Russian Antisemitism: A Thousand Year Struggle

Reading Time: 4 minutes

From the Tsar’s Empire to Putin’s presidency, Russian antisemitism has been a sickening constant. However, due to the country’s liminal existence between Europe and Asia, this history of atrocities and hate crimes spanning a millennium is rarely discussed, despite Russia having the fourth largest Jewish population in the world.

From the first moment Jews arrived in the area that would become Russia, they were faced with antisemitism. The Kievan Rus were Scandinavians who settled on the Volga and were the first inhabitants of an established Russian state. They are named after the city they raised to renown, a city recognised as the first capital of an early Russian state. However, the Jewish population of Kiev was restricted to single district. The 20th century ghettos of Poland and Italy are infamous today, but by 11th  Century the systematic shunting of Russia’s Jews had already begun. The population grew steadily as conditions in Western Europe worsened due to pogroms; expulsions from Britain, Spain and France; and a period of intense persecution in Germany. In the 1300s a wave of Jewish settlers was driven east, most of whom were absorbed by the creation of the Russian Empire in the 15th century. Considering that the word pogrom was originally Slavic, it is thought that conditions for this swollen Russo-Jewish population were awful, with restrictions being placed on their work and civil liberties as well as their ‘privileges’, actions which would be chillingly echoed centuries later when Hitler began his persecution.  

Russian antisemitism only grew worse once the Empire was established. Catherine the Great, one of Russia’s most successful military leaders, introduced a series of laws known as ‘disabilities’ for the Jewish population. This was a simple euphemism for further economic restrictions and state sanctioned antisemitism. She also established the Pale of Settlement – which restricted Jewish people to residence within Congress Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine and the Crimea (which was then later removed) and forced them to obtain special permission to migrate across Russia. Within the Pale, Jewish residents were given right of voting in municipal elections, but their vote was limited to one third of the total number of voters. This served to provide a façade of democracy, but nothing more, as the Jewish population in most areas was usually much higher than a third and, in some, a majority. The most difficult time for Jews living in Russia was under Nicholas I, who vowed he would “destroy Jewish life.” This led to his policy of Forced Conscription, which ordered all Jewish males to join the Russian imperial military beginning at age twelve. Each year, the Jewish community had to supply four recruits per thousand of the population. Due to the strictness of the quotas imposed, Jewish children were often conscripted when they were as young as eight or nine. These were the Cantonists and, at the age of twelve, they would be placed in special schools for their six-year military education. They were then required to serve in the Imperial Russian Army for another twenty-five years after the completion of their studies. Most never saw their families again. In Jewish Diaspora communities hailing from the Russian Empire, the 19th century is often recalled as a time when Jews were forbidden from becoming officers and instead were shoved to the front lines of the army to serve as cannon fodder.

Many of Nicholas I’s policies were reversed under Tsar Alexander II but, in his determination to forge a single Russian identity, forced conversion continued. After the assassination of Alexander II, the worst series of pogroms ever seen were carried out after the Jewish community was wrongly blamed for murdering the Tsar. These lasted three years, starting in 1881 with the reign of Alexander III, but they sparked a larger antisemitic terror which peaked in 1905. It is recorded that 100,000 Jews were killed in this period, with as many Jewish women being raped. Between 1881 and the outbreak of the First World War, an estimated 2.5 million Jews left Russia – one of the largest exoduses in recorded history. At the outbreak of the Great War, Russian Jews, like many minority ethnic groups, felt they could improve their position in society if they contributed to the defence of the Motherland. Over 400,000 were mobilised and 80,000 served on the front lines. Despite this, when the Russian army faced defeat, antisemitic commanders blamed Jewish populations and many innocent Jews were kidnapped, accused of treason and tried for espionage. After these trials, mass expulsions of those living near the front lines were organised in Courland and northern Lithuania.  

Although in theory the Revolution of 1917 overthrew much of the official antisemitic state legislature, including Catherine’s Pale of Settlement, in practice the Soviet state continued the persecution of Russian Jews. In 1920 Isaac Babel described one of the numerous pogroms of the period, “they…assembled 45 Jews in the market place, led them into the slaughter yard, tortured, cut out tongues, wails heard all over the square.”

Persecution reached new extremes after 1948, during the campaign against the “rootless cosmopolitan”, in which Yiddish-writing poets, writers, painters and sculptors were killed or arrested. Despite the recent findings of the Nuremberg Trials, the international community all but ignored these atrocities. Due to Bolshevik opposition to religion, much of the antisemitism in the early Soviet Union went unrecorded as such, with the sacking of synagogues and destruction of Jewish businesses technically being routine for all religions. During the 1930s there were actually mass campaigns against antisemitism. However, Stalin, the man leading these ‘groundbreaking’ campaigns, had himself made viciously antisemitic arguments against Trotsky during the struggle for supremacy after the death of Lenin. Stalin was suspected to have harboured antisemetic sentiments even before the 1917 Revolution, suspicions later proven by his use of gulags to incarcerate Jews. During the doctor’s plot crackdown, the Soviet Union experienced a wave of antisemitism, with many of the nation’s finest medical experts being arrested and tortured on the orders of the General Secretary. This would come back to bite the Dictator, as when he fell fatally ill a few weeks later, he found he had executed any of those who might have saved him. After Stalin died, antisemitism became an undercurrent once more. While violence spiked again under Brezhnev after the Six Day War, prompting a huge migration to Israel, matters improved steadily under Gorbachev, as more open attitudes to religion began to grow. 

However, once the USSR collapsed, the ugly face of antisemitism re-emerged, growing more and more visible during the 1998 Russian financial crisis. Since then there have been several high profile cases of antisemitism in Russia, with the most recent coming on the 2006 ‘Defenders of the Fatherland Day’ (23 February), a yearly tribute to war veterans. According to the newspaper Kommersant, marchers flourished signs with messages including “Zhids! Stop drinking Russian blood!” There are also still several high-ranking military, government, and church officials carrying public antisemitic campaigns.

In conclusion, antisemitism in Russia has existed for a millennium, and the stories, lessons and warnings we can take from those thousand years must be remembered. Although not as infamous as the Holocaust, or as dramatic as their expulsion from medieval Europe, the long Jewish plight in Russia is comparable to those horrors. It must be recognised, remembered and fought against to this day, for while it may no longer be enshrined in law, the spectre of antisemitism still haunts Russia.

Galeotti, M., 2000. A Short History of Russia. Ebury Press

Service, R., 2010. Stalin: A Biography. Pan

UCSJ., 2006. Antisemites Rally inMoscow; Police Stand By. Bigotry Monitor

Zipperstein, S., 2018. Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History. Liveright