The Jews of Russia
Posted on 29/06 by bruceholl
The Jews of Russia
Early Times & 19th Centur
For photographs, maps, and documents related to this lecture see the online exhibit Beyond the Pale: History of the Jews in Russia
- There was a medieval kingdom from the fifth to the 13th centuries c. e. called Khazaria on territory that today includes parts of southern Russia, the northern Caucasus, Ukraine, Crimea, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan
- The Khazars were a Turkic people who converted to Judaism
- The Khazars were ultimately subsumed into Kievan Rus’
- There was no significant Jewish population for several centuries after that
- The great influx of Jews into the Russian empire took place in the 18th century
- In 1772 there occurred what would be the first of three divisions of territory formerly belonging to Poland
- As a result, at least 200,000 Jews suddenly entered the Russian empire
- The number is probably closer to 500,000 (Cambridge History of Russia, v. 2, p. 186)
- From that time on there existed what was referred to as the "Jewish problem" or "Jewish question" in Russia.
- Why were the Jews considered a "problem"?
- Because of historical anti-Semitism
- Because it was said that the Jews would not assimilate linguistically or culturally
- What was the language of the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe? (Yiddish)
- Yiddish is a Germanic language that also incorporates elements of Hebrew, Slavic and other languages, depending on the dialect. Its origin is a matter of some controversy.
- It was spoken by about 11 million people at the beginning of the 20th century
- It is still spoken today but by far fewer people, because many native speakers died during the Holocaust and others emigrated to the US or the USSR where they and their families henceforth spoke English and Russian
- Another facet of anti-Semitism: the Jews were viewed as moneylenders
- The irony of the "moneylender" claim is that the Jews, in Russia and elsewhere, were probably forced to take up banking and other business-related professions because they were driven off the land and otherwise restricted in their choice of professions
- Jews by the middle of the nineteenth century had come to dominate commercial life in the western part of the Russian Empire (Cambridge History of Russia, v. 2, p. 193)
- As to the issue of assimilation, the irony here was two-fold: the Jews for the most part were not allowed to assimilate; when they did assimilate it made no difference, because the government kept track of nationalities and could and did discriminate against Jews regardless of whether or not they had assimilated.
- This fact was the basis of the Zionist movement: the belief that Jews would never be accepted as part of any adoptive homeland and must found their own country in their historical home region of Palestine.
- The founding of a Jewish state, however, came later. At the end of the 18th century the Russian government had to decide what to do about the Jews, and made the following decisions:
- Jews must live in the "Pale of Settlement" and were excluded from so-called "Great Russia," with limited exceptions on an individual basis
- In Russian: Cherta osedlosti
- The Pale of Settlement was a large area in present day Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic countries, the Northern Caucasus, Moldova, and Poland
- It contained mainly small towns and villages, called shtetls, but there were also substantial Jewish populations in the cities of Warsaw, Lódz and Vilnius
- Jews could not work in certain professions, must attend special schools, could not move about freely.
- Among the most repressive measures was the military recruiting law: Each Jewish town in the Pale had to send six boys per year between the ages of 12 and 18 for military service. The term of enlistment under Nicholas I for all soldiers, including these 12 year old boys, was 25 years, although this was gradually reduced in the 19th century
- The law was often violated by recruiters who took even higher numbers of even younger boys.
- These laws remained in force throughout the early part of the nineteenth century
- There was marked improvement in the treatment of Jewish citizens under Alexander II
- Notably, the recruiting law was repealed in the 1860s, more Jews were allowed to live outside the Pale (a process called "selective integration"), and Jews began to participate to a greater extent in the cultural life of the country
- At first Jewish merchants were permitted to live outside the pale, and gradually this right was extended to Jewish graduates of Russian universities, Jewish artisans in certain fields, Jewish veterans, and eventually Jewish graduates of all post-secondary institutions (Cambridge History of Russia, v. 2, p. 194)
- The House of Ginzburg in St. Petersburg became the largest bank in the empire.
- Benjamin Nathans in the Cambridge History of Russia v. 2 says: "The results of selective integration were dramatic. By 1880, some 60,000 Jews were legally residing in the provinces of European Russia outside the Pale. By the time of the 1897 census, that number had risen to 128,343, while an additional 186,422 Jews were recorded as living in Siberia, Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Baltic provinces. By century's end more than 314,000 Jews were living outside the Pale, with the largest single community in St. Petersburg … And, as contemporaries were quick to note, in institutions where they weren't seen before: above all those of higher education, the leading incubator of Russia's civil society as well as of the revolutionary movement" (195).
- However, there soon occurred a reaction against the Jews, in part as a result of a Polish uprising in 1863 and the belief that the Empire was threatened by nationalist groups within its borders, but also in response to the growing influence of Jews due to selective integration.
- Moreover, Alexander himself, like virtually all his predecessors, was personally not sympathetic toward the Jews
- This was the period of the worst "pogroms"
- "Pogrom" is a Russian word, originally meaning "destruction," which has come to mean (in both Russian and English) an attack on Jewish property and life.
- Historically pogroms occurred around Easter time in certain parts of the Russian empire where Jews and Christians lived in close proximity
- Generally these were non-Russian regions of the Russian empire, such as Ukraine, so it is important to note that in many cases it was not Russians who perpetrated violence against Jews
- This is an important distinction today as each side in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict accuses the other of, among other things, anti-Semitism
- Often the nominal cause for violence against Jews or destruction of Jewish property in the Russian Empire was the supposed refusal of Jews to remove their hats in the presence of a Christian procession on the street
- In other cases, a Jew or Jews would be accused (as they have been accused throughout Europe since the Middle Ages) of ritual sacrifice of a Christian child to use its blood for Passover bread – a charge that one still hears.
- There was a famous trial in 1913 in Kiev of the Jewish superintendent of a brick factory, Mendel Beilis, who was accused of killing a 13 year old boy for this purpose.
Beilis was acquitted but the trial garnered a great deal of publicity and revealed virulent anti-Semitism in the community (see Marvin Perry and Frederick M. Schweitzer, ed., Antisemitic Myths: A Historical and Contemporary Anthology, pp. 133-4).
- Note: The Jerusalem Post on March 18, 2008 reported that "[i]n a shocking anti-Semitic incident on Wednesday, hundreds of blood libel flyers were found posted on homes in the Russian city of Novosibirsk, warning parents to protect their children from bloodthirsty Jews ahead of Pessah" (see RussianNotes.com for March 19, 2008)
- From the 1880s on, especially in the southern part of the Russian Empire, there were some 250 pogroms
- It is not clear to what extent the government was involved in these activities
- Some scholars support the view that the government actually organized them, while others more plausibly believe that the government simply did not do enough to stop them
- Timothy Snyder, in his new (2015) book Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, argues that the pogroms "were not organized by the state, but the Russian imperial subjects who perpetrated them believed that they were following the will of the tsar" (22-3).
- Official persecution of the Jews did grow worse under Alexander III
- As a result, some two million Jews left the Russian empire for Europe and the US during the final decades of the Romanov era (Cambridge History of Russia, v. 2, p. 184)
- Snyder notes that "[b]efore the revolutions of 1917, the Russian Empire had been the homeland of more Jews than any other country in the world," but by the time of the First World War "Jews were almost two hundred times more likely than ethnic Russians to emigrate from the Russian empire" (22-3).
- At this time an organization called the General Jewish Workers' Union, or Bund, gained some prominence as part of the general revolutionary movement to overthrow the Tsar
- Many Jews came to believe that if even limited short-term reform had invoked so violent a reaction, there was no chance of substantial long-term reform
- It is at this time that the Zionist movement arose, whereby Jews sought to live outside Russia in a Jewish homeland
- Many thousands of Jews emigrated to Palestine, then a part of the Ottoman Empire, prior to World War I (Cambridge History of Russia, v. 2, p. 199)
Jews in the Soviet Union
In the course of Soviet history, Jews were the target of both the Soviets and their opponents. Samuel Oppenheim writes in the Ethnohistorical Dictionary: "The Soviet period was in many ways the most paradoxical. On the one hand, the tsarist disabilities on Jews were removed, and the Jews had a greater opportunity to participate in society than at any previous time in their history. And participate they did. On the other hand, many of these gains were later obliterated, and the Soviet period saw the greatest attack on the Jewish religion and Jewish life in Russian-Soviet history. This, combined with continuing anti-Semitism and tremendous demographic losses, left both the Jewish community and the Jewish religion very weak in this area by the end of Communist rule in 1991" (Samuel Oppenheim in James Olson, Ed., Ethnohistorical Dictionary p. 323)
There was a perception by some that the 19th century revolutionaries were disproportionately Jewish
In fact, there were, inevitably, some Jews among the revolutionaries
Marx was Jewish by birth but his father had converted to Christianity, he himself was educated in Christian schools, and he made many comments about the Jews that even his supporters acknowledge as anti-Jewish (see Antisemitic Myths, ed. Perry and Schweitzer, pp. 75-82)
Lenin had Jewish roots on one side of his family
There were other Jews, including Lenin's confederate Lev Trotsky (Snowball in Animal Farm.
The revolution was not, however, a Jewish conspiracy or led largely by Jews as some opponents of the revolution would say
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in Two Hundred Years Together, writes: "Angered by the persistent nature of revolutionary violence, as well as by the humiliating defeat in the war with Japan, the ruling circles in Petersburg were not above yielding to the temptingly simple view that there was nothing organically wrong with Russia and that the entire revolution, from beginning to end, was a malicious Jewish plot, part and parcel of a worldwide Jewish-Masonic conspiracy. Here was the root cause that explained it all: the Jews! Russia would long ago have ascended to the pinnacles of power and glory were it not for the Jews! It was a myopic and false explanation, which made the impending fall of these high officials all the more irrevocable."(The Solzhenitsyn Reader, pp. 495-6)
On the other hand, as recently as June 19, 2013, President Putin, citing no evidence, said publicly that 80-85 percent of the first Soviet government, the “Council of Commissars,” was Jewish.
The revolution brought an end to the Pale of Settlement
It brought an official declaration by the Bolsheviks of an end to anti-Semitism
At the same time, the Bolsheviks officially championed Internationalism, especially with respect to non-Russians, which meant that Soviet citizens should be loyal to the USSR and the international communist movement, not to their separate ethnic groups
The official "religion" of the Soviet Union was atheism, which meant that the practice of Judaism as a religion was also discouraged
There was, particularly in the 1920s prior to Stalin's final consolidation of power in 1928 or so, something of a flowering of Russian culture, and Jewish artists made a strong contribution to this movement
In particular, Isaac Babel, whose work we will be discussing, gave striking portraits of Jewish life in his collections of stories
Babel would later be arrested and executed as an enemy of the people by Stalin.
There was during the Soviet period an effort at Jewish resettlement to the Crimea and Birobidzhan. Samuel Oppenheim writes: "There was even an attempt, perhaps a hope, to gather all Jews in one area. This lead to the Jewish Autonomous Region of Birobidzhan, located in a remote corner of Asia near the Manchurian border, in the Khabarovsk district. The regime encouraged Jews to settle there after 1928, and, in 1934, Birobidzhan was declared a 'Jewish Autonomous Region.' It never developed into an important Jewish center, certainly not for all Soviet Jewry. Many Jews who came later left. Birobidzhan's Jews and Jewish life suffered the same fate as those in the rest of the Soviet Union. Not many people went there. In 1970, the entire Jewish Autonomous Region had 180,000 people, of whom only about 14,000 were Jewish" (Ethnohistorical Dictionary 324)
It is now (as of the summer of 2016) included among the regions in which Russian citizens can receive a free hectare of land from the government if they promise to develop the land for agricultural or entrepreneurial purposes
During the Great Patriotic War there was a slight reversal of policy as in other areas of Soviet life
An organization, the Jewish Antifascist Committee, was formed to aid the war effort and to garner Western and in particular American support
The organization sent representatives to the US to collect donations
It gathered information on Nazi destruction of the Jews on Soviet territory
Several hundred thousand Jews fought in the Red Army during the war
The effect of the Holocaust on Soviet Jews was massive: "The Baltic areas were retaken by the Soviets soon after the war began, but, when the Nazis attacked, they quickly seized this area. Of its 253,000 Jews, 90 percent were killed, as were 65 percent of White Russia's 375,000 Jews, 60 percent of Ukraine's 1.5 million Jews, and 11 percent of the Russian Republic's 975,000 Jews. Altogether, of the 3,103,000 Jews in the Soviet Union when hostilities commenced, 1,480,000, or 47 percent, were lost. Thus, the 1959 census reported only 2.2 million Soviet Jews" (in Olson, Ethnohistorical Dictionary, 327)
A campaign was mounted against the Jews after WWII, however, and especially after 1948
Initial relatively mild policies were adopted. For example, Jewish writers, including some with impeccable Party credentials, were denied the right to publish
There was a suppression of the information gathered by the JAC about the holocaust, and a refusal to recognize Jewish war veterans for their unique contribution
A campaign against Zionism then was carried out, primarily in the newspapers Pravda and Izvestiia
Paradoxically, there was early support for Israel, mainly as a way of opposing "British imperialism," but this support soon turned to hostility when Israel and the US became allies
The term "cosmopolitanism," sometimes called "rootless" or "kinless" cosmopolitanism, came into being and was a charge leveled against Jews
The 4 vol. Soviet Dictionary, volume II, defines it as follows (my translation): "A reactionary bourgeois ideology that espouses the rejection of national traditions, culture and patriotism; that denies state and national sovereignty and promotes the idea of a 'world state' and 'citizenship in the world."
This definition was used to refer to the Jews' alleged lack of allegiance to the USSR.
It was used as the basis for discrimination in jobs and education
Among the manifestations of the post-war campaign against the Jews were the murder of Solomon Mikhoels, Chairman of the Jewish Antifascist Committee during the war and a prominent actor who had once appeared on Broadway as, of all things, an Arab merchant in a production of Oklahoma!
A number of other prominent Jewish intellectuals were arrested and executed as well (see Antisemitic Myths, ed. Perry and Schweitzer, p. 249)
There occurred at this time the affair of the "Doctors' Plot," the accusation by Stalin that a number of so-called "doctor-saboteurs," more than half of them Jewish, were engaged in a plot to kill Soviet leaders.
There are many indications that Stalin at the time of his death was planning to use this contrived "plot" as the pretext for a systematic campaign against Soviet Jews
His death, probably hastened by members of his inner circle who delayed medical care, forestalled the prosecution of the Doctors and the purge of Jews
After Stalin's death there was limited reform of attitudes during "The Thaw" but no real substantive change toward Zionism or Judaism
The "Time of Stagnation" saw the emergence of protests against this state of affairs, in the form of Jewish "Refuseniks" who demanded, in many cases, the right to emigrate to Israel and the United States – a right that many of them ultimately won
Significant Jewish emigration to the United States and Israel did take place during the 1970s and subsequently: "The first wave began slowly, in the early 1970s, with 13,000 emigrating in 1971. The first wave reached its high point in 1979, when 51,000 Soviet Jews emigrated. Altogether, from 1971 through 1981, some 256,000 Soviet Jews emigrated. Approximately 145,000 of them went to Israel, and most of the remainder settled in the United States. The regime of Leonid Brezhnev cracked down on emigration in the early 1980s. Indeed, in the entire five-year period between 1982 and 1986, a total of only 7,000 Soviet Jews received exit visas. Then, under Gorbachev, the floodgates opened again. Beginning with 8000 émigrés in 1987, the figures increased to 19,000 (1988), 185,000 (1990), and 147,000 (1991). In that five-year period, 437,000 more Soviet Jews emigrated, approximately 352,000 to Israel. In other words, in the 1971-1991 period, a total of 700,000 Soviet Jews emigrated. In addition, with the coming of independence to the Baltic republics in 1991, many Jews were no longer 'Soviet.' It appears, then, that the total number of Jews in Russia in 1992 was probably somewhat over one million but was declining with continuing emigration. In addition, despite increased opportunities for religious activities, the Jewish religion had been nearly extinguished during 74 years of Communist rule that ended, along with the Soviet Union, in late 1991" (Olson, ed., Ethnohistorical Dictionary, 327-8)
Jews of Russia Today
Today there are probably a little more than 300,000 Jews in Russia, including 100,000 in Petersburg, 200,000 in Moscow, 7,000 in Birobidzhan, and a few thousand in other communities.
Such statistics, however, are problematic
I have also seen estimates as high as 700,000, and The chief Rabbi of Russia, Berel Lazar, estimates 1-2 million Russians have a Jewish mother
Most of these estimates suggest that although it is greatly reduced from earlier times, this is still one of the largest Jewish communities in the world
Within this community a great deal has taken place and continues to take place
An organization called the Federation of Jewish Organizations and Communities in Russia serves as an umbrella organization representing both secular and religious Jewish organizations
Many international organizations also now have Russian affiliates
To aid in the teaching of Jewish tradition a network of educational institutions has been established including universities and Jewish schools
There is a Union of Jewish religious Communities to promote and maintain Orthodox religious life
There are operating synagogues with Rabbis in many cities
It is possible to buy Kosher food some places
There is now a chief rabbinical chaplain serving in Russia's armed forces for the first time since the October, 1917 revolution (see Jerusalem Post Dec. 17 2007)
There are also problems confronting the Jewish population of Russia
Many Jews, as the above statistical data suggest, do not identify strongly with their Jewish heritage
There have been spikes in anti-Semitic incidents at various times
There have also been aggressive attempts on the part of some missionaries to convert Jews to Christianity