Soviet Union Table of Contents
Jews first appeared in eastern Europe several centuries before the birth of Christ. By the first century A.D., Jewish settlements existed along the northern shores of the Black Sea. In the eighth century, the descendants of these early Jewish settlers converted the nomadic Turkic Khazars to Judaism. Jewish communities existed in Kiev and other cities of Kievan Rus'. They were destroyed, however, during the Mongol invasion in the thirteenth century.
Persecuted in western Europe, Jews began migrating to Poland in the fourteenth century, and from there they moved to the presentday Lithuanian, Ukrainian, and Belorussian republics, until by the mid-seventeenth century they numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Although initially they were under royal protection and enjoyed communal autonomy, life for the great majority of Jews in Poland worsened, and they became as oppressed as Poland's Christian subjects. Forbidden to own land, many Jews served as estate managers and as middlemen between the Catholic Polish landowning nobility and the Orthodox Ukrainian and Belorussian enserfed peasants living on the nobles' estates. On the estates, they often collected taxes for the nobles, controlled the sale of salt and fish, ran the grain mills, and acted as overseers of peasant labor. Jews also owned the local village taverns. Particularly insidious was the Polish Catholic nobles' practice of making the Jews collect taxes on Orthodox churches. As a result, in addition to disliking them as foreigners and non-Christians, the peasants held Jews directly responsible for their oppressed and miserable lives. These early resentments were the seeds of primitive anti-Semitism in eastern Europe and later in the Russian Empire. When the Orthodox peasantry joined the Ukrainian Cossacks in the mid-seventeenth century in a revolt against the Poles and the Catholic Church, thousands of Jews were also killed. When Russian armies swept into Polish-Lithuanian territories following Muscovy's alliance with the Ukrainian Cossacks in 1654, they killed additional thousands of Jews, forcibly converting some to Christianity and driving others into exile. From 100,000 to 500,000 Jews perished, some 700 Jewish communities were destroyed, and untold thousands fled the warravaged areas.
Although Jews had been expelled from Russia in 1742, the subsequent incorporation of Polish territory as a result of the partitions of Poland meant that by the end of the eighteenth century Russia had the largest Jewish community in the world. The tsarist government prohibited Jews from living anywhere except in the area known as the Pale of Settlement, which included the Baltic provinces, most of Ukraine and Belorussia, and the northern shore of the Black Sea.
About 1.5 million Jews lived in the Russian Empire in the beginning of the nineteenth century. Confined within the Pale of Settlement, they were subjected to stringent anti-Jewish regulations. Although for the next century restrictions on Jews were periodically eased, they were reimposed or even made harsher during the frequent periods of reaction that followed. Nicholas I (1825-55) promoted forced induction of Jewish youth into military service, where they were often coerced into being converted to Christianity. Jewish rights to lease land and keep taverns were rescinded, and the Pale of Settlement was reduced in size. However, the reign of Alexander II (1855-81) brought a relaxation of the restrictions imposed on the Jewish population: some Jews were permitted to settle outside the Pale of Settlement, to attend universities, and to enter government service. After the assassination of Alexander II, however, the old restrictions were reimposed, and persecution of Jews continued until the February Revolution in 1917. Government-sanctioned pogroms against Jewish communities, during which Jews were beaten or killed and their personal property destroyed, were particularly brutal. The pogroms were led by the Black Hundreds, an officially sanctioned reactionary group composed largely of civil servants.
In spite of persecution, the Jewish population in the Russian Empire expanded rapidly during the nineteenth century. Later, on the eve of World War I, it was estimated at 5.2 million. Jewish culture had flourished within the bounds imposed on their community, Jews were becoming more active politically, and the more radical among them joined the spreading revolutionary movements.
For Jews, World War I and the Civil War that followed the revolutions in Russia were great calamities. The Pale of Settlement was the area where most of the prolonged military conflict took place, and Jews were killed indiscriminately by cossack armies, Russian White armies, Ukrainian nationalist forces, and anarchist peasant armies. In addition, the emergence of an independent Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia and the annexation of Bessarabia by Romania left large numbers of Jews outside the Soviet state borders. By 1922 the Jewish population in the Soviet Union was less than half of what it had been in the former Russian Empire.
The early years of the Soviet state provided unusual opportunities for Jews to mainstream into Soviet society. Although the majority of Jews had opposed the Bolsheviks during the Civil War, many supported the creation of the new, "non-national" state, which they expected would tolerate Jews. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were integrated into Soviet cultural and economic life, and many Jews occupied key positions in both areas. Jews were particularly numerous in higher education and in scientific institutions. Official anti-Semitism ceased, restrictions on Jewish settlement were banned, Jewish culture flourished, and Jewish sections of the CPSU were established. Many Jews, such as Leon Trotsky, Grigorii V. Zinov'ev, Lev B. Kamenev, Lazar M. Kaganovich, and Maksim M. Litvinov, occupied the most prominent positions in party leadership. The purges in the mid- to late 1930s, however, reduced considerably the Jewish intelligentsia's participation in political life, particularly in the party's top echelons.
The 1941 German invasion of the Soviet Union was particularly horrific for Soviet Jewry. About 2.5 million Jews were annihilated, often by collaborators among the native populations in the occupied territories who aided the Germans in killing Jews. Paradoxically, in Soviet territories that escaped German occupation, anti-Semitism also reemerged in the local population's resentment against the often better educated, wealthier Jews who were evacuated there before the advancing German armies.
Jews were the most dispersed nationality in the Soviet Union. In 1989 a majority of the 1.4 million Jews in the Soviet Union lived in the three Slavic republics. Approximately 536,000 lived in the Russian Republic, 486,000 in the Ukrainian Republic, and 112,000 in the Belorussian Republic. Large Jewish minorities also lived in the Uzbek and Moldavian republics, and smaller numbers of Jews lived in all the remaining republics.
Although the Jewish (Yevreyskaya) Autonomous Oblast in the Soviet Far East was designated as the homeland of the Soviet Jews, only 8,887 Jews lived there in 1989, just over 4 percent of the population of the oblast. Never high, the number of Jews in the Jewish Autonomous Oblast has been declining--14,269, or 8.8 percent, of the oblast's population in 1959 and 11,452, or 6.6 percent, in 1970.
Between 1959 and 1989, the Jewish population in the Soviet Union declined by about 900,000. The decline was attributed to several factors--low birth rate, intermarriage, concealment of Jewish identity, and emigration.
Although 83 percent of the Jews regarded Russian as their native language in 1979, Soviet authorities recognized Yiddish as the national language of Soviet Jewry. Small groups of Soviet Jews spoke other "Jewish" languages: in Soviet Central Asia some Jews spoke a Jewish dialect of Tadzhik, in the Caucasus area Jews spoke a form of Tat, while those in the Georgian Republic used their own dialect of the Georgian language.
Soviet Jews were overwhelmingly urban. In 1979 over 98 percent of all Jews in the Soviet Union lived in urban areas. Four cities in particular--Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, and Odessa--had large concentrations of Jews. Along with being the most urbanized nationality, in the 1970s Jews also ranked first among all nationalities in educational level and in numbers of scientific workers per thousand.
Traditionally, Jews have been highly represented in the CPSU, and their membership exceeded considerably their proportion of the total population. Soviet statistics show that 5.2 percent of all CPSU members in 1922 were Jews; in 1927 the figure declined to 4.3 percent. In 1976 the figure was 1.9 percent, almost three times the percentage of Jews in the general population.
Data as of May 1989
Soviet Union Table of Contents