Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
According to the 2010 national census, there are 156,801 Jews in the Russian Federation. There are two main groups of Jews in Russia: the Ashkenazi (originally Yiddish-speaking or East European), who make up the large majority, and a small community of Mountain Jews who live primarily in Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria (speaking the Persian-based language Tati). Most Jews today speak Russian as their first language. Jews are scattered across the Russian Federation with most living in urban areas, especially Moscow and St. Petersburg. The population has declined by half since 1989, as Russian Jews have taken advantage of naturalization opportunities mainly in Israel but also in other countries.
The vast majority of Jews came to Russia following the incorporation of Polish and Lithuanian territories into the Russian Empire in the eighteenth century. During the nineteenth century Jews faced repression and were not allowed to integrate into Russian society. The establishment of the Pale of Settlement restricted Jews to the western borders of the empire and in the late nineteenth century there were officially organized pogroms against Jews.
Jews were never formally recognized as a nation because they lacked compact settlement, although Soviet leader Joseph Stalin accorded them the status of a nationality (natsional’nost’). In 1928 the Soviet authorities set aside a territory in the Russian Far East for Jews. On 7 May 1934 this became the Jewish autonomous oblast (AO) in Khabarovsk Krai. Only a small percentage of Jews settled in the region. In 1989 Jews numbered only 8,887 of the 214,085 population of the oblast.
After World War II, when large numbers of Russian Jews were murdered by invading Nazi forces, there were successive waves of Jewish emigration, primarily to the USA and Israel. During the years of Gorbachev’s stewardship the numbers of emigrants increased dramatically. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, this movement continued and, though slowing somewhat towards the end of the twentieth century, persists to this day: the number of Jews in Russia, estimated at more than 233,000 in the 2002 census, had by the 2010 census fallen to less than 157,000.
Anti-Semitism is not in evidence at an official level, although it is an important theme in some Russian nationalist organizations. Russian Jews have been exposed to deadly racist attacks in urban areas; Jewish monuments and signs have also been vandalised and desecrated by neo-Nazi groups.
According to an annual survey by Tel Aviv University, the number of anti-Semitic verbal attacks increased in Russia in 2017. However, only two physical attacks were recorded, namely against a synagogue and a Jewish community centre.
According to some reports, there has been a return movement amongst some Russian Jews who emigrated to Israel in the late Soviet period. This is reportedly motivated by economic opportunities in Russia and the end of officially sanctioned anti-Semitism – a phenomenon underscored by President Putin’s visit to Israel in 2005 – the first ever official visit by a Russian or Soviet leader since the establishment of the Jewish state. Other Russian Jews reportedly maintain links in both countries, contributing to brisk levels of trade between Israel and Russia. Nevertheless, the general trend is towards emigration – more than 7,000 Russians emigrated to Israel in 2017.
Updated December 2020
Minorities and indigenous peoples in
- Kabards and Balkars
- Karachay and Cherkess
- Khants and Mansi
- Meskhetians or Meskhetian Turks
- Russian or Volga Germans
- Ukrainians, Belarusians and Kazakhs