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Jews in Modern Russia

The 2002 census estimated the number of Jews living in the country to be 233,500 of the 138 million people who live in the country; however, according to the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, the Jewish population could be as high as one million. 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, and one un-official estimte in 1997 placed the number as high as 1,450,000. The Jewish population of Moscow was estimated in the mid-1990s at between 200,000 and 300,000. Of that number, about 15 percent were Sephardic (non-European). Most of the country’s Jewish population is concentrated in Moscow and Saint Petersburg.

The war that began in 2022 with the Russian invasion of Ukraine and Russia loosened the taboos instituted by President Vladimir Putin on expressions of antisemitism in mainstream media in Russia. One of the Kremlin’s most common disinformation narratives to justify its devastating war against the people of Ukraine is the lie that Russia is pursuing the “denazification” of Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin has referred to Ukraine’s democratically elected government as a “gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis,” while Russian state media and propagandists have repeatedly called for the “denazification” of the entire population of Ukraine.

More than 140 international historians denounced Russia’s “equation of the Ukrainian state with the Nazi regime to justify its unprovoked aggression,” calling Moscow’s propaganda “factually wrong, morally repugnant and deeply offensive” to the “victims of Nazism and those who courageously fought against it.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is a former actor and stage performer of Jewish descent who was elected president in 2019. He has expressed distaste for the glorification of Nazi collaborators in Ukraine, which has become widespread following Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.

When critics point out that Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who won the 2019 election in Ukraine with 73% of the votes, is Jewish himself, with family members who were killed by Nazis, the Kremlin disseminates false narratives attempting to delegitimize his Jewishness.

Pravda, the Russian newspaper that was once the mouthpiece of the Communist Party in the former Soviet Union, published an opinion article on 24 August 2023 alleging that Zelensky was causing Ukrainians to die in the war with Russia as payback for antisemitic pogroms by his non-Jewish compatriots. The conspiracy theory, which was unusually far-fetched even for Pravda, appeared under the headline “Volodymyr Zelensky takes revenge on his people for Jewish pogroms.”

The writer, Sergei Frolov, a Pravda contributor and former editor-in-chief of the now-defunct Russkiy Kurier newspaper and the Gudok magazine, wondered in the op-ed why the “Jewish President Zelensky and his team, which is also full of his fellow tribesmen, suddenly became imbued with an unheard-of passion for everything Ukrainian.... why don’t Ukrainians take care of their soldiers?... the mass destruction of the Ukrainian people by its foreign president is not at all a lack of leadership and strategic talents, but quite possibly, is the main strategy: to kill as many representatives of that ethnic group as possible, which, in his opinion, owes an unpaid debt for their past atrocities. Try to convince me otherwise...""

Russian chauvinism and xenophobia flourished in modern Russia. Jews were urged to leave Russia back in December 2022 by none other than the former Chief Rabbi of Moscow, Pinchas Goldschmidt. "When we look back over Russian history, whenever the political system was in danger you saw the government trying to redirect the anger and discontent of the masses towards the Jewish community. We saw this in tsarist times and at the end of the Stalinist regime," the rabbi said in an interview with The Guardian. Pinchas Goldschmidt himself left Moscow two weeks after February 24, 2022, because of his refusal to publicly support the SMO and the pressure on his family by the Russian authorities. Rabbi Pinchas nurtured the idea that all his compatriots should leave Russia for almost 9 months.

During this period, Foreign Minister Lavrov spoke out on the Jewish topic, claiming in May 2022 that "Hitler was also of Jewish descent, so this does not mean anything yet." "We have long heard the wise Jewish people say that the biggest anti-Semites are the Jews themselves," Lavrov added in an interview with Italy's Rete 4. Also in October 2022, Alexei Pavlovich, Assistant Secretary of the Russian Security Council, added Lubavichivsk Hasidism to his article about "new pagan cults" in Ukraine. The Russian official called it a "sect" and stated that the main principle of its supporters is "superiority over all nations and peoples."

Vladimir Putin again mentioned the Jewish origin of the Ukrainian president. He said that "Western curators have put an ethnic Jew at the head of modern Ukraine" in order to "cover up the anti-human nature" of Ukraine. "This makes the situation extremely disgusting, that an ethnic Jew is covering up the glorification of Nazism and those who once led the Holocaust in Ukraine," Putin claimed. He added that "ordinary citizens of Israel understand this best of all" and suggested that they "see what they say about it on the Internet."

In June 2023, Putin said that he had Jewish friends who did not like the Ukrainian president. "I have many Jewish friends from childhood. They say that Zelensky is not a Jew, he is a disgrace to the Jewish people. This is no joke, no irony," Putin said on the sidelines of the St. Petersburg Economic Forum. And it is indeed not a joke or irony: as you know, every anti-Semite must have his or her obligatory "Jewish friend."

Vladimir Solovyov, the popular talk show host who claimes to have Jewish ancestry himself, listed on air the names of Jews he faulted for lacking patriotism. Solovyov told the newspaper VZGLYAD 15 June 2022 “Who should whine, certainly not Vladimir Zelensky. It’s generally not clear why he decided that suffering and complaining should be a national idea. I am a Jew myself, and I know that suffering is very touching. But I’m just a Jew, and Zelensky is not”.

It is very difficult to estimate exactly the Jewish population of the world at the beginning of the 20th Century. One observer noted that the antisemites, the one hand, overdrew the probable figures, desirous as they were of proving the Jewish invasion; on the other hand, the Jews or the philosemites, led on by contrary interests, in their turn diminished these figures. Thus the antisemites readily give the number as nine millions, if not all ten, the philosemites or the Jews (Cf. Loeb, article "Jew" in Vivien de Saint-Martin's Dictionaire de Geographie.—Th. Reinach, Bistoire des Israelites) gave the number at 6,300,000. The number of Russian Jews, according to the Russian census of 1897, was 5,700,000, at which time the total Russian population was 129,211,113.

In the autumn of 1944, at the height of the war with the Nazis, Stalin in the Kremlin gathered a secret meeting of the entire leadership of the country from ministers to the first secretaries of the regional party committees and himself opened it with an opening address. Such an important state event was dedicated to the attitude towards Soviet Jews. Stalin recommends "caution" in appointing Jews to leading state and party posts and "extreme caution" when submitting them to government awards. The main speaker on the agenda, Central Committee Secretary Georgy Malenkov, has already demanded "increased vigilance for Jewish cadres." The result of the meeting was a top secret letter from the Central Committee to all party committees with a list of posts undesirable for Jews and a list of posts that Jews are forbidden to hold.

In 1949, state Stalinist anti-Semitism flourished. The state of Israel was formed, but for some reason it did not become socialist, as Comrade Stalin intensely sought. And he was very angry with the Jews. He declared all Jews agents of American imperialism. There was a campaign against "rootless cosmopolitans" - they were prominent scientists and cultural figures of Jewish nationality. The villainous murder of the Chairman of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, actor Mikhoels, and the subsequent execution of the members of this committee. Mass layoffs of highly qualified Jewish specialists from secret enterprises of the military-industrial complex, including from experienced design bureaus and aircraft factories. Although Jews worked in many technically significant posts throughout the war.

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.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.

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.

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.

In April 2009 the St. Petersburg Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) University, a training facility for future law enforcement leaders, removed 1,000 copies of a textbook containing anti-Semitic passages. The Russian and Soviet history textbook, written by two professors at the university, contained statements promoting theories on Jewish conspiracies against the Soviet Union. One passage claimed that former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev stated to the Israeli parliament in 1992, "everything I did to the Soviet Union, I did in the name of our God Moses." The Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia (FEOR) complained about the textbook and promised to launch its own investigation. The university subsequently fired the book's author, professor Vasiliy Drozhzhin.

A brochure written by Evgeny Gerasimenko and published by the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) Institute for Raising Qualifications connected Judaism to Satanism, according to a January 21, 2009 report by the AEN news service. The brochure, entitled "Extremism: Understanding, Socio-Economic, Political, and Historical Roots, and Trends," was distributed to participants at a meeting of police officials charged with combating extremism and terrorism. The brochure states that "Satanism, much like Chasidism, arose from Judaism, specifically its secretive cruel and kabbalistic sects. Until the 18th century, it developed as a secret Jewish sect, but then broke off from Judaism and became one of Masonry's most influential currents. The core rituals of Satanic sects, like the preceding secretive cruel and kabbalistic Jewish sects, were blood rituals."

The November 4 National Day of Consent and Reconciliation has been appropriated by far-right nationalists and often involves anti-Semitic and racist demonstrations and acts of violence. Law enforcement organizations have achieved some measure of success in arresting members of Russian neo-Nazi and nationalist organizations, while courts sentenced several such persons to prison for their actions. In one instance, police and FSB officers arrested a neo-Nazi gang in Vladimir in late 2008 for crimes committed between June 2005 and early 2008, including vandalism of a Jewish charity in 2005.

Federal authorities, and in many cases regional and local authorities, facilitated the establishment of new Jewish institutions. While construction of the Museum of Tolerance, devoted to the history of the country's Jews and the Holocaust, was scheduled to be completed by the end of 2011, the global economic crisis delayed the timeline. Construction was expected to begin in the second half of 2009.

There were reports during 2011 of vandals desecrating Jewish synagogues and cemeteries and defacing Jewish religious and cultural facilities, sometimes combined with threats to the Jewish community, although the Russian Jewish Congress and the Federation of Jewish Communities report that overt acts of anti-Semitism were minimal. The SOVA Center registered six acts of anti-Semitic vandalism as of December 1. The reduction in vandalism appeared linked to a decrease in the level of activity of nationalist groups Russian Way and Resistance, whose members had previously engaged in such acts. On July 12, four masked men threw Molotov cocktails at the Darchei Shalom synagogue in northern Moscow. Police believed the attack was in retaliation for the conviction of 12 members of a neo-Nazi group earlier that day.

According to the head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ Scientific Research Institute, there were more than 150 neo-Nazi groups in the country, and the number was rising, although the SOVA Center stated that only 15,000 to 20,000 people were members, fewer than in 2010. In October a 22-year-old neo-fascist with links to the Nationalist Socialist Society was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of 15 persons, some of whom were Jewish.

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