Soviets Escalate Persecution of Jews

Soviet Jews, accused of being disloyal to the Soviet state, were driven from positions of power and responsibility and were imprisoned and executed en masse by Premier Joseph Stalin’s regime.

Summary of Event

Although anti-Semitism in twentieth century dictatorships is generally associated with Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union also regularly persecuted its Jewish population and frequently executed significant numbers of Jews. While the anti-Semitism of Adolf Hitler and his henchmen was based on various pseudoscientific theories of the biological origins of race and of pure and impure races, Soviet anti-Semitism was the straightforward political and economic hostility to a people who had a strong loyalty to an outside entity and who tended to do well even in adversity. Jews;Soviet persecution of
Human rights;Soviet Union
Racial and ethnic discrimination;Soviet Jews
[kw]Soviets Escalate Persecution of Jews (1948)
[kw]Persecution of Jews, Soviets Escalate (1948)
[kw]Jews, Soviets Escalate Persecution of (1948)
Jews;Soviet persecution of
Human rights;Soviet Union
Racial and ethnic discrimination;Soviet Jews
[g]Europe;1948: Soviets Escalate Persecution of Jews[02300]
[g]Soviet Union;1948: Soviets Escalate Persecution of Jews[02300]
[c]Atrocities and war crimes;1948: Soviets Escalate Persecution of Jews[02300]
[c]Human rights;1948: Soviets Escalate Persecution of Jews[02300]
[c]Cultural and intellectual history;1948: Soviets Escalate Persecution of Jews[02300]
Stalin, Joseph
[p]Stalin, Joseph;human rights
Zhdanov, Andrei
Mikhoels, Solomon

Many of the original Bolshevik leaders were Jewish, although a number of them adopted Russian-sounding pseudonyms in part to disguise their ethnic origins, as well as to keep themselves one step ahead of the Okhrana, the czarist secret police. When Vladimir Ilich Lenin died in 1924 and Joseph Stalin emerged as the winner of the resulting power struggle, many of these Old Bolsheviks fell victim to Stalin’s purges. The Great Terror, however, was primarily directed at eliminating all possible alternative power bases from the country, and overt anti-Semitism was not part of its rhetoric, although suspicion of Jews was already an important part of Stalin’s character. Nikita S. Khrushchev noted this character in his memoirs.

It was only after the close of World War II that Stalin began specifically to target Jews for being Jewish. The establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948 was a powerful trigger for the suspicion that was such a fundamental part of Stalin’s personality. Having hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews requesting permission to emigrate only confirmed in his mind that he was dealing with a threat of worldwide proportions.

The immediate object of suspicion was the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee[Jewish Antifascist Committee] , which was established in 1942 as an organization to encourage Jewish support around the world for the Soviet war effort. During the Soviet Union’s life-and-death struggle with Hitler, Stalin had accepted the need for the committee to have connections with Jews abroad, particularly in the United States, in order to drum up much-needed Western support for the war on the Eastern Front. Now that the war was won, those connections with the capitalist West quickly became conduits of subversion in Stalin’s mind, and he ordered the committee dissolved.

With Hitler’s anti-Semitism, promulgated through the propaganda of Joseph Goebbels and the crude caricatures of Julius Streicher’s newspaper Der Stürmer (1923-1945), Stalin did not dare to say that he was attacking the Jewish people. Instead, he disguised his attacks with various euphemistic catchphrases, the most prominent of which was “rootless cosmopolitanism,” referring to the Jewish people having existed without a land to call their own for nearly two millennia (the Romans destroyed the Temple of Jerusalem in the year 70) and having thus lived among the various Gentile nations. Stalin also condemned “Zionism,” focusing his attacks on questions of the loyalty of Jews to the Soviet Union rather than on their Jewishness. While “rootless cosmopolitans” were considered to be not loyal to anyone, Zionists were considered traitors: loyal to Israel while remaining in the Soviet Union.

Jewish artists and organizations felt the wrath of anti-Semitism during the Zhdanovshchina (Zhdanov Doctrine Zhdanov Doctrine (1946) , a policy instituted in 1946 by Andrei Zhdanov that called for Soviet writers, artists, and the intelligentsia to conform to the Communist Party line). The comprehensive attack, which peaked in 1948, was aimed at alleged decadence in the arts and culture in general. The famous Moscow Jewish Theater Moscow Jewish Theater , directed by playwright Solomon Mikhoels, was a special target. Yiddish-language newspapers were shut down because they were believed to represent the persistence of a cultural viewpoint not firmly rooted in the Soviet Union. Harsh quotas were placed on the admission of Jews into a number of intellectual pursuits in which they had historically flourished—particularly law, diplomatic services, and academia—making life very difficult for the Jewish communities of Moscow and Leningrad (now St. Petersburg).

Many prominent Jews were arrested, exiled, and even executed during this period. Politician and diplomat Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov’s Molotov, Vyacheslav Mikhailovich wife Polina Semyonovna Zhemchuzhina Zhemchuzhina, Polina Semyonovna was arrested for meeting with Israeli prime minister Golda Meir Meir, Golda and for having spoken Yiddish with her during Meir’s September, 1948, visit to the Soviet Union. Molotov was then ordered to divorce his wife, and they would not see one another again until after Stalin’s death.

Furthermore, the intellectual attack on Jewish “cosmopolitanism” spread into a general denial that “foreigners” could produce anything of value. This campaign soon descended into the depths of absurdity, with Soviet propagandists claiming that many technological and other significant inventions were made by Russians, and not by those who had been credited through professional agreement. For example, the Soviets claimed that it was not Scottish inventor James Watt who invented the steam engine but instead a Siberian mechanic. Other Russians were credited with the first powered flight and with inventing the light bulb and the radio. Although some of these claims were based on some evidence behind them—such as Boris Rosing’s early experiments in using a cathode-ray tube to display images, work that was inflated into “the invention of electronic television” well before Philo Farnsworth’s 1927 transmissions—most were so patently absurd as to merit nothing but derision. This “we invented it first” line soon became a staple of satirical humor in the West.

In the Soviet Union, this was no laughing matter, for it was becoming increasingly important to anticipate these intellectual attacks. Doctoral students were instructed to remove all references to foreign scientists and inventors in their work, replacing the names with vague phrases such as “scientists have shown.” Soviet scientists and inventors were celebrated as patriots and heros—unless one of them should be discovered to have been an enemy of the people, at which time his or her name would vanish altogether from the dissertation or other work.

By 1950, a new theme began to emerge after the “discovery” of a “conspiracy” among doctors at the clinic of the Stalin Automotive Works; also implicated were executives and other officials. Interestingly, every one of them was Jewish. Although the trial and subsequent executions attracted little attention in the government-controlled press, they were a dress rehearsal for a much larger drama Stalin was planning. It was revealed that in 1948 a medical technician by the name of Lidia Timashuk had reported that an ailing Andrei Zhdanov was not receiving proper treatment. His subsequent death under mysterious circumstances was seized on as evidence of a vast, sinister conspiracy among the doctors Doctors’ Plot (1953)[Doctors Plot] entrusted with the care of the Soviet Union’s leaders. Again, all of the doctors and other caretakers were Jewish.


Anti-Semitism remained a central theme of Soviet politics, with many of the same catchphrases first introduced by Stalin in 1948 being tossed about by new leaders, even those leaders who claimed to disavow Stalin. It is often hypothesized that the so-called Doctors’ Plot, which was derailed by Stalin’s death in 1953, was in fact intended to be the opening act in a massive pogrom against the Jews on a scale to rival the Holocaust.

In the 1970’s, the plight of the refuseniks, Jews who were persistently denied exit visas, became a major issue for international human rights organizations, while in the 1980’s during perestroika, openly anti-Semitic and quasi-fascist organizations such as Pamyat (memory) began to appear among the disaffected youth. After the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union, anti-Semitism cropped up repeatedly in post-Soviet Russia, particularly among reactionaries such as the Stalinist bloc, a group that looked back with nostalgia on the time when their country was still feared on the world stage. Jews;Soviet persecution of
Human rights;Soviet Union
Racial and ethnic discrimination;Soviet Jews

Further Reading

  • Brent, Jonathan, and Vladimir Namurov. Stalin’s Last Crime. New York: HarperCollins, 2003. A study of the events leading up to Stalin’s death, particularly the “Doctors’ Plot” and the apparent preparations for a major pogrom against the Soviet Jewish population.
  • Khrushchev, Nikita S. Khrushchev Remembers. Translated by Strobe Talbott. Boston: Little, Brown, 1970. A revealing primary source, although with certain predictable blind spots regarding Khrushchev’s own complicity in many of the crimes he describes.
  • Kostyrchenko, Gennadi. Out of the Red Shadows: Anti-Semitism in Stalin’s Russia. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1995. A study of the lives of Jewish intellectuals in Stalinist Russia. Chapters include “Ethnocide,” “Arrests of the Intellectuals,” “The Closing of the Theaters,” “Attacking the ’Cosmopolitans’” and “Escalation of the Anti-Jewish Purges.” Chapters also look at Jews working in journalism, the arts, the humanities, and industry.
  • Lustiger, Arno. Stalin and the Jews: The Red Book. New York: Enigma, 2003. A unique book by a survivor of a Nazi death camp that explores Stalin’s desire to eliminate Soviet Jews. Focuses especially on the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. The book’s introduction notes the work is “the most exhaustive, indeed encyclopedic, account of the monumental tragedy that befell the Soviet Jews during the rule of Joseph Stalin.”
  • Montefore, Simon Sebag. Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. Includes information on Stalin’s henchmen and the Great Terror, while deflecting attention from himself.
  • Rayfield, Donald. Stalin and His Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him. New York: Random House, 2004. A study of the relationship of Stalin and his chief henchmen.

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