The Jewish 1917

A Bundist Demonstration, 1917.

By Terry Tait

On 13 November, Professor Michael Hickey visited Miami University to give a talk on Russia’s Jewish community in the context of the Russian Revolutions of 1917. Hickey, a professor of history at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania, explained that the story of 1917 in Russia could not be told without an explanation of Jewish politics as many of the main socialist organizations had leaders from this community. Despite the strong feeling of solidarity among Russian Jews, stemming from their shared position as outsiders within the country, Hickey emphasized the fractious nature of the Jewish community itself.

Providing a glimpse into his research of the Russian provinces, particularly Smolensk, Hickey’s talk integrated Russia’s Jews into the narrative of 1917. He stated that this community had been “erased” from the Soviet secondary literature, and consequently American secondary literature on Russian history. However, by looking at published documents in government archives, Hickey saw that Jews were deeply involved in Russian political life. In fact, Hickey noted that this group was disproportionately represented in revolutionary organizations.

Hickey stated that the Jewish community in late imperial Russia felt it needed to revitalize itself. Yet there was significant division over how this would be accomplished. Various groups believed that the community would gain the most social benefits by acculturating themselves within the Russian empire, by revitalizing Judaism, or by pursuing some mixture of both. This desire for a better place within social society explains the active nature of Jews in Russian political culture, with many belonging to both one of the main socialist parties and a Jewish party such as the Bund.

Hickey explained these various Jewish parties represented two trends in addition to acculturation within the Jewish Community: autonomism and Zionism. Autonomism was a secular nationalist movement to establish a self-governing Jewish community or region within a Russian entity. Zionist parties sought to establish a Jewish state in the territory of Palestine. Hickey energetically named these various organizations and noted their differences in ideology, but emphasized that their platforms all adopted, or embraced, socialist policies to various degrees, creating political programs that often overlapped. Hickey illustrated that the Jewish community was deeply involved in Russian political culture, mirroring all of its divisions and tensions.

Yet the Jewish parties of Russia had their own divisions that were unique and distinct from Russian politics. The questions of a Jewish national language–Yiddish or Hebrew–and the role of Judaism itself within the community were the subjects of great debate as the community attempted to establish its own national Jewish identity. Such debates often became equated with class and tradition, and decisions to educate children in Yiddish (the language of the Jewish proletariat) or Hebrew (the language of the community’s ancestors) were often made at the local level.

Following the February Revolution, these groups openly welcomed the Provisional Government because they saw its creation as a rebirth of the Russian people and even as a rebirth of the Jewish state in Palestine. Thus, Hickey explained, the Jewish community had tied its fate to that of the Provisional Government because it was perceived as providing a new opportunity for the Jewish community to become more included within Russian society. However, with food shortages and the economic decline that came later in the year, the Jewish community became the subject of blame from both socialist groups for being bourgeois and from far right groups for being tied to the Bolsheviks.

At this point in his talk, Hickey posed the question, if participating in public life had not reduced the threat to the Jewish community what option was left? The answer was that the erosion of support for socialism and liberalism created more support for Zionism as the last remaining option for Russia’s Jews.

Following the disappointments of the revolution and the rise of the Bolsheviks to power in October, the Jewish community became the target of a new threat during the Russian Civil War with anti-Semitic pogroms being committed by both sides. Hickey explained that as a result of this new reality there was a remaking of what it meant to be Jewish in Russia. There were many new opportunities that had opened for Jews within the country’s civil service as the Bolsheviks tried to fill its bureaucratic structures, but patterns of disenfranchisement remained. In this new political environment, Hickey concluded that the community’s solidarity remained intact as it mobilized to protected Jewish monuments and synagogues from being appropriated by the new Bolshevik government.

Terry Tait is a History major at Miami enrolled in the joint BA/MA program.

This entry was posted in Lecture Reviews. Bookmark the permalink.