Russians Who Moved to Israel to Escape Ukraine War Are in the Middle of Another One


Days after Russia invaded Ukraine last year, Matvey Kukuy, a technology entrepreneur, fled the country for Israel, more out of shame than fear. But when Hamas attacked his new home two weeks ago, he did the opposite: While at a conference in Portugal, he booked tickets to go back to Israel in one of its greatest moments of crisis.

“I felt I was on the right side of history this time,” Mr. Kukuy, 30, said in a phone interview from Tel Aviv.

Mr. Kukuy, who is from Moscow, was one of thousands of Russians with Jewish heritage, including many prominent figures, who left for Israel after the invasion of Ukraine. Some stood in lines in front of Israeli diplomatic missions in Moscow, some sought to prove their Jewish roots inside Israel. To resettle in Israel, Russians need to show that one adult family member has Jewish heritage.

In the early weeks of 2022, when a Russian invasion of Ukraine seemed imminent, a steady stream of people left Russia. That turned into a flood of such proportions after the war started that Russian prosecutors soon sought to impose an operational ban on a major Jewish nonprofit agency that helps people emigrate to Israel. A Russian court has yet to rule on the matter.

The exodus of Russian families and Israel’s decision not to endorse the Kremlin’s rationale for the war — the false assertion that Ukraine is run by Nazis — strained the relationship between the two countries.

But it also highlighted the deep divisions within Russian society over President Vladimir V. Putin’s decision to attack Ukraine. Thousands opposed to the war no longer live in Russia. Others — with their voices amplified by the country’s state-run media — labeled the exiles as treacherous traitors who should never return to Russia.

The war between Israel and Hamas, the armed group that controls Gaza, exposed the fact that these divisions are deep and enduring.

Lev Sotnikov left Russia shortly after Mr. Putin announced a call-up of reservists to join the fighting in September 2022. He said that while all wars carry some similarities, the one between Israel and Hamas is different from the one in Ukraine because, unlike Russia, Israel is “fighting for its survival as a state.”

This war was also a crash course for him on life in the country, said Mr. Sotnikov, 37. This summer, after he settled with his family in the town of Nahariya, six miles from the border with Lebanon, he felt “absolutely safe,” he said.

Since the attack by Hamas, tensions have flared in the north near Lebanon, with some analysts and officials fearing an escalation of hostilities in the area.

“Now I understand that even when everything will end,” Mr. Sotnikov said, referring to the current war between Israel and Hamas, “nothing will actually end.”

After Hamas’s attack, many Russian families decided to leave Israel, at least for the initial period of open hostilities. Russian aviation authorities said on Friday that around 7,000 people had flown from Israel to Russia after the attack by Hamas and that around 3,000 had flown back. Russian community chats in some of the main centers of postwar immigration, such as Tbilisi, Georgia, or Yerevan, Armenia, were filled with requests for temporary apartments and other help.

Some Russian exiles in Israel said they were surprised that, despite deep political divisions, there was a consensus among Israelis about the need to help each other and their army.

Yuri Podkopayev, a math teacher who left Russia last November, said that unlike in Russia, in Israel people were free to criticize the government but that they were also all united around one cause — the protection of their country.

“No one questioned Russia’s right for existence,” said Mr. Podkopayev, 40. “That’s why there wasn’t any kind of massive support of the war in Ukraine.”

However, even exiles against the Kremlin’s war still see Russia as their motherland, they said. While Mr. Podkopayev has settled in Israel for good and is learning Hebrew so he can resume teaching math, he said that he considers himself to be a patriot of both Russia and Israel.

“I have two countries, and I worry about both of them,” Mr. Podkopayev said. “One of them is just seriously sick now.”


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