HISTORY OF THE JEWS IN RUSSIA

KHAZARS AND EARLY HISTORY OF THE JEWS IN RUSSIA


Khazars

Jewish settlers are believed to have arrived in the Crimea and the Black Sea area as early as last centuries B.C. Recent genetic studies indicate that Levites, an ancient caste of heredity Jewish priests, of Ashkenazi descent originated in Central Asia not the Middle East as was previously believed Ashkenazim is one of the two main branches of Jews (the other is Sephardism). Most American Jews are of Ashkenazi descent. The genetic studies found that 52 percent of the Ashkenazi Levites have a particular genetic marker that originated in Central Asia. Some scholars have theorized that the markers were introduced by the Khazars and the Jews that descended from the Khazars became integrated and influential in the worldwide Jewish community. This has great implications on the belief that Jewish priests are the descendants of the Chosen People tribes from Israel.

In the 9th century the Khazars, a Turkic tribe in Russia, converted en masse to Judaism. The Khazar Khan Turk Bulan underwent a ritual circumcision. Some say the conversion was as much of political move by the Khazars---to distance themselves from the Christian Byzantines and Muslim Arabs---as a religious one. Some attribute the Khazar's conversion to the influence of the people that became known as Mountain Jews of the Caucasus. There were many Jewish aristocrats, merchants and advisors from the Caucasus in the Khazar court before the Khazars converted.

The Khazar occupied the steppes of southern Russia between the 7th and 8th centuries. Originating from the Caucasus they were a group of Turkic and Iranian tribes that settled primarily in the steppes of the of the lower Volga and Don basins. The Khazars established their capital in Itil, near the mouth of the Volga, and founded an empire that spread to the Caspian Sea. They were talented craftsmen and merchants and brought religious tolerance to the areas under their control. By the 10th century most had settled down as farmers or become tradesmen.

Even though some scholars have dismissed the Khazar as a peripheral second class state, others say the contrary is true. The Khazar state was quite powerful. It held its own against the Byzantines and Arabs and prospered through its location at a key trade crossroads. The Khazar Empire eventually collapsed after Arab and Turkish incursions form the south and pressure from Russians in the north in the 10th century.

After the destruction of the Khazar empire there were relatively few Jews in Russia. By the Middle Ages, many Jews lived in the former Polish-Lithuanian state.

Websites and Resources: Judaism Judaism101 jewfaq.org ; Aish.com aish.com ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; torah.org torah.org ; Chabad,org chabad.org/library/bible ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/judaism ; BBC - Religion: Judaism bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/judaism ; Encyclopædia Britannica, britannica.com/topic/Judaism; Virtual Jewish Library jewishvirtuallibrary.org/index ; Yivo Institute of Jewish Research yivoinstitute.org ; Jewish History: Jewish History Timeline jewishhistory.org.il/history ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Jewish History Resource Center dinur.org ; Center for Jewish History cjh.org ; Jewish History.org jewishhistory.org ; Holocaust Museum ushmm.org/research/collections/photo ; Jewish Museum London jewishmuseum.org.uk ; Internet Jewish History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) ccel.org

Jews Become Numerous in Russia


Khazar kingdom

Between the 14th and 18th century a large number of Jews moved to the Crimean and the Black Sea region from the Spain, the Mediterranean countries, eastern Europe and to a lesser extent the Caucasus and Persia.

Judaism began to have an influence on Russian culture and social attitudes in the sixteenth century, shortly after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain by Queen Isabella in 1492. In the centuries that followed, large numbers of Jews migrated to Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Belorussia.

When Poland was partitioned at the end of the eighteenth century, large numbers of Jews came into the Russian Empire, giving Russia the largest Jewish population (about 1.5 million) in the world. For the next 120 years, tsarist governments restricted Jewish settlements to what was called the Pale of Settlement. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Much of the anti-Semitism that developed subsequently among Russian peasants came from the identification of Jews with activities such as tax collection and the administration of the large estates on which the peasants worked, two of the few occupations Jews were allowed to pursue in tsarist Russia. Anti-Semitism followed the Jews from Western Europe, and already in the sixteenth century the culture of Muscovy contained a strong element of that attitude. *

Jews in the Pale of Settlement

When Poland was broken up and absorbed by its neighbors in the 18th century most Jews ended up in the Russian Empire. About a half million Jews arrived after the partition of Poland in 1772-95. Most were restricted and forced by law to live in the so called Pale of Settlement, or the Western Pale, on the western fringes of the Russian empire. The Pale of Settlement was established by Catherine II in 1792 to include portions of the Baltic states, Ukraine, Belorussia, and the northern shore of the Black Sea.

The Pale of Settlement was huge ghetto that occupied former Polish territories in in present-day Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania and eastern Poland. Jews were prohibited from living in cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg. The were required to pay a double tax. In the 19th century, many Jews adopted Russian-sounding names to avoid prejudice.

When Jews arrived in the Western Pale, Christian peasants still made up of the bulk of the population there. They lived in agricultural villages as “serfs” (essentially slaves that could be bought and sold) until they were liberated in 1861. Jews made up only about 1 percent of the population of villages, where they made flour mills, ran taverns, and peddled merchandise and crafts. They prospered in towns and constituted the majority in hundreds of towns that spread and grew over a large territory. A typical 19th century Jewish town was called a shtetl. The play and movie “Fiddler on the Roof” is set in this part of Russia at this time.

Book: Your Mouth is Lovely by Nancy Nichler (Ecco, 2002) is a good novel about a Russian shtetl in Pripet marshes in Ukraine.

Rise of the Jews in Russia and Tsarist Policy Towards Them


Pale teacher

In the 18th and 19th centuries the Jewish population in the Pale grew rapidly: four or five fold. Jews constituted two-thirds of the population and made up a half to two thirds of the residents in the cities. From the cities Jews dominated much of the economy in western Russia.

Even though they were denied basic rights such owning land and holding government jobs, Jews prospered by developing local light industries’such as paper, wood and things like hog bristle brushes exported to England---artisan crafts, banking and trade. They had their own education systems, hospitals, charities and professional organizations, literature, publishers and newspapers. Intellectual life was divided between Talmudic scholarship and the Haskalah, influenced by secularism, liberalism and the enlightenment.

During the nineteenth century, restrictions on the Jewish population were alternately eased and tightened. Alexander II (1855-81), for example, relaxed restrictions on settlement, education, and employment. Alexander's assassination in 1881 brought reimposition of all previous restrictions, which then remained in force until 1917. Despite repressive conditions in Russia and high levels of emigration to the United States, the Jewish population grew rapidly in the nineteenth century; by the beginning of World War I, an estimated 5.2 million Jews lived in Russia. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Anti-Jewish Pogroms in Russia

In the late 19th century and early 20th century, Jews were beaten and killed and their property destroyed in government-sanctioned pogroms led by a group called the Black Hundreds. In 1882, the Russian government passed its notorious anti-Semitic “May laws” that drove Jews off their farms and forced them to live in town ghettos. Violent pogroms against the Jews erupted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a way of dealing with the "Jewish problem." The pogroms began during a period of repression and discontent when many people blamed their problems on the Jews. Local authorities fanned these sentiments as the Jews made convenient scapegoats. Among the peasantry Jews were regarded as money-hungry shopkeepers and capitalists. Authorities viewed them as political agitators.


pogrom of Chisinau in 1903

There were severe anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia in 1903 and 1905-6. Vowing to "drown the revolution in Jewish blood,"Russian Interior Minister Vyacheslav von Plehve sent police and gangs of anti-Semites on a three-day pogrom through the town of Kishinev. Over 60 Jews were killed or injured and 500 Jewish homes were looted or destroyed.

Much of the long period of violence that began with World War I in 1914 and continued until the Civil War ended in 1921 took place in the regions inhabited by the Jews, many of whom were killed indiscriminately by the various armies struggling for power. Describing a pogrom in 1917 during the October Revolution, One Russian Jew told the New York Times, “This gang, they hanged my uncle by his rib, from a hook, and then they beheaded him.” He said his mother survived by hiding in a barrel. “The fellow who rented this place, he was a honey trader, a very good Ukrainian guy. So he hid her in a big honey barrel and put some trash on top of it so they wouldn’t find her. I was born in that barrel. Thank God, I started crying after the gangsters left.”

Many Jews fled overseas. Others joined revolutionary organizations such as the Bolsheviks. Pogroms in tsarist Russia forced more than 2 million Jews to seek asylum in the United States between 1881 and 1914. In 1900, nearly a quarter of the new Jewish Russian arrivals in the U.S. were employed in the garment business. About half the 8,000 residents of the small Ukrainian town of Ster Yelesavetsky were Jews before the Bolshevik Revolution. Most fled during the pogroms of 1918-21 and only about 99 remained when the Nazi captured the town in July, 1941. All of them are believed to have been killed. After the war 80 returned.

Jews ins the Bolshevik and Early Soviet Periods

Within their areas of settlement, the Russian Jews developed a flourishing culture, and many of them became active in the revolutionary movements that sprang up in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. After World War I, parts of the western territory of the former Russian Empire became the independent nations of Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland, a development that left many Russian Jews outside the borders of what now was the Soviet Union. By 1922 Russia's Jewish population had been reduced by more than half. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

In the early years of the Soviet Union, Jews gained much more freedom to enter the mainstream of Russian society. Although relatively few supported the explicit program of the Bolsheviks, the majority expected that the new state would offer much greater ethnic and religious tolerance than had the tsarist system.


Jewish kolkhoz in 1930

In the 1920s, hundreds of thousands of Jews were integrated into Soviet economic and cultural life, and many acquired prominent positions. Among them were communist leaders Leon Trotsky, Lazar Kaganovich, Maksim Litvinov, Lev Kamenev, and Grigoriy Zinov'yev; writers Isaak Babel', Veniamin Kaverin, Boris Pasternak, Osip Mandel'shtam, and Ilya Ehrenburg; and cinematographer Sergey Eisenstein. Special Jewish sections were established in the All-Union Communist Party (Bolshevik). *

In the Soviet Union, Judaism was listed as a nationality like Russian or Armenian. Jews in the Soviet Union were generally well educated and many were professional. Between the pogroms and World War II many Jews in Russia and the Ukraine said life was fairly normal and they got along with the other ethnic groups that lived around them.

In Soviet times most Jews were non-practicing atheist or converts to Orthodox Christianity. Many Jews hid their identity, other practiced quiet assimilation in which a mezuza was kept on the door and a few holidays were observed. A typical Soviet Jew was described as "assimilated, wary and nonreligious. Many were married to non-Jews.

Repression of the Jews in the Soviet Era

During the Soviet era, there were restrictions on Jewish culture, public worship emigration and job advancement. The number of Jews that could attend university and serve in high-level jobs was limited. The state-owned media was filled of negative stereotypes of money-loving Jews. Anti-Semitic graffiti and remarks were common place. Anti-Semites regarded Jews as "rootless cosmopolitans" and suspected then of being disloyal o the Soviet state.

Rabbis performed circumcisions, weddings and bar mitzvahs in secret. Matzo and kosher foods was illegal in the Soviet Union. Special flour was smuggled into areas with large numbers of Jews so that matzo could be made and rabbis carries out kosher butchering secretly in their homes. The KGB kept on eye on underground rabbis accused of illegal slaughtering.

In the 1930s the purges initiated by Stalin targeted groups for their ethnic and social identities. As non-Russians stereotyped as intellectuals, the Jews were targets in two categories. There were only about 30 synagogues in Russian in 1991. Many young Jews didn't know what Passover or matzos were.

The Soviets opposed Zionism. Israel was characterized as a terrorist state. Jews were taught that these things had a negative impact on society and many became nonbelievers and hostile to religion in general. The denial of Jewish applications for emigration in early 1980 gave birth to the term "refusenik."

Jewish Autonomous Region

As part of Soviet ethnic policy, the Jewish Autonomous Oblast (Yevreyskaya avtonomnaya oblast', later called Birobidzhan) was established in 1934. But the oblast never was the center of the Soviet Union's Jewish population. Only about 50,000 Jews settled in this jurisdiction, which is located along the Amur River in the farthest reaches of the Soviet Far East. *

The Jewish Autonomous Region (JAR) is a 14,000-square-mile chunk of land north of the Amur River in eastern Siberia along the border with China. It was established by Stalin as a way of dealing with the Jewish problem by giving them their own homeland. Hebrew was the "national language” there.

Some Jews took up the opportunity to build a Zion within Russia. The community thrived even though it was situated in one the coldest parts of the world. But overall the Jewish Autonomous Region never really caught on and was a failure. Much of the land was swampy and infested with mosquitos in the summer. The soil was poor for agriculture. Less than one half of one percent of the Jews in Russia moved there.

Today only around 4 percent of the people I JAR are Jewish (most are Russian). Even so people continue to speak Yiddish and there is even a Yiddish radio station. Birobidzhan (km 8358 on the Trans-Siberian) is the capital of the 36,000-square-kilometer Jewish Autonomous Region and home to about 90,000 people. Many of the Jews have left. Taking their place are Russians working in Korean-owned factories who are happy to work in well-heated facilities and be paid on time. Sights included the Museum of Local Studies, with a room devoted to the Jewish history of the region and the Yiddish Music and Drama Theater, which still hosts concerts by Yiddish folk music groups. A number of signs around town are written in Hebrew.


Jewish languages in the Russian Empire in 1897


Jews and World War II

When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, about 2.5 million Jews—almost one third of the Jews in the Soviet Union—were killed by the Germans or by their Slavic collaborators. Many Jewish soldiers fought in the Red Army against the Nazis. Jews who escaped to areas untouched by the Nazis often suffered from the resentment of local populations who envied their education or supposed wealth. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Germany declared war on the Soviet Union just as 180 German divisions swept across the border early on the morning of June 22, 1941. The Germans easily captured Kiev and Minsk and most of the Ukraine and Belarus soon after that. The Wehrmacht (Nazi army) was followed into Russia by the Eisanatzgruppe D, whose mission was, according to its Nazi leader SS Gen. Otto Ohlendorf, "to kill Jews and other 'unwanted' people." In the first year after the invasion the group killed 90,000 men, women and children."

Tired of Stalinist policies, some Ukrainians and Belarussians welcomed the Nazis as liberators. Some joined the Schultzmannschaft, the local police force and participated in the killing of Jews and other activities and fled with the Nazis when the Red Army pushed them back. Some Germans felt a kinship towards Ukrainians, like they semi-German.

Babi Yar and the Killing of Jews in the Ukraine

About a million Ukrainian Jews were killed in World War II. An estimated half million Jews died in Nazi camps. Another half million were executed after they were rounded up. Around 200,000 Odessa Jews murdered. Most of Kiev's Jews were killed at Babi Yar. About a million Jews were left after the war was over. Towns that had two dozen synagogue at the war’s outset had only two when the war finished.

Babi Yar is the notorious mass grave in the Ukraine. For decades Soviet authorities refused to admit that most the victims were Jews. Babi Yar was one of the first mass killings of Jews and is seen as an early phase of the developing Holocaust.

The Germans captured Kiev in June 1941. Soon afterwards, 30,000 Jews from Kiev districts were herded to Babi Yar, a ravine not far from central Kiev, and shot in groups. The killing continued for the next two years. More than 100,000 people are believed to have been executed at Babi Yar before Kiev was liberated in 1943 by the Red Army

In one two day period in 1942, according to an official Nazi report, 33,711 Soviet Jews were gunned down at Babi Yar. It was the greatest mass murder of the war (by contrast the gas ovens at Birkenau-Aushwitz could handle only 6,000 people a day). The leader of the operation, Paul Blobel, received the Iron Cross from Hitler.

Describing the slaughter Luci Dawidowisz wrote in the New York Times, "Bruised and bloodied, numbed by incomprehensibility of their fate, the Jews emerged onto a grassy clearing...The ground was strewn with clothing. Ukrainian militiamen ordered the Jews to undress. Those who balked, who resisted, were assaulted, their clothes ripped off. Naked bleeding people were everywhere. Screams and hysterical laughter filled the air. Some people's hair turned gray on the spot. Others went mad in moments." [Source: New York Times magazine, Sept 27, 1981]

"The Germans led small groups away from the clearing towards a narrow ledge along a ravine. At a sand quarry behind the ledge, hidden from view of the Jews, the Germans had mounted machine guns. When the ledge held as many Jews as it could, the Germans gunned them down. The bodies toppled into the ravine, piling up layer upon layer. Where once a clear stream flowed, now blood ran.

"The machine gunners worked for an hour at a time and then were relived by another crew. From time to time, German soldiers and Ukrainian militiamen descended into the ravine, trampling over the dead to make sure they dead, tamping them down to make more room, shoveling sand from the quarry over them."

Dubro: More Killing of Jews in Ukraine


Russian jew in 1941

Thousands of people witnessed the executions of Jews at Dubno airfield in the Ukraine in October 1942. One of these witnesses, Herman Graebe, wrote: "About 1,500 persons have been killed daily. All of the 5000 Jews who had been living in Dubno before the pogrom were to be liquidated...All these people had the regulation yellow patches on the front and back of their clothes and thus could be recognized instantly as Jews.

SS officers with dogs and whips made sure the Jews undressed and placed the clothes, underwear and shoes in separate piles. "Without screaming or weeping these people undressed, stood around in family groups, kissed each other, said farewells, and waited for a sign from another SS man...I watched a family of about eight people...The child was cooing with delight. The couple were looking on with tears in their eyes. the father was holding the hand of a boy about ten years old and speaking to him softly... The man who did the shooting...was an SS man, who sat on the edge of the narrow end of the pit, his feet dangling into the pit. He had a tommy gun on his knees and was smoking a cigarette. " [Source: The Trial of German Major War Criminals, HMSO 1949]

After the family was shot behind a mound, Graebe walked to a pit where their bodies fell. "People were closely wedged together so that only their heads were visible. Nearly all had blood running over their shoulders from their heads, Some of the people shot were still moving. Some were lifting their arms and turning their heads to show they were still alive. The pit was nearly two thirds full. I estimated it already contained 1000 people."

Then another 20 or so people were lined up in front of the pit. "They laid down in front of the dead or injured people; some caressed those who were still alive and spoke to them in low voices. Then I head a series of shots. I looked into the pit and saw the bodies were twitching or the heads lying motionless on top of the bodies which lay before them. Blood was running away from their necks. I was surprised I was not ordered away but I saw there two or three postmen in uniform nearby.”

Fate of Jews in Belarus

Belarus's large Jewish population—some 800,000 individuals—was virtually wiped out after the Nazis invaded. A half million Jews from Belarus and other places in eastern Europe were incinerated in a crematorium set up in Trostentse, just outside Minsk.


Russian Jews in the World War Ii era

Jews were rounded up in towns near the Polish border, and shot and dumped in mass graves. In the spa town of Domachevo, 2,900 Jews were rounded up and marched to a sand hill outside the town and executed in front of their graves during the two days of Yom Kippur in September 1941.

One witness of the Domachevo mass execution said, the Jews "were shot in batches by machine-gun fire. The shooting lasted for a long time. Women and children were murdered along with male Jews." There were "cries and screaming. The Jews were ordered to undress and put their clothes on a pile. They were pushed, sometimes with rifle butts, by policemen and Germans, towards the pits. After they disappeared in the direction of the pits I heard sounds of shooting—machine gun fire and then single shots...As they died they collapsed into the grave."

Jews After World War II

In the late 1940s, Stalin became increasingly paranoid and anti-Semitic. After World War II, Stalin attempted to wipe out Jewish cultural life by closing Jewish schools, theaters and publishing houses.

Solomon Mikhoels, the great Yiddish actor and theater director, was run down by a car by Stalin's secret police in January 1948, virtually extinguishing Jewish theater in the Soviet Union. Regarded as the finest Shakespearean actor of his generation in Russia, Mikhoels was fried of Lenin's, a committed Russian patriot and a committed Communist. The Bolsheviks had initially supported Jewish theater.

At the time of his death, Stalin was planning a second Great Terror against millions of Soviet citizens of Jewish descent. Orders were given to build four giant prisons in the Arctic, Siberia and Kazakhstan. The excuse for the crack down was the so-called Doctor’s plot, a conspiracy by the Kremlin doctors to murder the top Communist leaders. The doctors were of Jewish descent and were said to be carrying out orders from the United States. The whole story was a fabrication.

In January 1953, the party newspaper announced that a group of predominantly Jewish doctors had murdered high Soviet officials. Western historians speculate that the disclosure of this "doctors' plot" may have been a prelude to an intended purge directed against Georgi Malenkov, the Communist Party Secretary, Vyacheslav Molotov, the foreign minister and secret police chief Lavrenti Beria. When Stalin died in March 1953, under circumstances that remain unclear, his inner circle, which for years had lived in dread of their leader, secretly rejoiced. *

Image Sources:

Text Sources: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia, China, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company, Boston); New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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