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History of the Jews in Russia and Soviet Union

Table of contents
1 Historical background
2 Tsarist background
3 The Bolshevik Revolution and the curtailment of the Pogroms
4 Assimilation into Soviet society
5 The status of the Jews in the Marxist state
6 Repression of the Jewish Labor Bund, Soviet anti-Zionism
7 Stalin and allegations of anti-Semitism
8 Anti-Zionism and the Cold War
9 Assimilation and diminishing cultural cohesiveness
10 The collapse of the Soviet Union and emigration to Israel
11 Anti-Semitism in Russia today
12 References

Historical background

After the fall of Khazar empire in the 11th century, and the wave of pogroms in the countries of Western Europe that marked the ending centuries of Middle Ages, the main bulk of Jewish population moved to tolerant countries of Central Europe: Poland (later Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) and Hungary (later Habsburg Empire). On the scarcely populated areas of Ukraine and Lithuania, Jews from Poland took part in the intensive colonisation effort. The final outcome was in a typical small town, called shtetl populated almost entirely by Jews, or the middle size town, were Jews consisted 50-80% of population. Jewish societies ruled themselves, according to law set by their leaders and ancient privilages of the kings.

Tsarist background

For more details, see the article pogroms.

In the 1480s the principality of Muscovy became the religious equivalent of the Caliphate or Holy Roman Empire. Based on the theory of the Third Rome, it was believed that the Tsar rules the only rightful, practically independent Orthodox state, surrounded by Muslim and Roman Catholic infidels.

Unlike Western Europe, where duality of the Pope and the emperor gave people more space for freedom, in Moscow the Tsar was the only and unquestionable leader of state and the church. Even if the Tsar were insane (as with Ivan the Terrible), nobody raised any doubts, and nobody proposed regency as practised in other countries.

The religious zeal of such a theory reasoned for the ultimate measures against enemies of the faith, including the Jews. Jews were not tolerated in the area of Muscovy, from 1721 the official doctrine of Imperial Russia was openly anti-Semitic. When the Russian army captured a Polish town, as in happened in 1563 when Polotsk, the big center of trade in Lithuania, was captured all Jews were murdered at once. Even if Jews were tolerated for some modest time, eventually they were expelled, as when the captured part of Ukraine was cleared from Jews in the year 1727.

However, the traditional measures failed when the main terititory of Poland was annexed during partitions. During the secondnd (1793) and the third (1795) partitions, large populations of Jews were taken over by Russia, and the Tsar established a Pale of Settlement that included Poland and Crimea. Jews were supposed to remain in the Pale and required special permission to move to Russia proper.

Rebellions beginning with the Decembrist Revolt of 1825, followed by the struggle of Russia's intelligentsia, and the rise of nihilism, liberalism, socialism, syndicalism, and finally Communism threatened the old tsarist order. As a response, the tsarist regime increasingly resorted to popularizing religious and nationalistic fanaticism. Alexander III established the first pogroms against the Jews following the assassination of his reformist father Alexander II (known as the "Tsar liberator" for the 1862 abolition of serfdom). Nevertheless, the same Tsar approved the policy of Polish politician Wielopolski in the Kingdom of Poland that gave Jews equal rights to other citizens (before status of Jews was different; it is questionable whether this status was more or less beneficial). Alexander III, in contrast, was a staunch reactionary who strictly adhered to the tsarist maxim "Autocracy, Orthodoxy, and Nationalism." His escalation of anti-Semitism sought to popularize "folk anti-Semitism," which portrayed the Jews as "Christ-killers" and the oppressors of the Slavic, Christian victim. Pogroms were only official state policy under this tsar and his son, Nicholas II.

Lenin, reacting against the history of anti-Semitism in the later years of the Russian Empire, sought to explain the phenomenon of anti-Semitism in Marxist terms. According to Lenin, anti-Semitism was an "attempt to divert the hatred of the workers and peasants from the exploiters toward the Jews." Linking anti-Semitism to class struggle, he argued that it was merely a political technique used by the tsar to exploit religious fanaticism, popularize the despotic, unpopular regime, and divert popular anger toward a scapegoat. The Soviet Union also maintained this Marxist-Leninist interpretation under Stalin despite the widely publicized hardships of Jewish intellectuals during the Great Purges. Stalin later expounded Lenin's critique of anti-Semitism, calling it "an extreme form of race chauvinism" and the "most dangerous survival of cannibalism."

The Bolshevik Revolution and the curtailment of the Pogroms

Not surprisingly, one of Lenin's first state addresses was to mark the "emancipation of Jews" from tsarism. Lenin delivered a state address "on the pogrom slandering of the Jews" on a gramophone disc following the October Revolution. It was not carried by any Russian newspaper or widely heard; only a few thousand Russians had gramophones. Lenin formally issued a proclamation granting freedom to worship to the Russian proletariat.

Lenin officially abolished the Pale of Settlement: Jews were allowed to settle in Russia for the first time in history.

Such actions, along with extensive Jewish participation among the Bolsheviks, plagued the Communists during the Russian Civil War against the Whites with a reputation of being "a gang of marauding Jews"; Jews were a plurality in the Communist Central Committee, which had a non-Russian majority.

Jews along with Polish and Latvian members of the Soviet Cheka and NKVD participated in Soviet repression campaigns, sometimes compared to genocide against peasants in the 1920s.

Anti-Semitism was probably reduced by 1930, but not wholly by ideological campaigns such as Yevslektsia, a government entity meant to expose anti-Semitic incidents. It was closed in 1930 by Stalin, citing reduced anti-Semitism due to Soviet policies.

The urbanization and industrialization of the USSR during the Five Year Plans probably contributed to liberalizing social attitudes, likely curbing anti-Semitism. Peasants, once 80% of the population prior to Stalinist-era heavy industrialization, often never knew Jews personally. However, due to forced industrialization and urbanization under Stalin, large segments of the country's Jewish population moved from small towns or villages to large cities along with non-Jews. With more Soviets having the opportunity to know Jews intimately or become fairly acquainted with Jews, many were perhaps more inclined to see through Tsarist-era stereotypes like the parasitic "Christ-killer."

During 1930's mass collectivisation, members of the repressive Soviet apparatus committed mass murder against ethnic Russians and Ukrainians. Reports from Russia, published in Nazi newspapers, that described allegedly Jewish squads deporting Slavic peasants, were a source of inspiration for anti-Semitism all over Europe. Some believe those reports inspired Hitler to organise the Holocaust.

In 1936 Pravda, the party's newspaper and main propaganda organ, even printed a beneficial explanation of the vile nature of anti-Semitism. It stated that "national and racial chauvinism is a survival of the barbarous practices of the cannibalistic period... it served the exploiters... to protect capitalism from the attack of the working class; anti-Semitism, a phenomenon profoundly hostile to the Soviet Union, is repressed in the USSR."

Some influential persons were seduced by Soviet promises of the suppression of anti-Semitism and the prosperity of literature written Yiddish. A long list of people moved to Soviet Union, where they served Stalinist policy domestically and internationally.

Assimilation into Soviet society

Beyond longstanding controversies, ranging from the Non-Aggression Pact to anti-Zionism, the Soviet Union did grant (nominal) "equality of all citizens regardless of status, sex, race, religion, and nationality." The years before the Holocaust were an era of rapid change for Soviet Jews, leaving behind the dreadful poverty of the Jewish Pale, the restricted area of Jewish settlement designated by Catherine the Great following the conquest of large portions of Poland (with its high Jewish population). Forty percent of the population in the former Jewish Pale left for large cities within Greater Russia. However, alarge number also opted for Poland, as they were entitled by peace treaty in Riga 1921 to choose the country they prefered. Several hundred thousands, despite the prospect of communist paradise and the popular vision of the Soviet Russia as ruled by Jews, joined the already numerous Jewish population of Poland.

While this entailed improvement in daily life, due to Stalinist emphasis on its urban population, interwar migration inadvertently rescued countless Soviet Jews; Nazi Germany penetrated the entire former Jewish Pale—but were kilometers short of Leningrad and Moscow. The great wave of deportations from the arreas annexed by Soviet Union according to the Nazi-Soviet pact, often seen by non-Jews victims as genocide, paradoxically also saved a few hundred thousand Jewish deportees. However horrible their conditions, the fate of Jews in Nazi Germany was much worse.

The migration of Jews from the Jewish Pale to Great Russia saved at least forty percent of the Pale's former population from the fate of over two million Soviet Jews who died under Nazi occupation (often with the aid of large segments of the Ukrainian population collaborating). Integration of the Jews and movement from countryside shtetls (small Jewish villages) to newly industrialized cities allowed Jews to enjoy overall advances under Stalin. Soviet Jews became one of the most educated populations in the world as living standards greatly improved.

The status of the Jews in the Marxist state

The Soviet Union, one of the world's most ethnically diverse nations, with hundreds of distinct nationalities, was also home to a Jewish population of about two million before its disintegration, making Jews the eleventh largest Soviet nationality (the USSR classified Jews as a nationality). Despite such diversity, Jews were a unique minority in the ideological state. Before and after the Bolshevik Revolution, Russian, Ukrainian, Byelorussian, and Baltic Jews tended to be an assimilated minority who had adapted the Russian language and culture.

Jews, in that sense, were not "foreigners" within Soviet Russia, like Tatars or indigenous Siberians, but instead a distinct, cohesive group bounded by a common value system, Yiddish, exclusive cultural institutions, synagogues, and Zionist nationalism, despite the absence of a territorial unit or a single locale. This existence is thus alien to Marxism-Leninism as espoused by the Soviet state, which viewed Jewish cohesiveness as resulting from class struggle, binding proletariat Jews to Jews in oppressor classes. Marxist egalitarianism and universality suggested that it would be ideologically ideal to see the assimilation of Jews and the renunciation of Judaism, in a sense contradicting the elements that allowed Jews to be distinct members of society. All Soviets, such as Russians, Ukrainians, Uzbeks, Tatars, and Kazakhs, were encouraged to look at class over nationality, but did not face assimilation and cultural annihilation because of their individual locales and common languages. While Jews had been bound together in the past by Yiddish, most by the end of the Stalinist era had already adapted the Russian language and culture, and tended to live alongside Slavic gentiles.

Doctrinaire Marxists predicted such a sociological trend, but miscalculated the extent to which this trend would erode the coheisiveness of the Jewish community. Karl Marx and his disciples assumed that the Jewish identity would cease to exist after the demise of capitalism since man can only be free when he transcended the confines of individuality and locality and recognized a shared humanity, "a universal existence", free of antagonism and divisiveness, which exist due to class struggle. Although the Jewish community went from being one of the most isolated in Europe to one of the most assimilated in Europe from the time of the Bolshevik Revolution to the 1991 disillusion of the Soviet Union, the identity has not faded away by any means.

Law throughout Soviet history, however, listed Jews as one of the union's "basic nations", with their own language (Yiddish), and their own autonomous region — a failed, inhospitable settlement in Siberia that was nonetheless symbolic. The word "Yevrei" or "Jew" is also listed in the nationality section (an infamuos "pyataja grafa", or "fifth record") of the obligatory internal passport document, which states the nationality of all Soviet citizens. Such treatment of the Jews as a nationality is somewhat alien to Jewish law, but reminiscent of Zionism. In May 1976, the Soviet journal Party Life prominently even displayed Jews as a distinct "nationality." However many Jews who recall the Holocaust, mistrust being classified as a "nationality" (preferring a more appropriate classification as a religion).

Repression of the Jewish Labor Bund, Soviet anti-Zionism

Marxist antinationalism and anti-religion had a mixed effect on Soviet Jews. Jews were the immediate benefactors, but long-term victims, of the Marxist notion that any manifestation of nationalism is "socially retrogressive." On one hand, Jews were liberated from the religious persecution of the Tsarist years of "autocracy, nationalism, and Orthodoxy." One the other, this notion was notion threatening to Jewish cultural institutions, the Jewish Labor Bund, Jewish autonomy, and Zionism.

Although Leninism emphasizes "self-determination," this did not make the state more accepting of Zionism. Leninism defines self-determination by territory, not culture, which allowed Soviet minorities to have separate oblasts, autonomous regions, or republics, which were nonetheless symbolic until its later years. Jews, however, did not fit such a theoretical model; Jews in the Diaspora did not even have an agricultural base, as Stalin often asserted when attempting to deny the existence of a Jewish nation, nonetheless a territorial unit. Marxian notions even denied a Jewish identity beyond religion and caste; Marx defined Jews as a "chimerical nation."

Aside from these ideological concerns, other factors motivated the suppression of Jewish political activity. While Zionism was the prominent nationalistic Jewish movement repressed under Stalin, who tolerated few, if any, non-governmental or non-party organizations, the Jewish Labor Bund was an earlier movement repressed under Lenin, who sought to consolidate Bolshevik influence over all other leftwing and labor movements. The Jewish Labor Bund, for instance, was to be the sole representative of the Jewish worker, conflicting with Lenin's universal coalition of workers of all nationalities. The outcome, however, was less detrimental than repression of Zionism since most Bund members readily joined the Bolsheviks, and later merged with the Communist Party. However, the movement did spit in three; the Bundist identity survived in interwar Poland under Rafael Abramovich, while more westernized Jews joined the Mensheviks. The prohibition of the Bund was the first example of the drawbacks of Communist anti-nationalism, depriving Jews of a powerful, autonomous interest and paramilitary group.

Lenin, claiming to be deeply committed to egalitarian ideals and universality of all humanity, rejected Zionism as a reactionary movement, "bourgeois nationalism", "socially retrogressive", and a backward force that deprecates class divisions among Jews. In fact, until the surprise Soviet recognition of Israel after the Holocaust, anti-Zionism was regarded as a principle of Communism. The Holocaust perhaps created the environment for greater sympathy toward Zionism, despite the notion that all "nationalism is socially retrogressive", and the fact that no definitive theoretical statement has ever existed to explain the Soviet position toward Jewish existence.

Moreover, Zionism entailed contact between Soviet citizens and westerners, which was dangerous in a closed society. Soviet authorities were likewise fearful of any mass-movement independent of the Communist Party, and not tied to the state or Marxism-Leninism.

Nevertheless, the USSR did make overtures to Jewish autonomy before its recognition of Israel. Birobidzhan, the Siberian settlement north of China delegated as an autonomous Jewish state, was technically the second Jewish state since the advent of the Diaspora (the first being Khazaria, and did capture the imaginations of Soviet Jews striving toward a homeland. The Jewish Autonomous Soviet Socialist Oblast, centered in Birobidzhan, foreshadowed the 1947 Soviet embrace of the creation of Israel, and did mark symbolic good will.

In 1947 Andrei Gromyko astonished Zionist representatives by his enthusiastic endorsement of Jewish statehood in the UN. During the debate, Gromyko stated, "The Jewish people had been closely linked with Palestine for a considerable period in history.... As a result of war, the Jews as a people have suffered more than any other people. The total number of the Jewish population who perished at the hands of the Nazi executioners is estimated at approximately six million. The Jewish people were therefore striving to create a state of their own, and it would be unjust to deny them that right." Soviet approval in the UN Security Council was critical to the UN portioning of Palestine, which led to the founding of Israel. The United Kingdom, which had blocked Jewish exiles from fleeing to the British Mandate Palestine during the Holocaust, abstained. The USSR also was the refuge of 250,000 Jews fleeing from Nazism—more than any other nation, despite its arguably greater internal disarray and inability to intake a refugee population.

The Soviet Union's 1947 stance, however, would shift as Israel closely aligned itself with the USSR's Western adversaries and as the Soviets sought to increase their influence in the Arab world.

Stalin and allegations of anti-Semitism

Despite its official opposition to anti-Semitism, critics of the USSR condemn it as anti-Semitic regime due to the Non-Aggression Pact with Nazi Germany, high Jewish casualties in the Great Purges, Soviet anti-Zionism, its hostility toward Jewish religious and cultural institutions, Stalin's documented anti-Jewish bias, the refusal to grant Jewish emigration to Israel, and Soviet tendency to lean pro-Arab. Each of these aspects of Soviet rule taint Soviet history in the West.

The Non-Aggression Pact, for instance, creates suspicion regarding the Soviet Union's position toward Jews. The pact, which arguably allowed Hitler to freely enter Poland, the nation with the world's largest Jewish population, was not an acceptance of Nazism, but a realization that the Soviet Union was unable to win a war against its ideological arch enemy in 1939.

The Great Purges are also popularly portrayed as anti-Semitic in the West, thereby ignoring the actual context of Stalin's consolidation of power. A number of the most prominent victims of the Purges—Trotsky, Zinoviev, and Kamenev, to name a few—were Jewish.

That is, however, an oversimplification, since Stalin was just as brutal when acting against his real or imagined enemies who were not Jewish—e.g., Bukharin, Tukhachevsky, Kirov, and Ordzhonikidze. The number of prominent Jewish Old Bolsheviks killed in the purge reflects the fact that Jews were the largest group in the Central Committee, which had a non-Russian majority, and that Jews had a high participation among the Bolsheviks.

In addition, some Stalinists survived notwithstanding their Jewish heritage. Stalin did not purge Lazar Kaganovich, a loyal supporter who came to Stalin's attention in the 1920s as a successful bureaucrat in Tashkent, who aided Stalin and Molotov against Kirov and who participated in his brutal elimination of rivals in the 1930s. Kaganovich's loyalty endured after Stalin's death, when his opposition to de-Stalinization caused him to be expelled from the party in 1957, along with Molotov.

Statistics and anecdotal evidence, however, do not explain away the special venom that Stalin and his henchmen showed toward the Jewish Bolsheviks they were sending to their death. Stalin reportedly was convulsed with laughter when Paulus, an NKVD operative, reenacted Zinoviev's last moments by rolling on the floor crying "Oh God of Israel hear my cry!" Vishinsky, the chief prosecutor for all of the major show trials, likewise took pains to humiliate Rosengoltz, one of the defendants who was found with a passage of Hebrew sewn into his overcoat by his wife when he was arrested. While this does not mean that Stalin procured these former comrades' deaths because of anti-Semitism—he had far more concrete and "rational" reasons for wanting them dead—mit does show how strong anti-Semitic attitudes remained.

The so-called Doctors' plot of 1953, on the other hand, was a deliberately anti-Semitic policy: Stalin targeted "corrupt Jewish bourgeois nationalists," eschewing the usual code words like "cosmopolitans." Stalin died, however, before this next wave of arrests and executions could be launched in earnest.

Earlier, in July 1948 Solomon Mikhoels, actor-director of the Moscow State Yiddish Theater (AKA GOSET) and chairman of Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee is killed in suspicious car accident. Mass arrests of prominent Jewish intellectuals and suppression of Jewish culture follow under the banners of campaign on "rootless cosmopolitanism" and anti-Zionism. Some 30 Yiddish writers were executed on August 12 1952, among them Peretz Markish, Leib Kwitko, David Hoffstein, Itzik Fefer, David Bergelson, Der Nister. In 1955 UN Assembly's session a high Soviet official still denied the "rumors" about their disappearance.

These cases may have reflected Stalin's paranoia, rather than state ideology—a distinction that, of course, made no practical difference as long as Stalin was alive, but which became salient on his death.

Anti-Zionism and the Cold War

Periodic Soviet anti-Zionism, as mentioned, probably stemmed from also political, economic, and ideological concerns, rather than anti-Semitism. Since Israel was emerging as a close Western ally and the specter of Zionism raised fears of internal dissent and opposition, during the Cold War all Jews were presumed traitors or security risks, and as such the Communist leadership liquidated almost all Jewish organizations, with the exception of a few token synagogues. These synagogues were then placed under police surveillance, both openly and through the use of informers.

Soviet newspapers, radio and television often avoided using the word "Jew" to maintain the fiction that the Soviet Union was following its constitution, which officially outlawed anti-Semitism. However, Jews were disproportionately attacked as "cosmopolitans", "Zionists," etc.

Meanwhile, unofficial anti-Semitism ingarined in society remained a fact for Jews for years; ordinary Soviet Jews often suffered hardships, such as not being able to enlist in certain institutions, being hired for certain occupations, participating in government, or even using the family surname.

Assimilation and diminishing cultural cohesiveness

While Soviet socialism clearly did not destroy the Jewish identity, it nevertheless weakened a degree of cultural cohesiveness. Yiddish, Jewish theaters, Jewish schools, synagogues, and Zionism bounded the Soviet Jewish population together despite the absence of a common locale; but these were the very elements restricted by a Soviet Union promoting secularism among all its citizens. The periodic closings of synagogues, the central institutions binding the Jewish population of a community together, and other important Jewish cultural institutions, such as theaters and schools, were conducted under this ideological context of egalitarianism. While threatening to the Judaism and the Jewish culture, the regime enforced the same policies on other religions, leading to the development of a modern, secular state. However, since the end of the Second World War, the restrictions against Christians and Muslims were gradually released, while the presecution of Judaism remained in force. The rise of Jewish secularism thus paralleled social trends among Soviet gentiles, but had threatening overtones to Jewish existence. Soviet secularism, the discouragement of Yiddish, and the restriction of other elements that forged an exclusive, Jewish identity, caused assimilation to be a foreboding threat to Jewish existence. Soviet rule can be characterized by a threatening rise in intermarriages and abandonment of Jewish identities seen in Jews who had adopted leftist ideals, such as Leon Trotsky, Maksim Litvanov, Lazar Kaganovich, Karl Marx, and perhaps Yuri Andropov. The children of Stalin's daughter, for instance, were half-Jews not born of a Jewish mother—thus not Jews according to Jewish law.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and emigration to Israel

Anti-Zionism, however, returned after the recognition of Israel, evident in Soviet hostility toward Jewish emigration to Israel. These policies, however, applied to all Soviets. The USSR rationalized that the loss of its Jewish population would have caused the entire nation to lose vital physicians, educators, skilled laborers, plant managers, physicists, chemists, and other scientists vital to the nation's national security. As mentioned, Russian Jews, once Europe's poorest, most isolated, and most "backward" Jewish populations, gradually assimilated into Russian society under Stalin, becoming one of the most well-educated segments of the Soviet population. However, the true reason behind that policy was a hostility towards Israel, ingrained anti-Semitism and the fear (not irrational) that if one national group will be allowed to break away from the socialist fold, others will follow.

In 1989 a record 71,000 Soviet Jews were granted exodus from the USSR, of whom only 12,117 immigrated to Israel because of little or no knowledge of the country. Since the dissolution of the USSR, over one million Soviet Jews have emigrated to Israel. Meanwhile, democratization in Russia has brought with it a good deal of tragic irony for the country's minorities, especially the Jewish population. The absence of Soviet-era repression exposed the remaining Jews to a resurgence of anti-Semitism in the former Soviet Union, led by ultra-nationalist demagogue Vladimir Zhirinovsky, himself half-Jew. However, there has not been a return to mass anti-Semitic accidents, in Russia or anywhere else throughout former Soviet Union.

Anti-Semitism in Russia today

Anti-Zionism, arguably related to anti-Semitism among many elements, has flourished in the republics of the former Soviet Union. Anti-Semitic pronouncements, speeches and articles are common, and usually appear in inverse proportion to the state of the economy. The Anti-Defamation League has issued many press releases on the many anti-Semitic neo-Nazi groups in republics of the former Soviet Union.

State Duma Deputy Oleg Mashchenko recently gave an interview promoting anti-Semitic conspiracy theory. He states "The USA is declaring a war that could turn into a Third World War, and it doesn't understand that it is acting according to an alien, unseen order. The main enemy of the peoples of Russia and other states is Zionism....Jews are just as much hostages to Zionism as the Germans are to fascism. After all, you can't say that all residents of Germany are fascists! However, Zionism is a dozen, a hundred, a thousand times worse than fascism." He concludes that Zionism is a "centuries-old trend that aims at world domination." (Source: Krasnodar regional administration official newspaper "Kuban Segodnya, February 8, 2003)

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