New Opportunities, Old Limitations: Raisa Golant and the Russian Jewish Experience after 1917

Research Paper (undergraduate), 2009

13 Pages, Grade: A-



(Pavel Vasilyev)

The struggle for Jewish emancipation in Russia[1] was a lengthy and difficult process, which was also accompanied by the trends towards gradual modernization, secularization, industrialization and urbanization. In 1917, these processes finally led to the quick transformation of authoritarian monarchy to liberal democracy and then to socialist republic. Many previously oppressed social groups (among them Jews) were legally and socially emancipated in this turbulent period.

In Soviet historiography Jewish emancipation in Russia was considered complete and unequivocal, but Western scholars had more freedom to notice “the ambiguities of liberation”[2] and the contradiction between “anti-Semitism as an official policy” and “one of the hallowed tenets of Marxist socialism which recognized neither Jew, Moslem, nor Christian but only classes and class interests”.[3] In recent decades, the situation in Russia changed, and some historians (the most notable among them is Gennadii V. Kostyrchenko[4] ) also began to reconsider traditional Soviet perspectives on Jewish emancipation.

Nevertheless, all these studies largely focus on a relatively limited number of topics, that pertain rather to the realms of 'high' politics, persecutions and state antisemitism. Traditionally, the authors explored such major themes as the involvement of the Jews in the founding and functioning of the new Soviet state[5] ; the 'Golden Age' of Yiddish culture in the USSR in the 1920s and early 1930s[6] ; the Holocaust in Eastern Europe[7] ; state anti-Semitism in the last years of Stalin's rule[8] ; and the struggle to end discrimination and allow Jewish emigration in the second half of the 20th century[9]. Few studies, however, look at the developments at the micro-level and at the everyday life experience of the Russian Jews after the emancipation. The situation is different with research on Central Europe, where several scholars managed to link Jewish history and the ambiguities of emancipation with such rapidly developing fields as gender studies[10] or history of medicine.[11]

Accordingly, in this paper I will use the case-study approach and analyze various materials documenting the life of Soviet Jewish psychiatrist Raisa Iakovlevna Golant (1885-1953) in order to show how professional and personal experience of Russian Jews after 1917 was structured both by positive accomplishments of the emancipation and the preserved limitations. Such a study will also contribute to the developments in biographical history, women's and gender history, and history of medicine. To accomplish the above-mentioned goal, I will focus on two major tasks: to contextualize my research by describing how other authors assessed the Russian Jewish experience after emancipation; and to explore the life of Raisa Golant with particular attention towards opportunities and limitations that structured her career after 1917.

The Aftermath of Jewish Emancipation in Russia: New Opportunities, Old Limitations

The emancipation of the Jews in Russia was a logical conclusion of the February revolution in 1917, which brought down the tsarist regime and established a democratic Provisional Government. The oppressive laws that severely limited Jewish career, educational and settlement opportunities were all abolished in the spring of 1917. Moreover, the Provisional Government granted right to vote to women; and Russia, technically speaking, became one of the most democratic countries in the world. In such circumstances Russian Jews (both male and female) enjoyed previously unthinkable opportunities for personal and professional growth in almost every field.

The October socialist revolution that brought the Bolsheviks to power radically changed the nature of the regime that now began to openly discriminate against its citizens – on the principle of class. It is important, however, that it was not directed specifically against the Jews in any way, so these developments did not affect the legal status of the Russian Jews. Zvi Gitelman remarks that the Marxist ideology of the Bolsheviks implied such negative consequences for the Jews as state atheism and prohibition of private trade (the former being especially detrimental, given a special role that religion plays in the process of Jewish identity formation).[12] This may be true, but these measures also affected other social, ethnic, and religious groups and, again, were not directed specifically against the Jews (the campaign “for eradication of religious prejudices” in fact focused largely on Christianity – given Russia's predominantly Orthodox Christian population).

This is not to say, of course, that there were no limitations for the Jews in Soviet Russia after 1917. Anti-religious measures were indeed carried out everywhere, and the loyalty towards another state 'religion' (Marxist ideology) was often a prerequisite for physical survival. The demand “to transcend kinship in order to serve ideology”[13] was tough, but in fact many Jews were quite sympathetic towards socialist ideas long before the revolution, but even those who did not feel like joining the ranks of the party, soon found it necessary to accept the rules of the game (especially given that many Bolsheviks' rivals in the Russian Civil War were openly anti-Semitic[14] ).

However that may be, the fact is that the Jews in early Soviet Russia had many opportunities to grow along previously inaccessible professional tracks (such as government service, military, or academia). The high social mobility provided many possibilities not only for the Jews, but they were more likely than other groups to have the education and experience necessary to succeed and become People's Commissar (Minister) of Foreign Affairs (Maxim Litvinov), organizer of the Red Army (Leon Trotsky) or highly-respected academic (Abram Ioffe).

However, the emancipation had its immediate consequences, and as in Western and Central European contexts, one of the prerequisites/expectations was the assimilation. The 1920s and early 1930s might have been relatively favorable for Yiddish language and culture[15], but these developments were also accompanied by the strong torrent of anti-religious propaganda by the Evsektsii (Jewish sections in the party) and regulation of everyday life with no attention towards ethno-religious specificity.[16] In fact, by the 1930s “technically, socially, politically, and economically it had become quite difficult to be an observant Jew in the Soviet Union”.


[1] For the importance of the study of Russian Jewry in terms of the numbers of the Jews, tragic nature of the events in Eastern Europe and Jewish contributions to the science and culture, see Zvi Gitelman, A Century of Ambivalence: The Jews of Russia and the Soviet Union, 1881 to the Present (New York: Schocken Books, 1988), xi.

[2] Gitelman, 87.

[3] Paul Lendvai, Anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe (London: Macdonald, 1972), 10-11.

[4] Gennadii V. Kostyrchenko, V plenu u krasnogo faraona: Politicheskie presledovaniia evreev v SSSR v poslednee stalinskoe desiatiletie [Enslaved by the Red Pharaoh: Political Persecutions of the Soviet Jews in the Last Decade of Stalin's Rule] (Moscow: Mezhdunarodnye otnosheniia, 1994); Idem, Tainaia politika Stalina: Vlast' i antisemitizm [Stalin's Secret Policy: The State and Anti-Semitism] (Moscow: Mezhdunarodnye otnosheniia, 2001); Idem, Stalin protiv “kosmopolitov”: Vlast' i evreiskaia intelligentsiia v SSSR [Stalin Against “Cosmopolitans”: The State and the Jewish Intelligentsia in the USSR] (Moscow: ROSSPEN, 2009). Cf. also Gennadi Kostyrchenko, Out of the Red Shadows: Anti-Semitism in Stalin's Russia (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1995).

[5] Gitelman, 87-132.

[6] Ibid., 134-142.

[7] Ibid., 175-223.

[8] Lendvai; Gitelman, 236-240; Kostyrchenko, V plenu u krasnogo faraona; Idem, Vlast' i evreiskaia intelligentsiia.

[9] Lendvai.

[10] Harriet P. Freidenreich, Female, Jewish, and Educated: The Lives of Central European University Women (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002). Freidenreich specifically mentions that she is concerned with Eastern European Jewish women as well, but they “are much more difficult to trace than Central European women both before or after leaving the university” (Freidenreich, xv). Thus, materials from Russian archives can help in finding both similarities and differences between Central and Eastern European Jewish experience.

[11] John M. Efron, Medicine and the German Jews: A History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001). Most works dealing with the Jews of the Soviet Union touch upon medical history topics only when speaking about the Doctors' Plot (e.g., Gitelman, 238-240). It is incorrect and does not represent the whole richness, dynamism and tragedy of the Soviet Jewish medical experience.

[12] Gitelman, 96.

[13] Ibid., 120.

[14] Ibid., 96-107.

[15] Lionel Kochan, ed. The Jews in Soviet Russia since 1917, 3rd edn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), 197-280; Gitelman, 134-142.

[16] Joshua Rothenberg, “Jewish Religion in the Soviet Union,” in Kochan, 170-181; Gitelman, 116-121, 134-142, 169.

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New Opportunities, Old Limitations: Raisa Golant and the Russian Jewish Experience after 1917
Central European University Budapest
Jewish Studies
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Opportunities, Limitations, Raisa, Golant, Russian, Jewish, Experience
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Pavel Vasilyev (Author), 2009, New Opportunities, Old Limitations: Raisa Golant and the Russian Jewish Experience after 1917, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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