In Part I, the history of the refusenik movement in the Soviet Union was reviewed, and I shared my own experience in going underground in Soviet Russia to provide support to this growing Jewish movement. Since my visit, the landscape of Russian Jewry has changed dramatically.
The Age of Reform
Our arrival in the Soviet Union in 1986 was actually at the beginning of what proved to be a true reform era. With the election of Mikhail Gorbachov, several Jewish dissidents were released from exile or allowed to emigrate. From 1987 to 1991, over half a million Jews were able to leave the country, and most emigrated to Israel or the United States.
Soviet Jews regained the right to choose where they lived and regained many religious, social, and economic rights that had been lost in the bleak decades before. The end of the Cold War escalated such reforms.
Today, Russia has approximately 200,000 Jewish citizens. Inclusion of children of mixed marriages and those who don’t publicly claim their Jewish origins places the estimate at closer to 650,000. In the nearby Ukraine, 250,000 Jews comprise one of Europe’s largest Jewish populations. The former Soviet republics all show evidence of vibrant Jewish communities and discrimination has significantly decreased.
Cause for Concern?
Recent events are causing many former Soviet-watchers to wonder if history is about to repeat itself. Russian President Vladimir Putin has unabashedly described the dissolution of the Soviet Union as a “tragedy.”
In March of this year, Russian troops seized the Crimea peninsula and annexed it to Russia. Since then, additional territory has been seized in eastern Ukraine by pro-Russian forces, and thousands of Russian troops are amassed in the frontier.
An estimated 20,000 Jews live in the Donetsk region, where life has been comfortable for decades now. Most Ukrainian Jews do not seem overly concerned about any dramatic change in their status because of recent political turmoil. They cite no evidence of a state-sanctioned campaign against Jewish citizens. One recent anti-Jewish incident – a letter calling for Jews register with the new leadership –was suspected of being a scare tactic to create anti-Russian sentiments and not a government-sanctioned action. Government officials responded appropriately, even providing police patrols outside synagogues as a precaution.
Whether Russia’s more aggressive behavior may lead again to religious repression remains to be seen. In the meantime, former refuseniks and others who support individual and religious freedom are watching closely. We will continue to support the right of all Jewish citizens in the former Soviet Union to have the best life possible.