Why and How Stalin Hated Jews

Spotting the Jews among the Bolshevik revolutionaries is an ugly game. And usually it is monarchists and reactionaries who play it as they try to prove that the overthrow of the great Russian empire was an international Jewish conspiracy. In "Stalin Against the Jews," Arkady Vaksberg, an investigative journalist and lawyer, enters the arena. But he has a different purpose in mind. Vaksberg pinpoints the positioning of Jews in the ranks of the Soviet elite under Stalin not in order to show how much power rested in Jewish hands. He is trying to prove that Stalin consciously promoted and praised Jews in order to hide his own calculated, virulent and deadly anti-Semitism.

Drawing on exhaustive research into previously inaccessible KGB archives, on interviews with scores of perpetrators and victims of the anti-Semitic purges, as well as on his own experiences as a Soviet Jew in the 1950s, Vaksberg documents the evolution of Stalin's personal animosity toward Jews. He maintains it was a vendetta that took root not in the 1940s, as was previously believed, but in the years after the 1917 Revolution, when every one of Stalin's competitors for power was Jewish, and many of them better educated than he.

In great detail -- perhaps too much for the reader not already well-versed in the complicated history of Soviet Jewry -- Vaksberg chronicles the fate of Soviet Jews of the Stalin era. He moves from the rise and bloody demise of the Jewish Antifascist Committee, which was dedicated to raising money in the West for the Soviet war effort and was later persecuted as a hotbed of traitorous Zionists, to the orchestrated murder in a "car crash" of the great director, actor and Jewish leader Solomon Mikhoels. He recounts Stalin's covert plan to deport the entire Soviet Jewish population to Siberia, and the overtly anti-Semitic "Doctors' Plot" of the 1950s. Throughout, it becomes clear that Stalin's methods of persecution were far more subtle and devious than the historical precedent of whipping Cossacks into the frenzy of a pogrom.

Vaksberg shows how Stalin was a master of duplicity. Every time the leader unleashed a new wave of anti-Jewish persecution, he would simultaneously award a prominent Jew the prestigious Order of Lenin. While nameless thousands of innocent Jews were being arrested and shot, the faithful Jews among Stalin's lackeys were being promoted to positions such as gulag camp commandant. A genius at mixing up the cards, Stalin would let it be known that the firing and demoting of Jews was not only acceptable but expected, while also making grand public statements denying the existence of anti-Semitism, which he called "the lowest form of cannibalism," in the international workers' state.

A typical example of Stalin's double-edged maneuverings concerned "Freilekhs," a play directed by Solomon Mikhoels at the end of World War II at Moscow's Jewish Theater. The play, a vivid and moving work devoid of the usual ideological drivel, was the hit of the season and was nominated for the Stalin Prize in 1946. But the Committee on the Arts, well aware of the prevailing mood, tried to scupper the play's chances by arranging for the publications of anonymous critical letters and negative reviews. This damaging material was given to Stalin, who, of course, had the final say on the prizewinners.

"But Comrade Stalin was much more cunning, and smarter, than his toadying lackeys," Vaksberg writes. "He knew how to blow smoke into people's eyes. Stalin supported the play, which he had not even seen ... No one doubted that the prize was totally deserved. But it had nothing to do with art. Its aim was to serve as ammunition against any spoken or unspoken accusations of anti-Semitism."

And the prize could not save Mikhoels. He was killed two years later.

"Stalin Against the Jews" is rendered more potent since Vaksberg does not hesitate to name the many Jews who were faithful to Stalin. He holds them accountable for their crimes against both Russians and Jews. The book leaves little doubt that, despite the contentions of many devout Stalinists, the anti-Semitism that flourished in the Soviet Union was not only sanctioned but fueled from above.

Turning to the current situation, Vaksberg describes today's "neo-anti-Semites" -- those who think the October Revolution was the dirty work of Jews, yet dream of the reanimation of the Soviet Union -- to be the heirs and successors of Stalin. As they see it, it was Jews and Lenin, one of whose ancestors was a Jew, who destroyed the great Russian empire, while Stalin recreated it, both geographically and spiritually.

Yet ultimately, Vaksberg finds hope in the low intellectual level of today's Russian anti-Semites. Quoting a letter he received stating that "all Russian Jews work for the Zionists and imperialists," Vaksberg writes that "this sort of ignorant babble of the neo-Stalinist anti-Semitic wave will not find great responsiveness among the Russian masses, who have learned to think for themselves."

To hear this from a man who has taken such pains to document the details of the absurd and evil campaign against Jews in the Soviet Union is reassurance indeed.

Stalin Against the Jews, by Arkady Vaksberg. Translated by Antonina W. Bouis. Knopf. 295 pages. $24.