Antisemitism in the Soviet Union

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. Antisemitism was commonly used as an instrument for personal conflicts in Soviet Russia, 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" (euphemism for "Jew") 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

The Bolsheviks opposed anti-semitism which had been prevalent in Russia prior to the Russian Revolution. Under the Czars, Jews had been confined to a Pale of Settlement, were subject to many discriminatory laws, and had often been the victims of pogroms, many of which were organized by the Tsarist authorities or with their tacit approval[citation needed].

As a result of being the victims of oppression, many Jews either emigrated from the Russian Empire or joined radical parties such as the Jewish Bund or revolutionaries such as the Socialist-Revolutionary Party, the Mensheviks or the 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. At least formally, 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 anti-Semitism and any form of discrimination against Jews. 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 the Jewish population, just like on other religious groups. 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, 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." Linking antisemitism to class struggle, he argued that it was merely a political technique used by the tsar to exploit religious fanaticism, popularize the despotic, unpopular regime, and divert popular anger toward a scapegoat. The Soviet Union also officially maintained this Marxist-Leninist interpretation under Stalin, who expounded Lenin's critique of antisemitism. However, this did not prevent the widely publicized repressions of Jewish intellectuals during 1948–1953 when Stalin increasingly associated Jews with "cosmopolitanism" and pro-Americanism.

Antisemitic pogroms were perpetrated by the White Army during the Russian Civil War. Lenin and the Bolshevik Party strongly condemned the pogroms, including official denunciations in 1918 by the Council of People's Commissars. Opposition to the pogroms and to manifestations of Russian antisemitism in this era were complicated by both the official Bolshevik policy of assimilationism towards all national and religious minorities, and concerns about overemphasizing Jewish concerns for fear of exacerbating popular antisemitism, as the White forces were openly identifying the Bolshevik regime with Jews.[5][6][7]

The Tsarist police, in alliance with the landowners and the capitalists, organized pogroms against the Jews. The landowners and capitalists tried to divert the hatred of the workers and peasants who were tortured by want against the Jews. … Only the most ignorant and downtrodden people can believe the lies and slander that are spread about the Jews. … It is not the Jews who are the enemies of the working people. The enemies of the workers are the capitalists of all countries. Among the Jews there are working people, and they form the majority. They are our brothers, who, like us, are oppressed by capital; they are our comrades in the struggle for socialism. Among the Jews there are kulaks, exploiters and capitalists, just as there are among the Russians, and among people of all nations… Rich Jews, like rich Russians, and the rich in all countries, are in alliance to oppress, crush, rob and disunite the workers… Shame on accursed Tsarism which tortured and persecuted the Jews. Shame on those who foment hatred towards the Jews, who foment hatred towards other nations.[8]

According to Jewish historian Zvi Gitelman: "Never before in Russian history — and never subsequently has a government made such an effort to uproot and stamp out antisemitism".[9]

Under Stalin

Soviet leader Joseph Stalin adopted antisemitic policies.
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 anti-Semitism 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 anti-Semitic 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 the 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]

According to literary historian Konstantin Polivanov Stalin's own philosophical development in the direction of Russian Imperial idea and anti-Semitism that paved the way to the repressions of 1930's that largely purged Jews from the Soviet government was influenced by the anti-Semitic writings by the anti-revolutionary and anti-Marxist Russian philosopher Alexei Losev. Losev was incarcerated in the 1920s, but was suddenly released in 1930 and allowed to resume his academic career.[14]

Antisemitism in the Soviet Union commenced openly as a campaign against the "rootless cosmopolitan"[2] (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] Jews in the USSR were denied of their victimization at the hands of the Nazis, Jewish scholars were removed from the sciences and emigration rights were denied to Jews.[15] 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".[16]

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.[17] Daniel 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."[18]

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 The Myth of the Jewish Race. Wayne State University Press. 1989. p. 178. ISBN 0814319483, 9780814319482. 
  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, About this sound audio )
  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. ^ Lenin, Vladimir (1919). "Anti-Jewish Pogroms". Speeches On Gramophone Records. 
  9. ^ Gutelman, Zvi; Curtis, M. (ed.) (1986). Antisemitism in the Contemporary World. Westview Press. pp. 189–190. ISBN 0-8133-0157-2. 
  10. ^ a b c Ro'i, Yaacov , Jews and Jewish Life in Russia and the Soviet Union, Routledge, 1995, ISBN 0714646199, pp. 103-6.
  11. ^ Montefiore, Simon Sebag, Young Stalin, Random House, Inc., 2008, ISBN 1400096138, p. 165.
  12. ^ Kun, Miklós, Stalin: An Unknown Portrait, Central European University Press, 2003, ISBN 9639241199, p. 287.
  13. ^ a b c d Konstantin Azadovskii and Boris Egorov (2002), "From Anti-Westernism to Anti-Semitism", Journal of Cold War Studies 4:1 (Winter 2002): 66–80, 
  14. ^
  15. ^ Louis Horowitz, Irving (December 3, 2007), "Cuba, Castro and Anti-Semitism" (PDF), Current Psychology 26 (3-4): 183–190, doi:10.1007/s12144-007-9016-4, ISSN 0737-8262, OCLC 9460062, 
  16. ^ Laqueur 2006, p. 177
  17. ^ Goldhagen 1987, p. 389
  18. ^ Goldhagen 1987, p. 390
  • McLellan, David (1980), Marx before Marxism, Macmillan, ISBN 9780333278826 .
  • Laqueur, Walter (2006), The Changing Face of Anti-Semitism: From Ancient Times to the Present Day, Oxford University Press, ISBN 9780195304299 .
  • Griffin, Roger; Feldman, Matthew (2004), Fascism: Critical Concepts in Political Science, V, Taylor & Francis, ISBN 9780415290203 .
  • Mach, Zdzisław (2007), "Constructing Identities in a post-Communist Society: Ethnic, national, and European", Identity and Networks: Fashioning Gender and Ethnicity Across Cultures, Berghahn Books, ISBN 9781845451622 .
  • Patai, Raphael; Patai, Jennifer (1989), "The Latest Libel: The Jew as Racist", The Myth of the Jewish Race, Wayne State University Press, ISBN 9780814319482 .
  • Goldhagen, Erich (1987), "Communism and Anti-Semitism", The Persisting Question: Sociological Perspectives and Social Contexts of Modern Antisemitism, Walter de Gruyter, ISBN 9783110101706 .
  • Possony, Stefan T. (1976), "Anti-Semitism in the Russian Orbit", Case Studies on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms: A World Survey, 2, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, ISBN 9789024717811 .
  • Busky, Donald F. (2002), Communism in History and Theory: From Utopian Socialism to the Fall of the Soviet Union, Greenwood Publishing Group, ISBN 9780275977481 .
  • Hampsher-Monk, Iain (1992), A History of Modern Political Thought: Major Political Thinkers from Hobbes to Marx, Wiley-Blackwell, ISBN 9781557861474 .
  • March, Luke (2002), "Evaluating the CPRF's ideology: backwards to socialism?", The Communist Party in Post-Soviet Russia, Manchester University Press, ISBN 9780719060441 .

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