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Antisemitism in the Soviet Union

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Antisemitism in the Soviet Union

The Russian Revolution overthrew a centuries-old regime of official antisemitism. The Soviet Union's success, during its existence, in struggling with this legacy, and the degree to which its government fought against, or was itself guilty of antisemitism, is a topic of some debate. Although officially forbidden as a form of ethnic and racial chauvinism, antisemitism was commonly used as an instrument for personal conflicts in the Soviet Union, starting from conflict between Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky and continuing through numerous conspiracy theories spread by official propaganda. Antisemitism in the USSR reached new heights after 1948 during the campaign against the "rootless cosmopolitan" in which numerous Yiddish-writing poets, writers, painters and sculptors were killed or arrested.[1][2] This culminated in the so-called Doctors' Plot.


Before the revolution

Under the Jewish Bund, Socialist-Revolutionary Party, Mensheviks or Bolsheviks.

After the revolution

The February Revolution and the Provisional Government

The Provisional Government cancelled all restrictions imposed on the Jews by the Tsarist regime, in a move parallel to the emancipation of the Jews in Western Europe that had taken place during the 19th century. This stance was retained by the later Bolshevik governments.

The Bolsheviks

While the Bolsheviks were opposed to religion, Christian as well as Jewish, they also opposed antisemitism and any form of discrimination against Jews or any minority. Several prominent members of Soviet government institutions and the Communist Party (such as Leon Trotsky, Yakov Sverdlov, Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev, among others) came from a Jewish background. In 1918, the Yevsektsiya was established to promote Marxism and the related ideas of secularism and assimilation among the Jewish population. The Council of People's Commissars adopted a 1918 decree condemning all antisemitism and calling on the workers and peasants to combat it. Information campaigns against antisemitism were conducted in the Red Army and in the workplaces, and a provision forbidding the incitement of propaganda against any ethnicity became part of Soviet law. State-sponsored institutions of secular Yiddish culture, such as the Moscow State Jewish Theater, were established in Soviet Russia and the Soviet Union during this time, as were institutions for other minorities.

At the same time, religious traditions among the Jewish population were suppressed. In August 1919 Jewish properties, including synagogues, were seized and many Jewish communities were dissolved. The anti-religious laws against all expressions of religion and religious education were being taken out on all religious groups, including the Jewish communities. Many Rabbis and other religious officials were forced to resign from their posts under the threat of violent persecution. This type of persecution continued on into the 1920s.[3]

In March 1919, Vladimir Lenin delivered a speech "On Anti-Jewish Pogroms"[4] in a gramophone recording. Lenin sought to explain the phenomenon of antisemitism in Marxist terms. According to Lenin, antisemitism was an "attempt to divert the hatred of the workers and peasants from the exploiters toward the Jews." Lenin and the Bolshevik Party strongly condemned the antisemitic pogroms which were perpetrated by the White Army during the Russian Civil War, while the White forces were openly identifying the Bolshevik regime with Jews.[5][6][7]

At the same time, Lenin wrote in his project of a directive for the Communist Party "The policies on the Ukraine" in autumn of 1919:[8]

Under Stalin

After Stalin's death, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev criticized Stalin and initiated De-Stalinization. But he did not view Stalin's anti-Jewish policies as "monstrous acts" or "rude violations of the basic Leninist principles of the nationality policy of the Soviet state."

Joseph Stalin emerged as leader of the Soviet Union following a power struggle with Leon Trotsky following the death of Lenin. Stalin has been accused of resorting to antisemitism in some of his arguments against Trotsky, who was Jewish. Those who knew Stalin, such as Khrushchev, suggest that Stalin had long harbored negative sentiments toward Jews that had manifested themselves before the 1917 Revolution[10] As early as 1907, Stalin wrote a letter differentiating between a "Jewish faction" and a "true Russian faction" in Bolshevism.[10][11] Stalin's secretary Boris Bazhanov stated that Stalin made crude antisemitic outbursts even before Lenin's death.[10][12] It's also possible that Stalin's attitudes towards Trotsky, a Russian Jew, may have influenced his views of Jews in general. Stalin adopted antisemitic policies which were reinforced with his anti-Westernism.[13][note 1] Since antisemitism was associated with Nazi Germany and was officially condemned by the Soviet system, the Soviet Union and other communist states used the cover-term "anti-Zionism" for their antisemitic policies. Antisemitism, as historian, Orientalist and anthropologist Raphael Patai and geneticist Jennifer Patai Wing put it in their book The Myth of the Jewish Race, was "couched in the language of opposition to Zionism".[2]

Antisemitism in the Soviet Union commenced openly as a campaign against the "rootless cosmopolitan"[2] (a euphemism for "Jew"). In his speech titled "On Several Reasons for the Lag in Soviet Dramaturgy" at a plenary session of the board of the Soviet Writers' Union in December 1948, Alexander Fadeyev equated the cosmopolitans with the Jews.[13][note 2] In this campaign against the "rootless cosmopolitan", many leading Jewish writers and artists were killed.[2] Terms like "rootless cosmopolitans", "bourgeois cosmopolitans", and "individuals devoid of nation or tribe" (all of which were codewords for Jews) appeared in newspapers.[13][note 3] The Soviet press accused the Jews of "groveling before the West," helping "American imperialism," "slavish imitation of bourgeois culture" and "bourgeois aestheticism."[13][note 4] Victimization of Jews in the USSR at the hands of the Nazis was denied, Jewish scholars were removed from the sciences and emigration rights were denied to Jews.[14] The Stalinist antisemitic campaign ultimately culminated in the Doctors' plot in 1953. According to Patai and Patai, the Doctors' plot was "clearly aimed at the total liquidation of Jewish cultural life."[2] Communist antisemitism under Stalin shared a common characteristic with Nazi and fascist antisemitism in its belief in "Jewish world conspiracy".[15]

After Stalin's death, the antisemitic Stalinist terror relented, but the fundamentals of Stalin's polices towards the Jews remained unchanged in the post-Stalinist USSR; only the methods changed — indirect anti-Jewish policies over direct physical assault.[16] Erich Goldhagen suggests that despite being famously critical of Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev did not view Stalin's anti-Jewish policies as "monstrous acts" or "rude violations of the basic Leninist principles of the nationality policy of the Soviet state."[17]

Under Brezhnev

Immediately following the Six-Day War in 1967, a wave of Zionism swept over the Soviet Union. Although their situation was notably better than it had been under previous leaders such as Stalin, many Soviet Jews had a sudden desire to immigrate to Israel. A Ukrainian radio engineer, who identified as Jewish, Boris Kochubievsky sought to move to Israel. In a letter to Brezhnev, Kochubeivsky stated; “I am a Jew. I want to live in the Jewish state. That is my right, just as it is the rights of a Ukrainian to live in the Ukraine, the right of a Russian to live in Russia, the right of a Georgian to live in Georgia. I want to live in Israel. That is my dream, that is the goal not only of my life but also of the lives of hundreds of generation that preceded me, of my ancestors who were expelled from their land. I want to my children to study in the Hebrew language. I want to read Jewish papers, I want to attend a Jewish theatre. What is wrong with that? What is my crime…?”[18] Within the week he was called in to the KGB bureau and without questioning, was taken to a mental institution in his hometown of Kiev.[19] While this may seem as an isolated incident, the aftermath of the Six-Day War affected almost every Jew within the Soviet Union.[20] Jews who had been subject to assimilation under previous regimes were now confronted with a new sense in vigor and revival in their Jewish faith and heritage. On February 23, 1979, a six-page article was distributed throughout the cities of Moscow and Leningrad, which criticized Brezhnev and seven other individuals for being “Zionist.”[21] The article contained traces of deep-rooted anti-Semitism in which the anonymous author, a member of the Russian Liberation Organization, set out ways to identify Zionists; these included “hairy chest and arms”, “shifty eyes”, and “hook-like nose.”[22] These works showed that, while the majority of Russians had in-line with the reforms since Stalin’s death, there were still factions of Soviet extremist and “hardliners” that were bent on doing away with the reforms of Khrushchev and Brezhnev. It is important to point out that while the Party was making strides in various areas of human rights, specifically of the Jews, the Party had yet to make it official policy to end anti-Semitism, and it was only a few decades ago that the Soviet people had been subject to a great deal of anti-Semitic propaganda. Under Brezhnev many Soviet Jews, with help from American legislature, had been allowed to leave the country which was a huge step towards achieving universal human-rights for not only the Jews, but all minorities within the Soviet Union. With that being said, there was till a great deal more that needed to be done.

On February 22, 1981, in a speech, which lasted over 5 hours, Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev denounced anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union.[23] While Stalin and Lenin had much of the same in various statements and speeches, this was the first time that a high-ranking Soviet official had done so in front of the entire Party.[24] Brezhnev acknowledged that anti-Semitism existed within the Eastern Bloc and saw that many different ethnic groups whose “requirements” were not being met.[25] For decades, people of different ethnic, or religious backgrounds were assimilated into Soviet society and denied the ability or resources to get the education or practice their religion as they had previously done.[26] Brezhnev made it official Soviet Policy to provide these ethnic groups with these “requirements” and cited a fear of the “emergence of inter-ethnic tensions” as the reason.[27] The announcement of the policy was followed with a generic, but significant Party message; “The CPSU [Communist Party of the Soviet Union] has fought and will always fight resolutely against such phenomena ‘inter-ethnic tensions] which are alien to the nature of socialism as chauvinism or nationalism, against any nationalistic aberrations such as, let us say, anti-Semitism or Zionism. We are against tendencies aimed at artificial erosion of national characteristics. But to the same extent, we consider impermissible their artificial exaggeration. It is the sacred duty of the party to educate the working people in the spirit of Soviet patriotism and socialist internationalism, of a proud feeling of belonging to a sing great Soviet motherland.”[28][29]

While to most, the issue of anti-Semitism seemed to be dropped very casually and almost accidentally, it was very much calculated and planned, as was everything else the Party did.[30] At this time the Soviet Union was feeling pressure from around the world solve many human rights violations that were taking place within their borders, and the statement responded to the inquiries of countries such as Australia and Belgium.[31] While the Party seemed to be taking a hard stance against Anti-Semitism, the fact remained that anti-Semitic propaganda had long been present in the Soviet Union, making it extremely difficult to solve the problems right away.[32] Furthermore, Jewish organizations in Washington D.C. were calling attention of American leaders to the problem of Soviet Jewry.[33] A major stride was made in helping the Soviet Jews on October 18, 1974 when Senator Henry Jackson, Henry Kissenger, along with Senator Jacob Javits, and Congressman Charles Vanik met to discuss the finalization of the “Jackson-Vanik amendment” which had been in limbo on the hill for nearly a year.[34] After the meeting, Jackson told reporters that a “historic understanding in the area of human rights” had been met and while he did not “comment on what the Russians have done....there [had] been a complete turnaround here on the basic points”.[35] The amendment sat ought to reward the Soviet Union for letting large numbers of Soviet Jews leave the country. While Kissinger and other leaders in Washington were hesitant to deal with the Soviets in this manner, at the time this seemed to be a huge step in helping out the large Jewish sect of the Soviet Union. While the problem seemed to become closer to being solved, the Kremlin reacted predictably by taking a stand against letting their emigration and foreign policy dictated by the Jews in Washington.[36] Andrei Gromyko, the Minister of Foreign Affairs passed along a letter to Kissenger which stated that “we resolutely decline such an interpretation”, in regards to the opinion that this piece of legislation would lead to more “Soviet citizens” being allowed to leave compared to previous years.[37] While the bill was still passed by an overwhelming margin, the Kremlin felt attacked. Therefore when the United States placed an official limit on the amount of credit that would be allowed to the Soviet Union, it proved for the two super powers to regain their closeness, they must first solve the problem of Soviet Jewry.[38]

See also


  1. ^ Konstantin Azadovskii, an editorial board member of the cultural journal Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, and Boris Egorov, a research fellow at Saint Petersburg State University, in an article titled From Anti-Westernism to Anti-Semitism published in the Journal of Cold War Studies writes "Stalin's policies of anti- Westernism and anti-Semitism reinforced one another and joined together in the notion of cosmopolitanism." [1]
  2. ^ Konstantin Azadovskii and Boris Egorov in an article titled From Anti-Westernism to Anti-Semitism published in the Journal of Cold War Studies writes "In 1949, however, the attacks on cosmopolitans (kosmopolity) acquired a markedly anti-Semitic character. The very term cosmopolitan, which began to appear ever more frequently in newspaper headlines, was increasingly paired in the lexicon of the time with the word rootless (bezrodnye). The practice of equating cosmopolitans with Jews was heralded by a speech delivered in late December 1948 by Anatolii Fadeev at a plenary session of the board of the Soviet Writers' Union. His speech, titled "On Several Reasons for the Lag in Soviet Dramaturgy," was followed a month later by a prominent editorial in Pravda, "On an Anti-Patriotic Group of Theater Critics." The "anti- patriotic group of theater critics" consisted of Aleksandr Borshchagovskii, Abram Gurvich, Efim Kholodov, Yulii Yuzovskii, and a few others also of Jewish origin. In all subsequent articles and speeches the anti-patriotism of theater and literary critics (and later of literary scholars) was unequivocally connected with their Jewish nationality."[2]
  3. ^ Konstantin Azadovskii and Boris Egorov in an article titled From Anti-Westernism to Anti-Semitism published in the Journal of Cold War Studies writes "Terms such as rootless cosmopolitans, bourgeois cosmopolitans, and individuals devoid of nation or tribe continually appeared in newspaper articles. All of these were codewords for Jews and were understood as such by people at that time." [3]
  4. ^ Konstantin Azadovskii and Boris Egorov in an article titled From Anti-Westernism to Anti-Semitism published in the Journal of Cold War Studies writes "Of the many crimes attributed to Jews/cosmopolitans in the Soviet press, the most malevolent were "groveling before the West," aiding "American imperialism," "slavish imitation of bourgeois culture," and the catch-all misdeed of "bourgeois aestheticism." [4]


  1. ^ Konstantin Azadovskii and Boris Egorov (2002). "From Anti-Westernism to Anti-Semitism". Journal of Cold War Studies 4:1 (Winter): 66–80. 
  2. ^ a b c d e Raphael; Jennifer Patai (1989). The Myth of the Jewish Race. Wayne State University Press. p. 178.  
  3. ^ "Russia". Encyclopaedia Judaica 17. Keter Publishing House Ltd. pp. 531–553. 
  4. ^ Lenin's March 1919 speech "On Anti-Jewish Pogroms" («О погромной травле евреев»: text,    )
  5. ^ Benjamin Pinkus. The Jews of the Soviet Union: The History of a National Minority. Cambridge University Press, 1988.
  6. ^ Naomi Blank. Redefining the Jewish Question from Lenin to Gorbachev: Terminology or Ideology. In: Yaacov Ro'i, editor. Jews and Jewish Life in Russia and the Soviet Union.Routledge, 1995.
  7. ^ William Korey. Russian Anti-semitism, Pamyat, and the Demonology of Zionism. Routledge, 1995.
  8. ^ Alexander Nikolaevich Yakovlev, Time of darkness, Moscow, 2003, ISBN 5-85646-097-9, page 207 (Russian: Яковлев А. Сумерки. Москва: Материк 2003 г.; The letter includes a footnote by Lenin who instructed to "use a politically correct wording, like "Jewish petty bourgeoisie"
  9. ^ Russian expression: "Ezhovye rukavitsy", this can be also translated as "ruled by iron fist"
  10. ^ a b c Ro'i, Yaacov , Jews and Jewish Life in Russia and the Soviet Union, Routledge, 1995, ISBN 0-7146-4619-9, pp. 103-6.
  11. ^ Montefiore, Simon Sebag, Young Stalin, Random House, Inc., 2008, ISBN 1-4000-9613-8, p. 165.
  12. ^ Kun, Miklós, Stalin: An Unknown Portrait, Central European University Press, 2003, ISBN 963-9241-19-9, p. 287.
  13. ^ a b c d  
  14. ^ Louis Horowitz, Irving (December 3, 2007), "Cuba, Castro and Anti-Semitism" (PDF),  
  15. ^ Laqueur 2006, p. 177
  16. ^ Goldhagen 1987, p. 389
  17. ^ Goldhagen 1987, p. 390
  18. ^ Beckerman, Gal (2010). When They Come For Us, We'll All Be Gone. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 103. 
  19. ^ Beckerman, Gal (2010). When They Come For Us We'll All Be Gone. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 103. 
  20. ^ Beckerman, Gal (2010). When They Come For Us We'll All Be Gone. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 103. 
  21. ^ Korey, William (1984). Robert O. Freedman, ed. Brezhnev and Soviet Anti-Semitism. Durham: Duke University Press. p. 31. 
  22. ^ Korey, William. Brezhnez and Soviet Anti-Semitism. p. 31. 
  23. ^ Korey, William. Brezhnev and Soviet Anti-Semitism. p. 29. 
  24. ^ Korey, William. Brezhnev and Soviet Anti-Semitism. p. 29. 
  25. ^ Korey, William. Brezhnev and Soviet Anti-Semitism. p. 29. 
  26. ^ Korey, William. Brezhnev and Soviet Anti-Semitism. p. 29. 
  27. ^ Korey, William. Brezhnev and Soviet Anti-Semitism. p. 29. 
  28. ^ Korey, William. Brezhnev and Soviet Anti-Semitism. p. 30. 
  29. ^ Povada. February 23, 1981. p. 38. 
  30. ^ Korey, William. Brezhnev and Soviet Anti-Semitism. p. 30. 
  31. ^ Korey, William. Brezhnev and Soviet Anti-Semitism. p. 30. 
  32. ^ Korey, William. Brezhnev and Soviet Anti-Semitism. p. 30. 
  33. ^ Korey, William. Brezhnev and Soviet Anti-Semitism. p. 30. 
  34. ^ Beckerman, Gal. When They Come For Us, We'll All Be Gon. p. 305. 
  35. ^ Beckerman, Gal. When They Come For Us, We'll All Be Gon. p. 305. 
  36. ^ Beckerman, Gal. When They Come For Us, We'll All Be Gon. p. 306. 
  37. ^ Beckerman, Gal. When They Come For Us, We'll All Be Gon. p. 306. 
  38. ^ Beckerman, Gal. When They Come For Us, We'll All Be Gon. pp. 308–310. 
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