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Jews Under the Soviet Union

In spite of persecution, the Jewish population in the Russian Empire expanded rapidly during the nineteenth century. Later, on the eve of World War I, it was estimated at 5.2 million. Jewish culture had flourished within the bounds imposed on their community, Jews were becoming more active politically, and the more radical among them joined the spreading revolutionary movements.

For Jews, World War I and the Civil War that followed the revolutions in Russia were great calamities. The Pale of Settlement was the area where most of the prolonged military conflict took place, and Jews were killed indiscriminately by cossack armies, Russian White armies, Ukrainian nationalist forces, and anarchist peasant armies. In addition, the emergence of an independent Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia and the annexation of Bessarabia by Romania left large numbers of Jews outside the Soviet state borders. By 1922 the Jewish population in the Soviet Union was less than half of what it had been in the former Russian Empire.

The early years of the Soviet state provided unusual opportunities for Jews to mainstream into Soviet society. Although the majority of Jews had opposed the Bolsheviks during the Civil War, many supported the creation of the new, "non-national" state, which they expected would tolerate Jews. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were integrated into Soviet cultural and economic life, and many Jews occupied key positions in both areas. Jews were particularly numerous in higher education and in scientific institutions. Official anti-Semitism ceased, restrictions on Jewish settlement were banned, Jewish culture flourished, and Jewish sections of the CPSU were established.

Many Jews, such as Leon Trotsky, Grigorii V. Zinov'ev, Lev B. Kamenev, Lazar M. Kaganovich, and Maksim M. Litvinov, occupied the most prominent positions in party leadership. The purges in the mid- to late 1930s, however, reduced considerably the Jewish intelligentsia's participation in political life, particularly in the party's top echelons.

After Zinoviev and Kamenev moved to the opposition, the situation changed dramatically for the worse. Now there was a full opportunity to tell the workers that there are three "disgruntled Jewish intellectuals" at the head of the opposition. Under the directive of Stalin, Uglanov in Moscow and Kirov in Leningrad carried out this line systematically and almost completely openly. To make it easier to demonstrate to the workers the distinction between the “old” course and the “new” one, the Jews, even if they were selflessly devoted to the general line, were removed from their responsible posts. Not only in the village, but even in Moscow factories, the persecution of the opposition already in 1926 often took on quite a clear anti-Semitic character.

The 1941 German invasion of the Soviet Union was particularly horrific for Soviet Jewry. About 2.5 million Jews were annihilated, often by collaborators among the native populations in the occupied territories who aided the Germans in killing Jews. Paradoxically, in Soviet territories that escaped German occupation, anti-Semitism also reemerged in the local population's resentment against the often better educated, wealthier Jews who were evacuated there before the advancing German armies.

Jews were the most dispersed nationality in the Soviet Union. In 1989 a majority of the 1.4 million Jews in the Soviet Union lived in the three Slavic republics. Approximately 536,000 lived in the Russian Republic, 486,000 in the Ukrainian Republic, and 112,000 in the Belorussian Republic. Large Jewish minorities also lived in the Uzbek and Moldavian republics, and smaller numbers of Jews lived in all the remaining republics.

Although the Jewish (Yevreyskaya) Autonomous Oblast in the Soviet Far East was designated as the homeland of the Soviet Jews, only 8,887 Jews lived there in 1989, just over 4 percent of the population of the oblast. Never high, the number of Jews in the Jewish Autonomous Oblast has been declining--14,269, or 8.8 percent, of the oblast's population in 1959 and 11,452, or 6.6 percent, in 1970.

Between 1959 and 1989, the Jewish population in the Soviet Union declined by about 900,000. The decline was attributed to several factors--low birth rate, intermarriage, concealment of Jewish identity, and emigration. Although 83 percent of the Jews regarded Russian as their native language in 1979, Soviet authorities recognized Yiddish as the national language of Soviet Jewry. Small groups of Soviet Jews spoke other "Jewish" languages: in Soviet Central Asia some Jews spoke a Jewish dialect of Tadzhik, in the Caucasus area Jews spoke a form of Tat, while those in the Georgian Republic used their own dialect of the Georgian language.

Soviet Jews were overwhelmingly urban. In 1979 over 98 percent of all Jews in the Soviet Union lived in urban areas. Four cities in particular -- Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, and Odessa -- had large concentrations of Jews. Along with being the most urbanized nationality, in the 1970s Jews also ranked first among all nationalities in educational level and in numbers of scientific workers per thousand. Traditionally, Jews have been highly represented in the CPSU, and their membership exceeded considerably their proportion of the total population. Soviet statistics show that 5.2 percent of all CPSU members in 1922 were Jews; in 1927 the figure declined to 4.3 percent. In 1976 the figure was 1.9 percent, almost three times the percentage of Jews in the general population.

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