The Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR) was the name of the largest member state of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), exceeding all the other states in both size (occupying three-quarters of the territory) and population (hosting more than half the citizens). The Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic was, in fact, the name of the successor state to the Russian Empire from January 1918 until December 1922 when the name Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was adopted for the entire state.
The population of the RSFSR included a large number of Jews—585,000, according to the 1926 census. Masses of Jews had come to the Russian interior first during World War I, when they were expelled from the front areas as a result of directives issued by the Russian army, and later, during the Russian Civil War (1918–1921), when many fled the Pale of Jewish Settlement in order to escape the violence being perpetrated there. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Jewish population of the RSFSR continued to grow rapidly. With the removal of educational, employment, and residential restrictions on national grounds, large numbers of Jews moved from the shtetls (mestechki) of Ukraine and Belorussia into large cities throughout the USSR. However, they moved to Russia in particular, because there they could study or find work, and perhaps hide social origins that the authorities were unlikely to consider questionable.
According to the Soviet census of 1939, there were 956,600 Jews in the RSFSR (31.6% of the total USSR Jewish population compared to 21.9% in 1926). The increase in the large cities of the RSFSR was especially rapid. Some 28,000 Jews lived in Moscow in 1920, and this number rose to 250,100 in 1939. There were 25,000 Jews in Leningrad in 1920 (the number had diminished after 1917), a number that rose to slightly more than 200,000 in 1939.
Jews began to settle in virtually every major city throughout the entire RSFSR. By 1939 they numbered 27,000 in Rostov-on-Don, 14,000 in Smolensk, almost 8,000 in Sverdlovs’k (3,600 in 1920), and 5,400 in Khabarovsk. The new towns that were created during the great industrialization drive of the First Five-Year Plan (1928–1932) also boasted Jewish populations—for example, 964 Jews lived in Magnitogorsk. The Jews of the RSFSR were the most assimilated of the country’s Jews, with the lowest percentages claiming a Jewish language as their mother tongue (26.4%) and the highest rate of intermarriage (by 1936, more than 40% of Jewish men and almost 37% of Jewish women had married non-Jews).
In addition, great changes occurred in the social structure of the Jewish population of the RSFSR in the 1920s and 1930s. The regime tried to attract Jews to agriculture, and proposals were advanced to resettle as many as possible in northern Crimea. To make this region appeal to Jews, the authorities offered land and legal privileges. However, from the end of the 1920s through the beginning of the 1930s, only 2,000–3,000 Jewish families were moving to Crimea annually. This was because the land being granted was arid, stony, and saline, and the local population, mainly Tatars, was hostile. A large number of the settlers abandoned their farms when forced collectivization began. In the 1930s, two Jewish raiony (national districts) were formed in the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR), along with 29 Jewish soviets (national councils); two such councils were also formed in the western oblasti (regions) of the RSFSR. By 1938 almost all the Yiddish-language Jewish schools and vocational training institutions in Crimea were reorganized into Russian-language institutions and by 1941 the Jewish national districts in Crimea had ceased to exist.
Meanwhile, the authorities had decided to form a Jewish administrative and territorial entity in the Far East, in Birobidzhan. A Jewish national district was established there in 1930, transformed into a Jewish Autonomous Region in 1934. This project, too, was not very successful.
Jewish culture in the 1920s and 1930s developed very inconsistently. The number of Yiddish schools in the RSFSR was never very large. In 1926, there were 12,193 pupils studying in 118 Yiddish schools; in 1939 only 15 Yiddish schools with 881 pupils functioned. At the same time, institutions for higher education in Yiddish were developed. In 1921, the Tsentral’naia Evreiskaia Partiinaia Shkola (Central Jewish Party School; TsEPSh) was founded in Moscow. In January 1922, TsEPSh became the Yiddish Department of the Communist University of National Minorities of the West. In 1926, a Jewish Literary-Linguistic Department was founded in the Pedagogical Faculty of the Second Moscow State University. However, these institutions were closed down in 1936–1938.
This period witnessed various achievements in the field of Yiddish literature. The literary miscellany Sovetish (Moscow, 1934–1941) and the literary quarterly Forpost (Birobidzhan, 1936–1940) appeared. Many writers and poets, including Dovid Bergelson, Der Nister, Perets Markish, and others, wrote in Yiddish. Yiddish theaters were also active, including the Moscow State Yiddish Theater (GOSET) directed by Solomon Mikhoels, and the Birobidzhan State Yiddish Theater. From 1918 to 1926, the Habimah Theater operated in Moscow in Hebrew.
The regime prohibited religious education for children, and in 1921 all Jewish religious educational institutions were ordered to be closed down. That same year, a show trial of the local yeshiva was held in Rostov-on-Don. However, the clandestine Committee of Rabbis in the USSR, headed by the Lubavitch rebbe, Yosef Yitsḥak Shneerson, was able to create a network of religious schools in Moscow and Leningrad. In most districts of the RSFSR, the Evsektsiia (Jewish Section of the Communist Party) did not exist, so it was possible to maintain Jewish schools despite the official prohibition. In Vologda, a Talmud Torah (middle-level religious school) even operated under the guise of an officially registered school.
“Religion is a hindrance to the Five-Year Plan.” Yiddish poster. “Down with religious holidays! Religion is a weapon for enslaving the worker. Join the union of militant apikorsim [heretics].” Printed in Moscow, ca. 1928. (Moldovan Family Collection)
The RSFSR temporarily experienced an increase in the number of religious communities over the prerevolutionary period. In Leningrad in 1917 there were 13 synagogues and prayer houses, while in 1927 there were 17; in 1925, there were 418 congregations. However, in 1927 the regime began to intensify its antireligious campaign, and in July of that year, Shneerson and his secretary Khayim Lieberman were arrested in Leningrad. When a wave of protest arose abroad, Shneerson was allowed to leave the USSR, along with his family and six pupils.
A broad campaign to close synagogues began. At the beginning of 1930, the Moscow and Leningrad Choral synagogues were closed, as well as synagogues in other towns. Religious persecutions were somewhat alleviated after Stalin published his article “Golovokruzhenie ot uspekhov” (Dizzy with Success) in Pravda in March 1930, and dozens of orders to close churches, mosques, and synagogues (including the Moscow and Leningrad Choral synagogues) were rescinded. However, the wide-ranging closing of synagogues generally continued, and by 1932 in Leningrad just three synagogues remained. During the Stalinist terror campaign of 1937–1938, most Jewish religious functionaries, including Shemaryahu Yosef Leib Medal’e, rabbi of the Choral Synagogue, were arrested.
Nazi Germany attacked the USSR in June 1941, and the invading troops reached RSFSR territory at the beginning of July. Unlike some other union republics, the RSFSR was occupied only partially, and the Germans failed to capture the urban centers with large Jewish populations (Moscow, Leningrad). Also, in most of the occupied regions of the RSFSR Jews had more time to evacuate than in other republics. In 1942, German and Romanian troops occupied territories of the RSFSR to which thousands of Jews from Ukraine, Belorussia, Moldavia, and Leningrad had escaped. Many of these refugees were murdered in the summer and autumn of 1942. The Germans placed whatever territories of the RSFSR they occupied under military administration, and the mass murder of Jews was soon launched. (For numbers of Jews killed in each territory, see Table 1: Killings of Jews in the RSFSR during the Nazi Occupation.)
About 800 Jews, many of them refugees from ghettos, participated actively in the partisan movement on the territory of the RSFSR. A number became commanders of partisan detachments.
The policy of “great-power Russian chauvinism” adopted by Stalin during World War II was intensified after the war. With it, antisemitic attitudes became more pronounced all over the USSR. Thus in July 1945, anti-Jewish disturbances broke out during a soccer match in the town of Rubtsovsk in Altai Krai. Antisemitism was particularly evident in Crimea, where the heads of the oblast (regional) Communist Party Committee declared that “Crimea should be Russian, and Jews should not be hired for work.”
Meanwhile, after the war many Soviet Jews looked forward once more to the creation of a Jewish autonomous republic within the USSR. In December 1945 two officials, Aleksandr Bakhmutskii, who was first secretary of the Birobidzhan Regional Party Committee, and Mikhail Zil’bershtein, chairman of the regional executive committee, addressed a letter to Stalin asking for aid to the region and proposing that Birobidzhan be transformed into an autonomous republic. Stalin had not come to any decision about the fate of the Jewish Autonomous Region; thus certain proposals of the Birobidzhan leaders to develop culture and strengthen the region with an influx of (new) skilled Jewish settlers were accepted. However, the suggestion that Birobidzhan be turned into an autonomous republic was not approved. With the consent of the central authorities, Birobidzhan representatives began to enlist new settlers. From December 1946 to July 1948, some 1,770 new Jewish families arrived there in nine special trains (eshelony). Then in 1949, a complete purge of the Jewish Autonomous Region began, accompanied by numerous arrests, including of Bakhmutskii and regional executive committee chairman Mikhail Levitin.
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)
An antisemitic, anticosmopolitan campaign was unleashed at this time in the USSR, aimed at purging the assimilated Jewish intelligentsia. Jews began to be expelled in large numbers from scientific and cultural institutions and were fired from editorial boards of newspapers and journals as well as from government, industrial, and management positions. Many were arrested. Dismissals and arrests were especially numerous in the RSFSR, where most of the USSR’s heavy and defense industries were located. In November 1949 in Stalinsk (now Novokuznetsk), an illegal synagogue was exposed. It had been established in 1942 by refugees from Poland and was maintained by donations from many Jews who worked at a local metallurgical complex. After a trial, four Jews were executed.
In the 1950s–1970s, the Jewish population of the RSFSR was the most numerous of the Soviet Union. There were 875,300 Jews in the RSFSR in 1959 and 807,900 in 1970. Moscow and Leningrad had more Jews than any other Soviet cities, according to the 1959 census. In addition, Knibyshev had 17,200 Jews, Gorki 15,300, and Sverdlovs’k 15,900. Some 12,400 Jews lived resided in the Novosibirsk region (mostly in the city of Novosibirsk). As had been the case before the war, the Jews of the RSFSR were the most assimilated of the USSR’s Jews. Thus, in 1978 in the RSFSR 59.3 percent of Jewish men and 43 percent of Jewish women intermarried.
During the 1957–1964 antireligious campaign, 17 synagogues were closed down in Sverdlovs’k, Kazan’, Piatigorsk, and elsewhere. During the 1961–1964 Soviet campaign against “plunderers of socialist property,” which had a blatantly antisemitic character, 39 Jews were executed for economic crimes. The intensified antisemitic atmosphere was accompanied by the desecration of Jewish cemeteries and arson against synagogues.
The Jews of the RSFSR played a major role in the Jewish national movement, adherence to which intensified noticeably after the 1967 war between Israel and its Arab neighbors. The Jewish movement aimed to enable Jews to immigrate to Israel as well as to develop their culture within the USSR. In Moscow and Leningrad, ulpanim (intensive language classes) for the study of Hebrew were established; in 1970 more than 100 persons studied Hebrew in 12 such programs in Leningrad. In Moscow at the beginning of the 1980s, about 100 Hebrew teachers were teaching more than 1,000 students concurrently. Various Jewish samizdat (publications appearing without official approval) periodicals were produced in the RSFSR, and seminars on Jewish culture and history were held. Refusenik scientists (usually unemployed) conducted private seminars. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Jewish population of Russia decreased perceptibly. This decline was the result of increasing assimilation, a reduced birthrate, and the emigration of many Jews. Thus in 1979, the number of Jews in the RSFSR was down to 700,700, and in 1989 to 551,000.
Liberalizing tendencies began in the USSR in the mid-1980s. At the end of the decade and at the beginning of the 1990s, a mass emigration of USSR Jews occurred. In 1990, 45,522 Jews from the RSFSR arrived in Israel, followed by 47,276 in 1991. Jews immigrated to other Western countries as well. The entity known as the RSFSR ceased to exist with the dissolution of the USSR in December 1991, when it became a sovereign, independent state, the Russian Federation.
Ilia Al’tman, Zhertvy nenavisti: Kholokost v SSSR, 1941–1945 (Moscow, 2002); Mikhail Beizer, Evrei Leningrada, 1917–1939: Natsional’naia zhizn’ i sovetizatsiia (Moscow and Jerusalem, 1999); Lionel Kochan, ed., The Jews in Soviet Russia since 1917, 3rd ed. (Oxford and New York, 1978); Gennadii V. Kostyrchenko, Out of the Red Shadows: Anti-Semitism in Stalin’s Russia; From the Secret Archives of the Soviet Union (Amherst, N.Y., 1995); Benjamin Pinkus, The Jews of the Soviet Union: The History of a National Minority (Cambridge and New York, 1988).