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Dilemmas of the Russian Diaspora

According to current estimates there are 20 to 30 million Russians speaking peoples living outside of Russia. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union an estimated 30 million lived in CIS and Baltic nations. Currently the largest Russian community lives in Ukraine, with 8.3 million identifying themselves as Russian, while another 14.3 call Russian their mother tongue. Kazakhstan (4.1 million), Belarus (1.2 million) and Uzbekistan (1 million) are also CIS nations with large Russian populations.

The CIS is not the only place in the world Russians reside. There is an estimated 5 to 9 million living in countries outside the CIS. This number includes the some 12 million that left between 1917 and 1991 and their descendants. The largest communities exist in Germany (about 3 million), the United States (2.9 million) and Israel (1.2 million). Since 1991, 1.2 million Russians have migrated outside the CIS.

Given the numerical and geographical scope of the Russian speaking diaspora, how do Russians fair outside of Russia? Russians’ assimilation into the places where they immigrate has been a tough going. In states like Israel, which has been one of the main destinations for Russian Jews in the last decade, they find themselves excluded, if not despised. Sometimes this exclusion is self imposed. This has produced a variety of responses that are indicative of the global problems migration/immigration engenders.

Over the last 15 years, Russians have been on the move. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, estimates figure that 13 to 17 million have returned to Russia. This process is a good sign to the Kremlin, as it gives incentives to educated and skilled Russians to move back to their motherland, and more importantly settle in the skill starved regions. However, this task, as the Putin government is discovering, is not easy. Filling the regions in qualified and competent people has been a historical problem in Russia. In Soviet times transfer to the periphery was seen as informal exile. And given the dearth of qualified cadres in the center, party bosses were equally reluctant to send their best people. In fact, one can point to Khrushchev’s downfall as one example of bureaucratic resistance to living in the sticks. When Khrushchev proposed to send Gosplan bureaucrats to work closer to where production actually took place, it was Khrushchev who found himself out of a job.

Still, one cannot blame the Kremlin for not trying. It hopes to recruit 100,000 people next year. Incentives, like those being offered in Tver oblast, include benefits and jobs that pay 25,000 rubles a month. The Kremlin has dumped around 17 billion rubles into the program. Getting it to bear fruit will require the long haul and impatience is already making some declare it a failure. For example, Kaliningrad oblast was willing to accept 10,000 migrants, but only 596 applied for migration.

One problem is that CIS countries with large Russian communities, like Kazakhstan and Ukraine, recognize their value and are engaging in their own campaigns to discourage Russian technicians and engineers from leaving. One source reported to Kommersant, “Kazakhs got indignant and commissioned articles in the press with slogans like ‘We won’t let it happen!’ The same thing with Ukraine. Local officials made it clear to us that the outflow of Russians from Ukraine is undesirable. For instance, the Ukrainian East is not happy that we are encroaching on their tank specialists and employees of secret military machinery building plants.”

The social, political, and cultural impact of the Russian diasporas in these nations is readily felt and have required those states to consider them in their post-Soviet identity. The political strength of Russians in eastern Ukraine is well known. But in Kazakhstan, for example, as the political scientist/history Ronald Suny noted in an article in the December 2001 issue of Journal of Modern History, the creation of a post-Soviet Kazakh national identity had to consider the large Russian population. Radical Kazakh nationalists’ calls for making Kazakh the official language as well as rejecting all forms of Russification were negotiated with the real difficulties in alienating half the population. Thus, Kazakh national identity was more civic than ethnic, and therefore more inclusive than exclusive.

While many Russians are moving back to their homeland, many, especially Russian Jews, are opting to immigrate. The long history of anti-Semitism and the Soviet Union’s restrictions against immigration has prevented many from resettling in the Jewish state. This all changed when the Soviet Union collapsed, and many Russian Jews cited Israel’s “law of return” to immigrate. Russian Jews, who had suppressed their Jewish identity for so long, were suddenly “born again.” Others simply claimed Jewish lineage no matter how diluted it was. Still others piggybacked on Jewish spouses and stepparents. About 1 million Russian Jews have immigrated to Israel since 1991. Israel has a total population of around 7 million, making Russians a sizable portion, not to mention raising innumerable questions about cultural assimilation, politics, and the demographic character of the Israeli state.

The Russian diaspora is the subject of The Pilgrim Soul: Being a Russian in Israel a new book by Tel Aviv University English Literature professor Ilana Gomel. Unfortunately, the book is written in Hebrew, and I must rely on a recent review by Yulia Lerner in Haaretz for its content. Hopefully the book will be translated into English or Russian. The book argues that the Russian Jewish experience in Israel is pretty much one where, to quote Marx, “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” Meaning, that how Russian Israelis weave themselves into Israeli society is very much a reflection of their particularly “dark history” in the Soviet/post- Soviet Union. Lerner writes,


This historic “past,” as we see from Gomel‘s book, bears down on the Russian Jews with special intensity. History never leaves them alone. It sits on their shoulders like a lead weight. But more than that, it decides everything for them – what they buy in the supermarket, how they pray, make love and dress, and, of course, how they vote. According to Gomel, Russia‘s dark history explains everything that the Russian immigrants do. It guides their thinking, their dietary habits and their fashion choices here in the new Middle East. Throughout the book, the author uses this history to explain all the “Russian peculiarities” in Israel: the prostitution phenomenon; attitudes toward the body and sex; interpersonal relationships and social behavior; love of math and science; Islamophobia; right-wing politics; a penchant for conspiracy theories; and finally an obsession with witch-hunts, a symptom of the Russian traitor syndrome. You come away with the impression that the Russians have some mysterious device for transmitting history from one generation to the next.

If Lerner’s evaluation of Gomel’s book is correct, such historical determinism leaves a bitter taste. Not only is such an analysis steeped in stereotypes and essentialism, it also forever relegates Russians to position of eternally outside Israeli society. It is no surprise that many Israelis already believe that Russian Jews’ Russianness has tainted their Jewishness beyond repair.

But such a book, however distasteful is foundational analytic might be, points to a much larger problem of how immigrant communities, even those who are the same “ethnicity” or “race” integrate into communities of cultural difference. There is enough historical evidence based on the American experience of Jews, Italians, and Irish to suggest that this process of assimilation occurs by means of a simultaneous shedding and rejection. As the Irish discovered in 19th century America, they had to embrace race for the sake of their ethnicity. This meant shedding much of their Irishness, while fully embracing ideology of whiteness that was predicated on racism toward blacks. As Hegel suggested, we discovery our identity through the recognition of the Other.

Israeli Russians are finding their Other in the form of the Arab, specifically the Palestinian. Russians are strong supporters of right wing parties. The head of Israel Beytenu, one of Israel’s far right political parties is Avigdor Liberman, who is himself a Russian immigrant. Currently, Liberman is second with 15% to Benjamin Netanyahu’s 27% to replace Ehud Olmert as Israeli Prime Minister. There is not doubt that as the right surges after the Lebanon War debacle, Russians will place a decisive electoral role.

But Russians’ political role in Israel goes beyond electoral politics. They are vital to the reproduction of Israel itself. In the 1990s, Russian immigration was seen by Israeli officials as a demographic bulwark to the Palestinians. They also served as replacement labor when Israel decided to purge Palestinian cheap labor from its work force. In addition, as many Russians occupy settlements that encroach on the West Bank, their survival becomes inevitably linked with the Palestinians further oppression. This “offshore Zionism” as Gadi Algazi describes the settlement of Modi‘in Illit, which is located three miles east of the Green Line, is a “colonization process [that] is

built not just on capitalist expansion but on social misery and poor people’s pressing needs, just as the separation wall is built on fears, real and imagined, amplified by daily propaganda. It draws in young couples from the slums of Jerusalem and enrolls new immigrants from the Russian Federation, who may find themselves sent to settle Ariel, for example, in the heart of the West Bank; large ultra-orthodox families too, gain access to subsidized housing only by joining the settlement project. All these can find themselves defending the occupation in order to defend the fragile social existence they have built for themselves under the guidance of government authorities, the settler movement and private capital.


Things however can go the opposite way, producing some of the most unlikely phenomena. Take the appearance of racist skinheads in Israel. In June, the Guardian UK and Haaretz reported that the Israeli government was looking into the website of one group called the White Israeli Union. The WIU is presumed to be run by Russian immigrants. But how do you explain Israeli skinheads? Especially when their website pictures a youth in an IDF uniform, saluting Hitler and calling for the killing of Arabs and Jews? It would seem to defy all logic. Or does it?

I think that the existence of Israeli skins is a testament for the fact that many Russian youths do feel outside Jewish society. After all, it is not uncommon for Russians to live in ghettos, and even though they may go into Israeli institutions like the school and the army and learn Hebrew, it doesn’t mean they are fully accepted as Israeli. Take for example, the conversation Lerner opens her review of The Pilgrim Soul with,

“Do you have Russian friends?” I asked [a colleague]. No, he replied. “Are there any Russians at the parties and gatherings you go to?” No, he replied. “Have you ever had a Russian girlfriend?” Again he said no. “But to tell you the truth,” he added, “when I meet a girl, it doesn’t matter how pretty she is. The minute I hear a Russian accent, her beauty diminishes by half.”


Part of the problem is, as Gumel’s book seems to suggest, Russians are viewed as Other in Israel, though a wholly different kind of Other than the Arab. Another problem is that Otherness is maintained by Russians themselves. So for youth who are outside Israeli society becoming a skinhead becomes the ultimate refusal of a society that also rejects you.

As Dick Hebdige argued in his seminal study Subculture: the Meaning of Style, refusal of the hegemonic culture is the function subcultures. Skinheads are no different in this regard even though their refusal is frequently coupled with violence. This is not to soften the very real anti-Semitism existing in the Jewish nation. Skinheads have already attacked Orthodox Jews and defaced synagogues and cemeteries. My point is to suggest that the problem runs much deeper than one having racist views; it is in part central to immigration itself.

There is no indication that Russian immigration/migration is going to end anytime soon. After all, there is nothing particularly Russian about it. As Mike Davis notes in his book, Planet of Slums, populations are on the move more than ever before and often it’s for reasons that defy the traditional push-pull factors many historians, sociologists, geographers and demographers have given. Rather he argues the “clash of civilizations” is not between East and West, Christianity and Islam. It is between the disenfranchised masses of immigrants/migrants who must eek out a new life among inhabitants who feel they are encroaching on their way of life and diluting, if not infecting, their culture, national identity, and well being.

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