Drawing depicting Red Army cadres ousting capitalists and other enemies of the Russian Revolution, from a handmade Yiddish book produced in a Jewish orphanage in Bershad (now Bershad’, Ukr.), 1924. (YIVO)

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Russian Revolutions of 1917

In the Russian Empire, the year 1917 brought two revolutions, one that ended hundreds of years of tsarist rule and the other that inaugurated nearly three-quarters of a century of Bolshevik or Communist rule. Almost all Jews in the Russian Empire and abroad welcomed the first revolution, which came in February (new style, March), but initially, few were enthusiastic about the takeover of power by the Bolsheviks eight months later. Within weeks of the first revolution, on 22 March (new style, 2 April) the Provisional Government—in power until a Constituent Assembly could be called to determine the character of the successor Russian state—abolished all the legal restrictions on ethnic and religious communities, including Jews. For the first time since they had been admitted to the Russian Empire, Jews gained full equality with all other citizens. The tsarist regime had confined Jews to the Pale of Settlement and had severely restricted their opportunities in agriculture, the professions, military service, and education. It had completely closed off governmental and civil service positions to them, unless they agreed to convert to Christianity. During World War I the authorities had expelled thousands of Jews from their homes in the western part of the empire on the grounds that they might collaborate with the Central Powers invading from the west. Ironically, it was this expulsion that broke the confinement of Jews to the Pale, at least de facto, and brought large numbers of them to the interior of Russia. When the Provisional Government abolished the Pale de jure, large numbers of Jews made their way to the two capitals, Moscow and Saint Petersburg, as well as to other Russian cities and towns formerly closed to them.

Freed of legal and political restrictions, Jews began to organize or reorganize Jewish institutions, movements, and parties. Local kehilahs, communal self-governing bodies abolished officially in 1844, were reorganized. Schools, relief agencies, publishing houses, a Yiddish and Hebrew press, and drama and musical groups were organized. In 1917, 48 Jewish newspapers came into existence.

During the violence that followed the October Revolution, Jews suffered along with millions of others economically, physically, and mentally. They experienced nearly four years of brutal conflict, the breakdown of the old economic order, and the anarchic conditions that prevailed in much of the former empire as a succession of governments and their opponents embarked on a multilateral civil war that was fought through 1920.

Six major political groups came to the fore among the Jewish population from 1917 through 1921. The largest was the Zionist movement, which claimed 300,000 adherents in 1,200 localities. It may be assumed that many of them were politically inactive because all it took to become a “member” of the movement was the purchase of a symbolic shekel that identified one as a supporter of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine. The popularity of this cause was greatly enhanced late in 1917 when the British foreign secretary, Arthur James Balfour, wrote to Lord Rothschild on 2 November, “His Majesty’s government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” From being an aspiration, and in the eyes of their critics, a chimera, the goal of the Zionists seemed to have become a realistic prospect. Of course, since their focus was the construction of a Jewish state in Palestine, the Zionists were less involved in Russian politics than the other Jewish parties.

Delegates at the eighth conference of the Bund, Petrograd (now St. Petersburg), 1917. (YIVO)

The largest and most active of the other parties was the General Union of Jewish Workers in Lithuania, Poland, and Russia, popularly known as the “Bund” (league, or alliance). The membership of the Bund was 33,700 at the end of 1917, organized into about 200 groups in the southwest of the former empire and 100 in the northwest. The Bund had been a founding member of the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party in 1898 (having established itself a year earlier) but in 1903 it was expelled from that party because it insisted on being the sole representative of the Jewish proletariat and advocated a federal party based on ethnically organized constituents, both of which demands were rejected by the RSDWP. The Bund was generally closer to the Mensheviks than to the Bolsheviks. Its social base was in the Jewish working class and among artisans, whereas the Zionists drew support mainly from the middle class and intelligentsia, as well from a segment of religious Jewry. Most Zionists favored Hebrew as the national language, whereas the Bundists believed that Yiddish, the language of “simple” working-class Jews, should be the basis of a secular, Diaspora-based modern Jewish culture. 

In May 1917 the Zionist Socialist and Jewish Socialist Labor Party, known as SERP, merged to form a United Jewish Socialist Workers Party (Fareynikte, or “Uniteds”). They were Marxist socialists who, unlike the Bund, favored the establishment of autonomous Jewish territories (this was their Zionism). SERP had advocated national-cultural autonomy with a parliament for each ethnic group in the state. This party had ties mainly to the Socialist Revolutionaries, as well as some connections to the Mensheviks. 

The Po‘ale Tsiyon, or workers of Zion, party was both more conventionally socialist and more Zionist than the Fareynikte. Inspired by Ber Borokhov’s determinist Marxism, which postulated that to normalize the Jewish social structure and create a peasantry Jews needed land, so that the territorial base advocated by Zionists was justifiable, this party eventually split into right and left wings, including an extreme leftist branch that, from its base in Poland in the interwar years, operated in Yiddish and advocated a Communist system in a future Jewish state in Palestine.

Simon Dubnow was the ideologist of a small group calling itself the Folkspartey. The intellectuals who associated with his party believed that the Jewish Diaspora was viable, and advocated autonomy within the various states that Jews inhabited. Jewish affairs would be run by democratized, secularized kehilahs that would be a representative body for all Jews. Language was not a major issue for this group, nor were economic or class considerations. As might be expected, they assumed that knowledge of Jewish history and culture would suffice to satisfy Jewish intellectual and spiritual needs and serve as a viable basis for Jewish identity. 

Religious Jews, still probably the majority of the population at the time of the revolutions, had remained outside the political arena for the most part, though some were active in Zionist organizations. In 1917 and 1918, several religious groupings formed around political platforms. They supported the idea of self-governance through kehilahs, the establishment of Saturday as the day of rest for Jewish workers and employees, an eight-hour workday, the right to strike, freedom of conscience, and land distribution along lines advocated by the Socialist Revolutionaries—in all, a much more progressive platform than secular Jews would have expected from the religious communities.

Associated with the Russian Constitutional Democrats, a small but influential group of mainly Saint Petersburg lawyers and other professionals and intellectuals formed a Folksgrupe that advocated civil rights for Jews and all others within a constitutional democracy. In that system Jews would be free to run their own religious affairs, including schooling, though this group did not advocate full-blown communal autonomy.

“There, where we live, there is our country! A democratic republic! Full political and national rights for Jews. Ensure that the voice of the Jewish working class is heard at the Constituent Assembly.” Yiddish poster, Kiev, ca. 1918. Its message urges Jews to vote for the Bund in an election following the Russian Revolution; non-Bolshevik parties were at that time still tolerated by the regime. (YIVO)

The relative popularity of these parties can be seen in several elections. In the autumn of 1917 elections were held for the local kehilahs. In general, the Zionists won the kehilah elections with the combined socialist parties not far behind. Religious parties usually had more support than any of the socialist parties except the Bund, while the Folkspartey and Folksgrupe drew few votes. In the kehilahs, where many issues were local, local groups usually drew a significant portion of the vote.

A clearer national picture emerged from the January 1918 elections to the national Jewish congress. The Zionists received about 60 percent of the vote, about a quarter of the electorate cast their votes for the socialist parties, and the Orthodox groups got about 12 percent of the vote, mainly in Ukraine and areas of the former Pale where traditional life was still very common. Finally, in the Constituent Assembly elections, of 498,198 votes cast for Jewish parties—Jews could, of course, vote for any party—417,215 went to Zionist and religious parties, with the Bund amassing only 31,123 votes, the other socialist parties 29,322, and Po‘ale Tsiyon, 20,538. It is difficult to know how many Jews voted for non-Jewish parties but the half million Jews who voted for these Jewish parties undoubtedly represented the great majority of Jewish voters. It is likely that the others cast their votes mostly for the less radical Mensheviks and Kadets, with some supporting the Socialist Revolutionaries.

The Bund at first vigorously opposed the Bolshevik Revolution, adopting the Menshevik position that the Russian economy was still largely feudal and hence not able to support a socialist revolution based on the working class. Most other socialists, as well as the Orthodox and the great majority of Zionists, also opposed Bolshevism, either because of its commitment to nationalization of private property and trade, its antireligious stance, or its hostility to Zionism. But in the course of the civil war, when nearly all opponents of the Bolsheviks—the Whites, Ukrainian nationalists, anarchists, and many armed bands—shared the belief that the Jews were somehow to blame for their misfortunes and that Bolshevism was a Jewish conspiracy—Jews found themselves with one protector, the Red Army, which, though it too was infected by antisemitism, was controlled by people committed to ethnic equality and the elimination of ethnic prejudice. In the course of the civil war, large numbers of Jews cast their lot with the new Soviet regime because, in their view, its promise of a new and brighter future made up for whatever animus it had toward the old Jewish way of life.

Among Jews, as among other nationalities, it seems that there was a distinct “political class,” demographically unrepresentative of the rest of the population. In an autocratic country where the franchise was severely restricted and political life tightly controlled by the monarchy, only a minority of committed individuals took part in politics, an often risky enterprise. Many active politicians had been forced to seek refuge in other countries and some had been exiled. During the course of the “revolutionary year,” many political émigrés began to return to newly liberated Russia. On 16 October, a list was published of 159 such émigrés who had arrived in sealed trains from Germany. S. G. Svatikov, the special commissar of the Provisional Government in charge of abolishing the secret police that had worked abroad for the tsars, ascertained that there were at least 99 Jews among them. In the group of 29 that had accompanied Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, leader of the Bolsheviks, there were 17 Jews. There were about 3,000 people in the nationwide political elite in the interrevolutionary months of 1917. More than 300 of them, representing a wide spectrum from the extreme left (Anarchists, Bolsheviks) to the right wing of the Constitutional Democrats (Kadets), were Jews. These 10 percent of the political elite were twice the proportion of Jews in the population as a whole.

However, within the Central Executive Committee of the Provisional Government, Jews constituted about 20 percent, and among the leftist parties they were a quarter to a third of the members—among the Mensheviks, about one half. On the right, three of 67 Kadet Central Committee members were Jews. There was no Jewish “united front,” and class sympathies (if not affiliation) rather than ethnicity determined the partisan affiliations of many politically active Jews. Thus, a fifth of the Executive Committee of the All-Russian Union of Peasant Deputies, elected along party lines at the First Congress of Peasant Soviets, was Jewish. Of 300 political activists included in a biographical dictionary of politicians of 1917, 43 were “of Jewish nationality”: 20 Mensheviks, 11 Bolsheviks, 6 Socialist Revolutionaries, 3 Anarchists, and 3 Constitutional Democrats. Thirteen of them died in emigration and 21 others were shot, died in prison, or were killed in other ways. This is quite indicative of the fate of politicians in the years and decades after 1917.

Antisemitism among the population became more visible as the fall of the traditional monarchy brought uncertainty, tension, economic deprivation, and insecurity. The Russian writer Maksim Gorky and the Jewish historian Simon Dubnow both noted this. When Dubnow heard in May 1918 about a pogrom in which Red Army soldiers took part, he noted sardonically, “We die at the hands of the Bolsheviks and are killed because of them.” As another observer put it, noting the high proportion of Jews among the Bolshevik leaders, “The Trotskys made the revolution but the Bronshteins (Trotsky’s original name) will pay for it.” 

The revolutions of 1917 brought greater freedoms and opportunities to the largest Jewish population in the world than they and their ancestors had ever enjoyed. For a decade and more after the Bolshevik revolution, which shattered hopes for the emergence of a democratic Russia, Jews and others enjoyed educational and occupational opportunities denied to them under the tsars—unless, that is, they were judged to be of the wrong class affiliation or even origin. The number of Jews in governmental posts and higher education, as well as in cultural institutions, rose astronomically. But there was a price to be paid for this social liberation. The Bolshevik regime, partly through the instrumentality of the Jewish Sections of the Communist Party (Evsektsii) “revolutionized” the “Jewish masses” by depriving them of religious and Hebrew education, severely restricting and attacking religious practice, and, by 1921, forcing out of existence all political parties and movements throughout the country. The variegated political and cultural life created by the first revolution of 1917 was ultimately destroyed by the second revolution of that fateful year.

The Bolshevik revolution had a profound influence on twentieth-century politics and made communism a worldwide issue for more than half a century. The accession of the Bolsheviks to power had enormous consequences for Jews beyond what became the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (1922). Only a tiny minority of Jews in Europe and the Americas sympathized with communism (for example, in Romania in 1933 there were 303 Jewish Communists in a total Jewish population of some 750,000), but Jews were overrepresented in the Communist movements (they were 18 percent of the illegal Romanian Communist movement in 1933). In the minds of many, Jews came to be associated with Bolshevism. Such people were convinced that “the Jews” had seized power in Russia and were threatening to export their godless socialism beyond its borders. Communism was perceived as a worldwide Jewish conspiracy. This myth served as a justification for the antisemitic actions of fascist movements in Central and Eastern Europe in the 1930s, as well as for anti-Jewish pogroms after 1939 in territories over which the Nazis and Soviet contested (the Baltic states, eastern Poland, northern Romania). Even after the collapse of communism in Europe, in some nationalist circles Jews continue to be blamed for the evils of communism.

Suggested Reading

Oleg V. Budnitskii, ed., Evrei i russkaia revoliutsiia (Moscow and Jerusalem, 1999); Edward Hallett Carr, A History of Soviet Russia, 14 vols. (London, 1950–[1978]); William Henry Chamberlin, The Russian Revolution, 1917–1921, 2 vols. (New York, 1965); Zvi Gitelman, Jewish Nationality and Soviet Politics: The Jewish Sections of the CPSU, 1917–1930 (Princeton, 1972); Leon Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, 3 vols. in 1 (London, 1977).