A female cantor leading a Reform congregation, Hineni, during a Friday night service, Moscow, 2003. Lacking a synagogue, the congregation assembled in the House of Culture of Automobile Workers. Photograph by Karl Schatz. (© Karl Schatz)

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Following the disintegration of the Soviet Union in late 1991, its 15 component union republics became independent states. By far the largest of these in both size and population was the Russian Federation, which retained the precise borders of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR). Due to demographic processes underway over several decades, its Jewish population was among the oldest in the world (median age 52.3 in 1989), with roughly four deaths to every birth. The proportion of mixed marriages was high (73.2 percent for Jewish men and 62.8 percent for Jewish women in the late 1980s), yet the enlarged Jewish population—those living in mixed households—was also declining, along with the core population. The ratio of core to enlarged Jewish population was estimated at the end of the 1980s at 1:1.8.

Man holding up a Haggadah he rescued from a labor camp in which he was incarcerated during World War II, at a Passover Seder in the village of Saltikovka, Russia, 1993. For many of the participants, it was their first experience at a Seder. Photograph by Karl Schatz. (© Karl Schatz)

The major exodus that began in 1989—about 200,000 Russian Jews emigrated between 1989 and 1993—exacerbated the demographic erosion: the elderly tended to remain, while younger cohorts emigrated. According to the population censuses of 1989 and 2002, the Russian Jewish population had fallen from 570,000 to 230,000 (in Moscow from 175,700 to 133,700 and in Saint Petersburg from 106,500 to 60,500). On the socioeconomic plane, there have been major differences between the employment patterns of Jews in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and the provinces, Moscow Jews tending to work in education, culture, and science, and in other parts, in industry.

Eager to shed the characteristic features of its Communist antecedent, the new state declared freedom of religion and equality of rights for all ethnic minorities. As of 1997 it was no longer necessary to register nationality in one’s internal passport. The Russian state, however, did not jettison the Russian sociocultural heritage, in which the attitude toward Jews was a basic ingredient. Thus, whereas state antisemitism disappeared and a plethora of Jewish organizations of all sorts—including religious associations, educational institutions, and social clubs—came into being throughout the country, xenophobia and grassroots antisemitism persisted.

Concurrently with the acquisition of unprecedented freedoms, including the option to emigrate, Jews faced the political uncertainty and economic instability that was the lot of all their compatriots, compounded by the additional problems related to being Jewish in a Russia that was becoming increasingly nationalistic. They had to decide whether to take advantage of new opportunities in order to revive Jewish life and reconstruct Jewish communities, to disappear as Jews, or to emigrate.

Moscow Choral Synagogue choir, founded in February 1990 and sponsored by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Moscow, 1990s. (American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee Photo Archives)

The Jews who remained in Russia sought to reconstitute themselves institutionally, economically, culturally, and spiritually, yet wrestled with thorny issues of identity as they determined their place in society. For the most part, they defined their Jewishness in radically secular terms and demonstrated a strong sense of belonging to an ethnic group whose essence had been determined by common descent, shared feelings of affiliation, and the perceptions of non-Jews. After decades of both forced and voluntary acculturation, Russian Jews remained with little tangible “thick” culture, but with a considerable “thin” one that provided them with common perceptions and guidelines for behavior.

Not only the content, but also the boundaries, of their Jewishness were diluted both by the high rate of exogamy and by the rejection of Judaism in any form. Russian Jews have tended to consider knowledge of Jewish history and culture, and pride in being Jewish, including remembering the Holocaust, as making one a good Jew, and to regard observance of Jewish religious tradition as irrelevant. Many, too, especially the increasing number of Jews who claimed mixed origins, had recourse to options not previously open to them, identifying simultaneously as Jews and Russians. The erosion of their Jewish ethnicity also had the effect of causing many to distance themselves from world Jewry.

The years following the establishment in late 1989 of the Federation of Jewish Organizations and Communities of the USSR or Va‘ad—the first countrywide Jewish organization, which brought together the local cultural associations that had appeared under perestroika—created a new open public space that succeeded the Communist Party’s monopolization of all social and cultural life. The subsequent new Jewish reality has been molded by its own leadership and initiatives and by foreign (American and Israeli) structures with considerable resources, notably the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the Jewish Agency for Israel (Sokhnut).

A rabbi from Ukraine dancing with a new Torah brought from America after the first All-Russia Jewish Congress, Moscow, ca. 1993. Photograph by Karl Schatz. (© Karl Schatz)

By the late 1990s, a number of academic institutions, some of them under Jewish auspices, offered master-level degrees in Jewish studies, while more than 8,000 students were attending Jewish schools, most not day schools but institutions providing supplementary education. Books of Jewish interest, as well as a host of newspapers, were published and a plethora of concerts, plays, and cultural evenings of Jewish content took place. During the course of the 1990s, several additional umbrella organizations came into being, first and foremost the Rossiiskii Evreiskii Kongress (Russian Jewish Congress; REK), which by 1998 had branches in 46 cities and supported religious, social, cultural, and educational activities. Other countrywide organizations included Kongress Evreiskikh Religioznykh Obshchin i Organizatsii Rossii (Congress of Jewish Religious Communities and Organizations in Russia; KEROOR), which in 1997 together with the Va‘ad joined REK to formally establish Evreiskaia Obshchina Rossii (Jewish Community of Russia); and the Lubavitch Federatsiia Evreiskikh Obshchin Rossii (Federation of Jewish Communities in Russia; FEOR).

Nonetheless, no definitive Jewish community or Jewish leadership surfaced in the 1990s. Community life had to be built from scratch, and models imported from the West often proved unsuitable and by definition aroused skepticism among Russian Jews, especially the younger generation. No clear concept existed as to the true nature of either community or leadership. Given their recent history, Russian Jews did not feel an organic tie to their Jewishness and there were manifest disincentives to Jewish affiliation. The most stable Jewish organizations have been local ones, their regional and national counterparts being widely plagued by internal disputes, personal rivalries, and financial difficulties.

Asher Ostrin, Director of the CIS program of the JDC (left) and Seymour Epstein, JDC regional director for Siberia, at the opening of a synagogue renovated with JDC assistance, Omsk, 1996. (Michael Beizer)

One of the phenomena characterizing Russian Jews since 1991 has been their rise to positions of political and economic power. Several prime ministers and deputy prime ministers have had at least one Jewish parent. As business activities previously considered illegal were legitimized when Russia moved to a market economy, operators and brokers, who had been an essential component of the Soviet economy, became lionized as entrepreneurs or oligarchs. Jews were prominent among those who took advantage of the opening of cooperatives and small businesses under Gorbachev; of the void created by the disappearance of the planning infrastructure and the general inexperience of manufacturers in sustaining and developing market relations with customers and suppliers; and of privatization. By the time of the collapse of the economy in August 1998, Jews had created and dominated five of the seven largest newly created private commercial banks.

Even prior to the 1998 crisis, Jewish tycoons and nouveaux riches were resented as an extravagant class. In its wake, they were targeted yet more frequently and loudly, not just by fringe groups such as Pamiat’, but by Communist duma deputies Albert Makashov, Viktor Iliukhin, and party leader Gennadii Ziuganov, who noted that during privatization, “key positions in several parts of the economy were seized mainly by the representatives of one nationality,” and that “among the people there is a growing awareness that the criminal course pursued by the antipopular and nonnational oligarchy . . . underlies all their present misfortunes.”

The decline in influence of the Communists and the relative stabilization of the economy, as well as the second Chechen war and its concomitants, diverted ethnic animosity and nationalist sentiment from Jews to Caucasians. Yet antisemitic countertrends continued to run strong: provincial officials made antisemitic statements, and incidents of antisemitic violence persisted. Moreover, Vladimir Putin’s ascent to power and his general mindset and political objectives induced a confrontation with the oligarchs.

Thus, while the Jewish community of the Russian Federation underwent a major revival and made significant strides toward institutionalization, its inescapable involvement in Russian politics, especially under Putin, served simultaneously to undermine these achievements. As the first decade of the Russian Federation’s existence neared its end, the community’s future orientation seemed unclear, although the dynamism of its revival was not in doubt.

Suggested Reading

Theodore H. Friedgut, “The Phoenix Revisited: The Jewish Community of Russia since Perestroika; A View from Jerusalem,” Jewish Political Studies Review 14.1–2 (Spring 2002): 47–80; Zvi Gitelman, ed., Jewish Life after the USSR (Bloomington, Ind., 2003); Mark Tolts, “The Interrelationship between Emigration and the Socio-Demographic Profile of Russian Jewry,” in Russian Jews on Three Continents: Migration and Resettlement, ed. Noah Lewin-Epstein, Yaacov Ro’i, and Paul Ritterband, pp. 147–176 (London, 1997).