They still eat sala when they move to Israel!
Moscow Times December 1, 1998
Toothless Old Hatreds
By Nina L. Khrushcheva
First it was the Jews. Then the Romanovs, the nobility and the kulaks. After
1991, it was Lenin and the communists. Now, it seems, it’s the Jews again.
Like history in the Karl Marx aphorism, Russian hatreds repeat themselves.
Luckily, the rest of that saying also applies, for Moscow’s most recent bout
of anti-Semitism is a case of history repeating itself not as tragedy, but
The October Revolution of 1917, with its attractive slogans of internationalism,
multiculturalism and ethnic equality, was a liberating time for Russian Jews.
It didn’t last long. With Lenin’s death in 1924, Stalin embarked on another
round of chest thumping for “Russia’s Greatness.” This chauvinistic period,
however, lasted for more than six decades and was marked by quotas for all
those with not-quite-Russian-sounding names. Jews in particular were restricted
in their numbers at universities, research institutes, the foreign service
and in government.
The August Revolution of 1991 appeared to undo much of the anti-Semitic
nastiness. Other nationalities, including people of Jewish origin, began
to appear in the political spotlight: Anatoly Chubais, Alexander Livshits,
Boris Nemtsov, Grigory Yavlinsky and Sergei Kiriyenko among the reformers;
Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky among the new plutocrats; and Vladimir
Zhirinovsky among the ranting would-be fascists.
Russia, freed from its ethnic and mental straitjacket, was letting its most
resourceful, entrepreneurial, vibrant and, yes, cynical citizens climb to
the top. With so many “different” names bestriding society, it is no surprise
that some Russians, reared on the endemic paranoia of communism, smelled
a conspiracy. The hysterical Zhirinovsky, denying his own roots, said, “Jews
are the most powerful, the most talented and the richest” and so were able
to take over in 1917 and again after 1991. Communists, too, insisted that
the Jews were conspiring once again to ruin Russia.
So General Albert Makashov’s recent remark that “the Russian government should
impose quotas on hiring non-ethnic Russians” was surprising only for the
time it took communists to trot out this old line and because the echo was
so feeble. The two leading “nationalist” candidates for president in 2000
– Krasnoyarsk Governor Alexander Lebed and Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov – were
conspicuous in not picking up this old battle cry.
That Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov didn’t immediately rebuke Makashov
and that the State Duma took a while to pass a resolution against stirring
up ethnic conflicts (not mentioning Makashov by name) probably reflects mental
inertia rather than outright support. For many members of the lower house
of parliament, there yet remains the notion that only they represent the
Here the old Leninist idea is in play: The party isn’t just part of society,
it is society. As for Zyuganov, he couldn’t publicly disagree with a party
member, again on hoary Leninist grounds: Division within the party will bring
an end to the party.
What is surprising is the reaction at home and abroad to Makashov’s tantrums.
Over a span of more than a month, television shows and newspapers in Russia
and much of the West have been discussing, condemning and thus reinforcing
the incident. This sharp focus on Makashov’s remarks has, however, smoked
out what may be the real target of communist rage: the media.
Another Communist Duma deputy, Alexander Kuvayev, the first secretary of
the city of Moscow’s Communist organization, called for the formation of
a special organization to deal with journalists who had “sold themselves
to the regime and have become the enemies of the people.” This time Zyuganov
reacted quickly, listening to the voice of reason among his party peers,
and issued a resolution that “prosecution is not the tool Communists should
exercise, and the Communist Party is a party of the future, not a party of
The saddest part of this rhetoric of hate is not that a pogrom is imminent
but that mindsets have changed so little for so many in Russia. People continue
to think in ways typical to authoritarian or totalitarian regimes, where
blaming others is the standard escape for your own inadequacies and where
anyone who is even the slightest bit different may be an enemy.
So the search for scapegoats proceeds, not in earnest and with energy, but
as a reflex, the death throes of the old ways of doing things. The cries
of the anti-Semites belie the fact that the man the Communists now support
as prime minister, Yevgeny Primakov, who has not published his ethnicity
but is widely believed to be of Jewish origin.
What is important is not the rants of men like Makashov and Kuvayev, but
the ditherings of Zyuganov and the general silence of the Duma – a sign that,
at the millennium, even the Communists recognize that the vulgar old tricks
are not enough.
Khrushcheva is deputy editor of the East European Constitutional Review
at the New York University School of Law and a senior fellow at the World
Policy Institute of the New School for Social Research.
February 1999, Peaceworks (publication of the American Friends Service
Committee, New England)
Letter from Russia
By J. Kates
“Everything is new. But it’s the same old life.” With these words, Mikhail
Aizenberg answered my remarking on the new dishwasher, washing machine, and
kitchen light in his Moscow apartment. And there’s a truth to that.
I have been visiting Russia since 1986. What is most striking to me on each
visit is the continuity of ordinary life from Soviet times until now, in
spite of multiple revolutionary upheavals. Ordinary people keep leading ordinary
The people I hang out with are mostly the intelligentsia, which has a real
class-meaning in Russian society that it doesn’t have in the West. Right
now, ironically, the intelligentsia, small as it is, and centered in the
major cities, takes the place of what elsewhere would be a broader middle
class. That is, economically, these are people who have access to Western
currency and goods in moderation, and tend to be wary of the vulgar excesses
of the wealthy “New Russian” businessmen. The intelligentsia is proportionally
more Jewish than the-you can’t say “working class” in the same way we do
in the West-generality of the working population.
Children go off to school in the morning just as they always have, and come
home laughing through the parks, climbing trees to knock off chestnuts while
their mothers stand underneath, shouting in vain for them to come down. Very
little has actually broken apart.
Nevertheless, there are always visible signs of change, as in the Aizenbergs’
apartment. Some of the changes are evidence of a new prosperity, and side-by-side
are evidences of a new kind of poverty.
On one visit or another from 1986 until now, there have been varying amounts
of goods available in the shops and kiosks. The books on sale at makeshift
tables in the Metro have changed over the years from dictionaries and textbooks
to rampant pornography, to how-to-succeed-in-business manuals, to detective
fiction and romance novels. There are fewer ordinary shops open now than
there were just a couple of years ago, but many fancy European and American
boutiques in the new underground malls of central Moscow. (The most ambitious
of these, under the Manege, is reportedly more of a Potemkin village than
a real concourse.) There are a great many more beggars on the streets, while
cafes and restaurants have sprung up everywhere.
Many people in Russia are as hungry for work as for food; and now, with the
increasing privatization of housing, more homeless are evident as well. Ever
since the lid of Soviet street-control has been lifted, beggars have been
as apparent on the streets of Russian cities as they are in New York or Boston.
Even at the “cleanest” times, there always were beggars of one particular
kind-older men and mostly women who help the religious Russian Orthodox fulfill
their charitable obligations.
Moscow has been transformed by paint and elbow grease as if a curtain had
been suddenly raised. It is clean and gleaming, with old monuments rebuilt
and posters proclaiming the resurrection. There is a purpose to this. Yuri
Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow, is trying a New-Deal style gamble. If he can
create public works, he will create employment. Where there is no money for
public works, he trades with foreign companies to get it: He offers them
prestigious buildings for their headquarters, but they must undertake the
repair and beautification of these buildings at their own expense. If he
can instill in Muscovites a pride in their city, they will be less inclined
to ship their own interests and money elsewhere. The gamble is starting to
work, but it’s a race against time and against the chaotic economic policies
of the country as a whole.
In St. Petersburg, the repair and sprucing up go on as well. In only two
days this September, the entire main street of the city was torn up and
completely repaved and repainted. Imagine all of New York’s Fifth Avenue
remade overnight. The “Baltika” brand of beer, brewed in St. Petersburg,
has won European prizes for its quality. Both cities remain an easy pleasure
for the casual visitor, whose only experience of underlying instability will
be the weakness of the Russian ruble, and the bargains the foreigner with
dollars can snap up.
Everywhere, you can hear of people who have not been paid for months, who
must rely on credit or barter. Of course, barter has always been a factor
in Soviet life. People received various perks and access to goods at their
jobs, often in a random fashion-cases of wine at one level, herring or hats
at another-that they spread back and forth among themselves with their neighbors.
Most chaotic of all for ordinary people is the currency. I mentioned to Aizenberg
how, each time I came to Russia, I had to learn the monetary system all over
again, as if I were traveling from one country to an entirely different one.
I held out a ten-ruble note. “It takes me days to figure out whether this
will buy me just a bus-ticket, or a good dinner.”
“You’re not the only one,” he answered ruefully.
Anyone who can, works for American dollars. Those who can’t, change their
rubles into dollars as quickly as possible at the currency exchanges set
up on nearly every block. Inna Poluyanova, a graduate of Keene State College
in New Hampshire, has a fairly reliable job with an international corporation
in Moscow. She earned the gratitude of her co-workers by negotiating a deal
with a local currency exchange. They all change their money there, and, with
the large sums generated for the exchange, they can get a far more favorable
rate than the average person on the street. Then they take their dollars
home. The banks have collapsed.
Poluyanova has a good friend who used to be a very well paid bank executive
vice-president. Now this other woman is grateful to have a job at subsistence
wages, and her new co-workers, who know of her past employment, regard her
as the villain who stole all their money. For the older generation, it’s
just the same old life. But for the younger generation, Poluyanova explains,
there is more bitter despair.
She tells of one young man who spent eight years building up an extensive
chain of auto-supply stores all around Russia. He threw everything he had
into this new operation. Then, overnight, all his careful work was destroyed
by the larger economic crisis. “What is he supposed to do?” she asks. “What
is he supposed to think?”
Those people for whom the old life is familiar, and would like to see it
re-insitutionalized, gravitate toward nostalgic nationalists and the inheritors
of the old Communist Party. Those for whom this new old life is all they’ve
known, and don’t like it, are tempted by a fascist movement-young men in
black berets, armbands, and combat boots who stand on corners singly or in
pairs, watching the passersby, looking all too much like the official security
guards also on duty everywhere. And looking all too much like their counterparts
in Germany in the 1920s. The Communists and the fascists unite in their distrust
of the present government and their dislike for foreigners and Jews.
Should we worry about Russian anti-semitism? Who can tell. Zionists always
sensationalize it. They have done so since the Kishinev pogroms of the late
nineteenth-century for their own political interests. But anti-semitism in
Russia is like racism in this country. How deep is our racism? Russian
anti-semitism is not as woven into the very fabric of society as US racism
is, but it’s still part of the everyday background noise for a lot of people.
Jewishness is not a religion in Russia, it’s still a “nationality”-what we
would call an officially recognized ethnic category. This complicates definitions
and assessments. (What did Zhirinovsky mean when he was asked in an interview
about his own parentage, and he answered that his father was Russian and
his mother was a lawyer?) Jewish institutions flourish-Hebrew studies, theatre,
universities, synagogues. But many of the ostentatious New Russians are Jewish;
and this fact is noted as significant by some of their opposition, either
overtly or covertly, in newspaper articles and letters. Anti-Moslem feeling
has long run just as strong as anti-Jewish feeling, but there is now also
a proud and visible Moslem presence in both St Petersburg and Moscow, alongside
the fear and distrust of dark-skinned southerners from Moslem republics.
The Communists and the fascists are planning large, nationwide demonstrations
for October 7. I happened to stumble across a “rehearsal” demonstration
on Mariinsky Square in St. Petersburg on September 21. The Communists gathered
under their red banners and portraits of Stalin. The fascists collected more
menacingly a little distance off, threatening a local news photographer who
tried to photograph them with their paraphernalia. A few black fascist banners
mingled with the red Communist ones as the rally came together. Army Special
Forces tried to keep a low profile on side streets around the square. A few
tourists walked by, oblivious, as if moving through an alternative universe.
Many of the signs were inflammatory and political, but one middle-aged man
off to the side held a poster that summed up the frustration: “All 1996
without wages. Time to change the system.”
Periodically, massive demonstrations like the October 7 one are announced,
and take place, but so far the worst free-floating fears of the general populace
have not been fulfilled. (My companion on September 21 reminded me that the
last time we had walked these streets together, a year and a half before,
had been the day of a general strike.) There has not yet been another coup,
or a riot. Not one of the mainstream St. Petersburg newspapers even reported
the “rehearsal” demonstration in the next day’s news. And, sure enough,
October 7 passed without more than a ripple of unrest.
What people fear is the future. They can keep living with what is, the old
life, but they are terribly afraid of what a new life may look like. They
can deal with everything as it comes, the worst part is not knowing what
will be next. And so, with every lurch in the economy, even the most level-headed
rush to buy up supplies of what they think will be needed-sugar, salt, or
rice. Shortages encourage hoarding goods, and hoarding exacerbates the shortages.
Most are neither Communists nor fascists. They try to live with as little
as possible reference to their government, as they have done now for decades.
Evgeny Primakov may be the new prime minister, but people talking of him
fumble to recall his name, or maybe they pretend to having forgotten it.
It’s the same old life, but now illuminated by glitzy ads for German clothing,
French perfume, and American cigarettes. When I met a Russian friend I had
encountered first in New Hampshire, he took me out to lunch not for shashlik
at one of the Russian cafes that are open on every block, but for a cheeseburger
at an American-style fast-food cafeteria.
General attitudes towards our own country are complex. There are some people
who expect America to bail them out with one flick of a checkbook, and others
who think that we are deliberately trying to bring Russia down to ruin. Denis
Maslov, a University of New Hampshire graduate from St. Petersburg who now
studies political science as a doctoral candidate at Columbia University,
wrote an article for the newspaper Smena explaining to his compatriots that
Russia is really very low on the list of American foreign-policy interests
Likewise, Russian foreign policy is not centered on American or western European
political interests, but on Russian interests. Historically, Russian foreign
policy interests have always been concerned with the southern border and
expansion eastward from Central Europe. Nowadays, oil pipeline routes control
a lot of how to think about the southern border. Historically also, Russia
has always wanted to be taken seriously as a great power in Europe.
My friend Maslov himself was back in his home country to visit his family
and renew his passport. For this, his mother had to get a pass from the military
administration, because he is susceptible to the draft. The officer who spoke
to his mother told her that she was very lucky that she had not brought her
son with her, or that he had not come by himself. “You would not have seen
him again,” he said.
Denis would have been swept up immediately into the army, with the right
to only one telephone call home to say where he was. Friends advised him
to be careful in public places where soldiers gathered: they might snatch
him up. Several other people confirmed stories like these, but I am still
not sure how much reality they represent, and how much is just the climate
of uneasy rumor.
As I write these words, and look over the photographs of the demonstration,
I know that they are the stories and images that will fill a newspaper, and
create or confirm a picture of Russia for its readers. It is much harder
to convey the daily laughter and the busy streets, the food that is still
generously available, if you have the money, and the lively culture of a
complex nation. Did I see violence? Yes, a fistfight broke out at a poetry
reading during an argument over what poetry really is. Did I flinch at signs
of anti-semitism? Yes, but on the evening of the Jewish New Year my devout
Russian Orthodox hostess stayed up late to welcome me home with traditionally
Jewish apples and honey.
And ten rubles? When I left, at the end of September, they could buy me five
bus rides, or a small book, or a little less than a half bottle of Baltika
beer. The ruble was trading officially at sixteen to the dollar, and everybody
J. Kates is a poet and literary translator who lives in Fitzwilliam, New
RE: Kates/Letter from Russia
By Kate, via email
Thank you for the frank pages on Racism and the
treatment of Jewish people. These are two areas I found striking in Russia,
because of the blunt openess with which the prejudices are expressed. Being
a blue-eyed blonde, people left me alone. My husband (olive skinned, brown
haired Italian heritage) was routinely harrassed by militsia as a “Chyornie.”
I do have a problem with the contribution provided by J. Kates. Although
I am not Jewish, (and perhaps BECAUSE I am not), I heard a lot of anti-semitic
rhetoric while working in Russia–I worked both with intelligentsia and with
Directors of collective farms, so perhaps I have a broader sample of “Russians”
than Mr. Kates, and I am not inclined to dismiss their attitudes as “just
part of the background noise.” Anyway, for what it’s worth, here’s my 2 cents:
J. Kates wrote: Should we worry about Russian anti-semitism? Who can tell.
Zionists always sensationalize it.[this is a worrisome comment, which
leads me to believe that the author’s sympathies lie not with the Jews, but
with the anti-semites] They have done so since the Kishinev pogroms of
the late nineteenth-century for their own political interests. [Hello?
How about the fact that people were robbed, raped, murdered? Just because
they were Jewish?] But anti-semitism in Russia is like racism in this
country. How deep is our racism? Russian anti-semitism is not as woven into
the very fabric of society [BALONEY! I had a 7 year old tell me as part
of her final exam in Conversational English, that Russia was a great country,
but was being ruined by the Jews, who stole from good Russians, gave booze
to children, corrupted the youth…on and on and on. The child had the face
of an angel, but the invective of the worst Klansman you could hope not to
meet.] as US racism is, but it’s still part of the everyday background
noise for a lot of people.
Jewishness is not a religion in Russia, it’s still a “nationality”-what
we would call an officially recognized ethnic category. This complicates
definitions and assessments. (What did Zhirinovsky mean when he was asked
in an interview about his own parentage, and he answered that his father
was Russian and his mother was a lawyer?) [Got that backwards. His comment
was: My mother was Russian, and my father was a lawyer. His patronymic is
Wulfovitch–very Jewish.] Jewish institutions flourish-Hebrew studies,
theatre, universities, synagogues [I think we inhabited different realms
of Russia. I worked with a church, so we worked closely with other religions,
and I gotta say, this does not ring true.]. But many of the ostentatious
New Russians are Jewish ; and this fact is noted as
significant by some of their opposition, either overtly or covertly, in newspaper
articles and letters.
The only chestnut he hasn’t thrown out into this little diatribe is that
Lenin, Trotsky, etc. were Jewish, and therefore the Jews are responsible
(yet again) for ruining Russia. Pretty creepy.
The Guardian (UK) May 3, 1999
Little Russia A million immigrants from the USSR don’t think of themselves
as Israelis,but they hold the balance of power in this month’s election
By David Sharrock
‘In Russia I was a Jew and now I’m in Israel they call me a Russian,’ says
Masha Shapira, pulling out the birth certificate of her four-month-old son
Yochanan. Beneath the menorah, symbol of the state, the bureaucrats have
inserted a dashes in lieu of specifying religion and nationality. Officially,
Yochanan, born in Jerusalem, is neither Jewish nor Israeli. Nor even Russian,
as his mother is described in her ID. But Yochanan may be very significant
to the Jewish state – he is possibly the millionth Russian citizen of Israel,
newest member of what many here call ‘the mini-state of Russia’.
Take a stroll in Ashkelon, a rapidly expanding Mediterranean city half an
hour south of Tel Aviv on a Friday morning, as the weekend begins. There’s
a busker playing Russian melodies on his violin. At the pavement cafe tables,
men are playing chess or reading Russian papers. The talk is Russian. The
waitress is called Natasha and although she can speak Hebrew, she doesn’t
The shops have Russian signs (Hebrew too, but smaller type); gift shops sell
Russian kitsch; shelves of food stores groan with nostalgia – Russian tea,
caviar, black bread, little plastic cups of vodka containing an individual
hit for 20p. And pork. The city nearly went to war over pork last year; 32
stores were threatened with closure by the district magistrate unless they
ceased selling it.
Most of the stores have opened since Ashkelon was settled by more than 30,000
Russians, following the huge waves of aliyah – return – from the former Soviet
Union at the beginning of the 1990s. They have clung to the coast, with 45,000
in Haifa, 37,000 in Ashdod and 35,000 in Tel Aviv. Mikhail Gorbachev’s decision
to allow Jews to leave the Soviet Union has had an enormous impact on Israel,
reshaping its cultural, social and economic landscape.
In their high professional and educational talent, the Russians are unlike
any previous wave of immigrants. The unemployment rate among them is lower
than that of other Israelis, around seven per cent. Most have already bought
their own homes; half have at least one car.
It sounds like the Israeli dream of the Jewish melting-pot come true. But
it’s not that simple, as the war of the sausages revealed. ‘In Russia, they
shut our mouths and didn’t let us speak but here, in a democracy, they watch
what we put in our mouths,’ said Tamara, a customer at CMAK, a popular Russian
delicatessen in Ashkelon.
It is run by Marina and Tatiana, who arrived four years ago from the Ukraine.
Tatiana holds a masters degree in mining engineering, Marina is a qualified
electrical engineer, but they both prefer selling sausages. Their cyrillic
list boasts of products in the style of Moscow and Odessa – all made in Israel,
which does not permit their import. ‘Very popular is pig’s cheek,’ says Tatiana
in laboured Hebrew- she says she can speak good English, but only if we talk
about rock density. ‘Ukrainians like greasy sausage.’
They had some problems with the Orthodox when they first set up shop: ‘They
used to come in and abuse us, but it doesn’t happen any more. Maybe they
got used to us.’ The pork dispute petered out as a basis for the city’s older,
mainly Sephardic population in their cultural battle with the Russians, after
a far graver incident last year. Jan Shefshovitz, a 21-year-old immigrant
from Moldavia, wearing army uniform, was stabbed to death by a Moroccan at
a city cafe. ‘My son was murdered because he spoke Russian,’ wept Jan’s mother,
At the headquarters of Yisrael ba-Aliya, the Russian immigrants’ party led
by trade minister Nathan Sharansky, the killing still angers. Vladimir Indikt,
the local party leader, rails against state prejudice: ‘The killers were
arrested but have been freed on bail pending trial and are supposed to be
under home arrest. These murd-erers are walking around Ashkelon every day.
It’s outrageous, but what can we do?
There are different standards of justice for Russians.’ He hopes Israel’s
general election, on May 17, will change all that. The Russian sector has
grown so large in a decade that no political leader can ignore its voice.
Already the horse-trading has begun with both of Israel’s largest parties,
prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud and Ehud Barak’s Labour,
dangling the interior ministry before Sharansky as reward for the Russian
The interior ministry, which supervises new immigrants, has been controlled
by the ultra-Orthodox and Sephardic Shas party for almost 15 years. Shas
is anathema to the Russians, most of whom couldn’t have told you what a
bar-mitzvah was before they arrived in Israel; they are secular, and tend
to be right-wing on the peace process. Foreign minister Ariel Sharon revealed
the reason behind his government’s cynical – that’s the US state department
view – and sudden courtship of Moscow when he told the Washington Post: ‘The
Russian vote will decide the outcome of the elections.’
For years, Netanyahu and Sharon had been urging the US to impose sanctions
on Russia for assisting Iran’s nuclear programme. Suddenly they wanted the
the IMF to extend loans to Russia. Israel’s Russians, who get their news
from their own-language newspapers and cable television, have backed this.
Over Kosovo, Sharon and Netanyahu have been notably reluctant to support
their strongest ally, the US, because most of Israel’s Russians are pro-Serb.
In conversations with Russians, the same themes surface. Most say they will
vote for Netanyahu, who has kept the lid on terrorism. Russians like a strong
leader, they like the way Netanyahu spat in Washington’s face and convinced
President Clinton it was only raining.
As for the Palestinians and land for peace, one Ashkelon chess-player said:
‘Where I used to live, we had a huge country. And I came to Israel and if
you look at it on the map, it’s tiny. And they want to start giving bits
of it away? Are they crazy?’ Most Russians (like most Israelis) have never
been to the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza. They have no
yearning for the Greater Land of Israel which so inspires the Right. Yet
they are contemptuous of Arabs, as they are disdainful of Israelis, whom
they regard as vulgar and without culture.
‘There is a double culture-shock at work,’ explains journalist Sergei Makarov.
‘Before we came here, most Russians had only preconceptions that Israel was
like the west, and shared our values. We knew nothing at all about the Middle
East. We found that Israel is not really like the west at all, so we were
disappointed and we still don’t understand the Middle East, which is alien.’
Israel once dreamed of a population of a nation united and confident. What
happened? There is a rich and varied culture, but far more disunited than
its founders imagined.
Larissa Gerstein is deputy mayor of the Jerusalem municipality and her husband
edits Vesty, Israel’s largest Russian newspaper. The more deeply involved
she became in Israeli society the more she felt rejected. ‘Russians don’t
care what the Israelis think of them, say about them and especially write
about them. We now have cultural autonomy. Little Russia.’ And they will
vote for Netanyahu because he, too, is an outsider to the establishment and
‘because they like seeing a Jew screwing the gentiles for a change’.
As Russia grows more unstable, so anti-semitism there rises and the immigrants
keep coming; 916,200 Jews still live in the former Soviet Union. Shas wants
to make qualification for immigration more strict, so that Russians whose
claim to Jewishness is only through a grandfather would no longer qualify.
It is thought that around a third of the Russian Israelis are not Jewish.
A few are actively Christian. Ivan, who attends a Roman Catholic church in
Jerusalem four times a week, recalls that when he attended the Israeli absorption
centre in Russia, ‘they told me to put down that I had no religious faith,
but they knew and didn’t care. They just wanted more citizens. Perhaps they
believed that over time we will all be integrated into the Jewish character
That may be true, but they forgot that we will determine just what that character
will be. Most of my countrymen and women don’t care about religion at all.
They don’t care about being Jewish. That may create big problems some day.’
What about baby Yochanan Shapira? ‘I think another big wave of Russians is
coming soon,’ says his mother. ‘Ehud Barak says another million arriving
here would be good for Israel, but I’m not sure he’s right. I think the Israelis
already have more Russians than they can cope with.’
Boston Globe 1 August 1999
SPOTLIGHT REPORT: Russian refugees skirt regulations to flood US
By Stephen Kurkjian, Globe Staff
WASHINGTON – Since 1989, the United States has granted coveted refugee status
to numerous emigres from the former Soviet Union on the basis of fraudulent
documents or unverified assertions that they were Jewish or evangelical
Christians, according to US officials who have administered the program.
Nearly 275,000 Jewish immigrants and 100,000 evangelical Christians have
arrived in the United States despite the State Department’s urging in 1996
that the program be scrubbed because it was vulnerable to fraud and had outlived
its usefulness. Even so, the Clinton administration, expressing fears of
a new wave of anti-Semitism in Russia, is now poised to ask Congress to extend
it for another year.
Meanwhile, amid evidence that many non-Jews, some allegedly with Russian
mafia connections, have manipulated the program to enter the United States
illegally, about 6,000 other Jews from the former Soviet Union await refugee
Regardless of its future, the program’s past is troubled: It has cleared
for emigration an unknown, but apparently substantial, number of applicants
on the basis of faked documents and little or no evidence that they faced
persecution, according to several officials who worked in the program. “There
clearly was a mindset among our superiors that unless there was a clear case
of fraud or forgery, we were to approve what was in front of us,” said Rebecca
Fong, a former review officer for the Immigration and Naturalization Service
at the US Embassy in Moscow.
A 1993 INS internal document, obtained by the Globe, provided no precise
estimate of the number of people who had entered the United States under
false pretenses, but it characterized fraud in the program as “astronomical.”
Still, INS officials, in recent interviews, played down the number of applicants
who have arrived in the United States illicitly. While they acknowledged
that many applicants submitted faked documents, they said most of those were
weeded out during Washington processing before the interview stage at the
Critics of the 1989 rules relaxation, sponsored by Senator Frank R. Lautenberg,
Democrat of New Jersey, have focused on the lower standard for refugee status
that was created for Jews and evangelical Christians from the former Soviet
Union. While officials privately focus their criticism on the level of fraud
by Jewish applicants over the last decade, in the last year or so they say
they have found an increasing level of fraud among evangelical Christians.
In 1998 for the first time, more evangelicals were admitted as refugees than
In other troubled parts of the world, would-be refugees must show they are
being persecuted or have a “well-founded fear” of persecution on account
of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a social class, or political
affiliation. But applicants from the former Soviet Union need only show a
“credible basis” for concern that they might face persecution. Such vague
standards left INS employees uncertain what assertions were acceptable to
win refugee status. But they said they soon learned from their superiors
that a claim of a minor act of discrimination, such as being denied a promotion
or raise, was acceptable, without any need for verification.
The vast majority of the 275,000 who emigrated here through the program were
men, women, and children of Jewish heritage who had close family members
living in the United States and were able to show they had experienced some
discrimination, if not persecution, in the former Soviet Union, the officials
The Boston area, after New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Miami,
has become a major resettlement destination for the emigres. About 50,000
of the refugees from the former Soviet Union have settled in Massachusetts
since 1983, according to the state Office of Refugee Resettlement. “Our
focus is not on fraud but on how this program has taken people out of a country
that has had a history of anti-Semitic persecution,” said Leonard Glickman,
executive vice president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which has helped
most of the refugees resettle in the United States. Glickman sidestepped
questions about the extent of fraud.
Yet an investigation by the State Department’s Inspector General’s office
reported in 1996 that fraudulent documentation had become an increasing problem
for the program. “Since fraudulent documents can be obtained and category
membership only has to be stated, not proved, it is difficult for INS to
verify family claims,” stated the Inspector General’s report. “The increased
fraud and the low standards imposed resulted in people not eligible for
resettlement gaining access to the US.”
While the program initially facilitated the emigration of many Jews who had
been persecuted under the Soviet system, INS officials in Moscow came to
believe that the program should have ended by 1993 because of the potential
for fraud, according to the report.
Now, with White House plans to extend the program through next year’s election,
one of the highest INS priorities is how to prevent fraud, the same issue
that arose in 1993 and 1996 when State Department-led efforts to end the
program were beaten back by Jewish lobbying groups.
Any attempt to end the program now could prove costly to Democratic candidates,
especially to Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has taken steps to court Jewish
voters in New York state. INS officials confirmed there has long been
disagreement between INS agents who process applicants at the Moscow Embassy
and their superiors in Washington about the proof needed to qualify. One
superior, who asked not to be identified, acknowledged: “I’ll admit the
program is more generous than elsewhere, but that’s what Congress mandated.”
Several reviewers complained that their entreaties that the Embassy take
a tougher stand against fraud and baseless claims of persecution were ignored.
For much of the last decade, their requests that criminal background checks
be done and equipment be bought that could detect forged documents were rebuffed.
They said superiors also repeatedly questioned reviewers’ judgment when they
Even applicants considered extremely suspect by INS reviewers were ultimately
approved, officials said. In many cases, they said, applicants would claim
to have lost their internal Soviet passports that would identify them as
Jewish. Instead, they were allowed to present other papers, even those that
appeared to have been produced by the thriving fake document industry in
the former Soviet Union, to attest that they had Jewish heritage.
“This program has been documented to be so loosely administered that it
has served as a conduit for the settlement of a strong refugee mafia to take
root in the United States,” Dan Stein executive director of the Federation
for American Immigration Reform, which wants the program eliminated, told
a House subcommittee last year. Added one INS interviewer, who asked for
anonymity: “The prevailing attitude was that Congress had passed the …
amendment” loosening the restrictions for Jews to enter as refugees “and
we weren’t to stand in the way of putting up the numbers.”
And impressive numbers were reached. At the end of the first year of the
program’s operation in 1990, nearly 40,000 applicants of Jewish heritage
were accepted as refugees. The Scripps Howard News Service reported in 1995
on the criticism inside the INS on the program’s level of fraud, but Congress
approved an extension of the Lautenberg Amendment the following year.
While no one would estimate how many residents of the former Soviet Union
took advantage of the program to enter the United States illegally, US statistics
show that few of the applicants interviewed were rejected. Between 1989 and
1998, more than 97 percent of the Russian Jews interviewed became emigres.
About 90 percent of the evangelical Christians seeking admission were approved.
In contrast, only about 75 percent of refugee applicants from elsewhere who
reach the interview stage win approval, mostly because they face the higher
theshhold of proving that they face persecution at home.
Refugee status is an immigrant’s dream: Refugees are entitled to several
benefits, including welfare for eight months, health insurance, employment
services, and instruction in English as a second language for 18 months,
that are not available to foreign visitors on work visas. And it allows them
to petition for US citizenship after five years.
But a decade after the rules were relaxed, no one can say for sure how extensive
the fraud is. One INS executive, who asked not to be identified but is familiar
with the refugee program, said the agency’s top tier of officials are aware
that loose standards and lax controls allowed some who did not deserve it
to gain refugee status. Asked how many came in without proper credentials,
he said: “It’s anybody’s guess.”