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Rafes, Moyshe

(Moisei Grigor’evich; 1883–1942), public and political figure active in the Bund and Evsektsiia. Born in Vilna into a family of wine merchants, Moyshe Rafes first attended heder, then a Russian primary school, and passed his examinations as an external pupil at a five-year high school. Rafes joined the Bund while still a youth and devoted himself to party work. He was first arrested in 1903 and spent half a year in prison in Vilna before being released on bail. Later he was suspected of being implicated in the plans for Hirsh Lekert’s attempt on the life of Vilna Governor-General Victor Von Wahl, although Rafes denied this involvement.

In 1906–1913 the Bund assigned Rafes the task of spreading propaganda to Jewish workers in Gomel and Vilna. He published articles in the Bund press in Yiddish and Russian (under the pseudonyms M. R–s, M. Borisov, M. Vil’ner, and others) and was editor and a member of the editorial board of several party press organs. He proved to be an accomplished publicist and talented organizer, thanks to which he occupied a prominent position in the leading organs of the Bund. In 1907, Rafes served as a delegate to the Fifth Russian Social Democratic Workers Party (RSDWP) Congress in London. In 1910, he attended the Eighth Bund Conference in Lemberg (Lvov), and in 1912, at the party’s Ninth Conference in Vienna, was elected to the Central Committee.

In 1911, Rafes represented Vilna at the Congress of the Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews of Russia (OPE) where he was an initiator of the “Yiddishist revolution.” Following the congress, OPE recognized Yiddish-language schools as legitimate institutions. Rafes, however, took a pragmatic position toward Yiddish. He viewed it simply as a means of communication and assumed that in due course it would disappear from everyday usage, to be replaced by Russian.

In 1913, Rafes was exiled to the northern provinces, but he escaped to Saint Petersburg and continued his party work under the pseudonym L. Vaisenberg. He was arrested in mid-1916 and released after the February 1917 Revolution. He was then elected secretary of the Bund Central Committee, and represented the party in the executive committee of the Petrograd Soviet (Council) of Workers and Soldiers Deputies. He also helped to plan an All-Russian Jewish Congress. In mid-1917, Rafes was sent to Kiev, where he headed the local Bund branch. As leader of the party there, he became a member of the Ukrainian government and served as general comptroller.

When the Bolsheviks took power in Russia in October 1917, Rafes stood out as their intransigent adversary. Under the influence of the November 1918 revolution in Germany, the pogroms in Ukraine, and disagreements with the policies of the Ukrainian Directory, however, he completely reversed his position. He became the main initiator of a split in the Ukrainian Bund and headed its left, pro-Bolshevik faction. That group, under his leadership, in practice left the Bund and created the Kombund (Communist Bund).

Rafes then began negotiations with the leftist leaders of Fareynikte, the Jewish socialist party, hoping to unify the factions into one Jewish Communist party. As a result, the Jewish Communist Union in Ukraine (Komfarband) was created in May 1919, with Rafes as one of its leaders. Soon after this, he initiated a public campaign to discredit Jewish public organizations and became the main force in the Liquidation Commission of Jewish Communities and Public Organizations set up by the Evsektsiia and the Komfarband. He also played a prominent role in the Evsektsiia, which Komfarband joined in August 1919. At the Evsektsiia’s Third Conference in July 1920, Rafes headed its centrist faction. While opposing the Evsektsiia’s immediate dissolution, Rafes also opposed maintaining its autonomous position within the Russian Communist Party.

Soon after this, Rafes quit Jewish activity. During the Soviet–Polish War of 1920, he was sent to Vilna to direct the government’s liquidation commission and organized the evacuation from the city of the government and party institutions of the Lithuanian–Belorussian Republic. By the end of the civil war, he was a Red Army commissar.

Subsequently, Rafes worked in the Moscow Soviet (city council) and later in the China department of the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs. He was a member of the Communist International Far Eastern Bureau and in 1926–1927 worked in China. In 1927–1928, he headed the TASS news agency’s foreign department. From the end of the 1920s, Rafes was in charge of the artistic department of Sovkino, the Soviet film agency, and from the beginning of the 1930s, the committee for cinematography. During the 1920s, even though he was no longer involved in Jewish activity, Rafes wrote several books on the history of the Jewish workers’ movement in Russia and the Bund. Some of these works, despite their pronounced bias, remain valuable today as historical sources. In May 1938, Rafes was arrested, and in June 1940, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He died in the camps of the Komi Autonomous SSR.

Suggested Reading

Mordechai Altshuler, Ha-Yevseḳtsyah bi-Verit-ha-Mo‘atsot (1918–1930): Ben le’umiyut le-ḳomunizm (Jerusalem, 1980); Zvi Y. Gitelman, Jewish Nationality and Soviet Politics: The Jewish Sections of the CPSU, 1917–1930 (Princeton, 1972); Zalman Reyzen, ed., “Rafes, Moyshe,” in Leksikon fun der yidisher literatur, prese un filologye, vol. 4, pp. 237–243 (Vilna, 1929).



Translated from Russian by I. Michael Aronson