top of page
History summary - The Jews of the Soviet Union
On Wednesday, July 14th, 1927, a car stopped before 22 Mochovaya Street in Leningrad.
Out of the car came two brawny men in heavy fur coats and leather boots.
The two, agents of the GPU - State Political Directorate, a branch of the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, climbed quickly to one of the top floors of the building. The arrest warrant they held was the culmination of a long period of surveillance on an individual suspected of anti-Communist activities. His name was Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, the sixth rabbi and head of the worldwide Chabad Lubavitch Hasidic movement.
While the Rabbi did manage, after harrowing ordeals and breathtaking plot-twists, to evade arrest and flee the Soviet Union, his story is the essence of the struggle for Jewish identity in the Soviet Union, ruled with an iron fist by the Communist Party.
Seven years earlier – in 1920, three years after the Bolshevik (“October”) Revolution, the borders of Soviet Russia were set. The multitude of Jews within the jurisdiction of Mother Russia, some 2.5 million in total, were of mixed feelings about it all. On one hand, many of the leaders of the Bolshevik Revolution were Jews (among them the revolution's number two figure Leon Trotsky), official anti-Semitism was abolished and Jews were allowed to reside anywhere they pleased within the Soviet Union. On the other hand, the new regime decreed that anyone taking part in national or religious activity is “an enemy of the proletariat.” Thus the Bund movement and the Zionist movement were outlawed, speaking in Hebrew was banned and synagogues were emptied and turned into cultural centers serving Soviet propaganda. The Evsektsiya, the Jewish section of the Communist Party, most of whose members were Jews and loyal operatives of the Party, was designed in fact to suppress Jewish national sentiments in Russia. The organization published a newspaper, called “Der Emes” (“The Truth”) which offered Soviet propaganda in Yiddish – the only language recognized by the Communist regime as a national-Jewish language. The board members stopped at nothing to achieve their goal – the erasure of Jewish identity and the integration of the Jewish People into the international proletariat.
1926 | The Messianic Zionism of the Mountain Jews
They speak a Persian-Jewish dialect that incorporats Hebrew and Aramaic words, keep to Jewish traditions and religious rituals and maintain their famous and ancient custom of hospitality. The mountain Jews, who called themselves “Juhur” (“Jews”), lived in the Caucasus for many centuries and were an inseparable part of the Soviet Jewish community following the revolution.
Some believe that the Mountain Jews are descendants of the tribe of Judah exiled to Babylon in 586 BCE. Others claim that they are descendants of the Ten Tribes of the Kingdom of Israel exiled 140 earlier. One way or another, and despite long periods of isolation from Jewish communities elsewhere in the world, the Mountain Jews adhered strictly to Jewish matrimonial law, kosher slaughtering, circumcision, holidays and festivals.
Zionism in its Messianic sense was ingrained in their heritage forever, and over the years many of them made aliyah to Jerusalem, whether by vehicle or in foot, and were buried on the Mount of Olives. They donated money to yeshivas in the Holy Land, and emissaries from the Land of Israel were welcomed in their homes with great affection. At first many of the mountain folk looked askance at modern Zionism, mostly due to its predominantly secular nature, but over the years they have come to embrace Zionism in their own way. They sent delegates to Zionist Congresses, collected money for Zionist causes, and the fact that they were a rural, farming people drew the admiration of Theodore Herzl, who said that “they shall be the pioneers of working the soil in Eretz Israel.” In 1926 members of this community founded the settlement of Kfar Baruch near Nahalal, and 50 years later many of those who still remained behind in the Soviet Union joined the great aliyah wave of the 1970's.
1928 | The Anti-Semitic Hunting Season
In the 1920s Vladimir Lenin, then leader of the Soviet Union, instituted the “New Economic Policy”, or NEP, under which free enterprise was partially permitted. The Jews, whose main occupation was "bourgeois" small-scale commerce, enjoyed this policy at first, but the high taxes levied by the government impoverished them and they were forced to close their businesses in favor of farming or public administration work. During these years the Jews of the Soviet Union established a network of Yiddish-speaking schools, which at its peak provided education to 160,000 pupils, approximately one third of all school-age children in the Soviet Union. Also founded during this period were theaters which produced plays by Mendele Mocher Sforim and I. L. Peretz, as well as “Proletarian Jewish Culture Faculties” at the universities of Minsk and Kiev, where they taught Judaism, Stalin-style, which is to say “national in form and socialist in content.”
In 1928 Stalin implemented his five-year plan, and the Soviet Union was set once and for all in the form of a Communist dictatorship. Jewish schools were closed, the Jewish merchant class was eliminated and Yiddish literature died out (of 124 Jewish writers who took part in the Soviet Literature Convention held in 1934, only 24 wrote in Yiddish.) The Soviet solution to the “Jewish Problem” was the establishment of an “Autonomous Jewish Oblast (or administrative region)” called Birobidzhan, after its two major rivers. But this attempt failed, as only 20,000 Jews moved to the area, and 11,000 of these left not long after arriving.
In 1930 the regime began the systematic destruction of Jewish institutions it set up itself. In 1937 and 1938, during Stalin's “Great Purge” period, thousands of Jews were arrested, exiled, or executed. The “Anti-Semitic Hunting Period,” as it is known in research, ended only in 1953, upon the death of the tyrant.
Distribution of Jewish Occupations in the Soviet Union, 1926
Unionized Craftsmen 16.1
Independent Craftsmen 4.0
Kolkhoz Farmers 5.8
The Holocaust of Bullets
In 1939 the Soviet Union and Nazi German signed the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. Under this treaty, the Soviet Union annexed the three Baltic countries – Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia – parts of Romania such as Bessarabia, and parts of Poland. This added two million Jews to the population of the Soviet Union.
And so, on June 22nd, 1941, on the eve of the German invasion of the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa), it was home to over five million Jews. The Germans, for whom the annihilation of Jews was one of the objectives of the war, assigned the murderous Einsatzgruppen units to this task. Unlike the systematic murder machine employed in the extermination camps, these platoons employed “ordinary” means: They simply shot most of the Jews of the Baltic countries, Belarus and Ukraine to death. Immediately upon the occupation of a village, town or city, the Germans would appoint a Judenrat (a council charged with mediating between the Nazi authorities and the local Jews), and all the local Jews were ordered to register with it. After a few days the Jews were ordered to gather at a certain location, where they were told that they were being transported to Palestine. Soon they discovered that this particular route to the Promised Land goes through the shooting pits of Babi-Yar and Ponary. Other methods included the establishment of ghettos whose residents were employed in forced labor and murdered after several weeks or months, also in the shooting pits.
Some 1.5 million people were murdered in the Soviet Jewish Holocaust, also known as the “Holocaust of Bullets”. The ones to survive were those evacuated in time by the Soviet authorities or those living in areas the Germans failed to reach.
It should be noted that hundreds of thousands of Jews enlisted in the Soviet Red Army, and 161,000 of them were decorated for their valor in combat.
1953 | The Doctors' Trial
On November 29th, 1947 the United Nations voted in favor of the establishment of a Jewish state. The vote was preceded by fiery speeches made by the representatives of the world's nations. One of them, Soviet delegate Andrei Gromyko, waxed emotional on the right of the Jewish People to a corner of its own in its fatherland, the Land of Israel.
However, only the naïve took the philo-Semitic verbiage of the Soviet delegate seriously. While the voice was Gromyko's, the hands on the marionette strings were those of the “Father of Nations”, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.
During WW2 the Soviet regime sought to integrate the Jews into the Communist mechanism and displayed zero tolerance towards any expression of Jewish religion or nationality. Following the establishment of the State of Israel, this policy was escalated to such a degree that the years 1948-1953 are known in historical research as “The black period of Soviet Jews.”
In January 1948 the Jewish director and social activist Solomon (Shloyme) Mikhoels was murdered in a staged car accident, under secret orders from Stalin. Four years later, in 1952, the 13 members of the Jewish anti-fascist committee were executed. In 1953 the “Doctors' Plot” libel was staged, in which a group of Jewish physicians at the Kremlin were accused of attempting to poison the heads of the Communist Party and the military. Stalin died in 1953, and after his death it was revealed that the charges against the physicians were bogus. This was but one of a long list of revelations regarding the departed leader's horrible actions, and the famous speech by Nikita Khrushchev exposing the crimes committed by his “great mentor” presaged a certain easing for the Jews as well. One of the expressions of this easing was the approval granted to the Great Synagogue of Moscow to publish a prayer book (“sidur”) and open a small yeshiva. This happened in 1957 and the synagogue became a national lodestone for religious and secular Jews alike.
More about the Dcotor's Plotin the lesson: Watch and discuss: The death of Stalin in Purim 1953, compared to Haman
1970 | The Zion Prisoners' “Wedding”
Israel's victory over the Arab armies in the Six Day War of 1967 aroused the national pride of Soviet Jews. “The Soviet citizens of Jewish Nationality,” writes Jewish author Elie Wiesel, “turned from Jews of Silence to Jews of Hope.”
And indeed, in the years following the war underground Zionist groups began working with all their might against the Soviet policy of repression, which limited permission to emigrate to Israel (or anywhere else). Their methods of action were varied: from sending thousands of personal and group letters to influential public figures in the West, expanding the activities of the “samizdat” (underground printing presses which copied banned Western literary works and news publications for covert distribution), house lectures at which Zionist activists met, and more. The activists who were caught were named “Prisoners of Zion,” and since Soviet law did not specifically ban Zionist activism, they were accused of “anti-Soviet propaganda”.
On June 15th, 1970 a group of Jewish activists was arrested at Leningrad's Smolny Airport (now named Pulkovo Airport). The group members were caught in the midst of an adventurous operation, codenamed “Wedding”. The object of the plan was to "hijack" a small empty plane in Leningrad, fly it to Sweden and from there to Israel. The planners of the attempt were sentenced to death, but due to international pressure their sentences were commuted to 15 years.
More about Operation Wedding in the lesson: film screening and guided discussion
While “Operation Wedding” failed, it was a great success in the battle for world public opinion. The Soviet Union yielded to international pressure, and many of those who applied were granted permission to make aliyah to Israel. Not all: Zion Prisoner Ida Nudel, a well-known “refusenik” (one denied permission by the authorities' to emigrate), hung a banner reading “KGB – Give back the visa to Israel”, and as a result was sentenced to four years of exile in Siberia.
1980 | Kafka at the OVIR Offices
In the early 1980's, at the peak of the Cold War and in the midst of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the “detente” period between East and West ended. Anyone applying to the offices of the OVIR (Russian initials for "Office of Visas and Registration"), the department in charge of issuing permits to leave the Soviet Union, learned the true Kafkaesque meaning of Soviet bureaucratic dictatorship firsthand. The officials denied requests for permits for all manner of strange reasons, from “Harm to state interests” to an arbitrary rejection, with no expiration date.
Most of the “refuseniks” waited up to nine years for an aliyah permit. The clerical tyranny brought a series of harsh social consequences with it. Many of those refused permission to emigrate found themselves unemployed, expelled from universities and forced to join the army. Upon release they discovered that they were still not allowed to leave the Soviet Union, this time under the excuse that they had been exposed to military secrets. Many of them felt socially isolated. Their friends and acquaintances shunned them in fear of losing their own jobs as well. Many families broke up when one spouse accused the other that their attempt to make aliyah was destroying the household. In some few cases refuseniks informed on others in a desperate attempt to win the desired permit.
At the same time, home-based seminars discussing Jewish history kept taking place, exhibits by Jewish artists were being held, underground libraries were established and the teaching of the Hebrew language kept spreading. In the early 1980s some 100 Hebrew teachers operated in Moscow. One of the most impressive expressions of this underground activity was a regular even held in a large forest clearing, some three miles from the Ovrazhky train station in Moscow. There, far from Big Brother's watchful eye, they held classes on Judaism and Jewish history, Jewish song competitions, marked Jewish holidays, played games and held picnics. The event reached its peak in May 1980, when over a thousand people came to Ovrazhky, but then the KGB cordoned the place and banned Jewish access to it.
1989 | Communism, Over and Out
In 1987, seven refuseniks demonstrated in Leningrad. To the protesters' surprise, instead of being beaten and humiliated as usual, they were invited to a discussion at the Communist Party headquarters. Furthermore, a photo of the demonstration was published in an evening newspaper in Leningrad, which was unprecedented. What caused the change in the Communist regime's treatment of the Jews?
In 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union and initiated the “Perestroika” (“Rebuilding”) and “Glasnost” (“Openness”) policies. The change was not instantaneous, as arrests of Zionist activists continued in the first years of Gorbachev's rule, but within two years new winds were blowing down the Jewish streets as well.
Between 1987-1989 most Prisoners of Zion were released from confinement, and in 1989 the nerve-wracking wait of the last refuseniks came to an end as well. The authorities stopped persecuting the Hebrew-teaching “ulpans”, the first independent Jewish newspaper, “Shachar”, was published in Talin, and the government permitted the registration of Jewish communities and cultural organizations. In December 1989, the founding convention of the “Va'ad” - the umbrella organization of all Jewish organizations and communities in the Soviet Union – was openly held.
The disintegration of the Communist regime and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 led to massive migration of Jews to Israel. The one millionth oleh (new immigrant) arrived in Israel in 2003, marking the end of the “Great Aliyah” years.
Many of the CIS immigrants have and still do experience difficulties in their new homeland, but most have integrated into Israeli society with great success.
bottom of page