x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Moscow on the Med: the million Russians in Israel

20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian Jews who fled to Israel in the aftermath have successfully managed to stamp their own unique identity on to their adopted homeland.

Music fans gather for a Russian folk festival in northern Israel. Oded Balilty / AP Photo
Music fans gather for a Russian folk festival in northern Israel. Oded Balilty / AP Photo

TEL AVIV, ISRAEL // In parts of Israel, it's hard to find a single Hebrew sign amid a sea of Cyrillic.

Shopkeepers address customers in Russian, and their shelves are amply stocked with pork, red caviar and bottles of vodka.

Russian pop-music beats thump out of speakers at bars, and in some homes, people are as likely to be hunched over a chessboard as a computer keyboard.

The Soviet Union crumbled 20 years ago and in the aftermath, more than a million of its citizens took advantage of their Jewish roots to flee to Israel.

By virtue of their sheer numbers in a country of eight million people, and their tenacity in clinging to elements of their old way of life, these immigrants have transformed the country.

Israel has the world's third-largest Russian-speaking community outside the former Soviet Union, after the United States and Germany.

Russian-speaking emigres may not conjure up the same recognition as the country's black-hatted Orthodox Jews or gun-toting soldiers, but they are just as ubiquitous - maintaining habits more suited to the "old country" than their adopted homeland, such as wild-mushroom foraging or winter dips in the Mediterranean, the closest substitute for frigid Siberian waters.

Russian-speaking emigres and their children occupy virtually every corner of Israeli society, from academia and technology to the military and politics.

A political party formed by Israel's recently resigned foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman to cater for Russian-speaking settlers such as himself has grown from a marginal force in politics to one of its major powers, and has sent Israel lurching to the political right in the process.

The Russian-speaking community also wields huge influence in other aspects of Israeli life.

A quarter of those working in Israel's flourishing high-tech industry is a Russian-speaking immigrant, as is half of all engineers.

The world's second-ranked chess master, Belarus-born Boris Gelfand, lives in Israel, and about a quarter of Israel's Olympic coaches grew up in the former Soviet Union.

Not all newcomers found work in their professions, however. Many artists became janitors or teachers. One Moldovan trapeze artist now operates a crane.

"I love the circus very, very much, but my work is like the circus," said Irena Zagoruyko, speaking on a cellphone from the top of a 56-metre crane.

While the wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union is widely regarded as successful, there has also been friction.

Religion is a sensitive subject. Many immigrants have tenuous Jewish lineage or none at all.

There is also a certain disdain on both sides, with some immigrants saying they brought talent to a cultural backwater, and some Israelis saying the Russian-speaking immigrants brought prostitution, corruption and crime.

To some degree, many Russian speakers have insulated themselves from the broader Israeli society - with Russian bookshops, Russian restaurants, Russian television and Russian newspapers.

And they never forget the beloved Chekhov and Dostoyevsky of their motherland.

"That's why Soviet immigrants never connected to Israeli society all the way," said Roman Bronfman, a former Israeli lawmaker born in what is now Ukraine. "They felt they were connected to one of the most glorious cultures in the world."

* Associated Press