Russian-Jewish Relations: From Integration to Segregation and Back Again

Russian-Jewish Relations in Russia and the Soviet Union

Jewish Russian (JR) is a dialect that evolved as a result of the language shift from Yiddish to Russian in Russia and the Soviet Union. It is now used by those with mixed Russian/Jewish heritage in Israel and countries with large communities of former Soviet Jews.

Typically, Russian Jews have little to no local ancestry. They have more European ancestry from intermarriages with gentiles.


Throughout the century and a half of the tsars’ rule, Jewish life reflected the tension between integration and segregation. Jewish residents of the tsardom’s western borderlands, and especially in cities such as Saint Petersburg and Moscow, came into the Russian body politic through a legal process–with privileges to engage in commerce–while in many smaller communities they were still encircled by a legal zone called the Pale of Settlement.

As a result, many Jews began to adopt Russian customs and language. Russian-language newspapers and periodicals appeared, and Jewish education emphasized industrial skills and the values of Haskalah, a 19th-century movement for religious and cultural autonomy. Some even served as soldiers alongside their Slavic counterparts, although this was not a common practice.


Between the Polish Partitions and the Russian Revolution, Jewish society multiplied sixfold in size. By 1917, it was an extraordinarily rich and dynamic society in which cultural, religious, literary, and political creativity burgeoned to new heights. It was also a deeply troubled community, divided along new ideological and religious lines.

As the Pale of Settlement grew ever larger, many Jews began to move from rural villages to towns and cities within the empire, where economic changes were taking place. As a result, Jews became one of the most urbanized Jewish communities in the world.

In the early decades of Soviet rule, Jewish intellectuals and professionals joined-and sometimes held leadership positions in-Russian socialist movements that eschewed a commitment to Jewish separatism, while fighting for the enfranchisement of Jews. In addition, the Hasidic movement exploded in popularity among Jews, and Jewish youth were drawn to the revolutionary Red Army, where they served in high numbers. At the same time, Marxist anti-nationalism and a rejection of religion undermined Jewish cultural institutions, such as the Bund, Jewish autonomy, and Judaism.


During the czarist era, Jews faced a double-edged sword. On the one hand, czarist legislation formally abolished the executive agency of Jewish community affairs, known as the kahal, placing these activities under the formal control of local state authorities. This spelled an end to the autonomy of Jewish communities in their religious and cultural affairs.

At the same time, czarist legislation continued to impose economic restrictions on Jewish people. Under the terms of Catherine’s law, Jews were prohibited from settling outside the Pale of Settlement and had to be specially granted permission to enter other areas of the empire.

Moreover, a schism developed within Jewish intellectual circles over the concept of Jewish nationalism. Some Jews, like the Bund, embraced cultural autonomy and Yiddish as a national language. Other Jews, such as the Zionists, viewed their future as being in Eretz Yisrael. This schism was exacerbated by the Marxist notion of anti-nationalism, which pitted Jewish causes against Russian ones.


Russia houses one of the world’s largest Jewish communities. But while they were freed from the religious persecution of czarist times, Jewish culture and institutions were under threat. Marxist notions of anti-nationalism and anti-clericalism undermined Jewish cultural institutions, the Bund, Jewish autonomy and Judaism.

Government policy swung between policies favoring integration and those advocating segregation of Jews. Catherine the Great’s laws at once promoted segregation by ratifying Jewish religious and social institutions, but also integrated them into the nation through new administrative institutions like municipal governments and legally defined artisan associations. This pendulum swing was accentuated by a series of pogroms during Passover in 1903. The Soviet government did all it could to force the disappearance of Jewish identity, but in the meantime Jews developed secular Yiddish culture that they cherished. It included newspapers, books, theater and film, the post office, public education and elections, and a Central Jewish Court. In the 1930s, however, Yiddish was pushed aside by Russianization and the party’s turn away from supporting minority languages and cultures.

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