Written by Sharon Katz
THE RUSSIAN INVASION, THE CROWN & THE JEWS
As Russia sends its forces into Ukraine, the Soviet communist regime ironically echoes the rule of the Czars of Imperial Russia, who spent a good part of their reign conquering nearby nations and enlarging their domain.
The historical musical “WHISPER FREEDOM: The Soviet Jewry Struggle”, which takes the stage on March 6 in Jerusalem, features a heroine obsessed with Catherine the Great, the most powerful Empress in Russian history. During the Czarina’s reign in the late 1700s, Catherine’s wars expanded the Russian Empire southwards and westwards, adding the Crimea (part of the Ukraine), Belarus, Lithuania, plus Eastern Poland. She extended Russia’s borders well into central Europe.
As Russian territory grew, large populations of Jews came under Catherine’s rule. Unbearable restrictions and taxes were placed on the Jews, unless, of course, they converted to the Russian Orthodox Church. As one solution to her Jewish problem, Catherine II turned those conquered territories into
The Pale of Settlement, a giant ghetto for Jews. Very few Jews were allowed to live beyond the Pale.
(Did you know that the phrase, “beyond the pale” originates with Catherine’s decree? It was forbidden, unacceptable for Jews to live beyond the Pale’s borders. Today the expression means, simply, forbidden or unacceptable.)
At its height, the Pale had a Jewish population of more than five million, 40% of world Jewry. The Pale was dissolved at the 1917 Russian Revolution.
Today Soviet power is symbolized by its tanks and troops. Catherine the Great and the succeeding czars were subtler. Aside from their sabers and horses, the czars’ symbol of power was the Imperial Crown.
Created for Catherine the Great’s coronation, the Imperial Crown is studded with more than 5,000 gems totaling 2,858 carats, including 4,936 diamonds and topped by a 400 carat red spinel gemstone. It was valued at the time of its creation 260 years ago at $20-50 million. Today it is priceless.
The power, strength and prestige of the Romanov dynasty was passed down from czar to czar for seven generations after Catherine through the crown, which was worn by every single Russian emperor at his coronation.
THE CROWN AND THE REFUSENIKS
“WHISPER FREEDOM”, which takes place in 1972 Moscow, juxtaposes the Crown with the Soviet Jewish refuseniks (Jews who applied for exit visas and were refused). The Crown symbolizes power, domination, the supremacy of Russia above all else. The refuseniks are powerless and downtrodden.
The Crown represents Catherine who wished to crush all Jewish life and create a population subservient to Mother Russia. Two hundred years later, in the year 1972, despite Russian tyranny, KGB oppression and the danger of imprisonment, exile and even Siberia, the refuseniks are searching for a Jewish identity, discovering their faith and focusing on their goal – a future in their Jewish homeland, Israel.
Catherine II did expand across the continent, but the Romanovs are long gone. Her crown lay in a museum.
And what of the refuseniks? They cried out for freedom, even if they were arrested. They demanded visas, even when they were fired from their jobs, ostracized by their friends and vilified. They demonstrated, even when they were beaten. They learned and taught Hebrew, even when they were threatened. Their fight for freedom triumphed and more 1.5 million Jews left Russia with 1.2 million achieving their goal of living in Israel. Am Yisrael chai.
The symbol of Catherine’s crown was so important to the production of “WHISPER FREEDOM” that they had a replica made by the talented prop crafter Shari Greenspan. After almost 100 hours of work, Shari’s creation is itself a work of art.
For “WHISPER FREEDOM”, the crown is not just a prop. It is a symbol of a world far beyond the world of refuseniks and prisoners of Siberia. Comparing the powerless status of Soviet Jewry with the formidable status of Mother Russia, represented by the magnificent crown of eight generations of Romanov monarchs, the miracle of freedom for Soviet Jewry is even more wondrous.
See the crown in “WHISPER FREEDOM: The Soviet Jewry Struggle” on stage in Jerusalem on March 6, 10 and 13. Tickets: https://bit.ly/WPCJM