Russian Jews have long been forced to sacrifice one freedom for another
(June 12, 2022 / Jewish newspaper) In early 1917, shortly after the deposition of the last Russian Tsar, the Provisional Government of the Russian Empire abolished all restrictions on the civil rights of Jews. Until then, Jews were largely confined to the settlement area along the Empire’s western border, were subject to quotas in schools, and faced other forms of occupational, economic, and political discrimination. For about six months, until the October Revolution that overthrew the Provisional Government and brought the Bolsheviks to power, Russian Jews enjoyed genuine political and religious freedom – at least by the standards of the time.
When the Bolsheviks took control of Russia, that freedom disappeared for all citizens of the Empire, including its Jews. After establishing a “dictatorship of the proletariat”, the Communists banned all other political parties. In practice, Soviet citizens now had fewer voting rights than under the Tsar after the 1905 revolution, which had led to the creation of a representative legislative assembly based on a multiparty system.
The officially atheist Communist Party also suppressed religious practice and institutions. This included the imprisonment and even assassination of religious leaders, the destruction of places of worship (or their repurposing for secular purposes), and the suppression of religious teaching. For Soviet Jews, this meant that most synagogues were closed, rabbis were either forced out or violently suppressed, and the Hebrew language and religious instruction were effectively banned, replaced by an officially sanctioned Yiddish culture that preached the new religion. Bolshevik. It was nothing less than a state-sponsored effort to wipe out Jewish culture and traditions throughout the empire.
Nevertheless, many Russian Jews welcomed the Bolshevik regime. They represented a disproportionate number in early Soviet governments and state institutions – just as other ethnic groups were denied such opportunities in the Russian Empire. Despite new prohibitions on their religious, ideological, and social practices, by the 1920s Soviet Jews excelled in Soviet political, cultural, and professional life.
During the early years of the USSR, Soviet Jews continued to enjoy the (relative) legal equality first granted to them by the Provisional Government. Anti-Semitism has even been officially banned by the government. In exchange, the Jews had to sacrifice the possibility of practicing their religion, one of the few rights granted to them by the tsars (although with various restrictions). However, this de facto legal equality would disappear after the Second World War, even if it remained de jure until the collapse of the USSR.
Shortly after the Holocaust, Stalin launched what historians have called the “dark years of Soviet Jewry”, during which the government forced Soviet Jews out of prestigious professions and universities, arrested and in many cases murdered Jewish leaders and fomented an anti-Jewish atmosphere. hysteria throughout the USSR. Stalin’s death in 1953 ended the worst of this official anti-Semitism, but Soviet Jews would continue to face unofficial discrimination and legal inequality. This took the form of academic and professional quotas, the widespread dissemination of state-sponsored anti-Semitic propaganda under the fig leaf of anti-Zionism, and arbitrary refusals by the government to allow them to emigrate. This legal and unofficial discrimination only began to fade in the last years of perestroika and Glasnostbefore dying with the Soviet Union.
What does this have to do with Jews in Russia today? Like their ancestors under the Russian Provisional Government of 1917, Jews in Russia and other nations of the former USSR are free to practice their religion without government interference. Like the Jews of the early years of the Soviet Union, they have excelled politically, economically, and culturally since the collapse of communism. And in recent years, just like those early Soviet Jews, they had to sacrifice one kind of freedom for another. While the former had to give up their religious freedom for political equality, today’s Jews in Russia increasingly find themselves losing the political freedom they – and other Russian citizens – have known. after the collapse of the USSR, while successfully defending their freedom of worship.
While the relative political freedom of the Boris Yeltsin era has steadily eroded under the rule of Vladimir Putin (and Dmitry Medvedev), it has taken a nosedive since Russia invaded Ukraine in February. Since then, the government has shut down what little remained of Russia’s independent press. He passed laws allowing the imprisonment of Russians only for criticizing his attack on Ukraine, which the government calls a “special military operation”. He jailed opposition leaders like Alexei Navalny and Vladimir Kara-Murza on unsubstantiated charges of “extremism” and “terrorism” after first poisoning them.
Russia’s 150,000 Jews are now watching with impatience the evolving relationship between their government and community leaders, wondering if (and how) it will affect the unspoiled religious freedom they have enjoyed since the fall of communism. Jewish religious and communal leaders have faced increasing pressure from the Russian government in recent months to publicly support its invasion of Ukraine. Like the Chief Rabbi of Moscow Pinchas Goldschmidt, most refused to do so. Goldschmidt, who is also president of the Conference of European Rabbis, is now in exile in Israel. Rabbi Berel Lazar of Chabad, one of Russia’s two chief rabbis, called for an end to the ‘madness’ of the invasion and demanded an apology from Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov after he claimed on Italian television that Hitler had Jewish roots.
Thousands of Russian Jews have emigrated since Russia began its 2014 invasion of Ukraine. Israel has seen the largest influx of Russians olim since the fall of the USSR. Former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, who was also the country’s first ambassador to the USSR, once said: “Pessimism is a luxury that a Jew can never afford. If pessimism is a luxury, it is one that the Jews of the former Soviet Union have too often refused to their detriment. As the history of Russia and its Jews has shown time and time again, even when things have been getting better for a while, they can always get worse again. Amid a Russian economy facing its biggest decline in decades, Russian Jews should allow themselves the luxury of pessimism as they plan for their future in (or out of) the country.
Oleg Ivanov is a freelance writer and editor.
This article was originally published by Jewish newspaper.