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Jews are believed to have first arrived in the Caucasus region in the seventh century and since that time the Jewish population of the Russia area multiplied exponentially. Jews, and Judaism itself, suffered greatly under Communist rule and since the fall of the U.S.S.R. more than 1 million Russian Jews are believed to have immigrated to Israel. Today, the Jewish population of Russia stands at approximately 194,000 - the sixth largest Jewish community in the world.

- Early History
- Fourteenth Century
- Under Nicholas I & Alexander II (1825-1881)
- Haskalah in Russia
- Politicization of the Jews
- World War I
- February Revolution
- Under Soviet Control
- 1980 & Beyond
- Relations with Israel

Early History

In the seventh century many Jews from Greece, Babylonia, Persia, and the Middle East and Mediterranean area immigrated to the Caucasus and beyond. From the early Middle Ages, Jewish merchants (known in Hebrew as holkhei Rusyah – Russian travelers) traveled through the Slavic and Khazar lands on their way to India and China. During the first half of the eighth century, the Khazar’s converted to Judaism. The Khazar kingdom essentially became a new Jewish kingdom. Some scholars trace the origins of Ashkenazi Jews to the conversion of the Khazars. The influence of the Khazar conversions are significant enough to be a major topic of research for scholars today.

The kingdom of Jewish Khazars is referred to in ancient Russian literature as the “Land of the Jews.” There were also Jews living in Kiev at this time and ancient Russian sources mention the “Gate of the Jews” in Kiev. Historical records preserve disputations between the Jews of Kiev and Christian clergy. There are also records of communications between Jews in Kiev and Jews in Babylonia and Western Europe, including, in the 12th century, a mention of R. Moses of Kiev corresponding with Rabbenu Jacob ben Meir Tam and Gaon Samuel b. Ali of Baghdad. In 1237, however, the invasion of the Mongols brought much suffering to the Jewish communities of Russia.

Fourteenth Century

In the 14th century, the Lithuanians gained control of Western Russia and, in the late 14th century, were the first to grant privileges to Jewish communities under their control. It was during this period that many Jews emigrated to the Ukraine and portions of western Russia. In 1648-1649, the Chmielnicki pogroms devastated some of these Jews and these pogroms continued for several centuries. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Russian Jewry was connected with Polish and Lithuanian Jewry, partially due to Russia’s annexation of Poland in the late 18th century and the creation of the Soviet Union in the 20th century.

A 1791 decree confirmed the right of Russian Jews to live in the territory annexed from Poland and permitted Jews to settle there. Subsequent conquests and annexations helped ferment the area known of as “The Pale of Settlement” created in 1791 to rid Moscow of Jews. Its borders were finalized in 1812 with the annexation of Bessarabia.

Between the 16th and 18th centuries, Jews either entered Russia illegally or with Polish or Lithuanian permission due to trade business. Small Jewish communities still existed despite calls for expulsion, due to the importance Jews played in commerce. Many Jews were in the Middle Class due to their involvement in business and commerce. The economic position of the Jews deteriorated with their confinement to the Pale of Settlement. When they came under Russian control, the communities were weakened through a new and disproportionate tax burden. The previously well-off Jewish community soon led to a life of poverty.

In the 1700s, the Hasidic movement was founded in Eastern Europe to reach out to the Jewish masses. During the period of transfer to Russian domination, conflicts between the Hasidim and the Mitnagdim increased. The clash even led to the arrest of one of the major Hasidic leaders, Shneur Zalman of Lyady in 1798 and transport to St. Petersburg for interrogation. Despite the disagreements, the Hasidic “courts” and Mitnaggedic yeshivot merged to create a flourishing and diverse Jewish culture.

Under Nicholas I & Alexander II (1825-1881)

Czar Nicholas I (reign: 1825-1855) sought to destroy all Jewish life in Russia and his reign constitutes a painful part of European Jewish history. In 1825, he ordered the conscription of Jewish youth into the Russian military beginning at age 12. Many of the youngsters were kidnapped by “snatchers” (“khapers”) in order to get them to spend their formative years in the Russian military. This had a significant effect in lowering the morale of the Russian Jewish community. The Jews that were not forced to spend decades in the military were often expelled from their towns and villages.

Some Jews escaped this persecution, however, as the government encouraged agricultural settlement among Jews. These Jews were exempt from forced conscription. Many Jewish agricultural settlements were established in southern Russia and the rest of the Pale of Settlement.

In the 1840s, a network of special schools was created for the Jews since they had not availed themselves of the opportunity established in 1804 to study in the regular schools. These schools were paid for by a special tax imposed on the Jews. In 1844, a decree was established that the teachers would be both Christians and Jews. The Jewish community viewed the government’s attempt to set up these schools as a way of secularizing and assimilating the younger generation. Their fears were not unfounded as the decree to require Christian teachers was accompanied by the declaration that "the purpose of the education of the Jews is to bring them nearer to the Christians and to uproot their harmful beliefs which are influenced by the Talmud."

In 1844, the Polish-style communities were disbanded but they were replaced by a new communal organizational structure. A law was instituted prohibiting Jews from growing pe’ot (“sidelocks”) and wearing traditional clothes. Nicholas I than divided Jews into two groups – “useful” and “not useful.” The wealthy merchants and those essential for commerce were deemed “useful,” all others “non-useful.” The order granted opposition from the Jewish communities of Western Europe and worldwide, but was instituted in 1851. The order was delayed with the Crimean War but the war only led to increased kidnappings of children and young adults into military service, often never to be seen again.

The reign of Alexander II (1855-1881) resulted in an end to the harsh treatment of the Jews, but nevertheless new policies were implemented to ensure the assimilation of the Jews. As Jews began to move out of the Pale of Settlement, those having a Russian secondary-school education were granted greater rights, which increased Jewish enrollment in Russian schools. This led to increased assimilation. Assimilation was somewhat hindered as Jews in the military were prohibited from receiving the ranks of officers, which limited the contact between Jew and non-Jew. Emancipation of the Jews began slowly and assimilation skyrocketed. As assimilation led to increased visibility of the Jews, this led to anger among the non-Jewish community. The leading opponents to Jewish prominence included Russian luminaries such as Ivan Asakov and Fyodor Dostoyevski. The liberal and revolutionary elements were also opposed to the increased presence of the Jews. The anti-Jewish strength strengthened after the Balkan War (1877-1878).

However, between 1850 and the end of the 19th century, the Jewish population in Russia increased substantially due to a high birthrate and a low mortality rate. In 1850, the number of Jews in Russia stood at around 2,350,000 whereas it almost doubled to 5,000,000 by the late 19th century. Due to the high birthrates, competition in traditionally Jewish jobs also increased. The increased competition resulted in both the development of a Jewish proletariat and a small Jewish upper class. The increased competition led to economic diversification, such as Jews leasing alcoholic beverages (then a government monopoly) and engaging in construction and industrial development. Small groups of Jews became prominent in the banking industries and began to penetrate the intelligentsia (academia) and professional positions (lawyers, doctors, scientists, writers). The emancipation of the serfs led to a strong demand for land and therefore the government stopped encouraging Russian agricultural settlement. This land scarcity led to the Jewish communities migration throughout other parts of the Russian Empire.

Haskalah in Russia

Unlike in Western Europe, the haskalah, or Jewish enlightenment, preserved Jewish culture and values even while shifting the Jewish community away from a religious context. The majority of those affected by the haskalah operated in national or national-religious terms. The somewhat contradictory ideologies of Zionism and European Yiddish culture both increased in popularity due to the nationalistic flavor of the haskala. Yet, initially the maskilim were opposed to Yiddish, but later a secular Yiddish culture was created by the maskilim. A Jewish press also emerged in Hebrew, Yiddish, and Russian. The Hevrat Mefizei Haskalah was founded by wealthy Jews to encourage Russian Jews to learn Russian and spread the haskalah. The haskalah gradually influenced the b’tei midrashot (study halls) and yeshivot, which resulted in many students leaving them and assimilating into the secular world.

In 1881, Czar Alexander II was assassinated and the situation for the Jews deteriorated. The assassins encouraged mass rebellions and the situation in Russia became anarchic and chaotic for everyone. The Jews were blamed. Pogroms broke out, consisting mostly of looting but also some murder and rape. The support of the Russian intellectuals shocked many Jews, especially the assimilated Russian maskilim. In May 1882, laws were passed blaming the Jews for the pogroms. This led to restrictions on Jewish landownership, prohibited Jews from living in villages, and the number of Jews studying in secular schools was limited to 10% in the Pale of Settlement and 3-5% everywhere else. This discrimination embittered the Jews to Russian society. In 1891, Jews were systemically expelled from Moscow. The police strictly applied the discriminatory laws and the media engaged in unbridled propaganda against the Jews.

When Nicolas II took over (1894-1918), the situation for Jews deteriorated. From the Passover pogrom of 1903 on, pogroms became government policy and reached their peak in October 1905. Russian rightists authored the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” a major anti-Semitic forgery popular in some communities to this day. In 1912, a new law passed that prohibited even the grandchildren of Jews from serving as military officers, despite the large numbers of Jews and those of Jewish heritage in the military. The census of 1897 showed that Jews of Russia (numbering 5,189,400) constituted slightly over 4% of the total Russian population (though disproportionately about 18% in the Pale of Settlement) but about one-half of world Jewry.

Politicization of the Jews

As a consequence to the oppressive policies of the czars and increasing social freedoms of the Jews, Jews disproportionately joined the ranks of the Russian radicals. The leaders of the Social-Democrats (Socialists) included J. Martov and L. Trotsky and the leaders of the Social Revolutionary Party of Russia were also Jewish. A Jewish workers revolutionary movement was founded. Workers unions founded by Jews created the Bund. 

While regarding itself as part of the Social Democratic establishment for all Russians, the Bund took up exclusively Jewish causes, particularly cultural autonomy for the Jewish masses. The Bund advocated a separate system of schools, Yiddish as a national language, and the development of Yiddish press and literature. Another response to the oppression of the Jews saw its expression in the Zionist movement. The Hibbat Zion movement brought Zionism into Russia after the pogroms of 1881-1883. A few of the Jews who fled Russia escaped to Eretz Yisrael.

While the central organizations of the Zionist movement (such as the World Zionist Organization) were found in Western Europe, the mass of members and supports came from Eastern Europe. The Zionist movement gained massive following among all segments of Russian Jewish society, secular and religious. Despite, or perhaps due to, the wide support of the Zionist movement, the Zionist organizations were illegal in Russia. Yet the Russian Jews made up the majorities of the Second Aliya and were the founders of the Labor Zionist movement. With the growth of the Zionist movement and the importance of self-respect and self-defense in Zionist thought, the next time pogroms hit in 1903, Jewish youths defended themselves and the Bund, Zionists, and Socialist Zionists formed self-defense organizations.

The growth of Zionism led to the spread of Hebrew. This period saw a tremendous growth in Hebrew and Yiddish literature and it was in the late 19th and early 20th century that Russia saw great writers such as Hayim Nachman Bialik, Ahad Ha'Am, Saul Tchernichowsky, and the Yiddish writers of Shalom Aleichem and I.L. Peretz. Many  great scholarly histories of the Jews were also written during this time. Yiddish and Hebrew presses also flourished. There was some conflict between the supports of Yiddish, who saw the future of Jews as being in Russia, whereas the Zionists saw the Jewish future in the Jewish homeland of Eretz Yisrael. Shortly after the Yiddishists proclaimed the superiority of the language and so the Zionists (who supported Hebrew) and the Bund fought bitterly and the Jewish intelligentsia split over this aspect of Jewish ideology.

World War I

With the advent of World War I, Russian Jewry felt that they could increase their substandard role in society if they participated in the defense of Russia. Over 400,000 Jews were mobilized and about 80,000 served in the front lines. Battles occured in the Pale of Settlement, where millions of Jews lived. Yet, when the Russian army was defeated, anti-Semitic commanders blamed the Jews and accused them of treason and spying for the Germans. Jews were even kidnaped and tried for espionage. Shortly after the trials, mass expulsions of Jews living near the front lines were organized. In June 1915, Jews were expelled from northern Lithuania and Courland.

One month later, the use of Hebrew characters in printing and writing was prohibited, making it impossible to write both Hebrew and Yiddish. Western opinion united against the discrimination against the Jews, which made the procurement of loans from Western countries difficult. Shortly after, the Russians ceased enforcing the laws relating to discrimination of the Jews and Jewish refugees from Poland and Lithuania moved towards central Russia.

Austria and Germany’s conquests in 1915 brought 2,260,000 Jews (40% of Russian Jewry) under military rule. These Jews were freed from czarist abuses but also cut off from their families and neighbors. In Russia, the Jewish presses were silenced and Jewish youth were conscripted into the army. Yet Jews from the rest of eastern Europe were torn from Russian Jewry leading to social upheavals which affected all facets of eastern European Jewry.

February Revolution

In early March 1917, Nicholas II abdicated the throne, ending 300 years of Romanov rule. A provisional government was put in place. On March 16, 1917, the provisional government abolished all restrictions on the Jews. Jews were given the change to hold every available public office and were exposed to newfound freedoms. Anti-Semitism was forced underground thanks to the newfound freedoms granted by the provisional government. Thanks to the freedoms granted the Jews, the Revolution saw tremendous support from the Jews. Jews were active in every aspect of the Revolution’s political life, obtaining leadership positions in several parties. The newfound freedoms also allowed Jews to engage in Jewish nationalist politics. The Zionist movement flourished in 1917 and Zionist youth groups were formed throughout the country. Hebrew book clubs and press were founded. In November, as news of the Balfour Declaration reached Russia, Zionist rallies were held in major cities. A self-defense organization “Union of Jewish Soldiers,” was founded. Joseph Trumpeldor led it.

Only a few months after it was formed, the provisional government was severely weakened and anarchy reigned. Anti-Semitism, previously underground, became more prominent. Sporadic pogroms occurred throughout the Russian empire. In October 1917, the Bolshevik Revolution crushed the provisional government. Shortly after, Russia was thrust into a civil war that lasted until 1921. Between October 1917 and 1921, violent anti-Semitism became widespread. While individual soldiers of the Red Army attacked Jews, the official policy of the Red Army was to clamp down on anti-Semitic attacks, resulting in Jewish sympathy for the Red Army and the Soviet Regime. The White Army, on the other hand, was filled with Cossacks and officers, the bastions of anti-Semitism. The White Army was saturated with anti-Semitism and its slogan was “Strike at the Jews and save Russia!” 

Under Soviet Control

As the borders of Soviet Russia sharpened, large numbers of Jews who had previously been under Russian control found themselves outside of the Soviet Empire. Only about 2,500,000 Jews remained under Soviet control. The Bolsheviks rejected anti-Semitism and loosened civil restrictions on the Jews. Under the influence of influential assimilated Jews, the Bolsheviks began to see the assimilation of the Jews as the only solution to “the Jewish problem.” Jewish nationalist expressions, be they expressions of the Jewish religion or Zionism, were clamped down upon. While the Bolshevik leaders clamped down on Jewish separatism their fight against anti-Semitism gained them wide support among the Jewish masses. Jewish youth enthusiastically joined the Red Army (founded by a Jew, Leon Trotsky). In 1926, Jews made up 4.4% of the officers in the Red Army (more than twice their ratio in the general population). Jewish elites also took part in the administrative rebuilding of the country. While a small but influential group of Jews helped rebuild Russia, the Socialist Economic Policies weakened the masses. The Bolsheviks also set up a special “Jewish section” in government in response to the fact that millions of Jews were attached to the Jewish religion and Hebrew language (at least as a language of prayer and Judaism). The Communists put secular assimilationist Jews in charge in order to foster hatred towards the Jewish religion, Hebrew, and Zionism, though temporarily allowing its replacement with secular Yiddish culture. In August 1919, Jewish communities were dissolved and properties confiscated. Traditional institutions of Jewish education and culture, such as yeshivot and cheder, were shut down. Hebrew study was prohibited and it became forbidden to print Jewish books. In 1928, it was forbidden to even print religious books and Jewish calendars. In 1927, Rabbi J. Schneerson, the leader of Habad Hasidism, was imprisoned and expelled from Russia. Yet “underground” religious activity still continued, though after World War II, hundreds of Hasidism left Russia to Eretz Yisrael. The growing restrictions on Jewish religious life strengthened Zionism.

Yiddish was also strengthened by the forming of a “Jewish proletariat culture.” A Yiddish press and Yiddish newspapers were established, though the writing of Yiddish was phoneticized into Russian script so as to cut its ties with Hebrew print. Russians granted Yiddish official status in that tribunals were held in Yiddish and significant resources were invested in the development of Yiddish school systems. After awhile, however, Jewish parents rebelled against these schools whose only connections to Jewish culture was a few lines of Yiddish literature and which taught anti-religious sentiment. As the quality of the schools declined (weak to begin with), they began to disappear.

The disappearance of Yiddish was replaced by cultural assimilation. Jewish children spoke Russian and attended Russian schools. Mixed marriage became common. Jews began to play an important role in Russian cultural life.


Jewish Soviet refusik Anatoly Sharansky

During World War II, much of the attempts to persecute the Jews were halted. When World War II began, Jews played an important part of the Soviet military effort. Their role in the front lines was disproportionately higher then other national groups. While much of Soviet Jewry was decimated in the Holocaust, those living in Russia proper were mostly spared. After World War II was concluded, however, the attempts to suppress Soviet Jewry were resumed. Until Stalin’s death in 1953, Soviet Jews were placed in the gulag and were faced with significant physical oppression. In 1952, Stalin had a number of leading Russian Jewish intellectuals murdered in the “Night of the Murdered Poets.”

Even after Stalin’s death, the attempt to suppress Judaism and Jewish culture continued. Jewish books and religious articles had to be smuggled into the country and attempts to study the books and utilize the religious articles had to be clandestine. The covert nature restricted access to Jewish life to only a few individuals. The few Jews who continued participation in Jewish life were called refusniks, and were severely punished by the Soviet authorities. By 1965, only about 60 synagogues remained in all of Russia. It was not until Mikhail Gorbachev came to power and his policy of glasnost that restrictions on Soviet Jewry lessened.

After the Six Day War, Soviet discrimination against Jews increased. Despite the discrimination, the Six Day War increased Jewish national consciousness. In 1970, 11 individuals (9 Jewish) tried to hijack an airline in order to raise world attention to the plight of Soviet Jewry. The hijacking gave new prominence to the Soviet Jewry movement. One of the hijackers, Yosef Mendelevich, completely secular while in Russia, is now a rabbi in Israel.

Jews were viewed as potential enemies by the Soviet authorities, partly because many Jews had relatives in the United States.

1980 & Beyond

Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia consists of one of the world’s largest Jewish communities. Russia houses the fourth largest Jewish community, after the United States, Israel, and France. Moscow and St. Petersburg, along with other large cities in Russia, contain thousands of Jews yet few Jews lived in urban regions in Russia until the 1800s. Most resided in the “Pale of Settlement,” which includes present-day Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Lithuania, and Poland.

During Soviet rule, the Communist government aimed to destroy all religious life in the country, which led to significant assimilation and secularization among the Jewish community. The Soviet Government did all it could to force the disappearance of Jews as a separate entity and nationality. During this time, Jews from around the world rallied to the support of Soviet Jewry. In the 1980s, with Gorbachev in charge, the restrictions gradually loosed as the Soviet Union crumbled.

The population of Russian Jewry is shrinking due to immigration and aging. Around the time of the fall of the Soviet Union, millions of Jews left Russia and the former Soviet states. The Jews primarily moved to Israel and the United States. Since 2000, however, immigration has slowed down and increased effort has been devoted to revitalizing Jewish life in Russia and the former Soviet Union.


Grand Choral Synagogue

In 2003, Russia had a network of Jewish schools, which included seventeen day schools, eleven preschools, and 81 supplementary schools with about 7,000 students. There are also four Jewish universities. The major towns have a Jewish presence, with synagogues and rabbis. The Chabad-Lubavitch hasidic movement has played a significant role in rebuilding religious Jewish life in Russia. Chabad in Moscow has opened four schools and is building a seven-story Jewish Community Center. Jewish studies programs are being added to universities.

The Union of Jewish Religious Communities supports Orthodox institutions and religious life. The Progressive (Reform) movement and Masorti (Conservative) movements are also making significant inroads. Because the high intermarriage rate during Soviet rule led to many Russians being of Jewish descent but not halakhically Jewish (Jewish according to Jewish law), the Progressive Movement is able to gain among these people, as the Progressives recognition of patrilineal decent welcomes many who are not halakhically Jewish into the Jewish community. Many Russian cities print their own Jewish newspaper and other cultural, social, and religious institutions are expanding. Moscow has five synagogues, six day schools, yeshivas, and a kosher restaurant.

The growth of Jewish religious institutions in Russia also provides targets for anti-Semitism. Signs with anti-Semitic slogans have been posted on roadways. In 2002 and 2003, synagogues and cemeteries have also been desecrated. Some of these signs even include real and fake bombs. In Moscow, a 28-year-old student tried to remove one of these anti-Semitic signs and, as a result, an explosion went off and she sustained serious injuries.

Despite the growing presence of religious institutions in Russia, however, after years of assimilation most Russian Jews are not observant and see Jewry solely in terms of ethno-cultural behavior. After massive waves of immigration in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, there are approximately 400,000-700,000 Jews in Russia, making up approximately 0.27-0.48 percent of the Russian population.

Moscow's Jewish Museum

One of the active Jewish communities in Russia is St. Petersburg. The Grand Choral Synagogue is responsible for the majority of Jewish culture in the city. St. Petersburg has two Jewish day schools and Yeshivot for both men and women. A full kosher kitchen and dining hall serve daily meals both to congregants and to poor citizens.

The synagogue also began a home for poor or orphaned children in the community. Many of the members of the Grand Choral Synagogue belong to the community's charity center.

In November 2012, Israeli President Shimon Peres officially opened a new Jewish Museum and Center of Tolerance in Moscow. The museum seeks to illustrate Jewish cultural traditions and customs as well as the history of Russia through the eyes of the Jewish people. The Center of Tolerance will feature permanent and temporary exhibits and will serve as a place for dialog on topics of tolerance, mutual understanding, respect, and intercultural relations. "This museum is an eloquent declaration of the principles of tolerance toward people and their freedom," Peres said. "The museum tells us about two ideologies - communism and Zionism."

Relations with Israel

The Soviet Union immediately recognized Israel in 1948. Ties between the two nations dramatically deteriorated after Israel allied itself with the West. Ideas about Jews as a nation also furthered anti-Zionist sentiment. In 1967, the Soviet Union cut diplomatic ties with Israel and were only reestablished in 1992. Shortly after the Six Day War, a massive propaganda campaign was launched in the Soviet Union denigrating Zionism and Israel, without distinguishing between Zionist and Jew. After the 1967 War, Jewish immigration to Israel was ground to a halt. The Soviet Union was a major arms supplier to the Arab states.

Between 1948 and the early 21st century, approximately 600,000-700,000 Jews have emigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union. Russian immigrants are a dominant part of Israeli society. In Israel there are several Russian-language newspapers, television stations, magazines, neighborhoods. Russia is also playing a role in the Arab-Israeli peace process as a member of the "quartet" along with the US, UN, and EU. The quartet is the sponsor of the "Roadmap."

Russia's deputy defense minister, Vladimir Popovkin, announced on April 10, 2009 that the Russian Defense Ministry signed a deal with Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) to buy multiple unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). The signed contract included the purchase of the Bird-Eye 400 mini-UAV, I-view MK150 tactical UAV, and Searcher Mk II medium-range UAV with varying ranges of 10 to 250 kilometers. The UAV were purchased to provide the Russian Armed Forces with reliable intelligence through the advanced means of battlefield reconnaissance.

In March 2011, a framework agreement on cooperation was signed between the Russian Federal Space Agency and the Israel Space Agency. The agreement enhances cooperation between the Israeli and Russian space agencies in the fields of space research, observation, navigation, medicine and biology in space, research in advanced materials and launchings.


Sources: Beyond the Pale: The History of Jews in Russia
Federation of the Jewish Communities of Russia
History of the Russian Federation
February Revolution
NCSJ
WJC(World Jewish Congress) Jewish communities of the World
Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Kremlin photo courtesy of Минеева Ю. (Julmin)
RiaNovosti (April 10, 2009; November 8, 2012)
Moscow Jewish Museum photo courtesy of Russian Times

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