Russian Jews Between the Reds and the Whites, 1917-1920

University of Pennsylvania Press  2011


The death toll among Russia’s Jews during the bloody six years from 1914 to 1920 is to be counted in the hundreds of thousands, along with the hundreds of thousands wounded, raped, and orphaned. Nevertheless, the catastrophe that befell the Jews of Russia in the wake of the Bolshevik coup and the ensuing Russian Civil War has been largely overshadowed by the even more horrendous events during the Nazi attempt to annihilate the Jews during World War II.

New scholarship became possible only with the fall of the Soviet state and the opening of sealed archives. Moreover, a broad array of Hebrew and Yiddish sources are now increasingly accessible in English and Russian translations, often published in Israel. While the author attempted to integrate a large variety reflecting different perspectives, direct access to the Yiddish and Hebrew sources that remain untranslated would have been of great value.

The book seeks to bring into focus a confusing mixture of contending forces struggling for dominance over Russia during the Civil War. The millions of Jews who lived in the predominantly Jewish market towns or shtetlekh of the former Pale of Settlement were caught between the Soviets and the anti-Bolshevik White armies. Although most Jews were inclined to reject Bolshevik rule, they were confronted by White forces that increasingly openly preached anti-Jewish prejudice and hatred, blaming Jews for the rise of the Red menace of Communism.

The author makes clear that the story is not simple. The tsunami of pogroms that inundated Jewish communities in 1919 and 1920 is usually blamed on the forces led by the Ukrainian Petliura and the White generals. Yet, there were also brutal pogroms committed by units of the Soviet Red Army, reflecting the fundamental breakdown in the social order and the rising tide of anti-Jewish rage sweeping the largely illiterate Russian and Ukrainian populace, but especially among the demoralized troops, whether Red or White.

This is a fine work of scholarship that throws new light on a difficult period of revolutionary change for which the Jews of Russia paid a terrible price. Archival sources list, index, notes, photographs.

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