We Need New Stories of Post-Soviet Jews

A letter from the issue committee

Leonid Lamm: Dollar; 1990-1993; brass, aluminum, and enamel; 21 x 6 x 6 in. Limited edition of eight.

Courtesy of Olga Lamm and Innesa Levkova-Lamm.

Note: This issue was formulated and written before Russia’s criminal invasion of Ukraine, a place that was home to many of the writers and artists who contributed to this issue. This committee stands in solidarity with those suffering under these cruel attacks. We were not able to update this note or the issue as a whole to reflect events that unfolded as the magazine was headed to print. This effort grew from a recognition of the importance of understanding the complexity and nuance of this region—a task that is even more vital today. We hope this issue will be a resource in this pursuit.

In a famous Soviet Jewish joke, the wise guy Rabinovich, a stock character in the prodigious corpus of Soviet Jewish humor, receives an enticing offer from the CIA. Rabinovich is renowned for his clairvoyance, and the Americans want to bring him to the US so that he can use his skills to predict the coming of financial crises. No, says Rabinovich: Leaving would mean giving up unparalleled job security. After all, his work assignment for the Communist Party—looking out for the “dawn of world communism” from inside one of the Kremlin towers—is permanent.

American Jewish audiences tend to enjoy this joke. It takes a familiar motif from Jewish comedy and lore—the endless wait for a messiah who never comes—and adds a Cold War twist in which the Soviet Union and the United States appear as eternally irreconcilable opposites, each desperate for confirmation that their system will win out in the end. It is perhaps even funnier 30 years after the Soviet Union’s collapse definitively revealed that Rabinovich was wrong.

Or was he? Stripped down to its essential logic, what Rabinovich, and the joke, might really be communicating is the wry minoritarian insight that, at the end of the day, the Cold War’s feuding superpowers have more in common than they realize; in this case, each state claims the mantle of inevitability even while struggling not to fall apart. If Rabinovich did come to the US, the true nature of his clairvoyance might turn out to be the ability to see through the American system with the satirical lens he honed in the Soviet Union, thus revealing the two systems as each other’s crooked mirrors. And indeed, this kind of insight has been a major contribution of post-Soviet Jewish cultural production, from the work of artist Leonid Lamm—who in the early 1990s created a sculpture in which two sets of hammers and sickles stacked on top of each other form a golden dollar sign—to books by writers from Gary Shteyngart to Anya Ulinich to Maria Kuznetsova, whose Soviet upbringings inform often dystopian or ironic renderings of the contemporary US. If the Cold War played a foundational role in shaping contemporary geopolitics, looking at things from a post-Soviet perspective can unsettle what we think we know about the world.

This issue of Jewish Currents was developed as a collaboration between the magazine’s regular staff and a group of scholars, writers, and activists who have thought extensively about post-Soviet Jewishness. Some members of the advisory committee left the USSR as children, others as adults, and still others approach the post-Soviet Jewish community as students of Russian and Soviet Jewish history. All of us hope the issue will do a version of the defamiliarizing work performed by Rabinovich and his real-world counterparts. Our own work is focused specifically on questions of Soviet Jewish history and memory that resound in contemporary conversations about Jewish politics. What did it mean for immigrants racialized as Jewish in the Soviet Union to be most often read as white in the US—included for the first time in the construction of a privileged majority? What does “post-Soviet” mean in a contemporary American political context, and how do the vestiges of the USSR—from its vast carceral network to its housing and healthcare guarantees—affect the way post-Soviet Jews navigate the American political system? Where do post-Soviet Jews—othered both by American Jewish communities and by more typically Slavic immigrant communities—belong?

In undertaking this project, some of the most vexing questions we encountered were foundational ones about the vocabulary we should use to describe Jews with roots in the USSR, or even how to relate to this strange word that lends this issue its name: “Soviet.” In the Soviet Union, a Jew would have been referred to as “evrei” without the modifier “sovetskii,” since every ethnicity in the USSR was, definitionally, a Soviet one. The term “Soviet Jew,” then, was not our own: It was formulated by outsiders looking in, and to many of us it still feels awkward and externally imposed. Some of us specifically hear in it the bureaucratic language of the immigration system—be it state agencies or nonprofit institutions—that sought to coerce a loose diasporic grouping into a manageable population when they left the country. And yet, most pieces in this issue continue to use the term “Soviet Jew,” since no better language has emerged in English to speak about Jews who resided in the USSR before its collapse. Still, what is captured by this umbrella term is up for debate. Some of us have argued that there is a meaningfully existing post-Soviet Jewish community in the diaspora, bound together by language, custom, and values; others see post-Soviet Jews as bound together primarily by the feelings of loss, displacement, and estrangement. We are torn, too, about the nature of that loss and the ways we do or don’t identify with the Soviet project that preceded it: For some of us, to wit, the word “Soviet” inspires utopian desires and complicated nostalgia, while others hear it as something closer to a slur, a term used by Americans to exoticize Russian speakers and relegate them to the historical past.

Many of the committee members and contributors who worked on this issue come to these questions from the political left, a lens rarely deployed in public commentary on the post-Soviet Jewish diaspora. Since the major emigration waves from the USSR that began in the 1970s, the most audible Soviet Jewish voices in political life have come from right-wing figures like the Soviet-refusenik-turned-Israeli-politician Natan Sharansky, who appealed to descriptions of Soviet tyranny and Jewish suffering in arguments for a Jewish ethnostate, a free market, and American intervention in foreign affairs, especially in the Middle East. Soviet Jewish experiences have also long been instrumentalized by a range of political actors outside the community: mainstream diaspora Jewish organizations, Cold Warriors in the American Democratic Party, Israeli government officials, and conservative commentators and historians. In the US in particular, a generation of Jewish activists became heavily invested in the idea of saving ostensibly helpless Jews from a totalitarian, antisemitic Soviet Union, even when many Soviet Jews themselves did not understand their lives or emigration decisions in that context. Under the banner of the Soviet Jewry movement, which unified disparate factions of North American Jews in an unparalleled way, this activism gave rise to the particularist, inward-looking American Jewish establishment we know today. This trajectory has placed Soviet Jews simultaneously at the center of contemporary American Jewish politics as a catalyst or a rhetorical device, and on the sidelines as an actually existing community.

The uses of Soviet Jewish stories are manifold: Young leftists today, even those born long after the end of the Cold War, are still admonished about the horrors of life under Soviet communism—with emigrants from the USSR at least implicitly invoked as expert witnesses. Sharansky, for instance, has for decades had a pulpit among English-language readers. In a representative essay co-authored with the historian Gil Troy and published last year in the right-leaning American Jewish web magazine Tablet, he inveighed against what he called “un-Jews,” a category he created to denigrate both Russian Jewish revolutionaries at the time of the Soviet Union’s founding and anti-Zionist Jews today—hardly a novel argument on the Jewish right, but one that gains considerable authority when voiced by a Soviet emigrant. In another typical example of such argumentation, this time from a younger generation of reactionaries, a recent Substack entry by the writer Nellie Bowles (wife of anti-antisemitism crusader Bari Weiss) found Bowles hamming up her role as a clueless American getting a history lesson from the Soviet-born writer and activist Izabella Tabarovsky; she concludes with a moral that, in her view, “Soviet Jewish history teaches us very clearly: once you start demonizing Zionism, eventually all the Jews are in danger.” Given the usefulness of such a perspective in the right’s struggle to discredit anti-Zionism in the court of public opnion, it was understandable when another young Zionist agitator, Blake Flayton, tweeted last year, “Jews with families from the Soviet Union must lead this fight.”

The tenacity of such rhetoric underscores the need to construct a more complex picture of post-Soviet Jewish histories and lives; this issue does so in pieces on subjects from the politics of the Soviet Jewry movement to the memorialization of Babi Yar to the multifarious work of post-Soviet artists. In response to the ubiquitous, one-dimensional narrative of Soviet Jewish victimhood, this issue hopes to empower post-Soviet Jews with other stories to tell, many of whom are contributors here. Stories told from queer and feminine perspectives run counter to generally masculinist Soviet and post-Soviet portrayals; stories that speak of Jewishness, reclaimed or partly buried, in contemporary Russia contrast with prevalent narratives that consider Jewishness in the former Soviet states to be dead and gone. A number of the pieces that follow deal directly with conflicting interpretations of Soviet Jewish experiences across generational divides. The issue also attempts to reckon on our own terms with the grave injustices perpetrated by the Soviet Union, confronting the horrors of the Soviet carceral system and state repression of national minorities, including Jews. Throughout, we hope to address these subjects in ways that reframe the story of Soviet Jewishness—often told, like that of modern Jewishness writ large, as a narrow, zero-sum tale—from a place of solidarity between marginalized groups. To that end, the issue includes pieces on the relationship between the Gulag and the horizon of contemporary abolitionist politics, and the USSR’s complicated relationship to African decolonization.

Of course, no single magazine issue could ever represent a definitive accounting of the complexities of Soviet Jewishness. Even as we and the editors of Jewish Currents endeavored to represent a diverse range of experiences, the final product contains many gaps. Although the committee made efforts to bring in more non-Ashkenazi voices, these stories remain underrepresented in this issue, and deserve more treatment than afforded here. Likewise, the geographic coordinates of the issue remain largely fixed on the US, Israel, and the former Soviet states, leaving stories about other post-Soviet Jewish enclaves, like Germany or Canada, untold. The forms of inquiry pursued here were constrained by practical considerations, in particular, the difficulty of reporting on Putin’s Russia, where freedom of the press is severely curtailed, for a magazine that does not specialize in the region. In light of these and other limitations, we hope the issue is received as it is intended: not as an attempt to tell the conclusive Soviet Jewish story, but as an opening onto a new set of conversations. Let it be one of many.

It remains an open question whether “Soviet Jewishness”—an identity already rooted in recollections of a place that no longer exists—can be passed down to future generations. Will it lose any meaning beyond the lifespans of those with a firsthand experience of emigration, or is it now deeply enough embedded in cultural memory that it could persist? These questions feel pressing now, as Jews who left the Soviet Union as young people in the 1980s and ’90s have become adults, passing along their vision of post-Soviet Jewishness to friends and comrades, partners and children, and the public at large. The demands of transmissibility render theoretical questions of identity and community startlingly concrete. We hope the issue catalyzes your own questions—whether or not you spot the glorious dawn of communism before you.

Julia Alekseyeva is an assistant professor of English and cinema and media studies at the University of Pennsylvania and the creator of the nonfiction graphic novel Soviet Daughter: A Graphic Revolution (Microcosm Publishing, 2017).

Tova Benjamin is a PhD candidate at New York University, studying Russian and Jewish history. She was born in Chicago and lives in Brooklyn.

Oksana Mironova is a USSR-born, Brooklyn-raised researcher. She writes about cities and housing.

Sasha Senderovich is the author of How the Soviet Jew Was Made (Harvard University Press, 2022). With Harriet Murav, he co-translated David Bergelson’s novel Judgment (Northwestern University Press, 2017). He is an assistant professor of Slavic, Jewish, and International Studies at the University of Washington, Seattle.