Jewish communities have existed in the territory of Ukraine from the time of Kyivan Rus since late 9th century, when Jewish refugees from Byzantium, Persia, and Mesopotamia, fleeing persecution by Christians, settled along the banks of the River Dnieper in eastern and southern Ukraine. Under the rule of the Khazar Empire, Jews were able to freely practice their religion, and over time, many Jews integrated into Khazar society. According to legend, many Khazars eventually converted to Judaism.
Though the Khazar capital was ransacked around 965, Jews in the empire continued to have a large influence. This was evident in Kyiv, a tributary of the empire, where there was a large Jewish quarter and one of the city’s three gates was called the “Jew’s Gate.” However, there is little evidence to suggest that the Khazar Jewish communities survived after the devastating Mongol invasion of the 13th century.
Right-bank Ukraine, an area west of the Dnieper River and a former Khazan stronghold, was then subject to Lithuania and saw the arrival of Jews from Western Europe. The Jewish presence increased with the absorption of Lithuania by the Polish crown into the Polish-Lithuania Commonwealth in 1569, as Poland’s economic influence afforded Jewish settlers a variety of economic opportunities. Jews were influential in a variety of enterprises, including agricultural, banking, real estate under the arenda system, the collection of customs duties and taxes, and trade (they mainly served as liaisons between Ukraine and the Ottoman Empire).
Ukraine soon became a center of Jewish life in Poland-Lithuania, and Jews were the largest and most important ethnic minority in Ukraine. However, despite their successes, the Ukrainian Jewish community found itself faced with hardships. Jews were constantly targeted by the church, who wanted Jewish influence limited, and the prominence of Jews in notable governmental roles as tax collectors and bankers on the behalf of Polish nobles, made them detested by Ukrainian peasants.
Growing anti-Semitism among the Ukrainian Cossacks exploded in 1648 with the Cossack Uprising against the Polish landowners and Jews. The Cossacks sought to “free” themselves of the Jews and began massacring thousands of Jews in the Chmielnicki Massacre from 1648 to 1649. Over 20,000 Jews – about half of the region’s population – were brutally murdered, and many fled the country. Those who survived were subject to numerous “repeat” massacres, and under Russian rule, anti-Semitism in Ukraine only worsened.
Yet, Jewish life in Ukraine continued on, and Jews continued to emigrate to the region and play a large role in economic matters. At the end of the eighteenth century, Ukraine, became part of the Pale of Settlement in the Russian Empire, and was densely populated by Jews. It was during this period that Jewish religious intellectualism reached Ukraine, notably in the teachings of Israel Ben Eliezer, known as Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Hasidic movement, and the Haskalah, the Jewish enlightenment.
Despite restrictions, Jews played a prominent role in the development of commerce and industry in the region, and especially in the growth of its major cities, such as Kyiv, Odessa, Donetsk and Kharkov. Many of the most important Jewish thinkers and Zionists of the modern age were born in Ukraine.
The outbreak of pogroms, coupled with increasingly anti-Semitic policies and complacency from Russian Tsars Alexander III and Nicholas II in the 1880s, saw many Ukrainian Jews emigrate from the country. Some founded communities in Palestine while others immigrated to countries such as the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Several young Jews who remained in Ukraine became drawn to socialist revolutionary groups and joined underground political organizations that were increasingly active after the 1905 Revolution.
Anti-Jewish pogroms accompanied the Communist Revolution of 1917 and the ensuing Russian Civil War. Following the conflict, the Pale of Settlement was abolished, and hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian Jews moved throughout parts of the newly formed Soviet Union. The new Ukrainian state promised Jews full equality and autonomy, and Arnold Margolin, a Jewish assistant minister, declared in May 1919 that the Ukrainian government had given Jews more rights than they enjoyed in any other European government.
In the short-lived Ukrainian People's Republic, Yiddish was one of the official state languages and it was even used on Ukrainian currency. During this period, the Jewish National Union was established, and the community was granted an autonomous status. There was, however, a continuation of anti-Jewish sentiments in Ukraine, and pogroms accompanied the Ukrainian struggle for independence against the Bolsheviks, with the number of Jews killed during the period is estimated to be from 35,000 to 50,000.
After the Soviet takeover of Ukraine in 1922, religious and Zionist activities were forced underground. The Soviet authorities established four Jewish autonomous districts in the southern part of the republic and in Crimea, and conflicts between Ukrainian Jews and their non-Jewish neighbors were largely results of power struggles in the new Soviet political climate.
The Stalinist repressions of the 1930s, in which deviations from what was considered the Soviet “norm” were met with extreme consequences, saw the suppression of Jewish and Ukrainian culture. For example, the Ukrainian language was forcibly replaced with Russian and Jewish institutions were permanently closed. On the eve of World War II and the Holocaust, Jews were the largest national minority in Ukraine.
After the war, returning Jews were often met with hostility and violence when attempting to retrieve their stolen homes and property. The repression of Jewish cultural and spiritual life in post-war Soviet Ukraine was especially severe, and only a few synagogues were allowed to remain open. Moreover, Kyiv became a center for publication of anti-Semitic works.
Beginning in the 1960s, however, Ukrainian and Jewish dissidents – the former of which wanted internal change, and the latter wanted to emigrate to Israel – established a sense of solidarity. This led to an effort, on non-Jewish Ukrainians’ behalf, to help and understand Jews in Ukraine, including raising awareness about the atrocities of the Holocaust.
In the late 1980s, a large number of Ukrainian Jews began emigrating from Ukraine, settling in countries such as Israel and the United States. This trend became exponentially larger after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, though many Ukrainian Jews supported independence. During this period, Yukhym Zvyahilsky served as Acting Prime Minister from 1993 to 1994. Jewish life began to slowly revive in Ukraine, with Jewish schools, synagogues, and other institutions established in cities such as Kiev, L’viv, and Dnipropetrovs’k.
The Ukrainian government has been sensitive to the needs of Ukrainian Jewry in the post-Soviet era and officially recognizes Jewish cultural and religious institutions. Legislation has been passed to return all confiscated Jewish religious institutions and items, including 20 synagogues, to Jewish leaders. However, the outbreak of violence in the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution saw many Ukrainian Jews leave for Israel and the precarious economic situation of the Jewish community has been a decisive factor in the aliya of Ukrainian Jews.
Today, Ukrainian Jews enjoy a relative sense of stability, though economic concerns are still widespread within the community. In 2016, Vlodymir Groysman became the first Jew to ever serve as Ukrainian Prime Minister and in commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre, President Petro Poroshenko and Kiev mayor Vitali Klitschko announced plans to create a memorial, which would be the first Holocaust memorial site in Ukraine.