Men inspecting foals at an artel supported by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Kherson, Ukraine, ca. 1924. The Russian sign identifies the building as the first equine artificial insemination project in the area and a Russian inscription on the photograph claims that the horses pictured were evaluated as “less than average.” (YIVO)

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Voluntary cooperative associations of craftsmen or peasants in the Soviet Union. Established on the basis of charters, artels obtained raw materials, produced finished or (less commonly) unfinished products, and sold them. Artels began to extend significantly after the October Revolution and reached their zenith in the late 1920s and 1930s. Both artisanal and agricultural cooperatives worked from the same economic principles, raising basic capital through membership fees and realizing profit through communal labor.

With regard to nationality policy, however, the attitude of the Soviet authorities to each type of artel differed significantly. Artisan cooperatives were never de jure established along ethnic lines, although in the towns and cities of the former Pale of Settlement they did have some Jewish features. They were often of exclusively Jewish composition or had Jewish majorities. Yiddish was the main working language, and, in the 1920s, cooperatives with a Jewish majority did not operate on the Sabbath or holidays. Some artels even sought, unofficially, to satisfy the needs of religious Jews. For example, in Sudilkov (Ukraine) in early 1929, members of a textile artel that was officially producing bedsheets actually turned out prayer shawls. The establishment of artisan artels with Jewish majorities was a consequence both of the predominance of Jews among urban artisans and of their conscious desire to maintain a Jewish environment in their cooperatives. In the 1930s, when Soviet antireligious propaganda increased, some members of Jewish cooperatives continued to refrain from working on the Sabbath and holidays.

The Jewish character of agricultural cooperatives, on the other hand, was expressed explicitly in their charters. They often had Yiddish names or were named for Jewish revolutionaries (Hirsh Lekert), heads of the Evsektsiia (Abram Merezhin and Aleksandr Chemeriskii), or non-Jews who had encouraged Jewish agricultural activity (Petr Smidovich). Such artels, as a rule, were established through the direct participation of OZET, the Society for the Settlement of Jewish Toilers on the Land. Jews were drawn to these agricultural artels because it was easier for them to master an unfamiliar activity together, to receive credits through OZET, and to relocate as an ethnic and religious group in regions far from their traditional areas of settlement. Like the artisanal artels, until 1929–1930 most Jewish agricultural cooperatives did not operate on the Sabbath or holidays. 

Young women and a boy at work in an artel producing paper boxes at a hostel for Jewish refugees, Moscow, 1923. (YIVO)

In the 1920s, the principle of profitability was basic to artel activity. Artels sought as members artisans who were either skilled or had money and avoided the unskilled poor. In the late 1920s, the growth of artisanal artels was largely due to their intake of well-to-do members, primarily lishentsy (people disenfranchised for belonging to “exploitative” classes). There was a similar influx of former merchants into agricultural cooperatives.

The Belorussian Evsektsiia had taken the position that artels should seek former merchants with capital to invest in order to foster the development of cooperatives and the “productivization” of the Jewish population—meaning the adaptation of Jews to what Jewish Communist activists considered productive work. In 1929, however, at the outset of a campaign against proponents of a liberal approach to entrepreneurs, the Belorussian Central Committee denounced the Evsektsiia’s position as a major manifestation of “rightist” deviationism. The leaders of the Belorussian Evsektsiia and of the artisanal artels were replaced. Well-to-do sectors of the population, particularly lishentsy, were purged from both artisanal and agricultural cooperatives and the poor began to join in large numbers. Formally, this policy, together with a policy of eliminating the ethnic character of artels, was based on the authorities’ desire to increase the economic effectiveness of the artels and simultaneously to bring different ethnic groups together in order to reduce ethnic tensions. Jews who opposed the forced “internationalization” of artels were accused of Jewish nationalism and often expelled as “counterrevolutionary” elements.

During the forced collectivization of late 1929 and early 1930, many Jewish agricultural cooperatives in Belorussia and Ukraine became ethnically mixed collective farms (kolkhozy; sg., kolkhoz) where Jews were in the minority. The desire of Jews to refrain from work on the Sabbath and holidays and the need to further subdivide the property of former Jewish cooperatives in the new collective farms were a source of ethnic tension and one of the reasons for the massive abandonment of collective farms by Jews in 1930. In Belorussia, the authorities withdrew support from Jewish agricultural cooperatives, and, by 1932, the concept “Jewish kolkhoz” had altogether disappeared. In Ukraine, Jewish kolkhozy continued to exist during the 1930s, but despite the label, they were ethnically mixed.

In Ukraine on 1 January 1934 there were 46,104 Jewish cooperative artisans. In Belorussia in 1932 their number was 25,425, or 55 percent of all artel artisans. In some Ukrainian villages in the mid-1930s, 70–75 percent of Jewish artisans were in artels and in some Belorussian towns, 80–90 percent.

In the early 1930s, in order to better control the artels, their pricing, and their profits, the authorities began to establish large artisinal artels that in cities had 300–400 members. For the same reasons, in Ukrainian towns new “multiprofile” artels combined workers with different skills (from candy making to metal working) in a single cooperative. While formally the heads of the cooperatives during this period were elected by members, in reality they were appointed by the Communist Party. Attributes of Soviet life in the state sector, like production plans and the Stakhanovite movement, were introduced into artels. The imposition, in the early 1930s, of continuous work weeks in which each worker had his own work schedule and day off made it more difficult for Jewish members to observe the Sabbath and holidays. These factors led Jews to leave artels whenever there was a slight easing of pressure on the private sector. According to the 1939 Soviet census, in Ukraine and Belorussia there were 99,088 Jewish members of artisanal artels (11.9% of all working Jews) and 45,181 Jewish members of collective farms (5.4% of all working Jews). A significant but smaller number of Jews (19,859 or 2.4%) worked as private artisans, while an insignificant number (694 or 0.1%) worked in the private agricultural sector.

During the 1930s, despite the changes that took place, Jews remained a majority in many artels in the towns and even cities of the former Pale, and Yiddish continued to be the main working language. To some extent, this situation persisted even during the first years after World War II. Jewish participation in artels declined gradually, with the retirement of members of the older generation and the choice of other types of employment by younger Jews.

Suggested Reading

Mordechai Altshuler, Soviet Jewry on the Eve of the Holocaust: A Social and Demographic Profile (Jerusalem, 1998), pp. 137–146, 310; Sh. Dimanshtein, ed., Yidn in FSSR: Zamlbukh (Moscow, 1935), pp. 245–251; Charles E. Hoffman, Red Shtetl: The Survival of a Jewish Town under Soviet Communism (New York, 2002), pp. 130–131; Chone Shmeruk, Ha-Kibuts ha-yehudi veha-hityashvut he-ḥakla’it ha-yehudit be-Byalorusyah ha-Sovyetit, 1918–1932 (Jerusalem, 1961).



Translated from Russian by Yisrael Cohen