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Jews and Latvians in the 1905 Revolution

The Bloody Sunday on the January 22 (9 according to Julian calendar still used in Russian Empire) was a wakeup call for many nations across the Russian Empire. For Russians it was a fight for more political and social rights. For Latvians it was fight also for greater national rights. This was shared also by the Jewish people living across the Russian Empire. Their main strive was to defend themselves from the violent anti-Semitism and abolish all restrictions towards them. Together with Latvian revolutionaries they were united under one common goal – to bring down the oppressive absolute tsar Nicholas II monarchy. The revolution of 1905 was one of the interesting moments in history where despite cultural and ethnic differences the Latvian and Jewish revolutionaries fought together and even averted the anti-Jewish pogrom attempt in Riga.

Russia was stranger to Jews until the first partition of Poland on 1772 . After the final land grab on 1795 Russia gained enormous territories of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.  For centuries Poland had large Jewish population. They were in large numbers in present day Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania and Latvia. The 1897 First All-Russia national census counted 142 315 Jews within modern borders of Latvia 7,4% of the population. To keep Jews from moving to Moscow or Petersburg Russia introduced the Pale of Settlement (Черта́ осе́длости) a territory for permanent Jewish settlement and it was forbidden to live outside it. Originally only the eastern Latvian part of Latgale was within the Pale of Settlement as it was part of the Province of Vitebsk. But, a sizable Jewish population already lived in Courland. Despite many restrictions Jews managed to settle or work in Riga. Northern Latvian part of Vidzeme renamed almost unreachable to Jews with very small population. Jewish youth faced hard conscription rules for 12 years to serve in army, taxes were higher for them.

During the reign of the liberal Tsar Alexander II the Jewish relations with the state eased but after his assassination the relations gotten again to worsen level. Reactionary forces blamed Jews in the murder first pogroms took place. Pogrom – a large scale violence soon became a synonym for major violent attacks directed towards Jews. A violence that led to a political response from the Jewish nation. One part of them joined the Zionist movement that called for unification of the Jewish people under national means. They rejected assimilation and conversion to Christianity as it would not completely erase anti-Semitism. As Jews will always be regarded as strangers no matter how emancipated in the society they are. There were Zionist movements in Latvia, but their part in the revolution of 1905 was insignificant. And it’s another story to be told in future. The main force of the 1905 revolution was the far left social democrats and within them the Jewish Bund.

The Bund represented the masses of the Jewish workers or the so called Proletariat. Although Jews were always stereotyped as wealthy traders, large masses of Jews worked for 14 hours in a day with low wages and lived in poor unsanitary conditions.  Plus the nationally based restrictions made then to unite under the Red Banner that promised equal rights for all nations. The Bund was founded in Vilnius on 1897 as the Universal Jewish Labor Union in Poland, Lithuania and Russia. Later it was commonly known as the Bund (alliance).Bund was the first major Jewish party in Russia and also the first social democratic party. As the Russian Social Democratic Workers party (RSDWP) was founded a year later. Bund joined them and took active part in the strikes and demonstrations. The Russian authorities persecuted them and arrested their leaders. Later because of the national differences on 1903 Bund left the RSDWP, but cooperated with them during the revolution. While the Bund rejected the nationalistic Zionist ideas, they agreed in need of having Jewish schools and keeping the national traditions. However, they were strongly against the role of the religion and insisted on secularity.

The industrialized Riga and other parts of the Baltic province was no stranger to the workers movement. Some Jews  like Jankel Epstein from Daugavpils were first to direct the movement. Bund was popular among the Jewish students within the Riga Polititechnical Institute some of them were ejected from it. Daugavpils with major Jewish population –  most of them workers was the main headquarters for the Bund. They took part in all strikes and protests including the major First May demonstration that took place in many cities of Russia. Because the demonstration in Vilnius caused rough government response by publicly whipping the organizers, that in response caused attack on the general governor, in Riga local Bund members created a armed resistance group. The external Bund bureau however asked to resort from violence.

The Russian defeat in the war with Japan led towards economical downfall. On January 9  (22) 1905 in Petersburg the large peaceful crowd marching towards the Tsars main palace asking him to listen to their petition was fired upon by the Tsars guard causing bloodbath known as the Bloody Sunday. The largest country in the world with modernizing society, but with decadent absolute monarchy went into rage. Nicholas II witnessed the murder of the Alexander II  who was killed by anarchists despite abolishing serfdom and intending to write a constitution. Because of this, Nicholas II was slow and reactionary to reforms. But, the people across the Russia had enough of this. So as the Latvian people.

The leading force of the Latvian revolutionaries was the Latvian Social Democratic Workers Party, united with Bund on January 13 it hosted a demonstration march in Riga for the fallen comrades in Petersburg. The large demonstration of 10 000 people lead by LSDWP leader Ansis Bušēvičs marched from Moscow Street to the city center. Despite Buševičs calling to end the demonstration and lower the red flags , large parts of crowds did not listen and moved towards the armed cavalry of Cossacks.Police and Cossacks responded with fire killing more than 70 people. Many tried to cross the frozen river Daugava to escape the shooting and drowned. Among the killed were five Jews and 9 wounded. The fallen were young men 22 year old Eliass Epstein, Michael David Abramovich of the same age, 17 year old Izrail Jaschikov, Chaim Jankel Sperling 18 years old and 22 years old Michail Ucca. Two among them were from the Bund.

Revolution sparked out in Latvia. Bund started major activities. On 1905 and 1907 two general strikes were held in Daugavpils. An odd form of strike was held in Riga on 1905 May and June a strike of the producers and traders of the kosher meat that left the kosher eating Jews of Riga without kosher food for almost a month. It’s not known how significant was the kosher only population that suffered from this as not all Jews applied to the religious rules. On summer of 1905 the rural workers in Kurzeme (Courland) issued a general strike and Tsarist government issued a state of war within the Courland province. On September 16 the Jewish-Latvian students of the Riga Politechnical institute issued protest in support of the striking field workers.

When the protests resorted to arms Jews joined Latvians in armed assault against the Riga Central Prison to free their imprisoned comrades. In the night of September 6 to 7 47 Latvian and five Jewish fighters raided the prison and freed two main revolutionaries J Lācis and J  Šļesers. Also the famous LSDWP commando who became an anarchist Jānis Žāklis later known as the Peter the Painter whose mother was a Lutheran Jew. He took part in most of the armed actions against the Tsarist authorities. However, later he became too violent and was rejected by his social democrat comrades.

The use of violence was a great issue for the Latvian revolutionaries. At the end of the 1905 the revolution was close to failure. On December 9 armed uprising begun in Moscow. Some Latvian, Russian and the Bund called for armed uprising in Riga too. They even insisted on storming the Fortress of Daugavgrīva where the main Riga garrison was stationed. The majority of LSDWP was against such bloodshed, however the Bund did not back down and joined the radical Russian social democrats who wanted the uprising. In long frantic talks from December 11 to December 16 the LSDWP convinced the Bund not to start uprising and general strike. On December 18 the interim Baltic general governor general-lieutenant V Sologob arrived in Riga and started the punishment expeditions.

In one cause the Bund and LSDWP was united without question. Do not allow any pogroms in Riga and elsewhere around Latvia. LSDWP as marxist party was against anti-Semitism and called for general human rights regardless of nationality. Even the future Latvian nationalist leader Arveds Bergs called for full cooperation between Latvians and Jews and asked to give them full rights. On the other side the Latvian monarchist Fricis Veinbergs published anti-Semitic slogans supporting the pogroms.

The 1905 revolution again ignited the pogroms in Russian Empire. The last major pogrom took place in Kishinev modern day Moldova. While Tsar openly condemned this, in private he expressed support for anti-Semitism that could unite nation in support for his regime. The major radical supporters of the Tsar Nicholas II were the far right radicals often with ultra-orthodox views. These people were called the “Black Hundred” (Чёрная сотня). The ideals of the Black Hundred were mix of Russian imperialism, chauvinist nationalism, and religious fundamentalism. Together with violent anti-Semitism the Black Hundred was the first early fascists. Sadly this form of Russian far right is gaining prominence again in the modern day Russia.

It was not just Black Hundred that was responsible for waves of pogroms in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. On October 18-20 in Odessa 400 people were killed. The Tsarist police although condemning the attacks and trying to arrest the perpetrators, often did nothing on purpose as they believed the majority of the revolutionaries were Jews. Tsar and the Church condemned the attacks, but they also thought that they help them to quell the revolution. Such pogroms could take place in Latvia also but were stopped by the joint Latvian and the Jewish efforts.

First violent attacks against the Jews took place in city of Ludza. But, they were small scale attacks on shops and were stopped by locals. Daugavpils was filled with rumors about coming pogroms in April but did not happen. On August the Riga port workers turned violent and wanted to attack the Jews. This time the police and Cossacks stopped them. On October 17 Tsar was forced to issue his manifesto that gave some of his powers away. The reactionaries blamed the Jews and on October 18 a pogrom started in Kyiv. Then in Riga the local Russian workers who supported the Tsar became violent. They mostly lived in the Moscow district where many Jews lived too and were angry that they liked the new freedoms granted by the weakened Tsar. Riots started on October 22-23. However, these riots only were a attempt to start a pogrom.

On October 22 first clashes between the Russians, Jews and Latvians took place on Lielā Kalna Street near the Orthodox Church. The angry Russians were from the Kuznetsov porcelain factory who assaulted both Latvians and Jews. The fight was stopped only by the arrival of the Cossacks. After learning the news both the LSDWP and Bund decided to form the self defense groups to defend both Latvian and Jewish supporters.

On October 23 the workers of the Kuznetsov factory gathered for a patriotic march a small crowd of 100-150 men. Despite having support for the Black Hundred, there was no such working Black Hundred organization within Latvia at that time. The marchers holding the pictures of Tsar and holding icons marched along the streets of  the Moscow district. The marchers started to attack everyone who they disagreed with along the way even Russians. Bloodshed erupted between the marchers, Cossacks and the LSDWP and Bund armed units. Among them the future foreign minister Fēliks Ceilēns. Angry mob joined by homeless and scoundrels attacked the Jewish shops reached the Yaroslavl street 44/43 (now Ludza street) where the Jewish Social home was located and was ready to attack it.

Fortunately the Jewish defenders along with Latvian comrades had already taken the defensive positions. Attackers were held back by the fire, and the Cossacks rushed to the scene to stop both of them. The major pogrom attempt was stopped although later in separate incident one Jew named Jankel Poplak was killed. Also Jew Zalman Gurevich was killed before him. 4 Latvian self defenders were killed in the clashes. 2 Latvians were killed by the angry mob. 3 Russians died along. A total of 47 people were killed or hurt. Majority of them were Latvians. Meaning this was not just pogrom attack against Jews but also against Latvians. As the Russian monarchists regarded Latvian revolutionaries as enemies too.

On October 24 the governor of Vidzeme Nicholas Zvegincev banned all patriotic demonstrations with the pictures of the emperor and the Russian anthem. With Tsar still in place this was clearly attempt of preventing pogrom. Similar clashes on the same time took place in Daugavpils resulting the death of the Jewish combatant Aron Feldman.

The major pogrom was avoided in Riga, because there was no major support for it among Latvian population. Also the Riga Tsarist police and the Cossacks were on the active side of the law. And of course the Latvian-Jewish joint defense groups fought off the Russian radicals. This is a rare event when pogrom was prevented in the major city of the Russian Empire. Other cities were not so fortunate.

After the failure of the 1905 revolution both the LSDWP and Bund worked underground. The outbreak of the First World War caused many Latvians and Jews to take refuge in Russia. The Pale of Settlement was broken. The Revolution of 1917 again took Latvian and Jewish leftists on the streets. Some joined the Bolsheviks. Other sided with democratic Republic of Latvia. During the period of 1918-1934 both LSDWP and Bund took part in the Latvian politics and worked together.

Selected Sources:

Stranga, Aivars (2006) 1905-1906. gada revolūcijas lappuses. Žurnāls Latvijas Vēsture. Nr.2.

Stranga,Aivars. (2008) Ebreji Baltijā no ienākšanas pirmsākumiem līdz holokaustam 14. gadsimts-1945. gads. Rīga. LU Akadēmiskais Apgāds.

Mendels, Bobe (2006) Ebreji Latvijā. Rīga. Šamir.


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Soviet Antisemitism 1945-1991

Antisemitic caricature published in Soviet Satirical magazine “Krokodi” in 1952 during the “Doctors case”.

Undoubtedly Nazi Germany was the biggest enemy of the Jewish people. Organized, systematic attempt of destruction of whole nation should never be forgiven and always must be remembered to prevent from it happening again. But, Jewish oppression continued even after the holocaust.  However, there was another totalitarian regime that for many decades tried to assimilate, hinder and oppress Jewish community. It was Soviet Union who is largely responsible for constant abuse of national rights of all nations that lived in Soviet Union. It was not only Jews; Latvians, Ukrainians, Belarusians and Fino-Ungrian peoples also were subjects of Russification  and suppression of the national culture. The constant abuse of national rights and culture have done great damage to Jewish community in former Soviet Union. The result is almost complete extinction of Eastern European Jewish language the Yiddish, the decline of Jewish Ashkenazi  culture and Jewish religious life.  Latvian Jews have also greatly suffered from this Soviet policy. In last 20 years in former Soviet Union there have been Jewish cultural awakening, the revival of old culture and independent historical study of Jewish nation. However, the aging Jewish population is running out of time to pass their legacy to younger population. Why this has happened will be discussed further in this post.

After the World War II there were 12 million Jews in the World. 3, 2 million Jews lived in Europe, 2 million lived in Soviet Union. There were only 225 thousand Jews remaining in Poland, mostly refugees from Soviet Union that returned. Also many Polish Jews were deported to Soviet camps. 700 Jewish officers of the Polish army were murdered in the Katyn massacre. In war affected parts of Europe only 1,6 million Jews had survived.

Therefore Soviet Union was potential place for new cultural center for Eastern European Jewish Diaspora. It could replace the Poland and the Baltic states. The Jews had every rights for it as the 500 thousand of them had fought in the Red Army and were awarded with Orders and Medals. The Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and his government decided to use the Jewish factor in his foreign policy. In 1942. the USSR Jewish Anti-Fascist committee was founded. Its leader was Daugavpils born artist Solomon Mikhoels the director of Moscow Jewish Theater. The JAC issued a call to whole world to support the  Soviet Union in fight against the Nazi Germany. On 1943. Mikhoels and his deputy Izick Fefer went to United States and acquired greater support from American society and businessman for more funding for Soviets. Even after the war JAC continued to call for greater friendship between USSR and US. Stalin wanted to use the contacts between Soviet Jews and American Jews to gain support from American financiers for rebuilding of the war-torn economy. A scheme was made to promote the Soviet and other countries Jews emigration to Crimea where the Jewish Autonomous Republic was to be founded. Mikhoels was intended as the chairman of the republics higher council. According to KGB official Pavel Sudoplatov the idea of Crimea Jewish Autonomous republic was made by Soviet foreign minister Molotov and supported by Stalin, who wanted to use this to get 10 billion dollars from the US. The JAC only had to submit the proposal.

However, the Stalin’s scheme to use Jews for his foreign policy failed. It was because Stalin wanted the new state of Israel to be under the Soviet influence. The American support for right-wing Zionists angered him. Therefore the KGB now issued a report that JAC is against the Soviet foreign policy in Middle East and spreads Jewish nationalism. KGB concluded that JAC has fallen to Zionist – nationalist positions and poses danger to Soviet Union. However, Stalin still hoped that he can influence the founding of the Jewish state in Palestine and spared JAC. Mikhoels even received the Stalin’s price.

It soon turned out that Soviet Union cannot influence the Zionist movement. The new State of Israel was founded as western democracy and American ally. Stalin’s gamble had failed. The Kremlin blamed Mikhoels for it. The KGB was alarmed by the JAC proposal for making not Autonomous, but united Jewish republic in Crimea that could secede from USSR according to constitution. KGB ordered the assassination of Mikhoels. He was killed January 1948, by poisonous injection at his summer cottage in Belarus. After that his body driven over by a truck to fake his death reason. KGB arrested all members of JAC and the organization was closed. The repression  campaign was hidden from public as the antisemitism was still officially condemned.

In same time the communist party started campaign against “cosmopolitanism” – the unpatriotic bowing to western ideas, works of art and western lifestyle. From Autumn 1948, Soviet newspapers begun to uncover the “spreaders of cosmopolitanism” placing emphasis on their Jewish names and surnames and disclosing their pseudonyms.  After that these persons were fired from their workplaces. Every Jew who was working intellectual job was fired, Jewish officers and generals were fired, professors, academics, members of writers unions even top communist party members became victims of anti-Jewish action. Even Molotov’s wife P. Zhemchuzina was arrested for having links with Zionists in US, where his brother lived and for her friendship with Israeli Ambassador Golda Meir the future prime minister of Israel.

On July 1952. after long painful interrogation the 15 members of JAC were sentenced to death. Along with them the deputy of Foreign minister Solomon Lozovsky, writer Izik Fefer were shot but academic biologist Liza Stern was deported.

From 1951 to 1952 almost all Jewish artistic collectives across Soviet Union were banned. The theaters, troupes, writers groups and studies were closed. That was the beginning of the decline of the Jewish cultural life and shift in to Russian culture. Jewish songs could only be sung in private apartments or closed restaurants the Jewish language was replaced by Russian.

The Stalinist antisemitism was beginning of the new ideological takeover in Soviet Union. The 19. century Marxist ideas was to be replaced with new imperialistic Russian nationalist government model. Stalin considered Jews as the enemies of this model that had to be dealt with at the very beginning in the time of new changes.

The culmination of the Stalinist Antisemitism was the so called doctors plot. After party veteran and Stalin’s personal friend Andrei Zhdanov died in rehabilitation center, the KGB presented Stalin a fabricated information about the plot by nine Kremlin doctors six of them Jews against him personally and the whole Soviet government. The named leader of the conspirators  was Mikhoels cousin Miron Vovsi (also from Daugavpils) who has secret contacts with Jewish organizations in US. In November 1952, the doctors were arrested. The case was discussed by the politburo and the Soviet main newspaper begun a series of antisemitic publications about the “Jewish, Zionist murderer conspiracy. Jews were fired from medical institutions on February 1953. 37 people were arrested. Jews suffered from insults and verbal attacks in public places, in Jurmala a leaflets were found with slogan “Beat the Yidds!”. Stalin was planing to initiate Jewish pogroms in major Soviet cities that would result of mass deportations of Jews to Siberia and Far East. Barracks for captives were already under construction. According to documents found in early nighties also the Latvian Jews were intended to deported. The culprits of the doctors case was to be hanged in Red Square. All these actions were halted by Stalin’s death in 5. March 1953.

According to some historians and publishers Stalin was killed by his closest aides, who were afraid that they will become the victims of the new purge. Beria, Malenkov and Khrushchev either killed Stalin or did everything to prevent his recovery from stroke that he suffered. There are even wilder theories that Stalin was preparing for new war with Western powers. In all possible scenarios, his successors brought halt to doctors case and all anti-Jewish repressions.

During the Khrushchev era the state antisemitism did not disappear, it was under the guise of anti-Zionism and condemnation of Soviet Jews who wanted to emigrate to Israel.  Soviet Union considered Israel as its enemy and did much to finance its enemies, supply them with weapons. Any support for Israel was considered a national treason, Jews were forced to publicly denounce Israel and support the pro-arab coalition. After the Six Day war in 1967, the campaign against Israel was getting stronger.

The economical pressure by the Western powers made Soviet Union to allow emigration to Israel. The military victories by Israel sparked national awakening of the Soviet Jews. Soviets were against it since many important leading specialists in science and technology were Jews. Soviet attempts to block the emigration sparked resistance as in 1970 a group of Jews some of them from Latvia, tried to hijack a plane in Leningrad to escape to Israel.  They were sentenced to long years in prison.

But, the wave of emigration was unstoppable in 1967. 1416 Jews left Soviet Union, but on 1971 already 13 033, 1972 – 31 681 and in 1973 34 733. After the another Israeli victory in 1973 Yom Kipur war, the emigration quota was downsized, but later again increased. It was decreased again after the Soviet Invasion in Afghanistan 1979.

The growing Jewish resistance sparked even more Soviet Antisemitism.  It was banned to commemorate holocaust or to write about it. Attempts of doing so were met with repressions. Also Moscow became main center of antisemitic publications. Soviet Union mastered the anti-Zionist ideology and exported it to Western world and the Middle East. Most Israeli enemies – Syria, Lebanon, Iran and the terrorist groups received support from Moscow.

The Gorbachev perestroika and glasnost lifted the barriers of Soviet antisemitism. Large waves of Jews left Soviet Union. However, the political reforms also sparked the rise of Russian nationalism, extremism and neo-czarism that was aggressive towards the Jews.

Today’s  Russia is not officially practicing  state antisemitism. Jewish cultural and religious life has returned. Jewish national and cultural organizations are working again. Famous cultural workers, artists and singers no longer hide their Jewish nationality. However, many aspects of the Russian Jewish culture has become long forgotten as the Yiddish language is rarely spoken today. In Latvia and Russia a hard work has been done to educate Jewish history and culture to younger generation.

The remnants of the Soviet antisemitism has not completely disappeared, it’s still down in Russian society and affects the Latvian society also. Russian internet is full of antisemitic sites, and antisemitic books are still published and exported. Russian anti-Zionist ideology has largely influenced the Western antisemitism. Local Latvian antisemites take many of their ideas straight from Russian antisemite propaganda. The reason for this is to hide Russian aggressive foreign policy by blaming the US and Israel in the worlds troubles. Russia is a creative center of the various conspiracy theories headed against the west. Its part of Russian policy of deception that seems to never end no matter of what kind a political order is in Russia.

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