A Russian religious group known for adopting Jewish practices and facing persecution for their beliefs.

Religion: Judaism
Founded: 18th century
Location: Russia, later migrated to other countries
Other Names: Subbotniki, Sabbatarians

The Subbotniks, a distinct group of individuals originally from the rural regions of the former Soviet Union, have a history that intertwines with both Jewish and Russian narratives. Originating more than two centuries ago, this community began with Russian peasants who, in a remarkable shift of faith, embraced Judaism, converting under the czarist regime of Russia. The name “Subbotniks” itself is derived from the Russian word “Subbota,” meaning Sabbath, reflecting their profound reverence for the Jewish day of rest.

The early 19th century marked a challenging period for the Subbotniks, as Czar Alexander I expelled them from their homes, deporting them to remote parts of the empire as a punitive measure for their conversion to Judaism. This move was indicative of the struggles they would face, including later persecution under the Communist regime and, devastatingly, by the Nazis during World War II, who murdered thousands of Subbotniks following the invasion of the Soviet Union​​.

The Subbotnik community’s stronghold was in the small alpine town of Sevan, Armenia, where they had resettled in the 19th century. Originally, they were descendants of peasants from the Russian provinces of Voronezh and Tambov, near Ukraine. The group made its way to Armenia in 1842, establishing a village known as Yelenovka, which was renamed Sevan in 1935​​. Life in Sevan was characterized by devout religious practice, despite the many challenges faced, including forced secrecy of faith under Soviet rule from 1920. The community, once thriving, has dwindled significantly, with many members having emigrated to Israel or other parts of the former Soviet Union due to various pressures, including economic hardship and the search for religious freedom​​.

Although they converted to Judaism, the Subbotniks retained certain Russian cultural aspects, distinguishing their practice of Judaism from that of ethnic Jews. They observed Russian names for Jewish festivals, did not celebrate Hanukkah due to its specific ethnic Jewish significance, and faced identity complexities, particularly regarding the traditional Jewish matrilineal descent, which contrasted with their own patrilineal understanding​​.

The community’s adherence to Jewish traditions, such as circumcision and the observance of the Sabbath on Saturday, despite not following the dietary laws of kashrut, illustrates their distinctive blend of faith and culture. Their Sabbath prayers, infused with a melodic quality reminiscent of Russian folk songs, alongside their possession of Torah scrolls—albeit with some members having limited Hebrew knowledge—underscore their deep connection to Judaism​​​​.

Today, an estimated 15,000 Subbotnik Jews live primarily in southern Russia and Siberia, with many expressing a desire to reconnect with the traditions of their ancestors and emigrate to Israel.

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