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For Jews in former USSR, it’s a mixed bag

MOSCOW, Sept. 3 (JTA) — On the rainy evening of Aug. 20, 1991, Leonid Kartashov brought a blue- and-white Israeli flag when he joined the 50,000 people who mobilized to defend the Moscow White House against a possible attack from anti-democratic forces.

As Kartashov waved the Star of David over the crowd — a number of other flags, including a Muslim green banner, also fluttered over the huge square — he was greeted by cheerful shouts of “The Jews are with us.”

In retrospect, Kartashov says, only half-jokingly, that he wished he had helped those who wanted to restore the Soviet Union, or that he simply had stayed at home.

“Instead of getting a European-style liberal society, we just helped Yeltsin and his thievish cabal seize power, ruin the state and steal its property,” he says.

His 18-year-old son, Daniel, disagrees.

“You want the KGB back, eh? You would be immediately put in prison for your Zionist activities,” he says.

Ten years after the fall of the Soviet Union — which put the finishing touches on the collapse of the Communist empire that began with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 — most of the roughly 1 million Jews across the former Soviet Union would side with Daniel.

The anti-Israel rhetoric and the state-sponsored anti-Semitism that once were a regular feature of life across the former Soviet Union largely have disappeared.

And with the enormous financial help of Jews from abroad, Jewish institutional and educational life in many areas of the former Soviet Union has mushroomed, offering Jews a smorgasbord of cultural opportunities.

“I would have never returned to Russia if the Communists had stayed in power,” says Yevgenia Toporovskaya, 25, who emigrated to Israel with her family in 1990 but moved back to Moscow during Boris Yeltsin’s term as president.

Particularly in larger cities such as Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kiev, Jews have benefited from economic liberalization.

“Without the liberal reforms under Yeltsin, we would today stay in line, as in Gorbachev’s days, for a package of sausages,” says Galina, 47, an accountant at one of Moscow’s commercial firms.

Despite the gains, however, many Jews, particularly those who live outside the major cities or outside Russia, have some nostalgia for the USSR. What they miss is not communism but the stability of the Soviet empire and the interethnic calm it provided, according to professor Vladimir Shapiro, a Moscow-based Jewish sociologist.

“We Jews in the former Soviet Union have come a long way since Gorbachev, with Jewish universities and cafes and all that,” says Shimon Gurov, sipping kosher wine at a luxurious Jewish restaurant 200 yards from Red Square and the Kremlin.

Gurov is a professor at the Jewish University in Kiev. He was in Moscow to teach a course in midrash to students specializing in Jewish studies, and was talking to two American professors who came to the same Moscow university to teach courses in rabbinics and the history of the Holocaust.

Such Jewish cafes, open conversations and Jewish educational programs were unthinkable until the last years of the Soviet Union.

“But all this actually started under Gorbachev, when we got all the basic freedoms and normal Jewish life started to develop. I don’t think the Soviet Union had to collapse for these results, and I am not happy that Kiev and Moscow are in two different states,” Gurov says, referring to the capitals of Russia and Ukraine.

While anti-Semitic incidents occur less frequently outside of Russia, antipathy for Jews has not vanished completely.

Many of the new states that emerged form the Soviet Union have attempted to rid themselves of Russian influences in order to establish a national culture, often instituting language laws for employment. Many people in these states view Jews as “carriers” of Russian influence.

Many Ukrainian Jews “speak Ukrainian, but between us the vernacular is only Russian. Our kids are studying in mainly Russian-speaking schools. We identify ourselves as Jews but as Russian Jews, Jews of Russian culture,” says Volodya Albert, 41, a Ukrainian Jewish researcher-turned-businessman. “I am not anti-Ukrainian; I simply don’t need their national culture, their language. For me, the collapse of the Soviet Union meant that overnight my native country turned alien to me.”

Albert, whose parents left Ukraine for Germany last month, is planning to join them soon.

In emigrating, Albert and his family are performing what has become a central rite of post-Soviet Jewish life.

An estimated 1 million people have left the former Soviet Union in the past decade, primarily for Germany, the United States or Israel.

Losing relatives and friends also has became a ritual, though in the era of e-mail and easy travel it has become much easier to stay in touch.

Nostalgia for the Soviet Union is most pronounced among older Jews, many of whom struggle to subsist on measly or nonexistent state pensions.

But Jews of all ages have suffered from the interethnic tensions that followed the collapse of the USSR.

Sasha Feldman. 16, a Jewish high schooler from the trans-Carpathian region of Ukraine, had to leave Central Asia because of the growth of nationalism in her native Kazakhstan. She settled in western Ukraine.

“I like it here, but some local Ukrainians are rather anti-Semitic, especially toward Jews like us, who don’t speak Ukrainian,” Feldman said.

Wherever they lived in the former Soviet Union, Jews generally spoke Russian as their first language and identified with the largest of the Soviet Union’s 15 republics.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, many Jews living in the non-Russian republics feel they have been culturally and spiritually abandoned by their Jewish brothers in Russia.

As Guram Batiashvili, a 60-year-old Georgian Jewish intellectual, told a group of Jews from Moscow recently, “I am from Tbilisi, the city that you, in Russia, have forsaken.”

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