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Home » Cultural Geography, Ethnicity, Russia, Ukraine, and Caucasus

Why Russian Jews Are Not Russian

Submitted by on January 21, 2011 – 5:12 pm 116 Comments |  

In twenty years of university teaching I have discovered a few features of global geography that consistently flummox students, contradicting their preconceptions about how the world works. Russian nationality is one. How could it be possible for Russian-speaking Jews, born in Russia and descended from the Russian-born, not to be considered Russian by other Russians or the Russian state? By the same token, Russian Jewish immigrants to the United States are often surprised to find that Americans automatically classify them as Russian. They weren’t Russian in Russia, but they become Russian once they leave? How could that be?

Such confusion arises from the way Americans erroneously globalize the nation-state model. Just as all American citizens are Americans and all French citizens are French, all citizens of Russia must be Russians. What else could they be? But not all countries are nation-states. Many claim the status yet fall far from the ideal; others firmly reject it. Russia is in the latter category.

As laid out in the first article of its constitution, Russia is also known as the Russian Federation, the two terms being “equal.” A federation, strictly speaking, is not a nation-state; its constituent geographical entities and peoples remain officially distinct. This multinational state characteristic is spelled out clearly in Article Three of the Russian constitution, which states: “The bearer of sovereignty and the only source of power in the Russian Federation shall be its multinational people.”

The multinational character of modern Russia is rooted in its imperial past. Like most other empires, that of the czars was based on what Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper call the “politics of difference”; imperial rulers emphasized distinctions among their subject peoples, both legally and institutionally. When the Russian Empire yielded to the Soviet Union, adjustments had to be made, as the imperial ideal was discredited with the revolution. In Lenin’s vision, the various peoples of the country would eventually merge into a single Soviet nationality, itself a way-station on the road to a nationless future. For the short term, however, Lenin insisted on accommodation with non-Russian peoples, providing them with a measure of autonomy. The result was an intricate system of political divisions within the Soviet Union, with a hierarchy of nationally distinct autonomous areas. At the top were the union republics (which gained independence in 1991); in the middle were the many internal republics of the union republics; and at the bottom were relatively small autonomous regions. As a self-declared multinational union, the Soviet Union sought membership for each of its union republics in the United Nations. Despite its name, however, the United Nations was not a union of nations, but rather one of sovereign states. Still, a compromise was reached that allowed Ukraine and Belarus*—the least nationally distinctive Soviet Republics—to join the U.N. as original members on October 24, 1945, while the other Soviet Socialist Republics were represented collectively by the Soviet Union.

After the USSR collapsed in 1991, Russia itself remained a complexly multinational state. It current first-order territorial divisions are the so-called federal subjects, numbering eighty-three. Forty-six of these are standard Russian oblasts, nine are former frontier Krais (territories), two are federal cities (Moscow and St. Petersburg), twenty-one are republics, four are autonomous okrugs, and one is an autonomous oblast. “Federation” is probably not the best word to describe the Russian union, as it implies a joining together on relatively equal terms, whereas Moscow clearly dominates all of Russia’s federal subjects. (Russia’s internal structures will be explored in a later Geocurrents posting.)

The early Soviet authorities were unsure how to classify the Jewish population. Jews had always been considered a separate people from Russians, subject to disabilities and periodic pograms. But they could not be readily placed in Lenin’s tabulation of nations, as they did not have their own homeland—an essential criterion for nationhood. Stalin’s solution was to “grant” Soviet Jews their own national territory—as far away from their homes as possible. Under the Czars, Jews had been mostly restricted to the so-called Pale of Settlement in the far west, and the new Jewish autonomous area was to be in the far east, along the sparsely populated border with China.

The Jewish autonomous region experienced modest growth and development through the mid 1930s. Its nearly 18,000 Jews then constituted sixteen percent of the total population. The region’s current government boasts that Jewish settlers were enticed to migrate from “Argentina, Lithuania, France, Latvia, Germany, Belgium, the USA, Poland and even from Palestine.” Yiddish schools, publishing firms, and other institutions were established. In the late 1930s, however, Stalin began to purge Jews. Yiddish schools in the oblast were shuttered, and migration came to a virtual halt. But as Stalin’s anti-Semitism metastasized after World War II, plans were developed for wholesale Jewish relocation. Much evidence indicates that the Soviet government planned to deport virtually the entire population to the autonomous oblast and other remote regions, no doubt slaughtering a substantial number in the process. In all likelihood, Soviet Jewry was saved only by Stalin’s death in 1953.

The Jewish Autonomous Region itself survived both the demise of Stalin and the end of the Soviet Union. Today it is one of Russia’s 83 federal subjects, and its only autonomous oblast. The Jewish population, however, is no longer significant, numbering between 2,000 and 4,000 and constituting less than two percent of the oblast’s population. Still, Jewish institutions are maintained. A new synagogue was completed in 2004, and the region’s official website maintains that a small-scale Jewish cultural revival is underway. The website also boasts that “tourism in the Jewish Autonomous Region is constantly developed and improved. The number of tourists visiting our region … annually grows.” One cannot but wonder whether such claims are exaggerated.

Russia’s Jewish autonomous region does not occupy a prominent position in the public imagination. Opponents of Israel, however, occasionally mention it as an alternative Jewish homeland. Just this week, an article in Tanzania’s The Citizen concluded by stating that “… the notion of an exclusive Israel dominating Palestine is becoming an impossibility too. Who knows, as that reality sinks into Israel consciousness, Jews will look at Birobidzmhan** with a fresh eye.” The claim is extraordinary. Jews have been abandoning Russia for some time, and for good reason. I suspect that most Jews would regard the autonomous oblast, to the extent that they know of it, as a place of Stalinist horror.

* Officially, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic and the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic.

** The author is referring to Birobidzhan, capital of the autonomous oblast.

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  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    This is a very interesting posting, Martin! First of all, it is really true that Russian Jews are not considered Russians except abroad (and by “abroad” I mean not only in the U.S. but elsewhere as well, in Israel, for example). This is kind of ironic, especially since even abroad the relationships between Russian and Russian Jewish communities are uneasy at best. On the personal level, relationships are not hostile, but the communities stay miles apart. For examples, the authors of “Russian San Francisco” Lydia Zaverukha and Nina Bogdan complained about the rather cold response they got from the Russian Jewish community in response for their invitation to be included in the book.

    Second, as you point out in your posting, the Russians, and the Soviets before them, continued the Tsarist “politics of difference” (or “divide and conquer”), with Jews as with other ethnic non-Russians. In fact, “natsional’nost’” (often translated as “nationality”, although I think “ethnicity” would be a more appropriate translation) was written in one’s passport and all other important documents. Actually, it became known as “pjatyj punkt” (literally, “fifth item”): in all forms and documents it always came right after one’s full name (the first three items) and one’s date of birth. The creation of the Jewish autonomous region was part and parcel of the Soviet ethnic gerrymandering and displacement. Another example of the same policy is what was done in the North Caucasus: the creation of Kabardino-Balkar and Karachay-Cherkess republics (where two unrelated peoples were grouped together) and the wholesale deportations of the Chechen and the Ingush.

    However, it is not the case that Jews in the Soviet Union (and then Russia) ever were on an equal footing with other non-Russians. Although negative attitudes have existed towards various ethnic groups (any collection of Soviet “anektody”, or jokes, would show as much), Jews had the special status. The negative attitudes towards other non-Russians did not match the anti-Semitism. Pogroms, quotas for university entry or jobs, anti-Semitic propaganda and the straightforward anti-Semitism of the masses — all these things remained even when the Pale was officially abolished.

    Part of this special negative status accorded to the Russian Jews has to do with the fact that in the Russian Empire/ Soviet Union/ Russian Federation, as elsewhere, Jews had a mixed status of both an ethnic group (“natsional’nost’”) and a religion. Thus, non-Russians who were Orthodox Christians (e.g., Karelians) or Slavs (e.g., Belorussians) had a better status than Jews. And this dual status of Jews as an ethnic group and as a religion is not specific to Russia (through its historical permutations). Thus, 19th century Jews in Western Europe wanted to be considered full-fledged citizens of their respective nations (France, Germany), but it was also difficult to consider them Frenchmen or Germans of a different faith, as many of them weren’t that religious anymore. Even in today’s Israel “who is a Jew” is defined both in terms of blood (one’s mother’s Jewishness) and in terms of religion (one can convert) — and one’s Jewishness is stamped in one’s identity papers as it was in the Soviet Union.

    And as you point out, it is both the general unattractiveness of the Jewish autonomous region and the Stalinist’s horror connected to it that make its economy and its Jewishness decline.

    • Olterigo

      Just to emphasize a point you made, when you wrote: “was written in one’s passport and all other important documents.”

      The “nationality” even made it into teachers’ record books of their students’ grades. In the end, these record books had a section, which listed each student’s parents’ names and nationalities.

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    One last point to make is that while the adjective “russkij” (Russian) refers to both ethnicity and the language, the plural form “russkie” refers only to ethnic Russians, not those who speak Russian (the latter would be “russko-govorjaschie”, Russian-speaking). There are many people in the Russian Federation who speak Russian but are not ethnic Russians. Also, the need for a term for the nation as a whole has been felt through the years. During the Soviet times, the official term for all USSR citizens was “sovetskij narod” (Soviet nation) or “sovetskie ljudi” (Soviet people) — and the opposite “anti-sovetskij” meant anti-government! Now, there is a different term to refer to the citizens of the Russian Federation as a whole: “rossijane”. English, unfortunately, does not make the distinction and both “russkie” and “rossijane” are translated as “Russians”, so the gap in the English vocabulary contributes an average American’s confusion about the matter.

    • nawseeya

      “there are many people in the Russian Federation who speak Russian but are not ethnic Russians. ” so does that mean they are called by their religion? Why is religion chronically referred to as an ethnicity?

      • It doesn’t seem that you know much about the topic, do you? There are 180 ethnicities in Russia (according to the latest census). And it’s not the same as religion. Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Gagauz, Armenians, Georgians are Christians (of different kinds), about 30 ethnic groups in Dagestan are Muslims, many other groups are “pagans” or animists by religion. Only about 100 languages are spoken in Russia, which means that the 180 ethnic groups do not match to language either. Ethnicity is its own category, not reducible to language or religion.

        Read more here and educate yourself:

  • Борис Денисов

    item five had been removed from the Russian passport few years ago

  • Martin W. Lewis

    Many thanks to Asya for the additional information. Linguistic analysis is often crucial to such matters, as much gets lost in translation. I am curious about the term “rossijane," wondering how it was derived and what its connotations may be. Thanks as well to Boris for providing current information on "item five." But does that mean that "nationality/ethnicity" is no longer listed on Russian passports and other official documents?

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    "Russkij" is an adjective that comes from Rus', the old name of the country that was originally the name of the vikings/varyangians who came to Russia as mercenaries or traders in 9-12th century.

    "Rossijanin" (singular of "rossijane") is a noun, formed by a suffix -anin, which makes nouns for persons from a certain place: rizhanin (one from Riga), parizhanin (one from Paris), prazhanin (one from Prague).

    The word "rossijane" was used already in the 18th century, but mostly in a high, poetic style. It appears, for example, in Karamzin’s “History of the Russian State”. At the time, it was not yet in opposition to “russkie” — both meant the same thing and the differences were purely stylistic. The same use continued through the 19th century and the early 20th. In Ushakov’s famous dictionary of Russian (, published for the first time in late 1930s, “rossijane” is marked as an archaic, high-style and formal word. But in the middle of the 20th century the word acquires the present-day meaning of Russian citizens regardless of nationality/ethnicity.

    The true revival of “rossijane” started in the 1990s, when it was regularly used by Boris Yeltsin in his addresses to the people. Interestingly, Putin tends not to use this word, saying “Dear compatriots!” instead. This may be because of his desire not to aggravate nationalistic elements in the country; or simply because Putin seems to generally emphasize his St. Petersburg style of speech as quite different from the Moscow style of his predecessor.

    Curiously, “rossijane” is not the only Russian word referring to one’s citizenship rather than one’s ethnicity. Other such words include: kazakhstantsy (citizens of Kazakhstan; as opposed to kazakhi, Kazakh), latvijtsy (citizens of Latvia; as opposed to latyshi, Latvians), etc.

  • Vitaliy

    Martin, thank you for a very thorough analysis of this matter. I would like to add a little piece of information. Apparently, at some point of the Soviet history there was a half-baked idea of creating a Jewish autonomous region in Crimea. A few Jewish communities settled there in 1920's. Also, for a long time there was a significant Karaim community in Crimea: adherents of Karaite Judaism. Towards the end of WWII, representatives of Jewish Anti-fascist Committee (famous actor Solomon Mikhoels) were sent to the West with a mission to gather some money for establishing this autonomous region in Crimea. However, Stalin's plan was only to extract some money, it seems that he never considered this idea seriously. In the end Mikhoels was murdered by NKVD and other Committee members were accused of collaboration with the West (American spies), which helped Stalin in his anti-Semitic propaganda. In any case, Stalin planned to move the Jews not to Crimea, possibly the best part of land in the Soviet Empire, but to Birobidzhan, which has very harsh conditions. Personally, I do not think that a Jewish Republic in Crimea was a reasonable idea, but as you pointed out in your posting, Birobidzhan was pretty much a road to extermination. In one modern Russian play there is a grotesque scene where Stalin and Brezhnev are singing together "Every one who wants to go to Israel we'll send to Birobodzhan, let'em go to Israel via Magadan" (Magadan is an established symbol of the Gulag).

    • The Crimean Karaim were not Karaites.

    • pilman

      I get tired of this idea that Jews must be descended from Russians just because some had lived there. Russians who converted to Judaism call themselves subbotniks and don’t hide that they have a orthodox christian past. Other Jews that migrated towards Russia never were allowed into other parts of Russia other than the pale of settlement. The only other Jews that existed in russia were the khazar empire before russia existed in parts of Ukraine and the Caucasus but Jews were in Europe before the khazars existed. Most Jews are Semitic origin and I get tired of hearing people trying to class Jews as Russian when russians never accepted Jews as such.

      • Indeed. I am not sure why you brought it up in connection with Vitaliy’s comment above though: neither he nor anyone else on this site claims that Jews are descended from Russians… Or are you in agreement with us?

      • z0ltan

        Bullshit. Most Jews do NOT have Semitic blood.That is why the irony is doubly strong in Palestine (yes, Palestine, not Israel which is a joke state) where Palestinians are the actual descendants of the ancient Hebrews whereas the Ashkenazim are actually European + Khazar (and other peoples from the Caucasus) mixed.

        • pilman

          Actually You are wrong, dna tests prove a large majority of jews have dna haplogroups from the middle east including the cohanim who are j1 p58. also israel is majority mizrahi and sephardic, not ashkenazi.

          • Correct.

          • Blah Blah

            I’m an American whose family on both sides are Russian Jews (Ukrainian and Belarussian), and we all recently did the national geographic DNA test. Our family came from the region between Israel/Iran and migrated directly up through Armenia and Turkey into Russia.

            It’s the most direct route from the Middle East to Russia, so it makes complete sense to me that our maternal markers lead back to the greater Israel/Palestine region. Jews barely intermarried until the latter half of the 20th century, so other than the children who were a product of these few marriages – and those who were the result of soldier rape – most descendants of these Jews were likely ethnically unchanged for generations.

            For the record, everybody in my family looks middle eastern and I am frequently approached by Persians who think I’m Iranian. I think I’m the norm for Russian Jews, as most of the ones I’ve meet look like me.

            Central European Jews (Hungarian, German, Austrian, Czech, Slavs) are a completely different story and have a considerable amount of non-Jewish DNA through migration, assimilation and intermarriage. These are most of the Jews who have blonde/blue eyes. Russian Jews are generally quite dark.

        • Before you accuse other people of saying “bullshit”, perhaps you should disclose the sources of your ridiculous statements. How about some references to genetic studies? Links to actual papers would be even better.

        • kirby1

          Still waiting for that link to the scientific study that supports you absurd myth.

      • Ron Smith

        Very true my friend the Jews were in that region long before Russia got it’s name.

      • Max

        Not true. In the Russian Empire, permanent and semi-permanent settlement outside the Pale of Settlement was permitted to certain classes of Jewish people:

        1). Guild Merchants; albeit only while they retain their membership in a guild; they were permitted to reside in any region with their guild branch along with their family and some servants.
        2). A lot of Jewish farmers in certain Siberian gubernates were allowed to stay upon the establishment of the Pale (but no more were allowed to move in)
        3). Non-Ashkenazim Jews such as Georgian Jews, Tats, Bukharan Jews, etc… for the most part they were left alone and allowed to stay where they were when the Pale was established (but again, new arrivals were not permitted)
        4). Doctors, Medical Professionals, Academics, Scientists, Merchants.. all such professionals who successfully graduated from the relevant higher learning institutes – were permitted to take up residence anywhere they liked whether as government employees or in private or self-employment.
        5). Jews who had completed their 25-year conscription term in the Russian army (conscription of under-age Jewish boys was a policy penned by Nicholas I that was abolished some decades later); upon completion of their service such people were given the right to reside anywhere in the Empire.
        6). Some types of Artisans and Master Workmen; at various times they were allowed to reside in most of the Empire.

        Taken altogether, by the turn of the 20th century – this had resulted in the formation of significant Jewish populations outside the Pale of Settlement; some +310,000 Jews outside the Pale, with approx. 250,000 of those residing in Russia proper.

        It’s also important to note that Russian Jews; were on average a lot more assimilated and integrated into society than Ukrainian or Belarussian Jews.
        This is reflected in the figures for interethnic marriage between Jews and non-Jews in 1926; whereas for Belarus this was at only 3%, and in the Ukraine – 5%; in Russia this was a whole 17%.
        No doubt this was a in a large part due to these restrictions; with the only Jews permitted to settle in Russia being graduates of many years of studying in Russian institutes, former conscripts who served 25 years in the Russian Army away from their families and culture, various skilled artisans and merchants who must have been fairly involved in society, etc…

        • Yes, but those were a minority of all Jews living in Russia: according to the Wikipedia article (, “In 1897, according to Russian census of 1897
          total Jewish population of Russia was 5,189,401 persons of both sexes
          (4.13% of total population). Of this total 93,9% lived in the 25
          provinces of the Pale of Settlement.”

          • Max

            Quite right, the total Jewish population in the Russian Empire was huge as you say; and the +300,000 in Russia proper was only a small minority of them; albeit it represented a much bigger fraction of the Jewish intelligentsia and educated class.

  • Martin W. Lewis

    Many thanks to Vitaliy for the additional information. Karaite Judaism is a fascinating topic that deserves its own blog posting one of these day!.

  • Jim Wilson

    When I was in Tbilisi, in 1987, I bought the most charming little “Samouchitel’ Yidishskogo Yazyka” (Self-teacher of the Yiddish Language). All of the dialogues were, of course, about how wonderful life was for Jews in Birobidzhan. It does remind me that the official language of the Jewish region was Yiddish and quite pointedly not Hebrew.

    I’m sure I am not pointing out anything new to you, but your use of “nation-state model” in this posting seems only to take into account the consensualist model of the United States and, to some extent, France. Of course, Russians’ understanding of the nation-state is a bit more primordialist, as in Central and Eastern Europe.

  • Georgep

    Just think how much better Russians would be (all countries for that matter)  if we could get these Jewish parasites out of our countries!   That scum destroy everything they touch!

  • ytooo

    damn this is some nazi propaganda

  • ytooo

    why are russian jews called russian and not polish jews like jews in poland? because the jews has been living in russia for HUNDREDS of years and as jewish as they may be they have so much russian ancestors and mixed blood with other pure russians and maybe some kavkazi people that they cant even be considered jews… its like theyre maybe 40% jew and 60% russian.

    consider the fact nazis adore the ugly muslims with their big turk noses, mono brows, greasy and poop colored skin that are as black as ash but dont consider the russian jew to be russian, while he isnt even committed to the jewish religion and cant be spotted out of the crowd of russians as a non russian… makes perfect sense right?

    • “he isnt even committed to the jewish religion and cant be spotted out of the crowd of russians as a non russian” — what makes you say so? Jews have been mostly very committed to their religion/culture/tradition. And both Jews and non-Jews in Russia can spot a Jew in a crowd of Russians!

      • Evgeniy

        Really? I can’t. Of course, when someone recommends himself as Izrail Solomonovich and goes on to hail the American policies & dreams on the Middle East (and elsewhere), I know immediately who he is… But not earlier. 😉

        • Really? You couldn’t tell a Jew out of a crowd, by name, looks, etc.? I find that hard to believe… Especially since the majority of the Russian Jews would have names like Izrail Solomonovich and will have dreams about the Middle East (except for the very assimilated ones).

          • Evgeniy

            By name, I could of course. By some attitudes, possibly too. That is if both traits are pronounced enough. By looks — no. Maybe I did not understand what you meant by “out of a crowd”; I meant, “without exchanging a single word, in one look”. Whether the majority of Russian Jews is assimilated or not, I don’t know; after all, many of those who were not quite at home here and had dreams about the Middle East already departed, whether to Europe, US, or Israel.

          • That’s very odd for me. Maybe things have really changed in Russia in this respect. I certainly didn’t encounter any problems on the part of my Russian countrymen identifying me as Jewish…

          • Evgeniy

            I would recognise you as Jewish both by your first name and by your surname, but not by your photo. This may be personal, of course.

          • Random strangers who didn’t know my name called me various variations of the “dirty Jew” plenty of time…

          • Max

            Good for you. Well not good for you actually, but either way, it reflects more poorly on them than on you, so look at it that way.

            Anyway, are you actually from Russia; or are you from the Ukraine or one of these countries?

            I ask because I don’t think there was ever this level of rampant anti-Semitism anywhere in Russia. Perhaps in Moscow maybe, where the Jewish population was quite large.

          • Yes, I am actually from Russia. And yes, there was rampant anti-Semitism there for decades. I have plenty of stories to tell.

          • Max

            Where are you from in Russia?

            My father’s Jewish – he always denied that there was significant anti-Semitism here; there was more where he grew up.

            I know quite a few Jews here; none of them complain about anti-Semitism and honestly I’ve never actually witnessed it or any sort of open disdain towards Jews; at the most I heard a couple comments but then you could chance upon the same in any country at all including probably where you live.

            There is a lot more animosity towards migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus for instance – albeit even this shouldn’t be exaggerated.

            I remember a comment on a site not long ago; it was about a half-Ashkenazi, half-Caucasus Jew from Georgia who grew up and lived in New York for most of his life – then emigrated to Moscow about 5 years ago – and claims that everyone has basically welcomed him as one of their own and do not treat him differently.
            Strange to hear that considering it’s Moscow; but about his Jewish roots not bothering anybody – that’s quite believable.

            Whatever ill-feelings there were towards Jews seem to have become extinct since most of them emigrated and new immigrants started coming in. If there ever really was such ill-feeling; which I have reason to doubt.

          • “I’ve never actually witnessed it or any sort of open disdain towards Jews” — lucky you.

            “you could chance upon the same in any country at all including probably where you live” — I’ve not been denied acceptance to an educational institution or a job on the grounds of being Jewish in the USA. In Russia, yes, from elementary school to university. My father was not accepted to university of his choice because he was Jewish and it was explicitly written on his application. I can give you more examples.

            I am surprised, however, that your parents generation did not encounter anything of the sort in Russia — why did they leave then?

          • Max

            No not lucky me. If I haven’t seen it and no-one I know here has ever mentioned encountering anti-Semitism; it’s enough for me to call it a quite uncommon phenomenon.

            I live in St. Petersburg, but I can’t imagine that it will be much different here than anywhere else.

            My father also had problems getting accepted and was only accepted because he was very good.
            This had nothing to do with common anti-Semitism; but a government policy – which applied quotas on students on ethnic grounds. In the same way as Jews were at a disadvantage, some peoples – such as those from the far North; had the equivalent of today’s “Affirmative Action” as seen in the United States – meaning an advantage over the rest of the population in securing education and employment.
            In fact, a group of Asian-Americans is right now suing Harvard on the basis of their alleged discrimination against Asians. You see, Harvard has the same quota system in place that the USSR did; and because of Asian-Americans’ academic excellence; they end up competing against each other than against the general population; and have a harder time getting in than whites or blacks.

            Shall we accuse American society of being anti-Asian on that basis?

            My parents left Russia because the Soviet Union was collapsing and there was serious political and economic destabilization in the country; added to that my father had an opportunity via a student-exchange program to Great Britain at the end of the 80s – and he rapidly went on to involve himself in business there. Me and my mother went over in 1990, and my parents made a final decision to stay after the attempted coup by hardliners in 1991.
            It had absolutely 0 to do with anti-Semitism. My father would later return for a few years, and ultimately I would return a couple decades after I first left.

          • Glad you admit that your family’s immigration was due primarily to economic/stability issues — most people don’t. Well, I am from St. Peterburg too and I know enough people from there and from other parts of the USSR who’ve been subject to both official and everyday anti-Semitism. Including numerous people who were not accepted to universities etc or employed — despite being as you say “very good” (my father for example was a straight A student and graduated high school with a gold medal). So it is a matter of luck or perhaps a matter of perspective. But are you telling me that in the 1980s you were not bullied for being Jewish? I have a hard time believing it, if you were in a normal school.

            Re: affirmative action policies, I’ve never been a fan and I think they are wrong. I think the current policies are discriminating, same as USSR policies were.

          • Max

            I’m not really Jewish; I’m half Russian and half Jewish; and identify with both my roots; but the Russian one more simply by virtue of the fact that I grew up with Russian culture and went to Orthodox Church when I was younger.

            With that in mind, and also the fact that I was born in ’87 – I’m afraid that I just didn’t get the chance to be bullied for being Jewish back in the 80s; much as I would have liked to.

            I remember I was bullied in school for being Russian though in Great Britain; and that really used to anger me; only happened a few times though.
            Who knows; maybe if you went to my school and the fact that you came from Russia was the subject of ridicule instead of your Jewish roots – you would understand me better. And maybe if I grew up and went to school where you grew up and went to school – I would understand you better.

            But you didn’t, and I didn’t.
            So I can only tell you what I know – there is no anti-Semitism here; not to any appreciable degree; honestly you will find more in most countries around the world – most people here do not bat an eye about one’s Jewish roots; we have some far more crazy mixes here these days.

          • Oh, if you were only half Jewish and by the sound of it identified more as Russian than Jewish, then it’s not surprising that you didn’t notice much anti-Semitism. Also, you being younger and therefore familiar with Russia post-USSR might be the reason. As I said earlier, things might have changed with most Jews having left in the late 1980s – early 1990s.

            Re: being bullied for being from Russia, I was subject of that too, so I do understand.

          • Max

            I will just say; that I know people, proper Jews, that identify both as Russian and Jewish, and there is no conflict in this for them, no contradiction – nor should there be.

          • If these were people who are fully (both “halves”) Jewish, there’s no way they could identify or be identified as русские.

          • Max

            I’ve actually known plenty of Russian Jews (albeit from my generation) who refer to themselves directly or indirectly as русские, and who don’t protest if others refer to them that way. In Israel especially but not only (although there it has something to do with domestic politics in the country).
            This is because there is no real divide between the peoples; in the same way a Belarussian might call himself русский out of convenience or conviction; even though technically he is not.
            I’ve known a Tatar from Uzbekistan who lives in Britain to refer to himself that way too; in his case he is very much Russified and like the Russians also experienced troubles with native nationalism there back in the 90s.

            But I wasn’t talking about that really; as much as identifying with Russian culture/language/statehood; especially when living abroad in other countries – and here it doesn’t matter what a person sees as their ethnic origin. I know Tatars, Ukrainians, Georgians, etc… from Russia who call themselves Russian; in the sense of a national identity, and taking aboard everything Russian as their own – while still being proud or admitting to their own specific ethnic identity.

          • The entire point of the post, however, is about ethnic identity, not a national one (or about the difference between the two, which is completely lost on American students, as Martin Lewis notes).

          • Max

            Americans of all people should understand this difference though; ethnic politics and lobbying seems to play a large part in domestic affairs there and people are encouraged to celebrate their own cultures and traditions while subscribing to a broader, American national identity.

            At least, that was my impression of how America is (never been there)

          • Things aren’t always how they should be. And no, there’s not a lot of attention to one’s ethnicity. Racial issues yes, but not ethnicity.

          • nawseeya

            half Russian and half Jewish? really? when are people going to stop this? Jewish is a religion. Your other half is from some other country, nothing to do with what religion they were.

          • Well, that’s exactly the point: in Russia, “Jewish” isn’t just a religion. It’s ethnicity (which is confusingly called “nationality” there). And a Jew living in Russia certainly doesn’t become half Russian.

          • Max

            Well whatever, if it makes you happy than my Jewish side is from the Ukraine; but I myself am from Russia.

          • Incidentally, isn’t Turgenev’s Asya a Russian?

          • Evgeniy

            «Ася (собственное имя ее было Анна, но Гагин называл ее Асей, и уж вы позвольте мне ее так называть)». This is also a good abbreviation for Анастасия. But the only Asya I knew who used this word as her full name was a Jew.

          • Good point. But I knew some who were Anna by full name and Asya by short name and were Jewish

          • Evgeniy

            The name Anna is of Hebrew origin, right? Like Maria, for instance. So, I suppose, it must be in use among “traditional”, non-assimilated Jews just as well as the names like Solomon, am I correct? While it so happens that a lot of Russians, too, use both of these female names, yet they don’t use the name Solomon.

          • Hannah is of Hebrew origin. I am not sure if there isn’t a separate name
            Anna, as it seems to be really common in many places… It seems that
            some Biblical/Jewish names were picked up by early Christians and others
            weren’t, and now we have some sort of fallout from that. I might do a
            post on that on — my new/old blog. Check it

            Thanks for the interesting discussion, though. I am really curious how the situation is with Jews these days in Russia…

          • Olterigo

            Things didn’t change that much. Whenever you have a liberal member of intelligentsia say something against the government, he is immediately reminded of his Jewish last name or ethnic origin (even if he wants nothing to do with Judaism or Israel and maybe has even converted and sincerely believes in Jesus, etc.).

            The reason, Evgeniy may not be able to tell a Jew in the crowd is that most of those who stayed are those with only a partial Jewish ancestry (look at the “heads of the Jewish community in Russia” – the vast majority of them have non-Jewish wives and, thus, halachically non-Jewish children). And they are also likely to have less of a stereotypical Jewish looks.

          • Yes: Shenderovich, Rubinstein…

          • Olterigo

            In terms of looks I’m talking from a personal experience. Several years ago, I attended a Jewish youth conference in Russia. For many of them (though far from all), I wouldn’t have been able to tell that they were Jews. As I talked to a couple, I started getting a much better picture of the current Russian Jewish community. Many were coming from mixed families and on average looked different from the Russian Jewish population of NYC.

          • Interesting… so as I suspected, most full-fledged Jews have already left…

          • Max

            No, the vast majority of Russian Jews have Russian names and patronymicals; only the surnames can give them away but often enough Russian Jews would have Russian-sounding surnames too.

            Sometimes it’s possible to tell by the face, but many times it’s not – some look stereotypically Jewish, others have tanned skin and a darker complexion, but some just look Russian and with Slavic features.

            Dreams about the Middle East is probably the surest way to tell; but again, more than enough don’t give a damn about Israel and the Arabs – although most will have an opinion on it one way or the other.

          • Perhaps if you judge by the Jews remaining in Russia today, yes they try to adapt as much as possible and have Russian-sounding names etc. But I can’t say it was the case 20 years ago. Does Израиль Иосифович Перельцвайг sound Russian to you?

          • Max

            No not at all, I myself as a fellow Russian emigree base my judgement on Russian/Ukrainian Jews that I knew – who mostly lived outside Russia and have done since the 90s; Great Britain and Israel chiefly.

            Among their names; Mikhail, Alexander, Rostislav, Lyubov, Olga, Vitaly, Igor and so on. From the youngest generations to people born before WW2.
            I honestly have not met one Russian Jew with an actual Jewish name such as Abraam, Izrail, Yakov, etc…

            Furthermore the Jews remaining in Russia today – did not change their name in most cases and can be thus taken to be representative too. Among people I know – Elizaveta, Yaroslav, Irina, etc… these are all proper Russian names.

            I won’t name any surnames here; but I will say that roughly half of them are Russian-sounding; albeit at some had theirs changed in the Soviet-era.
            In any case there are ethnic Russians with Jewish or German sounding names nowadays too, so it’s hard to tell on that basis.

          • One of my grandfathers was Izrail, the other Yakov… Also, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere on the disqus, many “Russian” names became nearly exclusively Jewish (Mark, Arkady, etc.)

          • Max

            Arkady is now a Jewish name?
            Well, that will certainly be news to some people I know.

          • Most people named Arkady since the 1970s were Jewish. I read the stats somewhere, but I don’t have the time to look it up now.

          • Max

            Well, I’ll keep that in mind for my Jewish Radar that I’m working on.

      • Ron Smith

        ASya, what kind of Jews are the Jamaican WI Rasta-Farian that claim they are from the line of David and Salomon. Are they accepted or rejected as Jews?

        • Frankly, I’ve not heard of Rastafarian Jews… There are descendants of Sephardi Jews in Jamaica, but that’s not what you are asking about, is it? Perhaps the Rastafarian Jews are linked to Ethiopian Jews somehow, as Rastafarian movement has Ethiopian Jews? Perhaps Martin knows more about this than I do…

  • Megan

    I was always under the impression that Russian Jews were not ethnic slavs.

    • That’s correct.

      • SirBedevere

        Wouldn’t this depend on how one defined “ethnic”? Hungarians in the late nineteenth century absolutely insisted on “Hungarians of the Jewish faith” being part of the Hungarian nation, a word that in Hungarian has a much stronger genetic sense than in English (nemzet is quite obviously related to the word nem=breed). Of course, “ethnic” only comes into the language later, though I think “ethnology” comes in a little earlier.

        • Well, since we are talking about *Russian* Jews, it’s the Russian definition of “ethnic” that matters, no?

          • SirBedevere

            I suppose that is true.

    • Ranger Smith

      Russian Jews include a lot of different ethnic groups (Ashkenazi, Mountain Jews, Bukhari Jews, Tatar-Jews, etc).

      The Ashkenazi Jews from Russia usually have a lot of Slavic blood, since they inter-married so often. Many Russian Ashkenazim are more blonde and blue eyed than most Russians.

      • “Russian Jews” is really a misnomer: under what definition would this “ethnic group” include Bukhari Jews, for example? They do not live in the Russian Federation, most do not speak Russian, etc. In Russia itself, all of these groups are considered one “nationality”, so it all depends on one’s definition of “ethnic group”…

        As for your point about intermarriage and Slavic blood, there’s some intermarriage in recent decades, but historically there was little intermarriage between Jews and gentiles and the genetic research suggests as much.

        • Illya

          Some ethnic Europeans converted to Judaism and then these unions were not considered “intermarriage” under religious interpretation. There is strong genetic evidence in the Ashkenazi population that shows that more than 80 percent of their maternal lineages are European in origin:

          • There are indeed documented cases of Christian Europeans converting to Judaism, including even some monks and priests. However, these are individual cases, not statistically significant phenomena. And as far as I know, only in Western Europe, circa 1,000 years ago. The study you are referring to showed that the mtDNA admixture happened “in Western Europe, ~2 ka or slightly earlier”, hardly the time and the place for “the Ashkenazi Jews from Russia” to get “a lot of Slavic blood”, as per Ranger Smith’s comment above. Here’s the link to the actual study, not a popular media rehash of it:

        • z0ltan

          Nonsense. The real myth is that Ashkenazi are Semitic. Ashkenazim are a mix of European (proper), Khazar, and Mediterranean peoples. There is just a smattering of Semitic genes in their gene pool.

          • Do you have genetic findings that discredit the work to which I link above? Or is your mantra pure belief based on nothing but your anti-Semitic ideology?

          • kirby1

            The old Khazar myth has been debunked years ago, 25 years of DNA study clearly shows a lineage from the Middle East based on similarities.

    • z0ltan

      Jews are ethnically diverse – most of them are in no way Semitic, which makes today’s situation ridiculous. Russian/European/Ashkenazi Jews are of Khazar-European mix with a very very small influx of Middle-Eastern genes.

      • You don’t have to say the same thing three (four?) times. As it is not supported by any actual FACTS, repeating it over and over makes it look even more like a mantra, an ideological belief, no more.

        • NeighborhoodGuy

          What’s not supported by actual facts, Asya is the Zionist myth that modern day self-identified Jews (whether Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Bukharian, etc.) are descendants of the ancient Hebrews and have historical roots in Israel.

          What z0ltan is saying is supported by common sense, things that are in front of your eyes if your mind wasn’t clouded by Zionist racial myths.

          z0ltan, thank you for bringing this up. Glad I’m not the only one who sees beyond the propaganda.

  • Linkin

    I remember reading that if a non-Russian marries a Russian their children can be classified as Russian. I have also noticed there are large numbers of “unclassifiable” people in Russian demographic statistics.

    • As far as I can tell, in the Soviet times, children of one Russian and one Jewish parent were typically written in accordance with the “nationality” of the father, or as a Russian if their parents were able to bribe the passport office clerk 😉

      As for the “unclassifiables”, there’s about 45,000 of “nationalities other than those mentioned above” and about 1.5 million of people do declined to state their nationality on the population census questionnaire. Note, however, that the population census questionnaire is filled out by the people themselves and they can say whatever they please. It’s not the same as the nationality written in the official documents.

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  • Evgeniy

    This multinational state characteristic is spelled out clearly in
    Article Three of the Russian constitution, which states: “The bearer of
    sovereignty and the only source of power in the Russian Federation shall
    be its multinational people.”

    «Многонациональный народ». A linguistic remark that was not made before. The adjective “многонациональный” is necessary to disambiguate the two meanings of the word «народ»: first, “an ethnos”, and second, “a people”. Without this adjective, the article would be in danger of being interpreted by many in the sense that the Russian ethnos is the only one to to exercise the power. I have heard opinions that this disambiguation was the only reason to include the word «многонациональный», and it looks like truth. The general point remains valid, though: the multinational character of the country is acknowledged in the Constitution.

    • Oh no doubt Russia is a multi-ethnic state. I am not using the word “multi-national” exactly because of the ambiguity of “nation”. The multiethnic character is stated in the constitution, but what it turns out to be in practice is another question. I had some really good posts on this, but they’ve now been deleted…

      • Max

        What it turns out to be in practise is not perfect but nowhere is perfect; in the US they have violent racial conflicts even today, and you’ll find similar phenomenons in any large multi-ethnic country.

        Looking objectively, I think that modern Russia has done a reasonably good job of building the nation based on a civil identity as opposed to an ethnic one, and giving equal rights to its many different peoples.

    • Evgeniy

      Unfortunately, I lost the quotation marks around the first paragraph. I was commenting on the quote from the article, and I was contradicting it.

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  • Asya Perelstvaig

    I recant my earlier statements.

    Jews (Ashkenazim) are a mixture of Europeans with Khazar (and other peoples from the Caucasus) genes along with Mediterranean input (same as the Italians). That is why most Jews today look like Turks/people from the Caucasus rather than the Palestinians, who look Semitic because they are the actual descendants of the ancient Hebrews.

    • If you are going to write in my name, you might at least take care to spell it correctly. Also, as long-time readers of this blog would know, as a former co-owner of GeoCurrents, I never login as a “Guest”.

      What you’ve done here, pretending to be me, and putting words into my mouth, is cowardly and offensive. If you really believe in the words you’ve put into mouth, you should write a public apology here, under your true identity. If you don’t, we’ll all know that you are a coward and a fool.

  • бирюлевец

    thank for u artikl.

    Russians a not Jews.
    Glory to Russland!!!

    • Max

      Funny how you attempt to say Glory to Russia, by using the German word for Russia.

    • blue gun

      Im a russian jew, with documents of my ancestors to prove it. Do you know how to count?

  • Aleks Raynov

    A couple years ago my wife and I (both Russian speaking Jews from a different regions of ex Soviet empire) took DNA tests.
    The one of the reason we took the test was not to prove our Jewish identities but dissipate the myth of Khazars origin which is so widely popular among some of our genetic cousins in Middle East.Our DNA results shows direct linkage to the Middle East region (Semites) and no connection to Slavic people.

    • Thanks for sharing your story, Aleks. I’m afraid our ideologically driven “friends” do not care about facts, though… 🙁

      • Aleks Raynov

        You are right Asya. I thought about it while writing my post…

        • Nonetheless, I am glad you’ve done it — at least for those people who are open to facts… 🙂

  • blue gun

    This is a BS article. You can be 100% Russian and take on the Jewish religion.
    Making you a russian jew. Do you have any idea what an Ashkenazi jew is?? Its a eastern european jew. Another way you can be a russian-jew is by having a jewish father and a russian mother. making you half russian and half jew…o wow.
    ***You taught for 20 years in university and you cant count 1 + 1? How embarrasing.

    • This is a BS comment. There is a tiny group of ethnic Russians who adopted Judaism, the so-called Subbotniks:

      But even they are not called “Russian Jews”.

      If you have a Jewish father and a Russian mother, that’s a truly sad situation, as you would be Jewish, as far as official Russian designation goes, and not Jewish, as far as Jewish law is concerned. You’d still have a Right of Return to Israel though, as it allows non-Jews to immigrate as well.

      What is embarrassing is how rude you feel you need to be, especially given your ignorance of the matter at hand.

      • Butterfly Flicker

        You are not very smart. Or intelligent. Get some sense you old hag. And take down your dumb article that is full BS.

        • Clearly you have nothing of substance to say so you need to resort to rudeness. Frankly, I care not for your opinion about my intelligence or anything else. After all, you’re nothing more than a butterfly flicker. I care not about butterflies’ opinions on anything.

      • nawseeya

        the comment, i read as Jewish is a religion, not an ethnicity. which i agree with.

        • That may be your opinion. But the fact of the matter is that “Jewish” is not a religion, or not just a religion, in Russia.

  • Erik

    Russian Jews are not slavs at all, they are parasites and as a Ukrainian I consider them Khazars.

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