Map of the residential zone in 1905 © The Jewish Encyclopedia – Wikimedia Commons

Until the early twentieth century, the history of Russia’s Jews unfolded primarily in territories that no longer belong to the present-day Russian federation (Ukraine, Belarus, Bessarabia, and Lithuania). With a few rare exceptions, Jews were forbidden to settle in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and the city of Central Russia. Of course, Jewish colonies have existed  since antiquity on the shores of the Black Sea and in Crimea, and a bit later in the Khazar kingdom, which took Judaism as its main religion in the late eighth and ninth centuries. The Khazar realm soon crumbled, however, eventually replaced by the principality of Kiev, the birthplace of the Russian nation, between the tenth and thirteenth centuries. After the decline of Kievan Russia and its absorption by Lithuania and Poland, Russia’s center shifted northward to Moscow, Pskov, and Novgorod, where Jews had no right to reside. It was only after conquering Polish territories that Russia inherited its Jewish communities and, consequently, a “Jewish problem” it had never grappled with before.

In 1654, after annexing Ukraine up to the right bank of the Dnieper, Russia appropriated territories inhabited by many Jews, though the latter had in large part already been massacred in Khmelnitski. In 1721, moreover, Peter I issued a ukase expelling the Jews from “Little Russia”. This decree was reconfirmed by Empress Elizabeth Petrovna in 1742, who then forced the Jews beyond the borders of the Russian Empire.

Catherine II by J.B.Lampi ca. 1780 © Kunsthistorisches Museum

It was therefore principally only during the three divisions of Poland (in 1772, 1793, and 1795) that Russia truly gained lands occupied by large Jewish communities -“Russia’s enigmatic acquisition”, according to the phrase coined by historian John Klier. In the span of several decades, a country previously devoid of Jews found itself governing a Jewish population 700000 to 800000 members strong, the largest community in the world. In 1791, Catherine the Great took measures aimed at restricting the Jews’ freedom of movement and preventing them from settling in other regions of the empire. These measures, reaffirmed by successive monarchs between 1804 and 1825, gave birth to what was called the “residential zone” inside which Jews were forced to live; it stretched across the entire western edge of the empire, from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, in what is present-day Lithuania, Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine. Forbidden from working the land, moreover, Jews survived as merchants and artisans concentrated in small rural towns, or shtetlach. In addition, certain large cities, like Kiev, were off limits to Jews.

In the mid-nineteenth century, these restrictions began to soften: permission to live beyond the “residential zone” was granted in 1859 to “merchants of the first guild”, in 1860 to tenured professors at major universities, in 1865 to certain tradespeople, in 1867 to military veterans, and in 1879 to those with a higher education. Because leniency was offered only to the most affluent Jews, who were in turn attracted to the nation’s two capitals, by the late nineteenth century the highest circles of Jewish intelligentsia had left the shtetlach and moved to Saint Petersburg and Moscow.

The “Residential Zone”

“But in order to live in Petersburg, one needs not only money, but also a special permit. I am  a Jew. And the Tzar has set aside a special zone of residence for the Jews, which they are not allowed to leave.”

Marc Chagall, My Life, Trans. Dorothy Williams (London: Peter Owen, 1965).

It was not until 1917, however, when the “residential zone” was abolished, that this became a mass movement. Large communities of Jewish intellectual and artists began settling in Petrograd (St. Petersburg) and Moscow, raising cultural life in those cities to new heights during the 1920s. A major catalyst was the Jewish State Theater (GOSET) founded by Alexander Granosky and Solomon Mikhoels. The Bolsheviks of the era supported Yiddish as an expression of the popular Jewish classes and encouraged the theater’s development in Minsk, Kiev, and Odessa. Jewish schools teaching in Yiddish began to appear (there were 1100 of them in Russia by the early 1930s), while Jewish sections started opening at the universities.

Russian Jewish Theater

The origins of Yiddish-language theater in Russia dates to the nineteenth century and evolved primarily out of Purim-spiele, plays retelling the story of Esther. The father of Yiddish theater was Abraham Goldfaden (1840-1908). This basically traveling form of theater began to take off and the Revolution of 1905, thanks to Peretz Hirschbein, who established in Odessa the Jewish Artistic Theater, where “classics” by Itzhak Leybush Peretz, Sholem Aleichem, and Shalom Asch were performed, along with plays of his own. With the Revolution of 1917 and during the 1920s, Yiddish theater moved through a second phase : Alexander Granosky (1890-1937) founded the Jewish Studio in Petrograd, where he discovered Salomon Mikhoels, a cult figure in the world of Jewish and Soviet theater. In 1920, Granosky’s troupe moved to Moscow and became GOSET (the Jewish State Theater), which garnered fame with the help of set designers such as Chagall, Altman, Rabinovitch, and Faltz.

The Soviet regime viewed the “jewish question” largely in socio-economic terms, and sought to gain the support of the Jewish masses by offering them land, previously forbidden to them under the czar. It also offered them a secular, Soviet Yiddish culture but repressed Hebrew culture. In the 1920s, Jewish kolkhozes began concentrating in southern Ukraine and Crimea, within regional Jewish districts. In 1928, the Far East region of Birobidzhan was declared an autonomous Jewish region with Yiddish as its official language and open to all Jews willing to colonize it. At the same time, however, Zionist activities were prohibited, including the He-Halutz, Makkabi, Ha-Shomer ha-Tsair organizations, the Poalei Tsion Party and, in the name of atheism, anything else pertaining to religion, including synagogues, yeshivot, hadarim, and mikva’ot.

In the mid-1930s, the government’s antireligious policies worsened : from 1937 to 1939, at the height of Stalinist oppression, practically every Jewish institution and organization was prohibited, with a large number of Jews falling victim to purges, deportations, and executions. In 1939, more than 3 million Jews lived in the Soviet Union, a number that climbed to 5 million after the annexation of eastern Poland following the German-Soviet nonaggression pact.

On 22 June 1941, Nazi Germany surged across the Soviet Union and exterminated the Jewish population in the occupied territories, which corresponded approximately to the former “Pale of Settlement”. Between the summers of 1941 and 1942m Jews were executed by the hundreds of thousands, city by city and town by town, then tossed into mass graves -all this before the “clean” death in the gas chambers had been invented in Poland.

In 1942, the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee was founded under the leadership of actor Solomon Mikhoels, designed to sensitize and alert international opinion to the Nazi massacre of the Jews. Most members of this committee were arrested and executed in 1952.

Beginning in 1948, anti-Semitism became official government policy, in the guise of the struggle against “cosmopolitanism”. All remaining active synagogues, Jewish theaters, libraries, and Yiddish presses were shut down. Jews who held high positions were dismissed, such as the famous photographer Evgueni Khaldei, who snapped the famous photo of the Soviet flag flying over the Reichstag. Great Yiddish writers were murdered -Peretz Markish, Der Nister, David Bergelson, and others.

After Stalin’s death and a slight thaw under the Khrushchev regime, Jews accused of so-called “doctor’s plot” were pardoned, and a Yiddish-language review, Sovetish Heymland, was allowed to appear beginning in 1961. After the Six Day War of 1967, official anti-Semitism reappeared in the form of anti-Zionist and hostility toward the state of Israel. Soviet Jews who asked to emigrate were flatly denied, such as Anatoly (Natan) Shcharansky, who later became the Israeli Minister of Housing.

It was only in the late 1980s, under Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika, that the situation improved for Russia’s Jews, who were finally permitted to practice their religion and cultural activities and given the right to emigrate. Many synagogues and Jewish schools reopened across Russia and the former Soviet republics, and a hundred or so Jewish Russian-language newspapers and periodicals were founded besides a host of other Jewish organizations, congresses, and communities. In Moscow and Saint petersburg, “Jewish Universities” were established, along with the Judaic Institute in Kiev, near the Mohyla Academy. The massive emigration of Russian and Soviet Jews that began in the 1990s has abated somewhat today. Yiddish is no longer much spoken, and the Sovetish Heymland shut down operation in 1992.