Larissa Remennick,
Russian Jews on Three Continents.  Identity, Integration, and Conflict.
New Brunswick: Transactions Publishers, 2007.

A shorter version of this review was published in Contemporary Sociology, 2009, Vol. 38, pp. 239-40,

The significant influx of Jews in what eventually would become the Russian empire started in the14th century when the Lithuania’s military victories over its neighbors encouraged Jewish traders to settle in Ukraine.  By the time Russia overpowered Lithuania, consolidated its control over Ukraine, and annexed Poland in the late 18th century, its Jewish population swelled to 1 million.  At the start of the 20th century, nearly 4 million Jews resided in Russia – estimated one third of world Jewry at the time.  Fast forward to the early 21st century, and you will discover that once a major presence, the Jewish population in Russia has dwindled to less than a million, just where it was in the latter part of the 18th century.  

The reasons for this reversal are many.  The Bolshevik revolution left imperial Russia without several territories traditionally inhabited by Jews.  Between 1.2 and 2 million Russian Jews perished in the Holocaust.  Khrushchev’s Thaw engendered detente in the East-West relations, and when the prospects of winning trade concessions from the U.S. beckoned, Leonid Brezhnev opened the door to Jewish emigration.  Between 1971 and 1981, 250,000 Russian Jews left the U.S.S.R.  Slightly over one half found their way to Israel, the rest settled mostly in the U.S. and Canada.  After the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, Jewish emigration was reduced to a trickle, restarting only after Mikhail Gorbachev consolidated his power in the late 1980s.  Between 1988 and 2005, over 1.6 million Jews from the former Soviet Union emigrated to Israel (950,000), the U.S. and Canada (370,000), and Germany (200,000), with the rest going to other Western countries.  Exodus of the Russian Jews has slowed down drastically since the heydays of emigration:  Now between 10 and 15,000 Jews leave Russia for good every year.

Russian Jews on the Three Continents is an ambitious study tracking the fate of Soviet Jews who resettled in the West in the wake of the massive exodus from the Soviet Union that began nearly forty years ago.  Larissa Remennick, herself a Russian émigré who presently chairs the department of Sociology and Anthropology at Bar-Ilan University, explains that her “general sociological goal is to understand the modes of economic, social, and cultural adjustment to life in the West among the people molded by state socialism” (p. 2). 

Using surveys, in-depth interviews, and group discussions, the author paints a broad panorama of Russian Jewry residing abroad.  An introduction traces the genesis of the post-WWII emigration from Russia, situates Soviet Jews in their native culture, and discusses the identity dilemmas confronting Jews in their adopted and ancestral homes.  A separate chapter is devoted, respectively, to the Jews in Israel, the U.S., Canada, and Germany.  A special section explores the lives of the Israeli women of Russian descent.  A concluding chapter compares and contrasts how Jewish immigrants adapted themselves to the conditions of host countries.  I found the last segment particularly useful; readers interested in conceptual issues might want to read it first, as it offers a comparative reference frame that helps get a handle on the situation in each individual country.

The author lays out a model that singles outs six factors bearing on the success that Soviet immigrants met while integrating themselves into the host society:  (1) Official framing of Jewish immigration; (2) citizenship requirements; (3) size of the émigré community relative to the local population; (4) resettlement package available to the immigrants; (5) access to skilled occupations; and (6) host expectations toward immigrants.

It makes a difference that Soviet Jews now comprise 14 percent of the Israeli populace (20 percent of the country’s Jewish residents).  In the U.S., Canada, and Germany, Russian immigrants are a tiny minority – about .001 percent of each nation’s population.  Soviet Jews in Israel are a political and cultural force to reckon with.  They have instant access to citizenship (unless your dual parentage runs afoul of the officially recognized matrilineal descent reckoning).  Their representatives occupy a prominent place in the Knesset.  They are surrounded by familiar cultural institutions like Russian theater, TV programming, and food markets.  The sheer number of the Russian expatriates in Israel guarantees ample networking opportunities and support systems unavailable in some other countries.  Yet, the repatriation package awaiting the olim – the new immigrants resettling in Israel – is modest and short in duration.  By contrast, in Germany, Russian Jews until recently enjoyed a long-term and relatively ample financial support, but they make a tiny fraction of the local population, they are viewed with suspicion by the Germans and with hostility by the established German Jews, and their pathway to citizenship is contingent on 6-8 years of residency, compared to 5 years in the U.S. and 3 year in Canada. 

Until the end of the 80s, Russian Jews were welcome in the U.S. as political and religious refugees, but with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end to state-sponsored anti-Semitism, entrée to this country was curtailed by the act of Congress, and now it is limited to those with relatives already in the U.S. or applicants with desirable economic skills.  Russian immigrants are admitted to Canada under the economic quota system, but those who made it to Canada face major hurdles validating their professional credentials and obtaining certificates that enable them to work in occupations like medicine and engineering.    

So, where do the Russian immigrants fare better?  Not in Germany where some 200,000 Russian immigrants have a hard time mixing with the local population and finding well-paid jobs (over one half of the Russian Jews in Germany remain unemployed for most of the year).  Progress in Canada is slowed down by barriers to entry erected by local unions and professional organizations in the occupational fields where Russian immigrants claim expertise.  Russian expatriates seem more at home in Israel, but the huge influx of skilled professionals since 1988 – 38,000 teachers, 20,000 physicians, dentists, and nurses, 12,000 scientist – overwhelmed the limited capacity of local markets.  While in the year 2000 some forty percent of the Israeli high-tech sector was powered by Russian scientists, many more émigrés faced hardships finding work commensurate with their qualifications and sometimes unrealistic expectations.  The same goes for ex-Soviet musicians, actors, writers, journalists, and standup comedians who come to Israel in prodigious numbers.  Russian Jews in the U.S. appear to be more satisfied with their life situation than their counterparts in other parts of the world. 

Whatever the macro level factors behind the differential rates of adaptation success, there are considerable age, gender, educational, and less tangible social differences that shape the individual and group trajectories of those who sought fortunes in Israel and Diaspora.  The interview materials collected for this study flesh out the problems confronting Jews who left Russia in search for better life. 

The researcher works with John Berry’s model of the immigrant adaptation strategy, which situates the acculturation process alongside the continuum that stretches from assimilation through integration to marginalization and separatism (p. 69-70).  Remennick modifies this model to reflect her population, mainly the first generation newcomers.  The adjusted model tracks “integration” and “acculturation” as two key indicators of the immigrant’s transition to a new life.  Integration refers to “the structural aspects of immigration inclusion (employment, functional social networks, participation in host social institutions) and acculturation in relation to cultural aspects of this process, including language shift, informal social networks, and cultural consumption” (p. 71).  Biculturalism and bilingualism, according to the author, are the most effective ways of transitioning to the new life available to an average immigrant, for they assure the “double cultural competence, flexibility and an effective situational switch between the two cultures” required for a successful integration (366).

The author’s considerable skills as an ethnographer help put a human face on the acculturation process and illuminate the impressive capacity for self-understanding (and self-deception) among Russian expatriates. 

“No one is interested in what I know and love, no one would appreciate that I can recite Akhmatova and Pasternak’s verses for hours on end, this won’t earn me a single dollar, not even a smile,” laments a thirty-five year old former Soviet teacher now living in New York.  “Everything I had been prepared for in my old life proved to be useless” (p. 204).  “It’s there that I was a professor, here I am dog shit!” conveys a similar sentiment a former Russian scholar with little prospects for putting his cultural capital to productive use in a new county (p. 333). 

 “I prefer to remain a former research scientist to becoming a current cleaner or caregiver for the elderly,” explains an elderly immigrant in Germany.  “I have my modest needs and I can survive on the unemployment benefits” (pp. 332).  “Germans killed most of my relatives during the war, so they should at least compensate for their crimes by making my old age more comfortable.  I see this pension as a kind of historic due,” echoes another Russian beneficiary of the German welfare system.  (p. 335).

Or consider this confession from of a Russian husband who discovered that the familiar gender conventions do not play well in the U.S.:  “I’m not ashamed to say that I was a typical macho Russian husband.  For a long time I was convinced that it was her duty to take care of me and the family, while I sat and contemplated life and death issues.  Now I can’t believe I was so stupid” (p. 212). 

As someone who emigrated from the USSR in 1975 and settled in the US in 1976, I read with particular interest ethnographic accounts collected for this book. Alternativley moving and disturbing, they made me wonder about the potential for a bias endemic to the ethnographic method.  The voices of German immigrants sounded considerably grimmer to me than those emanating from Russian Jews who resettled elsewhere in the West.  It might be the size and the nature of the German sample (42 respondents acquired through a snow-balling procedure) that slanted the data, but it could also be a selection bias that predisposes the author to cite interview samples of a particular kind and gloss over counter-examples.  The author's method leaves ample room for this possibility:  “I present and discuss my chief findings, illustrating them with typical quotations from the interviewees” (p. 328).  But that raises the question about the author’s cultural competence and potential for reporting bias. 

Nowhere in the text (unless I overlooked something) does the author tell us what motivated her decision to leave Russia, why she chose to settle in Israel, what she thinks about the Zionist cause, how her own adaptation success might have informed her inquiry and predisposed her to highlight particular interview samples.  I raise these issues not so much to question the validity of the reported findings as to highlight a certain lacunae in the author’s methodological armory – the paucity of self-reflection.  A closer attention to the personal side of ethnographic method might have added a welcome dimension to this inquiry.

Be this as it may, Dr. Remennick wrote an important book that is certain to become standard reference for all those studying the immigration and adaption process, as well as a noteworthy addition to the ethnographic literature on selfhood, identity crisis, and self-actualization.