The Days When Moscow’s Main Synagogue Was Crawling With KGB Agents

Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt has served as the Russian capital’s chief rabbi for 25 years, overseeing what he calls a ‘crazy’ time for the country’s 1 million Jews. He reflects on his spell serving the community and the unusual circumstances he's encountered

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Israel's then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert speaking during a ceremony to mark the 100th anniversary of Moscow's Choral Synagogue, October 2006.
Israel's then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert speaking during a ceremony to mark the 100th anniversary of Moscow's Choral Synagogue, October 2006. At one time, KGB agents were the main "congregants."Credit: Alexander Natruskin / REUTERS
Amie Ferris-Rotman
Amie Ferris-Rotman
Amie Ferris-Rotman
Amie Ferris-Rotman

MOSCOW – Before the Iron Curtain fell, as a young man in his mid-twenties, Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt came to the Russian capital, eager to serve a large community of Jews who knew next to nothing about being Jewish.

The year was 1988, and the Soviet Union was impoverished and on the brink of collapse. Jews were desperate to get out, but Goldschmidt, who hails from Zurich, couldn’t believe his luck.

“I knew I [had] a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to engage and be involved in one of the most extraordinary moments of our history,” says Goldschmidt, now 54 and chief rabbi of Moscow. Under his stewardship, the 3 million Jews then living in the Soviet Union – “the Jews of silence,” as writer Elie Wiesel called them – would be “reunified with the rest of the world.”

Few foreigners have witnessed the tumult of change in modern Russia as Goldschmidt has. His time in the country spans Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms, the gangster-ridden chaos of the 1990s, and the rise of Vladimir Putin and his boom years of the 2000s. Most recently, he has watched from his perch in Moscow as Russia reasserted itself as a major player on the global stage.

When he first came to the country, Russian Jews were amused by this Western rabbi who wanted to live there, telling him: “We’re all trying to leave and you’re arriving.” He has overseen the community’s fight for survival and now as it enjoys some of the greatest freedoms in its history. Today, as a resurgent Russia rides on a wave of patriotism, one shaped by the Russian Orthodox Church, Russian Jews again find themselves on the precipice of change.

Pinchas Goldschmidt, chief rabbi of Moscow, posing in the main sanctuary of the Choral Synagogue in Moscow, March 2018.Credit: Amie Ferris-Rotman

Goldschmidt recognized early on that his first task was to make the community, such as it was, understand it was Jewish. “Local Jews didn’t know anything in those days,” Goldschmidt recounts in the grand Choral Synagogue, a neoclassical, pale yellow building in the city center.

As we talk, the synagogue is bustling with excitement ahead of a religious festival – a far cry from Goldschmidt’s early days, when the same building crawled with KGB agents recording the movements of visiting foreigners.

Goldschmidt recalls how, when he first walked into the synagogue, “One person came over and told me, ‘Don’t talk to the other person because he works for the government.’ Then that second person came to me and said the same thing about the first person. I believed both of them.”

More than 70 years of state-sponsored atheism and institutional anti-Semitism had taken its toll on the country’s Jews. “No one knew what Rosh Hashanah was,” Goldschmidt says. “Not more than one or two dozen children in the whole of Moscow knew the Hebrew alphabet.”

For the few who did know, the waning days of the Soviet Union were filled with dizzying emotion.

“We felt some tectonic shifts were about to happen. We didn’t actually know how and what, but we knew the world as we knew it was changing,” Goldschmidt says, recalling how he sat with refuseniks in the sukkah of a Jewish learning center, where his beard turned to ice. “The only thing we had to eat was bread, honey, potatoes and wheat vodka. But we were extremely happy.”

Decades of repression

Goldschmidt started his work as chief rabbi in 1993, setting up dozens of Sunday schools with the Jewish Agency (at first, the teachers would learn the material only a day before their students). Luckily, his new charges were extremely curious. “There was an incredible thirst for anything Jewish,” he says, referring to the outburst of enthusiasm after decades of repression. He describes how visiting Jewish singers – “some of them quite mediocre” – would fill halls, instantly selling out.

It felt like Jews across the country had awakened to a new identity – one that suddenly required the principles of Jewish religious law (halakha). One such person requiring Goldschmidt’s assistance was a man from Vladivostok, about 6,450 kilometers (4,000 miles) away on Russia’s Pacific Coast. He had been married and divorced three times by Russian law. But now he wanted to be divorced according to Jewish law. “So, he came with his wives: number one, number two and number three. He brought us a huge smoked salmon as payment for the divorces. We were able to feast on that,” Goldschmidt says, his eyes softening at the memory. “Those days were actually crazy.”

After Gorbachev’s liberal government lifted restrictions on emigration in 1989, the floodgates started to open and the 1990s saw a huge exodus of Jews to Israel and the United States. Some of its best sons and daughters fled and, for a moment, Goldschmidt worried the newly revived community would disappear. “There was a tremendous amount of discussion within the Jewish world establishment of, ‘Let’s not establish a new diaspora, the Jews should leave as fast as possible. If they’re staying, that’s their own problem,’” he relays.

Today, the highest estimates put the number of Russian Jews at 1 million, half of whom live in Moscow.

In 2000, Putin was elected president for the first time and Jewish life in Moscow started to take on a different shape. The new president’s popularity rose sharply as he improved living standards and reined in the billionaire oligarchs who had carved up Russia’s resources in the ’90s. New alliances were formed, and various factions vied for influence in the Kremlin – which was now being controlled by a top-to-bottom governing system. The Jewish community, hitherto united, became split.

A new chief rabbi of Russia, Italian-born Chabad emissary Berel Lazar, rose to prominence, quickly gaining Putin’s ear and trust. Dubbed “Putin’s rabbi” by the Russian press, Lazar’s critics accuse him of whitewashing anti-Semitism to advance the Kremlin’s agenda, a charge he denies.

Lazar is often connected to Putin: the Russian leader threw his support, including money, toward the sprawling, swish Jewish museum that opened in 2012, not far from Lazar’s synagogue in Moscow. The lavish opening ceremony was headed by Lazar and attended by the late Israeli president, Shimon Peres.

Lazar regularly officiates at Kremlin-sponsored events and, in return, Chabad has been allowed to flourish in Russia, where there are over 200 such communities. “The split in the community has been permanent,” Goldschmidt says, explaining this is why the country now has two chief rabbis – Lazar and Adolf Shayevich.

Under Putin’s rule, Russia’s newfound closeness with the Orthodox Church has proved a double-edged sword for the Jewish community. “In the past, this place was the bastion of atheism. Right now, everything is totally the opposite,” Goldschmidt says. “Religion is back in.”

Russian Judaism, in turn, has benefited from the religious renaissance as schools, books and rabbinical seminaries swelled in number.

But while Putin has repeatedly made it clear that anti-Semitism will not be tolerated, a new force in Russian society is emerging “from the bottom,” as Goldschmidt puts it.

Pinchas Goldschmidt, chief rabbi of Moscow, leafing through the Choral Synagogue’s guestbook in his office, March 2018.Credit: Amie Ferris-Rotman

Over the last two years, 10 foreign Chabad rabbis in Russia have had their visas revoked or renewed, in what some believe is an attempt by the authorities to assert more control over the community. Lazar, for his part, has said the rabbis were perhaps the latest tit-for-tat victims in the row between Russia and the West.

Indeed, tensions between the Kremlin and the West continue to escalate, with reasons ranging from election-meddling to the war in Syria. Both Washington and Moscow have described relations as being worse than during the Cold War. And with several rounds of Western sanctions putting a squeeze on the Russian economy, a large part of the Jewish business community has rushed for the exit.

Goldschmidt estimates that since 2014 – the year Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine, beginning the snowball of discord between East and West – about half of the Jewish business leadership has left. He declines to give names, but says the community is now working with young entrepreneurs, hoping to replace those who have left with a new generation.

The community is not going to lose Goldschmidt any time soon, though – a far cry from 13 years ago, when he was briefly refused entry to the country over what the Russians claimed were problems with his visa. The incident made international headlines, but it’s not a problem he has to contend with anymore as he was given Russian citizenship by then-President Dmitry Medvedev in 2010.

A father of seven children, Goldschmidt certainly seems settled here. He reflects that in comparison to other parts of the world – such as France, Germany and the United Kingdom – Jewish life in Russia seems to be surviving well enough.

“It’s safer to walk around Moscow in a yarmulke than Paris or Brussels,” he says with a knowing smile.

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