Jews came to Siberia seeking safety and prosperity

KRASNOYARSK, Russia — For centuries, most people have viewed Siberia as a dreaded prison of frozen tundra, the closest cold spot on earth to the gloom of purgatory.

But for the Jews of Asia and Europe, Siberia has represented something far more attractive: a great escape.

The targets of deadly anti-Semitism and mass expulsions elsewhere on the continent, Jews historically have looked to Siberia as something of a refuge from hostile local governments who killed, exploited or expelled their Jews.

"The good thing about Siberia is that once you were exiled here, there was nowhere else to go," an elderly Siberian Jew says.

Jews have been coming here from all over this massive continent for several centuries, lured by Siberia's relative isolation and, sometimes, the promise of wealth. Today, that same isolation is a hindrance to a revival of Jewish life here, which has been slower to arrive in Siberia than elsewhere in the former Soviet Union.

During the Soviet era, not everything was slow to arrive in Siberia.

On the night of June 14, 1941, Moishe Kiselevskiy was sound asleep in his Baltic home when Soviet troops barged into his living room and gave him 20 minutes to get up and cram into a railroad freight car bound for Siberia. His family was one of several Jewish families with successful private businesses that the Soviet state had deemed "dangerous social elements."

Fortuitously, the terrifying evacuation saved Kiselevskiy and his family from the Nazis: Hitler's forces arrived two weeks later and, with the help of local collaborators, slaughtered more than 90 percent of the Jews of Latvia and Lithuania.

Jews first arrived in Siberia in the late 17th century, seeking gold and fur.

In the 19th century, the Russian government offered free land plots and relocation allowances to pioneers willing to move to this untouched region. A small portion of those who came were Jews looking to escape anti-Semitism in the Pale of Settlement, the swath of land in western Russia where Jews generally were forced to live after 1835.

Early in the 20th century, tens of thousands of Jews were fleeing to America to escape the hunger, university quotas and anti-Semitism in the Pale. But most Jews did not really choose to come here. In the 18th and 19th centuries, czarist exiles, including many political prisoners and criminals, were sent here. Among them were Jews, whose descendants managed to thrive as merchants: In 1898 there were 44,000 registered Jews in 26 Siberian communities.

Others came because there was no other place they could go to escape anti-Semitism at home. The family of Elena Uvarovskaya, head of the Jewish community center in the Siberian city of Ulan Ude, fled here to escape the 1915 pogroms in Lithuania.

The Jewish population of Siberia swelled during World War I, when Czar Nicholas II sent to this region Jewish soldiers whom he feared were German spies.

Synagogues and Jewish schools began to be built here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Local officials were split between implementing czarist anti-Semitic policies and creating a comfortable environment for an ethnic group that was helping fuel the local economy.

As Jews got comfortable in their adopted home, religious observances fell by the wayside. Many worked on the Sabbath and attended synagogue only on the High Holy Days.

During the Soviet era, intermarriage was the norm, largely because relatively few Jewish women were to be found in Russia's Far East.

The Soviet state culled highly educated and skilled workers from western Russia to full posts in military-related and scientific fields. Consequently, most of the Jewish workers who headed east were male — as many as 90 percent, according to some.

"There were no Jewish girls over here," says Zelick Shniederman, a Jew from Krasnoyarsk, explaining the region's high intermarriage rate.

"Siberia was the worst place to be Jewish during Soviet times," says Zev Vagner, a Moscow-based rabbi and author of the Russian Jewish Encyclopedia. "The KGB was much more strict than in Moscow, which made a show for tourists and visitors. In Siberia, you couldn't make a move.''

Others disagree, arguing that Siberia's distance from Moscow allowed for limited religious freedoms in Russia's Far East.

Today, Siberia's Jews are free to practice their religion as they see fit, but few are interested in the Jewish tradition, local Jewish officials say.