What was the role of the Jews in the Russian Revolution of 1917? This Moscow museum paints the whole picture.

(JTA) — Of all the many charged issues related to the bloody history of the Jews in the former Soviet Union, none is as sensitive today in this part of the world as their role in the 1917 revolution that brought the communists in power.

The outsized prevalence of Jews in the ranks of the revolution that erupted a century ago on November 7 has remained a mainstay of anti-Semitic vitriol in the region.

During the Holocaust, it was used as a pretext for the murder of countless Jews across Eastern Europe by self-proclaimed enemies of communism and Russia. And it is still used today to incite hatred against local Jews, including among devout Christians who were persecuted by anti-religious Soviet authorities.

Living in religious societies that on the whole feel victimized by Communism or its effects, many Russian-speaking Jews and their leaders remained silent about Communism or downplayed the role of Jews in it.

It’s a logical strategy, given the rhetoric of senior politicians like Peter Tolstoy, the deputy speaker of the Russian parliament. One month from January press conference, he blamed Jews for interfering in a project to relocate a church in St. Petersburg. Tolstoy said Jews use their positions in the media and government to continue the work of the ancestors who “teared down our churches” in 1917.

Or the anti-Semitic hate campaign directed against a Jewish director, Alexei Uchitel, whose studio in the same city was fire in September, presumably for his unfavorable portrayal in a feature film of Nicholas II, the Tsar whose reign ended the revolution.

Yet ahead of the centenary, Russia‘s leading Jewish museum — which since opening in 2012 has tackled the subject of revolutionary Jews head-on in its permanent exhibition — unveiled an exhibit that unabashedly highlights how and why Jews became at the heart of the revolution.

“For many years, neither Jews nor the authorities wanted to open the subject, which has become the stuff of myths for ultranationalists, neo-Nazis and other anti-Semites,” said Boruch Gorin, president of the Jewish Museum and Center. of Moscow’s tolerance. “But now is the time to look at the facts.”

The facts emerge from the hundreds of photographs, documents, propaganda leaflets and works of art that make up the exhibition. It opened last month under the title “The story of a people during the revolution”.

They bust some myths, including the fallacy repeated in 2013 by none other than President Vladimir Putin, who noted to the museum that anti-Semitic persecution of Jews in the former Soviet Union occurred even though “the first Soviet government was 80-85% Jewish”. (In fact, there was a Jewish member – Leon Trotsky, founder of the Red Army).

The Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow, since its opening in 2012, has been dealing with the subject of Jewish revolutionaries. (Flickr Commons/Sergey Norin)

But the facts also substantially reaffirm claims like those made by Holocaust denial proponent Mark Weber. In 2003 he wrote, “Although officially the Jews never represented more than five percent of the total population of the country, they played a highly disproportionate and probably decisive role in the nascent Bolshevik regime”, adding that it was a “taboo” that many historians have preferred to ignore for decades. .

The Bolsheviks were members of the radical faction that eventually dominated the other currents of the communist revolutionary movement against the Tsar’s regime.

Among the items in the exhibit, which opened Oct. 17, is a 1918 photo of activists from the socialist Poale Zion group holding a Hebrew banner in what is now St. Petersburg.

Regardless of the exact make-up of the first Soviet government, “there was great and undeniable enthusiasm among virtually every element that made up Russian Jewry during the revolution,” said Gorin, who runs the state-of-the-art, $50 million museum that Last year won a UNESCO prize for his promotion of tolerance.

Although the first Soviet government — the Council of People’s Commissars — was overwhelmingly non-Jewish, Jews held very prominent positions in the Bolshevik and Communist chains of command, vastly disproportionate to their percentage of the general population, Gorin confirmed. .

Among the Jews in the top echelon of the Communist Party in its early days in power were Yakov Sverdlov, its executive secretary; Grigori Zinoviev, leader of the Communist International; press commissioner Karl Radek; Foreign Commissioner Maxim Litvinov; as well as Lev Kamenev and Moisei Uritsky.

“Practical Jews believed in 1917 that the Communists would allow them to prolong Jewish life, Zionists believed that revolution would advance their goals, and there was a sense of liberation,” Gorin said.

But it’s not as if Russian Jews really had a choice.

“At a time when the Red Army had posters denouncing anti-Semitism, the monarchists who fought for the Tsar had posters spreading [anti-Semitism] as a pillar of what they were fighting for,” he said. The exhibition includes such posters.

Gorin says the exhibit “honestly and openly tells how Jews played an outsized role in the revolution. But it also shows that there were very good reasons for it.

Likewise, if it weren’t for the embrace of anti-Semitism by the whites – the enemies of the Communist Reds – “many Jews might well have made cause with the whites, who were not all monarchists but also included Democrats,” Gorin speculated.

Among the most evocative displays in the permanent exhibition is a video based on contemporary eyewitness accounts telling the story of a Jewish man and his son captured by the monarchists. The man volunteered to confess to having spied for the Bolsheviks if the monarchists spared the life of the son. Both were hanged after the confessions in what is now Ukraine.

“The revolution offered the Jews of Russia many opportunities, equal rights and education and a chance to fill the void left by an elite who were forced into exile,” Gorin said. “But it was mostly a refuge from a wave of pogroms in which 150,000 Jews in present-day Ukraine were murdered in what some historians call a dress rehearsal for the Holocaust. A Jew in 1917 had two choices: revolution or exile.

During the Holocaust, the alignment of many Jews with the communist cause was cited as justification for mass slaughter by collaborators of the Germans. They resented not only Communism but also Russian domination in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe.

The Jewish role in communism is used by anti-Semites to justify the Holocaust.

Zsolt Bayer, co-founder of Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party, wrote in an op-ed last year: “Why are we surprised that the simple peasant whose defining experience was that the Jews burst into his village, beat his priest to death, threatened to turn his church into a movie theater — why do we find it shocking that twenty years later he mercilessly assists the gendarmes drive the Jews out of his village?

The exhibit then explores how hopes of Jewish emancipation through communism were ultimately dashed, making some Jews the leading perpetrators of repression and turning many other Jews into victims.

“In the exhibit, we placed on the left an exhibit of the many Jews who made up the NKWD,” Gorin said, naming the fearsome communist security police who were a precursor to the KGB. The NKVD was an instrument for the murder of countless people, before and during the bloodthirsty and anti-Semitic reign of terror of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. “On the right we have a display of the many Jews they killed: authors, liberals, soldiers.”

Gorin said the juxtaposition is designed to impress upon visitors that “at the end of the day, the Jews are a people made up of very different individuals with different goals who, in 1917, were faced with very difficult choices.”