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

Oleg Bud­nit­skii; Tim­o­thy J. Por­tice, trans.
  • Review
By – November 29, 2012

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.

Robert Moses Shapiro teach­es mod­ern Jew­ish his­to­ry, Holo­caust stud­ies, and Yid­dish lan­guage and lit­er­a­ture at Brook­lyn Col­lege of the City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. His most recent book is The War­saw Ghet­to Oyneg Shabes-Ringel­blum Archive: Cat­a­log and Guide (Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty Press in asso­ci­a­tion with the U.S. Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al Library and the Jew­ish His­tor­i­cal Insti­tute in War­saw, 2009). He is cur­rent­ly engaged in trans­lat­ing Pol­ish and Yid­dish diaries from the Łódź ghet­to and the Yid­dish Son­derkom­man­do doc­u­ments found buried in the ash pits at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

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