White Ruthenia and a Jewish Revolution
The Jewish Revolution in Belorussia: Economy, Race, and Bolshevik Power
Reviewed by Marek Chodakiewicz
Andrew Sloin, The Jewish Revolution in Belorussia: Economy, Race, and Bolshevik Power (Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 2017) has given us an insightful monograph about the experiences of Jewish revolutionary activists who not only found themselves under Soviet power during the revolution and civil war but also who remained in the Soviet Union in the interwar period. The neo-Marxist author concentrates specifically on pro-Bolshevik and even Bolshevik Jews. (p. 13). He argues that “fundamental contradictions implicit in the double-sided concept of labor employed by the Bolsheviks delimited the fate of the Jewish Revolution in Belorussia (and, implicitly, the entire Bolshevik revolutionary project).” (p. 5) He means that the Jewish revolutionary projects, especially the construction of Jewish autonomism under Bolshevik rule, repeatedly crashed against the rocks of the Soviet economy’s structural crises, which – in no small degree – remained allegedly capitalist.
The Jewish Revolution in Belorussia consists of two main layers. The first one is composed of a mandatory theory grounded in Marxism’s classics and other exciting progressive intellectual trends. The second layer comprises a truly solid micrography of Belorussia’s Jewish community’s revolutionary part between 1917 and 1930. The latter, the micrographic part, contains valuable revelations. Their separation from superfluous leftist jargon and artificial intellectual constructs enables us fully to appreciate the author’s significant contribution to the study of hitherto neglected topics.
Let us first look at the theoretical part. Following Marx, Sloin repeats his theory about the alienation of the proletariat in capitalism. Next, he derives from Trotsky the idea that (because of the NEP in the 1920s and Stalinist centralization later), the Soviet Union was a bureaucratized capitalist state. (p. 242) Building on such contrived constructs, the author thus borrows from the Frankfurt School, particularly Max Horkheimer, the idea that the proletariat’s alienation (not only Jewish but also other, including Belarussian) resulted in a feeling of “powerlessness.” That, in turn, stemmed directly from the Communist state’s economic crisis conditions, which – paradoxically – were also capitalist. To counteract their loss of power, the proletarians expressed, in a Nietzschean manner, their “will to power” and rebellion utilizing “antisemitism.” (pp. 235, 255)
The mobilization of the lower depths in an anti-Semitic form posed a challenge for the Communists. Under Stalin, the Soviet power thwarted it to counter the threat to its domination, not mainly because it wanted to help the Jewish people. This was a strictly utilitarian decision and not a humanitarian one. The neo-Marxist scholar claims that internal and external factors impacted such choices because it is a mistake to treat the Soviet Union as sui generis. Instead, it remained firmly embedded in the global economy and politics. In this context, the historian insists that it was the economy that shaped and propelled Soviet Communism. In reality, however, it was the other way around. Communism shaped and drove the Soviet economy.
Within this theoretical neo-Marxist straightjacket framework, Sloin endeavors to recreate a part of the Minsk region Jewry’s social history. Let us stress that he is not interested in the Jewish community at large, but only a portion of it: the lower depths, which we shall return to soon. According to the scholar, the Bolshevik coup during the Russian revolution was a wonderful emancipatory moment for Jews. A previous watershed moment had been the “liberal emancipation,” which grew out of France’s revolution. The latter was incomplete, however, because it favored the Jewish “bourgeoisie.” Now the Bolsheviks pledged total equality, equal rights, and also “total economic, social, and cultural transformation and integration of Soviet Jewry in the framework of a post-capitalist order devoted to social and national equality.” The Jewish destiny was their “full proletarization.” (p. 1)
Sloin considers this to be a modernization project. We see this as a fulfilled promise of total extermination of the traditional Jewry of Belorussia. “Throughout the Pale, the Bolshevik Revolution unleashed a Jewish Revolution, empowering Jewish artisans and workers while simultaneously casting aside the rabbinate, cantors, wealthy communal leaders, merchants, industrialists, religious educators, and secular non-Bolshevik intellectuals as archaic and politically dubious vestiges of an eradicated order. The revolution deposed old elites, old meanings, old languages, old prayers, and old politics. In their place, the revolution promised the permanent rule of the working class, thereby drawing to its flag Jewish artisans, workers, day laborers, apprentices, and white-collar workers.” (p.2) This would not be mainly a proletariat in the classical Marxist sense, but there was no other in Belorussia. Therefore the Bolsheviks had to rely on the lower layers of the shtetl, including the criminal element, which Sloin mentions with great restraint, if at all.
Instead, he deadpans that what happened to the Belorussian Jews under Communist rule was a “reconstitution” of society. Yet, it was its destruction. True, the shtetl thugs and lumpenproletariat became the foundation of the Soviet system in Belorussia. This could not have gone any other way because most of the population usually consisted of illiterate peasants, unfit to be Communist rulers.
In this manner, both the lower depths of the Soviet society and the leadership were able to point out the leading role of persons of Jewish origin in the system. The anti-Semitic fringe was convinced of a global Jewish plot and viewed Belorussia’s developments as its local emanation. The bulk of the Christian population believed that it was precisely the “Jews” who benefited from the revolution. On the other hand, the Bolshevik leadership was grateful to the Jewish people to aid in seizing power in White Ruthenia. Simultaneously, however, the Communist bosses were suspicious that perhaps “Jews” had their hidden aims in assisting the Reds.
To maintain the system’s grip, the Bolshevik center promoted nationalism of the natives to create a utopian Soviet society of equal nations through the transformation of every individual within them into a proletarian. All were to become proletarians as per Marxist dogma. Simultaneously, antisemitism was delegalized and sharply punished for any expression of it. On the other hand, after a while, dangerous deviations were singled out and severely crushed, including “Bundism” and “Trotskyism.” They were expressed in ethnic, national, and even racial concepts.
The Jewish heroes of Sloin originated mostly from extremist leftist parties (chiefly the Bund, Fareynigte, and Poale Zion). However, even though they shared the Communist aim of the socialist revolution, they remained in opposition to the Bolsheviks as far as tactical matters. Gradually, between 1917 and 1918, they began gravitating toward Lenin, with most Jewish revolutionaries eventually joining his Bolsheviks. Lenin and his comrades actively wooed them because of the insufficient numbers of their cadres in White Ruthenia, in the cities in particular. New Jewish converts to Bolshevism attempted to realize their autonomous programs within the party. In other words, they were carrying out a “Jewish revolution” in Belorussia. Its first victims were other Jews. This concerns, in particular, the traditional elite, religious figures, and Jewish entrepreneurs, as well as all different non-leftist political orientations of the community: from Jewish liberals to rightist Zionists, as well as all other persons of Jewish origin who were mercilessly classified as “class enemies.”
The latter term was infinitely flexible and, ultimately, its implications metastasized also onto Jewish revolutionaries of Bundist and other provenance. They fell victim to party purges in the mid-twenties, and then they were substituted with young, Communist-indoctrinated Jews. A part of them was then expelled and repressed for “Trotskyism.” Ultimately, in the name of Sovietization, all pluralism was destroyed, and persons of Jewish origin, even in the Communist party, were ordered to forget of any autonomy whatsoever, or even of any individual cultivation of Jewishness. They all were supposed to become Soviet.
Sloin, unfortunately, sympathizes with this “Jewish revolution” until it fell victim itself to a Stalinist uravnilovka. The author seems to contort himself to claim that a Jew (or anyone else) can remain Jewish while totally severed from his tradition. This is pure nonsense. We are the creation of the past; generations have labored to create us. Only through continuation can we preserve our uninterrupted continuity of being as Jews (or Americans, Poles, and any others). Extirpated from our roots, negating the past, we tear off the chain’s continuity, and we become an entirely new entity. So much for theory. Now let’s move on to micrography.
Departing from all those artificial post-modernists constructs, Andrew Sloin painted a very nuanced portrait of mass Jewish support for the Bolsheviks at the lowest societal level in White Ruthenia. First, the scholar assumes that “These Jews did not, as antisemitic logic insists, ‘make’ Bolshevism or revolution; rather, as stressed here, the revolution made Jews Bolsheviks.” (p. 50) Second, he holds that the formational experience there were anti-Jewish pogroms, and the Polish-Bolshevik War of 1920, in particular. Third, he stresses that the Jews of White Ruthenia, in fact, participated en masse in the revolution, but that did not result from the pogroms only but from the fact that the Jewish population constituted half of the urban population. In the cities where the extremist leftist parties operated, the revolutionary authorities were located, and most radical convulsions took place. By default, and in a variety of ways, all that impacted the Jewish community disproportionately.
Fourth, Sloin argues that those processes concerned mainly not so much, in general, the “Jewish masses,” who remained traditionalists, just like their elites – both religious and center-right Zionist – but, instead, Jewish adherents of revolutionary parties, whose ranks however increased as a function of radicalization of the people by the war and revolution. Fifth, this was chiefly about revolutionary Jewish parties, principally the Bund and Poale Zion, which, from their inception, were influential in White Ruthenia. Sixth, those parties remained in opposition to the Bolsheviks because they preferred their own program, which placed them closer to the Mensheviks and the Left Socialist Revolutionaries.
Seventh, Lenin understood that he had to win those Jewish parties over to his side. Because of generous tactical concessions and privileges, the Bolsheviks succeeded in wooing to their cause the Bundists and Poale Zionists, who resolved that they could realize their revolutionary and socialist aims within the Communist party. Eighth, during the first revolutionary decade, the Kremlin initially permitted the Jewish revolutionaries to carry out a virtually autonomous “Jewish revolution” on the “Jewish street.” In this manner, the revolution persecuted and destroyed Jewish traditions with the hands of former Bundists and Poale Zionists. This was congruent with the policy of the so-called “korenyzatsya,” or “nationalizing” of Sovietism to counter Russian nationalism by minority nationalisms and to create a hybrid entity and, in reality, an oxymoronic one: “socialist in content, national in form.”
However, ninth, according to Sloin, within the framework of “Stalin’s revolution” from above, commencing in 1926, Moscow initially carried out anti-Bundist purges in the Bolshevik ranks. Then, it initiated an anti-Trotskyite campaign. Old revolutionaries were replaced with indoctrinated and Sovietized young Jews (so-called “Lenin levy.”) This proceeded to the tune of thinly veiled antisemitism and the promotion of White Ruthenization in the party and government institutions. At the end of 1929, the so-called “Jewish sections” (yevsektsye) of the party were dissolved in Belorussia and elsewhere in the USSR. Thus, every last trace of the Jewish revolutionary autonomous efforts was removed. Afterward, virtually all manifestations of Jewishness vanished in the Soviet Union. The only permitted form of Jewishness was an individual submission to Communism, whose masters unleashed once again an instrumental anti-anti-Semitic campaign, sternly vowing to defend Soviet citizens of Jewish origin from the threat of racism and nationalism.
This dialectical process is reflected in the statistics of the participation of Jews in the ranks of the Communist party in Belorussia. Initially, there was “the high concentration of Jews in the party leadership and the rank and file.” (p. 160) But proportionally, the Bolsheviks hailing from this ethnocultural community constituted a small percent of the whole of the Jewish population. Further, gradually, in absolute numbers, the Belorussian majority began to dominate in the party. “While the absolute number of Jews within the party continued to grow, the proportional weight of Jews within the party fell steadily in relation to Belorussians.” (p. 160) By the end of the 1920s, “Jews were being demographically swallowed by the party.” (p. 161)
Detailed statistics fully reflect this. In 1926, the Jewish population of Soviet Belorussia stood at a bit over 400,000, while Belarussians amounted to circa 4 million. The Jewish people were concentrated mainly in the cities, the Belarussians in the villages. For example, there were 53,686 Jews in Minsk or 40.8% of the city’s inhabitants. Statistics show clearly that Jewish Communists constituted a tiny fringe of the entire Jewish population of the capital. In March 1923, the Bolshevik party in Minsk’s city district enrolled 1,660 comrades, including 735 (45%) Jews. In July 1924, there were 795 Jews, but the increase of the Communists of other origins indicated that the Jewish participation fell to 28.8% of all party members. Even though Jewish Bolsheviks reached 832, the overall percentage of Jewish comrades declined even further because of the continuing boost in enrollment by the Belorussian comrades in the red ranks. Similar mechanisms functioned throughout all party organizations in this Soviet republic. The participation of Belorussian Communists increased from 3,998 to 10,438 between January 1 and May 1924. On January 1, 1926, Bolsheviks of Belarussian roots climbed up to 50% of all comrades. In 1927 there were 6,012 Jewish Communists out of about 25,000 Marx and Lenin worshipers, thus 25% of the total. So much for the rank and file.
The participation of comrades of Jewish origin at the highest level of the Soviet power still remains under-researched. Indeed, they were not shtetl and Yiddish-speaking Jews like in Belorussia. Most of the top leaders were assimilated, often in the second or third generation. For example, in 1917, in the Central Committee of the Communist party, about 30% of Bolsheviks were of Jewish origin. Later, their numbers decreased gradually because of the co-optation of increased numbers of non-Jewish natives, usually of peasant or recent proletarian origin, starting in the Civil War, particularly in the “Lenin levy” in 1924. The slow process of pushing out national minorities by the Russian majority commenced.
Similar mechanisms applicable at the top of the Soviet pyramid manifested themselves at the lower levels, including the republican dimension. For example, as far as the party leadership at the helm of the Soviet Belorussian Socialist Republic, the proportions of Jewish comrades’ participation at the top in Minsk were initially relatively higher than at the Moscow center. However, the changes in the membership of the Minsk party after 1921 were still more dramatic than in Moscow. The leading Jewish Communists disappeared; they were constrained, and then they were marginalized by Belarussians’ social advancement. For example, as far as the Central Bureau of the Communist Party of Belorussia, the participation of leading Communists of Jewish origin decreased from 46% to 12% during three years (1923-1926). At the level of district secretaries, it fell from 30% to 10%. In government institutions, a similar process took place. For instance, Jewish comrades in the Sovnarkom (the republic’s government) diminished from 29% to 13%. In the comparable period in the Soviet of Trade Unions leadership, the national category’s decline was similarly pronounced: from 65% to 35%. Everywhere Belorussian comrades benefitted.
Ultimately, little came out of the Bolshevik experiment with the Jewish people except for the destruction of the traditional society. The historian blames this failure on an allegedly insufficient level of Communism in the Soviet Union. According to him, the USSR was so tightly integrated into the global economy in the 1920s that the allegedly repulsive capitalist world’s economic relations replicated themselves even in the Bolshevik state. Therefore, the exploitation of man by man and the alienation of labor resulted. This alleged deficiency of socialism triggered the return of antisemitism and its eruption on a severe scale during the 1920s. And that was not the case before, according to the author. So, in this scenario anti-Semitism stemmed from “capitalism”, which continued unabated from earlier times. This is sheer nonsense.
In the gubernya of Minsk and its environs, the level of anti-Jewish animus was rather low before 1917. Generally, before the revolution, human relations (interfaith, interstate, and interethnic) in White Ruthenia were rather proper. They were based upon the pre-modern paradigm stemming from feudalism with some market mechanism. Andrew Sloin refers to them in the context of White Ruthenia at large as “relatively benign.” (p. 3)
For example, there were virtually no pogroms there before 1914, and even the Revolution of 1905 usually steered clear of the countryside, while it remained relatively moderate in the cities. As far as the Jewish people, official Tsarist discrimination hurt the most. As a result, “Compared to the neighboring territories of Russia and Ukraine, which were marked by pronounced histories of official and popular antisemitism, the Belorussian territories, historically speaking, constituted one of the most tolerant settings for Jewish life in the lands of the former Russian Empire.” (p. 3) The credit here is due chiefly to the local Polish Christian elite, who managed to save so much of the spirit of the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in White Ruthenia. Sloin does not dwell on this much, but at least he grudgingly admits that the Polish state was “remarkably tolerant.” (p. 7)
The author is only sad that the Bolshevik “emancipatory” experiment failed in Belorussia. One is surprised because utopian experiments never succeed. It is best not to try them. Otherwise, we court a disaster: a Communist democide or a national socialist genocide of the Third Reich, including the Holocaust. It would have been better for everyone involved in White Ruthenia if the old Commonwealth remained in place until today.
Lastly, it is worth mentioning that Sloin generated his revelations in research in two archives (in Minsk). Still, he was able to work peacefully because he received ten (10) different grants and scholarships. Here we bow deeply before the Jewish community, which makes sure to preserve its past by generously endowing scholarly endeavors toward that end. It is worth emulating.
Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
Washington, DC, 30 June 2020