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The Jews

The JewsThe vast majority of Jews in the Russian Federation are Ashkenazic Jews (also referred to as European Jews). In some regions there are also other sub-groups: Georgian Jews and Mountain Jews (Caucasus), Central Asian Jews (Southern Siberia and Central Asia). Historically, there have also been other sub-groups, that are no longer distinctive from the others, namely: Krymchaks, Karaites (Crimea), Khazars (of the Khazar empire), Sabbatarians (Caucasus)
They live in Moscow, St.Petersburg, Caucasus, Russian far east, the Jewish Autonomous Oblast.
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Since they became part of the Russian empire in the second half of the 18th c., the Ashkenazic Jews have constituted a vast majority of the Jews in Russia. But Jewry in Russia dates way further back.
There were definitely Jews in Caucasus already in pre-Christian times. Tradition has it that the first Jews fled to the area in the 8th c. B.C., after Israel was defeated by the Assyrians. This has not been proved, however.
A major Jewish migration from northern Persia to the Caucasus area took place in the 5th c. A.D, adding to the Jewish population already present. The two main types of native Caucasian Jews - the Georgian Jews and the Mountain Jews (centred in Dagestan) - ultimately emerged from these migrations.
In the 7th to the 10th c., the Khazar state included the northern part of the Caucasus, and there are speculations that they may have gotten their Judaism from the Mountain Jews.
Under the growing influence of Islam in the area, many Caucasian Jews were compelled to convert to the Muslim faith, especially after the fall of the Khazar state. As Russian influence in the area was increasing in the 18th c., the Mountain Jews gradually sided with the Russians, while the Georgian Jews remained pro-Georgian. In the beginning, Russian rule made life easier for the Jews. Under the anti-semitic Nicholas I (1825-55), however, the Caucasian Jews lost many of their rights. The situation improved under Alexander II (1855-81), as the Jews played an important role in the development and marketing of Baku oil. By the 1897 census, only a small minority of the Jews in Caucasus were native Caucasian Jews, due to the influx of Ashkenazic Jews.
Also Crimea definitely had Jewish population more than 2000 years ago. Also in this case, the legend has it that they came after the Assyrian conquest of Israel in the 8th c. B.C. The earliest documented settlement, however, was in the 1st c. B.C. Whatever their origins, these Jews together with the later Khazars of Crimea, formed the so-called Krymchak, the first type of Jews to live in the Crimea. A second group was the Karaites, that probably came to the area from Byzantium around 1150 A.D. Karaism arose in Babylonia/Persia, but gradually their centre shifted to Europe. This sectarian group was religiously different from the other Jews, and was to face a different fate from that of traditional Jews, especially during World War II (see below).
Khazars established a strong foothold on the Crimea from the 7th c., and possibly accepted their Judaism from the Krymchaks (or, again, from the Caucasian Jews). The Khazar state, that began to decline in the 10th c., secured safe space for many Jews escaping from the Byzantium empire, and thus the Jewish population increased.
This medieval Khazar state was the only Jewish state in the world between the fall of the Second Temple in 67 A.D. and the formation of Israel in 1948. The Khazars were probably a Turkish people, that established themselves on the Sea of Azov, the Don, the lower Volga, the Caspian Sea and the northern Caucasus in the 500s A.D. It is believed that their state between the 7th and 10th c. included the Crimea, Caucasus, Volga and Caspian regions. The Khazar elite converted to Judaism in the 7th or 8th c. Their religion was probably never very strong, and Judaism, Christianity and Islam seem to have cohabited peacefully in their state. There have never been any firm population figures for the Khazar Jews, and the disappearance of the Khazar state means that any remaining Khazar Jews became part of other Jewish groups.
The Mongols took Crimea in 1236, and were at first tolerant about religion. However, as the third Mongol/Tatar ruler, Berke, converted to Islam in 1258, Islamicization of the Crimea began.
After the rise of Islam in Central Asia, the Jewish community probably declined due to persecution and general oppression and discrimination (they paid double taxes, were only allowed to use donkeys - not horses and mules, had to wear special clothing to be easily identified, and so on). Over the centuries, their religious practices deteriorated sharply, until they experienced a revival at the end of the 18th c. Their old Persian lithurgy was replaced with the Sephardic one, and a Bukharan Jewish spiritual centre was set up in Jerusalem a century later.
In February 1917, all legal restrictions were lifted from Central Asian Jews. In March 1918, however, after the Bolsheviks had come to power, there were pogroms in the area.
Like the other Jewish communities that became part of the Russian empire, Ashkenazic Jewry was also fully developed before large numbers of Ashkenazic Jews became subjects of the Russian tsar. The most likely origins of the Ashkenazic community were in the West, in Europe proper. There were Jewish communities many places in Christian Europe until they were expelled from many countries in the 13th to 15th c (England 1290, France 1306 and 1394, Spain and Portugal 1492, 1497). Many moved eastward to the rising Polish-Lithuanian state where they were welcome by the rulers for primarily economic reasons. Yiddisch language (a mixture of High German dialects, with additional vocabulary from Hebrew and Slavic tongues - written with Hebrew letters), first developed within this group. In the 16th c., the Polish-Lithuanian state became the demographic and spiritual centre of the Jewish world. After the Hmelnitsky massacres of 1648-1654 (an estimated 400,000 out of appr. 2 million Jews were killed), this community fell into decline. From the late 18th c., when almost a million Polish-Lithuanian Jews came into the Russian empire with the partitions of Poland, the vast majority of the Russian Jews were Ashkenazim. At first, they were not met with discrimination. This changed under Catherine II, however, with a 1791 decree that forbad Jews to settle in traditional Russia (Russia as of before the partitions of Poland). The percentage of Jews in higher education has since then always been higher than the Jewish percentage of the total population. Many Jews went to Canada, Argentina, South Africa, and the United States. Of those who stayed behind, many joined the revolutionary movement to seek to improve the situation through political action. Jews played a prominent role in the Marxist movement that overthrew the tsarist regime in 1917.
The Soviet period was in many ways paradoxical. The state attacked Jewish religion and Jewish traditional life to a greater degree than any tsarist regime had ever done. But at the same time, Jews had a greater opportunity to participate in society than ever before in their history. And participate they did. They were vastly over-represented in higher education, science, politics and publishing.
In 1934, a Jewish Autonomous region was established in Birobidzhan, located in a remote corner of Asia near the Manchurian border, in the Khabarovsk district. Jews had been encouraged to move their since 1928. Very few Jews did, however, and of those who settled there, many later left. In 1970, there were only 14.000 Jews in Birobidzhan.

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