Russia past and present, from a historian in Cambridge
When Jews came out of the synagogue in Donetsk a few days ago, they were met by men in black masks distributing leaflets. The terrifying message was simple: register with the authorities and pay an extra tax — or get out of the city. Representatives of the Russian separatist People’s Republic of Donetsk insisted that the leaflets were fakes, published by their opponents, whose aim was to discredit the pro-Russian movement in front of the global media.
Whatever their provenance, the leaflets hit an historical nerve. After all, this territory was one of the main killing fields of the Holocaust. Between the eighteenth century and 1917 it was part of the Pale of Settlement, where Imperial Russia’s Jews were usually required to live. And under the Soviets? ‘Under the Soviets,’ the Jewish Chronicle editor Stephen Pollard writes in his piece about these events in the Daily Express, ‘Jews were relentlessly persecuted and imprisoned simply for being Jewish.’ Is he right?
Jews made the Bolshevik Revolution. Life in the Russian Empire left many of them desperate, while their education and mentality, according to the Berkeley historian Yuri Slezkine, made them virtuosos of revolutionary Marxism. Kamenev, Zinoviev and Sverdlov were among the leaders of 1917. Without Trotsky, the revolution might have failed. Revolutionary policies of affirmative action helped many Jews climb up the Soviet ladder in the 1920s. The turn to Russian nationalism in the late 1930s was inimical to Jewish interests, but it was not until a decade later that Jews became systematic targets of state anti-Semitism. Why was this? Soviet responses to the Holocaust were often hostile to Jews; the foundation of the State of Israel, an American ally, turned Jews into objects of suspicion; Stalin himself paraded his personal anti-Semitism more viciously in his final years. The harrying of Jews now became widespread; some ran the risk of losing their jobs or being downgraded to inferior housing; there was occasional violence, including the brutal assassination of the famous theatre director and chairman of the wartime Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, Solomon Mikhoels.
But there were no mass arrests, let alone extermination. In 1952-3, the Doctors’ Plot, a conspiracy of Jewish medics against the Communist elite, was fabricated, amidst hysteria and fear. Historians have speculated that mass deportations of Jews were imminent. They have not found the evidence, which is not to say that something terrible might not have been about to happen. But on March 5 1953 Stalin died. And it all stopped.
Not quite. Softer but pernicious anti-Semitism was embedded into Soviet life after 1953 (as it was, in different forms, in many parts of Western Europe and North America in the same period). Ethnic Russians and Ukrainians would often express casual anti-Semitism in everyday conversation. A ceiling blocked the career prospects of Jews in certain professions, including senior party administration. The numbers of Jews in some higher education institutions and courses seem to have been systematically controlled. By the 1970s, Jews were disproportionately represented in the dissident movement — and so dissident Jews, like other dissidents, became political prisoners.
And yet, the proportion of Jews who undertook higher education remained higher than for any other ethnic group, including Russians, between 1959 and 1979 (though in the 1970s, Jews might have to be especially resourceful to be admitted by tutors). Did Jews endure worse material standards of living than other ethnic groups? The evidence is extremely difficult to interpret. Anecdote (which itself might or might not have an anti-Semitic tinge) suggests a high level of participation by Jews in apartment cooperatives in the 1970s and 1980s, a scheme which allowed those with savings, contacts and decent incomes to get accelerated access to good apartments. At a time when Soviet borders remained closed, some Jews were allowed to emigrate in the 1970s. Was this an official recognition that Jews could no longer be fully accommodated in Soviet life? Perhaps, and some Jewish families were surely torn apart. But permitting emigration to New York or Tel Aviv was not the same as organizing a pogrom or building a concentration camp. And there was no parallel in the Brezhnev-era USSR to the anti-Jewish purges that took place in Poland in 1967-8.
History writing should not have the function of minimizing hardship and suffering. One can admire Stephen Pollard’s compassion for Ukrainian Jews while disputing his version of Soviet history. In an excellent report on the anti-Semitic leaflets in the ‘People’s Republic of Donetsk’, the BBC journalist Natalia Antelava interviewed a redoubtable 66-year-old Donetsk Jew called Asya Kreimer. Before her birth, many of her family members perished in the Holocaust. Right now, she fears a Russian invasion. It isn’t clear how nostalgic she is about the past, but her life as a Soviet Jew was at least ‘peaceful’. ‘I am thinking of going to Germany,’ she says. ‘It’s the first time in my life that I am thinking of leaving.’ The complexity of the past suggests that she is right to be afraid — and that the future might be fine.
(Image: Leon Trotksy)