Judaism began to have an influence on Russian culture and social attitudes in the sixteenth century, shortly after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain by Queen Isabella in 1492. In the centuries that followed, large numbers of Jews migrated to Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Belorussia. Much of the anti-Semitism that developed subsequently among Russian peasants came from the identification of Jews with activities such as tax collection and the administration of the large estates on which the peasants worked, two of the few occupations Jews were allowed to pursue in tsarist Russia. Anti-Semitism followed the Jews from Western Europe, and already in the sixteenth century the culture of Muscovy contained a strong element of that attitude. When Poland was partitioned at the end of the eighteenth century, large numbers of Jews came into the Russian Empire, giving Russia the largest Jewish population (about 1.5 million) in the world. For the next 120 years, tsarist governments restricted Jewish settlements to what was called the Pale of Settlement, established by Catherine II in 1792 to include portions of the Baltic states, Ukraine, Belorussia, and the northern shore of the Black Sea.
During the nineteenth century, restrictions on the Jewish population were alternately eased and tightened. Alexander II (r. 1855-81), for example, relaxed restrictions on settlement, education, and employment. Alexander's assassination in 1881 brought reimposition of all previous restrictions, which then remained in force until 1917. During that period, Jews were beaten and killed and their property destroyed in government-sanctioned pogroms led by a group called the Black Hundreds. Despite repressive conditions in Russia and high levels of emigration to the United States, the Jewish population grew rapidly in the nineteenth century; by the beginning of World War I, an estimated 5.2 million Jews lived in Russia.
Within their areas of settlement, the Russian Jews developed a flourishing culture, and many of them became active in the revolutionary movements that sprang up in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But much of the long period of violence that began with World War I in 1914 and continued until the Civil War ended in 1921 took place in the regions inhabited by the Jews, many of whom were killed indiscriminately by the various armies struggling for power. After World War I, parts of the western territory of the former Russian Empire became the independent nations of Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland, a development that left many Russian Jews outside the borders of what now was the Soviet Union. By 1922 Russia's Jewish population had been reduced by more than half.
In the early years of the Soviet Union, Jews gained much more freedom to enter the mainstream of Russian society. Although relatively few supported the explicit program of the Bolsheviks, the majority expected that the new state would offer much greater ethnic and religious tolerance than had the tsarist system. In the 1920s, hundreds of thousands of Jews were integrated into Soviet economic and cultural life, and many acquired prominent positions. Among them were communist leaders Leon Trotsky, Lazar Kaganovich, Maksim Litvinov, Lev Kamenev, and Grigoriy Zinov'yev; writers Isaak Babel', Veniamin Kaverin, Boris Pasternak, Osip Mandel'shtam, and Ilya Ehrenburg; and cinematographer Sergey Eisenstein. Special Jewish sections were established in the All-Union Communist Party (Bolshevik). Then, in the 1930s the purges initiated by Stalin targeted groups for their ethnic and social identities. As non-Russians stereotyped as intellectuals, the Jews were targets in two categories. As part of Soviet ethnic policy, the Jewish Autonomous Oblast (Yevreyskaya avtonomnaya oblast', later called Birobidzhan) was established in 1934. But the oblast never was the center of the Soviet Union's Jewish population. Only about 50,000 Jews settled in this jurisdiction, which is located along the Amur River in the farthest reaches of the Soviet Far East.
When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, about 2.5 million Jews were killed by the Germans or by their Slavic collaborators. Jews who escaped to areas untouched by the Nazis often suffered from the resentment of local populations who envied their education or supposed wealth.
Between World War II and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia's Jewish population declined steadily, thanks to emigration, a low birth rate, intermarriage, and concealment of identity. In 1989 the official total was 537,000. Of the number remaining at that point, only about 9,000 were living in the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, and, by 1995, only an estimated 1,500 Jews remained in the oblast. The Jews of Russia always have been concentrated overwhelmingly in the larger cities, especially Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Odessa--partly because of the traditional ban, continued from tsarist times, on Jews owning land. Although 83 percent of Jews claimed Russian as their native language in the 1979 census, the Soviet government recognized Yiddish as the national language of the Jewish population in Russia and the other republics.
In the early 1980s, the Kremlin's refusal to allow Jewish emigration was a major issue of contention in Soviet-American relations. In 1974 the United States Congress had passed the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which offered the Soviet Union most-favored-nation trade status in return for permission for Soviet Jews to emigrate. The Soviet Union responded by relaxing its restrictions, and in the years that followed there was a steady flow of Jewish emigrants from the Soviet Union to Israel. But the intensification of the Cold War in the years after the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan brought new restrictions that were not lifted fully until 1989, when a new surge of emigration began. Between 1992 and 1995, the emigration of Jews from Russia averaged about 65,000 per year, after reaching a peak of 188,000 in 1990. In 1996 the Russian government began curtailing the activity of the Jewish Agency, an internationally funded organization that has sponsored Jewish emigration since the 1940s.
The Soviet and Russian governments have always regarded the Jews not only as a distinct religious group but also as a nationality. This attitude persists in the post-Soviet era despite a provision in Article 26 of the 1993 constitution prohibiting the state from arbitrarily determining a person's nationality or forcing a person to declare a nationality.
Although official anti-Semitism has ceased and open acts of anti-Semitism have been rare in Russian society since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Jews have remained mindful of their history in Russia and skeptical of the durability of liberalized conditions. Traditional anti-Semitism in the Russian Orthodox Church and the increasing power of ultranationalist and neofascist political forces are the principal causes of concern; Jews also fear that they might become scapegoats for economic difficulties. Nevertheless, in the early 1990s Judaism has shown a slow but sure revival, and Russia's Jews have experienced a growing interest in learning about their religious heritage. In January 1996, a major event was publication in Russia of a Russian translation of a volume of the Talmud. The first such publication since before the Bolshevik Revolution, the volume marks the start of a series of Talmudic translations intended to provide Russian Jews with information about their religion's teachings, which until 1996 had been virtually unavailable in Russia.
With Jews becoming more willing to identify themselves, official estimates of the Jewish population increased between 1992 and 1995, from 500,000 to around 700,000. The Jewish population of Moscow has been estimated in the mid-1990s at between 200,000 and 300,000. Of that number, about 15 percent are Sephardic (non-European).
The number of Jews participating in religious observances remains relatively small, even though organizations such as the Hasidic (Orthodox) Chabad Lubavitch actively encourage full observance of religious traditions. In Moscow the Lubavitchers, whose activism has met with hostility from many Russians, run two synagogues and several schools, including a yeshiva (academy of Talmudic learning), kindergartens, and a seminary for young women. The organization also is active in charity work.
In the 1990s, a number of organizations devoted to the fostering of Jewish culture and religion have been established in Moscow. These include a rabbinical school, a Jewish youth center, a union of Hebrew teachers, and a Jewish cultural and educational society. The orthodox Jewish community also campaigned successfully for the return of the Shneerson books, a collection of manuscripts that had been stored in the Lenin State Library in Moscow since Soviet authorities confiscated them in the 1920s.