The world’s largest and most expensive Jewish Museum opened to great fanfare in Russia late last year. And although it has only been open for less than six months, the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow has become a must-see for any visitors to the Russian capital.
A high profile project, its construction cost around $50 million, to which Russian President Vladimir Putin donated a month’s wages. Israeli President Shimon Peres, who was born in what is now Belarus, flew to Moscow for the museum’s opening in November 2012.
There the 89-year-old Israeli leader told reporters that, “My mother sang to me in Russian, and at the entrance to this museum, memories of my childhood flooded through my mind, and my mother’s voice played in my heart.”
The history of the Jews in Russia is as complex and emotional as any childhood memories.
This large and engaging museum—which was primarily funded by oligarchs with close ties to the Kremlin—is dedicated to the ambivalent history of Jews in Russia, land that has been the site of both immense Jewish achievement and suffering.
"We tried to make our museum not about how bad or how good it was to be a Jew in Russia, but simply about how it was," said Borukh Gorin, the chairman of the museum, according to the Los Angeles Times.
To tell the tale, the museum has adopted a very modern approach. It employs interactive displays with personal testimony and archival footage in both Russian and English.
New York based designer Ralph Appelbaum, who designed the United States Holocaust Museum, created a museum that the Russian online television channel Dozhd described as a “Jewish Disneyland.”
As befits a major museum, it occupies a vast space—some 5,000 square feet. Across this floor space the museum offers visitors an array of interactive exhibits. Films in 3-D, interactive maps and touch screens all chronicle Jewish life in what was once the Russian Empire.
A visitor can touch a screen at one exhibit and appear in a mirror dressed in the garb of a 19th-century blacksmith, or a merchant, or a Russian-Jewish intellectual. If you touch a Torah in a virtual synagogue, the cantor’s voice fills the air.
The exhibitions are presented in chronological order. As visitors progress through the museum, they follow in the path of centuries of Russian Jewry, travelling across medieval Europe to the Russian Empire’s Pale of Settlement and then onto Russian cities.
The Jewish presence in Russia grew as a result of Russia, Prussia and Austria’s division of Poland at the end of the 1700s. Along with the Polish territory it gained, the Russian Empire inherited approximately 1 million Jews. Most of the Jewish population was densely concentrated in rural areas in the north and west of the Russian Empire. Later Tsarist decrees forbade Jews from settling outside of a prescribed area, known as the Pale of Settlement.
Individual Jews had to apply for permission to live outside of the Pale (from where we get the expression, “beyond the pale”), applications which were almost always denied. As the Russian Empire expanded, especially south into the area known as New Russia (southern Ukraine), Jews were permitted to settle in this new terrain, which included the city of Odessa. The Ukrainian port soon became the center of flourishing Jewish life, one of the major Jewish centers of the world.
Visitors to the museum can sit down at a café in Odessa and interact with a virtual, dead Jewish writer, a representative member of the city’s intelligentsia.
In addition to conversation with long-dead authors, a visitor can partake in other interactive role-play at the Odessa café. By touching the table, the visitor is posed a question that was all-too pertinent for many Jewish residents of Odessa in the 19th and 20th centuries.
“If your store were destroyed by a pogrom, what would you do?”
The question is a good one, not merely hypothetical. Odessa was the site of pogroms in 1821, 1859, 1871, 1881, 1886 and 1905. Visitors can choose from one of four responses:
“A) Give up and emigrate to the West, B) Stay in my hometown and try to rebuild the store, C) Join a Jewish self-defense league and prepare for the next pogrom or, D) I am still in shock.”
As it happens, Vladimir Jabotinsky, a resident of the city on the Black Sea, chose option C. In the midst of the anti-Jewish violence, Jabotinsky created the Jewish Self-Defense Organization, a Jewish militant group whose purpose was to safeguard Jews from attack in Odessa and throughout the Russian Empire.
Jabotinsky became convinced that the only ways for Jews to be free from the threat of violence was to be armed— “better to have a gun and not need it than to need it and not have it!” he said—or, better yet, to live in their own country, the state of Israel.
Jabotinsky became a prominent Zionist, changed his name from Vladimir to Ze’ev, and founded the Revisionist Zionist movement. Jabotinksy died in New York in 1940, before his dream of a Jewish homeland was realized, but after the establishment of the Jewish State, his remains were transferred to Israel.
In addition to contributing to the development of Zionism, the bloody pogroms of the late 19th and early 20th centuries resulted in the mass emigration of Russian Jews to the West—the United States, primarily, but also France, the United Kingdom and Germany—and to pre-State Palestine. Then in 1917, the Bolshevik Revolution granted equal rights to all minority groups in Russia, including Jews, while it also precipitated more anti-Jewish violence.
The museum outlines these periods, as well as the Holocaust. While the Shoah is by no means the primary focus of the museum, exhibitions detail some of the horrors in which over 2.5 million Russian Jews were murdered. Yet while many Russian Jews perished at the hands of Nazis and their collaborators, Russian Jews fighting in the Soviet Army also helped to liberate concentration camps. Once again, Jewish suffering and success are starkly juxtaposed.
The museum chronicles the Jewish contribution to Russia’s war effort during World War II. It houses a copy of a T-34 tank, which was made in a plant run by a Jewish man in the Urals town of Nizhny Tagil and served as the Russian army’s primary tank during the war. The museum also honors Russia’s only female Jewish air force pilot, who received the Hero of the Soviet Union award, with a reproduction of the plane she flew during the war.
Exhibitions also address the post-War period, exploring what it meant to be a Soviet Jew. This section of the museum might be of particular interest to the many Russian-speaking Jews who left the former Soviet Union. There are now hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of Russian-speaking Jews and their families who live in Israel, the United States, Germany and elsewhere outside of Russia.
While many Russian Jews desperately fought to leave the Soviet Union, hoping to immigrate to Israel for ideological reasons—part of the refusenik movement—or to the West, the museum also profiles the many and varied contributions of Russian Jews to the development of the Soviet Union in the fields of politics, literature, engineering, mathematics, literature and the arts.
At the start of the 20th century, Russia was home to the largest Jewish population in the world, perhaps as many as 5 million souls. But anti-Jewish violence and legislation led to mass emigration from Russia—to primarily to the United States, pre-State Israel and Western Europe. Then the Nazi genocide further decimated Jewish communities. After the defeat of the Nazis, Soviet authorities repressed Jewish religious and cultural life, as well as other religions. In the wake of the break down of the Soviet Union, yet more Russian Jews left the country for Israel and the West. These events radically cut the size of Russia’s Jewish population, which currently numbers approximately 200,000.
Although there may be fewer Jews in Russia than at any point in over 200 years, Moscow is now home to an impressive museum—earlier this month, the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center received the “Museum of the Year” award from the Russia edition of the prestigious The Art Newspaper, the Jewish Telegraph Agency reported.
So many of the world’s Jews, from Nobel laureate and Israeli President Shimon Peres down, can trace their families’ histories to Russia. It is fitting that this major museum honors the heritage of a huge proportion of the world’s Jews and the inextricably intertwined modern histories of Jewish people and Russian lands.