Commentary Magazine


The Jews in the Soviet Union Since 1917, by Nora Levin; The Jews of the Soviet Union, by Benjamin Pinkus

The Tragedy of Soviet Jewry

The Jews in the Soviet Union Since 1917.
by Nora Levin.
New York University Press. 2 vols. 1,013 pp. $100.00.

The Jews of the Soviet Union.
by Benjamin Pinkus.
Cambridge University Press. 397 pp. $34.50.

The Nazis hated the Jews and murdered them. The Russian Communists, while professing to abhor ethnic prejudice, systematically killed the Jewish national and religious community. The full dimension of the tragedy of Russian Jewry is only now becoming known. It is a story of a relentless assault on Jewish religious institutions and the bases of Jewish economy, an assault which since 1917 has transformed the world’s largest Jewish community into a demoralized and disoriented people.

With the partitions of Poland in the 18th century, czarist Russia suddenly acquired over one million Jews whom it did not know how to fit into its rigid estate structure. It solved the problem by confining them to the territories of the defunct Polish commonwealth and enrolling them in the merchant estate, which had the effect of excluding Jews from agricultural occupations and residence in villages, as well as from the territory of Russia proper.

In dealing with its Jewish population, the czarist government alternated between pressures for assimilation and measures which ensured that the Jews would remain isolated. It allowed them, however, to maintain their religious and national institutions, to pursue trade and artisanship, and to emigrate.

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The artificial restrictions placed on them by means of discriminatory laws and the rising tide of anti-Semitic violence from the 1880′s onward drove many secular Russian Jews to embrace liberal and socialist causes. As the late Nora Levin shows in her splendid work, however, both before and during the 1917 Revolution the majority of politically active Russian Jews supported Zionism. It was a highly visible but not numerous minority that shed their Jewish identity and joined Russian revolutionary parties. The latter, in the words of Leon Trotsky, considered themselves neither Jews nor Russians but socialists. To them, Jews were not a nation but a class of exploiters whose fate it was to dissolve and assimilate.

As czarist Russia disintegrated, the Jews found themselves in a tragic predicament. To the conservatives, they were a disloyal and subversive element; to the radicals they represented a doomed social class. Neither group was prepared to allow them an environment in which to preserve their identity.

The anti-Semitism of the White armies during the Civil War forced Russia’s Jews to seek the protection of the Communists, who, whatever their long-term designs, opposed pogroms and defended them from the rabble. This had the effect of branding Jews not only in Russia but also abroad as Communists. The immense popularity in the 1920′s of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion was the direct consequence of the perception that Jews used Communism to realize their alleged ambition of destroying Christian society and taking over the world. Carried to Germany by Russian émigrés, this lunatic idea furnished Hitler with a rationale for his biological Judeophobia.

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But although they protected Jews from violence and declared overt anti-Semitism a crime, the Communists espoused a program that promised slow death for Jews as a religious community and a nation. Measures outlawing private trade and manufacture, passed in the early years of the Soviet regime, undercut the economic base of Jewish life, creating millions of unemployed. The regime’s anti-religious policies affected Jews no less than Christians: as early as 1919, synagogues and other religious buildings were made liable to confiscation. Hebrew was declared a foreign language and Zionism a subversive doctrine.

In the 1920′s, especially during the relatively benign period of the New Economic Policy, Jews managed to circumvent many of the prohibitions on their economic and cultural activities. But all this came to an end in 1929 when Stalin undertook in earnest to realize Lenin’s revolutionary agenda. Miss Levin chronicles in painful detail the process by which Jews were “productivized” by settlement on the land and employment in factories, denied any outlets for national identity, forced by economic necessity to scatter and intermarry. Although there are here none of the physical horrors of the Holocaust, the collective cry of a Jewish nation being choked to death is hardly less appalling.

By the time he entered into his alliance with Hitler in 1939, Stalin had restored many of the czarist discriminatory laws, setting quotas on access to educational and bureaucratic opportunities and closing altogether the more sensitive positions. He meant to go further. In 1942, as Germany’s armies were deep on their murderous mission in the Soviet Union, Hitler confided to his associates that Stalin had promised Ribbentrop “he would oust the Jews from leading positions the moment he had sufficient qualified Gentiles with whom to replace them.” Stalin’s pledge to make his government judenrein was not only an attempt to rid himself of the image of “Jewish Bolshevism” which disturbed relations with the Fuehrer; it derived from a genuine belief that Jews were an enemy. Stalin complained that he could neither digest nor “spit out” his Jews—they were un-assimilable and hence not to be tolerated. On the eve of his death, which did not come a moment too soon, he began to kill off the Jewish intelligentsia and to set in motion measures that clearly pointed to mass deportations of Jews to Siberia and Central Asia.

In the decades since Stalin’s death his successors have done away with the most egregious manifestations of persecution, but discrimination against Jews remains in place. There are no Jews in the Politburo and hardly any in the upper echelons of the military. Strict quotas are imposed on admissions to institutions of higher learning. Gorbachev’s reforms, which have eased Soviet discriminatory policies, have also allowed the emergence of overtly anti-Semitic movements, of which Pamyat is the most notorious. It is true that in recent elections to the Congress of People’s Deputies, right-wing candidates fielded by such groups have failed to elect a single member. Still, there is deep fear among Russian Jewry that the general loosening of controls, while leading to a relaxation of pressures from above, will encourage the rise of anti-Jewish sentiments from below.

Hence very many Russian Jews see no future for themselves and their children, and if given a chance would emigrate. Recent Israeli estimates are that a continuation of Gorbachev’s liberalized emigration policy might lead to the exodus of at least 500,000 Jews. A community which a century ago was not only the largest in the world but also culturally the most vibrant has been destroyed by a regime that many Jews in and out of Russia once regarded as a beacon of hope.

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Nora Levin’s study combines admirable mastery of the material with deep sympathy for the people whose history it chronicles. Benjamin Pinkus’s book suffers by comparison: although no less learned, it is written in a dry manner that conveys little of the pathos which the subject requires.

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About the Author

Richard Pipes is professor of history emeritus at Harvard and the author most recently of Russian Conservatism and Its Critics (Yale).