Russian elections — a flashback

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It may seem long ago.

In the 1970s, Bay Area Jews crowded in front of the Soviet Consulate on Green Street in San Francisco. Every Sunday they picketed, carrying signs and chanting, "Let my people go."

It was a reflection of concern for Soviet refuseniks around the country and around the world, climaxing in the 1987 march on Washington. That day, 250,000 American Jews called on then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to free Soviet Jews.

With glasnost, Russia followed the "Let my people go" mandate; Jews left in droves. Lately, some 36,000 Jews have been departing Russia every year, and more than 700,000 have settled in Israel.

In the Bay Area, our focus has shifted away from Sunday protests. We thought the only challenge facing us lay in helping Soviet emigres integrate with the Jewish community.

But with Russia's elections slated for Sunday, June 16, community leaders are suddenly having flashbacks.

If Communist challenger Gennady Zyuganov wins, emigration policies are threatened. Even President Boris Yeltsin may concede to the pressures of ultranationalist groups.

Simon Klarfeld, executive director of the Bay Area Council for Jewish Rescue and Renewal, hopes Bay Area Jews won't have to hit the streets again.

"Please God, it should never happen again, but we're ready if it needs to be done," says Klarfeld.

Klarfeld says we should be keeping on eye on the elections and on the future of the estimated 600,000 Jews still living in the former Soviet Union. It may not be time to dust off the old picket sign, but be prepared.

Supporting the efforts of local agencies such as the BACJRR, which are keeping in close contact with grassroots sources both here and abroad, is an important way to prepare oneself.

When we hear Soviet leaders talk about a "brain drain" — their way of discussing the exodus of educated Jews — we should worry.

"They say the `brain drain' has sucked Russia dry," says Klarfeld. "And in many ways, it has. Look at how many symphonies Israel has, and how many Russia doesn't have any more.

"There's a genuine fear of Jews leaving a sinking ship," he adds.

For Jews, it's a particularly scary vessel, one in which religious and political freedom could again become obsolete — and the free flow of emigration a recent memory.