Jews find home again in Russia

More leave Israel for Moscow, spurred by economic opportunity and a decline of anti-Semitism.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Mikhail Gurevich emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1991, seeking freedom and a better life in Israel. Today he is a successful Internet publisher, TV show host and information technology consultant - back home in Moscow.

"I wanted to have a good job, develop myself, and do the things I'm doing now, but found I couldn't do them in Israel," says the longhaired and bespectacled Mr. Gurevich. "Still, if you ask me who I am, I'm an Israeli."

Often with mixed motives and identity angst, some former Soviet Jews who rushed for the exit as the USSR crumbled are trickling back to Russia. About 50,000 have made the move in recent years, with numbers rising sharply during the Putin era.

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Some cite disappointments with life in Israel, economic hardship, and the threat of terrorism since the second intifada began three years ago. Others, like Gurevich, stress the opportunities that have opened up as post-Soviet Russia has stabilized, merged with the world market, and entered a period of rapid economic progress.

"I knew what it felt like to be a Jew in the USSR," says Gurevich, who served in the Israeli army and worked as a Russian-language radio news reader before returning to Moscow in 1999. "But these are completely new times, and this is a very different country."

1970s exodus

About 1 million Soviet Jews emigrated to Israel in the decades after the first cracks appeared in the Iron Curtain in the early 1970s. The exodus continued through the turbulent 1990s, as Russian society veered toward anarchy and there were signs of anti-Semitic revival. The number of Jews in Russia plummeted to 230,000 from 540,000 between the censuses of 1989 and 2002. Some observers suggested that Russia might, like Germany or Poland, become a land whose deep Jewish traditions are mostly gone and buried in the past.

"A century ago there were 10 million Jews living in the Russian Empire, and Russia was the center of the Jewish world," says Zinovy Kogan, chairman of the Congress of Jewish Religious Organizations of Russia and head rabbi of Moscow's Poklonaya Gora synagogue. But huge numbers emigrated to America, the invading Nazis murdered 3 million Soviet Jews, and perhaps a million more assimilated to escape the USSR's suffocating state anti-Semitism, he says.

"There were no prospects here in the 1980s and '90s, only fear, crime, and chaos. Israel looked great by comparison," says Mr. Kogan. "But they went there, found they don't speak the language, can't get a job and they're considered to be Russians rather than Jews. At the same time, life in Russia has improved."

Rabbi Kogan says some returnees feel conflicted about coming back to Russia. "They want to be Jews, and feel guilty that they've left Israel," he says. "Our task here is to make them feel comfortable with their choices and help them regain their Russian sense of Jewishness. These people have had a long journey. They left the USSR as Jews, but arrived in Israel as Russians. Now they must get used to the idea that here they will be called Jews again, not Russians."

It can't be described as a flood, but the surge of reverse migration has raised hopes among some community activists that the historic Jewish presence in Russia may not be ending after all. At a 2002 Kremlin meeting, Russia's chief rabbi, Berl Lazar, told President Vladimir Putin that "Jewish life is once again on the rise in Russia.... Jews are discovering that they can stay here and live at the same level as anywhere else in the world," he said.

Israel's "Law of Return" stipulates that anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent may claim Israeli citizenship. By that criterion there may still be millions of potential immigrants on former Soviet lands. Israel still officially courts Russian Jews in hopes that a continuing influx might stave off a demographic crisis in which Arabs could outnumber Jews in Israel and the occupied territories within a few decades.

The outflow slows

But the outflow, which saw as many as 100,000 Jews leave Russia annually in the '90s, fell to 10,000 last year, says the Israeli Embassy in Moscow.

The Jewish Agency, an arm of Israeli government whose main job is to promote immigration, says that just 5 percent of ex-Soviet Jews have chosen to return, and many of these may not have done so permanently. "There is a hard economic situation in Israel, and the intifada has lasted for three years now," says Semyon Dovzhik, Jewish Agency spokesman for the Russian media in Jerusalem. "Some families may have decided to stay in Russia for this time. It's not a big problem."

Many of those returning are attracted by opportunities in fields where native Russians lack experience, such as marketing or the Internet. Oleg Ulyansky left Donetsk, Ukraine, in 1990, and like most Jewish emigrants was forced by the Kremlin to relinquish his Soviet citizenship as he left. Living as an "Israeli expat" in Moscow with his family for the past two years, he says the economic crisis in Israel and the intifada were considerations, but mainly he came for the rich job pickings in Russia.

"Here there's a great demand for people who have Western experience but speak native Russian," he says. Mr. Ulyansky presently works as a top marketing executive for a leading Russian insurance company. "In Israel it was difficult to compete with native Israelis for jobs like that," he says.

Traditional Russian anti-Semitism remains a worry for some, particularly older returnees. "There is no official anti-Semitism in Russia anymore, but the daily anti-Semitism here will never cease," says Yevgeny Arenzon, a poetry expert with Moscow's Institute of World Literature, who spent two years in Israel in the 1990s. "The frightening thing is that at any moment it can rise to the level of state ideology again."

But Gurevich, though he remembers what things were like in the old USSR, says he hardly gives anti-Semitism a second thought in the new Russia. "Right now in Moscow, people want to work in a Jewish company," he says. "They think that if a Jew decides not to leave, but to build his business here, he must know what he's doing."

Says Rabbi Kogan: "Maybe in 10 years the Jewish community in Russia will double." And, he adds, "we have to get used to the idea that people can now move between Israel and Russia almost as easily as between two metro stations. It doesn't matter where you live, it matters how you live. Wherever we are, we must go on being Jews."

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