The Jewish Revolution in Belorussia: Economy, Race, and Bolshevik Power

The Jewish Revolution in Belorussia: Economy, Race, and Bolshevik Power

by Andrew Sloin


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Jewish life was changed fundamentally as Jews joined the Bolshevik movement and populated the front lines of the revolutionary struggle. Andrew Sloin’s story follows the arc of Bolshevik history but shows how the broader movement was enacted in factories and workshops, workers’ clubs and union meetings, and on the Jewish streets of White Russia. The protagonists here are shoemakers, speculators, glassmakers, peddlers, leatherworkers, needleworkers, soldiers, students, and local party operatives who were swept up, willingly or otherwise, into the Bolshevik project. Sloin stresses the fundamental relationship between economy and identity formation as party officials grappled with the Jewish Question in the wake of the revolution.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253024664
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 02/13/2017
Series: The Modern Jewish Experience
Pages: 346
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Andrew Sloin is Assistant Professor of History at Baruch College.

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The Jewish Revolution in Belorussia

Economy, Race, and Bolshevik Power

By Andrew Sloin

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2017 Andrew Sloin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-02466-4



On December 10, 1918, the Minsk Military Soviet posted an order announcing the evacuation of German forces and the seizure of Minsk by the Red Army. The decree, signed by Stanislaw Berson, the chairman of the Military Soviet, extended greetings on behalf of the "Workers' and Peasants' Government and its Red Army" to the "now liberated proletariat" of Minsk and called on all appointed individuals to remain in their posts and fulfill the orders of the new Soviet regime. Any attempts at sabotage, noncompliance with orders, or attacks on workers would be met, the decree warned, "in the most energetic manner," up to and including shooting. The Bolshevik Revolution came to Belorussia on horseback and by railway; it consolidated power at the end of the bayonet and the machine gun.

The military capture of Minsk created a new form of revolutionary state, envisioned from the outset as an explicit repudiation of the minimalist "bourgeois" liberal state. This postliberal state would regulate production, control the distribution and circulation of goods, provide necessary health and educational services, codify and enforce sanitation minimums, and ensure worker protection and social advancement. Above all else, the Soviet state would replace, in Vladimir Lenin's inimitable words, "the venal and rotten parliamentarianism of bourgeois society" with an active, participatory, primitive democracy. This democracy was to be based not upon the "Rights of Man" or any such recipe of abstract individualism, but upon the direct political participation of laboring groups qua labor. True to this vision, the Constitution promulgated in 1918 tied political rights and representation to the function of labor. Such a state — expansive, participatory, and vigorously interventionist — required far more than coercive military and police force. It required cadres, activists, technocrats, and bureaucrats.

The emancipation of labor, in the eyes of most Bolsheviks, meant the political self-rule of the proletariat — the landless, propertyless mass of workers divorced from the means of production through processes of primitive accumulation. As any good Bolshevik familiar with Marx's most basic writing knew, this army of laborers fell like chaff from the ever-grinding mills of capitalist production. Mechanization, the intensification of productive power, falling rates of profit — the fruits of crisis-prone capitalist production — generated ever-expanding masses of downwardly mobile proletarians. In the factories and Satanic mills of capitalist production, this dispossessed mass, squeezed from the ranks of the bourgeoisie and the petit bourgeoisie — from the artisans, craftsmen, and shopkeepers — was reformed into abstract, uniform labor. The Bolshevik project was to transform this mass of dispossessed labor into a machine of political control and social transformation.

The degree to which the schematic Marxist model did not match the actual social conditions in revolutionary Russia was glaringly evident to contemporary observers. A gaping chasm existed between Marxist theory and the social actuality of predominantly agrarian Russia. Faced with this reality, the Bolsheviks — especially Lenin and the ex-Menshevik Leon Trotsky — famously innovated. They asserted that worker revolution, if supported by peasant revolution at home and revolution in the advanced industrial world, would enable Russia to skip the capitalist stage of historical development and establish a socialist order. "Leninism," which posited the need for an alliance with the revolutionary peasantry (as opposed to the invariably treacherous bourgeoisie) for the purpose of solidifying proletarian rule, drew immediate scorn from contemporary critics. "Orthodox" Marxists, including the Mensheviks Iulii Martov and Pavel Aksel'rod, accused the Bolsheviks of forcing through a "premature" proletarian revolution — an attempt, Engels had argued, that would invariably lead to domination by a revolutionary minority. From abroad, the sympathetic but critical Rosa Luxemburg chided the Bolsheviks from a different angle, accusing them of capitulating to the petty bourgeois peasantry by allowing the spontaneous partition of landed estates, and to reactionary nationalist elements by adopting the slogan of national self-determination. Such concessions, she insisted, violated Marxist principles for the sake of political expediency. Moreover, the Bolshevik emphasis on the centrality on peasant revolution recapitulated strains of rejected Narodnik populism long rejected by Russian Marxists.

Against such appeals to ideological purity, the Bolsheviks forced, innovated, negotiated, and compromised their way to power in accordance with social realities on the ground. In Belorussia, the Bolshevik compromise depended unconditionally upon the support of the peasantry. It was, after all, the mass of peasants in arms, garrisoned along the Western Front running throughout Belorussia, that delivered majority support to the Bolshevik platform in the Constituent Assembly elections of 1917. Likewise, it was this group — the newly "propertied" beneficiaries of the land seizures of the summer of 1917 — that steadfastly defended their gains against the counterrevolutionary threat of the old landowning classes during the Russian Civil War. When Bolsheviks in Belorussia, following Lenin, emphasized the need for a smychka, or union, between the countryside and the city, they explicitly acknowledged, however grudgingly, the enormous political weight wielded by the social group Marx once dismissively likened to sacks of potatoes.

But with whom, precisely, was the peasantry to conclude this smychka? In the gigantic Putilov works of Petrograd, the steel mills of the Donbass-Dnepr Bend, the coalfields of the Donets Basin, or the oil fields of Baku, the presence of a mass industrial workforce rendered plausible the idea of a revolutionary union between an industrial proletariat and the peasantry. In Belorussia, this type of industrial proletariat was virtually nonexistent. In June of 1917 there existed a total of 126 trade unions representing an estimated thirty-five-thousand workers throughout the major Belorussian gubernii of Minsk, Mogilev, Vitebsk, and Smolensk. By comparison, the Artillery Administration in Petrograd alone employed more than fifty-three-thousand workers. The largest Petrograd factories, such as the massive pipe works (trubochnyi zavod) and cartridge works (patronnyi zavod) employed over ten thousand workers apiece; in Belorussia, only a handful of industrial undertakings had workforces exceeding five hundred workers. Moreover, many of these — such as the Shereshevskii tobacco factory in Grodno (with some fourteen hundred workers in 1913) and the Progress-Vulkan matchstick factory in Pinsk — were located in imperial-era Belorussian gubernii captured by Polish forces during the Polish-Soviet War of 1919–1921. By the end of the war, roughly half of Belorussia's forty-eight-thousand workers labored in shops with fewer than fifteen employees; of these, more than half employed, on average, 1.5 people, including the proprietor.

The vast majority of "industrial" enterprises in revolutionary Belorussia were, in short, petty manufactories and small artisanal workshops. Most were owned and operated by individual artisans (remeslenniki) or cottage producers (kustari) employing little hired labor. In other words, most enterprises engaged in what traditional Marxism regarded as nonproletarian or petit-bourgeois forms of production. Despite their dubious claims to "proletarian" status, kustar' producers and artisans were among the most active participants in the revolutionary transformation of Belorussia, mirroring the pattern that prevailed throughout industrializing Europe. In urban areas — whether regional centers such as Minsk, Vitebsk, and Mogilev, or smaller townlets (mestechki, shtetlekh) that dotted the countryside — the "Workers' Revolution" was principally carried through by artisans and small craftsmen. The young Marx predicted that the industrial proletariat would inherit the postrevolutionary world. In White Russia, the postrevolutionary inheritance passed over to the shoemakers, the leather tanners, the soap boilers, and the tailors.

In Belorussia, this meant that the revolutionary mantle largely passed to the Jewish working class. According to the 1897 census, Jews constituted an overwhelming percentage of artisans and petty producers in the prerevolutionary Belorussian gubernii. Jewish artisans and kustari made up 71 percent of all such producers in Vitebsk guberniia (province), 75 percent in Minsk guberniia, and 80 percent in Mogilev guberniia. In Minsk, artisans and cottage producers constituted roughly 42 percent of the total Jewish population of 47,561. Jews, moreover, concentrated in those sectors of production — the sewing, shoemaking, leatherworking, wood-, food-, and tobacco-producing industries — that emerged as primary bastions of political radicalism following the 1917 revolutions. Revolution and Civil War transformed this mass of Jewish artisanal labor into a force for the radical transformation of Jewish political and social life from below. In doing so, these actors transformed the cities and shtetlekh of Belorussia into centers of Jewish experimentation while simultaneously playing a critical role in establishing institutions of Bolshevik rule and Soviet power throughout the region.

This chapter examines Jewish radicalization in Belorussia from 1917 to 1921. Drawing on records from the 1921 Belorussian Communist Party (KPB) purge of twenty-one party cells in Minsk, including information on roughly 297 Jews who joined the Bolsheviks, it examines processes of radicalization at the grassroots level. These purge materials — including questionnaires in which party members retold their revolutionary biographies, as well as records of mass meetings in which the fates of party members were decided — provide unprecedented insight into the experiences, conflicts, and motivations that pulled and pushed Jews into the Bolshevik ranks. By focusing on voices drawn from the least literate and literary of the hundreds, and then thousands, of Jews who entered the party during this formative period, this chapter revises previous accounts that have taken the experience of atypical intellectuals — and frequently anti-Bolshevik, émigré intellectuals — as normative on the "Jewish Street." In doing so, it challenges apologetic attempts to marginalize Jewish participation in revolutionary politics while contesting the notion that Bolshevization took place primarily among so-called nonJewish Jews, to use Isaac Deutscher's enduring phrase.

Politics on Jewish Streets

Mordukh Zokorov Lipets, a self-described "Belorussian Jew," was born in Minsk in 1860. As a child he completed two classes of primary school before setting to work in a coppersmith workshop, beginning his lifelong career as a metalworker. In 1879, Lipets joined an underground Narodnik revolutionary circle, embarking on a second lifelong career as a revolutionary activist. Twice arrested for Narodnik revolutionary activity (in 1885 and 1887), Lipets eventually broke with his populist politics and, in 1893, joined a local self-education cell in Warsaw that followed the émigré Marxist circle of Georgii Plekhanov, Pavel Aksel'rod, Vera Zasulich, and others. Two years later he returned to Minsk and began implementing the early Marxist program of agitation and labor organization, helping to found an underground metalworkers union. With the 1901 appearance of the journal Iskra, the mouthpiece of Plekhanov's Social Democrats edited by Vladimir Lenin and Iulii Martov, Lipets became an Iskraist and self-described Social Democrat. Following the 1903 Social Democratic party split between Lenin's Bolsheviks and Martov's Mensheviks, Lipets became a fervent Leninist. After a third arrest during the 1905 Revolution, Lipets returned to the railroad industry during the First World War and resumed his underground political agitation. When revolution broke out in Minsk in 1917, Lipets unsurprisingly became an enthusiastic Bolshevik; after the Bolshevik seizure of power in October, he joined the ranks of the revolutionary administration in the newly established Palace of Labor (Dom Truda). Mordukh Lipets was, in short, a Jew and an Old Bolshevik. As such, he was an extreme rarity in Minsk.

Few Minsk Jews followed Mordukh Lipets's path into the Bolshevik party for one simple reason: prior to 1917, there were few Bolsheviks of any sort, Jewish or otherwise, in Minsk. One observer estimated that at the time of the February Revolution of 1917 there existed only ten to fifteen active Bolsheviks in the entire city, compared to two hundred or so supporters of their Menshevik rivals. Support for the Bolsheviks remained marginal until July and August of 1917, when the collapse of a last-gasp military offensive and the threat of counterrevolution in Petrograd by General Kornilov sharply radicalized the political scene. Following the defeat of Kornilov's attempted coup (due largely to the actions of railroad workers in Belorussia) in late August, Bolshevik ranks grew rapidly, swelling to an estimated 9,190 members in mid-September and reaching 28,000 by early October. Of these, the vast majority were soldiers garrisoned across the military front.

As was the case throughout the former Russian Empire, Jewish support for the Bolsheviks in Belorussia remained marginal through 1917. In the aftermath of the February Revolution of 1917, Jewish voters in Minsk and across Belorussia largely threw their political support behind explicitly Jewish political parties. Such support allowed Jewish political parties to win control of 27 out of 102 seats in midsummer elections for the Minsk City Soviet. Of these, the klal yisroel bloc, a coalition of the religious Orthodox Agudas Yisroel party and nonsocialist Zionists won sixteen seats, becoming the second largest bloc in the city soviet behind the Socialist Revolutionary (SR) party. The Jewish socialist Bund captured ten seats, making it the second largest socialist party, after the SRs but ahead of the Polish Socialists (eight seats), the Bolsheviks (six), the Mensheviks (six), and Poalei-Tsion (Labor Zionists; one). In November elections for the Constituent Assembly, held in the aftermath of the Bolshevik seizure of power in October, Jewish parties again won considerable victories. The klal yisroel bloc received some 65,046 votes throughout Minsk guberniia, against some 6,184 for Poalei Tsion and 4,880 for the Jewish Socialist Workers Party (SERP), a non-Marxist socialist party affiliated with the SRs. Additionally, there were some 16,277 votes for the Bund-Menshevik alliance, a number that undoubtedly included a significant percentage of Jewish votes. Given that the total Jewish population in the city of Minsk alone had grown to some sixty-seven thousand people by 1917, and that newly enfranchised women voters likely swelled the number of Jewish voters throughout the guberniia, it is probable that significant numbers of Jews voted for All-Russian parties including the Constitutional Democrats, SRs, and Bolsheviks. Nevertheless, the vast majority of Jews cast their votes for explicitly Jewish parties.

Historians have generally taken the Constituent Assembly elections as evidence of widespread and enduring grassroots opposition to the Bolsheviks (and socialists generally) on the "Jewish Street." The tendency to read initial opposition as an indicator of future political action appears problematic, however, if the image provided by the 1917 election results is compared to a second snapshot of Jewish political life from 1921, following four years of revolution, Civil War, and Bolshevik consolidation. In the summer of 1921, Yankel Levin, the head of the Jewish Sections (evsektsii) of the Belorussian Communist Party (KPB), submitted a report on local conditions in Minsk to the Central Bureau of the party. His report underscored the central role Jewish actors had taken within the republic's main productive and administrative apparatuses. "In the cities and shtetlekh of Belorussia," Levin wrote, "the predominant majority of workers — with the exception of the railroad workers — are Jewish." An investigation of twenty-six leading industrial enterprises in Minsk indicated that Jewish workers accounted for 1,692 of the 2,630 employees, or 74 percent of the workforce; in thirteen of these enterprises, the workforce was exclusively Jewish. Of the 155 Communist Party members working in these enterprises, 93 (60 percent) were Jews. Jewish activists played a similarly preponderant role within the administrative apparatuses of Soviet power. Of the 1,390 white-collar workers (sluzhashchii) serving in eight administrations of Soviet power in Minsk, 1,035 (75 percent) were Jewish. Jews, likewise, accounted for 89 of the 105 (84 percent) Communist party members drawn from these ranks. "Approximately the exact same situation exists in the entirety of Belorussia," Levin concluded.


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Table of Contents

Notes on Transliteration and Translation
Part I - Revolution
1. Making Jews Bolshevik
Part II – Capital and Labor
2. Speculators, Swindlers, and Other Jews: Regulating Trade in Revolutionary White Russia
3. Jewish Proletarians and Proletarian Jews: The Emancipation of Labor in NEP Society
Part III – Political Culture and Nationality
4. From Bolshevik Haskole to Cultural Revolution: Abram Beilin and the Jewish Revolution
5. Bundism and the Nationalities Question
Part IV – The Politics of Crisis
6. The Politics of Crisis: Economy, Ethnicity, and Trotskyism
7. Antisemitism and the Stalin Revolution
Appendix: Tables

What People are Saying About This

Anna Shternshis

"Readable, well-researched, firmly grounded on existing literature and on primary sources. A welcome addition to recent works on Jewish history in Belarus."

Jeffrey Veidlinger

"A remarkable social history that investigates the process of Sovietization among Jews in Belorussia through the perspective of labor and the economy. Andrew Sloin's mastery of the relevant literature and his own rigorous analysis provide firm grounding for this book."

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