Russia Virtual Jewish History Tour
Jews are believed to have first arrived in the Caucasus region in the seventh century. Jews, and Judaism itself, suffered greatly under Communist rule and since the fall of the U.S.S.R., approximately one million Russian Jews have immigrated to Israel. Today, the Jewish population of Russia stands at approximately 150,000 - the seventh-largest Jewish community in the world.
In the seventh century, many Jews from Greece, Babylonia, Persia, the Middle East, and the 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 Khazars 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 is 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 Kyiv at this time, and ancient Russian sources mention the “Gate of the Jews” in Kyiv. Historical records preserve disputations between the Jews of Kyiv and the Christian clergy. There are also records of communications between Jews in Kyiv and Jews in Babylonia and Western Europe, including, in the 12th century, a mention of R. Moses of Kyiv 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.
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 Ukraine and portions of western Russia. In 1648-1649, the Chmielnicki pogroms devastated areas of 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 for trade business. Small Jewish communities existed despite calls for expulsion, due to the importance Jews played in commerce. Many Jews were in the middle class because of their involvement in business. 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 led to the arrest and transport to St. Petersburg for interrogation of one of the major Hasidic leaders, Shneur Zalman of Lyady in 1798. 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, although since 1804 the Jews had permission to study in regular schools. These Jewish 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 then divided Jews into two groups – “useful” and “not useful.” The wealthy merchants and those essential for commerce were deemed “useful,” and all others “non-useful.” The order was met with opposition from the Jewish communities of Western Europe and worldwide but was instituted in 1851. The Crimean War delayed the implementation of the order, 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, nevertheless, new policies were implemented to ensure assimilation. 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. Assimilation was somewhat hindered as Jews in the military were prohibited from receiving the ranks of officers, which limited the contact between Jews and non-Jews. The liberal and revolutionary elements were opposed to the increased presence of the Jews. Anti-Semitism only increased after the Balkan War (1877-1878).
Between 1850 and 1900, 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, and almost doubled to 5,000,000 by the late 19th century. Due to high birthrates competition in traditionally Jewish jobs increased, resulting in the development of both 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 strong demand for land and therefore the government stopped encouraging Russian agricultural settlement. This led to the migration of Jewish farming communities 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 haskalah. 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 as they were wrongly blamed by some for the assassination. Pogroms broke out consisting of looting, murder, and rape. The support of the Russian intellectuals shocked many Jews, especially the assimilated Russian maskilim. On May 3, 1882, the
From the Passover pogrom of 1903 on, pogroms became government policy and reached their peak in October 1905. Russian individuals authored the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” in 1903, a major anti-Semitic forgery popular in some communities to this day (Henry Ford himself funded the printing and distribution of 500,000 copies in the United States in the 1920s). In 1912, a new law was 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), about one-half of world Jewry. The growing insecurity of life for Jews led roughly half the population to emigrate between 1881 and 1914.
Politicization of the Jews
As a consequence of the oppressive policies of the czars, Jews disproportionately joined the ranks of the Russian radicals. The leaders of the Social Democrats (Socialists) included Jews J. Martov and L. Trotsky. The leaders of the Social Revolutionary Party of Russia were also Jewish. A Jewish workers revolutionary movement was founded, and labor 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 at that time 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 supporters came from Eastern Europe. The Zionist movement gained a massive following among secular and religious Russian Jewish society. 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 majority 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. The Bund, Zionists, and Socialist Zionists formed self-defense organizations.
The growth of Zionism led to the spread of Hebrew. This period saw 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 flourished.
There was some conflict between the supporters of Yiddish, who saw the future of Jews as being in Russia, and the Zionists who 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 on the front lines. Battles occurred in the Pale of Settlement, where millions of Jews lived. 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 discriminatory laws against the Jews. Jewish refugees from Poland and Lithuania soon moved toward 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.
In early March 1917, Nicholas II abdicated the throne ending 300 years of Romanov rule. A provisional government was put in place and, on March 16, 1917, the provisional government abolished all restrictions on the Jews. Jews were allowed to hold every available public office, and anti-Semitism was largely forced underground. Thanks to the new freedoms granted to the Jews by the provisional government, the Russian 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 presses 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, and led by Joseph Trumpeldor.
Only a few months after it was formed, the provisional government was severely weakened and anarchy took over. Anti-Semitism, which had shortly been beaten back, became more prominent, and 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 guidance 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 hardened their stances 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 to discourage the Jewish religion, Hebrew, and Zionism, though temporarily allowing its replacement with secular Yiddish culture.
In August 1919, Jewish communities were dissolved and properties were 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. Underground religious activity still continued, though after World War II hundreds of Hasidism left Russia for Eretz Yisrael. The growing restrictions on Jewish religious life strengthened Zionist ideas in the Soviet Union.
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 a while, however, Jewish parents rebelled against these schools whose only connections to Jewish culture were a few lines of Yiddish literature and which taught anti-religious sentiment. As the quality of the schools declined (they were 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 marriages became common. Jews began to play an important role in Russian cultural life.
During World War II, many of the attempts to persecute the Jews were halted. When the war began, Jews played an important part in the Soviet military effort; their role on the front lines was disproportionately higher than 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, attempts to suppress Soviet Jewry 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 attempt 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 Russian Jewish national consciousness. In 1970, eleven individuals (9 Jewish) tried to hijack a plane 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 sevent-largest Jewish community in the world. 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 in 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.
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 acceptance by recognizing patrilineal descent, and welcoming 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. In 2002 and 2003, synagogues and cemeteries were desecrated.
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 ethnocultural behavior. After massive waves of immigration in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, there are approximately 194,000 Jews left in Russia.
One of the most 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.
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."
During the first four months of 2015, 6,499 Jewish people made Aliyah to Israel from all over the world. Russian Jews made up approximately one-quarter of this number, with 1,515 individuals choosing to leave their homes in Russia behind in exchange for a new life in Israel. Only 1,016 Russian Jews made Aliyah during the same time period in 2014.
In March 2022, Pinchas Goldschmidt, Moscow’s chief rabbi, fled the country two weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine under pressure from Russian authorities to support the war. While absent, he was re-elected as the leader of the Moscow Choral Synagogue in June.
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 re-established on October 18, 1991. Shortly after the Six-Day War, a massive propaganda campaign was launched in the Soviet Union denigrating Zionism and Israel, without distinguishing between Zionists and Jews. 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 immigrated 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, and 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 was 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.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Israeli Foreign Ministry director-general Dore Gold met in Moscow for two days of talks on February 18, 2016. The two diplomats knew each other from their days serving as their respective countries’ ambassadors at the United Nations in the late 1990s. Lavrov claimed that Russian officials are interested in working towards creating regional conditions “for the resumption of the peace process between Israel and Palestine in order to achieve our common goal - two states that exist in peace and security with all its neighbors.” Gold and Lavrov discussed a wide range of issues during their meetings, including the situations in Syria and Iran. A formal agreement was signed by the diplomats, pledging mutual cooperation on 14 topics, including defense and strategic planning.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to Russia for meetings with President Vladimir Putin multiple times in April 2016. In a public press conference before heading into a private discussion, Putin told Netanyahu that he is “very happy that we have regular contacts at the highest level.” During the first trip, Netanyahu spoke to Putin about the necessity to prevent the transfer of weapons from Iran to Syria and Iraq, and terror organizations based within. On April 21, 2016, during his second visit to Russia that month, Netanyahu stressed the need for Israeli-Russian security coordination in Syria, to prevent “mistakes, misunderstandings or incidents.” This was in response to reports from various news sources that Russian forces in Syria had fired “at least twice” on Israeli military aircraft recently.
The Russian government made a $1 million purchase of 500 million predatory mites and bumblebees from Israeli insect company Bio-bee in June 2015, in an effort to cut dependence on foreign produce by improving crop yields. The predatory mites, including the Phytoseiulus persimilis mite and the Amblyseius swirskii mite, come from Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu near Beit She’an and act as a natural pesticide. Bumblebees were purchased to assist in the pollination and germination of various flowers and fruit trees.
Russian President Vladimir Putin praised Israeli responses to terrorism and used Israel’s culture to illustrate steadfastness in the face of adversity during an event on October 28, 2016, hosted by the Valdai International Discussion Club. The Russian leader urged his listeners to “learn from Israel,” stating that Israelis “never let go” and “fight until the end... that is why [they] exist at all.”
Netanyahu paid an official state visit to Russia in early March 2017. Russian President Vladimir Putin and PM Netanyahu held meetings during which they discussed Russia’s role in Syria, with the Israeli Prime Minister specifically seeking reassurance that Russian presence would help Israel mitigate Iranian ambitions in the country. Netanyahu visited Russia again in May 2018, where he and Russian President Putin attended Russia’s Victory Day parade together in the Kremlin’s red Square, commemorating the victory over Nazi Germany 73 years prior.
An estimated 7,000 Russian Jews made aliyah to Israel in 2017; making Russia Israel’s largest source of new immigrants for the second year in a row.
Russia reportedly agreed to cancel certain arms sales to Israel’s enemies, such as Iran, at the request of Netanyahu. In exchange, according to Ariel Bulshtein, the prime minister’s adviser for the country’s Russian-speaking community, Israel agreed to cancel sales “at least twice, if not more,” to nations such as Ukraine that are at odds with Moscow.
Netanyahu has had frequent meetings with Putin largely focused on Syria where Russian forces have helped Bashar Assad defeat rebels and retake the territory they had gained. Russia also plays a critical role in determining what Iran can accomplish in the country as it tries to establish bases from which to attack Israel. Russia has not interfered with Israeli raids on Syrian targets but they must remain in communication to avoid any unintended confrontations.
Netanyahu has also cultivated relations with Putin and advertised their good relations to attract political support from the large population of Russian Israeli voters.
Sources: Beyond the Pale: The History of Jews in Russia.
Moscow Jewish Museum photo courtesy of Russian Times.