Soviet Jewry Between the Wars

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The regime also sought ways of transforming the economic structure of Jew­ish society, a society composed mostly of "petty bourgeoisie," hence considered non‑productive. An attempt was there­fore made to transfer as many Jews as possible to agriculture and heavy industry. In the Ukraine and Crimea, the Soviet authorities, supported by western Jewish organizations, created agricul­tural colonies for Jews. Indeed, the com­bined effect of World War 1, the Revolu­tion, the civil war, and government pressure undermined the economic structure of Jewish society and forced many to seek new occupations. By 1930, 11 percent of Jewish families worked in agricul­ture, 16 percent in industry, and many others in administration or in the professions. These changes were accompanied by internal migration from the western frontier areas into Russia.

In order to hasten the process of "productivization" of the Jews, the Soviet authorities created a "Jewish Autonomous Region" in 1928 in Birobidzhan, near the Chinese border. Since they did not establish a proper infrastructure, however, the area did not attract many settlers; and out of the 20,000 Jews who came between 1928 and 1933, over 11,000 soon left the region.

During the 1930s, the Soviet regime began abolishing the Jewish institutions it had created in the previous decade. The Jewish section of the Communist Party (the Yevsektsiya), for example, was disbanded. Then, in the purges of 1937‑1938, thousands of Jews were arrested, ­deported, and killed. Thus, by the time the German invasion began in 1941, the first stage in the liquidation of the national life of the Jews in the Soviet Union had been completed.

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Eli Barnavi is the Director of the Morris Curiel Center for International Studies and a Professor of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University