The vast territories of the Russian Empire at one time hosted the largest population of Jews in the world. Within these territories the primarily Ashkenazi Jewish communities of many different areas flourished and developed many of modern Judaism’s most distinctive theological and cultural traditions, while also facing periods of anti-Semitic discriminatory policies and persecutions.
The presence of Jewish people in the European part of Russia can be traced to the 7th–14th centuries. In the 11th and 12th centuries, the Jewish population in Kiev, in present-day Ukraine, was restricted to a separate quarter. Evidence of the presence of Jewish people in Muscovite Russia is first documented in the chronicles of 1471. During the reign of Catherine the Great in the 18th century, Jewish people were restricted to the Pale of Settlement within Russia, the territory where they could live or immigrate to. Alexander III escalated anti-Jewish policies. Beginning in the 1880s, waves of anti-Jewish pogroms swept across different regions of the empire for several decades. More than two million Jews fled Russia between 1880 and 1920, mostly to the United States.
Until the fall of the Russian Empire in the 1917 Revolution, very few Jews lived inside Russia with the exception of those who were deemed “useful”(investors, rich merchants, those in the liberal professions, craftsmen and demobilized soldiers). However, due to the partial process of “Russification” of Poland, by the early twentieth century, many Polish Jews regarded themselves as Russian Jews, learning Russian and sending their children to Russian schools. In 1913, there were between 5.3 and 6 million Jews in the Russian Empire, constituting the world’s largest Jewish community (and approximately 50% of the world’s Jewish population).
The fate of Russian Jews changed dramatically overnight, however, with the fall of the Russian Empire in 1917. The Bolshevik Revolution cut off Soviet Russia (the Soviet Union) from Lithuania and Latvia, as well as from the western regions of the Ukraine and Byelorussia, although these areas came under the Soviet regime in 1939. At the same time, the Soviet Union annexed Galicia, which had a substantial Jewish population.
Almost from the outset, Jews in the Soviet Union were subject to comprehensive and massive oppression by the Communist regime, determined to distance Jews from their tradition and forcing them to assimilate. By the time Communism fell in 1991, the Jews of the Soviet Union had lost almost all their knowledge of Judaism, Hebrew, the Jewish people, and Jewish tradition. They had indeed transformed into “Russian” Jews, with a Russian culture, and Russian had become the native language of the vast majority of Jews in the Soviet Union. Soviet Jews saw themselves as Jewish: moreover, their identity cards included this as their nationality. Because of the persecution they experienced, small groups of Jews began to clamor for the right to leave for Israel.
After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, “Russian” Jews were once again divided up into the separate states, of which the Russian Federation (“Russia” proper) is only one constituent part. Today, 62% of the Jews in the CIS live in Russia. The core community numbers 243,000 people, who define themselves as “Jewish.”
Russian Jewry is concentrated in major cities, such as Moscow (with over 80,000 Jews) and Saint Petersburg (with approximately 43,000). In addition, the returning migration from Israel has led to the formation of an Israeli expatriate community, chiefly in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Jewish St. Petersburg
St. Petersburg, is the most European-like city in the country and one of the world’s most significant cultural centers. The city is well-known for its unique historical monuments, architecture and unparalleled art collections, particularly in the Hermitage and Tsarkeo Tselo. St. Petersburg’s exceptionally rich past is inseparably linked with the heritage of Jewish people.
As Russia’s Jews became better educated, attained greater prosperity, and moved closer to the highest Russian authorities in their socioeconomic status, their influence was felt even among their co-religionists who still lived in the poor shtetls along Imperial Russia’s Western borders. St. Petersburg became the cultural hub for Jewish publications, organizations, and social services that had an impact far beyond the boundaries of the city. Out of this community came such creative luminaries as Simon Dubnov, Marc Chagall, Yasha Heifetz, Osip Mandelstam, and Isaac Babel.
By the late 19th- and early 20th centuries, St. Petersburg was the nucleus of Jewish life in Russia, as well as an internationally significant center of Jewish life. St. Petersburg saw the creation of international Jewish organizations and the organization of Zionist Congresses attended by famous Jewish political figures. Chabad-Lubavitch, an important movement in Orthodox Judaism, had many of its roots in St. Petersburg’s spirited and socially-active turn-of-the-century atmosphere.
With European Jewish Heritage Tours, our expert English-speaking guides will take you on a tour that shows how Jewish history is interwoven with the general history of the city. You’ll see Theater Square, which is closely associated with Anton Rubinstein, the esteemed Jewish composer and pianist who established the Conservatoire, the oldest Russian school of music. Many outstanding figures of the musical world were educated within its walls, including violinist David Oistrakh and master cellist Mstislav Rastropovich.
You’ll stop by the Academy of Fine Arts, a famous educational establishment where well-known Russian-Jewish painters such as Isaac Levitan and Marc Chagall were educated. You will ride along the English Embankment where luxurious mansions were built for such Jewish financiers as Ginsberg and Polyakov, and on Nevsky Prospect you’ll see an unusual building, constructed for Hyppolite Wawelberg, one of the wealthiest bankers and philanthropists in St. Petersburg.
You’ll visit the Grand Choral Synagogue, consecrated in 1893. The Synagogue was constructed in the old district of Kolomna, the center of Jewish life in the 19th century. Thanks to the gracious patronage of Lily and Edmond Safra, this Moorish-style masterpiece of architecture has been restored to its former glory. Today, the Grand Choral Synagogue is not only a magnificent architectural monument, but also the soul of the city’s Jewish community. If you wish, you can visit the shop “Kosher” (opened in 2003). It’s a non-profit shop, all the money made goes to the charity programs run by the community.
You will also have a chance to visit the Yesod Center in the House of St. Petersburg Jewish Community, open since 2005. You will discover the different activities organized by Yesod and watch a documentary about the Jewish community in St. Petersburg. The Jewish cemetery is located on the outskirts of the city. It is a stone manuscript of the history of the Jewish community in Saint Petersburg. In this cemetery there are tombs of many prominent personalities of the Jewish community of the city.
Optional tours: Naturally, a visit to Saint Petersburg, should also include a tour of the Hermitage and its world-renowned collections, a tour of the Youssopov Palace, as well as day trips to Peterhof, and to Tsarkoe Tselo, the palatial estates of Peter and Catherine the Great. Also not to be missed, is the State Russian Museum, housing the world’s biggest collection of Russian art from ancient icons to avant-garde works. Among its treasures are works by Jewish painters and sculptors, such as Isaac Levitan, Mark Chagall, Leon Bakst, and Mark Antokolsky.
Ship-to-shore tours: It’s possible to combine Jewish and general sightseeing, especially if you are on a cruise and have a single day layover in St. Petersburg. European Jewish Heritage Tours tailors your ship-to-shore travel program to include transportation, guiding, museum admissions, thus making it as convenient and personalized as possible.
Since Perestroika, the Jewish community in Moscow has been experiencing a revival. In addition to a growing number of Jewish cultural and religious institutions and organizations, schools, kindergartens and kosher restaurants, the community boasts a Jewish theater named after the Yiddish writer Shalom Aleichem.
With European Jewish Heritage Tours, you will have a chance to visit the recently opened Jewish Cultural Center, in a beautiful 19th-century mansion, located in Moscow’s historical district. You will also discover the Berel Lazar Chabat center in Marina Roscha, built in 2000 near the former Jewish quarter, as well as visit the Poklonnaya Gora Holocaust Museum and Memorial Synagogue.
Forbidden in the Soviet era, the “Jewish theme” has is now a topic of serious interest in present-day Russia. There have been exhibitions, in recent times even in State museums, but it wasn’t until today that Russia could boast a “full-fledged” Jewish museum. With European Jewish Heritage Tours, you will have the opportunity discover the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center opened in Moscow in November 2012 and is thought to be the largest Jewish museum in the world. Construction of the museum is estimated to have cost $50 million. Vladimir Putin personally donated one month of his salary towards the construction of the museum.
The museum’s collection, regarded as the largest in the world, covers more than 200 years of the history of Jewish life in Russia from the late 18th century through to the late-Soviet period. The museum’s collection totals over 4,000 exhibits, most of which were redeemed from private collectors. The aim of this institution is to rediscover the Jewish identity through traditions, culture, beliefs and the way Jewish communities in Russia used to live, as well as to explore the professions and crafts of the Jews, and their relations with the government. A significant number of exhibits tell the stories of the USSR’s Jewish community. (All visits are provided by prior appointment only.)
Also on the tour is a stop at the Moscow Choral Synagogue, built in 1892, only to be closed in 1896 when the Jews of Moscow were expelled under a Czarist anti-Semitic decree. It reopened again in 1906. It is the largest and longest running Orthodox synagogue in the Russian capital. Unlike many Eastern European synagogues, this synagogue is a thriving prayer community due to its unique congregation of Russian, Georgian, Bukharan, Mountain, and visiting Western Jews.
At the Marina Roscha Synagogue and Jewish Community Center, you will see the wooden synagogue that was destroyed by arson, and later rebuilt in red brick. Behind it stands the new Chabad Center, with its white stucco gold-colored aluminum windows, and front faced in polished Jerusalem stone. Besides a sleek 1,200-seat synagogue, the seven-story building contains a gym and fitness room, a computerized auditorium, a video room, a library and offices.
Optional tours: Experience the city by taking a tour of the Moscow metro–the most beautiful underground railway system in the world. The stations, built during the Stalin era, are remarkable for their bold ornamentation and unique architecture and were created to look like temples and palaces. Most of these stations are decorated with sculptures, glass, colored marble and bronze chandeliers.
No visit to Moscow is complete with a private tour of the Kremlin and it sumptuous Crown Jewels, the Pushkin Museum with its Impressionist and post-Impressionist masterpieces, and the Tretyakov Gallery, with its great Russian painters, some of whom were Jewish.