Photo courtesy Brendan McGeever
Brendan McGeeverPhoto courtesy Brendan McGeever
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Bolsheviks and Bundists

Rokhl’s Golden City: Confronting anti-Semitism during the Russian Revolution

Rokhl Kafrissen
November 08, 2019
Photo courtesy Brendan McGeever
Brendan McGeeverPhoto courtesy Brendan McGeever

Pogroms, and pre-Holocaust anti-Jewish violence in general, have been curiously off the radar of modern Jewish studies scholarship until fairly recently. At least that’s what current Guggenheim fellow Glenn Dynner emphasized to me recently during our post-conference hotel-lobby schmooze after a Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies program called “Rokhl Oyerbakh: The Bridge Between Wartime and Postwar Testimony,” at Yale.

Though it wasn’t the first, Steven Zipperstein’s 2018 book, Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History, marked a pivotal moment in the study of pogroms, both in Jewish studies scholarship as well as public history. For instance, Zipperstein exploded many of the myths of Kishinev, showing, for example, that rather than being enabled by the state, anti-Jewish violence in Kishinev was contrary to state interests and policy.

Within the next year, Dynner will be bringing out his own collection of essays about pogroms, the first of its kind arranged by geography. And historian Jeffrey Veidlinger is about to publish his latest book, Pogrom: The Origins of the European Genocide of the Jews, in which he argues that the pogroms of 1917-1921 created the conditions necessary for the mass destruction of Jewish life in WWII.

For American Jews, the 1903 Kishinev pogrom became emblematic of anti-Jewish violence in Eastern Europe. But as Zipperstein shows, Kishinev was actually an idiosyncratic episode, fueled almost entirely by one virulent anti-Semite who owned a local newspaper. Pogrom violence didn’t reach its full, bloody potential until the years between 1918 and 1922. That was the time of the civil war in Russia, as well as the Polish-Soviet war. This period, scholar Brendan McGeever writes in his new book, Antisemitism and the Russian Revolution, was “the most violent assault on Jewish life in pre-Holocaust modern history: Conservative estimates put the number of fatalities at roughly 50,000–60,000, but the true figure likely reached 100,000 or more. At the time, some Soviet officials speculated that as many as 200,000 may have perished. What is certain is that at least 2,000 pogroms took place during the revolutionary period.”

Because the Red Army was responsible for a very small part of anti-Jewish violence in that period, relatively little attention has been paid to it. Antisemitism and the Russian Revolution breaks new ground in its focus. The book “examines the complex and at times explosive overlap between antisemitism and revolutionary politics” and “explores Bolshevik attempts to confront antisemitism, including within the revolutionary movement itself.”

McGeever did his doctoral work at the University of Glasgow, in a sociology program specializing in the study of race and racism. He is now a professor in the department of psychosocial studies at London’s Birkbeck College. It was through his fellow Birkbeck lecturer, my friend Ben Gidley, that I first met McGeever. The three of us had breakfast one beautiful fall morning in 2016, near Clerkenwell Green. Our purpose that day was slightly more lighthearted than pogrom chat. We were headed to the Marx Memorial Library, one of my favorite spots in London, and a place of special interest to all three of us.

The library isn’t just a library. The building, once dedicated to the education of the children of poor Welsh artisans, now contains, among other things, archives of the Spanish Civil War, buttons, ceramics, a knockoff Diego Rivera mural, and a rare poster collection housed in an ancient tunnel under the building. In the spaces between astonishing historical artifacts, the library is stuffed full of what nonspecialists refer to as historic bric-a-brac.

At one point the building was the home of the Twentieth Century Press, a publisher of some of the first English editions of Marx and Engels. From 1902-3, Lenin worked there, editing the revolutionary newspaper Iskra (Spark). You can visit a facsimile of Lenin’s cubbyhole-size office. When we visited in 2016, a bound volume of Iskra was open on his desk. Already at work on his study of the Bolsheviks, McGeever eagerly leaned in to read. The word that caught his eye immediately was Bund, the revolutionary Jewish political movement. In a typical polemic of that time period in Iskra, Lenin was arguing that Jewish identity, of the kind offered by the Bund, was a barrier to revolutionary consciousness. The Bund was bourgeois and Jews needed to see themselves as workers, not Jews.

Fast forward, though, to 1919, and now the Bolsheviks were reaching out to Bundists. Though there were Jews within the Bolshevik leadership, they were highly assimilated to Russian culture, and having enormous difficulty gaining traction with the Yiddish-speaking masses. The Bolsheviks needed the Bund, as well as other socialist-oriented Jewish movements.

That turn produced a new irony. The state’s response to anti-Semitism, McGeever writes, would be “profoundly overdetermined by … a group of loosely connected Jewish radicals, whose politics were as ‘particular’ as they were universal. Whether Marxist-Zionist or territorialist, Bundist or (recently turned) Bolshevik, these revolutionaries were engaged in the elaboration of a broadly defined Jewish national-cultural project.”

The Bolshevik leadership espoused anti-racist, universalist, liberationist values. But rather than ideals and ideology, it was the terrible pogroms of 1918-22 that drew Jews to the Bolshevik cause—as Jews.

McGeever writes that “left-wing currents of the Jewish socialist movement moved towards Bolshevism in the full knowledge that the Red Army was pervaded by antisemitism. That many shtetl Jews followed them speaks volumes about the starkness of the choice facing Russian and Ukrainian Jews in 1919. The Bolsheviks’ anti-racist ‘promise,’ despite the unevenness of its delivery, presented the best chance of survival in the face of ferocious antisemitism of the White Army and various Ukrainian nationalist insurgence movements.”

The height of pogrom violence came in 1919. If you’ll recall my recent column about Max Weinreich, this was the year of a pogrom in Vilne that found Weinreich and Paul Novick trapped in Tsemakh Shabad’s apartment. Jews who happened to be out in the streets risked their lives. Novick wrote a piece that captured the fearful state of those in the Shabad home, as they anxiously sought news about their friends in Vilne’s Jewish cultural elite.

That pogrom was part of the Polish-Soviet war, and perpetrated by Polish forces. The episode Novick described contains important elements of the moment. Both Weinreich and Novick (and Novick’s former boss, Esther Frumkin) were Bundists. The encounter with pogromist violence, however, was transformative. Novick and Frumkin both became communists shortly afterward: Frumkin in Moscow, Novick in New York.

“The radicalization of Jewish life and murderous antisemitism were interlocking experiences.” McGeever writes. He quotes historian Andrew Sloin, saying, “no series of events did as much to foster the Soviet-Jewish alliance as the pogrom wave during the Polish-Soviet war of 1919-20. For rank-and-file Jewish workers, it was often the direct experience of anti-Jewish violence that drove the process of radicalization.” The “pillaging and animal acts” of the pogromists “did as much, if not far more, to drive young Jews into the Bolshevik camp than did the writings of Lenin, Trotsky, and all of the party pamphleteers combined.”

In Antisemitism and the Russian Revolution, McGeever describes how a small group of Jewish activists entered the Bolshevik leadership at this time and reinvigorated its response to anti-Semitism. One of them was Bundist Dovid Lipets, a Berdichev native who had moved to New York and become the labor editor of the Forverts.

Lipets returned to Russia in 1917, where as a Bund activist he organized Jewish self-defense, in addition to reporting on pogroms. Violence literally came home for Lipets in January 1919. He had become mayor of Berdichev and a group of pogromists broke into his apartment, shouting, “Give us that Yid who runs this city!” Lipets and his family were lined up against the wall of their home and prepared for execution on the spot. Lipets survived, thanks to his ability to bribe his way out of murder. Four days later, Lipets and others went to bury the victims of the pogrom, when pogromists struck again, killing two members of the burial party. A few months later, Lipets moved to Moscow, changed his name to Petrovskii, and joined the Red Army and then the Bolshevik party. Lipets shared a bitter irony with many like him. He survived multiple near-death encounters with “enemies,” only to be purged in 1937 by his own “comrades.”

The Bolshevik commitment to countering anti-Semitism was consistent, and stretched back to the origins of the movement. But upon close examination, praxis, putting those ideals into action at the moment of greatest urgency, relied, McGeever writes, “to a significant extent on the agency of a small grouping of non-Bolshevik Jewish radicals.” Those, like Lipets, who dedicated themselves to protecting Jews as a group, inevitably risked having those nationalist concerns turned against them.

McGeever is an excellent writer and Antisemitism and the Russian Revolution is compellingly readable, especially for such a grim topic. The historiographic work being done by the book, however, is highly specialized and not necessarily aimed at the general reader. But the questions with which it grapples feel incredibly timely. What struck me most strongly was this: How was anti-Semitism to be met by revolutionary leadership? Would it be viewed as a threat to everyone, to the Revolution itself? Or was it viewed as a problem (and responsibility) ultimately faced by Jews alone? Though nothing about the Revolution and subsequent war(s) is simple, unfortunately, as Antisemitism and the Russian Revolution demonstrates, the historical record on this point is too clear.

MORE: If you can’t make it to YIVO to hear Brendan McGeever talk, you can catch him lecture on the same topic here or buy Antisemitism and the Russian Revolution here.

If you’re a weirdo like me and still haven’t had enough about pogroms, my friend Elisa Bemporad will be launching her new book in February. In Legacy of Blood: Jews, Pogroms, and Ritual Murder in the Lands of the Soviets, Bemporad looks at the afterlife of blood libels in the USSR and examines the claim that anti-Semitism was eliminated under Soviet rule. Feb. 6 at YIVO, at 7 p.m. Or watch this 2016 YIVO program on the pogroms in Ukraine featuring Bemporad and other leading scholars.

ALSO: If you’re in Durham, North Carolina, there will be a benefit concert of Yiddish song called What’s Not to Like, which seems like a very apt name. Sunday, Nov. 10 at 3 p.m. More info here …“The Meshuggener Philosopher and the Crippled Shlimazl: Satire in the Anarchist Yiddish Press” is
the next afternoon fellowship lecture at YIVO. Nov. 18 at 3 p.m. at the Center for Jewish History … Portable Landscapes: Memories and Imaginaries of Refugee Modernism is a new art exhibit featuring art by Yiddish poet and painter Yonia Fine, as well as friend of the column, Yevgeniy Fiks. Opens Nov. 19 at the James Gallery at the CUNY Graduate Center, 365 Fifth Ave. … Helen Epstein changed the landscape of Holocaust memory when she published Children of the Holocaust: Conversations with Sons and Daughters of Survivors in 1979. On Nov. 10 and 24, she’ll be leading a Sunday Salon on the topic of writing family stories. At Temple Kerem Shalom, Concord, Massachusetts. … David Krakauer’s “Klezmer Madness” comes to Boston’s New England Conservatory on Nov. 23. Tickets here … My irritatingly multitalented friend Mikhl Yashinsky is featured over at Broadway World. He’ll be starring in the lead role in the Folksbiene’s limited run of Goldfaden’s The Sorceress, opening Dec. 8. On Dec. 12, my friend Alyssa Quint will be leading a post-show discussion called “The Dangers of the City in Goldfaden’s ‘The Sorceress.’” Quint is the leading scholar of Goldfaden in the world, so this will be a not-to-be-missed double mekhaye. … My special pick among the upcoming New York Klezmer Series shows is Polina Shepherd and Lorin Sklamberg on Dec. 12. I would describe both as having luminescent vocal styles, and yet they manage to complement each other so well. As a rule, I drop what I’m doing and listen to whatever music Polina and Lorin are making together. … Boston Workmen’s Circle is presenting a fun introduction to Yiddish folk dance. A series of five classes will culminate in a Khanike dance party on Dec. 15. Register for Lomir Tantsn/Let’s Dance, here. … If your Christmas Eve minheg is taking in a sublime evening of Golden Age khazones, you’ll love “Khazntes, Women’s Voices of the Golden Age.” It’s a program of female singers paying tribute to artists like Perele Feig, Fraydele Oysher, and Goldie Malavsky. Part of Yiddish New York.


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Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.