Russians and Jews

A frequent no. of Jews born in the USSR before its division have told me over the past 20 or thirty years that even though they are born in Russia they are referred by many of their countrymen as Jews and not Russians.

If 30 Russians are congregated in a classroom or factory and there were 3 Russian Jews and the rest either atheists, faithful or otherwise, the Jew would re referred to as a Jew and not a Russian. I am aware that anti-semitism exists in Russia as it does elsewhere in the world but is the above a truism or a rare event?. I have been to the USSR and specifically the Ukraine and Moscow and St. Petersburg several times in the last 50 years and as recently as 2 years ago and have been told that the above is true. Please comment.

I have chosen this forum because I’m not asking an opinion but more fact or not fact type of question from those far more knowledgeable than me on the subject matter.
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Absolutely true, and not just for Jews who are citizens of Russia, either.

When I’ve gone to Russia, one of the first questions I’m asked upon meeting a new person in a social setting is my nationality. When I say “American,” they look at me in disbelief and ask, “but aren’t you Jewish?” When I say “sort of, but I’m nonobservant,” they smile and nod their heads and decide that I am Jewish, regardless of lack of religious belief or what passport I am holding.

There is a linguistic root to the problem as well - the Russian word that is a cognate for “nationality,” natsional’nost’, in daily usage means “ethnicity,” and being Jewish is considered an ethnicity there most of the time rather than a religion. (If you want to talk about someone’s citizenship, you use a diferent word - grazhdanstvo.)

Of course, if you ask, say, a Tatar living in Russia about his nationality, the response probably isn’t going to be “Russian.” And as a further example of the distinction between ethnicity and citizenship in Russian, there are two different words which translate into English as "Russian;"one, russki, refers to Russian ethnicity, and the other, rossiiskii, refers to territoriality, as in “of Russia.”

The Russian name of the country itself uses the latter: Rossiiskaya Federatsiya. And since the Russian Federation is home to over 100 indigenous ethnicities, most of which are not Slavic at all, that is a very important distinction.