Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Irina Tsukerman, the coordinator for Soviet Crimes Against the Jewish People, a new initiative which focuses on the digital documentation of sites and narratives connected to Soviet persecution of Jews, as well as sites and stories associated with acts of resistance.
FP: Irina Tsukerman, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
I would like to talk to you today about your new initiative, Soviet Crimes Against the Jewish People.
But let’s begin with you telling us a bit about your background and what inspired you to start this effort.
Tsukerman: I was born in Ukraine, when it was still part of the Soviet Union. I grew up seeing many of the things associated with Communism – bread lines/food shortages, expectation of conformity in every aspect of one’s thinking and behavior, poor quality of services and whatever products we had, envy of the West, coupled with abject hatred towards it. I was also acutely aware of my Jewish identity. On the one hand, my family has always been proudly Jewish; on the other hand, my parents had the “Fifth Paragraph” in their passports, which divided the population by ethnicity by the State and allowed for official discrimination under the quota system. We moved to the United States in 1995, and, growing up, I continued to maintain my interest in both my Jewish heritage and the culture of my country of origin. I heard many stories from my grandmother, parents, and many others about what life was like through the decades.
I also read many books and watched movies which exposed and poked fun at the Soviet system. Those issues were on my mind as I went through the public school system in New York, and to my horror, realized that the history of the Soviet Union was presented in a very distorted, dismissive, and apologetic way and most people really did not have much of an idea of what had actually gone on.
As I grew up, I watched how social policy increasingly leaned towards political correctness and superficial multiculturalism. The Soviet Union was also supposed to be a very internationalist state, yet one of the most popular accusation against Jews was “cosmopolitanism and Zionism.” It became clear to me that when you purport to be accepting of everything, you end up becoming increasingly intolerant, and my prediction eventually came true.
Being very active in social networking sites, I noted that many people were willing to give up the marketplace of ideas and report each other to the website domain for comments and articles which offended their sensibilities. Having gone to law school and having assumed that at least people who are trained to think critically would see through collectivist mentality and embrace an individualist way of thinking, I eventually realized that nothing could be farther from the truth. Lack of basic education on life in Communist states and idealization of collectivism in school and other programming has brought both the general community and much of the secular Jewish community in New York to the point that such mentality has come to be welcomed and embraced without much questioning. Having more degrees did not make anyone more individualistic. When I was approached by Jason Guberman and asked to coordinate this project, I saw it as an opportunity to show to the public at large, and the left-wing (and often quite illiberal) Jewish community, the real story behind the idealized socialist veneer.
FP: So what is the project all about and what is your main aim?
Tsukerman: The project seeks to peel away the false notion that the Soviet Union was somehow preferable to Nazi Germany, and further, that it was certainly better for the Jews. Through digital documentation of personal narratives and sites, connected to the persecution of Jews on the basis of their ethnic and religious identities, we will show that the Soviet Union was actually the equivalent of Nazi Germany in terms of its motivations.
The fact that it was less efficient should not take away from the evil intent with regard to both a “Final Solution” for the Jews, that was in the works but interrupted by Stalin’s death, and the way it has treated its Jewish population throughout the 72 years of its existence. In addition to showing that the National Socialist state and the Internationalist Socialist States were flip sides of the same coin, we will show that collectivist mentality anywhere can lead to similar results. We will memorialize the victims, survivors, dissidents, and their supporters through the creation of a digital museum/database. None of the Soviet perpetrators ever stood trial for their atrocities. At least, this project will preserve history and expose the truth.
FP: What is the relevance of this issue today?
Tsukerman: The issue is universal, and the project can serve as a model for any oppressed minority under any collectivist and anti-humanitarian regime at any point in time. The dangers of collectivism have shown themselves again and again through the ages, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Castro’s Cuba being only some of the examples that one could site as evidence. Today, the world is facing just as many dangers from collectivism as it did in the 20th century. Russia itself is attempting to reemerge as a global force, by wielding influence over its former states, such as its intervention in the Ukrainian elections in recent years, as well as its invasion of George, and by lending support to such regimes as Assad’s Syria and the now-deceased Hugo Chavez, and their ilk. Islamism (however you want to call it… extremism/jihadism/
If you look at the Iranian regime, under the religious guise, it espouses the same collectivist, totalitarian principles that the Soviet Union professed under the name of communism/socialism. Even in the United States, there is a growing tendency towards collectivist mentality – from the ever-present political correctness, to the dissolution of our basic economic principles. Obamacare, which few people really understand, is but one example. Mayor Bloomberg’s thankfully failed attempt to ban large sodas for the benefit of humanity is another issue. Federal regulation of such minutiae as food in school, and the general tendency to try to fit everyone in the same box regardless of his individual needs, is very disturbing. I think it is natural and easier to lean towards collectivism, without thinking about the evil of such ideology and the results it brings about.
FP: Share with us the tactics and techniques you are employing to achieve your goal.
Tsukerman: Our first exhibit is scheduled for August. We will digitally document 25 sites and stories connected to Soviet Crimes against Jews, using photography, video, Google Earth technology, and 3D panoramas to capture the places that may otherwise become extinct to history. We will also present oral narratives by survivors and dissidents, which will hopefully memorialize their stories as well as inspire individuals facing the dangers of collectivist regimes elsewhere today. We are also interviewing the supporters of dissidents abroad, such as those who worked on the passage of the Jackson-Vannick amendment, and individuals who smuggled in Jewish prayer books and subversive literature to the underground meeting places, such as apartments where the dissidents met and underground synagogues.
In addition, our website will feature an extensive database linking to books, articles, and other projects, and resources that contains more detailed historical information on these events. We are seeking to collaborate with heritage organizations to create digital and heritage trails of sites connected to dissidents, that visitors could follow if they wish, whether they are in the area, or from the comfort of their own desk. Our goal is to make this project very much a collaborative effort with other organizations that are working on similar projects in other countries, such as former Soviet satellite states. Ultimately, we aim to be as informative and educational as possible and to have a very broad base of support and audience.
FP: You are also looking for assistance right?
Tsukerman: Absolutely. We are looking for:
Sources of information: Witness accounts, anyone with a relevant story about persecution by the state on the basis of their Jewish ethnicity, religion, or identity, and/or acts of attempted resistance/dissent. Anyone with access to archives, such as KGB documents or trial transcripts, photographs, video images of any sort, who would be willing to share those documents with us, would be great.
Anyone, who would be able to identify important sites, such as prison cells, location of psychiatric hospitals, gulag barracks, underground synagogues or apartments or other places where secret meetings by dissidents would be held, would be very helpful. And of course, any connections to other individuals, whether survivors, relatives of victims, dissidents, or their active supporters in the United States, would be great to interview for the project.
Sources of advice: Academics with a background in Soviet or Soviet Jewish or Communist history, who would be willing give us occasional feedback or serve on our advisory board, as well as individuals in the broader community, such as those who were active in the political community or major Jewish organizations, or anyone else, who has relevant knowledge and background and who could give us suggestions as our project develops.
Interns and volunteers: We are already getting many great interviews, documents, and research material. We need fluent Russian and English speakers, preferably with document translation experience, who could help us translate and transmit the archive documents, as well as write up site summaries for the exhibit we are launching in August.
Additionally, volunteers both in the United States and abroad, who could help with interviewing our subjects on video, taking photos of sites, and helping with relevant archival research are a priority right now. We have many great leads and hope to see many enthusiastic volunteers, interested in helping to bring this information to the public. Other volunteers with skills such as website design would also be very helpful.
All inquiries can be sent to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and will be answered promptly. I am coordinating the project and will be happy to answer any questions, provide additional information, and listen to any feedback, suggestions, and advice. We have a detailed brief to distribute to anyone who is interested.Our website, scajp.org, is currently in development and we are hoping to launch it shortly. It will feature our first exhibit, information about the project, and link to many relevant resources.
FP: Irina Tsukerman, thank you so much for joining Frontpage Interview and we wish you the best of luck in your project.
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