Jewish Heritage in Russia: Travel to Moscow, St. Petersburg, Birobidzhan

Jewish Heritage in Russia: Travel to Moscow, St. Petersburg, Birobidzhan

People travel the world for many reasons: to seek out adventure, to get away from it all, to explore another culture, or to fulfill long-held personal dreams. Travel is also about getting in touch with your roots, discovering where you came from and learning more about the people that made you who you are.

Russian Jewish Heritage: A Complicated HistoryFor many Jewish people, that history is inextricably linked with Russia, which only a century ago contained the largest Jewish population in the world.

Yet generations of Russian Jews were raised on dark stories in their homeland. For hundreds of years, imperial Russian society was deeply anti-Semitic. Under the czars, Jewish residents were condemned to poverty in the Pale of Settlement, which included Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine.

70 years of Soviet rule saw further destruction of the communities. Some converted to Orthodox Christianity or attempted to keep their identities hidden to protect themselves and their families; others left in waves for a better life in the United States or Israel. In Russia, Jews were forced to identify themselves as Jewish, not Russian. That’s what was on their internal Soviet passports.

Exploring Russian Jewish Heritage Through TravelBut Russia has changed a great deal since the fall of the Soviet Union. A new generation of Russians is reconnecting with Jewish heritage and welcoming those who want to explore their ancestry.

MIR is an expert at hand-crafting itineraries for travelers searching for their roots, or their relatives, in Russia. For those interested in traveling to Russia to explore Jewish heritage, here are some places you could include on your trip:

 

Moscow
Exhibits inside the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow, Russia. Photo:  The Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center

Museum-goers peruse an exhibit on the life of Jewish soldiers during World War II at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow, Russia
Photo: The Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center

Though Jews started appearing in Western Russia back in the 7th century, it wasn’t until the 15th century that Jewish merchants and tradesmen first arrived in Moscow. Small numbers began finding permanent residence in the city, but many were deported to the Pale of Settlement following a czarist decree from Catherine the Great in 1791. In the 19th century, Jewish people were steadily allowed back into Moscow, having adopted Russian language and customs and making significant contributions to Russia’s economic development.


If you’re looking for an in-depth primer on Russian-Jewish history, be sure to visit Moscow’s sprawling Jewish Museum & Tolerance Center where you can explore the many traditions and challenges of the Jewish community. Its high-tech exhibits include original artifacts, films and interactive displays where visitors can “chat” with famous Russian writers in a virtual café, or experience everyday life inside a reconstructed shtetl.

The World War II Memorial on Poklonnaya Gora includes a memorial synagogue. Photo: James Beers

The role of Jewish soldiers is remembered at the World War II Memorial on Poklonnaya Gora
Photo: James Beers

World War II had a devastating impact on Russia, and the World War II Memorial on Poklonnaya Gora commemorates the millions of people of all faiths who died during this tragic time. The complex includes a memorial synagogue, featuring a special yizkor (“remembrance”) prayer for victims of the Holocaust, and a museum highlighting the part played by Jewish soldiers.

 

St. Petersburg
The St. Petersburg Conservatory, established by esteemed Jewish pianist and composer Anton Rubinstein. Photo: Jenelle Birnbaum

The St. Petersburg Conservatory, established by esteemed Jewish pianist and composer Anton Rubinstein
Photo: Jenelle Birnbaum

Like the rest of the Russian Empire, St. Petersburg forbade Jewish settlement for hundreds of years until the mid-1800s under the reign of Czar Alexander II. Favored groups of university graduates, merchants, artisans, and army veterans were granted permission to settle in imperial Russia, and by the 1880s, St. Petersburg had roughly 16,000 Jewish residents, the largest community outside the Pale of Settlement at that time. With more opportunities for jobs and a flourishing art scene, St. Petersburg soon became the cultural hub for the Russian Jewish community, attracting intellectuals, artists and writers.

The Kolomna District was a major center of Jewish life in St. Petersburg in the 19th and 20th century. Here, you’ll find the Grand Choral Synagogue, St. Petersburg’s first synagogue and the second largest in Europe. Though heavily bombed during the Siege of Leningrad, it was carefully reconstructed in 2005 and today is a registered landmark and active place of worship for St. Petersburg’s Jewish citizens.

The Grand Choral Synagogue, St. Petersburg’s first synagogue and the second largest in Europe. Photo: Peter Sukonik

The Grand Choral Synagogue, St. Petersburg’s first synagogue and the second largest in Europe
Photo: Peter Sukonik

St. Petersburg Jews made significant contributions to the city’s artistic and cultural development. In Kolomna, you’ll find the St. Petersburg Conservatory, which was established by esteemed Jewish pianist and composer Anton Rubinstein; a number of notable Jewish musicians and composers such as Jascha Heifetz, David Oistrakh and Mstislav Rastropovich studied here. Well-known Russian-Jewish painters Marc Chagall and Isaac Levitan studied at the nearby Academy of Fine Arts, as did artist Leon Bakst, who was once costume designer at St. Petersburg’s famous Mariinsky Theater.

Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia Photo credit: Jenelle Birnbaum

Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia, where Leon Bakst was once the principal costume designer
Photo credit: Jenelle Birnbaum

 

Birobidzhan
The railway station in Birodidzhan. Photo: Ian Felstead

The railway station in Birobidzhan, also known as “Stalin’s Zion”
Photo: Ian Felstead

In the far eastern reaches of Siberia lies the capital of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, Birobidzhan. In the early days of the USSR, this area was offered to the Jews of Western Russia, who were suffering from poverty and discrimination.

But Birobidzhan was far removed from civilization, and the land was harsh, bitterly cold and difficult to farm. Over half of the émigrés turned around and went back home again. Of those that remained, many were shot or sent to nearby gulags during the Stalinist purges of the late 1930s and early 1940s. Today, there is a small but active Jewish community in Birobidzhan, teaching Jewish traditions to the next generation.

Some of the major sites here include the Birobidzhan Synagogue, the History Museum of the Jewish Autonomous Region and the monument to Russian-Jewish writer Shalom Aleichem.

MIR can also arrange visits to speak with representatives of the local Jewish community. There is an active Jewish women’s group here and a number of local writers, all happy to share their stories of everyday life in the Jewish Autonomous Oblast.

 

Discover Your Heritage with MIR

Though Russia is a vast and complex country, don’t let that deter you from fulfilling your travel dreams. MIR has 30 years travel experience to Russia, with affiliate offices in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Siberia offering on-the-ground support, and tour managers that clients rave about. MIR’s full service, dedication, commitment to quality, and destination expertise have twice earned us a place on National Geographic Adventure’s list of “Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth.”

MIR is an expert at designing unique independent trips for Jewish people searching for their roots, or their relatives, in Russia. To find out more about our custom and private travel expertiseconnect with a Private Journey Specialist to get started planning your own Jewish Heritage trip to Russia – handcrafted to your interests, dates and pace.

If you’re looking for a ready-made tour of Russia, MIR offers a variety of scheduled departures to Western Russia, Siberia, and along the Trans-Siberian Railway

Contact MIR today at info@mircorp.com or 1-800-424-7289.

Top photo: The Grand Choral Synagogue, St. Petersburg’s first synagogue and the second largest in Europe. Photo: Peter Sukonik

PUBLISHED: January 28, 2016

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