In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Jews in the Soviet Union

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Encyclopedias
  • Guides to Soviet Archival Documents on Jewish History
  • Bibliographies

Jewish Studies Jews in the Soviet Union
Anna Shternshis
  • LAST REVIEWED: 03 September 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0077


The Russian Revolution of 1917 signaled radical changes for the lives of about five million Jews who populated the Russian empire at the time. The February Revolution of 1917 had already de jure abolished the Pale of Settlement. The October Revolution, led by the Bolshevik faction of the Marxist Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP), increased the educational and employment opportunities for Jews. In addition to granting Jews some forms of cultural autonomy, efforts were made to provide opportunities for Jewish agricultural settlements in Crimea in the 1920s. The Jewish autonomous region was established in the Soviet Far East—Birobidzhan—in 1934, with Yiddish as a state language. In 1939, the Soviet Union annexed parts of Eastern Poland, Transnistria, and the Baltic States, all heavily populated by Jews. By 1939, the Jewish population of the Soviet Union constituted about 3.2 million people. In 1941, the German army invaded the Soviet Union, thus starting the Great Patriotic War that took the lives of twenty-seven million Soviet citizens, including about 1.8 million Soviet Jews. Jews served in the Soviet military (460,000 enlisted; 140,000 killed); another 1.2 million Soviet Jews and 200,000 Polish Jews spent the war in the Soviet Central Asian Republics. From 1948–1953, Soviet Jews experienced a great blow to their culture and lives. The Jewish anti-Fascist Committee was shut down in 1948, its members arrested, and thirteen of them killed on 12 August 1952. In January 1953, a number of prominent physicians, almost all Jews, were arrested for allegedly trying to poison Joseph Stalin. A wave of anti-Semitism swept the country. After Stalin’s death, state and grassroots anti-Semitism, the absence of diplomatic relations with Israel after 1967 (complicated by the Cold War), and the general stagnation of the Soviet economy in the 1960s–1980s were important political factors that influenced the lives of Soviet Jews. Some Soviet Jewish intellectual leaders—including Anatoly Sharansky, Larisa Bogoraz, and others—openly spoke about their desire to leave the Soviet Union for Israel. With the support of the North American Jewish community, 163,000 exit visas were granted in the late 1960s–1970s. Starting from the mid-1980s, the Soviet borders relaxed its grip and Jews expressed the desire to leave and eventually were allowed to do so. Between 1988 and 2010, over 1.6 million Jews left the territory of the former Soviet Union and settled in Israel (over one million of that total number), the United States, Canada, Germany, and Australia. The transnational nature of the Russian Jewish Diaspora, with Russia still housing about 200,000 Jews, suggests a new period of Russian Jewish history.

General Overviews

The first Western-published general history of Soviet Jews—rich with facts, institutional histories, and analytical insights—is Schwarz 1951. Gitelman 2001 as well as Levin 1988 and Pinkus 1989 provide fact-rich overviews of the entire Soviet period. A number of anthologies, including Kochan 1978 and Ro’i 1995, contain excellent articles on the most important chapters of Soviet Jewish history. Finally Polonsky 2012 is the most recent and up-to-date general study summarizing the latest scholarship on the topic.

  • Gitelman, Zvi Y. A Century of Ambivalence: The Jews of Russia and the Soviet Union, 1881 to the Present. Edited by Yivo Institute for Jewish Research. 2d ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.

    Complete with hundreds of archival photographs, this is the best general survey of Soviet Jewish history, including the late-19th-century and post-Soviet periods. This is the book of choice for concise, yet informative studies on the topic.

  • Kochan, Lionel. The Jews in Soviet Russia Since 1917. 3d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

    Published for the Institute of Jewish Affairs, contains the most important articles on Soviet Jewish history through 1965, including influential pieces by Chimen Abramsky on Birobidzhan, Khone Shmeruk on Soviet Yiddish literature, Shmuel Ettinger on the history of Soviet Jews, and much more.

  • Levin, Nora. The Jews in the Soviet Union since 1917: Paradox of Survival. New York: New York University Press, 1988.

    A detailed history of Soviet Jews, complete with quotes from numerous published sources, infused by Cold War ideology.

  • Pinkus, Benjamin. The Jews of the Soviet Union: The History of a National Minority. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

    An excellent overview of Soviet Jewish institutional and other history, with a focus on the persecution of Jews as a minority. The book makes extensive use of the opening of the Soviet archives.

  • Polonsky, Antony. The Jews in Poland and Russia. Vol. 3, 1914–2008. Oxford: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2012.

    Chapters on the Soviet Union are the most up-to-date general overviews of the Soviet Jewish history and experience.

  • Ro’i, Yaacov. Jews and Jewish Life in Russia and the Soviet Union. Portland, OR: F. Cass, 1995.

    Another important anthology on Soviet Jewish history. It contains articles by David Fishman on Judaism in the Soviet Union; pioneering studies on the Holocaust in the Soviet Union by Mordechai Altshuler; and studies on Soviet Jewish literature by David Roskies, Jon Garrard, Velevl Chernin, and many others.

  • Schwarz, Solomon M. The Jews in the Soviet Union. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1951.

    Rich in astonishing detail, the book is the first in-depth analysis of the early Soviet Jewish experience. It remains relevant due to its emphasis on social, economic, and cultural processes vital to Soviet Jewish history. The book emphasizes anti-Semitism as the most important factor.

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