The Last Days of Stalin
Yale University Press, £25
When Stalin died on Purim, in 1953, beggars in Jerusalem rattled their tin cans and cried “Haman is dead!” In the USSR, there were public tears and private joy. Huge, inconsolable crowds appeared in the streets and many participants were crushed underfoot in the mêlée. The body of the composer, Prokofiev, who had expired the same day, was unable to be moved from the house because of the large number of people outside.
Special services had been held in the Great Choral Synagogue as Stalin lay dying. Moscow’s chief rabbi called for a day of fasting and prayer so that Stalin should not meet his maker just yet. As the writer Andrei Sinyavsky put it: “Stalin was inside everyone”.
Joshua Rubenstein’s extremely interesting account of the ailing Stalin’s last days draws upon personal memoirs and new research – and conveys the deep fear inculcated during “the Black Years of Soviet Jewry”.
In the weeks before Stalin was felled by a stroke, an alleged “Doctors’ plot” to murder Kremlin leaders was uncovered. A majority of those arrested were Jews. Rubenstein vividly describes how paranoia reigned. Young mothers refused to give medicines to their children if prescribed by Jewish doctors. Medical journals accused doctors with Jewish names while Jewish psychiatrists were charged with perpetrating “the false and harmful theories” of Freud and Bergson. Yet, when Stalin lay unconscious while nervous physicians applied leeches, one imprisoned doctor, pathologist Yakov Rapoport, was approached by his suddenly reverential interrogators for his opinion. When asked for the names of specialists, he named nine, but all had been arrested.
In his last years, Stalin spent an increasing amount of time in the Caucasus and left his team to run the government. He was old and lonely, having executed, exiled and estranged his relatives; his inner circle became his family.
While the Doctors’ Plot was the apogee of Stalin’s lurid campaign against Jews, it was probably also an instrument to eliminate his loyal, long-term associates, Molotov and Mikoyan. Was this, as the author surmises, also directed at Beria, long involved with the Soviet security services, for his lack of vigilance? Yet Kaganovich, the sole Jew in Stalin’s political entourage, was, remarkably, never accused of any misdemeanour.
Within days of his death, things began to change. Molotov’s Jewish wife was brought back from exile and the doctors released from prison. One had died during interrogation.
An 18-year-old Jewish student in Lvov had been sentenced to 10 years for muttering “let him rot” during a memorial service. She, too, was freed, and the process of releasing the two-and-a-half million inhabitants of the Gulag initiated.
Rubenstein’s is a timely reminder of the complexity of life in dark times under the whip of aged, irrational leaders.
Jewish Chronicle 8 July 2016