What's with the Russian?

in Warsaw, Poland
325 words, 2 minutes to read

It’s quite pervasive. The sound of spoken Russian and signs written in cyrillic. We’re used to meeting Russians around Europe, wherever it was fashionable to vacation, but this is something different. These here are locals, who emigrated mostly in the 90s and largely kept their culture.

Wikipedia says that between 1970 and 2006 almost 1.2 million people from the former Soviet Union emigrated to Israel. All of them under the Law of Return, either having Jewish descent or being married to Jews. That’s a lot of people in a country with a population of less than nine million. No wonder they’re so common.

These newcomers contributed tremendously to Israel’s economic and technological success. Tens of thousands of them were engineers and doctors—more incoming than there were “native” ones in Israel in the early 90s. Even Benjamin Netanyahu publicly called the Russian aliyah “one of the greatest miracles that happened to the state”.

Major cities have whole neighborhoods inhabited by former citizens of the Soviet Republic. Shop window displays feature signs in Hebrew and Russian, many stores boast “говорим по-русски” and people speak with the familiar Slavic melody and rhythm.

One such neighborhood was the vicinity of our Tel Aviv apartment. Our favorite grocery store was staffed by Russian speakers and conveniently stocked with many items that, aside from Hebrew, had also names in Russian. Now this we could work with! It’s often nontrivial to distinguish products, say, butter from cheese, just by looking at the packaging without being able to read a word of what’s on it. Cyrillic we can read and a lot in Russian we can understand.

It won’t last, though. Children of the post-Soviet immigrants are Israeli already, and well integrated into the society. Every subsequent generation will speak less Russian and more Hebrew. For us it was a surprise experience, to come and peek into the lives of these people, in a country that feels so strongly about its unique identity.