** Russian Jews

Russian Jews

Figure 1.--We note large numbers of obvioudly Russian photographs being sold in Isreal. We believe that most of the images are of Soviet Jews, prbably that emigrated to Palestinr before Stalin severely limited emigration (1931). Apparently the Soviet dictator decided that emigration was not compatable with propaganda claiming that Commujism was building a worker's paradise. After all, why would workers want to leave a worker's paradise for capitalist countries where they were being exploited by evil capitalists. All embarassing was the fact that very few of the susposedly exploited capitalist workers were trying to emigrate to the Soviet Union.

Christians for centuries after the fall of Rome (5th century AD) gererally tollerated and coexisted with Jews and anti-Semetic eruptions were limited. At this time there were very few Jews living in Eastern Europe. Beginning with the Crusades (11th century) this began to change. Anti-Semetic laws, vicious programs, and expullsions spread in waves over Western Europe. European Jews fleeing the oppression of Roman Catholic Western Europe moved east to Polandand other Eastern Ruropean states. The Tsars did not tolerate Jews within their empires and as Muscovy expanded their were mass killings in newly acquired cities. The Tsar adopted an openly ant-Semetic policy (1721). Areas conquered by the Russian Army were cleared of Jews, such as the Ukraine (1727). This was normally done with great brutality. Ironically the Jews of Greater Russia developed into the largest and most important Jewish community in the world. This was in large measure the result of the Polish Partitions (1772-95) and the incorporation of Poland into the Tsarist Empire. Russian Jewery became the heart of the Jewish world and the origins of the Zionist movement. The opressive policies of the Tsars also lead many Jes to embrace socialism and revoutionary politics. As many as 5 million Jews are believed to have lived in Russia before World War I and the Revolution. Jews played a oprominant role in the Revolution and Bolshevik movement. Tsarist Russia became the Soviet Union and finally the Confederation of Independent States (CIS) with a deminished, but still very sizeable Jewish population.


The Jews, unlikethe Christians, were a recognized religion by Rome. Jews came to Rome and other Roman cities after Palestine was annexed by Rome, but at first only in very small numbers. After the failure of the Jewish Rebellion, Jews were brought to Roman cities in larger numbers as slaves. Jews in Europe were primarily located in areas controlled by Rome which meant largely Europe west of the Rhine and south of the Danube. Jews in Byzantium may have had some contact with the Rus and Russiam traders.

Medieval Europe

Christians for centuries after the fall of Rome (5th century AD) gererally tollerated and coexisted with Jews and anti-Semetic eruptions were limited. At this time there were very few Jews living in Eastern Europe. Beginning with the Crusades (11th century) this began to change. Anti-Semetic laws, vicious programs, and expullsions spread in waves over Western Europe.

Migration East

European Jews began moving east to central and eastern Europe as well as the Middle East where regimes were more tolerant. Large number of Jews settled in Poland and Lithuania which for a time dominated much of Eastern Europe including the lightly populated Ukraine. Jews also moved in to Hungary which would come under the control of the Austrian monarchy. Jews in much of Eastern Europe were self governing. The Jewish shtetl and Jewish communities in towns goverened themselves under Torah Law and the privileges granted the community by the local rulers.

Tsarist State

The Ruriks who dominated Muscovy became the princes which united Russian principalities and defeated the Tartars to end the payment of tribute. The Prince of Muscovy declared himself emperor or Tsar. Muscovy became not only a political state, but theocratic staye, much like the Caliphate for Islam or the Holy Roman Empire in Europe. The Tsar after the fall of Byzantium (1453) claimed that Moscow was the Third Rome and and he was the new emperor. The Tsar became both the political and religious leader in a dangerous world surrounded by Islam to the south and Roman Catholics to the west. After the fall of Byzantium, Muscovy was the only important Orthodox Christiam state. This placed absolute power in the hands of the Tsar. Monarchs in the West also claimed absolute power, but the conflict between popes and monarchs meant that they were unable to achieve absolute power and this tension was one of the sources for the development of democratic government. The Tsars as defender of the Orthodox Church waged war against Islamic and Catholic states which were potential threats. While the Jews were no threat, the princes of Muscovy and the Tsars did not tolerate them within Muscovy. The Russian Army captured Polotsk, an important commercial center in Lithuania, and proceeded to murder the Jews (1563).


The Tsar adopted an openly ant-Semetic policy (1721). Areas conquered by the Russian Army were cleared of Jews, such as the Ukraine (1727). This was normally done with great brutality.

Polish Partitions (1772-95)

The Tsars found this policy difficult to continue when as a result of the 18th century Polish partitions. Poland at one time was a majoe Euorpean power. The sucess of the noobility in emasculting the monarchy caused a disatrous decline in Polish fortunes. And ultimately the neigboring powers (Russia, Prussia, and Austria) partitioned and annexed all of the former Polish kingdom (1772-95). This Poland disappeared grom the maps of Europe until being revived after World War I. Russia acquired the largest share of Poland, including all of eastern and central Poland as well as Warsw. Prussia acquired western Poland, much of which was renamed West Prussia (formerly Royal Prussia) and Posen. This was Wielkopolska or Greater Poland. Austria acquired southern Poland, including Krak�w and Lw�w and renamed "Galicia". During and after the Napoleonic Wars, Poland briefly reemerged as the small Duchy of Warsaw under Napoleon and the Kingdom of Poland within the Tsarist Empire. Huge numbers of Jews came under the control of the Russian state. The second (1793) and the third (1795) partitions in particular resulted in very large number of Jews coming under Russian control.

The Shtetl

The shtetl over 800 years of Jewish life in Eastern Europe (Poland, Lithuania, and Russia) became the economic foundation. Shtetls began appearing first in Poland (11th century). The "Shtetl" was a small Jewish market town. Shetle is the Yiddish diminutive of shtot or stadt, the Yiddish and German words for "town" meaning "little town". The typical shtetl was a town of from 1,000 to 20,000 people. Shtetls began appearing as Jewish fleeing increasing opression in Western Europe began fleeing East. Some of the first Jews were from Germany and Bohemia. There were also Mideastern Jews as well. There were eventually thousands of shtetlekh and they served as trading centers for the surrounding rural areas. The great majority of Eastern Eurioean Jews lived in the various Shtetls which became the primary institution of Jewish cultural life. The shtetls were populated almost entirely by Jews. There were also middle-sized towns where Jews constituted an important part of the population, The Jewish communities traditionally governed themselves according to halakha. They were controlled by the privileges granted them by local rulers. Jews in the shtetl were thus not assimilated into the larger eastern European societies.

Pale of Settlement (1791-1917)

Tsarist Russia under Catherine the Great established the Pale of Settlement (1791). Earlier Tsars had attempted and failed to expel the Jews from Russia who refused to convert. The Emperess Elizabeth made the most sustained effort. There were a range of issues involved with mixed religion, nationalism, and economics. Russia in the 18th century was still largely divided mainly into nobles, serfs and clergy. Two developments in the 18th century brought the issue of Jewish settlement to a head. First, Peter the Great institutited a range of reforms which began to bring Russia into Europe. This resulted in social and ecomomic changes which included the first factories and modern industrial production. This also meant the emergence of industrial urban workers and a middleclass. The new Russian middle-class included many Jews. Second, the Polish Partitions, especially the Second Partition, brought large numbers of Jews into the Russian Empire. Until the Partitions, Russia had a fairly limited Jewish population. The Pale in the 19th century would include more than 5 million Jews, this was the largest Jewish population in Europe, about 40 percent of the total. Catherine by restricting where Jews could lived was in part attempting to ensure the emergence of a Russian middle class. Catherine was a German princess and thus vulnerable to charges from Russian nationalists, many of who wanted the Jews expelled. This basically violated Catherine's liberal attitudes. Also the Jews despite the charges of anti-Semites, played a valuable role in the Russian economy, especially their mercantile role in the privinces. The Pale was an area of Western Russia stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. It included what is now the Baltic Republics, Poland, Belarus, and large areas of the Ukraine including the Crimea, although it varied over time. Jews were restricted to settling outside this area. Jews were required to live and work only in this Pale. Authorities required Jews to obtain special permission to enter Russia outside the Pale. Jews in the Pale were mostly urban, but this means villages and small towns and not just cities. They lived in towns and villages, called shtetls. Among the important centers of Jewish life were Warsaw, Odessa, Lodz, and Vilna, communities that would be destroyed by the NAZIs in the World War II Holocaust. Jews even within the Pale lived under many legal restrictions affecting employment. As result many were merchants, shopkeepers, and craftsmen--trades they were permitted to persue. The Pale was finally abolished after the overthrow of the Tasarist regime (1917).

French Revolution

The ideas of the Enlightment were spread by the French Revolution. The Emperess Catherine was iinfluenced by the Enlifgtenment even before the French Revolution. Although Napoleon was defeated in Russia, many of the idea spread within Russia. This was even more so in POland and western territiries ruiled by Russia.

Political Opposition

After the defeat of Napoleon (1814-15), the Congress of Vienna attempted to turn the clock back in Europe. Reactionary regimes were installed throughout the continent. Russia itself with the Tsar, an absolite ruler, becamev the policeman of Europe. Even so a political opposition began to form. As there was little legal opportunity for political dissent, the political opposition took the form of revolutionary plotting. The first major attempt was the Decembrist Revolt (1825). The beginning of the industrial revolution created a class of desperately poor urban proleterit. Russia was stilln a Feudal soviety with millions living ascserfs, a status little removed from slavery. Russia experienced a complicated political underground of nihilism, anarchism, liberalism, socialism, syndicalism, and Communism. The rejection of moderate liberal political reforms delayed efforts of moderstes and increased the strength of radicaln reolutionaries. The Tsarist Government resorted to increasingly strict censoirship, suppression of even moderate political discusdsion, increasing powers for the secret police. Thec Tsarist Government as a tatic to gain popularity and turn public opinion away from political reform, promoted religious and nationalistic fanaticism. The Goverment persued pan-Slavism in the Balkans. Given ravid anti-Semitism often promoted by the clergy in hate filled sermons, the Government persued a range of anti-Semetic policies.

Cantonist Decrees (1827)

Soon after becoming Tsar, Nicholas I issued the Cantonist Decrees. This term came from the word "canton," which meant a military camp. The degree was a conscription measure. It authorized the forced conscription of Jewish boys into the Russian Army. The Army took Jewish boys were taken at age 12-18. The had to serve for 25 years. The boys were virtually forced to convert to Chtritianity or suffer even more horendous conditions that was the normal lot of a conscript. Most did not survive the full 25 years of their conscription period. Almost none of those who did survive considered themselves Jews when they left the army. The Jewish comminity and even their parents looked on conscription as a death sentence for the boys. Some parents cut off the right index finger of their sons to prevent them from being conscripted. (Soldir's without an index finger could not fire a rifle.). Other parents managed to pay bribes.

Alexander II (1855-81)

Alexander II, in contrast to Nicholas I, was amenable to reform. He abolished serfdom in 1861, though the emancipation didn't in fact bring on any significant change in the condition of the peasants. The action eraned him the title of "The Liberator". As the country became more industrialized, its political system experienced even greater strain. Attempts by the lower classes to gain more freedom provoked fears of anarchy, and the government remained extremely conservative. As Russia became more industrialized, larger, and far more complicated, the inadequacies of autocratic Tsarist rule became increasingly apparent. By the 20th Century conditions were ripe for a serious convulsion. At the same time, Russia had expanded its territory and its power considerably over the 19th century. Its borders extended to Afghanistan and China, and it had acquired extensive territory on the Pacific coast. The foundation of the port cities of Vladivostok and Port Arthur there had opened up profitable avenues for commerce, and the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway (constructed from 1891-1905) linked the European Russia with its new eastern territories. In 1841, Alexander II in 1841 married Maria of Hessen-Darmstadt (Maria Alexandrovna). The royal couple had seven seven children. He was mortally wounded on March 1, 1881, when a student, I. Grinevitskii who belonged to the revolutionary organization "The National Will", threw a bomb. A cathedral was erected on the site of the murder. Alexander II was buried in the Cathedral of the St. Peter and St. Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg.

Alexander III (1881- )

Alexander II's assasination brought to power Alexander III and a new wave of political repression in Russia. The Okranna was created to root out plotters, but even moderate dissenters were often targeted. The new Tsar was also intensely anti-Semetic and oversaw a new wave of anti-Semetic measures. Alexander was a rabid reactionary who political views were cinformed by the assasination of his reformidt father. Alexander firmly believed in the Tsaeist creed, "Autocracy, Orthodoxy, and Nationalism."

May Laws

The Tsarist Government promulgated a series of edicts which resticted where Jews could live and and a range of economic measures. The most important edicts were the May Laws. Jews were prohibited from living outside cities and townships. The registration of property and mortgages was stopped "temporarily". Jews were prohibited from buying farmland and managing many properties. Jews were barred from hilding government offices. Even worse were the vicious pogroms.


Alexander III was a rabid anti-Semire. Progroms began in Russia following the assasination of his father, the "Tsar liberator" Alexander II. It is difficult to say whther the pofroms were more a reflection of his ant-Semitism or a mater of political expediency. He soughht to use "folk anti-Semitism," to his political advantage. The clergy delivered hate-filled sermons in which Jews were portrayed as "Christ-killers" and the oppressors of the Slavic, Christian people. Mobs attacked Jewish communities, ransaking homes and shops and killing people. These progroms were especially common in the Ukraine. There were countless progroms of varying size and distructiveness. The worst was the Kishinov Pogrom (1881). There were many ways in which progroms were inspired. The clergy often gave hate-filled sermons. The Tsarist Government did little to prevent them and officials even instigated them. We believe these were mostly local officials such as the police, but have few details. One historian wrires, "Expulsions, deportations, arrests, and beatings became the daily lot of the Jews, not only of their lower class, but even of the middle class and the Jewish intelligentsia. The government of Alexander III waged a campaign of war against its Jewish inhabitants ... The Jews were driven and hounded, and emigration appeared to be the only escape from the terrible tyranny of the Romanovs." [Wein, p. 173.] . The result was an explossion of emmigration to Western Europe, especially Germany, and the United States. Pogroms continued under Alexander sons, Nicholas II.

Russian Poland

Tsar Alexander III approved the policy of Alexander Wielopolski in the Kingdom of Poland to grant Jews equal rights as other citizens. Hidstorians debate the real impact of this policy.


Tsarist repression drove many Jews west into Western Europe, especially Germany. Even more made their way to America. Jews came in small numbers earlier, but after the pogroms began, the numbers increased markedly. Tsarist authorities did not restrict this emigration, lthough we are not sure about military-age men. For the most part they were pleased for the Jews to leave. Many of the Jews came from what is now Poland and the Ukraine (the Pale of Settlement), there were restrictions on Jews settling in Russia proper. Most of the Jewish immigration went to the United States. America became an important center of Jewish life. Tsarist (mostly Polish and Ukrarian) Jews became the dominant element of the Jewish community in America. There was also emigration to Western Europe. Smaller numbers emigrated to Syria and Palestine as part of the Zionist movement. The Levant was at the time part of the Ottoman Empire. This was known as the First and Second Aliyah. Relatively small number of Jews were involved, but Russian Jews were an important part of it. World War I ended European emigration. After the War the Soviet Union was established. Soviet authorties for a few years allowed emigration. Some 52,000 Soviet Jews between 1919 and 1948 emigrated to Palestine. [ICBS, p. 33.] Most of these Jews emigrated in the early years (1919-31). During this period Soviet authorties did not have complete control of their borders, but even when they did, emigration was possiblke. Once Stalin was in control, emigratiin was severly restructed. This was not just Jewish emigration, but emigration in general. It did not due for Stalinist propaganda to admit that Soviet citizens would want to escape the worker's paradise. Emigration was not imposible, but it was highly restricted. For one matter, applying to emigrate brought the individual to the attention of the NKVD and possible arrest and internment in the Gulag. As a result, most Jewish emigratiin to Palestine in the inter-War era came from Eastern Europe (primarily Poland) and to a lesser extent Germany once the NAZIs seized control. [Sicron] Soviet emigration policy continued into the post-War era and became a Cold War issue in the final years pof the Soviet Union. As a concession to the United States, Soviet authoritie began to allow Jewish emigration.


Another response to Zionist oppresion was Zionism. It was the Jews of Russia and Poland that were the vessel in which Zionism developed. Most of the principal Zionists emerged out of Eussia (Achad Ha'am, Ben-Gurion, Bialik, A.D. Gordon, Jabotinsky, Pinsker, Weizmann, and countless others. They wre the source of the first emigrants to "Eretz Yisroel". It was Russian Jewery who most vociferously demanded a Jewish National Home located in Palestine. This was at the time that Jews in Germany, France, and elsewhere in Europe were optimistic about the future of European Jewery and many were assimilating or attempting to assimilate. Many Russian Jews confined to the Pale of Settlement, subjected to vicious pograms, and living in poverty did not shate the optimism of their Western European cousins.

Beilis Trial

World War I (1914-18)

The Jews of Tsarist Russia were divided after World War I and the Russian Revolution. Perhaps half became citizens of the new independent Polish states. Smaller numbers found themselves in the Baltics, especially Lithuania. About half found themselves trapped inside the new Soviet Union. Emigration from the Soiviet Union became almost impossible.

Soviet Policies

Lenin publicly condemned anti-Semitism. The initial focus of the Bolshevik atheist campaign was on Christians, but Jews and Muslims were eventually argeted a well. The Bolsheviks including Jewish Bolsheviks were hostile toward Judaism from the beginning of the Soviet regime. Jews were organimg politically before the Revolution. They were active Social Democratic Labour Party from which the Bolsheviks sprung. There was a Jewish Bund to which Trotsky first belonged. It should be stressed that Russian anti-Semitism was more religious anti-Semitism, not racial anti-Semitism like the NAZI variant. Even so, historic Russian anti-Semitism was so strong that secular Jews were subject to decrimination throughout the Soviet era. Soviet officials abolished Jewish community councils (1919). These were the Jewish comminity groups traditionally responsible for maintaining synagogues. The Bolsheviks created a special Jewish unit of the Party. This unit was given the responsibilty to conduct a prpaganda campaign against the Jewish elders, clergy, and religion in general. The Hehalutz Zionist youth movemrnt was supressed (1926). [Solzhenitsyn, p. 36.] Eventually a kind of Soviet Zionist movemrnt was established. It was designed to direct Jewish national and religious aspirations in an approved Soviet direction. Stalin created the Jewish Autonomous Oblast (1928). Birobidzhan was made the capital. It was located on the Trans-Siberian Railway, near the China-Russia border. It was depicted as the Soviet Zion. Yiddish rather than Hebrew, which was described as reactionary, was to be the national language. Hebrew was supressed because of its association wu\ith Judaism. Party activists were to oversee the process of repacinh Judaism with proletarian socialist literature and arts. Soviet officials launched a massive domestic and international state propaganda campaign. A limited number of Jews decided to move there. The Jewish population there never reached 39 percent and today is mimimal. The experiment did not last long. Stalin's moved against religious Jews forcefully in the mid-1930s as part of the first major purge campaign. The NKVD began arresting Jewish leaders. Many were sumarily executed. The NKVD closed Yiddish schools. Persecutions and purges continued for several years. [Montefiore] Stalin's atheism campaign closed most of the 5,000 synagogues functioning during the Tsarist era. Supression of Jews was relaxed somewhat during the War. Basically it became impossible even dangerous to practice Judaism. The training of rabbis ended. his did not change until a limited relaxtion during the War. Until the Soviet Union began to implode, only one Yiddish periodical was published (late-1980s). Parents began to avoid pactice of Judism eb\ven in the homes. Children began growing up with out any knowledge of Judaism except descrination experienced from other Russians because of their looks and names. Some children grew up not even knowing that they were Jews.

The Holocaust

Hitler launched Opperation Barbarosa, his invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. Preparations were laid for murdering Jews as part of the invasion. The NAZIs in 1939 had not yey worked out wht ws to be done with the Jews. As a result, while there were many killings, most were rounded up and confined into gettos. The success of the Wehrmacht in 1939-40 had convinced Hitler and other NAZIs that they could begin the mass slaughter of Jews. There was no written document, but Hitler sme time in late 1940 or early 1941 must have ordered Himmler to prepare for mass killings with the invasion of the Soviet Union. The NAZI genocide had not yet been perfected and large scle gas chambers were not yet operating at Auswitz and other Polish concentration camps. The SS created four Einsatzgruppen to accompany the Wehrmacht and kill Jews in large numbers. Full details are not available, but we know from the similarities in many of the killing actions that the Einsatzgruppen were well trained and procedures developed for maximum efficency. Heydrich was in overall command of these killing machines and he was meticulous for his meticulous planning.

Post-World War II Stalinist Era

Cold War: Soviet Jewish Emigration

Tzarist persecution, Soviet persecution, and finally the NAZI invasion and Holocaust substantially reduced Russia's Jewish population. There were about 3.5 million Soviet Jews on the eve of World War II. About 0.9 million were killed by the NAZIs. The numbers would have been much larger had not the Red Army held before Moscow (December 1941), preventing the Germans from occupying much of the Russian heartland. Soviet authorities made it difficult for anyone to Jews to emigrate. This included Jews. The Jewish population still numbered about 2.3 million (1959). Jewish emigration becamne a major issue in the Cold War. Pressure from the United States eventually caused the Soviets to relent on emigration. Washington Senator Henry Jackson led the struggle for Soviet Jews. The Jackson-Vanik Act tied trade to the human rights issue. Finally under General Secretary Gorbechev, the floodgates were opened. As a result, Russia's Jewish population fell to only about 1.5 million as the Soviet Union began to destinigrate (1989). Unprecented numbers of Jews left the in the final years of the Soviet Union.

Modern Russia

Jewish immigrationnhas slowed in recebnt years, in part because of the much reduced Jewish population. About 1.5 million Jews are believed to have left the Soviet Union/Russia, but this includes individuals who were not technically Jewish. Many believe that there are still a substantial number of Jews in Russia and the Soviet successor states. This is in part because official statistics tend to under-estimate Jews. Estimating the number of Jews, however, is complicated. The 1.5 million figure appears to be based on "Halachic" Jews, the Jewish tradition of defining Jews through the maternal line. Other Russians have Jewish fathers or grandparents. Many Russians try to hide their Jewish ancestry or may not even be aware of it. Thus estimates are quite varied: Ukraine (0.1-0.5 million), Russia (0.3-0.7 million). Belarus (5,000-50,000), the Baltics (15,000). In Hungary for example, there are about 100,000 Jews or maybe as many as 500,000. In Poland, there are perhaps 10,000 Jews. >

Anti-Semitism in Modern Russia


Al-Qattan, Leenah. �Soviet Jews and Israel: Immigration and Settlement, A Selected Bibliography, 1985-October 1992,� Journal of Palestine Studies Vol. 22, No. 2 (Winter 1993).

Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics (ICBS). "Immigration to Israel 1991," Special Series No. 920 (Jerusalem: 1992).

Sicron, Moshe. Immigration to Israel, 1948�1953 (Jerusalem, 1957).

Wein, Berel. Triumph of Survival.


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