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

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

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

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


In the years following the Russian Revolution, a bitter civil war was waged between the Bolsheviks, with their Red Army of Workers and Peasants on the one side, and the various groups that constituted the anti-Bolshevik movement on the other. The major anti-Bolshevik force was the White Army, whose leadership consisted of former officers of the Russian imperial army. In the received--and simplified--version of this history, those Jews who were drawn into the political and military conflict were overwhelmingly affiliated with the Reds, while from the start, the Whites orchestrated campaigns of anti-Jewish violence, leading to the deaths of thousands of Jews in pogroms in the Ukraine and elsewhere.

In Russian Jews Between the Reds and the Whites, 1917-1920, Oleg Budnitskii provides the first comprehensive historical account of the role of Jews in the Russian Civil War. According to Budnitskii, Jews were both victims and executioners, and while they were among the founders of the Soviet state, they also played an important role in the establishment of the anti-Bolshevik factions. He offers a far more nuanced picture of the policies of the White leadership toward the Jews than has been previously available, exploring such issues as the role of prominent Jewish politicians in the establishment of the White movement of southern Russia, the "Jewish Question" in the White ideology and its international aspects, and the attempts of the Russian Orthodox Church and White diplomacy to forestall the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine.

The relationship between the Jews and the Reds was no less complicated. Nearly all of the Jewish political parties severely disapproved of the Bolshevik coup, and the Red Army was hardly without sin when it came to pogroms against the Jews. Budnitskii offers a fresh assessment of the part played by Jews in the establishment of the Soviet state, of the turn in the policies of Jewish socialist parties after the first wave of mass pogroms and their efforts to attract Jews to the Red Army, of Bolshevik policies concerning the Jewish population, and of how these stances changed radically over the course of the Civil War.


From 1918 to 1920, Russian Jewry suffered persecution and devastation on a scale that had not been seen since the Khmelnitskii Uprising in the seventeenth century. Of all the tragedies in the annals of Jewish History, only the Holocaust would surpass this period in savagery and wanton murder. To this day, experts still differ as to the total number of Jews who perished in the pogroms, the bloodiest of which took place in Ukraine in 1919 and 1920. Literature on the subject places the total number of victims anywhere in the range of 50,000 to 200,000 killed or mortally wounded. Not included in this number are countless other victims who were robbed, raped, or permanently disfigured.

Perhaps due to the shadow of the Holocaust, the causes, conditions, and consequences of these events have yet to be sufficiently studied. At the same time, a number of scholars have attempted to draw comparisons between the Holocaust and the pogroms that had occurred some twenty years earlier. Avraam Greenbaum, for example, claimed that “in some ways—especially since killings were sometimes carried out as a kind of “national duty” without the usual robbery—they bear comparison with the Holocaust some twenty years later.” David Roskies deemed the mass murder of Jews during the Civil War to be “the Holocaust of Ukrainian Jewry.” Richard Pipes, writing much in the same vein, claimed that “in every respect except for the absence of central organization to direct the slaughter, the pogroms of 1919 were a prelude to and a rehearsal for the Holocaust. The spontaneous lootings and killings left a legacy that two de cades later was to lead to the systematic mass murder of Jews at the hands of the Nazis: the deadly identification of Communism with Jewry … in view of the role this accusation had in paving the way for the mass destruction of Eu ro pe an Jewry, the question of Jewish involvement in Bolshevism is of more than academic interest.”

Though these contributions are valuable, the pogroms of 1918–20 and the role of the “Jewish question” in the larger context of the Civil War have . . .

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