Stalin and antisemitism
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The question of how antisemitic Joseph Stalin was is widely discussed by historians. At the same time, instances of antisemitism on Stalin's part have been witnessed by contemporaries and documented by historical sources.
Born in Gori, Georgia (then in the Russian Empire) and educated at an Orthodox seminary in Tiflis (Tbilisi) before becoming a professional revolutionary and a Marxist around the start of the 20th century, Stalin appears unlikely to have been stirred by antisemitism in his early years and met only a limited number of revolutionaries of Jewish origin during his first years of political activity. Although active in the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, he did not attend a party congress until 1905.
Although Jews were active among both the Social Democratic Bolshevik and the Menshevik factions, Jews were more prominent among the Mensheviks. Stalin took note of the ethnic proportions represented on each side, as seen from a 1907 report on the Congress published in the Bakinsky rabochy (Baku Workman), which quoted a coarse joke about "a small pogrom" (погромчик) Stalin attributed to then-Bolshevik Grigory Aleksinsky:
Not less interesting is the composition of the congress from the standpoint of nationalities. Statistics showed that the majority of the Menshevik faction consists of Jews—and this of course without counting the Bundists—after which came Georgians and then Russians. On the other hand, the overwhelming majority of the Bolshevik faction consists of Russians, after which come Jews—not counting of course the Poles and Letts—and then Georgians, etc. For this reason one of the Bolsheviks observed in jest (it seems Comrade Aleksinsky) that the Mensheviks are a Jewish faction and the Bolsheviks a genuine Russian faction, so it would not be a bad idea for us Bolsheviks to arrange a small pogrom in the party.
1917 to 1930
Although the Bolsheviks regarded all religious activity as counter-scientific superstition and a remnant of the old pre-communist order, the new political order established by Lenin's Soviet after the Russian Revolution ran counter to the centuries of antisemitism under the Romanovs.
The Council of People's Commissars adopted a 1918 decree condemning all antisemitism and calling on the workers and peasants to combat it. Lenin continued to speak out against antisemitism. Information campaigns against antisemitism were conducted in the Red Army and in the workplaces, and a provision forbidding the incitement of propaganda against any ethnicity became part of Soviet law. State-sponsored institutions of secular Yiddish culture, such as the Moscow State Jewish Theater, were established in Soviet Russia and the Soviet Union during this time, as were institutions for other minorities.
As People's Commissar for Nationalities, Stalin was the cabinet member responsible for minority affairs. In 1922, Stalin was elected the first-ever General Secretary of the party—a post not yet regarded as the highest in the Soviet government. Lenin began to criticize Stalin shortly thereafter.
In his December 1922 letters, the ailing Lenin (whose health left him incapacitated in 1923–1924) criticized Stalin and Dzerzhinsky for their chauvinistic attitude toward the Georgian nation during the Georgian Affair. Eventually made public as part of Lenin's Testament—which recommended that the party remove Stalin from his post as General Secretary—the 1922 letters and the recommendation were both withheld from public circulation by Stalin and his supporters in the party: these materials were not published in the Soviet Union until de-Stalinization in 1956.
After the incapacitated Lenin's death on 21 January 1924, the party officially maintained the principle of collective leadership, but Stalin soon outmaneuvered his rivals in the Central Committee's Politburo. At first collaborating with Jewish and half-Jewish Politburo members Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev against Jewish arch-rival Leon Trotsky, Stalin succeeded in marginalizing Trotsky. By 1929, Stalin had also effectively marginalized Zinoviev and Kamenev as well, compelling both to submit to his authority. The intransigent Trotsky was forced into exile.
When Boris Bazhanov, Stalin's personal secretary who had defected to France in 1928, produced a memoir critical of Stalin in 1930, he alleged that Stalin made crude antisemitic outbursts even before Lenin's death.
Stalin's 1931 condemnation of antisemitism
On 12 January 1931, Stalin gave the following answer to an inquiry on the subject of the Soviet attitude toward antisemitism from the Jewish News Agency in the United States:
National and racial chauvinism is a vestige of the misanthropic customs characteristic of the period of cannibalism. Anti-semitism, as an extreme form of racial chauvinism, is the most dangerous vestige of cannibalism.
Anti-semitism is of advantage to the exploiters as a lightning conductor that deflects the blows aimed by the working people at capitalism. Anti-semitism is dangerous for the working people as being a false path that leads them off the right road and lands them in the jungle. Hence Communists, as consistent internationalists, cannot but be irreconcilable, sworn enemies of anti-semitism.
In the U.S.S.R. anti-semitism is punishable with the utmost severity of the law as a phenomenon deeply hostile to the Soviet system. Under U.S.S.R. law active anti-semites are liable to the death penalty.
Establishment of Jewish Autonomous Oblast
To offset the growing Jewish national and religious aspirations of Zionism and to successfully categorize Soviet Jews under Stalin's nationality policy an alternative to the Land of Israel was established with the help of Komzet and OZET in 1928. The Jewish Autonomous Oblast with the center in Birobidzhan in the Russian Far East was to become a "Soviet Zion". Yiddish, rather than "reactionary" Hebrew, would be the national language, and proletarian socialist literature and arts would replace Judaism as the quintessence of culture. Despite a massive domestic and international state propaganda campaign, the Jewish population there never reached 30% (as of 2003 it was only about 1.2%). The experiment ground to a halt in the mid-1930s, during Stalin's first campaign of purges, as local leaders were not spared during the purges.
Stalin's harshest period of mass repression, the so-called Great Purge (or Great Terror), was launched in 1936–1937 and involved the execution of over a half-million Soviet citizens accused of treason, terrorism, and other anti-Soviet crimes. The campaign of purges prominently targeted Stalin's former opponents and other Old Bolsheviks, and included a large-scale purge of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, repression of the kulak peasants, Red Army leaders, and ordinary citizens accused of conspiring against Stalin's administration. Although many of Great Purge victims were ethnic or religious Jews, they were not specifically targeted as an ethnic group during this campaign according to Mikhail Baitalsky, Gennady Kostyrchenko, David Priestland, Jeffrey Veidlinger, Roy Medvedev and Edvard Radzinsky.
German-Soviet rapprochement and the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact
During his meeting with Nazi Germany's foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, Stalin promised him to get rid of the "Jewish domination", especially among the intelligentsia. After dismissing Maxim Litvinov as Foreign Minister in 1939, Stalin immediately directed incoming Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov to "purge the ministry of Jews", to appease Hitler and to signal Nazi Germany that the USSR was ready for non-aggression talks.
According to some historians, antisemitic trends in the Kremlin's policies were fueled by the struggle against Leon Trotsky.
In the late 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s far fewer Jews were appointed to positions of power in the state apparatus than previously, with a sharp drop in Jewish representation in senior positions evident from around the time of the beginning of the late 1930s rapprochement with Nazi Germany. The percentage of Jews in positions of power dropped to 6% in 1938, and to 5% in 1940.
Relocation and deportation of Jews during the war
Following the Soviet invasion of Poland, Stalin began a policy of relocating Jews to the Jewish Autonomous Oblast and other parts of Siberia. Throughout the war, similar movements were executed in regions considered vulnerable to Nazi invasion with the various target ethnic groups of the Nazi genocide. When these populations reached their destinations, work was oftentimes arduous and they were subjected to poor conditions due to lack of resources caused by the war effort.
After World War II
The experience of the Holocaust, which wiped out some six million Jews in Europe under Nazi occupation, and left millions more homeless and displaced, contributed to growing concern about the situation of the Jewish people worldwide. However, the trauma breathed new life into the traditional idea of a common Jewish peoplehood and became a catalyst for the revival of the Zionist idea of creating a Jewish state in the Middle East.
The Jewish Autonomous Oblast experienced a revival as the Soviet government sponsored the migration of as many as ten thousand Eastern European Jews to Birobidzhan in 1946–1948. In early 1946, the Council of Ministers of the USSR announced a plan to build new infrastructure, and Mikhail Kalinin, a champion of the Birobidzhan project since the late 1920s, stated that he still considered the region as a "Jewish national state" that could be revived through "creative toil."
From late 1944, Joseph Stalin adopted a pro-Zionist foreign policy, apparently believing that the new country would be socialist and would speed the decline of British influence in the Middle East. Accordingly, in November 1947, the Soviet Union, together with the other Soviet bloc countries voted in favor of the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine, which paved the way for the creation of the State of Israel. On May 17, 1948, three days after Israel declared its independence, the Soviet Union officially granted de jure recognition of Israel, becoming only the second country to recognise the Jewish state (preceded only by the United States' de facto recognition) and the first country to grant Israel de jure recognition. Also in the 1948 Arab–Israeli War supported Israel with weaponry supplied via Czechoslovakia.
Nonetheless, Stalin began a new purge with repressing his wartime allies, the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. In January 1948, Solomon Mikhoels was assassinated on Stalin's personal orders in Minsk. His murder was disguised as a hit-and-run car accident. Mikhoels was taken to MGB dacha and killed, along with his non-Jewish colleague Golubov-Potapov, under supervision of Stalin's Deputy Minister of State Security Sergei Ogoltsov. Their bodies were then dumped on a road-side in Minsk.
Despite Stalin's willingness to support Israel early on, various historians suppose that antisemitism in the late 1940s and early 1950s was motivated by Stalin's possible perception of Jews as a potential "fifth column" in light of a pro-Western Israel in the Middle East. Orlando Figes suggests that
After the foundation of Israel in May 1948, and its alignment with the USA in the Cold War, the 2 million Soviet Jews, who had always remained loyal to the Soviet system, were portrayed by the Stalinist regime as a potential fifth column. Despite his personal dislike of Jews, Stalin had been an early supporter of a Jewish state in Palestine, which he had hoped to turn into a Soviet satellite in the Middle East. But as the leadership of the emerging state proved hostile to approaches from the Soviet Union, Stalin became increasingly afraid of pro-Israeli feeling among Soviet Jews. His fears intensified as a result of Golda Meir's arrival in Moscow in the autumn of 1948 as the first Israeli ambassador to the USSR. On her visit to a Moscow synagogue on Yom Kippur (13 October), thousands of people lined the streets, many of them shouting Am Yisroel chai ('The people of Israel live!')—a traditional affirmation of national renewal to Jews throughout the world but to Stalin a dangerous sign of 'bourgeois Jewish nationalism' that subverted the authority of the Soviet state.
Historians Albert S. Lindemann and Richard S. Levy observe that "When, in October 1948, during the high holy days, thousands of Jews rallied around Moscow's central synagogue to honor Golda Myerson, the first Israeli ambassador, the authorities became especially alarmed at the signs of Jewish disaffection." Jeffrey Veidlinger writes that "By October 1948, it was obvious that Mikhoels was by no means the sole advocate of Zionism among Soviet Jews. The revival of Jewish cultural expression during the war had fostered a general sense of boldness among the Jewish masses. Many Jews remained oblivious to the growing Zhdanovshchina and the threat to Soviet Jews that the brewing campaign against 'rootless cosmopolitans' signaled. Indeed, official attitudes toward Jewish culture were ambivalent during this period. On the surface, Jewish culture seemed to be supported by the state: public efforts had been made to sustain the Yiddish theater after Mikhoels's death, Eynikayt was still publishing on schedule, and, most important, the Soviet Union recognized the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. To most Moscow Jews, the state of Soviet Jewry had never been better.
In November 1948, Soviet authorities launched a campaign to liquidate what was left of Jewish culture. The leading members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee were arrested. They were charged with treason, bourgeois nationalism and planning to set up a Jewish republic in Crimea to serve American interests. The Museum of Environmental Knowledge of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast (established in November 1944) and The Jewish Museum in Vilnius (established at the end of the war) were closed down in 1948. The Historical-Ethnographic Museum of Georgian Jewry, established in 1933, was shut down at the end of 1951.
In Birobidzhan, the various Jewish cultural institutions that had been established under Stalin's earlier policy of support for "proletarian Jewish culture" in the 1930s were closed down between late 1948 and early 1949. These included the Kaganovich Yiddish Theater, the Yiddish publishing house, the Yiddish newspaper Birobidzhan, the library of Yiddish and Hebrew books, and the local Jewish schools. The same happened to Yiddish theaters all over the Soviet Union, beginning with the Odessa Yiddish Theater and including the Moscow State Jewish Theater.
In early February 1949, the Stalin Prize-winning microbiologist Nikolay Gamaleya, a pioneer of bacteriology and member of the Academy of Sciences, wrote a personal letter to Stalin, protesting the growing antisemitism: "Judging by absolutely indisputable and obvious indications, the reappearance of antisemitism is not coming from below, not from the masses. . . but is directed from above, by someone's invisible hand. Antisemitism is coming from some high-placed persons who have taken up posts in the leading party organs. . . The ninety-year-old scientist wrote Stalin a second letter in mid-February, again mentioning the growing antisemitism. In March, Gamaleya died, still having received no answer.
During the night of 12–13 August 1952, remembered as the "Night of the Murdered Poets" (Ночь казнённых поэтов), thirteen of the most prominent Yiddish writers of the Soviet Union were executed on the orders of Stalin. Among the victims were Peretz Markish, David Bergelson and Itzik Fefer.
In a 1 December 1952 Politburo session, Stalin announced: "Every Jewish nationalist is the agent of the American intelligence service. Jewish nationalists think that their nation was saved by the USA. . . They think they are indebted to the Americans. Among doctors, there are many Jewish nationalists."
A notable campaign to quietly remove Jews from positions of authority within the state security services was carried out in 1952–1953. The Russian historians Zhores and Roy Medvedev wrote that according to MVD General Sudoplatov, "simultaneously all Jews were removed from the leadership of the security services, even those in very senior positions. In February the anti-Jewish expulsions were extended to regional branches of the MGB. A secret directive was distributed to all regional directorates of the MGB on 22 February, ordering that all Jewish employees of the MGB be dismissed immediately, regardless of rank, age or service record. . . .".
The outside world was not ignorant of these developments, and even the leading members of the Communist Party USA complained about the situation. In the memoir Being Red, the American writer and prominent Communist Howard Fast recalls a meeting with Soviet writer and World Peace Congress delegate Alexander Fadeyev during this time. Fadeyev insisted that "There is no anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union", despite the evidence "that at least eight leading Jewish figures in the Red Army and in government had been arrested on what appeared to be trumped-up charges. Yiddish-language newspapers had been suppressed. Schools that taught Hebrew had been closed. . . ."
The Doctors' Plot
On 13 January 1953, the Soviet Union's TASS information agency announced the unmasking of a conspiracy of so-called "doctors-poisoners" who had covertly attempted to decapitate the Soviet leadership. The accused doctors were all senior physicians—most of them Jewish—who had allegedly confessed to planning and successfully carrying out heinous assassinations, including the covert murders of such high-profile Soviet citizens as writer Alexander Shcherbakov (died 1945) and politician Andrey Zhdanov (died 1948). The alleged conspirators were accused of acting on behalf of both the American and British intelligence services and an anti-Soviet international Jewish bourgeois-nationalist organization.
As Western press accused the Soviet Union of antisemitism, the Central Committee of Communist Party decided to organise a propagandistic trick, a collective letter by Jewish public figures, condemning with fervour "the murderers in white overalls" and the agents of imperialism and Zionism, and to assure there was no antisemitism in the USSR. The letter was signed by well-known scientists and culture figures, who had been forced to do so by the NKVD. However, the letter, initially planned to be published in February 1953, remained unpublished. Instead of the letter, a vehement feuilleton "The Simple-minded and the Swindlers" was published in Pravda, featuring numerous characters with Jewish names, all of them swindlers, villains, saboteurs, whom the naïve Russian people trust, having lost vigilance. What followed was a new wave of antisemitic hysteria, and a plan by Stalin to send all of the Jews to Siberia, similar to other ethnic groups. Only Stalin's death the same year relieved the fear.
Similar purges against Jews were organised in Eastern Bloc countries (see Prague Trials).
One of you asked if our current political campaign can be regarded as antisemitic. Comrade Stalin said: "We hate Nazi not because they are Germans, but because they brought enormous suffering to our land". Same can be said about the Jews.
It has been claimed that: "At the time of [Stalin's] death, no Jew in Russia could feel safe." However, throughout this time, the Soviet media avoided overt antisemitism and continued to report the punishment of officials for antisemitic behavior.
Associates and family
Some of Stalin's associates were Jews or had Jewish spouses, including Lazar Kaganovich. Many of them were purged, including Nikolai Yezhov's wife and Polina Zhemchuzhina, who was Vyacheslav Molotov's wife, and also Bronislava Poskrebysheva. Historian Geoffrey Roberts points out that Stalin "continued to fête Jewish writers and artists even at the height of the anti-Zionist campaign of the early 1950s."
When Stalin's young daughter Svetlana fell in love with prominent Soviet filmmaker Alexei Kapler, a Jewish man twenty-three years her elder, Stalin was strongly irritated by the relationship. According to Svetlana, "He (Stalin) was irritated more than anything else by the fact that Kapler was Jewish". Kapler was convicted to ten years of hard labor in Gulag on the charges of being an "English spy." Stalin's daughter later fell in love with Grigori Morozov, another Jew, and married him. Stalin agreed to their marriage after much pleading on Svetlana's part, but refused to attend the wedding.
Stalin's son Yakov also married a Jewish woman, Yulia Meltzer, and though Stalin disapproved at first, he began to grow fond of her. Stalin's biographer Simon Sebag Montefiore writes that Lavrenty Beria's son noted that his father could list Stalin's affairs with Jewish women.
Nikita Khrushchev wrote in his memoirs that
Analyzing various explanations for Stalin's perceived antisemitism in his book The Lesser Terror: Soviet State Security, 1939–1953, historian Michael Parrish posits that
On the other hand, in Esau's Tears: Modern Anti-Semitism and the Rise of the Jews, historian Albert S. Lindemann observes that
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