Russian Jew

There are about 1 million Jews in Russia. Their numbers have been shrinking in recent decades. More than 1 million Jews emigrated from the former Soviet Union to Israel since the late 1980s. Jewish leaders say many more Jews renounced or hid their identity to avoid persecution in the Soviet era and before then. Some are beginning to reclaim their identity. Russian Jewry is threatened with spiritual extinction for lack of a sufficient number of synagogues, of religious training, and cultural activities.

Most Russian Jews live in urban areas. They are largely assimilated and do not seriously practice Judaism. Moscow has a Jewish population of 200,00 to 250,000 people, of which 15 percent are Sephardic. In the early 2000s, there were three synagogues in Moscow and 40 percent of the children in Jewish schools were Sephardic (Middle Eastern Jews, or descendants of Jews that settled in Spain in the Middle Ages) . Some are Lubavitchers, Jews that believe that Menachem Mendel Scheerson, who died in Brooklyn in 1994, is the messiah.

The Soviet and Russian governments have always regarded the Jews not only as a distinct religious group but also as a nationality. This attitude persists in the post-Soviet era despite a provision in Article 26 of the 1993 constitution prohibiting the state from arbitrarily determining a person's nationality or forcing a person to declare a nationality. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Between World War II and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia's Jewish population declined steadily, thanks to emigration, a low birth rate, intermarriage, and concealment of identity. In 1989 the official total was 537,000. Of the number remaining at that point, only about 9,000 were living in the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, and, by 1995, only an estimated 1,500 Jews remained in the oblast. The Jews of Russia always have been concentrated overwhelmingly in the larger cities, especially Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Odessa — partly because of the traditional ban, continued from tsarist times, on Jews owning land. Although 83 percent of Jews claimed Russian as their native language in the 1979 census, the Soviet government recognized Yiddish as the national language of the Jewish population in Russia and the other republics. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Websites and Resources: Virtual Jewish Library ; Judaism101 ; BBC - Religion: Judaism ; Yivo Institute of Jewish Research ; Jewish History: Jewish History Timeline Jewish History Resource Center ; Center for Jewish History ; Jewish ; Internet Jewish History Sourcebook

Jews After the Collapse of the Soviet Union

With Jews becoming more willing to identify themselves, official estimates of the Jewish population increased between 1992 and 1995, from 500,000 to around 700,000. The Jewish population of Moscow has been estimated in the mid-1990s at between 200,000 and 300,000. Of that number, about 15 percent are Sephardic (non-European). In 1985, there were an estimated 2 million to 2.5 million Jews in the Soviet Union although official statistic listed only 1.8 million.

The number of Jews participating in religious observances remains relatively small, even though organizations such as the Hasidic (Orthodox) Chabad Lubavitch actively encourage full observance of religious traditions. Lubavitchers, a Jewish sect, are active in the former Soviet Union, setting up Jewish schools, community centers and orphanages. In Moscow the Lubavitchers, whose activism has met with hostility from many Russians, run two synagogues and several schools, including a yeshiva (academy of Talmudic learning), kindergartens, and a seminary for young women. The organization also is active in charity work. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

In the 1990s, a number of organizations devoted to the fostering of Jewish culture and religion have been established in Moscow. These include a rabbinical school, a Jewish youth center, a union of Hebrew teachers, and a Jewish cultural and educational society. The orthodox Jewish community also campaigned successfully for the return of the Shneerson books, a collection of manuscripts that had been stored in the Lenin State Library in Moscow since Soviet authorities confiscated them in the 1920s.

Rebirth of Jewish Culture

Jewish life and culture has experienced a rebirth since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the early 1990s, Russia's Jews began displaying a growing interest in learning about their religious heritage. In January 1996, a major event was publication in Russia of a Russian translation of a volume of the Talmud. The first such publication since before the Bolshevik Revolution, the volume marks the start of a series of Talmudic translations intended to provide Russian Jews with information about their religion's teachings, which until 1996 had been virtually unavailable in Russia. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

inside a Russian synogogue

The circulation of monthly Jewish magazine increased from 3,000 in 1991 to 50,000 copies in 1995. In Moscow alone, seven Jewish schools, three universities, two rabbinical schools, a $20 million Jewish Community Center, and 150 Jewish organizations sprung up in the 1990s and 2000s.

In 1996, the foundation was laid for a new synagogue in Moscow, the first in the capital since the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. At that time David Lerner, a British educator, told Time magazine, "Six years ago, Jews were still being beaten up in Minsk. Now there are three religious congregations, the Sabbath school, a youth movement and a volunteer welfare organization.

Many Jews are willing to openly identify themselves as Jews. Jews have played a prominent role in the economy of the post-Soviet Russia in a way that far exceeds their numbers. In Moscow the number of Jews has actually increased as a consequence of migration of Jews from Central Asia and the Caucasus.

Concerts of Yiddish songs have drawn sold out audiences. Observant Jews openly pray. By the mid 2000s, the climate for Jews was regarded as warm enough that many Jews who emigrated to Israel returned. As a whole though Jews in Russia remained a non-religious lot and many were married to non-Jews.

Russian Oligarchs

At one point six out the seven oligarchs (powerful Russian tycoons) were Jews, a fact that gave some anti-Semites some ammunition. The seven major oligarchs that emerged in the mid 1990s were 1) Boris Berezovsky; 2) Vladimir Potanin; 3) Mikhail Khordorkovsky, 4) Alexander Smolensky; 5) Vladamir Gusinsky; 6) Mikhail Fridman; and 7) Rem Vyakhirev. In 1996, the oligarch Boris Berezovsky boasted that seven oligarchs control 50 percent of the Russian economy. He may not have been exaggerating. Six out of seven of them were Jewish. Potanin was the only one who wasn't. In 1999, Prime Minister Vevgeni Primakov said ‘Jewish bankers’ were ruining the country."

Boris Berezovsky

Berezovsky was an ethnic Jew who claims to have converted to Orthodox Christianity. He was the son of a construction engineer who worked on factories from Moscow to Uzbekistan. His mother was a nurse in a pediatric institution. He got a doctorate in systems theory mathematics in 1973 and worked as an academic until the 1980s. He developed a computerized decision-making theory while working as a professor at the Soviet Academy of Sciences.

Berezovsky got his start when he developed a management scheme for Autovaz, the huge state-owned auto company, and used his position to create a nation-wide distributorship for the Fiat-like Zhihuli, one of Russia's best selling cars, and Lada cars. He promised buyers cheaper cars and shorter waiting times for cars that he obtained at relatively cheap prices because of hyper-inflation and dollar-ruble speculation. Berezovsky acquired control of ORT (Russia's largest national television station) and Aeroflot through his connections with the Yeltsin “family. He acquired Sibneft Oil through "loan for shares" swaps and used his profits from his enterprises to make his media purchases.

A former theater director and mathematician, Vladamir Gusinsky was the owner of the Most Group, which owned the Most Bank (ranked 17th in terms of capital in 1998) and Most Media Group (owners of NTV commercial television, TV-Pus satellite television, Itogi News magazine, Segodnya newspaper, Seven Days television Guide and publishing house, Echo Moscow radio station). He was Russia's most well known Jew. He headed the national Jewish Congress and provide money to build new synagogues. He owned houses in Israel, Spain,

Lev Leviev, the Man Who Broke the DeBeer's Cartel

Lev Leviev is the founder and head of company that is the world's leading diamond cutter and polisher. A Bukharan Jew born in Uzbekistan, he is regarded as the richest man in Israel. His real estate holdings span the globe from the former Soviet Union to Europe to the United States. Among his assets are railways in Russia, 7-11s in Texas, shopping malls in Israel and the former New York Times building in Manhattan, which alone is said to be worth $525 million. Trained as a diamond cutter, he grew up poor, emigrated to Israel as a teenager in 1971 and is so confident of his cutting skills and steady hands that he has performed more than a thousand ritual circumcisions — -many on the sons of employees in his various businesses. In 2007 he was ranked by Forbes as the 210th richest man in the world. The magazine estimated his worth to be $4.1 billion. Others say the true figure is close to $8 billion. He is leading benefactor is Jewish causes. [Source: Zev Chafets, New York Times magazine, September 16, 2007]

Lev Leviev

Leviev is credited by some with breaking the back of the DeBeers cartel. Working out of the office of his U.S. diamond company, LLD USA, situated in Manhattan's diamond district, he was able to achieve what he did by getting his hands on a large share of the world's uncut diamonds, which traditionally have been at the heart of DeBeer's ability to maintain its monopoly. A Tel Aviv diamond merchant told the New York Times magazine, “When Leviev started out, all he had was an amazing amount of ambition and the ability to understand the stone, Understanding the stone — -that was the key." Leviev himself said, “I never doubted that I would get rich. I knew from the time I was 6 hat was destined to be a millionaire. I’d go with my father to shops, and while he talking business, my eyes automatically counted the merchandise."

Leviev's first big break came when he became a DeBeers's sightholder, a milestone he reached through hard work and harnessing the industriousness of his family. His second big break came when he forged crucial contacts in Russia in 1989 as the Soviet Union was coming apart. To do that he had to give up his sightolding place, a tremendous sacrifice.

Leviev came to Moscow on the invitation of the Soviet minister of energy and was able to exploit his connections in the Jewish community to set up diamond-rleated businesses in Russia. “When I got there, Gorbachev was till power, but you could see that things were coming apart," he told the New York Times magazine. In Russia, Levied established a high-tech cutting and polishing plant and showed the Russians how they could take control of their own diamond industry. In Angola he forged close ties with country's president , Jose Eduardo Dis santos, who speaks fluent Russian from his days as an engineering students in the Soviet Union.

The Tel Avi diamond merchant said, “he was breaking the rules, going after the source. When he succeeded in Russia, and then in Angola, others saw it and were suddenly emboldened. That's how Leviev cracked the DeBeers cartel. With the instincts a tiger and the balls of a panther." Leviev now presides over a top to bottom diamond company that embraces mines in Russia, Angola and Namibia, cutting and polishing operations and outlets that sell diamonds wholesale and retail.

Anti-Semitism in Russia

Anti-semitic caricature of Jewish businessman in 1873

Although official anti-Semitism has ceased and open acts of anti-Semitism have been rare in Russian society since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Jews have remained mindful of their history in Russia and skeptical of the durability of liberalized conditions. Traditional anti-Semitism in the Russian Orthodox Church and the increasing power of ultranationalist and neofascist political forces are the principal causes of concern; Jews also fear that they might become scapegoats for economic difficulties. [Source: Library of Congress*]

Anti-Semitism has long been a fixture of Russian culture. Jews were anathema to the tsars. Some historians have even suggested that Hitler got his ideas from Russia monarchy and the holocaust was an "unanticipated consequence of the Russian revolution."

Zhid and Yid are derogatory terms for Jews in Russia. In a 1995 poll, 25 percent of Russians said that they would prefer not to have Jewish neighbors, compared to 5 percent in the U.S. Many Jews that emigrated from Russia have said anti-Semitism is one of the reasons they left.

At rallies in the 1990s protesting the government’s delay in salaries and pensions, many protestors blamed their troubles on Jews, who they claimed were running the government even though no members of the legislature or bureaucracy were Jewish. "Down With the Government, Zionist Know-It-Alls," read a sign carried by one demonstrator.

Some Russians blamed the collapse of the Russian ruble in August 1998 on the Jews. A member of the Communist Party said: “Usury, deceit, corruption, and thievery are flourishing in the country. That is why I call the reformers Yids.”

Anti-Semitism and Russian Politics

Anti-Semitic banners often mix with pro-Soviet signs at Communist rallies. Members of the Communist party blamed Russia's economic problems on the "yids" and a "Jewish-Masonic conspiracy." Although he claims not to be anti-Semitic, Communist Party leader Gennadiy Zyuganov said that Jews “control the world's economy." Albert Makashov, a former Red Army general and member of Parliament, called Jews "yids" and "bloodsuckers" and blamed the economic crisis in 1998 on them. He also called for "quotas" on the number of Jews in the government.

The bookstore at the Duma (the Russian legislature) sold out of copies of a Russian translation of an anti-Jewish book by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. Nationalist politicians such as Vladamir Zhirinobsky refused to stand to to honor victims of the Holocaust at a ceremony in the Duma because millions of Russians were killed by Nazis too.

Russian skinheads

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the controversial leader of Russia's nationalist neofascist party, said he would replace Jewish television announcers with blued Russian ones and said 90 percent of the first Soviet government was Jewish, adding that Russia must deal with ethnic minorities as America did with the Indians and Germany did with the Jews."

In the early 2000s, member of the pro-Orthodox Rodina party said that all Jewish ethnic and religious organizations should be banned as “extremist.” In January 2005, several politicians called for all Jewish groups to be banned. Putin has spoken out against anti-Semitism. The Russian Orthodox patriarch Alexei made a conciliatory speech before a group of rabbis in New York in 1991.

Attacks Against Jews in Russia

Jewish graves have been desecrated and synagogues have been bombed in Russia. Jewish institutions have been vandalized and synagogues have been burnt down. A Jewish American teenager of Russian descent was jumped as he approached a synagogue and was beaten so badly in the face he requires plastic surgery for his nose.

An American Jew who visited the city of Birobidzhan— on the Trans-Siberian Railway, close to the border with China—in the mid 1990s wrote in National Geographic: "I experienced the taunting of the Jews by the non-Jewish population. My friends and I were surrounded and verbally assaulted by young toughs. By their silence the older population in attendance almost encouraged these actions. I can see why so may Jewish people have left Birobidzhan."

In January 2005, two rabbis were attacked in a Moscow underpass by a gang shouting “Kill the Yids.” One of the victims said that when he went into a shop to seek help he was told to leave. In 2002, someone hung a sign that read “Death to Yids” along a road about 20 miles south of Moscow. Motorists drove by it for about a day without doing anything. Finally Tatyana Sapunova, a 27-year-old Christian Muscovite, got out of her car to pull it down. The sign it turned out was booby-trapped As she tore it down it explosives were set off that ripped wounds in legs, hands and face.

Russian Jewish Emigration

skinhead murderers

Some 265,000 Jews emigrated from the Soviet Union between the mid-1960s and the early 80s. More came after the collapse of Communism in 1989 and the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991. At that time most Jews in Russia that hadn’t emigrated already planned to do so as soon as the get the opportunity.

The West put pressure on Russia to allow Jews emigrate freely. Russian authorities responded first by rounding up all the Jewish criminals they could find and shipped them to the United States and Israel. More than 40,000 Russian Jews settled in Brighton Beach, a suburb of New York City. So many Soviet Jews settled there after 1970s, when they were first allowed to emigrate, it became known as "Little Odessa." Cyrillic signs still dots the streets, kiosks offer Russian-language books and newspapers and shops sell Russian vodka sausages, smoked fish and pickles.

In the early 1980s, the Kremlin's refusal to allow Jewish emigration was a major issue of contention in Soviet-American relations. In 1974 the United States Congress had passed the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which offered the Soviet Union most-favored-nation trade status in return for permission for Soviet Jews to emigrate. The Soviet Union responded by relaxing its restrictions, and in the years that followed there was a steady flow of Jewish emigrants from the Soviet Union to Israel. But the intensification of the Cold War in the years after the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan brought new restrictions that were not lifted fully until 1989, when a new surge of emigration began. Between 1992 and 1995, the emigration of Jews from Russia averaged about 65,000 per year, after reaching a peak of 188,000 in 1990. In 1996 the Russian government began curtailing the activity of the Jewish Agency, an internationally funded organization that has sponsored Jewish emigration since the 1940s.[Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Some Jewish parents emigrated with their children and grandchildren. Pessimism among Jews was especially high after the nationalist and anti-Semitic Liberal Democratic Party received 24 percent of he popular vote in elections in December 1993.

Russian Immigrants in Israel

There were 1.3 million Jewish immigrants from Russia and the the former Soviet Union in Israel in 2006. More than 1 million of them arrived after 1989. They went from making up about 1 percent of the population to making up 15 percent of it. If the United States were to absorb a proportional number of people it would take in all the citizens of Canada and Australia and still have room for more.

The term Russian immigrants is used to describe Israeli Jews that have come from all over the former Soviet Union. They began arriving in large numbers in late 1980s after Gorbachev launched “perestroika” and started arriving in larger numbers after the collapse of the Soviet Union in1989. As many as 30 percent of the Russian immigrants were not born Jewish. They tend to have a stronger bond to culture and literature than other Jews who are mostly closely linked to the Bible.

Despite Israel's problems former-Soviet Jews came in droves. They came to escape anti-Semitism and political instability in Russia—not necessarily to be in a country where Jews were free. One émigré told National Geographic: "The mess in Russia is much bigger than the mess in Israel." [Source: Tad Szulc, National Geographic, February 1992 ☼]

Make Up of Russian Immigrants in Israel

Russian immigrants arrive in Israel

Some of the Russian immigrants to Israel had little or no connection to Judaism. Some were not Jews but spouses of Jews. Others were Protestants with a Jewish grandparents. Some came to Israel because it was as close as they could get to Europe or the United States. According to one survey in the mid 1990s, 29 percent of the Russian immigrants described themselves as non-Jews on their applications.

The tide of Russian immigrants included prostitutes, gangsters, common thieves, alcoholics, sick and aged who came to Israel for its opportunities and its perks such as health insurance, a place to live and a pension. Asked why he came to Israel, one Russian alcoholic pickpocket told the Wall Street Journal, “I’m sick and I’m a Jew.” In some extreme cases immigrants arrived by plane and were taken directly to the hospital and had three major operations in their first six months So many Russians in poor health arrived doctors were given special training courses on how to deal with them.

Life of Russian Immigrants in Israel

When the Russian immigrants arrived they knew virtually nothing about surviving in a modern society. "They don't know the language," one aid worker told National Geographic. "They don't know how to get health insurance, they don't know the banking system, they never wrote a check in their lives. They never had a credit card. They never used so many appliances, they never bought so many goods."☼

The Russians stuck out like sore thumbs: women in frumpy dresses and the men in 50s-style suits. Tad Szulc wrote in National Geographic: The Russian olim "tend to walk more slowly and formally than the established Israelis, always in a hurry. The veteran geniculate with wide sweeps of the arms, in an expansive Mediterranean way; the olim use small controlled chops of the hand."☼

Many of the new arrivals in the West Bank settlements in the 1990s were Russian emigrants. One man paid US$22.00 a month for a small apartment there, only a fraction of what he'd have to pay for an equivalent apartment in Tel Aviv or Haifa. The Palestinians didn't like the Russian emigrants because they took all the jobs once reserved for them. ☼

Russian Artists and Professional in Israel

Russian Jews with Putin

Many of Russian Jews who emigrated to Israel were artists, scientists and professionals. They were given an allowance at first but many supplemented this by doing menial jobs. Surgeons worked as security guards. Mathematics teachers sang opera on the streets for spare change and professional pianists worked as hospital orderlies.

As of the early 1990s, around 15,000 of new arrivals identified themselves as artists. Between 1989 and 1996, the Israeli government spent $25 million on special programs to help Russian immigrant artists. For a while the New Israeli Opera in Tel Aviv was Israel’s largest employer of Russians.

Many talented musicians arrived from the Soviet Union. They helped transform small city orchestras like the Rehovot Camerata into the world-class Israel Camerata Jerusalem, regarded as one of the world’s best chamber orchestras. They also helped raise the quality of music nationwide by entering other orchestras—35 percent of the musicians in world-renowned Israel Philharmonic Orchestra are Russian immigrants—and taught young Israelis. They quality of street performers has also vastly improved.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons except skinheads from Radio Free Europe

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

Last updated March 2024

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