(ANCIENT TIMES UNTIL THE SECOND WORLD WAR)
UNTIL 1772 (Origins)
The penetration of Jews into the territories now incorporated within the Union began in the border regions beyond the Caucasus Mountains and the shores of the Black Sea. Traditions and legends connect the arrival of the Jews in Armenia and Georgia with the Ten Lost Tribes (c. 721 b.c.e.) or with the Babylonian Exile (586 b.c.e.). Clearer information on the settlement of the Jews in these regions has come down from the Hellenistic period. Ruins, recordings, and inscriptions on tombstones testify to the existence of important Jewish communities in the Greek colonies on the Black Sea shores, Chersonesus near Sevastopol, Kerch, and other places. Religious persecutions in the Byzantine Empire caused many Jews to emigrate to these communities.
At the time of the wars between the Muslims and Persians during the seventh century many Jews emigrated to the Caucasus and beyond, where they established communities which during subsequent generations maintained relations with the centers of Jewish learning in Babylonia and Persia. From the early Middle Ages Jewish merchants, referred to in Hebrew as holkhei Rusyah, regularly traveled through the Slavonic and Khazar lands on their way to India and China. They traded in slaves, textiles, hides, spices, and arms. It was during this period that the accepted term in Hebrew literature for those lands—Erez Kena’an (“Land of Canaan”)—appeared (originating in the etymological interpretation of the name “Slavs”), and the merchants were said to be familiar with the “language of Canaan” (Slavonic).
It is clear that the conversion to Judaism of the kingdom of the Khazars during the first half of the eighth century was to a certain degree due to the existence of the many Jewish communities in this region. Jews from the Christian and Muslim countries which bordered upon the Khazar realm were later attracted to the Jewish kingdom. Possibly refugees who escaped from this kingdom formed one of the elements of Russian Jewry in later generations, though their proportion in the composition of this Jewry is still under discussion. The kingdom of the Jewish Khazars is referred to in ancient Russian literature as the “Land of the Jews,” and warriors of the Russian epic poetry wage war against the Jewish warrior, the “zhidovin.” According to one tradition Prince Vladimir of Kiev conversed with Jews on religion before accepting Orthodox Christianity. At the same time there were Jews living in Kiev.
Ancient Russian sources mention the “Gate of the Jews” in Kiev. The Jews lived in the town under the protection of the prince, and when the inhabitants of the town rebelled against Prince Vladimir II Monomachus (1117) they also attacked the houses of the Jews. Extracts of religious disputations held in Kiev between monks and clergy and Jews have been preserved in the early Russian religious literature. There were also Jewish settlements in Chernigov and Vladimir-Volynski. The Jews of Kiev also communicated with their coreligionists in Babylonia and Western Europe on religious questions. During the 12th century there is mention of R. Moses of Kiev who corresponded with Rabbenu Jacob b. Meir Tam and with the Gaon Samuel b. Ali of Baghdad.The invasion of the Mongols (1237) and their rule brought much suffering to the Jews of Russia. An important community—Rabbanites as well as Karaites—subsequently developed in Theodosia (Feodosiya, Crimea) and its surroundings, first under Genoese rule (1260–1475) and later under the Tatar khans of Crimea.
From the 14th Century
From the beginning of the 14th century the Lithuanians gained control over western Russia. Under Lithuania the first extensive privileges were granted to Jewish communities in the region at the end of the 14th century. Under Poland-Lithuania the wave of Jewish emigration and large-scale settlement from Poland to the Ukraine, Volhynia, and Podolia from the middle of the 16th century laid the foundations at the close of this century for most of the Jewish communities of the Ukraine and Belorussia, and their Polish-Jewish culture and autonomy. In 1648–49 the Chmielnicki massacres devastated the Jews of the Ukraine, and some years later the Muscovite armies annihilated the Jews in the cities of Belorussia and Lithuania that they had captured. During the 18th century the Jews suffered severely during the revolts of the Haidamacks. With the partitions of Poland at the end of the 18th century most of the Jews of Lithuania and the Ukraine, and at the beginning of the 19th century also those of Poland, found themselves under Russian rule. During the 19th and 20th centuries Russian Jewry was, however, essentially an organic continuity of the Jewry of Poland and Lithuania in the ethnic as well as cultural respects.
Principality of Moscow
In the principality of Moscow, the nucleus of the future Russian Empire, Jews were not tolerated. This negative attitude toward Jews was connected with the negative attitude to foreigners in general, who were considered heretics and agents of the enemies of the state. During the 15th century Jews arrived within the borders of the principality of Moscow in the wake of their trade from both the Tatar kingdom of Crimea and Poland-Lithuania. During the 1470s the religious sect known in Russian history as the “Judaizers” (Zhidovstvuyushchiye) was discovered in the large commercial city of Novgorod and at the court in Moscow. The Jews were accused of having influenced and initiated the establishment of the sect. When Czar Ivan IV Vasilievich (“the Terrible”; 1530–84) temporarily annexed the town of Pskov to his territory, he ordered that all Jews who refused to convert to Christianity should be drowned in the river. During the following two centuries Jews entered Russia either illegally or with authorization from Poland and Lithuania on trade, and they occasionally settled in border towns. Repeated decrees issued by the Russian rulers prohibiting the entry of Jewish merchants within their territories, and explicit articles included in the treaties between Poland and Russia emphasizing these prohibitions, testify that this penetration was a regular occurrence. Small Jewish communities existed during the early 19th century in the region of Smolensk. In 1738 the Jew, Baruch b. Leib, was arrested and accused of having converted the officer Alexander Voznitsyn to Judaism. Both were burned at the stake in St. Petersburg. In 1742 Czarina Elizabeth Petrovna ordered the expulsion of the few Jews living in her kingdom. When the senate attempted to obtain cancelation of the expulsion order by pointing out the economic loss which would be suffered by the Russian merchants and the state, the czarina retorted: “I do not want any benefit from the enemies of Christ.”
At the beginning of the reign of Catherine II the question of authorizing the entry of Jews for trading purposes again arose. The czarina, who was inclined toward authorizing their admission, was compelled to reverse her decision in the face of hostile public opinion. Some Jews nevertheless penetrated into Russia during this period, while the authorities did not disturb those living in the territories conquered from Turkey in 1768 (Crimea and the Black Sea shore) and even unofficially encouraged the settlement of additional Jews in these territories. The question of the presence of Jews within the borders of the empire was however decided by historical circumstances, when at the close of the 18th century hundreds of thousands of Jews were placed under the dominion of the czars as a result of the three partitions of Poland (1772; 1793; 1795).
Within the Russian Empire: First Phase (1772–1881)
The Jews who lived in the regions annexed by Russia (the “Western Region” and the “Vistula Region” in the terms of the Russian administration) formed a distinct social class. In continuation of their economic functions in Poland-Lithuania, they essentially formed the middle class between the aristocracy and the landowners on the one hand, and the masses of enslaved peasants on the other. Many of them earned their livelihood from the lease of villages, flour mills, forests, inns, and taverns. Others were merchants, shopkeepers, or hawkers. The remainder were craftsmen who worked for both landowner and peasant. Some of them lived in townlets which had mostly been founded on the initiative of the landowners and served as centers for the merchants and the craftsmen, while others lived in villages or at junctions of routes.
The economic position of the Jews steadily deteriorated with their confinement to the Pale of Settlement (see below), their rapid growth in numbers, and consequent gradual proletarianization and increasing pauperization. The autonomy of the Jewish community was at first recognized. The Jews maintained their traditional educational network.
When they came under Russian rule, many of the communities had become heavily in debt. Economic difficulties, the burden of taxes—in particular the meat tax —and social tensions drove many Jews to abandon the townlets and settle in villages or on the estates of noblemen. During the period of their transfer to Russian domination, the Jews of the “Western Region” were involved in a grave conflict between the Hasidim and the Mitnaggedim. Once the Russian government gained control of this region, it became involved in this conflict. Complaints and slander even resulted in the arrest of Shneur Zalman of Lyady in 1798 and his transfer to St. Petersburg for interrogation. The various hasidic “courts” (the most important of which were those of Lubavichi-Lyady, Stolin, Talnoye, Gora-Kalwaria, Aleksandrow), as well as the yeshivot of the Mitnaggedic-type in Lithuania (the most important in the townlets of Volozhin, founded in 1803, Mir, Telz (Telsiai), Eishishki (Eisiskes), and Slobodka; combined to form a flourishing and variegated Jewish culture.
Crystallation of Russian Policy Towards the Jews
From the beginning of its annexation of the Polish territories the Russian government adopted the attitude of viewing the Jews there as the “Jewish Problem,” to be solved ultimately by their assimilation or expulsion. During the first 50 years after incorporation within the borders of the empire, the general tendency of the government was to maintain the status of the Jews as it had been under Polish rule, while adapting it to the Russian requirements. A decree of 1791 confirmed the right of residence of the Jews in the territories annexed from Poland and permitted their settlement in the uninhabited steppes of the Black Sea shore, conquered from Turkey at the close of the 18th century, and in the provinces to the east of the R. Dnieper (Chernigov and Poltava) only. Thus crystallized the Pale of Settlement, which took its final form with the annexation of Bessarabia in 1812, and the “Kingdom of Poland” in 1815, extending from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea and including 25 provinces with an area of nearly 1,000,000 sq. km. (286,000 sq. mi.). The Jews formed one ninth of the total population of the area. Jewish residence was also authorized in Courland and, at a later date, in the Caucasus and Russian Central Asia to Jews who had lived in these regions before the Russian conquest.
In the regions annexed from Poland the Jews were caught up in the dilemma facing czarist rule there. The regime, whose power rested on the nobility, refrained from throwing the responsibility for the miserable plight of the mainly Orthodox peasants onto the Christian landowners, mainly of the Polish Catholic nobility, preferring to blame the Jews in the villages; it accepted the claim of the local nobility and officials allied to it that the Jews were causing the exploitation of the peasants. The Jewish autonomy and independent culture added to this antagonism, as being alien to the Russian centralist regime and Christian-feudal culture.
These concerns animated the first “Jewish Statute” promulgated in 1804. Its first article authorized the admission of the Jews to all the elementary, secondary, and higher schools in Russia. Jews were also authorized to establish their own schools, provided that the language of instruction was Russian, Polish, or German. The most important of the economic articles of the statute was the prohibition of the residence of Jews in the villages, of all leasing activity in the villages, and of the sale of alcoholic beverages to the peasants. This struck at the source of livelihood of thousands of Jewish families. The legislation therefore declared that Jews would be allowed to settle as peasants on their lands or on the lands which would be allocated to them by the government. Government support was also promised to factories which would employ Jewish workers and to craftsmen.
In 1817 Alexander I outlawed the blood libel which had caused terror and suffering to the Jewish communities in the 18th century.
A short while after the publication of the “Jewish Statute,” the expulsion of the Jews from the villages began, as did their settlement in southern Russia. It was however soon evident that agricultural settlement could not rapidly absorb the thousands of Jewish families who had been removed from their livelihoods. The expulsion order was therefore delayed, this being also due to the political and military situation in Russia during the war against Napoleon. Only in 1822 was the systematic expulsion of the Jews from the villages, especially in the provinces of Belorussia, resumed. An unsuccessful attempt was also made to induce the Jews to convert to Christianity by promises of emancipation and government support for their settlement on the land.
Under Nicholas I
The reign of Nicholas I (1825–55) forms a somber chapter in the history of Russian Jewry. This czar, notorious in Russian history for his cruelty, sought to solve the “Jewish Problem” by suppression and coercion. In 1827 he ordered the conscription of Jewish youths into the army under the iniquitous Cantonists system which conscripted youths aged from 12 to 25 years into military service; those aged under 18 were sent to special military schools also attended by the children of soldiers. This law caused profound demoralization within the communities of Lithuania and the Ukraine (it did not apply to the Jews of the “Polish” provinces). Nobody wished to serve in the army in the prevailing inhuman conditions and the “trustees” responsible on behalf of the communities for filling the quotas of conscripts were compelled to employ “snatchers” (“khapers”) to seize the youngsters. The military obligations of the Jews in Russia brought no alleviation of their condition in other spheres, and the expulsions of Jews from the villages continued with regularity. The Jews were also expelled from Kiev, and any new settlement of Jews in the towns and townlets within a distance of 50 versts of the country’s borders was prohibited in 1843. On the other hand, the government encouraged agricultural settlement among Jews. The settlers were exempted from military service. Many Jewish settlements were established on government and privately owned lands in southern Russia and other regions of the Pale of Settlement.
During the 1840s the government began to concern itself with the education of the Jews. Since the Jews had not made use of the opportunity which had been given to them in 1804 to study in the general schools, the government decided to establish a network of special schools for them. The maintenance of these schools would be provided for by a special tax (the “candle tax”) which would be imposed on them. In order to pave the way for this activity, the government sent Max Lilienthal, a German Jew employed as teacher in the school established in Riga by the local maskilim, on a reconnaissance trip through the Pale of Settlement. During 1841–42 Lilienthal visited the large communities of the Pale of Settlement—Vilna, Minsk, Berdichev, Odessa, and Kiev. He was received with suspicion by the Jewish masses, who regarded the project to establish government schools for Jews as a medium for the estrangement of their children from their religion. In 1844 adecree ordering the establishment of these schools, whose teachers would be both Christians and Jews, was issued. In secret instructions which accompanied the decree it was declared that “the purpose of the education of the Jews is to bring them nearer to the Christians and to uproot their harmful beliefs which are influenced by the Talmud.” Lilienthal became aware of the government’s intentions and fled from Russia. The government established this network of schools which depended for instruction upon a handful of maskilim and at the head of which were the seminaries for rabbis and teachers of Vilna and Zhitomir. These institutions, to which the Jewish masses shrank from sending their children, served as the cradle for a class of Russian-speaking maskilim which was to play an important role in the lives of the Jews during the following generations.
In 1844 the government abolished the Polish-style communities but was nevertheless compelled to recognize a limited communal organization whose function it was to watch over the conscription into the army and the collection of the special taxes—the korobka and “candle tax.” The community was also responsible for the election of the kazyonny ravvin (“government-appointed rabbi”), whose function it was to register births, marriages, and deaths and to deliver sermons on official holidays extolling the government. A law was also issued prohibiting Jews from growing pe’ot (“sidelocks”) and wearing their traditional clothes.
The next stage of the program of Nicholas I was the division of the Jews of his country into two groups: “useful” and “non-useful.” Among the “useful” ranked the wealthy merchants, craftsmen, and agriculturalists. All the other Jews, the small tradesmen and the poorer classes, constituted the “non-useful” and were threatened with general conscription into the army, where they would be trained in crafts or agriculture. This project encountered the opposition of Russian statesmen and aroused the intervention of the Jews of Western Europe on behalf of their coreligionists. In 1846 Sir Moses Montefiore traveled from England to Russia for this purpose. The order to classify the Jews according to these categories was nevertheless issued in 1851. The Crimean War delayed its application but amplified the tragedy of military conscription. The quota was increased threefold and the “snatchers” were given a free hand to seize children, and travelers who did not possess documents, and hand them over to the army. The reign of Nicholas I came to an end with the memory of those days of intensified kidnapping.
Under Alexander II
The reign of Alexander II (1855–81) is connected with great reforms in the Russian regime, the most important of which was the emancipation of the peasants in 1861 from their servitude to the landowners. Toward the Jews, Alexander II adopted a milder policy with the same objective as that of his predecessor of achieving the assimilation of the Jews to Russian society. He repealed the severest of his father’s decrees (including the Cantonists system) and gave a different interpretation to the classification system by granting various rights—in the first place the right of residence throughout Russia—to selected groups of “useful” Jews, which included wealthy merchants (1859), university graduates (1861), certified craftsmen (1865), as well as medical staff of every category (medical orderlies and midwives). The Jewish communities outside the Pale of Settlement rapidly expanded, especially those of St. Petersburg and Moscow whose influence on the way of life of Russian Jewry became important.
In 1874 general draft to the army was introduced in Russia. Thousands of young Jews were now called upon to serve in the army of the czar for four years. Important alleviations were granted to those having a Russian secondary-school education. This encouraged the stream of Jews toward the Russian schools. At the same time Jews were not admitted to officers’ rank.
The general atmosphere the new laws engendered was of no less importance than the laws themselves. The administration relaxed its pressure on the Jews and there was a feeling among them that the government was slowly but surely proceeding toward the emancipation of the Jews. Jews began to take part in the intellectual and cultural life of Russia in journalism, literature, law, the theater, and the arts; the number of professionals was then very small in Russia, and Jews soon became prominent among their ranks in quantity and quality. Some Jews distinguished themselves, such as the composer Anton Rubinstein (baptized in childhood), the sculptor Mark Antokolski, and the painter Isaac Levitan.
This appearance of Jews in economic, political, and cultural life immediately aroused a sharp reaction in Russian society. The leading opponents of the Jews included several of the country’s most prominent intellectuals, such as the authors Ivan Aksakov and Fyodor Dostoyevski. The attitude of the liberal and revolutionary elements in Russia toward the Jews was also lukewarm. The Jews were accused of maintaining “a state within a state” (the enemies of the Jews found support for this opinion in the work of the apostate J. Brafman, “The Book of the Kahal,” published in 1869), and of “exploiting” the Russian masses; even the blood libel was renewed by agitators (as that of Kutais in 1878). However, the principal argument of the hatemongers was that the Jews were an alien element invading the areas of Russian life, gaining control of economic and cultural positions, and a most destructive influence. Many newspapers, led by the influential Novoye Vremya, engaged in anti-Jewish agitation. The anti-Jewish movement gained in strength especially after the Balkan War (1877–78), when a wave of Slavophile nationalism swept through Russian society.
One of the factors which influenced the position of the Jews was their high natural increase, due to the high birthrate and the relatively low mortality among children—the result of the devoted care of Jewish mothers as well as of medical progress. The number of Jews in Russia which in 1850 had been estimated at 2,350,000 rose to over 5,000,000 at the close of the 19th century, notwithstanding a considerable emigration abroad. Governmental commissions appointed to deal with the “Jewish Problem” received instructions to seek methods for the reduction of the number of Jews in the country.
The natural growth resulted in increased competition in the traditionally Jewish occupations. The numbers of small shopkeepers, peddlers, and brokers rose steadily. Many joined the craftsmen’s class, a step which in those days was considered a fall in social status. A Jewish proletariat began to develop; it included workshop and factory-workers, daily workers, male and female domestics, and porters. At the same time there also emerged a small but influential class of wealthy Jews who succeeded in adapting to the requirements of the Russian Empire and established contacts with government circles. The first members of this class were contractors engaged by the government in the building of roads and fortresses, or purveyors to army offices and units. During the reign of Nicholas I many Jews engaged in leasing the sale of alcoholic beverages which had become a government monopoly. From the 1860s Jews played an important role in the construction of railroads and the development of mines, industry (especially the foodstuff and textile industries), and export trade (timber; grain). They were among the leading founders of the banking network of Russia. This class of Jews was prominent in St. Petersburg, Moscow, Odessa, Kiev, and Warsaw. This upper bourgeoisie, headed by the Guenzburg and Poliakov families, considered themselves the leaders of Russian Jewry. They were closely connected with Jews who had acquired a higher education and had penetrated the Russian intelligentsia and the liberal professions (lawyers, physicians, architects, newspaper editors, scientists, and writers). The wealth and the status of this small class was however unable to alleviate the suffering of the destitute masses. After the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, the serious lack of land for the Russian peasants themselves became evident and the government ceased to encourage Jewish settlement on the land. Emigration became the only outlet. Until the 1870s the migration was mainly an internal one, from Lithuania and Belorussia in the direction of southern Russia. While in 1847 only 2.5% of Russian Jews lived in the southern provinces, the proportion had increased to 13.8% in 1897. Important new communities appeared in this region: Odessa (about 140,000 Jews), Yekaterinoslav (Dnepropetrovsk), Yelizavetgrad (Kirovograd), Kremenchug, etc. The famine in Lithuania at the end of the 1870s encouraged emigration toward Western Europe and the United States.
Haskalah in Russia
From the middle of the 19th century Haskalah became influential among Russian Jewry. Its first manifestations, combined with signs of assimilation, appeared in the large commercial cities (Warsaw, Odessa, Riga). Among the Russian adherents of Haskalah there was a trend to preserve Judaism and its values; hence they tended to seek changes based mainly on a thread of continuity. Although there were also circles which stood for complete assimilation and absorption in Eastern Europe (the “Poles of the Mosaic Faith” of Poland, nihilist and socialist circles in Russia), the majority of the maskilim sought a path which would preserve the national or nationalreligious identity of the Jews, while some of them even developed an indubitable nationalist ideology (Perez Smolenskin). The herald of the Haskalah in Russia was the author Isaac Dov (Baer) Levinsohn. In his Te’udah be-Yisrael (Vilna, 1828), he formulated an educational and productivization program. The most distinguished pioneers of Haskalah in Russia were the author Abraham Mapu, the father of the Hebrew novel, and the poet Judah Leib Gordon. Even though the maskilim were at first opposed to Yiddish, which they sought to replace by the language of the country, some of them later created a secular Yiddish literature (I. M. Dick; Mendele Mokher Seforim; and others). At the initiative of the maskilim there also emerged a Jewish press in Hebrew (Ha-Maggid, founded in 1856; Ha-Meliz); in Yiddish (Kol Mevasser); and in Russian (Razsvet, founded in 1860; Den). The Hevrat Mefizei Haskalah (“Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews of Russia”), founded in 1863 by a group of wealthy Jews and intellectuals of St. Petersburg, was an important factor in spreading Haskalah and the Russian language among Jews.
These books and newspapers infiltrated into the batteimidrash and the yeshivot, influencing students to leave them. Severe ideological disputes broke out in many communities, often between father and son, rabbi and disciples. The government assisted the spread of Haskalah as long as its adherents supported loyalty to the czarist regime (as expressed by J. L. Gordon—”to your king a serf”) and cooperated in promoting educational and productivization programs as well as in its opposition to the traditional leadership. By the 1870s the activity of the maskilim began to bear fruit. The mass of Jewish youth streamed to the Russian-Jewish and general Russian schools. The general conscription law of 1874 encouraged this process, and thus began the estrangement of the intellectual youth from its people and Jewish affairs—to the despair of the nationalist wing of the Haskalah which resigned itself to this situation. However the rise of the anti-Semitic movement within Russian society during the late 1870s (see above) resulted in a nationalist awakening among this youth. This was expressed in the development of a Jewish-Russian press and literature dealing with the problems of the Jews and Judaism (Razsvet; Russki Yevrey; Voskhod).
Within the Russian Empire: Second Phase (1881–1917)
The year 1881 was a turning point in the history of the Jews of Russia. In March 1881 revolutionaries assassinated Alexander II. Confusion reigned throughout the country. The revolutionaries called on the people to rebel. The regime was compelled to protect itself, and the Russian government found a scapegoat: the notion was encouraged that the Jews were responsible for the misfortunes of the nation. Anti-Jewish riots (pogroms) broke out in a number of towns and townlets of southern Russia including Yelizavetgrad (Kirovograd) and Kiev. These disorders consisted of looting, while there were few acts of murder or rape. Similar pogroms were repeated in 1882 (Balta, etc.); in 1883 (Yekaterinoslav, now Dnepropetrovsk, Krivoi Rog, Novo-Moskovsk, etc.); and in 1884 (Nizhni-Novgorod, now Gorki). The indifference to—and at times even sympathy for—the rioters on the part of the Russian intellectuals shocked many Jews, especially the maskilim among them. Revolutionary circles which hoped to transform these disorders into a revolt against the landowners and government also supported the rioters. The new czar, Alexander III (1881–94), and his cabinet underlined these trends in their policy toward the Jews. Provincial commissions were appointed in the wake of the pogroms to investigate their causes. In the main these commissions stated that “Jewish exploitation” had caused the pogroms. Based on this finding, the “Temporary Laws” were published in May 1882. These prohibited the Jews from living in villages and restricted the limits of their residence to the towns. In an attempt to halt the flood of Jews now seeking entry to secondary schools and universities, and their competition with the non-Jewish element, the number of Jewish students in the secondary and higher schools was limited by law in 1886 to 10% in the Pale of Settlement and to 3–5% outside it. This numerous classes did much to accomplish the radicalization of Jewish youth in Russia. Many went to study abroad; others were able to enter Russian schools only if showing outstanding ability. All became embittered and disillusioned with the existing Russian society. In 1891 the systematic expulsion of most of the Jews from Moscow began. The pogroms were indeed halted in 1884 but instead administrative harassment of Jews became worse. The police strictly applied the discriminatory laws, and the expulsion of Jews from towns and villages where they had lived peacefully during the reign of Alexander II was effected, either under the law or with the help of bribery, to become a daily occurrence. The press (which was subjected to severe censorship) conducted a campaign of unbridled anti-Semitic propaganda. K. Pobedonostsev, the head of the “Holy Synod” (the governing body of the Russian Orthodox Church), formulated the objectives of the government when he expressed the hope that “one-third of the Jews will convert, one-third will die, and one-third will flee the country.”
This policy was also continued under Nicholas II (1894–1918). In reaction to the growth of the revolutionary movement, in which the radicalized Jewish youth took an increasing part, the government gave free rein to the anti-Semitic press and agitation. During Passover, in 1903, a pogrom broke out in Kishinev in which many Jews lost their lives. From then on pogroms became a part of government policy. They gained in violence in 1904 (in Zhitomir) and reached their climax in October 1905, immediately after the czar had been compelled to proclaim the granting of a constitution to his people. In these pogroms the police and the army openly supported the rioters and protected them against the Jewish self-defense. Pogroms accompanied by bloodshed in which the army actively participated occurred in Bialystok (June 1906) and Siedlce (September 1906). The establishment of the Imperial Duma brought no change to the situation of the Jews. There was indeed a limited Jewish representation in the Duma (12 delegates in the first Duma of 1906 and two to four delegates in the second, third, and fourth Dumas), but this representation was faced by a powerful Rightist party—the Union of the Russian People—and related parties, whose principal weapon in the political struggle against the liberal and radical elements was a savage anti-Semitism which overtly called for the elimination of the Jews from Russia.
It was these circles which produced the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” which served, and still serve, as fuel for anti-Semitism throughout the world. In this atmosphere a proposal for a debate in the Duma on the abolition of the Pale of Settlement was shelved, while a suggestion to exclude the Jews from military service was not accepted for the sole reason that the government could not dispense with the service of about 40,000 Jewish soldiers. Characteristic of this period was the law issued in 1912 which prohibited the appointment as officers not only of apostates from Judaism, but also of their children and grandchildren. In 1913 the government held a blood libel trial in Kiev involving Mendel Beilis: the anti-Semitic propaganda was intensified and the government mobilized its police and judicial cadres to obtain his conviction. A strong defense was mustered, including the Jews O. Grusenberg and Rabbi J. Mazeh, which succeeded in disproving the libel: the jury, consisting of 12 Russian peasants, acquitted the accused.
The pogroms, restrictive decrees, and administrative pressure caused a mass emigration of Jews from Russia, especially to the United States. During 1881 to 1914 about 2,000,000 Jews left Russia. This emigration did not result in a decrease in the Jewish population of the country as the high birthrate recompensed the losses through emigration. The economic situation improved however because the pressure on the sources of livelihood did not grow at its former pace and also because the emigrants rapidly began to send financial assistance to their relatives in Russia. Several attempts were made to organize and regulate this continual emigration, the most important by the Jewish philanthropist Baron Maurice de Hirsch who reached an agreement in 1891 with the Russian government on the transfer of 3,000,000 Jews within 25 years to Argentina. For this purpose, the Jewish Colonization Association (ICA) was established. Even though the project was not realized, ICA was very active in promoting Jewish agricultural settlement both in the lands of emigration and in Russia itself.
Jewish Population at the Close of the 19th Century
The comprehensive population census of 1897 provides a general picture of the demographic and economic condition of Russian Jewry at the close of the 19th century. In the census 5,189,400 Jews were counted; they constituted 4.13% of the total Russian population and about one-half of world Jewry.
In certain provinces of the Pale of Settlement the percentage of Jews rose above their general proportion (18.12% in the province of Warsaw; 17.28% in the province of Grodno). The overwhelming majority of the Jews in the Pale lived in towns (48.84%) and townlets (33.05%). Only 18.11% lived in villages. The Jews of the villages nevertheless numbered about 890,000. A decisive factor in the social pattern of Russian Jewry was its concentration in the towns and townlets. The townlet (or shtetl)—a legacy of the social structure of ancient Poland—was a center of commerce and crafts for the neighboring villagers and its population was mostly Jewish. There Jewish tradition, cohesion, and folkways were well preserved, serving as the basis and starting point for both the conservative and innovative forces in Jewish culture. In the larger cities the majority of the Jews also resided in the same locality and led their own social life.There were also many medium-sized towns in which the majority of the population was Jewish.
This concentration of the Jews, and their intensive and variegated cultural life, made them a clearly distinct nation living in the Pale of Settlement. Their occupations and professional structure also gave a specific character to their society. In 1897 the Jews of Russia could be divided according to their sources of livelihood as shown in.
In the Pale of Settlement Jews formed 72.8% of those engaged in commerce, 31.4% of those engaged in crafts and industry, and 20.9% of those engaged in transportation. At the close of the 19th century the Jewish proletariat increased and numbered some 600,000. Approximately half of them were apprentices and workers employed by craftsmen, about 100,000 were salesmen, about 70,000 were factory workers, and the remainder daily workers, porters, and domestics. The desire of this proletariat to improve its material and social status, and its contacts with the revolutionary Jewish intelligentsia during the generation which preceded the 1917 Revolution, became an important factor in the lives of the Jews of Russia.
The last 20 years of the czarist regime were a time of tension and renaissance for the Jews, especially within the younger circles. This awakening essentially stemmed from conscious resistance to, and rejection of, the oppressive regime, the degrading status of the Jew in the country, and the search for methods for change. One response to the oppressive policy of the czarist government was to join one of the trends of the Russian revolutionary movement. The radical Jewish youth joined clandestine organizations in the towns of Russia and abroad. Many Jews ranked among the leaders of the revolutionaries. The leaders of the Social-Democrats included J. Martov and L. Trotsky, while Ch. Zhitlowski and G. A. Gershuni figured among the founders of the Socialist Revolutionary Party of Russia. With the growth of national consciousness in revolutionary circles at the close of the 19th century, a Jewish workers’ revolutionary movement was formed. Workers’ unions which had been founded through the initiative of Jewish intellectuals united and established the Bund in 1897. The Bund played an important role in the Russian revolutionary movement in the Pale of Settlement. It regarded itself as part of the all-Russian Social-Democratic Party but gradually came to insist upon certain national demands such as the right to cultural autonomy for the Jewish masses, recognition of Yiddish as the national language of the Jews, the establishment of schools in this language, and the development of the press and literature. The Bund was particularly successful in Lithuania and Poland, where after a short time it raised the social status of the worker and the apprentice, and implanted in them the courage to stand up to their employers and the authorities.
Another response of the Jews to their oppression in Russia found expression in the Zionist movement. Zionism originated in the Hibbat Zion movement which came into being after the pogroms of 188183. A few of the hundreds of thousands of Jews who left for overseas turned toward Erez Israel and established the first settlements there. Hovevei Zion societies in Russia propagated the idea of this settlement and raised funds for its maintenance. The movement gained great impetus with the appearance of Theodor Herzl, the convention of the First Zionist Congress in Basle, and the founding of the World Zionist Organization (1897). Due to the political regime of Russia, the central institutions of the Zionist Organization were established in Western Europe, even though the mass of its members and influence came from Russian Jewry. Zionism won adherence among all Jewish groups: the Orthodox and maskilim, the middle class and proletariat, the youth and intelligentsia. It encouraged national thought and culture among the masses. The Zionist press (Haolam; Razsvet, etc.) and Zionist literature in three languages—Hebrew, Yiddish, and Russian—gained wide popularity. The movement was illegal and the attitude of the government ranged from one of reserve, seeing that the movement could divert the Jewish youth from active participation in the revolutionary movement, to one of hostility. Zionist congresses and meetings were held openly (Minsk, 1902) and clandestinely. The failure of Herzl to obtain a charter from the Turkish sultan and the debate over the Uganda project resulted in a grave crisis within the Zionist movement in Russia. Herzl largely based his case for accepting the Uganda project on the urgent need for a “Nachtasyl” for the suffering Russian Jews, but it was the majority of the Russian Zionists, led by M. Ussishkin and J. Tschlenow, who on principle opposed the Uganda proposal. Some of the proposal’s supporters later resigned from the Zionist movement and founded territorialist organizations, the most important of which was the Zionist Socialist Workers’ Party (S.S.). Immigrants and pioneers from Russia formed the greater part of the Second Aliyah and it was from their ranks that the founders of the labor movement in Erez Israel emerged.
Within a relatively short period, the revolutionary movement and the Zionist movement brought a tremendous change among Jewish youth. The battei-midrash and yeshivot were abandoned, and dynamism of Jewish society now became concentrated within the new political trends.
When the new wave of pogroms broke out in Russia in 1903, Jewish youth reacted by a widespread organization of self-defense. Defense societies of the Bund, the Zionists, and the Zionist-Socialists were formed in every town and townlet. The attackers encountered armed resistance. The authorities, who secretly supported the pogroms, were compelled to appear openly as the protectors of the rioters. The principal motives for the self-defense movement were not only the will to protect life and property but also the desire to assert the honor of the Jewish nation.
The nationalist awakening was also expressed by an astonishing development of Jewish literature in Hebrew, Yiddish, and Russian. A continuation of the Haskalah literature, it reached its peak during the generation which preceded the 1917 Revolution. The most outstanding authors of that period were Ahad Ha-Am, M. J. Berdyczewski, M. Z. Feuerberg, the Hebrew poets H. N. Bialik, Saul Tchernichowsky, Z. Shneour, and others, as well as the Jewish Russian poet S. S. Frug, and the Yiddish writers Shalom Aleichem, I. L. Peretz, and Sholem Asch. There also arose a generation of researchers and historians, the most important of whom was S. Dubnow, who wrote his History of the Jews and based his historical and world view on Autonomism. Systematic research into Jewish folklore was started upon (S. An-Ski). A Jewish encyclopedia in Russian was published (Yevreyskaya Entsiklopediya; 1906–13). The existing and new societies—Hevrat Mefizei Haskalah, ORT, OZE, ICA—became frameworks for the activity of members of the Jewish intelligentsia who sought to extend the scope of these societies as far as possible. Jewish newspapers circulated in hundreds of thousands of copies. The mass of Jews read the daily press in Yiddish (Der Fraynd; Haynt; Der Moment; etc.); Hebrew readers turned to the Hebrew press (Ha-Zefirah; Ha-Zofeh; Ha-Zeman); others read the Russian-Jewish press. In St. Petersburg the foundations were laid for a Higher School of Jewish Studies by Baron D. Guenzburg, and in Grodno a teachers’ seminary, which trained teachers for the Jewish national schools, was opened under the patronage of the Hevrat Mefizei Haskalah.
An important point at issue that developed between the Zionists and their opponents was the character of Jewish culture. The Bund and Autonomist circles considered that the future of the Jews lay as a nation among the other nations of Russia; they sought to liberate it from religious tradition and to develop a secular culture and national schools in the language of the masses—Yiddish. The Zionists and their supporters stressed the continuity and the unity of the Jewish nation throughout the world and regarded Hebrew as the national language of the Jewish people. They considered the deepening of Jewish national consciousness and attachment to the historical past and homeland—Erez Israel—to be the primary aim and mainstay of Jewish culture. This controversy grew acute after the Yiddishists had proclaimed Yiddish to be a national language of the Jewish people at the Czernowitz Yiddish Language Conference in 1908. The “language dispute” was fought with bitter animosity and caused a split within the Jewish intelligentsia of Eastern Europe.
World War I
Russian Jewry, while regarding World War I with some fear, felt that their participation in the defense of Russia would bring about the abolition of their second-class status. The course of events did not however justify this anticipation. The mobilization affected about 400,000 Jews of whom approximately 80,000 served at the front. The battle lines passed through the Pale of Settlement in which millions of Russian Jews lived. In the region of the Russian front and its nearby hinterland there was a military regime under the control of a group of anti-Semitic generals (Prince Nikolai Nikolayevich; Januszkiewicz). With the first defeats of the Russian army, the supreme command found it expedient to impute responsibility for their reversals to the Jews, who were accused of treason and spying for the Germans. Espionage trials were held and hostages were taken and sent to the interior of Russia. This was followed by mass expulsions of Jews from towns and townlets near the front line. These reached their height with the general expulsion of the Jews from northern Lithuania and Courland in June 1915.
In July 1915 the use of Hebrew characters in printing and writing was prohibited. The Hebrew and Yiddish press and literature were thus silenced. The attacks on the Jews aroused public opinion in Europe and America against the Russian government whose serious military and financial situation compelled it to take Western opinion into account as this was hindering Russia from obtaining loans in the Western countries. In the summer of 1915 most of the restrictions on Jewish residence were abolished de facto, though not de jure, and thousands of Jewish refugees from Poland and Lithuania streamed toward the interior of Russia. From the outset of the war Jewish communal workers established a relief organization for Jewish war victims known as YEKOPO. In conjunction with the existing Jewish societies, it assisted the refugees by providing shelter, food, and employment for them and by the establishment of schools for their children. Communal workers of every class participated in this activity, which awakened the feeling of national unity within the masses. The suffering and persecutions led Jews to attempt to evade military service and desert from the hostile army, and, in the difficult conditions caused by the mass of refugees and defeat, speculation in food and other commodities became rife among Jews. The non-Jewish population and the army reacted by intensified hatred toward them.
The extensive conquests of Germany and Austria in 1915 brought approximately 2,260,000 Jews (40% of Russian Jewry) under the military rule of the advancing armies, thus freeing them from czarist oppression while separating them from the Jews who remained under the czar. In 1917 there were 3,440,000 Jews in the region which remained under Russian control; of these, about 700,000 lived outside the former Pale of Settlement. These upheavals brought about cultural and social changes. The conscription of great numbers of Jewish youths into the Russian army and the suppression of the Jewish press and the literature accelerated the process of Russification among the Jews there. In contrast, the Jewish masses of Poland, Lithuania, the eastern Ukraine, and Belorussia, which formed the most deep-rooted element, as well as the great Jewish cultural centers of Warsaw and Vilna, were torn from Russian Jewry. This also affected the greater part of the Hasidim.
The February Revolution (1917)
The nine months following the February Revolution of 1917 constituted a brief springtime in the history of Russian Jewry. The Provisional Government abolished all the restrictions affecting the Jews on March 16, 1917, as one of its first measures. Jews were immediately given the chance to hold office in the government administration, to practice at the bar, and rise in the army ranks. All at once opportunity opened up to them for free development in every sphere of life, both as citizens of the state and as a national group. The hatred of the Jews, which had served as a political weapon in the hands of the ancient regime, became incompatible with the Revolution and was forced underground.
Naturally the Jews supported the Revolution and participated in the active political life which began to flourish in the country. There were Jews in all the democratic and socialist parties at all levels, from the leadership to the rank and file. The leaders of the Constitutional Democratic Party (Kadets) included the jurist M. Vinawer; among the Socialist Revolutionaries there was O. Minor, who was elected mayor of Moscow, and I. N. Steinberg, who later became commissar for justice in the first Soviet government headed by Lenin; other leaders included: among the Mensheviks, J. Martov, and F. I. Dan; and among the Bolsheviks, L. Trotsky, Y. M. Sverdlov, L. B. Kamenev, and G. Zinoviev. Many Jews led the revolutionaries in the provinces, which were poor in intellectual forces. Despite their numbers in the general revolutionary movement, these revolutionaries were only a minute section of the vast numbers of Russian Jews who remained attached to their national and religious culture and society. This adhesion was expressed by the tremendous progress made by the Zionist movement in 1917. In May 1917 the seventh conference of the Zionists of Russia, representing 140,000 members, was held in Petrograd. Youth groups under the name of He-Halutz, who prepared themselves to settle in Erez Israel, were formed in many towns and townlets. The Zionists also promoted an intensive cultural activity. The Hovevei Sefat Ever (“Lovers of the Hebrew Language”) society founded under the czarist regime, became the Tarbut society. In Moscow a Hebrew daily, Ha-Am, was published and Hebrew publishing houses financed by the wealthy arts patrons Stybel (Stybel Publishing) and Zlatopolsky-Persitz (Omanut Publishing) were established. Training colleges for teachers and kindergarten teachers were founded, as well as elementary and secondary schools. The first steps were taken for the establishment of a Hebrew theater, Habimah. In all the elections which were held during that year by the general and Jewish institutions, the Zionists and related groups headed the Jewish lists, leaving the Bund and other Jewish parties far behind.
In November 1917 information on the Balfour Declaration reached Russia and it was acclaimed with immense enthusiasm by the Jews throughout the country. Largescale Zionist demonstrations and meetings were held in Odessa, Kiev, Moscow, and other communities. All the Jewish parties united in joint activity to prepare the “All-Russian Jewish Convention” which was to establish a political-cultural autonomous organization and central representation of all the Jews in Russia. A powerful national awakening was manifested among the hundreds of thousands of Jewish soldiers who served in the Russian army. Thousands of them enrolled in the military colleges and obtained officers’ rank. At meetings and conventions of soldiers, debates were held on the establishment of a “Union of Jewish Soldiers,” one of whose principal objectives would be the organization of self-defense on a military basis, to prevent and suppress pogroms. This union was headed by Joseph Trumpeldor. Indeed, as the Provisional Government weakened and anarchy became widespread, anti-Semitism lifted up its head, and here and there pogroms characterized by looting and assaults on Jews were perpetrated by undisciplined soldiers and mobs. The necessity for an organization which could stand in the breach was felt.
The Jews of the Ukraine, where in 1917 about 60% of all the Jews living under Russian rule were to be found, faced in the summer of this year the tendency toward separatism that began to manifest itself there. A Central Ukrainian Council (Rada) was formed which at first demanded autonomy for the Ukraine and later (in January 1918) complete independence. The Jewish masses in the Ukraine did not regard Ukrainian separatism with favor. They felt no affinity to Ukrainian culture and retained in mind the tradition of hatred toward the Jews and the massacres of the 17th century (Chmielnicki) and the 18th (the Uman massacre) by Ukrainians. The Jews there regarded themselves as an integral part of Russian Jewry. The Jewish parties, Zionist and socialist, were however inclined to collaborate with the Ukrainians, both because of the doctrinal principle of supporting non-Russian nationalism and out of political considerations. The Ukrainians on their side were most anxious to acquire the support of the large Jewish minority which lived with them. Extensive internal national autonomy was promised to the Jews. A National Jewish Council was established, and at the end of 1917 an undersecretary for Jewish affairs (M. Silberfarb) was appointed in the Provisional Government of the Ukraine. He became minister after the proclamation of Ukrainian independence.
The Civil War
After the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917, the whole of Russia was plunged into a civil war which lasted until the beginning of 1921. The Jews of the Ukraine were especially affected by this war. Various armies were clashing in the area: the Ukrainian army under the command of S. Petlyura and the bands of peasants connected with him; the Red Army, which came from the north but which organized and incorporated within its ranks many Ukrainian units; the counter-revolutionary “volunteers’ army” (the “White Army”) under the command of A. Denikin; and independent units headed by local leaders (Grigoryev; Makhno; and others). These armies were composed mostly of soldiers who had fought on the battlefields of World War I and in general formed a wild mob mainly seeking after loot and bloodshed. As they passed through the towns and settlements they abused and assaulted defenseless Jews. At times they contented themselves with the imposition of a “contribution” of money, clothes, and food, or with looting and murder on a limited scale. On other occasions, however, especially when in retreat, these armies and bands perpetrated a general pillage and massacre among the Jews.
The first acts of bloodshed against the Jews were carried out by units of the Red Army during their retreat before the Germans in the northern Ukraine during the spring of 1918. However, the Red Army command had already adopted a clear policy of suppression of anti-Semitism within the army ranks. Systematic propaganda against anti-Semitism was conducted and the rare army units or individual soldiers who attacked the Jews were severely punished. Even though units of the Soviet army also later erupted into violence against the Jews (especially at the time of the retreat of the Red Army before the Poles in 1920), the Jews nevertheless came to regard the Soviet regime and the Red Army as their protectors. On the other hand, manifest anti-Semitism reigned within the units of the Ukrainian army and the peasant bands affiliated to it. At the beginning of 1919, during the retreat of the Ukrainian army before the Red Army, the regular army units systematically massacred the Jews with bestial savagery in Berdichev, Zhitomir, Proskurov (leaving about 1,700 dead within a few hours), and other places. The Jewish autonomous organs in the Ukraine and the Jewish minister in the Ukrainian government could not obtain the punishment of the army commanders responsible for these pogroms. This convincingly proved to all the regular and irregular units of the Ukrainian army that lawlessness was licensed in regard to Jews. The policy of grain confiscation from the peasants adopted by the Soviets in those years encouraged anti-Soviet movements among the peasants. The Jews, inhabitants of the towns and townlets, were identified with Soviet rule, and the bands of peasants occasionally perpetrated systematic massacres of Jews when they gained control, often for a very short while, of the localities where Jews were living (Trostyanets, Tetiyev, etc.). During the summer of 1919 the “White Army” began to advance from the Don region toward Moscow. This army, which was composed of battalions of officers and Cossacks, was saturated with anti-Semitism and one of its slogans was the old slogan of czarist anti-Semites: “Strike at the Jews and save Russia!” Its way northward became a succession of pillage, rape, brutality, and slaughter which reached its climax in the massacre of the Jews at Fastov (with 1,500 dead). Their attacks on the Jews were even more severe at the time of their disorderly retreat southward at the end of 1919. It is difficult to assess the losses suffered by Ukrainian Jewry in these pogroms. S. Dubnow estimated that 530 communities had been attacked. More than 1,000 pogroms were perpetrated in these communities. There were more than 60,000 dead and several times this number of wounded. In the western Ukraine and Belorussia the suffering of the Jews was caused mainly by the Polish army. Although pogroms did not take place, the Jews were terrorized and hundreds were executed without trial as “suspects” of Communist affiliation (Pinsk 1919, etc.). The Ukrainian and Russian “volunteer” units (under General Balachowicz-Bulak) which fought with the Poles also attacked the Jews.
During those years Jewish self-defense units were formed in many places in the Ukraine. These efforts were however local. They were successful in several large towns and in a few townlets only. At the beginning of the civil war, a “Jewish Fighting Battalion” led by a nucleus of demobilized soldiers and officers was formed in Odessa. This battalion obtained many arms and saved the Jews of Odessa from pogroms. The defense units of the small towns managed to protect the Jews from small local bands, but were powerless when confronted by army units or large bands of peasants. Occasionally the attackers took cruel vengeance against the inhabitants for the resistance offered by their youth when they entered the locality (the Pogrebishche massacre). During the last two years of the civil war, as Soviet rule strengthened, these self-defense organizations at first received political and military support. However, since nationalist and Zionist elements prevailed in them, they were disbanded later during the suppression of non-Bolshevik elements in 1921–22.
Under the Soviet Regime
By 1920 the borders of Soviet Russia took shape. A considerable number of Jews who had formerly been included within the borders of the Russian Empire remained in the states which had broken away from it (Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Bessarabia, incorporated into Rumania). About 2,500,000 Jews only remained within the limits of Soviet Russia. The fate of the Jews within the borders of Soviet Russia was to a large extent determined by the theory and practice of the Communist Party. Its outlook defined and crystallized during the 20 years which preceded the Revolution. Like all the other socialist and liberal parties, the Bolshevik party repudiated anti-Semitism, while the civic emancipation of the Jews, as that of the other Russian peoples, formed part of its program. It took some time until the party recognized Jews as a nationality. Under the influence of assimilated Jews, who carried weight in the circles of the socialist leadership of Europe and Russia, the Bolsheviks were inclined to regard integration and assimilation as the only “progressive” solution of the Jewish problem. This outlook was sharpened during the bitter discussion at the beginning of the century between the Bolsheviks and the Bund. Leaning upon Marx, K. Kautsky, and O. Bauer, Lenin declared that “there is no basis for a separate Jewish nation,” and in regard to a “national Jewish culture—the slogan of the rabbis and the bourgeoisie—this is the slogan of our enemies.”
Stalin declared in his pamphlet Marksizm i natsionalny vopros (“Marxism and the National Question,” 1913) that a nation is a “stable community of men, which came into being by historic process and has developed on a basis of common language, territory, and economic life”; since the Jews lack this common basis they are only a “nation on paper,” and the evolution of human society must necessarily lead toward their assimilation within the surrounding nations. These theories of the fathers of Communism increasingly influenced Soviet policy toward the Jews, though in the beginning the Soviets were compelled by the actual conditions to deviate from their theories and to allow the existence of Jewish political and cultural institutions (the Yevsektsiya; Yiddish schools and publications, etc.). These deviations, however, proved in the long run to be of a temporary character, after which the line—of imposed assimilation of the Jews—was implemented with even more energy and firmness.
By its war on anti-Semitism and pogroms, the new regime gained the sympathy of the Jewish masses whose lives depended on its victory. Jewish youth enthusiastically joined the Red Army and took a part in its organization. Many Jews reached the higher military ranks and played an important role in the formation of the Red Army. Leon Trotsky, who organized the military coup of the October Revolution of 1917, was the creator of the Red Army which included among its prominent commanders a number of Jews (of whom the most celebrated were General Jonah Yakir and Jan Gamarnik). In the Soviet air force there was General Y. Shmushkevich. In 1926, 4.4% of the officers of the Red Army were Jews (two-and-a-half times higher than their ratio to the general population). Jews took an important part in the restoration of the country’s administration which had collapsed after a large section of the Russian intelligentsia and former officialdom emigrated from Soviet Russia or refused to serve in it.
However, the new regime brought complete economic ruin to the Jewish masses, most of whom belonged to the “petty bourgeoisie” of the towns and townlets. The abrogation of private commerce, confiscation of property and goods, and liquidation of the status of the townlet as the intermediary between the peasants and the large towns—all these deprived hundreds of thousands of Jewish families of their livelihoods. About 300,000 Jews succeeded in leaving the Soviet-controlled territories for Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, and Rumania. The declaration of Lenin on the failure of the economic policy of the period of “war Communism,” the introduction of the New Economic Policy (NEP), together with the conclusion of the civil war and the restoration of order in the country, brought some relief to the Jews, but their economic situation was broken and hopeless.
With economic ruin, the new regime also brought spiritual ruin to the Jews. When the Bolsheviks seized power, they were compelled to recognize the fact, even if as a temporary phenomenon, of the existence of millions of Jews who were attached to their language and their national tradition. A Jewish commissariat headed by the veteran Bolshevik S. Dimanstein was established between 1918 and 1923 to deal with Jewish affairs. “Jewish Sections” (Yevsektsiya) were also set up in the branches of the Communist Party. Jewish members of the party who were prepared to work among their fellow Jews were organized in these sections. The function of the Yevsektsiya was to “impose the proletarian dictatorship among the Jewish masses.” The older Jewish members of the Communist Party were mostly assimilationists who did not want any contact with their people. However, as the success of the Bolsheviks and the efficiency of their terror measures became increasingly evident, they were joined by sections of Jewish socialist parties (the Bund, the United Jewish Socialist Workers’ Party, the Po’alei Zion) as well as by individual Jews. These brought with them ideas on the fostering of a secular Jewish culture in Yiddish and envenomed hatred toward the Jewish religion, the Hebrew language, the Bible, and the Zionist movement. The Communist Party put them in control of the Jewish population centers, at the same time stressing that their activity was only a temporary measure for as long as it would be required.
The first activity of the Yevsektsiya was the liquidation of the religious and national organization of the Jews of Russia. In August 1919 the Jewish communities were dissolved and their properties confiscated. The general anti-religious policy took the form, in relation to the Jews, of persecution of traditional Jewish culture and education, of prohibiting the religious instruction of children, the closure of hadarim and yeshivot, and the seizure of synagogues which were converted into clubs, workshops, or warehouses. A violent campaign against the Jewish religion and its leaders was conducted and heavy taxes were imposed on the rabbis and other religious officials in order to compel them to resign from their positions. In these activities the Yevsektsiya encountered the opposition of the religious masses, who based themselves on the promise of freedom of religious worship, which was officially proclaimed and later included in the Soviet constitution, and struggled for their right to pursue their way of life by legal or illegal methods (through “underground” hadarim, yeshivot, etc.). The imprisonment and expulsion from the Soviet Union of Rabbi J. Schneersohn, the leader of Habad Hasidism, in 1927 marked one phase in the suppression of Jewish religion. Even after this, “underground” religious activity continued, and its influence was manifested when hundreds of hasidic families left the Soviet Union and went to Erez Israel after World War II.
War was also proclaimed against Hebrew; its study was prohibited, and the publication of books in Hebrew was suspended (though until 1928 it was still possible to print religious books and Jewish calendars). In June 1921 a group of Hebrew authors led by H. N. Bialik and S. Tchernichowsky left Russia. Several years later the Hebrew theater Habimah left the Soviet Union. It had attained a high artistic standard and for several years had been protected from the Yevsektsiya by several of the greatest Russian cultural personalities, led by M. Gorki. The remaining Hebrew authors (Abraham Friman, Hayyim Lenski, Elisha Rodin, and others) were cruelly persecuted and many of them sent to forced labor camps.
The Zionist movement revealed great vitality. The Soviets viewed Zionism as a threefold danger. It strengthened the vitality of Jewish nationalism. It diverted the Jewish intelligentsia, whose talents the regime required, toward activities beyond the borders of the Soviet Union. It maintained relations with the World Zionist Organization, then an ally of England, which ranked among the countries hostile to the Soviet Union. The Zionist movement went underground. Most of its members were youths and boys who were active in the Zionist parties (Ze’irei Zion; Z. S.), youth movements (Ha-Shomer ha-Za’ir; Kadimah; and others) and within the framework of He-Halutz which trained its members for aliyah. Many Zionists were imprisoned, sent to labor camps, or exiled to outlying places in Soviet Asia. For several years the Soviets authorized the existence of He-Halutz in certain regions of the country, but this authorization was abrogated in 1928. Thus organized Zionism was silenced by the end of the 1920s.
The independent societies and publishing houses (Hevrat Mefizei Haskalah, the Historical and Ethnographic Society, and others) continued to exist until the late 1920s. Some of their activists succeeded in leaving the Soviet Union (S. Dubnow; S. Ginsburg). Individuals remained in the Soviet Union (I. Zinberg). In 1930 the Yevsektsiya was also disbanded. The first stage in the liquidation of the national life of the Jews in the Soviet Union had been completed.
Jewish Proletarian Culture
To replace the Jewish culture which had been destroyed, the Jewish Communists attempted to develop a “Jewish proletarian culture,” which was to be, according to Stalin’s slogan, “national in form and socialist in content.” This culture was based on the promotion of the Yiddish language and its literature, while the writing of Hebrew words in Yiddish was changed to phonetic transcription, so as to cut the link with Hebrew (examples: Myryyvvak instead of MyrbH; sAmA instead of Tma). A Yiddish press was established, with three leading newspapers; Der Emes (1920–38) in Moscow, Shtern (1925–41) in the Ukraine, and Oktiabar (1925–41) in Belorussia. Numerous literary and philological periodicals, youth newspapers, and a trades unions press were published every year. A Yiddish theater network was established. It was headed by the Jewish State Theater under the direction of A. Granovski (until 1929) and afterward the actor S. Mikhoels. These presented adaptations of Jewish classics, by authors such as Mendele Mokher Seforim, Shalom Aleichem, and I. L. Peretz, as well as Yiddish translations of Soviet propaganda pieces and plays. In Minsk and Kiev “Faculties of Jewish Culture” were established in the universities. They essentially promoted research into the Yiddish language and its literature, Jewish folklore, Marxist historiography of the history of the Jews in Russia, and of the Jewish labor movements. The works of these institutes, as well as the whole of Jewish literature, were subject to the supervision of the Yevsektsiya, headed by M. Litvakov, who kept watch to prevent “nationalist and rightist deviations.” During the short period, between the middle 1920s to the middle 1930s, when this Soviet Yiddish culture flourished, it appeared to many adherents of Yiddish in the world that with the assistance of a great power a new Yiddish literature would emerge in the Soviet Union. Jewish authors and scholars who had left the country during the first years after the Revolution, as well as Jews from other countries, began to arrive in Moscow, Kiev, and Minsk (among them the authors D. Bergelson, P. Markish, M. Kulbak, and the scholars N. Shtif, M. Erik, and Meir Wiener).
Yiddish was also given an official status by the establishment of governmental tribunals in which proceedings were held in Yiddish. The greatest efforts were however invested in the development of a network of Yiddish schools. Many such schools were opened in the towns and townlets of the Ukraine and Belorussia. During the first years an attempt was even made to compel Jewish parents to send their children to these schools. Secondary schools and training colleges for teachers were also established. At the height of this period, in 1932, 160,000 Jewish children (over one-third of the Jewish children of elementary school age) attended these institutions. From this year, however, a decline set in. Jewish parents refused to send their children to schools whose Jewish character, apart from the language of instruction (which was the de-Hebraized Soviet Yiddish), was limited to the study of a few chapters of Yiddish literature and even these were interpreted in a manner which offended the religious and national values of the Jewish people. A further cause for the decline of this network of schools was the small number of Yiddish secondary schools and the lack of Yiddish higher educational institutions. By the late 1930s these schools began to disappear until they were liquidated, largely of their own accord, in almost every corner of the Soviet Union.
Cultural assimilation gradually gained in momentum among the Jews as they became integrated within the life of the new Soviet society. The majority of the Jewish children attended Russian schools. Jewish youth was attracted to the larger cities where the Yiddish language was nonexistent. Even the Jewish-Russian press, which served as an obstacle to assimilation, and the Jewish societies and organizations were absent there. Mixed marriages became a frequent occurrence. In 1935 over 60,000 Jews studied at the higher schools (over 10% of the country’s students). An expression of the assimilation of the Jews and their activity in Soviet literature could be seen from their large participation in the first conference of Soviet writers in 1934, at which there were 124 delegates of Jewish nationality (about 20% of the total delegates). Only 24 of them wrote in Yiddish; the others mainly in Russian. These included some of the most prominent authors of Soviet Russian literature, such as I. Ehrenburg, B. L. Pasternak, I. Babel, and S. Marshak. The Jews also played a central role in the development of other spheres of Soviet culture, especially the cinema.
The most decisive factor in the history of the Jews of the Soviet Union was the economic reshuffle which took place in their midst during the 1920s and 1930s. The brief NEP period (1921–27) aroused vain hopes among the Jews, who occupied a place of considerable importance in the urban economic class of shopkeepers and independent craftsmen (“nepmen”). However, when the success of the NEP period was at its height, severe supervision was imposed on this class, and the burden of taxation brought its impoverishment and destruction. The situation was especially difficult in Jewish townlets whose former economic basis had been destroyed. A widespread class of destitute and unemployed was created; its members were also deprived of civic rights (lishentsy in Soviet terminology), such as the right to employment, public medical care, and the right of their children to study in secondary and higher schools. With the liquidation of the NEP and the introduction of the first Five-Year Plan (1927–32), the situation of these masses deteriorated even further. Thousands of families subsisted on the meager assistance which they received from Western Jewry, through public organizations (the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC); ORT; ICA), through organizations of emigrants from towns or townlets (Landsmannschaften), or individual relatives. Notorious in this period was the “Extortion of Dollars” campaign of the Soviet secret police, with the use of coercion and torture against Jews suspected of “hoarding dollars.” During the late 1920s, according to official statistics, about one-third of the Jews belonged to the economic classes which were destined to disappear and deprived of the above-mentioned rights. The authorities sought to solve this problem in three ways: by agricultural settlement; by migration to the interior regions of Russia, which had been closed to the Jews under the czarist regime; and by concentration in the large towns and industrial regions of the Ukraine and Belorussia, where new classes of government officialdom and industrial enterprises had developed.
During the 1920s many of the leaders of the Soviet government came to regard agricultural settlement as the highroad to the solution of the Jewish problem. A steady movement toward agricultural settlement of Jews had already started near the Jewish townlets during the period of war Communism in the years of the civil war, when occupation in agriculture at least promised a piece of dry bread. In 1924 the government created the Commission for Jewish Settlement (Komzet) and a year later a Society for the Promotion of Jewish Settlement (Ozet) was founded. Several Soviet leaders, led by M. Kalinin and Y. Larin, viewed this settlement not only as an economic solution for the Jews but also as a means of assuring their national existence. Some members of the Yevsektsiya accepted these projects with enthusiasm and devoted themselves to their realization. These circles aimed to establish Jewish settlement in successive blocs which would form autonomous national areas and would eventually find their place among the national units of which the Soviet Union was composed. As a basis for such a concentration, the regions of prerevolutionary Jewish settlement in southern Russia were chosen, where 40,000 Jewish farmers already lived, as well as the Crimean peninsula, in the northern parts of which there were still areas available for settlement. Over a number of years five autonomous Jewish agricultural regions were established: Kalinindorf (Kalininskoye) in 1927, Nay Zlatopol in 1929, Stalindorf (Stalinskoye) in 1930, in the Ukraine; Fraydorf in 1931, and Larindorf in 1935, in the Crimea. Jewish settlement organizations of the West, especially ICA and the JDC, were associated in these activities. Ozet became the legal focus for Jewish activities, and in its newspaper Tribuna (Russian, 1927–37) the problems of the “productivization” of the Jews and their agricultural settlement were discussed. Communists of Russia and abroad considered this activity to be, among others, the Soviet alternative to Zionism.
It soon became evident that there was not sufficient space in the Ukraine and Crimea for Jewish settlement on a large scale. In 1928 the government decided to direct this settlement to a distant and sparsely populated region in the Far East—the region of Birobidzhan, on the banks of the Amur River on the Chinese border. In order to encourage settlement in Birobidzhan, a political as well as an international Jewish character was given to this enterprise. Jews throughout the world were called upon to lend a hand in the establishment of a Jewish territorial unit within the framework of the Soviet Union. On May 7, 1934, the district of Birobidzhan was proclaimed a Jewish Autonomous Region which was to cover an area of 36,000 sq. km., whose official language would be Yiddish. Settlement in Birobidzhan took place in difficult pioneering conditions. In August 1936 the government announced that “the Jewish Autonomous Region was from now on to become the cultural center of Soviet Jewry for all the working Jewish population.” This proclamation aroused opposition within the circles of Jewish activists in the European part of the Soviet Union. It appears that misgivings were also felt in government circles toward the outspoken national character which the settlement of Birobidzhan received. In August 1936 a drastic change occurred in the attitude of the government toward Birobidzhan. The leadership of the region, which was in the hands of former members of the Jewish socialist parties, was liquidated. From then, the Jewish aspect of the region began to wane. Officially Birobidzhan retained its name and status of a Jewish autonomous region, and the only newspaper still published in Yiddish in the Soviet Union is the Birobidzhaner Shtern. At present, however, Birobidzhan has only symbolic importance in the lives of the Jews of Russia. Its number of Jewish inhabitants, which in 1937 rose to 18,000 (about 24% of the total population of the region), declined to 14,169 in the census of 1959, forming 8.8% of the region’s population and about 0.66% of the Jewish population of the Soviet Union. Less than 40% of them declared Yiddish to be their mother tongue.
By the late 1930s the hopes which many Jews in Russia and abroad had pinned on agricultural settlement evaporated. The collectivization of farming during the early 1930s, which was frequently bound up with a policy of “internationalization” (i.e., the inclusion of non-Jewish peasants in Jewish kolkhozes), resulted in the departure of many Jewish settlers. The industrialization and development of the towns attracted many members of the settlements to the large towns. With the German invasion all the Jewish settlements of the Ukraine and Crimea were destroyed and they did not recover after the war.
Absorption Into the Soviet Structure
In practice, the problem of Jewish integration within the economic structure of the Soviet Union was solved by many Jews moving to the interior of Russia and their absorption in Soviet officialdom and industry. Migration toward the interior of Russia, which had already begun as a result of the expulsions from the war zones in 1915 and with the outbreak of the Revolution of 1917, continued uninterruptedly, as indicated by the general censuses which were held in the Soviet Union in 1926 and 1939.
The movement of Jews to Moscow and Leningrad was most evident.
Hundreds of thousands of Jews took up employment as factory workers or were absorbed in administrative occupations (especially as clerks in consumers’ cooperatives and in accountancy). According to official sources, The Jews were divided according to their social status in 1939 as follows:
Jews were largely represented in the Soviet intellectual class. At the close of the 1930s, 364,000 Jews (of whom 125,000 were accountants) belonged to this class. Thus, in Soviet society, the Jews also remained an exceptional element in their social composition. Commerce, which had held the central place in the lives of the Jews before the Revolution, was replaced by administrative occupations and professions in technology and sciences. In Stalin’s “purges” of the late 1930s, which were directed against the members of the old Communist guard, many members of the Yevsektsiya were liquidated and the main Jewish newspaper and the Ozet society were closed down. Apart from this, however, these “purges” did not bear an anti-Jewish character and were a part of the general policy of the party. At the end of the 1930s Jews still played an important role in administration, science, and Soviet art. However, no Jewish national or communal organization existed whatsoever. Assimilation took giant strides. Mixed marriages became commonplace. Yiddish-Communist culture was gradually disappearing, but there was still a class of Jewish activists, authors, and teachers who held their ground in this atmosphere of extinction, and proclaimed, in accordance with the optimistic official line in the Soviet Union, the great “success” achieved by Marxist-Leninist policy in the solution of the Jewish problem and the “renovated Jewish people” (dos banayte folk) which had emerged in the Soviet Union.