Stalls owned by Jews in a marketplace, Moscow, ca. 1903. Stereograph by William H. Rau. (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-69975)

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Present-day capital of the Russian Federation, Moscow was capital of the Russian state from the end of the fifteenth century until 1712, and capital of the Soviet Union from 1918 to 1991. Jews were first mentioned in connection with Moscow in the fifteenth century. During the reign of Tsar Ivan IV (the Terrible; r. 1533–1584), Jews were forbidden to enter the region of Muscovy. They first appeared in Moscow during the Russian–Polish war of 1645–1667, some converting to Christianity and remaining in the city.

In 1702, Abram Rot opened one of the first pharmacies in Moscow, and during the first decades of the eighteenth century Jewish merchants visited the city frequently. Jewish workers—for example, a ritual slaughterer named Shmerl’—lived permanently in the so-called German quarter. A small number of Jews settled in Moscow after the First Partition of Poland (1772), but after other merchants complained, an imperial decree in 1791 prohibited Jews from registering in the merchant class of the interior guberniias (provinces). Consequently, Jews could come to Moscow only for short periods.

Spice box. Moscow, 1880s. Silver: forged, soldered, filigree work. Ukrainian Museum of Historical Treasures, Kiev. Photograph by Dmytro Klochko. (MIDU Inv Nr DM-7373. Ukrainian Museum of Historical Treasures, Kiev)

After 1827, when Jews began being drafted into the military, a permanent Jewish population made up of soldiers and their wives began to grow in Moscow. In 1846, there were 313 Jews living in the city (253 men and 60 women). In 1828, Jewish merchants of the first and second guilds (the levels being distinguished by the value of a member’s stock) were given the right to remain in the city for one month at a time. In 1832, Jewish merchants of all guilds were granted permission to stay for up to half a year. However, they could reside only in Glebovskoe podvor’e (an inn), and were subjected to heavy fees and harassment by the Moscow city administration. During the reign of Tsar Alexander II (r. 1855–1881), Jews who were first-guild merchants, holders of university degrees, discharged soldiers, pharmacists, dentists, and midwives received the right to live anywhere in the city. In 1871, there were about 8,000 Jews; in 1880, there were 16,000 (of whom 8,025 were officially registered).

By 1861, soldiers had established three informal Jewish houses of worship in Moscow. At the end of the 1860s, a plot of land was allotted on which the Dorogomilovskoe Jewish cemetery was established. Rabbis in the community included Ḥayim Berlin (1865–1869), Shelomoh Minor (1869–1892), and Iakov (Ya‘akov) Maze (1893–1917). The first Moscow synagogue and a TalmudTorah (middle-level religious school) were founded in 1871, and in 1872 the Moscow Jewish School for Poor and Orphaned Children was established. In 1865, Jewish students at Moscow University created a mutual aid fund. The first circles dedicated to promoting Jewish settlement in Palestine appeared in Moscow in the 1880s. Thus in 1881, a Bene Tsiyon circle was established under the leadership of Rabbi Maze.

During the 1890s, the importance of Jews in the economic life of Moscow increased sharply. In 1898, Jews owned 29.3 percent of the capital declared by first-guild merchants. The city’s largest banker and entrepreneur was Eli‘ezer (Lazar; Leon) Poliakov. Its major entrepreneur and merchant was Kalonymus Wissotzky, who created the world’s leading tea firm. When antisemitic political tendencies intensified after the ascension of Tsar Alexander III (r. 1881–1894), there was a drive to expel Jews from Moscow. This change in policy was delayed and modified when the city’s merchants and factory owners insisted that Jews were useful as agents for Moscow’s businesses in the western provinces.

Members of the Baicher family, Moscow, 1890s. Aron Baicher (seated, left), a dealer in wood and construction materials, served in the army for 25 years and then received a permit to settle in Moscow. He reportedly fathered 17 children in a first marriage and 26 children in his second marriage. (Centropa)

In 1891, the new Choral Synagogue opened on Solianka Street. At about the same time, Grand Prince Sergei Aleksandrovich was appointed governor-general of Moscow. He declared his basic goal to be “to save Moscow from the Jews.” In March 1891, an imperial order announced the expulsion of all Jewish artisans, and on 15 October 1892 a similar order was directed toward the descendants of discharged Jewish soldiers from the time of Nicholas I. Within a short time, about 20,000 Jews were expelled from the city. In June 1892, the Choral Synagogue was closed down, as were 8 of 14 prayer houses. The synagogue was reopened only on 1 June 1906. According to the 1897 census, 8,095 Jews lived in Moscow. An imperial decree of 4 July 1899 ordered that the number of first-guild Jewish merchants residing in Moscow and Moscow guberniia not exceed 33 percent of all first-guild merchants in the area. Meanwhile, increasing numbers of Jewish students were attending institutions of higher education. In 1886, a total of 298 were listed; in 1912, about 1,000; and in 1916, about 3,000.

During World War I, the Jewish population in the Moscow area grew noticeably. Refugees began arriving in 1915, settling mainly in the suburbs. After February 1917, Jewish social, political, and cultural life developed rapidly. The Zionist Ha-Boneh Society formed in spring 1917 to support the growth of Palestine. In March of that year, the headquarters of the Jewish National Fund (JNF) opened, and in 1918 the large Stybel Hebrew publishing house was established.

Jews played an active role in the revolutionary events of 1917, and were represented in diverse political camps. Among those defending the provisional government were the Socialist Revolutionary Osip Minor, who was chairman of the Moscow City Duma, and the Menshevik Grigorii Kipen, who served as first deputy chairman of the Moscow City Soviet. Hundreds of Jewish military cadets fought against Bolshevik soldiers in October 1917, and Jews also played an active role within the Bolshevik camp. The first Kremlin commissar was Emel’ian Iaroslavskii; Rozaliia Zemliachka was secretary of the Moscow Party Committee.

Audience at first performance of Habimah, the Hebrew theater troupe, Moscow, 1918. (Central Zionist Archives)

Zionists continued to operate in Moscow after the October Revolution. The Safrut publishing house issued Zionist-oriented newspapers and books from 1917 to 1919. In the summer of 1918, an All-Russian Congress of Jewish Communities took place in Moscow. The Hebrew-language Habimah Theater performed its first play there in December 1917. However, Zionist newspapers in both Hebrew and Russian were closed down in 1918 and 1919. The Stybel publishing house moved to Warsaw in 1919. A Moscow Conference of Zionists opened in April 1920, but all delegates, except Rabbi Iakov Maze, were arrested. In 1920, a Central Zionist Bureau, headed by Elye (Elias) Tsherikover, was created in Moscow, but it was forced to close down in 1924.

In 1918, the Jewish Commissariat of the government moved from Saint Petersburg to Moscow. In the 1920s and the first half of the 1930s, Moscow was the center of Soviet Jewish social and cultural activity. From June 1918 until September 1938, the daily Yiddish newspaper Der emes (Truth) was published there. From 1925 to 1932, a Jewish section of the Association of Proletarian Writers functioned and published the Yiddish journal Oktiabr’. The Yiddish Theater Studio of Aleksandr Granovskii moved from Petrograd to Moscow in 1920 and was reorganized in 1925 as the Moscow State Yiddish Theater. From 1918 to 1921, the Moscow Jewish People’s University was in operation. In the 1920s and early 1930s, several Jewish schools existed, and in 1926 a Jewish department was opened at the pedagogical faculty of the Second Moscow University, to prepare teachers for Jewish schools. Also in the 1920s, a semi-underground yeshiva, Tif’eret Baḥurim, supported by Lubavitch, functioned in Moscow.

In 1929, a new antireligious campaign began, in the course of which the Choral Synagogue was closed; however, it was reopened later that year. In 1936, the last Jewish school was closed, and in 1937 and 1938 the majority of Yiddish-language educational and cultural institutions followed. In 1938, a number of Jews who were active in the city’s religious community were put on trial, including Shemaryahu Yosef Medal’e, rabbi of the Choral Synagogue, and Markus Braude, the head of the community. A large number of Moscow Jews, mostly members of the party and state elite, were victims of the mass arrests of 1936–1938.

Between 1920 and 1941, the Jewish population in Moscow increased rapidly. About 28,000 Jews lived in the city in 1920, about 86,000 in 1923, about 131,000 according to the 1926 census, and 250,200 according to the 1939 census. During World War II, these numbers diminished. Many Jews were evacuated as the German army approached the city in autumn 1941. After the war, the population grew again. According to the 1970 census, 251,500 Jews lived in Moscow, and in 1989, there were 175,800.

Members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee attending a memorial service for victims of the Holocaust at the Choral Synagogue, Moscow, 1945. (Front row, first to third from right) writer Itsik Fefer (with glasses), actor Benjamin Zuskin, and musician and actor Leonid Utesov. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

Stalin’s postwar antisemitic campaign struck the Jews of Moscow severely. Large numbers were expelled from universities and fired from government, press, and other positions. Many were arrested. In 1950, the state security apparatus fabricated the Stalin Automobile Plant of Moscow (ZIS) affair, in which 48 persons were arrested, 42 of whom were Jews. They were accused of organizing a Jewish national sabotage group at the plant, with the assistant director of the plant Aleksei Endinov at its head. The investigation insisted that this group was led by the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. Ten (all Jews) were executed; the others were sentenced to long prison terms. All those who had been accused in the case who were still alive at the time were rehabilitated in October 1955. In 1951, authorities liquidated the village of Davydkovo, near Moscow. All of its residents (mostly Jews) were banished. In the Doctors’ Plot affair of late 1952–early 1953, 37 Moscow physicians were arrested, 26 of them Jews. In addition, many Jewish doctors were fired from their jobs.

Solomon Shlifer served as rabbi of the Moscow Choral Synagogue from 1943 to 1957. He was succeeded by Rabbis Yehudah Leib Levin (1957–1971), Iakov Fishman (1972–1982), and Adol’f Shaevich (from 1983). In 1956, the Moscow Jewish religious community began publishing a religious calendar, and in 1957 the Kol Ya‘akov Yeshiva was established. In October 1959, the synagogue in Malakhovka, just outside Moscow, and the custodian’s cottage at the local cemetery were burned down, and antisemitic pamphlets were disseminated there and in Moscow. In 1972, authorities forced the closure of the synagogue in Moscow’s Cherkizovo neighborhood, leaving just the Choral Synagogue and the Hasidic (Ḥabad) facility on Marina Roshcha.

In 1962, the Moscow Jewish Dramatic Ensemble was formed. In 1986, during glasnost and perestroika, it was reorganized into the Shalom Jewish Dramatic Theater Studio.

At the end of the 1960s, Moscow Jews played a leading role in the Jewish national movement. They engaged in numerous protest demonstrations, published Jewish samizdat (underground publications), established Hebrew-teaching ulpans (language courses), conducted seminars on Jewish history, formed groups to study Judaism, and held Jewish song contests. These programs took place under conditions of repression, and some activists were imprisoned, notably Anatolii (Natan) Sharansky, Yosef Begun, and Ida Nudel. [See Refuseniks.]

The democratic processes that began in the Soviet Union in 1985 gave further impetus to Jewish life and led to the creation of various new organizations. In 1988 alone, the Jewish Cultural Association, headed by Mikhail Chlenov, emerged, as did the Youth Center for the Study and Development of Jewish Culture, headed by Leonid Roitman. Also established was the Maḥanayim Religious Cultural Center and a yeshiva headed by the Israeli rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. In 1989, the Solomon Mikhoels Center was opened at the Jewish National Chamber Theater. Numerous Jewish periodicals were published: in 1990 and 1991 there were 26 newspapers and journals. In 1991, a synagogue opened on Malaia Bronnaia Street.

Various antisemitic organizations also took advantage of the new freedom. Members of Pamiat’ held mass meetings and demonstrations, desecrated Jewish graves in the Vostriakovskii and Saltykovskii cemeteries, and physically assaulted Jews. In April and May 1988, rumors were spread anticipating a pogrom during the Moscow celebrations of the millennium of Christianity in Russia. In the 1990s, too, Jewish sites became objects of attack: firebombs were thrown at the Marina Roshcha synagogue in 1992, and in 1999 a bomb was set off at the Bolshaia Bronnaia synagogue.

A rabbi from Ukraine dancing with a new Torah brought from America after the first All-Russia Jewish Congress, Moscow, ca. 1993. Photograph by Karl Schatz. (© Karl Schatz)

Despite the major exodus to Israel, the United States, and elsewhere in the West in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the numbers of Jews in Moscow remained considerable because of migration from the Russian provinces and the Commonwealth of Independent States (Central Asia, Georgia, and Ukraine). According to the 2002 census, 148,000 Jews lived in Moscow, making it the largest Jewish community in Russia.

After the collapse of the USSR, the leading bodies of Russia’s Jewish organizations were centered in Moscow. During the 1990s, a number of synagogues were opened, the majority of which were Orthodox. Other religious institutions also functioned, like Tomkhe Temimim yeshiva and the Makhon Chaya Mushka (Chaya Mushka Institute) of Higher Education for Women. Eight religious and secular middle-level Jewish schools operated. A Jewish University was founded in 1992 (in 2003, its name was changed to the Simon Dubnow Higher School of Humanities for Judaica). In this period, Moscow also boasted several Jewish publishing houses, periodicals, theatrical and musical groups, while the Mikhoels Center hosted international art festivals.

Suggested Reading

Iulii Gessen, “Moskovskoe geto (po neizdannym materialam),” in Perezhitoe, vol. 1 (Saint Petersburg, 1910); A. Katsnel’son, “Iz martirologa Moskovskoi obshchiny,” Evreiskaia starina 1 (1909): 175–188; Gennadii Kostyrchenko, Tainaia politika Stalina (Moscow, 2001); Mark Kupovetskii, “Evreiskoe naselenie Moskvy, 15–20 vv.,” in Etnicheskie gruppy v gorodakh Evropeiskoi chasti SSSR, pp. 58–72 (Moscow, 1987).



Translated from Russian by I. Michael Aronson