Protesting Putin?

Most immigrants from Russia, even those who have close relatives there, are not interested in the political turbulence in their native country.

Russian protester holds up communist flag 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
Russian protester holds up communist flag 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
As thousands of Russians brave freezing cold temperatures to protest alleged irregularities in national elections that will virtually ensure the continued rule of Vladimir Putin, their former countrymen who pulled up stakes and immigrated to Israel don’t seem the least bit interested in their plight.
In Ashdod, which has one of the highest concentrations of olim from the former Soviet Union, the sentiment is one of apathy and indifference.
“I don’t feel much of a sense of belonging [anymore with regard to Russia],” says Vicki, an account manager in her 40s who was one of nearly a million former Soviet citizens who immigrated to Israel in the 1990s.
After 20 years in the country, nothing could be further from her mind than Russian politics.
“I haven’t totally disconnected myself from what is going on there, but I just don’t see how it impacts me personally,” she says. “So I’m willing to listen and hear the news, but not at the expense of things that are happening here in Israel.”
Most Russian immigrants who agreed to talk to Metro subscribe to the conventional wisdom that the people in Russia – who have become accustomed to living under the thumb of strongmen dating back to the czar – are simply not ready for democracy.
Having come from Ukraine, Vicki says she is “amused” at the way Russians “allow others to constantly step on them without ever learning their lesson.”
“In a country like Russia, you have to have a strong leader,” says Sophia, a 50-something pharmacist from Netanya. “Almost like a tyrant who needs to hold the country together. Otherwise there won’t be any order there.”
Putin may not be a beacon of human rights, but he is credited by some here in Israel with stabilizing a country that was in tatters.
“He’s a KGB man,” Sophia says. “And he did bring order there a bit. There probably were irregularities, and the elections weren’t democratic, but Russia doesn’t know any other way. Ideally, we all want democracy, but it doesn’t fit there.”
Despite the vast cultural links that the Russian-speaking community in Israel maintains with the motherland – Russian musicians frequently perform here while satellite television networks from Russia serve as the main source of news, information, and leisure viewing for veteran olim from the FSU – the brazen decision by pro-democracy demonstrators to challenge Putin has failed to inspire optimism that much will change.
“The Russian-speaking community in Israel is comprised of various groupings,” says Nadia Gimpelowitz, a 29-year-old nursery school assistant in Ra’anana.
“There are those who don’t really care about what goes on in Russia because they immigrated here from a different Soviet republic or because they immigrated when they were very young and they consider themselves Israelis who have no connection to their birthplace.”
Gimpelowitz – young, idealistic and plugged in to the chatter that has dominated social media these last few weeks – seems to buck the trend of the older generation of Russian-speakers who are more inclined to entrust their faith to leaders with larger-than-life personalities, not unlike Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, a politician who is perceived as having cornered the market on the Russian-speakers’ vote.
“I don’t watch the news from Russia but I do know what has been happening there from the moment it was revealed that there were irregularities in the elections,” she says. “I have friends here in Israel and there in Russia who feel that this is an important issue. I wouldn’t know about what is going on in Russia without Facebook and 9GAG [a site devoted to satirical takes on current events making headlines].
But now that I’m up-to-date, I’m pretty involved. I even planned to go to the protest demonstration in front of the Russian embassy, but it didn’t work out schedule-wise.”
If the younger generation feels it has sufficiently assimilated into Israeli culture to the point that events in Russia fail to make an impression, then, according to Gimpelowitz, the older generation of Russian-speakers remains wedded to “a fixed Soviet mentality.”
“The Soviet mentality says that the regime comes above everything else,” she says. “That it’s best not to deal with it and the people should sit quietly on the sidelines and say thank-you that they are even allowed to breathe. Liberman is popular here in the eyes of people with a Soviet mind-set, but not every thinking person is really enamored with him. But he is indeed popular because of his image as a man of strength.”
“[The young people] are involved in Israeli politics, and rightly so because they are Israeli,” she continues.
“My friends and I are unusual in this regard, especially me, and this is only because I know people who have gone out to protest in Russia and also because I’m idealistic, and I think that Putin is worse than Stalin.
“On the whole, Russia is a country that needs to be torn down and built back up again,” she says. “It’s just a shame that the people who were capable of doing this ran away from there or are now in prison.”
Ilana, a 31-year-old clothing store manager in Ashdod, made aliya 13 years ago after having grown up in the Siberian town of Novosibirsk. Her attitude reflects the mainstream thinking of FSU immigrants about the relevance of events in Russia to their lives.
“I don’t follow the news from Russia because I live here and I’m connected to my country,” she says.
“Plus, the news isn’t really interesting. I have no interest in politics. I talk to my mother, who lives in Russia, every day over Skype. But she’s a pensioner who needs to work in order to make ends meet because the pension there is just not enough to get by on. But we don’t talk about the political situation there because it doesn’t concern me and I’m more preoccupied with my personal affairs here in Israel.”