Get out now: Soviet refusenik Natan Sharansky’s warning to Russia’s Jews as crackdown fears grow

The ex-dissident, who spent nine years in Soviet prisons, issued the bleak warning amid an escalation of President Vladimir Putin’s repression of the Jewish Agency


Russian Jews thinking of fleeing the country should leave now before a new wave of antisemitism begins, former Soviet refusenik Natan Sharansky has told the JC.

The ex-dissident, who spent nine years in Soviet prisons after he was refused permission to leave the USSR, issued the bleak warning amid an escalation of President Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on the Jewish Agency.

One Jewish émigré told the JC they fear “the days of the Iron Curtain might come again”.
Since the beginning of the war, roughly 17,000 immigrants have made aliyah from Russia, an increase of about 420 per cent compared to the same period last year, a spokesperson for the Jewish Agency said. As of 2021, around 600,000 Russians were estimated to be eligible to claim Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return.

Mr Sharansky, a former Israeli minister who also used to chair the Jewish Agency, said that while Jews are currently safe on the streets of Moscow it was only a matter of time before the Russian government sparked an increase in persecution.

He said: “Without doubt, the moment the regime becomes more and more totalitarian, they will be looking for more and more internal and external enemies.

“The moment it changes the Jews will become scapegoats again, then immediately antisemitism on the streets will come back. It hasn’t happened yet, and let’s hope it will not happen.”

Currently, he added, the freedom to emigrate from Russia is “the last freedom which still exists”.

But, he said, “The situation is much worse than it was a few months ago. Who knows how long it will exist?”

Mr Sharansky continued: “Those who want to leave can leave but no doubt it can be changed any minute and that’s why my recommendation to those who are thinking about going to Israel at some point is to make this decision now.”

One Russian Jewish émigré now living in North America, who did not wish to be named, told the JC he feared that Russians could be blocked from leaving in the same way they were under Soviet rule.

Most of the people he had tried to get in touch with in Russia were “afraid to talk” and concerned that their mobile phone conversations might be eavesdropped on or their social media monitored, he said.

“Someone asked me to switch to a more secure messaging service. I have seen terrifying videos of police officers stopping people and demanding to see their phones.”

Some had packed suitcases and flown to Israel without any other possessions, he added.

But he warned: “If you go to Israel, where do you work, how do you pay for housing? Many of those who have gone to Israel may have resources, for example apartments, there. But others can’t afford to go to Israel, tickets are quite expensive and the price of housing in Israel is crazy.”

He knew others who had gone to nearby countries such as Armenia and Georgia “where the cost of living is lower and some are trying to work remotely. But they can’t move money abroad because the Russian authorities forbid it and their credit cards are blocked [because of sanctions].

“Imagine you’re trying to escape from Russia but you can’t rent an apartment because you can’t transfer money and you can’t use your credit cards.”

While there had been a focus on Ukrainian refugees “who are running for their lives and deserve all the help they can get”, he had been “trying to convince people to see that as much as there is a humanitarian catastrophe in Ukraine, there is another waiting to happen in Russia.”

The Russian government has ordered the Jewish Agency, which helps Jews to make aliyah, to stop all operations within the country. Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid has warned that any attempt to dissolve the body’s Russian branch would be a “serious event” that would harm relations.

Mr Sharansky said closure would be “very serious” but it would still be possible to help Russian Jews.

He told the JC: “First of all the Jewish Agency is doing extremely important work, and I hope it will not be closed.

“But even if it is closed, Israel knew how to keep contact and [support] aliyah from the Soviet Union even [when] there was no Jewish Agency and no Israeli diplomats in Russia.”

Speaking anonymously, one Russian Jewish expat said she was “shocked” at the move to close the Jewish Agency. It could be an attempt to deter a brain drain, she said, noting that IT specialists in Russia were being offered bonuses and tax relief. But another suggestion is that the authorities are “preparing scapegoats”.

She added that while Mr Putin was never antisemitic or, unlike the former Communist regime, hostile to Israel, others in the government still harboured antisemitic tendencies.

Over the past months, one of her relatives in Russia had gone to Germany, others to Turkey.
“People have gone to where they don’t need visas: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey or Georgia,” she said. Others felt they had to stay because of elderly parents or mortgages.

“Not everyone can speak a foreign language or is in the jobs that are wanted,” she said. After the initial panic following the outbreak of war, some had returned to Russia, she said. “They still want to leave but to prepare properly.”

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive