The two deadliest political movements of the last century were Nazism and communism, but while most everyone agrees that the Nazis epitomized evil, the centennial of the Communist revolution stirs up memories, both of gulags and Jewish persecution braided with wistful recollections of the revolution’s almost messianic promise — a “workers’ paradise.” Some remember an Orwellian nightmare that killed 30 million Soviet citizens; others remember communism as a romance gone wrong, but weren’t the dreams of 1917 worth dreaming? Or not?
Hollywood never romanticized Hitler’s beer hall putsch, but the first blush of communism in 1917 has been turned into some of the most romantic epics, such as Warren Beatty’s “Reds” or David Lean’s “Dr. Zhivago.” The entry on communism in the Jewish Women’s Archive noted that in the 40 years after the revolution, “communism was the most dynamic force in American left-wing politics.” According to the archive, in the United States, almost half of the party’s membership was Jewish in the 1930s and 1940s.
The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research recently presented a conference on Jews in and after the 1917 Russian Revolution. Steven Zipperstein, academic adviser to the conference, noted that Jews played a “prominent — if also profoundly paradoxical” role in the Communist revolution. On the one hand, the overthrow of the czar “liberated the largest Jewish community in the world.” Jews no longer were forced to live within the “Pale of Settlement,” no longer were banned from professions or from cities such as Moscow. There was a flourishing of Jewish culture; 48 Russian-Jewish newspapers were founded in 1917 alone.
Promised freedom, Russian Jews formed a united National Jewish Congress, democratically elected, with representatives from chasidim to Zionists to secularists. It never convened.
Instead, said YIVO’s Zipperstein, communism “opened the floodgates for the greatest massacre of Jews before the Second World War.” Before long, “the singular richness of Jewish cultural life in Russia was flattened, eventually obliterated.”
A bitter Jewish “joke” made the rounds: “The Trotskys made the revolution but the Bronshteins [Trotsky’s original Jewish name] will pay for it.” But how Jewish was the Russian Revolution, really? In 2013, JTA reported that during Russian-Jewish negotiations about returning a Chabad library confiscated in 1917, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the confiscation was the Jews’ fault. No, not the Chabad Jews but the Communist Jews. “The decision to nationalize this library,” said Putin, “was made by the first Soviet government, whose composition was 80-85 percent Jewish.” They “supported the arrest and repression of Jews … .”
Putin was simply repeating an oft-told assumption. In fact, Yori Yanover, an Israeli journalist, went through the roster of Lenin’s original commissars, and found that none were Jewish except Trotsky, who was hardly motivated by his lapsed Judaism. According to the YIVO, among Russia’s original leftist parties, Jews “were a quarter to a third of the members,” and were 20 percent of the Central Executive Committee of the Provisional government.”
The strangling of Jewish culture was evident by 1928, when a JTA report quoted an item in the Krasnaya Gazetta (a Leningrad newspaper), in which the Soviet Commissar of Education paid lip service to Jewish equality: “Our path is the fusion of all peoples and the opening of brotherly arms to the Jewish proletariat and intelligenzia.” On the other hand, “We won’t permit the opening of schools in Hebrew, a dead language. We will combat the relics of the Middle Ages, the Schneersonovschina [the work of Chabad’s Schneersons].” He wasn’t wrong about the Schneersons making trouble. In 1924, 10 of the Rebbe’s followers took a minyan’s oath to establish a Jewish underground. Several decades later, Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir, who had been a leader of the Mossad intelligence agency, said, “In the [1950s] we decided to investigate the status of Soviet Jewry, and we discovered that there was a clandestine Jewish network already in place, directed by the Rebbe in Brooklyn.”
Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote that in 1938, “People are groaning and dying … in psychiatric hospitals. Doctors are making their evening rounds, injecting people with drugs which destroy their brain cells.” Brains were bad. “We don’t allow our enemies to have guns,” said Stalin. “Why should we allow them to have ideas?”
And then, in 1939, the very next summer, just months after Kristallnacht, Stalin and Hitler went from being enemies to allies. That August, in the Bronx co-ops founded by the predominantly Jewish-Communist United Workers Cooperative Colony, Jews spent the last evenings of summer looking for goodness in the Hitler-Stalin Pact. How bad could it be bad if Stalin thought it good? Young Jewish men would get up on soapboxes near the elevated train, reassuring workers that Stalin’s deal with Hitler was good for “peace.” Poland, the world’s most vibrant Jewish community, was invaded and decimated just days later.
In that same 1939, Peretz Markish, a secular Yiddish poet, was considered so acceptable by the Kremlin that he became the first and only Yiddish writer to receive the Order of Lenin. However, Markish later said, “Hitler wanted to destroy us physically; Stalin wants to do it spiritually.” Markish was arrested and tortured until confessing to treason. He was among the 15 Yiddish writers murdered on Aug. 12, 1952, the “Night of the Murdered Poets.” Twenty years later, in 1972, Esther went to the Great Moscow Synagogue to say Kaddish on her husband’s yahrtzeit. JTA reported that Esther needed medical assistance after being attacked by a government agent who said he worked for the synagogue. (Glenn Richter, national coordinator for New York-based Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, told JTA at the time that it was common practice for government agents to act as monitors in Soviet synagogues.) In one generation, the Markish family went from the Order of Lenin to applying to emigrate to Israel, even if that meant even more government harassment.
This week, Richter told us that during the height of the Soviet Jewry movement (1971-1990), 352,380 Jews emigrated to Israel, with an additional 174,463 emigrating to the United States.
In New York, Jews founded a daily Yiddish paper, the Morning Freiheit, affiliated with the Communist Party. Paul Novick, the Freiheit’s editor wrote, “The Soviet Union is the only country in Europe where, in spite of all the efforts of Hitler to exterminate the Jewish people, millions of Jews have survived. … the result of [a] policy of true equality and friendship among races and nationalities.”
In 1948, the Soviet Union almost immediately recognized the new State of Israel, though the Soviets quickly pivoted to the Arab side. Nevertheless, as late as 1967, when Israelis were digging mass graves in fear of Arab armies that threatened to annihilate Israel, with Soviet support, “you went to some kibbutzim in Israel,” said Richter, “and saw pictures of Stalin.”
In 1956, when Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s crimes, Jewish Currents, a magazine founded by the Freiheit, admitted, “the wiping out of Soviet Jewish culture, confirmed in the past few months, horrified us.” Then they questioned themselves: “Why did this magazine … fail to raise questions concerning the shutting down of Jewish cultural institutions in the Soviet Union? Why did we not suspect foul play in the disappearance of leading Soviet Jewish writers?” Most writers at Jewish Currents never denounced Communism, but after 1956 they began to wonder.
At Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, said Richter, “We subscribed to Jewish Currents to keep a pulse on what Jewish Communists were thinking. I remember the editor [Morris Schappes, who died in 2004] lived a few blocks from me, and we’d be in touch. He used to be really subservient to the Communist line, and stayed faithful in his way, but drifted because of what he knew was happening with Soviet Jews. I remember the very slow arc that his [consciousness] took. He began to understand the desire of Soviet Jews to emigrate.”
In 2001, after communism fell, Soviet dissidents such as Natan Sharansky, once a prisoner in the gulag before moving to Israel, returned to Moscow for the rededication of Moscow’s Marina Roscha synagogue. Putin, once a KGB agent in the last years of communism, hammered-in the mezuzah on the shul’s front door. And now, 100 years later, 1917 seems so long ago.
As the blacklisted Weavers used to sing, “Wasn’t that a time?”