The Russian Immigrants Who Left Israel and Are Making It Back in Moscow

Three decades after the mass immigration from the former Soviet Union, many of the younger generation are still unable to integrate into Israeli society and some are even trying their luck back in Moscow

People walk in Red Square in Moscow, Russia, December 4, 2018.
Alexander Zemlianichenko,AP

In the freezing-cold Moscow weather, Anisim Braude rubs his hands vigorously while try to light a cigarette. Outside it is minus-3 degrees Celsius, a temperature he should be familiar with – but he says the 11 years he spent in Israel have changed something inside him.

“When I was in Israel, I suffered from the heat in a bad way. Because of that I decided to live in Jerusalem, since there is some relief there in the evening, even after the hottest day,” says Braude. "During my last year in Israel I suddenly got used to it and the heat became normal for me. Now, after I've returned here, I haven't been able to get used to the cold again. Like I suffered from the heat in Israel – now I’m suffering from the cold in Russia.”

I met Braude, 34, in the center of Moscow at what was once a marketplace during the communist era, but morphed into a fashionable food court in the style of the Sarona Market in Tel Aviv and like those in other large cities around the world. You can find everything here, and with breathtaking abundance. At one stand, a huge variety of different cuts of meat are spread out for everyone to see; at another there is an array of fresh breads and cakes; and not far away a long line has formed for hearty Vietnamese soup with everything in it. Nearby is an impressive seafood and fish display, with live crabs crawling about in an aquarium.

Anisim Braude
Shuki Sadeh

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Among all this abundance is Braude’s stand with Israeli-style food. The most popular thing on offer, not surprisingly, is of course hummus, but you can also buy sabich (an egg-and-fried eggplant sandwich), kebab, shakshuka, falafel and a chicken dish, too. If you ask for it, there is also Turkish coffee. This is Braude’s fourth location in Moscow; he launched it two years ago when the food market opened. Over the bar at the stand is a green neon sign proclaiming the name: Hummus Moscow-Jerusalem.

Braude immigrated to Israel in 2001, at age 17, without his parents. He served in a combat unit in the Israel Defense Forces, and later studied Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at university. At the same time, he worked as a security guard in the Old City of Jerusalem for the religious Ateret Cohanim settlement organization.

At a certain stage, he went with his girlfriend, who is now his wife, on a trip to Russia and now they have been living there for the past six years. Their move was precisely planned.

“When I lived in Jerusalem, a friend of mine came from Moscow for a visit,” recalls Braude. “I prepared hummus for him at home. He asked, half jokingly, why I don’t come to make hummus in Moscow. But then everything began to move ahead seriously. I traveled to Moscow for some event that he organized – food stands at a music festival, something relatively small. The stand was pretty successful and people were interested. When I came back to Israel, I had just finished my degree and didn’t know what to do. I thought about going to Berlin or Australia, but it didn’t work out. I told myself I would cut out for Moscow.”

Braude and his wife arrived in the city with $600. Today he has 30 employees.

Land of possibilities

In contrast to the wave of immigration to Israel from the Soviet Union in the 1990s, when hundreds of thousands arrived straight from a communist country, Braude emigrated from a Russia that had begun opening up to the West and becoming capitalist. He had became acquainted with Zionism at a youth club run by the Jewish Agency.

“We were a large group of dozens of young Jews in Moscow," he says, "and within a few years, between 2000 and 2004, 80 percent made aliyah to Israel. But most returned to Russia after a year, or two or three.”

Why?

Braude: “Today Moscow is like the United States. It’s somewhere where you can find fulfillment, a lot of possibilities. You can make money, advance and study. With all my love for Israel, here in Moscow things run in a more convenient way.” It's only possible to succeed in Israel in one field, he adds. “If I were a computer programmer, I would stay in Israel,” but if you major in humanities, it’s harder, "at least when you’re young."

Braude is one of some 100,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union who immigrated to Israel since the 1990s – but left. Some 40,000 to 45,000 of them have returned to the Federation of Independent States, a group of nine Russian-speaking countries. Others emigrated to the United States, Canada, Germany and elsewhere, according to the chief scientist of the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, Dr. Ze’ev (Vladimir) Khanin.

Other sources say that 150,000 to 200,000 of these olim have left Israel, and 80,000 returned to the FSU. Part of the reason it is so difficult to come up with an accurate estimate is that many of them are businesspeople plying the route between Israel and Russia, or they visit Israel frequently – even after they have gone back to live overseas.

In 2008, the requirement that Israelis have a visa to enter Russia was rescinded, which greatly increased the flood of flights and travelers, not to mention commercial ties between the two countries. Between 2004 and 2014, until international sanctions were imposed after it invaded Crimea, Russia enjoyed economic prosperity. Even with the economic downturn there over the past four years, anyone who has gone back to Moscow after growing up in that city when it was the capital of the Iron Curtain and of repression – while at the same time being the one place striving to realize the vision of equality for all – cannot help but be impressed by it.

Only a generation after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow is a global city in every way. Under almost any government other than that of Vladimir Putin, it would certainly be an even bigger attraction. But it still offers opportunities to huge corporations, as well as to successful startups – the presence of the Israeli ride-sharing taxi service Gett is evident on every corner (some of its founders are Russian Israelis) – in addition to those who grew up in Russian civilization and are looking to fulfill their small dreams in this enormous city.

High cost of Israeli life

Natalia Baruta, 42, owns a bridal wear and evening gown shop in central Moscow. In Israel, she owned a business that necessitated daily interaction with the public: She and her husband owned a café on trendy Sheinkin Street in Tel Aviv.

Natalia Baruta
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“I made borscht there – the Israelis loved it,” says Baruta, who arrived in Israel from Ukraine in the mid-1990s and stayed on for eight years. She was married to another new immigrant who came with his parents, at the time; they had a daughter, divorced and then Baruta remarried and had a son. In 2003 she left with her second husband and son, who is now 14. Today, mostly because of her daughter who still lives in Israel, Baruta visits once or twice a year and keeps in touch with friends who come to visit in Moscow – something that happens quite a lot with returnees.

While studying East Asian studies and French at Tel Aviv University, Baruta worked at odd jobs. The difficulties of integrating into Israeli society are seared into her memory. It was not only the difficulty of learning the language, she explains: “I’m also not Jewish and I had a lot of bureaucratic problems. At first I suffered from the Israeli attitude.”

She says she worked for a year at a jewelry store in Ben Gurion International Airport, along with eight Israeli women and their salaries were all based on how much they sold. It was a very competitive place.

Baruta: “During my first week on the job, suddenly, one of the saleswomen came up to me and asked me: ‘Tell me, why are all the Russian women whores?’ Right to my face! I didn’t know what to do.”

For most of the time she's been back in Russia, Baruta has enjoyed economic prosperity and a steady stream of satisfied customers has left her with quite a bit of money in her pocket. But Baruta says she has felt a change in the past few years: “Since the invasion of Ukraine in 2014 and the fall of the ruble, I have had a lot less customers in the store.” She and her husband are even considering the possibility of returning to Israel, but when they look into what's involved, they realize it will be very difficult.

“We ask ourselves – where will we live? How will make money? That’s a problem. We don’t have an apartment, and it’s impossible to buy one. The prices in Tel Aviv, the place we like to live, are completely insane. If we want to return, it is clear we will need to take a big financial step forward here in Moscow," says Bruta, "which will bring in a lot of money and allow us to leave."

Suspect Jewishness

The immigrants who left the Soviet Union in the 1990s are considered to be a success story in Israel, in general. An index devised by the Ruppin Academic Center, which examines the degree of integration of different groups, shows major improvement when it comes to the standard of living and employment situation of these olim, as compared to the period in when they made aliyah. But at the same time, the index shows that immigrants from the FSU express the highest level of dissatisfaction (along with Israeli Arabs) with respect to life in Israel when compared to other communities.

Research conducted over the years among Russian immigrants, mostly the younger generation, reveal mixed feelings about their lives here. Prof. Larissa Remennick of Bar-Ilan University and Dr. Anna Prashizky of Western Galilee College published an article in the Journal of Modern Jewish Studies last October, about a study in which 650 individuals belonging to “Generation 1.5” (young adults born in the FSU, who made aliyah as older children or adolescents) were asked about life in Israel. One-third of them owned homes and most worked in the so-called free professions.

One finding the researchers noted was that the members of this intermediate generation were particularly concerned about the influence the Chief Rabbinate had over their personal lives in matters such as marriage and divorce – because half of these young Russians are of a mixed religious background and 30 percent are not even recognized as Jews by the rabbinate. They were also worried about the lack of pension funds saved by their parents, who worked hard all their lives in the Soviet Union but were forced during their golden years to move down the social ladder – as opposed to veteran Israeli senior citizens who can help out their children financially.

Some of those surveyed said they were bothered by what they saw as discrimination in the job market against the Russian-speaking public, which is restricted to certain extent by a glass ceiling. Over half said they were bullied and excluded in school because of their Russian background, although that figure fell as they grew older.

The study also showed that 46 percent felt that being Russian olim negatively affected their chances for success and their social mobility in Israel – and over 50 percent said they were would consider leaving the country for somewhere that would offer better rewards for their education and skills. That figure compares to only 10 to 15 percent among individuals of the same age who were born in Israel.

Prof. Karin Amit, head of the program on immigration and social integration at Ruppin Academic Center, published research in 2017 that examined the inclination to leave Israel – as opposed to actually leaving – among Generation 1.5. She found that the stronger the respondents' Jewish identity was, the less likely they were to consider emigrating. While the immigrants' financial situation was an important consideration in this context as well, Amit found that another factor was involved: doubts about their Jewishness. Even if they were not affected personally by it, many said they knew a relative, neighbor or friend who was.

This is not just about the 300,000 immigrants from Russia who are recognized officially by the government as non-Jewish, says Amit: As far as the Chief Rabbinate is concerned, the Jewishness of anyone who came from FSU is considered suspect. And now that this generation is reaching marriageable age, this issue has become very important for them, and it is very frustrating.

“All the time," says Amit, "there is someone reminding them that they are not completely Israeli."

But Khanin, of the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, who is also a professor at Ariel University in the West Bank, has a different perspective relating to these olim.

“Those who leave [Israel] simply want to improve their standard of living," he observes. "If you are a technician in a factory in Kiryat Malakhi, and you get an offer to be the chief engineer in a factory in Moscow – you will definitely consider it. But many of the people who move there don’t see themselves as moving back forever, only for a period of three or four years.”

Research Khanin published in 2012 showed that only 12 percent of the FSU immigrants who moved back to Russia from Israel did so because they felt it was their homeland; half said their employment possibilities were better and they had sought to improve their standard of living; and still others said they left Israel for personal and family reasons.