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Stalin, by Walter Laqueur; Stalin's War Against the Jews, by Louis Rapoport

The New Stalinology

Stalin: The Glasnost Revelations.
by Walter Laqueur.
Scribner’s. 383 pp. $24.95.

Stalin’s War Against the Jews: The Doctors’ Plot and the Soviet Solution.
by Louis Rapoport.
The Free Press. 318 pp. $22.95.

It did not take the January crackdown in Lithuania, or the reimposition generally in the USSR of a repressive state machinery, to demonstrate to most people there that even today, 38 years after the dictator’s death, the Soviet Union is the house that Stalin built. For those still seeking to demolish that house, rather than to redecorate it, exorcism of Stalinism is not mainly, or even largely, a moral chore so much as it is a political one. As a member of the Moscow City Council told a Washington Post correspondent last year, “The rebirth of our country is not possible without the same process that took place in Germany after the war—de-Nazification. We need de-Communization.”

Exorcising Stalinism means, first and foremost, finally saying what happened. Small wonder, then, that, as Walter Laqueur notes in his new book, “Since glasnost, Russians have not stopped talking about Stalin.” One of the first samplings of this “talk” has been gleaned by the indefatigable Mr. Laqueur from his voluminous reading of Soviet books and periodicals, and is presented with the thoroughness and mastery we have come to expect of him.

In the accelerated course in Stalinism taught in recent years by the Soviet mass media, the most powerful and recurring theme has concerned the scale of terror. While the estimates of the shot and starved in camps and “collectivized” villages have varied, few now are below 20 million, with the highest at 40 million. It is instructive to compare these estimates with, on the one hand, the figures for political murders in prewar Nazi Germany (several thousand) or Italy throughout the entire Mussolini reign (a few dozen) and, on the other hand, with the figures of Stalin’s victims arrived at by Western “revisionist” historians: tens of thousands (Jerry Hough, George F. Kennan) or thousands (J. Arch Getty).

The most dramatic chapter in the story of glasnost began in the spring of 1988 in the Kuropaty Forest near Minsk, where, in digging a trench for a gas main, an excavator found a human skull and two pairs of shoes. Shortly thereafter, in the same area, digging trenches for a military game, two high-school students found the remains of thirty more people. All the skulls had a round hole, usually in the back. Soon, the remains of thousands of bodies were found, arranged in neat layers with ten inches of sand between them. So far, the official estimate, based on the already discovered graves, is 30,000. Byelorussian activists put the number of those killed in the area between 100,000 and 300,000. Following Kuropaty, other secret burial grounds began to be discovered: Bykivnia near Kiev (see Marco Carynnyk’s article, “The Killing Fields of Kiev,” in the October 1990 COMMENTARY); Golden Mountain near Cheliabinsk in the Urals; the Zhitomir highway near Kiev; the Glukhaya hill near the Khabarovsk-Vladivostok railway. . . .

While unearthing such literal evidence of terror is and will remain among the key preconditions of de-Communization, only a thorough analysis of the origins of Stalinism, its whys and hows, may yet provide a barrier against a recurrence of the scourge. And here, compressed by decades of forced muteness, the geyser of glasnost has already spewed forth jets of uncommon height, clarity, and brilliance. Some have been captured by Mr. Laqueur in the last, most interesting, third of his book. Still more are on display in a collection of articles published in Moscow in 1989 and available, unfortunately, only in Russian.1

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Why Stalin, why Stalinism? In answering this question, post-1987 glasnost has gone far beyond what was said during the period of Khrushchev’s “thaw.” For Stalinism is now traced not to Stalin, not even to Lenin, but to such cornerstones of “progressive” European thought as Marx and Rousseau. Thus, Vasiliy Selunin, who in May 1988 (a geological era ago!) fired the first shot at Lenin in a magnificent essay, Istoki (“The Roots”), sees the foundation of Stalinism in the elimination of private property. Igor Kliamkin takes Selunin’s argument to a higher level of generalization, postulating a strong causal link between the horrors of Stalinism and Marxist theory; to Kliamkin, Stalin was inevitable because a society based on a “noncommodity” economy, as envisioned by Marx, could be maintained only by violence. Alexandr Tsipko, the author of a celebrated four-part exposé of Soviet Communism, sees in Stalin not an aberration, but the personification of a notable, if not indeed the dominant, trend in the history of the Left.

These speculations help explain some otherwise puzzling historical behavior. Where, for instance, were the old “iron Bolsheviks” when Stalin was methodically building his monstrous version of “socialism”? Why did they not stop him? For one thing, note the contributors to the Osmyslit‘ collection, brutality was bred into Bolshevism by Lenin himself, and it was thus only a matter of time before Lenin’s notorious metaphors—“Judas Trotsky,” “agents of the bourgeoisie,” “traitors to the working class”—would acquire, in Stalin’s cruder hands, their literal, lethal meaning. True, the original Bolsheviks were vehemently against the “cult of personality.” Yet the “Leninist guard” joyously accepted another cult: that of a one-party state and of all the instruments needed to keep it in good repair. When Grigory Zinoviev said that ten million citizens of Soviet Russia were lost to the cause of the revolution and must, therefore, be annihilated, was he not speaking for virtually the entire Leninist guard?

Did, then, the Bolshevik aristocracy want “famines, purges, total surveillance, total sycophancy woven of daily lifesaving lies and sincere fear?” asks a contributor to Osmyslit’. The answer: “Of course not. What they wanted was to survive, to save themselves. And the rest was the price they paid.” Yuri (Georgiy) Piatakov, whom a dying Lenin singled out as one of the party’s top six leaders, not only readily accepted the NKVD’s invitation to be a star witness in the show trial of his former friends, colleagues, and comrades-in-arms in the anti-Stalin “Left” opposition; not only demanded in Pravda to “destroy without mercy the despicable murderers and traitors” Kamenev, Zinoviev, and their co-defendants, but volunteered to execute the condemned, among whom was his former wife. (His own turn came a month later.) And Nikolai Bukharin, the darling of Western revisionists, a few months before his own arrest in February 1937, made it known to Stalin how “terribly glad” he was that “the dogs [Zinoviev and Kamenev] have been shot.”

The new “Stalinology” is exposing not just villains and cowards, but true heroes as well. There was, for example, Bukharin’s first wife, Nadezhda Mikhailovna Lukina. Paralyzed and bedridden, she did what neither her illustrious husband, nor Lenin’s wife Nadezhda Krupskaya, nor the entire doomed Soviet military brass dared to do: she resigned from the party by sending back her membership card. Lukina endured thirteen months of torture before execution. And as the George Bernard Shaws, Lion Feuchtwangers, Henri Barbusses, Paul Robesons, Romain Rollands, Theodore Dreisers, Luis Aragons, and countless other “progressive” Western intellectuals sang hosannas to the “world of the future,” and the “Leninist guard” crawled at Stalin’s feet asking forgiveness for past sins, Martimian Riutin, a former worker and district party secretary, wrote a manifesto for which he would pay with his life:

The whole country is muzzled, and lawlessness, tyranny, and violence hang over the heads of every worker and every peasant . . . [Stalin and his clique] will defend their supremacy in the party by lies and calumny, firing squads and arrests, cannons and machine guns, because they consider the country their domain.

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What about the main protagonist, Stalin himself? Judging by the first yields, the investigation of Stalin the man is among the most promising avenues of the new Stalinology. The son of a washerwoman and village whore—between 1917 and his death in 1953 Stalin came to see his mother only once—and a drunken cobbler who mercilessly whipped his only surviving child and was killed in a brawl when Iosif was eleven, the Soviet dictator was well-prepared for the role he chose for himself. Role is the proper word. A lover of theater, particularly of lavish operas, and a generous Maecenas to the Bolshoi and the Moscow Art Theater, Stalin was a supremely successful actor, director, and, of course, stage manager.

He oversaw, for instance, the minutest details of the show trials, reportedly even ordering that the doomed defendants be served tea with cakes and lemon. Having put the actors through numerous rehearsals—there reportedly were four dress rehearsals of the Bukharin-Rykov trial, each thought to be genuine by the defendants—he observed the premiere through a thinly draped window above the stage. “One could see from the hall,” recalls a witness, “a little smoke behind the drape, clearly from a pipe.” (The Western reviews were excellent, with Lion Feuchtwanger noting that the procedure “looked more like a discussion than a criminal trial, a discussion of educated people seeking to establish the truth, conducted in the tenor of a friendly chat.”)

Seven years later, in 1944, a more complicated play was staged for an American delegation headed by Vice President Henry Wallace, who arrived on a fact-finding mission to Kolyma in northeastern Siberia. The ninth circle of the gulag hell, Kolyma was a huge permafrost grave for hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of zeks. In his great Kolyma Tales, Varlam Shalamov writes that a horse, a barrow, were by far more valuable there than a human life.

Days before the visit, Ivan Nikishov, the head of the local area of the gulag, returned from the Kremlin where the director-in-chief had personally given his instructions. Following Stalin’s orders, the barracks were repaired and for the first time in a decade the prisoners were given new bedding, pillows, and civilian clothes. A barber was sent in, the watchtowers with their machine guns were removed. Wallace was shown a greenhouse full of fresh vegetables for “the workers” and a pig farm staffed by well-fed prison administrators posing as prisoners. To crown it all, the Americans were treated to a real ballet. (So many dancers had been arrested that practically every area of the gulag had its own troupe.) Following the visit, the expert accompanying the delegation, Professor Owen Lattimore of the Office of War Information, inveighed against the horrors of czarism, welcomed the changes brought by Soviet power, and commented on the “high sense of civic duty” he discerned in Nikishov.

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Stalin the actor-director was abetted by Stalin the historian. His fascination with Ivan IV (The Terrible), whose initials I.V. (Ivan Vasilievich) matched his own (Iosif Vissarionovich), is freshly documented in the Osmyslit‘ collection. Stalin commissioned Sergei Eisenstein to do the film Ivan the Terrible, and upon its release invited both the director and Nikolai Cherkasov, who played Ivan, to the Kremlin, where for several hours he commented in minute detail on the movie and gave instructions for the second part then in the making.

Ivan IV was more than an inspiration to Stalin, he was a model. Ivan sought to become not just the supreme ruler and military commander of Russia but its supreme spiritual authority as well. Under Ivan’s guidance, the so-called Hundred Heads Council adopted rules regulating every aspect of Russian existence, from the proper style of icon painting to how to shave and drink.

The technology of political struggle developed by Ivan deeply impressed Stalin. For example, in February 1570, following a false report that the city of Novgorod was aiming to switch allegiance to the Polish king, depose Ivan, and place Prince Vladimir of Staritza on the throne, Ivan put the city to rout and over a period of five weeks drowned in the Volga 500, 600, sometimes 1,500 people a day. Some of Ivan’s murderous rituals entered Stalin’s arsenal as well. Thus, before heads were cut off or bones broken on the wheel, a clerk stood next to the condemned “traitor,” reading from a long scroll the list of his offenses; mutatis mutandis, these practically coincide with those read to Stalin’s victims in Moscow almost 400 years later. In another eerie coincidence, in the last years of Ivan’s rule the czar commenced a struggle against the “rotten beliefs” of the West.

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Stalin the man was central to the story of the Soviet Jews. Until the last five years of his life, however, their story was marginal to him. Unlike Adolf Hitler, the one-time ally he so much admired, the Soviet dictator was not initially preoccupied with the Jews either doctrinally or in practice. Nor were the Jews his major victims, either in absolute numbers or even relative to their size. Volga Germans, Karachai, Kalmyks, Balkars, Chechens, Ingushi, Crimean Tatars, and other officially designated “traitor peoples” lost far greater proportions of their population to Stalinist terror. Before 1949, the relative salience of Jews among Stalin’s victims was due not to any special targeting but to their high representation among the Soviet political, economic, and cultural elites methodically decimated since 1937.

By all evidence, Stalin’s anti-Semitism, unlike Hitler’s, was not homegrown: his birthplace of Gori was in an area where Jews had lived peacefully alongside Georgians for more than 2,000 years. This and other facts are pointed out by Louis Rapoport in Stalin’s War Against the Jews: The Doctor’s Plot and the Soviet Solution. Rapoport, who works for the Jerusalem Post, has written a book typical of journalists attempting to tackle a “serious” subject: breathless, analytically weak, relying almost exclusively on secondary sources, abounding in mistakes, yet entertaining and full of memorable details. The photographs are especially interesting, some published for the first time.

If Stalin’s Judeophobia was not “native,” the seeds may have been planted during his five years in the Tiflis Theological Seminary, staffed with notorious Russian Orthodox anti-Semites. More likely, however, Stalin’s anti-Semitism was part of his socialization into the intensely anti-Semitic milieu which would become his power base in the party: semi-literate ethnic Russian and Russified Ukrainian party functionaries, first-generation urban “proletarians,” the milieu of future Khrushchevs and Brezhnevs. The contour of things to come surfaced, briefly, after Lenin’s death in 1924, when Stalin argued against Kamenev’s remaining at the head of the Soviet government on the grounds that a Jew should not lead a “peasant” land. Yet it was not until almost a quarter of a century later that the bells began to toll for Soviet Jews as a group.

On January 13, 1948, the great Yiddish actor Solomon Mikhoels, the chairman of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC), was murdered. Created by the secret-police chief Lavrenti Beria for Western and especially American consumption, and to help the Soviet effort in World War II, the JAC included the most prominent Soviet Jews, many (but not all) of them loyal Stalinists: the leading Yiddish writers David Bergelson and Leib Kvitko, the Yiddish poet Peretz Markish, Stalin’s pet propagandist Ilya Ehrenburg, the novelist Vasily Grossman, the violinist David Oistrakh. A year after the murder of Mikhoels, most of the other members of the Committee were arrested and in August 1952 several were executed. Such was the prelude to the making of a potential Soviet holocaust.

On January 13, 1953 a front-page article in Pravda announced the arrest of nine Kremlin “doctor-saboteurs,” six of them with Jewish surnames. Mercilessly beaten (two of the nine died in jail), the doctors soon confessed to poisoning and mistreating various Soviet luminaries. Amid a vicious anti-Semitic campaign in the Soviet press, several dozen prominent Soviet Jews signed an “Open Letter” asking the government to protect the Jewish people—by deportation to the “developing territories” of Siberia, Kazakhstan, and the Far East, where barracks were already waiting. The letter was to appear in Pravda after the “doctor-saboteurs” had been publicly hanged in Red Square.

One can only guess what finale Stalin intended for the Jewish drama he was writing, but it is unlikely he would have indulged his personal feelings of anti-Semitism unless and until they fit into the larger political mosaic he was never tired of rearranging. Thus, the first outburst of state anti-Semitism in 1949, coinciding with the early stages in the cold war, may have been part of a general effort to exorcise the memories of Soviet-American cooperation during the war, of which the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee had been a conspicuous component. In 1953, by all indications, Stalin was after something much grander: perhaps a new Great Purge, which would engulf his closest associates or, some suspect, even World War III.

Be that as it may, Stalin’s death on the day of Purim, March 2, 1953, saved the Jews. The anti-Semitic campaign stopped abruptly and, a month later, the seven doctors who were still alive were freed—after they swore never to tell what they had been through.

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As in every production mounted by Stalin, the long-running Jewish “play” featured major roles for members of the U.S. intelligentsia as well, and they performed excellently. In the early, rosy days of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, Itzik Feffer was an object of particularly intense adulation by American “progressives.” A mediocre Yiddish poet (in one of his verses he had written that he drank “happiness from Stalin’s cup”), an NKVD agent (code-name “Zorin”), and deputy chairman of the JAC, he had been sent to the U.S. in 1943 to keep an eye on Mikhoels during a propaganda tour. Less than five years later he cooperated with the secret police in the murder of Mikhoels, and subsequently was the only defendant in the secret trial of the JAC leadership to testify against others.

This did not save Feffer himself from prison, however. When the fellow-traveling American singer Paul Robeson, seeking to put an end to “malicious anti-Soviet calumny,” asked Soviet authorities to let him see Feffer, the poet was brought from Lubyanka prison to Robeson’s bugged suite at the Metropol hotel. In a scene skillfully reconstructed by Louis Rapoport, a fattened-up Feffer appeared in a fresh shirt and tie supplied by the NKVD. By jotting down a few words and gesticulating, Feffer managed to tell Robeson the true story of Mikhoels’s murder, the arrest of the JAC leadership, and his own likely execution. In parting, the two friends embraced, tears in their eyes, and proceeded on their ways: Robeson to sing in Tchaikowsky Hall where he would tell his Soviet audience about the “joy” of meeting Feffer again, Feffer to Lubyanka never to be seen again. After three and half years of torture, Feffer and the others were shot in the basements of the Lubyanka and Butyrka prisons, but their American peers, preoccupied with the trial of the Rosenbergs, and with the spectral threat of anti-Semitism supposedly being generated by it in the United States, were too busy to notice.

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The initial finds of Soviet Stalinology, although they are rich in new detail, and of immense significance in the USSR, present few true surprises for the serious student of the Soviet Union. Major revelations will have to await the time when Stalin’s personal archives, as well as those of the Cheka-GPU-NKVD-MGB-KGB and the Central Committee, have been thrown open. In the meantime, however, steadfast scholars of Stalinism like Robert Conquest, Richard Pipes, Adam Ulam, Walter Laqueur, and others, who for decades labored against immense difficulties in gathering data, and, since the 1960’s, against the unrelenting hostility of their peers in the academy and the elite media, can take pride in seeing how fully this fledgling Soviet historiography confirms their key findings and theories.


Footnotes

1 Osmyslit' kul't Stalina (“To Comprehend the Cult of Stalin”). Moscow: Progress Publishers (1989).

About the Author

Leon Aron is the resident scholar and director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of Yeltsin: A Revolutionary Life (2000). A collection of his essays, Russia’s Revolution, will be published by AEI Press next January.




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