One century ago, Russia was home to the largest Jewish population in the world - about 5 million people. But Nazi genocide - followed by massive emigration - radically cut Russia’s Jewish population to only 150,000 today.
Now, Russian Jewish groups are embarking on a new tactic to guarantee the community’s survival. In early November, on a quiet side street in Moscow, they opened Europe’s newest - and largest - museum devoted to Jewish culture, the Jewish Museum & Tolerance Center.
Inside the $50 million, privately financed museum, interactive exhibits draw people into Jewish culture, life and history.
Exploration of the past
On a recent afternoon, Asyia Muravyova, a 21-year-old Russian university student, pauses from exploring the exhibits.
She says, “The museum is interesting in that it differs from others because a person can not only read something and understand it, but can also get a feeling of what occurred. Everything here is a channel to feeling.”
The museum explores anti-Semitism under the Czars, Jewish participation in the 1917 Communist revolution, anti-Semitism and the Nazi genocide during World War Two, Jewish contributions to the Soviet War effort, and the heavy emigration of Jews immediately before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Katsiaryna Yurechka, a university student from Belarus, says the exhibits showed her a hidden history.
She says, “Here you see the history - you see the people suffering, but at the same time you also see people who were very brave, who participated in the Second World War. You see their vision, and how they tried to maintain a family together, try to stay together.”
Bridge from Russia to Israel
Israeli President Shimon Peres was born before World War II in what is now Belarus. He flew from Israel to Moscow for the November 8 museum opening.
Now 89 years old, the Israeli leader told reporters, “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.”
He said to Russians in attendance: “I came here to say 'thank you. Thank you for a thousand years of hospitality.'”
Museum chairman Borukh Gorin sees the new museum as a bridge between Russia and the one million Russian-speaking Jews of Israel.
Israelis and Russians no longer need visas to visit each other’s countries. There are now six flights a day between Tel Aviv and Moscow - the same frequency as flights between Tel Aviv and New York.
He said that Russian Jews that live in Israel “see themselves much more connected to the Russian culture, to Russian literature, to Moscow theaters.”
In addition to welcoming Jewish visitors from overseas, Gorin hopes the museum will push for tolerance for minorities here in Russia.
He said, “The best thing is to talk, to explain yourself, to tell your story, to tell your history - and to be much more tolerant by yourself to the national history, to the nation’s problems. And this museum is aimed in this field.”
He added that Russian Muslim leaders visited the Jewish Museum on its opening day.
Their reaction? To decide to build a similar museum to educate Russians about their history and Russian Muslim contributions to modern Russia.