Gil Smolinski
Entrepreneur, diver, reader, mensch

The History of the Russian Jewish Community

Who and What is the Post-Soviet Jewish Community?

As someone with a personal interest in Kazakhstan and its neighboring countries, I find the current climate of religion in post-Soviet countries fascinating. In a country where, until relatively recently, religion was banned and verboten, Judaism in its many shapes and forms is flourishing. While many Russian Jews emigrated after the collapse of the USSR, today Moscow alone boasts the largest Jewish population in Europe. Moreover, there is a surge in religiousness among post-Soviet Jews who finally feel comfortable enough to externalize their Judaism.

After the Soviet era, many Jews in the region felt that they could finally practice their Judaism in the open rather than behind closed doors. After decades of risking death or at least a Siberian exile for sending their children to yeshiva, new vistas began opening. However, many people felt Jewish more by ethnicity and nationality than by religion. This is hardly surprising following decades of systematic eradication of any religious practices, traditions, and customs. What does this mean for the future of post-Soviet Jewry?

Jewish Community Life in Pre-Soviet Russia

Life for the Jewish community in Russia (which then included Ukraine, Belorussia, and other countries) had been tumultuous throughout the 20th century, to say the least. This was preceded by centuries of persecution and pogroms, some that in fact instigated the greatest migrations to Israel. The pogroms ignited by the assassination of Alexander II in March 1881 were known as “Storms of the Negev” and helped bring about the first recognized wave of Aliyah to the Land of Israel, which was controlled at the time by the Ottoman Empire. Later on, the May Laws forbade Jews to settle, build or purchase houses, or to own or use land outside the Pale of Settlement (assigned living area for Jews). In 1890, the Jews were expelled from Moscow. All of these events contributed greatly to Jews leaving the Russian Empire.

Jewish temple in the city of Kaliningrad in winter

The Jewish Community and the Bolshevik Revolution

After the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, life for Jews changed drastically. On the one hand, there were now fewer pogroms. The Council of People’s Commissars issued a decree stating that anti-Semitism is “fatal to the cause of the … revolution,” and pogroms were officially outlawed. On the other hand, religious practice slowly came to be banned. Lenin and Stalin both denied the concept of a Jewish national identity and thought the Jews should assimilate under the guise of equality for all. In 1918, all religious property was nationalized, religious education was banned, and religion could only be studied in private.

From here on, the Soviets made it very difficult to practice and observe any religion. They systematically destroyed religious buildings such as churches and synagogues. On December 27th, 1932, the government re-introduced internal passports, and Judaism was considered a nationality. Between the years 1936-1938, Stalin executed thousands of Jewish cultural and political leaders to eliminate any opposition.

The Fall of the USSR

Fast forward 50 years later, when the Soviet Union fell, Russian Jews were once again free to migrate around the world and build public Jewish lives. Indeed, more than 1 million Jews left Russia, mainly to Israel and New York, though some 200,000 also emigrated to Germany. However, currently, the former Soviet Union has one of the largest Jewish populations in the world. It is difficult to gauge the precise number, but it is anywhere between 400,000 to one million. Moscow, St. Peterburg, and Kiev have become centers of Jewish life.

The Bolshaya Bronnaya street Synagogue in Moscow, Russia.

While external signs of Judaism had been all but eradicated under Soviet rule, the soul of the people was not crushed. Synagogues may have been shuttered during the Soviet period, but many Jews maintained their religion and culture in private and underground, through tradition but also through food, humor, and literature. The incredible victory gained by the State of Israel in the 1967 Six Day War had further served to cement Jewish identity, despite the restrictions on practicing Judaism at that time. Moreover, Chabad maintained a permanent presence throughout this entire period of persecution and oppression, despite arrests and repression of their activists. They now have a strong presence in nearly 100 cities.

The Modern Russian Jewish Community

By 1991, 55 different Jewish publications were already in existence, in addition to several schools as well as cultural and social groups. Today’s Jewish community in Moscow numbers 200,000 Jews, making it the largest population in any European city.

Furthermore, there are now many shuls and dozens of rabbis leading communities. Most of these congregations are Orthodox, with 25 Hillel centers as well as a number of Progressive and Reform ones.

Some 80 years of no religion means that the religious aspects of Jewishness have arguably become less important to some. Many Russian Jews feel that their strong connection to Israel and their emphasis on fostering Jewish culture is far more important that the number of commandments they observe and any rituals they perform. Given the history of anti-Semitism and systematic policy-based repression of religion as a whole in Russia, this is hardly a surprise. I am always amazed at the grit and tenacity of the Jewish community—a nation standing strong and proud despite centuries of oppression and hate.

About the Author
Gil Smolinski is a business developer, entrepreneur, and advisor to startups. He is a loving husband and father of two, who enjoys the depths of books and the sea and tends to dive into both.
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