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.
The 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.
Meanwhile, while the Bolsheviks repudiated anti-semitism and severely punished soldiers who attacked Jews, they were ideologically committed to the destruction of Jewish religion, culture, and national identity. In early 1918, many Jewish organizations were liquidated. The Zionist movement and the socialist and autonomist Bund (“Zionists who suffer from sea sickness,” according to Plekhanov) were outlawed, publication of’ Hebrew books and journals was forbidden, and Yiddish publications were placed under strict control. A Jewish commissariat, active between 1918 and 1923, dealt with Jewish affairs. “Jewish Sections” were also set up in branches of the Communist Party. A violent campaign against the Jewish religion and its leaders was conducted, and heavy taxes were imposed on rabbis and other religious officials.
The regime also sought ways of transforming the economic structure of Jewish society, a society composed mostly of “petty bourgeoisie,” hence considered non‑productive. An attempt was therefore made to transfer as many Jews as possible to agriculture and heavy industry. In the Ukraine and Crimea, the Soviet authorities, supported by western Jewish organizations, created agricultural colonies for Jews. Indeed, the combined effect of World War 1, the Revolution, the civil war, and government pressure undermined the economic structure of Jewish society and forced many to seek new occupations. By 1930, 11 percent of Jewish families worked in agriculture, 16 percent in industry, and many others in administration or in the professions. These changes were accompanied by internal migration from the western frontier areas into Russia.
In order to hasten the process of “productivization” of the Jews, the Soviet authorities created a “Jewish Autonomous Region” in 1928 in Birobidzhan, near the Chinese border. Since they did not establish a proper infrastructure, however, the area did not attract many settlers; and out of the 20,000 Jews who came between 1928 and 1933, over 11,000 soon left the region.
During the 1930s, the Soviet regime began abolishing the Jewish institutions it had created in the previous decade. The Jewish section of the Communist Party (the Yevsektsiya), for example, was disbanded. Then, in the purges of 1937‑1938, thousands of Jews were arrested, deported, and killed. Thus, by the time the German invasion began in 1941, the first stage in the liquidation of the national life of the Jews in the Soviet Union had been completed.