History of the Jews in Russia

History of the Jews in Russia

The vast territories of the Russian Empire at one time hosted the largest Jewish population in the world. Within these territories the Jewish community flourished and developed many of modern Judaism's most distinctive theological and cultural traditions, while also facing periods of intense antisemitic discriminatory policies and persecutions. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, many Soviet Jews took advantage of liberalized emigration policies, with over half their population leaving, most for Israel, the United States and Germany. Despite this, the Jews in Russia and the nations of the former Soviet Union still constitute one of the larger Jewish populations in Europe.

Early history

Tradition places Jews in contemporary southern Russia, Ukraine, Armenia, and Georgia since the Babylonian captivity, and 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.Fact|date=June 2008 Under the influence of these Jewish communities, Bulan, the Khagan Bek of the Khazars, and the ruling classes of Khazaria (located in what is now Ukraine, Southern Russia and Kazakhstan), adopted Judaism at some point in the mid-to-late 8th or early 9th centuries. After the overthrow of the Khazarian kingdom by Sviatoslav I of Kiev (969), Khazar Jews may have fled in large numbers to the Crimea, the Caucasus, and the Russian principality of Kiev which was formerly a part of the Khazar territory. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Jews appear to have occupied a separate quarter in Kiev, known as the Jewish town (Old Russian Жидове, "Zhidove", i.e. ‘The Jews’), the gates probably leading to which were known as the Jewish gates (Old Russian Жидовская ворота, "Zhidovskaya vorota"). The Kievan community was oriented towards Byzantium (the Romaniotes), Babylonia and Palestine in the tenth and eleventh centuries, but appears to have been increasingly open to the European Ashkenazim from the twelfth century on. 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. [A.I. Pereswetoff-Morath, "A Grin without a Cat", vol. 2: "Jews and Christians in Medieval Russia – Assessing the Sources" (Lund Slavonic Monographs, 5), Lund 2002]

Though northeastern Russia had few Jews, 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 naturally accepted Polish ruler Casimir III's invitation to settle in Polish-controlled areas of Eastern Europe as a third estate, performing commercial, middleman services in an agricultural society for the Polish king and nobility between 1330 and 1370, during Casimir the Great's reign. Approximately 85 percent of the Jews in Poland during the 14th century were involved in estate management, tax and toll collecting, moneylending or trade.Fact|date=June 2008

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 the Jews from Grand Duchy of Lithuania but reversed his decision in 1503.

Vilna Gaon] 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.

Tsarist Russia (1480s-1917)

Documentary evidence as to the presence of Jews in Muscovite Russia is first found in the chronicles of 1471. The relatively small population of Jews were generally free of major persecution: although there were laws against them during this period, they do not appear to be strictly enforced.

In the 1480s the principality of Muscovy became the religious equivalent of the Caliphate or Holy Roman Empire. Based on the theory of the Third Rome, it was believed that the Tsar ruled the only rightful, practically independent Orthodox state, surrounded by Muslim and Roman Catholic states. According to prophecy, there were to be only three "Romes", that is, centers of rightful religious faith. The first two, ancient Rome and Constantinople, have already fallen, leaving the only hope on earth with Moscow. The religious zeal of such a theory reasoned for the ultimate measures against the "enemies of the faith", including the Jews.

Muscovite treatment of the Jews became harsher in the reign of Ivan IV, The Terrible (1533-84). For example, in his conquest of Polotsk in February 1563, some 300 local Jews who declined to convert to Christianity were, according to legend, drowned in the Dvina.

Jews were not tolerated in the area of Muscovy, from 1721 the official doctrine of Imperial Russia was openly antisemitic. Even if Jews were tolerated for some modest time, eventually they were expelled, as when the captured part of Ukraine was cleared of Jews in the year 1727. These policies made Muscovite Russia a very hostile environment for Jewish people.

"See also Chmielnicki Uprising"

Pale of Settlement and Pogroms

The traditional measures of keeping Russia free of Jews failed when the main territory of Poland was annexed during the partitions. During the second (1793) and the third (1795) partitions, large populations of Jews were taken over by Russia, and the Tsar established a Pale of Settlement that included Poland and Crimea. Jews were supposed to remain in the Pale and required special permission to move to Russia proper, while Russian officials pursued alternating policies designed to encourage assimilation (such as opening public schools to Jews) and destroy independent Jewish life (such as forbidding Jews to live in certain towns).

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 Communism threatened the old tsarist order. Assuming that many radicals were of Jewish extraction, tsarist officials increasingly resorted to popularizing religious and nationalistic fanaticism.

Alexander II, known as the "Tsar liberator" for the 1861 abolition of serfdom in Russia, was also known for his suppression of national minorities. Under his rule Jews could not commission Christian servants, could not own land, and were restricted to where they could and couldn't travel. [Duffy, James P., Vincent L. Ricci, "Czars: Russia's Rulers for Over One Thousand Years", p. 324] Nevertheless, he approved the policy of Polish politician Alexander Wielopolski in the Kingdom of Poland that gave Jews equal rights to other citizens (the prior status of Jews was different; it is questionable whether this distinct status was more or less beneficial). Alexander III was a staunch reactionary who strictly adhered to the old maxim "Autocracy, Orthodoxy, and Nationalism." His escalation of anti-Jewish policies sought to popularize "folk antisemitism," which portrayed the Jews as "Christ-killers" and the oppressors of the Slavic, Christian victims.

A large-scale wave of anti-Jewish pogroms swept southwestern Russia in 1881, after Jews were wrongly blamed for the assassination of Alexander II. In the 1881 outbreak, there were pogroms in 166 Russian towns, thousands of Jewish homes were destroyed, many families reduced to extremes of poverty;Fact|date=June 2008 large numbers of men, women, and children were injured and some killed. The new czar, Alexander III, blamed the Jews for the riots and on May 15, 1882 introduced the so-called "Temporary Regulations" ("Временные правила") that stayed in effect for more than thirty years and came to be known as the May Laws.

The Chief Procurator of the Holy Synod and the tsar's mentor, friend, and adviser Konstantin Pobedonostsev was reported as saying that one-third of Russia's Jews was expected to emigrate, one-third to accept baptism, and one-third to starve. [ [http://www.memo.ru/hr/referats/hatespch/kis_kop.htm History of the national question in Russia] at Russian Committee in defense of the human rights (in Russian), also in [http://www.axt.org.uk/antisem/archive/archive4/russia/russia.htm AXT: Russia] and in "Studies in Comparative Genocide" by Levon Chorbajian (p.237)] The repressive legislation was repeatedly revised. Many historians noted the concurrence of these state-enforced antisemitic policies with waves of pogroms ["A History of Russia" by Nicholas Riasanovsky, p.395] 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 Jews 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%. Strict restrictions prohibited Jews from practicing many professions. In 1886, an Edict of Expulsion was enforced on Jews of Kiev. In 1891, Moscow was cleansed of its Jews (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." ["But Were They Good for the Jews?" by Elliot Rosenberg, p.183] The restrictions placed on education, traditionally highly valued in Jewish communities, resulted in ambition to excel over the peers and increased emigration rates.

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… That way, reverse proportional representation was achieved: the majority of town's taxpayers had to be subjugated to minority governing the town against Jewish interests." ["The newest history of the Jewish people, 1789-1914" by Simon Dubnow, vol.3, Russian ed., p.152]

Mass emigration and political activism

The Jewish population in the Jewish Autonomous Oblast of the Russian Far East as of 2002 is 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. [http://www.eki.ee/books/redbook/asian_jews.shtml]

The Georgian Jews numbered about 35,700 in 1964, most of them living in Georgia. [http://www.eki.ee/books/redbook/georgian_jews.shtml]

The Caucasian Mountain Jews, also known as Tats or Dagchufuts, live mostly in Dagestan, with a scattered population in Azerbaijan. In 1959, they numbered around 15,000 in Dagestan and 10,000 in Azerbaijan. Their Tat language is a dialect of Persian. [http://www.eki.ee/books/redbook/mountain_jews.shtml]

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 USA 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. [http://www.eki.ee/books/redbook/crimean_jews.shtml]

Russian Jewish Diaspora


The largest number of Russian Jews now live in Israel, not in Russia. Israel is home to a core Russian-Jewish population of 825,000 and an enlarged population of 1,150,000 (including halachically non-Jewish members of Jewish households, but excluding 70,000 of them who reside in Israel illegally).Fact|date=June 2008 The Aliyah in 1990s accounts for 85-90% of this population. The population growth rate for FSU immigrants were among the lowest for any Israeli groups, with a Fertility rate of 1.70 and natural increase of just +0.5% per year. [http://www.demographic-research.org/volumes/vol10/4/10-4.pdf Fertility behaviour of recent immigrants to Israel: A comparative analysis of immigrants from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union ] ] The increase in Jewish birth rate in Israel during the 2000-2007 period was partly due to the increasing birth rate among the FSU immigrants, who now form 20% of the Jewish population of Israel. [http://wsupress.wayne.edu/judaica/folklore/fialkovaesi/fialkovaINT.pdf] [http://www.jafi.org.il/education/100/concepts/demography/Tolts_Article1.pdf] 96.5% of the enlarged Russian Jewish population in Israel is either Jewish or non-religious, while 3.5% (35,000) belongs to other religions (mostly Christians) and about 10,000 messianic Jews. [ [http://www.cbs.gov.il/yarhon/c1_e.htm Monthly Bulletin of Statistics ] ]

The Total Fertility Rate for FSU immigrants 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.

As of 1999, about 1,037,000 FSU immigrants lived in Israel, of whom about 738,900 immigrated after 1989. [http://www.middle-east-info.org/league/israel/israelpopulation.pdf] [http://www1.cbs.gov.il/www/population/ussrp/tab01.pdf] The second largest ethnic group (Moroccans) numbered just 501,000. In 2000-2006 period 142,638 FSU immigrants moved to Israel. While 70,000 of them emigrated from Israel to countries like USA and Canada, bringing the total population to 1,150,000 by 2007 January (Excluding illegals). [ [http://www.cbs.gov.il/archive/200701/yarhon/e4_e.htm Monthly Bulletin of Statistics ] ] The natural increase was around 0.3% in late 90s. 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 immigrants moved in after 1989). [ [http://www1.cbs.gov.il/www/population/ussrp_e.htm Mmigrant Population From The Former Ussr ] ]

Notable recent immigrants from FSU include Lev Leviev, Avigdor Lieberman, Roman Dzindzichashvili, Akiva Megrelashvili, Haim Megrelashvili, Victor Mikhalevski, Evgeny Postny, Maxim Rodshtein, Tatiana Zatulovskaya, Maria Gorokhovskaya, Katia Pisetsky, Aleksandr Averbukh, 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, Natan Sharansky, Roman Zaretski, Alexandra Zaretski, Larisa Trembovler and Boris Tsirelson.


The second largest population is in the USA. According to RINA, there is a core Russian-Jewish population of 350,000 in USA. The enlarged Russian Jewish population in USA is estimated to be 700,000. [http://www.ajcrussian.org/atf/cf/%7B66BD09D8-5251-4553-8C19-5FC7BEAF0E76%7D/russian_jews_in_america.pdf] . Most noticeable FSU Jews in USA are Dmitry Salita, Sergey Brin, Alexei Alexeyevich Abrikosov, Regina Spektor, Anthony Fedorov and Gregory Kaidanov. Bukharan Jews alone number close to 50,000 in USA, mostly in Queens and Phoenix. [http://www.jewishaz.com/jewishnews/050304/bucharian.shtml]


The number of Russian Jews remaining in FSU is dwindling. The number of core Russian-Jews was estimated at 435,000 in 2002 and the enlarged Jewish population estimated at 800,000. (At 1.9 ratio given in JAFI) [http://www.jafi.org.il/education/100/concepts/demography/demjpop.html] . The core Russian Jewish population for FSU was estimated at 366,000 in 2006. The enlarged Russian Jewish population stands at 700,000. [http://www.sras.org/news2.phtml?m=779]


The fourth largest Russian-Jewish community exists in Germany with a core Russian-Jewish population of 110,000 and an enlarged population of 200,000. [Sergio DellaPergola, [http://www.jafi.org.il/education/100/concepts/demography/demjpop.html "World Jewish Population 2002"] , American Jewish Year Book, 102, New York, 2002] [ [http://www.zentralratdjuden.de Central Council of Jews in Germany] ] [ [http://www.berlin-judentum.de/englisch/immigration.htm Foreigners in Wonderland: Jewish immigration from the former Soviet Union] by Judith Kessler]

In 1991-2006 period, approximately 230,000 ethnic Jews from FSU immigrated to Germany. In the beginning of 2006, Germany tightened the immigration program. A survey conducted among the 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 Christians. That gives a core Russian Jewish population of 111,800 (religion Jewish, 52%) or 174,150 (religion Jewish or Atheist). [ru icon [http://demoscope.ru/weekly/2007/0303/analit06.php В Германии началась депопуляция еврейских общин] (In Germany, Depopulation of Jewish Community Has Begun) by Pavel Polian. Demoscope] [ru icon [http://demoscope.ru/weekly/2007/0303/analit07.php Новое о еврейских иммигрантах из б. СССР в Германию. Результаты государственного обследования] ("New About Jewish Immigrants from FSU to Germany.") by Pavel Polyan. Demoscope]

Notable Russian Jews in Germany include Valery Belenky, Lev Kopelev.


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. [http://jewishtoronto.org/getfile.asp?id=13787] Notable Russian Jewish residents includes Mark Berger.


Small number of FSU Jews exist in Australia (Core population of 10,000 constituting 33% of all Russian born and 25% of all Ukranian born citizens in 1996 Census. Enlarged population around 20,000) [http://www.abs.gov.au] . Some Jewish organizations claim that there are up to 50,000 Russian Jews in Australia.


Hundreds of Russian Jews have moved to Finland since 1990 and have helped to stem the negative population growth of the Jewish community there. [http://www.jewishtoronto.net/page.html?ArticleID=142181] 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, England, Finland, Belgium, New Zealand, Italy, Austria and Switzerland. The addition of Russian Jews have neutrilized the negative Jewish natural increase in some European countries like The Netherlands and Austria. There are a considerable number of Russian Jews living in England, most noticeable ones being Roman Abramovich, Boris Berezovsky and Selig Brodetsky. Notable ones in France include Anatoly Vaisser, Leon Poliakov and Lev Shestov. Some other important Russian Jews are Gennadi Sosonko (Netherlands), Anna Smashnova (Italy), Viktor Korchnoi (Switzerland) and Maya Plisetskaya (Spain).

See also

*History of the Jews in Ukraine
*History of the Jews in Belarus

* Jewish history and Jewish diaspora
** Timeline of Jewish History
** History of the Jews in Poland
** History of the Jews in Carpathian Ruthenia
** History of the Jews in Bessarabia
** Ashkenazi Jews - Lithuanian Jews - Galician Jews - Georgian Jews - Bukharan Jews - Mountain Jews
** History of antisemitism
** Sect of Skhariya the Jew
** Jews and Judaism in the Jewish Autonomous Oblast
** Jewish Cossacks

* Regional history
** History of the Soviet Union
** History of Russia

*List of Jews from Russia, Ukraine and Belarus


External links

* [http://www.fjc.ru/ Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS]
* [http://www.chabad.org/centers/default_cdo/country/Russia/jewish/Chabad-Lubavitch.htm Chabad-Lubavitch centers in Russia]
* [http://www.shtetlinks.jewishgen.org/Colonies_of_Ukraine Jewish Agricultural Colonization in the Ukraine]

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