The Russian revolution: how emancipatory hopes and antisemitic poison overlapped

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10/05/2021 by socialistfight

Some useful material but essential anti-Bolshevik, as has Pirani’s orientation over the last two decades or so.


The Bolsheviks’ refusal publicly to discuss antisemitism in the state’s institutions and army was informed by an understanding of it as an external, “counter-revolutionary” force. McGeever points to key statements by Lenin, who called antisemitism the work of “capitalists, who strive to sow and foment hatred between workers of different faiths, different nations and different races”, and Evgenii Preobrazhenskii, who attributed it solely to “the Russian bourgeoisie”, who use it to “divert the anger of exploited workers”. McGeever argues that such “reductive conceptualisations failed to account for the many-sided nature of antisemitism, and, in particular, the way it traversed the political divide, finding expression within the left as well as the right” (page 120).

After the civil war, as the Soviet state consolidated its institutions and control over its territory, this crude view of antisemitism as a weapon wielded by external enemies became standardised. So did the public silence on “Red” pogroms. One of several examples given by McGeever is a book on the Ukrainian pogroms of 1919 by Sergei Gusev-Orenburgskii, published in Petrograd in 1921. It was “heavily redacted by Soviet censors such that each and every reference to Bolshevik and Red Army antisemitism was deleted”, shortening it by 100 pages (page 133). Keeping Red Army antisemitism out of the public domain at all costs became “a well-established practice” (page 135).

The reductive view of antisemitism also disarmed the Bolsheviks before workers and peasants who saw Jews as lazy speculators. “In the popular imaginary, ‘the Jew’ was often positioned in an antagonistic class relation to the ‘working people’”, McGeever writes (page 183). This perception filtered through Soviet and Red Army institutions in numerous ways. Given the circumstances – of being surrounded by an unprecedented racist slaughter – the anti-capitalist discourse used by party propagandists sometimes trod a politically questionable line. What were officials in Moscow thinking when they sent directives in mid-1919, at the height of the Ukrainian nightmare, to “sweep away the speculators who have stolen from you”? What were Red Army commanders in Kyiv smoking when they sanctioned the distribution of posters urging “beat the bourgeoisie”, a wording all too close to the age-old pogromists’ chant, “beat the Yids” (page 184)?

Later on, in the 1920s, McGeever relates how Jewish communists discussed the position of Jews in the Soviet state with reference to the fight for hard work and against speculation, “and ‘Jewish speculation’ specifically” (page 202). Here a key trope of left antisemitism merged with the obsession with “honest labour” and productivity, which became prominent in Soviet discourse as the Bolsheviks strove to put the economy back on its feet and restore labour discipline.

McGeever describes how, during the civil war, local, and even national, Bolshevik officials often retreated before a mass of demands that Russians, rather than Jews, be sent to fill responsible posts, and a constant barrage of unsubstantiated complaints that Jews were avoiding front-line service in the Red Army. He looks at a proposal by Lenin, made in November 1919 when the Bolsheviks were putting together institutional structures in Ukraine, on top of civil war wreckage, to “keep a tight rein on Jews and urban inhabitants, […] transferring them to the front, not letting them into government agencies (except in an insignificant percentage and in particularly exceptional circumstances, under class control)” (page 193). The proposal was adopted and published in a sanitised version with the reference to Jews omitted. But McGeever argues convincingly (page 195) that Lenin was responding to the widespread belief that Jews were underrepresented at the front and overrepresented in comfy offices.

People and Nature

This draft review appears on People & Nature with thanks to Historical Materialism journal, to which it has been submitted for publication, in an upcoming special issue on antisemitism and the fight against it.

Review by Simon Pirani of Antisemitism and the Russian Revolution, by Brendan McGeever (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019). 247 pages.

Download this article as a PDF

In January 1918, two months after Soviet power was established in Petrograd, one of the Red Guard units tasked with securing that power on the ruins of the Russian empire entered Hlukhiv, just over the Russian-Ukrainian border, north east of Kyiv. The unit was pushed out of Hlukhiv by the counter-revolutionary Ukrainian Baturinskii regiment within weeks – but soon joined forces with a group of Red partisans who had arrived from Kursk in southern Russia, and took the town back. A pogrom ensued. The Baturinskii regiment changed sides, claiming…

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