Brief History Up To 1941
1700s - 1941
In the late 1700s, the annexation of large areas of Poland brought a large population of Jews under the control of the Russian Empire for the first time. Russia’s Czars forbade Jews to live in the Russian interior, including Russia’s largest cities, Moscow and St. Petersburg. By the early nineteenth century, these restrictions were formalized in legislation that delineated the only provinces in which Jews were allowed to reside: a large, 472,590 square-mile area that came to be known as the Pale of Settlement. (source: http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org/)
Jews endured a long history of hardships in the region, from economic restrictions to pogroms. Following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 a wave of pogroms erupted throughout the country lasting from 1881-1882. Another wave of more deadly pogroms began in 1903 in Kishinev, and continued through The Revolution of 1905. More than 2 million Jews chose to emigrate from Russia in the years leading up to the First World War.
A Bundist demonstration in Russia 1917
The General Jewish Labour Bund (Bund) operating from 1897 to 1949 was made up of prominent workers organization among Jews in the Russian Empire, based in Lithuania, Poland and Belarus. Bund supported the Revolution as a way to fight oppression of the tsarist regime. Many Bund members joined the newly formed Red Army, fighting with The Bolsheviks. The Russian chapter of the group was officially disbanded in 1921 with most of its members joining The Communist Party. The Bund continued to function in Poland until 1949. Leon Trotsky was one of the highest ranking Bolsheviks during The Russian Revolution. Stalin had Trotsky exiled in 1929, tried him for treason in abstentia during The Great Purge, and organized his murder in 1940.
Vladimir Lenin became one of the first world leaders to openly denounce antisemitism in March 1918 in a speech called “On Anti Jewish Pogroms”. His regime did not endorse any religion but made a vocal stance against outward forms of hate. Many of the veterans acknowledge that no racial persecution existed in the army, but anti-Jewish sentiments lingered throughout Soviet society.
The 1920s and 30s Secular Jews enjoyed equal rights under Communist rule. Religious traditions were discouraged during the 1920s and 1930s, making life more difficult for religious Jews.
The History of Jews in Russia is important as it helps to understand the mind set of Jews living in the former Soviet Union at the start of the war. Most “Russian” Jews had experienced a much better quality of life under the communist regime until 1948, when Stalin instituted his radical anti Semitic policies.
Successive repressive regime’s under the Tsars, coupled with murderous pogroms, succeeded in Russian Jews welcoming the Bolshevik and later communist rule and becoming active members. The Soviet Union’s promise of equality among all ethnic groups ,and for a brief time in the 20’s and 30’s granting of such, allowed Jews to obtain higher education and to rise to higher levels of intelligentsia and influence in the Soviet society.
During Stalin’s great purge, many Jews and non Jews alike in prominent position were tried and murdered for being potential threats to his regime, but the real hardships for the Jews started after the end of the war.