Answer: Without a doubt, students of the Baal Shem Tov lived in every city. The Baal Shem Tov first began to apply the wisdom of Kabbalah that the Ari revealed in the 16th century. He taught this to his many Kabbalist students, those who attained the highest level in the system. Their role was to arouse inspiration in the people, to correctly elevate, stabilize, and lead them forward. This was the idea of restoring the spirit of the people, which they had already lost at the time of the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash (Temple), when they fell from the level of mutual love to mutual hatred. So the need ripened to raise the people from the egoistic level of rejection, to the altruistic level of mutual love.
The Baal Shem Tov established what was called Hassidism, practical Kabbalistic work. But it is necessary to say that the Hassidism of today is much different. The Baal Shem Tov changed the study of the Ari to bring it closer to the people and show them them inner correction. In this way, he implemented the general rule of the Torah, “Love thy neighbor as yourself.” The people were then able to leave both spiritual and physical exile, because one is connected to the other. But if a person was not ready for spiritual redemption, he also would not attain physical freedom.
So for two generations until the 18th century, the Kabbalistic current that was called Hassidism prospered. In every village and settlement, there were people who were involved in attaining the Creator on the basis of the right connection between them, which is what the Torah requires. In this way, Judaism became spiritual, and many people appeared who became teachers. At the same time, opponents of Hassidism appeared, but no matter what, both groups began to rise spiritually and this played an immense role in influencing the environment.
Around that time, opportunistic people began to appear, which changed everything and replaced the popular current so that they were no longer involved with the attainment of Torah. Instead, they simply carried out the physical Mitzvot (commandments) with some kind of slightly greater inner aspiration, but no more than that. This means that Hassidism fell to a lower level. But until the end of the 19th century and in spite of all this, there were still a multitude of Kabbalists who felt the higher world, the system of management. From this, they taught others. This very strongly influenced the spirit of Russian Jewry and was rooted in them forever. So the continued discovery of the spiritual world, the discovery of the soul, the feeling of the upper world, and the entire system of discovery of the Creator as the higher force of management, pushed, and today still pushes a large part of the Jews of Russia towards true spiritual attainment.
Among my students today, it is possible to find many from the former Soviet Union and Russians still living in Russia. Even today, the spiritual potential that was inserted into them by the followers of the Baal Shem Tov still lives within them.
From KabTV’s “About Our Life” 5/07/15