Jewish organizations, old and new ones
In 1917, of all Petrograd ethnic voluntary organizations, Jewish ones were the most numerous (they numbered 70). From 1918 to 1923, only 19 Jewish voluntary organizations were registered officially, and two thirds of them had been established before the revolution. They were automatically regarded as hostile to the new regime. Some of them were renamed; for example, the Society of Aid to Poor Jews became the Jewish Charitable Society. Six organizations were revived because of public demands. Four of them were Zionist and two were established evidently under the influence of new Soviet reality - the Petrograd Teachers' Society and the Research Commission on Russian Jewish History.
The Jewish Department of the Commissariat of Ethnic Affairs of the Union of the Communities of the Northern Region monitored the activity of all these organizations; the department was established in April, 1918. The Commissariat's purpose was "to satisfy the political, legal, cultural and social needs of ethnic minorities in the Northern Region"; Jews were included in the minorities. In 1919, the Commissariat and its Jewish Department began defining policy and tactics concerning ethnic cultural, educational, charitable and religious organizations. As a result of that intense activity, almost every Jewish organization was either heavily monitored or closed. The Legal Sub-Department of the Commissariat provided the campaign with the appearance of legality.
The procedure of abolition was essentially as follows: after a presentation by the Jewish Department (most often, for the Cheka) a society was abolished and its property and funds were transferred to the Commissariat. As the Commissariat abolished old societies, it evidently followed not only ideological but also material considerations. After starting from scratch, the Commissariat badly needed funds, equipment and suitable premises. To revive its activity, an organization had to present to the Narkomnats a project for its new regulations as well as information on the persons who were supposed to head it. Some organizations were re-registered this way. The twelve old societies established before the Revolution that had been re-registered were the most numerous, and the Bolsheviks considered them channels for introducing Communist ideas to the Jewish masses.
The fate of the OPE was especially remarkable. In 1921, the society was registered again and two officers of the Petrograd Provincial Commissariat of People's Education were included in its management. Using the prestige and resources of the OPE, the Commissariat, however, did not demonstrate its links with that organization. So, in a secret letter to the Narkompros, Deputy of Narkomnats Commissar A.I. Raeva rejected any possibility of considering the OPE a part of the city's governmental organs, although it was she who supported the resolution of its re-registration in 1921. Eventually, the formerly extensive and diverse activities of the OPE were reduced to operating an educational center for public lectures; this continued until 1926, and notification of each lecture had to be presented to the Narkomnats for permission. After the abolition of Narkomnats in 1923 - notification was presented to the Department of Jewish Schools of the Provincial Commissariat of People's Education.
New organizations established by Narkomnats were of two kinds: clubs or small theatres. There were various discussion circles and halls for lectures attached to them; they carried out charitable functions. The funds received from performances or concerts were sent to aid starving people in the Volga Region or for other charitable purposes. The operation of the clubs was monotonous and featureless in an ethnic sense. In early April, 1918, in Der Idisher Arbeiter Club, during a discussion of future plans, Commissar S.Ya. Rappoport spoke out against offering to organize dancing parties in the club because the club was educational and, therefore, should house a library with reading-room, chess and draughts as well as lectures on ethnic problems and Jewish history. The topic of the first lecture was supposed to be "The Jewish Nation and the International".
According to a report on the operation of the Ya.M. Sverdlov Jewish Communist Club for three months of 1923, 60% of lectures had political topics; 60% of the discussion circles were also of a political character. It is interesting that the circle for studying electrification worked on Friday evening and the political circle on Saturday! During the initial period of its functioning, the Jewish Department of the Komnats SKSO used mostly oral forms of propaganda. In addition to the title "Commissar", many officers were recorded as "lecturer" or "agitator" because they gave lectures or speeches. The officers of the Jewish Department were famed for their oratory. The managers of the department were educational people indeed; however, their interests and their activity were in conflict with the true interests of most Jews. It was a genuine tragedy for both.
A poster of the last but one evening party of the Society of Jewish Folk Music. 1919