Jews in the Russian Revolution

Lev Deutsch (Deich)


Chapter Six

Jewish Youth and the Emergence of the Revolutionary Movement

[ . . . ] Not only did Jews not have anything to do, even remotely, with oppositional circles expressing discontent with the controversial politics of the “reformer” tsar, but they were actually enraged by the revolutionary attempts of leftists in general and Karakazov’s assassination attempt specifically. “Murdering such a good emperor is a great sin,” I remember Jews voicing their fury, and I, a young child at the time, would repeat what I had heard from the grown-ups. The Jews’ gratitude toward the tsar for making their lives a tiny bit easier was so vast that it did not diminish even in the late 1860s, and progressive and even leftist Jews continued to feel obliged to him up until his tragic death. I must admit that I had belonged to these leftists myself: despite all the crimes Alexander II had committed I did not think he deserved such an end. [ . . . ]

Thus, I think, the facts fully confirm my opinion that not only were Jews not the initiators of the Russian revolutionary movement but that they didn’t even join the struggle undertaken by the progressive Christian youth right away. That for a long time there were no Jewish students among the first Russian revolutionaries can be explained, of course, primarily by the fact that the number of Jewish students studying in high schools and universities was relatively low at the time. Additionally [ . . . ] we were very grateful to the tsar and therefore very loyal. But our feelings were also a consequence of our despondency and the oppressed situation of Jews in the country in general. Of course, our parents’ admonition that one should never provoke the “goyim” and especially the police in any way probably had some effect on our psyche, too.

Jewish youth studying in the upper classes of high school and in institutions of higher education knew full well, of course, that expressing even the tiniest dissatisfaction with the Russian order would lead to the most severe punishment and to making the acquaintance of the terrible “Third Division” [secret police], about which horrible stories had been told. From this inquisition-prison the culprit would go straight to the no less horrible Petropavlovsk Fortress, where he would either be doomed for good, walled up in the “stone sack,” or go on, barely alive and wearing heavy chains, to the Vladimir “Road.” [ . . . ]

With a few exceptions, all the progressive people who joined the lines of revolutionaries began their social activities in the legal, cultural-enlightenment field, and only gradually—some earlier, some later—were they forced to withdraw into illegal activities due to government persecution. [ . . . ]

At the end of the 1860s in St. Petersburg, a small, tight-knit circle of intellectuals [ . . . ] set as their goal to distribute good books [ . . . ] among the students. In order to do this, members of the circle began to buy up large quantities of copies of already published books from the publisher, or suggested the publication of other similar works, guaranteeing to buy a certain number of copies. After buying the books at a discount, they sold them to students for a cheap price.

Mark Natanson, a very energetic twenty-year-old young man, was one of those who took great initiative in this essentially peaceful educational undertaking. This, of course, did not go unnoticed by the all-seeing eyes of the spies of the “Third Division,” and he was soon arrested for this “criminal activity” and exiled, without trial, by an administrative order, to a faraway corner of the northern edge of European Russia.

Thus, this Jewish student became if not the first then certainly one of the first Jews who paid with prison and forced labor for an activity that was not forbidden by Russian law: for buying and selling legally published books in large numbers. [ . . . ]

Chapter Twelve

The Jewish Women’s Movement

[ . . . ] I only want to point out that, as is well known, many of the participants of the “Trial of the 50” were women. Additionally, the defendants did not carry out their propaganda activities among village peasants but among factory workers. Furthermore, there was not one Jewish woman among those accused in the “Trial of the 193,” whereas the “Trial of the 50” had no Jewish male participants at all. Among the participants of the “Trial of the Propaganda in 36 Districts” there were some young Jewish girls, too. [ . . . ]

Betty Kaminskaya

Betty, the daughter of a wealthy merchant from the city of Melitopol, who lost her mother when still a child, enjoyed unlimited freedom in her family. She first encountered the widespread deprivation and poverty of the time as a little girl, playing with other children in the street. It made a deep impression on the sensitive girl. Betty learned to read Russian very quickly and after that she could not be torn away from books. In addition to simple novels she also read Russian classics and this brought about a profound change in her. The playful, lively, and carefree Betty was still too young when she became serious, introverted, and always immersed in thought. [ . . . ]

Having seen widespread deprivation and poverty around her—her knowledge only enhanced and broadened by reading the works of the great Russian writers—Betty was still very young when she began to contemplate how to help and ease the burden of the miserable, poor masses. In order to find the answer to the question that occupied her every thought Betty decided to travel to Zurich and enroll at the university there. Betty Kaminskaya, only eighteen years old then, had to put up a considerable fight with her father, who did not want to let his beloved daughter travel to such a faraway, foreign country, but she prevailed.

At that time most girls who traveled to Zurich from Russia in order to study quickly abandoned the university or polytechnic and devoted themselves to studying social problems. Betty Kaminskaya became one of the most devoted activists in this movement, and soon (in late 1874) she returned to Russia, with some of her new friends and comrades, to work and fight for the welfare of the poor masses.

The tender Betty Kaminskaya arrived in Russia on a false passport under the name of the soldier Maria Krasnova and started to work at a textile factory in a Moscow suburb. [ . . . ] Kaminskaya and the other women worked in the factory until late at night under terrible conditions. As they stood on the wet and filthy floor, their job was to sew pieces of cloth together. The dust from the fabric filled the air and clogged their ears and noses and burned their eyes. There was no ventilation in the building except for the door. For this work, which the women performed for up to sixteen hours a day, they got paid 4 roubles and 50 kopecks a month, from which they had to pay rent and buy food and other necessities.

The girls lived in barracks, in a stone-floored cellar, wet and filthy from sewage water. Its small windows were covered by snow in the winter. Along the walls were two-story plank beds—this is where twenty women slept, body to body. As bedding they used their dirty overcoats to cover themselves. The stench and the stifling air in these “bedrooms” were unbearable. All kinds of insects proliferated in great numbers. There was no place for these working women to cook, but they had nothing to cook anyway. They had to make do with black bread, kvass, and pickled cucumbers.

The tender Betty voluntarily took it upon herself to live under this horrible forced-labor regime. The young Jewish girl decided to share the difficult fate of Russian working women so that she could explain to her unfortunate comrades why they were forced to work under such conditions and to show them a way out of this situation.

To get closer to the working women Betty even moved to the barracks after a short while. Here, however, no matter how tired she was at the end of the day, the insects, the stifling air, and the snoring of her comrades kept her from falling asleep until very late. And when she finally did fall asleep, someone shortly came to wake them all up: they had to get up and go to work. Betty would rush to the factory exhausted, unwashed, and without having a cup of tea or warm food, just like everyone else. Her work became even harder when she, like many others, had to carry heavy bundles of two and a half pood [40 kg] of fabric up and down the stairs and across the courtyard. Betty, who was small and skinny like a child, stooped under the weight of these heavy bundles and could barely stand on her feet without falling on the slippery stairs. She often felt so bitter about her own weakness that her caring, pensive eyes filled with tears. This heroine-martyr often cursed her own weakness that kept her from carrying out this tremendously difficult work, unlike the healthy Christian working women.

One would think that after enduring such immeasurably difficult conditions nothing worse could happen. But the poor girl was transferred to a larger textile factory of thousands of workers, where men and women of various ages all worked together and the conditions were even worse. Betty had to carry out the most strenuous and intensive labor continuously for fourteen hours a day. [ . . . ]

Betty Kaminskaya conducted her work of propaganda for socialism under such conditions. It is not hard to imagine how difficult this task was for her. [ . . . ] But it was not only the impossible work conditions at the factory that made carrying out her mission hard. To some extent it was the working women themselves, among whom this eccentric girl lived, that presented an obstacle to achieving her goal. The coarse and illiterate working women who were emaciated from hard labor could dream of nothing but resting and, to the extent possible, spending their days off work enjoying the company of men. Getting them interested in the ideals of socialism was an extremely difficult task. But Kaminskaya did everything she could to influence these working women, and if she saw that the results of her work were insignificant, she blamed only herself for the failure, her poor preparedness, and lack of strength.

Working with women was not enough for Betty—she tried to have an impact on men too. But in doing so she encountered, in addition to the above mentioned difficulties, even more problems.

In the Russian factories male and female workers used to be strictly separated; they would live in separate barracks and work in separate workshops, and thus men and women saw each other only in passing, and exchanged only a few, mostly coarse words. The unmarried working women took lovers, and the married ones trailed after their husbands to make sure they didn’t fall in love with another woman. [ . . . ]

Whenever she had a chance she enthusiastically and passionately started to explain to the workers, teaching them about their life and work conditions, telling them about the lives of other workers in other countries. [ . . .] She was so caught up in propaganda work, and she spoke with such enthusiasm, that her audience listened to her with undivided attention and interest. When the factory whistle calling workers to return to the job forced Betty to end her speech, the workers would ask her to continue the conversation with them after work. [ . . . ]

And yet it was not easy for the young propagandist to recruit followers from among her attentive audience. She often noticed that even though people had listened to her speeches with great sympathy, they remained completely apathetic to the content of her words. She knew this could be explained by their exhaustion and desire to rest, and so Betty came close to despair; she used to cry hard, become depressed, and take her failure very much to heart. But in the end she did succeed in establishing a small circle of enlightened workers. [ . . . ]

In the spring of 1875 she and her friends who worked in Moscow were arrested. They were turned into the defendants of the court case that later became known as the “Trial of the 50.” The arrested were all young, enthusiastic girls, just like Betty Kaminskaya. [ . . . ]

Being arrested and imprisoned together with her dear friends, whom Betty liked more than her own family, made such an impression on Kaminskaya’s sensitive soul that she thought it was all over, that the cause so dear to them was completely doomed. During the second month of her solitary confinement in prison this exceptional girl lost her mind. She was overcome with deep melancholy, refused to eat, and lay all day long on the floor. Despite these clear signs of madness the poor girl was kept in solitary confinement for many months before she was transferred to the prison hospital. The circumstances there were horrible—suffice it to say that the guards would beat the poor patients.

After lengthy efforts Betty’s father finally managed to convince the cruel gendarmes to release his beloved daughter to his care on bail. Once out of prison, Betty began to recover. She even began to do propaganda work among the people, and for this purpose she moved to St. Petersburg and started to work in a shoemaker’s workshop in order to learn the trade. [ . . . ]

After she found out from the files of allegations that she was not going to be charged—the reason for which, of course, was her psychological state—she decided to travel to St. Petersburg to report to the prosecutor that she had completely recovered, that she was healthy now to stand trial together with all the other defendants. Her father opposed this plan unequivocally. She, on the other hand, wanted to be sentenced together with her friends no matter what. Afraid that she would take a dangerous step, her relatives decided to keep her under strict supervision. Despite their efforts the plan failed: not seeing a way out of her situation and thinking everything was lost, Betty poisoned herself. After three days of agony, during which Betty kept calling the names of her friends who were accused in the trial, this wonderful and deeply miserable girl passed away. [ . . . ]

Jewish Women’s Demonstrations

[ . . . ] The progressive youth had been waiting for a chance to express their rage for quite some time. This opportunity arose, as is well known, before the “Trial of the 50” in St. Petersburg; with the death of the student Tshernishov, who was almost tortured to death in prison. His relatives managed to get him pardoned, which gave this unfortunate young man the opportunity to die at home rather than in prison. The revolutionary youth turned his funeral into a huge demonstration. The procession with the coffin, without any religious ceremonies, stopped at the jail and at the famous “building by the chain bridge.” [ . . . ] Speeches were given here condemning the government system that murders the best people in the country. The novelty of this demonstration confused the police. Only later did they realize what was happening and intervened too late. It took great effort until they managed to have this unusual funeral performed at the appropriate cemetery.

This demonstration roused strong reactions among the people. The progressive elements in society were mostly pleased: their resentment of the horrible government in power gained expression openly at least in this way. The government, on the other hand, was infuriated with the police for their negligence. An order was passed requiring that innocent victims of cruel treatment be buried secretly. This, of course, did not keep the progressive youth from wanting to bring their protest to the streets because in those days there was no other way to express protest. The group of students was soon joined by some enlightened workers who also wanted to express their sympathy for the people who had sacrificed so much for propagating their ideas as well as for directing their own rage against the cruelty of the government. [ . . . ]

The Novakovsky Couple

At the beginning of the 1870s I met a young Jewish man in Kiev, a yeshiva bocher type, whom I mentioned before. He looked about twenty or twenty-one years old; he spoke Russian with mistakes but seemed fairly well read and was preparing to study at the university as an extern. [ . . . ]

He was tall and lanky, had an elongated face with a little, black, sparse beard growing on the sides. Already at our first meeting Novakovsky impressed me as unworldly. [ . . . ]

Only a few weeks had passed since his arrival in St. Petersburg when Novakovsky and his wife, along with other participants in the demonstration, were arrested on Kazan Square. [ . . . ] From the account of people of his generation, we know that the participants in this demonstration did not foresee that the government would respond as cruelly as it did in the end. Additionally, this was the first time that the retribution for such political action was a trial. The participants in this demonstration were, for the most part, very little or not at all connected to each other. And in the end the police could not come up with any legal proof against the majority of the arrested.

This was one reason why the majority of the defendants in this trial, as opposed to the defendants in other political trials at the time, did not admit clearly and immediately that they had, indeed, been present at Kazan Square, and that they had heard and agreed with the speech that had been delivered there. On the contrary, in spite of the available evidence they claimed that they had been on the square “accidentally,” or that they were not among the demonstrators at all, that they just happened to be passing by. Novakovsky was one of these people. [ . . . ]

He was sentenced to exile in Siberia nonetheless, and was deprived of his civil rights. [ . . . ]

To Novakovsky’s great fortune his young, loving wife, who had somehow been cleared of the accusation of visiting Kazan Square together with her husband, went with him to Siberia voluntarily. [ . . . ]

In the town where Novakovsky and his wife had been sent after the amnesty [ . . . ] the living conditions were better there than where they had been in eastern Siberia. After seven or eight years of languishing in various prisons, marching with different groups of prisoners under escort, and living in remote corners of Siberia, the Novakovskys could finally breathe a sigh of relief. But, unfortunately, even this relative “happiness” did not last very long.

One day, one of their comrades, a fellow-deportee, went to see the Ispravnik [district chief of police] at the administrative office about some issue. But as soon as he started to explain why he had come, the Ispravnik began to yell at him and called him a zhid [kike].

“I am not Jewish at all. I am Christian,” said the man, and gave his last name. If I am not mistaken it was Leonid Bulanov, who is no longer alive today.

“Forgive me,” said the Ispravnik. “I thought you were Novakovsky.”

When Bulanov returned to his comrades and told them about the incident, there was a great uproar among the deportees. People vehemently argued that they should not let such an insult pass without a word, even if the Ispravnik said it behind their backs. [ . . . ]

Day after day, meeting after meeting passed, but No-vakovsky’s comrades could not decide what to do. People calmed down and the incident would probably have been forgotten. The Novakovsky couple was rather bitter and resentful about this. It was especially Mrs. Novakovsky who took the Ispravnik’s insult to heart. Having seen that the comrades’ debates led nowhere, she decided to do something herself, without telling anyone, not even her husband.

During work hours, when the Ispravnik and his assistants and clerks were all at the office, Mrs. Novakovsky went to see him. The Ispravnik had already heard rumors about the widespread dissatisfaction among the deportees, so when he saw her, he politely offered her a seat. But Mrs. Novakovsky went up to him and slapped him in the face with full force, saying:

“This is for calling us zhids.” [ . . . ]

Of course, Mrs. Novakovsky was arrested right away. She was handed over to the court and charged with offending “an officer while carrying out his official duty.” For this crime she was sentenced to exile in eastern Siberia and deprived of all her civil rights. [ . . . ]

News of her “slap” subsequently reached even the remotest corners of Siberia, and, even though in the European part of Russia a period of horrible antisemitism was to ensue, over in Siberia, in the lawless region of forced labor and exile where every petty official behaved like an absolute monarch, as far as I can remember none of the numerous Jewish political deportees was insulted ever again. [ . . . ]

Translated by



Published in: The Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization, vol. 8.

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