Judaism After Communism

Jewish life flourishes both in and outside the former Soviet Union.

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On October 7, 1991, the first direct flight from Moscow to Tel Aviv landed at Ben Gurion Airport with 150 new immigrants aboard. Two months later the Soviet Union was officially dissolved by the presidents of Russia, Ukraine, and Belorussia. In its place rose independent nations known as the Commonwealth of Independent States, each of which developed its own relationship to its Jewish population.

Maintaining a Jewish Identity

fall of communismThe end of the Soviet Union marked a new era in global and Jewish history. Like their turn of the 20th century counterparts whose mass migration transformed global Jewry, Russian Jews were once again marked by mass migration and experimentations in Jewish identity. Post-Soviet Jews were now free to migrate around the world, but they were also free to build public Jewish life in their post-Communist homes. After all, despite emigration, the former Soviet Union had one of the largest Jewish populations in Europe with, depending on statistics, anywhere from about 400,000 to 1,000,000 Jews.

It only made sense that places such as Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Kiev would become centers of Jewish life again. Although more than a million Russian-speaking Jews left the post-Soviet world, nearly the same number stayed and Russia and the Ukraine continued to be major Jewish population centers.

Despite the Soviet Union's troubled relationship with public Jewish life after World War II, Soviet Jews had maintained Jewish culture and identity in their own ways. Although they spoke Russian, not Yiddish, and nearly all their synagogues had been closed down, Soviet Jews continued to identify as Jews. They did this through food, humor, literature, social patterns, and other cultural ways of being and doing Jewish. After 1967 especially, Soviet Jews became some of the most ardent Zionists globally. They connected with Israel, Hebrew culture, and Jewish nationalism.

Religion, ritual, and traditional Jewish practice was not absent in the Soviet period. Judaism could be found in underground prayer houses or in the few public synagogues that remained open. Chabad (Lubavitch Hasidism) had a permanent presence in the Soviet Union despite arrests and repression.

Growth of Jewish Life

By the late 1980s, as a result of the government policies of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness), Jews throughout the Soviet Union began finding new ways of self-identifying ethnically and religiously. They read Jewish newspapers, socialized primarily with other Jews, and began exploring more traditional forms of Jewish ritual and observance.

By 1991, 55 different Jewish newspapers, magazines, and other publications circulated in the nearly defunct USSR. In the years that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow alone saw the establishment of several schools, institutes of higher education, cultural and social groups, as well as several religious congregations. By 1994 there were four yeshivas, four Jewish teachers' seminaries, and four religious day schools in Moscow alone. Russia's capital emerged as the largest Jewish center in Europe, with a population of about 200,000 Jews.

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David Shneer

David Shneer is an associate professor of history and director of the Program in Jewish Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. His writing has appeared in numerous publications including the Huffington Post and the New York Times, and his most recent book is Through Soviet Jewish Eyes: Photography, War, and the Holocaust (Rutgers, 2010).