To Go or To Stay? : Soviet Jews, Caught Up in the Turmoil of Glasnost and Resurgent Anti-Semitism, Face the Decision of a Lifetime

John-Thor Dahlburg is a correspondent in The Times' Moscow bureau.

FOR ESYA KALANTAROVA, HER TWO DARK-eyed daughters and the rest of the family, the trail of tears leads out of the city of Samarkand to a sunbaked slope on the dusty road to Tashkent. There, behind brick walls, the people who call themselves the Bukhara Jews have built a cemetery, a testimony in stone to their sorrows and tragedies.

Shaded by cherry trees from the heat of the Central Asian day, twin slabs of polished black granite rise side by side, emblems of a family's grief and of the most momentous decision its members will ever make. The stones mark the graves of Esya Kalantarova's husband and son.

Shimun Shamalov died of a stroke last year, at 66. Twenty years earlier, he had served seven years and four days in labor camps in Siberia and Uzbekistan. Ifraim, the son, was murdered by his Uzbek co-workers; they bludgeoned Ifraim, their foreman, with a hammer and tried to cover up the deed by dousing the body with gasoline and setting it afire. It took months to apprehend the men because police couldn't figure out the motive. Ifraim's family believes it was very clear, and they are frightened about what will happen when Ifraim's killers serve out their prison terms (the first is due to be released in three years). Their suspicions and fears were horrifyingly confirmed at the trial, when the angry young men in the dock threatened the members of their victim's family, shouting, "You other Jews, you just wait!"

Her head swathed in a blue-patterned kerchief, Esya walks slowly toward the burial plots, carrying a dozen carnations. The plump, diminutive 63-year-old woman gropes for the smooth stele chiseled with Ifraim's features and cries out: "Why did you go away? You were so young! We are so alone since you were taken from us! Why, why do you not come back to your mother?"

Hope arrived this year for Esya's family in the form of a letter from America, dated April Fools' Day. Tapped out on a manual typewriter, it began: "I have important news for you: You have been granted an interview at the Moscow Embassy." Designated Case No. WP 149.555 by some U.S. official, Esya's extended family--including two daughters, two sons-in-law and four grandchildren--began the struggle of trying to win refugee status to make a new life in America.

Sixteen hundred miles to the west, in the dining room of Alexander and Zina Kapitovsky's spacious fourth-floor apartment in Kharkov, painstakingly arrayed on the shelves of the china cabinet along with the decanter and gold-rimmed wine glasses kept for company, one can see the photos of the departed: Cousin Alexandra, 24, and Zina's dearest friend, Tanya, now live in Israel. Alexander's brother emigrated in 1990. Fifteen-year-old daughter Masha's curly-haired sweetheart, Alexei, has been in Baltimore for the past three years, where he has dished up food at a Mexican restaurant and videotaped weddings and bar mitzvahs.

Gathered around the table, the Kapitovskys savor memories of their friends in a moment tinged with bittersweet regret. "In Kharkov, there isn't a single Jewish family that hasn't had at least one member leave," Alexander Kapitovsky, 41, small of build, with a rapier-sharp wit, muses over a cup of strong black coffee. He gazes at the snapshots. "Practically speaking, my wife and I have lost all of our close friends over the past two years."

But Kapitovsky, chief engineer at a small enterprise that makes hydraulic drives for factory machinery, is holding fast, with no plans to leave the sprawling industrial city in the northeastern Ukraine. "This is our country. How could we live in another, with a different language?" Zina Kapitovsky, 39, asks. The woman with a round face and soft brown hair shows a gold-flecked smile. "If I were to go somewhere else, I would have eternally the impression that I was . . . well, a kind of half-person."

TO GO OR TO STAY? THE QUESTION IS more than a century old for Jews in what was once the Russian Empire and is now the Soviet Union. People are still compelled to seek an answer, even though in Mikhail S. Gorbachev's liberalized and democratized Soviet Union, the equation has become more complex than ever. Those who choose to depart now will tread a well-worn path: Between 1881 and 1914, about 2 million Jews fled Russia for Western Europe and North America, and last year alone, more than 185,000 jetted into Israel's Ben-Gurion International Airport.

In between were the "black years" of Josef Stalin's dictatorship, and then Leonid I. Brezhnev's repressive presidency, when tens of thousands of Jews--the "refuseniks"--were blocked from leaving. Even in 1986, Gorbachev's second year in the Kremlin, only 221 Jews managed to emigrate to Israel. In the face of today's exodus, many Jews now wonder whether their people and faith have a future in the Soviet Union at all. The largest Jewish community in the world once dwelt in the Russian Empire--more than 5 million souls at the turn of the century. But by the time of the last Soviet census, conducted two years ago, there were precisely 1,449,063 citizens of the Soviet Union who defined themselves as Jews, and since that year, more than a quarter-million have left for Israel alone.

"For Jews, there is simply no future here," Boris Rumshitsky, one Moscow Jewish activist, says flatly. For as the economy has broken down and political authority has fragmented, bringing the Soviet Union to the brink of chaos, Jews have grown wary of becoming, as in the past, the scapegoats. Undoubtedly, perestroika has alleviated much of the institutionalized oppression--education, social work and child care, fields once closed to anyone attached to a religious denomination in the officially atheistic Soviet Union, now provide undreamed-of vistas for believers. But anti-Semitism, along with virtually every other brand of political and social extremism--from nostalgia for the Romanovs to near-hysterical belief in ESP--has unquestionably mounted. The new freedoms of the perestroika years have allowed the birth of the Russian xenophobic faction Pamyat, the publication of Adolf Hitler's "Mein Kampf," even street protests in Leningrad and Moscow railing that Jews are really pulling the strings at the Foreign Ministry and the Kremlin.

Anti-Semitism has a dismayingly long history in Russia. Reviled as "the killers of Christ," Jews were barred by law from living in the empire until 1772, when the Russians took control of eastern Poland and its large Jewish population. Jews were then confined to the "Pale of Settlement," the western provinces that had once been Polish and Lithuanian, so they would not contaminate "Holy Russia." Discriminated against in virtually all aspects of life, terrorized by pogroms--"Beat the Jews, save Russia!" their tormentors shouted--Jews as a whole hailed the Russian Revolution, which they believed (wrongly, it turned out) would emancipate them from fear and bigotry.

Masha Kapitovsky's first encounter with prejudice came when she was 6. A playmate in the courtyard of her apartment building called her a Zhid (a Yid). She had to ask her mother what the word meant. "If people hadn't told me to my face in the street that I was a Jew, I wouldn't even think about my nationality," she says. A survey of people emigrating to Israel last summer showed that such verbal assaults and the distribution of tracts attacking Jews are by far the most prevalent form of Soviet anti-Semitism.

Yet, some Jews, while not denying the existence of anti-Jewish sentiments that wind like a somber skein through centuries of Russian life, complain that the current situation is being oversimplified. "There is no anti-Semitism in Kharkov--you could say there is more anti-Semitism in France," says Alexander E. Kuroly, 59, a beefy white-collar worker in the construction industry who came one June morning to Kharkov's synagogue to strap on the phylacteries--small leather boxes containing strips of parchment inscribed with quotations from the Hebrew scriptures--and read the Torah. "If there are any victims of ethnic violence or bigotry in this country, it's the Georgians, the Armenians, the Kirghiz," he says. "People seem to have forgotten about us Jews."

The controversy is echoed in the United States, where the state of Soviet Jewry has long been considered a crucial bellwether of the Kremlin's commitment to human rights. Consequently, the degree of anti-Semitism engineered or tolerated by the Soviets has had an enormous impact on American policy. The United Jewish Appeal (UJA), now waging an $870-million fund-raising campaign to resettle Soviet Jews in Israel and the United States, has not shied away from likening the condition of Jews under perestroika to that in Germany on the eve of the Holocaust. The UJA drive has even been named "Operation Exodus," rhetorically equating Soviet Jewry with the biblical Hebrews pursued by the chariots of Pharoah.

"The Soviet economy is breaking down--there are tremendous food shortages. Now, who's going to be the first to be blamed for that?" asks Arthur Ginsburg, UJA's director of information services in New York City. But other Jewish groups have complained that UJA, in its fund-raising zeal, has allowed itself sometimes to stray into overblown, alarmist rhetoric.

"There are people who will tell you that the situation for Soviet Jews now couldn't be worse. I tell them, on the contrary, that it's never been better," comments Myrna Shinbaum, editor of "Anti-Semitism in the U.S.S.R.," a newsletter published by the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith in New York. "But that doesn't mean it's good.'

The fact remains that at a time when Jews can live, worship and act more freely in the Soviet Union than at any time since the Bolshevik Revolution, they are departing in record numbers--between 250,000 and 300,000 will leave for Israel this year. Driving most is uncertainty about the future, as well as fear that the window of opportunity typified by the new and vastly more liberal Soviet emigration law may slam shut.

The egg-domed, Asiatic-looking building on Kharkov's Pushkin Street is a metaphor in stone for the complex state of affairs. A year ago, the 50-room synagogue--the largest in the Soviet Union--was returned to the faithful; it had been seized by Communists in 1923 and converted by the order of the commissars into a sports club. Its reconversion to a shul (synagogue) was a joyous occasion for Kharkov Jews, and one that epitomized Soviet authorities' newfound respect for all faiths. And yet the dearest wish of one of the city's rabbis is that the synagogue rapidly become unnecessary.

"Our job is not to rebuild the community over here. Our job is to help the Jews," says Moshe Moskovich, 26, a bearded, pudgy rabbi who occupies a first-floor office in the synagogue. "When people come and ask me, 'Should I go to Israel?' I tell them, 'Go.' I wouldn't mind losing my job here if every Jew left Kharkov."

There are other opinions, much conflicting advice. But in the end it is a personal decision. To go or to stay--that is the question each Soviet Jew must face.

TO GO TO AMERICA, ESYA KALANTArova's elder daughter, Mariya, and Mariya's husband, Leonid Mikhailovich Genson, are willing to renounce what, by Soviet standards, is a life of wondrous ease. The couple--both music teachers and parents of a boy and girl--live with Esya in a house that for most of their countrymen would seem a palace out of the tales of Scheherazade. The ceilings, 13 feet high, draw up the heat of the day and keep the five vast rooms livably cool. The combined living room/dining room area is big enough, according to official Soviet norms, to house two or three entire families. The Gensons have crystal from Yugoslavia, china from Dresden, a color television set and a Zhiguli sedan. Their supper table, set out on the veranda under a grape arbor, is laden with the bounty of Central Asia: juicy strawberries and cherries, apricots, Uzbek brandy, grape leaves stuffed with stewed beef and plums, platefuls of steamed white rice.

"We have not had a happy day in this house, with what we have seen," Mariya, 37, says, biting her lower lip, as she reflects on what the family has gone through in recent years. Fear of what might happen to their children, Efim, 5, and Yana, 2, when the men who killed Mariya's brother are at large again is one of the most urgent reasons the Gensons want to leave.

Usually phlegmatic yet gifted with a wry sense of humor, Leonid Genson, 42, adores the piano in all its manifestations, from the jazz melodies of Oscar Peterson to the Chopin recordings of another Soviet-born Jew, the late Vladimir Horowitz. Near the city's KGB headquarters, inside the crude three-story building that houses the Samarkand State Academy for the Arts, Genson truly comes alive.

In a stuffy room painted hospital green where two Red October baby grands stand side by side, Genson works over the score of Debussy's "La Plus Que Lente" with Irina Doronina, 17. "You've got to play this as though it were your memories, the dream of something beautiful that had once been," he coaxes her. Glasses perched on the bridge of his nose, he leans over his pupil's keyboard and beats out the tempo with his right hand. He earns 220 rubles a month for 11 hours of weekly lessons, or about $122 at the official commercial exchange rate. Making music is Genson's pride and joy--"I really give of myself, whether I'm playing Gershwin or Beethoven," he says. But it is with dread that he contemplates the difficulties of finding a job in his field in America.

"Of course, I can always work as a laborer, loading trucks or something like that," he smiles, only partly in jest. A native of Samara, a bustling port city on the Volga, he came to Samarkand 11 years ago, bursting with energy and the drive to teach. It was his brio and industry, he says, that poisoned relations with other music teachers--"They began whispering in the halls that I had taken too many of their students," he says. A silver-haired Tadzhik, a member of Samarkand's dominant ethnic group, runs the arts academy and makes no secret of how he feels about Jews. "The times when you people were the first are gone," he has told Genson.

Such feelings may have led to the vicious murder of Genson's brother-in-law; it is frankly impossible to tell from the conflicting testimony, the prettified official investigation and the emotionally charged recollections of Ifraim Shamalov's relatives. The killers claimed that they murdered the foreman because he forced them to work nights and to exceed efficiency norms set down by regulations at the Red Guard Plastics Production Combine. At 4 a.m. on June 21, 1985, the 30-year-old Bukhara Jew was lured outside by a co-worker who told him that some crates of plastic combs had been stolen. When Shamalov went to investigate, he was hit so hard on the head with a hammer that the handle snapped.

As he lay on the ground, his assailants bludgeoned him six more times. They dumped the body in the trunk of Shamalov's sedan and drove out to the steppe. Before pouring a jerrycan of gasoline over the corpse, the three men stole Shamalov's gold ring and wristwatch. An Uzbek woman at the plant who saw the foreman go outside gave police the lead they needed to track down the killers. One was 16.

"There was no reason to kill my brother. They murdered him out of ethnic motives--because he was a Jew," Mariya Genson contends. The official version of events blamed only greed, but Ifraim's family says the crime was one of pure ethnic hatred and is worried that it may be only the beginning.

The trial of Shamalov's killers was a raucous, undignified affair, baring the antagonisms between the increasingly assertive Muslim peoples of Uzbekistan and the Bukhara Jews. The proceedings dragged on for more than four years, despite the fact that the accused had confessed to everything at the onset. Outside the court one day, a fight erupted after an Uzbek women shouted to Mariya, "Your turn is next! We should kill all of you!" and pushed forward to strike her. Mariya's husband, her father and brother-in-law Alexander formed a human wall to protect her.

"In three years, one of the guys who murdered Ifraim will be released, and I can just imagine how he will be after nine years of corrective confinement--that's 'corrective confinement' in quotation marks," the normally jovial Alexander Ilyaev, husband of Mariya's sister, Svetlana, calculates somberly. They have two daughters, 5 and 1 1/2 years old, and want to leave for the United States with Esya and the Gensons.

Ethnic relations in Samarkand were not always so raw. Lovingly named "the face of the Earth" by its inhabitants, the city is more than 25 centuries old, one of the most ancient metropolises in the world. In the 14th Century, it became the capital of the cruel and refined Mongol conqueror Tamerlane, who ruled an empire from the Volga to the Ganges. Samarkand was only brought into Moscow's orbit when Russian troops marched in in 1868, and it remains a decidedly Asian city of great beauty. At dusk, when the heat of the day begins to wane, swallows soar over the Registan, whose towers and domes shimmer in hues of turquoise and lapis lazuli, and residents grateful for the cool of the evening come to walk among the weeping willows and tea roses.

Jews appeared in Central Asia in ancient times, but the present population began arriving from Farsi-speaking lands in the 14th Century, and was centered at one time around the nearby city of Bukhara. The original language of the Bukhara Jews is akin to that of the Muslim Tadzhiks, who are dominant among Samarkand's 400,000 inhabitants. Consequently, Sabbath in Samarkand is a spectacularly visual collision of East and West: Men at the city's two synagogues don both the tallit, the fringed Jewish prayer shawl, and the squat, square black tubetieka that is the traditional headgear of the Muslim peoples of Central Asia.

Despite its long pedigree, Judaism in Samarkand is moribund and perhaps doomed, even though the rites remain. The shokhet , or ritual slaughterer, comes every Monday morning to a shop in the Jewish ghetto, the Makhalla, to cut the necks of chickens in accordance with kosher rules. Hebrew class begins at 10 a.m. Sundays. A stroll along the narrow, meandering streets that pierce the Makhalla shows that the quarter is still mainly Jewish, but as longtime residents depart, Tadzhiks and Uzbeks are replacing them in the austere houses with windowless facades. With increasing frequency in the Makhalla, a new sound is heard--the drumbeats and joyous shouts that mark a Tadzhik wedding.

In pre- perestroika years, there were 17,500 Jews in Samarkand. Today, there are about 11,000, and that number keeps dwindling. "Every day, two to three families up and go, usually to Israel," says Boris Pinkhasov, 40. "Staying here means putting up with the slights and put-downs, and as long as you are a Jew, you can't get good work."

As an American visitor leaves the synagogue on Republic Street, a small and wizened woman, her long green skirt billowing like a spinnaker, runs up to his car. A Bukhara Jew, she lived through Stalin's vicious purges and Khrushchev's anti-religious crusades but is now worried about the future. "Can you find out where we can get an application to emigrate to America?" she asks. "We don't know where things may stand one year from now. We don't know what may become of us."

The community's Jewish presence cannot be judged by the number of people attending shul. Although Esya Kalantarova vigilantly keeps a kosher home, Jewishness, for the Gensons, seems to be more a matter of blood than faith. "Mother is always after me, but even if I don't go to the synagogue often, I do cherish religion," Mariya says defensively.

It was very different for her father. For Shimun Shamalov, as for many members of his generation of Bukhara Jews, Judaism was inseparably intertwined with the rhythms of life. He was arrested March 8, 1960, after he accepted a foreign bank note from an American who was visiting Samarkand's synagogue. It was $1 or $100; the family doesn't recall. Possession of Western currency was then a crime, and Shamalov was sentenced to a seven-year term at hard labor and shipped off to fell trees in the Irkutsk region of Siberia. In the horrendous conditions of a Russian penal colony, in weather so cold that he had to keep moving or risk freezing to death, Shamalov hewed to the mandates of his religion. Spurning prison meat, he washed dried fish to remove the salt, and fried the flesh over a little fire.

When Shamalov came home, at the age of 43, he could take solace in having kept the compact of his faith, but he had been transformed--the harshness of captivity had broken his good humor and made him a diabetic. He collapsed last summer of a stroke while going to market; the tombstone erected by his family reads, "To a pure man who always helped the poor, to a believer who read the Torah."

Leaving is now on the Gensons' minds constantly, so much so that their son, Efim, has picked up the leitmotif. One afternoon, the restless 5-year-old gathered up as many multicolored plastic blocks as he could find, and constructed a teetering stack.

"That is America," he said.

"Can I find kosher food in America?" the boy's grandmother, Esya, suddenly asks a visitor. "Every year, I have to hold two pominki ," she explains, referring to the Bukharan custom of annual ritual feasts in honor of the dead. "And I really must live somewhere that has a synagogue," she adds.

Whether any given Soviet Jewish family will make it to America depends partly on the bureaucracy, family ties in the United States and the place they hold in the would-be immigrant line. A bill signed into U.S. law on Nov. 21, 1989, sponsored by Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and familiarly known as the "Lautenberg Amendment," makes it easier for Jews and members of some other Soviet religious groups--among them, Evangelical Christians and members of the Ukraine's Eastern-rite Catholic Church and autocephalous Orthodox faith--to qualify for U.S. refugee status. Those groups are deemed "of special interest to the United States" because they are in special danger of being persecuted for their creeds or origins.

Working with outmoded, temperamental computers in a building on Moscow's Tchaikovsky Street to which the Gensons recently were summoned, 10 American immigration officials and diplomats interview 132 people a day to evaluate the merit of their requests to enter the United States as refugees. By law, no more than 50,000 Soviet refugees may immigrate during a given fiscal year.

Demand, however, far outstrips supply, with something like a half-million pending refugee applications from Soviet nationals, according to Immigration and Naturalization Service officials in Washington. But with a New York-based lawyer--tipped to the case by a Jewish activist who visited Central Asia--acting as the good shepherd to get their case through the U.S. bureaucracy, the Gensons had a better chance than most.

They walked into the U.S. Embassy as it opened at 8 a.m.; by 10 a.m., after an interview, they had been granted refugee status, and were already worrying about their ability to learn English. Now, they must wait while their lawyer searches for an American sponsor. Although they originally considered going to Israel--a much easier path--and did some of the paperwork, they finally decided against it, because, they say, like Uzbekistan, it has a large Muslim population. "We are afraid," says Mariya, her eyes wet and shining. "We are afraid that the people who did this horrible thing might have family, might have friends there. We are afraid that they might come to take their vengeance on us."

DRAPED OVER 350 square miles of sun-singed Ukrainian steppe, Kharkov, the sixth-largest city in the Soviet Union and home to more than 1.6 million people, is a vast workshop and maker of turbines, ballpoint pens, tractors, aircraft, air conditioners and scores of other machines and gadgets. About the same age as Leningrad, it has none of the Russian city's Venetian grace. The cradle of Soviet power in the Ukraine and its capital until 1934, Kharkov under the commissars was supposed to become a socialist showcase. A modernist, quasi-Bauhaus tower, the 14-story Gosprom was thrown up in steel and concrete to serve as the command post for industries nationalized by the Communists.

For 10 years, Zina Kapitovsky has been employed by the Konstantin S. Stanislavsky Musical-Theatrical Library, earning 220 rubles, or $122, monthly. To fetch volumes requested by readers from stacks that smell of glue and musty paper, she scrambles up a steel ladder "a thousand times a day," she says, and in the evening is too tired to read the magazines and literary journals she brings home.

She is in this job, in large part, because she is Jewish. Her father, a physician, was in mortal danger during the 1953 "Doctors' Plot," the last of Stalin's purges, in which Jewish doctors were falsely accused of poisoning Kremlin leaders and then liquidated. The intercession of a sympathetic Communist Party apparatchik, as well as Stalin's own death in 1953, saved him.

Zina's mother was a physician as well, and as a child, Zina dearly wanted to follow the professional trail blazed by her parents, but she couldn't. A quota system then in force reserved most university spots for Ukrainians, to the intentional detriment of Jews. "Medicine was my life, but during those times, I never could have been admitted into the Kharkov Medical Institute," she says sadly. "It was then just completely out of the question for a Jew to be accepted in a medical institute in the Ukraine." She took a four-year course to be a librarian instead.

Raised in a strictly secular home, Zina personifies that large stratum of Soviet Jewry for which Jewishness is a matter or birth and blood ties, rather than a creed or a commitment. "What does it mean to be a Jew? I don't know really," she says. "I have always known that I was Jewish, but there was nothing specifically Jewish in our family. We didn't use the Yiddish language, or follow the rites. There were no Hebrew books. I knew I was a Jew only because there was this, this . . . something that separated me from the other children, that made me different, and that they could mention or insult me about."

And yet, there seems to be more to her Jewishness than this woman will admit to herself. When she hears Jewish songs on television, she says, she cries. And as the snapshots among the wineglasses testify, her closest friends were also Jews. "You know," she says suddenly, "I would like very much that when my daughter Masha marries, for her to find a husband who has Jewish blood, at least some Jewish blood. Then some aunt won't ask him, 'Why are you marrying that Zhid ?' "

Alexander Kapitovsky, too, has felt the repercussions of birth. "If I were a member of the Communist Party, my career might have developed differently," he says. "But then it was hard to be a Jew and enter." In the freer-wheeling society of the Gorbachev era, where less and less depends on the party, Kapitovsky now has a job that pays the huge salary of 1,000 rubles ($546) monthly and a spacious apartment on Pravda Prospekt. But despite the attachment of Kapitovsky and his wife to "our good and peaceful Kharkov," their precocious and independent-minded 15-year-old daughter Masha now spends a good deal of time thinking about the United States of America.

That is where 18-year-old Alexei--"my man," Masha calls him in English with a merry laugh--lives with his parents, who fought the Soviet bureaucracy for 12 years to win the right to leave. In puzzlement, Zina has been watching this long-distance friendship blossom into romance--her daughter and Alexei talked softly for 40 minutes together recently when he called on her birthday. But Masha, whose favorite book as a child was a geometry manual, also has a very businesslike side. She is about to enter her 11th and final year at Kharkov's Middle School No. 1 and is determined to study mathematics in a university in the United States. Standards there, she says with supreme conviction, are higher.

Her mother, who has seen more relatives and friends than she can count depart, admits to a feeling of great foreboding. "My daughter is everything for me," Zina says. "All my good friends have left; only she is here. If she goes, I don't know what I will do."

If Masha decides to leave, Zina will find herself, as she has many times, in Kharkov's cavernous railroad station, the place where so many go to say goodby. One evening this summer, a thunderstorm sweeping in from the Ukrainian steppe broke virtually without warning above the tangle of tracks, sending scores of people scampering for cover. But downpour or not, it was the time and place for farewells.

On Track One stood the green sleeper cars of Train No. 20, the overnight express for Moscow, with the coal-fired samovar in each wagon spicing the air with its sour smoke. As the storm broke and then abated, knots of people began moving toward the train that would carry their loved ones away, perhaps for the rest of their lives.

From inside car No. 9, a gray-haired matron in her late 60s stretched her plump arms out the window to touch the hands of friends one last time. She was going, she said, to "Seen-Seen-Etty"--Cincinnati. In the next wagon, a family laden with worn synthetic leather suitcases and sacks bound with twine was headed for Haifa in Israel. On time, at 9:25 p.m., Train No. 20 lurched forward to begin its 482-mile journey to Moscow, amid a chorus from the platform of "Do Svidaniya!" --"Farewell." And Kharkov, which had 70,000 Jews five years ago and has about 40,000 today, watched a few more depart.

LAST SPRING, A FEW days before he killed himself, the Soviet Union's most famous anti-Semite, neatly attired in a prison inmate's black pajamas, expounded on what had caused him to dislike Jews. "You know, there was no single event," Konstantin V. Smirnov-Ostashvili, the first-ever Soviet citizen sent to jail for trying to whip up anti-Jewish hatred, told a visitor to his prison on the outskirts of the ancient Russian city of Tver, 100 miles from Moscow. It was through reading, the lathe-operator-turned-agitator said, that he found that "prominent areas like science, art, culture, health, the Foreign Ministry, trade and so forth" were dominated by Jews. Moreover, he said, "Jews played the leading role in unleashing the (Soviet) Civil War and bringing about the genocide (of the Stalin period). . . ."

It was the typical litany of the anti-Semite, blaming the country's woes, present and past, on the Jews. Eight days later, the short, stocky leader of one of the factions of Pamyat was found hanging from a furled sheet in the prison workshop. His death, ruled a suicide by authorities, remains shrouded in mystery: The previous day, Smirnov-Ostashvili, 55, had been told by the warden that he was to be released in September, about a year before the expiration of his two-year sentence.

Along with a host of beneficial changes, glasnost and democratization have given far freer rein to Russian chauvinists, reactionaries, neo-Stalinists and xenophobes, many of whom see the hand of Jews and Zionists in virtually all of their country's ills, from the overthrow of Czar Nicholas II to the present-day brain drain. Dramatic improvements in Soviet-Israeli relations and the united-superpower stance against Iraq have also exacerbated anti-Jewish feelings among the very conservative or confused.

One mouthpiece of Soviet arch-reactionaries, the magazine Molodaya Gvardiya, printed this suggestion on what to do about the Jews: "They either must leave for Israel, or those who want to stay in Russia have to adopt Christianity, change their names and consider themselves as Russians."

If such printed manifestations of prejudice weren't enough to unsettle Soviet Jews, starting in 1988 and through last year there were periodic rumors of pending pogroms, supposedly timed to coincide with the millennium of Russian Christianity or the anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx, who came from a long line of rabbis. "Can we stay?" Grigory Kanovich, a writer from Vilnius, Lithuania, asked almost two years ago. "When leaden pogrom clouds are hanging over our heads . . . when the lightning of intolerance is flashing ominously near and far, and when there is an atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust all around us? We still have no long-term guarantees of an equal and secure existence."

Yet it would be an oversimplification to equate the reawakening of Russian national consciousness with anti-Semitism. If opinion surveys are a guide, Jews are respected, as well as resented, in the Soviet Union. One recent poll sponsored in part by the Jewish Research Center of the Soviet Sociological Assn. asked more than 4,000 people nationwide to choose traits they found characteristic of Jews. Almost half found Jews "sly and hypocritical," but a third of the respondents said Jews are "energetic," and 24% believe "rationality" is their hallmark.

Perestroika may have brought grass-roots anti-Semitism into the open, but it has also given those Jews who stay a dazzling set of opportunities that, as recently as four or five years ago, would have seemed unattainable. Kharkov's first Jewish nursery school, with an enrollment of 30 pupils, is scheduled to open next month. At the Palace of Culture of Communications Workers, the city's first Jewish theater troupe in more than a half-century is deep in rehearsals for its second production of the season. In the ground floor sanctuary of the synagogue on Pushkin Street, a dozen young men wearing yarmulkes and baseball caps (one, labeled "Howard Roofing Co.," has somehow come from America) sit at a long table with Rabbi Moskovich and struggle through the rudiments of Hebrew. This is Kharkov's fledgling yeshiva, the creation of Moskovich and his brother rabbis dispatched as missionaries to the city by the Brooklyn-based Lubavitch movement. As the young men struggle to read the list of the plagues called down on Egypt, the scene seems mundane--until one remembers that until recently, teaching or learning Hebrew could land a Soviet citizen in a labor camp.

Such new possibilities persuade some Soviet Jews that their rightful place is in the rodina , the land where they were born. "I have always been an optimist; I have always believed that something better must be possible, even in the darkest days," says Sofia Chernaya, leader of the Kharkov synagogue's women's group. "True, the process may be a long one. But today I can wear this star, the Star of David." The middle-aged, white-haired woman fingers the silver pendant around her neck. "And they have returned this synagogue to us."

Lounging on their balcony one evening and gazing at the green swath of poplars below, Alexander and Zina Kapitovsky talked freely about what has kept them in Kharkov--jobs, friends, roots, habits. But even these determinedly sedentary people understand the wanderlust that so many Soviet Jews have caught. Indeed, they have sometimes felt its lure themselves. Alexander Kapitovsky, chief engineer by profession, sees it as a perfectly logical and mechanical reaction to what Soviet Jews and all others in this land so marked by sorrow, blood and tears have had to endure for so long. "This country has not honored its esteemed sons and daughters and has abandoned them," he says. "So now they do not honor her, and are abandoning her."

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