100,000 Former Soviet Jews
In Israel Return To Russia
By Michael Mainville
Special to the Star
The Toronto Star
MOSCOW -- When she fled the Soviet Union for Israel with her family as a teenager, the last place Irina Azanyan expected to end up 15 years later was in Moscow.
"My parents were desperate to get away and we went as soon as we could," she says. "I loved Israel, even before I'd ever been there. I don't know why, maybe it was in my genes."
Yet here she sits in her fifth-floor office at the Moscow Jewish Community Centre, switching effortlessly between Russian and Hebrew as she fields calls for Russia's chief rabbi, Berl Lazar.
Two floors down, a cleaning woman is sweeping out the massive banquet hall in preparation for this weekend's dinner marking the end of Passover.
The chorus of a group of pensioners studying Hebrew emanates from a nearby classroom as bearded young men in broad-rimmed black hats stroll the halls with books under their arms.
Azanyan and her family fled the repressive Soviet regime at the tail end of a massive wave of emigration that saw about 1 million Soviet Jews settle in Israel by the mid-1990s. But now she is among the estimated 100,000 who have come back - the strongest sign yet of a startling revival of Jewish life in a country that has one of the worst records of Jewish persecution in history.
"It's absolutely extraordinary how many people are returning," says Lazar, who has been Russia's chief rabbi since 2000.
"When they left, there was no community, no Jewish life. People felt that being Jewish was an historical mistake that happened to their family. Now, they know they can live in Russia as part of a community."
Last week also marked a turning point for Russian Jews with President Vladimir Putin's historic visit to Israel, the first by a Russian or Soviet head of state. Asked if he thought five years ago that he would ever accompany a Russian president on a trip to Israel, Lazar laughs.
"Honestly, I didn't think two months ago that this would have been possible," he says. "There has been a sincere change in the official attitude to Israel and the Jewish community in Russia."
During his visit, Putin paid tribute to the Jewish community's contributions to Russia and spoke out against anti-Semitism while touring Jerusalem's Holocaust History Museum.
"Today, we must state clearly that there can be no place in the 21st century for xenophobia, anti-Semitism or any other manifestations of ethnic and religious intolerance," said Putin.
"This is not only our duty before the memory of the millions of people killed by bullets or in the gas chambers, it is also our obligation to future generations."
Lazar says the visit was a testament to how far Russia has come since the days when Jews were largely barred from public worship and faced open discrimination in jobs and education.
Russia has a long history of anti-Semitism, dating back to the establishment of the Pale of Jewish Settlement when the country absorbed large populations of Polish and Ukrainian Jews in the late 18th century.
For nearly 150 years, Jews required special permission to live in Russia proper and faced a host of other restrictions. Anti-Jewish riots were common and a wave of pogroms in southern Russia in the early 1880s prompted about 2 million Russian Jews to immigrate to North America.
By the early 20th century - radicalized by generations of repression - Jews were at the forefront of revolutionary activity in Russia. Jewish activists played a prominent role in the Russian Revolution and actually outnumbered ethnic Russians in the first Communist Central Committee.
One of Lenin's first actions as Soviet leader was to abolish the Pale of Settlement and grant freedom of worship. In the next few years, 40 per cent of Soviet Jews left the Pale and settled in large Russian cities. But early hopes for emancipation were dashed by the rise of Stalin, who grew increasingly paranoid and anti-Semitic during his rule.
Many of the most prominent victims of his purges - including Leon Trotsky, Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev - were Jewish. Many historians contend that, at the time of his death in 1953, Stalin was preparing for a mass deportation of Soviet Jews to the so-called Jewish Autonomous Zone in the Siberian wastelands north of China.
For the remainder of the Soviet period, Jews - their ethnicity clearly marked on internal passports - faced a range of state-sponsored and unofficial anti-Semitism. Universities were allowed to accept only a small number of Jewish students and many jobs, especially government positions, were closed to them.
In the years after its founding in 1948, Israel's emergence as a close Western ally led to the persecution of many Soviet Jews as alleged Zionist sympathizers. The few token synagogues still in operation were under open police surveillance.
Azanyan's experiences were typical. Growing up in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, she knew little of her Jewish heritage, except for a few words of Yiddish and the names of important holidays.
Fearful of persecution, her grandfather had changed his last name from Eisenberg to the Armenian-sounding Azanyan after World War II.
This would come back to haunt the family when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev opened the doors for Soviet Jews to immigrate to Israel in the 1980s. Without an obvious Jewish name, the family was repeatedly denied the right to leave the Soviet Union. Thirteen-year-old Azanyan nonetheless began studying Hebrew and learning all she could about Israel.
The Azanyans were finally able to emigrate as the Soviet Union was disintegrating in 1990. They touched down in Israel on Azanyan's 16th birthday.
"It was like a dream come true," she recalls.
After finishing high school and her two years of mandatory military service, Azanyan studied history and archaeology at the Tel Aviv University. In 1998, she followed a Russian Jewish boyfriend back to the former Soviet Union and found a job at the Israeli embassy in Moscow.
While there, she was stunned to be dealing with hundreds of other Israelis who were returning to Russia.
"People were coming back for many different reasons," she says.
"Some people saw economic opportunities in Russia. Some people were worried about security in Israel. And some people came back because they weren't ready to go to Israel.
"They expected too much and didn't realize how much work it would be to start a new life in a different country."
After leaving the embassy in 2001, she decided to stay in Russia and took the job as Lazar's assistant.
"I still love Israel and I'd like to go back some day," she says. "But for now, I'm happy here."
Like Azanyan, most of those who've returned have kept their Israeli passports and, in some cases, maintain homes in both countries.
Rabbi Lazar says it's irrelevant whether returning Jews are planning to stay in Russia permanently or some day go back to Israel.
"They don't know how long they're going to stay. Two years, a year, six months, what's the difference? The fact that they're coming back at all is a strong statement."
Which isn't to say that anti-Semitism is no longer a problem in Russia. In fact, some observers believe that the community's increasing profile has sparked a backlash from nationalist Russians.
In January, 19 nationalist lawmakers sent a letter to Russia's prosecutor-general, asking him to outlaw all Jewish organizations on the grounds that they foster ethnic hatred against Russians.
Two months later, several Russian cultural figures, including former world chess champion Boris Spassky, sent a similar letter backed by a petition signed by 5,000 Russians. Among other accusations, the letter accused Jews of being "anti-Christian and inhumane" and of "committing ritual murders."
Nationalist politicians - a growing force in Russian politics - rant openly about Jewish conspiracies to control the Russian economy, pointing out that many of Russia's billionaire oligarchs are Jewish, including former Yukos oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who is in jail awaiting a verdict in his long-running tax-evasion and fraud trial.
Defending the letter in a February appearance on one of Russia's most popular political talk shows, State Duma deputy Albert Makashov spoke for nearly an hour about the allegedly illegal privatizations that left much of the country's wealth in the oligarchs' hands.
"All I am saying is that most oligarchs come from one diaspora: Jewish," he said. "They stole everything God gave us."
Asked to call in their support for either Makashov or his opponent in the debate, more than 53,000 of about 100,000 callers chose Makashov.
Attacks on Jews also remain a problem. The Moscow Bureau of Human Rights reported this month that 27 anti-Semitic attacks occurred in Moscow in 2004 and the first three months of 2005.
In January, six thugs shouting anti-Semitic slurs attacked a group of Orthodox Jews in a Moscow underpass. Two young boys and one man escaped, but Rabbi Alexander Lakshin was left beaten and bloodied.
When he tried to ask employees at a local shop to use their phone to call the police, they refused and told him to leave.
Yet even Lakshin is encouraged by recent developments in Russia. In the weeks since the attack, police arrested three suspects, two of whom are now facing charges that could land them in jail for years.
"No country in the world can boast of having no anti-Semites," he says. "It's how a society reacts to these kinds of attacks that's important.
"Yes, it was a sad thing that happened. But when I think about how much tremendous change there has been in Russia since I was a boy, when I see groups of young people walking about unafraid, it makes me so happy."
At the seven-storey, $25 million Moscow Jewish Community Centre built five years ago, there's a growing sense that the Jewish renaissance is irreversible.
Stretching over two city blocks, the centre includes a synagogue, library, fitness centre and kosher restaurant, all built with donations from abroad and the local community. Record numbers of Jewish families are signing up for its free services and this year's Passover celebrations have been the biggest in memory.
Down the street, a $125 million complex - which will include Russia's first Jewish museum, a medical centre and a school - is being built on land donated by the city of Moscow. Smaller centres, most featuring the first local Jewish schools in decades, are being built across the country.
In the past five years, the number of distinct Jewish communities in Russia has swelled from 87 to more than 200. Fifteen years ago, there was not a single Jewish school in all of Russia. Today, more than 15,000 students attend such schools.
Lazar says that of the estimated 1 million Jews who remained in Russia following the exodus to Israel, very few were once prepared to even identify themselves as Jewish. But today, about 120,000 Jews are fully involved in the community.
"Nowhere in the world have we ever seen a Jewish community of this size reviving from essentially nothing."
Avraham Berkowitz, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Communities in the former Soviet Union, says he felt the change most acutely during Passover this year.
Every year, the FJC co-ordinates a campaign to send kosher food products used in making Passover dishes to Jewish communities across the country.
This year's campaign was the largest ever, with 1.2 million pounds of matzo and 250,000 bottles of wine distributed nationwide.
"More and more Jews are coming out of the woodwork and they're not afraid to say so," muses Berkowitz.
"The change in Russia from 15 years ago to today is nothing short of a miracle."
Michael Mainville is a Canadian journalist based in Moscow.
In the past five years, the number of distinct Jewish communities in Russia has swelled from 87 to more than 200. Fifteen years ago, there was not a single Jewish school in all of Russia. Today, more than 15,000 students attend such schools



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