On the night of August 12, 1952, a group of Yiddish writers was executed on Joseph Stalin’s orders for the crime of writing while Jewish. The executions, remembered as the Night of the Murdered Poets, were the tragic culmination of the grand romance between Jewish intellectuals and Marxism. Author Nathan Englander now has a new play, The Twenty-Seventh Man, based on a short story he wrote about the murders. He imagines the 27 imprisoned writers in a Russian prison cell, caught between the Marxist promise of a brotherhood of workers, liberating the oppressed to create a bright new world, and the reality of Soviet Communism. In Englander, the murdered writers have found their bard.
In Marxist theory, national identity is a shallow, ephemeral phenomenon. Nation-states, a modern invention created by self-interested capitalists and politicians to manipulate the masses, will evanesce with the coming of the Marxist utopia. In reality, Lenin and others in the Socialist International exploited the Tsarist empire’s national liberation movements, which were, struggling for self-determination, in order to bring about the revolution.
When the revolution came in 1917, the victorious Bolsheviks announced that each of the peoples oppressed by the Tsars would have a sovereign nation-state; these states would form a union of equals building the Marxist future—a Soviet Union. Each liberated nation would have the right to its own schools, newspapers, and even national theaters in its own language. The catch was that all these cultural institutions would have to be “national in form, socialist in content.” And the structures of self-government were hollow: in reality, all power was held by the Communist Party Central Committee.