Jewish people in Belarus have suffered unthinkably over hundreds of years and we have a responsibility to fully comprehend the enormity of that complex history. Historians and writers offer us the opportunity to learn and appreciate this.
Many of our blogs and articles, found on our website, offer some insight into the complex and fascinating world of Russian/Soviet Jews. This article is an excerpt from ‘The Whisperers’ by Orlando Figes.
Orlando Figes, born 1959, is a British historian and award-winning author of nine books on Russian and European history which have been translated into over 30 languages. He is professor of history at Birkbeck College, University of London. His book ‘The Whisperers – Private Life in Stalin’s Russia’ is ‘the true story of the lives of ordinary people in Stalin’s Russia: a world where everyone was afraid to talk and a society spoke in whispers, whether to protect friends and family – or to betray them. Where a junior worker might inform on their superior to get a job; a husband to get rid of a lover; a neighbour out of petty jealousy. Where living a double life became the norm, and yet somehow, a few defied the state’.
‘The most haunting history I have read in years’
– Ruth Scurr, The Times Book of the Year.
We have here selected just a few pages, which give just a sense of the antisemitism in the Soviet Union during the Stalin years and the impact on ordinary Jewish people’s lives.
As the Cold War intensified, fear of foreigners took hold of society. The American journalist Harrison Salisbury recalls returning to Moscow as a foreign correspondent in 1949. None of the Russians he had known from his previous stay in 1944 would acknowledge him. He wrote to his old acquaintances Ehrenberg and Simonov, but not even they replied to him. In 1944, it seemed to Salisbury, the country had been poor, but, compared with the 1930s; there was a new mood of freedom and a buoyant atmosphere that arose from the people’s hopes for victory. By contrast, in 1949 the country had reverted to a state of fear, and there was a complete severance of any kind of ordinary human relations between Russians and foreigners which, in turn, simply reflected the impressive xenophobia of the Soviet government and the degree to which they had made it plain to all Russians that the most certain, if not the quickest, way to obtain a one-way ticket to Siberia or places even more distant lay in having anything to do with a foreigner.
The briefest of contracts with foreigners could lead to arrest for espionage. The Soviet jails were filled with people who had been on trips abroad. In February 1947, a law was passed to outlaw marriages between Soviet citizens and foreigners. Police kept watch over hotels, restaurants and foreign embassies, on the lookout for Soviet girls who met with foreign men.
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 the 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. Everywhere she went she was cheered by crowds of Soviet Jews. On her visit to a Moscow synagogue on Yom Kippur (13th 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.
The enthusiastic reception of Meir prompted Stalin to step up the anti-Jewish campaign that had in fact been underway for many months. In January 1948, Solomon Mikhoels, the director of the Jewish Theatre in Moscow and the leader of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAFC), was killed in a car accident arranged by the MVD. The JAFC had been established in 1942 to attract Western Jewish aid for the Soviet war effort, but for many of the Soviet Jews who had joined it, among them leading writers, artists, musicians, actors, historians and scientists, its broader aim was to encourage Jewish culture in the USSR. The immediate post-war years were relatively favourable for this goal. In 1946, Mikhoels was awarded the Stalin Prize. Jewish plays were often broadcast on the radio. The JAFC developed a major project to commemorate the Nazi destruction of the Soviet Jews: a collection of documents edited by Vasily Grossman and Ilia Ehrenberg known as The Black Book. Stalin had hoped to use the JAFC to curry favour with the nascent Jewish state in the Middle East. But as it became clear that the new state would be more likely to be allied to the USA, he changed his attitude. The MGB was instructed to build up a case against the JAFC as an ‘anti-Soviet nationalistic organisation’. The publication of The Black Book was postponed indefinitely. After the murder of Mikhoels, the Jewish Theatre was closed down. In December 1948, over a hundred JAFC members were arrested, tortured to confess their ‘anti-Soviet activities’ and executed or sent to labour camps.
In the Soviet literary world the assault against the Jews took the form of a campaign against ‘cosmopolitans’. The term was first coined by the ninetieth-century literary critic Vissarion Belinksy to refer to writers (‘rootless cosmopolitans’) who lacked or rejected national character. It reappeared in war years, when Russian nationalism and anti-Jewish feelings were both on the rise. For example, in November 1943, Fadeyev attacked the Jewish writer Ehrenberg for coming from ‘that circle of the intelligentsia that understands internationalism in a vulgar cosmopolitan sense and fails to overcome the servile admiration of everything foreign’. After 1945, the term appeared with increasing regularity in the Soviet literary press.
The campaign against the ‘cosmopolitans’ began when Fadeyev forwarded a letter he had received from an obscure journalist (Natalia Begicheva) to Stalin on 10th December 1948. Originally written as a denunciation to the MVD, the letter claimed that there was a group of ‘enemies’ at work within the literary establishment, and cited as the leaders of this ‘anti-patriotic group’ seven critics and writers, all but one of them Jewish. Under pressure from Stalin, Fadeyev made a speech in the Writers’ Union on 22nd December. He attacked a group of theatre critics, naming four of the six Jews denounced by Begicheva (Logann Altman, Aleksandr Borshchagovsky, Mikhail Gurevich, and Luzovsky), who, Fadeyev claimed, were ‘trying to discredit our Soviet theatre’. It was a relatively moderate speech: Fadeyev was apparently reluctant to play the role of Stalin’s henchman. Once a decent man, Fadeyev had been reduced to a trembling alcoholic by the moral compromises he had been forced to make. Stalin kept up the pressure, enlisting Pravda to attack Fadeyev for not being vigilant enough against the ‘cosmopolitans’, and putting rumours out that he was about to be replaced as the leader of the Writers’ Union. Unable to resist any longer, Fadeyev gave his endorsement to an anonymous article in Pravda on 29th January 1949 (’About One Anti-Patriotic Group’) which, in language strongly reminiscent of the rhetoric of the Great Terror, denounced several theatre critics as ‘rootless cosmopolitans’ and accused them of remounting a ‘bourgeois’ literary conspiracy to sabotage the healthy principles of ‘national pride’ in Soviet literature. All the critics named were Jews. The article was almost certainly written by the Party hack and Pravda journalist David Zaslavsky. A former Menshevik and active Zionist until he joined the Bolsheviks in 2921, Zaslavsky had written several hatchet jobs for Stalin to expiate his sins and expedite his rise into Soviet elite.
The ‘anti-cosmopolitan’ campaign opened the floodgates to anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union. Anti-Semitism had a long history in the Russian Empire. After 1917, it continued to exist, especially among the urban lower classes, whose hatred of the Jews in trade was a major factor in the popular resentment of NEP which Stalin had exploited during his rise to power. The widespread indifference of the lower classes towards the purges of the 1930s was also partly shaped by the perception that the Party leaders, the main victims of the Terror, were all ‘Jews’ in any case. But generally before the war the Soviet government made serious attempts to stamp out anti-Semitism as a relic of the tsarist past, and Soviet Jews were relatively untroubled by discrimination or hostility. All this changed with the German occupation of the Soviet Union. Nazi propaganda related the latest force of anti-Semitism in Ukraine and Belarus, where a significant proportion of the non-Jewish population silently supported the destruction of the Jews and took part as auxiliaries in rounding up the Jews for execution or deportation to the camps. Even in the remote eastern regions of the Soviet rear there was an explosion of anti-Semitism, as soldiers and civilians evacuated from the western regions of the Soviet Union stirred up hatred of the Jews.
With the post-war adoption of Russian nationalism as the ruling ideology of the Stalinist regime, the Jews were recast as ‘alien outsiders’ and potential ‘spies’ and ‘enemies’, allies of Israel and the USA. Borshchagovsky recalls the atmosphere of ‘Kill the Yids!’ which developed under cover of the ‘anti-cosmopolitan’ campaign:
‘Rootless’, cosmopolitan’, ‘anti-patriot’ were useful words for the Black Hundreds* – masks behind which the old term ‘Yid’ could hide. To take away the mask and speak that sweet primeval word was full of risks: the Black Hundred was a coward, and anti-Semitism is strictly punished by the Criminal Code.
The language of officials who broadened the campaign against the Jews was similarly masked. Between 1948 and 1953, tens of thousands of Soviet Jews were arrested, dismissed from their jobs, expelled from their universities or forcibly evicted from their homes, yet they were never told (and it was never mentioned in the paperwork) that the reason for these actions had to do with their ethnic origins. Officially, at least, such discrimination was illegal in the Soviet Union.
Before the war most of the Jews of Russia’s major cities were only partly conscious of themselves as Jews. They came from families that had left behind the traditional Jewish life of the shtetl and embraced the urban culture of the Soviet Union. They had exchanged their Judaism and their Jewish ethnicity for a new identity based upon the principles of Soviet internationalism. They thought of themselves as ‘Soviet citizens’, and immersed themselves in Soviet society, rising to positions that had been closed Jews before 1917, even if they retained Jewish customs, habits and beliefs in the privacy of their own homes. The anti-Jewish campaigns of the post-war years compelled these Jews to see themselves as Jews again.
The Gaister family was typical of those Jews who had left the Pale of Settlement and found a new home in the Soviet Union. Before his arrest in 1937, Aron Gaister was a leading member of the Soviet government, the Deputy Commissar of Agriculture; his wife, Rachel Kaplan, was a senior economist in the Commissariat of Heavy Industry. Their daughters Inna and Natalia were brought up as Soviet citizens, immersed in the universal culture and ideas of Russian literature and barely conscious of the Jewish elements that remained in their Moscow home – from the food they ate to the family rituals on Soviet holidays and the tales of the pogroms which their grandmother told. In 1944, Inna enrolled as a student in the Physics Faculty of Moscow University. She worked in the evenings at the laboratory of one of her professors to support herself and help her mother, who, after her release from the ALZHIR labour camp in 1945, had settled in Kolchugino, 100 kilometres north-east of Moscow. In 1948, Inna’s younger sister was refused entry to Moscow University. When Inna went to find out why, she was told by the secretary of the Party committee that she should look at her sister’s questionnaire: Natalia had entered ‘Jewish’ under nationality. This was the first time Inna was made conscious of her Jewishness, she says. A Russian boy with lower grades was admitted to the university instead of Natalia. He went on to become a professor.
In April 1949, Inna was arrested during her defence of her diploma at the university. Convicted as ‘the daughter of an enemy of the people’, she was sentenced to five years of exile in Kazakhstan, where she found a job as a schoolteacher in Borovoe, a bleak and remote steppeland town. Two months later, Natalia was arrested too: she had failed to record the arrest of her parents in the questionnaire she filled out to join the Komsomol at the Moscow Pedagogical Institute, where she was accepted as a student in 1948. The fact that she kept a photograph of her father, instead of renouncing him, was taken by her interrogators as an admission of her guilt as a ‘socially dangerous element’. Natalia was also sentenced to five years of exile in Kazakhstan. She ended up with Inna and her mother, who joined them there.
*Black Hundreds – Anti-Semitic Russian nationalists of the tsarist era.
*Natalia was not asserting her own Jewishness: nationality, or ethnic origin, was a required category in all official documents.
The Whisperers – Private Life in Stalin’s Russia is one of the many books in The Together Plan’s library. The library is focused on the story of the Jews of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. If you would like to have access to our library and support the work of the charity why not sign up and join our Friends Club.