On Feb. 28, the Toronto Centre for the Performing Arts in North York was filled with Russian Jews, watching a documentary about – well, Russian Jews.
Acclaimed Russian journalist and television host Leonid Parfenov held a screening of Russian Jews: After 1948, the third and last part of his documentary trilogy, Russian Jews. As the title suggests, After 1948 discusses the history of Jewish people living in Russia after 1948 until present day.
This series of films, which was funded by the Genesis Philanthropy Group and has been shown around the world, is focused on the role of Russian Jews in the former Soviet Union and in the world, as well as what the perceptions were of Russian-speaking Jews throughout the constantly changing dynamics of 20th century Russia. It also attempts to explain the development of the Russian-Jewish community, and what makes them different from other Jews.
The first two films of the series focused on the various transitions in Jewish life in Russia, exploring the new opportunities that arose once the Pale of Settlement was dissolved, as well as their role in the Russian Revolution. Jews slowly integrated into the secular Russian world, and the films tell the stories of Jews who were able to rise up in society. The life stories of politicians, like Leon Trotsky, and well-known artists such as Marc Chagall, were explored throughout the second film, as well as the general impact of Jews on Russian society during the early days of the Soviet Union.
The final film in the trilogy revolved around how the Soviet Union went from being somewhat welcoming of its Jewish population and allowing them to have equal rights, to being openly and officially anti-Semitic. Among other things, it discusses the relationship between the KGB, which was the Soviet Union’s security agency, and the Jews.
The documentary begins with the depiction of the murder of Yiddish actor, Solomon Mikhoels, who was a famous Jewish advocate and celebrity in the Soviet Union. The KGB had staged his death to look like it was a car accident, leaving him in a very public place.
According to Parfenov’s documentary, this incident opened up a new chapter in Russian-Jewish history. It started a new era of official anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, blatantly showing the government’s real attitude towards its Jewish population. This treatment came to define the lives of Soviet Jews, and many did everything they could in order to conceal their Jewish heritage, which included changing Jewish last names to sound more Russian.
The subsequent murders of the Jewish Antifascist Committee’s most active members also showed to the public how the communist regime truly felt about the Jews, which often referred to them as “rootless cosmopolitans.”
The Doctor’s Plot, which took place in 1953, was a conspiracy theory started by the Soviet government which alleged that Russian-Jewish medical professionals were plotting against the government, and that they were planning on murdering leading Communist party officials. Most scholars believe that Stalin had intended on using this as a way of launching another purge, and was inherently very anti-Semitic. The death of Stalin prevented this massacre from taking place, but the openly negative view of Jews living in the U.S.S.R. became much more prevalent after this occurred.
After the 126-minute-long documentary was shown, Parfenov took part in a question and answer session that was hosted by University of Toronto Jewish studies professor Anna Shternshis. Parfenov answered questions about the filming process, as well as some of the reasons as to why he, a non-Jewish person, was inclined to make a documentary about Russian Jews.
Parfenov is one of the most well-known and respected independent journalists currently working in Russia, and had a long career working as a news anchor and producer. Most recently, he has been focusing more on creating television documentaries, the majority of which have been about the history and culture of Russia.
This presentation was made possible by One Productions and the Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies in the University of Toronto.