation of international observers, in ways NATO observers increasingly see as a hostile threat–if not, as Chatham House speculates, leaving a permanent military contingent in Belarus. While the stationing of troops might not occur, the threat to destabilize the European Union, a pet-project of Putin from 2015, the expansion of military presence seems an open reclamation of Russian earth.
Vladimir Putin watching Zapad exercises in Grodny, Belarus, in 2013 (RIA Novosti/Reuters)