History of the Jews in Russia

Russian Jews
יהדות רוסיה (Hebrew)
Русские евреи (Russian)
רוסישע ייִדן (Yiddish)
Regions with significant populations
Israel 1,200,000 [1]
United States 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): [3] [4] [5]
1 million people of Jewish descent ( Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia 2015) [6]
Germany 119,000[ citation needed]
Canada 69,000[ citation needed]
Australia 20,000[ citation needed]
Languages
Hebrew, Russian, English, Yiddish
Religion
Judaism (31%), Atheist (27%), [7] Non-religious (25%), Christianity (17%) [7] [8]
Related ethnic groups
Ashkenazi Jews, Sephardic Jews, Ukrainian Jews, Belarusian Jews, Lithuanian Jews, Latvian Jews, Czech Jews, Hungarian Jews, Polish Jews, Slovak Jews, Serbian Jews, Romanian Jews, Crimean Karaites, Krymchaks, Mountain Jews, Bukharan Jews, Georgian Jews

Jews in the Russian Empire have historically constituted a large religious diaspora; 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 anti-Semitic discriminatory policies and persecutions. The largest group among Russian Jews are Ashkenazi Jews, but the community also includes a significant number of other Diasporan Jewish groups, such as Mountain Jews, Sephardic Jews (of Iberian ancestry), 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.

The Pale of Settlement took away many of the rights that the Jewish people of the late 17th century Russia were experiencing. At this time, the Jewish people were restricted to a small area of what is current day Belarus, Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine. [10] Where Western Europe was experiencing emancipation at this time, the laws for the Jewish people were getting more strict. The general attitude towards Jewish people was to look down on the religion and the people. It was as both a religion and a race, something that one could not escape if they tried. [10] Slowly, the Jewish people were allowed to move further east towards a less crowded population. This was a small change, and did not come to all Jewish people, and not even a small minority of them. [10] In this more spread out area, the Jewish people lived in communities, known as Schtetls. These communities were very similar to what would be known as ghettos in World War II, with the cramped and subpar living conditions. [10]

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. [11]:565 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. [12] These were probably the largest-scale European massacres of Jews to date. [13] 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. [14]

In August 1919 the Soviet government arrested many rabbis, seized Jewish properties, including synagogues, and dissolved many Jewish communities. [15] The Jewish section of the Communist Party labeled the use of the Hebrew language "reactionary" and "elitist" and the teaching of Hebrew was banned. [16] Zionists were persecuted harshly, with Jewish communists leading the attacks. [11]:567

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 ethnic slur жид ("Yid") being punished by up to one year of imprisonment, [17] 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. [11]:567 At the beginning of the 1930s, the Jews were 1.8 percent of the Soviet population but 12–15 percent of all university students. [18]

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. [19] Today, the JAO is Russia's only autonomous oblast [20] and, aside of Israel, the world's only Jewish territory with an official status. [21]

The observance of the Sabbath was banned in 1929, [11]:567 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. [11]:567 [22] 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". [23]:83

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). [23]:84 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. [24] Over 150 were designated Heroes of the Soviet Union, the highest award in the country. [25]

More than two million Soviet Jews are believed to have died during the Holocaust in warfare and in Nazi-occupied territories.

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. [26] Russia's Jewish population is still the third biggest in Europe, after France and United Kingdom. [27] In November 2012, the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, one of the world's biggest museums of Jewish history, opened in Moscow. [28] In recent years, particularly since the early 2000s, levels of anti-semitism in Russia have been low, and steadily decreasing. [29] [30] However, there have still been incidents of antisemitism recorded. [30] Some have described a 'renaissance' in the Jewish community inside Russia since the beginning of the 21st century. [31]

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. [32] 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. [33] [34] [34] 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.