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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 / March 4, 2004


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.

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"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.

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."