Surviving Stalin’s Purges
Why couldn’t Soviet Jews see the dictator—who died 60 years ago—for the anti-Semitic murderer that he was?
Robert paused to gather his thoughts. “Also, you have to remember that Jews were strongly represented in the medical profession,” he added, “so I thought that the Jewish origins of the majority of the accused was just a reflection of our disproportionate numbers.”
Other historical and psychological associations helped to delay the realization among Jews like the Kesselmans that anti-Semitism was becoming state doctrine in the Soviet Union. To begin with, Stalin’s coterie included a fair number of Jews. Among them were Lev Mekhlis, the editor of Pravda, and Solomon Milshtein, who, in his capacity as the boss of the Soviet railway system, oversaw the mass deportation of hundreds of thousands of prisoners to the gulags. And with memories of World War II still fresh, many Jews still believed that Stalin was their savior. In their minds, anti-Semitism was a dogma rooted in racist pseudoscience, indelibly linked to the Nazi atrocities. The notion that it might adapt to Soviet conditions seemed unthinkable.
Then there were the gruesome fates of other national minorities. For example, in Kalmykia, a constituent republic of the Russian Federation in the south of the country, 90,000 Kalmyks, a Buddhist people who trace their origins to northwestern China, were deported en masse by the Soviet authorities during a single night in December 1943. Such bestial acts that targeted, in this case, mainly women and children, cemented the belief among Jews that, while they might be victims of prejudice, others had it far worse.
Moreover, the deadly blend of Soviet patriotism and Russian nationalism encouraged by Stalin after the war forced the belief upon Soviet Jews that they had suffered not as Jews, but as Soviet citizens. Under the Soviet regime, the monument at Babi Yar, a ravine near Kiev where almost 34,000 Jews were shot by the Nazi Einsatzgruppen in 1941, made no mention of the Jewish origins of the victims. On the bitterly cold steppe of Gulshan Balka, the site of a mass execution committed by the Nazis in Kalmykia during six months of occupation in 1942, the stark angular monument referenced not Jews but “resistance fighters.”
A handful of elderly Jews still reside in Elista, the capital of Kalmykia. Grigory Goldvarg, an 87-year-old Red Army veteran with a gaunt face and an icy stare, is one of them. A German speaker, Goldvarg served with the Red Army units that liberated Auschwitz in January 1945. In a voice scorched by the Russian cigarettes he still smokes, he recalled approaching the concentration camp with his comrades. “The odor of burning flesh was everywhere,” he said. “We’d heard rumors about what a dreadful place this was. We were thinking, ‘We’ll free the camp and take the glory.’ But once we were inside, we started to weep.”
Yet despite having witnessed these horrors himself, Goldvarg didn’t present Auschwitz as a Jewish tragedy. There were Jews among those who were liberated, he said, but also Russians, Bulgarians, Poles, and Ukrainians. Throughout our conversation, he spoke of Stalin in reverential tones. When I asked about the Doctors’ Plot, he shrugged his shoulders and said he’d never heard of it.
Was this the fading memory of an elderly man, or was it self-censorship? When I met with Goldvarg’s brother Boris later that day and reported what Grigory had told me, he laughed. “My brother is an incorrigible Communist,” he said, “but I love him.” Asked if he remembered the Doctors’ Plot, Boris said, “Of course” he had, adding: “All the problems of the Jews started with this. You could feel it in the air then and after, in ’54, ’55, and ’56. In ’56, I was a student in Stavropol. Some of my fellow students would whisper about me, ‘He’s one of them.’ ”
A good deal of evidence has amassed that suggests that Stalin had a grand plan to deport the Soviet Jewish population en masse. In his book Stalin Against the Jews, journalist Arkady Vaksberg quotes a number of aides close to Stalin who claimed that the dictator intended, after the seven surviving doctors had been publicly hanged in Red Square, to transport the Jews to the eastern gulags. Ultimately, it was Stalin’s death on March 5, 1953, that saved the Jews of the Soviet Union–or at least transformed them into accidental survivors. As Vaksberg notes with a certain relish, one of the reasons Stalin’s life could not be saved was that the most eminent doctors were either in prison or had been executed or deported.
This last point was underlined by Alexander Tchen, a doctor from Kazakhstan who accompanied me to the Jewish museum in Moscow. The son of a Polish Jewish mother, who fled the Nazis only to wind up in the gulag, and an adoptive Korean father, Tchen told me that it was thanks to the Doctors’ Plot that “real medicine arrived in Kazakhstan.”
Many of Tchen’s professors were Jews forcibly sent to Kazakhstan in the wake of the Doctors’ Plot. “They were afraid to speak about what happened,” he said, “because we could have had another Doctors’ Plot, another instance of ‘blame the Jews.’ The events that happened then could have been repeated under Brezhnev or any of the other Soviet leaders.”
Indeed, while it’s true that the mild thaw that followed Stalin’s death eased the pressure on the Jews–Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, admitted that the Doctors’ Plot had been a hoax and revoked Lidia Timashuk’s Order of Lenin–a distinctly Soviet model of anti-Semitism continued to flourish upon fertile ground. In the decades that followed, Jews continued to face admission quotas at universities and bans from any jobs deemed sensitive, all the while being subjected to a constant barrage of anti-Zionist propaganda. “The rule was that some are more equal than others,” said Robert Kesselman. “I was head of the orthopedic department at the hospital in Sumy, but I never had any special privileges, like a car or a bonus, because I was a Jew. It was the same for other Jews.”
If Kesselman sounds stoic about his fate, it is because the outcome could have been so much worse. Had Stalin lived, it is very likely that he would have set into motion a second Holocaust less than a decade after the first one ended with the defeat of the Nazis.
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