“For the Leninist General Line for the Party and the Comintern. Not One Step Away from Lenin’s Teachings!” Yiddish poster. Printed in Moscow, 1930s. (Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Ludwig Jesselson, 1998.624. Collection of Yeshiva University Museum, New York)

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Communist Party of the Soviet Union

Jews played a prominent role in the Communist Party from its inception: it came into being as the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party (RSDWP) in 1903, becoming the Russian Communist Party (of Bolsheviks; RCP[b]) in 1918, the All-Union Communist Party (of Bolsheviks; AUCP[b]) in 1925, and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in 1952.

While party membership did not imply genuine participation in governance, let alone in decision making, it was a prerequisite for public activity and facilitated promotion in employment and advancement in education. Policy demanded perennial adjustment of the membership in order to prevent undue disequilibrium of its social and national composition. As of the 1950s or so, one aspect of this policy dictated promoting the representation of “backward” (in some cases connoting unrepresented) ethnic groups; another called for the enlistment of professionals with higher education. The element that was conducive to restricting the number of Jews was thus counterbalanced by one that led to its enhancement.

Jews were proportionately overrepresented in the RSDWP from the start. Apart from being active in the party’s Jewish faction, the Bund, which sought to mobilize the “Jewish street” by conducting propaganda activity in Yiddish, Jews comprised a significant proportion of the party’s “Russian” contingent. These acculturated Jews generally inclined toward the Mensheviks rather than the Bolsheviks, but even among the latter, there were not a few Jews. In early 1917, their numbers reached just under 1,000 out of a total of 23,600. Most important, they were highly overrepresented in the Bolshevik leadership. Significant figures included Iurii Kamenev, Maksim Litvinov, Karl Radek, Iakov Sverdlov, Leon Trotsky, and Grigorii Zinov’ev. This was so blatant that anti-Bolsheviks frequently associated the party with Jews in order to contaminate the party’s public image.

At the party congress held in August 1917, a total of 29 out of 171 delegates were Jews, the second most represented ethnic group after the Russians; moreover, 6 of 17 Central Committee members were Jews. The Central Committee was responsible for directing party work between congresses. Although many Jews were linked to Trotsky and the opposition to Stalin in the mid- and late 1920s (and no Jews remained in the Politburo following the dismissal of Trotsky, Zinov’ev, and Kamenev in 1926 until the appointment of Lazar’ Kaganovich in 1930), Jews accounted for 10.9 percent of delegates to the Sixteenth Party Congress in 1930. Indeed, they still formed 10.1 percent of the Central Committee in 1939 (11 full and 3 candidate members), although several—including Ian Gamarnik, Iurii Steklov, Genrikh Iagoda, and Iona Iakir—had fallen victim to the purges of 1936–1938.

The number of Jewish party members swelled after the Bolshevik takeover in October 1917, especially in the first decade of Bolshevik rule, when, among others, the left wing of the Bund (the Komfarband) and that of Po‘ale Tsiyon (the EKP; Evreiskaia Kommunisticheskaia Partiia) joined the RCP(b), in 1921 and 1922 respectively. Indeed, it was from among these socialist factions and parties that had traditionally worked in the Jewish street and knew Yiddish that the Evsektsiia (the Communist Party’s Jewish section) drew its personnel, including its senior echelons.

Jews remained overrepresented in the party rank and file. Representing just 1.8 percent of the total population in the 1926 census, Jews comprised 5.2 percent of party members in 1922 and 4.3 percent in 1927; in Belorussia, they accounted for 24 percent of the party membership. The proportional decline did not signify an absolute decrease, as total membership rose in this period from slightly more than 400,000 to almost 800,000. Of the Jewish party members in Ukraine, 67.5 percent were classified as workers and 28.8 percent as white-collar employees; in Russia, 47.8 percent were workers and 48 percent were white collar. The size of the party continued to grow until 1933, when there were more than 2.2 million full members; it then fell, topping the 2 million mark again only in 1941. In both 1922 and in 1927, Jews were the sole ethnic group, with women comprising more than 20 percent of its membership (24.1% in 1922 and 23.0% in 1927).

From Samuil Khaimovich Agurskii in Minsk, USSR (now in Belarus) to Kalman Marmor in New York, 2 January 1926, about the excellent reception Agurskii's book has received in the USSR, where it is going into a second printing. He thanks Marmor for his offer to distribute the book in America but doubts that "Uncle Sam" will allow such a publication to be imported into the United States in large numbers. His only wish is that the book will help to spread communist ideology among the Jewish working masses. He describes the recent celebrations in the Soviet Union of two important anniversaries: the failed Decemberist revolt of 1825 and the Revolution of 1905. Yiddish. Typed, marked up for excerpting for publication. RG 205, Kalman Marmor Papers, F88/7362. (YIVO)

Throughout the 1920s—until the disbandment of the Evsektsiia—a certain tension existed between the Russified and the more consciously Jewish party activists. The days of the latter were ineluctably numbered, many of them falling victim to the purges of 1936–1938, which struck first and foremost at certain strata in the party: among others, at “nationalist” intelligentsia who had risen to prominence in the period of korenizatsiia (indigenization). Yet the former, too, were often vulnerable and many were likewise eliminated in the purges: not only Central Committee members, but also, for instance, those who had taken part in Bolshevizing and Russifying the non-Russian union republics (including, for example, Mikhail Mikhailov).

Beginning with the new official antisemitism in the mid-1940s, no Jews rose to senior party positions. By 1952, the percentage of Jews in the Central Committee was just 2.1 percent. Among those ousted after 1939 were Maksim Litvinov, Solomon Lozovskii, Ivan Maiskii, Iakov Smushkevich, and Polina Zhemchuzhina; those who remained included Lazar’ Kaganovich, Lev Mekhlis, and Mark Mitin.

Nevertheless, Jews were still overrepresented in the rank and file. No official data on the proportion of Jews in the All-Union Party were published after the 1920s. In the area of pre-1939 Ukraine, however, Jews constituted 13.4 percent of party members in 1940; thus, if the incidence relative to the proportion of Jews in the general population in other areas was the same as in Ukraine, they accounted for 4.9 percent of members at that point; it is actually thought to have been higher. Even in the 1960s, when membership topped 12 million, there was a higher proportion of Jews in the party than in the general population. In Belorussia, Jews made up 1.9 percent of the population in 1959, and comprised 6.4 percent of the party in 1962, so that 103 out of 1,000 Jews were party members; in Moldavia, the corresponding figures were 6.3 percent of party members (in 1963) and 3.3 percent of the population, with 45 members per 1,000 Jews.

In 1976, Jews formed 1.9 percent of the nationwide membership (including candidate members), more than 294,000 out of 15.6 million, making them the sixth-largest ethnic group after the three principal Slavic peoples (the Russians, Ukrainians, and Belorussians), the Uzbeks, and the Tatars. Even in this period—the years of the first major emigration wave, when Jews were widely looked upon as potential traitors—the absolute number of Jews in the party rose. The fact that their percentage exceeded that of the overall urban population should probably be attributed to their traditionally high proportion of party members, their high educational and professional level, and their elderly age structure.

By the beginning of 1990, the absolute number of Jews in the party had fallen considerably, by 95,000, or almost one-third; and as a percentage from 1.9 to 1.06 percent. The Jewish population over this same period fell by 25 percent. Although Jews made up less than 1 percent of the population in all Soviet republics except Moldavia, they accounted for at least 1.8 percent of party members in three republics (Ukraine, Belorussia, and Latvia) and 2.28 percent in Moldavia. Moreover, the percentage of the Jewish population holding party cards remained high: 14.5 percent, compared to an average of 6.47 percent for the general population. In every Soviet republic except Georgia, Jews accounted for a considerably higher percentage of members than their number in the population at large.

Extrapolation leads to the conclusion that Jews remained, into the 1960s at least, the most party-saturated nationality in the Soviet Union, and in terms of absolute numbers, the largest non-Slavic group of Communists, with the possible exception of the Tatars. At the same time, the party saturation of the Soviet Jewish community fell from about 300 percent of the national average in 1940 to between 140 and 180 percent in 1965. However, once the Jewish emigration movement gained momentum, and the Jewish population continued to drop as a result of both emigration and negative natural growth, the percentage of Jewish Communists among all party members nationwide fell progressively, although in certain areas their proportion in the Jewish community actually grew.

Suggested Reading

Mordechai Altshuler, Soviet Jewry since the Second World War: Population and Social Structure (New York, 1987), chap. 8; Theodore H. Friedgut, “Erosion of the Jewish Presence in the USSR: Some Recent Statistics,” Jews andJewish Topics in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe 14 (Spring 1991): 5–13; Benjamin Pinkus, The Jews of the Soviet Union: The History of a National Minority (Cambridge and New York, 1988); Thomas Henry Rigby, Communist Party Membership in the U.S.S.R., 1917–1967 (Princeton, 1968), chap. 12.