It is now 100 years since the revolution that brought down the Russian Tsar Nicholas II.
For Jews, the fall of Tsarist Russia meant a new relative freedom: the end to the Pale of Settlement, which had prevented Jews from living in big cities, and the abolition of all other anti-Semitic laws, such as quotas for Jewish children in primary schools and discriminatory military service requirements. Soviet Russia also became the first country in the world to declare anti-Semitism a criminal offense.
But as Communism took root, it ignited a civil war that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Jews during the bloodiest pogroms the world would see until the Holocaust.
To commemorate the centennial of the revolution, academic conferences around the world are discussing the role Jews played in the uprising and its aftermath — and how they were affected by it.
Here’s a look at some of the events.
Were Ukrainian nationalist leaders responsible for the pogroms that caused the deaths of tens of thousands of Jews during the Russian civil war? This and other subjects were discussed at a October 15 conference in Kiev.
The conference, entitled “Ukrainian Jews: Revolution and Post-Revolutionary Modernization” brought together scholars from Russia, Israel, the United States, Ukraine, Hungary, and western Europe for presentations on topics ranging from the Jewish Communist Party (Poalei Zion) to images of synagogues in revolutionary art.
One of the central topics was whether the leaders of Ukraine, which declared itself independent from Soviet Russia between 1917 and 1921, were responsible for the pogroms that lead to the deaths of between 50,000 and 200,000 Jews – the greatest calamity to befall the Jewish people prior to the Holocaust.
Speaking with The Times of Israel, Vitaly Chernoivanenko, the president of the Ukrainian Association for Jewish Studies and one of the organizers of the conference, said that Ukrainian leader Symon Petliura cannot be held responsible for the pogroms.
“Petliura himself didn’t support the pogroms, but he couldn’t control the situation,” said Chernoivanenko. “Petliura didn’t control the entire territory. I think he would have protected the Jews.”
He also said the Jews were not the only victims of the pogroms.
“These pogroms were not directed at the Jews. Some people just wanted to plunder and loot. Just as Jews were looted, others were also looted,” he said.
But outside of Ukraine, historians disagree with this point of view.
In a phone call, Gennady Estraikh, a Jewish history professor at New York University, called this universalist approach to pogrom victims historical revisionism.
“As a leader, he didn’t stop the pogroms, and in that way Petliura was responsible — just like Hitler is responsible for the Holocaust,” Estraikh said. “A military leader is always responsible for what their soldiers do.”
Estraikh gives for example the town of Berdychiv. In 1919, a military unit was sent by Petliura to fight the Bolsheviks, but organized an anti-Jewish pogrom instead. Later, this unit went on to organize an even larger pogrom in Zhytomyr, Estraikh said.
“They were killing unarmed civilians, elderly people, women and children,” he said.
Petliura was de facto proven guilty in a French court in the 1920s, after he was assassinated by a Jewish man whose parents had been murdered in a pogrom.
The assassin, an anarchist named Sholom Schwartzbard, was reported in French newspapers at the time as bragging about the killing during his trial.
As recorded in Time, Schwartzbard told the court, “When I saw him fall I knew he had received five bullets. Then I emptied my revolver. The crowd had scattered. A policeman came up quietly and said: ‘Is that enough?’ I answered: ‘Yes.’ He said: ‘Then give me your revolver.’ I gave him the revolver, saying, ‘I have killed a great assassin.'”
“When the policeman told me Petliura was dead I could not hide my joy. I leaped forward and threw my arms about his neck,” Schwartzbard said.
Despite his open admission, the court still acquitted Schwartzbard, and “that’s how Petliura’s guilt was admitted,” said Estraikh.
When asked to comment on whether non-Jews were also the victims of Ukrainian pogroms, Estraikh said the Ukrainian historian should present some statistics to back up his point.
“This is not a critical approach to history. It’s an apologetic attitude. They don’t separate politics from history,” Estraikh said.
According to Estraikh, the Bolshevik Red Army was the only force that fought against pogroms during the Russian civil war, and on some occasions executed those who organized the pogroms.
“That’s why the Jews began to support the Red Army,” he said.
In New York City, a conference organized by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research will focus on the participation of Jews in the Communist Party and Stalin’s government.
The conference, entitled “Jews In and After the 1917 Russian Revolution,” will include presentations on such controversial subjects as Jews in Stalin’s secret police and Jewish communist spies in America during the Cold War. The conference is set to take place on November 5 and 6.
Jonathan Brent, the executive director of the YIVO Institute, says that it is important to discuss these subjects even if they make people uncomfortable.
“A lot of people do not realize that there were Jews in Stalin’s secret police,” Brent said. “This is something that really needs to be talked about. Some of these individuals had fathers who were rabbis in the shtetls.”
NKVD chief Genrikh Yagoda was Jewish, Brent says, and the first minister of justice in Soviet Russia, Isaac Steinberg, was a religious Jew. And, according to Brent, the instrumental person in the arrest of renowned Jewish author Isaac Babel was also Jewish.
“Everybody [in Stalin’s Russia] was a victim and a victimizer,” he said. “This is a hard thing for the Jews to understand. They can’t stand the idea of being more than innocent victims.”
In America during the Cold War, there were so many Jewish members in the Communist Party that it was difficult to find someone to serve as party leader who wasn’t Jewish, says Brent. He also says that the entire underground espionage network in the USA “was heavily Jewish.”
Asked if speaking about this might provoke an anti-Semitic reaction, Brent replied, “I don’t care. The anti-Semites are everywhere. Let them come out and talk to their hearts’ content. I’m interested in the truth.”
The Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow is planning special exhibitions and events to mark the 100th anniversary of the revolution.
The exhibit, “Freedom for All? The History of One People in the Years of Revolution,” which opened on October 17, features documents from Jewish political parties during the time of the revolution and the writings of Jewish revolutionaries and artists such as Leon Trotsky, Yuliy Martov, Marс Chagall, and Vera Inber.
There is also an art exhibit of the works of Jewish revolutionary-era artists, a series of lectures, and even a festive concert with Jewish revolutionary songs and poems performed in Yiddish.
“The anniversary of the revolution is an excuse to talk about what we never talked about before. November 7 was always a huge celebration in the USSR, but the Jewish aspects were never discussed,” said Boruch Gorin, the chairman of the museum’s board of trustees. “Now using new facts and new research we can talk about it for the first time.”