For Jews it was especially easy to leave. Israel’s Law of Return gave Jews the right to Israeli citizenship. And the U.S. granted all Russian-speaking Jews refugee status.
Beginning in the late 1980s, as many as 1.8 million Russian-speaking Jews from across the former Soviet Union left. About 1 million went to Israel and as many as 500,000 to the United States. The remainder left for Canada, Germany and Australia.
“There are a lot more Ukrainian Jews living outside Ukraine than in Ukraine,” said David Fishman, professor of history at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Anna Shternshis, a professor of Yiddish studies at the University of Toronto who studies Russian-Jewish history, said economic opportunity was the main reason for the Jewish exodus. Ukrainian Jews in particular suffered from discrimination in the workplace and in higher education. But perhaps the biggest reason, she said, could be summed up in one word: Chernobyl.
“Chernobyl and neighboring area had a large Jewish population,” Shternshis said. “When knowledge of Chernobyl began to spread, everyone wanted to leave as soon as possible.”
The 1987 nuclear disaster took place near the city of Pripyat about 110 miles north of Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital.
For these Jewish emigres who had grown up in the Communist regime where atheism was propagated and believers were harassed, Judaism was more of an ethnic identity.
“These were secular Jews,” said Simon Rabinovitch, professor of history at Northeastern University. “There was no alternative.”
That’s certainly true of Ukraine’s president, Zelensky. In fact, religion barely came up during his campaign.
“The fact that I am a Jew is about the 20th question among my characteristics,” Zelensky was quoted as saying.
There are an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 Jews left in Ukraine (out of a population of 44 million), said Fishman, who travels twice a year to Ukraine to do research and teach.