Russian Anti-Semitism, Or Just Affirmative Action In Action?

While writing this post on Da Russophile about why Russians do not (for the most part) hate Jews – a post that will also be of interest to AKarlin readers – I came across very interesting historical data on literacy and educational accomplishment by ethnic groups in the USSR.

Per 100 people of respective nationality
Literacy Rate among…
ages 9-49 50 and older
Jews 85,0 90,0 62,5
Germans 78,5 79,1 74,4
Russians 58,0 64,3 27,9
Ukrainians 53,4 59,2 22,2
Georgians 50,3 57,0 24,7
Belorussians 47,6 54,2 16,1
Koreans 45,1 50,6 20,6
Armenians 42,9 47,5 20,4
Tatars 41,7 46,4 19,0
Kazakhs 9,1 9,9 5,3
Uzbeks 4,8 5,2 3,3
Chechens 3,4 3,6 2,6
Tajiks 3,0 3,0 3,0
USSR average 51,1 56,6 24,5

This table shows the literacy rate among different groups from the 1926 First All-Union Census. Coming less than a decade after the Revolution this table is of course a reflection of the Tsarist education system, not of the Soviet one. Apart from puncturing one Communist myth, that the Tsarist regime didn’t do anything for people’s literacy and that it was all a Soviet achievement, it also demonstrates that Jews had the highest literacy rate of all the peoples in the Empire.

Per 1,000 people of respective nationality
With higher education With high school diploma Literacy rate
Jews 57,1 268,1 943
Georgians 14,3 129,8 825
Armenians 10,9 106,8 790
Russians 6,2 81,4 834
Ukrainians 5,3 82,1 843
Germans 5,2 69,7 935
Belorussians 4,7 71,0 780
Koreans 4,3 75,6 727
Tatars 2,2 50,3 779
Kazakhs 0,9 21,7 618
Uzbeks 0,7 15,1 635
Tajiks 0,5 12,0 676
Chechens 0,3 7,6 428
USSR average 6,4 77,8 812

The above from the 1939 Soviet Census. Jews are way, way ahead in educational attainment.

Per 1,000 people of respective nationality
With higher education With apprenticeship No education
Jews 561 174 12
Koreans 249 210 42
Georgians 195 202 29
Armenians 163 178 34
Russians 138 201 60
Kazakhs 119 158 62
Ukrainians 108 177 73
Belorussians 107 170 79
Uzbeks 90 123 63
Tatars 92 164 73
Tajiks 79 91 66
Chechens 61 111 137
Germans 57 167 84
USSR average 125 182 64

From the 1989 Soviet Census. Jews maintain a massive lead in educational attainment despite supposed rampant anti-Semitism.

BTWNotice however that Germans are bottom of the barrel, below even Chechens and Tajiks in tertiary attainment. Now that is clearly a group that is being discriminated against as German IQ is typically a couple of points above that of ethnic Russians, so their rate of tertiary attainment should be at least equal if not higher.

So how to resolve these paradoxes – that Jews were “held back” from Russian schools and universities, but at the same time somehow maintained educational qualifications well in excess of the Soviet and Russian averages?

I think the answer is quite simple; both are true.

Ashkenazi Jews (such as lived in the USSR) are typically recorded to have a mean IQ about one S.D. above the white European norm. So all things equal they will perform much better than ethnic Russians. What the imperial Russian government did in fact do was a form of pro-indigenous majority affirmative action.

In 1887, the quotas placed on the number of Jews allowed into secondary and higher education were tightened down to 10% within the Pale, 5% outside the Pale, except Moscow and Saint Petersburg, held at 3%. It was possible to evade this restrictions upon secondary education by combining private tuition with examination as an “outside student”. Accordingly, within the Pale such outside pupils were almost entirely young Jews.

This 10% quota broadly correlated with the actual percentage of Jews in the Pale of Settlement.

It all makes complete sense.

The differential between Jews and Russians with a higher education was recorded at more than 10x in 1939. This was reduced to 4x by 1989. Two possible explanations:

(1) The 1920′s were a philo-Semitic period and AFAIK quotas on Jews entering universities weren’t present during this period. I do not know if there were formal quotas against Jews in the later, “anti-Zionist” period of Soviet history but it IS anecdotally known that barriers to entry into many institutions were higher than for other Soviet citizens. Certainly this played a major role in setting Soviet Jews against the regime. This is the well-known version which stresses Russian anti-Semitism.

(2) The other explanation is that by 1989 when more than half of Jews had higher education the percentage of Jews who could access it even based on pure meritocracy had been maxed out. Let’s crudely assume a mean IQ of 100 for Russians and 115 for Jews with an S.D. of 15. This means that 16% of Russians and 50% of Jews will have an IQ of 115 or above. Let’s say that this is the part of the population that had access to a higher education in the Soviet era (this makes sense: The system was, for the most part, meritocratic, and standards for entry where far higher than today when higher education is far more accessible). According to our stats, the actual higher education achievement figures in 1989 were 14% for Russians and 56% for Jews, i.e. Jewish access to education was actually higher than what you would get by assuming reasonable mean IQ’s and no anti-Semitic discrimination. Of course even slight differences in the actual mean IQ levels (e.g. a Russian mean IQ of 97, not 100 – as may be more realistic) will have substantial impacts but they would not cardinally change the overall picture.

My preliminary conclusion is that anti-Semitic discrimination at least in terms of higher education was negligible at least as indicated by this simple thought experiment. A more detailed model would be preferable but I do not see how it could invalidate any of this.

Russia has long been presented as a seething bastion of anti-Semitism.

To the contrary, an objective look at it through measurable impacts finds that at worst what existed was a system of pro-indigenous affirmative action. It is loosely comparable to official AA in American college admissions, however in the US case it is geared to aid NAM’s. Nonetheless as Blacks are about one S.D. below whites even fairly drastic interventions do not much impact on white admissions. The effect on Jews, who are in turn one S.D. above whites – or two S.D.’s above Blacks – is of course all but negligible. So although pro-NAM’s-AA in the US does disadvantage Jews it does so to a far lesser extent than did pro-non-Jew AA in the USSR.

A better comparison might be with Asian-Americans, who are (slightly) discriminated against in favor of whites in the US. For the USSR, replace Asian-Americans with Jews. Of course Asian-Americans will rarely improve their lot by going back to China or Korea, unlike Soviet Jews emigrating to Israel or Silicon Valley; hence, they are quiescent, and largely satisfied with the American regime.


  1. yalensis says:

    This is good solid research and helps explain a lot of things.
    I still maintain that Jews were not systemically discriminated against in the Soviet Union, and I think your research supports my point in a lot of ways.
    As an egalitarian empire which contained a lot of different types of people, the Soviet Union was like the classic one-room schoolhouse: the schoolteacher has to tamp down the impatience of the over-achievers (=Jews) and teach at the level of the slower kids.
    In Soviet times Jews were over-represented in every well-paying profession, definitely in academia, as well as in the government bureaucracy. I like to believe that this did not necessarily incite resentment in good-natured ethnic Slavs; however, the government, which had to represent everybody, even the dumber ones, was forced to institute quotas to make sure other ethnicities got into schools and got jobs, and so on.
    Furthermore, in order to have a quota system, a government needs to collect and record demographic data. Soviet Jews might complain bitterly that their password was stamped with the word “Jew”, and to this day anti-Sovietchiks use this fact to “prove” that USSR was a deeply anti-Semitic entity, almost like Nazis forcing Jews to wear yellow stars on their sleeves. This is a false analogy. Even in a “democratic” country like the United States, people are routinely asked to record their race/ethnicity on every form they fill out, including the census. This gives rise to endless confusion, because some people cannot easily be categorized. It’s true that in America you wouldn’t see an ethnic entry for “Jew” (they would be lumped together with “Caucasians”, based on “white” skin color). Although “Jew” would still be on the pull-down list for the question on “religion”.

  2. At the end of the USSR people bribed to be Jew as that allowed a change the emigrate. This alone makes the data suspect. I’m not an expert on the USSR and the way people were identified but i would assume that there is a part of choice in it. Wouldn’t being a Jew being a greater hindrance for the lower classes and as such a bigger reason for changing your identity.

    You are using literacy rates. I have made a lot of dumb people. even really really dumb people with an obvious handicap and they all could read/write. This leads me to a statement that literacy rates are completely culturally decided.

    Didn’t the Germans have a low level of urbanisation. This would IMHO be the explanation of their low education level

    ps. How do you explain the low score of Armenians as they are famous for their brains?

    • Jennifer Hor says:

      Anatoly, Charly,

      My understanding is that after WW2, most Russian Germans emigrated whenever they could. I believe Joseph Stalin did impose a ban on German emigration some time in the 1920s but the ban was lifted after he died.

      Do we know what the demographics for Russian Germans were in 1989? Possibly the people being counted as German in that year’s Census were elderly and, as Charly implies, living in impoverished rural areas. Younger Germans might have changed their ethnicity or their children’s ethnicity to Russian so that they’d have an easier time getting jobs or education.

      Can’t see that Armenians were doing badly in 1989, in fact the figures suggest they were doing better at university level than ethnic Russians.

      The real stars between 1939 and 1989 are Koreans. That’s interesting in a sense: I understand they were deported to Kazakhstan in WW2 along with Chechens, yet Koreans have done better and improved their lot while the Chechens languished. Checking the Wikipedia entries on these two groups, I found that Russian Koreans founded co-ops to grow and irrigate rice in Kazakhstan and it was by doing this that they maintained their ethnic identity and some of their culture in spite of losing their language (they were forbidden to speak and teach Korean). On the other hand, Chechen are mountain people (they were traditionally nomadic sheep farmers) who tend to be individualistic and not very co-operative, and much of their culture is passed down orally by elderly people to children. Since the majority of Chechens who died during the WW2 deportation were old people and the young, the Chechens lost much more than the Koreans did.

      • I didn’t say they lived in impoverished areas, though that is probably true, but in the countryside in which it is harder to develop yourself.

        How hard was it in the USSR to change your ethnicity

        Armenians were doing worse than Georgians. Georgians are not known as the Jews of the Caucasus. That is way i say they were doing not well.

        Koreans probably spoke Russian as their first language, find education really important and didn’t want to leave Kazakhstan for the Russia Motherland. My bet is that this is the reason why they scored so high as they simply could get good jobs.

        ps. You do realise that Korea is very mountainous and very clan-ish. But they didn’t have a KGB mark on their back like the Chechen

        • Jennifer Hor says:


          The Koreans deported to Kazakhstan were living on Sakhalin island and in areas opposite the island on the mainland where Vladivostok and Khabarovsk are located. They weren’t actually taken from northern Korea as that was Japanese territory at the time.

          I know nada about the history of Georgians but the Armenians in the Soviet Union in the 20th century were a fraction of what they were before 1914. Then they held a large territory in northeast Turkey in addition to what’s now called Armenia. The genocide the Armenians suffered under Ottoman Turkey in 1915 forced nearly all western Armenians who survived to emigrate to the West and most of them wound up in the US, France, Syria and Lebanon. It’s these Armenians who are very clever and well educated (unless they are the Kardashian sisters) while the eastern Armenians living in the Russian empire were safe and stayed behind.

          BTW I live in state and federal electorates in northern Sydney that are represented in New South Wales State Parliament and Federal Parliament by politicians of Armenian descent, Gladys Berejiklian and Joe Hockey respectively. Joe Hockey’s father is Armenian and Palestinian by ancestry.

          • There was a lot of Korean emigration at the time of the Japanese occupation. For political and political-economic reasons but also because Korea was really poor.

            I was talking about USSR Armenians. Their education level was one of the reasons for the Armenian/Azeri war as kicking out the elite is always a popular policy.

  3. I think that for clearer picture we need the distribution of urban/rural habitation for each population – at least for pre-WWII data. I suspect that a) all levels of education were much more available in cities and b) Jews were much more urbanized than, for example, Russians. Thus if we only take into account urban population the relative dominance of Jews in education may become smaller – but I have no idea how much.
    But otherwise I agree that there was never rampant anti-semitism neither in Russia nor in USSR.

  4. Dear Anatoly,

    A very interesting article.

    Radio Moscow, the USSR’s broadcaster, occasionally touched on this subject when I used to be a very occasional listener in the 1970s and 1980s. For what it is worth the explanation it used to give was that the Soviet government had an active policy of encouraging young people from working class and rural backgrounds to go into tertiary education who might not have gone otherwise. In other words there was an admitted policy of affirmative action but it was supposedly class rather than ethnic based. Since the great majority of Soviet Jews were middle class the policy of favouring for college admissions young people from working class and rural backgrounds supposedly worked against Soviet Jews who supposedly lost out against working class and rural applicants for the limited number of university places.

    That was the explanation that was given at the time in overseas broadcasts that were intended to answer western accusations of anti Jewish discrimination and anti semitism. I do not know if there was any truth in it. The tables you have provided possibly suggest that there might have been. However the Soviet authorities might for ideological reasons have been reluctant to admit to a policy of affirmative action on ethnic as opposed to class lines even if one had in fact been in existence.

    • That certainly makes sense.

      I find it very hard to credit ethnic-based, anti-Semitic AA based on the simple fact that Jewish and Russian tertiary achievement was more or less exactly as it should have been, assuming the validity of Intelligence Theory (which I do).

      If any minority did suffer from discrimination (as per the post on the other blog) it was the Soviet Germans. I suppose that makes sense because as I recall most of them were exiled to Kazakh steppes from 1941 until the mid-1950′s. Obviously, the opportunities for academic advancement under such conditions were limited until the 1960′s.

      • Do you claim that the reason why they score so badly is due to discrimination in the place they are allowed to live or afterwards in the schools they are allowed to follow

  5. Leon Lentz says:

    This does not fly in the face of massive anti Semitic USSR government organized discrimination which is universally recorded. My aunt worked in the higher up educational system in Russia and she told me about the anti Semitic policies. Besides, everybody saw it on every corner. I disagree that 1 std higher IQ applies to Russian Jews. The space doesn’t allow for math analysis here, but it is true only for American Ashkenazi Jews. Russians in general are more intelligent than Americans and Russian Jews were undergone a natural selection, i.e. the smartest Jews stayed, the rest went to US. I think 2-3 std is more realistic advantage or Russian Jews vs. Russian Gentiles.

  6. Leon Lentz says:

    The Germans were not discriminated in higher education. The German colonists moved to Russia for farming and stayed that way. It just was a part of the culture. The Germans I knew told me they were not discriminated, except when their names were mistaken as Jewish.

  7. well as Russian its probably easy to say that there were no discrimination but Jewish people wont agree with you about that. both my grandmother and mother had lived in the soviet union for a long time and even though my grandmother says she wasn’t discriminated in all the time she lived there(50 years) my mother says that antisemitism wasn’t that horrible in the society level all of her friends until this day are ethnically russians and her husband(my father) is russian as well.

    but in the academic level antisemitism existed for sure, she couldn’t pass the entry exams for the university based on her writing presentation even though writing was her strong side and she had almost perfect grades in school. in addition she heard about a lot of people that couldn’t pass the university tests that are claiming that its because they were jewish(some of them are really disputed according to my mom but some are not). granted she knows jewish people who finished the MGU,SPGU and etc but antisemitism existed to some extent in soviet academy for sure.

    and something i want to mention is: “So how to resolve these paradoxes – that Jews were “held back” from Russian schools and universities, but at the same time somehow maintained educational qualifications well in excess of the Soviet and Russian averages?” well thought all of this article you always compare jewish in the soviet union general population, but jews in the CCCP lived in cities mainly so i the high-education ratio between jewish and russian should be much lower.

    PS: my mother and my grandmother are huge russia patriots antisemitism or not and personally as someone who visited russia a lot in my lifetime(saint petersburg mainly) i saw how russia improved drastically and i really believe russia will be one of the greatest countries in the world in the not so far away future but i just don’t agree with you about that subject for the soviet union at least from what i have heard perspective.

Leave a Reply