Soviet Jews Demand Cultural and Religious Rights Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Jewish population of the Soviet Union became more active in demanding that the Soviet state permit religious freedom, respect minority rights, and allow free emigration.

Summary of Event

As the old Russian Empire expanded into eastern Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, increasing numbers of Jews fell under Russian control, with the total at one point reaching five million. Jews were subject to persecution by czarist authorities: They were confined by law to the Pale of Settlement, a strip of territory along Russia’s western border; restricted from entering certain trades and professions; made subject to forcible religious conversion; forbidden to write or teach in Yiddish or Hebrew; and, on occasion, made the target of spontaneous or even government-sponsored pogroms (massacres and evictions). The intensity of persecution waxed and waned according to the degree of tolerance and enlightenment of the ruling czar or provincial governor. Despite decades of religious and cultural oppression aimed at their assimilation and “Russification,” Jews maintained a rich religious life and vibrant cultural independence, if only in the sanctuaries of their homes and the enforced segregation of their ghetto communities. Jews;Soviet persecution of Racial and ethnic discrimination;Soviet Jews Civil rights;Soviet Union Human rights;Soviet Union [kw]Soviet Jews Demand Cultural and Religious Rights (1960’s) [kw]Jews Demand Cultural and Religious Rights, Soviet (1960’s) [kw]Cultural and Religious Rights, Soviet Jews Demand (1960’s) [kw]Religious Rights, Soviet Jews Demand Cultural and (1960’s) [kw]Rights, Soviet Jews Demand Cultural and Religious (1960’s) Jews;Soviet persecution of Racial and ethnic discrimination;Soviet Jews Civil rights;Soviet Union Human rights;Soviet Union [g]Europe;1960’s: Soviet Jews Demand Cultural and Religious Rights[06360] [g]Soviet Union;1960’s: Soviet Jews Demand Cultural and Religious Rights[06360] [c]Civil rights and liberties;1960’s: Soviet Jews Demand Cultural and Religious Rights[06360] [c]Social issues and reform;1960’s: Soviet Jews Demand Cultural and Religious Rights[06360] Brezhnev, Leonid Jackson, Scoop Khrushchev, Nikita S. [p]Khrushchev, Nikita S.;repression of Jews Nixon, Richard M. [p]Nixon, Richard M.;human rights Sakharov, Andrei Stalin, Joseph [p]Stalin, Joseph;human rights

After the 1917 revolution and the fall of Czar Nicholas II, the new provisional government repealed most laws discriminating against Jews. The few remaining discriminatory regulations were abolished by the Bolsheviks after they took power in Russia in November, 1917. For a brief period, Jews were able legally to practice their religion in the renamed Soviet Union. After a short spring of emancipation, Jews fell victim to two major forces, one old and one new. First, anti-Semitism in the lands of the old Russian Empire had deep roots among the Orthodox population and with certain national groups. Despite the change in legal status, in everyday life Jews still encountered discrimination, persecution, and at times even lynchings and pogroms.

Second, the Bolshevik ideologues in charge of the Soviet state harbored a deep animosity toward organized religion of any kind, and they soon embarked on a general campaign to suppress religious belief which swept up Jews along with Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Protestants, and others. Finally, the Jews presented a special problem to the Soviet authorities, as they formed not simply a religious community but a distinct national group without a specific national territory. During the 1920’s an attempt was made to create a Jewish region (Birobidzhan) along the desolate Chinese-Soviet border, but fewer than one hundred thousand Jews chose to relocate.

With Joseph Stalin’s ascent to full dictatorial power in 1928, Jews faced a whole new level of persecution and terror. Like millions of other Soviets during the 1930’s, the years of Stalin’s great purges, Jews were subject to persecution, imprisonment, and execution both as individuals and as Jews, for in addition to being paranoid and cruel, Stalin was a hardened anti-Semite. Soviet policy in general aimed at breaking down Jews’ separate sense of religion and culture: Yiddish once again was banned; synagogues, schools, and Talmudic academies were closed; Jewish literary and artistic expression was attacked as anti-Soviet; and under the labor code Jews were forced to work on the Sabbath. The average Jew, for survival’s sake, had to maintain an outward appearance of conformity with Stalinism.

Then came the Holocaust Holocaust;Soviet Union , in which Soviet and other Jews were singled out from the general population for “liquidation” by the Nazis. The Holocaust had a great effect on Soviet Jews, as it did on Jews everywhere, by impressing many with the reality that assimilation was no barrier to persecution. Germany’s Jews had been among the most assimilated in Europe. The Holocaust gave rise to a new consciousness of Jewish identity, spurred by the fact that not even the Nazi genocide led average Soviet citizens to question anti-Semitism, in part because their leaders suppressed information about the Holocaust.

The state of Israel came into existence in 1948. That had two lasting effects: It stimulated a fierce pride among Jews and raised hopes of escape from persecution by emigration to Israel. It also led to a new round of persecution, as Stalin denounced Zionism as a form of imperialism and accused Jews of being potential traitors. At the time of his death in 1953, Stalin was about to launch a large-scale purge of Jews as a way of distracting the public from his foreign and domestic policy failures.

Nikita S. Khrushchev took power and modified the excesses of Stalinism in the 1950’s but failed to attack the sources of anti-Semitism in Soviet society. In 1961, he too began to blame Jews for the failures of the Soviet centrally planned economy. Between 1961 and 1964, official propaganda about “economic crimes” blamed Jews for impeding economic progress. In some areas, such as the Ukraine, Jews were arrested, tried, and often executed in greatly disproportionate numbers. Khrushchev’s successor, Leonid Brezhnev, also was personally prejudiced against Jews, especially after Israel humiliated the Soviet Union’s Arab allies in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. That conflict created a surge of pride among Soviet Jews, who began to demand that their religious and ethnic rights be respected and that emigration to Israel be permitted.

Beginning in the 1960’s, efforts were made to revive fluency in Yiddish and Hebrew, to start up religious schools, and to reopen synagogues and Talmudic academies. Soviet leaders responded swiftly: Jewish activists and other dissidents were arrested; some were sent to labor camps and others to mental institutions on the ground that their religious belief was evidence of mental disorder. The activism of Soviet dissidents caught the attention of foreign observers and of Jewish communities in Israel and the United States. From 1967 on, Soviet persecution of Jews was subject to increasing criticism from foreign human rights groups, both Jewish and non-Jewish, and to growing pressure from the United States.

In the early 1970’s pressure began to build in the United States to tie détente with the Soviet Union to the treatment of dissidents, and especially to free emigration for Jews. President Richard M. Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger Kissinger, Henry , at first resisted linkage between human rights, emigration, and détente, although they pressured Brezhnev in private. Between 1972 and 1974, however, majority support developed in Congress for the Jackson-Vanik amendment Jackson-Vanik amendment[Jackson Vanik amendment] to a trade bill, named for its sponsor Senator Scoop Jackson, who had presidential ambitions and hopes for strong support from the American Jewish community. The amendment linked free Jewish emigration and religious rights to expanded trade with Moscow.

A critical moment came on October 21, 1974, when Andrei Sakharov, a leading Soviet dissident and founder of the Moscow Human Rights Committee Moscow Human Rights Committee , threw his support behind the amendment in an open letter to Jackson and Kissinger. Congress soon passed the amendment, but it quickly backfired: The Soviets proclaimed outrage that their internal policy was being questioned and immediately cut off all Jewish emigration. With the complete collapse of détente the following year, Jewish religious rights and especially emigration became hostage to larger currents in Soviet-American relations and remained tied to other issues for the rest of the 1970’s and most of the 1980’s. In time, however, Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union and into Israel gathered momentum, and it is estimated that about a million Jewish people migrated from the Soviet Union to Israel during the subsequent three decades.


The impact of rising demands from the Soviet Jewish community for greater respect for religious and minority rights had a profound effect on hundreds of thousands of lives. On the positive side, many Jews discovered or rediscovered a personal cultural and religious identity that had been unknown or forgotten under the influence of Soviet daily life and antireligious education. There was a renaissance of Yiddish and Hebrew literature, an increase in participation in religious ceremonies and observance, and a new sense of community both within the Soviet Union and with respect to the larger Jewish world, most notably in Israel and the United States.

On the other hand, this revival provoked a fresh round of persecution that adversely affected thousands. Well-known Jewish dissidents such as Yuri Orlov Orlov, Yuri and Anatol Scharansky Scharansky, Anatol were imprisoned for long periods of time but eventually were released and expelled, after the West applied pressure. Less well-known activists, or ordinary people who applied to emigrate to Israel, quickly found that they lost their jobs, their apartments, and often their freedom. In the worst cases, and there were many of these, Jews were sent to prison camps or to mental institutions, away from Western eyes. Even when a trickle of emigration was permitted, the wait for an exit visa could be as long as five to seven years, and then the request might be refused, with no reason given. That situation continued in spite of the fact that the Soviet Union in 1975 signed a comprehensive human rights agreement that was included in the Helsinki Accords on European peace and security.

On a larger plane, the conditions under which Soviet Jews lived were determined by both the Arab-Israeli dispute and also the Cold War, as Arabs lobbied Moscow to curtail emigration and the United States lobbied for an increase. Soviet leaders turned the emigration tap on and off according to the changing stakes of foreign policy, greatly disrupting individual lives and families. By the mid-1980’s, however, Jews began to benefit from the enormous changes convulsing Soviet society with the beginnings of glasnost and perestroika under Mikhail Gorbachev. As the Cold War drew to a close and a severe Soviet need for Western aid and trade became clear, the new Soviet leadership moved away from persecution and toward free Jewish emigration. Jews;Soviet persecution of Racial and ethnic discrimination;Soviet Jews Civil rights;Soviet Union Human rights;Soviet Union

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Amnesty International. Prisoners of Conscience in the USSR: Their Treatment and Conditions. London: Author, 1980. A well-documented account of general conditions and individual cases. Photographs and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cohen, Roberta. “The Soviet Union: Human Rights Diplomacy in the Communist Heartland.” In The Diplomacy of Human Rights, edited by David Newsom. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1986. A useful, short introduction to the problems of outside powers attempting to influence Soviet human rights behavior.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gitelman, Zvi Y. A Century of Ambivalence: The Jews of Russia and the Soviet Union 1881 to the Present. 2d rev. ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001. Provides a detailed history of the Soviet Jewish experience with a chapter on events in the 1960’s. Illustrated.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kahan, Arcadius. “Forces for and Against Jewish Identity in the Soviet Union” and “Religion and Soviet Policy.” In Essays in Jewish Social and Economic History, edited by Roger Weiss. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986. These two articles are interpretive rather than documentary and serve as good complements to the drier presentations of Amnesty International and Joshua Rubenstein.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Levin, Nora. The Jews in the Soviet Union Since 1917: Paradox of Survival. New York: New York University Press, 1991. Broad two-volume history of the Jewish people in the Soviet Union. Based largely on primary and secondary sources.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Low, Alfred D. Soviet Jewry and Soviet Policy. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990. A good introduction to the history of Jews in the Soviet Union. Particularly useful for its discussion of the interrelationship between anti-Semitism and Marxist-Leninist theory. Select bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pospielovsky, Dimitry. The Russian Church Under the Soviet Regime, 1917-1982. 2 vols. Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1984. Important for an understanding of the larger question of the Soviet attitude toward organized religion and of Orthodox attitudes toward Jews.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rubenstein, Joshua. “Zionists and Democrats” and “Deteute and the Dissidents.” In Soviet Dissidents: Their Struggle for Human Rights. Boston: Beacon Press, 1980. These two articles provide detail on individual cases as well as a general overview of the connections and tensions between Zionists and dissident movements. Full index.

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Categories: History