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Kyiv, Ukraine

Kyiv (Kyiv) is the capital of Ukraine. The transliteration of Kyiv was legally mandated by the Ukrainian government in 1995, and the spelling has become increasingly recognized internationally. The change of the name of the capital as well as other cities, is part of a campaign to assign Ukrainian language names to replace Russian names. Kyiv is derived from the Ukrainian language name Київ whereas Kyiv was derived from the Russian language name Киев. The article has been edited to use Kyiv.

The Jewish Community before 1667

Kyiv’s central position on the River Dnieper at the commercial crossroads of Western Europe and the Orient attracted Jewish settlers (Rabbanites and Karaites) from the foundation of the town in the eighth century C.E. At first, most of them were transient merchants from both east and west. According to letters dated 930 from the Cairo Genizah, there were Jews in Kyiv at this time. Ancient Russian chronicles relate that some Jews from Khazaria visited Vladimir, the prince of Kyiv, to try to convert him to Judaism (986). About that time, a Jewish community already existed in the city. Jewish merchants from the West (Radanites) took part in the trade of the city and were called in Hebrew sources “goers to Russia.” The abbot of Kyiv, Theodosius the Blessed (11th century), is said to have visited Jewish homes at night and to have held disputations with the householders. There were two Jewish suburbs of Kyiv, Kozary and Zhidove.

A “Gate of the Jews” is mentioned at the time of the riots which broke out on the death of Prince Svyatopolk (1113), when the populace also attacked Jewish houses and burned them. Benjamin of Tudela mentions “Kiov, the great city,” and Pethahiah of Regensburg visited the town on his way to the Orient (12th century). At the end of the 12th century, two Jews, Ephraim, son of Moses and Anabel Jasin, served in the court of the prince Andrey Bogoliubski.

During the same century, Moses of Kyiv lived in the town. He corresponded with Jacob b. Meir Tam in the west and the gaon Samuel b. Ali in Baghdad. Under Tatar rule (1240–1320), the Jews were protected, earning them the hatred of the Christian population. With the annexation of Kyiv to the principality of Lithuania (1320), the Jews were granted certain rights ensuring the safety of their lives and property. Several of them (such as Simkha, Riabichka, Danilovich, and Shan in 1488) leased the collection of taxes and amassed fortunes.

As the Jewish community increased in numbers, so did the number of scholars, although the statement found in several sources, “from Kyiv emanate Torah and light,” is an exaggeration. During the 15th century, Moses (b. Jacob Ashkenazi the Exile) of Kyiv II wrote commentaries on the Sefer Yeẓirah, on the Pentateuch commentaries of Abraham Ibn Ezra and others, and held disputations with the Karaites. In the Tatar raid on Kyiv (1482), many Jews were taken captive. In 1470, Zekharia, whom Russian sources link to the beginning of the Zhidovstvuyushchiye movement (Jewish heresy), left Kyiv for Novgorod.

Like the rest of the Jews in the principality of Lithuania, the Kyiv community was expelled in 1495. When the decree was revoked (1503), the community was reestablished. However, in 1619 the Christian merchants obtained from King Sigismund III a prohibition on permanent settlement of Jews or their acquisition of real estate in the town. They could come into Kyiv for trading purposes alone and might remain one day only in an inn assigned to them. Despite this, many Jews continued to live in the town under the protection of the Vojevoda (district governor) and noblemen in their properties in town (who saw them as a source of income). Russian sources relate that Jews were killed in Kyiv during the Chmielnicki massacres (1648). On the demand of the citizens, John II Casimir of Poland and Czar Alexis renewed the prohibition on Jewish settlement (1654). This became final with the annexation of Kyiv to Russia (1667). The Russian Orthodox academy there fomented hatred of the Jews, and its students attacked any Jew they found trading in the town.

From 1793

After a break of about 150 years, the community of Kyiv was reestablished in 1793 after the second partition of Poland. In 1798, the community acquired land for a cemetery. The earlier conflict between the Christian citizens and the Jews began once more. While the Jews struggled for settlement in Kyiv, the economic and commercial center of the southwestern region of Russia, the citizens persistently endeavored to expel them, basing their claim on the status quo since Sigismund III and adding that “holy” Kyiv was “profaned” by the presence of the Jews.

Despite this, in 1809, there were 452 Jews in Kyiv (of about 20,000 total population), and their numbers rose by 1815 to about 1,500 (not including transients), with two synagogues and other communal institutions. The citizens proceeded with the demand to expel the Jews but owing to the negative stand of the governor, Czar Alexander I ordered them to leave the city. Eventually, Cẓar Nicholas I acceded to the demands of the citizens and, at the end of 1827, residence in Kyiv was forbidden to Jews. In part due to representations by state officials, who pointed out that the expulsion would worsen economic conditions in the town, the execution of the decree was twice deferred. In 1835, however, on the expiry of the last postponement, the Jews left the town, and the Jewish community facilities ceased to function. Despite this, they still played an important part in its economic life, for Jewish merchants came in their hundreds to the large annual fairs held from 1797 in Kyiv in January. With their assistants and servants, they made up 50–60% of the fairs’ participants.

In 1843, Jewish temporary visitors were officially permitted, provided that they resided and bought food in two specially appointed inns. These were leased by the municipality to Christian agents, who were empowered to deliver to the police any Jew who did not stay in them. At the beginning of the reign of Alexander II, these inns were abolished (1858), and instead a special payment to the municipality was levied upon the Jews as compensation for the losses caused by the abolishment of the inns. In 1861, two suburbs, Lyebed and Podol, were assigned to those Jews entitled to reside in Kyiv (wealthy merchants and industrialists and their employees, members of the free professions, and craftsmen). The number of Jews in Kyiv increased to 3,013 (3% of the total population) in 1863 and to 13,803 (11.8%) in 1872.

A pogrom began in the streets of the city, supported and encouraged by Governor-General Drenteln on April 26, 1881. It was triggered, as in other places, by the assassination of Tsar Alexander II on March 1, 1881, for which the instigators blamed the Russian Jews.

Jewish houses and shops were looted, and many people were injured; 762 families were completely ruined. The damage caused was evaluated at 1,750,000 rubles. The violence spread to villages in the surrounding region and continued sporadically until winter. The Kyiv pogrom is considered the worst of the pogroms that swept through southwestern Imperial Russia in 1881.

From that date, the authorities began sporadically to investigate the residence rights of the Jews in Kyiv. Until 1917 the city became notorious for the police “oblavy” (“hunt attacks”) for Jews without residence rights. For example, expelled in 1883 were 1,179 persons; in 1884 1,254, in 1885, 1,368; and in the first half of 1886, 2,076. The night searches and expulsions continued almost until World War I.

The Brodsky Synagogue

In 1891, the authorities ordered that a considerable portion of the income of the Jewish community be allotted to the police to cover the cost of their measures to prevent Jews’ from entering the town. Despite all these persecutions, the number of Jews in Kyiv continued to increase. From 31,801 (12.8%) in 1897, it rose to 50,792 (10.8%) in 1910 and 81,256 (13%) at the end of 1913. In fact, the number of Jews was greater since a substantial number evaded the census. Many Jews also lived in the suburbs and townlets around Kyiv and only came into the city daily on business. There were some wealthy Jewish families in Kyiv, who included many of the magnates of the southwestern Russian sugar industry (the Brodsky and Zaitsev families). Many Jews were employed in their factories in the town and the vicinity.

There was a highly active branch of the Society for Enlightenment of Russian Jews, which maintained 21 Jewish schools in the town and the district, as well as a library of 6,500 books. The city also had many Jewish physicians, lawyers, and other members of the liberal professions. Kyiv University attracted Jewish youth; in 1886, Jewish students numbered 236 and in 1911, 888 (17% of the total number of students), the largest concentration of Jewish students in a Russian university.

In Kyiv were born Golda Meir (Mabovich), who became prime minister of Israel, the writer Ilya Ehrenburg, and some Hebrew writers, notably J. Kaminer, J.L. Levin (Yehalel), M. Kamionski, I.J. Weissberg, E. Schulman, and A.A. Friedman. Shalom Aleichem, who lived in Kyiv for some time, described the town in his account of life in Yehupets.

According to the 1897 census, 29,937 Jews (out of 31,801) declared Yiddish as their mother language. There were 12,317 who earned incomes, divided into three main groups: artisans (42%), merchants (24%), and army service (10%). The artisans were mainly occupied as follows: the clothing industry (54%), metal works (11%), woodworking (9%), and printing (6%). The main occupations of traders were in farm products (34%), textiles and clothing (16%), and building materials (7%). The Jewish merchants constituted 44% of all the merchants in Kyiv.

In the wake of Jewish revolutionary activity, a large-scale pogrom occurred on Oct. 18, 1905. Neither the army nor the police controlled the rioters, who ran amok unhindered for three days. Indeed, soldiers protected the hooligans from the Jewish self-defense organization. The rioters attacked the houses of the wealthy, but their attacks were mainly directed against the poor suburbs. However, the pogrom did not interrupt the development of the community, which became one of the wealthiest in Russia as well as one of the most diversified socially.

In 1910, there were 4,896 Jewish merchants in the town, 42% of all the merchants there, but nevertheless, 25% of the community had to apply for Passover alms during that same year. The community was officially recognized in 1906 as the “Jewish Representation for Charity Affairs at the Municipal Council.” Its income from the meat tax (see korobka) and other sources amounted to 300,000 rubles annually. A Jewish hospital for the poor which served the whole of Ukraine, was opened in 1862, followed by a hospital specializing in surgery, a clinic for eye diseases (under the direction of M. Mandelstamm), and other welfare institutions.

The Great Synagogue

In 1898, a magnificent central synagogue was built by means of a donation from L. Brodsky. From 1906 to 1921, Solomon Aronson was the rabbi of Kyiv; notable as kazyonny ravvin (“government-appointed rabbi”) were Joshua Zuckerman, the first to be appointed to this office, and S.Z. Luria.

Between 1911 and 1913, Kyiv was the site of the notorious Beilis blood libel trial, and the town was then racked by the agitation of the members of the Union of the Russian People (“Black Hundreds”). In 1911, after the assassination of Prime Minister Stolypin by a Jew in Kyiv, severe pogroms were on the point of breaking out, but the authorities decided to restrain the rioters.

During World War I, residence restrictions in the town were lifted for Jewish refugees from the battle areas. The years 1917–20 were years of upheaval for the Jews of Kyiv. With the February 1917 Revolution, all the residence restrictions were abolished, and Jews at once began to stream into the town. In the census at the end of 1917, 87,246 Jews (19% of the total population) were registered. A democratic community was established, led by the Zionist Moses Nahum Syrkin. Meetings and congresses of Russian and Ukrainian Jews were held in Kyiv, the central institutions of Ukrainian Jewry were set up there, and Jewish writers and communal workers of every shade of opinion and party became active in the town. Books and newspapers were published, and cultural institutions, led by the Hebrew Tarbut and the Yiddish Kultur Lige, engaged in a variety of activities. In the spring of 1919, the number of Jews had grown to 114,524 (21%).

With the first conquest of the town by the Red Army, which lasted from February to August 1919, Kyiv became a haven for refugees from the pogroms sweeping the provincial towns of Ukraine. The running of the Jewish community was handed over to the Yevsektsiya, and the systematic destruction of communal institutions, traditional Jewish culture, and national parties began. With the retreat of the Red Army, an attempt was made to form a Jewish self-defense unit. When Petlyura’s forces entered the city, they arrested the members of the self-defense unit, and 36 of them were executed. A month after Kyiv was occupied by Denikin’s “Volunteer Army,” thugs initiated a period of pillage, rape, and murder of the Jews, which lasted until the “Volunteers” were driven out by the Red Army (December 1919).

The Jews in Kyiv suffered heavily during the famine and typhus outbreak of 1920. In the August 1920 census, they constituted one-third of the town’s population. In 1923, Kyiv had 128,041 Jews (32%), 140,256 (27.3%) in 1926, and in 1939, 224,236 (of a total population of 845,726).

In the years 1920–22, the famine and typhus epidemic ravaged Kyiv and took a heavy toll on the Jewish population. OZE, the JDC, and other relief organizations from abroad organized food and medical help. The Jews went through a process of proletarianization, engaging in physical labor or crafts; later in the second half of the 1920s, half of them were government employees. In 1926, 16,690 Jews were members of trade unions (out of 77,257). The number of Jews in heavy industry grew to 4,080 in 1932. In 1931, they constituted 80% of the 3,300 workers of the shoe factory.

During the first 20 years of the Soviet regime, Kyiv became a major center of the officially fostered Yiddish culture, with a school system catering to many thousands of pupils and students, culminating in institutes of higher education and learning, such as the Department for Jewish culture at the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences (1926) which, in 1930, became the “Institute of Proletarian Jewish Culture” under the direction of Joseph Liberberg. This state-sponsored activity attracted even Jewish writers and scholars from the West, such as Meir Wiener and others. Some valuable research works on the Yiddish language and literature were published there. Many Yiddish poets and writers, among them David Hofstein and Itzik Feffer, lived and wrote in Kyiv. There were also the All-Ukrainian Jewish State Theater, a Yiddish children’s theater, Yiddish newspapers, journals, and publishing houses. In the early 1930s, Liberberg and some of his associates headed a group of Yiddish intellectuals who went to the newly established Jewish autonomous region in Birobidzhan to organize Jewish educational and cultural work there in conjunction with the Jewish academic institute in Kyiv. Several years later, with the forcible liquidation of all Jewish institutions, including libraries and archives in Kyiv, one of the most important centers of Soviet Yiddish culture ceased to exist.


A. Harkavy, Ḥadashim gam Yeshanim (1886–1912), no. 1, 6–12; no. 2, 13–17; I.N. Darevsky, Le-Korot ha-Yehudim be-Kyiv (1902); Ettinger, in: Zion, 21 (1956), 107–42; idem, in: Roth, Dark Ages, index; Gurevich, in: Shriftn far Ekonomik un Statistik, 1 (1928), 104–5; J. Lestschinsky, in: Bleter far Yidishe Demografye, Statistik un Ekonomik, 5 (1925), 149–67; A. Druyanow, in: Reshummot, 3 (1923), 221–36; A.A. Friedman, Sefer ha-Zikhronot (1926), 195–227, 315–97; A. Golomb, A Halber Yorhundert Yidishe Dertsiung (1957), 95–114; B. Dinur, Bi-Ymei Milḥamah u-Mahpekhah (1960), 311–420; A. Pomeranz, Di sovietishe Harugei Malkhus (1962), 44–60, passim; Die Juden-pogrome in Russland, 2 (1909), 339–406; G. Reitlinger, Final Solution (1953), 233–5; M. Malishevski, Yevrei v yuzhoy Rossii i v Kiyeve v X–XII vekakh (1878); I. Zinberg, in: Yevreyskaya Starina, 11 (1924), 93–109; M. Kulisher, ibid., 6 (1913), 351–66; Y. Galant, ibid., 264–78; idem, in: Zbirnyk prats Zhydivskoyi istorychno-arkheografichnoyi komisii, 1 (1928), 149–97; Rybynsky, in: Yubileyny zbirnyk D.I. Bagalya (1927), 938–55; E. Turats, K istorii kiyevskogo pogroma (1906); P.T. Neyshtube, Kiyevskaya yevreyskaya bolnitsa 1862–1912 (1912); Badanes, in: Vestnik yevreyskoy obshchiny, 2 (1914), 49–54; 3 (1914), 33–37; Polyakov, in: Yevreyskaya Letopis, 2 (1923), 17–36; 3 (1924), 60–70.

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.
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Photos: Night - Роман Наумов, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Great Synagogue - Kazimierz222, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Brodsky Synagogue - Fedotto, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.