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It Had Its History


The Jews of Russia

Continuing his series on Jewish communities around the world, Mann introduces us to the Jews of Russia with a long, illustrious, and varied history.

Its cities are called the Paris of the Baltic. It’s a vast country - a country of harsh winters that stopped foreign invaders and wild winds that bring in the autumn rain, fine and chill. It’s banishments to the desolates and souls that languished. It’s forced silence and stirring music. It’s long train rides into the vast Steppes. It’s a country where in winter hot tea is sold in the streets - and lemonade in the summer. It’s War and Peace, and short stories. It’s a land where an Empress banished her personal physician of eighteen years upon learning that he was a Jew and a leader of today who comes to the ceremony to light the Chanukah Menorah candles. It’s a land of exodus and pogroms. It’s sweet and sad balalaika music. It’s partisans and love for the motherland. It’s Yiddish not suppressed but still spoken and knocks on the door. It’s Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. It’s Tsarist decrees that forced its Jewish citizens to serve its armies for forty years. It’s old buildings gilded and brief rays of sunshine. It’s skies huge and domed and a curtain that once was iron. It’s Russia.

In early Russian history Jews were not allowed to settle and the few who did were later expelled by the Czars. It is difficult to say exactly when Jews first moved from the area of the Mediterranean to the region we know as Russia. Ancient Greek writings mention Jewish settlement on the northern shore of the Black Sea. In 740, King Bulan of the Khazar empire selected the Jewish religion. This was very important for the older Jewish communities. Most waves of immigrants came from Byzantium and the Muslim Empire in the eighth to tenth centuries, CE, and smaller numbers from the west as well. It is reasonable to assume that Jews from the Khazar Empire were brought to Kiev where the first historically documented report of a Jewish settlement in Kiev dates only from 1018, when Jewish homes were raided by soldiers. From the outset the new Church followed a course of accusations directed against the Jews. The Jews were important to the economic life of Kiev and in the trade relations with Central and Western Europe. The Jewish merchants were known in the Hebrew sources as ‘those who go about in Russia’.

Scholars from ‘Ashkenaz (Germany) would sometimes arrive with the trader caravans, while pupils from Russia would travel to Central or Western Europe to study at rabbinical seminaries (yeshiviot). The Jews of Kiev also maintained relations with those in Babylon. In the twelfth century Rabbi Moshe of Kiev was in contact with the Rabbis of Germany and with Rabbi Shmuel ben Ali, head of the Babylonian yeshivah, on matters of halakah.

Despite the generally low level of Jewish culture in that period in Kiev, the Jews there succeeded in producing several publications, including a commentary on the Torah composed in 1124, and a translation into Russian of passages from the Hebrew-language Book of Yossipon.

During the early medieval times, few Jews lived in Russia. It was Russian expansion southward and eastward between the 16th and 18th centuries that led to the incorporation of large numbers of Jews under Russian rule. As a result of Russian expansion more than 1,200,000 Jews were incorporated under Russian rule. By 1600, the towns of Polotsk, Vitebsk, Minsk, Pink, Lublin Kishinev, and Kiev had large, thriving Jewish communities.

During the two centuries that the Principality of Moscow was under Mongol rule, from the thirteenth to the fifteenth, only individual Jews seemed to have arrived there. Hatred of the Jews by Ivan the Terrible (1533-84) became murder when he ordered every Jew who refused to convert to Christianity to be thrown into the river and drowned, together with his whole family. This apparently took place in other areas.

There was increased anti-Jewish feeling based on religious fanaticism and deep rooted prejudice, which continued during the reign of Peter the Great (1682-1725), however, due to his ambition to modernize the country, Jewish bankers were granted permits to settle in Moscow, and the settlement of Jews in the border regions was permitted. This easing of restrictions was short-lived and ceased after the death of Peter the Great, when Catherine I issued a decree banishing Jews (1727). The policy of expulsion of the Jews reached its peak during the reign of Elizabeth (1741-62) who was a religious fanatic.

The poor economic situation of Russian Jews was aggravated by frequent wars, and repeated expulsions. The Jews were engaged principally in petty trading, as middlemen, or holding various rights leased to them by the landowners, such as milling, fish ponds, and orchards; most of them however, earned their livelihood by the sale of liquor. The Jews were made permanently dependent on the landowners on whose property they lived.

Jewish religious observance and study of the Torah and rabbinic lore were difficult in Russia during this period.

After 1772, Russia acquired a large area of Poland and with it, a large number of Jews. There were still restrictions against the Jews and eventually they were allowed to settle only in the Pale of Settlement, an area in the west of the Russian Empire.

Before World War I most Jews were confined to the Pale - an area limited mainly to what is today Lithuania, Belorussia and the Ukraine. It is known that at the beginning of the twentieth century there were five and a half million Jews living in the territory of the Russian Empire.

Jews who were able to work their way into such large cities such as St. Petersburg and Moscow were similarly restricted. They were excluded from the ranks of government service, especially officers corps, elected offices, teachers, the foreign service, the civil service. Jews were also excluded from leading positions in shipping, railroad, insurance and mining companies.

The laws of 1864, 1865, 1903 and 1912 barred Jews from acquiring or evening managing rural land in the provinces of Vilna, Kiev, Grodno, Minsk and Tobsk.

The Jews suffered during the many pogroms. In 1904 and 1905, at the time of Russia’s ill-fated war with Japan, pogroms were carried out by soldiers and by mobs. On October 1905 there was a wave of rioting which spread to all the most important Jewish centres. Odessa where over 300 persons were killed, and thousands injured, Kiev, Kishinev, Romi, Kremenchug. In a relatively short time, there were 64 outbreaks in the cities and 626 in the towns and villages, in which 800 Jews lost their lives and thousands were wounded. In the Kishinev pogrom of April 6, 1903, 45 Jews were killed by the mob. There was a solemn burial of the Scrolls of the Law that had been desecrated during the pogrom. Seven hundred houses were destroyed, 600 shops looted, 4,000 Jews remained homeless and destitute. In 1906 there were pogroms in Bialystok, with eighty dead.

With the accession of Nicholas II, the last Tsar, there was an increase in anti-Semitism. The greatest suffering for the Jews was caused by the continued mass expulsions. On March 29, 1891 under the then Tsar Alexander III, some 30,000 Jews living in Moscow, were rounded up and expelled, in the biggest and cruelest operation of the kind so far, they had constituted 86% of the Jews in Moscow. During the First World War, the Jews were accused of spying and collaboration with the enemy, and many of them were executed. On May 3, 1915, the expulsions reached their peak when 200,000 Jews of Kovno and Kurland were ordered to leave their homes within forty-eighty hours. An estimated total of over 600,000 were expelled, only 5% of whom succeeded in taking their movable possessions with them.

Earlier, Tsar Nicholas I decreed that Jews would have to join the Tsarist army for a forty year term. The 1827 law fixed a rate of Jewish conscription 40% percent higher than that of non-Jews. Under the terms of this law, the Jews had a quota of conscripts fixed for them, which was meant to be higher than that of the Christian population. Jews were called up for service every year, while for the general population it was every two years. The general draft age was from twenty to thirty-five, but for the Jews it was twelve to thirty-five.

Exemption from conscription was granted to merchants of all guilds, artisans connected with the guilds of their trades, rabbis, school-teachers, apprentices who had been apprenticed to Christian artisans for at least three years. An increasing number of young Jews fled the country, or maimed themselves, or paid bribes to evade the draft.

Kidnappers roamed the Pale Settlement looking for unattended or defenseless Jewish youths and children called Khappers in Yiddish. Their reputation for infamy was a central theme in Russian Jewish folklore and history.

The Russian historian Alexander Herzen wrote in mid-1830’s, “Pale, worn out, with frightened faces, they stood in thick, clumsy soldier’s overcoats, with standing collars, fixing helpless, pitiful eyes on the garrison soldiers, who were roughly getting them into the ranks. The white lips, the blue rings under the eyes looked like fever or chill and the sick children without care or kindness, exposed in the icy wind that blows from the Arctic Ocean, were going to their graves. Boys of twelve or thirteen might somehow have survived, but little fellows of eight or ten... No painting could reproduce the horror of that scene.” The Yiddish folk song of the period aptly described the situation:

“Tots from school they tear away 

And dress them up in soldiers’ gray.” 

Censorship had been in force in Russia since 1826, but Nicholas I felt that the Jews needed extra censorship. On 27 October 1836, a ministerial committee decided to close all existing Hebrew printing presses, except two - one in Kiev and the other in Vilna.

From 1835-1914 there was a great flourishing of Jewish literary and culture. There was a flowering of Jewish literature in all three languages, Hebrew, Yiddish and Russian. Bialik, Perets and Shneur all wrote in Hebrew and Yiddish, the historian Shimon Dubnov wrote in all three languages. The poetry of Bialik was a combination of lyric power and the spirit of the ancient prophets of Israel, and the nature poetry of Shaul Chernihovsky overflowed with romantic vitality.

There was the renown Habimah theatre and the Jewish Chamber Theatre, two Jewish theaters that achieved world recognition during their tours abroad. The Habimah was the first theatre company giving performances in Hebrew started in Bialysotk in 1912, the founder and director was Nahum Zemach, a teacher of Hebrew. Years later when there were threats of closing it down, Gorki, Chaliapin, and Stanislvaski came to its defense. Lenin made note that the Habimah had to be allowed to exist. Stanislavski of the famous acting method, said, “If it were not for my gray hair I would start to learn Hebrew.” “Support the theatre in that marvelous language,” he wrote.

There were many famous writers, the most “Jewish” of Russian writers was Isaac Babel 1894-1941. Then there was Boris Pasternak 1890-1960 author of Doctor Zhivago, his father was the well known artist Leonid Pasternak. Boris Pasternak whose book Doctor Zhivago was prevented from being published in Soviet Russia, came out in Russian outside the country and was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1958. He declined the prize after being persecuted by official government and writers circle.

For centuries the Jews had suffered under these restrictions, but in the late 19th century they decided to end such discrimination and reshape the whole society. They joined movements to overturn the regime. Jews after the 1917 Russian revolution were appointed to some of the country’s most sensitive positions.

Over the next few years Jews were involved in almost all aspects of the revolutionary regime. There was Leon Trotsky (Bronshtein) who served the equivalent of the Minister of Defense, there was Maxim Litvinov (Isser Meir Wallach) equivalent of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Genrikh Yagda, head of the secret police. Even Lenin might have had a Jewish grandparent.

Emigration from Russia began by 1914. One million-eighty thousand emigrated to the United States. Earlier in 1893 the Jews from Bukhara had founded a settlement in Jerusalem and by 1900 it included 180 houses, two synagogues and two schools. Over 60,000 Jews entered Palestine, mostly from Russia. They sought a new home living under Turkish rule. Many settled on wastelands, sand-dunes, draining the malaria marshes, building irrigation for farming. Russian born Jews played a leading part in the country’s political, economic and cultural life. The first four presidents and the first four prime ministers were all Russian born. David Ben -Gurion, Golda Meir, Chaim Weizman, Zalman Shazar, Moshe Sharett, Levi Eshkol, Menachem Begin, Ephraim Katz. In 1960 of the 73 members of Knesset, 52 gave their birthplace as Tsarist Russia.

In the 1920’s the Soviet state embarked on an active program of closing and destroying religious institutions. There were trials in 1921 against the Cheders - Yeshivas. Very quickly they were shut down, but for many years Cheders continued to carry on an underground existence. In 1923 there was a campaign against the Synagogues. The Moscow Synagogue managed to be saved through an appeal by Rabbi Mazer. In 1926, 1,103 synagogues were still open in the Soviet Union, in 1945, 500 and in 1954 only a hundred. In 1965 there were 40 rabbis in the Soviet Union as reported by the Chief Rabbi of Moscow, Judah-Leib Levin. Throughout the country old synagogues vanished and new ones not built.

Once there had been the famous Volozhin Yeshiva founded by Hayyim Volozhiner in Belorussia. Here at one time there were 400 students, many coming from outside of the country. During the wars in 1813, there was a letter of protection instructing all military units to “safeguard the Chief Rabbi of Volozhin, his schools and educational institutions... and to extend to the above-mentioned Chief Rabbi every assistance and protection.”

There was the famous Yeshiva Mir founded by Samuel b. Hayyim Tiktinski in 1815 of which the student body of the Yeshiva was saved during the Holocaust by escaping to Shanghai. The last Rabbi being Abraham Zevi Kamai from 1917 to the Holocaust. After the war (1947) the Yeshiva transferred to Brooklyn, New York and later on some of its scholars joined the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem.

The Soviet authorities were particularly against baking of unleavened bread for Passover (mazot) in the synagogues. From 1957, it was forbidden in the cities of Kharkov, Odessa, Kiev, Rostov, Kishinev and Riga, and from 1961 the ban was extended to the whole of the Soviet Union. As a result of world-wide protests, however, in 1964 the authorities decided to allow religious congregations in Moscow, Leningrad and Tiflis to bake mazot again.

Ritual baths for women, (Mikvehs) destroyed during the Civil War, had been rebuilt during the 1920’s were now closed down by the authorities.

It became increasingly difficult to publish prayer-books and from the beginning of the 1930’s all Jewish religious publication stopped. There was a systematic destruction of Jewish cemeteries on the grounds that the area was needed for public use. The Jewish cemetery in Moscow was confiscated in this way in 1963.

Steps were taken against the practice of circumcision and to celebrate a Bar Mitzvah was difficult.

Following the postwar years the entire cultural life of the Jewish people was liquidated at one stroke. Practically every Jewish writer, artist, composer and to some extent musicians, were arrested and exiled and some executed.

With the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, millions of Soviet Jewish citizens found themselves in what had once been the old Tsarist Pale of Settlement. Many were evacuated by the Soviet government to Central Asia. Those who were caught by the advancing German army were doomed.

There were special roving military and SS units called Einsatzgruppen. Their units murdered over 1,200,000 Jews in places such as Babi Yar near Kiev and Ponary on the outskirts of Vilna.

The Red Army liberated the concentration camp Maidjanek on July 23, 1945. Between 1941-1945 more than 500,000 Jews served in the Red Army, and at least 200,000 were killed in action. The Jewish population in 1939 was 3,550,000 and in 1946 2,665,000.

With the fall of the Iron Curtain, the floodgates of emigration opened. There was a mass exodus of one million Russian Jews who made aliyah. It is said that anti-Semitism in Russia is on the wane and that synagogues and Jewish community centers are sprouting up again in small towns and villages. The Chief Rabbi of Russia Berl Lazar, said that local Jewish organizations finally are taking root and flourishing after having been suppressed during the 74 years of Communist rule that ended in 1991. “Today,” he said “ we see Jewish schools, Jewish kindergartens, charity canteens, various cultural programs and lots of music and artistic groups in towns where Jewish life had not existed at all.” Today there are about 1 million Jews in Russia, and a “Prime Minister who shows a positive attitude towards Jewish life.”

There were the “refuseniks” who languished in jail but walked out waving to the world, there were the Russian Jewish partisans who blew up German military trains, there were the Black Years and the exiles doomed in labor camps. There was the Hebrew teacher Chalameiser, with the “little beard of curly tuffs,” sitting outside before the lesson, in the Russian cold, taking out a lump of black bread, an onion or two, sometimes a pickle, invariably a handful of salt in a clean rag. That was his breakfast. "I don’t remember,” the writers’ memoirs continue, “very clearly just what we studied together, but he was indelibly engrossed on my memory, all of him, with all his poverty, his patience, kindness.”

Forerunner of the “refusenik,” forerunner of the “partisan,” of the “exiled,” of the “beaten,” the Russian Jew, “All of him.”

Stanley Mann © all rights reserved

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