This fall, the Jewish community in Russia is commemorating an often overlooked result of the Russian Revolution — the achievement of equal rights for the country’s Jews.
Exactly one century ago, in 1917, the Russian government signed a decree establishing equality for all religions and ethnicities. The edict officially abolished the Pale of Settlement — the limited territory in which it was legal for Jews to reside.
But it was not Vladimir Lenin or Leon Trotsky who were behind these positive changes that Russian Jews welcomed with great enthusiasm. Rather, it was a man who has nearly been forgotten by historians and by Jews: Alexander Kerensky.
Kerensky, who was then a 36-year-old lawyer, became the leader of the provisional government after the Russian Tsar was deposed in February of 1917.
While he was in power only for a few months before the Bolsheviks seized power in the fall, it was under his leadership that Russia did away with the anti-Semitic laws of the Tsarist era. This gave Jews the right to live where they pleased, including the Moscow and Saint Petersburg, and Jewish children were allowed to attend public schools without being subjected to quotas.
Signed by Kerensky at midnight on March 20 of 1917, the decree says it is “based on the conviction that in a free country, all citizens must be equal before the law, and that the conscience of no one can accept the discrimination against others based on their religion and ethnic origin.”
More specifically, the decree abolished all discriminatory limitations that had been placed on travel and place of residence, purchasing of land, real estate and property, participation in trades and businesses, serving in government positions both military and civilian, participating in elections, and being accepted into educational institutions.
It also put an end to the legal discrimination against “non-Christians” in connection to taxes, and gave minority groups the right to use their own languages to conduct their affairs.
The ‘Jew’ taboo
Interestingly, the word “Jew” is never mentioned in the document which abolished discrimination against the “non-Christians.”
This is because the provisional government feared an anti-Semitic backlash, explains Alexander Engels, editor of “The Pale,” a new book published this year in honor of the 100th anniversary of the abolition of the Pale of Settlement.
“The leaders of the country at the time of the abolition of the monarchy understood that Jews could only gain equal rights within the framework of the general democratic process. That is why the decree was addressed to the people of all ethnicities and all religions,” Engels told The Times of Israel via email.
Still, in effect, the decree signed by Kerensky officially put an end to the Pale of Settlement.
“The Pale of Settlement could be abolished only with the abolition of the monarchy itself, because the Tsarist regime held on to its repressive model of treating non-Russians until the very end,” Engels wrote. “And this happened when the provisional government, with the effort of the Minister of Justice Alexander Kerensky, prepared the document which was entitled ‘Concerning the abolition of discrimination based on religion and nationality.’”
The groundbreaking decree was not the first time that Kerensky campaigned on behalf of the Jews.
His grandson, Stephen Kerensky, who now lives in the United Kingdom, told The Times of Israel that as a lawyer, he often defended Jewish clients.
Alexander Kerensky spoke out in support of Menachem Mendel Beilis, an innocent Jewish man on trial for allegedly committing ritual murder in Kiev in 1913. Kerensky was sentenced to several months in prison for publishing a statement in defense of Beilis (though the sentence was not enforced).
During World War I, when a rumor spread that Jews fired in the backs of the Russian soldiers, Kerensky went to investigate the allegations and discovered them to be false.
After the Bolsheviks took power, Kerensky fled from Russia and eventually settled in New York City.
Zvi Gitelman, a professor of Judaic Studies and Political Science at the University of Michigan, remembers meeting him at the annual reception at Columbia University’s Russian Institute in the 1960s.
“People would whisper, ‘You know who that is?’ We would approach him, and he would say, sardonically, ‘Aha! You didn’t think I was still alive!’” said Gitelman. “It was quite a thrill to see an important historical actor right before your eyes.”
Kerensky died in 1970 at the age of 89.
Rumors of Jewish heritage
Kerensky had no Jewish ancestry, but for a long time people who didn’t like him tried to discredit him by claiming that he was somehow Jewish.
“Kerensky fought against anti-Semitism, and for some people that was enough to assume that he was Jewish,” said Boris Kolonitsky, a history professor from the European University of Saint-Petersburg and author of, “Comrade Kerensky: the Anti-Monarchy Revolution,” which was published in Russia earlier this year.
Kerensky fought against anti-Semitism, and for some people that was enough to assume that he was Jewish
Kolonitsky will give a talk entitled “Kerensky as a Jew: the phobias in the political discourses of 1917” at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow on December 21.
Kolonitsky says he is interested in the rumors that he says many residents of Russia believed 100 years ago about Kerensky’s secret Jewish genealogy — or at least about him being a victim of a Jewish plot to overthrow the Russian monarchy.
“No one proved it, but maybe it doesn’t matter because many people considered him Jewish in 1917,” Kolonitsky said. “Some right-wing newspapers actually welcomed the Bolsheviks on the account that ‘Kerensky the Jew’ would finally be knocked out of power.”
One hundred years have passed since the Russian Revolution, but the rumor about Kerensky being Jewish lives on.
In 2002, a book published in Russia and entitled “The Shadowy People,” claimed that Kerensky’s real name was Aaron Gelfman, and that he was actually the son of a female Jewish terrorist Gesya Gelfman who had tried to assassinate the Tsar, said Gitelman, who read the book after stumbling on it at the University of Michigan library.
“The main focus of the book is the Jewish Masonic conspiracy. It’s absurd,” Gitelman said. “It’s nonsense. The author just invented this.”
Kerensky’s grandson Stephen Kerensky confirmed that all the talk about his famous grandfather having Jewish ancestry is “nonsense” and “totally irrelevant.”
“It was one of the things that people said to denigrate him. It was simply a way of undermining his status,” he said. “My grandfather spent his time fighting against Jewish people being oppressed, that’s the only connection.”