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.