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“Stalin became interested in the Jewish question closer to his death in 1953”— says historian
“Stalin became interested in the Jewish question closer to his death in 1953”— says historian
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“Stalin became interested in the Jewish question closer to his death in 1953”— says historian

How was the state policy towards the Jews in the Soviet Union formed and how did the international situation affect these processes?

Our guest is Serhiy Girik, historian and professor at the master’s program in Judaic studies at the «Kyiv-Mohyla Academy» National University.

Serhiy Girik: There were regions in the Soviet Union where many Jews lived. There, state policy that regarding them was relevant. On the other hand, there were regions where Jews did not live at all, and their question was a formality. We are talking about regions that were beyond the limit of settlement before the revolution: Siberia and the Urals. There were small communities of Jews in the big cities there but there were no Jews outside those big cities. In the territory that was on the border of settlements in pre-revolutionary times, the density of the Jewish population was high, and it remained this way.

When did the state policy towards Jews in the USSR begin to take shape?

Serhiy Girik: In all territories, all governments of the former Russian Empire tried to solve various aspects of the national question, and in particular, the attitude towards Jews, starting from the time of the Provisional Government, which announced the abolition of all restrictions on Jews. Later, the Bolsheviks tried to integrate the Jews who were not fully integrated into society.

They created special units and special structures within the party for this purpose. These are separate departments in the People’s Commissariat of the RSFSR and the Republican People’s Commissariat for Nationalities, Jewish departments under individual party committees, which were staffed with activists of Jewish parties absorbed by the Bolsheviks. Therefore, the Soviet government’s policy towards the Jews in the early 1920s was mostly shaped by the hands of the representatives of the Jewish minority themselves. The Bolsheviks systematically began to try to implement it immediately after coming to power.

What was the attitude towards the Jews?

Serhiy Girik: The policy towards Jews differed in certain periods. Until the 20s, everything was just taking shape.

In 1923 the policy of indigenization was implemented (the creation of Jewish schools with Yiddish teaching, separate Jewish pedagogical and agricultural technical schools, and a separate institution of higher education on the territory of the Ukrainian SSR). Jews could get an education in their native language, but the graduates ended up in a certain informal ghetto and could only work in areas where Jews lived compactly. At that time, Jewish collective farms and national districts were created in southern Ukraine and Crimea.

  • During this period, the Jewish Autonomous Oblast was created with its center in Birobidzhan. This was a prototype of the uncreated future Jewish republic where an attempt to introduce the Yiddish language was unsuccessful.

From the end of the 1930s, there was a complete collapse of all this. In 1938, all schools teaching in the Yiddish language were liquidated. In 1939, after Western Ukraine and Western Belarus joined the Soviet Union, schools in Yiddish were allowed to exist for a short time in these regions, and newspapers were printed in that language.

  • After WW2, none of this was renewed and Jewish cultural activity was suppressed. After 1949, and after the liquidation of the Jewish publishing house and the newspaper «Enikait» in Moscow, mass repressions against Jews began. This included a complete ban on any cultural activity in the Yiddish language and the liquidation of Jewish writers in 1952-1953.

Up until the collapse of the Soviet Union, the policy of restoring Jewish culture in the Yiddish language was very limited. It was only done to show that this culture exists, but it only appealed to older people who can read the magazine «Sovietisch Gameland» or individual books published by «Soviet Writer» in Moscow.

Who shaped the policy towards the Jews in the Soviet Union?

Serhiy Girik: During the 1920s, there was competition between various politicians. There were different points of view. One of them was represented by Larin, the other by Kalinin.

Stalin became interested in the Jewish question before his death. This was from 1949-1953 when the flywheel of Jewish repression was spinning. Stalin did not consider it important, compared to other aspects of the national question. During WW2, Solomon Michaels traveled to the USA to lobby for the provision of financial assistance by the US Jewish communities to the Soviet Union for the purchase of weapons and ammunition. He was welcomed there, and he collected large sums of aid. After the war, Stalin and representatives of the KGB close to him began to promote the conspiracy theory that «American intelligence recruited Michaels and was preparing a conspiracy against the authorities of the Soviet Union.” After the proclamation of the state of Israel in 1948, Jews were perceived as potential citizens with dual loyalty. This issue was about loyalty to one’s homeland outside the USSR.

What was society’s attitude towards the Jews?

Serhiy Girik: In the 1920s, there were frequent instances of the old traditional Judeophobia — not yet modern anti-Semitism — which was being done by parts of the local population. From the position of the higher authorities, anti-Semitism was condemned.

  • After the Second World War, when there were significantly fewer Jews, domestic anti-Semitism significantly decreased. At the same time, we see manifestations of conspiratorial government anti-Semitism, such as quotas for admission of Jews to higher education institutions.

Domestic anti-Semitism in this period takes the form of anti-Semitic anecdotes. There are no more manifestations of riotous agitation.

Policy towards Jews during the collapse of the USSR and the beginning of the Russian Federation

Serhiy Girik: After 1953 and the restoration of diplomatic relations with Israel for 14 years (until 1967), the degree of anti-Jewish propaganda dropped. At the same time, in the late 1950s, anti-religious politics were active.

  • After 1967, anti-Zionist propaganda starts to cross the line between rejection of Israel’s policies and anti-Semitism.

The Anti-Zionist Committee of Soviet Society is created. In this format, it operates until the collapse of the Soviet Union. At the same time, as part of the «detente policy» during Brezhnev’s time, some Jews were allowed to leave the Soviet Union.

After 1979, the number of Jews expelled from the Soviet Union decreased significantly. At the end of the 1980s, these restrictions were lifted and the «great aliyah» began, which continued throughout the 1990s in all former Soviet Union republics.

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