What the Bolshevik Revolution Meant for Russian Jews

When Vladimir Lenin and his Bolshevik followers seized power in Russia one hundred years ago this week, they did more than eliminate private property, establish a new secret police, and execute the Tsar.

Indeed, their "Red October" revolution -- which fell in November on the Gregorian calendar -- set off a chain of events that reverberates today in former Soviet states, in our geopolitics, and more personally, in my own family.

I am named for a grandfather who was born in western Ukraine, where the Revolution triggered a civil war between communists and monarchists. Although the other David Schizer was not political, he was nearly executed because he was a Jew. When monarchists came to his village and couldn’t find any “Reds” to shoot, they rounded up Jews instead.

My grandfather, an orphan and future Hebrew teacher, was lined up against a wall to be shot. But before they could pull the trigger, a group of communists appeared and a gun battle broke out. In that moment, my grandfather slipped away, persuaded to escape to America.

Because he crossed the ocean, I live a life of freedom and opportunity that would be inconceivable to Ukrainian Jews a century ago.

But what happened to those who stayed behind? The revolution left its mark on everyone in the Soviet Union, while creating particular challenges for Jews. I have seen these effects firsthand while visiting elderly Jews in the region who receive care from my organization.

First, like all Soviet citizens, they endured the horrors of World War II, including the death of 20 million Soviet soldiers and civilians. Adolf Hitler seized power by fomenting German fears of communism, which stemmed from the Bolshevik's triumph.

Many Jews remember the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. Like their Christian neighbors, they starved in sieges, fled to avoid tank columns, fought as partisans, and mourned the loss of fathers, brothers, and husbands who never returned.

GettyImages-163399503 Vladimir Ilyich Ulianov (1870-1924), known as Lenin, addresses his supporters celebrating in October 1918 the the first anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution. Lenin led the communist revolution and became head of the first Soviet government. AFP/Getty

But unlike their neighbors, they were specifically targeted for Nazi extermination. In Odessa, Minsk, St. Petersburg, and other places, I have met Holocaust survivors who still weep in recounting childhood memories of indescribable brutality and loss.

Second, as adults, this generation’s education and career were dictated by the Soviet system. Like other Soviet citizens, Jews could not start a business, own property, or accumulate assets. But Jews also faced the added hardship of relentless discrimination.

They faced quotas, stalled professional advancement, and state-sponsored anti-Semitic campaigns. If the political winds shifted, Jews once valued for their scientific expertise could suddenly be imprisoned (and even executed) for a trumped up “Zionist” conspiracy.

Third, the Soviet regime frowned on religious practice, dismantled religious institutions, and took a particularly hard line with Jews. They could not celebrate holidays, study religious texts, or learn Hebrew. Many kept their Jewish heritage secret, hiding it even from their children.

In response to this injustice, the Soviet Jewry movement lobbied the Soviet Union to allow Jews to emigrate. Three decades ago, over a million Jews left for Israel, Europe, and the United States.

But this emigration had an unintended consequence. Those who stayed often have no family nearby. Unlike Christian contemporaries, who rely on family for care and support, Jewish seniors often are alone.

Many also live in grinding poverty. Even retired professionals – engineers, doctors, librarians, and teachers – subsist on pensions as low as two dollars a day.  

That’s why my organization is spending over $100 million to provide food, medicine, and home care to 110,000 elderly Jews in the former Soviet Union, including 45,000 Holocaust survivors.

Thousands would die without aid we provide with a multi-faith coalition of partners, including the Claims Conference, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, Jewish federations, and thousands of others.

Despite this stark reality, the future for Jews in the former Soviet Union – who number about one million today – will be much brighter than thepast. When the Soviet era ended nearly three decades ago, citizens suddenly had the freedom to connect with their religious tradition.

To help them do so, organizations like mine – expelled by the Soviets in the 1930's and later accused of plotting to assassinate Stalin in the so-called “Doctor’s Plot”– returned to help rebuild what was lost.

The results are inspiring, and the Jewish experience illustrates a broader phenomenon. Across the former Soviet Union, in scores of new Jewish community centers, synagogues, street festivals, and summer camps, a miraculous revival of Jewish identity and culture is underway.

Young Jews, who have no memory of Soviet persecution, are teaching their parents and grandparents about Jewish culture and faith.  

They are also at the forefront of volunteer efforts to aid their neediest neighbors. For example, at the height of the recent conflict in Ukraine, Jewish young adults were on the frontlines helping homebound elderly in the face of shelling, power outages, and food shortages.

As we recall the Red Revolution, whose effects still ripple across time and space, we should recognize that new currents are shaping life in the former Soviet Union as a new Jewish generation embraces their heritage and communal responsibilities.

My grandfather would be proud.

David Schizer is the CEO of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).

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