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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lawyer Waits Years to Find Home in Russia

While talk of destiny is going a little too far, it makes a lot of sense that Daniel Rothstein is living and working in Russia. There certainly aren't many people who maintain an interest in a foreign language and culture for 16 years before they finally make it to that country.


A lawyer by profession, Rothstein, 40, began learning Russian in 1974 as part of an interest in Jewish dissidents in the Soviet Union that grew from his own East European Jewish ancestry. Caution, and the possibility of conflict with authorities, kept him from pursuing this interest inside the Soviet Union itself.


"I thought I would more likely get in trouble if I came here and got booted out promptly and [would] never be allowed back," he said, recalling his student days. "I had more long-term interests. It was something that I had to put on the back burner, but it was an aspiration I frankly thought would never come to anything."


However his interest grew between 1978 and 1979, when he worked with American-Jewish organizations in Italy, helping prepare immigration applications for Soviet-Jewish refugees en route to the United States. After finishing law school and focusing on domestic commercial law, he returned to Italy in 1989 for a three-week working holiday assisting the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.


"I was speaking Russian all the time and learning about the experiences of people leaving the Soviet Union. Against the background of the Roman sky it was quite a magical atmosphere, [having been] plunked there out of the Rockefeller Plaza in Manhattan," he recalls.


Once back in the United States, he realized it was time for a change. "I was just not that excited about my life and work in New York. After I came back from Italy I decided, 'I've got to find a way to get to Russia,'" he said.


Six years later, having practiced in law firms advising foreign businesses operating in the former Soviet Union and Russia since 1990, he finds himself an old-timer in expat circles.


During a one-year stint with the Russian State Property Committee under Anatoly Chubais in 1992, Rothstein said, he "still raised a few eyebrows" as a foreigner walking through government corridors.


"At that time, in '92, a foreign face in Russia was still unusual," he said. "People were more curious than antagonistic."


Rothstein has also witnessed a rapid development in the hitherto murky Russian legal environment during this time.


"With your typical Russian counterpart there's [now] more of an appreciation on their part of their own rights and your desire to regulate and protect them," he said of practicing law in Russia. "It's been a short time for that sort of development. The country is very dynamic in that way, and has a lot of ability to develop further."


Rothstein currently runs a small practice with an American partner, advising multinational firms on their activities in Russia and Kazakhstan, but he said the increasing number of large, international law firms in Moscow has prompted discussion of a merger with a larger American practice.


In addition to his commercial practice, Rothstein maintains his old links with emigration by working with the Jewish Agency, an international body helping Russian Jews emigrate to Israel.


The agency has faced particular difficulties since May, when the Russian Justice Ministry revoked its registration. While Rothstein declined to discuss the matter in detail due to its sensitive nature, he said he currently is working to clarify and resolve the "technical irregularities" cited by the Russian government, in addition to working with commercial clients.


Having spent a year in Israel since his move to Moscow, Rothstein now is entering his fifth year in a city he regards as home. "This has been a good place to spend most of my 30s. I think I have had a much more varied life here than I would have done if I'd stayed on the track I was on in the States," he said.


Researching his own family history while in Russia has produced some unusual results, including a telephone conversation with an elderly former Soviet officer -- the man who took Rothstein's father "prisoner" 50 years ago after his U.S. bomber was downed over Poland in World War II.


"They were nearly shot by the Soviet unit, who were given strict instructions to kill anything in the least bit suspicious, until the Soviet officer and my father figured out that the only common language they had was Yiddish. They [the crew] were then shipped to Ukraine for one month."


With only a surname to go on, Rothstein managed to trace the officer to Simferopol in the Crimea. "He remembered the incident like it was yesterday."


Rothstein gave a wry smile recalling the incident. "There are lots of amazing things to discover around here, all kinds of miracles that can liven up the hum-drum life of a lawyer or any other person."