History of the Russian Jewish Community
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History of the Russian Jewish Community

The first information of Jews living in today’s Russia is dated to the first century A.D. and related to the Bosporus Kingdom which existed on the shores of the Kerch Strait. In the 6th-10th centuries the Khazarian Empire existed in the regions of Volga, Don, and Northern Caucasus; its rulers converted to Judaism in the 8th or 9th century. After the Mongolian invasion in the 13th century destroyed the Jewish communities which existed then, Jews appeared in Russian territories quite rarely until the 18th century.

The situation changed after the Partitions of Poland, when in 1772–1795 the Russian Empire annexed areas inhabited by almost a million Jews. Still, even then most of today’s Russia’s territory was excluded from the so-called Pale of Settlement, which only comprised several regions of those belonging to the Russian Federation today: the southern part of the Pskov oblast; the western and northern parts of the Smolensk and Tveroblasts; the western part of the Bryansk oblast; and the cities Rostov-on-Don and Taganrog. Only certain categories of Jews with special permits were allowed to live outside the Pale of Settlement. In 1897, at the time of the first All-Russian census, 314 thousand Jews lived outside the Pale, which constituted only 6 percent of the whole Jewish population of the Russian empire. The Pale of Settlement formally existed until 1917.

As a result of mass migration from the shtetls of the former Pale, the Jewish population of the RSFSR grew suddenly to 585,000 in 1926 and 956,000 in 1939. In the 1920s the state, on the one hand, repressed the religious and national elites, but on the other hand took active measures to help to develop the Jewish minority. In 1934, the Jewish Autonomous Region was created in the Far East with its center in the new city of Birobidzhan, 200 km away from Khabarovsk. Up to the end of the 1940s, the government organized several planned relocations to this region from the former Pale of Settlement. The goal of the Birobidzhan project was to create a Jewish territorial formation to counterbalance the Zionist idea of establishing an independent Jewish state. The Jewish Autonomous Region still remains a region of the Russian Federation.

In the late 1930s, most of the existing Jewish organizations were closed, their leaders repressed. During the Great Patriotic War the Soviet government was forced for foreign policy reasons to permit the formation of a Jewish anti-Fascist committee (head – Solomon Mikhoels) and a Yiddish newspaper.

Over half a million Soviet Jews, including citizens of the RSFSR, fought in the Red Army in the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945; about 150 of them were decorated with the Hero of the Soviet Union rank. Almost half of the Jewish troops fell in battles. Most of the Jews who had remained in Nazi-occupied territories were killed in the Holocaust. In the late 1940s, following the USSR’s new domestic policy course, the Jewish anti-Fascist committee and all Jewish cultural organizations still existing at the time were closed, their leaders and functionaries either imprisoned or destroyed. In 1948, Solomon Mikhoels was killed; on August 12, 1952, most major figures of Yiddish Jewish culture were shot. A severe “cleaning” of the Jewish autonomous region was performed.

For several years the synagogue remained the only officially recognized Jewish institution in Russia, but the number of synagogues shrank dramatically during the anti-religious campaign of 1958-1964. In 1961, the publishing of the magazine Sovietisch Heimland began in Moscow; the magazine became the official center of “Jewish literary renaissance” in Yiddish (published until 1999, since 1992 was called Die Yiddishe Gas).

Most Russian Jews became acculturated, separated from religious tradition, lost their native language, and considered Russian their mother tongue. At the same time, they formed a significant part of the Soviet intelligentsia. A specific model of Jewish identity was created, whose numerous features were preserved in the post-Soviet period both in the FSU and in emigration. It was mostly ethnic, and secular at a scale larger than any previously known forms of Jewish identity.

The so-called independent Jewish movement was conceived among the Jews of the USSR in the 1960s-1990s. Its main centers were Moscow and Leningrad, where quasi-communal structures were even formed in the 1970s. To counterbalance this process, the government organized an anti-Zionist committee of Soviet public in 1983.
The Jewish population of the RSFSR kept shrinking: 807,900 in 1970; 700,700 in 1979; and 551,000 in 1989. This was due to several reasons – low birth rate, emigration, and assimilation.