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Jewish section of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Socialists viewed nations as ephemeral creations of the capitalist order, and expected them to disappear with the advent of socialism. Vladimir Lenin pointed approvingly to European Jews, who, in his view, had already begun assimilating into the nations among whom they lived. In 1913 Joseph Stalin argued that since Jews lacked a common territory, language, and economy, they did not constitute a nation.

Although communism as defined by Lenin and Stalin was thus inimical to the idea of Jewish nationhood, in 1918 the new Soviet state recognized Jews as a nationality or ethnic group (natsional’nost’). They were to retain this status as an ethnic, rather than religious, group throughout the Soviet period. In 1918, the Bolsheviks established a Commissariat for Nationality Affairs headed by Stalin, with subordinate commissariats for Polish, Armenian, Lithuanian, Estonian, and Muslim affairs (the latter to deal with the emerging nationalities of Central Asia), as well as a Commissariat for Jewish National Affairs (EVKOM). Despite the creation of EVKOM, the Bolsheviks lacked the cadres who could bring their message to the Jewish masses. While many Jewish socialists had cast their lot with non-Jewish parties and movements, Jewish political life had been dominated by various Zionist groups, the Jewish Labor Bund, and territorialist and autonomist parties.

In the chaotic conditions of World War I, when refugees poured into Russia from the western areas of the empire—Poland, the Baltic states, parts of Ukraine—that had been occupied by the Central Powers, the Bolsheviks allowed the formation of pro-Bolshevik party groupings based on ethnicity, rather than on territory as Bolshevik doctrine demanded. Though in 1903 Lenin had rejected the Bund’s proposal to organize the Russian Social Democratic Party as a federation of ethnically based parties, and had engineered the expulsion of the Bund from the RSDWP (which then split into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks), in 1918 the Bolsheviks reluctantly accepted the idea that for the time being “nationality sections” could operate under the aegis of the Russian Communist Party.

The party’s nationality sections were given the task of reaching their coethnics in their respective languages, since many non-Russians did not have a good command of Russian and were thus beyond the reach of Bolshevik propaganda and agitation. Lenin apparently agreed with Semen (Shimen) Dimanshtein, one of the very few pre-1917 Bolsheviks who was well educated Jewishly, that Jewish Sections of the party were needed if the party were to be effective among the Jewish population. Lenin’s support made it possible to overcome opposition to such sections from other Communists, many of them Jews. From the beginning, and until the abolition of the national sections in 1930, there was tension between those who saw the Jewish Sections (Evreiskie Sektsii, abbreviated as Evsektsii, or, in the popular singular form, Evsektsiia) as limited strictly to carrying out agitation and propaganda among the Yiddish-speaking population, and those who had a more expansive vision of their function. Especially after 1921, when almost all Jewish parties were forced out of existence, and the left wings of the Bund, the “Uniteds” (Fareynikte), and some of the Po‘ale Tsiyon merged themselves into the Communist Party, the Jewish Sections, desperate for Yiddish speaking personnel, began to act somewhat like the prerevolutionary Bund in advocating secular Jewish culture as the basis of Jewishness.

Some saw the task of the Evsektsiia as going beyond agitation and propaganda to embrace not only the annihilation of prerevolutionary Jewish culture and religion and the economic transformation of the Jewish population but also, on the positive side, the development and dissemination of a Soviet Yiddish culture and the construction of political institutions, such as local and regional soviets, that would serve the Yiddish-speaking population.

Thus, in the 1920s, the Evsektsiia, which never numbered more than 1,500 activists in about 70 units, led the charge against synagogues and traditional Jewish education, creating an image of the Evsek as an antireligious fanatic determined to destroy Jewish culture in all but its Bolshevik forms. Precisely because so many of the Evseks had begun their political careers in other parties and were considered “latecomers to the Revolution,” they struck with great zeal against their former parties, ideologies, and comrades. In the early 1920s the Evsektsiia saw its task, operating under general Party supervision, as destroying Judaism, Hebrew, and Zionism, deemed manifestations of “bourgeois” Jewish culture. In consequence, all were driven underground.

Evsektsiia activists differed on what should replace this rejected culture. Echoing earlier disputes in the Bund, some (Moyshe Altshuler, Moyshe Rafes) argued that since the Jews were assimilating and all peoples were destined to lose their particularistic cultures, nothing should be done to prop up Jewish culture “artificially,” even in secularized and sovietized forms. Others (Aleksandr Chemeriskii, Aron Vainshtein, Malke Lifshits Frumkin) declared themselves agnostic on whether Jews would acculturate so completely that they would assimilate and lose their Jewish identities. While demurring from “artificially” stimulating Jewish culture, they claimed that as long as the “Jewish masses” demanded some form of that culture it was their duty to supply it. A third group (Henokh Kazakevich, Avrom Merezhin) urged that a socialist, secular Soviet Yiddish culture be encouraged and actively constructed. As part of the policy of korenizatsiia (“indigenization”; establishing Bolshevism among “the masses”), dozens of Yiddish newspapers, magazines, and journals were published, though they attracted relatively few readers.

By 1930 there were 1,100 secular Soviet Yiddish schools, the great majority in the former Pale of Settlement, enrolling 130,000 Jewish children. Many parents opposed these schools, either because they were secular and agitated against Judaism, or because they did not provide the Russian-language education that would enable their children to compete successfully for places in higher education. Jewish artisans’ cooperatives, agricultural colonies, and local and regional soviets had been organized in the 1920s. Artels were promoted by the Evsektsiia as a means of solving Jewish impoverishment, although by the end of the 1920s, as NEP (Novaia Ekonomicheskaia Politika; New Economic Policy) was abolished, the emphasis switched to factories. The Evsektsiia also favored agricultural colonies, at least in part in order to steal the thunder of the Zionists. In 1927, a plan was announced to settle hundreds of thousands of Jews in Birobidzhan, near the Manchurian border in Siberia. Most Evsektsiia activists probably opposed it. 

In the late 1920s Soviet policy began to shift away from korenizatsiia, undermining the legitimacy of Evsektsiia activities. Intraparty struggles further weakened the Jewish Sections, with some activists accusing others of “Trotskyite” or “right-wing” “deviations.” The Evsektsiia elite was purged at the end of the 1920s, along with the leaderships of the Ukrainian and Belorussian parties. Almost all Evsektsiia leaders died in prison or in labor camps, most in the late 1930s. In early 1930 the nationality sections of the party, including the Evsektsiia, were disbanded as no longer necessary. Shortly thereafter the Evsektsiia was publicly condemned for having promoted Jewish “separatism.” The Evsektsiia had never enjoyed wide public support—traditional Jews saw it as inimical, while acculturating Jews regarded it as irrelevant, if not actually contradictory, to their social and cultural aspirations. Now individual Evsektsii also found themselves in a politically tenuous position, subservient both to their republic level parties and to the Central Bureau of Jewish Sections; the Central Bureau was itself completely subordinated to the Communist Party. The party had created a section for Jewish affairs, and some of its activists tried to use it to construct a secular socialist culture in Yiddish. The experiment lasted a little more than a decade.

Suggested Reading

Mordechai Altshuler, Ha-Yevsektsyah bi-Verit ha-Mo‘atsot, 1918–1930 (Jerusalem, 1980); Zvi Gitelman, Jewish Nationality and Soviet Politics: The Jewish Sections of the CPSU, 1917–1930 (Princeton, 1972); Esther Rosenthal-Shnaiderman, Naftule derakhim, 2 vols. (Tel Aviv, 1969/70–1988/89); Hersh Smolar, Toḥelet ve-shivrah: Zikhronot shel Yevsek leshe-‘avar (Tel Aviv, 1978/79).