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Did Stalin’s Death Save Soviet Jews?

Ralph Seliger
June 17, 2016

by Ralph Seliger

Joshua RubensteinJOSHUA RUBENSTEIN impressively combines his career as an author with eight books to his credit (written, co-authored or edited) with thirty-seven years as an Amnesty International staffer currently overseeing branch activities in New York, New Jersey and New England. He’s published biographies of Leon Trotsky, Ilya Ehrenburg and Adolf Hitler, plus books on Soviet dissidents, Soviet Jews and the Holocaust.

In showcasing Rubenstein’s latest work, The Last Days of Stalin (Yale University Press, 2016), the Center for Jewish History and YIVO went multi-media at their Manhattan headquarters on June 8th. The evening began with two video screenings on the effusive public display of mourning for Stalin after he died on March 5, 1953 — including an official Soviet newsreel in Russian (the meaning was clear without subtitles) and an English-language clip narrated by Kenneth Branagh.

Then the author spoke about his book, with the aid of some vintage photos. One shows Stalin posing with a number of high-ranking officials in 1946; Rubenstein pointed out two in the picture whom Stalin was to have executed within two years. Mortality was an occupational hazard for those rising to Stalin’s notice in ruling and even cultural circles.

Rubenstein displayed two photos from that era of Mao Tse-tung posing with the Soviet leadership — including one later doctored by Georgy Malenkov, the premier at the time of Stalin’s death, airbrushing the others out and depicting him alone with Stalin and Mao. According to Rubenstein, this ploy to enhance his claim as Stalin’s heir backfired badly, with the collective leadership rallying against him. Still, Malenkov was the first post-Stalin leader to fall from grace without being killed. (Rubenstein did not discuss the case of Lavrentiy Beria, the former NKVD security chief, who suffered the most rapid and dire fall from the post-Stalin leadership, being summarily executed in a prison basement in June, 1953. His was the last murder of an eclipsed leader of the USSR.)

This program included the author in conversation with an elderly couple, Sophia and Mikhail Turovsky, who recounted the anti-Semitism they experienced during their Soviet childhoods, including the anti-Semitic atmosphere fomented by the regime during the "Doctors' Plot" period — January-February ’53, the last two months of Stalin’s life. Sophia Turovsky spoke of how Jewish students were blatantly discriminated against in the awarding of academic prizes and admissions to elite educational institutions, and the secretiveness with which her parents took this in, to the point of telling her what she could or could not say about her Jewishness (something that reminded me of African American youngsters being given “the talk” by their parents about how to interact with police).

FINALLY, THERE WAS a discussion between Rubenstein and YIVO executive director Jonathan Brent (also a highly published authority on Stalin and Soviet history, co-author of Stalin’s Last Crime: The Plot against the Jewish Doctors, 1948–1953 ) assessing the plausibility that Stalin was preparing a mass deportation of Soviet Jews to Central Asia and/or Siberia. They both acknowledge that there's no absolute proof this was in the works, but there is some powerful circumstantial evidence.

First, there was the anti-Semitic hysteria inherent in the so-called Doctors' Plot, in which nine doctors (at least six of whom were Jews) were arrested for allegedly murdering two high-ranking officials and planning the assassination of top military commanders in their care, supposedly at the behest of the U.S. and Britain and in the service of an international Jewish/Zionist conspiracy. Anti-Jewish conspiracy-mongering by Stalin's regime began some years prior, culminating in the 1952 execution of prominent Jewish cultural figures active in the war-time Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. During its final phase in early ‘53, patients refused to be treated by Jewish doctors, many of whom lost their jobs, and Soviet Jews were traumatized.

Dr. Brent spoke of orders to build four new concentration camps — ostensibly for German POWs, of whom there were hardly any left. Plus there’s anecdotal evidence that lists of Jewish residents were being compiled by some local security officials, but it’s not known if this was mandated by central authorities or initiated locally.

While conceding that Stalin’s anti-Semitism was quite different from Hitler’s, with Stalin not averse to relationships with individual Jews throughout his life, Brent drew a parallel with the Nazi concept of “working toward the Führer,” of intuiting the dictator’s intentions without explicit orders. The Holocaust was enacted without written orders from Hitler, and there is reason to believe that Soviet officials sometimes acted similarly, anticipating Stalin’s desires.

There’s the rumor of a “Day X,” with the expectation that a pamphlet would be issued denouncing a Jewish conspiracy as a signal for the deportations to begin. As the speakers mentioned, there was ample precedent for the deportation of whole minorities during World War II: Crimean Tatars, Chechens, Volga Germans, and Ingush. Knowing this, it made sense for officials sniffing the growing anti-Semitic atmosphere to assume such an event was in store for the Jews.

STALIN'S ANTI-SEMITISM was a function of his paranoia. It was famously fed by Soviet Jews enthusiastically greeting Golda Meir when she became Israel’s first ambassador to the USSR, fostering the perception that they felt more loyalty to the Jewish state than to the Kremlin.

Furthermore, Ben-Gurion did not align Israeli foreign policy with the Soviet Bloc, despite its provision of Israel with vital military equipment during the 1948 war. Brent argued that Ben-Gurion favored “neutrality” in the Cold War; his more leftwing coalition partner, the United Workers Party (Mapam), attacked the prime minister for being pro-Western instead of attempting to ally with the “nonaligned” (and quasi-pro-Soviet) camp led by India, Egypt and Yugoslavia. It’s an open question as to which was the more practical course for Israel, but Stalin surely felt betrayed.

Brent speculated that Stalin might have changed his mind about the advisability of deporting the Jews and suggested that such a grossly anti-Semitic purge would have blunted the propaganda value to the international Communist movement of the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg prosecution, which was being portrayed in part as emblematic of American anti-Semitism.

Regardless, the arrested doctors were quickly released upon Stalin’s death, with a terse public explanation that it was all a mistake. Some officials who had carried out Stalin’s wishes in manufacturing this fictitious plot, were themselves executed in the following year.

A final outgrowth of Stalin’s death was a Soviet “peace offensive.” The doctors’ exoneration may have been one of a number of signals from the new leadership of a willingness to come to an accommodation with the West. The Kremlin released some foreign prisoners and moved its Asian allies toward an armistice in Korea, but there were still problems standing in the way of a full-fledged detente. In June of 1953, the Soviets reacted with lethal military force against popular protests and riots in East Germany.

On the American side, the new administration of Pres. Dwight Eisenhower presented mixed views. Rubenstein projected photos of Eisenhower himself making a conciliatory speech shortly following Stalin’s death, and of his Secretary of State John Foster Dulles addressing the same gathering two days later with a more hard-line message. Also, as Rubenstein noted, the U.S. was heavily impacted at this time by a purge mentality of our own known as McCarthyism.

Ralph Seliger is a veteran editor, freelance writer, and blogger. He edited Israel Horizons from 2003 until 2011, when it was discontinued, and currently administers the blogs for Ameinu and The Third Narrative.