Russian-born Israelis Chase Capitalist Dreams to Moscow

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Ofer Matan

MOSCOW — It's 1 A.M. in the frozen downtown. Roman Sorkin puts a CD by Syrian-Egyptian musician Farid al-Atrash on his stereo. He stretches out on the sofa in the living room of his apartment — in a wealthy part of town in a building filled with actors who were well-known during the Soviet era — and sips a glass of wine. His cousin Yan Sorkin, a self-employed architect with good fashion sense, and Oleg Marder, a dentist with a wicked smile, sprawl beside him. They imitate Farid, singing in gibberish and trying to imitate his accent, but they know that in their Russian accents, the Oriental syllables sound like a bad joke.

In Moscow these day, you mostly hear songs in English (from the 1980s) and bits of house music. As in other cultural areas, an exaggerated, hedonistic flood of Western culture has overtaken the music. A Tel Avivian influence may be seen in the Arabesque touch that Roman Sorkin provides at the end of the dinner he hosts in his apartment. Although Sorkin has not lived in Israel since the middle of the previous decade, he still has his finger on the pulse of Tel Aviv. The years when he was considered one of the high priests of Tel Aviv’s nightlife and owned the Fetish nightclub have left their mark. Even though these days Sorkin is president of Homeland Group, a large architectural firm, evidence of his nightclub days still peeks out from behind his tailored suit.

Sorkin is the guiding spirit and link connecting dozens of Israelis, former immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union, who have been living in Moscow in recent years. His Friday night meals have become an institution among members of the scene.

About an hour before the Al-Atrash sing-along, 20 people had filled Sorkin's spacious living room. The subject of the lively conversation was the attempt to come up with a name for the business that Sergei Bashmat, a former resident of Haifa, plans to open in Moscow: a restaurant that will offer Jewish take-away food like his grandmother used to make. Marder, who works in business development for a large Russian firm, suggested several names that the others tried out.

The group’s fondness for “Jewish food” (Ashkenazic Jewish food in particular) is apparent. You need only see how quickly the plate of gefilte fish that Sorkin brought from the Chabad House delicatessen disappeared. Yulia Podolska, the CEO of Homeland Group whom Sorkin brought in from the Technion a few years ago and told that she would be managing the company he had established, followed the plate with her eyes the moment she finished greeting everyone and hurried to the table. Beside the plate of gefilte fish were bowls of various kinds of salads, together with other delicacies that Sorkin bought at the Chabad House, where he occasionally organizes large Friday night meals for Israelis and Jews in Moscow together with Chabad Rabbi Yaakov Friedman, who is in charge of providing for Israelis in Moscow.

A land of opportunity

The group around Sorkin’s table is made up of architects, hi-tech workers, filmmakers, businessmen, a physician, a journalist, a teacher and a flower arranger. Almost all of them are Jews who lived in Israel at some point in their lives — some of them for only a few years and others from high school until their late 20s. Shahar Waiser, a Russian-Israeli who founded the GetTaxi application and splits his time between Moscow and Tel Aviv, was not at Roman’s meal, but enjoyed hearing stories about it about a week later. “It’s no accident that we’re all friends,” he says. “These people and I have shared values. They were not drawn into the crazy world of status in Moscow, to the success and wealth that turn people’s heads.”

In recent years, moreand more Israelis who came to Israel from the former Soviet Union during the large immigration wave of the mid-1990s have been moving back — to Moscow. Most of them were born in the 1970s and early 1980s and are attracted to the enormous variety of options that Moscow offers in terms of career, entrepreneurial opportunity and creativity. By moving to Israel, they improved their lives, making the transition from communism, which was falling apart, to an advanced country with good schools, culture and a Western lifestyle. Now they are discovering that the Russia they have come back to is not the same one they left. Russian-speakers with Israeli academic degrees who have experience in companies with a Western work ethic, particularly international corporations, are highly sought after in Moscow.

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Yan Sorkin.Credit: Ira Kaydalina
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Russian Israeli costume designer Natasha Kanievsky-Nativ.Credit: Ira Kaydalina
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Midnight (or thereabouts) in Moscow.Credit: AP

The fact that the middle class and the upper class in Moscow are blossoming and thriving even as the middle class in Israel is crumbling has made Moscow an almost-required destination for Russian-speaking Israelis who want to develop careers and earn high salaries. The fairly low rate of income tax in Russia (only 13 percent for every citizen) makes it very easy to earn well and save. In this sense, Moscow does for Russian Israelis what New York, London and Berlin do for the native-born. A center of business, banking, culture and art, Moscow offers many more options and a preferred location for a break lasting a few months for people fed up with the Israeli pressure cooker. The Tel Aviv–Moscow route has never been so in demand, with as many as 60 flights per week from Ben-Gurion Airport. Since Israelis no longer need visas to visit Russia, and vice versa, the number of Israeli businesspeople — Russian-speaking or not — visiting Moscow has been increasing every month, and more and more Israeli businesses are opening branches in Moscow and advertising themselves to the local community.

No official Israeli agency — the Absorption Ministry, the Foreign Ministry, the embassy in Moscow or the Jewish Agency — can say how many Israelis have relocated to Moscow over the past few years. Rabbi Friedman says that about 80,000 people with Israeli passports live in Moscow today, but qualifies that by saying that most of them are not Israeli in character, but moved to Israel for a few months and never really lived there. Sorkin is convinced that the high cost of living and the economic situation in Israel are not the only reasons Russian-speaking Israelis come to Moscow. “There are few Jews here, and it’s enough to be good and work hard to succeed,” he says. “In Israel it’s hard to stand out because all the people around you are smart Jews.”

The story of orkin’s success is an excellent example of the ambition Friedman is talking about, even it does not stem from the fact that he is Jewish. Born in Kishinev, the capital of Moldova, in 1972, he immigrated to Israel when he was 19. In 1997, he opened the Fetish club together with Sasha Spivack and another partner. At the same time, he opened the trendy Dinitz Cafe and several restaurants in Prague. In 2007, laden with past debts, he sold all the restaurants he still had and moved to Moscow to start anew.

“I knew that Moscow was the place for me. That’s where all the business and money and Mercedes cars are,” he said. “As big as Moscow is, it’s like a village. Everything works on who knows you and whom you know, and I didn’t know a soul. I decided to introduce myself to people as a serious businessman. I worked on my accent and wore good suits.”

Roman established the Homeland architectural firm together with his cousin Yan Sorkin, who also moved to Moscow after studying architecture and design in Israel and New York. Homeland gradually gained momentum, hired employees and got jobs in various fields including architecture, engineering, road and bridge planning, infrastructure for malls and skyscrapers and land development. Seven years after its establishment, Homeland employs 300 people and receives a great deal of work from Moscow and other municipalities throughout Russia.

“The atmosphere in the city is becoming more and more Western, but people still need to be bribed at every stage of the project, definitely,” he says. “Sometimes several people who share an office have to be paid, and each person doesn’t know that the other got money, too. It took time for me to get used to that. I’m not a corrupt person, but now I’m swimming in it.”

Putin and the Jews

One of the interesting things about the community of young Israelis in Moscow is their political awareness. Every person I spoke to about President Vladimir Putin’s style of government and the chances that one day a large-scale civil protest might erupt in an attempt to throw him out of office said that as Israelis and Jews, they actually found the situation rather comfortable. Marder, who works in business development, said, “If there is a social revolution in Russia — and I can understand, looking from the outside, why it would seem necessary — it could definitely endanger the situation of Jews and awaken anti-Semitism. When things are shaken up in Russia, anti-Semitism always comes into it. Putin invests a lot of effort into preventing anti-Semitism, and it is important to him to keep up good relations with the Jewish and Israeli community here.

Sorkin, an architect and interior designer, specializes in technological design and sustainable architecture. A few years ago, he was sitting in a pub in Moscow when he suddenly heard choking sounds. He turned to see a young woman on the floor, her face turning blue. He rolled up his sleeves and revived her. Her friend shouted for joy and asked him where he had learned to do it. “In the Israeli army, in the Border Police,” he said. He and the friend late married.

“I served in the Border Police battalion stationed at the Western Wall during the time of the Oslo Accords,” he says apathetically. “I got there by accident. I had immigrated to Israel the year before and had no idea what the Border Police was. I’m still not sure what I think about that period now, but I know that it helped me in life. There were a few times in Moscow when my past in the army brought me respect.”

After a period of study in New York while working in artistic design for productions and styling for fashion catalogue photos, Sorkin returned to Israel in 2000, enrolled in the Faculty of Design at the Holon Institute of Technology and tried to break into the interior design field in Israel. “People in Israel treat interior design like a hobby, like something they can look down on. In many design jobs that I got, the art director would show me a photo from the Internet and say, ‘This is how it will look.’ There was no attempt at real creativity — only duplication of things that were successful abroad.”

In 2007, the year Roman left Israel, Yan decided to move to Moscow. “I bought a one-way ticket on New Year’s Day and have stayed ever since,” he says. “I discovered a design scene here that is open and creative and accepts people from outside, not a closed clique like in Israel,” he recalls. Sorkin says that the gap between the openness of the design industry in Moscow and its closed nature in Israel is present in other areas of life. “If you go into a bar in Moscow and people realize you’re a foreigner, that makes them interested in you, and a conversation develops. In Israel everyone wants to be alone with their own crowd. There’s no interest in meeting new people, and definitely not foreigners. The style of work in Israel drove me crazy, too. There’s always time pressure because everything happens at the last minute, and everybody suffers from that. In Moscow, the projects are well-organized and thorough. The thing that drives me the craziest is money. In Israel, it’s not enough that the pay is low, but you also get paid two or three months after you were supposed to.”

From Israel to Russia with love

Natasha Kanievsky-Nativ, a costume designer, arrived Wednesday evening for a premiere screening at the Pioneer Cinema movie complex in Moscow, which shows art films. For her, the event is a two-for-one deal: She gets to mingle and also spend quality time with her parents. Her father, Vladimir Kanievsky, is one of Russia’s best-known actors. Natasha came to Israel at the age of 13 after her father received an offer to join the Gesher Theater. “Gradually, he started taking more and more film roles in Russia, and then, seven years ago, he got an offer to host a television program. Since then, he and my mother have been living in Moscow,” she says. In the early 2000s, after completing her studies in stage design at Tel Aviv University, she began working as a costume designer for fringe productions. “Even though I worked extremely hard, I still couldn’t make ends meet,” she says. “I felt that it wasn’t art anymore, but a struggle to survive. At a certain point, people in Moscow began to be interested in me, and I got an offer to design costumes for a huge satirical musical in a repertory theater. I moved here for the production, which ran for six months.”

Kanievsky-Nativ lived on the Moscow–Tel Aviv line for a time, and the number of offers to work on stage and film productions increased from month to month. After she married and became pregnant in Israel, she went to Moscow for a visit and was amazed at the number of offers she received. A year ago, she and her husband decided to move to Moscow permanently. She makes an interesting comparison between the film, theater and television industries in Moscow and in Israel. On the one hand, Moscow offers much more work in the field, while on the other, the Israeli industry has a greater advantage in terms of quality, which finds expression in the number of good films in relation to the total number of films produced per year. “Salaries in Moscow’s film industry are higher than in Israel. In theater, that’s not always the case, and here people don’t ask you to work almost for free and kill yourself over a production because it’s really important and your friend is directing it, as happens many times in Israel.”

Anatoly Tsoir, the owner of an investment firm, has been living in Moscow for almost a decade, though his children live in Israel with his ex-wife. As they drive every morning from their home in Tel Aviv to the Walworth Barbour American International School in Even Yehuda, he is sitting in his office in the heart of the banking and government offices district in downtown Moscow. When I ask how well his children are doing in Hebrew, he opens an application on his cellphone that allows him to see their grades and reports: “My daughter got an 83 in Hebrew!”

He says he came to Israel at the age of 18 with his family. “My parents decided to move there, and I said: Why not? We moved to Be’er Ya’akov, where my grandmother was already living, and it was difficult,” he says. “I lived in St. Petersburg. I had money and girls and everything, and then I landed in Be’er Ya’akov. That’s all. I don’t need to say another word about it. Depression — certainly, depression. After a week, I told myself that I wasn’t staying there another minute, and I moved to Jerusalem.” He studied economics at the Hebrew University. When he got an offer to work at the Republic National Bank of New York, he moved to the United States with his wife and lived there for six years. When he got a good job offer from a privately-owned bank in Moscow some time later, he didn't hesitate for a moment.

“In Israel, there is simply no work, and I have two children to feed. How can I compare?” he says. “How much does a bank employee with a good job make in Israel? Eighteen thousand shekels a month? How can anyone pay rent and support children and all on 18,000 shekels? I didn’t like the stigmas against Russians. My wife and I had a hard time renting an apartment, because people didn’t want to rent to Russians. I don’t want to speak badly of Israel, but it’s a very hard place to succeed in if you don’t have connections. I respect the people who served in the army in Israel and all that, but everything in Israel works by family connections and connections from the army. I visit Israel about once a month, sometimes less, and I don’t feel at home there. I love the restaurants in Tel Aviv, that’s true, but the prices there are as insane as they are in Moscow, and the service is awful.”

A famous Sorkin house party.Credit: Ira Kaydalina

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