The history of Jewish people in Russia is long and complex. In 1913, the Russian Empire was home to the largest population of Jews in the world – between 5.3 and 6 million people. Even though the community thrived for centuries, Jews were deported to the Pale of Settlement. During the Soviet rule, some Jews converted to Orthodox Christianity or hid their identity, while others left the country. Russia is a very different country now, and Russian Jews are reconnecting with their heritage and reviving the culture. If you’d like to explore Jewish history of Russia on your escorted tour to Eastern Europe, here are some significant places you will visit.
Jewish Museum and Tolerance Centre in Moscow
Jewish merchants first arrived in Moscow in the 15th century, but many were deported to the Pale of Settlement. In the 19th century, many Jewish people gradually returned after adopting Russian language and customs. To learn their history in a place that is reviving the Jewish identity in Russia, visit the Jewish Museum & Tolerance Centre, which houses what is possibly the largest collection in the world of more than 200 years of Russian-Jewish history. It has original artefacts, films, high-tech exhibits, and interactive displays that allow you to live inside a shtetl, or ‘talk’ with famous Russian writers in a virtual café.
The Holocaust Memorial Synagogue on Poklonnaya Gora
A site in Moscow you ought to visit is the Poklonnaya Gora Memorial Museum of the Great Patriotic War that commemorates the millions of people of all religions who died during WWII. Visit the Holocaust Memorial Synagogue, which is also a museum, and which features a special remembrance prayer for the Holocaust victims. Its interior includes wall sculptures depicting Jerusalem, the Twelve Tribes of Israel, and the Five Books of Moses. The complex includes the Victory Park, an open-air museum, truly worth the visit. The museum also highlights the important role the Jewish soldiers played in the war.
Moscow Choral Synagogue, Marina Roscha Synagogue and Chabad Centre
Moscow Choral Synagogue is one of Russia’s main synagogues, known for the famous choir of Michael Turetsky. While most synagogues in Moscow follow Chabad or Sephardic traditions, this one follows the Ashkenazic rite. This neoclassical edifice with its lovely 19th-century interior offers daily services, educational programs, and a restaurant. While there, visit the 1,200-seat Marina Roscha Synagogue, which is also a Chabad-Lubavitch Community Center. Here, you can see the burnt-down wooden synagogue rebuilt in red brick, learn about Jewish history and tradition in Russia, and eat delicious kosher food.
Grand Choral Synagogue in St. Petersburg’s Kolomna
In the 1880s, St. Petersburg had cca 16,000 Jewish residents – the largest community outside the Pale of Settlement. Offering more jobs and a thriving art scene, this city became the centre of the Jewish community, attracting intellectuals, writers, and artists. The Kolomna District especially was a major centre of Jewish life for two centuries. Here, you’ll find the Grand Choral Synagogue – a Moorish-style architectural masterpiece, St. Petersburg’s first synagogue, consecrated in 1893, and the third largest in Europe. Heavily bombed during the Siege of Leningrad, it was reconstructed in 2005 and is now a registered landmark and an active place of worship.
Theatre Square and St. Petersburg Conservatory
While in Kolomna, visit the Theatre Square – the city’s theatrical and artistic hub. Here you’ll find the St. Petersburg Conservatory, founded in 1862 by eminent composer/pianist Anton Rubinstein, and attended by a number of prominent musicians and composers. The current edifice stands on the site of the Bolshoi Theatre of Saint Petersburg, but its impressive staircase and landing were preserved. The famous Academy of Fine Arts is there too, as well as the Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg’s most renowned theatre and one of the most famous in the world.
Yesod Centre and the Preobrazhenskoe Cemetery
Yesod Centre in the House of St. Petersburg Jewish Community opened its doors in 2005. The Centre’s goal is to provide a home for everyone, where people can learn about Jewish heritage, culture, values, diversity, and philanthropy. There are various activities to join, and you can watch a documentary about the Jewish community in St. Petersburg. The Yesod Visitors Centre offers free English-speaking guided tours. While there, visit the Jewish cemetery and its lovely synagogue at the Preobrazhenskoe Cemetery. Several famous people and chief rabbis of Leningrad are buried here. In 1912, several Art Nouveau structures and a stunning stone building for burial rites and bereavement rituals were constructed as well.
In the far east of Siberia, you’ll find Birobidzhan, the capital of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast. This remote region was offered to the Jews of Western Russia, but because of the harsh conditions, majority of settlers returned home. Today, Birobidzhan is home to an active Jewish community of 4,000 people. Some of the sites to visit here include the Birobidzhan Synagogue, the History Museum of the Jewish Autonomous Region, the Sholem Aleichem Amur State University and the monument to Russian-Jewish writer Sholem Aleichem. The community representatives, the Jewish women’s group, and local writers and artists, all often talk to visitors about their lives in Birobidzhan.