Richard Pipes, one of America’s foremost historians of Russia and the Soviet Union, died yesterday at the age of ninety-four. In a book review he contributed to Commentary in 1989, when glasnost and the release of substantial numbers of Soviet Jews had made possible new and better-informed histories of Soviet Jewry, he presented a characteristically incisive summation of the situation of Jews under the Communist regime:
[A]lthough they protected Jews from violence and declared overt anti-Semitism a crime, the Communists espoused a program that promised slow death for Jews as a religious community and a nation. Measures outlawing private trade and manufacture, passed in the early years of the Soviet regime, undercut the economic base of Jewish life, creating millions of unemployed. The regime’s anti-religious policies affected Jews no less than Christians: as early as 1919, synagogues and other religious buildings were made liable to confiscation. Hebrew was declared a foreign language and Zionism a subversive doctrine.
In the 1920’s, especially during the relatively benign period of the New Economic Policy, Jews managed to circumvent many of the prohibitions on their economic and cultural activities. But all this came to an end in 1929 when Stalin undertook in earnest to realize Lenin’s revolutionary agenda. . . . By the time he entered into his alliance with Hitler in 1939, Stalin had restored many of the tsarist discriminatory laws, setting quotas on access to educational and bureaucratic opportunities and closing altogether the more sensitive positions. He meant to go farther. In 1942, as Germany’s armies were deep on their murderous mission in the Soviet Union, Hitler confided to his associates that Stalin had promised Ribbentrop “he would oust the Jews from leading positions the moment he had sufficient qualified Gentiles with whom to replace them.” . . .
In the decades since Stalin’s death his successors have done away with the most egregious manifestations of persecution, but discrimination against Jews remains in place. There are no Jews in the Politburo and hardly any in the upper echelons of the military. Strict quotas are imposed on admissions to institutions of higher learning. [Mikhail] Gorbachev’s reforms, which have eased Soviet discriminatory policies, have also allowed the emergence of overtly anti-Semitic movements, of which Pamyat [“memory”] is the most notorious. . . .
Hence very many Russian Jews see no future for themselves and their children, and if given a chance would emigrate. Recent Israeli estimates are that a continuation of Gorbachev’s liberalized emigration policy might lead to the exodus of at least 500,000 Jews. A community that a century ago was not only the largest in the world but also culturally the most vibrant has been destroyed by a regime that many Jews in and out of Russia once regarded as a beacon of hope.