Marking the Centennial: The Russian Revolution and the Jews

The March revolution in Russia raised Jewish hopes, soon dashed by the one that followed.

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Larry Domnitch,

Larry Domnitch
Larry Domnitch
IsraelNewsPhoto: L.D.

It is the centennial of the Russian Revolution. The first stage which led to the Bolshevik Revolution later that year. Rioters and strikers in the capital city of St. Petersburg, and other locations refused to desist in their efforts to cause chaos. At the time, regiments of the Czar’s army defected. Czar Nicholas II, who was losing control of his empire, abdicated the throne.  

Most of the world, which follows the Gregorian calendar, refers to it as the March Revolution since it took place on March 8. To the Russians who once followed the Julian calendar, which places the day at February 23, it was the February Revolution.

War, hunger, and poverty, had fueled the rage. The immense damage and destruction to Russia caused by its involvement in the First World War contributed significantly to the fall of the Czar. Two million soldiers were reported dead, one million were missing in action, many more were seriously wounded, the economy was in shambles, and unemployment was running rampant.

  

A new provisional government was established. At the helm was the socialist democrat Alexander Kerensky who became the Minister of Justice. At the same time, Kerensky also became the vice-chairman of the Petrograd (St. Petersburg) Soviet revolutionary council. These posts made him the most important leader in the revolution. The expectation was the government would be more tolerant.

Within the Jewish community, many saw hope in the change of leadership from the despotism and anti-Semitism of the Czar.

Kerensky, whose father was Jewish, had sympathized with the Jews who were severely persecuted by Czarist regime. He was one of the sponsors of a resolution by the Saint Petersburg bar condemning the 1913 trial of Mendel Beilis, falsely accused of ritual murder, as a “slanderous attack upon the Jewish People.” During the First World War, he himself had personally investigated and refuted highly publicized bogus charges of treason leveled against the Jews in a village named Kuzhi in April 1915.

Just ten days after the abdication of the Czar, the new provisional government had officially granted freedom to the long beleaguered Jewish community of Russia. These freedoms included residing where they pleased, participating in all educational advantages, voting, and owning property.

Would this pronouncement signal the end of decades of persecution for the world’s largest Jewish community?

Many in the Jewish community responded enthusiastically.

On April 29, 1917, Jewish author and activist, Shmarya Levin, asked, “Will the Jews for the first time in our history, become free, not as dismembered individuals, but as a national minority?”

In the journal, the American Hebrew, one editorial opined “The first French Revolution declared the Jews to be human beings, the last Russian
One letter to the editor of the American Hebrew on March 23, 1917, proposed that “March 15, the day of the abdication of the Czar be turned into a Jewish holiday.”
Revolution proclaimed the Jews to be free citizens, a nation of freemen.”

One letter to the editor of the American Hebrew on March 23, 1917, proposed that “March 15, the day of the abdication of the Czar be turned into a Jewish holiday.” Adding, “That day will be forever the greatest day of joy in the Jewish calendar.”

An editorial in the London Jewish Chronicle stated that, “There are firm hopes that the dark days oppression never return. With our great friend Mr. Kerensky as the moving spirit of the new government and Mr. Zarudni (the defender of Mendel Beilis who faced a blood libel accusation in 1913) as his assistant at the Ministry of Justice, the Russian Jews cannot only breathe freely, but they can also; with a clear mind, attend to their national problems of the hour.”

The results would turn out to be a far cry from the hopes. The provisional government was very young and vulnerable. Revolutionary Marxist leader of the Bolshevik Party, Vladimir Lenin, who returned from exile in Switzerland with the assistance of Germany, helped foment revolution to topple the Kerensky government. In order to maintain Western alliances, Kerensky, who had become Minister of War in May 1917, had kept Russia in the war and launched another attack against Austria/Hungary into the region of Galicia, known as the Brusilov Offensive, which turned out to be a very costly failure. Lenin, who opposed the war, had promised the suffering Russian people “Land, Bread, and Peace,” earning him sufficient support from local Soviet revolutionary councils, to mount a takeover and realize his plans in November 1917.

The Bolshevik Revolution caused the people immeasurable suffering. While the Russian Revolution of 1917 did not incur substantial losses, decades of horrors under Soviet dictatorships followed. Millions perished from persecution, terror, and in gulags.

The Jews of Russia suffered the harshness of life in Russia, and their dreams for freedom instead became nightmares of oppressive rule.

               

The Russian Revolution produced dangerous and destructive forms of anti-Semitism. The Soviet regime which promised equality sought to forcibly assimilate Russian Jewry by outlawing Jewish practices. The goal was to eliminate Judaism and Jewish nationalism in Russia. Aiding the Soviets were Jewish communist groups such as the Yevsekztia who spied on and betrayed other Jews who maintained Jewish observances despite the religious bans. Zionists as well were persecuted. Although such groups represented a very small minority of the Jews, the damage they caused was considerable.

The March revolution was a conduit to the Bolshevik revolution in November of that year. Without the first revolution, the second would not have taken place.

A century later, the Soviet Union which lasted for seventy four years, leaves behind it a massive trail of misery and destruction.

For Jews of Soviet descent, there are many tragic memories. There is also the saga of a struggle for Jewish survival in the face of extreme adversity.