History of the Jews in Russia

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Russian Jews
היהודים הרוסיים / יהדות רוסיה
Русские евреи
Regions with significant populations
 Israel 900,000[1]
 USA 350,000[2]
 Russia Different estimates have been given:
    • 157,763-194,000 self-identifying core Jewish population out of perhaps 200,000/500,000 people of Jewish descent (2010 Census) (DellaPergola 2012) (Tolts,2013)[3][4][5]
 Germany 119,000[citation needed]
 Canada 50,000[citation needed]
 Australia 20,000[citation needed]
Hebrew, Russian, English, Yiddish.
Judaism,[6] Atheist (27%),[7] Non-religious (25%), Christianity (17%)[7][8]
Related ethnic groups
Ashkenazi Jews, Ukrainian Jews, Belarusian Jews, Lithuanian Jews, Latvian Jews, Polish Jews, Czech Jews, Mountain Jews, Bukharan Jews, Georgian Jews

The vast territories of the Russian Empire at one time hosted the largest population of Jews in the world.[9] Within these territories the primarily Ashkenazi Jewish communities of many different areas flourished and developed many of modern Judaism's most distinctive theological and cultural traditions, while also facing periods of antisemitic discriminatory policies and persecutions. Russian Jewry consists predominantly of Ashkenazi Jews but also comprises a number of other Diasporan Jewish groups, such as Mountain Jews, Crimean Karaites, Krymchaks, Bukharan Jews, and Georgian Jews.

The presence of Jewish people in the European part of Russia can be traced to the 7th–14th centuries CE. In the 11th and 12th centuries, the Jewish population in Kiev, in present-day Ukraine, was restricted to a separate quarter. Evidence of the presence of Jewish people in Muscovite Russia is first documented in the chronicles of 1471. During the reign of Catherine II in the 18th century, Jewish people were restricted to the Pale of Settlement within Russia, the territory where they could live or immigrate to. Alexander III escalated anti-Jewish policies. Beginning in the 1880s, waves of anti-Jewish pogroms swept across different regions of the empire for several decades. More than two million Jews fled Russia between 1880 and 1920, mostly to the United States.

Before 1917 there were 300,000 Zionists in Russia, while the main Jewish socialist organization, the Bund, had 33,000 members. Only 958 Jews had joined the Bolshevik Party before 1917; thousands joined after the Revolution.[10] The chaotic years of World War I, the February and October Revolutions, and the Russian Civil War had created social disruption that led to Anti-Semitism. Some 150,000 Jews were killed in the pogroms of 1918-1922, 125,000 of them in Ukraine, 25,000 in Belarus.[11] These were probably the largest-scale European massacres of Jews to date.[12] The pogroms were mostly perpetrated by anti-communist forces; sometimes, Red Army units engaged in pogroms as well. After a short period of confusion, the Soviets started executing guilty individuals and even disbanding the army units whose men had attacked Jews. Although pogroms were still perpetrated after this, mainly by Ukrainian units of the Red Army during its retreat from Poland (1920), in general, the Jews regarded the Red Army as the only force which was able and willing to defend them. The Russian Civil War pogroms shocked world Jewry and rallied many Jews to the Red Army and the Soviet regime, and also strengthened the desire for the creation of a homeland for the Jewish people.[13]

In 1919 the Soviet government arrested many rabbis, seized Jewish properties, including synagogues, and dissolved many Jewish communities[citation needed]. The Jewish section of the Communist Party labeled the use of the Hebrew language "reactionary" and "elitist" and the teaching of Hebrew was banned in August 1919.[14] Zionists were persecuted harshly, with Jewish communists leading the attacks.[15]

Following the civil war, however, the new Bolshevik government's policies produced a flourishing of secular Jewish culture in Belarus and western Ukraine in the 1920s. The Soviet government outlawed all expressions of Anti-Semitism, with the public use of the word "Yid" being punished by up to one year of imprisonment,[16] and tried to modernize the Jewish community by establishing 1,100 Yiddish-language schools, 40 Yiddish-language daily newspapers and by settling Jews on farms in Ukraine and Crimea; the number of Jews working in the industry had more than doubled between 1926 and 1931.[15] At the beginning of the 1930s, the Jews were 1.8 percent of the Soviet population but 12-15 percent of all university students.[17]

In 1934 the Soviet state established the Jewish Autonomous Oblast in the Russian Far East, but the region never came to have a majority Jewish population.[18] Today, the JAO is Russia's only autonomous oblast[19] and, aside of Israel, the world's only Jewish territory with an official status.[20]

The observance of the Sabbath was banned in 1929,[15] foreshadowing the dissolution of the Communist Party's Yiddish-language Yevsektsia in 1930 and worse repression to come. Numerous Jews were victimized in Stalin's purges as "counterrevolutionaries" and "reactionary nationalists", although in the 1930s the Jews were underrepresented in the Gulag population.[15] The share of Jews in the Soviet ruling elite declined during the 1930s, but was still more than double their proportion in the general Soviet population. According to Israeli historian Benjamin Pinkus, "We can say that the Jews in the Soviet Union took over the privileged position, previously held by the Germans in tsarist Russia".[21]

In the 1930s, many Jews held high rank in the Red Army High Command: Generals Iona Yakir, Yan Gamarnik, Yakov Smushkevich (Commander of the Soviet Air Forces) and Grigori Shtern (Commander-in-Chief in the war against Japan and Commander at the front in the Winter War).[22] During World War Two, an estimated 500,000 soldiers in the Red Army were Jewish; about 200,000 were killed in battle. About 160,000 were decorated, and more than a hundred achieved the rank of Red Army general.[23] Over 150 were designated Heroes of the Soviet Union, the highest award in the country.[24]

More than two million Soviet Jews are believed to have died during the Holocaust in warfare and in Nazi-occupied territories. As a result of the persecution, both state-sponsored and unofficial, Anti-Semitism became deeply ingrained in the society.[vague]

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, many Soviet Jews took the opportunity of liberalized emigration policies, with more than half of the population leaving, most for Israel, and the West: Germany, the United States, Canada, and Australia. For many years during this period, Russia had a higher rate of immigration to Israel than any other country.[25] Russia's Jewish population is the third biggest in Europe, after France and United Kingdom.[26] The government of Vladimir Putin takes an official stand against antisemitism, while some movements, parties, and groups have explicit antisemitic positions.

Early history

Jews have been present in contemporary Armenia and Georgia since the Babylonian captivity. Records exist from the 4th century showing that there were Armenian cities possessing Jewish populations ranging from 10,000 to 30,000 along with substantial Jewish settlements in the Crimea.[27] The presence of Jewish people in the territories corresponding to modern Belarus, Ukraine, and the European part of Russia can be traced back to the 7th-14th centuries CE.[28][29][29] Under the influence of the Caucasian Jewish communities, the Bulan, the Khagan Bek of the Khazars, and the ruling classes of Khazaria (located in what is now Ukraine, southern Russia and Kazakhstan), may have adopted/converted to Judaism at some point in the mid-to-late 8th or early 9th centuries. After the conquest of the Khazarian kingdom by Sviatoslav I of Kiev (969), the Khazar Jewish population may have assimilated or migrated in part.

Kievan Rus', Poland

In the 11th and 12th centuries, the Jewish population was restricted to a separate quarter in Kiev, known as the Jewish Town (Old Ruthenian: Жидове, Zhidove, i.e. "The Jews"), the gates probably leading to which were known as the Jewish Gates (Old Ruthenian: Жидовская ворота, Zhidovskaya vorota). The Kievan community was oriented towards Byzantium (the Romaniotes), Babylonia and Palestine in the 10th and 11th centuries, but appears to have been increasingly open to the Ashkenazim from the 12th century on.[citation needed] Few products of Kievan Jewish intellectual activity are extant, however. Other communities, or groups of individuals, are known from Chernigov and, probably, Volodymyr-Volynskyi. At that time, Jews are probably found also in northeastern Russia, in the domains of Prince Andrei Bogolyubsky (1169–1174), although it is uncertain to which degree they would have been living there permanently.[30]

Though northeastern Russia had a low Jewish population, countries just to its west had rapidly growing Jewish populations, as waves of anti-Jewish pogroms and expulsions from the countries of Western Europe marked the last centuries of the Middle Ages, a sizable portion of the Jewish populations there moved to the more tolerant countries of Central and Eastern Europe, as well as the Middle East.

Expelled en masse from England, France, Spain and most other Western European countries at various times, and persecuted in Germany in the 14th century, many Western European Jews migrated to Poland upon the invitation of Polish ruler Casimir III the Great to settle in Polish-controlled areas of Eastern Europe as a third estate, although restricted to commercial, middleman services in an agricultural society for the Polish king and nobility between 1330 and 1370, during Casimir the Great's reign.

After settling in Poland (later Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) and Hungary (later Austria-Hungary), the population expanded into the lightly populated areas of Ukraine and Lithuania, which were to become part of the expanding Russian Empire. In 1495 Alexander the Jagiellonian expelled Jewish residents from Grand Duchy of Lithuania but reversed his decision in 1503.

In the shtetls populated almost entirely by Jews, or in the middle-sized town where Jews constituted a significant part of population, Jewish communities traditionally ruled themselves according to halakha, and were limited by the privileges granted them by local rulers. (See also Shtadlan). These Jews were not assimilated into the larger eastern European societies, and identified as an ethnic group with a unique set of religious beliefs and practices, as well as an ethnically-unique economic role.

Tsardom of Russia

Documentary evidence as to the presence of Jewish people in Muscovite Russia is first found in the chronicles of 1471. The relatively small population of were subject to discriminatory laws, they do not appear to have been enforced at all times. The Jewish people residing in Russian and Ukrainian towns suffered numerous religious persecutions. Converted Jews occasionally rose to important positions in the Russian State, i.e. Peter Shafirov, vice-chancellor under Peter the Great was of Jewish origin.

Russian Empire

Map of the Pale of Settlement, showing percentage of Jewish populations

Their situation changed radically, during the reign of Catherine II, when the Russian Empire acquired rule over large Lithuanian and Polish territories, which historically included a high proportion of Jewish residents, especially during the second (1793) and the third (1795) Partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Under the Commonwealth's legal system, Jews endured economic restrictions euphemised as "disabilities", which also continued following the Russian occupation. Catherine established the Pale of Settlement, which included Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine, and the Crimea (the latter was later excluded). Jewish people were restricted to residence within the Pale and were required to obtain special permission to immigrate into other parts of Russia. Within the Pale, the Jewish residents were given right of voting in municipal elections, but their vote was limited to one third of the total number of voters, even though their proportion in many areas was much higher, even a majority. This served to provide an aura of democracy, while institutionalizing conflict amongst ethnic groups on a local level.

Jewish communities in Russia were governed internally by local, dominantly theocratic administrative bodies, called the Councils of Elders (Qahal, Kehilla), constituted in every town or hamlet possessing a Jewish population. The Councils of Elders had jurisdiction over Jews in matters of internal litigation, as well as fiscal transactions relating to the collection and payment of taxes (poll tax, land tax, etc.). Later, this right of collecting taxes was much abused; in 1844 the civil authority of the Councils of Elders over its Jewish population was abolished.[31]

Under Alexander I and Nicholas I decrees were put forth requiring a Russian-speaking member of a Jewish community to be named to act as an intermediary between his community and the Imperial government to perform certain civil duties, such as registering births, marriages, and divorces. This position came to be known as the crown rabbi although they were not always rabbis and often were not respected by members of their own communities because their main job qualification was fluency in Russian, and often had no education in, or knowledge of Jewish law.[32][33][34]

The beginning of the 19th century was marked by intensive movement of Jews to Novorossiya, where towns, villages and agricultural colonies rapidly sprang up.

Rebellions beginning with the Decembrist Revolt of 1825, followed by the struggle of Russia's intelligentsia, and the rise of nihilism, liberalism, socialism, syndicalism, and finally Marxism threatened the old tsarist order.

Prior to 1827 Jewish people were not permitted to serve in the Russian army, but they were subject to double taxation in lieu of military service. In 1827 Nicholas I decreed new recruitment regulations, which extended to the Jewish community as well. About 70,000 Jews were conscripted between 1827 and 1854, a large percentage of them underage (see Cantonists).

The cultural and habitual isolation of the Jews gradually began to be eroded. An ever-increasing number of Jewish people adopted Russian language and customs. Russian education was spread among the Jewish population. A number of Jewish-Russian periodicals appeared.

Alexander II was known as the "Tsar liberator" for the 1861 abolition of serfdom in Russia. Under his rule Jewish people could not hire Christian servants, could not own land, and were restricted in travel.[35]

Alexander III was a staunch reactionary and an antisemite[36] (influenced by Pobedonostsev[37]) who strictly adhered to the old doctrine of Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality. His escalation of anti-Jewish policies sought to ignite "popular antisemitism", which portrayed the Jews as "Christ-killers" and the oppressors of the Slavic, Christian victims.

File:Pimonenko. Victime of fanatisme.jpg
Victim of fanaticism. Painting by Nikolay Pimonenko. 1899. The painting does not depict a pogrom, but actually documents an event in Ukraine, that the artist read about: a Jewish woman was attacked by members of her community for falling in love with a Christian convert. The townspeople are raising sticks and objects, and her parents are shown to the right, denouncing her.

A large-scale wave of anti-Jewish pogroms swept Ukraine in 1881, after Jews were wrongly blamed for the assassination of Alexander II. In the 1881 outbreak, there were pogroms in 166 Ukrainian towns, thousands of Jewish homes were destroyed, many families reduced to extremes of poverty;[citation needed] large numbers of men, women, and children were injured and some killed. Disorders in the south once again recalled the government attention to the Jewish question. A conference was convened at the Ministry of Interior and on May 15, 1882, so-called Temporary Regulations were introduced that stayed in effect for more than thirty years and came to be known as the May Laws.

The repressive legislation was repeatedly revised. Many historians noted the concurrence of these state-enforced antisemitic policies with waves of pogroms[38] that continued until 1884, with at least tacit government knowledge and in some cases policemen were seen inciting or joining the mob.

The systematic policy of discrimination banned Jewish people from rural areas and towns of fewer than ten thousand people, even within the Pale, assuring the slow death of many shtetls. In 1887, the quotas placed on the number of Jews allowed into secondary and higher education were tightened down to 10% within the Pale, 5% outside the Pale, except Moscow and Saint Petersburg, held at 3%, even though the Jewish population was a majority or plurality in many communities. It was possible to evade this restrictions upon secondary education by combining private tuition with examination as an "outside student". Accordingly, within the Pale such outside pupils were almost entirely young Jews. The restrictions placed on education, traditionally highly valued in Jewish communities, resulted in ambition to excel over the peers and increased emigration rates. Special quotas restricted Jews from entering profession of law, limiting number of Jews admitted to the bar.

File:Joseph Trumpeldor.jpg
Joseph Trumpeldor, the most decorated Jewish soldier in the Imperial Russian Army for his bravery in the Russo-Japanese War

In 1886, an Edict of Expulsion was enforced on the historic Jewish population of Kiev. Most Jews were expelled from Moscow in 1891 (except few deemed useful) and a newly built synagogue was closed by the city's authorities headed by the Tsar's brother. Tsar Alexander III refused to curtail repressive practices and reportedly noted: "But we must never forget that the Jews have crucified our Master and have shed his precious blood."[39]

In 1892, new measures banned Jewish participation in local elections despite their large numbers in many towns of the Pale. The Town Regulations prohibited Jews from the right to elect or be elected to town Dumas. Only a small number of Jews were allowed to be a town Duma's members, through appointment by special committees.

The victims of a 1905 pogrom in Yekaterinoslav, in present-day Ukraine

A larger wave of pogroms broke out in 1903–06, leaving an estimated 1,000 Jews dead, and between 7,000 and 8,000 wounded.[citation needed]

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries the Russian Empire had not only the largest Jewish population in the world, but actually had a majority of the world's Jews living within its borders.[40] In 1897, according to Russian census of 1897 total Jewish population of Russia was 5,189,401 persons of both sexes (4.13% of total population). Of this total 93,9% lived in the 25 provinces of the Pale of Settlement. The total population of the Pale of Settlement amounted to 42,338,367—of these, 4,805,354 (11.5%) were Jews.

About 450,000 Jewish soldiers served in the Russian army during World War I,[41] and fought side by side with their Slavic fellows. When hundreds of thousands of refugees from Poland and Lithuania, among them innumerable Jews, fled in terror before enemy invasion, the Pale of Settlement de facto ceased to exist. Most of the education restrictions on the Jews were removed with appointment of count Pavel Ignatiev as minister of education.

Mass emigration

In this Rosh Hashana greeting card from the early 20th century, Russian Jews, packs in hand, gaze at the American relatives beckoning them to the United States. Over two million Jews fled the pogroms of the Russian Empire to the safety of the U.S. from 1881–1924.

Even though the persecutions provided the impetus for mass emigration there were other relevant factors that can account for the Jews' migration. After the first years of large emigration from Russia, positive feedback from the emigrants in the U.S. encouraged further emigration. Indeed, more than two million Jews fled Russia between 1880 and 1920. While a large majority emigrated to the United States, some turned to Zionism. In 1882, members of Bilu and Hovevei Zion made what came to be known the First Aliyah to Palestine, then a part of the Ottoman Empire.

The Tsarist government sporadically encouraged Jewish emigration. In 1890, it approved the establishment of "The Society for the Support of Jewish Farmers and Artisans in Syria and Palestine[42] " (known as the "Odessa Committee" headed by Leon Pinsker) dedicated to practical aspects in establishing agricultural Jewish settlements in Palestine.

Political cartoon, Russian Tsar-Stop your cruel oppression of the Jews! (1904)
Jewish emigration from Russia, 1880–1928[43]
Destination Number
Australia 5,000
Canada 70,000
Europe 240,000
Palestine (modern day Israel) 45,000
South Africa 45,000
South America 111,000
United States 1,749,000

Jewish members of the Duma

In total, there were at least twelve Jewish deputies in the First Duma (1906–1907), falling to three or four in the Second Duma (February 1907 to June 1907), two in the Third Duma (1907–1912) and again three in the fourth, elected in 1912. Converts to Christianity like Mikhail Herzenstein and Ossip Pergament were still considered as Jews by the public (and antisemitic) opinion and are most of the time included in these figures.

At the 1906 elections, the Jewish Labour Bund had made an electoral agreement with the Lithuanian Labourers' Party (Trudoviks), which resulted in the election to the Duma of two (non-Bundist) candidates in the Lithuanian provinces: Dr. Shmaryahu Levin for the Vilnius province and Leon Bramson for the Kaunas province.[44]

Among the other Jewish deputies were Maxim Vinaver, chairman of the League for the Attainment of Equal Rights for the Jewish People in Russia (Folksgrupe) and cofounder of the Constitutional Democratic Party (Kadets), Dr. Nissan Katzenelson (Courland province, Zionist, Kadet), Dr. Moisei Yakovlevich Ostrogorsky (Grodno province), attorney Simon Yakovlevich Rosenbaum (Minsk province, Zionist, Kadet), Mikhail Isaakovich Sheftel (Ekaterinoslav province, Kadet), Dr. Grigory Bruk, Dr. Benyamin Yakubson, Zakhar Frenkel, Solomon Frenkel, Meilakh Chervonenkis.[45] There was also a Crimean Karaim deputy, Salomon Krym.[46]

Three of the Jewish deputies, Bramson, Chervonenkis and Yakubson, joined the Labour faction, nine other joined the Kadet fraction.[45] According to Rufus Learsi, five of them were Zionists, including Dr. Shmaryahu Levin, Dr. Victor Jacobson and Simon Yakovlevich Rosenbaum.[47]

Two of them, Grigori Borisovich Iollos (Poltava province) and Mikhail Herzenstein (b. 1859, d. 1906 in Terijoki), both from the Constitutional Democratic Party, were assassinated by the Black Hundreds antisemite terrorist group. "The Russkoye Znamya declares openly that 'Real Russians' assassinated Herzenstein and Iollos with knowledge of officials, and expresses regret that only two Jews perished in crusade against revolutionaries.[48]

The Second Duma included seven Jewish deputies: Shakho Abramson, Iosif Gessen, Vladimir Matveevich Gessen, Lazar Rabinovich, Yakov Shapiro (all of them Kadets) and Victor Mandelberg (Siberia Social Democrat),[49] plus a convert to Christianity, the attorney Ossip Pergament (Odessa).[50]

The two Jewish members of the Third Duma were the Judge Leopold Nikolayevich (or Lazar) Nisselovich (Courland province, Kadet) and Naftali Markovich Friedman (Kaunas province, Kadet). Ossip Pergament was reelected and died before the end of his mandate.[51]

Friedman was the only one reelected to the Fourth Duma in 1912, joined by two new deputies, Meer Bomash, and Dr. Ezekiel Gurevich.[49]

Jews in the revolutionary movement

Many Jews were prominent in Russian revolutionary parties. The idea of overthrowing the Tsarist regime was attractive to many members of the Jewish intelligentsia because of the oppression of non-Russian nations and non-Orthodox Christians within the Russian Empire. For much the same reason, many non-Russians, notably Latvians or Poles, were disproportionately represented in the party leaderships.

In 1897 General Jewish Labour Bund (The Bund), was formed. Many Jews joined the ranks of two principal revolutionary parties: Socialist-Revolutionary Party and Russian Social Democratic Labour Party—both Bolshevik and Menshevik factions. A notable number of Bolshevik party members were ethnically Jewish, especially in the leadership of the party, and the percentage of Jewish party members among the rival Mensheviks was even higher. Both the founders and leaders of Menshevik faction, Julius Martov and Pavel Axelrod, were Jewish.

White movement propaganda poster from the Russian Civil War era (1919), depicting a caricature of Leon Trotsky as a red devil and Chinese soldiers below, wearing braids and blue and gold uniforms.

Because some of the leading Bolsheviks were Ethnic Jews, and Bolshevism supports a policy of promoting international proletarian revolution—most notably in the case of Leon Trotsky—many enemies of Bolshevism, as well as contemporary antisemites, draw a picture of Communism as a political slur at Jews and accuse Jews of pursuing Bolshevism to benefit Jewish interests, reflected in the terms Jewish Bolshevism or Judeo-Bolshevism.[citation needed] The original atheistic and internationalistic ideology of the Bolsheviks (See proletarian internationalism, bourgeois nationalism) was incompatible with Jewish traditionalism. Bolsheviks such as Trotsky echoed sentiments dismissing Jewish heritage in place of "internationalism".

Soon after seizing power, the Bolsheviks established the Yevsektsiya, the Jewish section of the Communist party in order to destroy the rival Bund and Zionist parties, suppress Judaism and replace traditional Jewish culture with "proletarian culture".[52]

In March 1919, Vladimir Lenin delivered a speech "On Anti-Jewish Pogroms"[53] on a gramophone disc. Lenin sought to explain the phenomenon of antisemitism in Marxist terms. According to Lenin, antisemitism was an "attempt to divert the hatred of the workers and peasants from the exploiters toward the Jews". Linking antisemitism to class struggle, he argued that it was merely a political technique used by the tsar to exploit religious fanaticism, popularize the despotic, unpopular regime, and divert popular anger toward a scapegoat. The Soviet Union also officially maintained this Marxist-Leninist interpretation under Joseph Stalin, who expounded Lenin's critique of antisemitism. However, this did not prevent the widely publicized repressions of Jewish intellectuals during 1948–1953 (see After World War II) when Stalin increasingly associated Jews with "cosmopolitanism" and pro-Americanism.

Jews were prominent in the Russian Constitutional Democrat Party, Russian Social Democratic Party (Mensheviks) and Socialist-Revolutionary Party. The Russian Anarchist movement also included many prominent Jewish revolutionaries. In Ukraine, Makhnovist anarchist leaders also included several Jews.[54]

The attempts of the socialist Bund to be the sole representative of the Jewish worker in Russia had always conflicted with Lenin's idea of a universal coalition of workers of all nationalities. Like some other socialist parties in Russia, the Bund was initially opposed to the Bolsheviks' seizing of power in 1917 and to the dissolution of the Russian Constituent Assembly. Consequently, the Bund suffered repressions in the first months of the Soviet regime.[citation needed] However, the antisemitism of many Whites during the Russian Civil War caused many if not most Bund members to readily join the Bolsheviks, and most of the factions eventually merged with the Communist Party. The movement did split in three; the Bundist identity survived in interwar Poland, while many Bundists joined the Mensheviks.

In August 1919 Jewish properties, including synagogues, were seized and many Jewish communities were dissolved. The anti-religious laws against all expressions of religion and religious education were being taken out on the Jewish population, just like on other religious groups. Many Rabbis and other religious officials were forced to resign from their posts under the threat of violent persecution. This type of persecution continued on into the 1920s.[55]

In 1921, a large number of Jews opted for Poland, as they were entitled by peace treaty in Riga to choose the country they preferred. Several hundred thousand joined the already numerous Jewish population of Poland.

The chaotic years of World War I, the February and October Revolutions, and the Civil War were fertile ground for the antisemitism that was endemic to tsarist Russia. During the World War, Jews were often accused of sympathizing with Germany and often persecuted.

Pogroms were unleashed throughout the Russian Civil War, perpetrated by virtually every competing faction, from Polish and Ukrainian nationalists to the Red and White Armies.[56] 31,071 civilian Jews were killed during documented pogroms throughout the former Russian Empire; the number of Jewish orphans exceeded 300,000. Majority of pogroms in Ukraine during 1918–1920 were perpetrated by the Ukrainian nationalists, miscellaneous bands and anti-Communist forces.[57]

Perpetrator Number of pogroms or excesses Number murdered[57]
Hryhoriiv's bands 52 3,471
Directory of the Ukrainian National Republic 493 16,706
White army 213 5,235
Miscellaneous bands 307 4,615
Red Army 106 725
Others 33 185
Polish army 32 134
Total 1,236 31,071

Soviet Union

Before World War II

Continuing the policy of the Bolsheviks before the Revolution, Lenin and the Bolshevik Party strongly condemned the pogroms, including official denunciations in 1918 by the Council of People's Commissars. Opposition to the pogroms and to manifestations of Russian antisemitism in this era were complicated by both the official Bolshevik policy of assimilationism towards all national and religious minorities, and concerns about overemphasizing Jewish concerns for fear of exacerbating popular antisemitism, as the White forces were openly identifying the Bolshevik regime with Jews.[58][59][60]

Lenin recorded eight of his speeches on gramophone records in 1919. Only seven of these were later re-recorded and put on sale. The one suppressed in the Nikita Khrushchev era recorded Lenin's feelings on antisemitism:[61]

The Tsarist police, in alliance with the landowners and the capitalists, organized pogroms against the Jews. The landowners and capitalists tried to divert the hatred of the workers and peasants who were tortured by want against the Jews. ... Only the most ignorant and downtrodden people can believe the lies and slander that are spread about the Jews. ... It is not the Jews who are the enemies of the working people. The enemies of the workers are the capitalists of all countries. Among the Jews there are working people, and they form the majority. They are our brothers, who, like us, are oppressed by capital; they are our comrades in the struggle for socialism. Among the Jews there are kulaks, exploiters and capitalists, just as there are among the Russians, and among people of all nations... Rich Jews, like rich Russians, and the rich in all countries, are in alliance to oppress, crush, rob and disunite the workers... Shame on accursed Tsarism, which tortured and persecuted the Jews. Shame on those who foment hatred towards the Jews, who foment hatred towards other nations.[62]

Lenin was supported by the Labor Zionist (Poale Zion) movement, then under the leadership of Marxist theorist Ber Borochov, which was fighting for the creation of a Jewish workers' state in Palestine and also participated in the October Revolution (and in the Soviet political scene afterwards until being banned by Stalin in 1928). While Lenin remained opposed to outward forms of antisemitism (and all forms of racism), allowing Jewish people to rise to the highest offices in both party and state, certain historians such as Dmitri Volkogonov argue that the record of his government in this regard was highly uneven. A former official Soviet historian (turned staunch anti-communist), Volkogonov claims that Lenin was aware of pogroms carried out by units of the Red Army during the war with Poland, particularly those carried out by Semyon Budyonny's troops,[63] though the whole issue was effectively ignored. Volkogonov writes that "While condemning anti-Semitism in general, Lenin was unable to analyze, let alone eradicate, its prevalence in Soviet society".[64] Likewise, the hostility of the Soviet regime towards all religion made no exception for Judaism, and the 1921 campaign against religion saw the seizure of many synagogues (whether this should be regarded as antisemitism is a matter of definition—since Orthodox churches received the same treatment). In any event, there was still a fair degree of tolerance for Jewish religious practice in the 1920s: in the Belarusian capital Minsk, for example, of the 657 synagogues existing in 1917, 547 were still functioning in 1930.[65]

According to Jewish historian Zvi Gitelman: "Never before in Russian history—and never subsequently has a government made such an effort to uproot and stamp out antisemitism."[66]

By contrast with the situation after the beginning of forced collectivization and breakneck industrialization at the end of the 1920s, the New Economic Policy of 1921-1928 also offered economic opportunities to Soviet Jewish traders and artisans. Because most non-Jewish capitalists had fled during the civil war, Jews played a disproportionate role among the 'Nepmen' who constituted the private sector in the 1920s. From the 1930s, however, Soviet laws offered hardly any economic independence to artisans, and none whatever to traders. For many Jewish artisans and tradesmen, Soviet policies led to loss of their property and trade.

According to the census of 1926, the total number of Jews in the USSR was 2,672,398—of whom 59% lived in Ukrainian SSR, 15,2% in Byelorussian SSR, 22% in Russian SFSR and 3,8% in other Soviet republics.

Russian Jews were long considered to be non-native Semitic ethnic group among the Slavic Russians, and such categorization was solidified when ethnic minorities in the Soviet Union were categorized according to ethnicity (национальность). In his 1913 theoretical work Marxism and the National Question Stalin described Jews as "not a living and active nation, but something mystical, intangible and supernatural. For, I repeat, what sort of nation, for instance, is a Jewish nation which consists of Georgian, Daghestanian, Russian, American and other Jews, the members of which do not understand each other (since they speak different languages), inhabit different parts of the globe, will never see each other, and will never act together, whether in time of peace or in time of war?!"[67] According to Stalin, who became the People's Commissar for Nationalities Affairs after the revolution, to qualify as a nation, a minority was required to have a culture, a language, and a homeland.

Yiddish, rather than Hebrew, would be the national language, and proletarian socialist literature and arts would replace Judaism as the quintessence of culture. The use of Yiddish was strongly encouraged in the 1920s in areas of the USSR with substantial Jewish populations, especially in the Ukrainian and Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republics. Yiddish was one of the Belarusian SSR’s four official languages, alongside Belarusian, Russian, and Polish. The equality of the official languages was taken seriously. A visitor arriving at main train station of the Belarusian capital Minsk saw the city’s name written in all four languages above the main station entrance. Yiddish was a language of newspapers, magazines, book publishing, theater, radio, film, the post office, official correspondence, election materials, and even a Central Jewish Court. Yiddish writers like Sholem Aleichem and Mendele Mocher Seforim were celebrated in the 1920s as Soviet Jewish heroes.

Minsk had a public, state-supported Yiddish-language school system, extending from kindergarten to the Yiddish-language section of the Belarusian State University. Although Jewish students tended to switch to studying in Russian as they moved on to secondary and higher education, 55.3 percent of the city's Jewish primary school students attended Yiddish-language schools in 1927.[68] Such was the prestige of Minsk’s Yiddish scholarship that researchers trained in Warsaw and Berlin applied for faculty positions at the university. All this leads historian Elissa Bemporad to conclude that this “very ordinary Jewish city” was in the 1920s “one of the world capitals of Yiddish language and culture."[69]

Jews also played a disproportionate role in Belarusian politics and Soviet politics more generally in the 1920s, especially through the Bolshevik Party's Yiddish-language branch, the Yevsekstsia. Because there were few Jewish Bolsheviks before 1917 (with a few prominent exceptions like Zinoviev and Kamenev), the Yevsekstia's leaders in the 1920s were largely former Bundists, who pursued as Bolsheviks their campaign for secular Jewish education and culture. Although for example only a bit over 40 percent of Minsk’s population was Jewish at the time, 19 of its 25 Communist Party cell secretaries were Jewish in 1924.[70] Jewish predominance in the party cells was such that several cell meetings were held in Yiddish. In fact, Yiddish was spoken at citywide party meetings in Minsk into the late 1930s.

To offset the growing Jewish national and religious aspirations of Zionism and to successfully categorize Soviet Jews under Stalin's definition of nationality, an alternative to the Land of Israel was established with the help of Komzet and OZET in 1928. The Jewish Autonomous Oblast with its center in Birobidzhan in the Russian Far East was to become a "Soviet Zion".[71] Despite a massive domestic and international state propaganda campaign, however, the Jewish population in the Jewish Autonomous Oblast never reached 30% (in 2003 it was only about 1.2%[72]). The experiment ground to a halt in the mid-1930s, during Stalin's first campaign of purges.

In fact the Bolshevik Party's Yiddish-language Yevsekstia was dissolved in 1930, as part of the regime's overall turn away from encouraging minority languages and cultures and towards Russification. Many Jewish leaders, especially those with Bundist backgrounds, were arrested and executed in the purges later in the 1930s,[citation needed] and Yiddish schools were shut down. The Belasusian SSR shut down its entire network of Yiddish-language schools in 1938.

In his January 12, 1931 letter "Antisemitism: Reply to an Inquiry of the Jewish News Agency in the United States" (published domestically by Pravda in 1936), Stalin officially condemned antisemitism:

In answer to your inquiry: National and racial chauvinism is a vestige of the misanthropic customs characteristic of the period of cannibalism. Antisemitism, as an extreme form of racial chauvinism, is the most dangerous vestige of cannibalism.

Antisemitism is of advantage to the exploiters as a lightning conductor that deflects the blows aimed by the working people at capitalism. Antisemitism is dangerous for the working people as being a false path that leads them off the right road and lands them in the jungle. Hence Communists, as consistent internationalists, cannot but be irreconcilable, sworn enemies of antisemitism.

In the U.S.S.R. antisemitism is punishable with the utmost severity of the law as a phenomenon deeply hostile to the Soviet system. Under U.S.S.R. law active antisemites are liable to the death penalty.[73]

The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact—the 1939 non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany—created further suspicion regarding the Soviet Union's position toward Jews. According to the pact Poland, the nation with the world's largest Jewish population, was divided between Germany and the Soviet Union in September 1939. While the pact had no basis in ideological sympathy (as evidenced by Nazi propaganda about "Jewish Bolshevism"), Germany's occupation of Western Poland was a disaster for Eastern European Jews. Evidence suggests that some, at least, of the Jews in the eastern Soviet zone of occupation welcomed the Russians as having a more liberated policy towards their civil rights than the preceding antisemitic Polish regime.[74] Jews in areas annexed by the Soviet Union were deported eastward in great waves;[citation needed] as these areas would soon be invaded by Nazi Germany, this forced migration, deplored by many of its victims, paradoxically also saved the lives of several hundred thousand Jewish deportees.

Poet Boris Pasternak, spared by Stalin with the words "Let this cloud dweller be!"[75]

Many Jews fell victim to the Great Purge, and there is evidence that Jews were specifically targeted by Stalin[citation needed], who harbored antisemitic sentiments all his life (main article:Antisemitism and Joseph Stalin). A number of the most prominent victims of the Purges—Trotsky, Zinoviev, and Kamenev, to name a few—were Jewish, and in 1939 Stalin gave Molotov an explicit order to purge the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Jews, in anticipation of rapprochement with Nazi Germany.[citation needed]

Jews who escaped the purges include Lazar Kaganovich, who came to Stalin's attention in the 1920s as a successful bureaucrat in Tashkent and participated in the purges of the 1930s. Kaganovich's loyalty endured even after Stalin's death, when he and Molotov were expelled from the party ranks in 1957 due to their opposition to destalinization.

Beyond longstanding controversies, ranging from the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact to anti-Zionism, the Soviet Union did grant official "equality of all citizens regardless of status, sex, race, religion, and nationality". The years before the Holocaust were an era of rapid change for Soviet Jews, leaving behind the dreadful poverty of the Pale of Settlement. Forty percent of the population in the former Pale left for large cities within the USSR.

Emphasis on education and movement from countryside shtetls to newly industrialized cities allowed many Soviet Jews to enjoy overall advances under Stalin and to become one of the most educated population groups in the world.

Because of Stalinist emphasis on its urban population, interwar migration inadvertently rescued countless Soviet Jews; Nazi Germany penetrated the entire former Jewish Pale—but were kilometers short of Leningrad and Moscow. The migration of many Jews farther East from the Jewish Pale, which would become occupied by Nazi Germany, saved at least 40 percent of the Pale's original Jewish population.

By 1941, it was estimated that the Soviet Union was home to 4.855 million Jews, around 30% of all Jews worldwide. However, the majority of these were residents of rural western Belarus and Ukraine—populations that suffered greatly due to the German occupation and the Holocaust. Only around 800,000 Jews lived outside the occupied territory, and 1,200,000 to 1,400,000 Jews were eventually evacuated eastwards.[76] Of the three million left in occupied areas, the vast majority is thought to have perished in German extermination camps.

The Holocaust

Over two million Soviet Jews are believed to have died during the Holocaust, second only to the number of Polish Jews to have fallen victims to Hitler. Among some of the larger massacres in 1941 were: 33,771 Jews of Kiev shot in ditches at Babi Yar; 100,000 Jews and Poles of Vilnius killed in the forests of Ponary, 20,000 Jews killed in Kharkiv at Drobnitzky Yar, 36,000 Jews machine-gunned in Odessa, 25,000 Jews of Riga killed in the woods at Rumbula, and 10,000 Jews slaughtered in Simferopol in the Crimea.[citation needed] Though mass shootings continued through 1942, most notably 16,000 Jews shot at Pinsk, Jews were increasingly shipped to concentration camps in German Nazi-occupied Poland.

Local residents of German-occupied areas, especially Ukrainians, Lithuanians, and Latvians, sometimes played key roles in the genocide of other Latvians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Slavs, Gypsies, homosexuals and Jews alike. Under the Nazi occupation, some members of the Ukrainian and Latvian Nazi police carried out deportations in the Warsaw Ghetto, and Lithuanians marched Jews to their death at Ponary. Even as some assisted the Germans, a significant number of individuals in the territories under German control also helped Jews escape death (see Righteous Among the Nations). In Latvia, particularly, the number of Nazi-collaborators was only slightly more than that of Jewish saviours. It is estimated that up to 1.4 million Jews fought in Allied armies; 40% of them in the Red Army.[77] In total, at least 142,500 Soviet soldiers of Jewish nationality lost their lives fighting against the German invaders and their allies[78]

File:Soviet Jews participation in WW2.png
1946. The official response to an inquiry by JAC about the military decorations of Jews during the war (1.8% of the total number). Some antisemites attempted to accuse Jews of lack of patriotism and of hiding from military service.

The typical Soviet policy regarding the Holocaust was to present it as atrocities against Soviet citizens, not emphasizing the genocide of the Jews. For example, after the liberation of Kiev from the Nazi occupation, the Extraordinary State Commission (Чрезвычайная Государственная Комиссия) was set out to investigate Nazi crimes. The description of the Babi Yar massacre was officially censored as follows:[79]

Draft report (December 25, 1943) Censored version (February 1944)

"The Hitlerist bandits committed brutal mass extermination of the Jewish population. They announced that on September 29, 1941, all Jews were required to arrive to the corner of Melnikov and Dokterev streets and bring their documents, money and valuables. The butchers herded them to Babi Yar, took away their valuables, then shot them."

"The Hitlerist bandits herded thousands of Soviet citizens to the corner of Melnikov and Dokterev streets. The butchers marched them to Babi Yar, took away their valuables, then shot them."

Stalinist antisemitic campaigns

The revival of Jewish identity after the war, stimulated by the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, was cautiously welcomed by Stalin as a means to put pressure on Western imperialism in the Middle East, but when it became evident that many Soviet Jews expected the revival of Zionism to enhance their own aspirations for separate cultural and religious development in the Soviet Union, a wave of repression was unleashed.[80]

In January 1948 Solomon Mikhoels, a popular actor-director of the Moscow State Jewish Theater and the chairman of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, was killed in a suspicious car accident.[81] Mass arrests of prominent Jewish intellectuals and suppression of Jewish culture followed under the banners of campaign against "rootless cosmopolitans" and anti-Zionism. On August 12, 1952, in the event known as the Night of the Murdered Poets, thirteen of the most prominent Yiddish writers, poets, actors and other intellectuals were executed on the orders of Joseph Stalin, among them Peretz Markish, Leib Kvitko, David Hofstein, Itzik Feffer and David Bergelson.[82] In the 1955 UN Assembly's session a high Soviet official still denied the "rumors" about their disappearance.

The Doctors' Plot allegation in 1953 was a deliberately antisemitic policy: Stalin targeted "corrupt Jewish bourgeois nationalists", eschewing the usual code words like "rootless cosmopolitans" or "cosmopolitans". Stalin died, however, before this next wave of arrests and executions could be launched in earnest. A number of historians claim that the Doctors' Plot was intended as the opening of a campaign that would have resulted in the mass deportation of Soviet Jews had Stalin not died on March 5, 1953. Days after Stalin's death the plot was declared a hoax by the Soviet government.

These cases may have reflected Stalin's paranoia, rather than state ideology—a distinction that made no practical difference as long as Stalin was alive, but which became salient on his death.

In April 1956, the Warsaw Yiddish language Jewish newspaper Folkshtimme published sensational long lists of Soviet Jews who had perished before and after the Holocaust. The world press began demanding answers from Soviet leaders, as well as inquiring about the current condition of the Jewish education system and culture. The same autumn, a group of leading Jewish world figures publicly requested the heads of Soviet state to clarify the situation. Since no cohesive answer was received, their concern was only heightened. The fate of Soviet Jews emerged as a major human rights issue in the West.

The Soviet Union and Zionism

Marxist anti-nationalism and anti-clericalism had a mixed effect on Soviet Jews. Jews were the immediate benefactors, but long-term victims, of the Marxist notion that any manifestation of nationalism is "socially retrogressive". On one hand, Jews were liberated from the religious persecution of the Tsarist years of "Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality". On the other, this notion was threatening to Jewish cultural institutions, the Bund, Jewish autonomy, Judaism and Zionism.

Political Zionism was officially stamped out for the entire history of the Soviet Union as a form of bourgeois nationalism. Although Leninism emphasizes "self-determination", this did not make the state more accepting of Zionism. Leninism defines self-determination by territory or culture, but not religion, which allowed Soviet minorities to have separate oblasts, autonomous regions, or republics, which were nonetheless symbolic until its later years. Jews, however, did not fit such a theoretical model; Jews in the Diaspora did not even have an agricultural base, as Stalin often asserted when attempting to deny the existence of a Jewish nation, and certainly no territorial unit. Marxian notions even denied a Jewish identity beyond religion and caste; Marx defined Jews as a "chimerical nation".

Lenin, claiming to be deeply committed to egalitarian ideals and universality of all humanity, rejected Zionism as a reactionary movement, "bourgeois nationalism", "socially retrogressive", and a backward force that deprecates class divisions among Jews. Moreover, Zionism entailed contact between Soviet citizens and westerners, which was dangerous in a closed society. Soviet authorities were likewise fearful of any mass-movement independent of monopolistic Communist Party, and not tied to the state or the ideology of Marxism-Leninism.

Without changing its official anti-Zionist stance, from late 1944 until 1948 Joseph Stalin had adopted a de facto pro-Zionist foreign policy, apparently believing that the new country would be socialist and would speed the decline of British influence in the Middle East.[83]

In a 14 May 1947 speech during the UN Partition Plan debate, published in Izvestiya two days later, the Soviet ambassador Andrei Gromyko announced:

As we know, the aspirations of a considerable part of the Jewish people are linked with the problem of Palestine and of its future administration. This fact scarcely requires proof... During the last war, the Jewish people underwent exceptional sorrow and suffering...

The United Nations cannot and must not regard this situation with indifference, since this would be incompatible with the high principles proclaimed in its Charter...

The fact that no Western European State has been able to ensure the defence of the elementary rights of the Jewish people and to safeguard it against the violence of the fascist executioners explains the aspirations of the Jews to establish their own State. It would be unjust not to take this into consideration and to deny the right of the Jewish people to realize this aspiration.[84]

Soviet approval in the United Nations Security Council was critical to the UN partitioning of the British Mandate of Palestine, which led to the founding of the State of Israel. Three days after Israel declared independence, the Soviet Union legally recognized it de jure. In addition, the USSR allowed Czechoslovakia to continue supplying arms to the Jewish forces during the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, even though this conflict took place after the Soviet-supported Czechoslovak coup d'état of 1948. At the time the U.S. maintained an arms embargo on both sides in the conflict. See Arms shipments from Czechoslovakia to Israel 1947–1949.

By the end of 1957 the USSR switched sides in the Arab–Israeli conflict and throughout the course of the Cold War unequivocally supported various Arab regimes against Israel. The official position of the Soviet Union and its satellite states and agencies was that Zionism was a tool used by the Jews and Americans for "racist imperialism".

A Soviet birth certificate from 1972 indicating the person's parents' ethnicity as "Jew".

As Israel was emerging as a close Western ally, the specter of Zionism raised fears of internal dissent and opposition. During the later parts of the Cold War, Soviet Jews were suspected of being possible traitors, Western sympathisers, or a security liability. The Communist leadership closed down various Jewish organizations and declared Zionism an ideological enemy. Synagogues were often placed under police surveillance, both openly and through the use of informers.[citation needed]

As a result of the persecution, both state-sponsored and unofficial, antisemitism became deeply ingrained in the society and remained a fact for years: ordinary Soviet Jews often suffered hardships, epitomized by often not being allowed to enlist in universities, work in certain professions, or participate in government. However, it should be mentioned that this was not always the case and this kind of persecution varied depending on the region. Still many Jews felt compelled to hide their identities by changing their names.

The word "Jew" was also avoided in the media when criticising undertakings by Israel, which the Soviets often accused of racism, chauvinism etc. Instead of Jew, the word Israeli was used almost exclusively, so as to paint its harsh criticism not as antisemitism but anti-Zionism. More controversially, the Soviet media, when depicting political events, sometimes used the term 'fascism' to characterise Israeli nationalism (e.g. calling Jabotinsky a 'fascist', and claiming 'new fascist organisations were emerging in Israel in the 1970s' etc.).


A mass emigration was politically undesirable for the Soviet regime. As increasing numbers of Soviet Jews applied to emigrate to Israel in the period following the 1967 Six Day War, many were formally refused permission to leave. A typical excuse given by the OVIR (ОВиР), the MVD department responsible for the provisioning of exit visas, was that persons who had been given access at some point in their careers to information vital to Soviet national security could not be allowed to leave the country.

After the Dymshits-Kuznetsov hijacking affair in 1970 and the crackdown that followed, strong international condemnations caused the Soviet authorities to increase the emigration quota. From 1960 to 1970, only 4,000 people left the USSR; in the following decade, the number rose to 250,000.[85]

In 1972 the USSR imposed the so-called "diploma tax" on would-be emigrants who received higher education in the USSR.[86] In some cases, the fee was as high as twenty annual salaries. This measure was possibly designed to combat the brain drain caused by the growing emigration of Soviet Jews and other members of the intelligentsia to the West. Though Jews now made up less than 1% of the population, some surveys have suggested that around one-third of the emigranting Jews had achieved some form of higher education. Furthermore, Jews holding positions requiring specialized training tended to be highly concentrated in a small set of specialties, including medicine, mathematics, biology and music.[87] Following international protests, the Kremlin soon revoked the tax, but continued to sporadically impose various limitations.

At first almost all of those who managed to get exit visas to Israel actually made aliyah, but after the mid-1970s, most of those allowed to leave for Israel actually chose other destinations, most notably the United States.

Glasnost and end of the USSR

In 1989 a record 71,000 Soviet Jews were granted exodus from the USSR, of whom only 12,117 immigrated to Israel. At first, American policy treated Soviet Jews were refugees and allowed unlimited numbers to emigrate, but this policy eventually came to an end. As a result, more Jews began moving to Israel, as it was the only country willing to take them unconditionally.

In the 1980s, the liberal government of Mikhail Gorbachev allowed unlimited Jewish emigration, and the Soviet Union itself collapsed in 1991. As a result, a mass emigration of Jews from the former Soviet Union took place. Since the 1970s, over 1.1 million Russians of Jewish origin immigrated to Israel, of whom 100,000 emigrated to third countries such as the United States and Canada soon afterward and 240,000 were not considered Jewish under Halakha, but were eligible under the Law of Return due to Jewish ancestry or marriage. Since the adoption of the Jackson–Vanik amendment, over 600,000 Soviet Jews have emigrated.

Russia today

Jews make up about 0.16% of the total population of Russia, according to the 2002 census. Most Russian Jews are secular and identify themselves as Jews via ethnicity rather than religion, although interest about Jewish identity as well as practice of Jewish tradition amongst Russian Jews is growing. The Lubavitcher Jewish Movement has been active in this sector, setting up synagogues and Jewish kindergartens in Russian cities with Jewish populations. In addition, most Russian Jews have relatives who live in Israel.

There are several major Jewish organizations in the territories of the former USSR. The central Jewish organization is the Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS under the leadership of Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar.[88]

A linguistic distinction remains to this day in the Russian language where there are two distinct terms that correspond to the word Jew in English. The word еврей ("yevrey" - Hebrew) typically denotes a Jewish ethnicity, as "Hebrew" did in English up until the early 20th century. The word иудей ("iudey" - Judean, etymologically related to the English Jew) is reserved for denoting a follower of the Jewish religion, whether he or she is ethnically Jewish or ethnically Gentile; this term has largely fallen out of use in favor of the equivalent term иудаист ("iudaist"-Judaist). For example, according to a 2012 Russian survey, евреи account for only 32.2% of иудаисты in Russia, with nearly half (49.8%) being Ethnic Russians (русские),[89] although many of these Ethnic Russians could be Subbotniks of entirely non-Jewish background. An ethnic slur, жид (borrowed from the Polish Żyd, Jew), also remains in widespread use in Russia.

An Anti-Semitic demonstration in Russia, 2003. The slogans read, from left to right: "The revolution in Russia was made by Jews, paid for with Jewish money - Henry Ford"; "All Jews, regardless of sex, age or wealth, must leave the borders of the Russian Empire - Empress Elizabeth" and "President Putin! Are you with the Russians or with the Jews?"

Antisemitism is one of the most common expressions of xenophobia in post-Soviet Russia, even among some groups of politicians.[90] Despite stipulations against fomenting hatred based on ethnic or religious grounds (Article 282 of Russian Federation Penal Code),[91] antisemitic pronouncements, speeches and articles are not uncommon in Russia, and there are a large number of antisemitic neo-Nazi groups in the republics of the former Soviet Union, leading Pravda to declare in 2002 that "Anti-Semitism is booming in Russia".[92] Over the past few years there have also been bombs attached to antisemitic signs, apparently aimed at Jews, and other violent incidents, including stabbings, have been recorded.

The government of Vladimir Putin takes an official stand against antisemitism, while some movements parties and groups are explicitly antisemitic. In January 2005, a group of 15 Duma members demanded that Judaism and Jewish organizations be banned from Russia.[93] In June, 500 prominent Russians, including some 20 members of the nationalist Rodina party, demanded that the state prosecutor investigate ancient Jewish texts as "anti-Russian" and ban Judaism. An investigation was in fact launched, but halted after an international outcry.[94][95]

In Russia, both historical and contemporary antisemitic materials are frequently published. For example, a set (called Library of a Russian Patriot) consisting of twenty five antisemitic titles was recently published, including Mein Kampf translated to Russian (2002), which although was banned in 2010,[96] The Myth of Holocaust by Jürgen Graf, a title by Douglas Reed, Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and others.

Hasidic rabbi Berel Lazar meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin

Antisemitic incidents, mostly addressed to extremist and nationalists groups, have ranged from random acts of violence against Jews and vandalism acts against Jewish institutions to the detonation of explosives in Jewish communities. Most of the antisemitic incidents are against Jewish cemeteries and building (community centers and synagogues) such as the assault against the Jewish community's center in Perm on March 2013[97] and the attack on Jewish nursery school in Volgograd on August 2013.[98] Nevertheless, there were several violent attacks against Jews in Moscow in 2006 when a neo-Nazi stabbed 9 people at the Bolshaya Bronnaya Synagogue,[99] the failed bomb attack on the same synagogue in 1999.[100]

Attacks against Jews made by extremist Islamic groups are rare in Russia although there has been increase in the scope of the attacks mainly in Muslim populated areas. On July 25, 2013 the rabbi of Derbent was assassinated and badly injured by unknown person near his home, most likely by a terrorist. The incident sparked concerns among the local Jews of further acts against the Jewish community.[101]

After the passage of some anti-gay laws in Russia in 2013 and the incident with the "Pussy-riot" band in 2012 causing a growing criticism on the subject inside and outside Russia a number of verbal anti-Semitic attacks were made against Russian gay activists by extremist leftists activists and anti-Semitic writers such as Israel Shamir who viewed the "Pussy-riot" incident as the war of Judaism on the Christian Orthodox church.[102][103][104]

The Jewish Autonomous Oblast continues to be an autonomous oblast of the Russian state.[105] The Chief Rabbi of Birobidzhan, Mordechai Scheiner, says there are 4,000 Jews in the capital city.[106] Governor Nikolay Mikhaylovich Volkov has stated that he intends to "support every valuable initiative maintained by our local Jewish organizations".[107] The Birobidzhan Synagogue opened in 2004 on the 70th anniversary of the regions founding in 1934.[108]

Joseph Kobzon, Russia's most decorated artist, often described as the 'Russian Sinatra'.

Today, the Jewish population of Russia is shrinking due to small family sizes, and high rates of assimilation and intermarriage. This shrinkage has been slowed by some Russian-Jewish emigrants having returned from abroad, especially from Germany. The great majority of up to 90% of children born to a Jewish parent are the offspring of mixed marriages, and most Jews have only one or two children. The majority of Russian Jews live in the Moscow metropolitan area, with another 20% in the Saint Petersburg area, and the rest in large cities with a population of at least 1 million.[109]

The Jewish population in the Jewish Autonomous Oblast of the Russian Far East in 2002 was 2,327 (1.22%).

The Bukharan Jews, self-designating as Yahudi, Isroel or Banei Isroel, live mainly in Uzbek cities. The number of Central Asian Jews was around 20,800 in 1959. Before mass emigration, they spoke a dialect of the Tajik language.[110]

The Georgian Jews numbered about 35,700 in 1964, most of them living in Georgia.[111]

The Caucasian Mountain Jews, also known as Tats or Dagchufuts, live mostly in Israel and the United States, with a scattered population in Dagestan and Azerbaijan. In 1959, they numbered around 15,000 in Dagestan and 10,000 in Azerbaijan. Their Tat language is a dialect of Middle Persian.[112]

The Crimean Jews, self-designating as Krymchaks, traditionally lived in the Crimea, numbering around 5,700 in 1897. Due to a famine, a number emigrated to Turkey and the U.S. in the 1920. The remaining population was virtually annihilated in the Holocaust during the Nazi occupation of the Crimea, but Krymchaks re-settled the Crimea after the war, and in 1959, between 1,000 and 1,800 had returned.[113]

The EuroStars young adults program provides Jewish learning and social activities in 32 cities across Russia.[114][115][116]

Historical demographics

Demographic data for Russian Empire and Soviet Jews
Year Jewish population (including Tats) Notes
1914 More than 5,250,000 Russian Empire
1926[117] 2,672,499 First All-Union Census of the Soviet Union

A result of border change (secession of Poland and union of Bessarabia with Romania), emigration and assimilation.

1939[118] 3,028,538 A result of natural growth, emigration, assimilation and repressions
Early 1941 5,400,000 A result of the annexation of Western Ukraine and Belarus, Baltic republics, and inflow of Jewish refugees from Poland
1959 2,279,277 See the Holocaust and immigration to Israel.
1970 2,166,026 A result of natural population decline (death rates being greater than birth rates), emigration, and assimilation (such as intermarriage)
1979 1,830,317 Decline for the same reason as for 1970
1989 1,479,732 Soviet Census (1989). Final census in the entire Soviet Union. Decline for the same reason as for 1970.
2000[119] 460,000 A result of mass emigration, natural population decline, and assimilation.
Jewish population in each SSR and former SSR by year (using 1989 SSR borders)[120][a]
SSR 1897 1926 1939 1959 1970 1979 1989 2002[121] 2010[122]
Russian SFSR/Russia 250,000[123] 539,037 891,147 880,443 816,668 713,399 570,467 265,000 159,348
Ukrainian SSR/Ukraine 2,680,000[124] 2,720,000[125] 2,700,000[126][127][c] 840,446 777,406 634,420 487,555 100,000 71,500
Byelorussian SSR/Belarus 690,000[128][c] 150,090 148,027 135,539 112,031 24,300 12,926[129][d]
Moldavian SSR/Moldova 250,000[130] 95,108 98,091 80,193 65,933 5,500 4,100
Estonian SSR/Estonia 4,309[131] 5,439 5,290 4,993 4,653 1,900 1,800
Latvian SSR/Latvia 95,675[132][b] 95,600[131] 36,604 36,686 28,338 22,925 9,600 6,454[133][e]
Lithuanian SSR/Lithuania 263,000[131] 24,683 23,566 14,703 12,398 3,700 3,050[134][e]
Georgian SSR/Georgia 30,534 42,300 51,589 55,398 28,315 24,834 5,000 3,200
Armenian SSR/Armenia 335 512 1,042 1,049 962 747 <100 <100
Azerbaijan SSR/Azerbaijan 59,768 41,245 46,091 49,057 44,345 41,072 7,900 9,100[135][d]
Turkmen SSR/Turkmenistan 2,045 3,037 4,102 3,530 2,866 2,509 600 200
Uzbek SSR/Uzbekistan 37,896 50,676 94,488 103,058 100,067 95,104 6,000 4,500
Tajik SSR/Tajikistan 275 5,166 12,435 14,627 14,697 14,836 100 <100
Kirghiz SSR/Kyrgyzstan 318 1,895 8,632 7,687 6,879 6,012 900 600
Kazakh SSR/Kazakhstan 3,548 19,240 28,085 27,676 23,601 20,104 4,500 3,700
Soviet Union/Former Soviet Union 5,250,000 2,672,499 3,028,538 2,279,277 2,166,026 1,830,317 1,479,732 460,000 280,678
Historical Russian Jewish population
Year Pop. ±%
1897 250,000 —    
1926 539,037 +115.6%
1939 891,147 +65.3%
1959 880,443 −1.2%
1970 816,668 −7.2%
1979 713,399 −12.6%
1989 570,467 −20.0%
2002 265,000 −53.5%
2010 159,348 −39.9%
Source: [120][121][122][123]
The Jewish population data includes Mountain Jews, Georgian Jews, Bukharan Jews (or Central Asian Jews), Krymchaks (all per the 1959 Soviet census), and Tats.[136]
Jewish population in each SSR and former SSR by year (using 1989 SSR borders) as a percent of the total population[120][a]
SSR % 1926 % 1939 % 1959 % 1970 % 1979 % 1989 % 2002[121] % 2010[122]
Russian SFSR/Russia 0.58% 0.81% 0.75% 0.63% 0.52% 0.39% 0.18% 0.11%
Ukrainian SSR/Ukraine 6.55%[137][c] 2.01% 1.65% 1.28% 0.95% 0.20% 0.16%
Byelorussian SSR/Belarus 6.55%[138][c] 1.86% 1.64% 1.42% 1.10% 0.24% 0.14%[129][d]
Moldavian SSR/Moldova 3.30% 2.75% 2.03% 1.52% 0.13% 0.11%
Estonian SSR/Estonia 0.38%[131] 0.45% 0.39% 0.34% 0.30% 0.14% 0.13%
Latvian SSR/Latvia 5.19%[132][b] 4.79%[131] 1.75% 1.55% 1.13% 0.86% 0.40% 0.31%[133][e]
Lithuanian SSR/Lithuania 9.13%[131] 0.91% 0.75% 0.43% 0.34% 0.10% 0.10%[134][e]
Georgian SSR/Georgia 1.15% 1.19% 1.28% 1.18% 0.57% 0.46% 0.10% 0.08%
Armenian SSR/Armenia 0.04% 0.04% 0.06% 0.04% 0.03% 0.02% <0.01% <0.01%
Azerbaijan SSR/Azerbaijan 2.58% 1.29% 1.25% 0.96% 0.74% 0.58% 0.10% 0.10%[135][d]
Turkmen SSR/Turkmenistan 0.20% 0.24% 0.27% 0.16% 0.10% 0.07% 0.01% <0.01%
Uzbek SSR/Uzbekistan 0.80% 0.81% 1.17% 0.86% 0.65% 0.48% 0.02% 0.02%
Tajik SSR/Tajikistan 0.03% 0.35% 0.63% 0.50% 0.39% 0.29% <0.01% <0.01%
Kirghiz SSR/Kyrgyzstan 0.03% 0.13% 0.42% 0.26% 0.20% 0.14% 0.02% 0.01%
Kazakh SSR/Kazakhstan 0.06% 0.31% 0.30% 0.22% 0.16% 0.12% 0.03% 0.02%
Soviet Union/Former Soviet Union 1.80% 1.80% 1.09% 0.90% 0.70% 0.52% 0.16% 0.10%

a^ The Jewish population data for all of the years includes Mountain Jews, Georgian Jews, Bukharan Jews (or Central Asian Jews), Krymchaks (all per the 1959 Soviet census), and Tats.[119]
b^ The data is from 1926.
c^ The data is from 1941.
d^ The data is from 2009.
e^ The data is from 2011.

Russian Jewish aliyah and immigration to countries outside of Israel


Soviet authorities break up a demonstration of Jewish refuseniks in front of the Ministry of Internal Affairs for the right to make aliyah, January 10, 1973[139]
Year TFR
2000 1.544
1999 1.612
1998 1.632
1997 1.723
1996 1.743
1995 1.731
1994 1.756
1993 1.707
1992 1.604
1991 1.398
1990 1.390

In present times, the largest number of Russian Jews are olim (עוֹלים) and sabras. Israel is home to a core Russian Jewish population of 900,000 and an enlarged population of 1,200,000 (including Halakhally non-Jewish members of Jewish households, but excluding those who are not considered olim or otherwise legally residing of Israel).[140][not in citation given] The Aliyah in the 1990s accounts for 85–90% of this population. The population growth rate for Former Soviet Union (FSU)-born olim were among the lowest for any Israeli groups, with a Fertility rate of 1.70 and natural increase of just +0.5% per year.[141] The increase in Jewish birth rate in Israel during the 2000–2007 period was partly due to the increasing birth rate among the FSU olim, who now form 20% of the Jewish population of Israel.[142][143] 96.5% of the enlarged Russian Jewish population in Israel is either Jewish or non-religious, while 3.5% (35,000) belong to other religions (mostly Christianity) and about 10,000 identifying as Messianic Jews separate from Jewish Christians.[144]

The Total Fertility Rate for FSU-born olim in Israel is given in the table below. The TFR increased with time, peaking in 1997, then slightly decreased after that and then again increased after 2000.[141]

In 1999, about 1,037,000 FSU-born olim lived in Israel, of whom about 738,900 made aliyah after 1989.[145][146] The second largest oleh (עוֹלֶה) group (Moroccan Jews) numbered just 1,000,000. From 2000–2006, 142,638 FSU-born olim moved to Israel, while 70,000 of them emigrated from Israel to countries like the U.S. and Canada—bringing the total population to 1,150,000 by January 2007.[1] The natural increase was around 0.3% in the late 1990s. For example, 2,456 in 1996 (7,463 births to 5,007 deaths), 2,819 in 1997 (8,214 to 5,395), 2,959 in 1998 (8,926 to 5,967) and 2,970 in 1999 (9,282 to 6,312). In 1999, the natural growth was +0.385%. (Figures only for FSU-born olim moved in after 1989).[147]

An estimated 45,000 illegal immigrants from the Former Soviet Union lived in Israel at the end of 2010, but it is not clear how many of them are actually Jews.[148]

Currently, Russia has the highest rate of aliyah among all countries. In 2013, 7,520 people, nearly 40% of all olim, made aliyah from the Former Soviet Union.[149][150][151][152] In 2014 4,685 Russian citizens relocated to Israel, more than double than usual in any of the previous 16 years.[153]

Recent olim and olot (עוֹלות) from the Former Soviet Union include notables such as Natan Sharansky, Yuri Foreman, Yuli-Yoel Edelstein, Ze'ev Elkin, Nachman Dushanski, Boris Gelfand, Natasha Mozgovaya, Avigdor Lieberman, Roman Dzindzichashvili, Anastassia Michaeli, Haim Megrelashvili, Victor Mikhalevski, Evgeny Postny, Maxim Rodshtein, Tatiana Zatulovskaya, Maria Gorokhovskaya, Katia Pisetsky, Aleksandr Averbukh, Anna Smashnova, Jan Talesnikov, Vadim Alexeev, Michael Kolganov, Alexander Danilov, Evgenia Linetskaya, Marina Kravchenko, David Kazhdan, Leonid Nevzlin, Vadim Akolzin, Roman Bronfman, Michael Cherney, Arcadi Gaydamak, Sergei Sakhnovski, Roman Zaretski, Alexandra Zaretski, Larisa Trembovler, Boris Tsirelson, Ania Bukstein and Margarita Levieva.

United States

File:Regina Spektor black and white.jpg
American singer Regina Spektor, who cites poets such as Pasternak in her songs.

The second largest Russian Jewish population is in the United States. According to RINA, there is a core Russian Jewish population of 350,000 in the U.S. The enlarged Russian Jewish population in the U.S. is estimated to be 700,000.[2]

Notable Russia, Imperial Russia, Soviet Union, and former Soviet Union, born Jewish Americans (living and deceased) include Alexei Abrikosov, Isaac Asimov, Leonard Blavatnik, Sergey Brin, Joseph Brodsky, Sergei Dovlatov, Anthony Fedorov, Israel Gelfand, Emma Goldman, Vladimir Horowitz, Gregory Kaidanov, Avi Kaplan, Jan Koum, Savely Kramarov, Mila Kunis, Leonid Levin, Lev Loseff, Alexander Migdal, Eugene Mirman, Alla Nazimova, Ayn Rand, Dmitry Salita, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Yakov Sinai, Mikhail Shifman, Mikhail Shufutinsky, Regina Spektor, Willi Tokarev, and Arkady Vainshtein.

Large Russian Jewish communities include Brighton Beach and Sheepshead Bay in the Brooklyn Borough of New York City; Fair Lawn and nearby areas in Bergen County, New Jersey; Bucks and Montgomery Counties near Philadelphia; Pikesville, Maryland, a predominantly-Jewish suburb of Baltimore; Washington Heights in the Sunny Isles Beach neighborhood of South Florida; and West Hollywood, California.


The fourth largest Russian-Jewish community exists in Germany with a core Russian-Jewish population of 119,000 and an enlarged population of 250,000.[154][155][156]

In 1991–2006 period, approximately 230,000 Ethnic Jews from the FSU immigrated to Germany. In the beginning of 2006, Germany tightened the immigration program. A survey conducted among approximately 215,000 enlarged Russian Jewish population (taking natural decrease into consideration) indicated that about 81% of the enlarged population was Jewish or Atheist by religion, while about 18.5% identified as Christian. That gives a core Russian Jewish population of 111,800 (religion Jewish, 52%) or 174,150 (religion Jewish or Atheist).[157][158]

Notable Russian Jews in Germany include Valery Belenky, Maxim Biller, Friedrich Gorenstein, Wladimir Kaminer, Lev Kopelev, Alfred Schnittke, and Vladimir Voinovich.


The fifth largest Russian Jewish community is in Canada. The core Russian Jewish population in Canada numbers 30,000 and the enlarged Russian Jewish population numbered 50,000+, mostly in Montreal and Toronto.[159] Notable Russian Jewish residents include Mark Berger and the musical group Tasseomancy.


Small number of FSU Jews exist in Australia (Core population of 10,000 constituting 33% of all Russian born and 25% of all Ukrainian born citizens in 1996 Census. Enlarged population around 20,000).[160]


Hundreds of Russian Jews have moved to Finland since 1990 and have helped to stem the negative population growth of the Jewish community there.[161] The total number of Jews in Finland have grown from 800 in 1980 to 1,200 in 2006. Of all the schoolgoing Jewish children, 75% have at least one Russian born parent.

Other countries

The Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Finland, Belgium, New Zealand, Italy, Austria, and Switzerland also have small populations of Russian Jews. The addition of Russian Jews have neutralized the negative Jewish population trends in some European countries like The Netherlands and Austria. Notable Russian Jews in France include Léon Bakst, Marc Chagall, Leon Poliakov, Evgeny Kissin, Alexandre Koyré, Ida Rubinstein, Lev Shestov, and Anatoly Vaisser. Some other notable Russian Jews are Roman Abramovich, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Boris Berezovsky, and Maxim Vengerov (United Kingdom), Gennadi Sosonko (Netherlands), Viktor Korchnoi (Switzerland), and Maya Plisetskaya (Spain).

See also


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Further reading

External links