Mariina Roscha

Look for Mariina Roscha on a map of the Moscow metro and you might envision, based on its location, a chique neighborhood resembling the center of the city with cafes, bars, museums, etc. After all, M.R. is on the cusp of the metro’s brown “ring line” which circumvents downtown Moscow. You might be surprised upon your first visit, though! M.R. is a charming and uniquely organized neighborhood that betrays its location on the map. You can think of it as a sort of borderland between the activity of the city and the beginning of a spalniy rayon, Moscow’s “sleeping” neighborhoods. A spalniy rayon is called such because it denotes a neighborhood of high-rise apartments and little else; its residents are only home when they are sleeping or not at work. The spalniy rayon part of Mariina Roscha is geographically sizeable, but there is not much else to be said about it. The interesting component is how it occupies the territory of the neighborhood relative to the active cultural parts of this fascinating neighborhood.


I had been to M.R. on a handful of occasions prior to this assignment, in which we were asked to go to a neighborhood of Moscow and explore, converse with locals, and write up our findings. I knew from prior experience that this neighborhood is home to the city’s Jewish quarter, as I celebrated Passover at the JCC there. M.R. has certain characteristics that I haven’t seen elsewhere in Moscow, such as a whole city block lined kosher delis and business names on windows written in Hebrew. The Jewish community’s presence is palpable here, and it goes beyond just these delis. Amidst the many museums in M.R. stands the Jewish Museum of Tolerance, an institution whose presence radiates beyond the block-long chunk of land it sits on. Not far away is the Moscow JCC in its new, several-story building that was constructed in 2001. With its functioning synagogue, reception hall, recreation spaces, art gallery, children’s school, and more, the JCC feels like a condensed city. My partner Oliver and I went into the JCC hoping to speak with some locals about the neighborhood’s history.


Entering the JCC’s front doors, we passed through security and then we had to don yarmulkes once inside the complex; I travel with my own, and Oliver borrowed one for visitors. It was early afternoon when we went up to the second floor and entered the synagogue, hoping to find someone who would talk to us. One man in the back of the synagogue seemed interested when we approached him, but upon hearing that Oliver is not himself Jewish, pointed us in the direction of an office on the second floor. “There”, he said, “are two women-administrators who you should talk to”. When we knocked on their door and they welcomed us inside, I gestured my hand out towards one of them for a handshake. She politely reminded me that she cannot greet me like that, owing to orthodox Jewish laws. Oliver and I explained our mission, and I was surprised at the amount of questions that they had for us. They asked me especially about Jewish religious life on Carleton’s campus and about how it’s organized. They were surprised to hear that the rabbi at Carleton is a woman, and that I did not attend a Jewish university. This latter comment speaks to the identity of Mariina Roscha’s Jews, but I will talk about this later.

Moscow JCC Exterior
Moscow JCC Exterior

When it came time for Oliver and I to ask our questions, we learned a significant deal about the Jewish history of the neighborhood. “Mariina Roscha has always been a Jewish neighborhood”, one of the administrators said. In terms of the history of Jews in Soviet Moscow, they didn’t mince their words in giving a grim description of what it was like. Systemic discrimination by the government, ubiquitous anti-Semitism in people’s attitudes, and Jews gathering secretly so as to protect themselves from harm, pepper their description of Jewish life here not more than 50 years ago. If you were Jewish, they recounted, then that was your marked nationality in your domestic passport. Whether or not one identified as a Russian, Uzbek, Kazakh, or any other nationality, you were officially labeled a Jew, and this identity came with legitimate burdens and discrimination. Jewish life in the Soviet Union, by the account of these two women, was a dark and dangerous time by contrast to today.


When the new Moscow Jewish Community Center opened in 2001, President Vladimir Putin personally attended the ceremony. He even allocated government funds towards the new center’s construction, an act that appeared to be symbolic of his relationship towards Moscow’s Jewish community. Before continuing, I want to state that I am not a scholar on contemporary relations between the Kremlin and Russia’s Jewish population. I am writing about that which I gleamed from locals’ interpretation of this dynamic. As they told it Oliver and I, President Putin has been good for the Jews of Russia, especially in Moscow. While anti-Semitic attitudes persist in the countryside, the cultural and quotidian landscape of Jewish life in Moscow has veered towards a positive change. I asked the administrators if they would feel comfortable wearing Jewish yarmulkes or other attire out on the street, to which they answered “absolutely”. It seems bewildering to me that things could turn around so quickly in such a short period of time, in terms of how the citizenry relates to its Jewish neighbors, but the administrators assured us that this is the case. And, I guess, it makes sense since the president and premier of the last 18 years is attending the opening of a new JCC in the country’s capital. This sends a strong message about the standing of Jews not just to everyone in Russia, but to the Jews here themselves.


Stemming from the discrimination and intolerance against Jews during the Soviet Union, the administrators told us that many Jews left the country or gave up their religion, whether voluntarily or not. Now, they said, Jews are returning to Russia and emerging from the woodwork. Even though I have heard conflicting accounts of anti-Semitism in Moscow, the beauty of this new JCC is a testament to their resurgence.

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