Commentary Magazine

Quotas and Soviet Jewry

Although quotas linked to the proportion of a given ethnic group in the population have governed admission to the universities in the Soviet Union for more than two decades, and although this system has always operated (in the words of one student of Soviet affairs) “to the particularly severe disadvantage of the Jewish population,” in the past few years it has begun to take a greater and greater toll. Prior to 1968 the percentage of Jews in the student population had been drastically declining (from 13 in 1935 to 3.2 in 1961), but the absolute number of Jews admitted into universities, mainly those in Siberia, consistently increased; now, for the first time in Soviet history, the absolute number of Jews in higher education has begun to decline. Official data reveal that the number of Jewish students dropped from 111,900 in 1968-69 to 105,800 in 1970-71 (while within the same two-year period the number of students of all other Soviet nationalities increased) and to 88,500 by 1972-73—an absolute decline over four years of more than 20,000. The percentage of Jewish students among all students in higher education now stands at 1.9. (The percentage of Jews in the general population is .9.)

The explanation for this stunning diminution cannot be found in the emigration figures of Soviet Jews. The total number of emigrants during 1971-72 in the age category 19 to 30 years was about 7,000, of whom the number in the university age bracket of 18-22 would clearly be far lower. The explanation must be sought, rather, in the intensified effects of the quota system.

The impact of the current trend in university admissions policy is already being felt in the area of career opportunities, since in the USSR, as in any advanced industrial society, higher education is the key to personal advancement in economic and social life. Thus, official Soviet statistics on “scientific workers” in part reflect the impact of the university quota system. (The category “scientific workers” includes also persons in social studies, humanities, and law.) During the so-called “Black Years” of 1948-53, when anti-Semitism was a pronounced feature of Soviet life, both an absolute and relative decline of Jews among “scientific workers” took place. Between 1955 and 1971, along with the enormous expansion of the Soviet economy, the number of Jewish university graduates entering the category of “scientific workers” more than doubled, from 24,632 to 66,793. But the percentage of Jews in the category was almost halved, from 11 to 6.65.

To a considerable degree the percentage decline reflected the overall giant increase in highly-trained manpower in the USSR, but the quota system in universities also played a role here by limiting the number of Jews who could become “scientific workers.” Whereas the average increase for all nationalities in this category during the decade 1950-60 was 117.9 per cent, for Jews it was 33.4 per cent. In 1960-70, the average increase was 162 per cent, for Jews 92 per cent.

Within the next few years, when the impact of the drastic drop in Jewish university students will have made itself felt, a marked decline can be expected in the numbers of Jewish “scientific workers” as well. Indeed, such an absolute decline has already begun in one of the most “popular” of Jewish professions—medicine—at least in the biggest union-republic, the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR). According to a Soviet public-health journal of 1970, the number of Jewish doctors in that union-republic between 1958 and 1965 fell by a thousand.


Jews do continue to make up a large percentage of “scientific workers,” but this is because many are holdovers from earlier periods when access to the category was easier. Indeed, the average age of Jewish “scientific workers” is strikingly higher than normal. In a study of one aspect of this problem in the Ukraine (where 36.1 per cent of Soviet Jews live), Professor Mordechai Altshuler of the Hebrew University found that the age of Jews holding doctorates in the social sciences and humanities was markedly higher than the general average, ranging from 12.7 years higher in economics to 4.5 in linguistics. In the biological sciences, Jews were older than their colleagues in the same disciplines by between 2.2 to 6.2 years. Only in physics and mathematics did the differential shrink—from .3 to 1.3 years.

Estimates based on the entire faculties (those holding doctorates and those designated as teachers) of Ukrainian universities point in the same direction. Altshuler found that while 30.8 per cent of the total faculties were over 65 years of age, Jews in that age group constituted 37.4 per cent. The situation was sharply reversed in the 35-44-year-old category; that age group constituted 9.18 per cent of the total faculties, while Jews in the same age group accounted for only 4.2 per cent.


Limitations upon access to careers as “scientific workers” because of university admissions policy is only one aspect of the problem facing today's Soviet-Jewish intellectual. Increasingly, he finds himself shut out of various specialized fields of science as well, and his opportunities for advancement or promotion to elite and administrative positions are being constricted. From the mid-60's on, and especially since 1968, anti-Jewish restrictions have been introduced into the appointment policies of most institutions of higher learning and specialized research institutes. These restrictions have not ordinarily struck at older Jews already occupying senior or administrative positions. It is the middle and younger generations of scientists and academics that have been affected most. They have been shunted to research institutes attached to various government ministries to work on secondary problems. The policy is reflected statistically in the sharply different percentages of Jews among the teaching staff of higher educational institutions (5.5 per cent) and among research institute workers (9.1 per cent).

Andrei Sakharov, in his famous memorandum on Progress, Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom published in June 1968, chastised the President of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, Mstislav Keldysh, for a speech at a Moscow party conference apparently justifying the new policy: “Is it not disgraceful to allow another backsliding into anti-Semitism in our appointments policy. . .?” The historian Roy Medvedev briefly elaborated upon a method used to implement the policy: “And if, in some institute, there is one Jew among nine or ten department chairmen or professors, then a second will not be appointed; and if one is appointed, then this must be compensated for at the expense of some other institute.”

That even the prestigious Academy of Sciences itself is not immune from anti-Jewish discrimination is evidenced in a revealing letter written to the President on October 10, 1970 by Professor I. S. Narsky of Moscow State University. The text later circulated in samizdat:

Recently, I have frequently come across allegations about me which are being spread among members of the Department of Philosophy and Law of the USSR Academy of Sciences saying that I am concealing my true nationality, as supposedly I am really a “Polish Jew.” I could have ignored these rumors if it were not for the circumstances that they are transparently connected with the fact of my promotion to candidate status for election as a corresponding member of the USSR Academy of Sciences.

Narsky took elaborate pains, drawing upon a fairly extensive genealogy, to demonstrate that his parentage was exclusively Great Russian in origin.

If the number of Jews in administrative positions and in higher institutions has been sharply restricted, one area seems to have been made altogether Judenrein. A government circular, distributed privately in 1970 to sensitive agencies, specified the undesirability of employing Jews at “responsible levels” in institutions connected with defense, rocketry, atomic weaponry, and “other secret work.” (The euphemism used for Jews was “persons belonging to a nationality the state organization of which pursues an unfriendly policy in relation to the USSR.”) The essentials of the circular were disclosed in May 1970 by Roy Medvedev and Professor Mikhail Zand in separate samizdat essays.

The increasingly discriminatory barriers and the intensifying decline of career opportunities have generated, according to the eminent mathematical physicist, Alexandr Voronel (in a samizdat essay of 1972), a “crisis” among Soviet-Jewish intellectuals:

Whereas past restrictions hampered Jews, today's threaten the very foundations of their existence as a group. . . . When intellectuals who have built their lives on professional achievement perceive barriers to their advancement, they find themselves in a crisis that is tantamount to loss of the meaning of life.


Despite the longstanding quota system, of course, the fact is that Soviet Jews as a group have managed to achieve a very high educational level. According to recent data drawn from the 1970 census, in the largest Soviet union-republic, the RSFSR (where the largest number of Soviet Jews live), Jews by far outnumber, relatively, any other nationality, including Russians, in attaining and completing a higher education. More than one-third of Jews 10 years of age and older have a higher education while the corresponding figure for Russians in that union-republic is only one in 25; and the spread is much greater with regard to other nationalities inhabiting the RSFSR.

Specific data on higher education are also available for four other union-republics—the Ukraine, Byelorussia, Moldavia, and Latvia. Significantly, in none of them have Jews attained the educational level they reach in the RSFSR. In the Ukraine, 283 out of 1,000 Jews (over the age of 10) completed a higher education; in Byelorussia, 248 out of 1,000; and in Latvia, 285 out of 1,000. Yet even these proportions outdistance both the predominant local nationality and the Russians who live there.

Roy Medvedev, in his illuminating samizdat document on the Jewish question, explains by indirection how Soviet Jews have succeeded in overcoming obstacles. The quota system, he notes, “varies from city to city and university to university.” In Leningrad, for example, it is less severe than in Moscow. Easiest of all is admission to various universities of Siberia. Thus, if a Jew cannot scale the especially high barriers of the University of Moscow, he may look for success elsewhere. This would account for an odd phenomenon: the relatively high proportion of Jewish students in union-republics where the size of the Jewish population is negligible.

The occupational skills possessed by Jews are what has maintained the Kremlin's “very definite interest in holding the Jews as captive labor,” to quote one student of Soviet minority problems. Especially is this true in Moscow. That city, as of January 1971, contained 25.2 per cent of the total number of “scientific workers” of the Soviet Union, of whom 10.7 per cent (25,023) were Jewish. It has been estimated that one-quarter of all Moscow's Jewish inhabitants are supported by individuals gainfully employed in scientific work (as compared with 8-9 per cent of the total Soviet Jewish population). Indeed, nearly 39 per cent of all Jewish “scientific workers” are concentrated in Moscow; and other cities in the RSFSR, notably Leningrad and Novosibirsk, hold another 25 per cent.

Obviously such a concentration of talent cannot be easily replaced, and it is in this light that we must understand the determined effort on the part of Soviet authorities to stifle the Jewish exodus to Israel. We have here a two-pronged policy. On the one hand, the Kremlin increasingly circumscribes the opportunities of the Soviet-Jewish intelligentsia; on the other, it imposes sharp restrictions on the possibilities of leaving the USSR. Educated Jews who seek exit visas are subjected to intimidation, harassment, and outright refusal, while at the same time they are deprived of jobs, of the use of laboratories, and of opportunities to publish.

These devices are designed less to prevent one or another specialist from leaving (since without work he is useless anyway), than to deter others from making application for exit visas. The scientist Benjamin Levich, joined by Voronel, has made this point clearly:

. . . the authorities have in mind not us but those of our colleagues whom they intend to frighten with the sight of our being made outcasts. . . . The scientists must see in our example what awaits them in case of disobedience—the loss of work, the end of a scientific career, personal insecurity, and a quite doubtful possibility of emigration.

Available data on recent Soviet-Jewish emigration to Israel illuminate the severe restrictions on the intelligentsia. In 1971, only 6.7 per cent of the total number of emigrants came from the RSFSR, where the bulk of the Soviet-Jewish intelligentsia resides; in 1972, the percentage from the RSFSR declined to 5. Statistics on educational levels of emigrants from all areas of the USSR show that only 17 per cent in 1972 (mainly from the non-RSFSR areas) had completed a higher education.

Over a decade ago, a United Nations study by Judge José Ingles on the “right to leave” spoke of the “spiralling effect,” leading to “a sort of collective claustrophobia,” that is caused by the pursuit of policies such as those implemented by the Soviet Union. A group subjected to such treatment inevitably develops what Ingles called a “morbid fear of being hemmed in,” which leads in turn to the kind of desperate measures—whether in the form of a determination to emigrate, or in the form of appeals to the international community for assistance—now being resorted to by many Soviet-Jewish intellectuals.

Beyond the consideration of psychological stress, however, is the objective reality of the reappearance of a new kind of “serfdom” in the modern world, the denial of the right to dispose of one's skills freely. Levich and Voronel point out an integral feature of the free scientist:

The sole rightful owners of their hands or their brains are the people themselves. No references to government interests can forbid scientists from feeling that they are free people and, in particular, prevent them from going, together with their brains, to their historical homeland if such is their desire.

The authors define Soviet-Jewish intellectuals as persons who are being transformed into “the serfs of the 20th century.” This alone should serve to make their plight an important item on the agenda of the free world's moral conscience.

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