Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 6 No. 2/3


Stalin Against the Jews

Arkadi Vaksberg
Stalin Against the Jews
Knopf, New York 1995, pp. 308

IT IS well known that Stalin’s last act, after initiating an anti-Semitic purge, was to organise a trial of mainly Jewish doctors, which was intended to culminate in a public execution in Moscow, followed by ‘spontaneous’ pogroms against Jews, and impassioned appeals from prominent Soviet Jews to the authorities to move their compatriots to the far east of the Soviet Union, for their own safety. This gruesome prospect was cut short by Stalin’s death on 5 March 1953.

Arkadi Vaksberg aims to investigate the processes which led to Stalin’s final act of terror. Much of what he presents can be found in the various Western histories of Soviet Jewry. He does, however, bring to light archival material that confirms that the anti-Jewish campaign that erupted in the Soviet Union in the late 1940s had been brewing for some time, and that Stalin had been carefully cultivating a culture of anti-Semitism within the Soviet bureaucracy and society at large, whilst at the same time condemning anti-Semitism, and handing out awards to a wide range of Soviet Jews.

Vaksberg tries to explain the roots of Stalin’s anti-Semitism by emphasising a passage in his essay of 1912, Marxism and the National Question: ‘A nation has the right to determine its fate freely. It has the right to live as it wishes.’ (p. 5) As Stalin didn’t think the Jews constituted a nation, says Vaksberg, it is logical for him to think that they were ‘an object to be manipulated by those in power in accordance with their political goals’ (p. 7). Far from me to defend Stalin, but he was not saying that those who in his opinion did not constitute a nation were to be denied their rights. He said that such people, not just the Jews, but the Letts in Lithuania, the Poles in Ukraine, and the Russians in the Caucasus, should be permitted, and in a democratic state would be permitted, to use and be taught their own language, and would have complete religious freedom. Moreover, Stalin did not say, as Vaksberg asserts, that the Jews ‘are not a nation but “something mystical, intangible and otherworldly”’ (p. 4), this was Stalin’s interpretation of the consequences of Otto Bauer’s theory of nationalism, and had nothing to do with the Jews at all. As Stalin says elsewhere in his essay, ‘paper will put up with anything that is written on it’ – and he should know. As a lawyer, Vaksberg should be aware that if charges are to stick, the evidence has to be convincing. His misrepresentation of a readily available document places a shadow, not over his assertion that Stalin was anti-Semitic – there is concrete evidence of that prior to 1912 – but over his competence in analysing archival documents that are not available to the average reader.

This is a shame, because the author unearths some very interesting background details to the Jewish dimension of the Moscow Trials, and to the background of official anti-Semitism. Stalin was sensitive to any accusation that his regime was in any way anti-Jewish. The trial of the alleged killers of the Soviet Arctic explorer Nikolai Vulfson took place in May 1936. The major factor in the accusation was that the accused had acted on anti-Semitic motives, although, as Vaksberg says, there was nothing to show this. However, in August the show trial of Zinoviev and Kamenev opened. Vaksberg considers that the former trial was organised with the intention of dispelling any suggestions that the show trial of leading Jewish Old Bolsheviks had any anti-Semitic flavour. This was typical of Stalin; later on he was to hand out Stalin Prizes to distinguished Jewish figures as his henchmen harassed others. As Vaksberg says, Stalin’s public statements against anti-Semitism were akin to a criminal’s desire to deny his guilt, a repeated assertion which, because of its unprompted nature, could only highlight its dishonest nature.

Vaksberg intends to dispel the idea that Stalin only embarked upon an official anti-Semitic course in the late 1940s. This is hardly contentious, as most studies of Soviet Jewry recognise that there were traces of official anti-Semitism in the 1930s. Once again, he shows a careless attitude towards available texts, saying that Trotsky said nothing about Stalin’s anti-Jewish feelings in the chapter on Thermidor in his Stalin, which is just not the case. Nevertheless, it is chilling to read that in August 1942, as the huge battle at Stalingrad was starting, that the Department of Propaganda and Agitation of the CPSU’s Central Committee was writing to Malenkov, Andreyev and Shcherbakov, complaining that many Soviet institutions, including the Bolshoi Theatre and the Moscow and Leningrad Conservatories, were headed by Jews and not Russians. Vaksberg has found many other similar documents in the archives. As he asks, would these letters have been written if their authors had not been sure that such denunciations met with the approval of their superiors?

Vaksberg raises various reasons for the revival of anti-Semitism in the Stalin era. On a couple of occasions he sees a parallel between the Soviet regime’s promotion of Russian nationalism and the recrudescence of anti-Semitism as a state policy. Elsewhere he sees it as a device used by crisis-ridden regimes to divert popular discontent. Sometimes he links the accentuation or muting of anti-Semitism with foreign policy issues. In other places, it is seen as the product of Stalin’s personal prejudices.

In one respect, Stalin’s prejudices were not a crucial factor. Once the Soviet regime had embarked upon a nationally-oriented course from the late 1920s, it was extremely likely, if not inevitable, that it would sometime fall prey to Russian nationalism and its corollary, anti-Semitism. In another respect, however, Stalin’s prejudices were important, as it was no accident that it was he who led and personified the degeneration of the Russian Revolution. Bolsheviks who held to their revolutionary ideas, and who would never have descended to anti-Semitism, had to be destroyed. On the other hand, Bolsheviks who were corrupted through the process of degeneration often adopted an anti-Semitic outlook, such as Molotov, or, if they were Jews, pretended that anti-Semitism didn’t exist, and happily helped Stalin’s plans by kidding themselves that it was something else. It must, however, be said that of Stalin’s characteristics which enabled to him to adopt his historic rôle, anti-Semitism played a secondary part. Much more important were his lack of confidence in the proletariat, either in the Soviet Union or internationally, and his consequent reliance upon bureaucratic measures, and his general crude conception of what Marxism actually represented.

Stalin’s personal prejudices provided the form in which Soviet anti-Semitism took place. Had he died in, say, 1945, there still would have been an anti-Semitic purge in the late 1940s as part of the general terror which accompanied the rebuilding of Soviet society after the war, although the precise details would have been different. The Jews were an obvious target for the bureaucracy. Apart from the fact that anti-Semitism had long been a useful tool for Great Russian chauvinists, the huge emigration during the last few decades of Tsarism meant that many Soviet Jews had family connections in the West, and especially the USA, which was very dangerous in the heated atmosphere of the Cold War. Furthermore, after the horrors of the Second World War and the indifference of the Soviet regime to their specific suffering, it is not surprising that many Soviet Jews saw the establishment of the state of Israel as something positive, and this too was especially suspect once the Soviet Union’s short honeymoon with Israel had ended, and it shifted into the Western sphere of influence.

Stalin’s death corresponded with the growing realisation within the Soviet bureaucracy that mass terror was rapidly becoming a self-defeating strategy. One of the first acts of his successors was to terminate the planned anti-Jewish measures; the doctors were freed, and the trials, pogroms and deportations were called off, no doubt because a thorough purge of the Jews would have seriously damaged the running of the state apparatus, for although by then there were few Jews in high ranking posts, there were still many in a wide range of lower positions. But just as coercion remained an option for the Soviet bureaucracy right through the post-Stalin period, so did anti-Semitism, and at various times after 1953 anti-Jewish sentiments were whipped up by the Soviet authorities, often in the form of ‘economic’ criminal trials (theft, embezzlement, etc.), in which Jewish defendants were to the fore, or under the guise of anti-Zionism.

The basic question that has to be addressed is why the internationalist regime resulting from the October Revolution, which offered and indeed gave much to the Jews and others who suffered Tsarist oppression, adopted a nationalist course, which, due to the intimate connection between Great Russian nationalism and anti-Jewish sentiments, inevitably led to the revival of anti-Semitism as a state policy. Vaksberg does not recognise the national isolation of the Soviet Union and Stalin’s resulting theory of ‘Socialism in One Country’ as the determining factors behind the rise of Great Russian chauvinism and anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, and he is therefore left with a number of essentially correct but disconnected factors that cannot in and of themselves explain why the Soviet regime betrayed one of its founding principles.

Paul Flewers

Updated by ETOL: 29.9.2011