MOSCOW (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Jews who fled oppression in the former Soviet Union are returning to Russia to make the most of an economic boom, even though a new strain of anti-Semitism is emerging in their old homeland.
Around one million Jews fled during the Soviet era and the post-communist chaos. Those returning now from Israel, the United States and Europe hope to use their new skills and old knowledge to do business.
“Now there are services here, like in New York and Paris, but the lifestyle is more interesting than in either of them — it’s easy to understand why thousands are coming back,” said Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the Russian Jewish Congress.
Hard statistics on Jews returning to Russia do not exist, said Satanovsky, but anecdotal evidence is there. He estimates 80,000-120,000 Russian Jews have returned, plus many more who originated in other Soviet republics.
“If you look at industry or banking you’ll find thousands of families who have come back,” he said.
The Israeli embassy in Moscow estimates around 90,000 of its citizens live in Russia.
“New Russian corporations are now hunting for managers from all over the world who have western experience and a Russian background. These emigrants know the language, the lifestyle, so it’s very easy for them to integrate,” Satanovsky said.
But the end of the Soviet Union also gave rise to a new phenomenon for Russia’s Jews: skinheads and far-right groups who daub swastikas on walls and throw petrol bombs through synagogue windows.
In the 17 years since Soviet rule collapsed, attacks on Russia’s Jewish population of around one million and their property have been increasing in both number and severity, say community leaders and human rights organizations.
Last year, they included the vandalizing of a synagogue in the far eastern port of Vladivostok, the spray-painting of “Holocaust 2007” on a Jewish centre in Arctic Murmansk, upturned gravestones in the south and an assault on a visiting Canadian rabbi.
“In Russia there exists ‘bytovoi’ anti-Semitism, literally meaning everyday or household, which is grassroots anti-Semitism, which is the main problem,” Pinchas Goldschmidt, Moscow’s chief rabbi and chairman of the European Conference of Rabbis, told Reuters.
“This is attacks on synagogues, spontaneous attacks on cemeteries, etc ... In Russia, we fear the skinheads and neo-Nazis,” said Goldschmidt, a native of Switzerland who moved to Russia in 1989.
Anti-Semitism reared its head during Russian presidential election campaigns earlier this year, when dozens of websites and forums appeared saying candidates were Jewish.
The most severe attacks were directed at president-elect Dmitry Medvedev, who was cast as having Jewish roots and therefore unfit to run the country.
Sites used pejorative words to describe him, asked surfers to compare his face to well-known Jewish billionaires and said Medvedev would favor Israeli foreign policy in Russia’s dealings with Iran and other Muslim states.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has been explicit in his condemnation of anti-Semitism. On a 2005 visit to the Nazi death camp Auschwitz and Polish city Krakow, he said he was “ashamed” of anti-Semitism in his own country.
Rights campaigners link the new anti-Semitism to the social turmoil that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“This is a country where the social safety net disappeared overnight,” said Mark Levin, executive director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry (NCSJ), a U.S. group.
“A lot of young people didn’t see a future, and these (neo-Nazi) groups give them a sense of belonging and community in some ways and a structure,” he said.
SOVA, a Russian NGO that tracks racist crime, estimates there were 632 racially motivated attacks and 67 murders in Russia in 2007.
Anti-Semitism is just one strand of that: most attacks are on dark-skinned immigrants, many of them Muslims, from ex-Soviet republics in the Caucasus and Central Asia.
“Race-hate violence is increasing in Russia. We have noticed that 50 percent of people in Russia have xenophobic tendencies, and if someone is a nationalist, he will naturally be an anti-Semite,” said SOVA’s director, Alexander Verkhovsky.
While a law exists against inciting racism, it is rarely applied, say anti-racism groups. Most hate crimes are classified only as “hooliganism” by the authorities, say campaigners.
“What the community would like to see is the full implementation and willingness of state authorities to go after these (skinhead) elements which are a danger,” Rabbi Goldschmidt said.
Russian Jews have experienced anti-Semitism for centuries.
Empress Catherine the Great attempted to remove Russia’s Jews to the Pale of Settlement, an area on the western fringes of the Russian empire.
In 19th century pogroms Jews were killed, raped and robbed and their villages razed. Many fled westwards.
Later, the Soviet leadership was suspicious of the Jewish community because of its links to a world Jewish movement that was based in the West. In the 1970s and 80s, there was a one million-strong exodus.
Ari Rozichner moved to Israel from Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, with his parents as a boy in the early 1970s.
“The main difference between my immigration wave and that of the 90s was conceptual,” he says, adding that his parents had believed in a Jewish state, while a later generation left “because supermarket shelves were empty”.
“Israel has a nice climate — it’s better than winter in Moscow with the black snow,” he said.
After working in Israel, the United States and Japan, he has settled in Moscow as an associate vice president of sales with Gilat satellite networks. His clients include state agencies which want to bring the Internet to remote Siberian schools.
“I have one foot here, one foot there. My family is in Israel, it’s a different life for them, whereas Moscow is a huge megapolis, the distances are huge, to get by is not easy and life is very expensive,” he said.
But “there are more opportunities here, Israel is like a village,” he said from his offices in a Moscow suburb.
Apart from the economic transformation, Rozichner says there has been a dramatic change in the official attitude to Jews, who once had a letter ‘J’ marked in their internal Soviet passports.
“In Russia now, I feel very comfortable as a Jew.”
Holocaust Day, January 27, was marked in Moscow schools for the first time this year. Kremlin-friendly Russian billionaire and Jewish European Congress President Moshe Kantor initiated the programme with the Moscow government.
“We are already seeing concrete steps in the right direction,” added Rabbi Goldschmidt.
Reporting by Amie Ferris-Rotman and Conor Sweeney; editing by Andrew Roche