Antisemitism in the Soviet Union

The 1917 Russian Revolution overthrew a centuries-old regime of official antisemitism in the Russian Empire, dismantling its Pale of Settlement.[1] However, the previous legacy of antisemitism was continued by the Soviet state, especially under Joseph Stalin. After 1948, antisemitism reached new heights in the Soviet Union, especially during the anti-cosmopolitan campaign, in which numerous Yiddish-writing poets, writers, painters and sculptors were killed or arrested.[2][3] This culminated in the so-called Doctors' plot, in which a group of doctors (almost all of whom were Jewish) were subjected to a show trial for supposedly having plotted to assassinate Stalin.[4]


Before the revolutionEdit

Under the Tsars, Jews – who numbered approximately 5 million in the Russian Empire in the 1880s, and mostly lived in poverty – had been confined to a Pale of Settlement, where they experienced prejudice and persecution,[5] often in the form of discriminatory laws, and they had often been the victims of pogroms,[1] many of which were organized by the Tsarist authorities or with their tacit approval.[5] As a result of being the victims of oppression, many Jews either emigrated from the Russian Empire or joined radical parties, such as the Jewish Bund, the Bolsheviks,[5] the Socialist Revolutionary Party,[6] and the Mensheviks.[7] There were also numerous antisemitic publications of the era which gained widespread circulation.[1]

After the revolutionEdit

February Revolution and Provisional GovernmentEdit

The Russian Provisional Government cancelled all restrictions imposed on the Jews by the Tsarist regime, in a move parallel to the Jewish emancipation in Western Europe that had taken place during the 19th century abolishing Jewish disabilities.

The BolsheviksEdit

The October Revolution officially abolished the Pale of Settlement and other laws which regarded the Jews as an outlawed people.[1] At the same time, the Bolsheviks were strongly opposed to Judaism (and indeed to any religion) and conducted an extensive campaign to suppress the religious traditions among the Jewish population, alongside traditional Jewish culture.[8][9] In 1918, the Yevsektsiya was established to promote Marxism, secularism and Jewish assimilation into Soviet society, and supposedly bringing Communism to the Jewish masses.[10]

In August 1919 Jewish properties, including synagogues, were seized and many Jewish communities were dissolved. The anti-religious laws against all expressions of religion and religious education were being taken out on all religious groups, including the Jewish communities. Many Rabbis and other religious officials were forced to resign from their posts under the threat of violent persecution. This type of persecution continued on into the 1920s.[11] Jews were also frequently placed disproportionately on the front lines of Russian wars in the early 1900s as well as WW2. As a result, large numbers of Jews emigrated out of Russia to places like the United States. Changing their family's last name during emigration to reduce perceived risk was not uncommon.[12]

In March 1919, Lenin delivered a speech "On Anti-Jewish Pogroms"[13] where he denounced antisemitism as an "attempt to divert the hatred of the workers and peasants from the exploiters toward the Jews". The speech was in line with the previous condemnation of the antisemitic pogroms perpetrated by the White Army during the Russian Civil War.[14][15][16] In 1914 Lenin had said "No nationality in Russia is as oppressed and persecuted as the Jews".[17]

Information campaigns against antisemitism were conducted in the Red Army and in the workplaces, and a provision forbidding the incitement of propaganda against any ethnicity became part of Soviet law.[18] The official stance of the Soviet government in 1934 was to oppose antisemitism "anywhere in the world" and claimed to express "fraternal feelings to the Jewish people", praising the Jewish contributions towards international socialism.[19]

Under StalinEdit

Joseph Stalin emerged as leader of the Soviet Union following a power struggle with Leon Trotsky after Lenin's death. Stalin has been accused of resorting to antisemitism in some of his arguments against Trotsky, who was of Jewish heritage. Those who knew Stalin, such as Nikita Khrushchev, suggest that Stalin had long harbored negative sentiments toward Jews that had manifested themselves before the 1917 Revolution.[20] As early as 1907, Stalin wrote a letter differentiating between a "Jewish faction" and a "true Russian faction" in Bolshevism.[20][21] Stalin's secretary Boris Bazhanov stated that Stalin made crude antisemitic outbursts even before Lenin's death.[20][22] Stalin adopted antisemitic policies which were reinforced with his anti-Westernism.[23][note 1] Antisemitism, as historian, Orientalist and anthropologist Raphael Patai and geneticist Jennifer Patai Wing put it in their book The Myth of the Jewish Race, was "couched in the language of opposition to Zionism".[24] Since 1936 in the show trial of "Trotskyite-Zinovievite Terrorist Center", the suspects, prominent Bolshevik leaders, were accused of hiding their Jewish origins under Slavic names.[25]

Antisemitism in the Soviet Union commenced openly as a campaign against the "rootless cosmopolitan"[3] (a euphemism for "Jew"). In his speech titled "On Several Reasons for the Lag in Soviet Dramaturgy" at a plenary session of the board of the Soviet Writers' Union in December 1948, Alexander Fadeyev equated the cosmopolitans with the Jews.[23][note 2] In this anti-cosmopolitan campaign, many leading Jewish writers and artists were killed.[3] Terms like "rootless cosmopolitans", "bourgeois cosmopolitans", and "individuals devoid of nation or tribe" appeared in newspapers.[23][note 3] The Soviet press accused cosmopolitans of "groveling before the West", helping "American imperialism", "slavish imitation of bourgeois culture" and "bourgeois aestheticism".[23][note 4] Victimization of Jews in the USSR at the hands of the Nazis was denied, Jewish scholars were removed from the sciences, and emigration rights were denied to Jews.[26] The Stalinist antisemitic campaign ultimately culminated in the Doctors' plot in 1953. According to Patai and Patai, the Doctors' plot was "clearly aimed at the total liquidation of Jewish cultural life".[3] Communist antisemitism under Stalin shared a common characteristic with Nazi and fascist antisemitism in its belief in a "Jewish world conspiracy".[27]

Soviet antisemitism extended to policy in the Soviet Occupation Zone of Germany. As the historian Norman Naimark has noted, officials in the Soviet Military Administration in Germany (SVAG) by 1947–48 displayed a "growing obsession" with the presence of Jews in the military administration, in particular their presence in the Cadres Department's Propaganda Administration.[28] Jews in German universities who resisted Sovietisation were characterized as having "non-Aryan background" and being "lined up with the bourgeois parties".[29]

Scholars such as Erich Goldhagen claim that following the death of Stalin, the policy of the Soviet Union towards Jews and the Jewish question became more discreet, with indirect antisemitic policies over direct physical assault.[30] Erich Goldhagen suggests that despite being famously critical of Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev did not view Stalin's antisemitic policies as "monstrous acts" or "rude violations of the basic Leninist principles of the nationality policy of the Soviet state".[31]

Under BrezhnevEdit

Antisemitism in the Soviet Union once again peaked during the rule of Leonid Brezhnev, following Israeli victory in the 1967 Six-Day War. "Anti-Zionist" propaganda, including the film Secret and Explicit, was often antisemitic in nature.[32] Many of Brezhnev's close advisors, most principally Mikhail Suslov, were also fervent antisemites.[33] Jewish emigration to Israel and the United States, which had been allowed in limited amounts under the rule of Khrushchev, once more became heavily restricted, primarily due to concerns that Jews were a security liability or treasonous.[34] Would-be emigrants, or refuseniks, often required a vyzov, or special invitation from a relative living abroad, for their application to be even considered by the Soviet authorities. In addition, in order to emigrate, one needed written permission from all immediate family members. The rules were often stretched in order to prevent Jews from leaving, and ability for appeal was rarely permitted. Substantial fees were also required to be paid, both to emigrate and as "reimbursement".[35]

Institutional racism against Jews was widespread in the Soviet Union under Brezhnev, with many sectors of the government being off-limits.[36] Following the failure of the Dymshits–Kuznetsov hijacking affair, in which 12 refuseniks unsuccessfully attempted to hijack a plane and flee west, crackdowns on Jews and the refusenik movement followed. Informal centres for studying the Hebrew language, the Torah and Jewish culture were closed.[37]

A major stride was made in the United States in regards to helping the Soviet Jews on 18 October 1974, when Senator Henry M. Jackson, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, Senator Jacob Javits and Congressman Charles Vanik met to discuss the finalization of the "Jackson–Vanik amendment" which had been in limbo in the United States Congress for nearly a year.[38] After the meeting, Jackson told reporters that a "historic understanding in the area of human rights" had been met and while he did not "comment on what the Russians have done [...] there [had] been a complete turnaround here on the basic points".[38] The amendment set out to reward the Soviet Union for letting some Soviet Jews leave the country.

On 22 February 1981, in a speech, which lasted over 5 hours, Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev denounced anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union. While Lenin and Stalin had much of the same in various statements and speeches, this was the first time that a high-ranking Soviet official had done so in front of the entire Communist Party of the Soviet Union.[39] The announcement of the policy was followed with a message:

The CPSU [Communist Party of the Soviet Union] has fought and will always fight resolutely against such phenomena [inter-ethnic tensions] which are alien to the nature of socialism as chauvinism or nationalism, against any nationalistic aberrations such as, let us say, anti-Semitism or Zionism. We are against tendencies aimed at artificial erosion of national characteristics. But to the same extent, we consider impermissible their artificial exaggeration. It is the sacred duty of the party to educate the working people in the spirit of Soviet patriotism and socialist internationalism, of a proud feeling of belonging to a single great Soviet motherland.[40][41]

Antisemitism, however, remained widespread both within and outside the Communist Party; antisemitic media continued to be published with the assent of the government, while antisemitic propaganda (believed variously to be the work of far-right groups or the Soviet government) spread throughout cities in the Soviet Union during the late 1970s.[42] Mikhail Savitsky's 1979 painting, Summer Theatre, depicted a Nazi extermination camp guard and Jewish prisoner grinning between a pile of Russian corpses.[43]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Konstantin Azadovskii, an editorial board member of the cultural journal Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, and Boris Egorov, a research fellow at Saint Petersburg State University, in an article titled From Anti-Westernism to Anti-Semitism published in the Journal of Cold War Studies writes "Stalin's policies of anti- Westernism and anti-Semitism reinforced one another and joined together in the notion of cosmopolitanism." [1]
  2. ^ Konstantin Azadovskii and Boris Egorov in an article titled From Anti-Westernism to Anti-Semitism published in the Journal of Cold War Studies writes "In 1949, however, the attacks on cosmopolitans (kosmopolity) acquired a markedly anti-Semitic character. The very term cosmopolitan, which began to appear ever more frequently in newspaper headlines, was increasingly paired in the lexicon of the time with the word rootless (bezrodnye). The practice of equating cosmopolitans with Jews was heralded by a speech delivered in late December 1948 by Anatolii Fadeev at a plenary session of the board of the Soviet Writers' Union. His speech, titled "On Several Reasons for the Lag in Soviet Dramaturgy," was followed a month later by a prominent editorial in Pravda, "On an Anti-Patriotic Group of Theater Critics." The "anti- patriotic group of theater critics" consisted of Aleksandr Borshchagovskii, Abram Gurvich, Efim Kholodov, Yulii Yuzovskii, and a few others also of Jewish origin. In all subsequent articles and speeches the anti-patriotism of theater and literary critics (and later of literary scholars) was unequivocally connected with their Jewish nationality."[2]
  3. ^ Konstantin Azadovskii and Boris Egorov in an article titled From Anti-Westernism to Anti-Semitism published in the Journal of Cold War Studies writes "Terms such as rootless cosmopolitans, bourgeois cosmopolitans, and individuals devoid of nation or tribe continually appeared in newspaper articles. All of these were codewords for Jews and were understood as such by people at that time." [3]
  4. ^ Konstantin Azadovskii and Boris Egorov in an article titled From Anti-Westernism to Anti-Semitism published in the Journal of Cold War Studies writes "Of the many crimes attributed to Jews/cosmopolitans in the Soviet press, the most malevolent were "groveling before the West," aiding "American imperialism," "slavish imitation of bourgeois culture," and the catch-all misdeed of "bourgeois aestheticism." [4]


  1. ^ a b c d Trotsky, Leon (May 1941). "Thermidor and Anti-Semitism". The New International. VII (4). Retrieved 15 October 2016: Originally written 22 February 1937{{cite journal}}: CS1 maint: postscript (link)
  2. ^ Azadovskii, Konstantin; Boris Egorov (2002). "From Anti-Westernism to Anti-Semitism: Stalin and the Impact of the "Anti-Cosmopolitan" Campaigns on Soviet Culture". Journal of Cold War Studies. 4 (1): 66–80. doi:10.1162/152039702753344834. ISSN 1520-3972. S2CID 57565840. Retrieved 15 October 2016.
  3. ^ a b c d Patai & Patai 1989.
  4. ^ ""Soviet Union": The Doctors' plot 1953 - Stalin's last purge plan". Encyclopaedia Judaica. Vol. 6. 1971. p. 144. Archived from the original on 21 July 2011. Retrieved 15 June 2010: See column 144.{{cite encyclopedia}}: CS1 maint: postscript (link)
  5. ^ a b c Corrin, Chris; Feihn, Terry (31 July 2015). AQA A-level History Tsarist and Communist Russia: 1855-1964. Hachette UK; Hodder Education; Dynamic Learning. pp. 48–49. ISBN 9781471837807. Retrieved 8 September 2015.
  6. ^ Pinkus, Benjamin (26 January 1990). The Jews of the Soviet Union: The History of a National Minority. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. p. 44. ISBN 978-0-521-38926-6.
  7. ^ Albert S. Lindemann (1997). Esau's Tears: Modern Anti-Semitism and the Rise of the Jews. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. p. 429. ISBN 978-0-521-79538-8. Retrieved 15 October 2016.
  8. ^ Pipes, page 363, quoted from book by Nora Levin, The Jews in the Soviet Union since 1917, New York, 1988, page 57: "[The mission of the Yevesektsiya was to] destruction of traditional Jewish life, the Zionist movement, and Hebrew culture"
  9. ^ See: USSR anti-religious campaign (1921–1928), USSR anti-religious campaign (1928–1941), USSR anti-religious campaign (1958–1964), USSR anti-religious campaign (1970s–1990)
  10. ^ Pipes, Richard (1993). Russia under the Bolshevik regime. A.A. Knopf. p. 363. ISBN 978-0-394-50242-7.
  11. ^ "Russia". Encyclopaedia Judaica. Vol. 17. Keter Publishing House Ltd. pp. 531–553.
  12. ^ "Russia Virtual Jewish History Tour". Retrieved 2018-04-25.
  13. ^ Lenin's March 1919 speech "On Anti-Jewish Pogroms" (text,  audio )
  14. ^ Benjamin Pinkus. The Jews of the Soviet Union: The History of a National Minority. Cambridge University Press, 1988.
  15. ^ Naomi Blank. "Redefining the Jewish Question from Lenin to Gorbachev: Terminology or Ideology". In: Yaacov Ro'i, editor. Jews and Jewish Life in Russia and the Soviet Union. Routledge, 1995.
  16. ^ William Korey. Russian Anti-semitism, Pamyat, and the Demonology of Zionism. Routledge, 1995.
  17. ^ Rogger, Hans (January 1986). Jewish Policies and Right-wing Politics in Imperial Russia. ISBN 9780520045965.
  18. ^ Dmitri Volkogonov, Lenin: A New Biography, Free Press, 1994
  19. ^ Skolnik, Fred; Michael Berenbaum, eds. (2007). "Communism". Encyclopaedia Judaica (PDF). Vol. 5 (2nd ed.). Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA. p. 96. ISBN 978-0-02-865928-2. Retrieved 15 October 2016.
  20. ^ a b c Ro'i, Yaacov (1995). Jews and Jewish Life in Russia and the Soviet Union. Abingdon, England: Routledge. pp. 103–6. ISBN 0-7146-4619-9.
  21. ^ Montefiore, Simon Sebag (2008). Young Stalin. New York City: Random House. p. 165. ISBN 1-4000-9613-8.
  22. ^ Kun, Miklós (2003). Stalin: An Unknown Portrait. Budapest, Hungary: Central European University Press. p. 287. ISBN 963-9241-19-9.
  23. ^ a b c d Azadovskii, Konstantin; Egorov, Boris (Winter 2002). "From Anti-Westernism to Anti-Semitism". Journal of Cold War Studies. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press. 4 (1): 66–80.
  24. ^ Patai & Patai 1989, p. 178.
  25. ^ "Anti-Semitism in Russia. Russian disinformation and inspiration of anti-Semitism – Fundacja INFO OPS Polska" (in Polish). Retrieved 2020-06-25.
  26. ^ Horowitz, Irving Louis (2007). "Cuba, Castro and Anti-Semitism" (PDF). Current Psychology. 26 (3–4): 183–190. doi:10.1007/s12144-007-9016-4. ISSN 0737-8262. OCLC 9460062. S2CID 54911894. Retrieved 16 October 2016.
  27. ^ Laqueur 2006, p. 177
  28. ^ Naimark, Norman M. (1995). The Russians in Germany: A History of the Soviet Zone of Occupation, 1945–1949. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap of Harvard UP. p. 338. ISBN 978-0674784062.
  29. ^ Naimark (1994), p.444
  30. ^ Goldhagen 1987, p. 389
  31. ^ Goldhagen 1987, p. 390
  32. ^ Fomin, Valery (1996). Cinema and power: Soviet Cinema, 1965-1985: Documents, evidence, and reflections (in Russian). Mainland. pp. 120–121.
  33. ^ Mlechin, Leonid (7 July 2019). ""You Give us Little Hawks, Give us Little Hawks!": Why Identifying Jews Became the Most Important Problem in the Post-War USSR". Novaya Gazeta. Retrieved 23 February 2022.
  34. ^ Joseph Dunner. Anti-Jewish discrimination since the end of World War II. Case Studies on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms: A World Survey. Vol. 1. Willem A. Veenhoven and Winifred Crum Ewing (Editors). Martinus Nijhoff Publishers. 1975. Hague. ISBN 90-247-1779-5, ISBN 90-247-1780-9; pages 69-82
  35. ^ Garbuzov, Leonid. "A struggle to preserve ethnic identity: the suppression of Jewish culture by the Soviet Union's emigration policy between 1945-1985" (PDF). Boston University International Law Journal: 168–169.
  36. ^ Dunner, Joseph (1975). Case Studies on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers. pp. 69–82. ISBN 9024717809.
  37. ^ The Refusenik Project staff. "Historical Overview". The Refusenik Project. Retrieved 23 February 2022.
  38. ^ a b Beckerman, Gal. When They Come For Us, We'll All Be Gone. p. 305.
  39. ^ Korey, William. Brezhnev and Soviet Anti-Semitism. p. 29.
  40. ^ Korey, William. Brezhnev and Soviet Anti-Semitism. p. 30.
  41. ^ "none". Povada. February 23, 1981. p. 38.
  42. ^ Klose, Kevin (15 July 1979). "Soviet Jews See Growth in Anti-Semitism". Washington Post. Retrieved 23 February 2022.
  43. ^ "Mikhail Savitsky Summer Theatre From the cycle Death Camp Number Tattooed on My Heart". Alamy. 31 March 1979. Retrieved 23 February 2022.