Between the Russian Communist Revolution of 1917 to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, generations of Soviet Jews had lost touch with their Jewish heritage. The Jews populating Russia and the Pale of Settlement—which covered parts of Ukraine, Poland, Moldova, and Belarus—had known discrimination and pogroms. But for the most part, until the rise of Communism, most of them still chose to practice Judaism and many lived in predominantly Jewish communities. However, with the advent of Communism, Jews could no longer openly practice their faith, teach their children in Yiddish, or openly perpetuate their Jewish heritage. Communism is officially atheist and, being an international movement, anti-nationalist—hence also anti-Zionist.
Life for Soviet Jews went from bad to worse during WWII. With the invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany in 1941, Jews in areas occupied by Germany faced horrific treatment at the hands of the Nazis. Most of them were annihilated by the German Einsatzgruppen (Mobile Killing Units) in mass executions. Many of the rest were deported to death camps. Out of the approximately 4 million Jews populating the Nazi-occupied parts of the Soviet Union, over 3 million were murdered. Before his death in 1953, Stalin was planning his own mass extermination of Soviet Jewry.
In this essay, I’d like to trace two key moments of Jewish history in the Soviet Union by focusing on two important books: 1) Stalin’s Last Crime: The Plot against the Jewish Doctors, 1948-1953 (New York: HarperCollins, 2010) by Jonathan Brent and Vladimir Naumov and 2) Let my People Grow: Hillel and the Jewish Renaissance in the Former Soviet Union (Jerusalem: Gefen Publishing, 2020) by Rabbi Yossie Goldman, who played a key role in familiarizing youth in the Former Soviet Union with Jewish religion and traditions via the Hillel International organization. These two important books dramatize the revolutionary transformation of life for Soviet Jews, from the almost complete annihilation of their ethnic and religious identities during the worst moments of the Soviet regime—particularly Stalinism — to the flourishing facilitated by the Hillel International movement during the post-Soviet era. It is only when we recall the horrors of the Soviet regime that we can best appreciate the great challenges and successes of the Hillel International movement and Rabbi Goldman’s seminal role in revitalizing the Jewish heritage of students in the Former Soviet Union.
1) Planning a Soviet Jewish Holocaust: Stalin’s Last Crime
Most people are familiar with Hitler’s virulent assault on the Jewish people, culminating in the atrocities of the Holocaust. Fewer know, however, that Stalin himself was planning a similar attack on the Soviet Jews from 1948 to 1953. Compared to Hitler, for many years, Stalin was an “equal opportunity” mass murderer. He masterminded the imprisonment, torture, show trials and death of his (real or imagined) political adversaries. Prominent officials and unknown functionaries; wealthier farmers (kulaks) and the poor and hungry in the Ukraine and other areas of the Soviet Union; Christian religious leaders and Communist atheists: all groups suffered under Stalin’s reign of terror. Even the leaders of the secret police forces (NKVD), including Genrikh Yagoda and Nikolai Yezhov, were eventually purged. However, unlike Hitler and the Nazi regime, until the end of his life, Stalin didn’t target the Jews specifically for being Jewish.
For the most part, Jews featured prominently in the Communist leadership. When he planned to forge a Soviet-Nazi alliance, however, Stalin dismissed Maxim Litvinov, the Jewish Foreign Minister. He replaced him with Vyacheslav Molotov, the principal signatory of the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939. Later, in 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Stalin manifested an uncharacteristic optimism and trust in the strength of his alliance with Hitler. The Soviet leader didn’t react promptly to news of the German attack. For the first few days of the war he isolated himself in shock and even forbade his generals from making preemptive strikes against the German forces gathered at the Soviet border. Having been deprived of information about the Nazi campaigns against the Jewish people all over Europe, millions of Soviet Jews were left vulnerable, in the path of the Nazi invaders. Although many of them managed to escape before the Germans penetrated their region, a large number of those living in the Western parts of the Soviet Union were trapped there by the rapid German advance.
Raul Hilberg documents that Stalin’s decision not to evacuate civilians promptly from the areas invaded by Germany was motivated by two main considerations: “One was the prevention of a hasty flight of people. Their production was needed until the very last moment… The second guideline was applied in cities whose fall was imminent. In these situations, priority for evacuation was usually given to skilled workers, managers, party functionaries, civil servants, students, intellectuals, and various professionals… But there is little evidence of any Soviet attempts to evacuate Jews as such” (Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders, 250-251). The refusal to evacuate civilians as quickly and efficiently as possible affected Jews more than any other ethnic group, since they were in the greatest danger of extermination by the Nazis. At this point, however, Stalin’s strategy was not directly aimed at the Jews.
All this changed between the years 1948-1953, when Stalin began mounting a specifically anti-Semitic campaign in the Soviet Union that, experts claim, could have led to a second Holocaust. While nobody knows for sure how far the Soviet leader would have gone with his plans, it’s clear that Stalin began targeting the Jews for discrimination and abuse. There’s also strong evidence that he was planning another massive purge, comparable to The Great Terror. Characteristically, Stalin offered a pretext for his offensive strike. The death of a prominent Soviet official in 1948, Andrei Zhidanov, served as his justification, much as Sergey Kirov’s assassination in 1934 offered Stalin a pretext to launch the Great Terror purges of 1937-38. From 1946-7, Zhidanov was probably second in command in the Soviet Union. He organized the Cominform, which set the official policy for Communist parties throughout Europe. In his role as Chairman, Zhdanov also set the tone for cultural production in the Soviet Union. He was infamous for his censorship of writers and artists, including the famous poet Anna Akhmatova.
Years later, between 1952 and 1953, Stalin used Zhdanov’s death as a pretext to accuse several prominent doctors (six out of nine of whom were Jewish) of conspiring to assassinate several Soviet leaders. He cast doubt upon Zhdanov’s cause of death, suggesting a Jewish conspiracy. Aside from turning on the doctors themselves, including his personal physician, A. N. Vinogradov, Stalin also targeted Jewish intellectuals, whom, according to Alan Bullock, the Soviet press labeled “Zionist agents of American imperialism” (Hitler and Stalin, 951-952). Lydia Timashuk, a sycophant and political instigator, “discovered” the so-called “Doctors’ plot”. She received the Order of Lenin for her false denunciations of innocent physicians. Stalin took over the case, ordering that Vinogradov be imprisoned and the other doctors tortured. The media called Soviet Jews the “enemies within”. The anti-Semitic campaign and initial arrests were followed by more “spontaneous” pogroms in the Ukraine.
The question remains why Stalin chose to target the Jews in his plans for new purges. Aside from his all-pervasive state of paranoia, which led him to suspect treachery and sabotage even from his closest friends and allies, there are several reasons for Stalin’s anti-Semitic turn. Jonathan Brent and Vladimir Naumov, authors of Stalin’s Last Crime: The Plot against the Jewish Doctors, 1948-1953 (New York: HarperCollins eBooks, 2010), argue that during the early 1950’s Stalin was planning an even greater purge than the one he had launched during the Great Terror (1937-38). They maintain that Stalin was motivated by three principal considerations:
- The need to reestablish the reigns of power through terror and purge the Ministry of Security
- The threat he saw in the establishment of the state of Israel and the dissemination of Jewish Zionism in the Soviet Union
- The growing tension with the United States after the end of their alliance in WWII. Although the Soviet Union had recognized the state of Israel early on, Stalin perceived the U.S.-Israeli alliance as a threat to the Soviet Union
The Nazis killed approximately six million Jews during the Holocaust. The Soviet Union had a large Jewish population. According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, about two million Jews lived in the Soviet territories. During the war, Hitler and Stalin became archenemies. Ironically, had Stalin lived long enough to carry out the planned anti-Semitic mass purges, he would have brought to fruition Hitler’s dream.
2) A Jewish Renaissance: Let My People Grow by Rabbi Yossie Goldman
While life for Soviet Jews following Stalin’s death would never be as harsh and precarious as during his lifetime, they still suffered discrimination based on their ethnicity and were obliged to practice their religion in secret. As Rabbi Yossie Goldman points out in this book, Let My People Grow, those who still engaged “in Jewish activity, called ‘refuseniks,’ were persecuted, often arrested, and were denied the right to leave the country” (Let My People Grow, XIV). Many Soviet Jews wanted to immigrate to Israel during the 1970’s and 80’s (the aliyah movement) and some were allowed to leave: not as a result of a mass immigration policy but on a case-by-case, family-by-family basis. Once the Soviet Union Communist empire collapsed during the early 1990’s, Jews were free to emigrate. Unfortunately, after centuries of suppression of their ethnic and religious identities, Soviet Jews, like Jews who lived under Communist regimes in other Eastern European countries, had little sense of what it meant to be “Jewish”. Rabbi Goldman eloquently encapsulates this radical identity crisis for Soviet Jews:
“Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion were restored. But after two generations of stifled expression, most Jews had little left to express. What did the word ‘Jew’ stamped in their passports even mean? How could a young Jew in the FSU make that word come alive and infuse it with personal meaning?” (Let My People Grow, XIV)
As it turns out, Rabbi Goldman and the organization Hillel International had a lot to do with the Jewish Renaissance that took place in many cities in the former Soviet Union following the Jewish cultural vacuum imposed by decades of Soviet Communist rule. Hillel International is the largest Jewish organization on college campuses throughout the world. Its concept was envisioned in 1923 not by a Jewish person, however, but by a Christian professor of Biblical Literature at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Edward Chauncey Baldwin, who thought that his Jewish students had little religious background and needed to learn more about the history of Judeo-Christianity. Rabbi Benjamin Frankel who, together with local Jewish community members, founded the Hillel Foundation joined Professor Baldwin in his efforts.
Decades after its founding, from 1988 to 2009, the Hillel Foundation grew in prominence under the leadership of Richard M. Joel (its Director) and Edgar M. Bronfman (Chairman of its Board of Governors), who joined Hillel in 1994. Since then Hillel’s philanthropic donations increased significantly, helping the organization spread to Israel, the Post-Soviet states, and South America: a total of 18 countries around the world. The organization, which employs over 1,200 people globally, not only holds cultural events intended to inform students of Jewish traditions, but also plays a key role in fighting anti-Semitism on college campuses, including the increasingly popular BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions against Israel) movement.
Rabbi Goldman joined Hillel in 1985, responding to a job ad in The Jerusalem Post for Director of Hillel at Hebrew University. At that time, Hillel was not doing well. As Rabbi Goldman puts it, the organization “had been spinning into self-destruct since its highly acclaimed and respected director for over 25 years, Rabbi Jack Cohen, had retired” (Let My People Grow 9). Assuming leadership of the organization on the Hebrew University campus, Rabbi Goldman helped Hillel not merely survive, but also grow. During the early 1990’s, when many students from the former Soviet Union joined the Hillel Center at Hebrew University, Rabbi Goldman identified a need for creating local branches in the former Soviet states.
With the help of Jonathan Porath, he began this mission in Moscow and St. Petersburg. During his conversations with Russian Jewish students, he found that many of them were uncertain about their ethnic and religious identities and had little knowledge of Judaism, but were eager to learn more. Rabbi Goldman saw their curiosity about their Jewish roots as a potential opportunity, making a very compelling argument for expanding Hillel International to the former Soviet Union:
“Hillel embraces programs on more than 450 college campuses worldwide, and is uniquely placed to offer its professional guidance and experience to student programs in the FSU. Hillel can become, for thousands of Jewish students in the FSU, the connection to their Jewishness, and an important lifeline to the outside Jewish world…Our aim is to create an organization that stresses responsibility, innovation and creativity. The ultimate goal of this pilot program in Russia is to implement activities that will attract those students that care about their Jewish identity, along with the ones who are presently alienated and estranged from their Jewish roots and heritage” (Let My People Grow, 13).
The grassroots Hillel program in the FSU met great challenges, as most students had little or no background in Judaism and many were from mixed marriages or completely assimilated families. Yet due to his clear vision, the empowerment of local Jewish community leaders and educators, and the efforts of the many talented people participating in this exciting venture, Rabbi Goldman’s dream of a Jewish Renaissance in the Former Soviet Union succeeded beyond his imagination. With his help, Hillel International has established highly successful programs in many cities, including Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kiev, Kharkov, Odessa, Baku, Azerbaijan, and Minsk. This extraordinary Hillel educational mission has gone a long way in undoing decades of Soviet Communist indoctrination and the accompanying effacement of Judaism to rebuild a strong sense of Jewish heritage in cities across Russia, the Ukraine, Belarus and other former Soviet republics.