Perestroika’s Ugly Brother, Anti-Semitism : Soviet Union: Recent reforms have revived Jewish life, but have also freed the forces of Russian xenophobia.


A scrappy Moscow magazine, the 20th Century and the World, published an article in 1988 that provoked a lively debate among Soviet intellectuals. This piece, titled “Why We Are Staying,” was written by two Jewish scholars who argued that perestroika offered a chance for Soviet Jews to take an active part in shaping the nation’s future without surrendering their Jewish identity.

Nearly two years later, the mood among Soviet Jews is palpably different. Many have concluded that there is no future for Jews in the Soviet Union. More than 70,000 left the country last year. This year’s emigration figure is expected to top 150,000. If this trend continues, half of the Soviet Union’s 2 million or so Jews will have left the country within five years, and the Jewish population will dwindle to the tens of thousands by century’s end.

This trend is ironic, given the renaissance that Jewish culture has enjoyed under Mikhail Gorbachev. Indeed, there are seven Jewish newspapers and magazines printed in Moscow; a dozen more appear in Tashkent, Tallin, Riga, Vilnus and Kishinev. The Yiddish language is winning new recruits among Jewish youth, who have a chance to learn their heritage in private seminars and publicly funded programs. Jewish theater is making a comeback; several well-publicized shows have been staged in the past two years to popular and critical acclaim.

The Congress of Soviet Jewish Organizations held in Moscow last December furnished more proof that Jewish life in the Soviet Union is gaining in strength. And yet the future of Soviet Jewry is in doubt.


While state-sponsored measures directed against Jews have ceased, popular anti-Semitism is rising, to the point where the Communist Party newspaper Pravda has issued a strong denunciation of the trend, calling it “an attempt to disrupt the process of social consolidation.” Soviet Jews now routinely suffer verbal abuse. Among Jews in Leningrad, 81% report they have experienced anti-Semitic outbursts in the past six months. Still more--94%--fear physical violence.

Rumors of imminent pogroms have so far failed to materialize, but several recent events have dampened morale in the Jewish community. There was a particularly ugly incident last February, when a few dozen Russian nationalists disrupted a meeting of liberal writers in Moscow, threatening to use force against those present unless they renounced the “Jewish conspiracy.”

The ultranationalist organization Pmyat is increasing its popular following. Less than 5% of the Soviet people supported it in the past, but according to Tatiana Zaslavskaya, head of the Center for Public Opinion Research in Moscow, its approval rating has jumped to 19%. She suggested the rating could be a fluke (“Some respondents might have confused the right-wing Pamyat with the liberal Memorial, both meaning ‘memory’ in Russian,” she speculated), but the willingness to blame Jews for current difficulties is all too obvious.

Leonid Gozman and Alexander Etkind, who wrote “Why We Are Staying,” still refuse to emigrate, but even they acknowledge the change in the nation’s mood. They have noticed a tendency among liberal newspaper editors to shun authors with Jewish-sounding names. Soviet Jews are increasingly urged to use pseudonyms, keep their names off the front pages of signature-bearing petitions and generally keep a low profile in the reform process.


Russian Jews have always sided with the forces for social change. In the 1870s they welcomed reforms that delivered them from the ghetto. In 1917 they joined the Revolution, which promised to do away with Czarist oppression. Now they gather under the banner of perestroika. But will Soviet Jews escape their forefathers’ plight? History doesn’t offer much solace.

The 19th-Century liberal reforms ended in bloody pogroms. A vibrant Jewish life came to a standstill after the Revolution and Stalin nearly succeeded in carrying out his own “final solution” to the Jewish question. Now the role of Jews in the reform process is questioned by those on the right, who view perestroika as another Jewish conspiracy, and those on the left, who are afraid that an open association with Jews could undermine their cause.

Meanwhile, the exodus from the Soviet Union continues. Bowing to psychological, political and economic pressures, hundreds of thousands in the Jewish community have taken first steps toward emigration. Even those unwilling to leave for good have begun to explore opportunities in other countries--if not for themselves, then for their children.

There may not be time to reverse this process, but it is certainly time for Russian intellectuals to jettison whatever ethnic bias they might harbor. The future of Soviet Jewry, if not the fate of perestroika , may depend on the candor with which they address the issue.