Another week, another centennial. Following the Balfour Declaration’s milestone, it’s now time to look back on the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, where a communist insurrection in St. Petersburg, then known as Petrograd, gave birth to a state that caused untold misery to millions for almost the remainder of the 20th century.
Led by Vladimir Lenin, the Bolsheviks—the “majority” faction of the Russian communists—were a tight-knit, fiercely revolutionary group. Its core members had shared the experience of exile in grand cities like London, Zurich, New York and Paris, as well as the brutalities and loneliness of imprisonment or deportation by the Tsarist authorities. Their organizing principle of “democratic centralism” left little room for any dissent, as Lenin’s literary eviscerations of his opponents attest.
Had it all remained polemical, history would have been different. In its Russian setting, though, Bolshevik rule meant famine, death and an ever-intrusive police state. To begin with, Russia was hardly a natural candidate for a Marxist revolution, given its lack of industry, and its large mass of semi-literate peasants steeped in pre-modern superstitions—particularly about Jews.
And Jews were a big presence in the Bolshevik Party; about one-third of its leadership, in fact. But these leaders did not act for Jewish communal interests, nor did they consider themselves particularly Jewish. It is true that Lenin’s nationalities policy enabled Jewish equality and a flowering of Yiddish newspapers, theater and literature, but it is equally true that he opposed any form of Jewish political self-determination, denouncing with equal fervor the separatism of the Zionist movement, which included Marxist factions like Poale Zion, and that of the anti-Zionist, Jewish socialist Bund. Thus Jewish hopes were betrayed.
As the revolution consolidated, the Jewish section of the Bolshevik Party, known as the “Yevsektsiya,” enthusiastically purged Jewish dissenters, clamped down on the Jewish religion and banned the teaching of Hebrew at a time when there were 300,000 registered Zionists among Russia’s Jews. In tandem, the party itself was undergoing dramatic change, expanding its membership to the point where some of the Jewish Bolsheviks began feeling rather like the Jewish Christians in the time of St. Paul—uncertain about where the revolution they had played such a decisive role in launching would take them.
As the late historian Robert Wistrich observed in his fine study of Leon Trotsky, the Red Army’s Jewish commander viewed the growth of the revolution’s bureaucracy as “the revenge of Russian backwardness on a revolution that had been isolated from the more advanced capitalist countries in Europe.” Continued Wistrich, “The bureaucratization of the Soviet state was rendered almost inevitable by such factors as crushing material want, cultural backwardness and the inherited burdens of the Russian past.”
Trotsky’s biographer, Isaac Deutscher, also noted how the incorporation of large numbers of ordinary Russians into the Bolshevik Party—a good portion of them completely baffled by the finer points of Marxist theory, and often bearing crude social prejudices like anti-Semitism—left the Bolshevik Old Guard more and more isolated. But none of this ennui gave pause to the party’s rapacious brutality, on full display when a rebellion of workers and sailors in the naval fortress of Kronstadt was unceremoniously crushed. The centenary of that atrocity falls in March 1921.
Throughout these early revolutionary years, anti-Semitism remained a social force in the Soviet Union, and therefore ripe for use as a political instrument should the need arise. Few would doubt Lenin’s sincerity in taking the view that it is—as one of his British followers memorably put it—“the nature of the capitalist trap that lies behind the stinking bait of anti-Jew propaganda.” But this Leninist critique of the pogromists’ delusion did not immunize the communists themselves from anti-Semitism. Once the Yevsektsiya finished its job of crushing Jewish self-expression, it too was designated as a reactionary manifestation of Jewish separatism and shut down.
Until 1991, when the Soviet Union finally dissolved following a bitter Cold War of half a century, the seeds planted by the Bolsheviks’ Jewish policy continued to bear their bitter fruit. Jews were banned from emigrating, and those who wanted to emigrate to Israel were singled out for special punishment. The anti-Semitic crescendo reached its peak in 1953, with the infamous “Doctors’ Plot” of Joseph Stalin’s final year; the crescendo never fully dissipated, with Jews subjected to government quotas in education and jobs. Viciously anti-Semitic propaganda, depicting “Zionists” as hook-nosed bankers, was presented as progressive anti-Zionist solidarity with the oppressed, dispossessed Palestinians. In the grim years of communist leaders like Leonid Brezhnev and Yuri Andropov, anti-Zionist Soviet “academicians” became even louder and more outlandish with their conspiracy theories, while the KGB offered generous support to Palestinian terrorists as well as an assortment of German, Japanese, Italian and other armed revolutionary groups.
For anyone over age 20, there will be a Bolshevik centenary to anticipate every year, sometimes more than once. For example, next year, the centenary of the Yevsektsiya’s 1918 founding will be an occasion to commiserate on the terrible fate of Soviet Jews under their own regime, many years before millions of them were hunted down by the invading Nazis. The overriding point is, hardly any of these occasions will be an opportunity for celebration. That is a reminder of how scarred the Jewish people were by the twin Soviet and Nazi experiments in totalitarianism, and why we need to remain vigilant about our liberties in our own troubled century.
Ben Cohen’s column is distributed by JNS.