The Soviet Union crumbled 20 years ago, and in the aftermath, more than 1 million of its citizens took advantage of Jewish roots to flee that vast territory for the sliver of land along the Mediterranean that is the Jewish state. By virtue of their sheer numbers in a country of 8 million people and their tenacity in clinging to elements of their old way of life, these immigrants have transformed Israel.
Israel has the world’s third-largest Russian-speaking community outside the former Soviet Union, after the U.S. and Germany. Russian-speaking emigres may not conjure up the same recognition as the country’s black-hatted Orthodox Jews or gun-toting soldiers, but they are just as ubiquitous — maintaining habits more suited to the “old country” than their adopted Mideast homeland, like wild mushroom foraging or winter dips in the Mediterranean, the closest substitute to frigid Siberian waters.
Today, Russian-speaking emigres and their children occupy virtually every corner of Israeli society, from academia and technology to the military and politics. A political party formed by Israel’s recently resigned foreign minister to cater to Russian-speaking immigrants like him has grown from a marginal force in politics to one of its major powers.