Russian Jews Between Reds and Whites 1917-1920

2 posts

Niccolo and Donkey
How Jews navigated Bolshevik currents

Asia Times Online

Dmitry Shlapentokh

July 12, 2013

Russian Jews Between the Reds and the Whites, 1917-1920 (Jewish Culture and Contexts) by Oleg Budnitskii Reviewed by Dmitry Shlapentokh

Oleg Budnitskii's monograph covers the history of Russian Jews from the late tsarist (Imperial) Russia to the first year of the Bolshevik regime and Civil War. The book has a lot of positives, with the most obvious the richness of factual data. The author has researched an enormous amount of material, including archives in Russia and the US.

However, some of the conclusions are too familiar and duplicate those found in most books on the subject published in the West. Everything is boiled down to a simple notion: that anti-Semitism has been an integral part of Russian society since the time when East European Jews became the subjects of Russian tsars, after the partition of Poland in 1772.

This anti-Semitism was pervasive despite, as the author notes, the desire of many Russian Jews to be patriotic citizens and their active participation in World War I. Here, the author's observations are absolutely right and are supported with a lot of new material. However, the most interesting part of the book deals with the relationship between Bolsheviks and Jews.

This relationship is approached differently by Western historians. For conservative historians, the subject is mostly ignored, and it's clear why. For them, Bolsheviks are the absolute evil, quite similar or plainly identical with Nazis. A focus on the Jews who worked for the regime reflected negatively on the considerable number of Russian Jews who didn't, implying a latent anti-Semitism.

For the left, the story was different. From this perspective, the Reds were absolutely a positive force and historians from this camp would emphasize how Bolsheviks' treatment of Jews was different from that of the Imperial administration and that of the Whites - the Bolsheviks enemies - during the protracted civil war. It was this pro-Jewish sympathy that demonstrated, in their views, the truly democratic, and progressive nature of the regime.

The author has a different view on the subject. He demonstrates that actually there was not much difference between Red and White leaders in their approach to Jews as an ethnic-religious group, though all of them were against anti-Jewish pogroms of the kind that overwhelmed the Russian empire during the civil war.

The author implies, however, that White leaders' protests against pogroms was not sincere, and he notes that many of the members of the White elite became explicitly anti-Semitic because of the active participation of Russian Jews in the civil war on the side of Bolsheviks. Still, a dislike of Jews does not necessitate the condoning of pogroms.

At the same time, the attitude of the masses - either Red or White - was absolutely the same. They were ready to engage in pogroms, and the only reason pogroms did not happen in Red-occupied areas - or at least on the scale in White-occupied areas - was due to a very simple fact: Bolsheviks were much more ruthless than Whites in maintaining order and martial discipline.

There were very few if any cases of White commanders shooting their own soldiers - and even more so officers - for disobedience, looting and similar transgressions. Consequently, there were few cases, as the author notes, when White soldiers were punished for pogroms. At the same time, Reds had no problems in terrorizing soldiers or even commanders for breach of discipline, desertion, or simply not fighting well.

Consequently, Bolsheviks authorities crushed the pogroms with same ruthlessness as they shot hostages, the middle and upper classes if it was politically expedient. The execution of the entire tsar family, including its children, demonstrates this clearly. Bolsheviks had no problem in shooting dozens or even hundreds of pogrom instigators. Indeed, according to the author, up to 400 were shot in one case.

This explains not just the very fact that Russian Jews flocked to Bolsheviks but why they were so eager to join the party and secret police and became the faithful janissaries of the regime, at least in its incipient stage. To illustrate the desires of Russian Jews to join the secret police, who became quite popular employer among many Russian Jews, the author presents the following episode.

He recounts a conversation between an old Jew and his grandson presumably in the early 1920s. "The old Jew brought his uncircumcised grandchild to a synagogue, sat him down near the Torah, and asked him, 'Berka, what are you going to be when you grow up?' The grandfather received the following response. 'First of all, my name is not Berka, it's Lentrozin [an acronym from Lenin, Trotsky and Zinov'ev]. And I'm gonna be a Chekist when I grow up.'" The young boy most likely indeed joined the repressive machinery of the state as numbers of Jews in this institution grew.

"The number of Jews in OGPU-NKVD [Joint State Political Directorate-People's Commissariat For Internal Affairs] continued to grow in the first half of the 1930s as well, reaching a peak of 39% [43 individuals] in the upper levels of the NKVD in 1936." With the advent of Great Terror, the butchers became victims and by the end of the 1940s Jews "were largely gone from the organization".

While later discrimination and persecution is well known and equally well presented in numerous works in the West, the other aspect of Jewish life in Russia, their collaboration with the regime in its early periods of the regime history, had been either ignored or marginalized, or the narrative was edited in such a way to avoid the unpleasant labels or plainly due to desire not to irritate readers.

From this prospective, this work by Oleg Budnitskii, a Russian Jew himself, is different from most of the other Western works for it presents history as "it was" - if one would remember Leopold Ranke's famous statement - "not as it should be".

Russian Jews Between the Reds and the Whites, 1917-1920 (Jewish Culture and Contexts) by Oleg Budnitskii, translated by Timothy T Portier. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012. ISBN-10: 0812243641. Price: US$71.96. 508 pages.

Dmitry Shlapentokh , PhD, is associate professor of history, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Indiana University South Bend. He is author of East Against West: The First Encounter - The Life of Themistocles, 2005.
Niccolo and Donkey