Jews in Soviet NKVD Leadership: Fact or Fiction
Yuri Slezkine’s “The Jewish Century”reviewed by Mr. Jan Peczkis
Poles have sometimes been attacked for suggesting that the Soviet secret police (NKVD) had a leadership that was disproportionately Jewish. What are the facts?
Also interesting are the views of Bikerman, a Jewish writer who thought that Jews should assume collective responsibility for Jewish Communism.
Review of The Jewish Century, by Yuri Slezkine. 2004. Princeton University Press. Reviewer: Mr. Jan Peczkis
Jewish Exceptionalism in Historical and Broader Context
This thought-provoking work rejects the premise of classical anti-Semitism (“Jews control everything”) while also rejecting the other extreme (Jews as an innocuous, powerless minority). For example, consider the rise of anti-Semitism in tsarist Russia: “One reason why Jews were victims of state persecution was that so many of them were becoming elite members.” (p. 158).
Jews are Mercurians–a people driven to success (p. 26), and prone to such things as restlessness and involvement in radical movements. (p. 91). The difficulties experienced by Jews, as traders and middlemen, were or are paralleled by those of other nationalities that fill the same niche all over the world. For instance, the pre-WWII European-Jewish conflicts revolving around Jewish economic dominance were similar to those between Chinese and native Malayans. (p. 37). This extends to prejudicial perceptions: “Another common host stereotype of the Mercurians is that they are devious, acquisitive, greedy, crafty, pushy, and crude. This, too, is a statement of fact, in the sense that, for peasants, pastoralists, princes, and priests, any trader, moneylender, or artisan is in perpetual and deliberate violation of most norms of decency and decorum…” (p. 23). Of course, Jewish-gentile prejudices always went both ways. For instance, Jews had code words that alluded to gentiles as animals. (p. 108).
Jews in 19th-century foreign-ruled Poland were often seen by Poles as tools of these rulers. Although Slezkine does not discuss this, he does make it obvious why this was so. For example, Jewish bankers were integral to Bismarck’s German Empire. (p. 49). Also: “Jewish banks based in Warsaw, Vilna, and Odessa had been among the first commercial lending institutions in the Russian Empire…Several Jewish financiers from Warsaw and Lodz formed the first Russian joint-stock banks.” (pp. 118-119). Also, Slezkine inadvertently touches on the reason that Jews in general were unsympathetic to the resurrection of the Polish state in 1918: “The Jews allied themselves with powerful states and cohesive national elites because that was their path to Progress; many of their neighbors strongly objected to those states and those elites–and therefore to the Jews–because they were on a different path to Progress.” (p. 72).
Throughout the late 1800’s up through and after the Russian Revolution, Jews were massively overrepresented in Communism. (see pp. 151-152, 175-on). While it is true that some other nationalities (e. g., the Soviet Poles) were overrepresented in major Communist institutions (p. 152), it is obvious that the overrepresentation of Jews (about 2% of the USSR population) was much more extreme, and that it persisted long after the Revolution: “By 1934, when the OGPU was transformed into the NKVD, Jews `by nationality’ constituted the largest single group among the `leading cadres’ of the Soviet secret police (37 Jews, 30 Russians, 7 Latvians, 5 Ukrainians, 4 Poles, 3 Georgians, 3 Byelorussians, 2 Germans, and 5 assorted others).” (p. 221). “In January 1937, on the eve of the Great Terror, the 111 top NKVD officials included 42 Jews, 35 Russians, 8 Latvians, and 26 others.” (p. 254).
The view that Jewish Communists are no longer Jews parallels that which asserts that Russian Communists are not “real” Russians. (p. 185). This “rejection of Jewishness” was professed only by some Communist Jews, and then was primarily a rejection of Jewish religion, parents and their old-fashioned ways, etc. (pp. 152-153). Finally, “abandonment of Judaism” is relative: “As far as Tevye was concerned, conversion to Communism was not a conversion at all. Abandoning Judaism for Christianity was an act of apostasy; abandoning Judaism for `the human race’ was a family affair.” (p. 206). [According to Israel’s Law of return, a Jew is anyone who is born to a Jewish mother and who hasn’t converted to another religion. So a Communist Jew is most certainly a Jew, and is admitted accordingly.]
Considering the fact that Communism is a movement based on unlimited revolutionary violence that calls for the destruction of entire classes of people (p. 174), how did the Jewish supporters of Communism reconcile this with Judaism’s traditional humanitarianism and abhorrence of systematic violence? Was the end supposed to justify the means? Should Jews as a whole engage in some kind of collective repentance for Jewish Communists? Although Slezkine doesn’t directly answer these questions, he does mention the following: “A few Russian Jewish intellectuals did plead guilty. In a 1923 collection published in Berlin, RUSSIA AND THE JEWS, they called on `the Jews of all countries’ to resist Bolshevism and to admit the `bitter sin’ of Jewish complicity in its crimes. In the words of I. M. Bikerman, ‘it goes without saying that not all Jews are Bolsheviks and not all Bolsheviks are Jews, but what is equally obvious is the disproportionate and immeasurably fervent Jewish participation in the torment of half-dead Russians by the Bolsheviks.’ It is true that the Jews suffered immeasurably from the pogroms, but was not the revolution `a universal pogrom’?” (p. 183).
The Jewish support for Communism was eventually replaced by support of other radical movements, as in the USA: “The Jewish participation in the radical student movements of the 1960’s and early 1970’s was comparable to the Jewish participation in Eastern European socialism and prewar American Communism. In the first half of the 1960’s, Jews (5 percent of all American students) made up between 30 and 50 percent of SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) membership and more than 60 percent of its leadership…[and]…one-third of the Weathermen arrested by the police…” (p. 348).
This book has many more topics than I can consider here. It conclusions are backed up by a very extensive bibliography.