Book History 6 (2003) 197-226
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Who Owns the Means of Cultural Production?
The Soviet Yiddish Publishing Industry of the 1920s
The increase in book production is the best sign of the growth of our culture.
—Aaron Makagon, Soviet Jewish cultural critic, 1925
In May 1921 the leading body of Soviet Jewish cultural activists, the Central Bureau of the Jewish Section of the Communist Party (Evsektsiia), reported a rather bizarre crime—the midnight theft of reams of paper that had been earmarked for producing state-sponsored Yiddish books. The evidence included the obvious masses of missing paper from the Yiddish publishing house's warehouse on Pokrovka Street in central Moscow as well as broken doors and windows. The police were called to investigate this "property crime." But given its unusual nature (who steals reams of paper?), the local police division called in the Peasants' and Workers' Inspectorate, the Soviet organization charged with ensuring the political health of the new state. Was the theft of paper a political crime? That the political machinery of the state was mobilized suggests that this publishing house was of political interest. The investigation, however, turned up no suspects, and no arrests were made. 1
The culprit would have been either someone desperate enough for paper that s/he would steal it from anyone, or someone who did not want this particular publishing house to produce its books. Some on the Evsektsiia suspected that anti-Semitism was involved. Perhaps, they thought, given the very tight supply of paper in the early Soviet period, when strict paper [End Page 197] rationing was enforced, someone thought that Soviet Yiddish publications were not worthy of paper. The Evsektsiia insinuated that someone was sabotaging the production of Soviet Jewish books and newspapers. But perhaps a more important question would be why there would have been a Soviet publishing house devoted exclusively to publishing Yiddish-language materials operating in Moscow. Was Yiddish privileged over other languages in the Soviet Union? And who was interested enough to set up and run a Soviet Yiddish publishing house?
The Bolshevik revolution of 1917 ushered into power a new regime that was very interested in developing Russia's ethnic minorities' cultures on its own socialist terms. Soviet ethnic cultures were to be "national in form, socialist in content," as Stalin famously said. Most interpreted this formula to mean that all Soviet cultures would be part of a common socialist discourse, while the language or "form" of that discourse would vary for each ethnic minority. 2 State support for this project, and the project of supporting cultural production in all Soviet languages, became official policy at the 12th Communist Party Congress in 1923, although it had been a centerpiece of Soviet politics since the revolution. Political and economic support for ethnic minority culture became an obligation of the Soviet state and the Communist Party. 3 The project was so successful that in the 1920s and 1930s, the Soviet Union was the only country in the world to have state-sponsored Yiddish-language publishing houses, writers' groups, courts and city councils, and a Yiddish-language school system. But was the project simply an invention of the Soviet state? At the turn of the century, Eastern European Jewish socialists, especially those of the General Jewish Workers' Party, known as the Bund, envisioned a similar network of cultural and social institutions that would serve as the foundation of a secular Jewish culture in Yiddish. It was the merger of these two ideological projects that made the Yiddish publishing house in Moscow possible. 4
Eastern European Jewish culture has been defined by many things: its religious practices, which differed from other Jewish cultures, its relationships with its surrounding neighbors, its internal battles between Hasidim and their opponents (and between those who liked their gefilte fish sweet and those who liked it savory). Perhaps more than anything else, Eastern European Jewish culture has been defined by the languages that Eastern European Jews wrote and spoke. For centuries their vernacular, Yiddish, and the nonvernacular loshn koydesh...