Russian Jewish population down sharply since 2010, pre-Ukraine war census indicates

2021 survey shows half as many people now identify as Jews, from 160,000 in 2010 to 83,000; estimates do not account for mass exodus of Jews since outbreak of conflict

Russian Jews walk into a kosher foods market in Moscow, Russia, on December 1, 2014. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Russian Jews walk into a kosher foods market in Moscow, Russia, on December 1, 2014. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

An exodus of Jews from Russia since President Vladimir Putin invaded neighboring Ukraine has drawn widespread attention over the last year. But according to statistics released recently by Russia’s official statistics bureau, the country’s Jewish population had fallen sharply long before the tanks began rolling.

The statistics, published last month by Russia’s Federal State Statistics Service, showed that just 82,644 people identified themselves as Jews in the national census conducted in 2021.

Another nearly 2,000 people identified with related categories such as Mountain Jews (from Azerbaijan and the Caucasus Mountains), Israelis living in Russia, Georgian Jews, Bukharian Jews (from Uzbekistan and Central Asia), Karaites and Krymchaks (from Crimea), according to the Russian-Jewish news outlet Lechaim.

These numbers are highly questionable, as millions of Russians declined to give their nationality and Russia has been known to fabricate and alter such statistics for political motives. However, they may give at least some indication of population trends.

For instance, Russia’s previous census, conducted in 2010, showed nearly 160,000 people who identified as Jews or belonging to the related groups — suggesting a decline by nearly a half over the last decade. During the same period, Russia’s total population grew by 3.5%.

Professor Sergio Della Pergola of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, one of the world’s premier experts in global Jewish demographics, has also found a sharp drop in Russia’s Jewish population during the same period, but to a far lesser extent. In 2010, Della Pergola estimated Russia’s Jewish population to be 205,000 people, compared to 150,000 in 2021 — a 25% decrease, not 50%.

The only Jewish groups that did see a rise during this period, according to Lechaim.ru, were Karaites — a seventh-century breakaway sect from rabbinic Judaism — and Krymchaks. Both populations have been historically concentrated in the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed in 2014, meaning that they would not have been part of the 2010 census at all.

A majority of the Russian Jews who left appear to have emigrated to Israel. According to the Jewish Agency, which facilitates immigration to Israel, some 66,800 Russians made aliyah between 2010 and 2019. The group is facing sanctions over its work in the country, as part of Putin’s crackdown on foreigners in retaliation for Russia’s isolation on the world stage since initiating the unprovoked war.

Of course, the 2021 census numbers do not account for the mass exodus of Russian Jews and Russians eligible for Israeli citizenship since the country invaded neighboring Ukraine in February 2022, meaning the current Jewish population of Russia is likely far lower today.

According to Israeli government figures, in the past year, 43,685 people immigrated to Israel from Russia. However, most of these people would not be considered Jews according to the Israeli government’s interpretation of Jewish law nor would they necessarily have been included in Della Pergola’s figures.

There could be other Russian Jews who were not captured by the census. Lechaim noted that 17 million people left their nationality blank or identified themselves as having no nationality — a move that Jews, whose national identity can be complicated in whatever country they live, might be inclined to make in a country with a relatively recent history of state antisemitism.

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