JEWISH IDENTITY IN RUSSIA       

STEVE JAFFE, February 2000

 

The symbiotic relationship between national culture and identity is obvious: a national culture cannot develop or even exist if there are very few people who identify with it and are prepared to live their lives within it.  Yet, national identity, while not completely dependent on the existence and vitality of a national culture, is likely to be reduced to minimal and passive form in the absence of a national culture. -Zvi Gitelman

 

Throughout the course of history, Jews have often been the scapegoats of society.  This constant persecution and negative view of Jewish culture has, naturally, caused many Jews to let go of their Jewish identity.  This has often been the case in Russia, where not only has there been frequent attacks on Jews, but Jewish culture was repressed by the Communist government.  The Pogoroms of the 20th century, along with the intense wave of Anti-Semitism all over the world surrounding World War II, did little to help promote Jewish identity.  There were many Jews, in fact, who wished nothing more than to not be Jewish.  The turning of the tides in Jew’s attitude towards their self-image was largely apparent in the opening of the gate to emigration in 1968.  Israel would give a boost to the Jewish ego, along with hope for the future.  The fall of Communism helped to loosen the tight control over expressions of Jewish identity in Russia.  Yet, even though “the unity of Soviet nations is now closer than ever, this does not mean, of course, that all questions of nationality relations have been solved.”1

 

 When analyzing Jewish identity in Russia, it is useful to distinguish between two types of identity.  One can distinguish between active identity on one hand, and passive identity on the other.2  Active identity implies a conscious effort to promote oneself as Jewish.  It involves a sense of pride in being Jewish, in showing others that you are Jewish.  This can include wearing certain clothes and speaking and writing in the ethnic language.  Passive identity is more an accident of birth, something that person is born with.  The person knows that they are genetically Jewish, but is neutral (and sometimes even hostile) to this identity.  Whether one considered himself Jewish or not, in the Soviet case, all of its citizens were required to be ethnically identified.  “State-imposes ethnic identification was probably the most important factor in creating a situation of almost total acculturation with nearly no assimilation among Soviet Jews.”3  Ironically, Soviet society discouraged Jewish culture, but insisted on maintaining its citizens’ Jewish identity.  So why keep this identity system?  In short, anti-Semitism.  It would also mean a loss in the State’s control, and “moreover, granting Jews the right to assimilate officially might well have aroused demands for similar treatment from other non-territorial disadvantage groups such as Germans and Poles.”4 

 

The Jews were in fact non-territorial.  Both Lenin and Stalin argued that Jews did not consti­tute a nation.  Lenin argued that since the Jews lacked a territory they could not be a nation.  Stalin elaborated on this argument by “postulating a definition of a nation, which included common lan­guage, territory, economy and psychology among its criteria, and showing that the Jews did not meet these criteria.”5  Stalin fumed at the Bund which he characterized as follows:
The maintenance of everything Jewish, the preservation of all the national peculiarities of the Jews, even those that are patently noxious to the proletariat, the isolation of the Jews from every­thing non-Jewish, even the establishment of special hospitals, that is the level to which the Bund has sunk.6

 

The only solution to the Jewish problem, seemed to be assimilation.  Jewish Communist themselves agreed with their comrades that traditional Jewish culture would have to be abolished because it was feudal and bourgeois in nature.7  One of the greatest obstacles in keeping the Jewish identity in Russia, was that so much of the Jewish culture “was so heavily religious in nature or origin, and that had to be expunged for ideological reasons, not much was left that the Soviet Jew could recognize as distinctly Jewish.”8  A great catalyst for the assimilation of Jews in the Soviet society, was that high-schools and universities were taught in Russian.  If a child had gone to a Yiddish school and wished to continue his education, he would have to relearn everything in Russian!  “Therefore, parents were reluctant to send their children to schools which would handicap them in them in their future education.”9

 

World War II would prove to greatly harm the assimilation of Jews into Russian society.  “Between 1939 and 1944 at least passive identity was forced back on them since it was so crucial to the invading Nazis and their allies to identify Jews.  The degree of acculturation and identity with the Jewish people became irrelevant.”10  WWII, on top of stopping assimilation in its tracks, also contributed to the influx of over a million Jews who were not assimilated from the Baltic and other annexed areas.  Yet even during de-Stalinization (1953-64), any form of Jewish education was still not permitted.11  At this time, Jews who still felt the need for a national identity looked more and more towards emigration to Israel as the only realistic option.  The  June 1967 Arab-Israeli war caused a great sense of pride within the Jewish community.

 

The unique consequence of the war for Soviet Jews was the realization that the Soviet government unequivocally supported those who declared their intentions to destroy Israel.  Until June 1967 Soviet Jews had illusions about co-existence with the regime, despite the fact that it wanted to spiritually destroy the Jews.  But suddenly they realized that the Soviet government identified themselves with those who wish to destroy the Jewish state, the sole hope left for the Jewish people.  Russia spat on the Jewish people, and then we knew that we would never be able to live under such a regime.12

 

The fall of the Berlin wall was a great change for all of the Soviet Union.  It represented freedom, and hope for all Russian, including Jews.  The demise of the religiously repressive Communist government meant that Jews in Russia could begin to practice their religion with pride, and with­out the fear of the government.  Russia has centuries of anti-Semitism behind it, and an economic depression looming before it.  Today some Russian Jewish leaders insist things aren’t so bad.  “You can’t expect that in a country of millions, anti-Jewish things won’t be said...before the demise of the Soviet Union, there was one functioning synagogue in Moscow; today there are nearly half a dozen. A young Jew growing up in the Soviet Union didn’t know what Passover was, while now matzo boxes peek out of shopping bags each spring.”13  Jews, and their identity, have truly gone a long way since the days of the Pogoroms.  It has lived through Lenin, Stalin, WWII and the Cold War.  It was repressed, and many Jews were indifferent to their heritage.  Yet, the Jews of Russia were still able to hold on to their past.

 

1.  Brezhev’s report to the 26th Party Congress. Pravda, February 24, 1981.

2.  Zvi Gitelman.  The Evolution of Jewish Culture and Identity. New York University, New York. 1991 pg 4

3.  Ibid, pg 5

4.  Ibid, pg 7

5.  Ibid, pg 9

6.  Joseph Stalin.  Marxism and the National Question. International Publishers, n.d. New York. pg 42 

7.  Shmuel Ettinger.  The Position of Jews in Soviet Culture. Jewish Affairs, London. 1984 pg 39

8.  Zvi Gitelman.  The Evolution of Jewish Culture and Identity.  New York University, New York. 1991 pg 11

9.  Ibid, pg 12

10. Ibid, pg 14

11.  Shmuel Ettinger.  The Position of Jews in Soviet Culture.  Jewish Affairs, London. 1984 pg 51

12. David Giladi.   Twenty-Eighth World Zionist Congress in Haaretz.        January 25, 1972.

13. Newsweek.com  Looking for Scapegoats.  November 23rd, 1993 pg. 2

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