Soviet imperialism, Zionism, & the Jews
Though not always described as such, the Soviet Union was, by all definitions, an empire.
Russian colonial expansion began in earnest during the sixteenth century. From the sixteenth century onwards, the Russians colonized, on average, a territory the size of the Netherlands every 150 years or so. The Russian colonization of Siberia is often compared to the British colonization of the Americas. Indigenous Siberian tribal nations suffered similar fates as Native American tribal nations, including disease, massacres, deportations, and ecological destruction, among many other negative consequences.
The Russians conquered much of Central Asia, East Asia, and Eastern Europe in the nineteenth century, an expansionism that continued well into the first few decades of the Soviet Union. Indigenous Peoples of these regions were subject to numerous population transfers with the purpose of Russifying the colonized lands (i.e. settler-colonialism).
Russian colonialism even reached the Americas, with the Russian colonization of Alaska in the 1700s and the forced Russification of Alaska Natives. Additionally the Russians established colonies as far as California and even Hawaii. The Russians turned many colonized areas into prison colonies, most notably, Sakhalin in the Sea of Japan.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union, which claimed to be anti-imperialist, sponsored a number of anti-colonial movements from Africa to Asia to Latin America with the purpose of expanding their imperial sphere of influence. In other words, the Soviet Union sponsored and influenced numerous anti-colonial movements not out of commitment to decolonization — the Soviet Union was, after all, a huge empire itself — but rather, to pursue its own imperial geopolitical goals.
In exploiting Indigenous movements for their own benefit, the Soviets not only detracted from their own colonialism, but they also distorted the understanding of colonialism, imperialism, and Indigeneity, particularly for those to the left of the political spectrum.
JEWS IN SOVIET-OCCUPIED TERRITORIES
This slide will focus primarily on Jews residing in Soviet-occupied territories outside of Russia.
The Russian occupation of numerous formerly sovereign Indigenous nations, such as Armenia, exported antisemitism where previously practically none had existed. In other regions where antisemitism had existed, such as Georgia and Uzbekistan, the situation for Jews only deteriorated. In Uzbekistan, for instance, Bukharian Jews were “purged” and forbidden from teaching Hebrew. Synagogues were shut down and seized by the government to be used for different purposes.
In Azerbaijan, Mountain Jewish leaders were deported to gulags in the 1920s. Judeo-Tat, the traditional Mountain Jewish language, was banned. Both Mountain Jews and Bukharian Jews were forced to participate in “anti-Zionist” demonstrations.
While antisemitism had long existed in Ukraine, the Soviet state-sponsored genocidal famine known as the Holodomor (1932-1933) drastically inflamed antisemitic sentiment in the region.
While Jews are not Indigenous to any Soviet-occupied region, it’s notable that the Soviet Union used imperial and colonial tactics to oppress and persecute the Jewish People, including mass deportation and cultural repression, including the outlawing of Hebrew, the ancestral language of the Jewish People. Language suppression is a common colonizing tactic.
JEWISH AUTONOMOUS OBLAST
The Jewish Autonomous Oblast (JAO) is a region in the Russian Far East on the Russian-Chinese border that the Soviet Union established in 1934 with the hopes that all or most Soviet Jews would eventually live there. Despite rosy Soviet government propaganda, the region was impossible to cultivate for non-natives and practically inhospitable. Though the Soviets never outrightly said so, the Jewish population transfers to the JAO were a formed of forced deportation, similar to other population transfers of ethnic minorities in the Soviet Union.
In the region of the JAO, the Russians displaced the Indigenous people of the region, the Nanai, beginning in the late 1800s, and forced them to live in overcrowded settlements. Stalin’s mining and logging policies also ecologically destroyed their ancestral lands and drastically worsened their standard of living. In the 1920s, the Nanai suffered the bloodshed of the Russian Civil War.
Within several months of their resettlement to the JAO, nearly 50% of Jews attempted to leave, unable to thrive under impossible conditions, such as torrential rains and an outbreak of anthrax. Worse, though Jews were promised freedom to practice their culture, faith, and traditions, they were not spared from Stalin’s antisemitic purges and genocidal plans following World War II.
SPHERE OF INFLUENCE
In international relations, a sphere of influence is a geographic region over which a state or empire has cultural, economic, military, and/or political influence. It can be considered a form of indirect or subtle imperialism. In the most extreme cases, states or empires establish de-facto colonies, satellite states, and/or proxy states. Spheres of influence played a huge role during the Cold War. For instance, while not directly under Soviet dominion, countries such as East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and more functioned largely as Soviet satellite states.
The Soviet Union was initially supportive of Israeli statehood, voting in favor of the United Nations Partition Plan in 1947, given the socialist nature of early political Zionism. In fact, not only was the Soviet Union the first country to legally recognize Israel, but it also even facilitated the supply of arms to Israel during the 1947-1949 Israeli-Arab War, while the Arab armies were aided by the British. Though the Soviet Union never officially changed its “anti-Zionist” stance, it momentarily stopped publishing anti-Zionist propaganda in the late 1940s. At first, the Soviets believed Israel would slow down British influence and spread socialism in Southwest Asia.
The Soviets quickly realized, however, that geopolitically, supporting Israel left them at a disadvantage (e.g. oil). By the early 1950s, as Israel grew closer to Great Britain and France, the Soviets switched alliances, disseminating massive antisemitic propaganda campaigns in Southwest Asia and Africa to rally the support of Arab and/or African nations, as well as inciting proxy conflicts between Israel and its Arab neighbors. For example, in the 1950s, the Soviets circulated literal Nazi propaganda across the Arab world, with the stated aim of exporting “rabid, demented hatred for American Zionism” in the Middle East.
It was in these very propaganda campaigns that the Soviets began framing Zionism as a tool and/or extension of American imperialism, rather than as a nationalist movement for the Jewish People.
SOVIETS & ZIONISM
Following the Holocaust, antisemitism became heavily associated with Nazism. As such, the Soviets, many of whom had long expressed antisemitic views (e.g. Stalin), began persecuting Jews under the guise of anti-Zionism instead.
Interestingly, however, the Soviets were never covert about the fact that their “anti-Zionism” was actually just antisemitism. In the 1960s, Soviet propaganda (such as newspapers) made blatantly antisemitic claims, including: “The character of the Jewish religion serves the political aims of the Zionists,” “Zionism is inextricable from Judaism, rooted in the idea of the exclusiveness of the Jewish People,” comparisons of Judaism to the Italian mafia, and claims that Israel was merely a means to an end of Jewish imperialism and world domination.
To strengthen their sphere of influence over Arab and African nations, the Soviets launched a covert operation against Israel, named Sionistskiye Gosudarstva, meaning “Zionist Governments.” According to KGB chairman Yuri Andropov (1967-1982), “We had only to keep repeating our themes—that the United States and Israel were ‘fascist, imperial-Zionist countries’ bankrolled by rich Jews.’”
These campaigns fundamentally shifted the relationship between Israel, African nations, and anti-colonial movements, specifically in Africa. For example: in 1956, Israel established relations with Ghana, before Ghana gained independence. In the early 1960s, Israel sent significant aid to Ghana, including construction, security, research, agriculture, and more. Shortly thereafter, however, motivated by Soviet and Arab League propaganda, Ghana suspended direct ties with Israel until 2011.
PALESTINE LIBERATION ORGANIZATION
Many Zionists claim that the Palestine Liberation Organization was created by the Soviet Union. This is not entirely accurate. The Palestine Liberation Organization was created in 1964 by another imperial force: the Arab League (for more on this, please see my post THE ARABIZATION, ISLAMIZATION, & TURKIFICATION OF WEST ASIA & NORTH AFRICA). Palestine was assigned the pan-Arabist flag, which many years later was slightly modified (the order of the stripes were switched) to become the Palestinian flag that we know today.
As explained prior, during this period, the Soviet Union was in the business of sponsoring Indigenous, anti-colonial, and other Marxist liberation movements to expand its sphere of influence. Given that Israel was both the only democratic nation in the Middle East and was quickly drawing closer to many Western powers, the Soviet Union had a vested interest in destabilizing the small nation. As such, in 1964, the Soviet Union latched onto the PLO, so much so that its original charter was drafted in Moscow by 422 KGB-approved Palestinian representatives.
It’s notable that in 1964, the PLO only claimed dominion over the 1948 Israel borders, to the exclusion of the Gaza Strip (then under Egyptian occupation) and the West Bank (then under Jordanian occupation). The charter explicitly stated: “This Organization [the PLO] does not exercise any regional sovereignty over the West Bank in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, in the Gaza Strip, or the Himmah area.” In other words, the PLO’s main aim was the destruction of Israel, as opposed to self-determination for the Palestinian people living under the occupation of two different Arab nations.
It was only in 1968, shortly after Israel captured those territories during the Six Day War, that their charter was amended to include Gaza and the West Bank.
Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the PLO from 1969 to 2004, came under the direct tutelage of Ion Mihai Pacepa, a KGB officer (more on him later).
In 1969, the United Nations passed the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Both the United States and Brazil wanted to add a clause including antisemitism. The Soviet Union, which had been heavily oppressing its Jewish population since the 1950s, worried that such a clause would be used to rebuke them for persecuting Soviet Jews. As such, they included a counter proposal, which was a clause that equated Zionism to Nazism. That way, they could say they were persecuting Zionists, not Jews. While neither clause passed, this laid the groundwork for the Soviets and the Arab League to push a “Zionism is racism” resolution in 1975.
On November 10, 1975, on the 37th anniversary of the Nazi pogrom (anti-Jewish riot, massacre) of Kristallnacht, the United Nations, headed by the Soviet Union, Soviet satellite states, and the 20+ countries in the Arab League, passed Resolution 3379, stating that Zionism is a form of racism. The resolution passed 75 to 35, with 32 abstentions. The resolution never defined Zionism, nor did it explain, how and why, exactly, Zionism is a form of racism.
A year prior, in 1974, the United Nations had passed Resolution 3246, which was drafted specifically in response to the issue of Portuguese colonialism in Africa. Resolution 3246 “[reaffirmed] the legitimacy of the struggle of peoples for independence, territorial integrity, national unity and liberation from colonial and foreign domination and foreign occupation…” Thanks to the lobbying of the Soviet Union, however, the resolution was amended to include Palestine. Palestine is neither in Africa nor was ever a Portuguese colony.
In other words, the issue of Israel-Palestine was reframed in the United Nations as a “colonizer vs settler” issue, with Israel suddenly reframed as a colonial entity.
VÕ NGUYÊN GIÁP & ION MIHAI PACEPA
Soviet imperial meddling in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict extended to other countries and agencies in the Soviet sphere of influence. For example, Soviet allies such as Cuba sent troops to fight against Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Similarly, sister agencies to the KGB were also tasked with inflaming antisemitic and anti-Israel sentiments across the Middle East. Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the PLO from 1969 to 2004, was placed under the tutelage of chief of Romanian intelligence and KGB officer Ion Mihai Pacepa. Pacepa later defected to the west and exposed a number of Soviet plots to destabilize Israel, including a list of Palestinian acts of terrorism, ranging from plane hijackings to bombings.
Pacepa also introduced Arafat to Võ Nguyên Giáp (1911-2013), a Vietnamese general and communist politician who is largely regarded as one of the best military strategists in history. He was largely responsible for the defeat of the French and later the Americans in Vietnam.
Frustrated by the lack of success of the Palestinian cause, Arafat heeded the advice of Giáp: “…stop talking about annihilating Israel and instead turn your [Arafat’s] terror war into a struggle for human rights.”
Giáp, however, was well-aware that reframing Israel as a colonial entity was deceptive. In the 1990s, two high-ranking IDF generals met with Giáp. Giáp told them: “Listen, the Palestinians are always coming here and saying to me, ‘You expelled the French and the Americans. How do we expel the Jews?’ I tell them that the French went back to France and the Americans to America. But the Jews have nowhere to go. You will not expel them.”
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