What Putin’s Treatment of Jews Reveals About Russia

His move to kick out the agency that assists émigrés to Israel fits a pattern from Soviet times of using Russian Jews as pawns.

A man sits alone in a ruined synagogue in Russia.
David Turnley / Corbis / Getty

About the author: Gal Beckerman is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He is the author, most recently, of The Quiet Before: On the Unexpected Origins of Radical Ideas.

Last week came news that Russian President Vladimir Putin was threatening to shut down the offices of the Jewish Agency for Israel in Russia. For those unfamiliar with it, the agency is a nonprofit that for nearly a century has been tasked with figuring out the nuts and bolts of Zionism—that is, how to get Jews to a Jewish state. It was banned from the Soviet Union, but began operating in the region in the late 1980s and helped about a million Jews get to Israel through the 1990s. Since this mass exodus, the agency’s role there has been to maintain Jewish communal life for the roughly 150,000 Jews who remained, as well as supporting any who want to emigrate to Israel. This it has done, largely without incident. Putin’s move has to be seen as an act of aggression, intended to make it harder for Jews to leave.

The punitive action is surprising in its suddenness. For years, relations between Israel and Russia were on an upswing, and Israel took a notably neutral stance when the Ukraine invasion began. But the tone has shifted of late. Yair Lapid, who as foreign minister used the phrase war crimes to describe Russia’s behavior, recently became interim prime minister. This has coincided with a flurry of Russian offenses, beginning with the claim that Ukraine’s government, led by a Jewish president, is actually neo-Nazi and including Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s musing out loud in May about whether perhaps Hitler “had Jewish blood.” Israel now appears to have finally chosen a side in this conflict.

For his part, Putin is looking to shore up the allies he still has, including Iran, Israel’s No. 1 enemy. After Putin’s first trip there, earlier this month, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, cryptically tweeted: “Recent stances taken by the President of Russia against the Zionists are commendable.”

Natan Sharansky, the most famous Jewish dissident of the late Cold War era and later the chairman of the Jewish Agency, warned this week that Israel “should not be blackmailed” by Russian threats to curtail emigration. I hear ominous echoes: We are in a moment that, depressingly, feels lifted from half a century ago.

Among the Jews who left the Soviet Union in its dying decades was a cohort that is still known as the ’79ers—those who exited in 1979, a group including the novelist Gary Shteyngart and the Google co-founder Sergey Brin. That year was significant because it saw the single largest emigration since the late 1960s, when Soviet Jews started demanding—and were mostly refused—the right to leave. More than 50,000 emigrated.

The sudden surge had a simple reason. The Soviet Union had suffered a bad harvest and Leonid Brezhnev, the general secretary of the Communist Party, was hoping to secure a grain deal from the Americans. He also wanted the U.S. Congress to ratify a new round of arms-limitation talks. Releasing the Jews—many of whom had been waiting years —was a sweetener. And how do we know this? Because in the following years—after Ronald Reagan, the crusading Cold Warrior, was elected president; Russia invaded Afghanistan; and America boycotted the Moscow Olympics—the number of Jews who managed to get out of the U.S.S.R. dropped, to a measly 896 by 1984.

This is the way the Soviets dealt with Jewish emigration: like a spigot, turning it on when they were seeking favor from the West, and off as a form of retribution. What made the issue such a potent bargaining chip, alongside talk of nuclear warheads, was an unrelenting social movement that had been pushing the cause forward—loudly in the United States, and underground in the Soviet Union. This struggle was a story I told in my book When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone. Over years of being shamed on the world stage for their mistreatment of Jews and even seeing Congress deny them a trade deal in the mid-’70s as a result of this behavior, the Soviets came to appreciate that the path to reducing tension would have to mean letting more Jews go.

When the U.S.S.R.’s last leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, assumed power, he understood this. “We have to resolve the Jewish question, the most burning among human rights problems,” Anatoly Chernyaev, Gorbachev’s senior foreign-policy adviser, recorded in his diary in 1986. Alongside the reform era of perestroika and glasnost came a liberalizing of migration policy that had opened the door to a mass exit by the early 1990s.

But the linkage between superpower diplomacy and Jewish emigration had a dark side. The early 1980s were a nadir in U.S.–Soviet relations—and soon a particularly bleak and hopeless time for Soviet Jews. When a Jew was refused, it didn’t just mean he couldn’t leave. It also meant he was stuck in a country that now identified him as a pariah. Ida Nudel, one of the dissidents I interviewed for my book, described a constant feeling of paranoia in those years. “I was like an animal in a forest,” she told me. “At every moment I had the sensation that someone was following me.” Nudel was sent to Siberia for her activities before finally getting an exit visa, 16 years after first applying.

The status of Jews like Nudel became a leading indicator of just how closed and repressive Soviet society was at any given moment. Jews became the ultimate pawns, the first to suffer anytime the Soviet Union wanted to hurt the West.

Putin’s hostile move toward the Jewish Agency not only brings back memories of that time, but also suggests the making of a new linkage: Punish Israel and show off to Russia’s anti-Israel allies by once again turning off the spigot of Jewish emigration.

Until now, Jews were leaving Russia at a greater rate than they had been in recent years, joining the general flight of urban elites after the war began. Russian authorities fear a brain drain, which seems—at least in part—a reason for the crackdown. The figures are dramatic: About 16,000 Russian citizens have registered in Israel as new immigrants since February—that’s three times as many as did in all of last year. Another 34,000 showed up in the country as tourists, possibly to stay. Among them are valuable citizens such as Elena Bunina, who was the CEO of Yandex, a company Russia considered its answer to Google.

Russia’s response to those hoping to depart also has a Soviet precedent. In 1972, as soon as the Soviet authorities opened the door a crack, the Kremlin saw some of its best engineers and physicists applying for visas. In response, the U.S.S.R. instituted what became known as a diploma tax—as an official put it at the time, a “necessary repayment to the government for the cost of state-financed education.” The price was exorbitant—a $25,000 (about $175,000 today) bill for someone with a doctorate. This was the Soviet reflex: not for leaders to question why they were losing human capital, but to put bars on the doors.

Putin’s action against the Jewish Agency shows that Russia still considers Jews to be pawns—not individuals with lives and aspirations, but a single, undifferentiated group that matters only as geopolitical leverage for the state. This is especially disheartening for those Jews who stayed after the fall of the Soviet Union to build futures for themselves in Russia as full citizens. Putin just reminded them that he can take that away.

Without the Jewish Agency in Moscow, Russian Jews will find it almost impossible to apply directly to move to Israel. They can still fly there, because there is currently no visa requirement, but the support networks to ease the process will be gone—along with all the work the agency was doing to run Hebrew schools and bolster some sense of Jewish community. The extra effort involved in emigrating will also cast suspicion on those who attempt it, giving it the appearance of an illicit act of disloyalty.

The fight for the freedom to leave the Soviet Union was never just about Jews. And the closing of the Jewish Agency portends more than reduced emigration. At issue is citizens’ ability to vote with their feet, to make the ultimate statement about their society: choosing to quit it. Only a country worried that it has become an undesirable place to live takes this right away. We’ve been here before. Jews pay the price first. But they are far from the last. If a state coerces and manipulates its people, makes them supplicants for their basic rights, then totalitarian might be the most accurate word to describe it.