The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, 1922–1991 (European regions).

Find more information about

at the Center for Jewish History:

NOTE: you will be redirected
to the Web site for the

Union of Soviet Socialist Republics

The October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution created the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic, the RSFSR, as the successor state to the Russian Empire. In December 1922, by which time the Bolsheviks had in fact established control over the territory of the former empire (except those areas taken from it by the treaties that marked the end of World War I) their state became the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), comprising four soviet socialist republics (SSRs): Russian, Ukrainian, Belorussian, and Transcaucasian (by 1936 there were 11 SSRs; the number eventually grew to 15). The USSR’s prime importance, however, was not its size—it was the largest country in the world—nor its considerable wealth of raw materials, but the nature of its regime. As the first Communist state, it preached, and sought to propagate abroad, an ideology that purported to have a message for the modern world, industrial and precapitalist alike. Its regime, therefore, served as a model or laboratory, whose policies and achievements were designed to serve as a stimulus for other countries the globe over.

As it industrialized and, in the wake of World War II, came to be a great power and then a superpower with all the military technology this implied, the Soviet Union evolved into one of two poles in a global cold war that lasted four decades. As a doctrine seeking to change the face of society in the domestic arena, to undertake “socialist construction” and create the “new Soviet man,” Marxism-Leninism elaborated a complex policy regarding the Soviet Union’s composite nationalities. Its system was designed to demonstrate that it was not an imperialist power like its tsarist predecessor, but a state that intended to bring equality to all its citizens and ethnicities. Yet here, as in other spheres, a major gap appeared between theory and practice, and the policies implemented in fact by the new regime became increasingly reminiscent of those of the state it replaced and claimed to rebut. The history of the Jewish population under Soviet rule and the Communist regime’s attitude toward it were a manifest example of this reversion to type.


The changes that occurred in the framework of the peace treaties of 1919–1920—specifically the creation of an independent Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia, and the return to Romania of Bessarabia—greatly reduced the Jewish population of the Russian Empire. Exceeding 5 million in the 1897 population census and thought to have been approximately the same on the eve of World War I, this population was now reduced by about one half.

Tailoring workshop, Skvira, USSR (now Skvyra, Ukr.), 1920s. The Belorussian/Yiddish placard reads in part, “Skvira town association and ‘Help’ workshop” (Belorussian); “Long Live the Soviet Union” (Yiddish). (YIVO)

The first full Soviet population census of 1926 put the number of Jews at 2,672,499, and the census of 1939 reported a population of 3,028,528, representing 1.78 percent of the country’s total numbers. The annexation of the Baltic States and parts of Poland and Romania over the following two years brought the Jewish population to just above 5 million. The exact number of Jews killed by the Nazis when the Germans occupied Ukraine, Belorussia, the Baltics, and part of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR), or who were killed in the Soviet armed forces during the war or died as a result of conditions created by the war, has not been authenticated, but the accepted estimate speaks of approximately 2.7 million killed outright by the Nazis (see below). Be this as it may, the first postwar census of 1959 registered 2,267,814 Jews, or 1.1 percent of the total population. This number declined constantly from one census to the next, and the last Soviet census, taken in early 1989, recorded 1,450,511 Jews, just 0.5 percent of the total population (these figures include the non-Ashkenazic Jews of the Caucasus and Central Asia, who together accounted for approximately 10 percent of the total Jewish population toward the end of the Soviet period).

A lowering birthrate—a trend that had accompanied the Jewish population from the beginning of the twentieth century—characterized Jews throughout the Soviet period. Simultaneously, the number of Jewish deaths rose dramatically between 1959 and 1989, and the Jewish population fell by a third in those years. By 1989, Jewish deaths in the USSR exceeded births by a ratio of approximately three to one, and in the RSFSR by about four to one.

An additional factor that contributed to the decline in the Jewish population was assimilation, more specifically intermarriage, a common feature among the Soviet Union’s ethnically dispersed peoples. This phenomenon was already marked among Jews before World War II, but it gathered momentum as the century advanced. In 1988, Jewish males intermarried at a rate of 58.3 percent; for Jewish females, the total reached 47.6 percent. In the RSFSR, the percentage was noticeably higher. Inevitably, the growing intermarriage rate meant a major increase in the proportion of children born to mixed couples. In the late 1950s, it is estimated that about 40 percent of children born to Jews were born to mixed couples, and by the late 1980s this number had risen to about 70 percent.

“The Old School Turned Out Slaves. The Soviet School Prepares Healthy, Skilled People, Builders of the Socialist Order. The Heder Leads to Store, Synagogue, Hatred between Peoples. The Soviet School Leads to Factory, Land, Cooperation between Peoples.” Yiddish poster. Printed in USSR, ca. 1920s. (The Judah L. Magnes Museum, Berkeley, California)

Data on the offspring of mixed couples in the Soviet Union show that they tended formally to affiliate with the nationality of the non-Jewish parent. Unlike passport data, which could not be changed, declarations of nationality in the census were variable and unverified. Between the 1970 and 1989 censuses, more than 290,000 Jews and their non-Jewish family members emigrated, but this large exodus caused only 42 percent of the decrease of the Jewish population, the greater part of the decline being attributable to internal processes.

These demographic trends intensified after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. By early 1994, the number of Jews in the former Soviet Union had dropped to less than 800,000, while the enlarged Jewish population (which included non-Jewish members of Jewish families) was down to an estimated one and a half million. The principal factor in the Jewish population decrease in the 1990s was emigration. The incidence of mixed marriages also became more common due to the development of a severe age–sex imbalance among Jews of marriageable age, and the great exodus intensified the erosion of numbers of Jews available for marriage, leading to a further increase in mixed marriages. The emigration of young people, many of them the progeny of exogamous families, further intensified the shrinkage of the enlarged Jewish population.

Besides the general size of the population, Jewish demographics were characterized by additional factors. Before 1939, these features included urbanization (Jews became the most urbanized ethnic group in the Soviet Union); movement of Jews from the areas of the original Pale of Settlement to the interior parts of the country; a change in occupational patterns (as the occupations that in the past had claimed most Jews, notably petty trade and private artisanry, were prohibited and new vistas were opened in fields previously closed to Jews); and a far higher educational level than that of the average Soviet citizen (Jews became the most highly educated of all nationalities in the country).

By 1939, urban residents comprised 86.9 percent of the Jewish population, with a third of all Soviet Jews living in five cities (Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, Kharkov, and Odessa), each of which had a Jewish population of more than 100,000. Many Jews had left the Pale during World War I and this trend gathered momentum in the period immediately subsequent to the Bolshevik Revolution, peaking in the years of the first Five-Year Plan (1928–1932). By early 1939, only 57.1 percent of the Jewish population lived in parts that had formerly belonged to the Pale; areas that had been outside it, where between 300,000 and 400,000 had resided prior to 1914, now accounted for roughly 1.3 million Jews. At this time, too, Jews accounted for 15.5 percent of adults with higher education, boasting 10 times the rate for the general population, and three times the rate for urban dwellers.


The main events and developments in the history of the Soviet Union’s Jewish population reflected those of the state itself. The October 1917 Revolution that brought the Bolshevik Party to power was quickly followed by a civil war (1918–1920), which, coming as it did in the wake of World War I, left the country in economic shambles. To rectify circumstances, Lenin introduced his New Economic Policy (NEP), designed to enable a partial recovery by temporarily permitting petty capitalism. By the time the economy seemed to have recuperated Lenin had died (1924) and Stalin secured dominance in the leadership by imposing his own doctrine of “socialism in one country,” which meant in effect that the Soviet Union’s primary objective became to consolidate its own power, rather than to promote world revolution. Simultaneously, Stalin instigated the policy of encouraging cultures of the country’s ethnic groups to be “national in form and socialist in content”; in other words, groups could use their national tongues in education, the press, literature, and theater, but not for providing content matter that might enhance their own national sentiments and identities and run counter to Marxist-Leninist “internationalism.”

Jewish colonists laying the cornerstone for a new school, Krivoi Rog, USSR (now Kryvyy Rih, Ukr.), 1927. (YIVO)

Toward the end of the 1920s, the Soviet Union embarked on its first Five-Year Plan, designed to precipitate industrialization and turn the nation into a modern, technological power. The plan stressed collectivization, with the goal of transforming the rural sector and mechanizing agriculture. The 1930s also saw the introduction of the passport system, requiring each urban resident to carry an identity card, a measure that symbolized the increasing severity of control by the government over the everyday lives of the population. The move was designed, among other things, to curtail the movement of peasants to the towns.

The second half of the decade was the era of the Great Terror. Before the population and the armed forces had had time to recover, World War II had broken out, in the first two years of which the Soviet Union was allied with Nazi Germany and in the remainder, as of the German invasion in June 1941, with the United States and Britain. The final victory in 1945 saw the USSR in a state of devastation, and all efforts were directed to its economic and social recovery.

In 1953 Stalin died and was succeeded by Nikita Khrushchev, who was associated with unraveling the policies of his predecessor (de-Stalinization). His reforms, however, alienated his colleagues, who deposed him in 1964, following which Leonid Brezhnev came to power. Under Brezhnev’s rule, the country entered a period of stagnation, from which Mikhail Gorbachev attempted to save it with his perestroika in the second half of the 1980s. Since the Soviet regime was not built for far-reaching reform, this endeavor polarized the economic, political, and social forces at work in the country and the Soviet state disintegrated.

Soviet Jewish chronology must not, however, be seen solely in the context of general developments and trends. It was also the outcome of the new state’s Jewish policy and of tendencies within the Jewish population itself. When the October 1917 Revolution brought the Bolshevik Party to power, only a few Jews were affiliated with it, although there was a disproportionately high number of Jews in the top leadership (including Leon Trotsky, Iakov Sverdlov, Grigorii Zinov’ev, and Lev Kamenev).

“Peace and Freedom in Sovedepiia.” Russian poster. This propaganda poster published by White Russian forces depicts Leon Trotsky as a bloodthirsty satanic figure and Chinese Red Army soldiers executing people against the wall of the Kremlin under a “decree” signed by Trotsky. Sovdepiia was a derogatory name used by anti-Bolsheviks for the Soviet Union. (Manuscript and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations)

Jews had developed a considerable political awareness in the last years of the tsarist period and had created a host of Jewish political parties and movements, the largest of which was the Zionist movement. Many Jews, too, belonged to universalist organizations; Jews, however, were not attracted to either the political or the economic line of the Bolsheviks, even apart from that party’s definition of nationhood, which rebutted the very idea of a Jewish nation. During the civil war, Jews were victims of atrocities committed by both sides. The Whites, the opponents of the new regime, were clearly not an option for most Jews, yet the vast majority of Jews were still not for the most part inclined to associate with the Reds (Bolsheviks).

It was only with the Bolshevik victory in the civil war—which meant that the regime was to be a permanent or at least a long-term fixture—and the introduction in 1921 of NEP that Jews’ attitude toward the Communist regime changed. In 1922, just under 20,000 Jews were party members or candidates for membership, 5.2 percent of the total; by 1927 this number had reached almost 50,000, or 4.3 percent of the total. The party also had a Jewish section, the Evsektsiia, which implemented the regime’s Jewish policy.

In the course of the 1920s, the Communists closed down the last Jewish parties—together with all remaining political parties throughout the country—and Jewish religious life was undermined, the majority of synagogues and educational, charitable, and other communal institutions being eliminated as part of a broader antireligious campaign. At the same time, in the latter part of the 1920s, manifestations of antisemitism, which were becoming increasingly widespread, were actively repressed.

In this time period, initiatives were undertaken to “productivize” the Jewish street both through education (that is, propaganda) and resettlement programs, especially in the countryside. In the peak year of 1928, some 250,000 Jews were living in a variety of Jewish colonization experiments in different parts of the country. One of these led, after the abandonment of plans to set up a Jewish republic in Crimea, to the establishment in 1934 of a Jewish Autonomous Region in Birobidzhan (in the Soviet Far East). In the early 1930s, too, another development of major significance for the history of Soviet Jewry occurred: the introduction of the internal passport, which noted the nationality of each individual. The internal passport in effect put an end to any thoughts or hopes Jews entertained regarding their chances of ever fully assimilating into the general population, in the supranational commonwealth that Soviet society was formally designed to be.

The bulk of the Jewish population, however, especially among the generation that had matured after 1917, continued to identify first and foremost as Soviet citizens and to embrace the country’s universalist creed. The 1936 constitution indeed proclaimed the equality of citizens of all the nations of the Soviet Union, and declared discrimination on grounds of race, ethnicity, or religion, or the advocacy of racial or national exclusiveness, hatred, and contempt, to be illegitimate. In this way, while the passport created fertile ground for the practice of antisemitism, discrimination against Jews was in fact unlawful, even though it was not prohibited specifically (apart from a single decree signed by Lenin in 1918). While the purges of the second half of the 1930s, the Great Terror, were not manifestly anti-Jewish, the number of Jewish victims was disproportionately high. It was a sign of the Jewish anomaly that their number was likewise disproportionately high among the secret police who perpetrated the purges.

Only in the Soviet Union Do Jews Have the Right to Work the Land." Yiddish poster. Artwork by Y. Slanit (?). Printed by the Society for the Settlement of Jewish Toilers on the Land (OZET), Moscow, 1928. This graphic poster has panels captioned in rhyme, depicting the economic shortcomings of Jewish life before the Soviet Union, the sufferings of Jews in pogroms, the Soviet authorities deciding to "give the Jews land" to improve their situation (central oval), Jews being settled on farming colonies and calling upon all luft-mentshn (lit., air-people, those without a fixed occupation, jacks-of-all-trades) to work the land "in the free air." (Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Ludwig Jesselson, 1998.617. Collection of Yeshiva University Museum, New York)

In this same period, Jews lost most of the symbols or indications of local and cultural autonomy that they had acquired over the previous decade and a half—Yiddish schools, courts, and cultural artifacts, and Jewish districts and councils. While the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939 that made the Soviet Union an ally of Nazi Germany for the ensuing 22 months came as a shock to Soviet Jews, no specifically anti-Jewish measures were taken by the Soviet authorities in this period. Indeed, the social and professional mobility that characterized Jewish life in the first two decades of Soviet rule as the regime embarked on major ambitious projects to implement its first Five-Year Plans and industrialize speedily did not appear to have been impaired. Impelled by this momentum, Jews entered into all branches of administration, the economy, academia, and culture, and many of them continued to attain and retain senior positions.

The great watershed in Jewish history in the Soviet Union was unquestionably the German invasion of June 1941 and the subsequent occupation of large areas of the country, including areas of the former Pale of Settlement that had been annexed by virtue of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. In the first place, the Jewish population suffered heavy losses due to the war, chiefly, but not solely, through Nazi slaughter. Extrapolating from existing data, it appears that more than 1 million from among those who had lived in the Soviet Union prior to the outbreak of war, and a further 1.65 million inhabitants of the annexed “western territories,” were killed in that way. Second, the Holocaust and the concomitants of the war—the enhanced antisemitism in Nazi-occupied territories and the first signs of antisemitic discrimination on the part of the establishment (see below)—were conducive to a revived Jewish identity.

The regime’s Jewish policy reached its most repressive point with the anticosmopolitan campaign that was unleashed in late 1948–early 1949 against Jews who allegedly sought to infiltrate Soviet society and culture by concealing their ethnic origin. This period also saw the closure of the last Jewish cultural organizations and the arrest of the most prominent Jewish cultural and public figures, 24 of whom were executed in 1952. The final act in this onslaught was the “disclosure” in January 1953 of the Doctors’ Plot, a measure that was prevented, however, from reaching its culmination by Stalin’s death in early March.

Yet the de-Stalinization process that began with the release of the doctors and the exposure of the plot’s fabrication and reached its dramatic climax with Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” at the Twentieth Party Congress in February 1956 was not conducive to any major change in the situation of the Jews. Khrushchev condemned the Doctors’ Plot as an instance of the arbitrariness of Stalin’s rule and as proof of Stalin’s mistrust of the intelligentsia; however, Khrushchev ignored the plot’s anti-Jewish connotations. Jewish culture was not reinstated, leaving Jews de facto a collective excluded from the Soviet family of nations. This seems not to have affected most Jews’ daily lives, for they lacked any way—and often any desire—to express Jewish cohesiveness. At the same time, Jews as individuals continued to endure discrimination in institutions of higher education, employment, and society. It was thus not surprising that Jews played a major role in the dissident movement that surfaced in the 1960s and that protested against the oppressive nature of the regime and the lack of basic freedoms.

At the Royter Poyer (Red Farmer) collective: the family of stable man I. Tsygan on the way to a May First demonstration, Fastov, USSR (now Fastiv, Ukr.), 1930. (YIVO)

The overall failure of this movement formed in many ways the backdrop to the growth of the Jewish movement in the early 1970s. The other contributing factors were the general growth of nationalism in Soviet society; the June 1967 War, which showed Soviet Jewry how important the existence of the State of Israel was for its own survival and well-being and simultaneously highlighted the innate antisemitism of establishment and society alike; and détente with the United States, which gave the movement leverage in demanding the right to emigrate. During the course of the 1970s, very large numbers of Jews, especially young ones, contemplated emigration, first to Israel and as of 1974 also to the West.

The large-scale Jewish emigration of the 1970s further underscored the divide between the Jewish population and its surroundings. Jews were now again, as in Stalin’s last years, dubbed potential traitors to the Soviet motherland. This situation was only partially mitigated by obstacles placed on emigration as of late 1979 with the hardening of the line at home and the exacerbation of new tensions with the West. Yet when Gorbachev came to power in 1985, large sections of the Jewish population were caught up in his slogans of glasnost and perestroika, and endeavored once more to enter the mainstream of society and participate in its reconstruction on more rational and liberal lines. Jewish informal associations, mostly of a cultural nature, sprang up together with a plethora of such societies that came into being throughout the country. However, emigration again became the main focus of Jewish activity; this change was a consequence of several factors, first and foremost the failure of Gorbachev’s reforms. Among others, liberalization gave greater scope to radical nationalist currents, such as Pamiat’, which had been unable to surface under the Soviet system, and greatly enhanced the dangers of antisemitism. The reforms also bred an increasingly acute economic crisis, leading ultimately to the disintegration of the Soviet state. Between late 1989 and the ultimate fall of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, some 380,000 Jews departed—about 50 percent more than had left in the entire 1970s.

Social Structure

The composition of the Jewish population changed significantly over the Soviet period as a result of demographic trends and the Communist Party’s nationalities policy in general and Jewish policy in particular. In the decades following 1917, urbanization, acculturation, and the persecution of both the religious community and political parties led to the breakdown of traditional and more recently formed Jewish organizations and the disappearance of an autonomous Jewish leadership. Attempts to create substitute Jewish institutions that were part of the broader political establishment and geared to its policies (such as Gezkul’t, the All-Ukraine Association for Promoting the Development of Jewish Culture) seemed for a time to provide an alternative that might enable a protracted Jewish existence as a viable collective. But by the 1930s it appeared that Soviet Jewry was indeed destined to assimilate into the new Soviet society and lose its identity as a group. Its social composition was to symbolize the new regime and its ideology. At the same time, the high level of education and of employment among Jewish women notwithstanding, the Jewish family remained more traditional in structure than that of the surrounding population.

An toy-making workshop run by ORT (Society for Handicraft and Agricultural Work among the Jews of Russia), Evpatoria, Ukrainian SSR (now in Ukraine), 1935. (On the wall) portraits of Lenin and Stalin. (YIVO)

Under the new order, then, Jews would enjoy equality of opportunity as individuals but would cease to exist as an ethnic group with distinctive features of its own (except in the eyes of antisemites). Many—Maksim Litvinov, Genrikh Iagoda, Solomon Lozovskii, Iakov Surits, Lev Mekhlis, and Polina Zhemchuzhina, to name just a few—joined the government apparatus. Others became academics and took up free professions, the traditional orientation toward and respect for religious study being replaced by secular erudition. Certain fields, in particular, attracted Jews: medicine, a time-honored Jewish profession (Vladimir Ioffe, Lev Zil’ber), journalism (Mikhail Kol’tsov, David Zaslavskii), music (David Oistrakh, Emil’ Gilel’s), literary theory and criticism (Osip Brik and the host of critics who were the target of the first major thrust of the anticosmopolitan campaign in December 1948–January 1949), as well as mathematics (Izrail’ Gel’fand, Aleksandr Gel’fond, Leonid Kantorovich, Mark Krein, Mark Naimark) and theoretical physics (Lev Landau, Il’ia Lifshits, Abram Ioffe). Deprived of a sense of collective belonging in surroundings that denied them Jewish affiliation and rejected them socially, Jews immersed themselves in their studies and jobs.


Participants at a conference of the Commissariat for Jewish National Affairs (EVKOM), Moscow, 1919. This may have been the June 1919 convention that marked the beginning of the weakening of EVKOM’s status in favor of the Evsektsiia (the Jewish section of the Bolshevik Party). (YIVO)

With the disintegration and disappearance of autonomous Jewish institutions, there was no longer room for an authentic Jewish leadership. Such rabbis as remained were, with few exceptions, uninspiring figures who sought to keep a minimal fire burning until such time as conditions changed substantially. Those who stood at the head of Soviet Jewish organizations—the Evsektsiia, OZET, the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee—were no less tragic figures. At the start, they seem to have identified with the assignments given them. Yet, as time passed, they were torn between their need to adhere to the rules of the game that were set down for them from above—since breaking them was tantamount to their personal doom and probably also that of the organizations they headed—and their realization that for their fellow Jews they represented a ray of hope of resuscitating a distinct Jewish existence.

For Jews who attained high positions in the Soviet establishment (Lev Trotsky, Lazar’ Kaganovich, Veniamin Dymshits), their very appointment precluded any Jewish proclivities and they were considered Jewish leaders less often by Jews than by sectors within the population who considered Jews responsible for the troubles that befell the country. At the same time, especially in the early period, there were instances when such leaders were approached by fellow Jews for protection. On the other hand, Jews who became central figures in the general dissident movement in the 1960s and 1970s, such as Iulii Daniel’, the son of a Yiddish writer, did enjoy considerable moral prestige among Jews. This applied less to the Jewish movement that emerged in the latter decade, whose very being was likewise predicated on opposition to the system. Its leading figures were in no real sense leaders of Soviet Jewry; that their names were household words in the West had little significance for the average Soviet Jewish citizen.

Relations with Society and the State

In the early years of the USSR, the Jewish population that remained in the smaller towns of the former Pale of Settlement continued to a large degree to live in a Jewish environment. The antireligious and anti-Zionist campaigns to which they were exposed were often conducted at the local level by fellow Jews, and did not signify any fundamental change in the attitude to them of their gentile neighbors. Although they became increasingly involved in a non-Jewish milieu, especially in their economic activity, contacts with non-Jews were basically limited. By contrast, the growing number of Jews who flowed to the major cities, especially perhaps to the new Soviet urban centers, had frequently made a conscious decision to cut themselves off from their Jewish way of life. Indeed, until passportization in the early 1930s, many were convinced that their Jewish past and roots were irrelevant in the atmosphere of “socialist construction” that was conducted under the slogan of proletarian internationalism.

“Who Is an Antisemite?” Russian poster. Printed in the USSR, 1927–1930. Artwork by Nikolai Denisovski. The poster associates antisemitism with “prerevolutionary” elements, such as capitalists, the bourgeoisie, and supporters of the tsar. (YIVO)

World War II and the Holocaust changed both groups—those living in traditional areas of settlement, and those in the major cities. The traditional regions were more exposed, since the great majority lived in areas overrun by the Germans, although some of the large cities (Kiev, Kharkov, Odessa) also came under German occupation. In addition to the forces of occupation, Jews in Ukraine, Belorussia, Latvia, and Lithuania had to face active hostility on the part of much of the local population. Antisemitism, although still officially outlawed by the Soviet regime, reared its head in the rest of society as well precisely in the war years. Nor did it subside with the termination of the war.

Side by side with social antisemitism, and the Soviet constitution notwithstanding, the party leadership showed signs in the late 1930s of antisemitic proclivities. In the period following the German invasion it adopted an openly discriminatory policy against its Jewish citizens, for, paradoxically, it was in this period that the dismissal of specifically Jewish nomenklatura in certain fields was initiated by the party authorities. This policy intensified in the years that followed (notably, during the anticosmopolitan campaign) and gave a further fillip to antisemitism from below. In the postwar years, it was no longer merely that Jews were not accepted into Russian society; they were considered alien and potentially hostile.

Jewish Identity

Jewish self-awareness, which had subsided in the two decades preceding World War II, was resuscitated as a result of the Holocaust and the collaboration of significant numbers of the non-Jewish population with the Germans in occupied areas. It was further enhanced by the antisemitism—social and official—of the postwar years that underscored Jewish alienation, and was boosted by the establishment of the State of Israel. Considerable variations were noticeable in different parts of the country, although the mobility of the Soviet Jewish population led to the mitigation of traditional distinctions between Jewish life in the various areas. Generally speaking, Jewish identity was more pronounced in Ukraine than in the RSFSR, was stronger in middle-sized towns than in the large cities, and was most conspicuous in some, though not all, of the western territories annexed during World War II, where Jews tended to be less acculturated than their peers who had been educated under the Soviet system. The more the Jewish populations residing there after the war consisted of the region’s inhabitants of the interwar years or their descendants, the more marked their Jewish orientation.

A tractor at work in a field at a new Jewish settlement, Ukraine, USSR, ca. 1920s. (YIVO)

Positive Jewish identification was thus topped by the Jews of Bucovina and Bessarabia (Moldova), where the genocide had been less total, and Subcarpathian Rus’ (Transcarpathia). Jews of these regions, who lived mostly in middle-sized towns, while better educated than their neighbors, were not as highly educated as Jews in the larger cities where most of the Soviet Union’s pre-1939 Jews resided, and this almost certainly had an impact on their Jewish sentiment. The Baltics also boasted a large Jewish-oriented contingent, particularly in Riga, although many of the Jews were newcomers from Russia. By contrast, areas that had belonged to Poland probably had few original inhabitants, since Jewish survivors who had had Polish citizenship in September 1939 were able to repatriate to Poland after the war. The Soviet authorities recognized and to an extent even legitimized the Jewish identity of the Western territories, especially those centers that still had sizable Jewish communities (Czernowitz [Chernivtsi], Kishinev, Riga, Vilnius, Uzhgorod), by permitting more Jews from these parts to emigrate to Israel, apparently because they feared that Jews might contaminate their non-Jewish neighbors with their nationalism.


A printed appeal on behalf of Yiddish writers in the Soviet Union by a group of Yiddish writers and others in Paris, May 1949, calling for mass demonstrations to protest the arrest of Jewish writers and the closing of Jewish publications and institutions in the USSR. On the bottom of the page, a handwritten note from Shmerke Kaczerginski to Max Weinreich: he has a lot more to say about this appeal but this will have to do for now. He complains that Weinreich has not been answering letters and sends his regards to "those at home and those at YIVO." Yiddish. RG 107, Letters Collection. (YIVO)

After the revolution, Jews, like other nationalities, were encouraged to promote their own culture, provided it coincided with the guidelines stipulated by the party. This bred a considerable literature in Yiddish, which was regarded by the Bolsheviks as the national language of the Jewish proletariat (Hebrew was unofficially outlawed as “reactionary,” the language both of religion and of Zionism). In addition to literature, Yiddish cultural activity encompassed poetry, theater, the press, and education, all of which were much in evidence in the early period of the new regime; indeed, they were actually institutionalized with the founding of a number of specifically Jewish cultural organizations (for example, the Institute of Jewish Proletarian Culture at the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences). The Soviet authorities promoted Yiddish-language schools, whose curriculum was, however, completely lacking in Jewish subject matter, including secular branches of study.

By the early 1930s, however, with the general transformation that was taking place with regard to all nationalities, Yiddish cultural activities and institutions began to be restricted, and the final blow was delivered in 1948–1949, when Jewish culture was to all intents and purposes proscribed. The disappearance of the last vestiges of Jewish activity and simultaneously of Jewish cultural figures meant in Soviet conditions the outlawing of the Jewish nationality, for Soviet nationalities policy acknowledged a nation’s existence by granting it ethnic cultural artifacts. Such activity as was allowed to resurface under Khrushchev was minimal, and was mostly a response to outside pressures (especially on the part of Western Communists and fellow travelers). Nor were the vast majority of Jews able any longer to identify with Jewish culture, for Jews had become Russophones and their sole culture was Russian. By 1959 a mere 17 percent registered Yiddish as their mother tongue and the proportion continued to decline. Even most of those Jews who felt that in theory Jews should be allowed to have a national culture (like other Soviet peoples), were not in fact interested in substituting Jewish culture for the Russian culture they had adopted and that they considered superior. The Jewish national movement, nonetheless, opted for Hebrew and Israeli cultural artifacts as their cultural focus, a trend that became evident in the latter part of the 1950s and gathered momentum toward the end of the 1960s.


The Soviet Union was by definition an atheist society that designated religion the opiate of the masses. While the Russian Orthodox Church was the prime target of the Bolsheviks’ antireligious campaign of the early 1920s, Judaism was probably the second main victim. These years saw the closing down of large numbers of synagogues and educational establishments (heders and yeshivas); although officially religious worship was permitted in prayer houses, religious education was strictly prohibited. In 1922 and 1923 alone, more than 1,000 heders were closed. A number of famous show trials were held not only of rabbis and other religious functionaries, but also of religious customs and institutions and even of Jewish festivals. For example, the Jewish faith was “tried” in Kiev in 1921; the heder in Vitebsk in 1922; Yom Kippur in Odessa in 1923; and circumcision in Kharkov in 1928.

“Religion is a hindrance to the Five-Year Plan.” Yiddish poster. “Down with religious holidays! Religion is a weapon for enslaving the worker. Join the union of militant apikorsim [heretics].” Printed in Moscow, ca. 1928. (Moldovan Family Collection)

From 1922 to 1930, the Committee of Rabbis in the USSR sought to unite all Jewish religious communities and institutions in a tightly knit network that would enable them to withstand the overwhelming might of the Communist Party and state organs. By the mid-1920s, religious study was carried on solely underground. However, this activity, too, was terminated by the renewed antireligious campaign of 1929–1930. Before it began, 646 synagogues reportedly had been closed, but the majority were still actually functioning—more than 900 in Ukraine, approximately 500 in Belorussia, and 200 in the RSFSR. In the 1930s, however, the overwhelming bulk of the remaining synagogues were shut down. Simultaneously, throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Jews were being forced away from religious observance by economic necessity—the need to go to work on the Sabbath and on Jewish holidays—and by social and political pressures that relegated employees to second-class citizenship if they attended synagogue or circumcised their sons. In the 1937 census, just 17.4 percent of Jews described themselves as believers.

In the immediate postwar years, as prayer houses were reopened for all faiths, the number of officially functioning synagogues grew, peaking at 218 in early 1948; this was the largest number attained during the entire postwar era (until Gorbachev’s latter years). After this date their number waned again under a variety of pretexts, particularly in the years of Khrushchev’s antireligious campaign (1958–1964), by the end of which fewer than 90 synagogues operated officially throughout the entire country. More than one-third, a disproportionately large number, were located in Georgia and Central Asia. The number of prayer houses reflected those that had functioning rabbis; indeed, one of the pretexts for closing a synagogue was the lack of a rabbi, the law stipulating that every community must have both a house of worship and an officiating religious functionary. Already in the mid-1940s the vast majority of rabbis were elderly (age 60 and over), and given the dearth of any religious seminary, there was no possibility of forming a new cohort of rabbis. When the Kol Ya‘akov Yeshiva finally opened in 1957, its student body was small and it soon ceased operating in effect.

Other religious figures—cantors, ritual slaughterers, and circumcisers—were even less available. Nor did the remaining communities have any religious literature. No prayer books or any other religious publications were produced in the Soviet Union after 1927—until Rabbi Solomon Shlifer’s Peace Prayer Book in late 1956 and it, too, remained a unique phenomenon. Other items needed for ritual practice, such as prayer shawls, were similarly in demand. So, too, were matzot for Passover. While in certain periods matzot were available, usually baked under the auspices of the local synagogue, in others their baking was totally prohibited and Jews went to great lengths to bake them privately, at major risk. Kosher meat, too, was available only in small quantities, mostly in the larger cities.

By the 1960s, the authorities were resorting to various devices to deprive Jews of their separate cemeteries, desecrating old ones and those that were in current use, as had been done in the harsh 1920s. Needless to say, the Soviet authorities at no stage recognized the jurisdiction of rabbinical courts, nor did they recognize life-cycle rites conducted under religious auspices; marriage and divorce, as well as births and deaths, were officially registered solely by the civil authorities.

All restrictions notwithstanding, Jewish religious life never completely disappeared. Both in cities where there were registered synagogues and in those where there were none, Jews assembled for prayer, usually—again at considerable risk—in private homes. Jews observed religious holidays as best they could, fasting on Yom Kippur, celebrating the Passover Seder, and, as of the early 1960s, attending synagogue on Simḥat Torah, which in many cities became a major social occasion. The remaining synagogues in the larger cities, most notably Moscow, became the center of activity for the refusenik community in the 1970s. The Jewish movement that surfaced in that decade saw, among other things, a return—or partial return—to Judaism and a growing interest in religious tradition.

The Holocaust

Members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee attending a memorial service for victims of the Holocaust at the Choral Synagogue, Moscow, 1945. (Front row, first to third from right) writer Itsik Fefer (with glasses), actor Benjamin Zuskin, and musician and actor Leonid Utesov. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

The Holocaust probably affected every family among the Soviet Union’s Ashkenazic Jewish population. Those who evacuated in time or had migrated in the 1920s and 1930s to areas beyond the territories later overrun by the Germans had left behind parents and siblings. Apart from the loss of relatives and friends, the Holocaust had a lasting effect on survivors in two main senses. In the first place, the very fact that millions lost their lives for no other reason than their having Jewish roots posed questions about possibilities for fully assimilating into non-Jewish surroundings and societies. Secondly, the attitude of the Soviet authorities—who not only failed to evacuate most of the Jewish population, but sometimes actually put obstacles in the way of those who sought to flee—and of non-Jewish Soviet citizens, who collaborated with the Germans as they prepared anti-Jewish aktions and rapaciously seized Jews’ apartments and possessions, cut the ground from under the feet of an entire generation of Jews who had dreamed of a total absorption in the new society as full-fledged members.

The Holocaust and its concomitants thus laid the ground for a revival of Jewish awareness among Soviet Jews. The pain evoked by the authorities’ systematic stymieing of attempts to commemorate Holocaust victims, together with the playing down of the role of Jews in the Soviet armed forces during the war, made it yet clearer to Jews that perceptions about a fundamental transformation in their position as a persecuted and resented minority had been premature. It was not by chance that the commemoration of Holocaust victims became one of the central objectives of the Jewish national movement and its activists in the 1960s—in Kiev and Minsk, in Riga and Kaunas (Kovno), and a number of other cities—for this was an issue on which large numbers of Jews felt strongly and around which it was felt Jews might consolidate their ranks.

Attitude toward Israel

From Avraham Yitsḥak Kook in Jerusalem to Rabbi Ḥayim Ozer Grodzenski in Vilna, n.d., asking him to help spread awareness of the plight of Rabbi Ya‘akov Tuviah Rappoport of Minsk, a scholar and shoḥet (ritual slaughterer) who has been sentenced to eight years in prison by Soviet authorities. Hebrew. Copy of a letter, typed with handwritten corrections. RG 107, Letters Collection. (YIVO)

The third factor—in addition to the Holocaust and official and social antisemitism—in reviving national awareness among Soviet Jews was the establishment of the State of Israel. The creation of the Jewish state in 1948 evoked great enthusiasm among large sectors of Soviet Jewry throughout the country, especially since it had the official support of the Soviet Union.

Manifestations of Soviet Jewish interest in and sympathy for Israel were among the pretexts, if not the causes, for the persecution of Jews in Stalin’s last years and for reservations regarding their loyalty to the Soviet Union both in this and in later periods. As Moscow turned increasingly toward the Arab world, this situation ceased being a purely hypothetical issue, especially—from the Jews’ point of view—in the period prior to the Six-Day War, when the Arab countries seemed to be endangering Israel’s very existence, and, from the view of the Soviet authorities in the subsequent months and years, when efforts were directed toward the “liquidation of the consequences of the Israeli aggression.”

The Soviet authorities at no stage recognized Israel as the national home of the Jews of the USSR. Until Gorbachev’s last years, Jews were permitted to leave for Israel solely within the framework of reunfication of families (as opposed to other ethnic groups who were allowed to leave the Soviet Union under the caption of repatriation).


The situation of Jews in the Soviet Union was an anomalous one. In the early years, there seemed to be a coincidence of interest between the regime and its Jews, or, at least, those among them who were prepared to throw in their lot with the “construction of socialism.” Many Jews sought to reject their background and believed that they might in so doing be accepted as integral members of the new internationalist society. Rather early on, however, the contradictions between the theory and practice of the “Leninist nationalities policy” became apparent to perspicacious observers, particularly in its application to Jews.

Although Jews were not recognized by either Lenin or Stalin as a nation, when passports were introduced, Jews born to two Jewish parents had no option other than to register as Jews. A Jewish national region was created, but very few Jews emigrated there and, indeed, conditions were such that it was hardly likely to be attractive to a highly educated, urbanized segment. Dispersed in large cities throughout the country, where they made up a relatively small minority of the population, there was no way for Jews to preserve their national culture and benefit from the few privileges allowed to the country’s non-Russian ethnicities. Nor did traditional perceptions of Jews disappear. The society around them did not accept them as full-fledged members, equal in every sense to Russians or Ukrainians. The bottom line was, therefore, that Jews had no official status as a collective and were discriminated against as individuals. In this way, all their achievements notwithstanding, they basically remained the aliens they had been under the tsars.

Suggested Reading

Zvi Gitelman, A Century of Ambivalence: The Jews of Russia and the Soviet Union, 1881 to the Present, 2nd exp. ed. (Bloomington, Ind., 2001); Gosudarstvennyi antisemitizm v SSSR, 1948–1953: Dokumenty (Moscow, 2005); Lionel Kochan, ed., The Jews in Soviet Russia since 1917, 3rd ed. (Oxford and New York, 1978); Benjamin Pinkus, The Soviet Government and the Jews, 1948–1967 (Cambridge, 1984); Benjamin Pinkus, The Jews of the Soviet Union: The History of a National Minority (Cambridge, 1988); Yaacov Ro’i, The Struggle for Soviet Jewish Emigration, 1948–1967 (Cambridge, 1991); Yaacov Ro’i, ed., Jews and Jewish Life in Russia and the Soviet Union (Ilford, Essex, Eng., 1995); Yaacov Ro’i and Avi Beker, eds., Jewish Culture and Identity in the Soviet Union (New York, 1991).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 30, Russia and the Soviet Union (Vilna Archives), Collection, 1845-1930s.