The two most important Jewish theater companies in postrevolutionary Moscow—the Hebrew-speaking Habima and the Yiddish-language Moscow State Yiddish Theater (GOSET)—galvanized a growing community of Jewish artists, actors, and composers. At first, the Bolseheviks believed Habima and GOSET were an effective means for conveying the goals of the Revolution. Later, even as Stalin instituted increasingly repressive measures against creative expression, the two theater troupes were the most prominent manifestation of Jewish identity and culture in the Soviet Union.
Habima was founded by a former Hebrew teacher, Naum Tsemakh (1887–1939), in Bialystok in 1912, and then reestablished in Moscow in 1918. By performing solely in Hebrew, the company stressed the continuous relationship between the heroic past of the Bible and the present.
After Habima relocated to Moscow in 1918, Konstantin Stanislavsky, founder and director of the Moscow Art Theater, took the troupe under his wing and became its mentor, counselor, and supporter. He appointed his protégé Evgeny Vakhtangov director of Habima. The company achieved great fame with its productions of Jewish mystical and folkloric plays that were noted for their rich visual effects and emotional intensity, including The Dybbuk by S. An-sky and The Golem by H. Leivick.
The use of a language unfamiliar to the majority of Russian Jews and primarily associated with prayer ultimately alienated those it wished to attract. Habima’s overtly religious stance underscored an uneasy relationship with governmental policy, and was perceived as failing to adapt to the new Soviet reality. This pressure, together with theatrical constraints, forced the company to leave the Soviet Union for good in 1926. It eventually settled in Palestine, and today is the national theater of Israel.
From its beginning in 1918 until it was disbanded in 1949, the State Yiddish Theater (Gosudarstvenny Evreysky Teatr, GOSET) was a dynamic expression of Jewish culture. Founded by Aleksei Granovsky in Petrograd, GOSET performed in Yiddish, the Russian Jewish vernacular. In 1920 the troupe relocated to Moscow, and the following year the theater received the patronage of the government and was renamed State Yiddish Chamber Theater. That same year Marc Chagall was invited to design the sets and costumes for An Evening of Sholem Aleichem, the troupe’s inaugural production in Moscow. Chagall had a tremendous influence on the company with his innovative stage, costume, and makeup designs. He also played a key role in conceiving the extreme stylization of the actors’ gestures for which GOSET became known.
Yevsektsia, the Jewish Section of the Communist Party, supported GOSET and considered it a propaganda tool that would address the Jewish masses in their own language, conveying the corruption of capitalism and the death of the old shtetl lifestyle. The company offered daring productions of traditional and contemporary Yiddish dramas, which conformed to the ideas of the revolution. Ostensibly the plays were in support of the Soviet state, however, closer readings suggest that they contained veiled critiques of Stalin’s regimes.
In 1924 the theater changed its name to the State Yiddish Theater, better known by its Russian acronym, GOSET.
GOSET on Tour
Given GOSET’s tremendous success in Moscow, the Soviet authorities decided to send the company on a tour of Western Europe, in order to demonstrate the accomplishments of the new Soviet state. From April 1928 to January 1929, GOSET performed in Warsaw, Berlin, Paris, and Vienna, enjoying many favorable reviews from theater critics. The actors were criticized in the Soviet press, however, when they met with Zionist activists abroad.
GOSET’s director, Aleksei Granovsky, had long chafed under the constant interference of Soviet authorities in his work. Government grievances were the cause of the troupe being summoned home in early 1929, and the mounting pressures ultimately swayed Granovsky to remain behind in Berlin, the city where he was received “as a new theatrical messiah.” The rest of the troupe, now under the leadership of Mikhoels, returned to the USSR, although their relationship with the new Soviet regime had been deeply strained.
After Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, the need for international assistance was dire. The formation that year of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee—a group dedicated to enlisting the aid of Jews worldwide for the Soviet war effort—was crucial to the Soviet government’s push to promote international support and national solidarity. As secretary-general of the Committee, Solomon Mikhoels became the de facto leader of the Soviet Jewish community, organizing several Moscow rallies with important Jewish figures.
In 1943, a delegation from the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee embarked on a world tour to muster political and financial support for the Soviet cause. The Soviet authorities sent the Yiddish poet and Secret Police informant Itzik Fefer to accompany Mikhoels on the trip and monitor his activities and encounters. Although criticized by many American Jews as a Soviet puppet during his journey, Mikhoels’s wartime effort at creating international Jewish solidarity would later expose him to charges of Zionism and cosmopolitanism from the Soviet authorities.
The delegation traveled for nearly eight months in the Middle East, England, and North America. In New York, a rally at the Polo Grounds attracted 47,000 people, as well as the alarm of the U.S. government, which looked unfavorably on reports of the crowd’s overwhelming approval of Soviet leadership. Mikhoels met with such luminaries as Albert Einstein, Charlie Chaplin, and Upton Sinclair, putting a human face on the Soviet Union and, perhaps more significantly, on Soviet Jewry.
In December 1947, shortly after the United Nations voted to establish a Jewish state in Palestine, Solomon Mikhoels made a speech in which he expressed support for the vote, disclosing for the first time his Jewish national sympathies. Believing it necessary to silence such a powerful exponent of the Jewish solidarity movement then growing in popularity among Soviet Jews, Joseph Stalin ordered the actor’s assassination. In January 1948, Mikhoels was dispatched to Minsk on the pretext of judging a play for the Stalin Prize. On January 12, the actor and his traveling companion, the critic Vladimir Golubov-Potapov, were driven from their hotel room to the dacha of Lavrenty Tsanava, head of Belorussian security services, where they were murdered. Their bodies were dumped on a snowy road outside Minsk, disguised to appear as the victims of a car accident.
A tremendous outpouring of grief met the news of Mikhoels’s death. Over the course of two days, more than 10,000 people viewed the body while it lay in state at the GOSET theater. Most Soviet Jews remained unaware of the real nature of Mikhoels’s death, believing the official explanation. The directorship of GOSET passed to Benjamin Zuskin, but the theater’s days were numbered. Within a year, he was arrested along with other eminent Jewish cultural figures. By the close of 1949, the liquidation of the theater had been ordered. Zuskin and twelve others were executed on the night of August 12, 1952—what became known as the Night of the Murdered Poets signaled the brutal end of an extraordinarily creative era. In 1953, a fire of suspicious origin in Moscow’s Bakhrushin State Central Theater Museum swept through the GOSET archives, damaging many artifacts in an attempt to eradicate the legacy of the Jewish theater.