With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of numerous successor states, “Russian Jewry” no longer includes many of the communities that were once implied within it. Even so, Russia still accounts for one of the largest Jewish communities in Europe. The latest official census, from 2010, showed a figure of 265,000 Jews living in Russia. Unofficial estimates are much higher, however. In addition to the two main cities, Moscow (officially near 100,000) and St. Petersburg (officially almost 40,000), there are several dozen communities with more than 1,000 Jews. In recent years, Russian Jewry has been shrinking, primarily due to emigration and the ageing process. Estimates of the Jewish population in Birobidzhan, the formal Jewish Autonomous Oblast (Region), do not exceed 7,000. Although most of them emigrated to Israel, there are still traces of Oriental Jewish groups in Crimea (Krimchaks and Karaites), the Caucasus (Mountain and Georgian Jews) and in central Asia (Bukharan Jews). Their accurate number is unknown.
Jews were denied the right of permanent residence in Muscovy-the future Russian empire. Some Jews, nevertheless, established in the area. They were fully expelled by Ivan the Terrible (1533-1584) and by Czar Fyodor (1676-1682).
The Jewish community living in the territory of Russia proper is of relatively recent origin. Until the middle of the 19th century, very few Jews lived in Russian cities. The bulk of Russian Jewry was confined to the “pale of residence” – the territory of present-day Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Lithuania, and Poland.
Many Jews from Belarus and Ukraine settled in what is now Russia during the Soviet period. They were largely drawn to the major cities and towns that offered the greatest opportunities for educational and professional advancement. The Soviet authorities officially recognized the Jews as a national group that was entitled to its own cultural and educational institutions, at least until Stalin reached power. However, the practice of religious Judaism was strongly discouraged, and even harshly repressed. During World War II, this campaign was relaxed, and Jews played an important role in the Soviet war effort, both at the front and in military production. Jews enlisted in Soviet army in a huge proportion. Although many Jews on Soviet soil were decimated in the Shoah, or perished in the fight against Nazism, most of those living in Russia proper (notably in Moscow and Leningrad) managed to survive.
Immediately after the war, the campaign to suppress Jewish culture was renewed. Only Stalin’s death in 1953 spared more killing. Shortly thereafter many of the prisoners in the vast gulags (detention camps), including tens of thousands of Jews, were released. Although the situation improved somewhat, Jewish culture continued to be, for the most part, ruthlessly suppressed. Officially sponsored activities were deeply controlled and carried a propagandistic overtone. No Jewish schooling, religious gathering or community organization was allowed. Many of the Jews who did engage in such activity, the so-called refuseniks, were imprisoned and denied the right to leave the country. During the 70’s some restrictions on emigration were eased, under international pressure. But, in the 1980s, emigration was again restricted. With the rise to power of Mikhail Gorbachev and the policy of glasnost, the situation for Jews improved, and by the end of the decade, as the Soviet Union began to crumble, restrictions on Jews had been lifted.
The umbrella organization of Russian Jewry is the Federal Jewish National and Cultural Autonomy (FJNCA).
CULTURE AND EDUCATION
In the fields of education and culture, Russian Jewry has taken dramatic strides. Today, in large part due to the efforts of foreign Jewish organizations, a wide network of Jewish educational institutions has been established. These include four Jewish universities (in Moscow and St. Petersburg) where a broad range of Jewish topics can be studied. Jewish newspapers in the Russian language are published in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Samara, Omsk, Yekaterinburg, Nalchik and Perm.
The Union of Jewish Religious Communities is responsible for maintaining and propagating Orthodox religious life. There are now synagogues in all the major cities and towns which have a Jewish population, as well as a number of rabbis, many recruited from abroad. In certain localities, the Chabad movement is also active. The Reform and Conservative movements have introduced these denominations of Judaism to the Russian scene. In recent years, over ten Reform congregations have been established, and the first native Russian Reform rabbis have recently taken up their pulpits. Kosher food is available, including meat, wine, and matzot, and religiously observant Jews have all the facilities they need to practice Judaism. The majority of Russian Jewry, however, is secular and sees its Jewish identity in cultural and ethno-national terms.
The Soviet Union immediately recognized Israel upon its establishment in 1948. Relations were severed in 1967 and were only re-established in 1992. Aliya: Between 1948 and 1989, before the collapse of the Soviet Union, 218,170 Soviet Jews emigrated to Israel. Of that number, 137,134 arrived during the period of superpower detente, between 1972 and 1979. Since 1989, 230,000 Russian Jews have emigrated to Israel, out of a total of 700,000 from the former Soviet Union.
The most important Jewish site in Moscow is the Choral Synagogue on Bolshoy Spasoglinischevsky Road (the former Arkhipova Street), which dates back to 1891. In Soviet times, on important holidays, Jews gathered in front of the building as a means of protest. Today the synagogue is the focus of Jewish religious life in the capital. St. Petersburg’s Moorish-style choral synagogue dates back to 1893. The State Russian Museum has an impressive collection of works by Chagall and other Jewish artists. In the Historical Museum of Birobidzhan, there are permanent exhibits on Jewish culture in the Jewish Autonomous Oblast.