A Century of Ambivalence, Second Expanded Edition: The Jews of Russia and the Soviet Union, 1881 to the Present

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Now back in print in a new edition!
A Century of Ambivalence
The Jews of Russia and the Soviet Union, 1881 to the Present
Second, Expanded Edition
Zvi Gitelman

A richly illustrated survey of the Jewish historical experience in the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and the post-Soviet era.

"Anyone with even a passing interest in the history of Russian Jewry will want to own this splendid... book." -Janet Hadda, Los Angeles Times

"... a badly needed historical perspective on Soviet Jewry.... [Gitelman] is evenhanded in his treatment of various periods and themes, as well as in his overall evaluation of the Soviet Jewish experience.... A Century of Ambivalence is illuminated by an extraordinary collection of photographs that vividly reflect the hopes, triumphs and agonies of Russian Jewish life." -David E. Fishman, Hadassah Magazine

"Wonderful pictures of famous personalities, unknown villagers, small hamlets, markets and communal structures combine with the text to create an uplifting [book] for a broad and general audience." -Alexander Orbach, Slavic Review

"Gitelman's text provides an important commentary and careful historic explanation.... His portrayal of the promise and disillusionment, hope and despair, intellectual restlessness succeeded by swift repression enlarges the reader's understanding of the dynamic forces behind some of the most important movements in contemporary Jewish life." -Jane S. Gerber, Bergen Jewish News

"... a lucid and reasonably objective popular history that expertly threads its way through the dizzying reversals of the Russian Jewish experience." -Village Voice

A century ago the Russian Empire contained the largest Jewish community in the world, numbering about five million people. Today, the Jewish population of the former Soviet Union has dwindled to half a million, but remains probably the world's third largest Jewish community. In the intervening century the Jews of that area have been at the center of some of the most dramatic events of modern history-two world wars, revolutions, pogroms, political liberation, repression, and the collapse of the USSR. They have gone through tumultuous upward and downward economic and social mobility and experienced great enthusiasms and profound disappointments. In startling photographs from the archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and with a lively and lucid narrative, A Century of Ambivalence traces the historical experience of Jews in Russia from a period of creativity and repression in the second half of the 19th century through the paradoxes posed by the post-Soviet era. This redesigned edition, which includes more than 200 photographs and two substantial new chapters on the fate of Jews and Judaism in the former Soviet Union, is ideal for general readers and classroom use.

Zvi Gitelman is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Jean and Samuel Frankel Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan. He is author of Jewish Nationality and Soviet Politics: The Jewish Sections of the CPSU, 1917-1930 and editor of Bitter Legacy: Confronting the Holocaust in the USSR (Indiana University Press).

Published in association with YIVO Institute for Jewish Research

Contents
Introduction
Creativity versus Repression: The Jews in Russia, 1881-1917
Revolution and the Ambiguities of Liberation
Reaching for Utopia: Building Socialism and a New Jewish Culture
The Holocaust
The Black Years and the Gray, 1948-1967
Soviet Jews, 1967-1987: To Reform, Conform, or Leave?
The "Other" Jews of the Former USSR: Georgian, Central Asian, and Mountain Jews
The Post-Soviet Era: Winding Down or Starting Up Again?
The Paradoxes of Post-Soviet Jewry

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1 Creativity versus Repression: The Jews in Russia, 1881–1917

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Early Sunday afternoon, March 1, 1881, Tsar Alexander II left his palace in St. Petersburg to review the maneuvers of a guards battalion. He was known as the “Tsar Liberator” because he had emancipated millions of serfs, reformed the legal and administrative systems, eased the burdens of military service, and allowed more intellectual freedom. Nevertheless the revolutionaries of the Narodnaia Volia (People’s Will) organization described him as the “embodiment of despotism, hypocritical, cowardly, bloodthirsty and all-corrupting. . . . The main usurper of the people’s sovereignty, the middle pillar of reaction, the chief perpetrator of judicial murders.” As long as he did not turn his power over to a freely elected constituent assembly, they pledged to conduct “war, implacable war to the last drop of our blood” against the sovereign and the system he headed.

Well aware of the danger to his life, the tsar usually varied his travel routes. On this cloudy day, as his carriage turned onto a quay along the Neva River, a young man in a fur cap suddenly loomed up in front of the royal entourage and threw what looked like a snowball between the horse’s legs. The bomb exploded but wounded the tsar only slightly. His Imperial Highness got out to express his solicitude for a Cossack and a butcher’s delivery boy who had been severely wounded. Turning back to his carriage, he saw a man with a parcel in his hand make a sudden movement toward him. The ensuing explosion wounded both the tsar and his assailant. Rushed to the Winter Palace, the tsar died within an hour. His assailant died that evening without revealing either his name or those of his Narodnaia Volia co-conspirators. But the man who threw the first bomb, a recent recruit to the revolutionary ranks, informed on his comrades to the police interrogators. The sole Jew among those comrades was Gesia Gelfman, a young woman who had run away from her traditional home to avoid a marriage her parents had arranged for her when she was sixteen. She was found guilty of conspiracy to murder the tsar, as were another woman and four men. All were sentenced to hang. Because Gelfman was pregnant, her sentence was commuted to life at hard labor. She died a few months after giving birth, possibly because of deliberate malpractice, and her infant died at about the same time.

 

2 Revolution and the Ambiguities of Liberation

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On March 8, 1917, almost exactly thirty-six years after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, some women standing in line to buy bread in Petrograd (the name had been changed during the war from the German-sounding St. Petersburg) became increasingly exasperated. Their mutterings soon became shouts of “Give us some bread!” and these were followed by more audacious shouts of “Down with autocracy!” and “End the imperialist war!” There had been such demonstrations before, just as there had been lockouts of workers at some of the main plants and factories of the capital. Though this time workers joined the women in their shouts of frustration, the British ambassador cabled his government that “Some disorders occurred today, but nothing serious.” The Council of Ministers of Tsar Nicholas II, meeting the following day, did not bother to discuss the demonstrations, and the tsarina cabled her husband at his military headquarters that “this is a hooligan movement. . . . but all this will pass.”

 

3 Reaching for Utopia: Building Socialism and a New Jewish Culture

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Subtly and without fanfare the Evsektsii and the party as a whole began to adjust their ideology to undeniable realities. Defining the tasks of the Evsektsii in 1918, Semion Dimanshtein asserted that, “as internationalists, we do not set any special national tasks for ourselves. . . . We are not . . . fanatics of the Yiddish language. There is no ‘Holy Yiddish’ (Yidish-hakoydesh) for us. . .. It is entirely possible that in the near future the richer languages of the stronger and more developed peoples will push aside the Yiddish language.. . . We Communists will shed no tears over this, nor will we do anything to obstruct this development.”1

By the mid-1920s most Evsektsii activists were singing a different tune, one called by the Communist Party. The party was encouraging the “flowering of the nationality cultures” and even inventing national alphabets for the Asian peoples who, until that point, had no written languages. The party and the state were investing in schools, theaters, newspapers, and magazines in non-Russian languages, including Yiddish. They insisted that governmental and even party activities be carried on in the languages of the ethnic groups involved. Stalin sanctioned the new policy with his famous definition of proletarian culture as “socialist in content, national in form.” For the Jews this meant the promotion of Yiddish and new cultural and economic progress. Evsektsii activists who envisioned a secular, socialist Yiddish future eagerly welcomed the chance to translate their dreams into reality. Now they had the backing of the party line and they hastened to take advantage of the funds, personnel, buildings, and other resources put at their disposal.

 

4 The Holocaust

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By 1939 the purges seemed to be winding down. The dreaded Ezhov had been replaced by Lavrentii Beria as head of the secret police, and that institution was purged once again. Mass arrests waned as the country was completely subjugated. But the respite was an illusion, and new dangers appeared from without. The Soviet Union had attempted to mobilize a united front against fascism with the capitalist democracies of Western Europe since they shared a common fear of Nazi Germany and her allies. In August 1939 Stalin stunned his own people, as well as the antifascist front, by signing a nonaggression pact with Hitler’s Germany. He had dismissed his Jewish foreign minister, Maxim Litvinov, in order not to offend Nazi sensibilities. Whether the pact was designed simply to buy time to prepare for a likely German attack on the USSR (as most Soviet historians would have it) or whether it was Stalin’s attempt to divert Hitler’s aggression toward Western Europe (as Western historians see it), the agreement was not taken seriously by either party; but a series of secret agreements accompanying it were to have far greater consequences. Those agreements provided that the Baltic republics—Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—would come under Soviet influence, that eastern Poland would be annexed by the Soviet Union, and that the same would happen to Romanian-controlled Bessarabia. On September 17, 1939, at five o’clock in the morning, Soviet troops crossed the Polish frontier on the pretext that they were needed to protect “our brother Ukrainians and brother Belorussians who live in Poland.” Having been invaded by Germany on September 1, Poland was now caught between her two more powerful neighbors, as so often in her history, and her resistance was soon crushed. The Soviet Union now controlled an additional population of nearly thirteen million people, including about a million Jews.

 

5 The Black Years and the Gray, 1948–1967

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Victor Alter and Henryk Erlich, two leaders of the Jewish Labor Bund in Poland, were among the refugees from the German army who found themselves in Soviet-controlled territory in 1939. They were arrested and charged with cooperating with the “international bourgeoisie,” Polish counter-intelligence services, and a Bundist underground in the USSR. Both were sentenced to death for their supposed anti-Soviet activities. However, they were released in September 1941 after pressure from the British and a thaw in relations between the Polish government-in-exile and the Soviet government. Erlich and Alter proposed to the Soviet government the formation of a Jewish anti-Hitlerite committee, including representatives from Nazi-occupied countries, the USSR, the United States, and Great Britain. The committee was to disseminate anti-Nazi propaganda, care for Polish-Jewish refugees in the USSR, mobilize world Jewish support for the war effort, and form a Jewish Legion in the United States to fight within the Red Army, since the United States was not yet in the war.

 

6 Soviet Jews, 1967–1987: To Reform, Conform, or Leave?

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The removal of Khrushchev by his erstwhile political protégés and subordinates in October 1964 did not immediately affect Soviet Jewry. The new party leader, Leonid Brezhnev, had made no public statements about Soviet Jewry and seemed content to maintain the status quo in policy. In a speech in Riga in 1965, Chairman of the Council of Ministers Alexei Kosygin did refer in passing to anti-Semitism, along with nationalism, racism, and “great-power chauvinism,” as “absolutely alien and contradictory to our world view.” In an interview with a foreign correspondent a year later he denied the existence of anti-Semitism in the USSR but said that “if some families wanted to meet or wanted to leave the Soviet Union, the road is open to them, and no problem exists here.”1 This remark caught the attention of some Soviet Jews, especially in Latvia and Lithuania, who had long thought about leaving for Israel. Indeed, while in the last year of Khrushchev’s rule only 539 visas were issued for emigration to Israel, in 1965 there were 1,444, and in the following year, 1,892. As word spread about departures for Israel, more people began to consider it a realistic possibility. At first it seems that they were mainly Zapadniki who had been involved with Zionist movements before the war and those who had close relatives in Israel. But there were larger trends developing that were to widen substantially the circles of those who would seriously consider leaving the USSR for Israel.

 

7 The Other Jews of the Former USSR: Georgian, Central Asian, and Mountain Jews

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Non-European Jews constituted less than 10 percent of the total Jewish population of the Soviet Union. Their history has been different from that of their European co-religionists, as their territories came under Russian rule only in modern times, and even in the Soviet period they maintained differences in family structure, religious tradition, language, culture, and social structure. While each of the major non-Ashkenazic (non-European) communities—Georgian, Central Asian (“Bukharan”), and Mountain Jews—has a distinct culture and history, they have some common features that set them off from the Ashkenazim. Through the twentieth century they maintained patriarchal families, especially in rural areas and smaller towns. The head of the family, usually an older man, made many decisions for all the rest, or at least was consulted about them. The families were both larger and more extended than European ones. Cousins several times removed would know each other, and in Central Asia they were likely to live near each other, even within the same group of connected houses surrounding a courtyard. These patterns and many others were shared with the non-Jewish populations among whom these communities lived for centuries. Tradition and custom were highly respected, as they were in the Georgian Christian and Central Asian Muslim communities. The kind of collective revolts against tradition represented by the Haskalah, the socialist movements, and the enthusiasm for building Communism that have been observed among European Jews never appeared in the non-Ashkenazic communities. The one modern movement that did enjoy great popularity was Zionism, especially among the Georgian and Mountain Jews. This exception is explained by the fact that it fit into the religious tradition of praying for a return to Zion, which was always taken seriously by these communities. In the nineteenth century, both independently of the modern Zionist movement and as part of it, Jews from these areas emigrated to the Holy Land, usually settling in Jerusalem but in some cases founding new agricultural settlements such as Beer Yaakov, established by Mountain Jews.

 

8 The Post-Soviet Era: Winding Down or Starting Up Again?

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What began as a courageous and seemingly far-sighted attempt to modernize and democratize the Soviet system ended in its destruction. Mikhail Gorbachev intended to re-construct a system whose foundations he believed to be sound but whose superstructure was inefficient, unproductive, and alienating. But the process of reconstruction revealed that the foundations were rotten and that there was far less general support for the Soviet state and its political and economic systems than most analysts within and outside the country had believed. In the short run, at least, Gorbachev’s attempts to modify the economic system were producing inflation and unemployment, phenomena unknown in the USSR. His political reforms allowed free expression of opinion and the political mobilization of the hitherto disenfranchised and even suppressed, but they also gave freedom of expression to those who opposed his reforms and believed that the USSR’s ills could be remedied by moving back toward authoritarian controls.

 

9 The Paradoxes of Post-Soviet Jewry

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One of the many paradoxes of the post-Soviet period is that governmental anti-Semitism has disappeared, but grassroots anti-Semitism has become much more visible and vocal. Glasnost permitted suppressed anti-Semitic feelings to surface, sometimes in unexpected quarters. “Judophobia has become popular among some intellectuals. This unprecedented ‘respectability’ of anti-Semitism is especially alarming [and] prompts Jews to emigrate. The fear of pogroms turns into a panic.”1 Indeed, rumors of pogroms began to circulate in the summer of 1988 in connection with the celebration of the millennium of Christianity among the Slavs. As one threat put it, “What happened in Poland in 1968 [a mass purge of Jews] and in Sumgait in 1988 [violence between Armenians and Azerbaijanis] will happen to you.”2 Many Jews feared that the loosening of the political and social reins would allow the “darker elements” to attack Jews and wreak social havoc. In a much discussed article, the distinguished Lithuanian Jewish writer Grigori Kanovich, now living in Israel, described Jews all over the USSR as pondering whether “to leave or to stay.” The real question, he wrote, was whether Jews could stay in the USSR “when leaden pogrom clouds are hanging over our heads. . . . when the lightning of intolerance and hostility is flashing ominously near and far, when there is an atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust all around us? . . . We still have no long-term guarantees of an equal and secure existence.”3 Kanovich was among two hundred members of the Congress of People’s Deputies who signed a petition asking Gorbachev to publicly condemn anti-Semitism, a petition that was ignored.

 

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