Jews in Russia - Personal-National Autonomy (State within a State)

Personal-National Autonomy (State within a State)

Before giving an account of the main points as to what is meant by "personal-national autonomy" and the results of putting it into practice, it is necessary to define more precisely the concept of "nation", "nationality".

The word "nation", as the very name indicates, comes from the Latin word "natio", which originates from the word "natus" — born, ("nasci" — be born). So, quite rightly, in the Russian language there existed and exists the equivalent word "nationality", which might also be called "tribal belonging".

The word "citizenship" also existed and exists in Russian, side by side with "nationality" or "tribal belonging".

In countries with a homogeneous tribal language and cultural population the meanings "nationality", "tribal belonging", "citizenship" may be substituted one for the other, without the precise definition being affected.

But not all countries have, in a sense, a monolithic tribal population. In such countries it is necessary to differentiate strictly the nation, "citizenship" from "nationality" and "tribal belonging".

A subject of Russia or a citizen of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics does not mean that the given person is a Russian or even a Slav...

A citizen of France is not necessarily a Frenchman by nationality, nor is a citizen of the State of Israel necessarily a Jew. There are also Arabs. In the USA there are blacks, red, yellow and white "Americans", or, as is frequently said, "people of American nationality".

Pre-revolutionary Russia was multi-tribal. The USSR is also a multi-tribal (multi-national) state. All tribes or nationalities that make up the population of the USSR have their territories, which are now accepted as "national territories". Only one nationality, or ethnic group, did not have its territory at the time of the creation of the USSR. These were the Jews, consisting of less than 2% of the whole population and dispersed throughout the country.

Before the revolution all the nationalities and tribes of Russia were considered Russian subjects. They were equal and did not experience any limitations. The only restrictions in respect to the Jews existed in rights, not on the basis of tribal restrictions but on the basis of religion. Jews who broke off with Judaism automatically received all rights, and were equal with other subjects of the Russian Empire.

After the year 1917, the previously centralized Russian State underwent administrative reorganization into separate federal territories, populated by different nationalities. For each nationality the right for self-determination up to separation was recognized.

And all nationalities, to a certain extent, have realized their rights of self-determination by the creation of "national republics" or "autonomous regions". Of course, they were created on the instructions of and under the leadership of the Communist Party as "national in form but socialist in content".

Only the Jews were unable to do that for the simple reason that they did not have territory and were not a "nation", but only "ethnic group".

In special demographic literature, there are quite a few definitions of the word "nation" with enumerated indications required for an ethnic group to be recognized as a "nation".

The most concise definition is the one given by the well-known English historian, Carlyle, who states that "nations consist of land and ancestors".

The Italian scholar Mancini (middle of the 19th century) gives this definition: "A nation is a natural society of people, attached to a united territory, origin, language and adapted to living intercourse and social consciousness".

A similar definition is also found in the works of communist authors, both before the revolution and after it. It goes thus: "A nation is a historically formed stable community of people that came into being on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life and psychological qualities, being manifested in common specific peculiarities of the national culture".

This last definition was published for the first time in 1913, repeated in 1929 and once more repeated in 1960; therefore, there is every reason to consider it the dogma of Marxist-communists.

It is quite obvious that the Jewish ethnic group cannot come under any of the above definition of a nation because of the absence of territory.  Nevertheless, it possessed an exceptionally and distinctively expressed "stability" and "peculiarities of psychological mould" (according to the definition of Prof. Solomon Lourie that the Jews possess "spiritual aspect" that distinguishes them from all the rest of the people of the world).

Jews, however, being in dispersion and even conversing in different languages, "considered themselves as a nation, a state with their own laws, but without their own territory". (Professor Lourie's definition.)

At one time, in Poland, this situation was regulated by the "Kalisz Statute", according to which Jews who lived in Poland could abide by "their laws", in the content of which Poland did not interfere with. (See p. of this book.)

The "personal-national autonomy" was something similar to the Kalisz Statute, except that it had considerable changes in favor of the Jewish ethnic group. The idea was put forward by the Russian Jews even in the years of first revolution (1905), but it was realized only after the second revolution, in 1917.

These changes consisted in that the Jews (as distinct from the situation in Poland) acquired all civil rights, equal with the rest of population (which they did not have in Poland), but at the same time preserved the sequestered character of the Jewish ethnic group. So much so, that in the sphere of Jewish "national-cultural religious life" and in daily life they had the possibility of living according to their Jewish laws. They were even allowed to have separate cemeteries, something which was not permitted any other nationality of the USSR.

The satisfaction of cultural needs such as theatres, newspapers and schools in the "national" republics and regions was provided out of the budgets of the corresponding republics and regions. The expenses of "national-cultural" services for Jewish groups, residing on territories of various republics and regions, also fell on the budgets of these regions.

And if a considerable number of Jews arrived and settled permanently in any city, purely Jewish cultural institutions also had to be created — theatres, newspapers, if the Jews so desired, and schools in the Jewish language. All this was done at the expense of the city or the corresponding national republic or region.

In order that all this be strictly put into practice, the "Evsection" — the Jewish section of the Communist party, — watched and took care of it. There was, however, no separate communist party, as, for example with the Ukrainian communists, who formed one at the beginning of Soviet rule.

Stalin was resolutely against this, considering that the Jews were not a "nation", and therefore could not create the Jewish "national" communist party. Its absence was compensated by the presence of "Evsection", which in fact managed all the Jewish affairs in the USSR. This was similar to what once existed in Poland, where such affairs were managed by the "Jewish Seim". Of course, it was not allowed to judge and to pass sentences in synagogues. But all "affairs" and "conflicts" in planning the "personal-national-cultural" autonomy were handled and resolved by the "Evsection" in the spirit and sense of the laws of the people of Israel.

All possible assistance and contribution to the "Evsection" were secured by the government. And the personalities of this "Evsection" were old party comrades through the "Bund", with many Soviet dignitaries.

The first measure of the "Evsection" was the establishment of the "Jewish Telegraph Agency" in Moscow, abbreviated JTA.

By-passing the official agency, "TASS", the JTA used to send its reports abroad to those agencies of the press which it wanted, for instance, the "New York Times". No one other national group had such an agency and possibilities to report directly abroad, although many Ukrainians, Georgians and Armenians had permanent residence in Moscow where their fellow-tribesmen were at the top of the party and the government. Only Jews had this privilege and used it to keep in touch constantly and regularly with the rest of Jewry dispersed throughout the world.

Dealing with questions that took place in the USSR, the JTA' from its Jewish point of view, undoubtedly exerted a considerable influence on the attitudes of broad circles of the world community. The influence was directed at the non-Jewish community, who, however, read newspapers controlled by Jews. And it is impossible not to acknowledge that the rôle of the JTA was enormous in the matter of forming world opinion about the USSR and everything that took place there.

But at the same time, the responsibility in presenting one-sided and partial reporting (which used to occur frequently) — was also enormous. The politics of many states concerning the so-called "Russian question" were and are directly dependent on these opinions about the situation of the Jews in the USSR and the government's attitude towards them.

During the first thirty years of Soviet rule the main informant to the whole world about Jewish conditions in the USSR was the JTA. Afterwards, after the closing of the JTA and facilitated possibilities of visiting the USSR, and correspondence with relatives and friends, the numerous "specialists on the Russian question" became the informants. They were almost exclusively Russian Jews, who filled various institutions in different countries.

Besides the links that were maintained with the rest of Jewry of Diaspora by means of the JTA, the "Evsection" developed its activity also in other directions. First of all, it took charge and care to develop a prospering Jewish national culture within the limits of the USSR. It also facilitated to a maximum the lot of its Judaic religion by giving it an easy time in the conditions of the communist regime while holding to the general course of atheism and militant godlessness.

It must be taken into account that among the active figures of the "Evsection" there were a lot of former Jewish "socialist-Zionists" and "Bundists". A considerable number of these, if not all, were, according to M. Slonim, "frequently found to be, in reality, types of Jew-communists, fanatically believing in Lenin's teaching and in strangely combined precepts of the Bible or Talmud with the doctrine and requirements of the communist church".

Knowing this, it will become clear that over almost twenty years, after the start of godless activity by Goubleman-Yaroslavsky, it was possible to observe occurrences in Moscow of Jewish religious life-scenes which did not confirm at all the official course of eradicating religion from daily life.

In the collection "Jewish World" for the year 1939 one can read the following: ''In Moscow three synagogues are open: the Bolshaia, the former Poliakovskaia and the one in Marinoy grove. In Drogomilov the special Jewish cemetery which is managed by "khevre-kaddish" at the Bolshaia synagogue also remained intact. At the synagogue there is also "beh-hamidrash", where, behind volumes of the Talmud, one can see elders, gray with age, and a few youths, dreaming of going to Palestine.

As in the good old days, a struggle goes on between the parties in the administration of synagogues. Election campaigns are being conducted, and sometimes its whole business ends up in slanders between opponents, so much so, that even authorities have to intervene. So, in Moscow, not long ago, the "opposition" of the administration in Bolshaia synagogue turned to the Moscow Soviet with a complaint about the method of baking matzos, pointing to irregularities of their bosses. The result was that the Moscow Soviet got interested in the matter and decided that the baking of matzos was quite a profitable business and took to banking the matzos itself.

There is no need to doubt the accuracy of the above description. To a non-Jewish reader, however, a question naturally occurs: "but what happened to the Easter Cakes during the same years in Moscow?"

As is well-known to all, in those years (at the end of the Thirties) not only did the Moscow Soviet not engage in the production of Easter Cakes but even separate families in Moscow and throughout the whole USSR did not dare to engage in this.

In the bulletin issued by the JTA on September 9, 1938, one can read: "On the eve of the last Jewish holidays of 1938, the newspaper 'Der Emes', (published in Moscow in Jewish) complained on its front page that 'the Jewish clericals' exert a big influence on the religious life of the population. They pay special attention to the accurate observance of religious instructions and holiday customs. "Rabbis and their followers", wrote the communist organ, "spare no efforts agitating for circumcision of newborns, observance of the Sabbath and kosher food. They do good deeds with their obsequial brotherhoods. These brotherhoods, not being recognized by law, do exist in many cities and are harmful to Soviet citizens. Attempts to organize 'khederas' and 'eshibots' were mentioned by the press many times".

In "Jewish World", for the year 1939, this can also be read: "Der Emes" wrote that, in some places, things go so far that on Jewish holidays Jewish children do not go to school, and are not persecuted for it. For example, in the Stalingrad region, Jews freely perform ceremony of circumcision. The first such example was given by Radun, the shock worker on the collective farm of "Ozet", and after him followed the shock worker of "Trudovik", and after him followed others. At Easter time, Jews everywhere bake matzos. What is more, in the said region, an example of that was given by the First Secretary of Communist Party comrade Rabinovich".

The above excerpts from Jewish sources testify that there was not much pressure on the Jews from Soviet authorities. What pressure was there if, at the end of the Thirties, they had their own separate cemeteries, which the rest of the USSR citizens were not allowed to have, if they could keep their children at home on Jewish holidays with impunity, if they could perform circumcision, bake matzos, have special obsequial brotherhoods and do good deeds which have not been recognized by law?

Neither were there any obstacles from new rulers to the most intensive development of the Jewish culture in all its manifestations: literature, theatre, periodical press in Jewish language. On the contrary, all these were supported and encouraged. As a result, a whole number of writers, poets, journalists appeared who wrote and published their works in the Jewish spoken language — "Yiddish".

In 1939, Pozner, the investigator of this question, gives the following facts in the collection "Jewish World": "Of the Jewish writers in former times, only Mendel, Mokher, Sforim and Sholom Alaikhem enjoy indisputable acknowledgement and respect as classics, and their works are being published with comments and revisions... In the years of the Soviet regime there appeared many new writers in the Jewish language, among whom were some very gifted people. Some of these were Peretz Markish, David Hofstein, Itzik Fefer, Kvitko, Noakh Lourie, Ezru Fininberg, M. Taitza, S. Godiner and S. Khalkin".

Besides the Jewish authors, writing in "Yiddish", works of world literature: Shakespeare, Goethe, Byron, Balzac, Hugo, Dickens, Anatole France and even Homer were also translated and published into the same language at the state expense.

The above facts, obviously, testify to the utmost encouragements given by the Government of the USSR in the development of Jewish culture, and not at all to its suppression or discrimination as is frequently written by unconscientious investigators of Jewish conditions in the USSR.

Never, during the whole time of its dispersion, in no one country did any government render such assistance and encouragement to the development of Jewish culture as did the USSR during the first thirty years of Soviet rule.

The circumstance that, spending people's money on translations and publications in "Yiddish" of the works of Homer and Shakespeare and other foreign writers" the government did not support "khederas" and "eshibots", in which the Talmud was studied, has no relation to the Jewish culture whatsoever. Yet Jews, even up to now, do not agree with this and do not separate their, the Jewish, culture from the Hebrew religion.

The Hebrew religion, as all other religions, was proclaimed "opiate of people" and a struggle was waged against it, but with much softer and delicate measures than were once used against other religions.

The USSR ruling class, which mainly consisted of Jews, did not spare state funds on the development of education in "Yiddish", as well as on all kinds of scientific institutions functioning in this language. Beginning from the school network (including secondary schools) and ending with the "Jewish departments" at the Academy of Science (in Byelorussia and the Ukraine), the teaching was conducted in the "Yiddish" language.

But, as the Jews themselves state, "cares about preserving and developing the national culture are alien to the Jewish intelligentsia of Soviet Russia. It is little grieved by the fact that the Jewish masses do not have the necessary trust in the Jewish school and in many cases prefer to send their children to Russian, Byelorussian and Ukrainian schools: therefore the Jewish school has been developing slowly". (Jewish World, 1939).

In 1939, Mr. Shulman, a contributor to the Jewish newspaper "Der Tog", visited the USSR in order to be convinced of how the Jewish culture had developed in that country. In Minsk he became interested in the work of the Jewish department at the Byelorussian Academy of Science. In all the other departments life was in full swing, but in the Jewish, a deadly silence astonished Shulman. A secretary of the Academy explained to him that the Jewish department was having a very poor success, owing to the absence of those who might have wished to work in it. "Jewish scientists prefer to work in Russian or Byelorussian scientific departments".

In Kiev, where there was an extensively planned Jewish institution of higher learning, the "Institute of Jewish Proletarian Culture", things were no better. In 1936, the institute had been closed "for reorganization" and had not been open for a long time. Part of its library was sent over to Birobidzhan. So, besides the building, Shulman could not see anything else there.

And when, upon his arrival in Moscow, he expressed his astonishment to Litakov, the editor of the Moscow newspaper "Der Emes", published in "Yiddish", about the poor interest in the development of Jewish national culture and the absence of corresponding propaganda, Litakov answered: "So do you think that the Jewish school is just as important a matter as building socialism?"

Neither did the Soviet Jews show any interest in the history of the Jewish people, as it was in the years of pre-revolutionary Russia. In spite of enormous material possibilities, made available by the state for the people of science, scientific works in "Yiddish" are almost non-existent. "It is necessary to state", writes a Jewish observer, "that in Soviet Russia very few people devote themselves to study of Judaism – Jewish history, philosophy, philology, ethnography, economy".

What is the reason they are so few? All the possibilities are present, but those wishing to become students of Judaism are not, in spite of the fact that the government assisted and encouraged its study.

The answer to this natural question was given affirmatively by a Jewish journalist, who stated that "cares about preserving and developing the national culture are alien to the Jewish intelligentsia of Soviet Russia", and that "the masses have lost their trust in the Jewish school."

Hence a logical and psychological conclusion: a striving to join the Russian culture. This indeed takes place, engendering and nourishing assimilationist attitudes. The process of assimilation goes on regardless of counteraction to these attitudes from rabbis as well as from numerous representatives of the Jewish intelligentsia, intelligentsia which did not free itself from the Zionist-Socialist aims of the previous Jewish parties, the "Bund", "Poale-Zion" and the "socialist-Zionist-internationalists", to which belonged the majority of the Jewish intelligentsia in Russia before the revolution.

An atavistic fear of disturbing the purity of race by means of mixed marriages was stronger than all international and socialist programs. The programs of which Jews were its followers and propagandists.

It was not less difficult for non-Jews to rid themselves of the purely irrational feelings of the well-known "repulsion" against Jews. This was especially so for inhabitants of those Russian territories which were once part of the "Jewish Pale", where the native population had many contacts with Jews, for instance, in the Ukraine.

It was this repulsion that hindered the process of quick assimilation. If it was not for this repulsion the "Jewish question" would have been eliminated within the borders of the USSR by intermarriages.

Here are demonstrative statistical facts about the percentage of mixed marriages in different parts of Russia. These statistics deal with marriages after the revolution when all obstacles of religious nature no longer existed for such marriages and when the institution of civil marriage was introduced in the USSR.

The data for the years 1924-26 show that in the regions of the former "Jewish Pale" in the Ukraine and Byelorussia where a large percentage of the Jewish population lived, there were registered only 3.6% mixed marriages (Jews with non-Jews whereas deep in the country the percentage of such marriages was 16.8%.)

Giving these figures in the "Jewish World" for 1939, the author makes no attempt to investigate the cause of this disparity, but briefly states that "this is understandable". Actually it is not quite so understandable, that where the percentage of Jews was larger the percentage of mixed marriages was smaller, and the vice versa. This disparity becomes understandable only when we take into account that deep in the interior of Russia its native population had almost no contact with Jews before the revolution and did not know them. In the "Jewish Pale", however, the native population was constantly in touch with Jews, knew them very well, and had “repulsion” in regard to them. Besides that, undoubtedly, the Jewish social structure within the "Jewish Pale" and outside of it also played a big rôle. The Jews who lived deeper inside Russia belonged mainly to the Jewish intelligentsia or bourgeoisie and in their daily lives did not adhere much to the old, strict Jewish customs and eagerly associated with Russian families.

However cases of mixed marriages were rare exceptions not only among the Jewish bourgeoisie and intelligentsia but even among Jewish revolutionaries. All of them, as a rule, married Jewesses, except Trotsky, who was married to a Russian woman. The exceptions occurred among revolutionary leaders — Russians, such as Avksentiev, Sukhomlin, Kerensky, who married Jewesses (Kerensky got married in emigration).

Jews in general, not only in Russia, view mixed marriages as the beginning of the end for the Jews and oppose them in every possible way.

In connection with this, one incident that took place in 1960 in the USA deserves attention. In Philadelphia, at the big meeting dedicated to the struggle against anti-Semitism, there appeared a well-known English historian Arnold Toynbee, invited by the Jewish organizations to make a speech. Toynbee recommended an end to anti-Semitism by means of intermarriage.

Toynbee's advice provoked burst of indignations by the numerous Jews gathered there, who were offended by the suggestion as a wish to destroy Jewry. Eight hundred rabbis wrote in the press, protesting such methods of eradicating anti-Semitism in USA.

In the USSR, as already mentioned above, the struggle against anti-Semitic sentiments was conducted by other methods – prohibition and severe punishments.

The question of mixed marriages did not interest the Soviet Government, although a great many Jews were in it. On the contrary, mixed marriages were viewed with approval and important Soviet personages themselves led the way: Stalin, Molotov and Voroshilov, the diplomats Krestinsky, Troianovs and many others were married to Jewesses.

Life goes on. The secluded Jewish life, destroyed by the revolution, was already impossible to re-establish even by the means of "personal-national autonomy". To an old man's horror, Jewish young people started to eat all food, including pork, and to ride in streetcars on Saturdays, stopped attending synagogues and began to associate with "goyim". The post-revolutionary Jewish generation was irretrievably departing from Jewry and was rushing to join the All-Russian culture.

And no efforts of the "Evsection" could prevent this process. Every interest was lost to study the Jewish language, one that was more and more ceasing to be the spoken language of the Jews in the USSR. According to data provided by the last census, 80% of Jews in the USSR do not know how to read and write "Yiddish", to say nothing of the ancient Hebrew language.

The Jewish "national culture" in pre-revolutionary Russia, in spite of all "limitations" (or owing to it) reached a golden age which it never had in any other country during the whole Jewish sojourn in their dispersion. With great knowledge of this question I. Zisman writes in detail about this in his review of the "Book about Russian Jewry". (This review is given in full in Part II of this work as a "supplement").

However, as life has shown, this golden age was possible only under the conditions of Jewish self-isolation, in their distinctive voluntary ghetto, which the Jewish culture of Russian Jews was up to the year 1917. The culture was inseparably linked with the Hebrew religion and impregnated with racial mysticism and scholastic points. In its time, this culture gave rise to a whole number of political figures who created Jewish parties — "Bund" and "Zionist-socialists", combining in themselves positivism and Marxist materialism with elements of Judaic racial mysticism.

And when, with the advent of communist power, all political parties were prohibited, including the Jewish, former members of "Bund", "Z-S" and also partially of "Poale-Zion" rushed to join the "Evsection" of All-Russian Communist Party. It was through the official channels offered by the Evsection that they started to put into practice the "personal-national-cultural autonomy" across Russia. They did it, sparing neither the material resources of the whole country nor considering the wishes and feelings of the native Russians.

"A Jewish Department of the Proletarian University" is being created in Moscow. And Maria Livshits-Frumkina, a former member of the "Bund", is being appointed its president. In Kiev a huge building is set aside for the "Institute of Jewish Proletarian Culture" (which as mentioned above, was closed in 1936, because Jewish students did not want to study in it). In Minsk, the Jewish department of the Byelorussian Academy of Science is standing empty, although it was opened and is maintained at the state's expense. Schools (including secondary schools) teaching in the Jewish language, are being opened and maintained in cities and towns with a considerable Jewish population. The Jewish language is being recognized by the state on an equal basis with all other languages of the country and legal procedures are conducted in settlements with a considerable percentage of Jews, for example, in Byelorussia.

In the national republics, not only is the creation of separate Jewish professional organizations being permitted but it is even encouraged. Members of these organizations could only be Jews who at the same time are members of parallel professional organizations of all-state or republican formations. Thus, for instance, in Kiev, side by side and parallel with the "Union of Ukrainian Writers", there also existed the "Ukrainian Union of Jewish Writers".

A great many similar examples of this "dualism" could be cited.

The "Evsecs" — members of the Jewish section of All-Russian Communist Party — used to show unusual activity in the matter of introducing and putting into practice the Jewish "personal-national-cultural autonomy" wherever an opportunity presented itself. This ranged from legal procedures in "Yiddish" in Byelorussia to issues of newspapers in the distant Birobidzhan or in the Jewish theatres of the Crimea.

However, "Evsecs" were getting old, their ardor was petering out, yet there were no replacements for the simple reason that the new Jewish generation had lost interest in their culture because of gravitation towards joining the cultural life of All-Russia.

Furthermore, they started to quarrel among themselves and to display unattractive traits — internal squabble, intrigues informing.

A bulletin issued by the JTA on June 19, and August 7, 1938, reports: "the Kharkov newspaper "Der Stern" attacked the most prominent Evsecs of Moscow. And the Moscow "Der Emes" replied by attacking the "Ukrainian Union of Jewish Writers". The general meeting of the Gezerd in Moscow, in December, 1939, showed a shameful picture of the public informing on prominent Jewish communists, who had the misfortune of once having been members of the "Bund", "Poale-Zion", "Zionist-socialist", etc. "In Kiev and in Kharkov, as a consequence of similar intrigues, many prominent Jewish writers were "cleaned out" — expelled. These were Marx Eric, Mikhail Levitan, Haim Gilden and others".

Summing up the conditions of the Jewish culture in the USSR, the observers (Jewish emigrants) stated that "we are witnessing not the strengthening and development of Jewish culture in Soviet Russia but the extermination of some of the few bearers of it who still remain" (S. Pozner). And the well-known Jewish historian, Dubnov, writes: "There is a generation growing which does not know its origin and its century-old past".

It is not proper, of course, to dispute the opinions of experts on this question. They are quite right, giving such a pessimistic picture of the success of the Jewish culture after twenty years of its propagation in the USSR.

Later on, this deviation from the Jewish culture by Jewry itself still further gained strength at the expense of quite voluntary assimilationist sentiments.

Those specific peculiarities called "Jewish culture" were the main and basic causes of the deviation: Jewish culture is the only culture in the world organically and inseparably linked with religion. "Evsecs", the communists, generally did not recognize religion and used to reproach displays of Jewish religious feelings, or at best, only tolerated them.

And it is not surprising that the whole expensive venture of spreading the Jewish culture in the communist state ended in complete failure.

The religious life of Jews in the USSR withers away, and along with it withers the Jewish culture.