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Lev Leviev and the Soviet Jews

Jews in the Jewelry TradeHe was born in Soviet Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in July 1956. Only three years had passed since Stalin’s death and the end of the “Doctor’s Plot.” In his last months, Stalin had accused Jewish doctors of attempting to poison the Soviet leadership, and following a show trial, Stalin planned a pogrom and the exile of all Soviet Jews to Siberia.

Lev Leviev spent his first fifteen years in Tashkent, before his prominent Jewish family was allowed to leave for Israel in 1971. His father, Avner, was an underground rabbi. While Tashkent was mostly Muslim, the threat to Jews was not intolerant Islam, but Stalin’s ever more paranoid attitude about Jews, particularly after the 1947-48 creation of Israel. Many of Stalin’s anti-Semitic policies survived his death.

Yuri Slezkine’s The Jewish Century chronicles the Soviet Jewish experience. Before the turn of the twentieth century, more than 5.2 million of Europe’s 8.7 million Jews lived in the Russian Pale. Between 1880 and 1924, roughly 2 million of them left for the United States. Another 200,000 went to England and 75,000 immigrated to Palestine. All were fleeing the pogroms and Russian tsarist policies which encouraged them to leave, convert, or starve. Ironically, nearly all of those who chose to stay and remained in Poland or western Ukraine were later decimated, not by the Russians but by the Nazi Holocaust.

Pre-Revolutionary tsarist restrictions resulted in only a very small number of mostly urban Jews living within Russia proper (outside the Pale). In 1897 this Russian Jewish population was estimated at 315,000, many of them illegal. Moscow’s Jewish population was estimated at 9,000 in 1910. St Petersburg had 21,000. Despite their small numbers—and as detailed repeatedly in this book—they were disproportionately accomplished. In 1886, when Jews were less than 0.4 percent of the seventy million Russians living outside the Pale, 14.5 percent of university students were Jews as were 10.9 percent of Russian gymnasium students. In 1889, of 264 apprentice lawyers in St. Petersburg, 104 were Jews. In 1913, when Jews were 2 percent of the St. Petersburg population, 17 percent of the doctors and 52 percent of the dentists were Jewish. Jascha Heifetz, Chaim Soutine, Marc Chagall, and Boris Pasternak (whose father, Leonid Pasternak, was a prominent painter and professor at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, and whose mother, Rosa Kaufman, was a concert pianist) are but a few of the many prominent Jewish artists of the times. In short, though small in numbers and severely repressed, Jews were disproportionate high achievers even in tsarist times.

With the creation of the Soviet Union, the attraction of Jews to the United States and Palestine was matched by the appeal of Soviet Communism. Tsarist restrictions were gone and Communism promised equality for all. It was to be a “utopian” society. For many Jews of the Pale, dispirited and disillusioned by the long history of Jewish persecution, false messiahs, and recent pogroms, as well as for Jews rebelling against the religion of their fathers, the atheistic and egalitarian appeal of Communism was essentially that of a new “religion.” Many Jews became secular party members. Large numbers of Jews, not already living in the Ukraine or Belarus (Byelorussia)—two countries incorporated into the Soviet Union—moved there or to Russia to become Soviet citizens. Still others, who remained Orthodox Jews, found practicing Judaism in secret a small price to pay for life in a country that generally did not discriminate against them. At the end of the Russian Revolution, Jews were just one of the Soviet Union’s 182 “nationalities.”

The 1926 a Soviet census counted 2.6 million Jews (1.8 percent) in a country of 150 million people (roughly the same percentage as in today’s United States). Unlike the United States, however, Soviet identification documents identified them as Jews. That was their nationality, albeit a nationality without a nation. And the Communists were incredibly bureaucratic at keeping records. The names and the statistics were catalogued in huge files.

Lenin had a Jewish grandmother—though some believe he did not know it, suggesting it was only discovered by his sister after his death. It is well known that Jews were disproportionately represented among early Bolshevik leaders. Trotsky was of Jewish descent, as were three of the seven Politburo members who led the October Revolution (Trotsky, Zinoviev, and Sokolnikov). At the July 1917 Sixth (Bolshevik) Party Congress, 16 percent of the congress was Jewish, as was 24 percent of the Central Committee. A huge body of data demonstrates the disproportionate role of Jews at senior levels in early Soviet Communism.

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