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Home » Cultural Geography, Russia, Ukraine, and Caucasus

Why Russian Jews Are Not Russian

Submitted by on January 21, 2011 – 5:12 pm 25 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.

  • 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.

  • 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).

    • Asya Pereltsvaig
    • P. Orbis Proszynski

      The Crimean Karaim were not Karaites.

      • Asya Pereltsvaig

        In what sense?

    • 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.

      • Asya Pereltsvaig

        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?

  • 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

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      In what sense?

  • 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?

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      “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!

  • Megan

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

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      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.

        • Asya Pereltsvaig

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

          • SirBedevere

            I suppose that is true.

  • 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.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      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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