Why Do I Know Nothing About the Soviet Union?
Growing up at nice lefty, wildly expensive private schools, I learned history as a series of progressive triumphs over conservative intolerance.
It made me happy to know that was how the world unfolded. It made me happy to know I’d be on the righteous side. It made me happy to know that the good team would win out. Each day is better than the last, and the path forward is always clear.
Religious schooling does not impart that message. It can’t. The Bible’s myths are all about chaos and complexity, sin and redemption, destruction and forgiveness, cowardice and courage, idiocy, luck.
To instill blissful confidence in me, the educational system had to downplay or ignore leftist failure. Secular, liberal Americans like me are taught a very beautiful and simple myth. It goes a little like: every progressive program that has failed or caused suffering didn’t do so because of some flaw in the plan or some misunderstanding of human nature. It failed because of forces on the wrong side of history.
This is how the system popped me out, at 22 years old, with only the vaguest knowledge of why the Soviet Union was a disaster. I had absolutely zero awareness that Jews there had any issue at all. If any of this was taught, it was fast and light enough to scuttle across my mind without leaving a mark.
My ignorance hit me hard in my Jewish 101 class, where one student was the daughter of Russian Jews, but she knew very little about Judaism from her family. I had no idea Judaism has been illegal there, that the rituals and the community had been pressured for generations to erase all traces of religiosity, all traces of difference, any part of themselves that might be Jewish. I’d never heard about any of that.
Pesach, or Passover, begins this Saturday night at sundown. It is the holiday in which we remember (and, ideally, spiritually recreate) the story of the Israelites leaving Egypt, wandering in the desert for forty years, and ending up in the promised land.
I want this holiday to mark the start of my unlearning — sorry, had to — and my learning. I want to spend the next few weeks studying the Soviet Union, a place that, in living memory, the Jewish people faced a modern-kind of slavery and ultimately won their freedom.
I want to understand why the Jewish people were so oppressed there in the first place. I want to learn about the young Jews who fought hard for the promise of revolution and then were destroyed by it. I want to learn about the gulags and efforts at reeducation, and I want to learn about how the government convinced people to distrust each other. I want to learn why a system that hated the Jews also refused to let them leave it, even as they begged. So much of this doesn’t make sense to me.
Only it does if you realize that history is not simply a march of progressive triumphs over conservative intolerance. Some years it is! Some years it is not. Some projects are good. Some are bad. History is not a straight line.
This brings me back to the Torah as a text. So much of the writing I’ve read — as a student, of course, but now also as an adult reading the newspaper and reading mainstream nonfiction books — seeks to paint the simplest moral portrait of the world. Often it’s a quite false picture, but to those that create it the moral message is an accurate one. And that’s what matters.
But people are messy as hell. No one is only good or only bad. And so to open this very, very old book that admits and describes human chaos has been thrilling. It’s the chaos of real life that I see around me. Reading the Torah has made me realize how boring most of the writing I encounter now is. Maybe my hunger for a conversation that feels more honest, more true to the complexity of life, is why I’ve clicked so well with Judaism.
And so, in the service of giving myself a more honest education, here we go: Soviet Union education will be coming to Chosen By Choice. Not every week and not forever but for a few weeks. (The deep dive after that: Jewish prayers and the memorization there-of. Also coming soon: Two beautiful essays about being a patrilineal Jew.)
I’ll be highlighting some of the reading I do and doing some interviews with people who know a lot more than I about what went wrong.
Starting with, of course: “Fear No Evil,” by Natan Sharansky. And oh yeah I’m going to dive into “Gulag: A History,” by Anne Applebaum.
(I will absolutely include a checklist of when to worry if you’re about to be sent to the Gulag. Dad: For sure you. The rest of you: We’ll have to see!)
On a brighter note, this week I had an official religious excuse to obsessively clean the house — my favorite way to procrastinate became my commandment.
The official line is you’re doing to remove all traces of bread from the house, since on Passover you’re basically on a carb-free diet. People get wild and fun with this — blowtorching the metal grates in the oven, etc. The process is called kashering.
It’s spring cleaning, elevated. It’s spring cleaning at the same time and with the same motions that Jews have been spring cleaning for thousands of years. In these rituals are often clues about why the Jews were such a successful tribe — they were deep cleaning long before germ theory.
We’re eating the last of our bread and throwing out the stale crackers. We’re going to a modern Orthodox seder on Saturday night and then hosting a fun mishmash seder on Sunday. And both nights we’ll tell the same story — the Israelites leaving slavery.
It doesn’t feel fully like my story yet. My blood ancestors (Greek, English) were closer to the enslavers than the slaves. But I trust that as years go by telling this and cleaning (sweet cleaning), the story will feel more like mine too.
Chag Pesach Sameach!
If you read Francine Klagsbrun's biography of Golda Meir there is an interesting section on the short period where Golda served as the first Israeli ambassador to the Soviet Union. It sheds some light on the complicated relationship between the USSR and Jews. Also, one of the most harrowing books on the Soviet Union I have ever read is The Forsaken by Tim Tzouliadis. It chronicles a few thousand Americans who naively joined the communist revolution and ended up in the gulag in the 1930s, persecuted by Stalin and abandoned by America. Both books highly recommended.
Chag Pesach Sameach!
There was always a Jewish question for Soviet leaders from the beginning. Before the Bolshevik Revolution, Zionism and Marxism were competing for the same minds and hearts. For Marxists, the Proletarian Revolution would cure the problems caused by national differences and animosities because national identities would be erased. Zionism emerged to protect even if it meant transforming Jewish identity. Their competition played out in different ways depending upon the circumstances--Jews tended to support the Bolsheviks rather than the forces fighting to restore the Czar in the civil war; many Jews were caught up in Stalin's purges in the 1930s because of their leadership roles or their positions as intellectuals. The determination to modernize the Soviet Union and protect the regime produced enormous brutality--starvation in the Ukraine with millions killed if the rulers considered it necessary to build a modern infrastructure despite the toll. All of this took place in the name of an equality that did not include the privileged elite with access to food and services the masses could only dream about as they were living in crowded apartments where kitchens and bathrooms had to be shared.