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A Bloody Purim Legacy Unites Stalin and Putin

Putin, a former KGB agent who spent the Soviet years terrorizing and spying on his fellow citizens, is implementing many of the lessons he learned during those formative decades in his war on Ukraine.
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March 15, 2022
Russian President Vladimir Putin (Photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images); Joseph Stalin (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

On 1 March 1953, as Jews around the world celebrated Purim, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin suffered a debilitating stroke that resulted in his death four days later. His sudden demise came at the height of what some historians called “the black years of Soviet Jewry,” when the USSR launched a series of antisemitic campaigns immediately after the Holocaust directed at its own citizens. This culminated in the so-called “Doctors’ Plot,” a conspiracy invented by the government that accused a group of primarily Jewish doctors of plotting to murder Soviet leaders. Stalin’s death soon brought an end to the persecution of the doctors, as well as the most egregious elements of the government’s antisemitic practices.

Having just repelled and defeated the Nazis and their fascist allies, the Soviet government justified these antisemitic campaigns by using a tool it had employed since the 1930s to justify arresting, deporting and murdering millions of its own innocent citizens: accusing them of being fascist agents. During Stalin’s nearly nonstop cavalcade of purges over the previous decades, never had the charge been leveled at a more unlikely group of Soviet citizens. Soviet Jews made up nearly half of the victims of the Holocaust, and those who survived had all lost family and friends to the Nazis and their collaborators. They also served with distinction in the Red Army; though they were the seventh largest ethnic minority in the USSR, they were fourth in terms of total military honors awarded by the government during the war.

During Stalin’s nearly nonstop cavalcade of purges over the previous decades, never had the charge been leveled at a more unlikely group of Soviet citizens.

Not only were many of the USSR’s Jews accused of being fascist agents after the war, but they were also found guilty of these charges in Soviet courts. Perhaps the most shocking victim of this farcical application of Soviet justice was the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC), a group of Soviet Jewish intellectuals and artists assembled by the regime to solicit money and support abroad for the Soviet war effort. After the war, its chairman Solomon Mikhoels, the director of the Moscow State Jewish Theatre, was murdered by state security agents in Minsk in what was meant to look like a car accident. Other members of the committee were soon arrested and executed, culminating in the “Night of the Murdered Poets” in 1952, when thirteen Yiddish writers and other former members of the JAC were executed in a single night in Moscow’s infamous Lubyanka Prison. Both in their trials and in the press, they were accused of being “Zionist” and “fascist” agents. The Soviets were the first to make this oxymoronic link in their propaganda campaigns, which spread to Soviet sympathizers and allies in the western and third worlds until it became a standard calumny directed at Israel by people usually ignorant of its origins as Stalinist antisemitic propaganda.

This Purim, nearly seventy years after Stalin’s death put a temporary halt to the USSR’s arrest and murder of its Jews under the nonsensical guise of fighting fascism, another tyrant in the Kremlin is using the same, equally preposterous accusation to justify his invasion of a neighboring country, murder its civilians, and overthrow the government of its democratically elected Jewish President. Vladimir Putin, who has done his best to rehabilitate Stalin’s murderous legacy during his reign, borrows directly from the Soviet dictator’s playbook in accusing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government of being a “band of drug addicts and neo-Nazis.” For Jews from the lands of the former USSR, this refrain conjures horrifying memories of life under Stalin during his final years in power, when many lost their jobs and loved ones to officially sanctioned antisemitism emanating from the highest echelons of state power. Coming in the wake of the Holocaust and the mass deportations of other ethnic minorities in the USSR, many Soviet Jews even feared their own collective deportation in cattle cars to the frozen tundra and deserts of Siberia and the empire’s far east. Zelensky is the grandson of Holocaust survivors who would have experienced this fear firsthand.

Putin, a former KGB agent who spent the Soviet years terrorizing and spying on his fellow citizens, is implementing many of the lessons he learned during those formative decades in his war on Ukraine. In 1939, when the USSR divided Poland with its ally Nazi Germany during the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, it forced its newly colonized subjects to take part in bogus referendums supporting their integration into the Soviet Union. We have already seen Putin employ the same strategy in Crimea and Donbas, and there have been indications that he will try the same in the Ukrainian cities newly occupied during the current invasion. A student of history, Putin’s strategy for territorial expansion also borrows from the Nazi and Russian empires. He has employed the policy of “Russkiy Mir” (Russian World) calling for the “protection” of Russians abroad to justify his invasions of neighboring countries, as the Nazis did with the Volksdeutsche and the Czars under the flag of Pan-Slavism before him. Like them, Putin has expanded his borders slowly and methodically, testing global resistance to his actions and growing bolder in his campaigns after encountering none.

As we celebrate Purim this year, let us recall another nearly seven decades ago that saw the death of a modern Haman who threatened the lives of several million Soviet Jews.

As we celebrate Purim this year, let us recall another nearly seven decades ago that saw the death of a modern Haman who threatened the lives of several million Soviet Jews. Now, his geopolitical heir threatens the lives of some 40 million Ukrainians (including 300,000 Jews) using the same preposterous justifications as part of an effort to rebuild Stalin’s blood-soaked empire. It took a Purim miracle to stop Stalin. Barring another one, it will take far greater resolve and commitment on the part of the free world than it has shown to this point to stop Putin. Like Soviet Jews under Stalin, Ukrainians do not know exactly what he has planned for them, but many fear the worst.

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