Russian Jews pack because they fear Communist victory

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

NEW YORK — Many Jewish Muscovites have taken extended vacations in the past few weeks — with large suitcases.

Their exodus is just one sign of mounting fears that Russia's Sunday, June 16 presidential elections will slam shut the gates of Jewish emigration, which has flowed freely since the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Such apprehensions, based on the chance the Communists could take control again, are rocking agencies throughout the country that deal with Russian Jews firsthand.

"The fear is pretty intense," said Simon Klarfeld, executive director of the San Francisco-based Bay Area Council for Jewish Rescue and Renewal.

"I don't think it will be an overnight issue but it's a very, very strong possibility that we will see the slowing down if not the end of emigration as we know it."

Threats to emigation have already appeared. This week, the government of President Boris Yeltsin continued closing offices of the Jewish Agency, which oversees and encourages Jewish emigration.

Meanwhile, many of Russia's Jews have headed to Poland and other Central European nations in case the election forces a swift and dramatic change in emigration policy, Klarfeld said.

In the Bay Area, the BACJRR and the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services had been receiving up to four times their usual two monthly calls from Russian Jewish emigres seeking help in getting their relatives out. Now the calls are coming twice a week, and people's sense, Klarfeld said, is that "anything could happen."

The BACJRR's bureau in St. Petersburg has also experienced an upsurge in requests for help in getting exit visas, he noted. "This is really the Wild West. These people have no idea what's about to happen to them."

Russian Jews see the worst-case scenario as 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 Yeltsin, the favored candidate, could lead to petty harassment of international groups as a concession to pressures by ultranationalists, experts said.

And Russian Jews feel Yeltsin has not helped them much either. "What has Yeltsin done to stop the growth of anti-Semitism and fascism in the last five years? Absolutely nothing," said Klarfeld.

In 1987, some 250,000 American Jews marched on Washington, D.C., 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 rallying for Soviet Jewish freedom.

But that concern receded as Gorbachev's reform policies of glasnost gave way to the collapse of communism. Soviet authorities relaxed emigration restrictions, allowing the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Jews. Some 700,000 have since gone to Israel.

In addition, 300,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union have immigrated to the United States, with about 30,000 settling in the Bay Area, which has the second largest number of emigres in the United States, following New York.

In recent years, some 36,000 Jews have left the former Soviet Union annually.

Now longtime Jewish experts and activists were watching tensely and waiting for the results of elections some said could throw Russian back to the bad old days of iron-fisted, anti-Jewish Communist rule.

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.

Most statistics show a large number of Jews still remain. Russian census figures put the number of Jews and their families at roughly 600,000, but the census is unreliable and the numbers may be higher. Meanwhile, about 300,000 Russian Jews hold "invitations" from Israel as "an insurance policy" in case of a Communist win, according to a highly placed Israeli official.

Signs that Russian Jewish emigration may be slowed already have cropped up. Russian officials recently suspended the license of the Jewish Agency for Israel, on charges it was meddling in Russian affairs.

While new papers of accreditation are expected the day before the elections, the move has been interpreted by some as a nationalist show of force to shore up Yeltsin's campaign.

This week, Russian authorities demanded the closure within 72 hours of the agency's office in Pyatigorsk, a key departure point for Soviet Jews, again heightening concern.

The Yeltsin government previously had closed agency offices in St. Petersburg and Nizhny Novgorod, and threatened to shut agency bureaus in Rostov-on-Don, Makhachkala near the Caspian Sea, and in Birobidzhan, in the Stalinist-created Jewish autonomous region in the Far East.

The Washington Post reported this week that the official Interfax News Agency had quoted Russian officials as saying the Jewish Agency is a front for Israel's Mossad intelligence agency. Jewish Agency officials have declined to address such rumors.

While anti-Semitism long has been a problem in Russia, new indications of a resurgence have surfaced. At Communist rallies, anti-Semitic materials have circulated while swastikas and hangman's nooses have been spray-painted on the walls of Moscow's main synagogue. A synagogue in the city of Yarolsavl has been firebombed. No one has been arrested.

Meanwhile, a potential member of a Communist-led Russian cabinet has called for a ban on Jews appearing on Russian television.

Victor Anpilov, leader of the Working Russia Party, whom Zyuganov might appoint to head Russian television, told the NTV channel that "most of those who appear on Russian television are people of Jewish descent" and should be banned.

Privately, some experts, many of whom are reluctant to use their names, said they are "preparing for the worst." But they dismissed the bleakest projections as unlikely. They sai they don't anticipate a flood of emigration or a crackdown on those wishing to leave.

"It looks to us that, at least for the foreseeable future," the recent liberal emigration policy will not change, one anonymity-requesting Israeli official said.

Another organizational leader, who also declined to be identified, agreed. A win by Zyuganov would probably lead to a slight increase in Jews wanting to emigrate "but not an avalanche," he said.

"We're most concerned about what would happen to the organizations" working with the Jewish community, he added.

Those organizations include the Jewish Agency, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and 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 also 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 as meddling and to conform to local legislation," that official continued. "They're trying to lay low."

Ten candidates are on Sunday's ballot, among them Gorbachev, who is expected to receive few votes. 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 world-view 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 National Conference report stated.

Recent polls showed Yeltsin in the lead but experts said Russian polls are unreliable. Most observers believed that no candidate will get the 50 percent needed to win and that there would be a July runoff.

It is in the runoff where the most troubling candidate of all — Vladimir Zhirinovsky — could play an important role. Zhirinovsky, 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 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,'" he observed.

Wenick's organization, HIAS, was scheduled to bring 25,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union to the United States as refugees this fiscal year.

According to Marina Belotserkovsky, the assistant director of Russian communications for HIAS, 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, however, "it's moved from high governmental authority to the streets," she said. And with organized and petty crime at an all-time high, "people now are really not safe."

Belotserkovsky's reports from contacts in Russia differ from those of some experts who said that while there are incidents of anti-Semitism, the rising fear comes from widespread anarchy and violence that is not targeted at Jews.

At the same time, "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."

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 long-held position that the Jewish world's work in the region remains unfinished.

"We've been stating for five years that the issue of aliyah [emigration] from the former Soviet Union is far from over," she said. "The scale is smaller, but the challenge remains."