THIS FALL, the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow is organizing special exhibits and lectures to mark the 100- year anniversary of the Russian Revolution.
On display will be leaflets from Jewish political parties and paintings by Russian-Jewish revolutionary artists, as well as letters and diary entries of Jewish revolutionaries such as Leon Trotsky. Some of these items, including a government document that banned the teaching of Hebrew in schools will be displayed publicly for the first time, according to curator Grigory Kazovsky.
The museum is also planning a festive concert of Jewish revolutionary songs and poems performed in Yiddish and Russian.
“The anniversary of the revolution is an excuse to talk about what we never talked about before. November 7 was always a huge celebration in the USSR, but the Jewish aspects were never discussed,” says Boruch Gorin, chairman of the museum’s Board of Trustees. “Now, using new facts and new research we can talk about it for the first time.”
Similar events are being organized elsewhere, as well.
In Kiev, the Ukrainian Association of Jewish Studies is hosting a conference entitled “Ukrainian Jews: Revolution and Post-Revolutionary Modernization” in mid-October; and, in New York, there will be a conference headlined “Jews in and after the 1917 Russian Revolution” put on by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. Even in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, which is probably the most famous of all Russian art museums, there will be an exhibit of the works of El Lissitzky, a Jewish artist of the Revolutionary era who illustrated Yiddish children’s books.
But is the anniversary of the Russian Revolution something the Jews should celebrate? “It’s very complicated,” says Gorin.
“There were a lot of positive changes, but at the same time it was also a time of destruction of Jewish religious institutions. On the one hand, it’s bloody. On the other, it’s the light of sunrise.”
To be clear, there were actually two revolutions in Russia in 1917.
The first, in February, toppled the Russian monarchy and installed a provisional government.
Already by the end of March, the provisional government issued a groundbreaking law, establishing equality for all Russian citizens, regardless of their religion or ethnicity.
The Pale of Settlement that had prevented Jews from living in big Russian cities was abolished, as well as the quotas that had limited how many Jewish students could attend primary and secondary schools. The antisemitic military conscription law, which had forced the Jewish community to meet a higher quota for army recruits, was gone.
Understandably, the Jewish community was ecstatic. “Our dream came true,” excitedly began an article published in April of 1917 in the Jewish Week
, a Moscow newspaper.
The article was reprinted this year in the Russian-Jewish magazine Lechaim
“The dream of many generations of Russian Jewry came true – suddenly, quickly and all at once – it is as if a huge ball of bright sunlight entered the darkness of Jewish life.
Our age-old shackles are gone. The Great Russian Revolution brought us the heavenly gift of equality.”
Then, in October (actually November 7, according to the new calendar), there was a second revolution, led by communist leader Vladimir Lenin. It is this date that was widely celebrated every year in the Soviet Union with parades, balloons and marches.
There are several misconceptions about the role the Jews played in the October revolution, Gorin says.
“One myth is that the Jews made the revolution happen. Another myth is that the revolution was not important for the Jews – both are not correct,” he says. “On the one hand, the Bolshevik Revolution was not a Jewish plot, yet at the same time the Jews were very active in 1917 on both sides of the revolution.”
One of the main organizers of the October Revolution was Leon Trotsky, an assimilated Jew who is widely considered the second most important Russian revolutionary leader after Lenin. The first head of state of Soviet Russia was Yakov Sverdlov, who was also Jewish. (Sverdlov died just two years after the revolution from the flu, but streets all over the former Soviet Union are still named for him.) The leaders of the Mensheviks, the socialist party that held slightly different views from the Bolsheviks, were also mostly Jewish, according to Gennady Estraikh, a Jewish history professor at New York University. The Mensheviks’s leader Julius Martov, who was Jewish, was one of Lenin’s closest friends.
The Jewish Museum in Moscow will showcase the pamphlets of the Jewish communists, written in Russian, the Yiddish fliers of the anarchists, and the writings of the Zionist socialists. There are photos of Jews marching through the streets of the Russian capital with Stars of David on their banners, and even a Jewish communist pamphlet that says, “Jewish Red Army soldier, protect your Socialist homeland!” A year after the revolution, Soviet Russia became the first country in the world to declare antisemitism a crime ‒ even an antisemitic joke could land a person in prison.
“Antisemitism was considered an expression of anti-Soviet views,” says Vyacheslav Likhachev, a historian at the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, a Jewish community organization from the former Soviet Union.
“The Soviets fought against antisemitism in every way they could, starting with children’s education.”
During the first years of the revolution, the Soviet government sponsored Jewish culture, including Yiddish theater, literature and the arts. Yiddish was promoted as the language of the Jewish working class. Soviet Russia became the center of Yiddish culture in the world, says Gorin.
With antisemitic restrictions gone, Jews moved to Russia’s cities, rushed into the universities and entered professions that previously had been closed to them.
“Under the Soviets, Jews became active in the sciences, in the arts, in politics, in higher education. The personal achievement of the Jews in the Soviet Union cannot be compared to pre-Revolutionary times,” says Gorin.
Yet, the Russian Revolution, which promised to be so good for the Jews, had a dark side.
In the Jewish museum in Moscow, a black and white photograph bears witness to the horror. A woman with uncombed hair is sitting at her child’s sickbed. The child is terrified, but his mother is not looking at him, she is staring into space. The caption reads, “A Jewish refugee from the shtetl of Kovchitsi, in Bobruisk, at the bedside of her last remaining child who has a deadly injury. Her three older children were murdered.”
The photo was taken between 1918 and 1920 during the Russian civil war that broke out after the revolution. Because the Jews were connected in some people’s minds with the new communist government, they were attacked by those who fought against the Bolsheviks. It is estimated that some 100,000 to 200,000 Jews were slaughtered and thousands more maimed, raped or left homeless. Some historians describe the pogroms of the Russian civil war as “a rehearsal for the Holocaust.”
Even after the war, the situation for Soviet Jews did not improve for long.
The Soviet government’s attitude toward Jewish cultural life changed. In the 1930s, Jewish schools, synagogues, Yiddish theaters and Jewish publications were all shut down. In Kiev alone, which had 30 Jewish newspapers in 1919, not a single Jewish publication remained by the 1930s, says Likhachev. Members of the Jewish community who had been employed in any aspect of religious life – rabbis, Hebrew school teachers, kosher butchers and others – found themselves without a way to make a living.
There was no place for religion in Soviet Russia.
This is why many in the Jewish community of the former Soviet Union will not be celebrating the anniversary of the revolution.
“The revolution broke down the traditional Jewish way of life and led to the deaths of many thousands of Jews,” says Boleslav Kapulkin, spokesman for Chabad Lubavitch in Odessa, Ukraine, the city that always had the reputation of being the most-Jewish metropolis in the Soviet Union. “In general, there were some improvements for the Jews in the beginning, but in the end they all turned out for the worse.”
Kapulkin gives the example of schooling.
At first, the revolution abolished the quotas for Jewish students in public schools, which was a good change. But, later on, the government shut down all Jewish schools. So, in the end, he says, the revolution did not benefit Russian Jews.
But, Estraikh says that in the long term the Jews actually became extremely successful under Soviet rule. “If we compare [Jews] with Russians, Ukrainians and other ethnic groups, the Jews were the most successful group,” he says. “If we look at the percentage of Jews in academics, how many Jews had PhDs, how many Jewish composers and writers there were, their level of education, the positions they held – [they were more successful than other ethnic groups]. For example, in 1950, every third member of the USSR’s Writers’ Union was Jewish,” he says.
The decision of Soviet Jews to flee from the country where they were so successful is something that has not been sufficiently studied or understood by Jewish historians, he says.
“I think that’s one of the main paradoxes and much remains to be written about it.”The exhibition entitled “Freedom for All: The history of one people in the years of Revolution” opens at the Jewish Museum in Moscow on October 17.
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