The Housing Question and Anti-Semitism: Soviet Authorities in Kyiv after World War II

Maurycy Minkowski, “The Homeless” [After the Pogrom], 1906. Oil on Canvas. The Magnes Collection of Jewish Life and Art, UC Berkeley. Source:

Kyiv was abandoned by the Nazis in November 1943, allowing the Soviet authorities to return to the city, and the Jewish people continued to be silenced.

By Dr. Martin Blackwell
Professor of History
University of North Georgia

By the mid-1940s, scholars agree, the Soviet Union’s fundamental problem at home was a paradoxical need to stabilize a regime noticeably strengthened by the Second World War.[1]  One way the Kremlin undertook this stabilization was through an acceptance of anti-Semitism in places like Kyiv.[2]  Such acceptance followed the regime’s silence after the eruption of anti-Semitism in the Urals and Central Asia as millions of Jews evacuated there in summer/fall 1941.[3] 

Kyiv was abandoned by the Nazis in November 1943, allowing the Soviet authorities to return to the city. At first, the returning Communists tried to explain away anti-Semitic manifestations in Kyiv as the result of hostility toward those who returned from the East in an “unorganized” fashion. They applied the label “unorganized” primarily to those returning from evacuation without the formal approval of the State Committee on Defense or the Red Army.[4] Despite various barriers—including the creation of a locally-administered Temporary Commission on the Resettlement of Kyiv, which universally rejected those who wrote its way seeking to return,—in the first two and a half years after Soviet power’s return, at least 250,000 people came back to the Ukrainian capital “illegally.”

Kyiv City Party Committee Secretary M.M. Pidtychenko, Kyiv City Party Committee Leader B.A. Gorban, General V.I. Davydov, General I.I. Iakubovs’kyi, N.S. Khrushchev, Kyiv City Soviet Chairman F.V. Mokienko, and General A.A. Hrechko at the Celebrations of the 28th Anniversary of the October Revolution, November 7, 1945. Reproduced with Permission of the H.S. Pshenychnyi Ukrainian Central State Archive of Cinematic, Photo, and Audio Sources.

Such returnees, though, wouldn’t have agreed with that label, for it was commonly believed that the apartments of those serving (or having served) in the Red Army were “bonded” to them and/or their dependents for the duration of their service. It was an all-Union Supreme Soviet ukaz (decree) issued on August 5, 1941 that was responsible for this “bonding.”  Put forth at the height of the country’s panic over the Nazi invasion—and applying to those serving in the Red Army by that point in time— Ukraine’s post-occupation archives reveal this ukaz as something seen by almost everyone in Kyiv as applying to anyone who served and/or their dependents no matter when or how the former found themselves in the armed forces    

And, in a city where at least 75% of the housing stock was still habitable, there was plenty of room for these people to return to. The war changed the ethnic composition of the city significantly, yet not in the ways that one would expect. Somewhat surprisingly, the archives reveal that, by early 1947, Kyiv’s population of nearly 700,000 was almost 20% Jews—a number approaching the city’s prewar Jewish population in percentage terms.  More importantly, though, the city consisted now of 60% Ukrainians, too. Far from any kind of “inherent” hostility, it was the returning Communists’ management of the housing stock that amplified the potential for interethnic discord in the city.

Simply put, the local Communists not only ignored said legislation bonding apartments to servicemen and their families, they also, in the wake of the occupation, ignored over 40,000 declarations from Kyivans about their housing concerns.  The result was a “first come, first served” policy on housing which benefited the larger Ukrainian population—especially those who had spent the war on occupied territory and now felt entitled to have appropriate housing in the city. What followed then was a “pogrom-like” atmosphere in the city amid the usual street crime somehow involving Jews which has been documented over the years by researchers like Zvi Gitelman and Amir Weiner but seen to be a result of the effects of Nazi-propaganda or Soviet frontline culture on the home-front populace.[5]  

N.S. Khrushchev, F.V. Mokienko, A.A. Hrechko, and P.H. Tychyna (far right) at the Celebrations of the 28th Anniversary of the October Revolution, November 7, 1945. Reproduced with Permission of the H.S. Pshenychnyi Ukrainian Central State Archive of Cinematic, Photo, and Audio Sources.

Kyiv as Regime City shows these early works not only ignored the fundamental role of more material issues, such as housing, in these tensions, they also ignored the desperate need for labor and employment in the Ukrainian capital along with the stalled efforts to reconstruct the city at that time, as well.  Amid the Soviet war effort, Kyiv’s reconstruction was seen as relatively unimportant even as the city’s leaders desperately looked for laborers who might do such building if resources were directed their way.  As the city’s population kept growing, a reckoning for the Stalin regime soon became reality.      

Sides would have to be taken in places like Kyiv, if the Kremlin was to survive its victory over the Hitlerites unscathed.  It is amid such processes that TsDAHOU’s files reveal a letter written to Moscow in spring 1946—only to be soon returned by the Kremlin to the Ukrainian Central Committee.[6]  In the letter, a large number of Ukrainian Communists declare their intent to take matters like reconstruction and housing into their own hands because of their general inability to gain housing themselves due to the apparently large Jewish presence in Kyiv (among many other things).  

Such “signals” from above may have led a few months later to the  following lines appearing in a Radians’ka Ukraïna feuilleton attributed to Ostap Vyshnia: “It was already clear to a certain extent, who had fought at the front, and who in Fergana and Tashkent, who returned as rebuilders and restorers, and who to trade in beer and soft drinks and to win back apartments.”[7]  What followed was an absolute onslaught of letters from Jewish Kyivans to Pravda in Moscow—which I should add were also promptly returned to the Kyiv’s Central Committee—complaining that the root cause of anti-Semitism in Ukrainian capital was the fact that the August 1941 ukaz mentioned above was not being followed. 

Vyshnia’s lines, however, never resulted in the Ukrainian Communists’ publically admitting to their anti-Semitic tone. The only public result was a stepped-up effort by these leaders to curtail “Ukrainian nationalism” (in line with the coterminous Zhdanovshchina’s general renewal of vigilance) following its carefully managed reappearance during the war.

My conclusion is that Kyiv’s large Jewish minority was quite publically marginalized by the Ukrainian leadership’s silence on Moscow’s cue. The result was a newly empowered Ukrainian majority some two years before the murder of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee leader, Solomon Mikhoels, the date usually cited as the beginning of the Kremlin’s official anti-Semitism campaign.[8] My research shows that, instead of the Nazis’ or the Soviets’ own front-line inspired narratives of Jewish cowardice, it was this mundane battle over housing—and the Kremlin’s signals concerning its preferred outcome—that were the major reasons for this end result. Here, then, is a new reason for the sidelining of the interests of Ukrainian Jews in Kyiv, which on the outside appears to so much follow the German attitudes—a situation difficult for these returnees to overcome in the long run.

Originally published by Krytyka, (December 2017) republished with permission for educational, non-commercial purposes.