Soviet Jewry

A history of the Zionist movement in the Soviet Union.

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To read about the corresponding movement in America, click here.

Defining the exact start of a Zionist movement in the Soviet Union is difficult. To some extent, there were always Jewish standard-bearers, even in the darkest years when, following the birth of Israel in 1948, Stalin set out to decimate Jewish cultural and religious life. Jews still met in their living rooms to listen to Yiddish records, looked at postcards from Israel, and taught each other Hebrew. The embers that Stalin was unable to extinguish--and he did send some of these modest activists to the Gulag--began to glow even brighter following his death. 

The Thaw Begins

Soviet Jews in Prison Camps

Poster circa 1970s.
Credit: National Conference on Soviet Jewry.

It was only in the early 1960s that anything that could legitimately be called a movement came into existence. It began in the most obvious place. The Baltic States had only come under Soviet control in 1939, as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, so the Jews who lived there had a more recent memory of Jewish life than those in Moscow and Leningrad. Riga, which had a rich tradition of Zionist activism from before the war, was full of middle-aged men and women who had grown up in Jewish youth groups. As Nikita Khrushchev's period of thaw began, slightly liberalizing Soviet society, they became more and more public about reasserting their Jewish identity.

In unprecedented fashion, these Riga Jews began organizing around the clean-up and construction of a memorial at Rumbuli, the forest on the outside of town where thousands of Jews had been massacred by the Germans in 1940. Emboldened by the need to commemorate the Holocaust, these groups of activists became braver and more confident about demanding their rights as a minority in the Soviet Union, even starting a near riot in 1965 when an Israeli singer arrived in Riga for a performance.

At the same time, in Leningrad and Moscow, where the majority of Jews lived, small groups, meeting in a much more subdued and clandestine manner, began trying to learn how to be Jews. Most of them were at least two generations removed from any real Jewish identity--their culture, language and identity was completely Russian. A few Leningrad Jews in particular began to establish a formal underground organization, with cells and a command structure. Their objective was to inspire in their fellow Jews a desire to leave the Soviet Union by teaching them enough about their lost culture that they would realize the incompatibility of Jewish life under a regime that discriminated against them.

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Gal Beckerman's first book, When They Come for Us, We?ll Be Gone, was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in September 2010. It was named was one of the best books of the year by The New Yorker and the Washington Post, and received both the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. He has written for the New York Times, Boston Globe, and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.