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Feeling Alive: Unofficial Jewish Practices in the USSR in the 1970s and 1980s


This dissertation explores unofficial “Jewish practices” in the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s. The interest and participation in such practices in the late Soviet period are usually analyzed within either “totalitarian” or Zionist frameworks, which represent them as manifestations of “anti-Soviet” sentiments and goals, and as part of a political movement struggling for the chance to leave the Soviet Union, particularly for Israel within the Zionist framework. However, I argue, this interpretation reflects much less the real Soviet context than the set of assumptions about the Soviet system that have been shaped in Western liberal discourses during and since the Cold War. In this dissertation I show that Jewish practices and pursuits in the late Soviet period could not be grouped under the concept of a “political movement” or reduced to an anti-Soviet agenda and Zionist activity. Instead, they should be understood as a particular example of “searching for the extraordinary” – a much broader cultural phenomenon that developed among the Soviet intelligentsia during that period. My informants often mentioned a unique feeling of “liveliness” that they felt when engaging with Jewish practices and pursuits. Sometimes they linked this feeling with “freedom” – a concept that cannot be easily equated with the liberal conception of freedom understood in terms of individual choice. In fact, many of them also reported that after having emigrated from the Soviet Union to market democracies (Israel, USA, Canada etc.) they, surprisingly, experienced a “loss” of freedom. Analyzing what the experience of “freedom” might mean in the Soviet context, and what unique forms it could take in the context of the “Jewish practices,” I argue that a number of ideological, economic and cultural realities of state socialism made this experience of freedom part and parcel of the Soviet system itself. From this perspective, gaining the actual right to emigrate was just as important as, if not more important than, performing the actual act of emigration. The real “Exodus” happened within the borders of the Soviet Union rather than outside of them. This dissertation further reflects on the role of the global political context in shaping the unofficial Jewish practices and pursuits in the Soviet Union and in giving them a unique form that made them different from many other unofficial practices that developed around that time.

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