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Why Did Russian Jews Support the Bolshevik Revolution?

100 years ago today the Bolsheviks seized power in Petrograd

Michael Stanislawski
October 25, 2017
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Karl Radek in Moscow, c. 1930.Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Karl Radek in Moscow, c. 1930.Photo: Wikimedia Commons

When the Bolsheviks seized power in Petrograd on Oct. 25, 1917, the vast majority of Russia’s Jews opposed that takeover. Five years later, when the USSR was created at the end of a treacherously bloody civil war, the situation was reversed—not, as the Hebrew cliché has it, out of the love of Mordecai, but out of hatred of Haman.

It is difficult to paint a precise picture of the political views of Russian Jews at the time of the Revolution for the simple reason that we have relatively little precise information on the subject: From 1905 to 1917 the Jews voted in elections for the four parliaments (called Dumas) that were created in response to the 1905 Revolution. None of these elections were based on universal suffrage, first and foremost because women could not vote, and so we have no firm data whatsoever on the views of half of the Jewish population. Moreover, the franchise was more and more restricted as the years went by, and so the number of Jews voting for and being elected to the Duma went down, rather than up, during the 12 years of the parliaments’ existence. Twice in 1917, the Jews voted again, this time with female suffrage, but we still lack data on a very significant chunk of the Jewish population.

From the voting data we do have it is possible to conclude several crucial points: First, the Bolsheviks had very little support among the Jewish population, possibly the lowest amount of any of the multiple parties vying for support “on the Jewish street.” And this was despite the fact that many of the Bolsheviks’ most important leaders were Jews—though Jews who viewed their Jewishness as an incidental artifact of their birth, with no meaning for them either religiously (as they were atheists) or nationally (as they regarded themselves as internationalists). Most famously, when Leon Trotsky was asked what his nationality was, he replied “socialist.” More Jews, though hardly a great number, supported the Mensheviks, the less radically Marxist half of the Russian Social Democratic Party, headed by a Jew, Julius Martov, who opposed Lenin’s stance on violent revolution but shared the Bolsheviks’ anti-nationalist stance. Far more Jews, though still a relatively small percentage of the population, supported the Bund—the Jewish socialist party whose stance on socialism was all but identical to the Mensheviks, but slowly adopted an idiosyncratic form of Jewish nationalism based on national cultural autonomy for the Jews of the Empire and dedication to Yiddish as the national language of the Jewish people.

Thus, in toto, the Jewish population broadly rejected socialism in any guise, Jewish or not, as the solution to the problems of the Jews in Russia.

Far more Jews, though still a minority, supported the liberal party known as the Kadets (the acronym for the Constitutional Democrats), who were dedicated to liberal constitutionalism, universal suffrage, and equal rights for the minorities of the Empire. In its early years, the party included several prominent Jewish intellectuals and lawyers in its leadership ranks, a matter which attracted a great deal of support from the Jewish population as a whole. But in the years before the Revolution the Kadets became more and more conservative, often siding with the Octobrists, a right-wing party that supported the monarchy, and therefore lost a good deal of its appeal among Jews. A small specifically Jewish liberal party—the Folkspartei—shared the Kadets’ liberalism, to which they added support for national cultural autonomy similar to that of the Bund. They appealed to a very small sliver of the Jewish community—basically academics and other intellectuals.

Far more complicated to assess is the degree of support for Zionism at that time in the Russian Jewish community. To be sure, when Theodor Herzl founded the Zionist movement in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897, the majority of his followers were from the Russian Empire, and the movement as a whole gained a large amount of support in Russia in the subsequent two decades. But what exactly it meant to belong to a Zionist party is far from clear: Many Jews bought the symbolic shekel which gained them a membership card, but that did not mean much in terms of their actual worldviews. And almost from the start, Russian Zionism split into a number of opposing factions: the “political Zionists,” who supported Herzl and his goal of creating a Jewish homeland in Palestine; “cultural” or “spiritual” Zionists, led by Ahad Ha’am, who opposed mass Jewish migration to Palestine and the immediate creation of a state in favor of a cultural revolution among the Jews based on a radically secular new Hebraic culture; various socialist Zionist parties which attempted to synthesize conflicting views of social-democracy and Marxism with Zionism. And finally there was the tiny Mizrachi, the Orthodox Zionist party founded in Vilnius in 1902, attempting against all odds to combine fealty to Orthodox Judaism alongside Zionism—an almost impossible task at the time, since the vast majority of Russia’s rabbis vehemently denounced Zionism as a heretical movement led by sinners and degenerates who would bring the Jewish people to doom. Indeed, there was an even tinier movement of what would later be called “ultra-Orthodox” Judaism, which advocated working within the political system—any political system!—to guarantee the religious rights of the Orthodox Jewish population; in 1916 the international ultra-Orthodox movement “Agudat Yisrael” was founded in Germany but was essentially led by both Hasidic and non-Hasidic rabbinical figures from the Russian Empire.

Of all these groupings, the only one pledged to the unilateral support of the czarist monarchy was the ultra-Orthodox, who for the last decade of tsarism made common cause with the autocracy to combat the spread of socialism and Zionism among the Jewish population. At the other end of the political spectrum, only the Bolsheviks were pledged to a violent revolution to topple the tsars. The vast majority of the Jewish community fell somewhere between these two stools, neither admiring Nicholas II and his highly controversial wife Alexandra nor wishing for their immediate demise. As the Yiddish proverb has it, “Never pray for a new king”—the Jews had learned from their history that the greatest danger to them was political chaos and instability.

To be sure, the years before the Revolution witnessed an enormous amount of both insecurity and chaos: several waves of pogroms broke out in 1881-1882, 1903, and 1905; and World War I, fought on the territory in which the majority of the world’s Jews lived, caused enormous suffering and dislocation, including a massive flight of refugees both across the border to the Austrian Empire and back into the interior of Russia itself. So large was this population flight that the czarist government actually abolished the Pale of Settlement in 1916 because there were hundreds of thousands of Jews living in places in which they were officially forbidden.

But on the other side of the coin, hundreds of thousands of Jews fought in the Russian Army in WWI—estimates range as high as 600,000—and it would be reckless to assume that they were not, on some level, loyal to the regime for which they fought and died. Indeed, all the political movements just mentioned save the Bolsheviks, supported the war effort—even the Zionists, who in theory ought to have opposed support of the Russian state as an expression of the chimerical goals of Jewish emancipation and integration.

And so when the February Revolution erupted in early 1917 and Nicholas II unexpectedly abdicated the throne and Russia was declared a republic, run by a provisional government, the Jews—like the rest of the population—were shocked, as no one (not even Lenin) had predicted this result. But almost immediately, the new government proceeded to rule the vast former empire in a way congenial to the Jewish population. Most importantly, one of the first acts of the provisional government was to abolish all legal restrictions based on religion, race, or nationality: In one stroke, the 5-and-a-half million Russian Jews were emancipated, free and equal citizens of the realm. Soon, all restrictions on the freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of religion, disappeared, and the Jews (like everyone else in the new state) reveled in these new rights, issuing a plethora of new publications, artistic creations, newspapers, political platforms from left to right. Admittedly the new government was shaky and divided, but its leaders represented precisely those elements of the pre-Revolutionary world—the moderate left and center—that the Jews found to their liking. And there is no evidence to suggest that they changed their minds—including still supporting the War effort—in the fall of 1917, when the provisional government began to fall apart, more and more replaced by the Petrograd Soviet, made up of workers, soldiers, and professional revolutionaries—the latter, once more, including a good number of Jews who rejected their own Jewishness.

And so, as the October 1917 seizure of power by the Bolsheviks turned into the Russian Revolution, almost all Russian Jews did not support the new regime. Soon, elections were called for a Congress of Russian Jews and then for a Constituent Assembly promised by the Bolsheviks; in both these votes, the Jews stuck to their pattern in the earlier elections, supporting coalitions of Jewish parties representing the broad center of the political spectrum; the Bolsheviks still garnered only a small percentage of the Jewish vote.

So what happened? In the simplest terms, as the civil war broke out, the anti-Bolshevik forces soon became more and more dominated by the right wing and its blatantly and violently anti-Semitic supporters. Although early on there were some pogroms waged by Red Army troops, these were quickly and firmly condemned by the Bolshevik leaders (again, especially Trotsky, who was, after all, the head of the Red Army). In sharpest contrast, the White Army soldiers conducted massive pogroms against the Jews. And the clash was not only between the Reds and the Whites but soon also between the Red Army and the various Ukrainian and Polish forces, who also carried out an enormous number of pogroms against the Jewish population.

Often, it was difficult to tell which side was worse: In his remarkable short story Gedali, Isaac Babel portrays an old but noble shopkeeper in the destroyed city of Zhitomir, remarking to the narrator that he can’t tell the difference between the various armies occupying and destroying his town: “The Pole shoots, because he is the counter-revolution. And you shoot because you are the Revolution. But Revolution is happiness. And happiness does not like orphans in its house. A good man does good deeds. The Revolution is the good deed done by good men. But good men do not kill. Hence the Revolution is done by bad men. But the Poles are also bad men. Who is going to tell Gedali which is the Revolution and which the counterrevolution?”

But Isaac Babel had, in fact, made his choice, falling in line with the new Soviet authorities, as did scores of other Jewish writers, painters, sculptors, novelists, short-story writers, who saw in the Revolution vast opportunities for creative liberation. And the vast Jewish masses, whether previously supporters of the Zionists or the Bund, the Agudah or the Kadets, had no hesitation in making a simple, life-defining decision: the White Army and its allies attacked, murdered, and destroyed Jewish lives and homes; the Red Army attacked the pogromshchiki, made anti-Semitism a crime against the state, outlawed pogroms, and even prosecuted anti-Semitism in its ranks. True, the economic system the new regime introduced—“War Communism”—destroyed the very basis of Jewish life in Eastern Europe for centuries—the market economy—as well as the free liberal professions that Jews had entered into en masse in recent decades. Gedali’s little shop “as if out of a page of Dickens,” could not be restored. But as the author of Deuteronomy had counseled the Israelites long before: “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.” And choosing life meant siding with the Bolsheviks.

Certainly, there were many Jews who, in their heart of hearts, still maintained their fealty to their old political parties, their old way of life, their Zionism, their Bundism, their liberalism, their religious Orthodoxy. Many would fight as best they could for these causes in the next two decades, largely underground. But as the new Soviet Union rose from the ashes of the Revolution, the Civil War, the Soviet-Ukrainian War, the Soviet-Polish War, and more, the Jews made their peace, or more, with the new Communist state which committed itself against the forces of reaction and anti-Semitism. Their subsequent fate under Soviet socialism—and its ultimate descent into the lunacy of the Stalinist terror—was not foreseen.


This article is part of a week-long Tablet series analyzing the 100th anniversary of the Soviet Revolution.

Michael Stanislawski is the Nathan J. Miller Professor of Jewish History at Columbia University.