Russian Jews
русские евреи (Russian)
רוסיש אידן (Yiddish)
יהודי רוסיה (Hebrew)
Regions with significant populations
Israel Israel 900,000-1,000,000 [1]
United States United States 350,000 [2]
Russia Russia estimates vary
Germany Germany 119,000
Canada Canada 50,000

Yiddish, Russian, Hebrew, English


Hasidic Judaism, Orthodox Judaism, atheism and non-religious

Russian Jews (Russian: Русские евреи Russkiye yevrei) (Yiddish: רוסיש אידן) (Hebrew: יהודי רוסיה) are the Jews that are from or descended from the Russian Federation, or any of the historical territories once occupied by the Russian Empire and the former Russian SFSR of the Soviet Union (today the Russian Federation).

Former Imperial Russian territories would include Ukraine, Belarus and Poland. At one point, the vast Russian Empire had the world's largest Jewish population. As a result of numerous pogroms in the Russian Empire and the later Soviet Union, almost half of Russia's Jews emigrated either to Israel or western nations like the United States and Canada. This has contributed to Israel's large Russian-speaking population, making Russian the most spoken non-official language in Israel with approximately 20% of Israel's population being fluent Russian speakers.

Russian Jews comprise of the large group of Jews known as the Ashkenazi Jews (Hebrew: יהודים אשכנזים Yehudim Ashkenazim), which are the Jews descended from European nations.


Early History and AncestryEdit

Russian Jews are mostly of Caucasian and Khazar descent. Jews have been present in contemporary Armenia and Georgia since the Babylonian captivity (see also: Mountain Jews). Records exist from the 4th century showing that there were Armenian cities possessing Jewish populations ranging from 10,000 to 30,000 along with substantial Jewish settlements in the Crimea.[3] The presence of Jews in the territories corresponding to modern Belarus, Ukraine, and the European part of Russia can be traced back to the 7th-14th centuries CE.[4][5][5] Under the influence of the Caucasian Jewish communities (see also: Mountain Jews), Bulan, the Khagan Bek of the Khazars, and the ruling classes of Khazaria (located in what is now Ukraine, southern Russia and Kazakhstan), adopted Judaism at some point in the mid-to-late 8th or early 9th centuries. After the overthrow of the Khazarian kingdom by Sviatoslav I of Kiev (969), Khazar Jews may have fled in large numbers to the Crimea, the Caucasus, and the Russian principality of Kiev, which was formerly a part of the Khazar territory.

Kievan Rus'Edit

In the 11th and 12th centuries, Jews appear to have occupied a separate quarter in Kiev, known as the Jewish town (Old Ruthenian Жидове, Zhidove, i.e. "The Jews"), the gates probably leading to which were known as the Jewish gates (Old Ruthenian Жидовская ворота, Zhidovskaya vorota). The Kievan community was oriented towards Byzantium (the Romaniotes), Babylonia and Palestine in the 10th and 11th centuries, but appears to have been increasingly open to the Ashkenazim from the 12th century on.[citation needed] Few products of Kievan Jewish intellectual activity are extant, however. Other communities, or groups of individuals, are known from Chernigov and, probably, Volodymyr-Volynskyi. At that time Jews are probably found also in northeastern Russia, in the domains of Prince Andrei Bogolyubsky (1169–1174), although it is uncertain to which degree they would have been living there permanently.[6]

Though northeastern Russia had few Jews, countries just to its west had rapidly growing Jewish populations, as waves of anti-Jewish pogroms and expulsions from the countries of Western Europe marked the last centuries of the Middle Ages, a sizable portion of the Jewish populations there moved to the more tolerant countries of Central and Eastern Europe, as well as the Middle East.

Expelled en masse from England, France, Spain and most other Western European countries at various times, and persecuted in Germany in the 14th century, many Western European Jews naturally accepted Polish ruler Casimir III the Great's invitation to settle in Polish-controlled areas of Eastern Europe as a third estate, performing commercial, middleman services in an agricultural society for the Polish king and nobility between 1330 and 1370, during Casimir the Great's reign. Approximately 85 percent of the Jews in Poland during the 14th century were involved in estate management, tax and toll collecting, money lending or trade.[citation needed]

After settling in Poland (later Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) and Hungary (later Austria-Hungary), the population expanded into the lightly populated areas of Ukraine and Lithuania, which were to become part of the expanding Russian empire. In 1495 Alexander the Jagiellonian expelled the Jews from Grand Duchy of Lithuania but reversed his decision in 1503.

In the shtetls populated almost entirely by Jews, or in the middle-sized town where Jews constituted a significant part of population, Jewish communities traditionally ruled themselves according to halakha, and were limited by the privileges granted them by local rulers. These Jews were not assimilated into the larger eastern European societies, and identified as an ethnic group with a unique set of religious beliefs and practices, as well as an ethnically unique economic role.

Tsardom of Russia Edit

Documentary evidence as to the presence of Jews in Muscovite Russia is first found in the chronicles of 1471. The relatively small population of Jews were generally free of major persecution: although there were laws against them during this period, they do not appear to be strictly enforced. Jews settled in Russian and Ukrainian towns suffered occasional persecutions, owing to religious fanaticism. Converted Jews occasionally rose to important positions in the Russian State, i.e. Peter Shafirov, vice-chancellor under Peter the Great was of Jewish origin.

Russian EmpireEdit

Their situation changed radically, during the reign of Catherine II, when the Russian Empire acquired rule over large Lithuanian and Polish territories, which were heavily populated by Jews, especially during the second (1793) and the third (1795) Partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Under the Commonwealth's legal system, Jews endured restrictions euphemised as "disabilities", which also continued following Russian rule. Catherine established the Pale of Settlement, which included Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine, and the Crimea (the latter was later excluded). Jews were supposed to reside in the Pale and required special permission to immigrate into Russia proper. Within the Pale, Jews were given right of voting in municipal elections, but their vote was limited to one third of the total number of voters.

Jewish communities in Russia were governed internally by local, dominantly theocratic administrative bodies, called the Councils of Elders (Qahal, Kehilla), constituted in every town or hamlet possessing a Jewish population. The Councils of Elders had jurisdiction over Jews in matters of internal litigation, as well as fiscal transactions relating to the collection and payment of taxes (poll tax, land tax, etc.). Later, this right of collecting taxes was much abused; in 1844 the civil authority of the Councils of Elders over its Jewish population was abolished.[7]

The beginning of the 19th century was marked by intensive movement of Jews to Novorossiya, where towns, villages and agricultural colonies rapidly sprang up.

Rebellions beginning with the Decembrist Revolt of 1825, followed by the struggle of Russia's intelligentsia, and the rise of nihilism, liberalism, socialism, syndicalism, and finally Marxism threatened the old tsarist order.

Prior to 1827 Jews did not serve in the Russian army, but they were subject to double taxation in lieu of military service. In 1827 Nicholas I decreed new recruitment regulations, extended to Jews. About 70,000 Jews were conscripted between 1827 and 1854, a large percentage of them underage (see Cantonists).

The cultural and habitual isolation of the Jews gradually began to be eroded. An ever-increasing number of Jews adopted Russian language and customs. Russian education was spread among the Jews. A number of Jewish-Russian periodicals appeared.

Alexander II was known as the "Tsar liberator" for the 1861 abolition of serfdom in Russia. Under his rule Jews could not hire Christian servants, could not own land, and were restricted in travel.[8]

Alexander III was a staunch reactionary and an antisemite[9] (influenced by Pobedonostsev[10]) who strictly adhered to the old doctrine of Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Ethnocentrism. His escalation of anti-Jewish policies sought to ignite "popular antisemitism", which portrayed the Jews as "Christ-killers" and the oppressors of the Slavic, Christian victims.

A large-scale wave of anti-Jewish pogroms swept Ukraine in 1881, after Jews were wrongly blamed for the assassination of Alexander II. In the 1881 outbreak, there were pogroms in 166 Ukrainian towns, thousands of Jewish homes were destroyed, many families reduced to extremes of poverty;[citation needed] large numbers of men, women, and children were injured and some killed. Disorders in the south once again recalled the government attention to the Jewish question. A conference was convened at the Ministry of Interior and on May 15, 1882, so-called Temporary Regulations were introduced that stayed in effect for more than thirty years and came to be known as the May Laws.

The repressive legislation was repeatedly revised. Many historians noted the concurrence of these state-enforced antisemitic policies with waves of pogroms[11] that continued until 1884, with at least tacit government knowledge and in some cases policemen were seen inciting or joining the mob.

The systematic policy of discrimination banned Jews from rural areas and towns of fewer than ten thousand people, even within the Pale, assuring the slow death of many shtetls. In 1887, the quotas placed on the number of Jews allowed into secondary and higher education were tightened down to 10% within the Pale, 5% outside the Pale, except Moscow and Saint Petersburg, held at 3%. It was possible to evade this restrictions upon secondary education by combining private tuition with examination as an "outside student". Accordingly, within the Pale such outside pupils were almost entirely young Jews. The restrictions placed on education, traditionally highly valued in Jewish communities, resulted in ambition to excel over the peers and increased emigration rates. Special quotas restricted Jews from entering profession of law, limiting number of Jews admitted to the bar.

In 1886, an Edict of Expulsion was enforced on Jews of Kiev. Most Jews were expelled from Moscow in 1891 (except few deemed useful) and a newly built synagogue was closed by the city's authorities headed by the Tsar's brother. Tsar Alexander III refused to curtail repressive practices and reportedly noted: "But we must never forget that the Jews have crucified our Master and have shed his precious blood."[12] In 1892, new measures banned Jewish participation in local elections despite their large numbers in many towns of the Pale. The Town Regulations prohibited Jews from the right to elect or be elected to town Dumas. Only a small number of Jews were allowed to be a town Duma's members, through appointment by special committees.

In 1897, according to Russian census of 1897 total Jewish population of Russia was 5,189,401 persons of both sexes (4.13% of total population). Of this total 93,9% lived in the 25 provinces of the Pale of Settlement. The total population of the Pale of Settlement amounted to 42,338,367—of these, 4,805,354 (11.5%) were Jews.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries the Russian Empire had not only the largest Jewish population in the world, but actually had a majority of the world's Jews living within its borders.[13]

Cold WarEdit

During the October Revolution, the Red Army was in support of Jews. During their existence within the Soviet Union however, Jews were respected as an ethnic group and not a religious group which gave rise to Jewish secularism.

According to the census of 1926,  22% of the Jews in the Soviet Union lived in the Russian SFSR.

Russian Jews were long considered a non-native Semitic ethnicity within a Slavic Russia, and such categorization was solidified when ethnic minorities in the Soviet Union were categorized according to ethnicity (Russian: национальность).

To offset the growing Jewish national and religious aspirations of Zionism and to successfully categorize Soviet Jews under Stalin's definition of nationality, an alternative to the Land of Israel was established with the help of Komzet and OZET in 1928. The Jewish Autonomous Oblast with the center in Birobidzhan in the Russian Far East was to become a "Soviet Zion".

At the same time, Soviet policies prohibited the use of Hebrew in order to enforce secular eduaction.Rather, Yiddish became the language of the Russian Jews.

Many Jews fell victim to the Great Purges, and there is evidence that Jews were specifically targeted by Stalin, who harbored antisemitic sentiments all his life. A number of the most prominent victims of the Purges—Trotsky, Zinoviev, and Kamenev, to name a few—were Jewish, and in 1939 Stalin gave Molotov an explicit order to fully purge the ministry of Foreign Affairs of Jews, in anticipation of rapprochement with Nazi Germany.

Beyond longstanding controversies, ranging from the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact to anti-Zionism, the Soviet Union did grant official "equality of all citizens regardless of status, sex, race, religion, and nationality". The years before the Holocaust were an era of rapid change for Soviet Jews, leaving behind the dreadful poverty of the Pale of Settlement. Forty percent of the population in the former Pale left for large cities within the USSR.

The HolocaustEdit

Over two million Soviet Jews are believed to have died during the Holocaust, second only to the number of Polish Jews to have fallen victims to Hitler. Among some of the larger massacres in 1941 were: 33,771 Jews of Kiev shot in ditches at Babi Yar; 100,000 Jews and Poles of Vilnius killed in the forests of Paneriai, 20,000 Jews killed in Kharkiv at Drobnitzky Yar, 36,000 Jews machine-gunned in Odessa, 25,000 Jews of Riga killed in the woods at Rumbula, and 10,000 Jews slaughtered in Simferopol in the Crimea. Though mass shootings continued through 1942, most notably 16,000 Jews shot at Pinsk, Jews were increasingly shipped to concentration camps in German Nazi-occupied Poland.

Local residents of German-occupied areas, especially Ukrainians, Lithuanians, and Latvians, sometimes played key roles in the genocide of other Latvians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Slavs, Gypsies, homosexuals and Jews alike. Under the Nazi occupation, some members of the Ukrainian and Latvian Nazi police carried out deportations in the Warsaw Ghetto, and Lithuanians marched Jews to their death at Ponary. Even as some assisted the Germans, a significant number of individuals in the territories under German control also helped Jews escape death (see Righteous Among the Nations). In Latvia, particularly, the number of Nazi-collaborators was only slightly more than that of Jewish saviours. It is estimated that up to 1.4 million Jews fought in Allied armies; 40% of them in the Red Army.[14] In total, at least 142,500 Soviet soldiers of Jewish nationality lost their lives fighting against the German invaders and their allies[15]

The official response to an inquiry by Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee about the military decorations of Jews during the war (1.8% of the total number). Some antisemites attempted to accuse Jews of lack of patriotism and of hiding from military service. The typical Soviet policy regarding the Holocaust was to present it as atrocities against Soviet citizens, not emphasizing the genocide of the Jews. For example, after the liberation of Kiev from the Nazi occupation, the Extraordinary State Commission (Russian: Чрезвычайная Государственная Комиссия) was set out to investigate Nazi crimes. The description of the Babi Yar massacre was officially censored as follows:[16]


Israel IsraelEdit

During the tense parts of the Cold War, and simultenously the Arab-Israeli Conflict (particularily 1960s and 1970s), the Jews of the Soviet Union had strong desires to immigrate to Israel. However, the Soviet government would not permit them to leave. Also, the Soviet Union was a supporter of the Arab states and armies during the conflict. When permitted to leave, many did immigrate to Israel en masse, but others ended up migrating to other places. The largest number of Russian Jews and Russian-speaking Jews now live in Israel, not in Russia. Israel is home to a core Russian-Jewish population of 900,000 and an enlarged population of 1,200,000 (including halachically non-Jewish members of Jewish households, but excluding those who reside in Israel illegally).[17] The Aliyah in the 1990s accounts for 85–90% of this population. The population growth rate for Former Soviet Union (FSU) immigrants were among the lowest for any Israeli groups, with a Fertility rate of 1.70 and natural increase of just +0.5% per year.[18] The increase in Jewish birth rate in Israel during the 2000–2007 period was partly due to the increasing birth rate among the FSU immigrants, who now form 20% of the Jewish population of Israel.[19][20] 96.5% of the enlarged Russian Jewish population in Israel is either Jewish or non-religious, while 3.5% (35,000) belongs to other religions (mostly Christians) and about 10,000 messianic Jews.[21]

United States United StatesEdit

The second largest population is in the United States. According to RINA, there is a core Russian-Jewish population of 350,000 in the U.S. The enlarged Russian Jewish population in the U.S. is estimated to be 700,000.[22]


Russian Jews are fluent in one or more of the following: Russian, Yiddish, Hebrew and English.

Unlike the tendancy of many Jewish migrants to abandon their language, many Jews in Israel have retained their fluency in Russian (an East Slavic language). Israel is a Russophone country, and approximately 20% of Israel's population are fluent Russian speakers. Russian is the second most spoken non-official language in Israel other than English which is the first. Many Israeli bussinesses also use Russian as a language, and in many communities it is a semi-official language.

Yiddish, is a Germanic language and was the language of Russian and European Jews for a long time. The language barriers in the Soviet Union prohibited the use of Hebrew in schools in order to discourage religious teachings. Yiddish therefore, became the language of the European and Russian Jews. Also, as Jews abandoned the use of Hebrew as a conservational toungue, it became considered too sacred for such use. Yiddish has had a profound influence in the Modern Hebrew language, especially Hebrew spoken by Ashkenazi Jews which contains Yiddish sub-stratum (unlike Mizrahi Hebrew which contains similarities to Classical Hebrew and Arabic). In Israel, the use of Yiddish became discouraged and Yiddish is still spoken by elders.

Since Hebrew is Israel's first official language, all Russian Jews, at least those who reside in Israel speak Hebrew.


Hasidic JudaismEdit

Religious Russian Jews follow a section of Judaism known as Hasidic Judaism (Hebrew: חסידות) (Yiddish: חסידות), more specifically a branch that originated from Russia known as the Chabad Movement (Yiddish: חב"ד באַוועגונג), sometimes also known as the Lubavitch movenet. The name "Chabad" (Hebrew: חב"ד) is a Hebrew acronym for Chochmah, Binah, Da'at (חכמה, בינה, דעת): "Wisdom, Understanding, and Knowledge". The name "Lubavitch" (meaning the "Town of Love") is the popular name for the Russian village Lyubavichi where the movement's leaders lived for over 100 years.

Leaders of Hasidic Judaism are known as rebbe (Yiddish: רבי), which is the Yiddish transliteration of the Hebrew word rabbi (Hebrew: רַבִּי) meaning "teachers" which is the term of leaders of Orthodox Judaism. Atheism and Agnosticism

Russian Jews are either religious Orthodox Jews, Hasidic Jews or atheists. Russian Jews and European Jews contain one of the highest irreligious group of people among the Jewish population.

In fact, it is in Russia and the Soviet Union where Jewish secularism finds its origins from.


Russian Jews prepared mostly Ashkenazi cuisine, and that of Russia. Knish, is a popular Eastern European snack mde of a filling covered with dough that is either baked, grilled, or deep fried. Knishes can be purchased from street vendors in urban areas with a large Jewish population, sometimes at a hot dog stand or from a butcher. In the most East European traditional versions, the filling is made entirely of mashed potato, ground meat, sauerkraut, onions, kasha (buckwheat groats), or cheese. Other varieties of fillings include sweet potatoes, black beans, fruit, broccoli, tofu, or spinach. Mandelbrodt (Yiddish: מאַנדלברויט) is a dessert associated with Eastern European Jews. The Yiddish word mandelbrodt literally means almond bread. It is made by forming dough into a loaf, baking it, slicing the loaf into oblong cookies. The blintz are thin pancakes that typically lack a leavening agent and are similar to crêpes, whereas blini are typically thicker and include a leavening agent. The Ukrainian soup known as borscht (Russian: борщ) (Ukrainian: борщ) is also popular with Russian Jews. Babka, is a sweet yeast cake. Jewish style babka babka is made from a doubled and twisted length of yeast dough and is typically baked in a high loaf pan. Instead of a fruit filling the dough contains cinnamon or chocolate. The babka is usually topped with streusel. A similar cake called a kokosh is also popular in Jewish bakeries. Kokosh also comes in chocolate and cinnamon varieties, but it is lower and longer than babka, is not twisted, and not topped with streusel.

Notable Russian Jews or Jews of Russian OriginEdit

Sholem Aleichem

Real name is Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich, was a Yiddish-language playwright from what is now Ukraine (then part of the Russian Empire), famous for the musical Fiddler on the Roof, based on his stories about Tevye the Dairyman, was the first commercially successful English-language stage production about Jewish life in Eastern Europe.

Isaac Levitan
Исаа́к Левита́н

A classical Russian landscape painter who advanced the genre of the "mood landscape". He was born in Lithuania (then part of the Russian Empire), into a poor Jewish family and was the son of a rabbi.

Marc Chagall
Марк ШагалMarc Chagall

A Belarusian-Russian-French artist, he was associated with several major artistic styles and created works in virtually every artistic medium, including painting, book illustrations, stained glass, stage sets, ceramic, tapestries and fine art prints and considered by many art critics to be one of the best European Jewish painters

Isaac Asimov
יצחק אַסימאָוו
Isaac ASimov
An American (Russian-born) author and professor of biochemistry who was best known for his famous works of science fiction, editing more than 500 books and some famous works from him include the Robot series, born a Russian Jew near Belarus in a Yiddish-speaking home, he actually never learned Russian
Ida Rubenstein
Ида Рубинштейн
Ida Rubenstein

A Russian actress, dancer, patron and Belle Époque figure. She was born into a Jewish family in the city of St. Petersburg. Rubinstein was much celebrated in art and although was not in the top tier of dancers, performed well throughout World War II until he fled due to the German invasion.

Maya Plisetskaya
Ма́йя Плисе́цкая

A Russian ballet dancer, choreographer, ballet director, and actress, and is considered one of the greatest ballerinas of the 20th century. She danced during the Soviet era at the same time as the great Galina Ulanova, and in 1960 took over Ulanova's title as prima ballerina assoluta of the Bolshoi. Having become “an international superstar” and a continuous “box office hit throughout the world,” the Soviet Union treated her as a favored cultural emissary. Born from a Jewish family in Moscow.

Golda Meir
גולדה מאיר
220px-Golda Meir 03265u
Israeli politician, and later teacher, kibbutznik and politician who became the fourth Prime Minister of Israel in 1969, after serving as Minister of Labour and Foreign Minister, Israel's first and the world's third woman to hold such an office. Former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion used to call Meir "the best man in the government"; she was often portrayed as the "strong-willed, straight-talking, grey-bunned grandmother of the Jewish people". Born as Golda Mabovitch in Ukraine (then part of the Russian Empire).
Natan Sharansky
נתן שרנסקי

A prominent Israeli politician and author who spent many years in a Soviet prison for allegedly spying for the Defense Intelligence Agency. Natan Sharansky has served as Chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency since June 2009. He was born as Anatoly Borisovich Shcharansky in the Russian city of Donetsk, then part of the Soviet Union into a Jewish family.

Avigdor Leiberman
אביגדור ליברמן

A Soviet-born Israeli politician who has been Israel's Minister of Foreign Affairs since 2013. He also served as member of the Knesset and as Deputy Prime Minister of Israel. Lieberman's first term as Foreign Minister began in 2009 and ended with his resignation in December 2012, due to an investigation in which he was charged with fraud and breach of trust.[2] He is the founder and leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, whose electoral base are the immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Born as Evet Liberman.

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