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Kossovskii, Vladimir

(1867–1941), Bundist leader. Vladimir Kossovskii (pseudonym of Nokhem Mendl Levinson) was born in Dvinsk (now Daugavpils, Latvia) and attended high school in Kovno (Kaunas). As a result of his revolutionary activities, he was expelled in 1885 shortly before he was expected to graduate. In 1894, he moved to Vilna and became involved in the social democratic (Marxist) revolutionary circles of Jewish workers. A major advocate of the idea that Jewish revolutionary circles should be united under one party, Kossovskii was instrumental in creating the Jewish Labor Bund.

In 1897, Kossovskii was one of 13 participants in the Bund’s founding congress in Vilna, and was one of 3 members of the Bund’s first Central Committee. Kossovskii was also the first editor of the Bund’s organ, Der yidisher arbeter, and he contributed articles to many other Bundist and socialist publications. Arrested by the Okhrana (tsarist secret police) in the summer of 1898, he spent two years in jail, then escaped and fled Russia, living in exile until 1930 (except for the revolutionary years 1905–1907), first in Geneva, and then between 1920 and 1930 in Berlin. A central member of the Russian Bund’s Foreign Committee, Kossovskii represented the party at several forums abroad, such as congresses of the Second Socialist International and the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party (RSDWP).

In the Bund’s early years, Kossovskii was widely perceived as the most authoritative voice to represent the party’s views. He wrote numerous pamphlets and articles on political and theoretical issues, including the Bund’s position regarding the national question, its relation to other parties (such as the Polish Socialist Party; PPS), and its appropriate status within the RSDWP. While strongly committed to working-class internationalism, Kossovskii insisted on the need for Jewish workers to maintain an autonomous organization that would defend their interests and address their particular problems within the context of the all-Russian Social Democratic Party. Kossovskii was one of the five Bundist delegates at the Second Congress of the RSDWP, where the Bund’s autonomous status, which had been established at the RSDWP’s Founding Congress in Minsk, 1898, came under attack. Lenin’s intransigent demand for a rigid centralist structure for the RSDWP, and his vehement opposition to the Bund’s autonomy, not only led to the Bund’s withdrawal from the RSDWP but also resulted in the lasting division of the Russian social democracy between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks.

Kossovskii played a crucial role in debates on the national question within the Bund, and was one of the first to adopt the autonomist position that eventually became the official party program. The first Bundist to study the proposals of the Austro-Marxist theorist Karl Renner, Kossovskii introduced this information into the Bund’s debate on the national question in a pamphlet he wrote at the request of the Central Committee as preparation for the Fourth Party Congress in 1901. Kossovskii applied Renner’s analysis of the national question in Austria to the Russian situation, concluding that East European Jews should be granted nonterritorial autonomy limited to cultural issues (with control of education, promotion of national culture and arts, and recognition of Yiddish as an official language).

For Kossovskii, the program of national-cultural autonomy represented an appropriate socialist response to two intolerable extremes: nationalist fanaticism and assimilation. At the same time, he rejected Vladimir Medem’s neutralism: since Jewish national culture emanated spontaneously from the Jewish masses themselves, Kossovskii argued that in the democratic or socialist future, culture would continue to play a role (and probably even a more important one, because then it would be able to develop freely). It was the Bund’s function, as the representative of the East European Jewish proletariat, to defend and promote Jewish (Yiddish) culture. [See the biography of Medem.]

Kossovskii’s socialist internationalist commitment led him to oppose World War I, and in 1916 he participated, as the Bund’s representative, in the Kienthal Conference (a continuation of the 1915 Zimmerwald Conference, both in Switzerland) of European socialists who opposed the war. Despite his tactical collaboration with Lenin and the Bolsheviks in the Zimmerwald movement, after 1917 Kossovskii became a vocal critic of Communist authoritarian rule over Russia and stayed in exile. In 1930, he moved to Warsaw and became a member of the Polish Bund’s Central Committee. In Poland, he wrote regularly for the Bund’s daily Naye folks-tsaytung, both on local and on international current affairs. Soon after the German and Soviet invasions of Poland in September 1939, Kossovskii left Warsaw with false identification papers. After a few months in Soviet-controlled Pinsk and Vilna, realizing that the lives of Bundist leaders were at risk in the Soviet Union as well, he escaped to New York, where he arrived in April 1941. He died in October of that same year.

Suggested Reading

Jonathan Frankel, Prophecy and Politics: Socialism, Nationalism, and the Russian Jews, 1862–1917 (Cambridge, 1981); Jacob Sholem Hertz, “Vladimir Kosovski,” in Doyres bundistn, vol. 1, pp. 11–67 (New York, 1956); Jacob Sholem Hertz, Gregor Aronson, Sophie Dubnow-Erlich, E. Mus (Emanuel Novogrudski), Hayyim Solomon Kazdan, and Emanuel Scherer, eds., Geshikhte fun Bund, 5 vols. (New York, 1960–1981); Jack Jacobs, “Kosovsky, Vladimir,” in Biographical Dictionary of Neo-Marxism, ed. Robert A. Gorman, pp. 242–244 (Westport, Conn., 1985); Vladimir Kosovski, “Vladimir Medem un di natsionale frage,” in Vladimir Medem: Tsum tsvantsikstn yortsayt, pp. 130–140 (New York, 1943); Gertrud Pickhan, “Kossovsky, Portnoy and Others: The Role of the Bund’s Founding Generation in the Interwar Polish Bund,” in Jewish Politics in Eastern Europe: The Bund at 100, ed. Jack Jacobs, pp. 69–80 (New York, 2001).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 1400, Bund Archives, Collection, ca. 1870-1992.