Criss-Crossing Identities: The Russian Jewish Diaspora and the Jewish Diaspora in Russia

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Diaspora 4:2 1995 Criss-Crossing Identities: The Russian Jewish Diaspora and the Jewish Diaspora in Russia Fran Markowitz Ben-Gurion University 1. Geography, Experience, Category, Nomenclature Any review and analysis of the issue of identity among—shall we call them Russian-speaking Jews? Russian Jews? Soviet Jews? Jews in or from the former Soviet Union?—is instantly complicated by problems that derive from recent political and demographic changes. "Soviet Jewry," first conceptualized in the formative years of the USSR and then crystalized under Stalin's regime into an immutable political-juridical identity, like the Soviet Union, is no more. Without an agreed-upon category for hundreds of thousands ofpeople who lived at least part oftheir lives in what was the Soviet Union it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to discuss their "identity." This lack of a politically appropriate, historically correct label is not the only obstacle. Beyond the problem ofthe variety ofethnogeographical divides among the Zapadniki (Jews of the Baltics, the westernmost parts of Ukraine and Moldova), the Heartlanders (of Russia, Belarus, and Central Ukraine), and the Central Asian and Kavkasian Jews (Gitelman, Assimilation), there is the variety ofcollective experience. The heterogeneity of formative collective experiences , as well as the kinds of resistance or conformity to the Soviet regime is also staggering: some "Soviet Jews" experienced World War II and Stalinism, some the "thaw" of Khrushchev, some only the Brezhnev years, and others lived through it all, including the transformations of glasnost and perestroïka. The term "Russian Jew" is inappropriate because, by definition, it excludes the several hundreds ofthousands ofJews, Russian speaking or otherwise, outside the Russian Federation, and also because it is more generally used as a descriptive label for Jews in the prerevolutionary, preSoviet Russian empire. To add to the confusion, from the early 1970s on, many Jews took part in sporadic emigrations to Israel and the United States, becoming almost a million "Soviet Jews" who created their own diaspora. As a result of emigration and immigration, as well as political changes from within, former Soviet Jews now make their homes in dozens of independent countries. Who are they? How Diaspora 4:2 1995 "Soviet" are they all? How Russian? How Jewish? What ought we to call them? What do they call themselves? And how might we find answers to these questions? While the problem of discussing issues of identity among Soviet Jews in the past derived from lack of information and difficulty of access, the problem today is constrained by a new double bind resulting first from the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and second from the variety of experiences that have reshaped the contours of Soviet Jewry. Soviet Jews, like hundreds of late twentieth-century peoples, do not in the least conform to tidy definitions of an "ethnic unit" (Narroll) or "ethnos" (Bromley), to say nothing of Stalin's influential formulation of "nation." As a result, students of diasporas and ethnicity must develop new methods and genres for analyzing and writing about dispersed and variegated groups that see themselves —and are seen by others—as linked together into a community by a common past and a shared future (see Fischer; Appadurai). This essay examines these problems by reviewing how Soviet Jews' group identity has been represented over the past three decades , first as a unified whole—a powerless diaspora within a powerful and hostile state—and then, after they began emigrating and confronting other Jewish (and non-Jewish) groups, as fragmented. It draws some tentative conclusions about the reconsolidation of "Soviet Jewish"—or rather now "Russian Jewish"—identity out of this postmodern variety of Soviet and post-Soviet Jewish experience . Finally, it offers some observations on the significance of a transnational "Russian Jewish" community in light of the fact that the Soviet Union no longer exists. 2. Soviet Jewry and Its Plight Back in the 1960s, Elie Wiesel, a survivor of the Nazi death camps, shook up the western Jewish world by alerting it to the situation of Soviet Jewry. Wiesel pointed to a haunting contradiction about the position of Jews in the Soviet Union: In all their documents they were demarcated by their Jewish identity, but were denied the right to build social...
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)201-210
Number of pages10
Issue number2
StatePublished - 1995


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