First Published: Jewish Life, January 1957.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Editors, JEWISH LIFE:
The fate of the Yiddish language and culture in the Soviet Union and the causes for the apparent and long-standing indifference or hostility towards both by the Soviet leaders will long continue to occupy our attention.
For this reason all news and comment by JEWISH LIFE on this subject is a welcome and necessary service. If there is anything that I, for one, could object to in your recent editorials, it would be their over-cautious and restrained tone when directed to the Russian leaders, as well as your lack of search for additional explanations of the tragic events surrounding Yiddish culture in the USSR.
The never-to-be-forgotten Warsaw Folks-Shtimme article of April 4, 1956, which confirmed the persecution of Yiddish culture and the execution of its foremost representatives by the Soviet authorities, coinciding with the revelations of the 20th Congress, must of necessity completely change many long held views about the Soviet Union and its leaders.
If it appears necessary to restate what is now seemingly an axiom, it is because in many discussions on these events we continue to accept and argue from premises offered by the Russian leaders and all too rarely do we question these premises or the ones who advance them.
The forced extinction of all Yiddish cultural expression in the Soviet Union in late 1948 must have been an event of great importance in Soviet society and every Soviet leader at the time was no doubt fully aware of it.
It is inconceivable that these Soviet leaders did not know that under their noses all the prominent Yiddish writers, who were also Soviet literary figures of consequence, had disappeared from sight. It is unthinkable that these same leaders didn’t know that book and newspaper publishing in the Yiddish language–a government responsibility since the October Revolution–had completely ceased.
The only reasonable assumption can be that they were fully aware of that situation at the time and either felt helpless to correct it or they approved of it. That a goodly number must have approved seems evident today by the fact that Soviet Yiddish culture, despite all plans and promises to the contrary, has not yet gained back the position it was robbed of in 1948, let alone the freer, more recognized position it achieved in the 20’s and 30’s.
It is obvious that in addition to the much offered explanation of Beria and his secret police distorting Leninist national policies, there must also have been other reasons which won acceptance among the Russian leaders then and still maintain acceptance among many of them now, so far as the Yiddish language and culture are concerned.
I have reluctantly joined with others in the belief that these events relating to the Jewish people and other situations relating to other non-Russian people, can only be explained by the fact that sentiments of Great Russian nationalism or chauvinism have come to exercise a powerful influence on the Soviet government.
Sooner or later, and better sooner, it may be necessary to face up to the fact that not only did Stalin and Beria depart from Leninist principles, as it is said, but that all the Soviet leaders have departed from the Marxist principles of proletarian internationalism and equality among peoples. I don’t think there is the slightest doubt that hard-bitten and aggressive Great Russian chauvinists, including anti-Semites, have some say in the present Soviet government. That they are supposedly concealed or may deny being chauvinists, is quite beside the point. They infest the Soviet government and we are aware of their presence in it by the rotten fruits of their work.
How else can one explain the heavy emphasis and glorification of everything Russian which has been in progress there for at least two decades? This persisting campaign couldn’t help but result in raising the Russian people to a preferred place in Soviet society, to the detriment of other non-Russian peoples and cultures.
It is this activity, the glorifying of all things Russian, which represents the break with the Leninist national policy. Stalin and Beria took criminal advantage of a policy which all the Soviet leaders promoted and which has not been specifically repudiated by them as of now.
Not a week passes by in which the press doesn’t report some new instances of Great Russian chauvinism in the Soviet Union. On October 9, 1956, The New York Times carried two dispatches which are more recent examples of the continuity of these chauvinist actions.
One of these stories dealt with the effort of the Russian Communists to “revive the national consciousness” of a small, obscure Slavic racial minority living in East Germany known variously as the Serbs, Sorbs or Wends.
At the end of World War II the Soviet Army encountered this Slavic minority people, who were well on their way to becoming totally assimilated into the surrounding German nation. The Russians then proceeded to actively revive the Slavic language of these people through the opening of schools and other institutions and by publishing books and newspapers in that language.
These efforts were occasionally reported abroad as a commendable example of Soviet policy towards minority groups. As it turned out, the attempt to halt the Germanization of this Slavic minority was not a smashing success and this was the gist of the New York Times article cited.
Reading this item, one can’t help compare the solicitude and concern shown by the Russian Communists for their Slavic racial brothers in East Germany and the harsh, yes, brutal treatment accorded our Yiddish language and its eminent writers inside the Soviet Union.
No one would object to their concern for a Slavic minority anywhere, if the Russian Communists also gave an equal break to non-Slavic minorities within their borders. To prefer their own kind, to the disadvantage of others, is the crassest kind of chauvinism.
Another outrageous example of the way Russian Communists treat minority groups was described in another New York Times story of the same day, October 9, 1956, dealing with a Soviet government decree on Gypsies. In a socialist country, a whole people is singled out by name and told to stop leading “a parasitic way of life.” Again, in the typical heavy handed manner so characteristic of the Russian Communists, Soviet courts have been empowered to imprison Gypsies who “maliciously” evade “socially useful work.”
Granting that the Gypsies everywhere, because of their peculiar background, present unusual social problems, is this the way a government which claims to be a Marxist-Leninist government should deal with this question? No, only the most hardened type of chauvinist mentality could have thought up or justified such a decree.
I may be wrong but I’m not aware that JEWISH LIFE has challenged the absolutely reactionary views of a Soviet official in charge of religions, one Prychodkov. It was he who unveiled the theory that the Russian Soviet Republic couldn’t permit “plural cultures” and this was the reason he gave to the visiting American rabbis last spring as to why there was no Yiddish language newspaper in Moscow.
It seems that only Russian language newspapers may be printed in the Russian Republic of the Soviet Union. But here’s the catch–Russian language papers, as it is well known, are also published in the non-Russian republics of the Soviet Union. As long as it’s in Russian, it’s allowed!
Unfortunately, one can go on and on citing examples of the preference shown by the Soviet authorities for all things Russian and the contrary deprecating, even hostile attitude to non-Russian cultures and minorities.
It would be pleasant to say that the admission of past mistakes and crimes by the present Soviet leaders offers the guarantee that such a reactionary relapse will never recur and that amends will be made where Yiddish and other restricted or suppressed non-Russian languages and cultures are concerned.
This may happen of course, but there can be no certainty about it, particularly if there is no sharp prodding from abroad. All the Soviet leaders who come within our view fairly reek with Great Russian chauvinist ideas. This includes the lone Jewish Russophile in the top Soviet leadership, Kaganovich. I have no doubt that Kaganovich is now where he is because he is such an implacable Russophile. On his head and on Russophile Ilya Ehrenburg’s too, must rest a particular responsibility for the gross crimes committed against the Yiddish writers.
Let’s also recognize this. There is not a single Russian leader today who, when pressed to discuss the Soviet Jewish question, is capable of speaking in the generous considerate and humanist terms which were once uttered on this subject by Mikhail Kalinin, the former Soviet president who died after the Second World War, or by Lenin before him.
Many of those who occupy high places in the Soviet Union today are actually men of limited vision, phrasemongers and otherwise compromised people. They bluffed before about Stalin and they bluff today about other things. Such bureaucrats as Furtseva, Ilyichev and Prychodkov are so ignorant, so parochial in their outlook, that it is impossible not to think of them as living proof of “the degeneration of Soviet society,” to borrow a phrase from Togliatti.
The revelations this year of the status of the Jewish people and Yiddish culture in the Soviet Union and of some persisting anti-Semitic practices in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, must also throw new light on the old, almost forgotten polemics concerning the Marxist position on the Jewish question.
From the vantage point of today, can one still completely disagree with the old Bundist principle that the Jewish working class required its own socialist party to protect its interests as a national minority and its right for cultural expression? Assuming that Lenin was right at the time when he opposed the separatism of the Bund and its contention that it was “the sole representative of the Jewish proletariat,” in the light of today was the Bundist position completely without merit?
Perhaps if a recognized political organization or even party representing this Bundist principle had functioned on a governmental level in some of the now Socialist countries, would it not have been more difficult to deprive the Jewish people of their cultural rights? Could not such a movement have sharpened up the neglected struggle against anti-Semitism?
Was Martov (Cederbaum) completely wrong when in a famous speech, “The New Epoch in the Jewish Labor Movement,” which he delivered in Vilna in 1895, he asserted that a specific Jewish labor party was needed because a general, national labor party might in the course of its development “sacrifice” or “surrender” those demands which are not of prime importance to it, but are definitely important to national minorities, that is, iron-clad guarantees for their language and culture?
The later Bundist theoreticians and leaders, Vladimir Medem and “John” Mill, continually reiterated this view and were charged by the Bolsheviks with a lack of confidence in the Russian working class. Unfortunately, the Bundists had a point.
Can one also argue now with the old time assurance that emigration to Israel is not a valid solution for many Jewish people? We know that Marxists always maintained that all discrimination against the Jewish people would disappear in their home countries as the general progressive forces advanced to political power and introduced socialism.
Theoretically this should still be true. However, the realization of this theory has even in the Socialist countries received so many setbacks, that I think all these countries are now morally obligated to permit as many of their Jewish citizens who want to go to Israel to do so without delay.
We are all happy that we are living in a new world situation and we are aware of the many new questions and problems we are faced with. On many theoretical questions as well as the Jewish question, we have reposed a confidence in the Russian leaders which for some years has been without foundation and which they have proved to be unworthy of having received in the first place because they so grossly abused this confidence. As the heavy hand of the Russians is now being unloosened and cast aside by Marxists and progressives everywhere all kinds of questions are up for review and new answers must be sought. This situation offers the opportunity that also on the Jewish question we will free ourselves of unnecessary and self imposed restrictions which will consequently enable us to view events realistically and serve the Jewish community in a more effective manner.
Conn. Smith Act defendant
New Haven, Conn.