According to the estimates of Hebrew University demographer Sergio DellaPergola’s World Jewish Population, 2016, Russia is home to 179,500 Jews and comprises the world’s seventh largest Jewish community. Despite repeated instances of anti-Semitism throughout the centuries, Russian Jewry has deep historical roots in the country. The Russian affiliates of the World Jewish Congress are the Russian Jewish Congress and the Federation of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Russia (Va’ad).
Russian Jewish Congress
President: Yuri Kanner, also a WJC President and member of the WJC Steering Committee
Executive Director: Anna Bokshitskaya
Federation of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Russia (Va’ad)
Telephone: +7 095 230 6700
Fax: +7 095 238 1346
President: Mikhail Chlenov, also a WJC Vice President
Jews have lived in the Caucasus region of Europe and Asia, roughly between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, since the 7th century of the Common Era. After western Russia came under Lithuanian control in the 14th century, Jews were granted privileges. It was during this period that many Jews emigrated to portions of western Russia and Ukraine. However, they were soon subjected to discrimination and persecution, with Ivan the Terrible (1533-1584) ordering the complete expulsion of Jews. A succession of violent massacres starting in the middle of the 17th century and the exclusion of Jewish traders from Muscovy under Czar Fyodor (1676-1682) serve as other notable examples of discriminatory events that plagued the community.
The Jewish population of Russia increased dramatically after the first partition of Poland in 1772, with large numbers of Jews coming under Russian rule. A series of edicts limited the parts of Russia where Jews were allowed to live, and restricted the professions in which they could engage. Increased assimilation of Jews into Russian society during the 19th century resulted in a wave of popular anti-Semitism and pogroms. By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, anti-Semitic attitudes were firmly entrenched in all segments of Russian society, perhaps most blatantly epitomized by the wide dissemination and acceptance of the forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which purported to chronicle a non-existent international Jewish conspiracy. At the same time, individual Russian Jews were prominent in the different social-democratic, socialist and communist movements, and also formed the early Zionist Hibbat Zion movement, a precursor of Theodor Herzl’s political Zionism.
The Soviet period saw a continuation of the rather precarious situation of Jews in Russia, in which instances of integration and social, cultural, or even political contribution to the country were blighted by explosions of anti-Semitic behavior and rhetoric. Jews played an important role in the Russian Revolution, with Karl Radek and Leon Trotsky serving as enormously influential Communist thinkers in the early days of Bolshevik rule, working closely with Vladimir Lenin (though it should be noted both were purged, with Radek killed by a NKVD operative in a Soviet labor camp in 1939, and Trotsky assassinated in Mexico by a Stalinist agent the following year).
During the early Soviet period, many Jews from Belarus and Ukraine settled in what is now Russia, largely drawn to the major cities and towns that offered the greatest opportunities for educational and professional advancement. The Soviet authorities officially recognized the Jews as a national group that was entitled to its own cultural institutions. However, the practice of Judaism was strongly discouraged, and those who continued to do so against all odds were subjected to harsh repression.
In 1928, Birobidzhan, a city on the northern bank of the Amur River bordering China, became the administrative center of the newly established Jewish Autonomous Oblast. This province was meant to solve economic issues within the community, but was largely implemented under anti-Semitic pretenses. At this time, somewhat contradictory to certain government actions, many secular Jews obtained high positions within the Soviet government. Maxim Litvinov served as the People’s Commisar for Foreign Affairs from 1930 to 1939 and later as Soviet Ambassador to the United States from 1941 to 1943. Ivan Maisky, a close friend and associate of Litvinov, served as the Soviet Ambassador to the United Kingdom from 1932 to 1943.
During World War II, the Stalinist anti-Semitic rhetoric was relaxed somewhat, and Jews played an important role in the Soviet war effort, both at the front (in which they served in greater numbers proportionally than many other national groups) and in military production. Although much of Soviet Jewry was decimated in the Shoah, many of those living in Russia proper (notably in Moscow and Leningrad) were spared. Immediately after the war, the campaign to suppress Soviet Jewry was renewed, culminating in 1952-1953, at the end of Stalin’s life, in the so-called Doctors’ Plot, in which a group of prominent mostly Jewish physicians in Moscow were falsely accused of conspiring to assassinate the Soviet leadership. Although the situation of Soviet Jewry improved somewhat after Stalin’s death – the charges against the doctors were dropped and many Jews imprisoned in the gulag were released – Jewish culture continued to be, for the most part, ruthlessly suppressed. Jewish religious articles and books were smuggled into the country, and clandestine study and worship groups were established, but the great majority of Soviet Jews had access to neither. Many of the Jews engaged in clandestine Jewish activities, known as “Refuseniks,” were imprisoned and denied the right to leave the country. Under the slogan “Let My People Go,” demonstrations were mounted throughout many western countries, and governments and parliaments were lobbied in order to bring pressure to bear on the Soviet authorities. With the rise to power of Mikhail Gorbachev and the policy of glasnost, the situation for Jews improved, and by the end of the decade as the Soviet Union began to crumble, most restrictions on Jews had been lifted.
Following the dissolution of the Soviet state in 1991, the Russian Jewish population declined, as large numbers of Jews left Russia and the former Soviet States for primarily Israel and the United States. The newly formed Russian Federation declared freedom of religion and equality of rights for all ethnic minorities, easing some of the restrictions placed on Russian Jewry during the Soviet Union and dissolving state-sponsored anti-Semitism. However, xenophobia and grassroots anti-Semitism persisted in broader Russian society, despite the large advances made by Russian Jewry. In the modern era, Russian Jews have contributed largely to Russian society, serving in high offices of the state. Mikhail Fardkov served as Prime Minister from 2004 to 2007 and later as Director of the Foreign Intelligence Service from 2007 to 2016. Currently, Vladimir Zhirinovsky serves as member of the State Duma and Leader of the Liberal Democratic Party (since 1992), as well as having been the Deputy Chairman of the State Duma from 2000 to 2011.
In the years leading up to World War II, there was enormous tension between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Mutual distrust and suspicion dominated the political relationship between the two countries, until Hitler and Stalin shocked the world, signing a non-aggression pact in 1939 called the Molotov-Ribbentrop Treaty. This agreement defined territorial spheres of influence Germany and Russia would enjoy after invading and “splitting up” Poland. The Jews living in the region were caught between the territorial appetites of the two dictators.
Upon the outbreak of the war, Germany and the U.S.S.R. divided Poland among themselves, but in June 1941, the short-lived Moscow-Berlin alliance came to an end with the German invasion of the Soviet Union. Operation Barbarossa, the code name given to the Axis-plan to invade and conquer the Soviet Union, saw many Russian Jews targeted and annihilated by the Nazis in the first murderous phase of the Holocaust, with the Einsatzgruppen – mobile Nazi killing units – deployed behind the front lines to annihilate Jews and communists.
The arrival of Himmler’s representatives from the SS saw a larger, more concentrated effort to completely annihilate entire Jewish communities in Russia. The Zmievskaya Balka massacre in 1942, coincided with the proliferation of Nazi killing efforts in the Soviet Union. In this particularly heinous event, Nazis forced 27,000 victims (about 15,000-18,000 were Jewish) on a marching massacre that ended in mass execution by gunfire. Moreover, military success in Russia saw Hitler decide to begin deporting German Jews to the occupied Soviet Union as part of the “Final Solution” policy.
As the German invasion dragged on, Soviet resistance stiffened, with the epic Battle of Stalingrad (1942-1943) holding off the Nazis and ultimately expelling the Nazi invaders. The legacy of such an intense conflict and ruthless killing efforts saw about 1,000,000 Russian Jews murdered, 33% of the pre-war population.
According to the estimates of Hebrew University demographer Sergio DellaPergola, Russian Jewry numbers 179,500. It is currently the world’s seventh largest Jewish community. Approximately half of the Jews live in Moscow, twenty percent of them in St. Petersburg, the others live in major cities: Kazan, Rostov-on-Don, Novosibirsk, Samara, Perm, Khabarovsk, and in Nalchik, that is the capital of Mountain Jews.
The umbrella organization of Russian Jewry is the Russian Jewish Congress. It realizes common projects or supports contacts with all religious (of the three movements of Judaism represented in Russia), social, charity, federal and regional Jewish organizations of Russia.
The Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia is the biggest religious Jewish organization in Russia, it represents Chabad-Lubavitch movement. Another major religious organization, Congress of the Jewish Religious Organizations and Associations in Russia, belongs to orthodox Judaism. Reform Judaism is also represented in the country.
There are some major non-religious Jewish organizations, for instance the Federation of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Russia (Va’ad). Most of them are especially strong in Russian regions. The Federal Jewish National Cultural Autonomy that works with secular Jewish organizations in the majority of regions. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee financially supports regional programs. The Jewish Agency develops programs for the revival of Jewish identity. "Project Kesher" specializes in projects for women. There are also “STMEGI” foundation that is the largest charity fund of the mountain Jews, some youth organizations etc. The main trends of Jewish community life are the consolidation of small organizations, the pooling of financial flows and projects into larger ones, increasing professionalism and the intention to work with young people.
The Congress of Jewish Religious Communities and Organizations in Russia (KEROOR) is responsible for maintaining and propagating Orthodox religious life. There are now synagogues in all the major cities and towns which have a Jewish population, as well as a number of rabbis, many recruited from abroad. In certain localities, the Chabad movement is also active. The Reform and Conservative movements have introduced these denominations of Judaism to the Russian scene. In recent years, over ten Reform congregations have been established, and the first native Russian Reform rabbis have recently taken up their pulpits.
Kosher food is available, including meat, wine, and matzot, and religiously observant Jews have all the facilities they need to practice Judaism. The majority of Russian Jewry, however, is not observant and sees its Jewish identity in terms of ethno-national status.
In the fields of education and culture, Russian Jewry has taken dramatic strides. Today, in large part due to the efforts of foreign Jewish organizations, an impressive network of Jewish educational institutions has been established. These include four Jewish universities (in Moscow and St. Petersburg) where a broad range of Jewish topics can be studied.
In addition to the academic study of Jewish topics in universities, there are Jewish kindergartens and schools in Russia, where children form their Jewish identification.
In the field of non-formal education, online projects are successfully developing, a vivid example of which is "12-13: online course on Jewish tradition." – children, from anywhere in the world, can acquire basic knowledge about the history and traditions of the Jewish people.
There are numerous Jewish cultural institutions in Moscow, including the Museum of Jewish History in Russia, the Jewish Museum & Tolerance Center, and the Museum of Jewish Heritage and the Holocaust. In St. Petersburg, there is the Museum of the History and Culture of the Jewish People in Russia.
In Russia, there are a lot of youth Jewish organizations whose mission is to involve young people in Jewish culture and history. In each synagogue you can find a youth club, whose purpose is to study the Torah. The Israel Cultural Center promotes the teaching of Hebrew, organizing cultural Jewish events, as well as informing about educational programs in Israel.
The world's largest Jewish student organization, “Hillel,” operates in 8 cities, involving thousands of young people.
Jewish newspapers in the Russian language appear in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Samara, Omsk, Yekaterinburg, Nalchik, and Perm.
There are a few monthly magazines: "Lechaim" published by Chabad-Lubavitch, "Moscow-Jerusalem" famous by its caricatures and "STMEGI monthly" a periodical of Russian Mountain Jews. There are some Jewish news sites, the most popular ones are Jewish.ru and Stmegi.com.
The most important Jewish site in Moscow is the Choral Synagogue on Arkhipova Street, which dates back to 1891. In Soviet times, on important holidays, Jews gathered in front of the building to express their identity. Today the synagogue is the focus of Jewish religious life in the capital. The St. Petersburg's Moorish-style choral synagogue dates back to 1893. The State Russian Museum has an impressive collection of works by Chagall and other Jewish artists. In the Historical Museum of Birobidzhan, one of the permanent exhibits is called "To Be or Not To Be: Repressed Jewish Culture in the Jewish Autonomous Oblast." In the same city, there is also a museum devoted to themes from the Bible. Many of the works display a mixture of scriptural themes and contemporary political imagery.
The Soviet Union immediately recognized Israel upon its establishment in 1948. Relations were severed in 1967 and were only reestablished in 1992. Aliya: Between 1948 and 1989, before the collapse of the Soviet Union, 218,170 Soviet Jews emigrated to Israel. Of that number, 137,134 arrived during the period of superpower detente, between 1972 and 1979. Since 1989, 230,000 Russian Jews have emigrated to Israel for a total of 700,000 from the former Soviet Union.
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Telephone: 7 095 230 6700
Fax: 7 095 238 1346
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