Anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, Part I

Reader el asked me to write a post on the trajectory of anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, and I’m happy to oblige.

The revolution of 1917 was welcomed by most Jews. The Russian Empire  had been violently anti-Semitic. The Jews were only permitted to reside in the Pale of Settlement, their access to education and entrance into professions was severely constrained. The tsarist government encouraged pogroms that kept the Jews in constant fear for their lives. In my own family, we had a scientist, a brilliant mathematician, who had to renounce his religion and convert to Christianity in order to continue pursuing his research.

When the revolution took place, the absolute majority of Jews was extremely happy (Ayn Rand was an exception.) Now they had full rights and nobody discriminated against them.The opposite often took place. When the first round of cleansings started in the mid-1920s, Jews were pretty much the only people who had nothing to worry about. In case you don’t know, a cleansing was a process of investigating every person’s antecedents. Those who had a rich relative, a business-owner of some sort in their family, or, God forbid, an aristocrat (no matter how far removed) would lose their jobs and be ostracized in the first round of cleansings. In the second round, they would be sent to the concentration camps or exterminated. For the Jews, cleansings represented no danger. They were all dirt-poor and in opposition to tsarism. The best thing you could be during the cleansings was a Jew.

Right after the revolution and until the end of World War II, the Jewish culture experienced a veritable boom in the Soviet Union. There were dozens of newspapers and magazines in Yiddish. Every major city had a Jewish theater of its own. Jews could have great careers and any kind of education they wanted. In case you haven’t read the story of my Jewish great-grandmother, who went from an illiterate family in a shtetl to a position of great responsibility, you can find it here.

There was a price for all this, of course. In return for these great things, Jews had to abandon their religion. This wasn’t discriminatory, though, because everybody was expected to move away from religious practices. Exploited and degraded for centuries by corrupt priests, the former Christians of the Soviet Union forgot the religion they never really perceived as their own very easily. The Jews followed suit. They found non-religious ways of preserving their identity and practice their culture.

The popular anti-Semitism of the Russian Empire was eradicated during the first decades of the USSR’s existence. If a kid made an anti-Semitic joke at school, for example, that kid was berated and ridiculed forever. Among adults, an anti-Semite was perceived as a counter-revolutionary (once again, because the Jews were seen as extremely pro-revolution). By 1940s, people of the Soviet Union didn’t even know, for the most part, that it was possible to be anti-Semitic.

In my next post, I will tell you how this all came to an end, and why the USSR became profoundly anti-Semitic (both on the level of the government and among people at large) right after the Soviet Union defeated Nazism in 1945 and liberated the European Jews from German concentration camps.

11 thoughts on “Anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, Part I”

  1. There’s a joke I’m sure you’ve heard: How many Jews are there in the Soviet Union? 10 million. If all of them were allowed to emigrate to Israel, how many would go? 20 million.

    (The numbers are off I’m sure; I don’t remember the original numbers from the joke as first told to me.)

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    1. That’s exactly what happened eventually. Many extremely Russian and Ukrainian people suddenly discovered Jewish roots and donned yarmulkes. It was hilarious.

      But that was a later development that I will address in the second post on the subject.

      Thank you for commenting! I was disappointed that this post was getting ignored.

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  2. It isn’t ignored. I am waiting impatiently for the second part. 🙂

    The only thought I had was that anti-semitism wasn’t really eradicated, but was still present in a hidden state. Centuries of history don’t disappear overnight and then saying not politically correct thing could bring one to jail. So, of course, nobody talked, but some people could still think, no? There could be a difference between official position and what “simple (and not) people” thought inside.

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  3. I wanted to say “what SOME OF “simple (and not) people” thought inside”. I don’t believe people became “nationality”-blind, like not seeing Trozky was a Jew, who was and wasn’t Russian. The truly ideological communists couldn’t be most of population and, even if one thinks himself to be one, old habits die hard.

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    1. You might be right, of course.

      All I know is that when my Ukrainian mother brought her Jewish fiance to their Ukrainian village, people needed an explanation of what it meant that he was a Jew. The only shared description everybody managed to arrive at is that “Jews had unusual names.” There was also a shared assumption that marrying a Jew was going to bring undefined good fortune and riches to the woman. 🙂 🙂 People might say that the last part is anti-semitic but I actually think it’s kind of cute.

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      1. My guess is it very depended on time and place, often following the formula: less Jews = less anti-semitism. F.e. I heard we lived in more Russian and less anti-semitic part of Ukraine, Donbass, which “accidently” was beyond the Pale of Settlement before, so Jews were rare.

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      2. *a shared assumption that marrying a Jew was going to bring undefined good fortune and riches to the woman*

        Shades of Jews as rich bankers stereotype and/or Jews as resourceful people, who’ll find a way to max their utility (negative) stereotype.

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      3. I have a friend (who grew up in the US) who thought Jews were “extinct” (like Pilgrims) until she went to college because she grew up in a very small town where there were no Jews for miles around.

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