Russian Jews have long been forced to sacrifice one freedom for another

As the history of Russia and its Jews has shown, even when things have been looking up for a while, they can always get worse again.

From left: Russian President Vladimir Putin, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Environmental Protection Minister Ze'ev Elkin and Chief Rabbi of Russia Berel Lazar meet in Moscow at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, Jan. 29, 2018. Credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO.
From left: Russian President Vladimir Putin, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Environmental Protection Minister Ze'ev Elkin and Chief Rabbi of Russia Berel Lazar meet in Moscow at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, Jan. 29, 2018. Credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO.
Oleg Ivanov. Source: Twitter
Oleg Ivanov

In early 1917, shortly after the deposition of the last Russian czar, the Provisional Government of the Russian Empire abolished all restrictions on Jewish civil rights. Until then, Jews were largely restricted to the Pale of Settlement along the Empire’s western border, faced quotas in schools and experienced other forms of professional, economic and political discrimination. For about half a year, until the October Revolution that overthrew the Provisional Government and brought the Bolsheviks to power, Russian Jews experienced true political and religious freedom—at least by the standards of the time.

When the Bolsheviks took control of Russia, that freedom vanished for all of the Empire’s citizens, including its Jews. Having established a “dictatorship of the proletariat,” the Communists banned all other political parties. In practice, Soviet citizens now had fewer voting rights than they did under the czar 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 cracked down on religious practice and institutions. This included imprisoning and even murdering religious leaders, destroying places of worship (or repurposing them for secular purposes) and suppressing religious education. For Soviet Jews, this meant that most synagogues were closed, rabbis were either forced to resign or violently repressed and Hebrew language and religious instruction were effectively outlawed, replaced by an officially sanctioned Yiddish culture that preached the new Bolshevik religion. This was nothing less than a state-sponsored effort to erase Jewish culture and traditions throughout the empire.

Nevertheless, many Russian Jews welcomed Bolshevik rule. They comprised disproportionate numbers in early Soviet governments and state institutions—as did other ethnic groups denied such opportunities in the Russian Empire. Despite newfound prohibitions on their religious, ideological and social practices, in the 1920s Soviet Jews excelled in Soviet political, cultural and professional life.

During the early years of the USSR, Soviet Jews continued to experience the (relative) legal equality first granted them by the Provisional Government. Anti-Semitism was even officially outlawed by the government. In exchange, the Jews had to sacrifice the ability to practice their religion, one of the few rights afforded them by the czars (albeit with various restrictions). However, this de facto legal equality would disappear after World War II, though it remained de jure until the USSR’s collapse.

Shortly after the Holocaust, Stalin initiated what historians have called the “black 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 atmosphere of anti-Jewish hysteria throughout the USSR. Stalin’s death in 1953 brought an end to the worst of this official anti-Semitism, but Soviet Jews would continue to face unofficial discrimination and legal inequality. This took the form of university 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 began to wane only during the final years of perestroika and glasnost, before dying along 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 the other nations of the former USSR are free to practice their religion without government interference. Like Jews in 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 have had to sacrifice one kind of freedom for another. Whereas the former had to relinquish their religious freedom for political equality, Jews in Russia today increasingly find themselves losing the political freedom they—and other Russian citizens—experienced 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 during Vladimir Putin’s (and Dmitry Medvedev’s) rule, it has taken a nosedive since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February. Since then, the government has shut down what little remained of Russia’s independent press. It has passed laws allowing Russians to be imprisoned solely for criticizing its attack on Ukraine, which the government calls a “special military operation.” It has 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 developments in the relationship between their government and community leaders with baited breath, wondering if (and how) it will affect the unimpaired 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 Moscow’s Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, most have 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, has called for an end to the “madness” of the invasion and demanded an apology from Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov after he claimed on Italian television that Hitler had Jewish roots.

Thousands of Russian Jews have emigrated since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began in 2014. Israel has seen the biggest influx of Russian 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 allow himself.” If pessimism is a luxury, it is one that the Jews of the former Soviet Union have too often denied themselves to their detriment. As the history of Russia and its Jews has repeatedly shown, even when things have been looking up for a while, they can always get worse again. In the midst of a Russian economy facing its greatest 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 Journal.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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