Stalin, Israel, And The National Question
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May 25, 2011

By A. Antonov

"The National Question" as defined by VDARE.COM is: can the U.S. survive as a nation-state, the political expression of a particular people? (Answer: partly because of unchecked mass immigration, it's not looking good.)

But the Left at the turn of the last century was obsessed with a different "National Question"—how Communists should handle the various national groups they would inherit when they took over the Russian Empire.

"At this difficult time Social-Democracy had a high mission—to resist nationalism and to protect the masses from the general 'epidemic' … Social-Democracy, and Social-Democracy alone, could do this", Josef Stalin argued in his Marxism and the National Question (1913). But, he lamented,

"As long as people believed in a 'bright future', they fought side by side irrespective of nationality—common questions first and foremost! But when doubt crept into people's hearts, they began to depart, each to his own national tent—let every man depend only upon himself! The 'national question' first and foremost."

Stalin maintained that the "spread of Zionism among the Jews…chauvinism in Poland, Pan-Islamism among the Tatars, nationalism among the Armenians, Georgians and Ukrainians" were all symptoms of the illness of "Bourgeois Nationalism".  

Writing of proposals for national autonomy for the Jews, the ultimate post-national monster explained:  "Autonomy is being proposed for a nation with no future whose existence has yet to be proved".

As it turned out, it was Stalin's own bloody career that would drive people "each to his own national tent".

Stalin's "Jewish policy", if it can be called that, was carried out on two deliberately separated tracks—foreign and domestic. In this article, I follow the meanderings and inter-weavings of these two as they reacted to events of history and produced their own history—both intended and unintended.

Stalin and the Zionists: Foreign Policy

Stalin extended de jure recognition of Israel two days after its birth. Thus the USSR was the first country to form diplomatic relations with the state of Israel—constituted for a people that, at least according to Stalin in 1913, did not exist in socialist theory.

(Though President Truman extended de facto recognition of Israel 11 minutes after its formal birth on May 16, 1948, the U.S. did not establish full diplomatic relations with Israel until 1949.)

One million European Jews were sheltering in the south of the Soviet Union in 1943, having fled the Nazi genocide to the west. The Soviet government offered them citizenship and permission to work, but most considered the Soviet Union a temporary refuge and many planned to emigrate to the U.S. or to Palestine, then under a British Mandate. American Zionist organizations, such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, wanted to finance these refugees' resettlement to Palestine. The U.S. and Britain, however, opposed these plans, and Britain would not raise the very modest quota for Jews immigrating to Palestine.

Nevertheless, illegal immigration of Jews to Palestine rose sharply during and after World War II as refugees streamed in. Because of these refugees, the Jewish population of Palestine in 1945-1946 reached 600,000, almost triple the pre-war number. This was the "critical mass" which made possible the beginning of the fight for an independent Jewish state in Palestine.

Armed Jewish groups skirmished continually with the British garrison in the territory in the period leading up to independence.  According to Lieutenant General Pavel Sudoplatov, director of the 4th Division of the NKVD in charge of all special operations throughout occupied European territories, writing in his memoirs Special Tasks: The Memoirs of an Unwanted Witness - A Soviet Spymaster (by Pavel Sudoplatov and Anatoli Sudoplatov, with Jerrold L. and Leona P. Schecter), the use of Soviet agents in military and diversionary actions against the British in Israel began in 1946. Britain soon realized it could not maintain order in Palestine and decided to abandon its Mandate.

With key support of the five-country Soviet bloc, the UN General Assembly, which at that time had only 60 members, passed the resolution dividing Palestine between 2 governments: Jewish and Arab. The Jewish state would consist of those areas where the Jewish population predominated, centered around Tel-Aviv. The Palestinian Arab state received the larger, remaining part of the original mandate territory. Jerusalem was to be an "Open City" under international control.

Before the deciding vote the Soviet ambassador to the UN, Andrei Gromyko, addressed the General Assembly in terms that very much presumed the elemental nature of national identity:

"The UN must help each nation in its quest for the right to independence and self-government…. Jews and Arabs cannot and will not live together. … If both of these peoples living in Palestine, each with deep historical roots in the land, cannot live under a single government there is no choice but to form two states—a Jewish state and an Arab state." ."[United Nations Debate on Partition, November 26, 1947 ]

The armies of Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan invaded Israel on May 17, 1948, the day after independence. Undercutting the U.S. arms embargo imposed on the entire Mideast, the Soviets supplied the Israelis with captured German armaments including mortars, machine guns, artillery and Messerschmitt fighter planes via their satellites, Czechoslovakia and Romania. A great number of fighters also arrived—Jews with experience fighting the Germans and, along with them, more Soviet military and intelligence officers.  

In the years immediately after WW II, many in the USSR and Israel believed the Soviet position on Israel to be a genuine moral stand. For a while, Andrei Gromyko was the most popular person in Israel.

Even Golda Meir, Israel's first ambassador to Moscow and later Prime Minister, was convinced in 1947 and 1948 that Stalin was helping the Jews out of some sort of high moral feeling. She wrote in her memoirs:

"Who knows if we could have survived the early dark days of the war without the military equipment we bought in Czechoslovakia and transported through Yugoslavia and other Balkan countries…We cannot erase the past just because it does not look like the present. A fact remains a fact. No matter how sharply the Soviet Union turned against us subsequently, Soviet recognition of Israel on May 18 had enormous significance. It meant the 2 leading world powers after the war had agreed to support a Jewish nation….

"The recognition of Israel by the USSR, followed by that of America, has different sources. Today, I have no doubt that, for the Soviets, recognition was part of a strategy to drive Britain from the Middle East. But in 1947, during the debates in the UN, it seemed to me the Soviet Bloc supported us because Russians themselves had paid such a high price during the war and, empathizing with Jews who suffered so much under the Nazis, understood that they deserved their own government". [My Life, By Golda Meir, page 239]

In fact, in Stalin's mind, the creation of Israel answered current and future foreign policy needs and interests of the USSR. According to Sudoplatov's memoirs, Stalin foresaw that Arab countries, alienated from the West because of its support of Israel, would eventually turn to the USSR.  He quoted Molotov's assistant, M. Vetrov, relaying Stalin's words:

"Let's agree to the establishment of Israel. It will be a 'pain in the ass' for the Arab countries and will force them to turn their backs on Britain. In the end British influence will be ruined in Egypt, Syria, Turkey and Iraq."

Stalin's prognosis was basically correct. Besides implementing a "strategy to drive Britain from the Middle East", Stalin succeeded in creating a zone of constant conflict between Jews and Arabs that would draw in the U.S. and Europe, allowing him to secure the southern borders of the USSR.

In effect, Stalin's support for Israel was his answer to the "Truman Doctrine", announced in March 1947, pledging U.S. readiness to use its military and economic might to contain Soviet expansion aimed at Greece, Turkey and Iran. Although it is now forgotten, at that time the West was more worried by the situation on the Soviet Union's border with Iran and Turkey and on the border between Bulgaria and Greece than it was by Soviet actions in central Europe.

Stalin and the Zionists: Domestic Policy

The existence of a lobby in the U.S. Congress and U.S. government which has acted in the interest of Israel, first as an idea and then as an independent government, is, of course, no secret. Such a lobby also existed in the USSR, but in a different and hidden form.

The Soviet Jewish population itself could be very broadly divided into two  groups—nationalists, which included Zionists; and assimilationists.

 Many Jews were early supporters of the Bolshevik revolution. The social standing and civil rights of Russian Jews improved radically after the October revolution. Jews were allowed to leave their backwards shtetls and many Jewish intellectuals were drawn to the socialist ideals of the revolution.

From the end of the 1920s to the beginning of the 1930s, Jews abandoned their traditional way of life on a mass scale. The sacrifice of religion, tradition and national particularism seemed an easy trade for status and opportunity in Soviet society.

Jews played a prominent role in collectivization. According to Alexandr Solzhenitzyn in 200 Years Together, the "Great Change", as the program was known, was

"not an economic measure taken against a socio-economic class, but a measure taken against a nationality. The strategic blow against the Russian people [Ukrainians also—AA], who were the main obstacle to the victory of communism, was conceived of by Lenin, but carried out after his death [by Stalin]".  

In 200 Years Together, Solzhenitzyn describes collectivization:

"A massive war against the peasantry lay ahead and Stalin could not afford to alienate any of his reliable allies and probably thought that in this campaign against a disproportionately Slavic population it would be better to rely on Jews than on Russians. ...

"Yakov Yakovlev-Epstein led the 'Great Change', the imposition of collectivism on millions with its zealous administrators on the ground. A contemporary writer reports: 'For the first time ever a significant number of young Jewish communists arrived in rural communities as commanders and lords over life and death…'"

The mass attraction of young urban Jews to Soviet communist culture and programs was matched, however, with resistance from religious Jewry and older Jews from the former Pale.

Russia is obviously finding it difficult to come to terms completely with its Stalinist history. And America is also finding it difficult to confront certain aspects of its former WWII ally.  200 Years Together has yet to be translated into English—Yale University Press cancelled the project for reasons that remain obscure. Leave it to American academe to suppress Solzhenitzyn's history of the Stalin era.

But the book burners at Yale might be surprised to learn that in 200 Years Together Solzhenitzyn devotes considerable effort to understanding an early resistance, essentially Jewish, to communist ideology. He wrote:

"M. Agursky writes in his History of the Jews in Russia: 'In the past 20 years Russian Jewry has gone further and further away from its historical past… killing the Jewish spirit and Jewish tradition…. with the ascension in Russia of the Bolshevik dictatorship, the fight between fathers and children in the Jewish street has taken a particularly bitter form.'"

Also, though Solzhenitsyn points out that "Jewish communists participated efficiently and diligently in collectivization", he does not say they participated as Jews per se. And he adds:

"Regardless of the percentage of Jews in the party and Soviet apparatus, it would be a mistake to explain the ferocious anti-peasant plan of communism as due to Jewish participation. A Russian could have been found in the place of Yakovlev-Epstein—that's sufficiently clear from our post-October history."

Stalin's policy for Soviet Jews was assimilation. He supported the creation of Israel as part of a geopolitical strategy, not as a lodestar to guide Jewish identity—and certainly not as a destination for Jews from the Soviet Union.

There was to be no separate national existence for the new "Soviet man". Zionism above all was antithetical to "social-democratic" theory.

Open advocacy of a Jewish homeland was extremely risky for Jews. And "criminal intent to emigrate to Israel" could bring 15 years in 1948—the very year Stalin helped give birth to Israel.

Lenin and Stalin did pay lip service to ethnic identity when it became evident that these "aberrant" tendencies had outrun the life span that socialist theory had allotted them.

Solzhenitsyn quotes Felix Dzerzhinsky, the part-Jewish founder of the Cheka, who even wrote in 1923 that "the program of the Zionists is not dangerous to us, on the contrary I consider it useful" and again in 1924 "principally, we can be friends with Zionists".

The reality however, was that Zionist groups were persecuted, exiled, imprisoned and could exist only underground throughout Soviet history. Occasionally, they were dredged up to provide credibility to proposals for a Jewish homeland in the USSR, such as in Crimea or Birobidjanya. But this was mostly for the purpose of gaining Western sympathy and money.

The opening of the new Israeli embassy in Moscow, with Golda Meir as the first Israeli ambassador, hastened the end of any illusions that Stalin supported a homeland for Jews out of concern for Jews.

On October 4, 1948, less than 5 months after the founding of Israel, Golda Meir and a group of Israeli diplomats visited the synagogue in Moscow on the occasion of the Jewish New Year. Medvedev says that Moscow was then the cultural capital of European Jewry.

A large group of Jews—by some accounts 10,000, by Golda Meir's own claim, 50,000—gathered around the synagogue to meet her. She appeared again a week later on Oct 13 to celebrate Yom Kippur, when the large demonstrations were repeated. The Western media reported enthusiastically on "spontaneous" mass demonstrations.

In his biography, Stalin, Edvard Radzinsky describes them:

"An unprecedented crowd of 50,000 gathered at the synagogue where Golda Meir was coming to celebrate Jewish New Year. There were soldiers, officers, old people, young people and babies held aloft by their parents who shouted 'Our Golda, Shalom, Goldela! Long life and health! Happy New Year!' "

Radzinsky describes the demonstrations as "a spirit of jubilant freedom which had not yet evaporated following victory in war".

Radzinsky quotes the view of G.V. Kosterenko, a researcher on anti-Semitism in the USSR, that the remarkable event was a demonstration of Jewish national unity and a spontaneous religious expression:  

"On that day Chief Rabbi S.M. Schleifer movingly prayed 'Next year—Jerusalem', those praying responded warmly and enthusiastically. That sacred phrase, having become a watchword, was taken up by the enormous crowd which followed Golda Meir and the Israeli diplomats who had decided to walk from the synagogue to the Metropol hotel."

In Israel, and in Zionist circles in the U.S. and other countries, this unexpected solidarity of Moscow Jews with the new state of Israel was exultantly interpreted as the wish of the Jewish people to leave their temporary homes and immigrate en masse to Israel.

Perhaps this was indeed a genuinely spontaneous demonstration on the part of most participants. But never during Soviet rule, either before October 1948 or after, had there ever been any large scale spontaneous demonstrations for any reason whatsoever in Moscow.

Ominously, there was no mention of the demonstrations in the Soviet press.

By most accounts, there was no "spirit of jubilant freedom" after the war, especially for Jews. 1945-1948 was a period of mass ethnic and religious repression. Stalin's blockade of West Berlin in July, 1948 had brought the Soviets and the West to the brink of war.

Stalin's dictatorship was even more concentrated and complete than that of Hitler, Mussolini or Franco. Soviet society during Stalin's time has been aptly described as a "human aquarium".

In his fascinating 2003 book Stalin and the Jews: a New Analysis, (from which much of the material of this article is taken, but which is not available in English),  Zhores Medvedev, the geneticist and Soviet dissident who exposed the Chelyabinsk nuclear disaster—one of a number suppressed in the Soviet Union—concludes the demonstrations which greeted the Israeli ambassador were not unexpected.  

Mevedev argues that the idea for the demonstration was either planted by the Communist authorities themselves or quickly taken up by the authorities and allowed to develop to see who would join in. In Stalin's Soviet Union, bait and kill was a common means of controlling enemies, real and imagined.

So far, no one has offered a better explanation of these two very unusual demonstrations. In fact, they can be seen as part of a train of events that was already underway.

On Jan 12, 1948, Solomon Mikhoels, director of the war era Jewish Anti-fascist Committee and celebrated director of the Moscow Yiddish Theater, had been killed by being thrown under a truck by Soviet intelligence agents.

According to Medvedev, Lena Tumerman recounts in her memoirs a meeting she had with Mikhoels on December 27, 1947: "He was very agitated and upset that a press account of his recent speech had deleted all his references to the upcoming creation of Israel". Mikhoels took this as a political signal. "He told me 'It's the beginning of the end.'"  

Tumerman herself was arrested that night and later sentenced to 15 years, apparently just because of her accidental conversation with the artist.

In November, 1948 the State Jewish Theater, named after Mikhoels, was shut down.

Mikhoels, as the former director of the committee, was branded a "bourgeoisie nationalist" and the leader of a "Zionist conspiracy" against the Soviet government.

After Mikhoel's murder came the turn of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee.

Founded by the Soviet government to propagandize and raise money in the West, at the end of the war, the committee lost its original purpose and started, naively it turns out, to defend the interests of Jews striving for cultural autonomy rather than assimilation. Conflict with the Communist authorities was inevitable. On August 12, 1952, 13 of the 15 committee members were shot, including Communist Party Central Committee member Solomon Lozovskii.

After the "Committee" affair came the "Doctor's Plot".

On January 13, 1953, a TASS announcement appearing in Pravda and Izvestia informed the public of the discovery in the USSR of a "terrorist group of doctors who were intent on harming the leading political figures in the Soviet Union through medical sabotage".

According to the official narrative, the alleged plotters, mostly Jewish physicians, were led by Miron Simyonovitch Vovsi, the surgeon general of the Red Army and director of the public medical service.  TASS claimed Vovsi received instructions from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, allegedly created by the American intelligence service using "the known bourgeois nationalist"—the Moscow Yiddish Theater's Solomon Mikhoels. "Mikhoels" was a stage name: his real surname was Vovsi—and M.S. Vovsi was his cousin.  

Stalin was also becoming increasingly suspicious of Jews in his entourage and among his in-laws and former in-laws. According to his daughter Svetlana Stalin's memoirs, Twenty Letters to a Friend, he told her "the Zionists gave you your first husband"—requiring her to divorce him and marry the son of Andrei Zhadanov. Similarly, Stalin told Molotov, Soviet President Kalinin and Minister of Defense Voroshilov to divorce their Jewish wives. Molotov's wife and Kalinin's wife would eventually be arrested, to be released only after Stalin's death in 1953.

In Stalin's last days, he began to move against Molotov—earlier, his closest associate and presumed heir. In his last official speech Stalin used a favorite tactic: bringing up Molotov's support for a plan to settle Jews in the Crimea.

There are no official minutes from Stalin's speech in October, 1952 to Central Committee members during the 19th Party Congress. Medvedev notes Leonid Yefremov's reports, in his memoirs, of Stalin's words:

"Molotov is dedicated to our cause… ask him, and I have no doubt he would give his life for the party. But one must not overlook his unworthy actions… what was the cost of his suggestion to give the Crimea to the Jews? That was a crude political blunder …… what was behind comrade Molotov's suggestion? We already have a Jewish autonomous republic. Isn't that enough? Let this republic grow and develop. Comrade Molotov should not be promoting unlawful Jewish designs on our Soviet Crimea."

Stalin's anti-Semitic fantasies, surfacing for the most part in the post-War era, were multiplying.

Was this because Stalin realized he had miscalculated the effect the birth of Israel would have on feelings of Jewish nationhood within the USSR?

At any rate, during and after World War II, when Soviet Jewish nationalism began to rise—first in response to Hitler's genocide against the Jews in all territories occupied by the Wehrmacht, and then under the influence of the birth of Israel—Stalin's domestic "Jewish policy" took a fateful turn.

And his death, coming around Purim, was seen by some as a divine deliverance.

A. Antonov (email him) is a long-time student of the Soviet Union.

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