As Vladimir Putin’s war rages on for the fifth month in Ukraine and repression suffocates civil liberties back home, Russian Jews are worried they’ll soon become the Kremlin’s targets.
Jews have been fleeing Russia in droves; those who’ve stayed behind are terrified of directly criticizing the war, which Putin has cynically claimed he launched to “de-Nazify” Ukraine.
“In our congregation, we don’t talk about any political issues,” said a Moscow rabbi who asked not to be named. He added that after a 2011 crackdown on protests linked to Putin’s reelection, he ordered that politics must stay out of his synagogue, which has roughly 300 members.
“Any words which we say publicly [about the war] can be used against us as a Jewish community,” the rabbi said.
Vladimir Khanin, an associate professor at Israel’s Ariel University and an expert on the Russian Jewish diaspora, said he estimates around a third of Jews living in Russia are currently “actively” expressing their opposition to the war; most “aren’t happy” with the situation, but are too scared to speak out. He estimates that only 10 to 15 percent of Jewish people in Russia support the war — partly because 70 percent of Russian Jews live in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and most are “more liberal, more modernized” and better educated than the average Russian, he said.
Unlike Russian Orthodox leader Patriarch Kirill, whom the EU mulled sanctioning over his support of Putin’s war, Jewish religious figures have been more critical. Berel Lazar, the chief rabbi of Russia who was previously known to be friendly with Putin, called for “peace” and offered to be a mediator in the conflict. Other leading Jewish figures have made similar appeals, including the President of the Federation of Jewish Communities Alexander Boroda.
Meanwhile, Moscow’s Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, under pressure from the authorities to back the war, fled the country two weeks after the conflict began. He now lives in exile in Israel, and has said he has no plans to return to Russia, though he will remain in his position.
The longer Putin’s war drags on, the more likely he is to look for scapegoats, and Russian Jews are all too aware that the lesson from their country’s bloody history of pogroms is these scapegoats can often end up being them. In the most notorious case, the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881 unleashed a wave of anti-Semitic mob violence.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov gave a taste of what could be to come, comparing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to Adolf Hitler, who he said “also had Jewish blood.” Putin subsequently walked back on those comments, issuing a rare personal apology to Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, but Russia’s Jews were on notice.
“Due to the constant negative attitude toward us, hatred … we are used to being silent, adjusting to the current government, and [we] always keep a foreign passport at the ready,” said one 23-year-old Jewish woman from Derbent, in southern Russia, who works in retail (she asked for her name not to be used). “You never know when you’ll have to run again,” she added. “We understand that none of us are truly protected.”
While according to academics and pollsters, life for Russia’s Jews has improved since the fall of the USSR in 1991, it’s coming off a low base. In a Levada Center poll, for instance, 45 percent of Russians said they had a positive attitude toward Jews in 2021, up from 22 percent in 2010. Russians said Jews were the minority group they were most comfortable having close to them — but only 11 percent said they’re ready to have a Jewish friend, up from 3 percent in 2010.
Ilya Yablokov, a digital media lecturer at the U.K.’s Sheffield University who has written about anti-Semitism in Russia, said anti-Jewish xenophobia could flare up at any moment if the Kremlin wants it to.
“In the 1980s and 1990s, the brutal anti-Semitism of politicians was a reaction to the social polarization of Russia,” Yablokov said. “In the 2000s, things got better economically so the level of anti-Semitism went down,” he continued, with the Kremlin targeting other minority groups and making the West its No. 1 boogeyman.
But Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and the West’s retaliating sanctions, has Russian Jews fearing they’ll once again be targeted by the Kremlin.
“It’s back to the 1990s,” said Khanin, referring to a period when anti-Semitic conspiracy theories proliferated and far-right firebrand Vladimir Zhirinovsky spouted vitriol against Jews.
Starting from scratch
Fearing that the writing is on the wall and horrified by the war, many Russian Jews are seeking to flee the country.
In response, Israel has stepped up its specialized diaspora immigration program, sometimes known as Aliyah, which grants citizenship to those who can prove their relatives are Jewish up to the third generation. Waiting times at local consulates were shortened from up to nine months to a few weeks, according to an Israeli government official involved in the immigration process, who asked not to be named as they were not authorized to speak to the media. Tel Aviv also allowed refugees to apply for citizenship after arriving in Israel, which the official said “a large majority” have opted for.
According to estimates, around 165,000 Jews lived in Russia in 2019, at that time making them the sixth-largest Jewish community outside of Israel. In the first three months after Putin launched his invasion on February 24, approximately 10,000 of them were granted Israeli citizenship, the official said, compared with just 800 in as many months prior.
But adapting to life in Israel comes with its fresh set of challenges.
Olga Bakushinskaya, a 56-year-old Russian journalist who moved to Israel in 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea, started a Facebook group to help new Russian arrivals integrate into the country in 2016. She said requests for help have exploded over the past few months, with over 3,000 Russians (and Ukrainians) joining the group since February — mainly middle-class and middle-aged parents with children, who worked in academia or computer programming.
“Many made no plans and just came,” Bakushinskaya said, adding that Russians have little idea about the practicalities of living in Israel. “We’ve helped many hundreds who come to us every week.”
Bakushinskaya said she now spends up to three hours a day helping new arrivals with everything from making friends, to sorting rent, to registering their children for school. The group has also run webinars on topics including how to open bank accounts.
While many Israelis have welcomed the new arrivals, not everyone is so friendly. Bakushinskaya said she has been helping Russians who’ve been greeted with suspicion by some older Israelis who emigrated from Russia in the 1990s, who brand them as “non-Jews” since most are secular, and clash with those who criticize Israel.
Artem Budikov, a 29-year-old actor who was born and raised in Moscow and has a Jewish mother, left Russia for Israel on May 9. With no close connections in his new homeland, Budikov, who said he would not consider himself deeply religious, has been staying with a distant childhood friend since he arrived. He said he is receiving a monthly stipend of around €700 from the Israeli government, as well as subsidized Hebrew lessons, and is now looking for work.
Budikov said he made the decision to leave Russia the day after Putin declared his “special operation” in Ukraine. “It didn’t make sense in my head how this was possible and I didn’t understand how I could continue working with my mouth shut,” said Budikov. It took him a few weeks to save up the €900 he needed to buy his plane ticket out.
He gave what would be his final performance of his favorite play, Molière’s “Le Tartuffe,” in a Moscow theater, then went straight to the airport, where he flew to Sri Lanka, then on to Israel.
“No one knew that I was [acting in] my last play,” Budikov said. “It was very hard psychologically … when we took off, I was alone in my row [on the plane] and I just started crying — and I cried until I fell asleep.”