Antisemitism in the Soviet Union is more visible and blatant today than at any time in the past forty years. It draws on both traditional Russian sources as well as sentiments evoked by the current radical changes in Soviet society. The glasnost, or openness, unleashed by President Mikhail Gorbachev has permitted suppressed antisemitic instincts to appear on the public agenda, and perestroika, or economic restructuring, has opened entrepreneurial opportunities that many Soviet citizens view with distrust and identify with Jews. Moreover perestroika has made possible the mobilization of ethnicity by encouraging the formation of grass-roots organizations, many of which are ethnically based. While such organizations in the Baltics, the Ukraine and Moldavia have explicitly condemned antisemitism, a few groups, especially in the Russian republic, have adopted harshly antisemitic platforms.

There are 1.45 million Jews in the Soviet Union. They enjoy more cultural and religious freedom than at any time since 1948, but they also perceive themselves as more vulnerable than at any time since the openly antisemitic campaigns launched by Stalin in that year.

Soviet Jews today see antisemitism emerging mainly from the grass roots, and they are afraid that the various governments in the Soviet domain are unable to curb antisemitic excesses, even if these governments were committed to doing so. Thus, Jews are increasingly choosing to leave the Soviet Union. The Communist Party newspaper, Pravda, pointed out on July 22, 1990, that "Judophobia has become popular among some intellectuals. This unprecedented 'respectability' of antisemitism is especially alarming [and] prompts Jews to emigrate. The fear of pogroms turns into a panic."


The existence and extent of antisemitic feelings among Soviet peoples throughout history is difficult to quantify, because only now is it becoming possible to survey freely and objectively Soviet attitudes toward ethnic groups. But historical evidence is clear in showing that antisemitism is deeply rooted in some segments of Soviet society.

The Russian Orthodox church long identified the Jews as the "enemies of Christ," indeed, his killer. Especially when the village priest was the only local resident who could read or write-the situation in much of the Russian countryside until 1918-the influence of the church and its doctrines was great.

The state, closely intertwined with the church, shared these attitudes. Jews were barred by law from living in the Russian empire until 1772, when Russia, Prussia and Austria divided Poland. The Russians swallowed eastern Poland and, to their chagrin, found that a large Jewish population came with that territory. After the Jews were reluctantly admitted to the empire they were confined to the Pale of Settlement-the 15 western provinces that had been Polish and Lithuanian-so that they would not "infect" the rest of the population.

At the turn of the nineteenth century 97 percent of Jews lived in the Pale. A numerus clausus was established to keep the number of Jews in higher education and professions artificially low. Jews were barred from owning land, although from time to time the tsars would permit small groups access to this most basic asset of agricultural economies. They were also effectively excluded from the heavy industries that began to develop in the nineteenth century. Jews were totally excluded from the civil service and the officer corps. Waves of pogroms hit the Jewish settlements, especially in the 1880s after the assassination of Alexander II, around 1903-05 and again in 1918-21. The well-known slogan of the pogromists was "Bei zhidov, spasai Rossii" ("Beat the kikes, save Russia"). It is little wonder that between 1881 and 1914 about two million Jews fled the Russian empire for western Europe and North America.

The fall of tsarism ended legal discrimination against Jews. The Bolsheviks also pledged to give all ethnic groups equal rights and opportunities. Indeed, while there were fewer than a thousand Jews among the Bolsheviks before 1917, Jews were driven to support the new regime by the pogroms conducted by the anti-Bolsheviks and the fact that the Red Army was practically the only military force in the country that did not pogromize the Jews.

The new regime gave Jews unparalleled educational and vocational opportunities. There were considerable numbers of assimilated, atypical Jews in the upper echelons of the party and state. Trotsky, for example, had grown up in a nonreligious family on a farm outside the Pale of Settlement, far removed from the Jewish population, and did not consider himself a Jew. When asked whether he was a Jew or a Russian, he replied, "I am neither; I am an internationalist, a Social Democrat." This was typical of the "non-Jewish Jews" who had rejected their own ethnic group but failed to find acceptance among the Russians. They sought to create a world where ethnicity no longer mattered, and where all would be equal.

For many non-Jews in Soviet Russia it seemed "unnatural" for Jews to wield power. Because of their higher levels of literacy and education, Jews filled the posts that the Russian intelligentsia deserted when they fled the revolution. To some, it appeared that the Jews, previously among the lowest strata, had taken over the country. This image was strengthened by the prominence of Jews in the secret police and the military, at least until the purges of the 1930s.

The German occupiers reinforced antisemitic inclinations in the 1940s by propagandizing the Soviet population. The message was that the Germans had come to liberate the Soviets from the "Judeo-Bolshevik" regime and that the misfortunes of the war should be blamed on the Soviet Jews. Immediately after the war, in which a few hundred thousand Soviet Jews were killed in combat and about 1.5 million were murdered by the Nazis, Stalin launched his infamous "anti-cosmopolitan" campaign that accused Jews of disloyalty to the country and the regime.

In 1948 all Jewish cultural institutions in the Soviet Union were closed. Not a single Jewish school, theater or publishing house remained in the land. Jewish cultural and political leaders were arrested and exiled and, in 1952, the most prominent were shot. The Kremlin announced early the following year the "Doctors' Plot," in which Jewish doctors were accused of medically murdering some prominent Soviet leaders. Much of the population seemed to believe the tale, shied away from Jewish doctors and attacked Jews verbally and physically.

After Stalin's death the most egregious forms of antisemitism were curbed, but Jews were permanently excluded from the upper echelons of the party and government, the directorships of important enterprises and research institutes, the foreign ministry, ministry of foreign trade, secret police, military academies and other "sensitive" positions. It became very difficult for Jews to enter the humanities or social sciences. The last channel of mobility for Jews was science and technology, which explains why such a high proportion of Jewish émigrés are scientists, engineers and technicians.

Between 1957 and 1964 there was a renewed campaign against religion. A disproportionate amount of media attention was devoted to Judaism, even though by then the great majority of Jews no longer practiced their faith. Intensive anti-Zionist campaigns were used in the 1970s to mask antisemitism. In 1967 Alexei Kosygin, chairman of the Council of Ministers, declared, "There has never been and there is no antisemitism in the Soviet Union."1 This declaration foreclosed any public discussion of the issue.

It is clear, however, from surveys of émigrés who lived in the U.S.S.R. at that time that the realities-or at least their perceptions of them-were far different. In 1980-81 a group of 1,161 ex-Soviet citizens was interviewed. All had left the U.S.S.R. between 1977 and 1980 and resettled in Israel or the United States. Respondents were asked whether they "had personally experienced antisemitism in the Soviet Union." The following table, arranged by the regions in which they had lived most of their lives, displays the results.2




Russia Ukraine Baltic Moldavia Georgia Central Asia

Often 33.2 38.0 26.8 25.2 6.3 13.1

Sometimes 40.4 31.9 36.9 37.4 20.5 34.3

Rarely 21.2 16.9 22.3 18.3 30.4 31.3

Never 4.1 12.7 11.5 18.3 40.2 19.2

Don't know/ 1.0 0.5 2.5 0.9 2.7 2.0

No Answer

There were surprisingly no consistent differences by age in perceptions of antisemitism; it mattered little during which historical period one had come of age. The survey also found no relationship between the strength of one's Jewish background, upbringing or religiosity and perceptions of antisemitism. The higher one's education, however, the stronger one's perceptions of antisemitism. This is no doubt explained by the difficulties Jews encountered in employment and in admission to higher educational institutions. Less educated people generally found blue-collar jobs without much trouble, but more educated Jews found it more difficult to get positions in their fields.

Higher educated Jews were also more likely to be aware of media and literary attacks on Judaism, Israel, Zionism and, by implication, Jews. Interestingly, 30.4 percent of former Communist Party members reported encountering antisemitism "often," and 41.1 percent "sometimes." It seems that the higher one's professional status in the Brezhnev period, the more one encountered or perceived antisemitism. The findings in this survey are in line with those of four others.3 The reality of societal and state antisemitism was denied by the authorities throughout the Brezhnev period, thus making its existence all the more galling to the Jews.


The first rumors of pogroms began circulating in the summer of 1988 in connection with the celebration of the Christian millennium. Rumors of pogroms spread in the Ukraine in the spring of 1989 and were discussed in the press, which cited threats to Jews: "What happened in Poland in 1968 [a massive purge of Jews] and in Sumgait in 1988 [clashes between Armenians and Azerbaijanis] will happen to you."4 The Moscow publication Argumenty i fakty, which in 1989 enjoyed the highest circulation of any Soviet newspaper, discussed rumors of a pogrom scheduled for August 19. It said that the ministry of internal affairs reported hearing such rumors before and that it had taken preventive measures.5

At the same time, Komsomolskaia pravda reassured its readers that previous rumors of pogroms had proved unfounded.6 A newspaper in the Russian city of Kursk observed that the rumors of pogroms were designed "to sow panic, insecurity among people of Jewish nationality."7 The New York Times reported in February 1990 that authorities in Odessa had issued an "unusual warning that fanning racial hatred is a crime punishable by imprisonment," because a "wave of fear and rumors of pogroms had swept through Soviet Jewish circles across the country." A meeting of Moscow writers was disrupted in January 1990 by intruders-unrestrained by police-who demanded, "Yids, get out to your Israel!" It was also widely rumored that there would be pogroms on May 5, and this elicited several "news accounts and government warnings against pogroms."8

Against this background one can understand the reaction of Grigori Kanovich, a distinguished Jewish writer from Vilnius elected to the Congress of People's Deputies on the ticket of Sajudis, the Lithuanian movement for perestroika. In an article published in the Vilnius edition of Komsomolskaia pravda, Kanovich described Jews all over the country as considering leaving, and suggested the real question was, "Can we stay?" Could Jews stay in the U.S.S.R., he asked, "when leaden pogrom clouds are hanging over our heads . . . when the lightning of intolerance and hostility is flashing ominously near and far, when there is an atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust all around us?" He concluded, "We still have no long-term guarantees of an equal and secure existence."9

Kanovich was among 200 members of the Congress of People's Deputies who signed a petition asking Gorbachev to publicly condemn antisemitism. The petition was not granted, further exacerbating the fear of pogroms that the government would be powerless to stop. While pogroms did not materialize, antisemites nonetheless succeeded in spreading anxiety and even panic among Jews across the country.

Social scientists of the newly established Jewish Research Center interviewed 352 delegates and guests at the December 1989 congress of Jewish communities and organizations. They asked whether "you have personally encountered antisemitism in the last half year in your area of residence?" Responses were evenly distributed: 35 percent answered "very often" or "quite often," 38 percent "sometimes," and 25 percent "rarely" or "never."

But when asked if there could be an upsurge of antisemitism in the near future in their area, 52 percent deemed it possible; only a quarter said it was not possible, and the rest could not say.

Perceptions of antisemitism are also quite different in various parts of the country. While 94 percent of Leningraders and 72 percent of Muscovites polled thought an upsurge of antisemitism was possible, only 21 percent of those from the Caucasus and 29 percent of those from central Asia thought the same. The strongest fears of antisemitism were expressed by those from the largest Jewish communities of the European U.S.S.R.10


In contemporary Soviet antisemitism there are four main themes: Jewish disloyalty to the Soviet Union, and specifically to Russia; Jewish domination of elite positions; Jewish privilege, as exemplified by a special right to emigrate, with emigration in turn proving Jews' disloyalty and ingratitude; finally, Jews as the root of all of society's evils.

It was not until the end of 1988 that the politically liberal magazine Raduga, published in Russian in Estonia, became perhaps the first Soviet publication to treat the issue in depth. The magazine published a symposium on antisemitism in which the lead writer asked, "Isn't it true that until recently prostitution and drug addiction also did not exist among us? We had no shortages, there was no corruption, no mafia and, similarly, there was no antisemitism."11

Earlier, on February 1, 1988, Pravda criticized the Russian nationalist organization Pamiat for antisemitism, as did Izvestia on February 27, mocking Pamiat's allegations of a Zionist-Masonic conspiracy for world domination. The newspaper Sovetskaya kultura criticized Soviet writings as antisemitic, though the writings purported to be merely anti-Zionist. And the widely read magazine Ogonyok published an article saying: "Unfortunately, in the recent past the criticism of Zionism was not always conducted from a class position in the works of certain Soviet authors. Scientific analysis was replaced by ambiguous hints, and the concepts 'Jew' and 'Zionist' were often confused. Antisemitism and its social roots were passed over in silence . . . or received an incorrect evaluation."12

The traditional sentiment of Russian nationalism has also resurfaced with glasnost. Almost all of the groups in today's Russian nationalist camp have values radically different from those of the dissident movement of the 1960s and 1970s, as well as from those of the Soviet regime. The dissident movement had a high proportion of Jews. Its values are associated, in the minds of many Soviet citizens, with "Jewish thinking."

"The dissident movement . . . failed to garner broad support . . . because of its limited and legalistic approach to human rights, and its appeals to Western support," writes Nicolai Petro. "By contrast, patriotic sentiment appeals to strong visceral attachments of people . . . [and] gives them not only a cause but a specific agenda to act upon. Moreover, such action is not limited to urban centers. . . . By its very orientation Russian nationalism displays a belief in the people which many dissidents lack."13 One need not agree with his characterization of the dissident movement to appreciate the contrast between its values and those of the "patriots."

Petro also contrasts the values of the nationalists with what he sees as the values of the Soviet regime, and the regime's values closely resemble those that most Soviet citizens attribute to Jews. Jews are perceived as oriented toward Europe, cosmopolitan, educated, urban, nonreligious and at home in too many cultures to be unswervingly committed to Russian culture. The association of Jews with political liberalism and a lack of patriotism was emphasized in an article by a Leningrad chemistry teacher, Nina Andreevna, that became a political cause célèbre. "Another special feature of the views of left-liberals' is an obvious or camouflaged cosmopolitan tendency, a sort of denationalized 'internationalism'," Andreevna wrote, citing Trotsky as the epitome of this tendency. Trotsky, in her view, slighted Russian culture and the Russian proletariat. She then linked "militant cosmopolitanism" to the desire to emigrate and to "refuseniks" who commit "outrages" by demonstrating publicly.14

The brunt of Andreevna's article was an attack on perestroika. It was thus widely bruited about that she was speaking for a conservative political faction whose leaders were in the highest echelons. Regardless, her views undoubtedly reflect those of many others. It is important, therefore, to note her explicit observations on the Jews made in an interview with The Washington Post.

In our society there are less than one percent Jews. Just a few, fine, so then why is the Academy of Science . . . and all the prestigious professions and posts in music, culture, law, why are they almost all Jews? Look at the essayists and journalists-Jews, mostly. At our institute people of all different nationalities defend their theses. But Jews do it illegally. We can see that the work they hand over is a simple dissertation, but they insist that they have made a world-class discovery. And there's nothing in it at all. . . . Certain Zionist organizations are carrying out their work here. . . . They are clever conspirators. I know that our Leningrad professors . . . go once a month to the synagogue and give them money on the day they get their salary. This goes on. This is constant mutual aid. In such a way the Jewish people keep getting into the institute.15

Similar arguments are made by others, such as K. V. Ostashvili, leader of one faction in Pamiat and the first person to be sentenced to jail for antisemitic slander. He asserts, "A Zionist-influenced commercial-financial mafia is operating in our country. It is taking over the spiritual and economic life of the country and making a dash for power." Ostashvili claimed that Jews are overrepresented "in all areas of government and public life" and called for proportional representation of nationalities in those areas.16

The theme of Jewish privilege and even domination has been agitating the writers' unions in Leningrad and Moscow. The magazine Oktiabr was criticized for publishing the "anti-Russian" works of Vassily Grossman (a Jew who died in 1964), Alexander Yanov (a Jewish émigré) and Andrei Sinyavsky (a Russian émigré who published under the Jewish-sounding pseudonym, Abram Tertz). One Leningrad writer characterized the writers' debates as a "struggle between the Russian and Jewish peoples." Another charged that "only a lack of elementary respect for us Russian writers on the part of writers who are of Jewish nationality can explain the fact that we Russian writers make up only 20 percent of the Leningrad organization." And at one such debate a writer from Krasnoyarsk observed, "I wasn't familiar with the Jewish matter before, but when I asked why they're everywhere I was told, 'Because they're smart'. . . . But why have they led us up a blind alley? (laughter, applause)" The writer continued, "People ask Gorbachev, 'Why do you oppose the Jews?' He answers, 'Come on!' Twenty percent of the people in executive positions are Jews. If we don't start talking about this openly and calmly, this question is going to hang over us like a sword of Damocles."17

Another writer claimed that the writers' dispute was not a Russian-Jewish debate but "a dispute between Zionism, the worst form of world fascism [sic], and mankind." She asked, "How long are Russian writers, . . . native Russians, going to groan under the heel of oppressors and usurpers?" She mentioned two Russian writers who "are grey-haired, yet they're pleading and suffering, in essence like Palestinian children. (applause) We have an obligation to help our blood brothers, for they are in trouble. Russian blood . . . is thicker than water!"18

This kind of discussion is not confined to the closed meetings of writers' groups. In Moscow in December 1989 a televised rebuttal was aired to a previous program in which Russian writers distinguished between "Russian" and "Russian-language" writers, who they claimed dominated the Russians, not allowing them to publish or restricting the size of their editions. When the moderator pressed the participants to specify who the "Russian-language" writers were, they replied, "the Jewish mafia."

The distinguished scientist and former dissident Igor Shafarevich has described the Jews as a "lesser people" (maly narod), a concept developed in connection with the French Revolution. According to Shafarevich, a "lesser people" is one that lives "in its own intellectual and spiritual world, detached from the people at large, . . . an elitist group whose essential beliefs are antithetical to those of the people as a whole." His argument proceeds as follows:

One indication that we are dealing at present with a stratum that is suffused by elitist sentiment and has no desire to enter into contact with the main social strata . . . can be seen in the fact that so many articles and statements produced by members of this group are directed at the problems of a minority. For example, the question of leaving the country, which is relevant to perhaps a few hundred thousand people, has aroused incredible passion. . . . A veritable 'cult of emigration' has developed, wherein emigration has become a . . . philosophy of life that reflects contempt for, and isolation from, life in our country.

Shafarevich charges the writers Pomerants, Amalrik, Shragin, Yanov and the American professor Richard Pipes-all but one of whom is Jewish-with "contempt for the Russian people" or "Russophobia." He complains that while the Russians are scorned, "there is only one nation whose concerns we hear about almost daily. Jewish national emotions are putting not just our country but the whole world into a fever, affecting disarmament talks, trade pacts and international ties among scholars and provoking demonstrations." He then continues, "the Jewish question' has assumed incomprehensible power over minds, obscuring the problems of the Ukrainians, Estonians and other peoples, while the existence of the 'Russian question' is not even acknowledged." Ultimately he warns, "if the 'lesser people' ideology were to succeed, it would spell the final destruction of the religious and national foundations of life."19

The paradox is that these sentiments could not have been expressed as sharply and openly before glasnost. Nor could the extremist Russian nationalist organization Pamiat have engaged in such public, blatant antisemitic agitation.


Pamiat has gained considerable notoriety inside and outside the U.S.S.R., but it is only one of several groups that advocate Russian chauvinism at the expense of the Jews. Liberal political commentator Fyodor Burlatsky believes that if a multi-party system were to come into being, Pamiat would "grow in size to ten million in one year."20 While the amount of support Pamiat enjoys is not clear, its ideology is. It was described in an interview with an Italian journalist by Dmitrii Vasilev, one of Pamiat's leaders. "We have reached the conclusion that it is no coincidence that we have been witnessing for years the destruction of our historic monuments, our traditions and the customs of . . . the Russian people," Vasilev said. "There is clearly some evil force wanting to . . . destroy our culture." He concluded that the force was "Zionism and Freemasonry." When asked whether by "Zionists" he meant Jews, Vasilev said:

Yes, always these Jews, as though there were nobody else in this world. The Jews live everywhere, own the capital, live like parasites throughout the world, emigrate freely from country to country and are always depicted as the most unfortunate nation. . . . It is enough to read the 'Protocols of the Elders of Zion' to realize who created this situation. However, not all Zionists are Jews and not all Jews are Zionists. This is why we are not antisemitic.21

Once again there are the same themes: Jewish dominance, persecution of Russians and worldwide conspiracy. A Pamiat poster dated November 1989 complains that while Article 36 of the Soviet constitution guarantees equal rights to all peoples, Russians are underrepresented and Jews overrepresented in higher education and in "the upper echelons of science, culture, administrative organs and other privileged spheres." A Pamiat circular "reveals" the "true identity" of Lenin's wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, as "Leah Alekseevna Fishberg," and that of Leonid Brezhnev as "Alfredo [sic] Izrailovich Garpinsky." And even Stalin is said to have been born of a Jewish mother and an Ossetian prince.


Glasnost has brought forth more open and explicit forms of antisemitism, but some of the old types still linger. Despite the improvement of Soviet relations with Israel and the general curtailment of the more absurd excesses of Brezhnev-period propaganda, "anti-Zionism" is still used to mask antisemitism.

After Grigory Alpernas, a Zionist activist from Vilnius, spoke at the Jewish Cultural Association in the Ural mountain city of Chelyabinsk, he was accused of saying that the Jews "already rule the world and they need only take power into their hands." The Jewish Cultural Association was accused of hosting "nationalist and Zionist" ideas and was warned that its activities could not continue in this vein.22 Several Russian nationalist and politically conservative journals have continued to attack Zionism with the same rhetoric used in the Brezhnev era. A 1990 circular admonished: "Russians! Brothers! Our danger comes neither from the right nor the left. Our main enemy, the enemies of Russia, are the Zionists! . . . Under the guise of 'left radicals,' 'democrats,' 'national frontists,' the Zionists are making a desperate dash for power."

The respectability and visibility recently accorded Christianity also raise some doubts among Jews because of antisemitic traditions in the Russian Orthodox, Ukrainian and Lithuanian Catholic churches. Religious homilies are now shown on Soviet television, and a Russian Orthodox mass was shown on Christmas. The bells of St. Basil's Cathedral in the Kremlin were rung for the first time since the revolution. At the televised funeral of former Politburo member Kirill Mazurov the camera focused on a Russian Orthodox priest who approached the coffin, laid a rose on it and crossed himself-no doubt a first for the funeral of a Politburo member.

Some church leaders-for example, Metropolitan Pitirim-have cooperated with Jewish cultural activists, but others have adopted more traditional stances. One church publication called former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin the "Zionist Führer," and quoted CIA documents captured in Iran in an effort to show that the Israeli secret services use Jewish communities around the world for their "nefarious" purposes. Soviet Zionists, said the writer, are undoubtedly secret agents of Israel.23

In difficult times people often look for scapegoats when rational explanations for their troubles elude them. Soviet peoples are today being bombarded with information about their failures and mistakes, past and present. Non-Russians can at least point the finger of blame at Russians, accusing them of having imposed a flawed system on the non-Russians, thus shifting blame from themselves to the prevailing nationality.

Russians are angered by what they see as the ingratitude and even perfidy of peoples upon whom they have conferred the benefits of literacy, industry, security and social welfare. But if non-Russians can blame Russians for the failures of the system, who can the Russians blame? Perhaps only themselves. Some, however, are tempted to find non-Russian scapegoats, usually the Jews, or Jews and Masons.

Soviet society finds itself ill prepared to deal with the troublesome issues glasnost released from Pandora's box. Instead of dealing with these issues with techniques developed in more open societies, where there are organizations that aim to ameliorate ethnic, religious and racial conflict, some Soviet peoples can only resort to ancient and primitive traditions, resulting in disorder, suffering and tragedy.

Soviet Jews can draw no encouragement from eastern Europe, where antisemitic expressions have accompanied the recent political upheavals and uncertainties. In Hungary, Poland and Romania economic privation and political competition have spurred some elements to stress the "alien" character of local Jews and to blame them for the ills of communism, economic difficulties or disloyalty to "the nation." Some political parties in Hungary and Romania, especially those whose origins and even leaders go back to the prewar period, have lapsed partially into their traditional antisemitic postures. In Poland, where the Jewish population is today less than 10,000-compared to over three million in 1939-the purported "Jewish origins" of Tadeusz Mazowiecki became an issue in the 1990 presidential election campaign. And Lech Wale??a called on candidates "of Jewish origin" to identify themselves. There have been no pogroms in eastern Europe thus far, but the emergence of antisemitism in a period of political and economic transition is instructive for Soviet Jewry.


From a Western perspective the behavior of Soviet Jews today may seem irrational, even hysterical. Strictures against religion have been eased; Jewish books and other items can be freely shipped in from abroad, and some Jewish religious books have begun to be published in the Soviet Union. Three small yeshivas have been established in Moscow and Leningrad. Very few Jews have been killed in the ethnic violence of the past three years. Some Jews have attained prominence in the Soviet intelligentsia, and those who are truly frightened can leave. Only 914 Jews were allowed to emigrate in 1986. The number grew to over 8,000 the following year, 18,965 in 1988, and over 71,000 in 1989. This last figure represents an increase of 20,000 over the previous peak emigration year, 1979. But in 1990, over 184,000 Soviet Jews left, setting a new record and constituting the largest annual immigration to Israel since 1951.

Whereas 35,000 Jews left in December 1990, only 14,000 left in January 1991, and less than half that in February. Emigration offices were reported to be curtailing their hours severely, and the number of refusals for emigration permits rose. This may reflect Gorbachev's backing away from glasnost and perestroika, the increased influence of the KGB and the military, and a general "tightening up" of social order. On the other hand, it may be the result of difficulties immigrants are experiencing in Israel or of the war in the Persian Gulf. It is too early to tell if this downturn portends a long-term policy change. In any case, it does not stem from antisemitic motivations.

A recent study of antisemitic attitudes conducted in the Moscow region found that 18 percent of the respondents said they disliked Jews, an equal proportion said they liked them, and 65 percent said they were neutral. Nearly equal proportions thought that "most people in the Soviet Union are anti-Jewish" and that "very few people are anti-Jewish." Over 90 percent thought Jews should have the right to emigrate or choose to stay in the U.S.S.R., and 88 percent favored equal employment opportunities for Jews.24

Robert Brym interprets data from two polls to support the contention "that there is in Moscow today considerable overlap among attitudes that have historically been associated with one another-authoritarianism, anti-Westernism, antisemitism and extremist Russian nationalism. They also suggest that roughly a third of the population is sympathetic to this ideological complex."25

Though these results-which may not be extrapolated to the country as a whole-indicate higher levels of antisemitism than most surveys find in the United States, they do not indicate the widespread and intense anti-Jewish feelings that would lead to pogroms. Moreover, in elections to local Soviets in March 1990, "right-wing" candidates associated with extremist nationalism and antisemitism were soundly trounced in Moscow, Leningrad, Sverdlovsk and other areas. Russian nationalists won only about 10 percent of the vote in the Russian republic. A study conducted in the Moscow region by American social scientists found less antisemitism than expected, and little support for policies that discriminate against Jews. Those resistant to change, the less educated and those with a deteriorating financial condition are more likely to express antisemitic feelings.26

In 1990 over six million people subscribed to the liberal publications Novy mir and Ogonyok, while one million subscribed to the conservative Molodaya gvardiya and Nash sovremennik, which have carried antisemitic articles. Why, then, is there still a widespread fear of pogroms and a rush to flee the country?


Soviet Jews and others are suspicious that the political reforms of the late 1980s are temporary or will not work, and that dictatorship is as likely as democracy in the near future. By early 1991 Gorbachev's conservative shift confirmed these suspicions and raised the specter of an antisemitic backlash. Soviet Jewish perspectives, moreover, are quite different from Western outlooks; they have been molded in a specific historical context and in circumstances very different from those of American Jewry. For Americans, the Russian civil war, the Holocaust and the "black years" of Stalinism, if known at all, are abstract matters. They happened "in Europe." For Soviet Jews, these events took the lives of sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, other relatives and friends. They have an immediacy and reality that few Americans can grasp.

American Jews take pride in their communal organization and their political power. The Jewish population of the U.S.S.R. is only just beginning to organize itself, and the "Vaad" founded in December 1989 has not achieved recognition by the Soviet government, or even by world Jewry and the state of Israel. While American Jews may pride themselves on their political "clout," Soviet Jews have none. They could not even get their government to issue a formal condemnation of antisemitism. They feel politically impotent and hence vulnerable. Unlike Western Jewries, Soviet Jewry has no defense organizations. Individuals who feel discriminated against or threatened have no antidefamation league or civil rights organization to turn to.

American Jews assume that antisemitic acts will be punished by the law, that their government affords them basic protection against discrimination and persecution. Historically the Soviet government ceased enforcing equal protection by the end of the 1920s, itself sponsored antisemitism in the 1940s and 1950s, and more subtly promoted it in subsequent decades. Though the present regime seems to have moved away from the practices of its immediate predecessors, it has not "returned to Leninist norms" in condemning antisemitism, let alone taken active measures against it.

A Soviet Jew cannot feel secure in the knowledge that the force of government will be applied against those who attempt to persecute him or her. The once powerful central government has proved incapable of stemming ethnic violence and imposing order in troubled regions. Whereas in earlier decades Jews feared the power of the government, in the late 1980s and 1990 they were frightened by its weakness. The central government may have neither the will nor the ability to intervene effectively against antisemitic attacks. But a turn toward militant, and military, conservatism may change these perceptions.

For Soviet Jews the danger today seems to come more from "below" than from "above." This grass-roots antisemitism is in some ways more frightening. When the government was the main source of anti-Jewish agitation, Jews experienced a kind of anonymous antisemitism, one which was more remote, not ad hominem, but systemic. The current antisemitism in the Soviet Union is "face to face," more personal, and hence more frightening. Whereas it was once mostly radicals, refuseniks and "marginal types" who faced persecution, now conformist and highly acculturated Jews suddenly find themselves the targets of direct attacks, which the government does not stop.


There seem to be three alternative scenarios for the short-term Soviet future. First, at the beginning of 1991 the U.S.S.R. seemed to be on the brink of chaos or revolution. There existed all the ingredients of a classic prerevolutionary situation: a divided elite, a leadership unsure of its course, a disintegrating empire, discontented nationalites, an economy in shambles and a hitherto repressed population exhilarated by finding its voice and using it before new rules of civil discourse had been worked out. Chaos, revolution or civil war would make anti-Jewish outbursts from below a distinct possibility as part of massive social disorder.

The second scenario is the imposition of social order along a more conservative course with an increasing reliance on the military. The obvious failures of perestroika and Gorbachev's instinct for political self-preservation have led him to retreat to more conservative positions, including curbs on glasnost. The military-resentful of budget and manpower cuts, troubled by the loss of forward positions in eastern Europe and embarrassed by criticisms in the media, desertions and draft dodging-is now attacking Gorbachev directly. At the same time, Gorbachev is relying on the armed forces and the KGB to reassert control over the streets and secessionist republics. There have been some attempts to curb the black market and even foreign economic involvement, as urged by KGB head Vladimir Kryuchkov, but there is no clear indication of fundamental changes in the economy. Some even talk of a "Pinochet solution" (named for Chile's former dictator) in which severe political and cultural curbs would accompany the freeing up of the economy to market forces.

In this scenario, the Jews may not be very much affected. They want emigration and cultural autonomy, not secession. If the East-West relationship remains good, there is every reason to grant them both. While Jews would regret general cultural and political curbs, they would welcome a stronger central government that could prevent pogroms and social disorder.

A third scenario envisions not only the reimposition of social order but the restoration of tight controls and repression. Gorbachev could well be replaced by a reactionary, not merely conservative, coalition or single leader standing on a domestic platform of restoring discipline and advocating a Slavophilic foreign policy. Emphasis on the uniqueness of the Slavic lands could lead to drastically curtailed cultural ties with the West and the denigration of Western values. Demagogic appeals to save the country from being bought and conquered by the West could mobilize significant segments of the population against all those construed as "westernizers"-Balts, intellectuals, economic and political reformers and Zionists.

Jews would be then singled out as the perpetrators of perestroika and held accountable for its failings. Relations with Israel would be chilled and a tilt back to the militantly pro-Arab policies of the 1970s could be expected. Emigration would again be limited, perhaps to a few "humanitarian" cases. Jewish religious and cultural life would be cut down to some symbolic functions on grounds that spontaneous cultural and religious activity had led to Zionism, emigration and "the separation of the Jewish masses from other nationalities." Like the first scenario the consequences of such a course are highly unpleasant for Jews-and many other nationalities.

If there is one lesson learned since 1985, it is that rapid change could come to what had previously been seen as a moribund, static society and state. Possibly the only thing that is certain about the near-term Soviet future is uncertainty itself. In light of recent history, with the loss of tens of thousands of their fellow Jews in the civil war and over a million in the Holocaust, many Soviet Jews are not inclined to wait and see what the future will bring. They would rather try to determine their own futures as free men and women than as the objects of other peoples' frustrations and resentments.

1 Quoted in William Korey, The Soviet Cage, New York: Viking, 1973, p. 3.

3 Ibid., p. 202.

4 "Chi bude pogrom?" Zoriia (Dnepropetrovsk), April 18, 1989. See also O. Desiaterik, "Bez uperedzhenosti," Ibid., May 16, 1989. One 19-year-old who had put up posters threatening pogroms was caught and depicted as a marginal character from a broken home with an alcoholic father. He was said to have joined several "informal" organizations, including Hare Krishna. Readers were assured he had worked alone and that there were no coconspirators. L. Gampolsky, "Kto rasprostranial slukhi o pogromakh," Dnepr vecherny (Dnepropetrovsk), July 5, 1989.

5 Argumenty i fakty, Aug. 19-25, 1989.

6 "Neuzhto ne slykhali?" Komsomolskaia pravda, Aug. 22, 1989.

7 B. Kirillov, "Razmyshlenie po povodu polzut slukhi," Kurskaia pravda, July 2, 1989.

8 Frances X. Clines, "Anxiety Over Antisemitism Spurs Soviet Warning on Hate," The New York Times, Feb. 2, 1990.

9 G. Kanovich, "Evreiskaia romashka," Komsomolskaia pravda, Vilnius, Oct. 5, 1989.

10 Vestnik evreiskoi sovetskoi kultury, Feb. 14, 1990, p. 4.

11 Vladimir Ramm, "Antisemitizm," Raduga, 1988, p. 80.

12 Ogonyok, June 1988.

13 Nicolai Petro, "The Project of the Century: A Case Study of Russian National Dissent," Studies in Comparative Communism, Autumn/Winter 1987, p. 250.

14 Sovetskaya Rossiia, March 13, 1988.

15 David Remnick, "Gorbachev's Biggest Detractor," The Washington Post, July 28, 1989.

16 Interview in Izmailovskii vestnik, no. 2, 1990, p. 3.

17 "Life, Books and the Writer's Position," Literaturnaia Rossiia, Dec. 1, 1989, translated in Current Digest of the Soviet Press (CDSP), Jan. 24, 1990.

18 Ibid., Feb. 7, 1990.

19 Igor Shafarevich, "Russophobia," Nash sovremennik, June 6, 1989, translated in CDSP, Dec. 13, 1989.

20 "Political Changes in the Soviet Union," meeting report, Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies, Washington, D.C., December 1989.

21 Interview with Fiammett Cucurnia, La Repubblica, Feb. 26, 1988, quoted in Nicolai Petro, "Perestroika from Below: Voluntary Socio-Political Associations in the RSFSR"; paper prepared for the University of Pennsylvania/Foreign Policy Research Institute, March 13, 1989.

22 S. Peisner, "Pod flagom Izraiilia," Chelyabinsky rabochii, Oct. 26, 1989, and "Po povodu odnoi publikatsii," Ibid., Nov. 29, 1989.

23 Evgenyi Korshunov, "Vse tak zhe stavka na terror?" Moskovsky tserkovny vestnik, August 1989.

24 Frank Prial, "Survey in Moscow Sees a High Level of Anti-Jewish Feeling," The New York Times, March 30, 1990, p. A8.

25 Robert J. Brym, "Perestroika, Public Opinion, and Pamyat," Soviet Jewish Affairs, Winter 1989, p. 30.

26 James Gibson and Raymond Dush, "Cultural Antisemitism in the U.S.S.R.," unpublished paper, University of Houston.

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  • Zvi Gitelman is a professor of political science at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
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