"We Need New Stories of Post-Soviet Jews"

Historians in the News
tags: Jewish history, Soviet Union, Russian history

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.

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