With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of numerous successor states, “Russian Jewry” no longer embraces many of the communities that were once subsumed under the Communist and even pre-Communist rubric. Even so, Russia still accounts for one of the largest Jewish communities in the world. In addition to the two main cities, Moscow (200,000) and St. Petersburg (100,000), there are several dozen communities with more than 1,000 Jews. In recent years, Russian Jewry has been shrinking, primarily due to emigration and the ageing process. Estimates of the Jewish population of Birobidzhan, the so-called Jewish Autonomous Region, do not exceed 7,000.
Jews were denied the right of permanent residence in Muscovy-the heart of what would evolve into the Russian empire. Some Jews, nevertheless, penetrated the area. Ivan the Terrible (1533-1584) was the first to order the complete expulsion of Jews. Under Czar Fyodor (1676-1682), Jewish traders were excluded from Muscovy.
The Jewish community living in the territory of Russia proper is of relatively recent origin. Until the middle of the 19th century, very few Jews lived in Russian cities. The bulk of “Russian Jewry” was confined to the pale-the territory consisting of present-day Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Lithuania, and Poland.
Many Jews from Belarus and Ukraine settled in what is now Russia during the Soviet period. They were 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.
During World War II, this campaign was relaxed, 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. Only Stalin’s death in 1953 spared Soviet Jewry from facing even greater oppression. Shortly thereafter many of the prisoners in the vast gulag, including tens of thousands of Jews, were released.
Although the situation improved somewhat, 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 who did engage in such activity, the so-called refuseniks, were imprisoned and denied the right to leave the country. Under the slogan Let My People Go, demonstrations were mounted, and governments and parliaments were lobbied in order to bring pressure to bear on the Soviet authorities. In the 1980s, emigration was again restricted. 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.
There are two umbrella organizations of Russian Jewry: the Federation of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Russia (Va’ad) and the Russian-Jewish Congress.
Anti-Semitism has been a great cause of concern. Although the post-Soviet leadership has officially condemned the phenomenon, it has taken almost no concrete action to crack down on anti-Semitic organizations or publications.
In the fields of education and culture, Russian Jewry has taken dramatic strides. Today, in large part due to the efforts of foreign Jewish organizations, an impressive network of Jewish educational institutions has been established. These include four Jewish universities (in Moscow and St. Petersburg) where a broad range of Jewish topics can be studied.
Jewish newspapers in the Russian language appear in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Samara, Omsk, Yekaterinburg, Nalchik, and Perm.
The Union of Jewish Religious Communities is responsible for maintaining and propagating Orthodox religious life. There are now synagogues in all the major cities and towns which have a Jewish population, as well as a number of rabbis, many recruited from abroad. In certain localities, the Chabad movement is also active. The Reform and Conservative movements have introduced these denominations of Judaism to the Russian scene. In recent years, over ten Reform congregations have been established, and the first native Russian Reform rabbis have recently taken up their pulpits.
Kosher food is available, including meat, wine, and matzot, and religiously observant Jews have all the facilities they need to practice Judaism. The majority of Russian Jewry, however, is not observant and sees its Jewish identity in terms of ethno-national status.
The Soviet Union immediately recognized Israel upon its establishment in 1948. Relations were severed in 1967 and were only reestablished in 1992. Aliya: Between 1948 and 1989, before the collapse of the Soviet Union, 218,170 Soviet Jews emigrated to Israel. Of that number, 137,134 arrived during the period of superpower detente, between 1972 and 1979. Since 1989, 230,000 Russian Jews have emigrated to Israel for a total of 700,000 from the former Soviet Union.
The most important Jewish site in Moscow is the Choral Synagogue on Arkhipova Street, which dates back to 1891. In Soviet times, on important holidays, Jews gathered in front of the building to express their identity. Today the synagogue is the focus of Jewish religious life in the capital. St. Petersburg’s Moorish-style choral synagogue dates back to 1893. The State Russian Museum has an impressive collection of works by Chagall and other Jewish artists. In the Historical Museum of Birobidzhan, one of the permanent exhibits is called “To Be or Not To Be: Repressed Jewish Culture in the Jewish Autonomous Oblast.” In the same city, there is also a museum devoted to themes from the Bible. Many of the works display a mixture of scriptural themes and contemporary political imagery.
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Tel. 7 095 230 6700, Fax. 7 095 238 1346
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