- Stalin Against the Jews (review)
- Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies
- Purdue University Press
- Volume 13, Number 4, Summer 1995
- p. pp. 105-108
- View Citation
Book Reviews 105 Stalin Against the Jews, by Arkady Vaksberg, translated by Antonina W. Bouis. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994. 308 pp. $24.00. Ackady Vaksberg has written a chilling and detailed account of Stalin's hostility toward Soviet Jews. Vaksberg's credentials for writing this work are impressive. Originally trained as a lawyer (a year behind Gorbachev in the early 1950s), he subsequently turned his talents toward writing. The author of several books on Soviet politics, he is a leading investigative journalist for Literaturnaya Gazeta and a co-founder and vice-president of Russian PEN. For his latest book Vaksberg utilized important documents found in recently opened archives and drew upon his own experiences as a participant in the historical drama he chronicles. He successfully sheds new light on one of the darkest corners of the Stalinist period. Vaksberg's major goal is to present Stalin's antisemitism in historical context. His central thesis is that the dictator's anti-Jewish drive began during World War II, not in the late 1940s as many believe. Vaksberg cites a document he found in Communist Party archives that reveals that Stalin began to take measures against Jews in the arts in the summer of 1942, when the Soviet Union was in a fight for its very existence against Nazi forces. Evidently, even this life-and-death struggle did not deter Stalin from embarking on a personal antisemitic crusade. Vaksberg points out, for example, that this is when Stalin set out to destroy his daughter's marriage to a Jew, to force his protege, Georgi Malenkov (who was to assume leadership of the Soviet Union after Stalin's death in 1953) to get his daughter a divorce from a Jewish husband, and the next year to recall the Jewish diplomat Maxim Litvinov from his post as Soviet ambassador to the U.S. In 1939, Stalin had stripped Litvinov of his position as Foreign Minister. It is commonly assumed that Stalin did this to appease Hitler once the two leaders had decided to make a deal. Vaksberg makes an interesting case that Stalin himself wanted to dismiss Litvinov because of his Jewish origins, but ironically it was Hitler's openly expressed contempt for the Jewish diplomat that temporarily saved his career. Thus to destroy Litvinov, in Stalin's judgment, "would have been too demonstrative a step." Stalin's antisemitism is shown as deep-rooted. Although he came from Georgia, an area that historically was much less antisemitic than Russia and Ukraine, "the marvelous Georgian" became one of the most dangerous antisemitic leaders the world has ever seen. Unlike Hitler, who boasted of his goal to destroy Jews, at first Stalin hid his antisemitism behind official Communist Party pronouncements of humanitarian idealism and international brotherhood. Vaksberg explains how during World War II, Stalin's 106 SHOFAR Summer 1995 Vol. 13, No.4 goal of crushing Nazism publicly concealed his true antisemitic goals. Vaksberg also points out that Stalin's antisemitism was racked by contradictions , paradoxes, and hypocrisy. Although Stalin publicly portrayed himself as a "determined foe of anti-Semitism," he worked closely with a number ofJews. For example, he had two Jewish secretaries, a Jewish head of the NKVD (Genrikh Yagoda) until he was liquidated in the purges of the 1930s, and a close aide-de-camp (Lazar Kaganovich). Kaganovich, who joined with Stalin during the forced collectivization campaign of the early 1930s, died recently at 98. Although Vaksberg describes Kaganovich's longlasting "slavish devotion" to Stalin, he should also have stressed that Kaganovich had often repudiated his Jewish roots. Stalin's antisemitism in large measure stemmed from his early rivalries with Jewish Bolshevik leaders. The most notable were Leon Trotsky (born Lev Davidovich Bronstein), the organizer of the Red Army and a brilliant strategist and theoretician; Yakov Sverdlov, the first president of the new Soviet government; Grigori Zinoviev (born Gvsel Gershon Aronov Radomyslsky), chairman of the Third Communist International (Comintern ); and Lev Kamenev (born Kev Broisovich Rozenfcld), editor of Pravda, chairman of the Politburo (1919-1925), and first director of the Institute of Marxism-Leninism. Vaksberg argues that Stalin officially portrayed his troubles with these leaders as a conflict of principle, ideology...