After nine years in prison, much of it in solitary confinement and punishment cells, Natan Sharansky finally escaped Russia in a 1986 prisoner swap on a bridge in Berlin.
This most famous Soviet refusenik returned to Russia for the first time yesterday on an official visit as Israel's minister of trade, heading a delegation of 90 Israeli businessmen and trade officials.
The once-prominent dissident returned on very different terms to a very different Russia, and a different Jewish community as well.
In the Russia Mr. Sharansky knew, the only way for a Jew to embrace and express Jewish culture and identity fully was to leave. Hundreds of thousands did, and hundreds of thousands more tried and were blocked by Soviet authorities. Sharansky became a hero and spokesman for Jews trying to emigrate from the Soviet Union.
Many Jews in the former Soviet Union no longer feel that way. "Russia has been a place where Jews left for a 100 years," says Eugene Weiner, manager of special projects in the former Soviet Union for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
Revival of Jewish culture
"The new reality is that there are Jews who want to make a life here," says Dr. Weiner. Although anti-Semitism remains strong and in very blatant forms, there is also a growing acceptance of the legitimacy of a public Jewish presence in Russia, he says.
In fact, Weiner sees a revival of Jewish culture and community here that he ranks among the most significant developments in Jewish life during the 20th century - up with the establishment of the American Jewish community, the founding of the state of Israel, and the Holocaust.
The countries of the former Soviet Union contain the third-largest population of Jews in the world, after the United States and Israel. The population estimates range from a little over a million to as many as 3 million under the most inclusive definitions of Jewishness.
Jewish life was so heavily suppressed in the Soviet Union that most Jewish people grew up without contact with Jewish tradition, public life, or religion.
With little cultural or religious identity, as much as 75 percent of Jews have married non-Jews, threatening to dissolve Jewishness into the larger populations of Russians or Ukrainians.
But even as Jews grew up without knowing what it meant to be Jewish, they were still subject to bias and suspicion. Soviet authorities regarded Jewishness as a nationality, separate from Russians or Ukrainians.
In his later years, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin suspected that Zionism was a tool of the United States and the West to destabilize the Soviet Union. Jews were increasingly excluded from politically or militarily sensitive jobs.
Nearly every Jew who had a career in the sciences or professions in the Soviet Union has stories of promotions that were mysteriously vetoed or books that could not be published without ethnically Russian names on the covers.
"Why on earth anybody would want to maintain Jewish identity in spite of everything they've been through is the great mystery, and miracle," says Weiner.
Yet Jewish schools are opening all over the former Soviet Union and major universities have adopted academic programs on Jewish history and culture and in Hebrew and Yiddish.
The Russian State University for the Humanities, once an institution that specialized in training KGB agents to study documents, now trains Jewish scholars in Project Judaica. About a third of the students in the program are non-Jewish Russians. One was a devout Russian Orthodox student who hoped to learn the facts behind an anti-Semitic myth from the Middle Ages that still persists in some quarters: that Jews made matzoh crackers with the blood of Christian children.
Life in Russia for Jews today is a mix of the positive and the negative. On the one hand, Russians built a synagogue on their pre-eminent monument in Moscow, Victory Park, to the defeat of the Nazis in World War II. It was opened by Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, indicating the political acceptability of this Jewish acknowledgment.
On the other hand, notes Weiner, "you can go to any newspaper stand and pick up the most vile threats and expressions of anti-Semitism."
Just as the revival of interest in the Russian Orthodox church often has more to do with cultural identity and national roots than a search for God, so the reawakening of Jewishness is more about ethnic traditions than prayers in synagogue. "It's a passion for self-respect and self-knowledge, not necessarily religious enthusiasm," says Weiner.
Symbol of leaving Russia
Sharansky, who founded a political party in Israel to represent immigrants, is a symbol not of blossoming Jewishness in Russia but of leaving for the Jewish homeland. And he is not a well-known symbol in Russia. While he is famous in the West as a Soviet dissident, his name is familiar in Russia only in dissident circles.
He applied to emigrate to Israel in 1973. In 1977, he was accused of spying for the CIA and sentenced to 13 years in prison. He was released after nine years in an East-West prisoner swap in Berlin. His name was cleared by the Russian government after the breakup of the Soviet Union.