Uneasy about future in Russia, ‘Putin’s Jews’ seek quiet exit
Disenchantment takes root among members of a Moscow upper class torn between staying put and rebuilding their lives abroad
MOSCOW — A short drive outside of Moscow, luxury shopping malls stand out against the heirloom forest, their large glass windows advertising Ferrari and Prada. Russian President Vladimir Putin and many senior civil servants travel this route to their dachas (summer homes) in convoys of black limousines with blaring sirens.
A suburban development another 15 minutes out looks like a showcase for life in Russia’s upper middle class. Businessmen, bureaucrats, journalists, a prominent event producer, a lobbyist, and bankers all live here.
A high-ranking government bureaucrat lives in a large mansion at the far end of the development. The handyman who takes care of the property is Ukrainian, but over the last half a year, since Russia occupied Crimea, he has been telling people that he is Belorussian.
One mansion houses a family of refugees from Ukrainian Slovyansk, a city taken by pro-Russian rebels who have since fled. The family’s Ukraine apartment was requisitioned by pro-Russian separatists ahead of heavy fighting with Ukrainian government troops in early May. When a firing point was established in their living room, the family left their home and came to Moscow to stay with friends.
Jewish families living here have seen most of their peers leave Russia during the big waves of Jewish emigration in the Seventies and especially early Nineties. For those who stayed, the Nineties offered a unique window of opportunity: With rapid democratization of political institutions and sweeping economic reforms, that decade was a window into what Russia could become.
Today looks different and the Jews are uneasy about the future. Their grown children live abroad in the US, Western Europe, and Israel. Some left on a scholarship, some took a job offer, and others simply decided to build their lives elsewhere.
The homeowners say the increasingly restrictive policies in every area, from tax law to freedom of speech, now push them as well as many other Russians today toward eventual emigration — or at least securing a foreign citizenship as a back up option.
Israel is an obvious destination for all age brackets of Moscow Jews, both thanks to the ease of moving there and because of its geographic proximity. Virtually everyone who identifies as Jewish has family or friends in Israel, and has visited at least once.
Many Moscow Jews also own property in Israel, bought either as an investment or with a view to future aliyah. Emigration or aliyah for the older people within this largely affluent group will mean starting anew lives that they have already rebuilt once after the fall of the Soviet Union.
However, according to a source at the Jewish Agency Moscow office, aliyah from Moscow accounts for about 35% of all aliyah from Russia, with the first quarter of 2014 seeing a 30% rise in applications from the capital. The statistics do not include Russian citizens who come to Israel as tourists and change status once in the country.
The strike at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs earlier this year meant the Israeli Embassy in Moscow suspended all services to the public between March 5 and April 3. The strike put hundreds of people in limbo, and created a backlog of consular appointments up to November 2014.
While it is Nativ employees and not MFA diplomats who process aliyah applications in Russia, Nativ, a semi-clandestine government agency, could not provide services in Moscow in solidarity with the MFA. As a result, the embassy remained closed to visitors for a month.
Those early on in the immigration process were unable to file their applications and those who already had dates for consular appointments — a requirement for aliyah approval — had them indefinitely postponed.
With an average age of 36, this new wave of aliyah from Moscow consists largely of people who benefitted the most from Russia’s fast economic growth. Today they are torn between an array of business opportunities available in the large Russian market and the understanding that limitations put on civil society there will eventually affect all aspects of life. While they are considering channeling their creative energies outside of Russia, they are reluctant to make swift changes, and feel ambivalent about living in Israel.
Ilya Agron, an entrepreneur in his late twenties, spoke with The Times of Israel shortly after Crimea was annexed by Russia while over 100,000 people cheered at a government-sponsored rally in the Red Square. The crowds gathered under a giant “One People – One Country” slogan. Agron points out that this direct quote from Goebbels’ “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer” (One People, One Empire, One Leader) was widely used in Nazi propaganda on the eve of and throughout WW II.
“Ninety-eight percent of Russians support current policies and enjoy the revival of state-encouraged patriotism,” he says. “We, the remaining two percent that care about liberal values, are not part of the mainstream.”
On the same day, in another throwback to Nazi-era rhetoric, Putin called those who criticize his policies “national traitors.”
Agron feels this is a clear message to him and his social circle. He does not see himself permanently living in Moscow in the future, yet he is not ready to leave just now.
Masha Liberman, a woman in her mid-thirties who is also active in the Moscow start-up scene, has taken a step that Agron is hesitant about. Liberman and her extended family have applied for and gained Israeli citizenship. The process took them a year and involved a couple of trips to Israel.
Both Liberman and Agron say many of their friends who are self-employed are considering relocating their businesses to Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin, and, the most courageous of all, says Agron, to Tel Aviv. They believe that exit visas, abolished in the USSR in 1990, might be reintroduced by Russia’s current government to keep an eye on who goes where and to prevent those disloyal to the regime from traveling overseas at all.
Liberman does not believe Israel is an attractive destination for business and she says that her view reflects that of many others who acquire citizenship but do not plan on being based in Israel for professional reasons.
“Business people feel that Israel is a socialist country,” she explains, clearly using the word “socialist” in a pejorative sense. “One feels that the country does not want to move forward. Perhaps this has to do with the tiny internal market, or with the fact that Israelis have reached a certain level of economic wellbeing and are now scared of change.”
At the same time, Liberman says that whatever she does next professionally, it is better to be Israeli than Russian.
“Russian citizenship repels business partners,” she explains. “My position is not at all ideological, but every day there are disturbing developments. The red line has been crossed – a state-funded TV station has threatened the US with a nuclear attack. This is more worrying than annexation of Crimea. We feel that we are being pushed out of Russia.”
Liberman and many of her friends have been attending rallies advocating pro-Western reform and social change in Russia over the past few years.
“All we want is to be productive in a society that is both humane and forward-looking,” says Liberman.
‘All we want is to be productive in a society that is both humane and forward-looking’
For many people in her social circle, initial civic activism related to day to day necessities, for instance, lobbying the city to install handicapped access to public buildings. After years of futile attempts, however, what started as non-partisan activism turned into a political position.
“The changes for the better are not happening fast enough. People around me see what is going on [politically] as an idiotic obstacle to what should be a normal, productive life for our generation. The disadvantages of staying in Russia are now outweighing the advantages,” says Liberman.
David Nazarov, a money manager in his early forties, echoes her thoughts where business is concerned, but feels that Israel is still the right place to raise a family.
“I would love to see my children and grandchildren grow up in Israel. The country is tiny and surrounded by enemies, yet I feel much safer in Israel than in Russia. It is because of the people, because I know I am in a Jewish state. In Moscow I constantly feel that something [bad] might happen. In Israel, there is a feeling of total safety,” says Nazarov.
“Against this background, all of the internal strife in Israel, the tensions between the right and the left, the secular and the religious, become unimportant. I am trying to structure my life so that I can at least partly be based in Israel,” Nazarov says.
Back in the suburbs, the nightingales are singing in the dark and people walk their dogs, stopping to greet each other.
“We live one day at a time,” says one of the Jewish neighbors. “We are dependent on policies set in the Kremlin, and no one can be certain of what will happen tomorrow.”
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