The Columbia Department of Germanic Languages Department, the Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies, Deutsches Haus, and the Harriman Institute are co-sponsoring the conference Per Aspera ad Astra: The Making of Soviet Jewish Selves, to be held on October 5, 2023. Paper proposals are due August 15.
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The beginnings of the Soviet Union saw a dramatic shift in rights, policy, and rhetoric toward non-Russian peoples. Many ethnic minorities that had been considered “aliens,” were newly recognized as equal citizens. The early years of fledgling Soviet rule were characterized by national-territorial questions and state subsidization of regional languages. Jews were one of the officially recognized minority groups, and Yiddish, the common tongue of Eastern European Jewry, became an official language of the Soviet Union. While language was standardized, the question of identity remained open ended, multifaceted, and polemic. Geographically, socially, and ideologically scattered, Soviet-Jewish identity was anything but uniform. Zionists, Yiddishists, territorrialists, Bundists, socialists, and communists were equally invested in the question of national determination, with each group constructing their own sense of self. Under nascent ideology and infrastructure, the Soviet Jew quickly assumed leading roles in the production and administration of power and culture. These early years, though marked by adversity, held the potential and promise for astronomical success. Following this brief cultural renaissance, Jewish culture—namely Yiddish language culture—was stifled by the arrival of high Stalinism, whose imperative of russification was ruthlessly enforced. To stay afloat amidst the perilously shifting political currents, the Soviet Jew had to navigate the between the utopianism of the Soviet idea and the brutal conditions of its pursuit. Gabriella Safran has noted that “War, revolution, and the first years of Soviet power made it possible to construct a Jewish figure and assign it competing ideological meanings. In that way, Jews were like the Soviet Union itself.” Against this dynamic backdrop of success and adversity, persecution and perseverance, how could the Soviet Jew construct a stable sense of self? What were these competing ideological meanings, and how could (did) they coexist?