The Moscow State Yiddish Theater: Jewish Culture on the Soviet Stage

Soviet nationality policy drove to the core of the entire Soviet enterprise, its immediate and ultimate goals, and the accompanying methods. Few of the dozens of ethnic groups that composed the Soviet Union experienced the dilemmas of this policy as did the Jewish minority. Saddled with centuries of distinct cultural and religious identity, torn between the urge to preserve its heritage and assimilate into a traditionally hostile milieu, and ambivalent about a revolutionary regime that attracted so many of its youth with the promise of turning a new page at the price of abandoning traditional occupations and institutions, Soviet Jews encountered both the opportunities and the perils represented by the regime.

Jeffrey Veidlinger’s thoroughly researched, engagingly written, and richly informative book tackles these issues through the tale of the rise and fall of the Moscow State Yiddish Theater. The choice of the Moscow Theater is ingenious. In contrast to the traditional centers of Jewish culture in Ukraine and Belorussia, Moscow signified a new phase and setting, one that would bring Jewish culture into the heart of the polity and break down age-old parochialism and barriers. It also meant tight scrutiny by the authorities and constant struggles to accommodate a new canon and shifting cultural policies. Could the theater create the “impossible aesthetic” called socialist realism—namely, national but not nationalist culture centered on socialist themes—without denigrating its artistic integrity? More specifically, could it celebrate a Jewish past of statehood, especially after the creation of the state of Israel, without rattling a regime obsessed with the appeal of external homelands for its minorities? The latter question also reflected another consequence of the evolving nationality policy: the anger of the more established nationalities about the cultivation of other and now officially celebrated “oppressed” nationalities. In Solomon Mikhoels’s words, “I do not understand why a Georgian or an Uzbek theater may present a national epic, but we may not” (p. 151).

Such a balancing act was Herculean and required sharp political skills by the theater’s leadership. For most of the time, the Yiddish theater was fortunate to have such leaders in Alexander Granovskii, until his defection in 1929, and his successor Mikhoels, whom Veidlinger describes as a skilled negotiator rather than an ideologue. Playing off the regime’s sensitivity concerning its international reputation, the two secured the existence of the theater during the upheaval that dominated the Soviet political and cultural scenes and gradually began to advance Jewish national distinctiveness. Through the analysis of plays from production to reviews, behind-the-scenes politics, and intimate reflections by the leading protagonists, Veidlinger compassionately tells the story of a lost world, but one, he claims, whose brutal destruction was not a foregone conclusion.

Veidlinger’s analysis of the increasingly unbridgable agendas of the Soviet regime and the Jewish cultural elite is on the mark, especially the watershed of World War II. His narrative and argument, however, are not without flaws. The attempt by Jewish cultural leaders to create a distinct secular Jewish culture preceded the Bolshevik Revolution. The struggle to find a golden path between tradition and modern life and between political assimilation and cultural particularism was exacerbated by the collapse of the Russian Empire and its replacement by nonliberal, multiethnic nation-states and a revolutionary union. The desire to have it both ways—to maintain the distinctiveness of the imperial era without imperial intolerance under the rubric of homogenizing polities—dominated the Jewish world from 1914 and on, and the book could have benefited from engaging these trends. Also, it is one thing to argue (justly) that there is little evidence that prior to World War II the regime singled out Jews for punishment merely for being Jews, and yet another to ignore that the regime stopped combating antisemitism as early as the first half of the 1930s and allowed it to creep back even into the ranks of the Communist Party.

A major problem that runs through the book is the unsuccessful marriage between historical and literary analysis and between the Jewish and Soviet components of the story. Veidlinger has surer footing in textual analysis than in historical contextualizaton and Soviet history. He starts with an unnecessary attempt to frame his tale within revisionist historiography of Soviet terror only to conclude that the destruction of the theater was the regime’s “final stab at totalitarianism” (p. 277). If anything, the main features of his story—the regime’s imposition of canon and confinements of the permissible and prohibited; the obliteration of a political and cultural elite that did not pose any oppositional threat and its designation as Public Enemy Number One; the relentless vilification of an entire collective long after the destruction of its leaders; and the regime’s unmitigated power to decide when to start and finish the purging process—constitute classic examples of the totalitarian interpretation Veidlinger is so anxious to disavow.

Veidlinger offers several implausible interpretations of major events that evolve around the attempt to uncover layers of authentic, uncorrupted voices buried underneath the Soviet public facade. Hence we learn that the staging of King Lear, heralded by Karel Radek in Izvestiia as a “great cultural victory for the Jewish population of the USSR,” was actually a warning by Mikhoels to Joseph Stalin to stop the unfolding Terror before it was too late. Whether he was a devout socialist or a political animal—and Veidlinger credits Mikhoels as being both—such a person was unlikely to act thus at any time, much less in 1935. This interpretation credits Mikhoels with prophetic powers, knowing well before the show trials that the destruction of the “Old Bolsheviks” was about to come (production preparation began in February 1934, well before Sergei Kirov’s murder). The same applies to Mikhoels’s ideological world. Veidlinger makes a convincing case for Mikhoels’s sympathies for the Zionist project, especially as the Soviet-Jewish rift became evident. It is a long way, however, from the scattered comments by Mikhoels and ex post facto observations by family and friends in Israel to the conclusion that he sought Zionism as a sort of a third way between socialism and capitalism. What cannot be ascribed to the far more daring and coherent thinker Vasilii Grossman is certainly out of sorts for the cautious, multilayered Mikhoels.

Often, the author’s fascinating data defies his interpretation. The theater’s more blatant expressions of Jewish nationalism were, intriguingly, the product of the government’s changing moods and priorities. Thus the celebration of the Maccabean and the Bar Kochba Revolts against the Hellenic Greeks and Romans in Judea did not reflect Mikhoels’s nationalist urges but rather resulted from an order by Moisei Kaganovich, who scolded the theater for staging “deformed, lame, crippled” Jewish characters instead of “exalted, bright, and healthy” Jews such as Kaganovich’s father and himself. “Where are the Maccabees? Where is Bar Kokhba?” roared the Soviet leader (p. 160). This was in line, Veidlinger notes correctly, with the policy toward other Soviet nationalities as the polity geared up for war. However, it had little to do with the theater, which up to that point had sought its inspiration in the shtetl.

In the same vein, one would expect Mikhoels to make a defiant stand against the official Soviet denial of the uniqueness of the Jewish catastrophe during and after World War II, but the theater went along with the regime. One is left to wonder about the reasons, especially when the far more assimilated Grossman and Ilya Ehrenburg went out of their way to carve a distinct Jewish corner within the pantheon of Soviet suffering. The same applies to the trial of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, a key event that actually supports some of the author’s claims. The remarkable aspect of the trial was not the fabricated charges leveled at the accused—even the presiding judge had difficulties digesting the authorities’ case—but rather the defiant stand of the old leaders despite prolonged imprisonment and torture. The lessons of the Great Terror and the changes brought on by the war were key to these developments, even in the world of veteran communists.

These reservations aside, Veidlinger’s book is an important and much-needed contribution to the literature on Soviet nationality policy in general and Soviet Jewry in particular.

Amir Weiner
Stanford University