Founded by Peter the Great (r. 1682–1725) in 1703, Saint Petersburg is located at the northwest periphery of Russia, on the Gulf of Finland. In 1712, it replaced Moscow as the capital of the Russian Empire. Over the course of the next two centuries, Saint Petersburg was transformed into a grand metropolis and chief conduit of Western influence, the nerve center of Russia’s political, cultural, and economic life. During the late imperial period (1861–1917) the city’s Jews aspired to play an analogous role in the life of Russian Jewry.
At the outbreak of World War I, patriotic fervor led the city’s name to be Russified to Petrograd, only to be changed to Leningrad in 1924, in honor of the deceased leader of the October 1917 Revolution, Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924). In 1918, the Bolsheviks moved the capital back to Moscow, and during the 1920s most of the city’s Jewish institutions were either shut down or transferred to other areas. In 1991, on the eve of the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Leningrad’s inhabitants voted to restore the city’s name to Saint Petersburg.
The Imperial Period
For the first century of its existence, virtually no Jews lived in Saint Petersburg. Like the rest of the Russian Empire, the city forbade Jewish settlement, although a small number of rumored converts occupied various posts in the city’s fledgling administration. Both the first chief of police and one of Peter the Great’s court jesters were conversos who had arrived imported from the Netherlands.
"Expulsion of Jews of St. Petersburg: Scene at Baltic Railway Station." Engraving by D. Naumann after a sketch by B. Baruch, n.d. (Moldovan Family Collection)
Saint Petersburg began to take on significance in Jewish history at the end of the eighteenth century, when the Russian Empire unintentionally acquired half a million Jewish subjects as part of its annexation of eastern Poland. Individual Jews, such as the tax farmer Avram Perets (1771–1833) and the founder of Ḥabad, Shneur Zalman of Liady (1745–1812), periodically traveled to the imperial capital to engage in commerce or to petition tsarist authorities. But the legal status of Jews visiting Saint Petersburg was precarious, and forcible expulsions were common.
Select groups of Jews first gained legal access to the Russian interior, including the imperial capital, during the reign of Tsar Alexander II (1855–1881). Under the policy of selective integration, “useful” Jews, such as army veterans, wealthy merchants, artisans whose trades were underrepresented in the Russian interior, and university graduates, were permitted to settle outside the Pale of Settlement. Saint Petersburg quickly became the address of choice for privileged Jews: by the end of Alexander’s reign, roughly 16,000 resided in the city legally, making it the largest Jewish community outside the Pale. Contemporaries estimated that a nearly equal number of Jews were living in Saint Petersburg illegally.
By 1910, the number of legal Jewish residents had reached 35,000. Prior to the Soviet period, Jews never accounted for more than 3 percent of the city’s population. But in such fields as banking, law, and journalism, they constituted as much as a third of the total number of professionals. Unlike other East European cities such as Warsaw, Kiev, and Odessa, Saint Petersburg was always dominated by a single ethnic group: Russians, who represented 80–90 percent of the population. Also unlike those cities, and because of a large police and army presence, the Russian capital never experienced a pogrom.
Members of the Michaelevsky family playing chess in the yard of their home, St. Petersburg, ca. 1910. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Genya Markon)
Saint Petersburg never had a Jewish ghetto, and tsarist authorities were determined to prevent the formation of one. Nonetheless, the majority of Jews who moved there chose to settle in the Pod”iacheskii neighborhood just south of Nevsky Prospekt, the city’s grand central boulevard. Throughout the late imperial period, they remained one of the city’s most residentially segregated ethnic groups. Yet the Jews of Saint Petersburg adopted Russian as their native language more quickly than any other ethnic minority, and far outpaced the level of linguistic assimilation by Jews in the Pale. In 1897, roughly one-third of the capital’s Jews declared Russian to be their native tongue, as compared to just 3 percent of Jews in the Pale. On the eve of World War I, half of the city’s Jews spoke Russian at home.
Like the “port Jews” of Odessa and other frontier communities, Saint Petersburg’s Jews were confronted with the challenge—and opportunity—of building communal institutions virtually from scratch. In 1863, a self-appointed group of some 100 prominent Jewish residents, led by the father-and-son team of bankers Evzel’ (1812–1878) and Goratsii (Horace; 1833–1909) Gintsburg, hired the German-born Avraham Neiman (1803–1875) to become the city’s first officially recognized rabbi. With his combination of yeshiva and university training—a pedigree virtually unknown among rabbis in Russia—Neiman presided (in German and Hebrew) over the city’s first and sole officially recognized congregation, which was composed primarily of wealthy merchants. Other Jews were left to worship semi-legally under the guidance of “spiritual rabbis” such as Yitsḥak Blazer (Itsele Peterburger; 1840?–1906), Yekuti’el Zalman Landau (1821–1894), Yitsḥak Olshvanger (1825–1896), and David Katzenellenbogen (1848–1931).
From the outset, Neiman and his supporters were plagued by charges that his selection as official rabbi had been the work of a small group of plutocrats. His attempts to organize a community-wide election, as was the practice in Jewish communities in the Pale, ran into stiff resistance on the part of tsarist authorities, who were wary of Jews importing quasi-representative institutions into the Russian interior. Complaints by Jewish artisans and veterans against Neiman and his wealthy supporters began to flood the desks of various government officials. By the 1870s, the issue of representation was joined by the equally potent matter of communal taxation. Since lower-class Jews paid the greatest share of the korobka (Russian for “box”), the tax on kosher meat, this subgroup demanded a corresponding voice in communal governance.
Caught between Jewish populist pressures on the one hand and resistance by city and imperial officials on the other, the Jewish elite devised a solution unprecedented in the annals of East European Jewish history. First, they limited the right to vote in future elections to those who contributed at least 25 rubles to the communal treasury, a sum beyond the reach of most of the city’s Jews. Second, in response to charges of fiscal abuse, they eliminated the korobka as a source of communal revenue. The latter measure put the Saint Petersburg community on an entirely new fiscal footing: as a community-wide, more or less mandatory consumption tax, the korobka had been the last significant vestige of the Jews’ right to govern themselves as a corporate entity. The abandonment of internal taxation meant a significant loss of control by communal authorities over the community of practicing Jews, transforming the latter into a strictly voluntary collectivity.
Virtually all aspects of Jewish communal life in the capital—Jewish schools, subsidized kosher cafeterias, aid to the poor, an orphanage—depended on the voluntary contributions of a small number of extraordinarily wealthy families. At the head of the community, the Gintsburgs—first Evzel’, then his son Horace, followed by Horace’s son David (1857–1910)—formed a quasi-dynastic leadership that had access to high tsarist officials, and acquired considerable fame throughout the Pale as philanthropists and intercessors. The Gintsburgs and other wealthy families financed the city’s first synagogue, dedicated in 1893 and presided over by Avram Drabkin (1844–1917) and Mosheh Aizenshtat (1870–1943), Neiman’s successors as official rabbis.
Men posing with Torahs near the ark in the prayer hall of the Jewish almshouse, St. Petersburg, ca. 1920s. (An-sky Collection, Centre Petersburg Judaica, St. Petersburg)
The policy of selective integration ensured a high degree of wealth and of secular education among the capital’s Jews. Already in 1863, before local communal institutions were in place, the Gintsburgs and others had founded the Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews of Russia (OPE), which provided stipends to thousands of Jewish university students and sponsored scholarships in Hebrew and Russian in the spirit of the Haskalah. By the 1880s, Saint Petersburg had replaced Odessa as Russian Jewry’s most prolific cultural center, a place where, during the next decades, a relatively small community of intellectuals produced more than a dozen monthly, weekly, and daily periodicals in Hebrew, Russian, and Yiddish for readers throughout the Pale of Settlement.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, Saint Petersburg was home to societies for the promotion of Hebrew literature, Jewish folk music, and Jewish artists. Among its residents were the leading Jewish poets of the day, Yehudah Leib Gordon (1831–1892) and Shimen Frug (1860–1916), as well as the leading Jewish publishers, Adolph Landau (1842–1902) and Aleksander Zederbaum (1816–1893). Jewish life in the imperial capital became a subject of novels by writers such as Lev Levanda (1835–1888) and Sholem Asch (1880–1957). Here the writer and folklorist Shloyme Rapoport (S. An-ski; 1863–1920) planned his celebrated ethnographic expeditions to the Pale. And here, as one of the city’s countless illegal Jewish residents, Simon Dubnow (1860–1941) found his calling as historian of the Jews of Eastern Europe and inspired the establishment of the Jewish Historical-Ethnographic Society (1908–1929). In fact, Saint Petersburg may fairly be reckoned the birthplace of the study of East European Jewry as a distinct historical collectivity.
In addition to its role as an incubator of a self-consciously modern Russian Jewish culture, Saint Petersburg became the headquarters of a new kind of Jewish politics, the goal of which was neither revolution nor emigration but the attainment of civil rights. In the absence of representative institutions in Russia, this politics first took the form of discrete intercession with tsarist officials by the Gintsburgs and other wealthy Jewish residents of the capital. However, widespread anti-Jewish violence in the Pale, along with intensified legal discrimination and the rise of radical Jewish political movements, forced the struggle for civil rights into the public arena, where it was taken up by Jewish lawyers in the courts and by Jewish journalists in the press.
The Saint Petersburg Defense Bureau, founded at the end of the nineteenth century by Genrikh Sliozberg (Slezberg; 1863–1937) and other lawyers, offered free legal services to victims of anti-Jewish discrimination across the empire. The bureau’s lawyers successfully defended Jews in several highly publicized ritual murder trials and attempted, albeit unsuccessfully, to hold tsarist officials legally and financially accountable for pogroms. At the same time, the Saint Petersburg Jewish elite increasingly turned its philanthropic energies to previously neglected groups in Jewish society. The Society for Handicraft and Agricultural Work (ORT), founded in Saint Petersburg in 1880, established a network of artisanal workshops across the Pale. Similarly, the OPE shifted its attention away from university scholarships for Jewish students, and sponsored reformed Jewish primary schools (the ḥeder metukan) in dozens of cities, as well as vocational schools, Jewish savings and loan cooperatives, and credit unions—“small deeds” aimed at bringing Russian Jewry into the modern age.
Wars and Revolutions (1917–1945)
The distinctiveness of Saint Petersburg Jewry in the late imperial period—its high concentration of wealth and learning, and its self-assigned role as leader of Russian Jewry—-was largely the result of two circumstances: a half-century of selective integration, and the city’s dominant status within a highly centralized empire. In only three years, between 1915 and 1918, both circumstances were eliminated by war and revolution.
The main theater of battle on the eastern front of World War I (1914–1918) was located in the Pale of Settlement. Tens of thousands of Jews fled to cities in the Russian interior, and tens of thousands more were brutally expelled by the Russian army under suspicion of collaborating with German and Austrian forces. This de facto dissolution of the Pale sent waves of Jewish refugees to Saint Petersburg (now Petrograd), where the Jewish Society for the Relief of War Victims struggled to accommodate the newcomers. The city’s Jewish leadership, accustomed to holding a leading role in empirewide Jewish organizations, was overwhelmed by the influx of refugees. By 1917, the city’s Jewish population had expanded to more than 50,000. Demands to democratize communal institutions (above all to abolish the 25-ruble synagogue membership fee), begun a decade earlier, rapidly gained force.
The contest for authority within the city’s Jewish community was radically transformed by the epochal events of 1917. After the sudden collapse of the Russian monarchy in February, power passed into the hands of a provisional government that promptly annulled all forms of discrimination based on nationality and religion and that legalized virtually all forms of political activity. Petrograd became a hothouse of Jewish politics—and a magnet for Jews in Russian revolutionary politics. Critics of the capital’s prerevolutionary Jewish elite organized an election based on universal Jewish (including, for the first time, female) suffrage, resulting in a competing communal governing board dominated by Zionists and socialists. Local Orthodox forces founded their own party, Netsaḥ Yisra’el, in order to combat the secularization of Petrograd’s Jewish institutions. In preparation for the first All-Russian Jewish Congress, held in 1918, Jewish political parties from across the former Pale established bases in the capital.
The revolutionary zenith of political activism and national influence of Petrograd Jewry was short-lived. Soon after the Bolshevik coup d’état in October 1917, Jewish political parties (as was the case with all parties except the Bolsheviks) were forced to go underground. With the transfer of the Russian capital to Moscow in 1918, Petrograd’s Jews permanently lost their proximity to the institutions of state power. In contrast to the imperial era, after 1917 the Jewish population of Moscow consistently exceeded that of Leningrad. But Jews continued to migrate to Leningrad at a remarkable rate. Between 1917 and 1939, the city’s Jewish population grew from 50,000 to 200,000, three times the growth rate of the population as a whole, thereby making Jews the city’s largest ethnic minority. In interwar Eastern Europe, only Warsaw, Łódź, and Moscow (and possibly Kiev and Odessa; estimates vary) could boast larger Jewish populations.
The relative fluidity, not to say chaos, of the first decade of Bolshevik rule opened a rather wide field for Jewish cultural and religious activity, invigorated by waves of immigrants to the former capital. Prerevolutionary organizations such as the OPE, ORT, and the Historical-Ethnographic Society continued their work, albeit under growing financial and ideological constraints. The newly founded Leningrad Jewish Religious Community, led by the Zionist lawyer Lev Gurevich (1876?–1943), served as an umbrella group for most of the city’s two dozen synagogues and congregations. In 1918, a Jewish university was founded in Petrograd, among whose faculty were the historian Simon Dubnow and the literary scholar Yisroel Tsinberg (1873–1939). The Ḥabad (Lubavitch) leader Yosef Yitsḥak Shneerson (1880–1950) moved to Leningrad in 1924, along with thousands of followers, hoping to relocate the movement’s center in the former capital. Shneerson was arrested and expelled in 1927, however, and by the end of the 1920s all independent Jewish institutions in the former capital had been shut down under suspicion of “bourgeois nationalism” and “religious obscurantism,” part of a broader campaign of Bolshevik consolidation across the Soviet Union. By the late 1930s, even the few remaining officially sponsored Communist Jewish organizations were suppressed, and public expressions of Jewish identity virtually ceased.
Many of Leningrad’s Jews strongly identified with the young Soviet state and regarded integration as the surest path to a secure place in the world’s first socialist society. Even in the relatively tolerant 1920s, the city’s Jews were only half as likely to send their children to Jewish schools as their counterparts in Soviet Ukraine and Belarus. Like their Saint Petersburg predecessors, Leningrad’s Jews continued to abandon Yiddish as their native tongue: by 1926 more than two-thirds reported speaking Russian at home, by 1939, more than four-fifths. Jews continued to stream disproportionately into white-collar professions: by 1939, when they constituted 6 percent of the city’s population, Jews made up one-third of all writers, journalists, and editors, and even higher proportions of the city’s lawyers, physicians, and dentists. Unlike their prerevolutionary predecessors, Soviet Jews were free to marry non-Jews without converting; by the 1930s more than a third of Leningrad’s Jews were intermarrying.
During World War II, more than one million Leningraders, among them tens of thousands of Jews, died of starvation and disease during nearly three years of Nazi siege. The city’s staunch resistance against military assault, however, spared its inhabitants, and especially its Jews, the immeasurably greater savagery of German occupation.
The Late Soviet Period and Beyond
The “anticosmopolitan” campaign of Stalin’s final years (1948–1953) created a threatening atmosphere for Jews and Jewish activities of any kind. In contrast to previous decades, moreover, after 1945 there was almost no Jewish migration to Leningrad from the western borderlands of the Soviet Union, as the Jewish populations of those territories had been nearly annihilated by Nazi forces. In the past, such urban immigrants had repeatedly expanded not just the number of Jews in the city but also the density of Jewish religious and cultural activities.
A combination of low fertility, assimilation, and (by the 1970s) emigration produced a stark decline (absolute and relative) of the city’s Jewish population during the late Soviet period: from 169,000 (5%) in 1959 to 106,000 (2%) in 1989. Nonetheless, among Leningrad Jews were prominent representatives of the Jewish national revival and emigration movement that arose in the late 1960s. A sensational attempt by Jewish refuseniks to hijack an airplane in Leningrad’s airport drew worldwide attention in 1970. During the 1980s, the Leningradskii Evreiskii al’manakh (Leningrad Jewish Almanac) became an important vehicle of Soviet Jewish samizdat (underground publishing).
Leaders of the Jewish community in the Grand Choral Synagogue during a visit by U.S. President George W. Bush and Laura Bush, St. Petersburg, May 2002. (White House photograph by Paul Morse)
On the eve of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Jewish mortality rate in Leningrad exceeded the birthrate by a factor of more than 10, and two-thirds of newborns registered as Jewish had one parent whose nationality was not Jewish. Despite informal anti-Jewish quotas, Jews continued to enroll in institutions of higher education and to pursue white-collar careers at much higher rates than the city’s non-Jewish population. In this respect Leningrad Jews were now increasingly typical of Jews throughout the country.
With the collapse of communism, Leningrad—once again Saint Petersburg—witnessed a sudden efflorescence of both Jewish and antisemitic activity. The latter, though threatening to the city’s Jewish population, produced neither the promised pogroms nor electoral success. As for the former, at the dawn of the twenty-first century Saint Petersburg once again boasts a Jewish kindergarten, primary school, newspaper (Ami/Narod moi [My People]; published since 1990), museum, and university (in which the majority of students are non-Jews). All of these institutions, however, depend on the support of American and Israeli Jews, and thus their future remains uncertain.
Mikhail Beizer, The Jews of St. Petersburg: Excursions through a Noble Past (Philadelphia, 1989); Mikhail Beizer, Evrei Leningrada, 1917–1939: Natsional’naia zhizn’ i sovetizatsiia (Moscow and Jerusalem, 1999); Valerii Gessen, K istorii Sankt-Peterburgskoi evreiskoi religioznoi obshchiny: Ot pervykh evreev do XX veka (Saint Petersburg, 2000); Saul Ginzburg, Amolike Peterburg: Forshungen un zikhroynes vegn Yidishn lebn in der rezidents-shtot fun tsarishn Rusland (New York, 1944); Nataliia Iukhneva, Etnicheskii sostav i etnosotsial’naia struktura naseleniia Peterburga, vtoraia polovina XIX–nachalo XX veka: statisticheskii analiz, ed. K. Chistova (Leningrad, 1984); Nataliia Iukhneva, ed., Peterburg i guberniia: Istoriko-etnograficheskie issledovaniia (Leningrad, 1989), pp. 81–112; Nataliia Iukhneva, “Ethnic Minorities in Post-Communist Saint Petersburg,” Jews in Eastern Europe 24 (1994): 5–14; Marina Kogan, “The Identity of Saint Petersburg Jews in the Early 1990s, a Time of Mass Emigration,” Jews in Eastern Europe 28 (1995): 5–15; Benjamin Nathans, Beyond the Pale: The Jewish Encounter with Late Imperial Russia (Berkeley and London, 2002), pp. 81–198.