"Directors, designers, advisers, they're all here": The Russian elites fleeing the war to Israel

April 26, 2022

Roman Liberov, 41, a documentary filmmaker, now living in Israel. 'I still remain within Russian culture,' he says.



* The term "philosophers' plane" is being heard frequently these days, a riff on the historical "philosophers' ship," referring to the expulsion, at Vladimir Lenin's directive, of intellectuals, physicians and writers from Soviet Russia in 1922. A laconic remark attributed to Leon Trotsky explains the approach: "We exiled these people because there was no cause to execute them, and no possibility of tolerating them." Those who have left Russia since February 24 feel strongly that they can no longer accept the government's actions quietly, while the government, for its part, will no longer put up with them. Thousands of them have gone to Israel.



'Directors, Designers, Advisers, They're All Here': The Russian Elites Fleeing the War to Israel
By Liza Rozovsky
April 15, 2022


We're in a caf? in central Tel Aviv, amid the noontime hustle and bustle of a day that's getting warmer by the minute. Stanislav Belkovsky, 51, an in-demand TV and radio host and political analyst in Russia, and formerly a highly influential strategic adviser, is trying to order a caff? Americano with a glass of water on the side in a perfect British accent. But perfection can sometimes be a drawback. The accent baffles the waitress, and I have to translate his request into Hebrew.

"I never intended to leave Russia," Belkovsky asserts. "I am a Jew through my mother and a Pole through my father, which grants me the right to Polish citizenship, and my skills are convertible currency, but in Russia I created a comfortable lifestyle. Leaving is quite traumatic for me, and it never would have happened if it hadn't been urgently necessary."

About 70,000 tech professionals have fled Russia since the Ukraine invasion, alongside an exodus of figures like Belkovsky from the cultural elite: intellectuals, media persons, artists and web influencers. Many of them now find themselves in Israel. According to the Population and Immigration Authority, by the first week of April, nearly 12,600 Russian citizens had entered Israel since the start of the war. Some of them are here as tourists, others with the intention of forging a future here (one official estimated for Haaretz that more than 90 percent of them are eligible for citizenship under the Law of Return), but the majority have no idea where they will be a few months from now.

The term "philosophers' plane" is being heard frequently these days, a riff on the historical "philosophers' ship," referring to the expulsion, at Vladimir Lenin's directive, of intellectuals, physicians and writers from Soviet Russia in 1922. A laconic remark attributed to Leon Trotsky explains the approach: "We exiled these people because there was no cause to execute them, and no possibility of tolerating them." Those who have left Russia since February 24 feel strongly that they can no longer accept the government's actions quietly, while the government, for its part, will no longer put up with them. I met with a few of the leading figures among the exiles.



(Photo at the top of this page.)

For more than a decade, Roman Liberov has been engaged in a project of making historical films about great Russian writers and poets, with the participation of Russia's finest actors. An album of music he produced and created, released in January 2021, pays homage to the eminent Russian Jewish poet Osip Mandelstam, whose texts have been adapted into songs and clips performed by some of Russia's most popular and highly regarded singers and bands in multiple styles, ranging from punk to pop and romance, from classic rock to electronic music and rap.

A week after the album's release, Liberov arrived in Israel, having arrived at the realization that he could not go on living in Russia. "My life, my heart and my head were still in Moscow," he tells me in a spacious and astonishingly quiet bar in Tel Aviv Port, which he suggested as a meeting place. "I flew [to Russia] every month, and I was supposed to travel there now, too, but on February 24, my life changed drastically, as it did for everyone, and now Moscow simply no longer exists in my thoughts. Do you understand?"

Projects he was involved in were aborted, Liberov relates. One of them consisted of readings by poets at Moscow's National Theater, with the aim of creating a cinematic archive of contemporary Russian poetry. Another project that he doesn't see himself being able to continue is a series of films on literary subjects, the last of which was to have been devoted to the absurdist poet Daniil Kharms, who died in 1942. "It's the eighth part of the great whole, which is meant to tell the story of a member of the Russian intelligentsia in an unfree country. Not being able to continue the work on him is now what is most painful to me, but I just have to accept it in the meantime."

Did he see his future in Israel when he immigrated officially last year? "More than anything, I would like to be back in Moscow without experiencing conflicts," he replies. "Because from year to year it became more and more impossible to live there, I left Moscow and came to Tel Aviv, but I didn't think the need would arise to plunge into the reality of Israel. I remained, and still remain in my life -- if it doesn't sound rife with pathos -- within Russian culture and within my Russian thoughts. But after February 24, I took a Hebrew teacher and now I'm learning Hebrew every day -- something I hadn't planned on doing, because I imagined that I would be able to continue to get along in English. That has now become impossible. After February 24, I got in touch with many cultural initiatives here, in Russian and in Hebrew. I have thought up dozens of projects that can be executed here. I came to understand that it makes no difference what I fantasize -- from here on, Tel Aviv is my principal city."

Liberov has now been in Israel for more than three consecutive months -- a record for him, he says. One reason for this is very practical: Like many others, he can't withdraw funds from his Russian accounts. "All that is left to us is to somehow organize a chain of relatives who will get the money to us," he notes, adding that Israeli banks, like banks everywhere, tend to look askance at large cash deposits, even if the amounts involved are far more modest than they could have been before the war.

"Imagine that you have an investment plan in rubles that shrank by a third, if not by half, when the stock market fell, and now you have to convert the investment into dollars -- and it shrinks by another half."

Besides his personal finances, the money was also designated to fund his projects, some of which collapsed in any case. The only way he managed to salvage any of his money at all was that he launched a rescue operation at 6 A.M. on the day of the invasion. "My mental makeup is very healthy," he says. "There is no point fighting the situation, no point getting upset. All you can do is accept it and work actively for a new life. Even our chat group -- of friends who have arrived here, like us -- is called 'It's a new life.'

"It's unbelievable who's here now, you can't imagine" Liberov continues avidly. "I went into a restaurant in Tel Aviv and I had the feeling I was in Mansurovsky Lane, at House 12 [a Moscow restaurant where Russian cultural figures hang out] at the peak hour on Friday. They were the exact same faces. All of them! Directors, theater designers, activists, advisers. Simply unbelievable. Like in Moscow, only not in Moscow. Who knows when I will see my city and the street I live on again?"


Kira Dolinina: 'I realized there is no longer a home'



Kira Dolinina teaches at the European University, in St. Petersburg, and is a veteran art critic and commentator for the daily newspaper Kommersant. At the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s, Kommersant was a role model and object of yearning for every journalist who wrote in Russian. The paper, whose target audience is the successful class, was known for its well-honed, sarcastic style, an unlimited approach to sources, and absolute freedom of form, content and range of subjects.

Kommersant began as a private initiative of the editor and publisher Vladimir Yakovlev (himself now an Israeli resident). It was sold over the years several times to different oligarchs (among them the late Boris Berezovsky, who in the 1990s had a hand in everything). Finally, in 2008, it came into the possession of the billionaire Alisher Usmanov, who is considered very close to President Vladimir Putin and has been sanctioned in the United States, Britain and Europe. In contrast to Berevosky, who consciously distanced himself from editorial matters, Dolinina notes, Usmanov did not hesitate to intervene in content, and the newspaper gradually lost its independence and its brilliant chutzpah.

Dolinina arrived in Israel with her husband and their son on February 26, two days after the start of the war. The immediate reason was not the invasion itself, but a sudden powerful headache that struck their 14-year-old son, Gabriel. He suffered from brain cancer in infancy, and Israel was the only country in which his parents found an immediate and appropriate medical response. At first they paid for the surgery and treatments via crowdfunding, and afterward, when it became apparent that Gabriel would require treatment, supervision and medical intervention for many years to come, they became naturalized citizens. In fact, the family has been flying back and forth between St. Petersburg and Tel Aviv for almost 14 years -- Dolinina is endlessly grateful to Israel for the "security umbrella" it has given them. But this, she says, is the first time she has understood that "there is no more home."

Since the start of the war and her arrival in Israel, Dolinina has written only two columns for Kommersant. "It was very difficult for me to write those two articles," she notes, "even though no one told me what it was forbidden to write, other than the lawmakers" -- referring to the new censorship laws prohibiting vilification of the armed forces. "But even though I write about culture, those laws are enough to make you feel nauseous from the start to the finish of writing the article. The whole time you feel that you should be writing better, more trenchantly and more clearly, no matter what the subject. It's intolerable.

"Now I'm on vacation," she continues, "and I don't know what will happen when it ends -- whether I'll be able to continue or will have to resign. For example, I can't write about the new exhibition that opened at the State Historical Museum in Red Square, because much of it is devoted to old snuffboxes." (In Russian culture, a snuffbox has become a symbol of a palace coup, because, according to one version, Czar Paul I was assassinated in 1801 by being struck in the head with a snuffbox.)

The start of Dolinina's career coincided with the early years following the breakup of the Soviet Union, and she affiliates herself with what she refers to as "1990s people." "There was a situation then in which intellectuals could invent themselves and invent work for themselves," she recalls. "If I like modern art, I'll become a gallerist. There are no galleries? So I'll be the first to open one. And so it was. If I am fond of ancient art, but I'm getting paid pennies in the museum, I'll become an expert who works with antiquities dealers. If I'm an architect but there is no work, because there wasn't a lot of construction at the beginning of the 1990s, I will become an architecture critic, a profession that was nonexistent until then."

The 1990s people, Dolinina says, and others too, now have a mission: to pass the baton of freedom to the generation now growing up in Russia -- the free air they were able to breathe fully into their lungs, if only for a single decade. But after all, that generation also bears responsibility for the fact that that air is being sucked out of Russia fast. "That's also something I think about all the time: finding the point where we went wrong -- everyone apparently has to do that for themselves."



Stanislav Belkovsky, 51, political analyst: 'I supported Putin in the past, and I don't regret it'

In contrast to many in the intelligentsia, a group who live (or did until recently) in Russia's big cities, Stanislav Belkovsky, a strategic analyst and adviser, does not define himself as a liberal. "In the battle between Putin and [the now-exiled businessman Mikhail] Khodorovsky, I supported Putin without a doubt, and I'm not sorry about it. The very act of positing big capital in opposition to government, and the identification of big capital with liberal-humanistic values seemed to me to be mistaken. There is no connection between Russian capital and those values," Belkovsky says.

Today, that might sound like a routine critique of the oligarchs' seizure of Russia's resources and many levers of power in the country during the 1990s. Voiced by Belkovsky, it bears greater weight and deeper significance. He was responsible for a report titled "The State and the Oligarchy," published in May 2003. The report, which categorized the political system in Russia as an oligarchy, maintained that Khodorovsky, who headed the giant petroleum concern Yukos, was planning to change the official system of government. Circles close to Khodorovsky, it was claimed, were planning to transform Russia into a presidential-parliamentary republic with broad powers to accrue to the parliament and the presidency, to be assumed by Khodorovsky himself. He was arrested about two months after the report appeared.

Do you think your report had an influence on the persecution of Khodorovsky?

Belkovsky: "In the final analysis, no. It influenced the media situation in regard to the persecution, but the persecution itself was a matter that had already been decided on. It was the result of a frontal clash between Putin and Khodorovsky, which I couldn't influence. I didn't consider Khodorovsky, 2003 model, an angel of light and the embodiment of good. I thought, and I still think, that the state should be separate from capital; but Putin's state was never separated from capital, at least until the tragic events of February 24."

You were an adviser to Boris Berezovsky, who until the early 2000s was considered one of the most influential oligarchs in Russia, was close to President Boris Yeltsin and controlled the powerful federal TV Channel One. How is that consistent with your critique of big capital?

"I started to work with Berezovsky at the end of the 1990s. Some of the things I did I regret, others I don't. I wouldn't do them today. But anyway, I have a warm spot for the late Berezovsky, who really was a monster, but toward me was a good monster. A monster who wanted to benefit me and helped me realize my personal potential. In that sense, he undoubtedly played a positive role in my life. I thank him personally, but I deplore many of the things I did for him."

Belkovsky says he is a great advocate of a "second start," referring to big plans for his new life outside Putin's Russia. One of his ideas is to establish an international social network that would connect Russian-speaking migrants and help them to fulfill themselves and earn a living in their new geographic location. In the meantime, though, he needs to earn a living himself -- he too is cut off from his bank in Russia. On April 23, he will hold a "performance-lecture" in Russian in Beit Hahayal in Tel Aviv, titled "Nuclear Strike." Despite the apocalyptic frame, he intends to present an optimistic viewpoint, at least for the long term.

Belkovsky is a believing Christian, and feels compelled to acknowledge this, though he fears it will prevent his receiving Israeli citizenship. "My point of view is religious, so I think the decision to eradicate the world hasn't been made [on high]. There will not be a large-scale nuclear war with the use of strategic weapons. What we are seeing today is the last twitch of the Enlightenment era, ahead of the advent of a new era, which I call the 'period of the return.' The central thesis of this period will involve eliminating the boundary that the period of the Enlightenment delineated between religion and scientific knowledge."

The divide between religion and a progressive philosophical approach that advocates, among other tenets, equality between people and tolerance, will also be eliminated in the wonderful new period on the brink of which we are poised, Belkovsky believes. But until then, humanity can anticipate an unmediated encounter with the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: plague, war, famine and death. We have already encountered two of them recently, he observes, and there are two more to come.


Dmitry Chernyshev, the third-most widely read blogger on the LiveJournal platform.



Dmitry Chernyshev is the third-most widely read blogger on the LiveJournal platform. To Hebrew (and English) speakers that might won't mean much, but for Russian speakers worldwide LiveJournal is the legendary (and relatively intellectual) social network with which everything started in the first decade of the 2000s. LiveJournal still continues to wield influence, despite a decline in its popularity, following the mass transition to Facebook, Twitter and Telegram. Its protagonists -- the most widely read bloggers -- enjoy esteem and influence on other platforms as well.

Chernyshev, who is known by the alias mi3ch (pronounced "Mitrich"), gained fame as an "enlightenment blogger," writing about a wide range of topics related to society, science and history, providing his followers with amusing items of trivia, intriguing riddles and surprising photographs. In recent years his blog has become increasingly political. For years he was also creative director of an advertising agency.

"In 2014, when everyone was delighted by the annexation of Crimea, I wrote that it was the advent of fascism," he tells me when we meet in the apartment of friends of his in Jaffa, where he is presently staying with his family. The friends have retired to their rooms, his wife is working on the computer in the living room, and we enter a small study where we can talk without being disturbed.

"Ahead of the 2018 [Russian] election, I declared a personal war on Putin," Chernyshev says. "I wrote a series of posts about him. The threat of criminal persecution had long hung over me. I took part in every demonstration. Last year, after demonstrations in support of [Russian opposition leader Alexei] Navalny, four police officers led by a colonel came to arrest me. I spent two weeks in a detention facility. I never kept quiet. When the war started, I barely slept. I wrote about it all the time."

The result was his rearrest, on March 4. This time he was taken for a conversation at FSB (Federal Security Service, successor to the KGB) headquarters in Moscow's famed Lubyanka Square, and got transparent hints about the future of his four daughters, the youngest of whom is 13. He was forced to sign a commitment to desist from his web activity. Following 12 days of social media silence, he resurfaced, now in Jaffa. In a long post he described his arrest and interrogation, then summed up his subsequent activity: "And then everything as usual. Passports, visas, tickets that can't be had. You sell everything possible for pennies. You leave friends. You leave your beloved city. Your whole life is squeezed into a suitcase and a thin packet of dollars. You have to start everything from scratch. Now Tel Aviv -- afterward, we'll see."

Losing no time, the day after his arrival, Chernyshev announced the establishment of a "resistance movement" and the need to "prepare for the toppling of Putin's criminal regime." Between an urgent search for an apartment for his family and uneasy thoughts about his prospects of being able to earn a respectable living (one plan he has, as the author of a book about thought processes, is to conduct creative thinking workshops), he is busy with operational plans. They range from making public the names of the pilots who are bombing Ukrainian cities and of the commanders who are managing the ground invasion, to "foiling the spring draft" of new military recruits. The question, of course, is how effective such activity is when done from exile.

"Perhaps I, like the others, am thinking more about myself -- that I won't be ashamed to look at myself in the mirror when I shave in the morning, so I won't be ashamed to look into the eyes of my children, that I try to do something, at least. But if there are a lot of people like me, a great change will occur. We're all trying to do things and it seems not to have the slightest effect. The metaphor I've come up with is sawing a huge tree trunk. You saw and saw, and the wood only grows thicker toward the middle, and the sawing seems to become more difficult, and every movement brings no results -- you only see chips falling. And then, in one moment, the trunk snaps with a loud noise."



'It was clear we had to escape'

David Frankel, a journalist for the Mediazona website -- which in recent years has been considered one of the most militant and trenchant media outlets that monitor human rights violations in Russia -- was also compelled to flee urgently. "From the start of the war we knew it wasn't safe to be in Russia, but when a few days later a law was passed prohibiting the vilification of the Russian military forces, it became clear to all of us that we had to escape. We called the war a 'war,' and we received a warning ahead of being blocked."

By now, all of Mediazona's journalists have left Russia; most are in Georgia. The chief editor, Sergey Smirnov, is in Lithuania, while Frankel, the site's correspondent in St. Petersburg, has been compelled to locate himself in Israel for the time being.

"My wife is a jurist who belongs to the Agora group [lawyers who deal with human rights violations in Russia and assist demonstrators who have been arrested and now also draft resisters], so in a certain sense we are in double danger. But we have pets, and with them it was impossible to buy plane tickets -- everything was already bought. Our plan was to put the cats in the car -- we have a big car -- and cross the only land border where you don't need a visa: into Georgia. We spent a few days dismantling the apartment. We gave away whatever we could. Half a day I was busy with that, and in the other half I ran around photographing the antiwar demonstrations and the never-ending arrests. It's more than a thousand people every day, and hundreds of detainees, a real assembly line.

"Apparently the police didn't have the free time to deal with us, but there was a feeling that soon there would be an end to the demonstrators and they would turn to the journalists. And once I had left, that was really what happened: They ran out of demonstrators and filled a entire bus with detained journalists. But when I was there it was still relatively calm, there was even a feeling of a kind of show: 'Here, photograph the way we are beating them. Photograph, photograph. We will do it as toughly as we can, and you will photograph. We won't touch you.' It's not always like that. They have different modes -- there were cases when they pulled me off a bus when I was on the way to cover a protest, there were times when I was arrested on the morning of a demonstration. This time it was a case of, 'Respected journalists, take pictures so that others will see and learn a lesson.'"

Frankel relates that he and his wife, fearing that a state of war would be declared in Russia, drove almost nonstop for 30 hours to the Georgian border. But when they got there they were informed that the crossing point was closed temporarily because of an avalanche. In the city of Vladikavkaz, adjacent to the border, they were barely able to find a vacancy in a small hotel ("Everyone there was like us, the whole city was packed with people who had pets; everyone who didn't have one could board a plane and go just like that"). They only tried to cross the border two days later, joining a line of dozens of cars.

"It took us eight hours to cross to the Georgian part of the border crossing," Frankel relates. But as would soon become apparent, these were minor problems: When they reached the checkpoint, he was separated from his wife and the cats, and had to wait long hours for his fate to be decided. At one stage his wife, who had crossed the border, was allowed to return and join him in waiting. The wait lasted 14 hours, at the end of which Frankel was informed that he was being denied entry to Georgia, without any explanation. The plan fell apart. He was forced to buy a ticket for an urgent flight to Moscow, and from there to Dubai and Tel Aviv. His wife continued on into Georgia with the cats. Because the car wasn't registered in her name, she was forced to abandon it.

"Israel looked like a type of 'safe space,' because here they would give us citizenship, there are friends here, relatives, there's a place to sleep," he says. "It's a place where I certainly won't be told at the border: 'You are denied entry, and we can't tell you why.' Now my wife is stuck in Tbilisi with the cats, making the rounds between veterinarians and waiting for all their tests to be completed so she can fly here. But for us to be able to make aliya together, we apparently need to meet outside Israel. In other words, I'll have to fly to meet her and then we'll enter Israel together. This has been going on for a month already." [By mid-April, Frenkel's wife had arrived in Israel.]


Bozhena Rynska, 47, journalist: 'Moscow has emptied out, there are no more traffic jams'



Bozhena Rynska gained fame through the sardonic column she wrote about the Russian high society she covered for the newspaper Izvestia. She then went on to become a web personality and an object of coverage herself. She received Israeli citizenship a few years ago, and in recent weeks has been trying to obtain an Israeli passport for her daughter, who was born in a surrogacy procedure. That's the main reason she's still in Moscow, and she can attest to what's happening next to the Israeli embassy and in the city overall.

"The consular officials of Nativ [the agency responsible for issuing aliya visas in post-Soviet territory] are working like mad, they are far more polite than in the past and I don't have any complaints about them," Rynska says. She likens the Nativ personnel to Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul in Lithuania who saved thousands of Jews in the Holocaust by issuing visas in rapid succession over months, continued to issue them from the car of the train that evacuated him from the country.

"Security [from the embassy] are the ones who are behaving horribly, disgustingly and coarsely. What they are doing is abuse and lack of humanity," she asserts, proceeding to describe how she and a few dozen others stood for four hours in zero degrees Celsius opposite the embassy building without even being allowed into the foyer.

Whereas the lines around the embassy building on Bolshaya Ordynka Street are only getting longer, Moscow is projecting business as usual, at least outwardly.

"Nothing has changed in the streets," Rynska says. "What's sad is that there is no feeling of shared trouble, of dread and depression. People go to restaurants, eat and drink, go shopping. There are cars in the streets, the sky isn't falling into the Moskva River, the sun hasn't gone out. People don't yet understand what kind of nightmare they're in. One thing, though -- there are fewer traffic jams, it's easier to get around by car. The feeling is that at least a fifth of the city has fled. Moscow has emptied out. It used to take me two hours to get home from the city center; now it takes an hour."

Prices have soared in Russia, Rynska adds. "Everything that is imported is more expensive," she says. "If my average bill in Globus [a German supermarket chain that operates in Russia] used to be 4,500 rubles, now it's 6,500 (about 250 shekels, or $78). Coffee has gone up in price, tomatoes are more expensive. Suddenly I realized I have begun to look at prices. In the past that wasn't a question. If there was delicious cheese or ham, you had to buy it. Just because something you like is expensive, that was no reason not to buy it. And now things are so expensive that I'm starting to think: 'I won't get this, that's too much, that one bites.' I didn't think we would arrive at a moment when I needed to think about what to eat."

But the truth is that the prices aren't what's bothering Rynska. She knows that in Israel the cost of living is higher. In the meantime, with many of her friends already abroad and others having fallen silent or restricted the distribution of their pages on the social networks to friends only, Rynska, who's known for her militant character, continues to speak strongly and clearly.

During the past few weeks, her Instagram page has been a simultaneously grating and touching combination of announcements of the sale of luxury items belonging to Rynska (two handbags, by Bottega Veneta and Alexander McQueen, for $700 and $1,300, respectively), war photographs (a weeping elderly woman whose wrinkled face resembles a loaf of bread, standing next to a house that has been shelled) and poems that cry out in the voices of past and present Russian poets against war.,

When we corresponded, you said that you are living in a state of terror, but on your Instagram you publish very clear antiwar messages. Aren't you afraid?

"Of course I'm afraid. It's a risk, but I can't be silent. I feel that if I keep silent, I'll explode. I need to do it, come what may. You know, I'm not throwing Molotov cocktails at the Kremlin, so I try to walk on the edge. To do less I can't."


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