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With a population of over 10 million, this city of superlatives has been at the center of world events for centuries. Everything here exists on a grand scale, including a Jewish population of around 200,000 people today.
To understand the the scale of the spectacle in the Russian capital, one must begin at the Red Square. With the Tomb of Vladmir Lenin on one side and the onion-domed St. Basil’s Cathedral on the other, as well as the glass-domed historical department store GUM, there’s no better place to learn about the history of Tsarist, Soviet, and post-Soviet Russia. From there it’s just a quick walk to the Kremlin, built as the royal palace, and now the seat of the Russian government and official residence of the Russian President. These golden-capped churches and intricate palaces never cease to astonish and delight.
Before the October Revolution, Russian Jews were forced to live in the Pale of Settlement, which did not include major cities. Due to this, very few Jews settled in Moscow before 1917, but those who did wielded an enormous influence on culture and society – among them were famous merchants, journalists and writers, lawyers and doctors. In 1872 Jewish entrepreneur Lazar Polyakov initiated the construction of the Bolshaya Bronnaya Street Synagogue – which exists today after a renovation in the 1990s.
In 1891 the Moscow Jewish community built the beautiful neo-classicist Choral Synagogue (a difficult task, as the city authorities claimed that the dome of the synagogue abused the emotions of Christians – since they might confuse it with a church).
The October Revolution opened new possibilities for Russian Jews – although religious life was restricted for everyone, Jewish cultural life in Moscow blossomed throughout the 1920’s and 30's. Jewish artists, cultural activists, and writers shaped the Moscow Jewish intelligentsia circles, and Jewish population grew significantly. Nevertheless, Russian Jews suffered from Stalin’s repression – many of the intelligentsia perished in the purges of the 1930’s, and later many others fell victim to the campaign against the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee and the Doctors Plot. Today the KGB building on Lubyanka Square reminds us of this dark period in Russian history.
World War II dramatically altered the life of the Soviet Jews. The Belarusian and Ukrainian territories were occupied and hundreds of thousands of Jews were exterminated during the Holocaust. Today the Memorial Synagogue and Holocaust Center commemorates that tragic time. This synagogue was built in 1998 in memory of the Jews who died in WWII. In addition to the Holocaust in Russia, and other Soviet territories, the museum also contains exhibitions on Jewish life in Russia prior to the Revolution.
Jewish life in Moscow was revived after 1991. Today there are two Jewish museums. One is a small private collection, the Museum of the Jewish History in Russia, which contains multiple artifacts that illuminate everyday life for Russian Jews in the 19th and early 20th centuries, while huge and impressive Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center offers the overview of the entire history of Jewish community in Russia.
Not only cultural, but also religious, Jewish life is proliferating today. The Maryina Roshcha district has become the Jewish quarter in Moscow – with an enormous Jewish Community Center (MEOTS), Jewish religious schools, kosher shops, and bars that evoke the style and substance of Jerusalem.
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