The history of Jewish settlement in Russia is as long and complex as the narrative of the ever-shifting areas of Russian power. In the 18th century, Empress Catherine the Great banished all Jews from Russia proper, sending them to the Pale of Settlement, but exceptions were made and small Jewish communities began to develop in cities such as St. Petersburg and Moscow. By 1869, several years after Czar Alexander II relaxed the restrictions on Jewish settlement, there were at least 10 Jewish prayer groups meeting in St. Petersburg. With special permission from the Czar, and in agreement to his specifications, the development of St. Petersburg’s Grand Choral Synagogue began in 1870, although a plot of land was not purchased until 1879.The synagogue came into partial use in 1886 and was finally consecrated and opened in 1893.

Like Russian Jewry, the Grand Choral Synagogue has survived the challenges of war and oppression. It served as a hospital during World War I and was bombed during the Siege of Leningrad (as the city was then known) during World War II. Having maintained its sacred trust even throughout the anti-religious Soviet era, the Grand Choral Synagogue is, today, a registered landmark.

In Moscow, which became Russia’s capital in 1918, there is also a Choral Synagogue that was built around the same time. The Jewish community hired Simon Eibschitz to design a synagogue in 1881. In 1886, the plans were officially approved. In 1888, when construction was well-underway, the city insisted that an exterior image of a Torah scroll and the building’s domes be removed. The builders complied and work resumed, at least for a little while. In March 1891, the city’s new General Governor, Prince Serge Aleksandrovich, began expelling groups of Jews, starting with artisans. By June 1892, when Aleksandrovich officially shut down the Choral Synagogue along with several others, close to 20,000 Jews had been expelled.

If not for the Russian Revolution, this would possibly have been the end of the synagogue. In the midst of the chaos, Czar Nicholas declared religious freedom. The synagogue was refurbished by architect Roman Klein and then reopened in 1906.

Once reopened, the Moscow Choral Synagogue managed to stay relevant during the Soviet Era, although there were many times of danger. In 1948, Israeli Ambassador Golda Meir attended High Holiday services there, much to the chagrin of the Soviet authorities watching her, which launched a major movement of Jewish consciousness among Soviet Jews.

Today, the synagogue has once again been refurbished and is now the center of the city’s Jewish life.

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