Life Under Communism
During the first decade of Communist rule, Jewish life did improve. Jewish people were permitted to live in cities anywhere in Russia—even in Moscow; they could study at any institution and work in any position they merited. After the end of the Civil War, the pogroms became a thing of the past, partially due to the government's strict control of the peasants, which were suffering collectivization (giving up all personal property to the collective farms).
The Jews were also allowed to maintain their distinct identity as a secular ethnic group. In Jewish public schools, children were taught in Yiddish; Yiddish Communist newspapers were widely available; the National Yiddish Theater toured all over the Soviet Union, giving performances in Yiddish. However, subsequent to the campaign against religion, which was anathema to communist doctrine, Jews were no longer allowed to practice Judaism. In 1919, all Jewish religious communities were dissolved. The study of Hebrew was banned, and Zionism was denounced.
Creation of the Jewish Autonomous Region
Because the Jews were regarded as an ethnic group, the government decided to create a Jewish region. In 1930, they mapped out a small section in the southeastern part of Russia and gave it the name of Birobidzhan, the Jewish Autonomous Region, a secular Zion where the Jewish settlers were encouraged to go.
Unfortunately, this was a misguided idea at best and a cruel one at worst. The Jewish settlers, mostly idealistic communists, found themselves in an undeveloped region, previously occupied by native tribes and exiled Russians, with harsh winters and a poor soil that they were expected to cultivate. Many families faced starvation, and those who could leave eventually did. Today, the official language of the Jewish Autonomous Region remains Yiddish, but you would be hard pressed to find a Jew there.
There is evidence that shortly before his death, Stalin began working on plans to exile all of the Soviet Jews to Birobidzhan. The infamous Doctors’ Trial, in which Stalin's Jewish doctors were accused of conspiracy against him, was meant to bring out the people's outrage against the Jews, which would facilitate the mass exile.
The Years of Repression
After Lenin's death in 1924, there was a power struggle between Trotsky and Stalin. Stalin emerged victorious, and his quest to consolidate power intensified over the years. Perhaps because many Jews were in positions of leadership within the Communist Party, they suffered more than other groups. In the years of the Great Terror of 1934–1939, all Jewish institutions were destroyed and activities banned. During Stalin's infamous purge of the Communist Party, Jews were specifically targeted; by 1945, very few Jews remained in the Party.
Stalin's anti-Semitism was becoming increasingly obvious. In 1948, Yiddish schools were closed, and beginning in the late 1940s—only a few years after the Holocaust—Jewish writers, artists, poets, musicians, and intellectuals were attacked as “cosmopolitan snobs.” Their work was discredited, and thousands were imprisoned or executed.
After Stalin's death in 1953, conditions for the Jews did not improve. Under Khrushchev, most of the surviving synagogues were closed; by some estimates only sixty synagogues remained open in the entire country. Education quotas were established in colleges and universities, which made it very difficult for Jewish students to enter the school of their choice. And although officially there were no laws that prohibited Jews from certain areas of employment, it became increasingly difficult for Jews to find work without relying on bribery or family connections.
There was a brief respite in 1964 with the ousting of Khrushchev, but after Israel's dramatic victory in the Six-Day War in 1967, anti-Semitism resumed in the USSR. This time, however, Soviet anti-Semitism appeared under the guise of anti-Zionism.
In spite of oppression, the Jews nonetheless managed to prove themselves beneficial and useful to the USSR, constituting a significant percentage of its best and brightest citizens—scientists, doctors, educators, and other professionals. So, when the Russian Jewish community saw the rise of the Zionist movement in the sixties, the government did not allow emigration.
In 1971, Brezhnev opened the gates for a time, and as many as 250,000 Jews were able to make their escape. As a result, more restrictive policies were reimposed in 1980, and those Jews who expressed a desire to leave the country were generally denied immigration. These people, known as the “refuseniks,” suffered discrimination—many could not find work and were socially ostracized.
However, through the efforts of the Jewish communities around the world, particularly the American Jewry, the Russian government was pressured to concede. In the mid-1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev finally agreed to allow Jewish emigration in return for economic assistance. As a result, the Jews left the USSR in large numbers, with most choosing the United States and Israel as their destination. Today, Russian Jews constitute as much as 20 percent of the population in Israel.