By Sabby Sagall
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Antisemitism and the Russian Revolution

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Issue 434

During the latter part of the 19th century and first years of the 20th, the European country which witnessed the most severe antisemitism was not Germany but the Russian Empire. The Tsarist state police would regularly organise pogroms during which drunken Black Hundreds or Cossacks would attack Jewish villages, murdering Jews and destroying their property.

When Peter the Great, who ruled Russia from 1682 till 1725, was asked about admitting Jews into the empire, he replied, “I prefer to see in our midst nations professing Mohammedanism and paganism rather than Jews. They are rogues and cheats.”

During the reign of Catherine II from 1762 until 1796 Jewish habitation was restricted to the Pale of Settlement. The Pale took away many of the rights that the Jews of late 17th century Russia had enjoyed. From then on they were restricted to a small area of what is currently Belarus, Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine.

More active discriminatory policies began with the partition of Poland in the late 18th century. For the first time in its history Russia acquired land with a large Jewish population. And in 1772, Catherine the Great required the Jews of the Pale to stay in their shtetls (villages), forbidding them from returning to the towns where they had lived before the partition.

Whereas Jews in western Europe, following the French Revolution, were experiencing greater freedom, in the Russian Empire the laws governing Jewish life were becoming more restrictive. In contrast to the gradual expansion of legal and social rights for Jews in Western Europe, liberal and democratic tendencies in Russia were weak. Various writers have noted that the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment bypassed Russia. The Russian Jewish revolutionary Leon Trotsky attributed this largely to the failure of a strong bourgeois class and a capitalist society to develop in Russia.


The reign of Alexander II (1855–81) was marked by significant reforms, the most important of which was the emancipation of the peasants from their servitude to the landowners in 1861. Towards the Jews, Alexander II adopted a milder policy with the objective (as was that of his predecessor) of achieving their assimilation into Russian society.

He repealed the severest of his father’s decrees, including the Cantonist system whereby Jewish children were conscripted to military institutions in Tsarist Russia, with the intention that the conditions they were placed in would force them to adopt Christianity. He also gave a different interpretation to the classification system by granting various rights — in the first place the right of residence throughout Russia — to selected groups of “useful” Jews, including wealthy merchants (1859), university graduates (1861), certified craftsmen (1865), as well as medical staff of every category.

The Jewish communities outside the Pale of Settlement rapidly expanded, especially those of St Petersburg and Moscow, so that their influence on the way of life of Russian Jewry became important.

The general atmosphere engendered by the new laws was as significant as the laws themselves. The administration relaxed its pressure on the Jews and there was a feeling among them that the government was slowly but surely proceeding towards their emancipation. Jews began to take part in the intellectual and cultural life of Russia in journalism, literature, law, the theatre, and the arts generally. The number of professionals was very small in Russia, and Jews soon became prominent among their ranks in quantity and quality.

This increasing importance of Jews in economic, political and cultural life aroused a sharp reaction in Russian society. The main opponents of the Jews included several of the country’s most distinguished intellectuals, such as the authors Ivan Aksakov and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, one of the greatest 19th century European novelists. The attitude of the liberal and revolutionary elements in Russia towards the Jews was also lukewarm.

The Jews were accused of maintaining “a state within a state” and of “exploiting” the Russian masses. Even the blood libel was renewed by agitators — as in the Kutaisi trial in 1878, when Jews were accused of murdering a Christian girl in order to use her blood in their baking.

However, the main argument of the hatemongers was that the Jews were an alien element invading the various areas of Russian life, gaining control of economic and cultural positions, overall a most destructive influence. Many newspapers, led by the influential Novoye Vremya, engaged in anti-Jewish agitation. The anti-Jewish movement gained in strength especially after the Balkan War (1877–78), when a wave of Slavophile nationalism swept through Russian society.

However, it was the assassination of Tsar Alexander II by the Narodniks (anarchists) in 1881 which marked a turning point. It was blamed on the Jews and provoked widespread pogroms lasting three years.

State policy under his successor Alexander III hardened, resulting in the laws of 1882 which severely curbed the civil rights of Jews within the Russian Empire. According to the earlier decree of 1881, Jews were forbidden to buy land even in the vast Eurasian steppes. The Tsar’s minister Konstantin Pobedonostsev stated the aim of the government with regard to the Jews: “One third will die out, one third will leave the country and one third will be completely dissolved in the surrounding population.”

In the event, the pogroms and the repressive legislation did indeed result in the mass emigration of Jews to western Europe and America. Between 1881 and the outbreak of the First World War an estimated 2.5 million Jews left Russia — one of the largest group migrations in recorded history.

In 1937 Trotsky wrote, “Antisemitism was quite widespread in Tsarist Russia among the peasants, the petty bourgeoisie of the city, the intelligentsia and the more backward strata of the working class.”

Trotsky might also have mentioned that the Russian Orthodox Church was similarly complicit in allowing antisemitic persecution. The Russian church’s total submission to the state meant that it took no steps to protect Jews. Indeed, many clerics held antisemitic attitudes — the first Kishinev pogrom of 1903 was led by Orthodox priests. At the end of the 19th century the antisemitic views of leading clerics were widely known. These individuals were not expressing an official church position on the Jewish question, which had not been formulated, but they reflected the widely-held negative attitudes of the general population towards Jews.

The Kishinev pogroms, organised by the police, were the state’s response to the mass strikes of 1902–3, the initial stirrings of the working class leading up to the 1905 Revolution. In 1903, during the first wave of violence, which occurred at Easter, 49 Jews were killed, large numbers of Jewish women were raped and 1,500 homes were damaged. The incident focused worldwide attention on the persecution of Jews in Russia.

That year also witnessed the publication of the notorious “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, a faked document which claimed to be minutes of a late 19th-century meeting of Jewish leaders discussing their goal of global Jewish hegemony achieved through subverting the morals of Gentiles and controlling the press and the world’s economies. It was circulated in the Russian Empire during the 1903–6 period as a tool for scapegoating Jews, whom the monarchists blamed for their defeat in the Russo-Japanese War and the Revolution of 1905.

A second pogrom, in October 1905, in which 19 Jews were killed, was part of an epidemic of 600 pogroms that swept across the Russian Empire after the Tsar issued the October Manifesto of 1905. Hundreds of Jews were massacred in the pogroms.

However, a remarkable change developed with the seizure of state power by the Russian working class led by the Bolsheviks in the October 1917 revolution. To begin with, the Bolshevik government abolished all 650 legal restrictions on Jews, establishing a regime of formal equality.

By mid-1917 the soviets had become the main instruments of opposition to antisemitism, with a campaign aimed at factory workers and even some activists within the broad revolutionary movement.

By the late summer the soviets had launched a wide-ranging campaign against antisemitism. For example, throughout August and September, the Moscow soviet organised meetings and lectures in factories on antisemitism. In the former Pale of Settlement local soviets acted to prevent the perpetration of pogroms.


Moreover, as the political crisis intensified, and the Bolsheviks deepened their support in the working class, scores of provincial soviets launched their own campaigns against antisemitism. Many party members helped to develop the cross-party response to antisemitism at factory and soviet levels. The paper Jewish Weekly had been anxious that the Bolshevik seizure of power would herald more antisemitic violence, since “wherever Slavic crowds gather” this generally meant “striking at the Yids”. But in the days following the insurrection, there were no pogroms in Russia.

Of course, this change had its limitations, as Trotsky stressed: “The October Revolution abolished the outlawed status of the Jews. That, however, does not at all mean that with one blow it swept out antisemitism… Legislation alone does not change people.”

As Brendan McGeever has pointed out in his article “The Bolsheviks and Antisemitism” in Jacobin magazine, in the course of the revolutionary year 1917 there were some 235 attacks on Jews — a mere 4.4 percent of the population but victims of roughly one third of violent assaults against minorities during that year. During the Civil War years (1918-1921) there was a devastating wave of violence against Jews, most of which was perpetrated by the counter-revolutionary White Army.

Sometimes class anger and antisemitic notions of Jews overlapped: in July speakers at a street rally called on the crowd to “smash the Jews and the bourgeoisie”.

The story is told how workers and peasants in the Red Army fighting to defend the revolution against the counter-revolution would criticise Lenin who led the government in Moscow while praising Trotsky, their military commander — “Trotsky is a good chap, but that Lenin who sits in Moscow is a bloody Jew!” The reality, of course, was the reverse.

A similar error was made on the wall of the Winter Palace. Kerensky, prime minister of the Provisional Government that attempted to smash the Bolsheviks, noticed graffiti as he fled the Winter Palace during the Bolshevik-led insurrection: “Down with the Yid Kerensky, long live Comrade Trotsky!”

McGeever also claims that in the spring of 1918 “in towns and cities of northeast Ukraine such as Glukhov, Bolshevik power was consolidated through anti-Jewish violence on the part of the local cadres of the party and Red Guards”. However, in a witness statement by a Jewish woman, a child at the time, Harriet (Hasia) Segal seems clear that the pogrom was perpetrated by anti-Bolshevik Cossacks (see YouTube, “Remembering the Glukhov Pogrom”).

This is not to deny that some antisemitic violence could have been carried out by elements of the Red Army during the vicious Civil War. But a concerted and remarkable effort was made by the leaders of the revolution and by thousands of revolutionaries across the former empire, to stamp out antisemitism. And to some degree, at least, it worked.

The central committee of the Bolshevik Party that won a majority in the All-Russian Congress of Soviets in October 1917 contained six Jews out of 21 members. This would have been unthinkable in the dark days of Tsarist oppression. Something fundamental had happened to the workers and peasants who had carried out the revolution.

Certainly the most class-conscious workers, many of whom would have harboured antisemitic feelings and attitudes prior to the revolution, carried out a far-reaching change, not only externally. Through their revolutionary actions, they had transformed themselves, their emotional attitudes and intellectual outlook.

The confidence they had instilled in themselves through their own political actions against the real enemy — the Tsarist ruling class — meant that antisemitic attitudes withered away to some extent.

As Lenin remarked in a radio broadcast in March 1919, “The landowners and capitalists tried to divert the hatred of the workers and peasants who were tortured by want against the Jews… This ancient, feudal ignorance is passing away; the eyes of the people are being opened.”

In Britain and Europe today the group most severely affected by racism is the Muslim population, though antisemitism is far from dead and indeed has experienced a revival in recent years. To knock back and defeat the growing anti-Muslim racism, we can learn much from the Bolshevik battle against antisemitism during the Russian Revolution.

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