Antisemitism in the Soviet Union

The 1917 Russian Revolution overthrew a centuries-old regime of official antisemitism in the Russian Empire, including its Pale of Settlement.[1] However, the previous legacy of antisemitism was continued by the Soviet state, especially under Joseph Stalin. Antisemitism in the Soviet Union reached new heights after 1948 during the campaign against the "rootless cosmopolitan", in which numerous Yiddish-writing poets, writers, painters and sculptors were killed or arrested.[2][3] This culminated in the so-called Doctors' plot, in which a group of doctors (almost all of whom were Jewish) were subjected to a show trial for supposedly having plotted to assassinate Stalin.[4]


Before the revolution

Under the Tsars, Jews – who numbered approximately 5 million in the Russian Empire in the 1880s, and mostly lived in poverty – had been confined to a Pale of Settlement, where they experienced prejudice and persecution,[5] often in the form of discriminatory laws, and had often been the victims of pogroms,[1] many of which were organized by the Tsarist authorities or with their tacit approval.[5] As a result of being the victims of oppression, many Jews either emigrated from the Russian Empire or joined radical parties, such as the Jewish Bund, the Bolsheviks,[5] the Socialist Revolutionary Party,[6] and the Mensheviks.[7] There were also numerous antisemitic publications of the era which gained widespread circulation.[1]

After the revolution

The February Revolution and the Provisional Government

The Provisional Government cancelled all restrictions imposed on the Jews by the Tsarist regime, in a move parallel to the Jewish emancipation in Western Europe that had taken place during the 19th century abolishing Jewish disabilities.

The Bolsheviks

The October Revolution officially abolished the Pale of Settlement and other laws which regarded the Jews as an outlawed people.[1] At the same time, the Bolsheviks were strongly opposed to Judaism (and indeed to any religion) and conducted an extensive campaign to suppress the religious traditions among the Jewish population, alongside traditional Jewish culture.[8][9] In 1918, the Yevsektsiya was established to promote Marxism, secularism and Jewish assimilation into Soviet society, and supposedly bringing Communism to the Jewish masses.[10]

In August 1919 Jewish properties, including synagogues, were seized and many Jewish communities were dissolved. The anti-religious laws against all expressions of religion and religious education were being taken out on all religious groups, including the Jewish communities. Many Rabbis and other religious officials were forced to resign from their posts under the threat of violent persecution. This type of persecution continued on into the 1920s.[11] Jews were also frequently placed disproportionately on the front lines of Russian wars in the early 1900s as well as WW2. As a result, large numbers of Jews emigrated out of Russia to places like the United States. Changing their family's last name during emigration to reduce perceived risk was not uncommon.[12]

The official statements by Lenin about antisemitism were contradictory. In March 1919, he delivered a speech "On Anti-Jewish Pogroms"[13] where he denounced antisemitism as an "attempt to divert the hatred of the workers and peasants from the exploiters toward the Jews". The speech was in line with the previous condemnation of the antisemitic pogroms perpetrated by the White Army during the Russian Civil War.[14][15][16] In 1914 Lenin had said "No nationality in Russia is as oppressed and persecuted as the Jews".[17]

At the same time, Lenin wrote in his project of a directive for the Communist Party "The policies on the Ukraine" in autumn of 1919:[18][unreliable source?]

Jews and city dwellers on the Ukraine must be taken by hedgehog-skin gauntlets,[19] sent to fight on front lines and should never be allowed on any administrative positions (except a negligible percentage, in exceptional cases, and under [our] class control).

Mass campaigns against antisemitism were conducted until early 1930s. In 1918, Lenin made a speech specifically against antisemitism. In the same year, large scale informative literature on antisemitism was published. The campaigns reached their peak from 1927 to 1930, when Soviet propaganda regarded antisemitism as being spread by enemies of the Soviet Union. Plays and films were made on the subject and public trials were held. In 1931, Stalin said in a reply to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, "Anti-Semitism, as an extreme form of racial chauvinism, is the most dangerous vestige of cannibalism."[20]

Information campaigns against antisemitism were conducted in the Red Army and in the workplaces, and a provision forbidding the incitement of propaganda against any ethnicity became part of Soviet law.[21] The official stance of the Soviet government in 1934 was to oppose antisemitism "anywhere in the world" and claimed to express "fraternal feelings to the Jewish people", praising the Jewish contributions towards international socialism.[22]

Under Stalin

Joseph Stalin emerged as leader of the Soviet Union following a power struggle with Leon Trotsky after the death of Lenin. Stalin has been accused of resorting to antisemitism in some of his arguments against Trotsky, who was of Jewish heritage. Those who knew Stalin, such as Khrushchev, suggest that Stalin had long harbored negative sentiments toward Jews that had manifested themselves before the 1917 Revolution.[23] As early as 1907, Stalin wrote a letter differentiating between a "Jewish faction" and a "true Russian faction" in Bolshevism.[23][24] Stalin's secretary Boris Bazhanov stated that Stalin made crude antisemitic outbursts even before Lenin's death.[23][25] Stalin adopted antisemitic policies which were reinforced with his anti-Westernism.[26][note 1] Since antisemitism was associated with Nazi Germany and was officially condemned by the Soviet system, the Soviet Union and other communist states used the cover-term "anti-Zionism" for their antisemitic policies. Antisemitism, as historian, Orientalist and anthropologist Raphael Patai and geneticist Jennifer Patai Wing put it in their book The Myth of the Jewish Race, was "couched in the language of opposition to Zionism".[27] After expulsion of Trotsky, his Jewish heritage was further exploited in the form of association "A Jew is a Trotskyist, a Trotskyist is a Jew". Since 1936 in the show trial of "Trotskyite-Zinovievite Terrorist Center", the suspects, prominent Bolshevik leaders, were accused of hiding their Jewish origins under Slavic names.[28]

Antisemitism in the Soviet Union commenced openly as a campaign against the "rootless cosmopolitan"[3] (a euphemism for "Jew"). In his speech titled "On Several Reasons for the Lag in Soviet Dramaturgy" at a plenary session of the board of the Soviet Writers' Union in December 1948, Alexander Fadeyev equated the cosmopolitans with the Jews.[26][note 2] In this campaign against the "rootless cosmopolitan", many leading Jewish writers and artists were killed.[3] Terms like "rootless cosmopolitans", "bourgeois cosmopolitans", and "individuals devoid of nation or tribe" (all of which were codewords for Jews) appeared in newspapers.[26][note 3] The Soviet press accused the Jews of "groveling before the West", helping "American imperialism", "slavish imitation of bourgeois culture" and "bourgeois aestheticism".[26][note 4] Victimization of Jews in the USSR at the hands of the Nazis was denied, Jewish scholars were removed from the sciences, and emigration rights were denied to Jews.[29] The Stalinist antisemitic campaign ultimately culminated in the Doctors' plot in 1953. According to Patai and Patai, the Doctors' plot was "clearly aimed at the total liquidation of Jewish cultural life".[3] Communist antisemitism under Stalin shared a common characteristic with Nazi and fascist antisemitism in its belief in "Jewish world conspiracy".[30]

Soviet antisemitism extended to policy in the Soviet Occupation Zone of Germany. As the historian Norman Naimark has noted, officials in the Soviet Military Administration in Germany (SVAG) by 1947–48 displayed a "growing obsession" with the presence of Jews in the military administration, in particular their presence in the Cadres Department's Propaganda Administration.[31] Jews in German universities who resisted Sovietisation were characterised as 'victims of fascism' but of 'non-Aryan background' now 'lined up with the bourgeois parties'.[32]

Scholars such as Erich Goldhagen claim that following the death of Stalin, the policy of the Soviet Union towards Jews and the Jewish question became more discreet, with indirect antisemitic policies over direct physical assault.[33] Erich Goldhagen suggests that despite being famously critical of Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev did not view Stalin's antisemitic policies as "monstrous acts" or "rude violations of the basic Leninist principles of the nationality policy of the Soviet state".[34]

Under Brezhnev

Immediately following the Six-Day War in 1967 the antisemitic conditions started causing desire to emigrate to Israel for many Soviet Jews. A Jewish Ukrainian radio engineer, Boris Kochubievsky, sought to move to Israel. In a letter to Brezhnev, Kochubievsky stated:

I am a Jew. I want to live in the Jewish state. That is my right, just as it is the rights of a Ukrainian to live in the Ukraine, the right of a Russian to live in Russia, the right of a Georgian to live in Georgia. I want to live in Israel. That is my dream, that is the goal not only of my life but also of the lives of hundreds of generation that preceded me, of my ancestors who were expelled from their land. I want to my children to study in the Hebrew language. I want to read Jewish papers, I want to attend a Jewish theatre. What is wrong with that? What is my crime ...?[35]

Within the week he was called in to the KGB bureau and without questioning, was taken to a mental institution in his hometown of Kiev.[36] While this may seem as an isolated incident, the aftermath of the Six-Day War affected almost every Jew within the Soviet Union.[36] Jews who had been subject to assimilation under previous regimes were now confronted with a new sense in vigour and revival in their Jewish faith and heritage. On February 23, 1979, a six-page article was distributed throughout the cities of Moscow and Leningrad, which criticized Brezhnev and seven other individuals for being "Zionist".[37] The article contained traces of deep-rooted antisemitism in which the anonymous author, a member of the Russian Liberation Organization, set out ways to identify Zionists; these included "hairy chest and arms", "shifty eyes", and a "hook-like nose".[38]

On February 22, 1981, in a speech, which lasted over 5 hours, Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev denounced anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union.[39] While Stalin and Lenin had much of the same in various statements and speeches, this was the first time that a high-ranking Soviet official had done so in front of the entire Party.[39] Brezhnev acknowledged that anti-Semitism existed within the Eastern Bloc and saw that many different ethnic groups existed whose "requirements" were not being met.[39] For decades, people of different ethnic, or religious backgrounds were assimilated into Soviet society and denied the ability or resources to get the education or practice their religion as they had previously done.[39] Brezhnev made it official Soviet Policy to provide these ethnic groups with these "requirements" and cited a fear of the "emergence of inter-ethnic tensions" as the reason.[39] The announcement of the policy was followed with a generic, but significant Party message;

The CPSU [Communist Party of the Soviet Union] has fought and will always fight resolutely against such phenomena [inter-ethnic tensions] which are alien to the nature of socialism as chauvinism or nationalism, against any nationalistic aberrations such as, let us say, anti-Semitism or Zionism. We are against tendencies aimed at artificial erosion of national characteristics. But to the same extent, we consider impermissible their artificial exaggeration. It is the sacred duty of the party to educate the working people in the spirit of Soviet patriotism and socialist internationalism, of a proud feeling of belonging to a single great Soviet motherland.[40][41]

While to most, the issue of anti-Semitism seemed to be dropped very casually and almost accidentally, it was very much calculated and planned, as was everything else the Party did.[40] At this time the Soviet Union was feeling pressure from around the world to solve many human rights violations that were taking place within their borders, and the statement responded to the inquiries of countries such as Australia and Belgium.[40] While the Party seemed to be taking a hard stance against anti-Semitism, the fact remained that anti-Semitic propaganda had long been present in the Soviet Union, making it extremely difficult to solve the problems right away.[40] Furthermore, Jewish organizations in Washington D.C. were calling attention to the problems of Soviet Jewry to American leaders.[40]

A major stride was made in helping the Soviet Jews on October 18, 1974, when Senator Henry Jackson, Henry Kissinger, along with Senator Jacob Javits, and Congressman Charles Vanik met to discuss the finalization of the "Jackson–Vanik amendment" which had been in limbo in the US Congress for nearly a year.[42] After the meeting, Jackson told reporters that a "historic understanding in the area of human rights" had been met and while he did not "comment on what the Russians have done ... there [had] been a complete turnaround here on the basic points".[42] The amendment set out to reward the Soviet Union for letting some Soviet Jews leave the country.

While the problem seemed closer to being solved, the Kremlin reacted predictably by taking a stand against allowing their emigration and foreign policy be dictated over by the Jews in Washington.[43] Andrei Gromyko, the Minister of Foreign Affairs passed along a letter to Kissenger which stated that "we resolutely decline such an interpretation", in regards to the opinion that this piece of legislation would lead to more "Soviet citizens" being allowed to leave compared to previous years.[43] While the bill was still passed by an overwhelming margin, the Kremlin felt attacked. Therefore, when the United States placed an official limit on the amount of credit that would be allowed to the Soviet Union, it pushed the problem of Soviet Jewry to the forefront of issues needing resolution between the two super powers.[44]

See also