In 1987, 250,000 American Jews marched on Washington, calling on then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to open the gates of the Soviet Union to Jewish emigration.
That dramatic expression of solidarity climaxed decades of American Jewish public concern over the fate of Soviet Jews.
But that concern receded as glassnost gave way to the collapse of communism and Soviet authorities relaxed emigration restrictions, allowing the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Jews.
Now as Russia’s presidential elections slated for June 16 prove a critical test for the future of reform in the region, longtime Jewish experts and activists are tensely watching and waiting for the results.
Russian census figures put the number of Jews and their families at roughly 600,000, but the census is unreliable and the numbers are estimated by some to be much higher.
About 300,000 Russian Jews hold “invitations” from Israel as “an insurance policy,” according to a highly placed Israeli official monitoring the situation closely.
No matter what the outcome of the race, Jews here are concerned.
Mark Levin, executive director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, which is coordinating the U.S. Jewish watch over the elections, said, there is serious concern over the prospect of Communist control of the Russian government.
Everything party officials have said “about which way the country should be moving makes us anxious about what the future might hold for the Jewish population,” he said.
The worst-case scenario is a win by Communist challenger Gennady Zyuganov and an implementation of his militant anti-Western policy, a massive nationalization of private property and a crackdown on minority rights and emigration.
But even the re-election of the favored candidate, President Boris Yeltsin, could lead to petty harassment of international groups as a concession to pressures by ultranationalists, experts say.
At it is, Russian officials recently suspended the credentials of the Jewish Agency for Israel, which encourages and oversees immigration to Israel.
While new papers of accreditation are expected to be issued by June 15, the day before the presidential contest, the move has been interpreted by some as a nationalist show of force to shore up Yeltsin’s campaign.
While the outside monitors of the fate of Russian Jews acknowledge that the stakes in the elections are high, most are afraid of sending the wrong signal by publicly expressing alarm.
Privately, some experts, many of whom are reluctant to use their names, say they are “preparing for the worst.”
But they dismiss the bleakest projections as unlikely. They do not anticipate a flood of emigration or a crackdown on those wishing to leave.
Said the Israeli official: “It looks to us that, at least for the foreseeable future,” the liberal emigration policy that has been in place for several years will not change.
Another organizational leader who declined to be identified said a win by Zyuganov would probably lead to a slight increase in Jews wanting to emigrate, “but not an avalanche.”
Some 36,000 Jews have been emigrating annually from Russia in the past few years.
“We’re most concerned about what would happen to the organizations” working with the Jewish community, the official said.
These organizations include the Jewish Agency, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society as well as several religious, cultural and human rights groups.
“The situation is worrisome, but not panic-inducing,” said another insider who travels monthly to the region and who insisted on anonymity.
“Most Jews are looking for a Yeltsin win, and people are basically holding their breath.”
At the same time, everyone working in Jewish organizations in Russia “is being very careful not be seen meddling and to conform to local legislation,” the official continued. “They’re trying to lay low.”
Eleven candidates are on the ballot. But the top contenders are Yeltsin, the incumbent who was elected as a candidate of democratic and economic reforms, and Zyuganov, a longtime Communist Party bureaucrat who is antagonistic toward the West and has close ultranationalist and anti-Semitic associates.
Yeltsin has been a vocal advocate of human rights and minority rights in Russia and issued a number of strong public statements in cooperation with the United States decrying discrimination, including anti-Semitism.
But he has disappointed many Russians who blame him for the country’s economic woes.
In response to his sagging popularity and to pressure from nationalist and Communist members of Parliament, Yeltsin recently has shifted rightward.
The most critical sign was the replacement of his more liberal foreign minister with Yevgeny Primakov, “an old-style Soviet apparatchik with strong ties to the Arab world and little deference” to the West, according to a report issued by the National Conference on Soviet Jewry and the Anti-Defamation League.
In an interview from Moscow, Martin Wenick, executive vice president of HIAS, said he found Jews in Russia nervous about Yeltsin’s “zigs and zags.”
But a win by Zyuganov clearly poses more of a threat to the Jews.
According to the National Conference report, Zyuganov is deeply troubled by what he perceives as the Jewish influence over a West that is hostile to Russia.
“The Western world’s culture, ideology and worldview are increasingly influenced by the Jewish Diaspora,” he has written. “Its influence grows literally by the hour, not just the day.”
Had Stalin lived longer, he continued, “he would have restored Russia and saved it from the Cosmopolitans.”
“`Cosmopolitan’ is the Communist code word for Jew,” the report states.
Recent polls show Yeltsin in the lead but experts caution Russian polls are unreliable. Most observers believe that no candidate will get the 50 percent needed to win and that there will be a runoff in July.
It is in the runoff where the most troubling candidate of all – Vladimir Zhirinovsky – could play an important role.
This man, head of the incongruously named Liberal Democratic Party, has won headlines as a rabid nationalist and anti-Semite, despite the fact that his father was Jewish.
He is now running fifth in the presidential polls, but his popularity has been underestimated in previous elections.
Wenick, who was in Russia this week trying to gauge sentiment and conditions prior to the elections, said there was less overt anti-Semitism in the campaign than Russian Jews had anticipated.
Instead, there was a lot of nationalism in which “all minorities get lumped together as the `other’.”
Wenick’s organization, HIAS, in this fiscal year is slated to bring 25,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union to the United States as refugees.
Marina Belotserkovsky, the assistant director of Russian communications for HIAS, said Jews in Russia today face a different kind of anti-Semitism.
“There used to be state anti-Semitism,” said Belotserkovsky, who emigrated from Leningrad, now known as St. Petersburg, in 1989. “We couldn’t get certain jobs or be accepted to certain universities. But, we were safe on the streets.”
“Now it’s moved from high governmental authority to the streets,” she said. “People now are really not safe.”
“There’s a very mixed feeling” about emigration, Belotserkovsky said. “On the one hand, they don’t want people to leave who are talented and smart.
“On the other, the scapegoats are leaving so who is there to blame if things go wrong? There is a very twisted mentality.”
Belotserkovsky’s reports from contacts in Russia differ from those of some experts who say that while there are incidents of anti-Semitism, the rising fear comes from widespread anarchy and crime that is not targeted at Jews.
For his part, Wenick cautioned against painting dire scenarios. “One needs to recognize there are some strictures in place to make it hard to entirely turn the clock back to the period of repression.”
For Shoshana Cardin, chairwoman of the United Israel Appeal and head of the Jewish Agency’s committee on the former Soviet Union, the uncertainty vindicates her longheld position that the Jewish world’s work in the region remains unfinished.
“We’ve been stating for five years that the issue of aliyah from the former Soviet Union is far from over,” she said.
“People think it has ended and there is no further challenge,” she said. “The scale is smaller, but the challenge remains.”