Russians search for Jewish roots to flee Putin’s army draft for Israel

Genealogists trace Jewish ancestry for Russians seeking move to Israel and private agencies pop up to facilitate emigration as tens of thousands run from Ukraine mobilization

The archive of the tracing and information center of the Russian Red Cross in Moscow, September 29, 2022.
(Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP)
The archive of the tracing and information center of the Russian Red Cross in Moscow, September 29, 2022. (Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP)

AFP — At a Red Cross center in Moscow, a dark-haired woman nervously held a phone to her ear, trying to dig out details about her Jewish roots to help her son flee President Vladimir Putin’s drive to mobilize troops to fight in Ukraine.

“Mum, your grandfather Moishe was born in 1870, like Lenin, right?” she asked.

“Getting an Israeli passport is the only way for my son not to go to fight in Ukraine,” the exhausted woman, who declined to give her name for security reasons, explained to AFP.

Tens of thousands of Russians have fled the country since Putin sent troops to Ukraine in February and then announced a nationwide military call-up in September.

Many have scrambled to find their Jewish roots to open up the doors to Israel. Under Israel’s Law of Return, anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent is eligible for Israeli citizenship, as are people who convert to Judaism.

One of them is 32-year-old Ivan Mitrofanov, frantically looking for proof that his grandparents were Jewish.

As an IT worker, he is so far exempt from the first wave of mobilization announced on September 21 after a series of Russian military defeats in Ukraine.

But Mitrofanov said he is “rushing to leave as long as the borders are open.”

Ukrainian soldiers sit on an armored vehicle as they drive on a road between Izium and Lyman, recently retaken areas in Ukraine, on October 4, 2022. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

Most Russians expect more mobilization waves and some fear authorities will introduce martial law or close borders to men of military age.

Mitrofanov thinks Israel is a better choice than Europe.

“In Europe, my Russian passport is toxic. I’ll go to Israel where we’re actually wanted,” he said.

This new wave of emigration to Israel is so large that Moscow bureaucrats are starting to get tired.

Tatiana Kalazhnikova, who works at a municipal administration office in western Moscow, said “90 percent of our clients come to look for their Jewish origins.”

Authorities have criticized Russians rushing to leave the country as unpatriotic and Kalazhnikova is not impressed.

“They want to leave Russia… for Israel where war never ends,” she said sarcastically.

Jewish immigrants fleeing from war zones in Ukraine arrive at the Israeli immigration and absorption office, at the Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv, on March 15, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

More than one million of Israel’s 9.4 million residents have roots in the former Soviet Union.

Israel has said immigration applications from Russia and Ukraine have tripled since the conflict started.

The Central Bureau of Statistics counted 20,000 arrivals from Russia and more than 12,000 from Ukraine since the end of February.

Faced with an avalanche of departures, Russia in July ordered the dissolution of the Jewish Agency, which helps Jews emigrate, accusing it of breaking the law. The case sparked a major diplomatic crisis with Israel and is still unresolved.

Some Russian celebrities — including Russia’s pop queen Alla Pugacheva and her comedian husband Maxim Galkin — have left for Israel.

The announcement of a chaotic and often random mobilization led to a new exodus, with tens of thousands flocking to the borders of Georgia and Kazakhstan for weeks.

Russians arrive in Kazakhstan at the Syrym border crossing point on September 27, 2022. (AFP)

In a sign of just how many are choosing Israel, five new private agencies have opened to help Russians emigrate.

Others are resorting to genealogists to help them find any trace of Jewish roots.

Vladimir Paley, who specializes in Jewish genealogy, said he has received “10 times more requests” from both Russians and Ukrainians since the start of the conflict.

“With the mobilization, I mainly reply to the calls of mothers looking to expatriate their sons,” the 55-year-old said.

There have been many waves of emigration to Israel from Russia and the former Soviet Union.

But this one is “out of fear and disgust,” one of Paley’s clients, 40-year-old Mikhail, said.

Vladimir Paley, 55, a genealogist who specializes in Jewish genealogy, speaks during an AFP interview in Moscow on September 26, 2022. (Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP)

A history teacher and author, Mikhail never thought of leaving. Putin’s mobilization changed that and he wants to emigrate with his wife and child.

But moving out — often a decision taken in a matter of hours — has also caused families to break up.

Andrei Trubetskoy, a 58-year-old former official of the Russian interior ministry, said he understood in February that he “no longer wanted to have anything to do” with his own country.

With his historian wife, he searched archives only to discover by chance details of his great-grandfather who was a Hasidic Jew.

The couple were preparing their file and started learning Hebrew.

But, at the last moment, his wife refused and the couple divorced. Now he plans to leave alone.

“The decision to leave is often impulsive,” said Lyubov Borussyak, a sociologist at the Free Moscow University.

She has surveyed 150 families who had chosen to leave since February.

“Their goal is not to move to another country, but to leave Russia,” she said. “It’s an emigration of panic and fear.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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