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 much of 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 force 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 and culture 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 almost exclusively in cities; furthermore, over 80% of the community is concentrated in major cities, such as Moscow (with over 80,000 Jews) and St. 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 largest cultural centers. The city is well-known for its unique historical monuments and architecture and unparalleled art collections. 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 brethren 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 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'll take a drive along English Embankment where luxurious mansions built for such Jewish financiers as Ginsberg and Polyakov, and on Nevsky Prospect you'll see an unusual building, constructed on the commission of Ippolite Wavelberg, one of the richest Jews 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 recently been restored to its former glory. Today, the Grand Choral Synagogue is not only a magnificent architectural monument, but also a "pulsing heart" 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: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 the Great 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.
Note: It's possible to combine Jewish and general sightseeing, especially if you are on a cruise and have but limited time in St.Petersburg. European Jewish Heritage Tours tailors the program of your stay to make it as much personalized as possible, so that you could remember it for years.
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 theatre named after the Yiddish writer Shalom Aleichem.
With European Jewish Heritage Tours, you will have a chance to see the 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. On May 18, 2011, Russia's first Museum of the Jewish History was opened in Moscow, and with the guides of European Jewish Heritage Tours, you will have the opportunity to make its discovery.
The museum's collection 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: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 Museums with its Impressionist and post-Impressionist masterpieces, and the Tretyakov Museum, with its great Russian painters, some of whom were Jewish.
Naturally, European Jewish Heritage Tours can arrange kosher dining and catering in both Moscow and Saint Petersburg for those guests who require such services, as well as transportation, concert and ballet ticket bookings and more. Just give us a call or email to firstname.lastname@example.org.