Ashkenazi travelers and traders were in Russia before the twelfth century, but significant movement east from Germany and Bohemia occurred slowly over the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries, first to Poland-Lithuania (where at the end of the fifteenth century the Jewish population was only 10,000 and 15,000) and then to the Ukraine, Belarussia, and Russia, where the first legislation mentioning Jews was in the sixteenth century.
Small Jewish communities, shtetls rarely had large-scale industry, surviving on trade with peasants. The central communal organization of the shtetl surveyed weights and measures, interacted with professional groups (such as midwives and town musicians) and with scribes, teachers, and other professionals to regulate fees, wages, and so forth, and also governed artisan guilds, which often combined social, administrative, religious, and economic institutions. Rabbis regulated aspects of everyday life governed by Jewish law: butchers and food preparation; ritual baths; tiny scrolls for door posts; observation of the Sabbath, of weddings, and other ceremonies; and the administration of justice. Myriad charities and philanthropic groups were supported by donations even from poor Jews. Shtetls had no public places of amusement; life centered on the beis hamidrash ("house of study") and the synagogue, where morning, afternoon, and evening prayers were attended by male community members.
In the eighteenth century Jews were first banished from Russia and from Ukrainian and Belarussian territories; then, on the basis of mercantilist theories, there was some readmission. Settlements increased after 1772, augmented by partitions of Poland, which added thousands of Jews to the empire. Catherine II established a Jewish "Pale of Residence." Jews were allowed to do business only in certain regions. The "Black Hundreds" anti-Semitic movement encouraged pogroms and massacres in the Ukraine.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, pauperization of villagers caused men to travel for work, move to cities, and emigrate. Of those who moved to the cities, a small number advanced in banking, industry, and the professions, but poverty and crowding in the ghettos increased. Jewish communities had always had internal class conflicts, but they grew in severity as economic conditions worsened. Jews were active in the two large anticzarist and other revolutionary movements. Theodore Herzl's writings and the formation of the World Zionist Organization fueled a nationalist movement among all groups of Jews. The Marxist-Socialist Bund, General Alliance of Jewish Workers, was an important component of Russian Social Democracy and the Revolutionary movement. In 1903 and 1905 pogroms, about 1,000 Jews were killed and thousands wounded, despite a new self-defense movement. The 1917 revolutions abolished anti-Semitism along with all national and religious discrimination. Economic changes undermined the role of the shtetl, increasing migration to cities. Even in the traditional Pale, youth and intellectuals were attracted to Bolshevik internationalist, socialist ideals; there were Jews at the top of the Communist party (e.g., Sverdlov, Zinoviev, Yoffe, Litvinov, Radek, Trotsky) and in the party ranks: in 1927 Jewish party members numbered 44,155 in the three republics; Jews comprised the largest group of party members after ethnic Russians and Ukrainians. In 1926, 4.4 percent of the Red Army officers were Jewish. The Revolution and communism were and are now again perceived by many as non-Russian phenomena, occurring under the influence of "foreigners," especially Jews. From 1917 to 1921 over 50,000 Jews were killed in Ukrainian pogroms. Many shopkeepers and independent craftsmen adapted well to the opportunities for private economic initiative allowed in the "New Economic Policy" (1920s) but were later held up as symbols of bourgeois exploitation. The percentage of Jews in agriculture dropped from its 2.33 percent level in 1897, but when NEP failed to help economic distress and thousands of families were surviving on help from Western Jewry, Jewish agricultural settlements were established in the Ukraine, Byelorussia, and the Crimea. By 1930, 11 percent of Jews made their living on these settlements, but these tens of thousands of families had moved back by 1939. For example, in 1928 Birobijan, a 36,000-square-kilometer territory in southeast Siberia, was established as an "Autonomous Jewish Region" giving Jews the territory required by the definition of a nationality and as an "alternative" to Zionism, but by 1933, 11,450 of the 19,635 Jews who had moved to Birobijan had returned; the population has declined since.
During World War II many of the most traditional Ashkenazim were killed (estimates vary between 1.2 and 2.5 million), including 33,771 killed within thirty-six hours and up to 90,000 in the following months at Babi Yar, a ravine outside Kiev in 1941. Yevtushenko's poem "Babi Yar," a rare affirmation by a non-Jew, was important for the Soviet Jewish self-image. Two hundred thousand Jews died in the Red Army. What remained of Jewish collective farms in the Ukraine was almost totally destroyed by Nazis and Ukrainian collaborators.
After World War II, under the auspices of Stalin's campaign against "cosmopolitanism," remaining synagogues, schools (in 1949, the last Yiddish school, in Birobijan, was closed), and publications were closed; literature and religious objects were confiscated and destroyed; rabbis, writers, and Jews of all professions were harrassed, attacked in the press, imprisoned, deported to Siberia, and killed. Twenty-four Jewish writers were executed on 12 August 1952. In 1953 a group of doctors was tried for terrorism, followed by an anti-Semitic campaign. After Stalin's death this campaign was cut back and some of the accused and executed were "rehabilitated." The charge of "economic crimes," however, has often (particularly during the 1960s Krushchev regime) been brought against Jews.
Assimilation of Ashkenazim into Russian culture has at various points in history been imposed from the outside and desired by some within the community: Czar Nicholas I undertook to Russify the Jews by a combination of methods: Christianization, deportation, assigning prolonged army service, granting some the right to study in Russian schools, and establishing state schools for Jews. Alexander II liberalized the right of Jewish merchants of the first guild, graduates of Russian schools, and skilled artisans to exit the Pale and facilitated the promotion of Jews in professions formerly closed to them. After Alexander II's assassination, this Russianization was replaced by renewed distinctions made between Jews and others. In the mid-nineteenth century the "Haskalah" Jewish enlightenment movement supported assimilation, opposing as "separatist" aspects of Judaism such as the education system and traditional dress.
Because the culture underwent specific changes during successive political and cultural eras in the twentieth century, contemporary Ashkenazim can be seen in terms of "generations"; most born at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth were raised with traditional Jewish educations, speaking Yiddish and observing religious and dietary laws. Forty-six percent of employed Jews were artisans, home workers, and factory workers; 39.4 percent were merchants, shopkeepers, and commercial agents; 2.33 percent were farmers; and 4.38 percent professionals and civil servants. Unemployment was high. Jews represented 72.8 percent of all tradesmen, 31.4 percent of artisans (primarily tailors, cobblers, and other clothing workers, stereotypical Jewish professions, but also many metalworkers, gold-and silversmiths, and barbers), and 20.9 percent of those engaged in transportation. This profile is radically different from that of other nationalities: 38.6 percent of Jews were in trade and only 3.7 percent of Russians.
In the generation between 1917 and World War II, the employed Ashkenazi population was entirely redistributed from commerce and craftsmanship to industry and "nonphysical labor." In 1918 the Yevsektsii (Jewish sections of the Communist party) were designed (under Stalin, commissar for Nationality Affairs) to help find a proletarian answer to the "Jewish question." Yevsektsii, in cooperation with Jewish local officials, were responsible both for an initial upsurge in theater, newspapers, and schools and for closing synagogues and other traditional institutions and staging trials to dramatize failings of the religion. Russian language and culture became the principal modes of life, Jewish sociopolitical and cultural activity disappeared or went underground, Jewish cultural activity in Russian declined, and the officially supported use of Yiddish was limited. The generation of the 1920s and those following were raised as Russian Communists; there was danger and little interest in consciously passing down to the next generation information about Judaism. Jews born in the 1940s and 1950s who were interested in rediscovering Jewish culture resorted to books, but the extreme difficulty of obtaining such materials made this rare. Since the mid-1960s there has been some renewed interest in Judaism, and since the mid-1980s materials, classes, and study groups have become more available.
Responding to what was called "the excessive number of Jews in establishments of secondary education," quotas were established for matriculation in 1885, but the 1917 Revolution initially suppressed them (the number of Jewish students tripled between 1917 and 1926, reaching 26 percent of university students and 46 percent of medical students in the Ukraine). This resulted in more Jews getting Russian educations, accompanied by a break with tradition. Education has in a sense absorbed the value of the rest of tradition as well as of a homeland, making the experience of encountering institutional quotas in the Soviet and post-Soviet eras particularly painful for them.
Absence of ritual slaughterers, food shortages, and lack of interest have eliminated the practice of keeping kosher at most homes, although a few individuals have recently learned kosher slaughter; others have become vegetarian so as to avoid nonkosher meat. Kosher observances have basically been transformed into a generalized desire for cleanliness in food preparation. Jewish-style fish, chicken, and other dishes have remained and influenced local cuisine. Many families mark holidays only with a meal of traditional foods, including ethnic Russian or Ukrainian dishes.