Jews and The Russian Revolution
June 26, 2006 10:45 AM   Subscribe

Jews and The Russian Revolution: "More often than not, we picture nineteenth-century Russian Jews as residents of hermetically Jewish shtetls, small hamlets saturated with tradition and authenticity. After the Revolution of 1917 perceptions dramatically reversed, as Jews suddenly appeared as consummate insiders in the young Soviet state. How are we to make sense of these disparate impressions, stemming from two adjacent historical periods?" [More Inside]
posted by gregb1007 (44 comments total)
In his book Beyond the Pale: the Jewish Encounter with Late Imperial Russia, Benjamin Nathans says that historians have not reconciled the insider and outsider narratives of the Russian-Jewish experience.

One the one hand Russians Jews are thought of as quintessential outsiders: "We are accustomed to thinking of Jews in imperial Russia as the least integrated of all the European Jewish communities, as quintessential outsiders and scapegoats for a regime that eventually collapsed in 1917 under the weight of its own backwardness. It is a view powerfully reinforced by the memories of more than two million emigrants fleeing pogroms and poverty, canonized in the paintings of Marc Chagall and the popular stories of Yiddish writers such as Sholem Aleichem.

On the other hand, they are thought of as consummate insiders : "After the Revolution of 1917 perceptions dramatically reversed, as Jews suddenly appeared as consummate insiders in the young Soviet state. They were extraordinarily visible in the upper echelons of the Communist Party, the Red Army, and the Cheka (the security apparatus that eventually became the KGB), achieving a level of integration within institutions of state power unmatched in any country at any time before or since (apart, of course, from ancient and modern Israel). In the 1920s and 1930s, Jews were a much-noted presence across virtually the entire white-collar sector of Soviet society, as journalists, physicians, scientists, academics, writers, engineers, economists, NEPmen, entertainers, and more.

Comparing the outsider and insider versions of the Russian Jewish story, Nathans stumbles upon a dilemma. He writes:"How are we to make sense of these disparate impressions, stemming from two adjacent historical periods. Was the Russian Revolution responsible for transforming the Jews, overnight as it were, from quintessential outsiders to consummate insiders?"

Yuri Slezkine, author of the Jewish Century offers an explanation for the inability of historians to bridge the outsider and insider images of the Russian Jews in an interview with Australia's ABC National Radio:

"So many history texts about Soviet Jews talk about Jews at the time of the revolution, particularly about the pogroms, about martyrdom and victimisation, and then talk about the persecution of Hebrew, other things that were indeed very important. And then Jews seem to disappear (because) .. people who rebel against Judaism, who eagerly embrace, in this case, the Russian national canon, are seen as no longer Jewish" According to American scholars, "Jews participating in Soviet life, did not seem Jewish anymore... By claiming that people such as Trotsky and Lazar Kaganovich and other Soviet revolutionaries of Jewish background were not really Jewish, you do not have to deal with the question of Jewish participation in the revolution."
posted by gregb1007 at 10:48 AM on June 26, 2006

Lies. Hateful lies. See yesterday's thread where Jewish support for Bolshevism was "debunked" as "simply untrue."
posted by three blind mice at 11:41 AM on June 26, 2006

Extremely interesting stuff, and I'd like to read more of both books. I wish there were more discussion in the linked excerpts of the subject of your post title, "Jews and the Russian Revolution," but I guess you take what you can get online. It would be interesting to examine Mandelshtam, for example, from this point of view; he had a tortured, zigzag relationship with both Bolshevism and Judaism. Good post!

On preview: WTF? Are you determined to wreck every post on the subject of Jews and/or Communism, three blind mice?
posted by languagehat at 12:19 PM on June 26, 2006

I read the whole thread, and saw no such debunking anywhere. I saw wheedling and accusations of anti-Semitism, though. Fairly typical when this topic comes up.
posted by Sukiari at 12:40 PM on June 26, 2006

Because, of course, no accusation of antisemitism is ever justified. Typical, paranoid, totally unfair Jews with their silly oversensitivity.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:44 PM on June 26, 2006

That's not what I said. However, you can't deny that some Jews use the anti-Semitism card when the conversation turns uncomfortable, whether there are any actual anti-Jewish sentiments or statements or not.

Debunking a statement or idea doesn't merely involve calling the person(s) behind them anti-Semites.
posted by Sukiari at 12:51 PM on June 26, 2006

I haven't yet gotten my antisemitism card. I hope it's from Hallmark. They make such lovely cards.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:55 PM on June 26, 2006

And discussing the current policies of Israel have no place in this tread. It's a derail. Wedging the topic into any FPP that addresses Jewish topics is odious.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:57 PM on June 26, 2006

Dobie said it well. You can no longer guilt trip somebody into coming around to their line of thinking merely by labeling them as anti-Semitic. Except maybe in Britain and Germany, where anti-Semitism is a thoughtcrime.

If enough people keep calling people and ideas anti-Semitic when they aren't, that term will continue to lose force, eventually becoming completely irrelevant. It's already happening at a fast pace.

So please, people, Jews, and well wishers, save your accusations of anti-Semitism for people and ideas that are truly and vehemently anti-Jewish. You are doing a great disservice to the discussion and Jewish people when you label anything you don't like 'anti-Semitic'.
posted by Sukiari at 1:04 PM on June 26, 2006

I recently finished reading William Taubman's biography of Khrushchev. Khrushchev was of Russian Orthodox peasant stock, and the vignettes of his interactions with Jewish colleagues and subordinates when party boss in Ukraine were really interesting. He seemed to be torn in at least four directions:

1. Deep-rooted cultural anti-semitism telling him the Jews were at least different from and probably worse than other Russians.
2. His internationalist and egalitarian(ish) Communism telling him that whether someone was Jewish or not didn't matter a bit.
3. The political need to persecute the general Jewish population from time to time, as a propaganda tool.
4. The anti-clerical nature of Communism telling him that people who were religious, whether Orthodox, Uniate or Jewish, were either foolish or suspect, and probably both.

The overwhelming impression I was left with was a mess of internal contradictions.
posted by athenian at 1:12 PM on June 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

To Languagehat and anybody else interested:

There is in fact a video lecture (streamed from a website, so you can watch it online) that discusses Mandelshtam's involvement with Soviet Communism as well as his understanding of his Jewish roots.

You can find it at

The lecturer is Michael Stanislawksi, Professor of Jewish History at University of Columbia.
posted by gregb1007 at 1:15 PM on June 26, 2006

"You are doing a great disservice to the discussion and Jewish people when you label anything you don't like 'anti-Semitic'."

The accusation that Jews were the cause of Russian Bolshevism was a major source of anti-semitism in the 20th century not to mention a major plank in the Nazi Party platform. You may be doing yourself a great disservice by blindly accepting the rationale behind the Holocaust/pogroms.
posted by TetrisKid at 1:15 PM on June 26, 2006

Is this FPP really about the uses and the abuses of the word antisemitism, or is the fact that this thread is about Jews just an opportunity for people to get on their soapboxes and tell Jews to stop being such bullies?
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:19 PM on June 26, 2006

Astro Zombie, a little from column A a little from column B.
posted by dobie at 1:23 PM on June 26, 2006

Astro, I thought that this thread was neither about the userse or abuses of the word anti-semitism, nor about calling Jews' bullies. Maybe it's just a thread about Jews and The Russian Revolution.
posted by gregb1007 at 1:25 PM on June 26, 2006

posted by Astro Zombie at 1:25 PM on June 26, 2006

"Hardly" was in response to dobie. I also thought it was a thread about Jews and The Russian Revolution.
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:27 PM on June 26, 2006

Three blind mice, what upset people was your implication that if Jews were massacred, they had it coming for support the communists. You may not have meant that, but the well has already been poisoned by Holocaust deniers and Nazia apologists, and it's surprisingly naive for you not to know that. There's another thread about Emmett Till here recently and I don't see anyone posting "but hey, he whistled at her."

Sorry gregb19007 - this is a very interesting topic. The Nathans book sounds very interesting, and the Slezkine quote seems bang-on to me.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:31 PM on June 26, 2006

Man, I can't wait for the Future when we'll all be Enlightened and know the Real Truth instead of having the same old argument over and over.
posted by luriete at 1:33 PM on June 26, 2006

(Sorry, my comment was regarding ongoing flamewars over the use of the term "anti-semitism" and the real thing, not the topic of this post itself, which I quite enjoyed and found illuminating.)
posted by luriete at 1:34 PM on June 26, 2006

(sorry for feeding the derail, this is an interesting topic)
posted by dobie at 1:45 PM on June 26, 2006

Prior to the 1917 revolution, relatively few Jews were Bolsheviks, they tended to belong to the Bund, favoring a socialist labor movement rather than revolution, and the pre-1917 party was actually hostile to Jews as a group, though they were in favor of assimilation.

After the Revolution, however, the restrictions against Jews and massive pogroms from the Tzarist days ended, and many Jews did indeed become involved in government. Rubinstein et al in Jews in the Modern World estimates that as much as a third of the senior leadership of the new regime after the Revolution. BUT the same regime rapidly dismantled the civic and religious infrastructure of the Jews of Russia in the 1920s (Hebrew and religious observance was banned, as were Jewish community organizations), and, from the 1940s on, Russia was explicitly anti-Semitic.

So, were there many Jews involved in the early days of the Bolshevik regime? Sure. Was the Communist party run by Jews, or were Jews responsible for it? No scholar would agree with that. Its like saying that the Revolution was Kalmyk-run, that being Lenin's mother's ethnicity. The Jews as a group suffered just as badly, and, eventually, worse, than most others in Russia. So, please, don't push the Jews=communists thing, thanks.
posted by blahblahblah at 2:12 PM on June 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

Joooos AND commies in the same thread. Oh, this will end well.
posted by SenshiNeko at 2:35 PM on June 26, 2006

"The accusation that Jews were the cause of Russian Bolshevism was a major source of anti-semitism in the 20th century not to mention a major plank in the Nazi Party platform. You may be doing yourself a great disservice by blindly accepting the rationale behind the Holocaust/pogroms."

So, true or not, it's anti-Semitic to even mention it? I blindly accept very little. Jewish involvement with Bolshevism is well-proven, dating back to before the turn of the 20th century. Maybe we should just ignore this uncomfortable fact?
posted by Sukiari at 2:49 PM on June 26, 2006

Oh, and +5 points for casually linking me with a Nazi. I guess if you can't reasonably call somebody anti-Semitic, you can call them a Nazi and still get the desired effect.
posted by Sukiari at 2:51 PM on June 26, 2006

Gosh, Sukiari, the Jews just keeppicking on you, don't they?
posted by Astro Zombie at 2:52 PM on June 26, 2006

I guess I must have touched a nerve by not playing along with the accusations of anti-Semitism and shutting up, which is the usual goal of such accusations nowadays.
posted by Sukiari at 2:53 PM on June 26, 2006

I know. Thank goodness you have the intestinal fortitude to put up with it.
posted by Astro Zombie at 3:00 PM on June 26, 2006

Well, I guess you are determined to wreck every post on the subject of Jews and/or Communism, three blind mice. And you've done a damn fine job. Congratulations.

Thanks for the video lecture, gregb1007. Sorry your post got so thoroughly shat on. Maybe Matt will drop by and clean it up.
posted by languagehat at 3:04 PM on June 26, 2006

The overwhelming impression I was left with was a mess of internal contradictions.

As Kruschev was with us Jews, Bush is with us gays, no?

We've always been agitators and radicals--it's one of our greatest strengths--we brought it here with us at the turn of the century as well--Emma Goldman and all her pals, drives to unionize, socialist newspapers, immigrant rights, workers' rights, women's rights, student rights, etc...
posted by amberglow at 3:40 PM on June 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

fucking hell. just to clear things up for you guys, three blind mice was a pathetic social failure when he started posting here, and nothing has changed in the past 1.5 years. now all this thread needs is delmoi derail to reassert his earth-shattering generalisms on zionism and anti-semitism.

gregb1007, thanks for the post, and frankly i'm embarrassed that we can't speak of jewish history and identity on this site without some predictable asshole shitting-out israeli agenda policy kills zionist regime racist ideology apartied wall blargh blargh jews are evil because jesus christ said so. carry on...
posted by naxosaxur at 3:57 PM on June 26, 2006

Here's a tip Sukiari: Don't wanna get called on anti-semitism or crypto-Nazism? Don't parrot Nazi talking points. It's pretty simple.
posted by TetrisKid at 4:11 PM on June 26, 2006

Do the Nazis have talking points?
posted by Meatbomb at 4:24 PM on June 26, 2006

From their jungle HQ in Paraguay, or what?
posted by Meatbomb at 4:25 PM on June 26, 2006

Do the Nazis have talking points?

of course they do, they're called historical revisionism.

and the irony is, it works -- time does much of the dirty job for them, killing off the last survivors of the camps, the last eyewitnesses of the horror. then, the revisionists can just pretend to challenge "orthodoxy" -- some of them make a fatal mistake, they overreach, like Faurisson, cooking up some bullshit about the gas chambers being structurally incapable of killing people, or like Irving, and they get justly busted.

the smarter ones operate like tbm does, trying to disseminate the occasional poisonous slur, if unable to back up their lies with actual scholarship. they just pretend to be "scholars", or "history buffs". they know that in some countries -- like Germany, or Austria, countries that have actually experienced the horror -- their lies are a criminal offense. but free-speech American laws protect these merchants of hate more than they protect pacifists, nowadays (free speech zones for protesters, anybody?).

wanna hear another sick joke? if you Google the name of one of the most prominent Shoah historians, a survivor himself, the second result is actually a Holocaust-denial site. camouflaged, of course, as a "scholarship" site (guess Google is too busy kissing Beijing's ass to care about minutiae like that). those site do not carry any swastikas -- they're too subtle for that. they just repeat lies that can look true to the clueless, the ignorant or the already prejudiced. lies like, the Poles weren't really antisemites, they tried to defend their country from the treasonous Jews and from communism. and they always skip the hard facts, the millions of ghosts -- inconvenient facts. they just attack some minor issue, trying to disseminate doubt. gutta cavat lapidem, etc

you repeat it often enough, a lie will start sounding dangerously like the truth. and, as I said, time helps these criminals.
posted by matteo at 4:57 PM on June 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

I thought this was about Jews in the Communist movement. If you are saying that it isn't the case that there were a lot of Jews in the early 20th c. movement, then you are the revisionist.
posted by Meatbomb at 6:38 PM on June 26, 2006

I don't mind being called a Nazi. It's hilarious to me. I'm not a Nazi, of course, which makes it all the more amusing, TetrisKid.
posted by Sukiari at 7:17 PM on June 26, 2006

Nobody called you a Nazi, they just pointed out that you parroted Nazi talking points. That does not make you a Nazi. However, do you have a mustache that looks like a big dark caterpillar crawling across you upper lip?
posted by caddis at 8:38 PM on June 26, 2006

I parroted nothing. I'm not even aware of Nazi talking points per se. But every time I shave, I am tempted to leave a nose wide mustache on my upper lip, if only to object to the fact that one man single-handedly destroyed everyone's ability to wear a certain kind of facial hairstyle.
posted by Sukiari at 12:17 AM on June 27, 2006

posted by Astro Zombie at 6:48 AM on June 27, 2006

As for allegations of antisemitism, I'm currently reading Beyond Chutzpah by Norman G. Finkelstein, along with Pity the Nation by Robert Fisk.

And as for allegations of Jewish influence in 20th (and 21st) century political movements in the Russian Empire, the RFSR/USSR and current Russian Federation, don't forget this guy. (I know, I know....)

But seriously, of course there were Jewish Bolsheviks: the only 20th century European political movements that did not have significant Jewish input were the explicitly and rabidly antisemitic ones such as the German Nazis. It's a by-product of modernization, thanks to which Jews also became dentists and eventually computer programmers. (Quick everybody, switch off your computers and pull all your teeth so you don't become a victim of ZOG!)
posted by davy at 11:42 PM on June 29, 2006

I just found a Wikipedia article on Jewish political movements. (Hi Naxosaxur!)
posted by davy at 12:14 AM on June 30, 2006

And then there's this article entitled Organized National Life of Russian Jews in the Late Soviet and Post-Soviet Era: a View from Moscow. (Apparently the author's last name is not a spoof.)
posted by davy at 12:28 AM on June 30, 2006

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