A hundred years ago, the world was embroiled in the bloodiest war it had ever seen. In Tsarist Russia, home to the world’s largest Jewish population (then encompassing Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, the Ukraine and Belarus), the war directly precipitated revolution and the total upheaval of society. This anniversary gives the London Jewish Cultural Centre, which I am the cultural programmer of, the opportunity to explore the role of revolutionary Jews in Russia, and to question why so many of the leaders of the left-wing movements were Jewish. Not only Trotsky, who changed his name from Lev Davidovich Bronstein, but also Kamenev, Sverdlov, Radek, Litvinov, and Uritsky, among others. Why were these Jewish commissars so virulent in stamping out Judaism?
We will examine what happened to the Jewish community after the revolution, one of 116 national groups living within the empire. Officially, in 1917 religious practice ceased. Religion was ‘counter-revolutionary’, the ‘opiate of the masses’. Revolution had rendered it obsolete. For religious Jews this led to a crisis. Kosher food was no longer available, no mohel could legally practise circumcision. Although some synagogues and churches continued to attract the faithful, attendance meant the impossibility of advancement within the Party. And under Stalin, the Party believed it had stamped out religious practice; that is until Golda Meir, the first Israeli ambassador to Russia, visited in 1949 and was met by 50,000 young Jews who came to greet her. Stalin realised he had a ‘Jewish problem’.
The first debate, on Gorbachev and his legacy, on March 18, will be led by Sir Malcolm Rifkind MP and historian Victor Sebestyen. Sir Malcolm, an expert on Russia, held office during the Gorbachev years and has first-hand knowledge of the politics and the man. Similarly, renowned academics Professors Robert Service and Robert Wistrich, together with senior LJCC historian Trudy Gold, will debate different aspects of the radical internationalist Lev Davidovich Bronstein, otherwise known as Leon Trotsky, on February 11. To what extent did his Jewishness influence him, how was he perceived by his detractors, and what is his impact on history?
Delving deeper into the past, Dr Ekaterina Rogatchevskaia, the senior East European Curator of the British Library, will lead our students on three exclusive tours of Russian memorabilia in the library’s unique collection. The tours include Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, looking at music scores, original postcards, theatre designs, rare contemporary periodicals and books from the Diaghilev collection; Russian music; and Gorbachev and his legacy, incorporating election campaign ephemera of the early 1990s, ‘alternative’ periodicals and newspapers of very small print runs, original documents and photographs of the perestroika period and the 1991 putsch.
Stalin was the second world leader to recognise the state of Israel (the first was Harry S. Truman, President of the United States). But from 1949 onwards Zionism became unacceptable in the Soviet Union. Our season provides the opportunity to focus on the role of Jews in post-Stalinist Russia, through to the reforms of Gorbachev.
Today, the Jews of Russia still constitute the third largest community in the world. The collapse of communism has led to the rise of ultra-nationalist movements, many of which are virulently anti-Semitic. Even though many Russian Jews have emigrated to Israel and a sizable minority to London, Russian Jewry remains the third-largest community. The burning question is, how will the Jews fare as the century progresses?
Claudia Gold is the Cultural Programmer of the London Jewish Cultural Centre