New Year, 1953. British Jews looked forward to a year far better than the one that had just passed. In the summer of 1952, they had watched in horror the trial in Moscow, and subsequent execution, of Jewish writers and poets. This was followed by the false conviction and killing of Jewish communists in Prague during the Slánský trial. Their ashes were scattered on the icy streets of the Czech capital.
But there was no respite from Stalin’s paranoia about Jews. January 1953 saw the Doctors’ Plot, in which Jewish physicians were accused of poisoning leaders of the Kremlin.
Stalin was an inveterate antisemite, whose racism stretched back to his youth in Georgia when he was training to become a priest.
But the days of Stalin are not entirely behind us. This month, Russia’s Supreme Court attempted to whitewash his crimes by ordering the closure of Memorial International, which has documented and commemorated the countless victims of Stalinism, including many Jews. Over the last 30 years, Memorial built up a database of more than four million names. Its Jewish lawyer, Genri Reznik, said this week’s judgment reminded him of the Soviet show trials in the 1930s.
Unlike Germany’s archive of Stasi records or the institute of National Remembrance in Poland, Vladimir Putin clearly wishes to recalibrate the Soviet past for present consumption.
While Memorial was prosecuted under the “foreign agents” legislation, this measure was surely intended to reimagine Soviet history and to provide only positive images of the past in order to reinforce Russia’s nationalist image of itself today.
This act of re-engineering memory is a strike against Jewish history. It begs a key question: will Russian Jews be allowed to commemorate the Jewish victims of Stalin’s crimes? For example, several hundred Lubavitcher Chabadniks were arrested in 1950-1951. Will the Chabad Chief Rabbi in Russia be permitted to remember them publicly?
The Kremlin’s emphasis today is on remembering the struggle of the Red Army against the Nazi invader and over 20 million Soviet dead. It is simultaneously designed to eliminate any mention of homegrown antisemitism and to airbrush out of existence the persecution of Soviet Jewry during the Black Years (1948-1953).
Putin has so far suppressed any manifestation of traditional antisemitism, and he may be genuine in his opposition to it. He has learned that Jewish communities around the world will not hesitate to protest if there is even a scintilla of antisemitism in Russia. The campaign for Soviet Jewry undoubtedly had a corrosive effect on the USSR’s international standing. Putin also knows that Israel is reticent to criticise Russia, since the two countries must cooperate in Syrian skies to prevent an unexpected clash. Israel was silent when Russia annexed the Crimea in 2014.
Memorial has clearly upset the Russian intelligence services in recalling the black spots in recent history. However, 127,000 Russians signed a petition in defence of Memorial; in addition, the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, demanded that prosecutors abandon the case.
The first court against Memorial opened on the anniversary of the death of Andrei Sakharov, the Nobel Peace Prize winner. Sakharov was a founder of Memorial, but he is also remembered as a courageous fighter against Soviet antisemitism and the right of Jews to emigrate to Israel. In September 1973, 35 Soviet Jews decided to put their names to a letter of solidarity with Sakharov who was in danger of arrest. They stuck their collective neck out and left themselves open to an accusation of anti-Soviet activities.
They said: “In the world we live in, honesty requires in many courage which is not granted to all. Your courage… chases away some of the darkness around us and gives us hope that reason will score its victory over folly, justice will triumph over lawlessness, good will overcome evil.”
The names of Yehiel Halperin, Meir Levin, Sonya Rolnik and Vera Shkolnik will be unknown to JC readers. They first wanted to leave for Palestine in 1920, but only reached Israel in 1970. They experienced a lifetime of exile and return, arrest and incarceration — survivors of half a century of an attempt to leave the Soviet Union. They were part of a remnant that had somehow managed to survive, those who had not perished in the permafrost of Stalin’s Gulag and in remote exile, those who had not died in Russia without realising their dream of aliyah. Banning Memorial erases their history and their suffering.
It remains to be seen how the Diaspora responds to extinguishing Memorial — whether there is a studied silence or a true understanding of the letter addressed to Sakharov.
Jewish Chronicle 31 December 2021