Jews in the Soviet Union (USSR) faced restrictions in their everyday lives and were often subject to violence from their gentile (non-Jewish) neighbors. Soviet antisemitism can trace its roots to the beginning of the October Revolution of 1917, when the tsar of Russia was overthrown and the Soviet Union was born. Soon after, Soviets sought to assimilate Jews (like other ethnic groups) into Soviet culture, destroying their religious and cultural ideals and even their native language of Yiddish.
Communist party leaders who were Jewish were expected to assist the Kremlin’s in this social transformation by passing legislation to make religious and cultural practices more difficult. However, Stalin also recognized that he required some assistance from Jews in order to keep the newly-forming government stable. Hence, anti-Jewish sentiments were downplayed through much of the 1920s and 1930s.
Large parts of the Soviet Jewry was decimated during the Holocaust, though the majority of Russia’s interior was untouched by Nazi violence. Jews who had fled to the USSR when the German Army occupied territories in Eastern Europe faced new discriminations under the Communist regime. Many were imprisoned or even sentenced to years in Soviet hard labor camps. Jane Lipski experienced some of these hardships in the Soviet Union after she had escaped from the Będzin ghetto.
The USSR, however, also relied on support from Jews during the war, including the contributions of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC), the primary voice for Jewish identity in the USSR. Antisemitic ideas partially lost their fervor during the war, but after the war Stalin grew critical of the JAC’s Zionist ambition for an independent nation and the potential ties between Zionism and the United States. He ordered the arrests of many prominent Jewish activists, artists, poets, and public figures, including members of JAC. Stalin staged a mock trial during which time most detainees were tortured into giving false confessions of treason and sabotage. Thirteen were eventually executed. The abduction and murder of these Jewish figures is known as “The Night of the Murdered Poets.”
Until his death in 1953, Stalin continued to tighten restrictions on Soviet Jews and to undermine and destroy a separate Jewish culture. During the 1980s, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev gradually loosened restrictions on Soviet Jews until the collapse of the USSR in 1989. Today, Russia has the world’s fourth largest Jewish population and a thriving social and religious culture.
For more information on Soviet antisemitism:
Joshua Rubenstein and Vladmir P. Naumov (eds.), Stalin’s Secret Pogrom: The Postwar Inquisition of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (Yale University Press, 2001)