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History of the Jews in the Soviet Union

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Czarist Background

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 Czarist order. As a response, the Czarist 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 known as the "Czar liberator" (for the 1862 abolition of serfdom), Alexander II. Alexander III, in contrast, was a staunch reactionary who strictly adhered to the Czarist 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 Czar 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 Czar to exploit religious fanaticism to 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 Czarism. 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.

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 the largest group in the Communist Central Committee, which had a non-Russian majority—but not a majority.

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 closed in 1930 by a 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 also 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 perceiving Jews as Czarist-era abstractions, like the parasitic "Christ-killer".

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".

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 Great Russia.

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 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 the 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.

Repression of the Jewish Labor Bund, Soviet Anti-Zionism

Jews were the immediate benefactors of, but long-term victims of the Marxist notion that any manifestation of nationalism is "socially retrogressive", a notion threatening to Jewish cultural institutions, the Jewish Labor Bund, Jewish autonomy, and Zionism. Leninism, however, emphasizes "self-determination". But 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".

Marxist antinationalism and anti-religion is not only had a mixed effect on Soviet Jews, but is also the greatest area of historical ambiguity. No single view actually defines the Jewish people. 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 "Yeveri" or "Jew" is also listed in the nationality section of the obligatory internal passport document, which states the nationality of all Soviet citizens. Such treatment of the Jews as a "people" 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". While Jews, particularly US Jews who recall the Holocaust, mistrust being classified as a "nationality" (preferring a more appropriate classification as a "people").

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 (which demonstrated the grave necessity of Zionism), 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. Moreover, Soviet authorities were 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 first Jewish state since the advent of the Diaspora, 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. Britain, which had blocked Jewish exiles from fleeing to British Mandated 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.

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 causalities 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 murderous consolidation of power. Jews were the largest group in the Central Committee, which had a non-Russian majority ; this high Jewish participation in the Bolsheviks, a testament to the Jewish people's revolutionary, rather than passive, resistance to their Czarist oppressors, explains the fact that the Stalinist purges disproportionately fell upon Jews. Since the purges eliminated "the Old Bolsheviks", who were imaginary or actual treats to Stalin's power, they thus fell disproportionately upon Jews, who had a high participation among the Bolsheviks.

Lazar Kaganovich[?], however, a loyal Jewish Stalinist survived the purges demonstrates that the nonetheless murderous Great Purges might not have been motivated by anti-Semitism, as some Stalin critics have claimed. Although Stalin accordingly eliminated most Jews from high authority, Kaganovich remained since he was a loyal Stalinist, unlike Trotsky, Zinoviev, or Kamenev, Stalin did not "purge" Kaganovich, a Bolshevik and a loyal Stalin supporter in the 1930s who aided his brutal elimination of rivals. Brought to an impressed Stalin's attention in the 1920s a successful bureaucrat in Tashkent, Kaganovich aided Stalin and Molotov against Kirov, and even demonstrated a loyalty that endured after Stalin's death. His opposition to de-Stalinization caused him to be disposed from the party in 1957, like Molotov.

The so-called Doctor's Plot of 1953, however, is truly problematic, but insignificant to any evaluation of Communism's impact on Jews, because it materialized from a dying Stalin's paranoia, rather than the state ideology. Soviet hostility toward Judaism and Jewish cultural institutions, however, was clearly anti-Semitic because after Stalin other religions faced much less curtailment of such institutions. Periodic Soviet anti-Zionism, as mentioned, probably stemmed from also political, economic, and ideological concerns, rather than anti-Semitism, but the ordinary Soviet Jew couldn't care less why he was prohibited from studying in universities he wanted to enlist in, taking many working positions, participate in government, or even use his true name. During Briezhnev's rule which marked the peak of official anti-Semitism, the saying was that "Jews who are already in the system should be allowed to die out; but no new Jews should be hired".

Assmiliation 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 WWII, 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 Emmigration 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 loose 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 disillusion of the USSR, over one million Soviet Jews have emmigrated 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 condemned the remaining Jews to a resurgence of anti-Semitism in the former Soviet Union, led by ultra-nationalist demagogue Vladimir Zhironovsky[?], himself half-Jew. However, till that date (2003), there was no return to mass anti-Semitic accidents - in Russia or anywhere else throughout former Soviet Union.

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