Understanding the plight of Soviet Jewry before the fall of the Iron Curtain

September 25, 2013
BY Maayan Jaffe

How Many Soviet Jews Were There?
In 1986, an averaging of figures by Western demographers suggests that there may have been 2 million to 2.5 million Jews in the U.S.S.R., making it the third-largest Jewish population in the world outside of the U.S. and
Israel. In 1986, Soviet Jews represented approximately 65 percent of European Jewry and 15 percent of world Jews.

What was the legal status of the Jewish community in the U.S.S.R.?
Jews were identified as a nationality group and a religious faith. If both parents were Jewish, the child was
considered a Jew and was registered as such. If one parent was Jewish, the child had the option of choosing his nationality at the age of 16.

Were Jews permitted to practice?
At best, practicing Judaism in the U.S.S.R. was inconvenient. The freedom to practice one’s religion, although
constitutionally guaranteed, was strictly controlled by the Council of Religious Affairs of the Council of Ministers. Teaching religion to persons under the age of 16 was prohibited by law.

How many synagogues were there?
In 1979, there were 60 official synagogues in the U.S.S.R. This was down from 1,000 in 1926 and 467 in 1960. Assuming a conservative estimate of even 1.8 million Jews, this translates to one synagogue for every 30,000 Jews.

What was a refusenik?
The term was derived from the Russian word otkaznik, meaning a Soviet Jew who had applied for an exit visa and had been denied. In 1986, there were over 15,000 known cases of refuseniks. waited as long as 15 years to emigrate.

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