The Jewish Settlement in Siberia
By Dr. Irena Vladimirsky
A historian and researcher with the Department of History, Achva College of Education, Israel, specializing in the history of Central Asia. She contributed this article to the website of Beit Hatfutsot.
Siberia, which means “Sleeping Land” in Tatar, and “The Edge” or “The End” in Ostyak – one of the local languages of the region – is a vast territory. It spreads eastward from the Ural Mountains to the highlands bordering the Pacific Ocean and from the Arctic Ocean in the north to the borders of Kazakhstan, China and Mongolia in the south. The Russian Far East region has also been traditionally considered a part of Siberia.
Geographically, Siberia is divided into the more populous Western Siberia (bordered by the Yenysey river), which was incorporated into the Russian Empire as early as the end of 16th century, and the sparsely populated Eastern Siberia, whose more distant regions began to be settled by the Russians only towards the end of the 19th century.
From its very beginning, the history of the Siberian settlement became synonymous with the history of Russian exile, forced settlements, labor camps and prisons. While the burgeoning Moscow principality achieved its first victories against the Polish Lithuanian kingdom in the early 17th century, Mikhail Romanov (1613-1645), the first Romanov Tsar, established a separate Ministry for Siberian Affairs. By a special decree issued in 1635, all captured war prisoners – Lithuanians, Germans and Jews – were sent to forced settlement in Siberia. This policy was intended to strengthen the developing Moscow principality by bringing about a colonization of Siberia as well as by getting rid of all undesirable political opponents. The next tsar of the Romanov dynasty, Alexei Romanov (1645-1676), continued with this strategy. Following an extended internal struggle for the throne, Alexei resolved to punish his political opponents and their supporters by banishing them to Siberia. Subsequently, several dozen Jews and Germans from the German Sloboda district (till the beginning of the 18th century, all foreigners in Russia were called “Germans”) were expelled to Siberia in 1659 as numerous opponents of the tsar sought shelter in the houses of “foreigners”.
In order to properly explore this enormous territory, the Russian Imperial Geographic Society sent several scientific expeditions to Siberia in the early 18th century. These expeditions discovered vast natural resources of gas, coal, gold, iron, silver, copper, etc. As a result, it was decided that a network of state-owned enterprises should be immediately established with the aim of encouraging the industrial development of the region by taking full advantage of the newly discovered natural resources. Such enterprises were founded in Nerchinsk, Achinsk, Kainsk, Kansk (Krasnoyarsk), Nizhneudinsk. The work force was mainly composed of administrative and political prisoners, and was later augmented with criminals as well.
Early Jewish community of Tobols’k
In addition to merchants, Jewish political and administrative exiles were among the first settlers of these towns. Jews began to set up communities throughout Siberia. The first reference to the Jewish community of Tobols’k dates from 1813. The document mentions the establishment of a Hevra Kadisha, and of a separate Jewish cemetery and praying house. In 1816, a Jewish merchant called Preisman donated 10.000 rubles in gold for the building of a Russian Orthodox church. Consequently, he was permitted to settle in the town along with his entire family and to open a synagogue for the needs of the local Jewish community. The newly established Jewish communities of Siberia had enough members to ensure the preservation of the Jewish traditional way of life; every Jew was free to study the Torah and the Talmud.
Early Jewish community of Kainsk
At the beginning of the 19th century, the center of Jewish life moved to Kainsk. Count Michael Speransky (1772-1839), a dismissed Russian prime-minister, who later became Governor-general of Siberia, wrote in his diary: ”Kainsk is a newly established settlement. What surprised me here – a lot of Gypsies and Jews”. Sergei Maksimov (1831-1901), a famous Russian geographer and writer passing through Kainsk, wrote: ”The numerous Jewish population makes the city similar to the Russian cities in the Western part of the Russian Empire. They [the Jews] make up four fifths of the city’s total population and wear traditional Jewish clothes and side curls. Jewish presence transformed the city into one of the main centers of economic activity in the Siberian territories”. Kainsk became one of the main trade centers of Siberian furs, which were well prized in Western Europe; each year the local Jewish merchants sent a special shipment of furs to the Leipzig fair. There were 70 merchants, all of them Jews, among a total population of 700 inhabitants. The number of Jewish merchants increased after 1820 with the discovery of new gold mines in the Altai Mountains, not far from the city. The Jews also owned 23 of the largest and richest houses in the city.
First half of the 19th century
Despite the law of 1812 that allowed Jewish craftsmen and merchants to leave their villages in the western guberniyas (regions) of the Russian Empire and settle in Siberia, exiled Jews continued to be the main reason for the increase in the Jewish population of Siberia. As a rule, new Jewish settlers maintained close relationships with relatives whom they had left behind in their former places of residence.
Setting up a family was one of the problems facing new male settlers. Numerous shadkhanim (matchmakers) wandered all over Siberia to provide Jewish men with brides from western Russian guberniyas for a sum of 50-200 rubles in gold. Despite the fact that the Jews of Siberia were known as “wealthy grooms,” not everybody was ready to pay such a large amount of money to a shadkhan. In April 1817, the government issued a special decree by which all the new inhabitants of Siberia, including Jews, were permitted to marry women from the native population on the condition that they converted to either Christianity or Judaism. Very often, these newly proselyte women became more religious than their husbands and their devoutness became proverbial. Jewish men were forbidden to marry Christian women and were not allowed to follow their exiled wives. Only Jewish wives with female children were allowed to follow their Jewish husbands to the Siberian exile.
As a result of the fact that Jewish merchants were accused of bribery, theft, and illegal trade with gold, furs and precious stones, it was decided, after 1820, to resettle the Jewish merchants further east in Siberia, far-off from the state-owned factories in the Ural Mountains. The Omsk and Tobol’sk guberniyas were selected as the new destinations for Jewish forced settlement. In order to increase the population of Siberia and to simultaneously encourage Jews from the overpopulated western Russian guberniyas to settle in the new areas, a special decree was issued in November 1836. According to this decree every male settler was provided with 15 desyatins (approx. 33 acres) of arable land, the necessary agricultural equipment, cattle, household equipment and food supply for half a year as well as a sum of money to cover the transportation and accommodation expenses. Thousands of Jewish families were willing to be resettled in the new regions. However, in January 1837 it was unexpectedly decided to stop the colonization of Jews in Siberia under the pretext that “such a policy would lead to unfair multiplication of Jews who then would spoil the native local population as Jews are known for their laziness, thefts and briberies, and the lack of faith”. Nevertheless, 1367 new Jewish settlers were allowed to settle in the guberniyas of Omsk and Tomsk.
The Tsarist government even applied new restrictions to Jewish political and administrative prisoners. They were permitted to settle solely in the Yakutsk guberniya and the Baikal Lake region. Their wives were allowed to join them, but male children under 18 years of age were forced to convert to Christianity and to join the “kantonists.” Male children above 18 years of age were to be left in the villages of the Pale of Settlement.
Second half of the 19th century
In 1855, Alexander II inherited the Russian throne. He was known for his liberal ideas and tried to implement political and administrative reforms. The “kantonist” institution was abolished, Jewish merchants from villages in the Pale of Settlement were permitted to join the merchant guilds and to become city dwellers. Jews were allowed to buy lands in certain parts of the Russian Empire and establish small private enterprises. Certain changes were introduced into the legal status of the Jewish population of Siberia: male and female children who were born in Siberia and who stayed with their parents, were free to receive education in state public schools and were allowed to choose their own occupation. Other decrees issued in 1868 and 1875 permitted retired Jewish soldiers and artisans to settle in every part of Siberia.
The Jewish communities of Siberia, especially those located in large cities began to develop and increase in population. In 1859 a yeshiva was opened. A year later, the Technological College for Jewish men was opened with more than 100 students and was soon followed by a new synagogue and a Jewish cemetery. In the 1860s, there were 2,089 Jews in Tomsk, constituting 8% of the city’s general population.
Almost all the larger Jewish communities were allowed to build synagogues and to open elementary Jewish schools (heder). Tobol’sk had a population of 1,500 Jews, which represented 8.5% of the city’s population, while in Kainsk the Jews constituted 8% of the city’s population. Every official source of the time emphasized that the Siberian Jews, who mostly earned their living as merchants and artisans, were very well off.
After the assassination of Alexander II in 1881, most of the privileges that had been granted to the Jews were abolished. However, in Siberia, where the local authorities benefited from the economic activity of the Jews, they preferred to “avert their eyes” and did not enforce the instructions sent to them from St. Petersburg.
According to the population census of 1897, the Jewish inhabitants of Siberia numbered 34,477 persons, the majority of whom were city dwellers and represented 0.6% of the total Siberian population. Following the opening of the Trans-Siberian Railroad (1904), many Jewish merchants, traders, artisans, and agricultural workers from the Pale of Settlement started to arrive in Siberia. The Jewish population increased to 50,000 in 1911 and continued to grow in the early years of the 20th century. Some 84% of Siberian merchants were Jews.
First half of the 20th century
The way of life of the Jews of Siberia differed from that of their fellows in the Pale of Settlement. They generally visited synagogues only on the High Holidays (Rosh HaShana, Yom Kippur, Sukkoth, Passover and Shavuot), they kept their shops open every day of the week including Saturdays and holidays, wore European clothes and had Russian-influenced given and family names. The Jews of Siberia disregarded the religious differences between Chassidic and Lithuanian Jews; in Siberian synagogues there were no old Torah scrolls and other Jewish ritual objects. Nevertheless, the education of their children was important for the Jews of Siberia. They wanted their children to learn Jewish subjects and to read something in “Jewish” and therefore they willingly donated money to Jewish schools and other community needs.
Siberia also was known as a center of Zionist political activity. Among the exiled political prisoners were Jews from different political parties and movements: Bundists, Socialist-Revolutionaries, Socialist Democrats (Bolsheviks and Mensheviks), Zionist Socialists, Po’alei Zion. The First Congress of the Zionists of Siberia was attended by representatives from thirteen Jewish communities and was held in Tomsk in 1903. During World War I Siberia was flooded with Jews disappointed by the political regime in Russia as well as by war refugees from the Pale of Settlement. The Bund representatives of Siberia held their conference in Irkutsk in August 1917. During 1918-1922 the Bund published the “Siberian Bund Newspaper ”.
After the end of the Civil War in 1921, Siberia was incorporated into the Russian Federation. Numerous Jews were accused of “collaboration with the opponents of the Soviet regime”; several were executed and some left to China, Mongolia, and Palestine. The private property of wealthy Jews was confiscated as well as the property of Jewish communities, including synagogues. Later, in 1922 the Bolshevik power decided to return part of the property to the Jewish communities. The establishment of the People’s Commissariat on National Affairs, which included the Evsektsia (the Jewish Cell) department, led to the opening of numerous cultural clubs for Jewish workers, Jewish theaters, schools, and libraries in Siberian cities.
According to the population census of 1926, there were 32,750 Jews in Siberia. Of that number, 28,972 lived in cities and 3,778 in villages. In 1928, with strong support from the Evsektsia, the Soviet government decided to establish a Jewish Autonomous region with its center in Birobidzhan, in the eastern region of Siberia. There are no exact statistics about the number of Jews who arrived in Birobidzhan between 1928-1936; generally it is assumed that the Autonomous region attracted some 30,000 Jews, mostly from the western areas of the USSR.
Second half of the 20th century
Another wave of Jews reached Siberia with the outbreak of World War II. Numerous industrial enterprises and institutions of higher education, including the Soviet Academy of Science, were evacuated from the central parts of the USSR to Siberia and Central Asia. Their staff included many Jews along with their families. After the war, many Jews decided to remain in Siberia, instead of returning to their former places of residence. As a result, the Jewish population of Siberia increased by more than 10,000 persons.
State anti-Semitism became an everyday feature of life between the period of the early 1950’s and the mid-1980’s. While many Jews accused of “anti-Soviet activity and propaganda” were exiled to Siberia, others moved from central Russia to Siberia of their own free will in order to escape Soviet repression. All centers of Jewish cultural and religious life were closed with the exception of some model “Soviet” synagogues, newspapers and a theater in Birobidzhan. Jewish cultural and spiritual life went underground and in almost every large city there were clandestine groups who studied Hebrew, Judaism and Israeli history.
Since the late 1980’s and especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there has been a revival of Jewish community life in Siberia. A Jewish school was reopened in Birobidzhan and synagogues and courses for the study of Hebrew and Jewish tradition were reopened in Tomsk, Omsk, and Kainsk. While many Jews have immigrated to Israel, others have chosen to remain in Siberia. Various estimations put the current Jewish population of Siberia between 25,000 to 30,000 persons.
Born in siberia:
Konstantin Kaufmann Petrovich (1818-1882)
A famous Russian general, he conquered vast territories in Central Asia and Siberia for the Russian empire. For two decades he was governor-general of Turkestan and Siberia.
Horacio Ginzberg (1833-1909)
A famous Russian merchant and philanthropist who founded the “Lena Goldfield Company”. He, and later his children controlled practically all the gold production of Siberia before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Ginzberg was awarded the title of baron in recognition of his achievements and service for Russia.
Lev Davidovich Trotsky (Bronstein) (1879-1940)
A revolutionary and one of the leaders of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. After having been arrested for revolutionary activity in January 1898 and spending two years in imprisonment, he was exiled to the small village of Ust-Kut in Siberia. In 1902, he succeeded in escaping with the help of a forged passport bearing the name of Trotsky, which he took from one of his Russian guards and adopted as his revolutionary pseudonym. During the first Russian revolution (1905-1907), Trotsky was arrested for the second time in 1906 and subsequently exiled to the village of Obdorsk, in the Arctic region of Siberia. Trotsky escaped from Siberia again in 1907.
Avraham Harzfeld (Postrelko) (1888-1973)
A Labor leader in Israel. Harzfeld joined the Russian Socialist Zionist party in 1906. In 1909 he was arrested for revolutionary activity and for the distribution of illegal literature. In 1910, he was sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labor and sent to a small village near Yakutsk in Siberia, but in 1914, he managed to escape and subsequently immigrated to Palestine.
Halpern Leivick (1886-1962)
Yiddish poet. A Bundist since 1902, he was arrested in 1906 for distributing illegal literature. After spending four years in prisons in St. Petersburg and Moscow, where he wrote several books in Yiddish, he was exiled in 1911 to the village of Vitim near the Lena River. He escaped in the summer of 1913 and later immigrated to the USA.
Alexander Averbuch (b.1974)
An athlete. Born in Irkutsk, Siberia, he immigrated to Israel in 1999. His outstanding career includes winning the Decathlon in the European Under 23 Championships in 1997, the Bronze medal at the World Athletics Championship in Seville in 1999, the European Indoor Championship in 2000, and the Gold medal for pole vaulting in the European Championship in 2002.
- Savinykh, M.N., Politika Rossi’iskogo samoderzhaviya v Otnoshenii Sibirskih Evreev v 19-nachale 20 Vekov. (Policy of the Russian Empire towards Siberian Jews in the 19th-20th centuries). Tomsk, 1997
- Turetskii, G., Evrei v Sibiri. (Jews in Siberia). Sibirskaya Zaimka. On-line journal. http://www.zaimka.ru/to_sun/evrei.shtml
- Kratkaya Evreiskaya Entsiklopedia. (Shorter Jewish Encyclopedia). Vol.7, pp. 791-799. Jerusalem, 1994
- Encyclopedia Judaica. Vol.14, pp.1486-1489. Jerusalem, 1971