Stalin became interested in the Jewish question toward the end of his life in 1953, says historian

How was the state policy toward the Jews formulated in the Soviet Union, and how did the international situation influence these processes?

Our guest today is the historian Serhiy Hirik, who teaches in the Master's Program in Jewish Studies at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy.

Serhiy Hirik: In the Soviet Union, there were regions populated by a considerable number of Jews. The state policy toward the Jews was relevant there. There were regions without any Jews whatsoever, and the Jewish question was a formality there. I am referring to those regions that were outside the Pale of Settlement before the revolution: Siberia and the Ural region. Small communities of Jews existed in cities located there. There were no Jews outside large cities. If a territory in the Pale of Settlement was densely populated by Jews during the prerevolutionary period, it so remained.

When did the state policy toward the Jews begin to be formulated in the USSR?

Serhiy Hirik: In all territories, every Russian imperial government sought to resolve various aspects of the nationality question and, in particular, the treatment of Jews, starting from the time of the Provisional Government, which abolished all restrictions concerning Jews. Later, the Bolsheviks tried to integrate those Jews who had not been fully integrated into society.

For this, they created special government agencies and intraparty structures: departments for nationality affairs in the People's Commissariat of the RSFSR and republican People's Commissariats, as well as Jewish departments within separate party committees staffed by Jewish party activists, which had been absorbed earlier by the Bolsheviks. Thus, the Soviet government's policy toward the Jews in the early 1920s was formulated, for the most part, by the representatives of the Jewish minority themselves. The Bolsheviks initiated attempts to implement it in a systematic fashion immediately after their ascent to power.

What was the attitude toward the Jews?

Serhiy Hirik: The policy toward the Jews differed depending on the period. Until the 1920s, everything was just being formulated.

The policy of indigenization began to be implemented in 1923. Jewish schools with Yiddish as the language of instruction, separate Jewish pedagogical and agrarian technical schools, and a separate institution of higher learning on the territory of the Ukrainian SSR were created. Jews could acquire an education in their native language. However, this way, graduates ended up in an informal ghetto and could work only in areas compactly settled by Jews. During this period, Jewish collective farms and national districts were established in southern Ukraine and the Crimea.

The Jewish Autonomous Oblast, with its center in Birobidzhan, was created at this time. It was the prototype of a future Jewish republic, where an unsuccessful attempt was made to introduce office management in the Yiddish language.

All this was rolled back in the late 1930s. The state liquidated all schools with Yiddish as the language of instruction. Next year, after Western Ukraine and Western Belarus became part of the Soviet Union, schools with Yiddish as the language of instruction and Yiddish-language newspapers were briefly permitted in these regions.

After the war, nothing of this was restored, and Jewish cultural activities were crushed. After 1949, following the liquidation of the Jewish publishing house and the newspaper Eynikayt [Unity] in Moscow, mass repressions targeting the Jews began, including a ban on any kind of cultural activities in the Yiddish language and the liquidation of Jewish writers in 1952–1953.

The policy of restoring Yiddish-language Jewish culture was severely restricted after that, until the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The Moscow publishing house Sovetskii pisatel published the journal Sovetish Heymland (Soviet Homeland) and some books, merely in order to demonstrate that this culture existed but only for older people able to read [in Yiddish].

Who formulated the Soviet Union's policy toward the Jews?

Serhiy Hirik: In the 1920s, there was competition among various politicians; there were many points of view. One of them was represented by Larin, the other — by Kalinin.

Stalin began to take an interest in the Jewish question in the years 1949–1953, before his death, unleashing a campaign of persecution was unleashed against the Jews. Stalin did not consider it as important as other aspects of the nationality question. During the war, Solomon Mikhoels had traveled to the US to lobby Jewish American communities for financial aid to the Soviet Union to purchase weapons and ammunition. He received a warm welcome there and raised a large sum of money. After the war, Stalin and his closest associates in the KGB began to promote the conspiracy theory, according to which "American intelligence had recruited Mikhoels and was plotting against the Soviet government." After the State of Israel was proclaimed in 1948, Jews began to be perceived as citizens with a potential dual loyalty — above all, to their homeland outside the USSR.

What was the public's attitude toward the Jews?

Serhiy Hirik: In the 1920s, there were frequent relapses of the old, traditional Judeophobia, which had not yet developed into modern antisemitism, among a certain segment of the Soviet public, that is, the grassroots. Antisemitism was condemned in the upper echelons.

After the Second World War, when there were considerably fewer Jews, everyday antisemitism markedly decreased. At the same time, we see manifestations of antisemitism in the government, for example, quotas to limit Jews' access to institutions of higher learning.

During that period, everyday antisemitism existed in antisemitic jokes. There were no longer any manifestations of pogrom agitation.

The policy regarding Jews during the period marked by the collapse of the USSR and the beginnings of the RF

Serhiy Hirik: Anti-Judaic propaganda decreased in 1953–67 when the USSR resumed diplomatic relations with Israel. At the same time, the Soviets actively implemented an antireligious policy in the late 1950s.

After 1967, anti-Zionist propaganda crossed the line between rejecting Israeli policies and antisemitism.

The Anti-Zionist Committee of the Soviet Public was created, and it functioned in this format until the collapse of the Soviet Union. As part of the policy of détente during the Brezhnev era, individual Jews were permitted to emigrate from the Soviet Union.

The number of Jews permitted to leave the Soviet Union markedly shrank after 1979. These restrictions were abolished in the late 1980s, and the "great aliyah" began, lasting throughout the 1990s in every former Soviet republic.

This program is created with the support of Ukrainian Jewish Encounter (UJE), a Canadian charitable non-profit organization. 

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.

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