Joseph Stalin was not shaped by the Russian Revolution. He was one of its architects — a crude Georgian national who rose up the ranks of a Russian political movement to bring down the Romanov dynasty, taking all of its citizens down with them.
At 2 p.m. Wednesday, July 18, in the Hall of Philosophy, Ori Z. Soltes, a professor at Georgetown University, former director and curator of the B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum and lifelong scholar, gave his lecture, “God within the Godless Soviet Union: Majorities and Minorities,” as part of Week Four’s interfaith theme, “Russia and Its Soul.”
“Our Lady of Kazan,” also called “Mother-of-God of Kazan,” was one of the most revered icons within the Russian Orthodox Church, representing the Virgin Mary as the protector of the city of Kazan and a guardian of all of Russia.
There were multiple copies of “Our Lady of Kazan.” The original icon disappeared from Constantinople in 1438 and miraculously appeared in the 1550s. After that, the icon was stored in Kazan until it disappeared again in 1904.
“This explains why and how the Russians lost the Russo-Japanese War. ‘The Lady of Kazan’ was not there to protect the nation,” Soltes said.
To prevent a second defeat, Stalin ordered the icon to be attached to a plane to protect the city during the Battle of Moscow in 1941. Soltes said this “offers a paradox to Stalin” because he had previously blown up the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow. Stalin had intended to use the land to build a palace for the supreme Soviets to meet, but this never happened and the site remained fallow.
During the same time period, Stalin decided that only “Soviet socialist realism” could appear in art, music and literature. Soviet composers such as Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev felt the pressure to scale back their work to align with Stalin’s requests.
“Within the musical world of the Soviet Union under Stalin, you have a two-world condition,” Soltes said. “The stuff (the composers) want to write that really feeds their own souls is not the stuff that they could have performed.”
Where literature was concerned, Soltes said, it was far more difficult for writers to incorporate their feelings toward Stalin and Russia because written language is more concrete than music, which is more open to interpretation. Because of this, writers were the most prominent group of people who perished under Stalin’s rule.
“There were some who managed to survive, (without whom) the Russians could not have survived,” Soltes said.
One poet in particular was Anna Akhmatova. Akhmatova’s work flourished from the 1890s to the 1930s when she mastered the art of symbolism that “reacted against the realist literature that proceeded.”
“(Symbolism) meant that, sometimes, what I am writing has a meaning beneath the surface that only those really attuned to it can discern,” Soltes said.
Akhmatova became part of a symbolist poetry group called “acmeist,” whose members believed they were the “spiritual height of things.” Soltes said this group was important because its works caused the direction of spiritual writing to move away from traditional religious beliefs.
“I am not talking about Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim or Catholic,” he said. “I am talking about something which encompasses all of that and transcends all of that.”
In terms of visual art, artists from all over the country came together to create an underground world that was used to practice freedom of expression.
One team of young artists, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, created a form of subversive art that countered socialist realism.
“They take Soviet socialist realism, and they turn it on its head,” he said.
Another visual artist was Grisha Bruskin. Bruskin was Jewish and learned Hebrew from his father, although the teaching of that language was not sanctioned in Russia at the time. The background of Bruskin’s paintings were filled with Hebrew writing. Sometimes it was just a random combination of letters, but other times entire phrases or tracts could be interpreted.
Soltes said it was not that Jewish people like Bruskin had a different religion from other Russians, but a different nationality.
“The perspective of the Soviet Union of classification, with respect to Jews, is it’s a nation,” Soltes said. “(However,) that does not mean that you don’t make use of the old religious prejudices when you need them in order to suppress that particular group.”
According to Soltes, this nationality concept exhibits a “three-world condition.” Artists who produced their art for public consumption was one world, art produced to express one’s soul was the second and the the third was the question of to what extent can or should one express their nationality in their work, something Bruskin mastered by incorporating the Hebrew language.
During this period in Russian history, the population’s smallest minorities were Jews and Muslims.
In the 1700s, Poland was divided into sub-countries three different times. The third Polish division took place under the rule of Catherine the Great, empress of Russia.
“She suddenly found herself, by acquiring a piece of Poland, acquiring a substantial amount of Jews that she did not want,” Soltes said.
Catherine’s response was the Pale of Settlement, a designated territory within Russia where Jewish people were required to live, therefore restricting their rights.
Alexander II, the next emperor of Russia, tried to lift the settlement but was assassinated in 1881 before he could sign the necessary documents. After his assassination, Alexander III became emperor and enacted the May Laws, which Soltes said only further restricted Jewish rights with rules that prohibited them from living outside of larger cities and towns, owning or managing real estate, leasing land and operating their businesses on Sundays or other Christian holidays.
The May Laws were intended to be temporary restrictions, but were not lifted for 13 years until the start of the first Russian revolution in 1905. Soltes said the Jewish people identified strongly with the concept of a revolution.
“The idea that the problems of society are a function of uneven finances, if we can level that playing field then all the other kind of religious, racial and ethnic prejudices will go away, would — needless to say — appeal to the Russian Jews,” Soltes said.
In 1917, Vladimir Lenin, a Russian communist revolutionary, became Soviet Russia’s head of government. In 1922, when the revolution ended, Lenin decreed that the Jewish people’s official language in the new Soviet state would be Yiddish, as opposed to Russian.
“He thinks of the Jews as a national group more than as a religious group,” Soltes said. “A symptom of that mentality is that he starts to plan for a Jewish Autonomous Oblast.”
The Jewish Autonomous Oblast was a federal entity of Russia in the far east that was created to be the new area in which Russian Jews would reside.
In 1924, Lenin died and Stalin continued planning the JAO. In the spring of 1928, Soltes said 654 Jews arrived to begin the new settlement.
“The summer was filled with torrential rains. It was a mess,” Soltes said. “By October, more than half of (the Jews) had left.”
In 1930, the capital of the JAO, Birobidzhan, was completed. In that same year, a Soviet propaganda film was created in Yiddish to encourage Jewish people to come settle in the capital. However, it took over a decade before the population increased.
“By 1937, the population was rather desolated because that is when Stalin had already begun to turn a corner with respect to all kinds of things, including his attitude toward Jews,” Soltes said.
When World War II started, there was an influx of Jewish people in the JAO, a majority being refugees from Nazi Germany. The population in Birobidzhan was rising, and at its peak reached more than 30,000; however, Stalin’s relationship with the Jewish residents was “uneasy,” Soltes said.
The culmination of that uneasiness occured in 1950 with “The Doctors’ Plot.” According to Soltes, Stalin came up with the idea that all of the Jewish physicians in Moscow were engaged in a conspiracy to slay the Soviet leaders. Stalin began a series of trials to test his theory, but died in 1953 before he could finish.
In 1961, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, a poet, released a poem called “Babi Yar” that revolved around the slaughter of nearly 34,000 Jews in Kiev by the Nazis in 1941 and denounced the anti-Semitism that had spread throughout the Soviet Union. Readers responded to Yevtushenko’s poem with outrage because there was no monument commemorating the massacre. Although a monument was erected in 1976, the Soviet Union claimed the fascists had massacred the Kievans.
During this era, Soltes said the Soviet Union supported the state of Israel because it thought Israel was going to become a socialist state, until it aligned with the United States in 1950.
“There (were) all kinds of ins, outs, up and downs in (the Soviet Union and Israeli) relationship over the course of decades,” Soltes said.
These “ups and downs” pertained not only to Judaism, but also to Islam.
“Russia, the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia have dealt with Islam in a number of ways which are different from the ways in which they have dealt with Judaism,” Soltes said.
From the time of Kazan’s conquest in 1552 to the time of Catherine the Great, there was a systematic repression of Islam in the growing Russian empire, according to Soltes. Ultimately, six out of the 15 Soviet republics were Islam.
“Now, we are not dealing with the Muslims ‘on the other side of the fence’ in a political and not just religious way, but we have actually got them within (the borders),” Soltes said.
In 1910, the first mosque was built on Soviet soil. In 1917, there were 25,000 mosques across the Soviet Union, but Stalin turned in the other direction and started closing them down. By 1970, there were only 500, according to Soltes.
The Islam republics are demolished and during World War II, Stalin deported 500,000 Russian Muslims.