Tel Aviv — (JTA) — Growing up in the Urals, Pavel Polev was a precocious ice skater and a member of the Soviet Union’s national youth figure-skating team.
But in 1992, at age 15, Polev’s life was upended when he joined the massive wave of Jews immigrating to Israel from the crumbling Soviet Union. After serving a mandatory three years in the Israel Defense Forces following high school, Polev took a job as a custodian.
Two decades later, Polev is a successful small-business owner and rising politician. He runs an air-conditioning store and serves as deputy mayor of Ariel, the Israeli West Bank settlement city home to a large Russian-speaking population.
“It’s impossible to compare now with the situation 22 years ago,” said Polev, a member of the Russian immigrant-founded Yisrael Beiteinu party.
Polev’s immigrant success story resembles those of many of the 1 million Russian-speaking immigrants who arrived in Israel in the 1990s. Along with their descendants, Russian speakers now comprise nearly one-fifth of all Israelis.
Unlike other immigrant groups that moved en masse to Israel only to find themselves poor and socially marginalized, two decades on Russian aliyah is by many metrics a story of resounding success. The Russian influx has had a palpable impact on Israeli society, from the countless storefronts with signs in Cyrillic characters to the many Russian-speaking immigrants who have assumed critical roles in the highest echelons of Israeli politics.
Though many Soviet immigrants, especially older ones, still face poverty and significant cultural barriers, overall statistics show a community on the rise. According to a 2013 report by the Adva Center, an Israeli social policy think tank, 56 percent of Russian immigrants in 1992 were in the poorest third of Israeli society – below the poverty line or at risk of poverty. By 2010, the figure had dropped to 38 percent. Over the same period, the percentage of Russians in the upper third of Israeli earners grew from 10 to 27 percent.
“With any group of new immigrants in any country you won’t find such a huge success,” Natan Sharansky, the famous Soviet refusenik who now serves as chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, told JTA. “If you look at service in the army, at medicine and science, you can see how deeply it’s entering Israeli society.”