Thursday, April 23, 2020

Stalin’s Anti-Semitism was Both ‘Fanatic and Pragmatic,’ Emil Pain Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 22 – Emil Pain, a specialist on ethnic conflict at Moscow State University, has been putting out a series of articles on “overcoming stereotypes” about the history of ethnic issues in Soviet and Russian history. His latest focuses on Stalin’s approach to the Jews up to 1945. And he promises additional articles on the period from 1945 to 1953.

            Pain begins his essay on the MBK portal by noting that “three quarters of Russians in March 2020 said they considered the Soviet era the best in the history of the country. It would be interesting to know how representatives of peoples subjected to forcible deportation feel about this” (

            “It is possible,” he suggests, “ethnic Jews would find it more difficult to specify their attitude toward that period because the policy of state anti-Semitism in the USSR was always masked and conducted under the cover of official condemnation of that.” Moreover, periods of discrimination alternated in the Stalinist era “with periods of greater opportunities for mobility.”

            Scholarly discussions of both the nature of Stalinist anti-Semitism, Pain continues, continue unabated. In this essay, the Moscow researcher says he wants to focus in on “only one characteristic of Stalinist anti-Semitism as government policy, the pragmatism of this policy, something not typical for xenophobia which typically operates on irrational emotions.”

            Leonid Luks, who was born in the USSR but now teaches at the University of Ingolstadt in Germany, has observed, Pain notes, that “in contrast to the fanatic anti-Semite Hitler, for whom the destruction of Jews was an absolute priority, Stalin … was capable of restraining his hatred if this would guarantee him the preservation of his despotic rule.”

            In the first decades of Soviet power, Stalin actually took steps to benefit Jews just as he did for almost all other national minorities, carrying out a policy of “affirmative action” to compensate for the oppression these groups suffered in the past. But by the time of the Great Terror, Stalin and the Soviet state sought to suppress ethnic minorities.

            “The korenizatsiya [“rooting”] carried out by Stalin beyond any question does not gtive a basis for accusing him of anti-Semitism. On the contrary, in this era, previously unknown possibilities for self-realization appeared for the Jews.”  At the same time, “the repressions of 1937-1938 do not testify about a policy of anti-Semitism.”

            That is because “in contrast to repressions at the end of the 1940s,” the purges of the 1930s were not directed at the Jews as Jews. They suffered but not in numbers significantly greater than their share in the population as a whole. But “the majority of experts,” Pain says, say that ‘the first manifestations of the Stalinist policy of anti-Semitism appeared in 1939.”

            In May 1939, Stalin fired Maksim Litvinov as his foreign minister at least in part because he was Jewish and would be an obstacle in developing ties with Hitler. And Litvinov’s successor, Vyacheslav Molotov, told his biographer that Stalin ordered him to purge Jews from the foreign ministry which he did.

            Following the German invasion and the massive initial defeats the Soviets suffered, Stalin decided that he needed “new ideological bindings” in place of internationalism in order to mobilize the army and the population.  Stalin thus began to use rhetoric which he had earlier struggled against.

            “If during korenizatsiya Stalin proclaimed the need for a struggle ‘with survivals of great power chauvinism which is a reflection of the former privileged position of the Great Russians,’ then from the start of the war, he began to base his statement on great powerness and on the principle of a hierarchy of peoples headed by the Russian people as ‘the elder brother.’”

            “This was Stalin’s NEP – the New Ethnic Policy, oriented at populism toward the ethnic majority and traditionalist rhetoric,” Pain says. These trends grew during the war and were capped by Stalin’s May 1945 toast to the Russian people because in the dictator’s view, it “is the most outstanding nation of all the nations within the Soviet Union.”

            During the war, Stalin’s elevation of the Russians as “the state-forming people” were taken by the party nomenklatura “as a signal for the latest ethnic purge of cadres. And in August 1942, the head of the Central Committee’s Agitation and Propaganda Administration called for eliminating Jews from many positions.

            And in the fall of 1944, Georgy Malenkov, the party secretary for organizational and cadres issues, told party organizations that “the appointment of people of Jewish nationality was undesirable.” And at the same time, Moscow introduced restrictions on the admission of Jews to higher educational institutions.

            What many call “the dark years of Soviet Jewry” followed. They will be the subject of Pain’s next essay.

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