The Jews Who Dreamed of Utopia

A Ukranian election poster in Yiddish from 1917 reads “Vote for the United Jewish Socialist Workers’ Party.”

Credit...Ne Boltai Collection

By Jason Farago

VIENNA — The centenary of the Russian Revolution has inspired dozens of exhibitions of the art and history of the abbreviated Soviet century, from “ Revolution: Russian Art 1917—1932 ,” at London’s Royal Academy, to the Art Institute of Chicago’s “ Revoliutsiia! Demonstratsiia! ”, not to mention significant shows in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Curators and historians have been grappling once again with the meaning of the 10 days that shook the world: Was it a brilliant dream? A doomed illusion?

Now comes another question: Was it good for the Jews?

Step into the Jewish Museum Vienna , just off the main shopping drag of this imperial city, and you will be greeted by a bust of Karl Marx, the descendant of rabbis who would call religion the “opiate of the masses.” Dour, wild-haired Karl presides over the first gallery of an ambitious, searching show on religion and revolution, uniting paintings, posters, propaganda, film clips, and a fair amount of Soviet kitsch. Its romantic title — “ Comrade. Jew. We Only Wanted Paradise on Earth ” — sets the tone for an extensive overview of the dreams and nightmares of communism and international socialism, as seen through the lives and work of Jewish politicians, philosophers and artists: not just Marx, but also Leon Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg, El Lissitzky, and many others.

The museum has certainly got into the bolshie spirit. A pair of red ensigns with hammer and sickle will hang until May Day from its stately facade, and the galleries of “Comrade. Jew” have been refitted with a bold, Constructivist design, featuring cantilevered walls painted white and red. But this is no agitprop showcase; it’s a deeply researched dive into the lives of men and women who believed in something with the force others reserved for religion, and could hardly imagine how badly it would turn.

You don’t need me to tell you that this is still hot stuff, a hundred years on. That many communists were Jews has, with horrible frequency, been twisted to imply that all Jews were communists. The Nazis cast “Jewish Bolshevism” as a single scourge, and the return this decade of the far right has also witnessed a hideous return of anti-Semitism , not just in Europe but in the United States as well. (Nowhere is this more urgent than in Poland, where a new “death camp” law has been called tantamount to Holocaust denial, and where the populist Law and Justice government combines strident anti-Communist rhetoric with anti-Semitism of greater or lesser overtness.)

Most Jews, of course, were not revolutionaries. But Jews did make up a disproportionate percentage of leftist utopians. To this show’s list, we could add Karl Kautsky, Gyorgy Lukacs, Walter Benjamin, Isaac Deutscher, and many Americans. And for poor East European Jews — especially the millions in western Russia who faced political repression and frequent pogroms — the international workers’ movement offered a tantalizing freedom. A red flag in the exhibit screams “Down with the Tsarist constitution!” in Yiddish. Election banners advocate the Poale Zion, a Jewish party aligned with the Mensheviks. A copy of the Russian newspaper Pravda, edited by the exiled Trotsky (born Lev Davidovich Bronstein) from Vienna, bellows for workers of the world to unite.

With the storming of the Winter Palace — evoked in this show through a video clip of Sergei Eisenstein’s film “October” — a strange tension arose: Soviet leaders condemned the anti-Semitism of the old czarist regime, but also advocated an assimilation that would wash away Jewishness. “Only the most ignorant and downtrodden people can believe the lies and slander that are spread about the Jews,” Lenin proclaimed in a 1919 address , which plays on an audio loop. In the same gallery, a photomontage depicts a bulldozer dropping a rabbi and a Russian Orthodox priest to the ground. “Through the development of socialism,” the poster reads, “we deal religion a deadly blow.”

In the early days of the Soviet Union, Jews not only held top political positions but also occupied central positions in the artistic avant-garde. The director Dziga Vertov, in films like “Man With a Movie Camera,” set about creating a cinematic language for a new world. El Lissitzky, who earlier printed folksy lithographs of Passover stories, now painted geometric collisions such as “Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge” (1920).

It all went sour fast. Halfway through “Comrade. Jew,” we see a portrait by the Jewish painter Isaak Brodsky, a key figure of socialist realism: It’s Stalin, eyes bright, hand resting on a copy of Pravda, bristly mustache nearly covering his mouth. His Great Purge of the mid-1930s was not explicitly anti-Semitic, though Soviet Jews faced more danger than other minorities. (Heaven help those aligned with Trotsky — seen here in a monstrous cartoon, as a dog covered in swastikas.) Yet to Jews in Germany and Austria in the 1930s, communism offered hope as terror closed in. In 1934, the Austrian painter Friedl Dicker-Brandeis depicted a police interrogation of a left-wing agitator, rendered in sickly greens and yellows, scored with a palette knife. A decade later, she would be murdered in Auschwitz.

It was after World War II, and especially after the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, that Stalin’s erratic stances toward Jews turned into full-bore anti-Semitism. This section is perhaps too shy about the gulag, evoking the black years through documents of crimes like the Night of the Murdered Poets in 1952, (in which Yiddish writers and others were executed in a Moscow prison), and a tangentially relevant clip from Costa-Gavras’s anti-Stalinist film “The Confession.”

The 1960s and 1970s saw substantial Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union to the United States and to Israel. Several of them became leading figures of Moscow Conceptualism, the most important art movement of the later years of the Soviet Union. Some Jewish artists, such as Ilya Kabakov and the pair of Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid produced parodies of Communist agitprop that is at once satirical and nostalgic. Other remain in the new Russia, including Erik Bulatov — who closes this show with “Sunrise or Sunset” (1989), a bitingly ironic painting from the days of perestroika, in which the state emblem of the Soviet Union sits ambiguously where the sea meets the sky.

Mr. Bulatov’s painting ought to be the enigmatic last word. But downstairs, in the Jewish Museum’s permanent collection display, I saw something I have never before seen in a historical museum: a screenshot of a Facebook post, presented with the same care and regard as centuries’ worth of Judaica. The post features an image of a fat, sweaty banker, with a hooked nose and stars on his cuff links, gorging on delicacies while a starving fellow diner, labeled “the people,” has only a bone to eat. The man who posted it is Heinz-Christian Strache: the leader of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party and, since December, the country’s vice chancellor. A specter is haunting Europe today, and it is not the one these comrades foresaw.