Dmitry Medvedev has faced little public criticism as he coasts toward Russia's presidency. But a fringe extremist group is trying to stir up voters to turn against him in Sunday's election with claims the candidate might have Jewish roots.
The bid to tap into Russian anti-Semitism is attracting attention but not many backers, as even other nationalist groups distance themselves from it. Medvedev, a deputy prime minister who enjoys the support of the hugely popular President Vladimir Putin, isn't commenting.
Nikolai Bondarik, who heads a group calling itself the Russian Party, says Medvedev's mother is Jewish, citing what he calls her Jewish maiden name, Shaposhnikova, and information from unidentified friends of hers. He offers no solid proof, but says voters should be informed.
"It has nothing to do with anti-Semitism," he said by telephone Wednesday from St. Petersburg. "I just think Russia's president should be Russian."
Russian nationalists have persecuted Jews for centuries, from pogroms that wiped out whole Jewish villages under the czars to systemic discrimination that pushed many Jews to flee the Soviet Union. There have been occasional but persistent attacks on Jews and Jewish graves in recent years.
In a recent magazine interview, Medvedev, 42, talked of his mother's forebears in provincial western Russia. He gave their names and professions — one sewed hats, another was a blacksmith — but said nothing about their ethnic or religious background.
His mother's family name could be Jewish or ethnic Russian. She reportedly lives in Moscow, but officials in his campaign refused to provide information for contacting her. His father died in 2004.
Medvedev, who has described choosing to be baptized in the Russian Orthodox Church at age 23, in the formally atheist Soviet Union, has spoken out against anti-Semitism, saying the government must stamp out anti-Semitic and other xenophobic propaganda. He met with Jewish leaders during Hanukkah.
Russia's Federation of Jewish Communities shrugged off Bondarik's campaign, which spokesman Borukh Gorin called an "attempt to play the Jewish card."
He said that despite continued anti-Semitism in Russia, the claim was not denting widespread support for Medvedev, who is expected to handily beat three other candidates in Sunday's ballot.
Bondarik's claims have generated excited slurs on virulent nationalist Web sites, but they have been ignored in the mainstream, state-controlled media that most Russians rely on for information.
Larger Russian nationalist movements, including the National Bolshevik Party, apparently wary of incurring charges of violating extremism laws, said they refused to take part in a joint march with Bondarik in St. Petersburg last weekend.
"This anti-Semitic 'brand' that he tried to put forward didn't find any support," said Alexander Belov of the Movement Against Illegal Immigration, a well-known group whose Web site is rife with xenophobic commentary. "He looks like a clown."
Belov and others even suggested the Jewish roots "revelation" was a Kremlin plot — but couldn't agree on whether it was aimed at helping Medvedev or hurting him.
One theory is that Medvedev's enemies within the current administration hope to discredit a man viewed by many Russians as too friendly to the West. Russian nationalists have long equated Jews with Western influences they view as dangerous.
Political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky, however, suggested aides for Medvedev may have leaked questions about his mother's background to burnish the candidate's image in the West, casting him as a tolerant figure bravely resisting attack by extremists.
"People (in the West) accuse Putin of being totalitarian and nationalist. To better support Medvedev, they can give this image that he is fighting anti-Semites," Belkovsky said.
Bondarik denies any Kremlin involvement in his claims.
Similar rumors circulated in the past that Putin and other Russian leaders had Jewish roots, also with little effect. Another presidential candidate, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, is a flamboyant ultranationalist who was once openly anti-Semitic — until he revealed his father was Jewish.