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Years After Borders Open, Russian Jews Rethink Staying Home

Emigration: A groundswell of anti- Semitism is giving pause to many who chose to remain during mass departures of the early '90s.

January 31, 1999|MITCHELL LANDSBERG | ASSOCIATED PRESS

MOSCOW — Ten years ago, Mark Levit had good reason to want to leave Russia.

As a Jew, he had seen a promising scientific career derailed by blatant anti-Semitism. As a believer in democracy, he had been ill-served by Soviet communism. And as a talented mathematician and computer scientist, he surely had the credentials to find good work in the West.

But Levit saw hope where others saw only a country in ruins. So when Jews and non-Jews began leaving Russia in the early 1990s as the Soviet Union collapsed, he stayed, hoping to rebuild Russia.

Today, Levit has given up. Scary brushes with a new grass-roots anti-Semitism--a back-alley beating, anonymous threats at work, swastikas drawn on his door at home--have convinced him he has no future here.

"I can't say that I am beaten or spat upon every day," he said. "There are a lot of good people in Russia. But I can't feel secure here anymore. . . . That is why I want to emigrate."

By applying for admission to the United States, Levit is typical in at least one way. Today, as during the last days of the Soviet Union, most Russians who seek a new life in the United States are Jews who apply under the relatively liberal refugee provisions enacted during the Cold War.

The 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union, and the loosening of the bonds that kept Soviet citizens from leaving their country, opened floodgates that poured a steady stream of emigres into the West.

That stream has slowed considerably. Today, Russia receives far more immigrants than it sends to other countries--ethnic Russians coming from other parts of the former Soviet Union. And among those who leave Russia, far more go to neighboring ex-Soviet states than to the West.

Still, enough Russians seek a new life abroad that there is a weekly newspaper--Inostronyets (Foreigner)--dedicated solely to those planning to emigrate to the West. Every day, lines form at some Western embassies.

Germany has seen a huge influx of ethnic Germans whose families had lived in Russia for two, three or more generations. Israeli society has been transformed by Russian immigrants who were considered Jewish by the Soviet and Russian governments, even though many had only a passing acquaintance with the religion of their forebears.

Many emigres, too, have found their way to swelling Russian enclaves in New York and other U.S. cities, as well as Canada.

So far, Russia's economic crisis, which began last year and turned disastrous in August when the ruble was devalued, has not led to sharply increased demand to leave the country.

"Intuitively, one would think there would be an increase," said David Firestein, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy. "Instead, the demand for immigrant visas and nonimmigrant visas has remained quite steady."

That's partly because strict immigration rules in many countries make it hard for more Russians to move.

"The interest is very high, but the possibility of these people to get an American visa is very low," said Pavel Timoshen, a Moscow lawyer who specializes in immigration law.

There could be other reasons as well.

Galina Vitkovskaya, a migration scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the economic crisis might actually keep people from leaving by making it harder for them to afford it.

"The worsening of your social and material life can be an obstacle on the way to a new life," she said.

Vitkovskaya suggested that those leaving now are more likely motivated by fear of social and political instability than by hope for better economic opportunities.

That appears to be the case in Russia's Jewish community.

Ron Armon, press secretary for the Israeli Embassy, noted that Jewish emigration to Israel from Russia had slowed substantially in recent years after peaking at just under 25,000 in 1992.

Armon said it had appeared that most people who wanted to go to Israel had already gone; the Jews remaining were mostly those who weren't motivated to leave.

Then, he said, "In the last two or three months, I would say, we've had a small reversal of this process, and I would say we have doubled the number of people who call or come to the embassy to consult about immigration."

The number of Russians actually moving to Israel has increased by 10% to 15%, apparently in reaction to growing anti-Semitic rhetoric in Russia, he said.

Many Jews were especially shaken when a member of parliament, Albert Makashov, delivered a speech blaming Jews for the country's problems and seemed to advocate violence against them. When liberal lawmakers tried to pass a resolution condemning the remarks, it was soundly defeated by Communists and nationalists who expressed support for Makashov.

It is this environment that people like Mark Levit are trying to escape.

Russians emigrating to the United States fall into one of several categories.

There are those with immediate family members in the United States, a category that includes Russians who marry Americans. Increasingly, there are Russian babies adopted by Americans--4,676 in 1997.

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