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  • Stalin’s Secret Pogrom: The Postwar Inquisition of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee
  • David Brandenberger
Joshua Rubenstein and Vladimir P. Naumov , eds. Stalin’s Secret Pogrom: The Postwar Inquisition of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, trans. by Laura E. Wolfson . New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001. c. 515 pp. $35.

The exigencies of war in the days and weeks following Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 forced Soviet ideologists to augment traditional Marxist-Leninist propaganda with more populist rallying calls. Although many of these new appeals were designed to resonate with ordinary Russians' religious and national sentiments, attempts were also made to court public opinion among the non-Russian population. Party organizations in the national republics and autonomous regions were given considerable latitude to make the case for war. At the same time, five anti-fascist committees were set up at the all-union level to mobilize support for the USSR abroad among groups ranging from scientists and women to the international Slavic community as a whole. Best known among these organizations was the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC), which not only conducted international fundraising and propaganda work but also served as something of a domestic lobby for Soviet Jews who lacked more formal representation within the Communist establishment.

Many of these party organizations and committees were reined in toward the end of the war after the wane of their mobilizational raison d'être. A number were even reproached [End Page 172] for indulging in "bourgeois nationalism" in a wave of reaction that stretched into the early 1950s. The JAC was the hardest hit when its wartime service was re- appraised during the mid-to-late 1940s in the context of growing Cold War tensions and Soviet anti-Semitism. The JAC's own naïveté may have compounded its problems, whether in regard to its foreign contacts or to its lobbying activities (most notably, its bid in 1944 to transform the Crimea into a Jewish autonomous region). In any case, not only was the JAC disbanded in 1948, but a car accident was staged to eliminate Solomon Mikhoels, its leader, shortly thereafter. From 1949 to 1952, many of the JAC's remaining members and associates were quietly arrested, tried, and shot.

Joshua Rubenstein correctly views the elimination of the JAC as part of a larger anti-Semitic campaign conducted during the last years of Josif Stalin's reign. After all, despite the obscurity of the JAC affair, it was clearly linked not only to Mikhoels's murder, but also to the subsequent "anti-cosmopolitan" campaigns, the 1951 trial of Rudolf Slánsk_ in Czechoslovakia, and the 1953 Doctors' Plot in the Soviet Union. Rubenstein describes the affair in considerable detail in his introduction to Stalin's Secret Pogrom, an abbreviated English-language translation of the trial transcript of fifteen JAC associates executed in 1952. Edited with V. P. Naumov as part of Yale University Press's Annals of Communism series, the volume is derived from Naumov's longer Russian-language edition, Nepravednyi sud: Poslednii stalinskii rasstrel (Moscow: Nauka, 1994).

Stalin's Secret Pogrom is a fascinating volume that presents many challenges as a historical source. Much of the information about the JAC and its associates contained in the transcript ought to be treated with great caution. Not only were the charges trumped-up, but the defendants were tortured, and their testimony was coerced. Nor should the transcript itself be studied as an orchestrated spectacle of Stalinist propaganda, inasmuch as the trial was held in secret and lacked much of the hyperbole characteristic of the show trials of the 1930s. Instead, the transcript testifies to the bravery of many of the defendants, who sought throughout the trial to retract their confessions, proclaim their innocence, and exonerate themselves. Although Nikolai Bukharin is famous for having attempted to use his 1938 show trial to turn the tables on the prosecutor Andrei Vyshinskii, his rhetorical game of cat-and-mouse pales before the aggressive defense mounted by the JAC defendants. Their testimony ultimately spurred Aleksandr Cheptsov, the presiding judge at the JAC trial, to ask Georgii Malenkov (Stalin's top aide) whether the proceedings could be suspended to allow...