Communism was deemed by its adherents to be eternal. Few could contemplate its decay and a final crumbling into the dust of ages. Its meaning was its existence. Most who lived under Communism accepted their lot, avoided trouble and got on with living their lives as best they could. Few possessed the courage and foresight to confront and challenge the complacency. While the Communist functionary, Boris Yeltsin, explained the latest ideological conundrum, many others suffered persecution, social isolation, imprisonment and exile for their beliefs.
During this time, some Jews discovered that the path to the truth lay in reclaiming their Jewishness. They became ardent Zionists and participated in the leadership of the movement advocating emigration to Israel.
The effect of the Six Day War on Soviet Jews coincided with the renewed oppression of dissidents under Brezhnev and Kosygin. This confluence of events brought forth the Jewish emigration movement. In addition, such a faith in a Promised Land—and not always a geographical location—propagated a principled obstinacy which persisted in demonstrating throughout the 1970s and 80s that the Communist Emperors wore no clothes. And many Jews who chose to remain in the USSR played an important role in preparing the ground for glasnost and perestroika. By August 1991, that kind of spirit enabled large numbers of brave souls to confront tanks, armed solely by the depth of their convictions. Indeed, many Jews rallied to the call to defend the White House against the Soviet junta. The Yeltsin camp made extensive use of the Jewish communications network to transmit information and instructions to their followers. The tragic death of the young Jewish architect, Ilya Krichevsky, at the hands of the putschists, symbolically reflected the disproportionate participation of many ordinary Jews in this drama. Whilst it is often said that the Jews created Communism—and not always by friends—today it is also true to say that they have helped to destroy it.
Yet there are many Jews in this country and abroad who have devoted their life’s energies to issues of social justice and who undoubtedly feel an inner dismay at the fading of the Soviet Union. While there are certainly no tears for the party hacks and careerists, there is an undisguised regret that the idealism inspired by the Age of Ideology is now at an end. The dreams and hopes of a generation have been replaced by primitive nationalist passions and religious fundamentalism.
For decades, Communism was believed by multitudes across the globe to be synonymous with the ideals of social justice and human progress. Yet Bolshevism was never of the left, it was beyond it. Lenin initiated the destruction of the Left within weeks of the October coup d’etat when he began to close down their newspapers and periodicals simply because they expressed different views. His reliance on the non-socialist philosophy of Bakunin and Nechaev introduced revolutionary violence and the “Red Terror” to persecute and imprison any left-wing opponents of the new regime. Lenin’s use of expediency in the name of revolutionary survival extinguished any semblance of ethical behaviour in Soviet political life.
A wide array of prominent figures on the Left, such as Vera Zasulich, Pyotr Kropotkin, Rosa Luxemburg, as well as the Jewish Mensheviks, Yuli Martov and Pavel Axelrod, were all opposed to the attempt to build socialism in such a backward country as Russia. Georgy Plekhanov, the “father” of Russian Marxism who returned after nearly four decades in exile, declared that
their dictatorship represents not the dictatorship of the toiling population, but the dictatorship of one part of it, the dictatorship of a group. And precisely because of this they have to make more and more frequent use of terroristic means. The use of these means is the sign of the precariousness of the situation, and not at all a sign of strength. And in any case neither socialism in general nor Marxism in particular has anything to do with it. (Nashe Edinstvo, 13 January 1918, quoted in Intelligentsia and Revolution by Jane Burbank, 1986)
Within a few years, all the major parties of the Left had been outlawed. Their members were hounded and imprisoned—some were murdered by the Cheka—and their leaders driven into exile. And to add insult to injury, official propaganda depicted anti-Bolshevik socialism as right-wing reaction, bent on destroying the People’s State. Bolshevism was a poisonous weed which had taken strong root in fertile conditions. It proved effective in destroying the ancient regime and its liberal replacement, the Kerensky interregnum, but amidst all the ideological bluster, it failed to build a just alternative society on the ruins.
Few Jews supported the Bolsheviks at the outset—even though they counted numerous assimilated Jews in the upper echelons of the Party. Most Jewish workers gave their support to the Mensheviks, the Bund or Poale Zion.
The intense and deep Jewish attachment to Communism was stimulated initially by a question of survival. During the Russian Civil War, the Whites’ thirst to eliminate “Jew-Bolsheviks” opened the gates to murderous pogroms which engulfed thousands of Jewish innocents. Many Jews came to the conclusion that the only way to protect themselves against the violence of the nationalists was to support the Red Army. Alienated by the crude illegality of Bolshevik methods but attracted by the messianic call of Revolution, the fight against reactionary anti-Semites persuaded many to merge into the Communist camp. After all, the Revolution was here and now, to be defended, to be developed. Why dream of a Zion that was not even a reality? Why not build a “Palestine in Moscow”? Leninism, however, was unyielding in its refusal to recognize the unique situation of the Jewish people. There could be no separate Jewish party.
Our main task is to carry out everything the Communist Party undertakes to do. We are not a separate party existing by itself; we are merely a part of the Communist Party, the part made up of Jewish workers. Since we are internationalists we do not set ourselves any special national tasks but only class tasks as proletarians. (Semyon Diamanstein, head of the Jewish sections of the Communist Party, October 1918)
The Jewish Communists promoted their own vision of the future. While Yiddish culture flourished and anti-Semitism was officially frowned upon, Communist ex-Bundists and ex-Zionists became the most fervent exponents of the New Order and the most extreme persecutors of the former Jewish way of life. Hebrew was banned, synagogues were requisitioned, literary and cultural endeavours were suppressed—and within a few years, critics who had not left the country were hunted down and sentenced to long periods in prison and exile in the remotest corners of that vast land. Large numbers of Jews suffered repeated terms of incarceration over many decades. Most perished, but a handful who were deported to the Gulag for the first time in the 1920s actually reached Israel in the 1970s.
While these persecutions took place, the hypnotic embrace of Communism touched millions of ordinary Jews outside the Soviet Union. Downtrodden and discriminated against, the appeal of liberation from a degrading life was all-pervading. Communism came to be seen as a noble ideal. Building for the future was well worth the sacrifice of the present. Many accepted Gramsci’s projection of the Bolsheviks as a dedicated elite who “having thus performed its intellectual apprenticeship [in the West] returns to its own country and compels the people to an enforced awakening, skipping historical stages in the process.”
In contrast, who wished to believe those disturbing stories about the Moscow Trials and the purging of thousands? Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin and the rest must have been guilty of serious crimes—in truth, they were enemies of the people. The rise of Nazism turned even the sharpest mind away from confronting the unpalatable truth of Stalin’s ruthlessness. So many exuded a feeling of considerable warmth for the Soviet Union. Who else would stand by the Jews if not the Communists? Thus, in every country, Jews flooded into the Party.
After the Shoah, the callous nature of Soviet policy towards the Jews opened many eyes. Moshe Sneh, the then-leader of the Israeli Communist Party, commented in 1968:
Every Jew knows and feels that he was condemned to death only because of his Jewishness and that only by accident the death sentence was not carried out. Every Jew proudly bears in his heart the yellow patch with the Star of David that our brothers were forced to carry on their backs as a sign of disgrace while being still alive, and as a shipping tag to the death camp. To come to these people now and advise them: “assimilate please, forget that you were Jews, free yourselves from your Jewishness so that you will be free”—can anything more cynical and cruel be imagined? At any rate it is impossible to give our grieving people such advice in the name of Communism: Communism came to liberate man from alienation, not to impose it upon him and order him not to be himself.
By the time Gorbachev came to power, most Jews were no longer blinded by the light and had left the Party long before.
Communism provided a spiritual framework encompassing faith and education. Its worshippers had seen the future in Soviet Russia and they believed that it worked. Did not the prophets of ancient Israel rage against exploitation and the corruption of the ruling power? Propelled by that illusion, they lived and acted out those high ideals. Now, at the end of the twentieth century, there seems to be a movement away from that clearly defined sense of purpose, towards a world where ideals and beliefs are of diminishing consequence. The blandness of an amorphous post-ideological age proclaims emptiness and personal profit as virtues.
For many decades, Communism was perceived to be a necessary process of social engineering which would transform the human condition for the better. It proved in reality to be a reductive dogma where the right to question and investigate was heresy. For the Jews whose tradition is a sacred intellectualism, this was both immoral and corrupting. To use Michael Walzer’s phrase, “the Ancient and Honourable Company of Social Critics” was the group most feared by the Communists. They had no place in Soviet society since they challenged its prevailing myths.
As many have come to understand, Communism was always a flawed God and it subsequently consumed so many of its most ardent believers. Yet the decency behind the dogma as a value is timeless and indestructible. The Jewish dream of repairing the world remains. It awaits new bearers of the truth to retrieve it ‘from the sterility of contemporary times.
Jewish Quarterly Winter 1991