Leonid Smilovitsky: early Soviet policy towards Jewish identity and culture was a combination of demagogy and pragmatism

Leonid Smilovitsky: early Soviet policy towards Jewish identity and culture was a combination of demagogy and pragmatism

According to the 1926 Soviet population census, there were 407,059 Jews in the Belarusian SSR and they constituted 8.2 percent of the republic’s population. As of 1926, Jews were the most numerous ethnic group in the urban areas of the significantly rural Soviet Belarus. Their number was as high as 340,162 (or 40.1 percent of the entire urban population), followed by Belarusians (332,860 or 39.3 percent). In his interview our expert, Dr. Leonid Smilovitsky from the Goldstein-Goren Diaspora Research Center at the Tel Aviv University, analyses Jewish life in the interwar Soviet Belarus and answers why historical demography is an important element to comprehensively understand Belarus’s development patterns in the 20th century.

ICELDS: What were the main features of the Jewish community in the Belarusian SSR during the first decades of its existence?

Leonid Smilovitsky: After the end of the Russian Civil War, the Jewish population of Belarus felt a sense of gratitude to the Soviet authorities for saving their lives from pogroms. At the same time, it is important to note that the initiators of the Jewish pogroms were not the Belarusians, but Russian soldiers, Poles military forces, rebels of Gen. Bułak-Bałachowicz, and Ukrainian paramilitary troops in the south of Belarus. Therefore, Belarusian Jews largely perceived the Soviet regime as their defender. Additionally, after the end of the Civil War, Jews in the territories of the former Russian Empire replaced the middle class, which was either destroyed or forced to emigrate. Being the most educated group of the population, Jews filled this niche. One can also say about the social policies of the Bolsheviks and their struggle against anti-Semitism. The sense of social justice was exacerbated among Jews because for many years they had been the most discriminated group of the population. Thanks to these factors, the sympathy of the Jewish population was on the side of the Bolsheviks. Finally, until the early 1930s there were no restrictions or quotas to employ the use of Jews in all positions. Hence, they were actively engaged in politics, economy, and science in the Belarusian SSR, provided they acknowledged the ideas and policies of Bolshevism.

ICELDS: How could you assess the contents and goals of the Soviet policies towards Jews in the interwar Belarusian SSR?

LS: For their policies, the Bolsheviks invented a formula “socialist in content and national in form”. Thus, they did not hide that they want to abolish all previous forms of the Jewish life. The specifics of the Bolsheviks’ policies towards Jews differed only in the language, while the content was the same as in case of any other ethnic group of the Soviet Union. Therefore, it was clear that the Bolsheviks weren’t going to preserve Jewish national traditions and customs. These tactics were embodied in the policy of Yiddishization, launched in the 1920s in parallel with the Belarusization. The Soviet authorities needed to make their ideas become accepted and distributed as wide as possible. Therefore, Yiddish was used as an outer shell which covered Soviet contents of the nationality policies towards Jews.

In addition, Yiddish confronted Hebrew. The latter was perceived as a language of Zionism, synagogues and prayers. Moreover, the Bolsheviks equated Zionists and rabbis, although these two groups were irreconcilable opponents. In the 1920s, the Zionists were mostly anti-religious and called for emigration. Rabbis were determined to cultivate Jewish life where Jews lived. However, both were viewed by the Bolsheviks as their enemies because they distracted the Jewish masses from Soviet state-building.

In the 1920-30s, Belarusian Jews were not afraid to declare their ethnicity, writing in Yiddish, or giving Jewish names to children. Nevertheless, the contents of national life had to comply with the Soviet doctrine, which allowed no dissent.

ICELDS: Did the Jewish communities and educational institutions enjoy some degree of self-administration, or were they under a strict control of the authorities?

LS: Authorities totally controlled educational institutions. Textbooks in the schools with Yiddish language of instruction were just another language version of centrally approved school manuals. There was no information about Jewish holidays, traditions, or customs there. These textbooks were just as atheistic and class-based as any other published by the Soviet authorities. Therefore, it is wrong to speak about Jewish schools: they were Soviet schools with the Yiddish language of instruction.

Jews were given the opportunity to settle their issues independently under the control of the Soviet authorities. Being an integral part of the Soviet system, this framework was controlled by the Jewish Bolsheviks.

This dual policy couldn’t last long. Significant changes were to begin when the policy of the New Economic Policy reached its critical point. In addition to the changes in state policies, the iron curtain fell. Since 1929, the border was closed and ties with foreign Jews ceased. When we analyze the processes that took place in Jewish society, we must remember that the country was closed. It was impossible to learn what was happening abroad: there was nearly impossible to travel abroad, the post was controlled, and all the mass media communicated the general party line. Simultaneously, the Soviet authorities invited the Jews to take care of themselves. They introduced so-called productivization policy. It included the transfer of Jews to the land, the measures against overpopulation of shtetls (small towns with large Jewish populations), and resettlement of Jews to the Crimea and Birobidzhan. These measures opened new opportunities for Jews, since the tsarist government forbade them to work on the land. However, how effective could agricultural work be in the absence of private land ownership? This policy also failed despite the efforts of the authorities and the support of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

After that, the policy of korenizatsiya (nativization) was introduced. It provided for the replacement of Jews by representatives of the titular ethnic group of the Soviet republic (i.e. by Belarusians). Accordingly, the authorities artificially introduced ethnic-based quotas and significantly limited the opportunities of the Jewish population. Meanwhile, the closure of the country and the bureaucratization of its system further complicated the situation. Since the mid-1930s, Jewish national life was officially curtailed. The Yevsektsiya (a Jewish section of the Communist Party of Belarus) was crushed. Previously, it fought against the Zionists and implemented Soviet policies on the Jewish streets. The Jewish communists affiliated with the Yevsektsiya were overwhelmingly destroyed by repressive machine of the Stalin’s regime.

ICELDS: What was the role of the Yiddish language for Jews in the Belarusian SSR and why the authorities found it important to grant it with the status of one of the four official languages of the republic?

LS: This role can be defined in two words – demagogy and pragmatism. Demagogy in this context meant that the communist authorities in all possible manners stressed that they were a people’s power for the working-class Jews, because the Soviet state was a class-based entity. Pragmatism is emphasized through using Yiddish as the easiest means to convey to the people’s minds the requirements and conditions of the Soviet state-building. It was easier to control the activities of the Jewish population, 96 percent of which in 1926 considered Yiddish a native language. Meanwhile, the Yiddish language reform in the 1930s served the same purpose. Following these changes, Soviet Yiddish began to differ from the foreign varieties of the language.

ICELDS: If there had been no WWII and Holocaust, could we hypothetically assume that Yiddish would have actively been present in the Belarusian public space at least until the end of the 1980s?

LS: This question is rarely asked, although it is important to understand Soviet nationality policies. I do not have any doubt about it – it would obviously have been present. One can recall a widely spread false thesis that the closure of the Jewish schools in Belarus was allegedly initiated by the Jews themselves. I believe that it was artificially inspired by the authorities for their purposes. Indeed, these signals existed, but they have been turned from the secondary issue to the mainstream policies. Jewish schools were closed suddenly and simultaneously across the country without any public consultations in 1938. However, it didn’t affect the western regions of Belarus, incorporated into the Belarusian SSR in 1939.

In fact, the Stalin’s regime didn’t leave the Jews any choice. When the policy of Yiddishization was abolished, it was decided to do away with the oases of national culture used for the promotion of the Soviet power. In fact, their very presence was a factor discontent and doubts about the validity of the Soviet policies. Consequently, it was necessary to get rid of the school and the language.

In addition, the Stalin’s regime put the Jews into a rather narrow corridor of opportunities, whereas preventive repressions got things done. People became very intimidated and obedient. As a result, lack of public protests only contributed to the implementation of the communist authorities’ plans.

I want to emphasize that national differences require freedom of thought and action. If there had been no war and millions of dead had survived, the Soviet government would in any case have had to adapt Yiddish to the needs of its policies, because it would be a beneficial tool to control Soviet Jews. However, the things turned out quite differently. The survivors were so shocked by what they had experienced during the war, while the Soviet authorities only continued putting pressure on its fellow citizens of the Jewish ethnicity.

Interview conducted by Dr. Kiryl Kascian

Note: the image above is from the personal archive of Dr. Leonid Smilovitsky

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