Stalin didnt target Jews at first, says Guggenheim fellow at Cal

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The words "Stalin" and "friend of the Jews" aren't often lumped together. But, according to a U.C. Berkeley historian, during the dictator's period of "Great Terror" in 1937 and 38, Jews were one of the few ethnic groups to be largely passed over.

"Some other nationalities suffered much higher rates, Jews were not targeted as Jews. Those who perished in the terror were not targeted because of their ethical or religious backgrounds, but their positions," said Yuri Slezkine, a professor of Russian history at Cal. "Those who were targeted were, basically, everyone who was related to a neighboring state: Poles and Germans and Latvians. The claim was they were sympathetic to their countries of origin."

Slezkine's research on the lives — and often violent deaths — of the early Soviet governmental elites residing in Moscow's mammoth "House on the Embankment" recently won him a Guggenheim Fellowship in the field of Russian history.

He was one of two local Jewish-connected academics to win a fellowship, the other being Janice Ross of Stanford. Established in 1925, the Guggenheim Foundation offers fellowships to authors and scholars. This year, 183 fellowships totaling almost $6.6 million were awarded in the United States and Canada.

Slezkine, a descendant of Yiddish-speaking, Jewish grandparents, found that many Jews, downtrodden in Czarist Russia, were ardent early supporters of the Soviet state.

"Jews were seen by the regime as trustworthy and were not compromised by previous association with the Czarist regime," he said. "And they had the highest literacy rate among ethnic groups. Many were keen to take up opportunities, and that resulted in the fact that some did very well."

While Jewish life in the period is not the primary focus of Slezkine's work, the professor says it would be impossible to ignore the contributions of Jews to the early Soviet government. They had "the highest degree of over-representation among elites in the Soviet Union, and were very prominent in government," he said.

"A substantial proportion of the Soviet elite, including the government elite, were people of Jewish origin," continued Slezkine, a professor at U.C. Berkeley for the last nine years. "Many were actually native speakers of Yiddish."

Stalin's mood toward Jews would, of course, change for the worse. With the formation of the state of Israel, Jews suddenly had a foreign homeland they could be suspected of sympathizing with. And many of Hitler's anti-Semitic arguments "made an impression" on the Soviet Union's government and society, Slezkine pointed out.

"Maybe most importantly, because of the Holocaust, many Soviets of Jewish origin living in Moscow, Leningrad and other big cities started to think of themselves as being Jewish," he said. "They identified with the victims and asked the Soviet state to recognize the special role of their victimhood. And the Soviet state wasn't prepared to do that."

Moving across the Bay geographically — and across the universe academically — Ross was awarded her Guggenheim in the field of dance studies.

A lecturer in dance history at Stanford for the past 12 years, Ross will utilize her Guggenheim hiatus to finish a biography of Jewish-American dance innovator Anna Halprin, "one of the major dance luminaries of the West Coast."

"Her work has grown out of a strong social conscience, she articulates cultural and social identity through dance," said Ross of the 81-year-old Halprin, who resides in Marin.

"One of the loveliest dance solos she's done in recent years was a story about her grandfather and remembering this man who spoke only Yiddish, and running to meet him as he went to the synagogue on Saturday when she was a little girl in Chicago. She didn't really understand the language, but understood that he adored her. She tapped her Jewish identity through that solo."

Ross has been hoping to finish her book for years. She — and her publisher and, for that matter, Halprin — are anticipating the Guggenheim fellowship will allow for her book to be published within a year.

"I think of my Guggenheim as being a tribute to [Halprin] as much as any kind of endorsement of me as a scholar," said Ross, a member of Temple Beth Jacob in Redwood City. "I've been following her work for 20 years, and I've been amazed that there hasn't been more written about her."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.