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The Earth of Nvogorod

Nvogorod [is] the village where my grandparents were from in Belarus,” Jared Kushner clarified on the eight page of 11-page of testimony he provided to the U.S. Senate, intending to reference Novgorod, off the Volga, but not following Belarusian geography or Kushner family history.  when he sat down with the head of the Russian state investment bank that had funded many state projects, to “help advance the President’s foreign policy goals” in a half-hour meeting perhaps designed to open the secret back-channel between the incoming Trump administration with the Kremlin many suspected both Trump and Putin had desired. Gorkov is a banker, but had studied in the arm of the intelligence agency of the Soviet Union, like Putin, and was suspected to have been a trusted agent to Putin–as well as to be seeking to address the sanctions that were imposed on the bank since the invasion of Ukraine. Gorkov said meeting with foreign companies–not governments!–was “normal practice” for an officer of Vnesheconombank, without mentioning the Ukraine, but he hoped to talk to Kushner as a businessman, stressing a business angle outside diplomatic contacts between foreign ministers; his ties to security services made him precisely the sort of individual entrusted for delicate tasks of a personalized government, as it had led Putin to appoint him to run a state bank tasked with financially funding many of his own personal pet projects.

The sort of kinship that the donation of earth Gorkov carried to New York seemed a way to forge a human tie to Kushner, and to suggest something like an odd token of fealty–although it does not seem that Kushner got it. But the sense of a tie to the earth akin to the ties that Russia had long claimed to Ukraine, seemed an odd sort of argument about the ties to land the Russian government felt to the area of the Crimea in Ukraine, and the pro-Russian separatist factions in Ukraine that Moscow has supported since 2014, and Putin hoped that Trump would recognize as a part of Russian territory. If Kushner sought to minimize the stakes of the half-hour meeting by describing the exchange of trinkets and tokens like a bag of dirt, the gift symbolized questions of territoriality and Russian rights to Crimea–to personalize a territorial conflict that led the European Union to target Russian energy, defense, and finance sectors, but which insider ties to Kushner–and Trump’s White House–might help smooth.

Tattered Ukraine Flag Planted in Contested Earth

It is no surprise Russia wanted to shift from a topic of international debate to an internal issue of administering domestic affairs, asserting irredentist ties to the region settled by Peter the Great, by securing a personal and confidential contact to Trump’s team before it assumed government power.

So why the dirt from Novgorod on the heels of the 2016 election? It seemed a personal touch, if one that Kushner didn’t get, and that Gorkov seemed to have aimed fairly low as a way to present a token of opening a personal tie to the son-in-law Trump clearly trusted. Perhaps the most amazing aspect of the gift is how openly Kushner didn’t get it–and the land of Crimea that Gorkhov probably wanted to personalize as a part of Russian lands Putin had only sought to restore to his country in a rightful manner might conceal the 1.6 million internally displaced that the aggression into Ukraine had produced, and the conservative estimate of over 10,000 civilian and military casualties, and almost 24,000 injured, as it entered its fourth year.

In concealing the personalization of a major foreign policy initiative, by dismissing the presentation of a “bag of dirt” Kushner may have foregrounded the highly personal nature of the back-channel of foreign policy–the meeting was set up by the Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, who had ties to several members of the Trump administration in waiting. Donald J. Trump administration has continued to pressure Russia over its involvement eastern Ukraine. Although the United States, soon after Trump’s inauguration, in fact imposed new sanctions that Russian called tantamount to a “trade war” on nine companies and twenty-one individuals tied to Russia’s occupation and annexation of Eastern Ukraine, engineered by Rex Tillerson and Kurt Volker, Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations, and approve sales of anti-tank weapons to Ukraine in 2018, Gorkhov seemed eager to open a personal contact with Kushner between businessmen, parallel to American national interests. Was the bag of earth and art from “Nvogorod”

Might Jared Kushner have mis-remembered his ties to a Russian region where Charles, his father, regularly took the kids–suggesting that it was Novgorod? The bag of dirt might seem a link that Putin or Gorkhov wanted to consolidate, and probably brought from Belarus, but the suggestion of the strength of regional ties to a region in Russia’s sphere of influence, who also hoped to develop close ties to the United States. It arrived beside “a piece of art from Nvogorod, the village where my grandparents were from in Belarus,” although the ideas of this being a tie of affectionate remembrance is contrived. Oddly, displacement, death, and invasions would have been told in the dirt that Gorkhov sought to present to Kushner, could well have evoked the city from which Kushner’s grandparents were in fact refugees, albeit because they had fought as partisans in Belorussia against Nazi invaders–now the nation of Belarus. In describing an ancient Russian city, long part of Lithuania, that was residence for many Jews, Kushner 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 from the Pale of Settlement, where Jews were granted permanent residency in a region imagined fenced off and enclosed, as if to be the site where Jews had long lived apart–a point of memory not dear to Kushner, where Jews had made up a large part of the overall population, and had been a large group of partisans, but faced anti-semitism.

But Jared oddly used the term associated with Novgorod Land, near Moscow, where, one suspects, the dirt he had been brought by the Russian banker Sergey Gorkov, personally appointed to run Vnesheconobank (VEB), the foreign bank of the Russian Federation by Vladimir Putin, had derived–a region close to Moscow, where Kushner’s father-in-law had famous ties.

Novgorod Land in Duchy of Moscow (1593)

Kushner’s admission to receiving a ceremonial “bag of dirt” from 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”--seemed a token that this grandson of immigrants thought to be innocuous, but in underscoring its incidental nature. But the city in the Pale of Settlement where Kushner’s family hailed was from from the bucolic land of prancing reindeer mapped in 1593, he betrayed his deep sense of ethics in claiming that bag as his own, and may have called attention to the somewhat conspiratorial gesture the head of the VEB, revealing ties of a broader sphere of Russian influence the bank had Combe to embody.

Kushner’s orthodox religion is public record, and a matter of considerable pride.  But Kushner cloaked that ethnic identity and 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.  The conspiratorial nature of the gift seemed symbolic, but the associations that the earth seemed spiritually impregnated were deprecated in odd ways in Kushner’s haste to play down the meeting’s significance as an exchange of family trinkets. Kushner’s grandparents had fled the walled Litvak ghetto of Nowogródek months after it was established in June, 1941, in Belarus, joining a fierce Jewish partisan resistance in as Nazi troops extended the Jewish genocide into Russian lands. As the Nazis ghettoized Jews and extended policies of extermination in the city near Minsk, the Kushner elders joined a Jewish partisan squad in the Belarus–escaping the ghetto via a tunnel of over two hundred yards dug over weeks by his grandmother Rae, then seventeen, with her brother Chonom, by hand-made instruments, successfully tunneling underneath electric fencing surrounding the ghetto walls, and helping some 350 Jewish men and women fled the ghetto to nearby forests where many lived for a surprising stretch of time, often in underground bunkers: would the groups trained in Zionist Youth Groups in the Pale of Settlement think of themselves as Russian? Or was this the history Gorkov tried to conjure, to forge a tie to Trump’s son-in-law?  

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Filed under Belarus, Cold War, geopolitics, Vnesheconombank, World War II