Stalin and His Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him - Donald Rayfield (2005)


Chapter 63. Jews and Cosmopolitans

BUT 1947 was to be the calm before the storm. Although Stalin had in 1931 pronounced anti-Semitism to be “like cannibalism” and he would continue to condemn it even up to his death, he nevertheless turned on the USSR’s Jews.

Stalin’s anti-Semitism was not like Hitler’s or that of the Tsar’s governors. It had no racial, let alone religious, basis and it took root slowly. The Leninists he had exterminated were Leninists first and Jews second, but Stalin’s rise to power was interpreted by the Russians who took control of party and secret police as the repression of a Jewish cabal. When Trotsky, Zinoviev, and Radek were ousted and then killed, the party was Aryanized; when Iagoda was replaced by Ezhov and Beria, the NKVD too was purged of Jews. For Stalin Jews became associated with polyglot intellectuals who resisted political direction. After Hitler, Stalin began to suspect them as internationally recognized martyrs, a people who might seek protection from the whole world, not just from the USSR. Once the State of Israel emerged and the Jews of the USSR acquired an alternative homeland, Zionism became a crime and all Jews suspects.

Stalin’s anti-Semitism showed itself in his personal life. His elder son, Iakov, and his daughter, Svetlana, both had liaisons with Jews. Iulia Meltser, Iakov’s wife, and Aleksei Kapler, Svetlana’s admirer, were made to suffer. The seventeen-year-old Svetlana was yelled at: “Couldn’t you find yourself a Russian?!” Svetlana’s first husband, Grigori Morozov, who introduced her to his friends, prominent Jews, was seized by the police in May 1947. The couple’s passports were replaced with new ones that canceled their marriage. Svetlana then married Zhdanov’s son in 1949, and Stalin told her, “Zionists used your first husband to trap you. . . . The whole older generation is infected with Zionism, and they’re teaching the younger generation.”

Some of Stalin’s in-laws, married to the Svanidzes and Alliluevs, whom he had shot, were Jewish. Other Alliluevs, Nadezhda’s sisters-in-law, were friendly with the critic Lidia Shatunovskaia, who was in Solomon Mikhoels’s circle. Stalin’s dislike of Jews was fed by fear that details of his private life would be leaked abroad, but above all by his hatred of any element that had bonds with foreigners. For Stalin, the Jews experienced no proper class struggle; even when they abjured their religion, their ethos and solidarity survived. Stalin had been ambiguous about exploiting the Holocaust even for purposes of propaganda. He had imprisoned and murdered Erlich and Alter, the Polish Jews who had wanted to rally Jews in Britain and America to the Soviet cause. He had been reluctant to let the only internationally known Soviet Jew, Solomon Mikhoels, accompany the Yiddish poet Yitzak Fefer to extract from American Jews $45 million toward the USSR’s war effort.

Even during the war, atrocities against Jews were rarely mentioned; the Nazis were portrayed as bent on exterminating all Soviet citizens. References to Jews were eliminated from the published text of a diary found on a German corpse in September 1941:


Stalin’s conversation with the Polish president, Sikorski, the ambassador to Moscow, Stanisław Kot, and General Anders on December 3, 1941, the day before Erlich and Alter were rearrested by Beria’s Colonel Leonid Raikhman, is also revealing:

Anders: I think I shall have about 150,000 men at my disposal, but a lot of Jews don’t want to serve in the army.

Stalin: Jews are bad soldiers.

Sikorski: The Jews joining the army include a lot of black-marketeers and smugglers. They’ll never make good soldiers. I don’t need that sort of people in the Polish army. . . .

Stalin: Yes, Jews are bad soldiers.13

During the war Solomon Mikhoels and his partner in the Jewish Antifascist Committee, the writer Shakhno Epshtein, boldly deplored anti-Semitism within as well as outside the USSR. The Soviet press omitted such outbursts. Soviet Germanophobia broadened into xenophobia; patriotism narrowed into Russian chauvinism. A stream of reports reached the party protesting that ethnic Russians were underrepresented in the arts, education, and medicine. What Ezhov had done in the NKVD was now done in every official sphere: Jews were restricted. For example, few documents state this, but most memories agree that from 1944 a ceiling, usually 10 percent, was set for admitting Jews to higher education.

Statistics of ethnic affiliation were kept at every level of Soviet society and leave no room for doubt that in the postwar period Stalin discriminated against Jews. In 1945 Jews held about 12 percent of the senior posts in the bureaucracy, the economy, the mass media, and education; by the end of 1951 they had less than 4 percent. By 1950 only 8 of over 1,100 delegates to the Supreme Soviet were Jewish. By the end of 1951 there was just one Jew among over 1,000 party secretaries.14 Wherever Soviet officials had contact with foreigners, as in the news agency TASS, Jews were dismissed. Ivan Maisky, former ambassador to London, awaited arrest. In Nazi Germany only a Goering could declare, “I decide who of my subordinates is a Jew.” In the USSR Jews were self-certified. Kaganovich declared he was a member of the leadership not the Jewish community; Litvinov declared himself an ethnic Russian.

Russian literary circles radiated schadenfreude at the discrediting of the Jews: Fadeev abolished the Jewish section of the Union of Writers as joyfully as he had created it. The censors pulped anthologies of Jewish poetry and books about Jews in the revolution. As in the 1930s, literary critics bore the brunt. A report prepared for Malenkov and Stalin in 1949 accused “an anti-patriotic bourgeois-aesthete group . . . only 15 percent Russians” of monopolizing criticism in literature and the theater.

In the 1890s, Russian writers had periodically grumbled that they were the victims of Jewish literary and theatrical critics. Even Anton Chekhov had confided to his notebook in 1897, “Writers like Leskov . . . cannot please our critics, because our critics are almost all Jews who don’t know the core of Russian life and are alien to its spirit, forms, humor.” In 1949 Sergei Vasiliev composed “Without Whom Can One Live Well in Russia,” a viciously chauvinist parody of a famous nineteenth-century poem by Nikolai Nekrasov, “Who Lives Well in Russia.” Vasiliev wrote of “twelve vicious eggheads of our Soviet criticism” and endowed them with typically Jewish names: Gurevich, Berstein, Finkelstein, Munblit, Holzmann. Vasiliev accused them of corrupting Russian literature with decadent and imperialist influences from such figures as James Joyce and Rudyard Kipling, and of supporting dubious Russian poets like Akhmatova and Pasternak. The parody ends with the Jews being taken by the ear and thrown out of literature “in the Russian way of Lenin and Stalin.” Vasiliev’s poem was not printed but was set in type and read out, after approval from state security officials, to a meeting of the Union of Writers.15

For some time Jews remained in the MGB, including Raikhman, Eitingon, and Grigulevich, but eventually they too would go.16 Had Jewish composers and filmmakers been purged, Russian music and cinema would have become a wasteland. The nationally important work of the Soviet Academy of Sciences and the conscience of some academicians also inhibited the anti-Semitic purge. In physics, the proportion of Jewish graduates had increased during the war from around 50 to 98 percent, and the atomic bomb project then exempted them from dismissal. Kaganovich and Mekhlis hung on to power, but their spheres of action were narrowed, and the Jewish wives of satraps such as Molotov, Andrei Andreev, and Stalin’s secretary Poskriobyshev were demoted, exiled, or shot, a fate that their husbands apparently accepted without protest.

In propaganda the USSR was still portrayed as the home of European Jews, or at least non-Zionist Jews. Odessa was in 1950 the last city in Europe where Yiddish could be heard on the streets. Stalin dithered. On the one hand, since his first treatise on the subject in 1913, Stalin had maintained that the Jews were not a nationality, since they had no homeland, and must therefore assimilate. On the other, he created on the Manchurian border an alternative Zion, an autonomous Jewish territory, Birobidjan, where he settled a few thousand token Jews.

Stalin had no use for the Jewish Antifascist Committee after the war; it was too closely connected with Zionism. Stalin held back in 1947, for in November the United Nations voted to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Stalin supported the founding of Israel, as although it depended on American capital and was a powerful magnet for Soviet Jews, many of Israel’s founding fathers had been born in the Russian empire and been members of socialist or communist movements and Stalin hoped to influence them. On May 18, 1948, within hours of the United States, the USSR recognized Israel. Soviet Jews were forbidden to migrate but Romania and Czechoslovakia happily met their own anti-Semites’ and Stalin’s demands by letting 10,000 Jews leave every month. This was one move by Stalin that enjoyed international approval.

In September 1948 the new Israeli ambassador, Golda Meir, arrived in Moscow. Meir knew no Russian, but her counselor Namir and her attaché Ratner did. Meir received an ovation at the Jewish theater in Moscow. Her visit to the synagogue drew a crowd that blocked nearby lanes and, worse, Molotov’s wife, Polina Zhemchuzhina, whose robotic Stalinism had not extinguished all spontaneous emotion, suddenly addressed Golda Meir in Yiddish: “Ich bin a yiddische Tochter!” Other Soviet Jews were warier than Zhemchuzhina: Ilya Ehrenburg told Golda Meir he hated Russian Jews who only spoke English.

A year later Polina Zhemchuzhina was arrested—she and Molotov had divorced at Stalin’s suggestion a few days before. Stalin loathed Zhemchuzhina; as the closest living friend of Nadezhda Allilueva, she knew what had prompted her suicide. Molotov abstained from voting for her expulsion from the Central Committee but her career was over, and Molotov, despite apologizing for his abstention, lost the Foreign Ministry to Vyshinsky. By imprisoning Zhemchuzhina, Stalin pinioned Molotov as he had Kalinin. Kalinin’s Estonian wife had been tortured in 1938 and, despite his appeals in 1944, the wife of the head of state was still delousing shirts in the camp bathhouse as he lay dying.

The Soviet–Israeli idyll did not last long: communists won only four seats in the Israeli Knesset; the MAPAM party lobbied for the right of Soviet Jews to emigrate. Israel became a client state of the United States.

Palestine was not the only country mooted for the survivors of the Holocaust. Stalin had allowed Mikhoels and Fefer, during their wartime visit to America, to suggest the Crimea. In the 1920s and 1930s some $30 million had been contributed by Americans to aid Jewish settlers in the north Crimean steppes. Molotov was dubious: he thought Jews an urban people who “couldn’t be put on a tractor.” But Mikhoels pushed the idea, tactlessly telling Stalin that Soviet Jews needed a refuge from Russian anti-Semitism.

Like Erlich and Alter in 1941, the leaders of the Jewish Antifascist Committee had presumed too much. Stalin preferred a murderous solution to the aspirations of Soviet Jewry. To arrest Solomon Mikhoels, the committee’s president, would have made him a martyr, so Stalin would have Mikhoels killed, and Zionists would confess to murdering him for his loyalty to the USSR. Viktor Abakumov provided a pretext: under torture, I. I. Goldshtein, a friend of Svetlana’s first husband, confessed that Solomon Mikhoels was giving the Americans information on Stalin’s family. Abakumov was ordered to liquidate Mikhoels. Despondent at the arrest of friends and at a flood of abusive letters, Mikhoels told a leading actor that he sensed he would soon die. He went to Minsk with a friend, the critic Vladimir Golubov-Potapov, who also worked for the MGB. Three senior hangmen arranged the killing for January 13, 1948: Abakumov’s deputy Sergei Ogoltsov, Shubniakov of counterintelligence, and Beria’s crony Lavrenti Tsanava, head of the Belorussian MGB. Golubov-Potapov was instructed to get Mikhoels out of his hotel. The two were snatched and taken by car to Tsanava’s dacha. They were laid on a road, and a truck driven over them. The corpses were then dumped in the snow in a suburb of Minsk.

Civil police came from Moscow to certify accidental death. Rumors spread that right-wing Poles or fanatical Zionists had killed Mikhoels. Killers and victims were at first both honored: Tsanava, Shubniakov, and the MGB drivers got medals; Mikhoels an obituary in Pravda. Albert Einstein and Marc Chagall sent condolences. Polina Zhemchuzhina came to the funeral, Ehrenburg spoke, and Peretz Markish recited a poem ending, “Out of the ditches and stinking pits / Six million innocent tortured victims will arise to give you reverence.” Kaganovich’s niece came and warned Mikhoels’s relatives, “Never ask anyone anything.”

In spring 1948 Abakumov drew up for Stalin a list of Jewish activists, concentrating on those linked with the Jewish Antifascist Committee, and those designated British and American spies. The committee was officially dissolved in November, when Israel took a “hostile” stance toward the USSR. Abakumov searched the Jewish theater and “proved” that Mikhoels had been an American Zionist agent. Dozens were arrested and tortured with red-hot metal rods; some held out for months. One interrogator, Colonel M. T. Likhachiov, explained to his victims, “I’m going to wring your necks, otherwise I’ll get my head cut off.” Abakumov’s secretary V. I. Komarov later wrote to Stalin (when he and Abakumov were behind bars): “I especially hated Jewish nationalists and was merciless to them, for I saw them as the most dangerous and spiteful enemies.”

Polina Zhemchuzhina was abandoned to Abakumov’s mercies. He broke her by making two male officials confess in her presence that they had had group sex with her.17 Stalin had these statements read out at the Politburo in Molotov’s presence. Zhemchuzhina was then sent to Kazakhstan.

The Jewish antifascists were shown no mercy. Many were accused of crimes that became capital when in 1950 Stalin brought back the death penalty. The biologist Lina Shtern, who through her American brother had imported streptomycin to treat TB patients, was declared a spy, as was the famous biochemist Iakov Parnas, who died in his first week in prison. One academician, Nikolai Gamaleia, who was ninety and ready to die, courageously wrote to Stalin: “something very wrong in respect of Jews is happening in our country . . . Anti-Semitism now comes from persons occupying top positions in governing party organs. . . .”

The interrogations and torture dragged on, then abruptly stopped in 1949. Abakumov’s men had a more urgent purge of Leningrad’s party leaders to conduct. Half of the Jews were sentenced to the camps, but fifteen of the remainder were saved for a major trial, and their “leader,” Yitzhak Fefer, was in 1950 transferred to a new special prison, supervised by Malenkov and Shkiriatov, for dangerous political prisoners. The fifteen, when they finally came to trial, had the consolation that those who had arrested them were now held in the same prisons.