Commentary Magazine

Soviet Jews under Khrushchev:
Still the Total State

Two experts on Russia review the latest turns in Soviet policy toward the Jews.




Even Nikita Khrushchev does not claim that, forty-one years after the Bolshevik revolution, the Soviet Union has “solved the Jewish problem.” In an interview with a French journalist, Serge Groussard, published in Figaro last April, he deplored Jewish reluctance to accept the “remarkable gift” of Birobidzhan, and complained that Soviet Jews preferred intellectual pursuits to such “mass occupations” as the building trades and metal industry. Although Moscow Radio denounced Groussard’s account of the interview as a “provocative forgery,” there seems little doubt that the statements attributed to Khrushchev reflect the climate of hostility and discrimination in which three million Soviet Jews are compelled to live. Certainly the terror which Soviet Jews endured in Stalin’s last years stood in sharp contrast to the egalitarian hopes of 1917, promising the emancipation of the Jews. And it is still difficult to form a precise picture of the extent to which the situation of the ordinary Jew has changed in the six years since Stalin’s death.

There are still, of course, the famous identity cards required of all Soviet citizens, which indicate the bearer’s nationality and label a Jew as such; in the prevailing atmosphere, Soviet Jews feel this to be a handicap. At the same time, there is not a single Jew in the Soviet Council of Ministers or the Presidium of the Communist party today, and there are far fewer Jews in the Supreme Soviet and the Party Central Committee than there were a generation ago. The presence or absence in the very top ranks of the regime of Communists of Jewish origin, of course, is not conclusive evidence of officially sponsored anti-Semitic policies. After all, Lazar Kaganovich was a member of the Politburo (and another Jew, L. V. Mekhlis, headed the security police) at the height of Stalin’s anti-Jewish campaign, the very worst time Jews have experienced under Soviet rule. When Kaganovich was stripped of his powers and titles in 1957, it was not because he was of Jewish origin but because he had joined Georgi Malenkov, Vyacheslav Molotov, Nikolai Bulganin and Dmitri Shepilov (all non-Jews) in opposing Khrushchev. Nevertheless, it is true—and significant—that few Jews are to be found today among the leading officials of the Communist party, among the senior officers of the Soviet army,1 or in the diplomatic corps.

Many individual Jews, prominent in the arts and sciences, who have come to terms with the Soviet regime, continue to prosper as members of the elite. Musicians like David Oistrakh, political propagandists like Ilya Ehrenburg and David Zaslavsky, the chess master Mikhail Botvinnik, are cases in point. Last April, three Jewish physicists, Samuil Markovitch Ossoviets, Staly Yosifovich Braginsky, and Natan Aronovich Yavlinsky, received a Lenin Prize for their research in producing plasma at high temperatures. There are many less celebrated Jewish scientists, doctors, scholars, and teachers in major cities like Moscow, Leningrad, and Kiev. Nevertheless, almost all the recent visitors to the USSR report, on the basis of conversations with Soviet Jews, that young Jewish students are finding it more and more difficult to gain admission to higher educational institutions. Whether official, semi-official or unofficial, a kind of numerus clausus faces the younger generation of Soviet Jews. At the same time, the Jewish religious and cultural institutions that were mercilessly harassed between 1948 and 1953 have not been restored. And official pressure against the Jewish community as such has been abated only slightly in the last three years as part of Khrushchev’s efforts to mollify international public opinion. Russia remains a difficult land for the Jews, even if the period of midnight arrests and wholesale murders passed with Stalin’s death.



The Bolshevik revolution cannot be blamed for the virulent anti-Semitism prevalent among the backward agrarian peoples of Russia and East Europe. Nevertheless, despite frequent claims that the Soviet regime had “abolished anti-Semitism,” the sporadic Communist efforts to combat it during the 1920’s and 30’s clearly failed. Certainly Stalin’s cynical alliance with Nazi Germany did little to discourage the traditional anti-Semitism endemic among large sections of the population. During World War II, when Soviet Jews faced the threat of massacre by the invading Nazis, the best they could expect from most of their non-Jewish neighbors was that they should not lend a hand in the slaughter. (There are many accounts of the manner in which citizens of the Ukraine and Byelorussia cooperated in the Nazi deportation and extermination of the Jews.) The postwar resurgence of popular anti-Semitism, indeed, owes a great deal to the Nazi propaganda in the regions of the USSR occupied by the German army during the war. The favorable reception then accorded to the racist ideas of Nazism showed how little the Soviet regime had done to combat anti-Semitism between 1917 and 1939.

Stalin’s purge of Jewish cultural leaders and the campaign against “rootless cosmopolitans” which accompanied it during the last five years of the dictator’s life2 further encouraged anti-Semitism in the population at large. And when Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s crimes at the 20th Party Congress, it is significant that he passed over in silence the destruction of Jewish writers and cultural leaders. It was left to the Warsaw Folkshtimme to raise questions about the extermination of Yiddish culture in the USSR. Khrushchev’s failure to mention these outrages would indicate that, in his own mind, these matters were politically not very important—or, at least, not as important as the affair of the Jewish “doctors’ plot” which he did discuss.

After the 20th Congress, judicial murder ceased to be an instrument of policy in the USSR, and Jews benefited in the same measure as other Soviet citizens. But several of Khrushchev’s internal changes nevertheless tended to increase discrimination against Jews. For example, the decentralization of Soviet industry gave greater power to local authorities, and in the non-Slav republics this made it difficult for Jews to keep their jobs or get new ones. Such areas had been colonized by Russians—both Gentiles and Jews—and local feeling was strong against these representatives of an alien centralism. In this respect, recent visitors to the USSR have reported, the Jews are twice cursed: paradoxically as “Russians,” traditionally as “Zhydi.” (Khrushchev blandly told French Socialist visitors in 1957: “Naturally, if the Jews now tried to occupy leading positions in the republics, the local inhabitants would object.”)

At the same time, most professions in the USSR are gradually becoming overcrowded and, as often happens, there is a tendency for discriminatory pressures against Jews to build up. There is no evidence that Soviet authorities are discouraging this tendency; indeed, they seem to be prepared to use it as a means to divert discontent generated by some of Khrushchev’s policies. Thus there was a spate of articles in the Moscow and also the provincial Soviet press that stressed the anti-social acts of individuals bearing unmistakably Jewish names. Such articles are among the established methods of drawing attention to pilfering, embezzlement, black-marketeering and so on, and offenders with non-Jewish names have also been getting their share of publicity. But the Jews are getting more than their share; if one were to take the Soviet press literally, nearly half the petty criminals in the USSR have names like Rubinstein, Feinberg, Flaxman, and Blonstein. These newspaper stories began appearing in June 1957, and thus belong to the period of Khrushchev’s personal rule—that is, after the defeat of the “anti-party bloc.”

It can be argued that the new popular anti-Semitic tendencies have the approval of the Soviet regime but are, nevertheless, not the result of a declared official design. In two spheres, however, Khrushchev must bear personal responsibility for policies directed against the Jewish community. Despite promises to the contrary by Soviet officials to French and other delegations, Yiddish cultural life has not been allowed to resume. And, above all, the road to Israel remains barred to Russian Jews wishing to emigrate.

The aspiration of the Russian Jews to be recognized as a distinct cultural entity is being denied on the grounds that the Jewish group does not fulfill the requirements laid down by Stalin for constituting a nationality. The late dictator wrote in his famous essay Marxism and the National Question: “A nation is a historically constituted stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life and psychological makeup manifested in a common culture. . . . It is sufficient for a single one of these characteristics to be lacking and a nation ceases to be a nation.”3

The Jews, scattered over the length and breadth of the USSR, obviously cannot fulfill these requirements, and the Soviet attempt to set up a separate Jewish Autonomous Region of Birobidzhan has been a failure. To be sure, even in Stalin’s day Yiddish culture was permitted to carry on from time to time, despite the dogma, when this suited Soviet policy. During World War II, the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee formed in Moscow was encouraged in its task of rallying world Jewish opinion against Nazism and toward a more charitable view of Soviet Russia as an ally of the democracies. Once the war ended, however, the Committee was disbanded. By 1948, all the iron rules of the Stalin doctrine of nationality were applied. From that time on, only Jews in Birobidzhan could read Yiddish books or newspapers, though only 2 per cent of Soviet Jews live there while 200,000, for example, live in Moscow. Khrushchev said only last year that, as far as he is concerned, all the Jews could go to Birobidzhan and set up a Jewish state, but he was not prepared to allow Yiddish schools to be established all over Russia.4



The Communists argue that Soviet Jews themselves are not interested in Yiddish books or a Yiddish theater, and that it is better to perpetuate Yiddish culture by translations into Russian. (Several books by Sholem Aleichem, for example, have recently been translated, and a collected works is promised for this year.) Last June, the Soviet writer Boris Polevoy told the Buenos Aires Yiddish newspaper Tribune that Jewish authors writing in Yiddish seek to be translated into Russian because they are ashamed of publishing Yiddish-language editions of less than 5,000 copies. He cited no evidence for his claim that a Yiddish book could find no more than 5,000 buyers in the Soviet Union.5 Indeed, a contrary impression is created by the fact that the Warsaw Folkshtimme has been banned in the USSR and that Warsaw Radio has stopped its Yiddish broadcasts, which formerly had a large audience in the western parts of the USSR. Furthermore, a number of Yiddish musical soirees recently held in Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, Odessa, Minsk, and other cities proved extremely popular. Danilov, Soviet Deputy Minister of Culture, said that three million people attended Yiddish concerts in 1957. The Ministry has also released various phonograph recordings of Yiddish folk songs. It is hard to tell what prompted Soviet authorities to permit this musical activity; in any event, there has been no sign that it is a forerunner of greater freedom.

Parallel with the prohibitions on Yiddish culture are the restrictions on Judaism as a religion. Local Jewish religious communities have not been allowed to set up a nationwide organization. There are not enough synagogues, not enough prayer books, and not enough rabbis. In an English-language broadcast last October 18, Moscow Radio claimed that 4,000 Hebrew prayer books had been printed in time for the High Holidays, and that a further printing was “in hand.” It also claimed that there were a hundred Jewish houses of prayer in Moscow, but this is flatly denied by all recent visitors to the USSR. Conceivably, the broadcast was referring to temporary accommodations arranged for the holiday period. In any case, in Tashkent in Central Asia, one small synagogue serves more than 50,000 Jews, and in the autumn of 1958 services there were conducted by a lay preacher. The Moscow rabbinical school is small and cannot cope with the demand for trained rabbis.

Despite the difficulties which Jewish religious observance encounters, synagogues throughout the Soviet Union overflowed with worshippers of all ages on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in 1958. Last Rosh Hashanah too, the Chief Rabbi of Moscow exchanged messages with Israeli, British, and other rabbis. This may be a sign that the Soviet authorities are ready to permit a few breaches in the isolation of Soviet Jewry. More likely, however, it is another propaganda attempt to offset the worldwide censure of the Soviet treatment of Russian Jews.

Beyond doubt, Khrushchev is aware of the repercussions in the West caused by the revelation of Stalin’s anti-Jewish purges. With the exception of the suppression of the Hungarian uprising, no other aspect of Soviet policy since 1953 has done so much to dismay the Communist movement in Europe and the Americas. Khrushchev’s indiscretions on the subject of the Jews did not make the task of official apologists any easier. Now these propagandists seem to have decided that Birobidzhan is the only card left to play, and are playing it vigorously. The Soviet press and radio are engaged in a concerted campaign to popularize the East Siberian territory as an alternative to Israel. It is being depicted as a fertile land with a rapidly developing industry, a land with two official languages—Yiddish and Russian—in which Jewish collective farmers are living idyllic lives. Much is being made, too, of the wartime exploits of Jewish veterans of the Soviet army now living in Birobidzhan. And the presence of some 2,000 books in the “Jewish department” of Birobidzhan’s Sholem Aleichem Library was recently cited by Moscow Radio as evidence of the flourishing state of Yiddish culture.6

Now the sober fact is that Birobidzhan is probably no better or worse than some other parts of the USSR, but Soviet Jews just do not want to go there. Khrushchev himself concedes that many who did go to Birobidzhan did not stay. “They get there burning with enthusiasm,” he told Groussard, “and then, one by one, they leave.” Khrushchev told Der Tog’s interviewer last June that “all that is left there are signs in Yiddish at the railway stations, but there are no Jews left there.” Since the Jewish Autonomous Region is neither Jewish nor autonomous, Soviet Jews regard it as nothing better than a potential mass ghetto.



In view of the enthusiasm for Israel known to exist among Soviet Jews, the regime’s puerile attempts to discredit the new state must fall on deaf ears. The attempts continue, nevertheless. Recently, the Soviet press published letters alleged to be from Soviet Jews now living in Israel, warning their relatives and friends at home not to follow their example. G. Plotkin, a member of a small Soviet delegation which visited Israel in July 1958, painted a picture of life there (in articles published in Literaturnaya Gazeta and Vechernaya Moskva) which Israelis could only find ridiculous. Plotkin claimed to have seen crowds besieging the Soviet Embassy and Polish diplomatic mission in Tel Aviv begging for permission to return to their former homelands; he also alleged that no man over forty can find a job in Israel, that new arrivals rarely find work even one day a week, and that former Soviet citizens are offered only manual labor. In an article in Sovetskaya Kultura (March 25, 1958) entitled “Hell in the Israeli Paradise,” a writer named Yulsky describes how wives of new immigrants were forced into prostitution to earn bread for their families. Yulsky declares that the distance between Israeli “chauvinists” and the Nazis was “no greater than a sparrow’s beak.”

Despite such propaganda, Soviet Jews have been making desperate attempts to get to Israel, and a few have managed to do so by first going to Poland, which in 1956 adopted a more liberal policy toward Jewish emigration. Under the Polish-Soviet Repatriation Agreement signed in that year, not only former Polish Jews but also many Soviet Jews went to Poland, and from there to Israel. By early 1958, about 10,000 Jews in all had returned to Poland from the USSR. The rush of Soviet Jews to Poland and Israel, according to reports from Warsaw, alarmed the Soviet authorities, and measures were taken in 1957 to slow down this East European equivalent of the “underground railroad.” By July 1958, no more than 300 Jews a month were leaving the USSR for Poland. And, whereas 35,000 Jews left Poland for Israel between July 1956 and March 1957, the Polish authorities stopped Jewish emigration from March to October of that year, and then resumed it only in drastically reduced form.

This “underground railroad” to Poland seems to have been an inadvertent consequence of Soviet policy. In Russia itself, Khrushchev has remained adamant in forbidding Jewish migration to Israel—or elsewhere, for that matter. If he really believes, as he says, that the bulk of Jews are happier in the USSR than they would be abroad, he should put his faith to the test; but it is extremely doubtful that he will do so. Communist doctrine as well as the realities of Soviet policy militate against such a course.

Quite apart from the general Communist suspicion of religious groups and ethnic minorities, Soviet Jews are being used as pawns in the international struggle. For almost a decade now the USSR has been pursuing a pro-Arab and anti-Israel policy in the Middle East, and the Communists cite their harsh treatment of Soviet Jews to impress visiting Arabs. As long as this kind of policy continues to pay dividends, both in the Middle East and to a limited extent at home, there is no reason to expect the Soviet leaders to alter their line. Khrushchev is no doubt assaying the relative weight of Western disgust and Arab approval; as long as the latter seems more desirable, little will change.

Letting the Jews out of Russia would represent an even more serious departure from Communist doctrine. It would entail an admission before the entire world that large numbers of Soviet citizens are eager to leave the “homeland of socialism.” It might encourage other oppressed nationalities within the USSR to press with greater vigor for similar rights. The attraction of Turkey for the Turkic tribes of Soviet Central Asia springs immediately to mind. As no Soviet citizen is allowed to emigrate, with the exception of isolated cases on compassionate grounds, it is inevitable in the Communist scheme of things that the Jews should suffer the same restrictions. The new attempt to play up Birobidzhan, as well as the continuing attacks on Israel in the Soviet press, aim at discouraging the obvious Jewish desire to emigrate. The first Soviet book on Israel, The State of Israel: Its Position and Policy, by K. Ivanov and Z. Sheynis, published in 1958, tries to convince Soviet Jews that Israel is an artificially created nation existing under the worst conditions of capitalism. The book will also tend to make a Russian reader identify every Jew with the “narrow bourgeois nationalism” of Israeli leaders, described as imperialist tools and threats to peace.

The immediate prospects for Soviet Jewry are bleak, though not hopeless. It is unthinkable that Khrushchev or any other Soviet leader would emulate Nazi genocide or the Spanish Inquisition. On the other hand, the Soviet authorities may intensify the official pressures for assimilation. They certainly will not permit emigration to Israel unless they also abandon the Arab cause and a large part of their own ideological framework. This is not likely to happen in a world divided by cold war, and no amount of moral pressure by world Jewry can make the Russians change their mind. At the moment, Soviet Jews are being subjected to many pressures on various sides, all directed toward assimilation. But anti-Semitism has usually increased Jewish solidarity, and the contemporary Soviet Union appears to be no exception in this respect. Isolated though Soviet Jews may be, they are not abandoned. They are sustained in their trials by the spiritual reserves of their heritage, the existence of Israel, the support of world Jewry, and—not least—the sympathy of all free men.




1 However, at least one Jewish general purged during the 1930's, former chief of staff Ian B. Gamarnik, was posthumously “rehabilitated” after the 20th Party Congress in 1956.

2 See “Soviet Policy and Jewish Fate,” by W. Z. Laqueur, COMMENTARY, October 1956.

3 The same year Stalin published this essay (1913), Lenin wrote: “Jewish national culture is the slogan of rabbis and the bourgeoisie—the slogan of our enemies.”

4 See the interview with Khrushchev published in Der Tog, New York, June 13, 1958.

5 The same Boris Polevoy told Howard Fast well after the war that he had just seen the Yiddish writer Kvitko, and that Kvitko was in good health and working, when in fact the latter had been arrested in 1949 and killed in 1952. See Fast's The Naked God (Praeger, 1957).

6 Concerned by reports that the Soviet authorities planned a new campaign to resettle large numbers of Jews in Birobidzhan, leaders of the American Jewish Committee raised the question with Soviet Deputy Premier Anastas Mikoyan during his U.S. tour last month. He characterized the reports as “without foundation.”—Ed.

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