Its not just business as usual for Marin expatriates in Russia

Marx, Lenin and Trotsky are probably turning over in their caskets. American capitalists are figuratively dancing on their graves.

Approximately 25,000 Americans — including many Jews — have set up shop in Moscow, with thousands of other businesspeople from the United States scattered around Russia.

But their attitude — especially of the American Jews — isn't strictly business.

A large number of Jewish expatriates had parents or grandparents who fled from the very cities and towns they now call home.

"A lot of Jewish expats have heard about their grandparents' lives in Russia, and many have developed a fascination with the country," said Peter Alexander, who lived in Terra Linda for 25 years and is now a businessman in Russia.

Josh Zander, an expatriate from Marin now living in St. Petersburg, is a good example of that. He said being in Russia's second-largest Jewish community constitutes a return to his roots as well as an exploration of a new frontier.

"I was told that my father's father was a business manager for a member of the nobility, and obviously after 1917, there was no nobility to manage for," said Zander, whose grandparents emigrated from Russia to the United States around the time of the Bolshevik Revolution.

"My mother's father was a factory worker in Minsk, and I believe he left because of the friction between the Bolsheviks and the Social Revolutionary Party, of which he was a member."

Zander left San Rafael for Russia in 1996, leaving behind an ex-wife and a son who recently celebrated a bar mitzvah. He now works to find investments for high-tech firms in Russia, an occupation that has taken him all over the country, including Siberia.

According to Basia Leaffer, a longtime Terra Linda resident who works for the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services, many Jewish Americans are in Russia for reasons beyond business.

"Some of the expats have a romantic notion of Russia," said the Polish-born Leaffer. "They study the language, the culture. Some Jewish Americans go because of the history. Some I know were there before, when it was the Soviet Union, and they just find it fascinating to go and watch the countries change."

Alexander, who was born in Ukraine, went to Russia in 1989 to get involved in a business venture with a former college professor.

On a recent airplane trip from the United States to Russia, Alexander said he met "a Jewish man from L.A. — a Ph.D. in physics — who now manufactures dog food in a small village outside of Moscow."

Alexander, who always takes a bodyguard when traveling in Eastern Europe, said life is somewhat dangerous for Westerners in Russia.

It is "not a good idea for anyone in Moscow, for example, to advertise that they're Jewish," Alexander said.

"I went to a Western hotel during Passover once," he continued, "and I brought my own matzah in a bag. Some guy said from across the room, 'Hey, that guy's eating matzah!'

"It gave me a shiver for a minute. Then the guy came over and asked for some. He was a Jew. It turned out the place was full of Jews. I ran out of my entire week's supply of matzah. They were thrilled to learn that there's now Chabad in Moscow where they could get matzah. And as I left, I went to thank the chef, and found out that he was a Jew from Washington, D.C."

For the most part, Alexander said, being Jewish is not scary for American businesspeople in Russia.

"There is no longer officially sanctioned anti-Semitism," he said, quickly adding, "but among the regular people, the belief, as expressed in 'The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,' that Russia is being raped and pillaged by the Jews, is still prevalent."

Zander said most of the outright displays of anti-Semitism come from fringe-affiliated radicals.

"Aside from some stickers I've seen posted on walls from a neo-Nazi party, and the utterances of a few, mostly lunatic fringe, politicians, I've not encountered any overt anti-Semitism here," he said.

"There have been isolated incidents, such as synagogue bombings, speeches by extremist organizations and so on, but I have not heard of any pogroms."

The child of non-observant Jews. Zander said his Jewishness has suddenly become an integral part of his consciousness — but not for religious reasons.

In Russia, he said, others consider his nationality to be Jewish.

For example, Zander said that once he told a Russian friend about his grandfather living in Luga and then St. Petersburg until the revolution.

"A little while later, I said he was Jewish," Zander explained. "'Wait a minute,' my friend said. 'You said first that your grandfather was Russian, and now you say he was Jewish. Which was he?'

"In America my nationality is Russian. But here, it is Jewish."

Rachel Raskin-Zrihen
Rachel Raskin-Zrihen

A wife and mother of two grown sons, Rachel Raskin-Zrihen is a longtime Bay Area journalist, columnist and co-author of the book "Jewish Community of Solano County."