Statue of Peter the Great in St. Petersburg, representing a history of Russian antisemitism

An A-Z of Russian hospitality to Jews: A history of Russian antisemitism

Last updated on February 19, 2024

You might have heard something about Israeli President Shimon Peres and the Jewish museum in Moscow? It’s just opened and Peres was among the important so-and-so’s in attendance. At some point in the proceedings, overcome with emotions dredged up from childhood, he opened his mouth and and the following came out:

“My mother sang to me in Russian, and at the entrance to this museum, memories of my childhood flooded through my mind, and my mother’s voice played in my heart,” said Mr. Peres, 89, who was born in what is now Belarus. “I came here to say thank you. Thank you for a thousand years of hospitality.” – Shimon Peres

I know — shocking, right? Isn’t Russian antisemitism one of the driving forces of Jewish history in eastern Europe? The reason Jews have been fleeing to North America for over a century? The lovely folks over at Jewcy (they were kind enough to include me on their “Big Jewcy” list in 2011) have just published my response, so I thought I’d share with you all. It’s an A-Z list of some of the small details of Russian “hospitality” that Peres seems to have conveniently forgotten.

Please hop on over and check it out: “Mother Russia and the Jews: An A-Z Guide

But the grievances are many and the English alphabet is short, so I’m publishing some of the outtakes below. But again, the proper list is on Jewcy, so head on over there for a considerably more thorough history of Russian antisemitism.

A brief history of Russian antisemitism

Assimilation — Official Soviet policy, which led to rapid urbanization of the Jewish population and the disappearance of religious practice, leading to what was often called a spiritual genocide. In his influential report on Soviet Jewry, published in 1966, Elie Wiesel referred to Soviet Jews as the “Jews of Silence.”

Black Book — Compiled by Soviet-Jewish writers and war correspondents Ilya Ehrenburg and Vassily Grossman, The Black Book of the Holocaust was a record of Holocaust atrocities in the USSR and Poland. It brought together eyewitness testimonies, reports and diary entries, and was widely distributed in the US and Israel. In the USSR, it was first changed to remove all references to specifically Jewish deaths and atrocities and in 1948, the Soviet edition disappeared completely.

Beiliss Affair — The 1913 trial of Mendel Beiliss in Kiev, one of the most famous blood libel cases, sparked world attention. Beiliss was arrested in 1911 and after two years in jail, tried for the murder of a 12-year-old boy, despite evidence of the murder being gang related (in fact, anyone following that evidence trail was dismissed from the case). Leaflets were distributed at the victim’s funeral with accusations of ritual murder and calls for an avenging pogrom. The prosecution subsequently argued that Jewish sects still (ever!) practiced ritual murder. Beiliss was eventually acquitted.

Diploma Tax — The Diploma Tax was imposed in 1972 on all Jewish émigrés with higher education, ostensibly to repay that free education, but mostly as just one more barrier to overcome. Under international pressure, the tax was eventually repealed.

Edict(s) of Expulsion — Every Tsar had their own particular rules about where his/her Jews could and couldn’t live. A sampling includes expulsion from Russia proper altogether under Catherine I (1725-27) and then again under Elizabeth (1741-62); and an 1886 Edict of Expulsion, under Alexander III, which banished Jews from Kiev, and then in 1891, from Moscow.

Ivan the Terrible — Ivan the Terrible (1533-1584) railed against Jews regularly, singling them out in his general horrible rule. Examples include his conquest of Polotsk (now in Belarus), when all Jews were ordered to convert to Christianity or be drowned in the river.

Nicholas I — his rule marked a particularly oppressive period in Russian-Jewish history; of all the edicts about Jews enacted by Tsars between 1649 and 1881, Nicholas I was responsible for 600, or a full half. His special treatment of Russia’s Jews included conversion measures and the dreaded 25-year conscription.

OVIR — The office of visas and registration for the Soviet Ministry of the Interior where all immigration requests were processed and documents submitted, including approvals from workplaces and from parents (yes, even for married adults) and ex-spouses in cases of divorces. The approvals made it impossible to leave without the knowledge of everyone in one’s life – family, colleagues, neighbors, community members.

Pale of Settlement — The Pale of Settlement was enacted in 1791 under Catherine the Great. It restricted Jewish residence to designated regions under Russian rule and prevented Jews from living in cities, and is considered one of the main causes of widespread Russian-Jewish poverty. Most North American Jews descended from Russian immigrants can trace their heritage back to a shtetl in the Pale of the Settlement. The Pale was abolished by the Russian Provisional Government in 1917.

Rootless Cosmopolitans — Since the USSR officially practiced equality, it had to look outward for enemies – the capitalists, the bourgeoisie and the rootless cosmopolitans. The term quickly became one of the stock euphemisms for Jews and a common charge under Stalin.

Shtetls — Self-explanatory, yes? While a source of nostalgia today, Jewish life was generally poor and difficult in the shtetls. Between immigration to the US, the Holocaust and urbanization under the Soviets, the shtetls disappeared early in the 20th century.

4 thoughts on “An A-Z of Russian hospitality to Jews: A history of Russian antisemitism”

  1. While we remember, and for that matter learn about our past, lets not forget that Peres is a politician. Apparently one with a sense of black humor and sarcasm.

    1. Let’s hope it was sarcasm, but somehow I’m having trouble buying that defense. He was being political, but I read it more as courting Russia than anything else. These museum plans have been going on for a while, with Israeli support. It’s all a bit icky.

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