Soviet Jewry Between the Wars

Russian Jewry had been in a state of continuing crisis since the passage of the May Laws by Czar Alexander III in 1881. WWI was a staggering disaster for Russian Jewry. The Pale of Settlement, the area that was home to the majority of the Russian Jewish community, was the Russian front. The war going on in their backyards hopelessly disrupted organized Jewish life. What was in store for the Jews under the new Soviet state? This article describes Soviet policy toward the Jews between 1917 and 1941. It is reprinted with permission from
A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People
edited by Eli Barnavi and published by Schocken Books.

The democratic February Revolution (March 1917) raised great hopes among Rus­sian Jews. The Provisional Government, declaring that citizen’s rights would no longer be determined by national or religious identity, accorded to the Jews long‑awaited civic emancipation and abolished about 150 discriminatory laws, including the prohi­bition on residence outside the Pale of Settlement. All the Jewish parties united jointly to prepare an “All‑Russian Jewish Convention,” which was to establish a politico‑cultural autonomous organiza­tion and provide the central representat­ive body for all the Jews in Russia.

soviet flagThe convention, however, never took place. The Bolshevik Coup in November 1917 (the October Revolution) ended Soviet Jewry’s brief springtime. Most Jew­ish organizations, well aware that the new rulers intended to centralize all political power in their own hands, felt little sympathy for Lenin’s party. At the same time, however, a significant number of members of the Bolshevik leadership (around 25 percent) were of Jewish origin. This is why the Jews were automa­tically identified with the new regime. During the civil war (1918‑1921), those loyal to the old regime used this false identification as another excuse to mas­sacre Jews. The “White Army” of Anton Denikin killed thousands in pogroms perpetrated in over 160 Jewish settlements; about 100,000 Jews were murdered in the Ukraine alone.

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Eli Barnavi is the Director of the Morris Curiel Center for International Studies and a Professor of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University

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