The rush to condemn retired General Albert Makashov for his unsurprising anti-Semitic comments revealed an impatience with free speech and a yearning for censorship across the spectrum of Russia’s political leadership.

General Makashov, communist, jingo, member of the Duma and a leader of the parliamentary forces during the brief rebellion against presidential rule in 1993, told a political rally a month ago that the Yids are responsible for Russia’s problems. They should be rounded up and jailed, he said, and President Boris Yeltsin turned into a bar of soap.

So nu? Anti-Semitism is hardly news in Russia, even among old-line communist generals. But Makashov’s remarks, which he helpfully repeated in an interview with an Italian newspaper, touched off a furious assault–not on anti-Semitism so much as on freedom of expression.

Financier and political figure Boris Berezovsky called for a ban on the Communist Party, calling it “outside the laws” of Russia, a “malignant tumor that needs to be removed.” Liberal economist and former Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, now the head of a party called Russia’s Democratic Choice, said much the same. President Boris Yeltsin, or at least his office, issued a directive to security agencies to take “urgent and decisive measures” against “political extremism.” The prosecutor general announced the opening of an investigation.

Former Prime Minister Sergei Kirienko spoke favorably of revoking Makashov’s immunity from prosecution (which he enjoys as a member of the Duma), because anti-Semitism is illegal in Russia. (Perhaps Kirienko believes parliamentary immunity should protect only the innocent, while the guilty should of course stand trial.) Television station ORT, part of Berezovsky’s media group, attacked “Red Nazis”–and then proceeded to examine the faces of Makashov and Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov to determine their ethnic make-up.

The hard left struck back in kind. The Communist Party’s central committee said “Russia-haters” were trying to discredit the party by raising “the so-called Jewish question.” Communist and nationalist leaders wrote to Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov demanding “strict control” of the media by government “oversight committees” and “observers councils” with authority to regulate content in broadcast and print journalism. These censorship boards, the letter said, should reflect “contemporary Russian society in demographic, political and other terms.” You don’t need an Enigma Machine to break that code: Keep an eye on the Jews in the media.

After Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and First Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Maslyukov made appeals to the Duma for approval of the START II arms limitation treaty and the 1999 draft budget, the communists who control the Duma reportedly made media control a condition of their support on both issues. In today’s atmosphere of feigned horror–“There are anti-Semites in the Duma! They will foster discord among fraternal peoples!”–an assault on freedom of expression could easily succeed.