Moscow (Rus. Moskva) is the capital of the Russian Federation, and, from the Middle Ages, the political, economic, and commercial center of Russia.
In 1676, Jews who brought their wares to Moscow were expelled. Apostates and forced converts who maintained varying degrees of connection with Judaism and the Jews were to be found in Moscow during various periods. A few Jews among the prisoners brought to Moscow after the wars against Poland apostatized and settled there. A physician of Jewish origin, Daniel Gordon, was employed by the court in Moscow from 1657 to 1687; Peter Shafirov, one of the most important advisers of Czar Peter the Great, was also of Jewish origin.
With the Russian annexation of Belorussia (1772), the number of Jewish merchants living in Moscow for commercial reasons increased; they came in particular from Shklov, then an important commercial center in Belorussia. One of these was the contractor and merchant Nata Notkin.
In 1790, Moscow merchants requested that the presence and commercial activities of the Jews in the city be prohibited. A royal decree forbidding Jewish merchants to settle in the inner districts of Russia was issued in 1791. However, they were authorized to stay for temporary periods in Moscow to carry on their trade.
Most of the Jews who came to Moscow lodged at the Glebovskoye podvorye, an inn which was situated in the center of the market quarter. Jewish merchants continued to play an important role in the trade between Moscow and the southern and western regions of Russia, as well as in the export of Moscow’s goods and, in 1828, the turnover of this trade was estimated at 27,000,000 rubles. As a result, Russian industrialists in Moscow supported the rights of the Jews.
In 1828, Jewish merchants who were members of the first and second guilds were authorized to remain in Moscow on business for a period of one month only. They were forbidden to open shops or to engage in trade within the city boundaries. To facilitate the execution of these regulations, the Jews were compelled to lodge solely in the Glebovskoye podvorye. The inn was a charitable trust which had been handed over to the Moscow city council to use its income for the maintenance of a municipal eye clinic. Exorbitant prices were soon extorted from Jewish merchants who had to stay at the inn.
After a few years, third-class merchants were also authorized to enter the town under the same conditions and the period of their stay was prolonged to six months. About 250 people made use of this right every year. As a result of these restrictions, Jewish trade decreased to about 12,000,000 rubles annually during subsequent years. When Alexander II came to the throne (1855), Jewish merchants were permitted to reside temporarily in all the sections of the town.
The first Jews to settle permanently in Moscow, and the founders of the community, were Cantonists who had finished military service, some of whom had married Jewish women from the Pale of Settlement. In 1858, there were 340 Jewish men and 104 Jewish women in the whole of the district of Moscow.
After Jewish merchants of the first guild, university graduates, and craftsmen were allowed to settle in the interior of Russia, the number of Jews increased rapidly. Some were extremely wealthy, such as Eliezer Polyakov, one of the most important bankers in Russia and head of the community, and K. Z. Wissotzki.
From 1865 to 1884 Ḥayyim Berlin officiated as rabbi of Moscow and, in 1869, the community invited S.Z. Minor, one of the outstanding students of the Vilna rabbinical seminary, to serve as the kazyonny ravvin (government-appointed rabbi). There was an estimated Jewish population of 8,000 in the city in 1871, which had grown to around 12,000 in 1882 and 35,000 (over 3% of the total population) in 1890, just before the expulsion.
The governor of Moscow, Prince Dolgorukov, was known for his liberal attitude toward the Jews, and (after receiving bribes and gifts) the local administration overlooked their illegal presence (as in the case of fictive craftsmen). A considerable number of industrialists and merchants recognized the advantages deriving from Jewish presence in the city and, in a memorandum addressed to the minister of finance in 1882, they pointed out their great contribution to the city’s prosperity.
While anti-Jewish persecutions and decrees were gaining momentum throughout Russia after the accession of Alexander IIII, a period of relative ease, the legacy of the previous czar, continued in Moscow. This situation changed completely with the deposition of Prince Dolgorukov and the appointment of Grand Prince Sergei Alexandrovich as governor of the city. During the 14 years (1891–1905) of his term in office, his main aim was “to protect Moscow from Jewry.”
On March 28, 1891 (Passover Eve 5651), a law was issued abolishing the right of Jewish craftsmen to reside in Moscow and prohibiting their entry into the city in the future. The police immediately began to expel thousands of families, some of whom had lived in Moscow for several decades or were even born there. They were granted a period of from three months to a year to dispose of their property, and many were compelled to sell out to their neighbors at derisory prices. The poor and destitute were sent to the Pale of Settlement with criminal transports.
On October 15, the right of descendants of the Cantonists to live in the town was abrogated, if they were not registered with the Moscow community. The expulsion reached its climax during the cold winter days of 1892. While the police made a concerted effort to search out the Jews and drive them out of the city, generous rewards were offered for the seizure of any still in hiding. The press was not permitted to report on the details of the expulsion. An appeal to the government made by merchants and industrialists in 1892, and their warning of the economic damage that would result from the expulsion, were of no avail.
Police sources estimated that about 30,000 persons were expelled. About 5,000 Jews remained – families of some Cantonists, wealthy merchants and their servants, and members of the liberal professions. The Moscow expulsion came as a deep shock to Russian Jewry. A considerable number of those expelled arrived in Warsaw and Lodz and transferred their economic activities there. Decrees regulating residence in Moscow became even more severe.
In 1899, the authorities ordered that no more Jewish merchants were to be registered in the first guild unless authorized by the minister of finance. At the height of the expulsion period, the authorities closed the new synagogue, as well as nine of the 14 prayer houses. Rabbi S.Z. Minor, who requested the reopening of the synagogue, was expelled from the city.
The struggle for the use of the synagogue continued for many years and it was not until 1906 that permission was granted for its reopening. In 1897, there were 8,095 Jews and 216 Karaites in Moscow (0.8% of the total population). In 1902, there were 9,339 Jews there, and half of them declared Yiddish as their mother tongue; the overwhelming majority of the others declared it to be Russian.
In 1893, J. Mazeh was elected as rabbi of Moscow, remaining its spiritual leader until his death in 1923. A considerable number of the members of the small community were wealthy merchants and intellectuals. Assimilated Jews (some of whom apostatized) held an important place in the cultural life of the city. In 1911, there were around 700 Jewish students in the higher institutions of learning in Moscow.
After the outbreak of World War I, a stream of Jewish refugees began to arrive in Moscow from the German-occupied regions. They took part in the development of war industries in the town and some of them amassed large fortunes. In a short time, Moscow became a Jewish center. Hebrew printing presses were set up, and in the town of Bogorodsk (near Moscow) a large yeshivah was established on the pattern of the Lithuanian yeshivot. The foundations of the Hebrew theater Habimah were then laid.
Among the new rich were Zionists and nationally conscious Jews who were ready to support every cultural activity. Most outstanding of these were H. Zlatopolsky, his son-in-law Y. Persitz, and A.J. Stybel.
Authorization was given for the publication of a Hebrew weekly, Ha-Am. Cultural activity increased in scope with the outbreak of the February 1917 Revolution. It was symbolical that O. Minor, the son of S.Z. Minor, a leader of the Social Revolutionary Party, was elected as chairman of the Moscow municipal council. Ha-Am became a daily newspaper and two large publishing houses, Ommanut (founded by Zlatopolsky and Persitz) and that of A.J. Stybel, were set up.
The founding conference of the organization for Hebrew education and culture, Tarbut, was held in Moscow in the spring of 1917. This activity also continued during the first year of the Bolshevik Revolution (three volumes of Ha-Tekufah were published in 1918, as well as others) but the new regime, with the assistance of its Jewish supporters, rapidly liquidated the institutions of Hebrew culture in Moscow.
The Habimah theater was more fortunate; it presented An-Ski’s Dibbuk (Dybbuk) in Moscow for the first time in January 1922 and continued to exist under the protection of several prominent members of the Russian artistic and literary world who defended it as a first class artistic institution, until it left the Soviet Union in 1926.
When Moscow became the capital of the Soviet Union, its Jewish population rapidly increased. In 1920, there were 28,000 Jews in the city, which had become severely depopulated as a result of the civil war. By 1923, the number had increased to 86,000 and by 1926 to 131,000 (6.5% of the total population). In 1939, the Jews there numbered 250,181 (6.05% of the total population).
The headquarters of the Yevsektsiya was situated in Moscow, and there its central newspaper. Der Emes (1920–38) was published, as well as many other Yiddish newspapers and books. The Jewish State Theater (known in Russian as GOSET from its initials), directed by S. Mikhoels, was also situated in Moscow. For a number of years, small circles of organized Zionists continued to exist in the city, which was the central seat of the legal He-Ḥalutz (which published its own newspaper from 1924 to 1926) and of the groups of the Left Po’alei Zion. All these were liquidated by 1928.
During World War II, the Jews shared the sufferings of the war with the city’s other inhabitants. From 1943 on, Moscow was the seat of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, which gathered together personalities of Jewish origin who were outstanding in Soviet public affairs. Founded to assist the Soviet Union in its war effort against Nazi Germany and to mobilize world Jewish opinion and aid for this purpose, it published a newspaper, Eynikeyt.
The Anti-Fascist Committee attempted to continue with its activities even after the war, until it was brutally liquidated in 1948–49, as a first step in the total liquidation of organized Jewish life in the “black years” of Stalin’s regime. Most of its leading members were arrested and executed in 1952.
Because Moscow is the capital and a “window” of the Soviet Union, it has been possible for world Jewry to follow the destinies of Moscow’s Jews more than those in other cities, and the latter were more able to meet with Jews from outside the Soviet Union.
When Golda Meir, the first diplomatic representative of the State of Israel, arrived in Moscow in September 1948, a spontaneous mass demonstration of Jews in her honor took place on the High Holidays near and around the Great Synagogue.
In 1955, some elderly Jews were tried and sentenced to several years of imprisonment in labor camps for possessing and distributing Israeli newspapers and Hebrew literature and gathering in groups to read them. For similar “offenses” several Jews of the Great Synagogue congregation were punished in 1963.
In 1970, three synagogues were functioning in the city of Moscow. Apart from the Great Synagogue on Arkhipova Street, there were two small synagogues – in the suburbs of Maryina Roshcha and Cherkizovo, which were wooden buildings, more of the type of a shtibl than of a full-fledged synagogue. In addition to them, there was a synagogue in the nearby town of Malakhovka, practically a suburb of Greater Moscow, which has had a sizable Jewish population from prerevolutionary times.
The Great Synagogue and its rabbi (first S. Schliefer and after his death J.L. Levin) served the authorities often as unofficial representatives of Soviet Jewry to the outside world. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Great Synagogue was allowed to issue a Jewish calendar and to send it to other synagogues in the U.S.S.R.
In 1956, Rabbi Schliefer was granted permission to print a prayer book, by photostat from old prayer books. He named it Siddur ha-Shalom (“peace prayer book”) and deleted from it all references to wars and victories (as, e.g., in the Chanukah benedictions). It was said to have been printed in 3,000 copies, but it was very rarely seen in other synagogues in the Soviet Union. (A second edition of it was printed, ostensibly in 10,000 copies, in 1968 by Rabbi Levin, but it also was not much in use in Soviet synagogues.)
In 1957, Rabbi Schliefer received permission from the authorities to open a yeshivah on the premises of the Great Synagogue. He called it “Kol Ya’akov,” and for several years a small number of young and middle-aged Jews (about 12 persons a year), mostly from Georgia, were trained there, almost all of them as shoḥatim (ritual slaughterers), whereas the number of ordained rabbis did not exceed one or two. In 1961 the yeshivah, though officially still in existence, almost ceased to function, mainly because of the refusal of the Soviet authorities to grant permission to yeshivah students, who went for the holiday to their homes outside Moscow, to come back and register again as temporary residents of the city for the purpose of study.
By 1963, 37 students had passed through the yeshivah; 25 of them were trained as shoḥatim. In 1965 only one student was there, and in 1966 the number was six. The unrestricted baking of matzah in a rented bakery and its distribution in food stores was discontinued in Moscow, as in most areas of the Soviet Union, in 1962. However, it was partially permitted again in 1964 and, definitely, in 1965, but under a different system: it was done under the supervision of the synagogue board and was only for “believers” who brought their own flour and registered their names.
The ritual slaughtering of poultry was allowed in the precincts of the Great Synagogue, whereas kosher beef was obtainable until 1964 twice a week at a special store on the outskirts of the city. From 1961 on, a barrier was erected in the Great Synagogue to separate foreign visitors, including Israeli diplomats, from the congregation, and the synagogue officers were responsible to the authorities for strictly enforcing the segregation.
In 1959, on Rosh Ha-Shanah eve, an anti-Jewish riot took place in Malakhovka, a suburb of Moscow. The synagogue was set afire, but quickly extinguished; the shammash of the Jewish cemetery was murdered by unknown persons and on the walls a typewritten anti-Semitic tract appeared, signed by “the B. Zh. S.R. Committee,” the Russian initials of the prerevolutionary antisemitic slogan “Hit the Yids and save Russia.” At first Soviet spokesmen denied the facts, but several months later admitted them to foreign visitors, assuring them that the hooligans were apprehended and severely punished. The Soviet press did not mention the incident at all.
In 1960, a stir was created among Moscow Jewry when interment at the Jewish cemetery was almost discontinued and Jews were forced to bury their dead in a separate section of a general cemetery. This section was filled up in 1963 and subsequent Jewish burials had to take place alongside non-Jewish ones. Some Jews obtained the privilege of burying their dead in the remaining space of the old Jewish cemetery, others carried them to the Jewish cemetery of Malakhovka.
In the same period several Jews in Moscow were accused, tried, and sentenced to the severest punishment, including execution, for “economic crimes,” such as speculation, organizing illicit production and sale of consumer goods in collusion with high officials of the militia, directors of factories, etc. Their trials were accompanied by inflammatory feature articles (called “feuilletons”) in the central Moscow press with pronounced anti-Semitic overtones.
Moscow was also the center of other developments. In 1959, some Yiddish books, most of them selective works of the classics (Shalom Aleichem, I.L. Peretz, D. Bergelson, etc.), were published there after a prolonged period of the complete obliteration of any printed Yiddish word. Yiddish folklore concerts took place relatively frequently in the city and drew large crowds. Even a semiprofessional theater troupe, headed by the elderly actor Benjamin Schwartzer, was established and mainly performed Shalom Aleichem plays in provincial cities.
In 1961, the Yiddish journal Sovetish Heymland, edited by an officially appointed editor, the poet Aaron Vergelis, began to appear as an “organ of the Soviet Writers’ Union,” first as a bimonthly, later as a monthly. It also served as a kind of Soviet-Jewish mouthpiece for foreign Jews, and visiting Jewish intellectuals were invited to its premises to meet members of its editorial staff. In 1963 and 1965, collections of Israeli Hebrew poetry and prose were published in Russian translation, as well as a Hebrew-Russian dictionary in 1965 (in 25,000 copies), which was sold out in a few weeks.
In the census of 1959, 239,246 Jews (4.7% of the total population) were registered in the municipal area of Moscow. Of these, 132,223 were women and 107,023 were men. 20,331 of them (about 8.5%) declared Yiddish to be their mother tongue. These numbers are thought to be a gross underestimate because many tens of thousands of Jews declared at the census their “nationality” to be Russian (some opinions evaluate the number of Moscow’s Jews as high as 500,000).
The process of national rebirth which had already begun among many thousands of completely assimilated Jews took various forms. Tens of thousands of young Jews began to congregate in and around Moscow’s Choral Synagogue during Jewish holidays, especially Simḥat Torah.
With the beginning of mass aliyah, the Jews of Moscow played a significant role in the struggle for the right to emigrate. Demonstrations took place in Moscow which attracted Jews from various cities of the Soviet Union. On February 27, 1971, for example, 26 Jewish activists declared a hunger strike in the entrance to the presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the U.S.S.R., demanding permission to leave for Israel. Similar demonstrations followed.
Despite resistance from the authorities, the period from the 1960s to the early 1980s saw a process of revival in the cultural and religious life of Moscow’s Jews. Dozens of teachers taught Hebrew in their apartments, there were seminars and groups studying Judaism and Jewish history and culture, and a Jewish kindergarten and Sunday schools were organized. In the 1970s and early 1980s several Jewish samizdat publications appeared in Moscow. These included Evrei v S.S.R. (“Jews in the U.S.S.R.,” 1972–79, nos. 1–20); Tarbut, 1975–79, 1–13, Nash ivrit (“Our Hebrew,” 1978–80, 1–4).
Many aliyah activists were arrested during this time. One of the most severe sentences was meted out to Anatoly Sharansky in 1978 and in 1982 Yosef Begun was imprisoned for the third time.
In 1972, the synagogue in the Cherkizov district was closed. Thereafter, until the early 1990s, only two synagogues were functioning in the city: the Choral Synagogue and the Hasidic prayer house in the district of Marina Roshcha. Jacob Fischman served as rabbi of Moscow from 1972 to 1982 until he was succeeded by Adolf Shayevich.
While basically conducting an overtly anti-Semitic policy, the Soviet authorities occasionally resorted to gestures intended to persuade world public opinion that Jewish culture was flourishing in the country. Thus, in 1978, the so-called Birobidzhan Jewish Musical Chamber Theater was established in Moscow in 1981. In 1986, the Moscow Jewish Dramatic Ensemble became the Jewish Drama Studio Shalom.
From 1987, during the evolution of glasnost and perestroika, Jewish public life in the Soviet Union flourished. Centers of several informal Jewish national organizations were established in Moscow including the Jewish Culture Association (EKA, headed by Mikhail Chlenov), the Zionist Federation of Soviet Jews (president Arye (Lev) Gorodetsky), and the Association for Friendship and Cultural Ties with Israel.
Several Moscow bodies began to function as well: the Moscow Jewish Cultural and Educational Association, the Jewish Information Center, and the cultural religious center Maḥanayim. As part of an effort to maintain some control of this burgeoning cultural revival, the authorities established the Association of Activists and Friends of Soviet Jewish Culture, which, starting in April 1989, published the newspaper Vestnik sovetso-evreiskoi kul’tury (“Bulletin of Soviet Jewish Culture”). Several Jewish libraries were founded. In late 1988, a yeshivah (headed by the Israeli scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz) was established within the framework of the Academy of World Cultures. Also, in 1988–89, branches of the international Jewish organizations Beta, WIZO, and B’nai B’rith were set up in Moscow.
After the failure of the August 19–21, 1991, coup in Moscow, the last barriers to free cultural and political activity in the country fell. Numerous Jewish bodies functioned in the city. Some of these had an All-Russian character, e.g., Va’ad Rosii (the Federation of Jewish Communities and Organizations of Russia (president: M. Chlenov), the Zionist Federation of Russia (chairman: A. Gorodetsky); Tkhiya, the International Center for Research and the Spreading of Jewish Culture (chairman: Leonid Roitman); the Orthodox All-Russian Jewish Religious Community (headed by the now chief rabbi of Russia, Adolf Shayevich). In 1991 a synagogue was opened on Malaya Bronnaya Street. Since that time three Orthodox synagogues have been operating (Rabbi Pinhas Goldschmidt now serves as chief rabbi of the city), as well as Reform and Conservative congregations.
Jewish cultural life exhibits new life. There are several Jewish high schools as well as evening and Sunday schools; a Jewish university, a Jewish Historical Society (chairman: Rashid Kaplanov), and a Jewish Scientific Center (chairman: Vladimir Shapiro). There has been a renewal of the publication of scientific works in Jewish studies: from 1992 Vestnik evreskogo universiteta v Moskve (“Bulletin of the Jewish University of Moscow”) has appeared regularly, and in 1994 the Moscow based Rossiiskaya evreiskaya entsiklopedia (“The Encyclopedia of Russian Jewry,” editor-in-chief: Herman Branover) began publication. Mazhdunarodnaya evreiskaya gazeta (“International Jewish Newspaper,” editor-in-chief: Tancred Galinpolsky) appears in Russia, while the Yiddish monthly Idishe gas (“Jewish Street,” editor-in-chief: Aaron Vergelis, formerly the editor of the now defunct Yiddish journal Sovetish Heymland) began to appear in January 1993.
With the onset of political freedom, however, various, anti-Semitic groups also became active. In the late 1980s, anti-Semitic slogans were heard with increasing frequency at public meetings of the “Pamyat” association. Anti-Semitic articles were printed in the journals Nash sovremennik (“Our Contemporary”), Molodaya Gvardiya (“Young Guard”), and Moscow journals and 27 newspapers regularly publish anti-Semitic material.
In April 1992 proto-fascist punks attacked the Hasidic synagogue in Moscow with Molotov cocktails. In July 1993, the windows of the Choral Synagogue were broken, and swastikas daubed on its walls. However, lacking broad support of the masses, the anti-Semites did not undertake more violent measures. Although the democratic-oriented public opposed anti-Semitic actions (articles against anti-Semitism appear regularly in several journals), and the Duma or parliament in November 1992 held hearings on antisemitism, where government and public figures condemned the phenomenon.
Still, fear of anti-Semitism, along with the difficult economic situation and concern about the future of democracy in Russia, encouraged some Moscow Jews to emigrate. However, the rate of emigration for Moscow (and St. Petersburg) is much lower than that for the rest of the former U.S.S.R. The 1970 census recorded 251,000 Jews in the city. Estimates of the “core” (self-defined) Jewish population of Moscow based on subsequent census data give figures of 176,000 for 1989, 135,000 for 1994, and 88,000 for 2002, representing 35% of the Jews in the Russian Federation.
The mere presence of an Israeli diplomatic mission with an Israeli flag in the center of Moscow was a constant stimulus to Jewish and pro-Israel sentiments among the Jews of Moscow and Jewish visitors from other parts of the Soviet Union. The Israeli delegation to the Youth Festival, held in Moscow in 1957, was the first occasion of personal contacts between Jewish youth from Israel and the U.S.S.R. It is considered to have been a turning point in the revival of Jewish national feelings and their daring demonstration in public on the part of Soviet Jewish youth. Already in 1958, on Simḥat Torah eve, more than 10,000 young Jews gathered around the Great Synagogue to dance and sing Yiddish and Hebrew songs. They refused to be intimidated by the militia and to disperse. Thus, these mass gatherings of young Jews, which also take place on their Jewish holidays, became a traditional feature of Jewish life in Moscow.
Contacts with Israel took manifold forms. The Israeli embassy invited to its receptions not only the rabbis and board members of the various synagogues, but also Jewish writers, artists, and other intellectuals. In various sport events, international scientific congresses, and international exhibitions Israel was almost always represented, and often not only Moscow Jews but also Jews from other parts of the Soviet Union, even from outlying regions, came especially to the capital “to see the Israelis.” From time to time Israeli popular singers (e.g., Nechama Hendel, Geulah Gil, etc.) and other artists performed in Moscow and aroused great enthusiasm, particularly among young Jews.
The Six-Day War had a major impact on the life of Moscow Jews, as it had on the life of all Soviet Jewry. It also resulted in a considerable increase in the anti-Israel policy of the Soviet regime in international affairs and an increase in antisemitism domestically.
The war and the rupture of diplomatic relations between the Soviet Union and Israel (June 1967) put an end to these contacts. But, on the other hand, many Moscow Jews, especially the young, began more and more openly to demonstrate their pro-Israel feelings – by continuing increasingly their mass gatherings around the Great Synagogue, by signing collective protests against the refusal to grant them exit permits to Israel, by studying Hebrew in small groups, etc. Unlike other cities, like Riga, Leningrad, Kishinev, and some towns in Georgia, there were hardly any sanctions applied in Moscow in 1970 against pro-Israel Jews.
[Leonid Preisman (2nd ed.)]
Ettinger, in: Zion, 18 (1953), 136–68; J. Mazeh, Zikhronot, 2 (1936); Dubnow, Divrei, 10 (1958), 94–97; Dubnow, Hist Russ, index; Marek, in: Voskhod, no. 2–3 (1893), 200–29; no. 6 (1893), 73–91; no. 9 (1895), 22–33; Goldovski, in: Byloye, 9 (1907); Katznelson, in: Yevreyskaya Starina, 1 (1909), 175–88; Hessen (Gessen), in: Perezhitoye, 1 (1908), 51–65; idem, in: Yevreyskaya Starina, 8 (1915), 1–19, 153–72; Eisenberg, ibid., 13 (1930), 81–99. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: M. Tolts, “The Post-Soviet Jewish Population in Russia and the World,” in: Jews in Russia and Eastern Europe, no. 1 (2004), 37–63.
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.