- Ethnoreligious group. At one time, Russia possessed the largest population of Jews worldwide; the country still has one of the largest Jewish communities in Europe. Historically, Jew (ievrei) was treated as an ethnonational category in Russia and the Soviet Union. Since 1991, Jewishness in Russia has come to be more closely associated with religiosity and cultural identification, and secular Jews may be treated as Russians for statistical purposes. Such was not the case during the Soviet era, as any citizen with two Jewish parents was automatically registered as Jewish on their internal passport (children of mixed marriages could adopt either ethnicity at the age of 16). The Russian Federation’s 2002 census recorded slightly fewer than 300,000 ethnic Jews in the country (down from 500,000 in 1989). External estimates put Russia’s ethnic Jewish population at 1 million, suggesting that many Jews do not embrace their background for fear of discrimination. Most Russian Jews are Ashkenazi (literally, “German” Jews), though communities of Mizrahi (“Eastern”) Jews can also be found in parts of Russia.Not all Jews in Russia descend from diasporic Semites; in the 9th century, Khazaria, a Turkic empire that controlled parts of Ukraine and southern Russia, made Judaism its official religion, prompting the mass conversion of its subjects. While the effect of this on the composition of Russia’s Jews is debated, it is thought that some percentage of Jews in the Russian Federation descend from Khazari rather than Ashkenazi Jews.There is a long history of official anti-Semitism in Russia, going back to edicts establishing a Pale of Settlement (cherta osedlosti) for Jews and subsequent laws forbidding the settlement of Jews in agricultural communities and large cities. Mass pogroms and restriction of political and civil rights in the late 19th century prompted massive emigration of Russian Jews to the United States and elsewhere. The publication of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in 1903 and the rise of the anti-Semitic Black Hundreds (Chernaia Sotnia) a few years later only compounded the situation. The 1917 revolutions, however, temporarily bettered the situation for Russia’s Jews. Ethnic Jews held key positions in the early Bolshevik and Menshevik parties’ leadership, including the revolutionaries Grigory Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev, and Vladimir Lenin’s second-in-command, Leon Trotsky. However, under the reign of Joseph Stalin, much of the Soviet Union’s nomenklatura> was purged of Jews. While Stalin did not consider the Jews a genuine nation because they lacked a common language and were widely dispersed, he did oversee the creation of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast in the Russian Far East. Centered in the city of Birobijan, the inhospitable region was meant to be a “Soviet Zion” where Yiddish (as opposed to Hebrew) would evolve as the ultimate national language of the Jewish people. The creation of a Jewish homeland was also meant to offset the international allure of Zionism, which the Communist Party of the Soviet Union roundly condemned as a “socially retrogressive” and reactionary ideology. However, in the 1930s, a wave of anti-Semitic purges resulted in the suppression of Yiddish culture.During World War II, 2 million Soviet Jews perished in the Holocaust, second only to Polish Jews. In the wake of Israel’s establishment, Stalin instituted another campaign of official anti-Semitism. Attacks on Jews reached their peak shortly before Stalin’s death with the fabricated “Doctors’ Plot,” which, if seen to fruition, would have resulted in the internal exile of all Soviet Jewry to Siberia. The Soviet Union’s close alliance with Arab states and Western support of Israel during the Cold War placed Russian Jews in an uncomfortable position within Soviet society. Following the Six Day War in 1967, large numbers of Soviet Jews petitioned to emigrate. Since they typically received perfunctory denials of emigrant visas, these aspirants were dubbed “refuseniks” (otkazniki) by the Western press. After Mikhail Gorbachev’s rise to power, Jews were granted the right of exit, though a large number emigrated to the United States rather than opting for aliyah (Hebrew: “return” to Israel). Since Russia’s independence, anti-Semitism has grown as a political force employed by neofascists, as well as the Communist Party of the Russian Federation and many in the neo-Eurasianism movement. As a result, Jewish emigration increased sharply in the early 1990s before beginning to ebb. In recent years, popular ire at the oligarchs has harmonized with anti-Semitism. Several of Russia’s richest men are ethnic Jews, including Roman Abramovich, Mikhail Fridman, and Viktor Vekselberg, as are the imprisoned or exiled former tycoons Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Boris Berezovsky, and Vladimir Gusinsky.Post-Soviet Russia’s most important Jewish organizations include the Russian Jewish Congress, a rabbinical body dedicated to the renewal of Jewish life in the country, and the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, an orthodox organization focused on improving religious life for Russia’s Jews.See also Immigration; Kasparov, Garry.
Historical Dictionary of the Russian Federation. Robert A. Saunders and Vlad Strukov. 2010.
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