The murder of Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov is extremely troubling and one’s first instinct is to put the blame directly on Vladimir Putin. Having come into a democratizing Russia, he has slowly but surely turned the country into a dictatorial police state. Not even thinking about his dangerous foreign escapades and the havoc that has caused to Russia’s economy and standing in much of the world, I am thinking about his media clampdown, the restrictions placed on NGOs operating in the country, the pervasive corruption, the miscarriages of justice evidenced by the death of Sergei Magnitsky, and now the murder of former Deputy Prime Minister Nemtsov.
Yes, history does repeat itself, and while Putin is not (yet) Stalin, some parallels exist, particularly if opposition to the leader is viewed to be the first step to death. And there is something more. Much of Stalin’s viciousness (at least in his later years) was directed towards Jews in the Soviet Union – he could not help but think of all of them as universalists, nationalists, Zionists, out to separate the Jews from the motherland, and therefore dangerous and treasonous. Is it really a surprise, therefore, that both Magnitsky and Nemtsov were (at least according to Jewish religious law) Jewish, although I do not know that either of them were practicing Jews?
I have spent part of this quiet, cold (but, yes, sunny) Saturday, reading the lengthy introduction that Joshua Rubenstein wrote to “Stalin’s Secret Pogrom: the Postwar Inquisition of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee” and I couldn’t help but wonder how much of the past may in fact be prologue.
The Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee was set up during World War II after the German attack on the USSR to gain support for the Russian fight against Nazism by winning over Jewish sympathies world wide, as well as inspiring Jews within the Soviet Union. Its leaders included many well known Jewish intellectuals – scientists, literary figures, theater artists. After the tide of the fighting began to turn with the German defeat at Stalingrad, the Russian leader did not see much further use of the Committee, and instead saw any Jewish communal organization, particularly one focused outside of the Soviet Union, as dangerous. The Jews wanted their own homeland (that they may have wanted it inside the USSR was not relevant), they did not want to assimilate, they continued to write in and speak Yiddish, they had relatives and contacts throughout the western world (and particularly in the archenemy, America). They could not be trusted.
First, the director of the Moscow State Jewish Theater, Solomon Mikhoels, was gunned down on a street in Minsk (the official word was that he was hit by a car – we knew then and know now this is not true), and then about 20 activists with the Committee were arrested and charged with a number of crimes. They were imprisoned, interrogated, beaten and tortured for two years, as the case against them was built – largely on the basis of coerced confessions. Everything that they did, with government support, as members of the Anti-Fascist Committee, was now held against them of proof of Zionist and nationalist and treasonous crimes. With one exception, all of those arrested (and except for those who died in prison) were convicted and executed, and their families exiled to Siberia. And shortly thereafter, Stalin continued by arresting Jewish doctors (the famous “Doctors Plot”) including his own personal physicians on similar charges. Those arrested under the Doctors Plot were freed – freed because Stalin died and his successors did not have the heart to continue the trials.
The most interesting thing about the trials of the Anti-Fascist Committee members is that, although it was held in secret, everyone involved had a chance to testify (even though the ultimate judges paid no attention to any of them) and, most significantly, there was a complete transcript made. Now, in “Stalin’s Secret Program”, you can read all of the testimony, finally opened to the public and translated.
The introduction is 65 pages long, and quite detailed. I have not yet read the hundreds of pages of testimony which follows, and I assume I will dip into it, but not read it all. But it gives us a very rare opportunity – to get a complete picture of a Stalinist show trial.
So back to Putin. Who will he go after next, and will there be trials, or like Nemtsov, will everyone simply be murdered in cold blood? And is Putin an anti-Semite? Perhaps, but perhaps not. In fact, he has always had Jewish supporters (as did Stalin) and has so far been supportive of the Jewish community and its institutions. But if those who oppose his rule turn out to include a lot of Jews, which will probably be the case, who knows? Things can turn sour very fast.