Bookstore Glossary Library Links News Publications Timeline Virtual Israel Experience
Anti-Semitism Biography History Holocaust Israel Israel Education Myths & Facts Politics Religion Travel US & Israel Vital Stats Women
donate subscribe Contact About Home

Saint Petersburg

SAINT PETERSBURG (Petrograd from 1914 to 1924; Leningrad from 1924 to 1992), capital of Russia until 1918, now in the Russian Federation; industrial city and major port on the Baltic Sea. Some apostates or Marranos appeared in St. Petersburg soon after its foundation in 1703. Anton Divier, who was of Portuguese Jewish origin, was appointed the first police minister of the new capital in 1718. "The Portuguese Jew," Jan Dacosta, was one of the jesters at the royal court during the first half of the 18th century. Jewish physicians and financiers held various positions in the city during the 18th century: Lippmann was financial agent of the court during the 1720s. In 1738 the proselyte officer Alexander *Voznitsyn and Baruch Leibov of Dubrovna, who had introduced him to Judaism, were burnt at the stake in St. Petersburg. Because of the intolerant attitude of Czarina Elizabeth (1741–62) the few Jews who lived in St. Petersburg left. *Catherine II, on the other hand, was interested in attracting Jewish contractors, industrialists, and physicians to the city, and issued instructions to the authorities to overlook the presence of those "useful" Jews who lived there with their families and clerks and had the protection of court officials. Toward the end of Catherine's reign, there was a large community in the town; most prominent was the contractor Abraham *Peretz, whose household included Mendel of Satanov and J.L. *Nevakhovich. The latter published the first work of Russian Jewish literature, Vopl dshcheri iudeyskoy, in St. Petersburg in 1803.

From the end of the 18th century, when St. Petersburg had become the government center for millions of Jews who were incorporated into the Russian Empire after the partition of Poland, communal workers and shtadlanim streamed into the city. Many others arrived as a result of their business activities or in search of a livelihood in the prosperous city. During the years 1798 and 1800–01, Shneur Zalman of Lyady, the leader of the Chabad Ḥasidim, was imprisoned in St. Petersburg. In 1802 a group of Jews leased a plot of land in the Lutheran cemetery, thus laying the foundations of a permanent community in the city. The situation of the Jews worsened with the accession of Czar Nicholas I. He ordered that all Jews living in the city "without doing anything" be expelled. According to the official estimate, there were 370 Jews living in the city at that time. These included craftsmen, merchants, and various shtadlanim; most of them were ordered to leave. Regulations were issued authorizing Jews to stay in St. Petersburg on business for a maximum period of six weeks; by a special permit from the local authorities this could be extended to between six and ten months. Right of residence was granted to a number of physicians (including the czar's dentist and the midwife of the royal court). After 1827 many *Cantonists went to St. Petersburg and some of them brought their families to the city. They maintained a prayer house, and those Jews who had to come to St. Petersburg on business found refuge in their homes. The prohibition on Jewish residence was stringently applied; anyone found living in the city without a permit was liable to be pressed into the army. From time to time the police hunted down Jews living in the city illegally. There was a large and increasing number of apostates, most of whom changed their names and disappeared among the general population.

The situation changed once more with the beginning of the reign of Alexander II, especially after the publication of the laws granting right of residence outside the *Pale of Settlement to merchants of the first guild, intellectuals, and craftsmen. Wealthy Jewish merchants and financiers (the families *Guenzburg, *Polyakov, A. *Varshavski, Friedland, L. *Rosenthal, and others), physicians, advocates, and scientists soon settled in the city. Many Jewish students registered at the university and the other higher schools of the city (326 in 1886 and 848 in 1911). The influence of the wealthy and the maskilim was decisive within the community. Jews and apostates played an important role in the life of the city as journalists, publishers, advocates, scientists, artists, and physicians. In 1881 there were 17,253 Jews (c. 2% of the total population) in St. Petersburg. Ten years later, after a period of strict supervision of residence rights under Police Minister Greser, there were 15,331 Jews (1.6%). According to the 1897 census there were 17,254 (including 310 Karaites), forming 1.4% of the population. In fact, the number of Jews in the city was greater at all periods, because many, whose right to reside there was dubious, evaded the census officers.

Despite its small numbers, the St. Petersburg community played an important role in Russian Jewish life, thanks to the riches of individual members and their proximity to and influence at the court. The barons of the Guenzburg family, as well as other rich Jews, were considered as the spokesmen of the whole of Russian Jewry before the central government. From time to time gatherings of rabbis and community representatives were called to St. Petersburg for official and semiofficial meetings, at which vital problems were discussed. From the 1860s an organized community existed in the city. The right of a communal vote depended on payment of 25 rubles tax, thus assuring that the wealthy had control of the community. Several leading personalities held the position of *kazyonny ravvin ("government appointed rabbi") in St. Petersburg, including A. Neumann, A. *Drabkin, and M. *Eisenstadt. Among the traditional rabbis was Isaac *Blaser, who held office from 1864 to 1878; the last rabbi of the community was David Tevel *Katzenellenbogen (1907–30). The poet J.L. *Gordon was the community secretary from 1872 to 1879. After many endeavors and numerous refusals, a magnificent central synagogue, containing 1,200 seats and built in the Moorish style, was completed in 1893. In spite of prohibitions and unremitting police persecutions, the community continued to grow, numbering 35,000 (1.8% of the population) in 1914. Severe *censorship regulations caused the Jewish press (Hebrew, Russian, and Yiddish) to be centered in St. Petersburg from the 1870s until the 1905 revolution. The newspapers Ha-Meliz (1871–73 and 1878–1904), Ha-Yom (1886–88), Dos Yudishes Folksblat (1881–90), and the first Russian daily newspaper in Yiddish, Der Fraynd (1903–08), were all published there. Above all, the city was the center of Russian-Jewish journalism and literature. The periodicals Yevreyskaya Biblioteka (1871–80), Razsvet (1879–83), and Voskhod (1881–1906), the Zionist organ Razsvet (1907–18), and many other newspapers, were also published in St. Petersburg. One of the outstanding publications was the Russian-Jewish encyclopedia, Yevreyskaya Entsiklopediya.

In addition to local cultural and charitable institutions (such as the Society for the Support of Poor Jews, which was established in 1907 to coordinate the activities of the various charitable societies and was recognized as a legal institution under whose aegis their work could be carried out), many nationwide Jewish organizations had their headquarters in St. Petersburg. Oldest of these organizations was the Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews of Russia (founded in 1863). Others included *ORT; the Jewish Colonization Association (ICA); the Hovevei Sefat Ever (called *Tarbut after the 1917 Revolution); the Historical-Ethnographic Society, which published the historical quarterly Yevreyskaya Starina; and the Society for Jewish Folk Music. The city's Asian museum housed a valuable Hebrew department, based on the library of the wealthy M. Friedland. The Imperial Public Library (now the State M.E. Saltykov-Shchedrin Public Library) contains one of the world's oldest and most important collections of Hebrew manuscripts. Under the initiative of Baron D. *Guenzburg, courses in Oriental studies were opened in St. Petersburg in 1907. It was intended to develop these into a higher institute of Jewish studies. The concentration of public and cultural institutions in the town attracted Jewish authors and intellectuals (these included A.A. *Harkavy, J.L. *Katzenelson, S. *Dubnow, and M. *Kulisher).

With the outbreak of World War I, *YEKOPO ("Jewish Committee for the Relief of War Victims") was established to concentrate all the relief activities on behalf of hundreds of thousands of Jews who were refugees from the battle regions. After the February Revolution in 1917, all residence restrictions affecting the Jews of Petrograd were abolished, and the city became a center of the organizational activities of all the parties and factions of Russian Jewry. In June 1917, the seventh conference of the Zionist Organization of Russia was held in the town. Large numbers attended, demonstrating the strength of the movement and the loyalty of Russian Jews to the Zionist ideal even after they had been granted full civic emancipation. Preparations were also made to convene a general Jewish assembly in Petrograd. During the troubled days in the latter part of 1917 a Jewish battalion under the command of J. *Trumpeldor was formed, made up of Jewish soldiers of the local garrison. Around this battalion a self-defense unit was organized, which protected Jewish lives and property during the revolution of October 1917. The transfer of the seat of government from Petrograd to Moscow (1918) and the shortages and famine reigning in the city during the Russian civil war severely affected the Jewish community. Many Jews returned to their families in provincial towns. In 1920 there were 25,453 Jews (3.5% of the total population) in Petrograd. With the consolidation of the Soviet regime, the number of Jews rapidly increased, to 52,373 (4.9%) in 1923 and 84,505 (5.2%) in 1926. The 1926 census listed their occupations as: clerks (40.2%), craftsmen (14%), laborers (13.5%), government and municipal employees (10.2%), and liberal professions (2.5%); the remainder was unemployed. Organized Jewish life was liquidated in Leningrad as in all places throughout the Soviet Union. A small group of Russian-Jewish intellectuals attempted to continue its literary-scientific work under the new regime. They maintained their former cultural societies and continued to publish scientific and literary periodicals in Russian. By the end of the 1920s, these projects were also liquidated by the Soviet regime. Some intellectuals then left Russia (including S. *Dubnow and S. *Ginzburg), and others were integrated in Soviet life (I. *Zinberg, Yu. Hessen). In a poem, the Hebrew poet H. *Lenski described the atmosphere of the city during the Soviet period. According to the January 1939 census, there were 201,542 Jews (6.32% of the total population). The percentage of academicians among Jews was much higher than in the general population: 123 vs. 31 per 1,000 persons. Many thousands of Jews were drafted into the Red Army, and tens of thousands evacuated. The city was under German siege for 900 days (September 8, 1941–late January 1944), and about 900,000 inhabitants died from fighting activities and starvation, among them tens of thousands of Jews. Also remaining in the besieged city were Jewish writers such as A. Chakovski and Vera Inber, who documented the time. After the war, during the "Cosmopolitan" hunt, many intellectual Jews suffered.


S. Ginzburg, Amolike Peterburg (1944); idem, Meshumodim in Tsarishn Rusland (1946), 11–53, 194–206, 279–308; Feinberg, in: Heawar, 4 (1956), 21–36; B. Dinur, Bi-Ymei Milhamah u-Mahpekhah (1960), 44–304; L. Gordon, in: Voskhod, nos. 1–2 (1881); O.S. Grusenberg, ibid., no. 1 (1891); H.A. Soloveychik, ibid., no. 5 (1892); S. Dneproveki (Dubnow), in: Nedelnaya Khronika Voskhoda, nos. 35–36 (1893); L. Klyachko, in: Yevreyskaya Letopis, 2 (1923), 114–22.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.