In 2011, Moscow opened its first ever private Jewish Museum, which covers over 200 years of Jewish history in Russia. Most of the displays are from private collectors and there are over 4,000 exhibits that cover religious, cultural, and government relations. It is not surprising the museum is so large considering the role Jews played in the rise of communism and the laws and persecution that came afterword.
Jews first immigrated to Russia in the early 13th century. They came from the Middle East, Greece, Babylonia and Persia, and many of them were merchants. In the 18th century, under Russian’s last Czar Alexander II, Jews tried to assimilate into Russian culture but were banned from higher education, and were not allowed to obtain high ranking in the military. All this contributed to widening cultural segregation. Still, thanks to high birth rates in the 19th century, the Jewish population doubled in Moscow to reach five million.
There was also a large Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) movement in the country that was meant to help preserved the Jewish faith for new generations. To accomplish this goal, a Jewish newspaper was created that published in Yiddish, Hebrew, and Russian. The Haskalah also influenced the creation of Jewish study halls and a Yeshiva.
Jews also played a role when Communists took over the country. Two weeks prior to the Bolshevik Revolution in October of 1917, Vladimir Lenin held a secret meeting in St. Petersburg with top members of the Communist Party, six of whom were Jewish. Four Jews were also assigned to the Political Bureau that would transition the country into the new government. But despite Jews having prominent places within the new government, life in Russia was not easy.
After the October Revolution, Jews were blamed for rebellions throughout the country where a lot of looting took place. Laws were passed limiting their right to own land, where they could live, and where they could go to school. Eventually, anti-Semitic propaganda was published that greatly influenced the Russian culture.
When World War II started, many Jews were allowed to play an important role in military operations, and many were on the front lines of fierce battles. While the Nazis were seeking out Jews in parts of Russia, those living in more popular areas such as Moscow were relatively safe.
To get a full sense of Jewish history in Moscow, you should visit the Choral Synagogue. After the assassination of Alexander II in 1881, 20,000 Jews were exiled to the area known as the Pale of Settlement. Five years later a railroad tycoon built the Choral Synagogue, and by bribing the governor of Moscow, was able to erect the Star of David on top of it. With its neoclassical design, the building features a large silver dome with white and yellow walls.
To honor the Russian Jews who died during the years of the Holocaust, a shul called Holocaust Memorial Synagogue was built in 1998. Located near Victory Park, which was built in honor of Russia’s victory in World War II, it was designed by Israelis Moshe Zarhi and Frank Meisler.