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.
The Jewish Soldiers’ Synagogue, built in 1903 by Jewish soldiers from a
local garrison near Tomsk with the help of the Jewish community of Tomsk.
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
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
Some Famous Jews of 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
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
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.
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.
Ida Nudel, a refusenik, during exile in Kriboshenino, Siberia, 1978
Visual Documentation Center - Beit Hatfutsot
Courtesy of Yona Schwarzman, Israel
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.
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).
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
Dr. Irena Vladimirsky is 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.