Stalin’s War Against the Jews: The Doctor’s Plot and the Soviet Solution
Free Press, 1990
A person’s lack of self-awareness can produce a sense of eye-rolling irony. Not a pleasant feeling—sort of like spinning one’s wheels. But such an encounter doesn’t have to be a total loss. A self-unaware person can still teach us things, as long as we don’t let the irony get the better of us.
Louis Rapoport’s 1990 work Stalin’s War Against the Jews gives us such an opportunity by offering an engaging roundup of a vital part of twentieth century history. Although Rapoport presents it as part of the interminable saga of Jewish “lugubria” (if I may coin a term), what he really offers is an eye-opening account of Jewish culpability in the vast blacklist of Soviet atrocity. In mentioning anti-gentile enormities offhandedly and focusing more on the significantly less deadly anti-Jewish crimes of the Soviets, Rapoport reveals his appalling lack of self-awareness. (As do Natan Sharansky, Benjamin Netanyahu, Robert Conquest, and Theodore Draper, who provide glowing blurbs on the book’s back cover.)
Would these reviewers have responded as well to a book entitled Hitler’s War Against White Christians which only mentions Jewish suffering in passing?
Rapoport starts with some useful biographical information about Stalin, whom he correctly vilifies throughout his book. He describes young Joseph Djugashivili as an industrious bully who was always cynical and pragmatic regarding his interactions with Jews. Rapoport covers Stalin’s time as a young radical robbing banks, getting into Lenin’s good graces, and vying with the more urbane and Mephistophelean Leon Trotsky during the early days of the Bolsheviks. Rapoport compares Stalin, being a Georgian, to the Corsican Napoleon and the Austrian Hitler as an ethnic outsider identifying with gentile majorities as a basis for his power and appeal.
Right off the bat, however, he discusses Stalin’s sinister yet unrealized intention in his last years to deport nearly all Soviet Jews to Siberia, Kazakhstan, and Birobidzhan. Yes, I think it is fair to say that Russian Jews dodged a bullet when Stalin died. Despite this, Rapoport makes the dubious claim that “the Jews suffered far more under the ‘anti-racist’ Bolsheviks than they had under the openly anti-Semitic czar Nicholas II.”
Here is where the lack of self-awareness comes in. Everyone suffered more under the Bolsheviks than under the Czar. For gentiles, it wasn’t even close, yet Rapoport never directly acknowledges this. It’s as if for him no one can suffer the way a Jew suffers. Furthermore, he quite astonishingly indicts the Jews for much of this suffering. He admits not only that Jews “laid the foundations of communism and socialism” (for example, Karl Marx, Ferdinand Lassalle, and Eduard Bernstein) and made up Lenin’s “top men” (Lev Kamenev, Grigory Zinoviev, and Jacob Sverdlov) but also that Jews were instrumental in the rise of Bolshevism.
In the three decades before the Revolution of 1917, a growing number of young Jewish revolutionaries flocked to the new religion of communism, seeing it as a means of delivery not only from their own constricted status as Jews, but for all humankind. These were the educated, secular equivalents of those Jews who had followed previous false Messiahs—such as Shabtai Zvi in the seventeenth century, or much earlier pretenders like David Reuveni. The very high proportion of Jews in the forefront of the movement in Russia was, however, also directly linked to the fact that the aristocracy and peasants shared a mutual antipathy toward Jews, considering them Russia’s main source of bedevilment.
It gets better. It turns out that Jews got their hands dirty after the Revolution as well.
Under Lenin, Jews became involved in all aspects of the Revolution, including its dirtiest work. Despite the Communists’ vows to eradicate anti-Semitism, it spread rapidly after the Revolution—partly because of the prominence of so many Jews in the Soviet administration, as well as in the traumatic, inhuman Sovietization drives that followed. Historian Salo Baron has noted that an immensely disproportionate number of Jews joined the new Bolshevik secret police, the Cheka, “perhaps in subconscious retaliation for the many years of suffering at the hands of the Russian police.” And many of those who fell afoul of the Cheka would be shot by Jewish investigators.
And did someone say genocide? Here is a direct quote from Zinoviev in a 1917 conversation with Polish Cheka leader Felix Dzerzhinsky and Jewish Menshevik leader Raphael Abramovich:
We must carry along with us ninety million out of the one hundred million Soviet Russian population. As for the rest, we have nothing to say to them. They must be annihilated.
Moving on to the 1930s, it gets even better.
Thousands of Jewish revolutionaries helped to spearhead the Terror machine with a messianic fervor. One of them, Matvei Berman, had helped to institutionalize slave labor as early as 1922. . .
And then we have the Jewish “Iron Commissar” Lazar Kaganovich:
Kaganovich was also known for his vow against alleged class enemies and saboteurs: “We’ll break their skulls in.” In 1932, when he was in charge of suppressing a strike by Kuban Cossacks during collectivization in the Ukraine, he transferred whole Cossack settlements to Siberia—a mere rehearsal for the transfer of eight entire nationalities in the forties. Khrushchev, who participated in many of these events and whose own hands were not unsullied, termed Kaganovich “unsurpassed in his viciousness.”
I saved the best for last:
Other Jewish Chekists who rose to the top included Aron Soltz, long known as “the consciences of the Party,” and Naftali Frenkel, a Turkish Jew whom Solzhenitsyn would characterize as “the nerve of the Archipelago, which stretched across the nine time zones of the vast country.” It was Frenkel who refined Berman’s use of prisoners as slave laborers. In 1932 Stalin put him in charge of the construction of the White Sea-Baltic Canal, which took the lives of some 200,000 prisoners, and later he worked under [Genrikh] Yagoda, the first and last Jewish head of the Cheka. Most of the chief overseers of the canal were Jews.
While it is nice that Rapoport likens communism to false religions, he fails to consider why the Russian aristocracy and peasantry “shared a mutual antipathy toward Jews.” I understand that tit-for-tat can reach farther back into history than we can fathom, and that the Jews have their side of things. But to assume that this anti-Jewish antipathy sprang out of nowhere or from the black hearts of gentiles is simply dishonest. Honesty would compel Rapoport to discuss uncomfortable topics like usury, alcohol peddling, prostitution, draft evasion, tax evasion, anti-assimilation, russophobia, ideological subversion, terrorism, and the weaponization of the Jewish fund known as the Kahal against gentile economic competitors—which effectively wiped out gentile middle classes in places like Odessa.
Honesty would also compel him to admit that perhaps this anti-Semitism he’s so worried about (which he refers to as a “disease”) was justifiable given the atrocious behavior of so many Soviet Jews. It’s as if he feels anti-Semitism is a worse crime than working 200,000 slaves to death or deporting whole populations to their doom in Siberia.
Not only is Rapoport not entirely honest, his argument doesn’t follow logically. Given that. . .
- Jews suffered as Jews under the anti-Semitic Czar, and
- Jews rebelled against the anti-Semitic Czar through Bolshevism.
It follows that. . .
- Jews suffered more as Jews under Bolshevism than they did under the Czar.
How does this even make sense?
It only makes sense when rewriting C as “Jews—especially urban, educated Jews—benefitted enormously from taking part in the vast Soviet system.”
So then where does this war against the Jews come in? Well, first Rapoport discusses the well-known suppression of all nationalist, religious, and ethnic identity during the early Soviet period. This included abolishing the teaching of Hebrew, instruction in Judaism, and the existence of all Jewish organizations. But if you don’t read Rapoport carefully, you’d think the Jews were the only group being repressed during this time. Ironically, however, Rapoport admits (again, with zero self-awareness) that the Jews themselves were doing most of the repressing.
The Jewish Bolsheviks were the most fanatical advocates of suppressing Jewish parties—no matter how anti-Zionist, such as the Bund. The main Jewish enemy was the “Bourgeois-clerical-Zionist” camp: Judaism, Zionism, the Hebrew language. At one and the same time, the Bolsheviks granted grudging recognition of the Jews as a nationality while taking the rights of nationality away from them. For the sine qua non of the Communist revolution remained the dissolution of all nationalities, and the Jews were at the head of the list.
Next, Rapoport provides a chilling rundown of the Great Terror, with all its plots, paranoia, denunciations, and show trials. This was essentially Stalin’s mid-1930s purge of the Communist Party, which resulted in seven to ten million being killed. Rapoport estimates that “hundreds of thousands” of these victims were Jewish—which makes sense, given that so many Jews were active communists at the time. His chapter on the Great Terror certainly makes for some gripping reading and provides an excellent introduction to this grisly topic. Still, however, he cannot seem to help himself with his lack of awareness. He admits that “[m]any of the prosecution witnesses and agents provocateurs” used against Jews during the Terror were Jews themselves, as were “[s]ome of the main instruments of the Terror.” He names M.I. Gay, A.A. Slutsky, Boris Berman, and others.
Yet on the same page he condemns contemporaneous actions against Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Trotsky as anti-Semitism. Basically, we have bad Jews doing bad things to other bad Jews in a bad system that they themselves had created after doing bad things to not-so-bad gentiles—and all Rapoport can do is point and sputter about anti-Semitism.
We can see where his priorities lie.
Rapoport dutifully chronicles Jewish suffering during the early days of the Second World War, which he paints as Soviet-Nazi collusion. One example is the Soviet silence in the face of German anti-Jewish atrocities in Poland from 1939 to 1941 during the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Another is Babi Yar, where the Soviet press reported that nearly 50,000 Russians or Ukrainians (but not Jews) had been massacred. This all counts as part of Stalin’s war against the Jews, apparently. But Rapoport fails to consider other reasons for Soviet behavior here. In the former case, the Soviets did not want to upset a supposed ally whom they were intending to attack anyway. (See Viktor Suvorov’s The Chief Culprit for more on Stalin’s secret war plans against the Germans.) In the latter case, the Soviet newspapers’ prime goal was to inspire anti-German hatred among the Soviet masses. Calling the Babi Yar victims Jews simply would not have accomplished this as well as calling them Russians or Ukrainians.
The best Rapoport can do to forward his “Stalin’s-war-against-the-Jews” thesis during his Second World War chapter is to bring up the massive eastward deportations Stalin executed in the wake of the German invasion. Sure, hundreds of thousands of Jews suffered during this period—as did all people of all nationalities. I’m sure a good bit of this suffering had been caused by gentile cruelty. But it’s a stretch to call these deportations a “war against the Jews,” especially when they were taken either to protect the Soviet citizenry from the German invasion, or to prevent them from taking part in it, which, after decades of terror and oppression, many Soviet citizens were keen to do.
Up until this point, it is clear that Stalin disliked Jews and was not above treating Jewish Party members as harshly as they had treated their victims throughout the 1920s and 1930s. But he had always been willing to work with them and kept several, such as Kaganovich, as his favorites. This changed after 1948, when Golda Meir, the Israeli Ambassador to the Soviet Union, visited Moscow and was thronged by 50,000 enraptured Soviet Jews. This bold ethnocentric display infuriated Stalin, who from then on marked Soviet Jewry as an unstable element which needed to be dealt with. If there is any point in Rapoport’s narrative where his war-against-the-Jews thesis is strongest, it’s here.
Right away, Stalin began ordering the mass arrest, deportation, and execution of Jews for the flimsiest of reasons, such as merely attending the Meir visit, communicating with various Jewish groups such as the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC), being a prominent cultural figure, or simply receiving Zionist brochures in the mail from the Israeli embassy. Perhaps some of these victims had been bad actors during the Great Terror or before, but the vast majority were certainly innocent.
Stalin was growing increasingly paranoid and totalitarian in his old age and the Jews of the Soviet Union were bearing the brunt of it according to Rapoport. His writing assumes tremendous urgency as he depicts the disastrous Crimea Affair—an episode in which prominent Jews, including Vyacheslav Molotov’s Jewish wife Paulina, hoped to convince Stalin to concede the Crimea to the Jews. The famous Doctor’s plot garners its own chapter, as it should, since no event in Russia since the Beilis Trial had exhibited as much controversy surrounding Jews and anti-Semitism as that.
My favorite moment describes how Paul Robeson, the Black American singer and left-wing luminary, visited the Soviet Union in 1949. He repeatedly asked the Soviet authorities to arrange a meeting with an old friend of his, the Jewish poet and former JAC Deputy Chairman Itzik Feffer. Unbeknownst to Robeson, however, Feffer had run afoul of Stalin and had been rotting away in Lubyanka Prison. The Soviets stalled while they fattened Feffer up in his cell before finally allowing him to visit Robeson in his (no doubt bugged) hotel room. While chatting amiably with his old friend, Feffer indicated through gestures his own dire circumstances as well as those of other Jews, such as the actor Solomon Mikhoels, whom Stalin murdered the year before. The two were crying when they parted because they knew they would never see each other again.
Despite knowing that his friend’s fate was sealed, Robeson later performed brilliantly at the Tchaikovsky Hall and then spoke glowingly to the audience about the freedom that writers and artists enjoy in the Soviet Union. Afterwards, the tragic farce continued:
When Robeson went home, he continued to misrepresent the reality of life in the Soviet Union. Apparently Robeson, Howard Fast, and others who knew what was going on felt that “quiet diplomacy” was the best way to help their friends. Robeson made his son vow not to make the story public until after his death, “because he had promised himself that he would never publicly criticize the USSR.” The singer-actor who had become as much a leader for black Americans as actor Mikhoels had become for Soviet Jews was covering up not only the murder of Mikhoels and the arrest and imminent death of his Jewish writer friends, but the clear signs of an anti-Semitic campaign that spelled impending genocide.
A poignant story, and Rapoport tells it well. But it is undone (again) by his astonishing lack of self-awareness. Several chapters earlier, Rapoport writes how Feffer’s fate could not have happened to a nicer guy.
The JAC’s deputy chairman, poet Itzik Solomonovich Feffer, was a very different kind of Soviet Jew, much more in the tradition of those who had helped shape totalitarian terrorism. Feffer, born in Kiev in 1900 and a Party member from age nineteen, was a devoted communist, a Red Army colonel, and an operative of “the organs.” In his poem, “I am a Jew,” he declared that he drank “happiness from Stalin’s cup” and praised Kaganovich, “Stalin’s friend.” Though Feffer boasted of his rabbinic ancestry, his poems jeered at Judaism, while celebrating the slave-labor society. He immortalized the show trials of “traitors, spies, and assassins. . . .[w]e shoot you down like mad dogs.”. . . . There is no doubt now why Beria chose him as second in command at the JAC—to watch everyone else, and denounce them at the appropriate moment.
The more Rapoport denounces anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, the more he underscores its rock-solid justifications.
Of course, Stalin cannot be defended. His murderous and possibly genocidal anti-Semitism was only one of his many evil facets. Rapoport does a fine job condemning him through his reporting—a necessary case to make, if somewhat trivial given the millions of deaths already on Stalin’s head by the time he turned on the Jews. Despite its author’s obvious blind spots, Stalin’s War Against the Jews is a well-written and serviceable history of the highs and lows of twentieth century Soviet Jewry—and how interconnected these extremes actually were. Much of this book will be a revelation to those unacquainted with the Jewish Question.
But by conflating Stalin’s personal anti-Jewish animus (as paranoid as it was) with something as broad as anti-Semitism, Rapoport prestidigitously condemns the Russian people when such a charge is unwarranted. No, the Russian people are not to blame here. Stalin’s war against the Jews was his alone. Once he died in 1953, so did much of the violent anti-Jewish repression in the Soviet Union, and his plan to deport them all was permanently shelved. If anything, Rapoport does a better job of painting Soviet Jews as anti-Semitic—or worse—since they had always oppressed their own and by the late 1940s were being forced to lie in the very same bed that they had so enthusiastically made twenty to thirty years prior.
That Louis Rapoport remains oblivious to this irony throughout his book is incomprehensible. He writes in his Preface that one purpose of Stalin’s War Against the Jews was to help readers understand how the “pogrom atmosphere of 1948 to 1953 that culminated in the Doctor’s Plot” had led to the great exodus of Jews from the Soviet Union in the 1970s. Instead, however, he presents all the excellent reasons why the Russians wanted them gone in the first place.