2. Early Judiazing Movement in Russia

There are several historical accounts of the conversion of groups of non-Jewish people living in Russia, both pagans and Christians, to Judaism ever since the downfall of Judea in around 100 AD. There are documented records of the migration of the Jews into the northern shore of the Black Sea (the Crimea) as well as other parts of the known world at that time.

The Kingdom of the Khazars in the First Millennium

The Khazars were a conglomerate of Finno-Turkish tribes living in the area roughly encompassing the Crimea, the Caucasus, South-Central Russia and the area north of the Caspian Sea at the mouth of the Volga River. They emerged as a pagan nation during the 8th century AD. Because of their geographic position at the crossroads of the famed “Silk Road,” the Khazars were exposed to Byzantine (Greek Orthodox) Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Each of these religions was bent on converting the Khazars either for purely religious reason or to create a new ally of similar beliefs.

The Jews in Russia and Poland2, by S. M. Dubnow in 1916, contains these accounts from Jews and medieval Arabic travelers:

The King, or Khagan, of the Khazars, by the name of Bulan, had resolved to abandon paganism, but was undecided as to the religion he should adopt instead. Messengers sent by the Caliph persuaded him to accept Islam, envoys from Byzantium endeavored to win him over to Christianity, and representatives of Judaism championed their own faith.

As a result, Bulan arranged a disputation [debate] between the advocates of the three religions to be held in his presence, but he failed to carry away any definite conviction from their arguments and mutual refutations.

Thereupon the king invited first the Christian and then the Mohammedan, and questioned them separately. On asking the former {the Christian} which religion he thought was better of the two, Judaism or Mohammedanism, he received this reply: “Judaism, since it is the older of the two, and the basis of all religions. On asking the Mohammedan, which religion he preferred, Judaism or Christianity, he received the same answer in favor of Judaism, with the same motivation.

“If that be the case,” Bulan argued in consequence, “if both the Mohammedan and the Christian acknowledge the superiority of Judaism to the religion of their antagonist, I too prefer to adopt the Jewish religion.” Bulan accordingly embraced Judaism and many of the Khazars followed his example.

The conversion of Khazars to Judaism took place in about 740 AD which is about two hundred years before the Russian state in Moscow adopted Orthodox Christianity after a similar search and evaluation. In contrast but through a similar process, the Russian ruler Vladimir adopted Christianity in 988 AD. He created his own variation of the Byzantine (or Greek) Orthodox Church as the state religion. Vladimir set forth to impose this imported religion upon the predominately pagan population Vladimir sent out ten "good and wise men" to investigate the world's religions before making his choice. The Cultural Atlas of the Soviet Union3 written by Robin Milner-Gull and with Nikolai Dejevsky gives this account of the investigators' report: "The Islamic version of paradise sounds good, but the prohibition of alcohol is too much, ... the Germans are drab. The Jews are losers without a homeland. ... But inside the Greek churches {referring to the elaborate ornamentation, vestments and ceremonies}, we did not know whether we were in Heaven or on Earth."

The Kingdom of Khazaria came under increasing military pressure from the Byzantines and the Russians until it finally fell in 1016 when its leaders fled. However, one can assume that some of the covered Khazars remained in the area and merged with the local Jewish population. There are also reports of Jews migrating from Khazaria to the Ukraine and other parts of Russia stating from the ninth century.

To learn more abut the Khazars, I recommend reading The Jews of Khazaria4, written by Kevin Alan Brook in 1999 and visiting his web site http://www.khazaria.com

As is well known, the Jewish population grew and continued to spread across many European countries including Russia. The leaders in Moscow employed Jews as assistants and agents in order to communicate with the Jewish world during the 14th and 15th centuries.

The “Jewish Heresy” of 1480

Dubnow’s history1 includes accounts of a secret movement in Novogorod in 1480 later referred to as the Judaizing heresy led by a Jew from Kiev named Zechariah. There was a great deal of religious turbulence in Novogorod at that time and the organizers took advantage of it. They formed a new sect called itself the Strigolniki after its local founder Karp Strigolnik. This movement soon spread to Moscow where a number of Orthodox Christians were converted including the daughter-in-law of Tsar Ivan III.

The tenets of this sect included:
When the movement became known, the Archbishop Gennadi of Novogorod and other Orthodox zealots mounted a vigorous yet difficult campaign to abolish it. Finally in 1504 with the support of Ivan II and the Church Council, the Strigolniki leaders were captured and exiled, imprisoned in monasteries or burned at the stake. This episode instilled a superstition about Jews among the people living in Moscow that carried with it the stigma that the Jews were a threat to “Holy Russia” and that they must be watched carefully in the future.

The “Jewish Seduction” of 1738

Another incident involving covert Judaizing activity that is included in Dubnow’s history1 occurred in the town of Dubrovna near Smolensk in 1738. Borukh Leibov, a Jewish farmer, made friends with a retired Russian Navy captain named Alexander Voznitzin. As the two studied the Bible together, it became apparent to Voznitzin that the dogmas of the Orthodox Church were inconsistent with the teachings of the Bible. Accordingly, Voznitzin converted to Judaism and underwent the ceremony of circumcision.
When the authorities learned of this, they rounded up Leibov and Voznitzin and sent them to face the consequences before the Chancellery of Secret Inquisitional Affairs in St. Petersburg. After enduring sessions of torture on the rack, Voznitzin admitted to blasphemy and Leibov confessed that he
… together with other Jews, predisposed the common people of Smolensk in favor of the Jewish religion, and insulted the Russian Pope Abramius, in connection with the establishment of a Jewish synagogue in the village of Zverovich.

The Inquisition Court convicted Leibov and Voznitzin under the statute of Tsar Alexis and sentenced

…. both of them to be executed and burned, in order that other ignorant and godless people witnessing this, shall not turn away from the Christian law, and such seducers as the above-mentioned Jew Borukh shall not dare to lead them astray from the Christian law and convert them to their own laws.

The sentence was carried out in a public square in St. Petersburg in front of a large crowd on July 15, 1738.

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