They Were the Poster Children of 1990s Soviet Aliyah: Where Are They Today?

30 years ago they made Aliyah from the crumbling Soviet Union. Upon arrival Haaretz interviewed them and their photos were printed. This is where their journey took them decades on

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Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union wait in line to receive Israeli passports at Ben Gurion Airport, in December 1990.
Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union wait in line to receive Israeli passports at Ben Gurion Airport, in December 1990.Credit: Nathan Alpert, The National Photo Collection
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Some 30 years have passed since the wave of mass immigration that brought over a million people to Israel as the Soviet Union disintegrated. From Israel’s foundation in 1948 to the end of 2020, 3.3 million people made aliyah to Israel, about 44 percent of them came after 1990. Almost all of these originated in what had been the Soviet Union.

Kogan Rus info

Emil Kogan / Docking in Israel

In September 1990, Captain Emil Kogan, 50, boarded an old fishing boat in the port city of Batumi, on the Black Sea coast of Georgia, and set sail. Eight days later he and six sailors from Georgia and Armenia reached the Kishon port in Haifa. He named the ship Exodus, after reading Leon Uris’ famous novel of that name on the famous ship of immigrants in 1947.

“Kogan told the reporters that after reading the book, translated into Russian, he had resolved to realize his dream of immigrating to Israel by sea,” Haaretz wrote when his ship docked. He described the aliyah as the fulfillment of a lifelong dream and added that he had always been proud of his Judaism and never tried to hide it, “even when he met foreign seamen, including Arabs.”

Kogan was one of a group of new immigrants from the former Soviet Union whose stories were told in real time in the press. Recently, on the 30th anniversary of the great aliyah from the Soviet bloc, Haaretz returned to some of the protagonists of these articles, to see how they now view that new beginning, and how they fared in the time that has passed.

אמיל קוגן
אמיל קוגן

In other words – have they become Israelis? Or do they still dream in Russian? Both languages?

The results are mixed. Some have found a home in Israel and don’t consider going back. Their children, the second generation of immigrants, may understand what grandmother wants when she addresses them in Russian, but find it difficult to speak. And some reversed course, went back after a few years, and have since returned to Israel only as tourists, if at all. Yet others remained, but have mixed feelings.

Captain Kogan died in 2019 at the age of 79. “Dad had a unique life story,” says his only son, David (36). In his memoirs, which he left behind in Russian, Kogan describes how he sailed around the world before anchoring in the Holy Land. The list includes Africa and the Far East, South America, and the Soviet Union. “He was a certified captain by the age of 30 and worked in the merchant navy of the Soviet Union,” David says.

But on 1990, the family as a whole embarked on a new adventure. A month before Kogan docked with his fishing boat, his son and wife had already arrived in Israel on a regular commercial voyage. “It was a very special aliyah,” says David. The fate of the fishing boat itself was a little less spectacular. For years it languished, docked in the fishing dock in Kishon, until being confiscated by the authorities and sold.

In Israel, Kogan continued to sail in various settings, but as his son says, “Before that, Dad captained large ships, and here his career faltered.” The father’s “absorption process” in Israel was difficult.” Eventually his health declined and he had a liver transplant, which reduced his ability to sail long distances. At the age of 60, he took several small ships out to sail in the local area, until retiring in 2008. He then contracted cancer and died in 2019.

“He loved the country very much,” says David, who no longer lives here. He went to the U.S. to study, settled there and today he works as an investment banker in Seattle.

Irena Oster / Her husband left, she stayed

Irena Oster now lives in Nofim, a settlement in the West Bank. She also came to Israel in the great aliyah from the former Soviet Union. Oster was in her early 40s when she left Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, along with her husband and $300 in hand.

In their homeland both had worked in major film production studios. Irena was a senior accountant and her husband ran the animation department. In Israel she studied Hebrew in the evenings and worked in the mornings. Both took several casual jobs: at first, she was a maid and her husband worked in a gas stove factory. Later she tried retail jobs, including in a candy store and selling tickets for the National Lottery. “I felt like I was going to die,” she said in an interview with Haaretz in 1992. Then one day a regular customer told her he’d seen an ad in the paper about a flower shop for rent. Irena was happy to get out of the ticket booth and start a new career. Every morning she woke at 5 AM to buy fresh flowers and bring them to the store on Ibn Gvirol Street in Tel Aviv. “I feel like I have made it,” she said at the time.

Three decades later she still sounds optimistic but told us she left the flower shop shortly after, as she turned out to be sensitive to the fertilizer spray. She spent the next quarter of a century as a medical pedicurist. She later divorced her husband, who returned to Kiev. Their daughter remained in Israel and works as a lawyer for a major firm.

“Today I am retired,” she says. “I am happy and satisfied that I immigrated to Israel. However, because my daughter’s studies cost money and her mortgage cost money, I could not save much, and I live on Social Security. But everything is fine. I was never one to complain. I worked nonstop all the years I was in Israel, so everything is fine.”

The Shulman family / Moving away from tradition

Eli Shulman and his daughter Simona they were featured in a picture published in Haaretz in 1991: “A new immigrant from the Soviet Union and his daughter participating in a computer course at IBM for parents and children,” said the caption. The two – Eli was 31 and she was 5-years-old – were wearing beautiful Russian sweaters and were alongside an ungainly first-generation home computer.

Thirty years later, Eli, the young father, is now 61 and is a grandfather of five, three of whom were born to Simona. Both live in Nes Tziona, and are satisfied with their lives.

They made aliyah from Riga, now the capital of Latvia. Along with them came the wife and mother, Bella, and Simona’s brother Mark, who was two at the time. “We knew that we were taking a certain chance, but we didn’t have a lot to lose there,” said Eli. When asked if they made aliyah because of Zionism, he answers honestly: “I don’t want to hide it, but the economic reason was more important for me. The situation there was difficult and there was uncertainty. I feared that if I stayed, it would be very hard for me to support a family of four.”

אלי שולמן ובתו סימונה
אלי שולמן ובתו סימונה בכתבה ב"הארץ", 1991

At first the Shulmans lived in Ashkelon, and later moved to Nes Tziona, after Eli found work in the biotechnology company Interpharm in the city. In Riga, he was a chemical engineer in a factory. His wife was also a chemist, but focused on raising the children during that period. “We made aliyah at the beginning of the wave of aliya. Luckily for us, because later it was much harder to find work.”

How hard? In the first five years of the wave of aliya, the supply of college graduates in academic, scientific, technical and free professions grew by 355,000 people. This created an oversupply of about 190,000 workers with degrees. Many were forced to find alternatives that did not necessarily match their education and training.

Happily, Eli was not forced to compromise. “I didn’t manage to finish [Hebrew language] ulpan, I was in Israel for just a few months, but they told me it was important that I start to work because they needed me, and the language I would learn later while working, and that’s actually what happened,” he said. The company closed down after 15 years and went to work at Teva Pharmaceuticals in developing drugs. His wife was a teacher, as is Simona, and Mark works for Rafael Advanced Defense Systems.

“You can say that now everything looks rosy and good. I’m not complaining and don’t regret for a moment that I made aliyah to Israel, even though I started here form nothing and I didn’t have anything guaranteed,” says Eli. He assuages his nostalgia for the Russian language and culture with the help of television. “I didn’t turn into an Israeli completely. Russian songs make me nostalgic. My children, on the other hand, are Israeli in everything and I’m sorry I didn’t succeed in passing on the language to them.”

Only after she became a mother herself did Simona realize how daring the step her parents took was. “It’s crazy courage, to uproot a known and safe life, with two little children and to go into the unknown,” she says. She integrated easily in Israel. “I didn’t have Russian friends. Our parents were busy working and did not insist that we speak Russian to them. My Russian is horrible. My grandmother speaks only Russian. I understand, but it’s hard for me to speak. My mother teaches my children a few words here and there and shows them movies and television series in Russian, but it doesn’t speak to them very much.” In order to demonstrate how much she has moved away from this tradition, Simona said that as opposed to the immigrants from Russia, who live and marry within the community, she married a Yemenite, who added to her last name the name Tawily. “Our kids are mixed,” she says with a smile.

Vladimir Moldavsky and Viktor Budilov / Here and gone

Vladimir Moldavsky and his brother-in-law Viktor Budilov worked together in a successful advertising agency in Leningrad – today Saint Petersburg. But in the early 1990s they decided to pack up everything, make aliyah to Israel and open a new firm in Tel Aviv. On one of the first flyers they put out was the question, which also starred in the interview with them at the time in Haaretz with Lily Galili, who covered the aliyah from the former Soviet Union over two decades. “Will you drink coffee with lemon?” it asked.

For native sabras that’s a clear No. Russians on the other hand saw this combination as a treat, as the article said at the time. In other words, the two wanted to demonstrate – clearly – even back then, the importance of knowing your customer, with all their tastes and cultural background.

“In 90 percent of the cases, a campaign planned for Israelis won’t work for immigrants,” explained Moldavsky, who was 41 at the time. “Advertising is built on associations and contexts and these are different between groups.”

Today, aged 71, he doesn’t drink coffee with lemon any more. He has left the advertising world in favor of tourism. “My integration was successful,” he concludes. “After 30 years, it’s clear that this is my country too. My grandchildren were born here.”

ולדימיר מולדבסקי
לשתות קפה עם לימון

Finding out the fate of his partner from 30 years ago, Viktor Budilov, we had to go through his personal secretary in Saint Petersburg. Alexandra schedules the conversation, and asks to know how long it will take, what it will be about and if there is anything else she needs to know. Finally at the other end of the line was Budilov’s voice. He spent only four years in Israel but his Hebrew is perfect. “We were very famous at the time in Israel,” he remembers proudly of the good public relations he received when they made aliya. “We were hosted [on television] by Rivka Michaeli and Dan Shilon.”

At first, he lived in Bat Yam, just south of Tel Aviv. “We came from Leningrad, and the proximity to the sea was the important and determining factor,” said Budilov. “We didn’t know what Bat Yam was, but we heard it was close to Tel Aviv. He abandoned the glamourous world of advertising for a while, and was forced to work in cleaning, and later in a bakery. The late Yuri Stern, then an aliyah activist and later a Knesset member, paved the way for him to return to the advertising profession relatively quickly: He introduced him to a few influential people.

“We were before the explosion of the Russian aliyah and wanted to open an office intended for new consumers. That would speak their language,” said Budilov. He made an incredible jump up, from a cleaner in the morning to a partner in an ad firm in the center of Tel Aviv.

After they learned to explain to Russians what an avocado was and helped Meretz speak to the Russian audience in 1992, they separated. Viktor returned to his homeland because of a business offer he received in advertising – in 1996 he returned to Israel for a short time to work on the campaign of the new Russian party, Yisrael b’Aliyah. In 2002, he changed direction and founded a production company for television shows in Russia. The business blossomed and today his series are broadcast on the most important channels on Russian television.

Alongside the house he lives in with his family in Saint Petersburg, he owns an apartment in Bat Yam. He most recently visited in May. “As always, this time too a war broke out,” said Budilov about the latest round of fighting with Hamas in the Gaza Strip – with his memories of Saddam Hussein’s Scud missiles from the First Gulf War in the background, not long after he arrived in Israel. “Between one missile and another, we also managed to tour,” he said. But then he realized he had no way to return home. He arrived in Israel on a private plane, but when he wanted to take the return trip, he discovered that the pilot refused to fly to Israel: “We fled to Cyprus, and from there, he took us home.”

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