A Crash Course on the Subbotniki

By Anne Herschman

The term Subbotniki means "Saturday People" and is used to describe Russian peasants who left the Russian Orthodox Church in the 16th Century and who started practicing Judaism. The term is also currently used in Russia to refer to Seventh Day Adventists who also observe the Sabbath as a day of rest.

In some ways the Subbotniki are similar to the Molokans (Milk People) and Dukhobors (Spirit Wrestlers) who left the Orthodox Church at the same time. They were sent to the outskirts of the Russian empire as punishment, to avoid the spread of their ideas and to act as buffers on the border lands. They established agricultural communities and despite terrible persecution by the Czars and Stalin clung to their faith. During the second World War these communities extended shelter and help to European Jews fleeing the German advance. This in spite of their own meager resources. There were even Subbotniki Cossacks who often protected outlying Jewish communities from pogroms. Most of these disappeared before WW I.

It is estimated that there are now about 10,000 to 15,000 Subbotniki left in the Former Soviet Union. Most of them are elderly and they are unfortunately a dying breed. There is a community that lives in Yitav, the Jordan valley (Israel), which has about 30 families. This community was established 10 years ago.

Other groups who migrated to the Galilee at the turn of the century (including the family of Rafael Eitan, Israel's greatest soldier) have become integrated into the Jewish people. The new community in the Jordan rift is suffering terribly in the current violence and could use some support from the Israeli government and from Diaspora Jews.

Yoav Karmy, in his book Highlanders: A Journey to the Caucasus in Quest of Memory, describes his visits to several Subbotniki communities in the FSU . Their isolation and poverty is overwhelming and despite everything, these brave people cling to their beliefs. It is truly aweinspiring that this group who chose Judaism, who suffered so much because of it, simply continue to live Jewish lives in such hostile environments.

The Subbotniki experience shows that communities of converts can be successfully integrated into the Jewish people and indeed have much to offer by their example of Jewish perserverance. We must do more to help those who have made aliyah and those who have remained behind.

I hope that the interest of some readers will be piqued and that some (perhaps Russian speaking) will undertake a more serious study. ( This short article on the Subbotniki is based on a chapter in Yoav Karmi's book Highlanders and three short articles found in the Jerusalem Report of November 19, 2001 and August 21, 1997.)