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The term anti-Semitism was coined in the nineteenth century in central Europe and is generally understood as dislike or hatred of Jews. Popular and state anti-Semitism have long histories in the territories of the former Soviet Union. Until the late eighteenth century, Jews were legally barred from living in the Russian Empire. Much of the animus against Jews was rationalized by the Christian belief that the Jews had killed Jesus Christ. Czarina Elizabeth (1741–1762) responded to merchants pleading with her to allow Jews to trade in Russia by writing, “From the enemies of Christ I wish neither gain nor profit.” Only the annexation of eastern Poland, with its large Jewish population, in the late eighteenth century forced the Russian tsars to admit Jews to the empire. However, they were confined to those territories where they already lived and that were declared a “Pale of Settlement.” This area was a kind of huge ghetto to which Jews were restricted, and, with few exceptions, they could not live in Russia itself, but only on its western borderlands. In the nineteenth century, the basis of anti-Semitism shifted from Christian theology to a more racial one, as the assumption spread throughout Europe that Jews were a race. Many believed this race was united in a sinister conspiracy to control the world and undermine Christian civilization.


For most of the nineteenth century, and even up to the Russian Revolutions of 1917, Czarist governments imposed restrictions and disabilities on Jews, such as a numerus clauses in education and the professions, a quota system that restricted the number of Jews. There was also the “cantonist” episode beginning in 1827, when Jewish communities had to deliver a government-determined number of Jewish boys to the military, where they would serve twenty-five years, sometimes being taken for “premilitary” training for some years before their service would start. Jews were also barred from the civil service and officer rank in the military. Jews were generally barred from owning land in a country in which four of five people derived their livelihoods from agriculture.

The Russian Empire became notorious as the site of pogroms, which were attacks on Jews by mobs of local people. Especially in 1881–1882, following the assassination of Czar Alexander II, a wave of pogroms washed over Ukraine and dashed Jewish dreams of acceptance and integration into the larger society. Mobs of peasants and city dwellers roamed through the streets, attacking Jews, looting their homes and stores, and destroying property, with policemen generally doing nothing. Only after a few days would troops be called out to restore order. A few hundred lives were lost, and there was great material damage, but the psychological impact was greater than the physical one. Jews who had hoped that acculturation into Russian culture would bring social acceptance, and who had preached the idea of Haskalah or “enlightenment” as the path to political, economic, and social improvement, were shocked by the behavior of the mobs and the passivity of the authorities. In 1903, at Easter, always a time of religious fervor and anti-Jewish feelings, forty-five Jews were killed in a pogrom in the city of Kishinev, arousing protests against Russian anti-Semitism in western Europe and the United States. Two years later, in the turbulent year of 1905, pogroms broke out again while Russia was engaged in a war against the Japanese, and while the government was putting down a revolution.

It used to be thought that pogroms were planned by the government, but recent scholarship sees them as spontaneous outbursts, often fanned by the Russian Orthodox Church. The government did little to prevent the pogroms, and it interceded when matters threatened to “get out of hand” and spill over into demonstrations against the regime itself. Russian anti-Semitism became an issue in that country’s relations with England, France, and the United States, and it is also thought to have propelled much of the massive Jewish emigration from the 1880s to the eve of World War I.


After the fall of czarism in 1917, the Provisional Government, and then the Bolsheviks who seized power in October-November, abolished legislation and policies that discriminated against Jews. However, in the course of the Russian civil war, another wave of pogroms engulfed the western parts of the country. The pogroms of 1917–1921 were much larger in scale and more horrific than the earlier pogroms. It is estimated that nearly sixty thousand Jews were killed, mostly by the White Army opponents of Bolshevism and by Ukrainian nationalists.

The Bolsheviks who ruled Russia after 1918, while militantly opposing Judaism, Zionism, and traditional Jewish culture including Hebrew, opened the doors to individual Jewish advancement wider than probably any other European country. For the first time in history, Russian (and Ukrainian, Belorussian, and other) Jews enjoyed complete legal and social equality. The Soviet government financially supported Jewish cultural institutions such as schools, theaters, magazines, research institutes and book publishing—as long as that culture was Soviet, socialist, secular, and expressed in Yiddish (but not Hebrew). For about fifteen years, Jews had free access to all forms of higher education and to all areas of the state-run economy. Whereas Jews could not even be policemen under the czarist regime, under the Soviets some Jews served as heads of the secret police, as officers in high military and government posts, as editors of important newspapers and journals, and as high-ranking administrators of research institutes and other academic institutions. A Jew served as foreign minister as late as 1939, another as chief political commissar of the Soviet army. There were Jews on the Politburo, the Communist Party’s highest organ, as well as Jewish ministers of the Soviet government, ambassadors, and occupants of leading positions in many fields of endeavor, most of which had been completely closed to Jews before 1917.

This openness was narrowed in the late 1930s, eventually giving way completely to a policy of discriminating against Jews by the late 1940s, for reasons not altogether clear. Some have speculated about Joseph Stalin’s increasing paranoia and fear of internal enemies and the West, which he identified with Jews. Others point to a rising Russian nationalism, spurred by the same world war that saw large parts of the Soviet Union flooded with Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda. The turn to anti-Semitic policies was visible to all. Whereas in the early years after the revolution there were relatively few Russians who were sufficiently educated to run the government and the economy, the enormous drive to make the country literate and expand Soviet education made literate Jews far less crucial to the system than they had been earlier.

Between 1948 and Stalin’s death in 1953, often referred to as the “black years of Soviet Jewry,” the remnants of Soviet Yiddish culture were done away with. Yiddish theaters and publishing houses were closed, not a single Jewish school remained open, and an “anti-cosmopolitan” campaign led to the removal of thousands of Jews from responsible positions in the arts, science, government, and the economy. About twenty leading Jewish cultural figures, along with a few who still occupied important governmental positions, were shot as “enemies of the people” on August 20, 1952. The “doctors’ plot” in the same year saw a group of Jewish doctors in the Kremlin (derisively called “murderers in white coats”) accused of plotting on behalf of foreign governments and Jewish organizations to poison Soviet officials. This seemed to be the harbinger of a collective punishment of Soviet Jews—perhaps the deportation of large numbers to labor camps. A general atmosphere of terror prevailed among the Jewish population when Stalin died in March 1953. A month later it was announced that the “doctors’ plot” had been fabricated. The surviving physicians were released, deportation plans were cancelled, but the idea that Jews were not trustworthy Soviet citizens and should be restricted in their access to higher education and to responsible positions continued to guide Soviet policy until the late 1980s.

In the 1960s and thereafter, a series of “campaigns” were mounted against the Jews. The campaign against “speculation” resulted in a greatly disproportionate number of Jews executed for “economic crimes.” When the “universal” religions, Islam and Christianity, were attacked, no particular ethnic group was targeted. But because Judaism was considered an “ethnic” religion, practiced by one people only, attacks on Judaism were construed as attacks on Jews. Thus, the campaigns against Judaism took on an anti-Semitic cast. Following the June 1967 war in the Middle East, when the Soviet Union was embarrassed by the defeat of its Arab clients by Israel, a sustained anti-Zionist campaign was mounted and lasted two decades. Jews were equated with Zionists, and hostility toward the State of Israel was easily transferred to Soviet Jews.

For forty years, from the end of the 1967 war until the advent of glasnost and perestroika, Soviet Jews lived in a state of tension. They had been forced to abandon their traditional culture, including their Soviet Yiddish culture, and acculturate (mostly to Russian culture), without being able to assimilate and become fully Russian. Most welcomed the opportunity to “trade in” Jewish culture for the “higher” Russian culture, yet they were not allowed to lose their Jewish identities and become officially Russian. Their internal passports made that clear. Thus, they were culturally Russian but socially and officially Jewish, and being Jewish was to be a pariah or, at least, a second-class citizen.

In Like a Song, Like a Dream (1973) Alla Rusinek describes dread she faced each year on the first day of school, when each child had to announce his or her name, nationality, and father’s occupation: “She asks my nationality and then it begins. The whole class suddenly becomes very quiet. Some look at me steadily. Others avoid my eyes. I have to say this word … which sounds so unpleasant. Why? There is really nothing wrong with its sound, Yev-rei-ka [Jewish girl]. But I never heard the word except when people are cursing somebody” (p. 20). The feeling of being marginal and despised is why the fierce loyalty that many Soviet Jews had to their state, and some to its ideology, was gradually replaced by a sense of alienation and rejection, leading over a million people to emigrate.

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