Ethnic Religious Minorities


Location: throughout USSR, concentrated in European cities
Population: 1.8 million (USSR census 1979); total worldwide population estimated at 15 million (6 million USA, 3 million Israel, 1975)
% of population: 0.7% (1979)
Religion: Judaism
Language: Russian, Yiddish, Hebrew

The Soviet Jews have become synonymous with the human rights’ movement in the USSR over the past 20 years and thus have been a major factor in East-West relations. Highly organized and supported by influential Jewish communities in the United States, Europe and, of course, Israel as well as human rights’ organizations throughout the world, the Soviet Jews until recently dominated Western media coverage of Soviet minorities. The advent of the Gorbachev era of glasnost, with improved East-West relations, progress on human rights and increased Jewish emigration, combined with the widespread manifestations of national self-determination by peoples far more numerous than the Jews, have radically altered that situation.

History and background of Jewish migration and diaspora in Russia/USSR

The Turkic Khazars practised Judaism in their khanate (on the Lower Volga to the Sea of Azov) from the seventh to tenth centuries, and Vladimir, Grand Prince of Kiev Rus, considered converting to Judaism before finally choosing Greek Orthodox Christianity. Jews, however, only became a significant national minority in Russia with the expansion of the Empire westwards and the partition of Poland (late eighteenth century). True, there already existed a tradition of anti-semitism amongst the Eastern Slavic peoples, manifested notably in the massacre of some 100,000 Jews by the Ukrainian leader Bogdan Khmelnitsky in the mid-seventeenth century. This found physical expression from 1815 until 1917 when most of the five million Jews of the Russian Empire were confined to the Pale of Settlement (located in present-day Poland, Ukraine, Byelorussia and Moldavia). A series of pogroms and deportations from 1871 to 1906 engendered waves of emigration — two million emigrated mainly to the United States between 1880 and 1914 — and attracted the attention and condemnation of the world community. Such repressions also gave rise in the Russian Empire to socialist and Zionist groups, the latter seeking initially an independent Jewish state within the Russian framework, and the former an internationalist, secular solution to discrimination. Thus the Jewish Bund (formed 1897) was the forerunner of the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party and Jews figured prominently in both the Bolshevik (Trotsky, Zinoviev) and Menshevik (Martov) wings. Although the Marxist-Leninists that came to power in 1917 did not recognize the Jews as a separate nationality, it was not until Stalin had consolidated himself in power that anti-semitic policies became apparent. Initially overshadowed by Nazi atrocities in World War II (which claimed a total of six million Jewish lives), they became most conspicuous in the last years of Stalin’s life. Thus, cultural autonomy, including the use of Yiddish and Hebrew, was abolished and strict quotas were set for the entry of Jews into higher educational establishments.

Some of these measures were relaxed after Stalin’s death, but the formation of the state of Israel (1948) and, especially, Israel’s victory over the USSR’s Arab allies in the 1967 war led to the Soviet authorities adopting policies ensuring that overt manifestations of Jewish self-determination (including the right to emigrate to Israel) would be suppressed. Although Jewish emigration from the USSR rose from 229 in 1968 to 51,300 in 1979, use of the word “refusenik” (applied to those Jews refused permission to emigrate) became so widespread that it entered the English language.

At the same time, the high degree of urbanization (98%), assimilation, knowledge of Russian (83.3% claim it as their first language, 1979) and levels of education amongst Soviet Jews have allowed many Jews who have accepted the Soviet norms of life to form a mobilized diaspora and rise to the top of their professions (for example, Jews represent 1.4% of all members of the CPSU but only 0.7% of the population, 1982).

Constitution and law

The only territorial autonomy afforded the near two million Soviet Jews (it is estimated that some 10-15% hide their national identity for various reasons) is the Jewish Autonomous Region, established in 1934 in the Far East of the country on the border with China. However, as less than 1% of Soviet Jews live in the region (in which they constitute just 5.4% of the population) this cannot be regarded as a proper homeland, although the region does elect two deputies to the Council of Nationalities in the USSR Supreme Soviet. It has been suggested that, had a Jewish region been established within the old Pale of Settlement, it might have been more successful, but as the entire area of the Pale came under Nazi control in World War II, this seems doubtful. Since the formation of Israel, Jewish self-determination has been directed more at emigration than at establishing autonomy within the USSR.

Recent developments in political, economic and social rights

The loss of 2.5 million Soviet Jews during World War II, the emigration of a further 250,000 between 1968 and 1980, and the Russification of yet others through mixed marriage and assimilation, combined with the decline of Yiddish, Hebrew and organized Judaism, has had a devastating effect on Jewish culture in the USSR. Despite 90% of Soviet Jews being Ashkenasi, who might be expected to speak Yiddish, in fact only 14.2% of Soviet Jews in 1979 claimed it as their first language (and only a further 5.4% as their second tongue). This compares to 90.7% of Byelorussian Jews who spoke Yiddish in 1926. Hebrew, the language of Jewish theology, has fared equally badly. Joseph Begun, who led the movement to legalize the teaching of Hebrew in the Soviet Union, was imprisoned for “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda” in 1983 and released only five years later, just one of the many Jews to fall foul of the Soviet authorities. Significantly, the number of synagogues has fallen from approximately 5,000 in 1917 to less than 100 now.

However, the situation has taken a turn for the better since the 1960s (particularly since the notorious publication in 1964 of T.K. Kichko’s anti-semi-tic tract “Judaism without Embellishment” which was condemned by Western communist parties). Admittedly, the unprecedently high rates of Jewish emigration ended with the sharp deterioration of East-West relations following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the non-ratification of the SALT II agreement by the US Congress and its passing of the Jackson-Vanick Amendment that linked the granting of the USSR favoured-nation trading status to Soviet emigration policies (1979). By 1983 the number of Jewish emigrants had fallen to 1,315 and the polarization of attitudes was manifested in that year by the formation of eminent pro-regime Jews in the USSR of an Anti-Zionist Committee.

The Gorbachev reforms, however, appear to have eased restrictions on emigration, released Jewish political prisoners, re-established the validity of Judaism as a faith and Hebrew as a language and even led to a rapprochement with Israel (which shares the Soviet Union’s concern that a large proportion of Soviet Jews emigrate not to Israel but to the United States). In August of 1989, a Zionists’ Union was established in Moscow. Nonetheless, there remain complaints about the treatment of thousands of “refuseniks” and a worrying by-product of glasnost has been the emergence of Pamyat (Memory), a Russian nationalist organization with more than a hint of anti-semitism.

Jewish minorities

In 1979, there were an estimated 22,000 Tats (an Iranian people living in the Caucasus, also known as the Mountain Jews), a majority of whom profess Judaism (the remainder are Muslims). Their population has decreased from 29,000 in 1926. In addition there are some 200,000 Oriental Jews living in the Caucasus and Soviet Central Asia.

(See also Byelorussians; Moldavians; Ukrainians)