A History of the Jewish Community in Russia (and former USSR)
by Igal Lapidus


At the beginning of 2005, the overall number of Jews of the former Soviet Union ("Russian Jewry") currently living in the Commonwealth of Independent States, in other countries of the world, including Israel, the United States and Canada, was estimated at approximately 1,600,000. Of these, within the Jewish communities of the CIS today, there are approximately 395,000 Jews. The largest communities are to be found in the Russian Federation, with 243,000 Jews, in Ukraine, with 89,000 Jews at the beginning of 2004, and in Belarus, with almost 20,000 Jews.
The term, "Jews of the CIS" refers mainly to these communities, which can be considered one entity, with similar characteristics, while geographically divided among a number of independent states.

Historical Background

Until 1772, almost no Jews lived in Russia, or the Russian Empire, simply because the borders of the Empire were closed to Jews, irrespective of their status. However, after the divisions of Poland and Lithuania (1772, 1793, 1795, and 1815), the Russian Tsardom "inherited" the world's largest Jewish community from the Polish state, when they incorporated a large part of Polish Jewry from the eastern and south eastern part of Poland. In order to limit the numbers of these undesirable new subjects, however, it was decreed that Jews would be permitted to reside within the borders of the Empire solely within a designated area, which was known as the "Pale of Settlement", and whose borders corresponded to those of Poland prior to the division.
Further reading:

Until the fall of the Russian Empire in the 1917 Revolution, the Jews of "Russia" therefore lived, for the most part, in the western territories of the Empire, which today form the states of: Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia and part of Poland. Very few Jews lived inside Russia proper, with the exception of those who were deemed "useful" (investors, rich merchants, those in the liberal professions, craftsmen and demobilized soldiers). However, during the course of the nineteenth century, these territories underwent a partial process of "russification", so that by the early twentieth century it is possible to consider that much of Polish Jewry (in the areas acquired before the late nineteenth century) had been acculturated into Russian Jewry: they learned Russian, sent their children to Russian schools, and – above all – they perceived themselves as "Russian Jews". In 1913, there were between 5.3 and 6 million Jews in the Russian Empire, constituting the world's largest Jewish community (and approximately 50% of the world's Jewish population) at that time.

The fate of Russian Jews changed dramatically overnight, however, with the fall of the Russian Empire in 1917. The Bolshevik Revolution and its outcomes cut off Soviet Russia (the Soviet Union) from Lithuania and Latvia, as well as from the western regions of the Ukraine and Byelorussia, although these areas came under the Soviet regime in 1939. At the same time, the Soviet Union annexed Galicia, which had a substantial Jewish population; Galicia had been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire since the late eighteenth century.

Almost from the outset, Jews in the Soviet Union were subject to comprehensive and massive oppression by the Communist regime, determined to distance Jews from their tradition and force them to assimilate. This campaign practically succeeded: by the time Communism fell in 1991, the Jews of the Soviet Union had lost almost all their knowledge of Judaism, Hebrew, the Jewish people, and Jewish tradition. They had indeed transformed into "Russian" Jews, with a Russian culture, and Russian had become the native language and culture of the vast majority of Jews in the Soviet Union, irrespective of where they resided. Jewish identity and traditions were preserved only in the southern regions of the USSR – primarily Bukhara and Georgia. At the same time, Soviet Jews nonetheless perceived themselves as Jewish, and their identity cards included this as their nationality. Many followed whatever news available about Israel. It is against this background, and the persecution they experienced, that small groups of Jews began to clamor for the right to leave for Israel, which led to the Soviet Jewry campaign that is discussed in more detail below.

In terms of nationality, many Jews in the USSR thus continued to consider themselves Jewish, despite the persecution – while there were also many who concealed their Jewishness. Nevertheless, intermarriage rates were very high among Jews in the USSR, particularly in the RSFSR (Russia). As a rule, Jews in areas which came under Soviet rule from 1939 onwards were able to preserve Jewish tradition to a greater extent.

After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, "Russian" Jews were once again divided up into the separate states, of which the Russian Federation ("Russia" proper) is only one constituent part. Today, 62% of the Jews in the CIS live in Russia.

The core community numbers 243,000 people, who define themselves as "Jewish". The wider Jewish population, including Jews and their family members, numbers some 500,000 persons (i.e. double the core figure). The number of those entitled to come on Aliyah under the Law of Return is even higher, because it incorporates any descendants of Jews to the third generation (i.e. where one grandmother or grandfather was or is Jewish), together with all members of their family. Their native language is Russian.

Russian Jewry is almost exclusively urbanized; furthermore, over 80% of the community is concentrated in major cities (i.e. those with over 1 million inhabitants). Of these, Moscow (with over 80,000 Jews) and St. Petersburg (with approximately 43,000) are the two "capital" cities, with 51% concentration of the Jewish population in the state. In addition, the returning migration from Israel in recent years there has led to the formation of an Israeli and ex-patriate Israeli community, mainly in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Significant Historical Factors Impacting on Positive or Negative Migration of Jews

In the last quarter of the 19th century, most Jewish emigrants around the world, including those going to Eretz Yisrael, originated from Russia. Throughout this period, push factors were prevalent, namely: economic hardship; expressions of Antisemitism – including pogroms; legal and social restrictions and numerus clausus; official policies of Antisemitism; in addition, there was the pull factor of deep attachment to Eretz Yisrael.
Between 1880 and the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, two million Jews emigrated from Russia to the West, primarily to the United States, Argentina, and South Africa.

From the mid-1920s, the Communist regime closed the gates of the USSR, and there were only isolated cases of Jews managing to flee from the Soviet Empire. Nevertheless, after the Shoah, some tens of thousands of Polish Jews (who had fled from the Nazis to the USSR) were allowed to emigrate to Israel via Poland and Iran - after which the gates were locked down once more.

The campaign for freedom of emigration from the USSR ("Let My People Go") conducted by Soviet Jews in the 1970s and 1980s, enabled hundreds of thousands of Jews to emigrate in the Communist era. The struggle of Soviet Jewry, led by the "Refuseniks" - people who engaged in studying or teaching Jewish culture and Hebrew and applied for a visa to Israel, but who were not granted an exit visa from the USSR – is a cause that reached the entire world, through the efforts of Jewish students and communities in the USA, Europe, Israel, and other communities in the free world.

With the fall of Communism and the "opening of the gates" in 1989, a wave of mass Aliyah began, bringing almost one million Jews from the USSR to Israel. 32% of these olim came from Russia and 33% from the Ukraine. In 2000, 54% of Jewish emigration from Russia was to Israel. Nevertheless, it should be noted that about 300,000 olim under the Law of Return are not actually Jewish.
In recent years, the return of political stability and generation of economic growth in Russia has significantly reduced the rate of Russian Aliyah. Yet, despite the fact that approximately 13,000 new Israelis have returned to Russia in the past eight years, the balance of Jewish migratory patterns for Russia has remained consistently negative for the entire period of 150 years under discussion.
Many Jews opted for alternative destinations during this period, such as: the United States, Germany, Canada, and Australia. Overall, between 1989 and 2002, over 1.5 million Jews left the former USSR.


From 1772-1917, Russian Jews and the Jews of Russia were subjects of the Russian Tsar living for the most part outside the borders of historical Russia, in districts of Poland, Lithuania, Belorussia and the Ukraine.

From 1917-1991, Russian Jews were Jews of the Soviet Union, whose language and culture were Russian.

From 1991 to the present, "Russian" Jews (Russian-speaking Jews) have migrated to practically all corners of the globe, including:

  • Israel – about 800,000;
  • The USA – about 300,000;
  • Germany – about 100,000;
  • Canada – about 25,000.
    The remainder went to other countries: Australia, New Zealand, France, etc.
    About 395,000 live in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), i.e. the former USSR.

Economic Profile, Occupations and Professions

For hundreds of years, the Jews of Eastern Europe and the Russian Empire worked primarily as craftsmen or merchants – small traders and peddlers. A small number engaged in agriculture and, towards the end of the nineteenth century, they entered the liberal professions.

Following the Revolution in 1917, new areas of occupation opened to the Jews, and they were successfully integrated into a range of modern professions, particularly those requiring a high level of education and personal skills, such as: management, law, medicine, arts and culture, science, engineering, academia, journalism, etc.. At the same time, the traditional occupational strongholds of Jews in Eastern Europe, such as: commerce, mercantile activity, and banking, vanished completely, because they had no place in a communist society.

Initially, the new government fought Antisemitism, but the communist regime rapidly slid into an official policy of Antisemitism, as early as the 1930s - albeit well camouflaged. Jews were removed from the organs of state, government offices, as well as from senior positions in the economy and life of Soviet society. During this period, synagogues and yeshivot were closed, and the performance of Brit Milah became illegal.

One of the outcomes was that, from the 1940s onwards, Soviet Jews resolved on education, as the key to success. Soviet universities, however, operated an exclusion policy towards Jews in most of the Arts and Social Science faculties. Consequently, most opted to study for the professions of: engineering, medicine, or the precise and natural sciences; thus, despite persecution and difficulties, Jews came to constitute a significant sector of the Soviet scientific intelligentsia.

From the early 1990s, with the collapse of Communism, all obstacles in their way were removed. Today, Jews are integrated into most sectors of Russian society and economy, and their level of education and standard of living are higher than those prevalent in the general population. One sensitive issue is the appearance of a very small, but highly visible, group of nouveau riche entrepreneurs, who have become milliardaires in the space of a few years and are frequently the target of antisemitic attacks (as oligarchs) by both nationalist and communist organizations.

Religious Orientation

Until 1917, most Russian Jews led a traditional Jewish life and "Yiddishkeit" of orthodox Jewry, divided between the Lithuanian (Misnagdim or Mitnagdim) and Hassidic sects. [See map on http://www.acs.ucalgary.ca/~elsegal/363_Transp/08_Orthodoxy.html] It is important to point out that both these movements, as well as the Mizrachi (Religious Zionism) movement, originated in this Jewish community.

From 1917, for a period of 70 years, the Communist regime (and the NKVD/KGB) systematically and mercilessly persecuted any expression of Jewishness and observance of Jewish traditions as crimes against the state. The German invasion (1941) and the Shoah occurred in the western part of the USSR, where there were still some remnants of traditional Jewish life: the remnants of traditional Jewry were thus murdered in the Shoah.

After the Shoah, for over 40 years (1945-1987), the only legal expression of Judaism in the Soviet Union was the existence a few synagogues, whose operation was officially authorized in some major cities (Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev), but all connection with Jewish communities on the outside was prohibited. Official government policy ensured that the Jews of the Soviet Union had almost completely lost any connection to Jewish tradition. Nevertheless, secret groups of religious Jews existed "underground", such as those of the Chabad Lubavitch movement, keeping the flame of Judaism alight during the darkest and most difficult years of the Soviet regime. Those dozens or hundreds involved in Jewish study, or those who studied Hebrew, or applied for a visa to leave for Israel, ran the risk of dismissal, imprisonment as a social parasite (i.e. unemployment) or "subversive activities", and exile to harsh labor camps.

Since the fall of Communism (in 1991), intensive endeavors in Jewish education by hundreds of Jewish organizations, working on the territory of the former USSR, have yielded only partial success.

Tens of thousands of Russian Jews have showed an active interest in Judaism and some have even become religiously observant; hundreds of synagogues have been restored and re-opened, around which new Jewish communities have formed. 
[Further reading: http://www.jafi.org.il/education/worldwide/synagogues  ]
Schools, yeshivot, kosher food shops and restaurants have opened, as well as Mikva'ot, cemeteries - along with all the other symbols of Jewish community and Jewish lifestyle.

The mainstream movements of modern Judaism are now represented in Russia: Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform. Most of the serving rabbis come from outside Russia, whether from Israel or countries of the Diaspora. Orthodox Judaism is the most influential of the religious streams (including Chabad and the non-Chassidic "Lithuanian" yeshivot).

Education & Culture

The rich and varied Jewish culture of Eastern Europe (Yiddishkeit), whether secular or religious in nature, was annihilated and destroyed through two world wars, pogroms, persecutions and the Shoah. The Communist regime, in particular, perceived Jewish education and culture as a hostile force, capable of preventing it from absorbing Jews under its hegemony, and did everything they could to repress and eradicate old or new signs of Jewish life and Judaism, as well as Zionism. There were some officially authorized expressions of Jewish culture, but these were stripped of any signs of any national or religious Jewish content. This policy is the reason why all Jewish education in Soviet Russia went underground and was conducted in complete secrecy, until the early 1990s.

Jewish culture and education have been developing apace under the post-Communist regime, thanks to the assistance of many international Jewish organizations now operating in Russia, and the other new states, including a large delegation of Jewish Agency shlichim and informal educators from Israel. There are currently about 100 Jewish day schools in the CIS, with 40 of these in Russian itself, offering comprehensive school curricula. Approximately two-thirds of these schools are religiously oriented, while the rest are secular. The larger cities also offer networks of Jewish kindergartens.

The overall curriculum in Jewish day schools corresponds to the general curriculum in all public schools; the difference lies in the emphasis on Jewish History in the History curriculum and the inclusion of Hebrew language and Judaic Studies, as an integral part of the curriculum. Many students are from mixed marriages, and some have no connection to Judaism. Some of these Jewish day schools also accept non-Jewish students, and they may even comprise a significant proportion of them.

In addition, there are almost 200 Jewish Sunday schools today in the CIS, with more than 100 of these in the Russian Federation itself. These supplementary schools offer Jewish tradition, Modern Hebrew language, and Jewish History studies to Jewish students who attend regular public schools, but who wish to learn about Judaism and Israel.

The Jewish Agency for Israel is also involved in informal Jewish education, running a wide network of Jewish youth clubs and Hebrew language ulpanim across the CIS. "Agnon House", in Moscow, was established by the Jewish Agency and offers a broad range of courses on Jewish culture. In the winter and summer, Jewish children and teenagers in Russia (and the other member states of the CIS) can go to Jewish summer camps operated by many Jewish organizations, and foremost of these – the Jewish Agency for Israel. Across the CIS, and particularly in Russia, a number of Jewish youth movements can be found today, including: Betar, Hashomer Hatzair, Bnei Akiva, Ezra, and others. The Hillel student organization is also active and has established a network of clubs across communities of the CIS.

The Israeli Open University operates a special "Russian project" that enables anyone entitled to come on Aliyah under the Law of Return to follow courses - in Russian - on Judaism and Jewish History that are accredited towards a BA in Israel.

Several Russian and CIS universities now offer Jewish Studies options, but it is important to note that most of the students in these faculties are not Jewish. In Moscow, there is a Jewish Heritage Society and a Center for Jewish Studies and Jewish Civilization, which is essentially a Jewish University; in St Petersburg, there is an Academic Institute for Jewish Studies and Jewish Culture. More recently, the Research Center for Russian and East European Jewry was established. The Holocaust Foundation is engaged in research into the Shoah on Russian territory and commemoration of the Shoah for the next generation of Russian citizens.

Dozens of Jewish newspapers, booklets and journals are published in Russia and the CIS, some of them in print format, while others appear on the Internet.

Welfare Problems & Social Institutions

The overall financial situation of most Jews in the CIS today is relatively well-established and they are well integrated into all sectors of society. However, many elderly Jews are living in poverty and starvation conditions, primarily because their age deprives them of an independent income and because of the adverse economic climate. Data for 1994 reveal that over half the community was aged 56 or over, and the situation has deteriorated further, in the interim.

Various Jewish organizations, together with the American Joint Jewish Distribution Committee ('JDC'), have created a wide Welfare network that provides 'Hessed' centers, where elderly Jews receive hot meals and staple food supplies, as well as other social services without charge. In recent years, local philanthropy has developed, as entrepreneurs within the Jewish community have begun to sponsor social welfare services in the community.

Assimilation & Intermarriage

The level of outmarriage in Russia is one of the highest in the Jewish world. While the Jewish community considers the preservation of a Jewish framework a high priority, this is no easy task.

The dimensions of the recent large Aliyah (it is Jews with a more developed sense of Jewish identity who generally choose to go to Israel) and the demographic shrinkage (due to emigration and the ageing Jewish population) have created a situation where cautious estimates calculate that 70%-85% of Jews in Russia marry out. In 1998, 74% of "Jewish" births (where one or both parents were Jewish) were to intermarried couples. This has grave implications for the future viability of the community.
Physical Security & Antisemitism

In Tsarist Russia, state-sponsored Antisemitism was virtually official policy and the avowed ideology of the regime. Jews were frequently the object of mob violence, as was their property, and the mob cry was, "Beat the Jews and save Russia", and the Jews were used as a target to divert public dissatisfaction from the regime itself. Indeed, the term 'pogrom' is a Russian word that has entered almost every language.

With the establishment of the Soviet Union, it initially appeared that the era of Antisemitism was over, but a new form of no less venal Antisemitism rapidly emerged under the Communist regime. At the end of the Stalin era (i.e., from 1948 to 1953), the menace of a second Shoah genuinely threatened the lives of Jews in the USSR. Moreover, after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, the USSR supplied arms to the Arab states and supported Palestinian terror.

With the fall of Communism, the age of official Antisemitism in Russia came to an end, and the new regime is generally more favorably oriented towards Jews. It refrains, however, from reining in the dozens of extremist antisemitic organizations and even political parties that operate freely throughout the country.

More recently, there have been new signs that are cause for concern: trials and legal proceedings in the past few years against various fabulously wealthy people of Jewish origin, charged with defrauding the state of national property and defrauding the public purse, have been widely supported in public opinion and have had a negative impact on the overall attitude towards Jews. This goes hand-in-hand with the growth of Russian nationalism and xenophobia, which reinforces these trends.

The number of antisemitic incidents continues to rise: while there are few cases of physical violence against Jews, Antisemitism remains an acute problem in community life.

The Community Agenda

The Russian Jewish community is contending with three problems that are all focal to the continuity of Russian Jewry:

  • Demographic factors: The high rate of outmarriage, coupled with the high mortality and low fertility rates, challenge the continuing viability of Russian Jewry as a community.
  • Jewish identity and culture: Many Jews lack an in-depth knowledge of Jewish tradition, due to restrictions and persecution during the Communist period, which deprived them of any link to their Jewish identity, and are therefore linked to their Judaism solely by descent, without any expression of Jewish content in their lives. While Jewish leaders and organizations are making concerted efforts to revive community institutions and offer opportunities for meaningful Jewish life, the measure of success has been very limited to date.
  • Antisemitism and xenophobia in Russia: These phenomena are on the rise and Russian Jews are concerned about any further deterioration; they also generate feelings of insecurity.

The Future of the Russian Jewish Community

The Russian Jewish community's future is uncertain and threatened: in demographic parlance, this is a vanishing Jewry, a community in the process of demographic implosion.
The factors behind this are:

  • Negative migration;
  • The advanced mean age;
  • A mortality rate more than ten times that of the fertility rate;
  • A high rate of outmarriage.

A decade ago, in 1994, the mean age in the Jewish community was 56 (i.e. 50% of Russian Jews were aged 56 or over). In 1998, only 875 babies were born to Jewish mothers, of whom only 224 had a Jewish father. Set against this figure are the 1997 statistics for those who died – 9,546 Jews, (or 11 times as many people.) Figures for 1993-1994 put the average fertility rate for Jewish women at 0.8 children – and it is a generally accepted assumption that this situation has further deteriorated in the interim.

These data essentially show that, in demographic terms, the history of Russian Jewry is coming to a close. Without a dramatic reversal, within approximately one generation (25-30 years), the Jewish community in Russia may disappear.

Much therefore depends on Jewish education and the crystallization of Jewish identity among the "half-Jews", whose return to Judaism is the only means to breathe new life into Russian Jewry.

The Connection to Israel

Russian Jewry is renowned for its warm and friendly relationship with Israel. Over the past decade, Israel has become a central anchor of identity for most Jews, and contemporary Jewish identity in Russia is defined in relation to Israel.

The Jewish community is noted for its interest in Israel, its strong ties to the country, together with its unreserved encouragement and support for Israel, which is a unique phenomenon in the contemporary Jewish world.

 The main factor predicating this support and relationship is the recent, and ongoing, large wave of Aliyah from Russia. Today, every Russian Jew has numerous relatives and friends in Israel.
 Another factor is the community's weak basis in Jewish tradition, so that the State of Israel has become a focus for the building of a new Jewish identity.

The Russian Jewish Community's Contribution to Russia

Since Emancipation in the mid-nineteenth century through modern times, Jews have made a highly significant contribution to Russian and Soviet society in all sectors of life.

Indeed, it would be difficult to imagine a single area of Russian society over the past hundred years without the tremendous – or even decisive – contribution of Russian Jews. It can and should be said that the Jewish contribution and their social role should be counted as defining and formative factors in Russian history from the end of the nineteenth century through today.

The Jews of Russia were noted for their contribution to society in the 19th century. Among the major Jewish cultural lights of that century were such names as Isaac Levitan, the great landscape artist; Mark Antokolsky, the sculptor; as well as Nikolai and Anton Rubinstein, musicians and composers.

It would be difficult to write any description of Russian culture, science or society in the 20th century without the defining influence of Russian Jews. The Jewish contribution was especially important in the Soviet period. It was precisely because Jews in the Soviet Union found their way to the traditional occupations and sectors of excellence barred (becoming great Rabbis, or successful businessmen), that the enormous energy of Russian Jewry focused on personal and professional advancement in the surrounding social environment.

Among the outstanding figures in their field were:
Poets like Osip Mandelshtam, Boris Pasternak and Yosef Brodsky;
Writers, such as: Eldanov, Isaac Babel, Ilya Ehrenburg, Ilf, and Tinianov;
Scientists, such as: Yoffe, Landau, Zeldovich, and Ginzburg;
Leaders of the Bolshevik Revolution, such as: Leon Trotsky, Zinoviev and Sverdlov (the first President of Soviet Russia), as well as many more.

Today, in the early 21st century, Russian Jewry is prominent in political and economic life, journalism, entertainment, culture and education, to a degree far exceeding their relative weight in the Russian Federation's population.

Further References


Beyond the Pale: The History of the Jews in Russia. Extensive historical exhibit.
Detailed article, charts, references
Communities in states of the CIS – history and contemporary overview
Post-war Soviet Jewry
Soviet Jewry documents, Virtual History Tour

Fate of Soviet Jewry
Yad Vashem resources for Shoah in the USSR
Documents related to the USSR
Red Army, Holocaust, Impact
Ilya Ehrenburg on the Holocaust in Belorussia
Dedicated symposium


Jewish artists, Jewish postcards

Contemporary Jewry

The Post-Soviet Jewish Population in Russia and the World, Mark Tolts
Demographic Trends Among the Jews in the Three Post-Soviet Slavic Republics, Mark Tolts
Contemporary Trends in Family Formation among the Jews in Russia, Mark Tolts
[Published in: Jews in Russia and Eastern Europe, 2006, No. 2 (57)]

JDC programs
Jewish Identity issues
Short reports
Post-communist Jewish infrastructure
Regional reports
http://www.ncsj.org/ [use map]
http://www.jcpa.org/phas/phas-7.htm http://www.fsumonitor.com/index.html 
Yiddish culture


Historical, contemporary bibliography



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13 Nov 2014 / 20 Heshvan 5775 0