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.