The Anti-Semitism Of Khrushchev And Kaganovich


Photo Credit: Jewish Press

As prime minister of Ukraine after World War II, Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971) came down particularly hard on the Jews, becoming the first premier of a Soviet republic to prohibit Jewish theaters and schools; issuing regulations barring Jews from important local positions; banning writing and acting in the Yiddish language; and giving his unofficial blessing to an anti-Semitic outbreak in Kiev.

When, after Stalin’s death in 1953, Khrushchev became the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Soviet Union, Jews initially saw a ray of hope in his regular and vociferous condemnation of Stalinist policies and his seeming reversal of Stalin’s anti-Jewish dogmas, including the official retraction of the “Doctors’ Plot” accusation. (On January 12, 1953, Stalin had ordered the arrest of nine prominent Kremlin physicians, six with unmistakably Jewish names, who were accused of participating in a vast plot by “imperialists” and “Zionists” to murder Soviet political and military leaders.)


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Under what became known as the “thaw period” under Khrushchev, the threat to the Jews’ physical survival decreased; Jewish cultural leaders who had been murdered, imprisoned, or exiled, were “rehabilitated”; Jewish survivors had their records cleared; and Stalinist midnight purges and mass murders of Jews ceased.

However, Soviet Jewish hopes that Jewish institutions would be reinstated and that the Soviet government would now undertake a vigorous campaign against popular anti-Semitism were soon dashed as, in full-on propaganda mode, Khrushchev publicly and repeatedly (and absurdly) claimed that his government had not only totally abolished anti-Semitism – he liked to point out that Karl Marx was a Jew (although Marx was, in fact, a vicious anti-Semite) and that his son had married a Jewess – but that, in fact, he was a great supporter of Soviet Jews.

In particular, Khrushchev and the Russian media commenced a massive propaganda campaign ballyhooing the Soviet establishment of Birobidzhan, the “Jewish Autonomous District,” as a sort of Jewish nirvana that had been set aside as “a home for the Jewish population.” The Soviet government’s slogan “To the Jewish Homeland!” did encourage some Jewish workers, who saw it as an ideological alternative to Zionism, to move to Birobidzhan, but the project ultimately failed.

In truth, in seeming initially to be more receptive to Jewish rights, Khrushchev was not by any means motivated by altruism but, rather, by a calculated policy designed to appease adverse international public opinion, which was inspired, at least in part, by protests against Russia and the initial stirrings of a nascent Soviet Jewry movement.

Notwithstanding his professed eradication of Soviet anti-Semitism, Khrushchev was not shy about expressing overtly anti-Jewish thoughts and feelings in talks with foreign personalities, delegations, and newsmen. In particular, he blamed the failure of Birobidzhan to the “aversion of the Jews to discipline and collaborative work” and because of their excessive “individualism and intellectualism.”

Birobidzhan stamps

Moreover, he commenced a new effort to eradicate organized Jewish life in the USSR through the systemic obstruction of Yiddish cultural life and issued general prohibition against the establishment of Jewish institutions. (He also closed synagogues, often subsequent to a smear campaign against them in the local media.) Not a single Jewish school of any kind was permitted to open during the Khrushchev regime. In fact, Jewish education was prohibited pursuant to his program to “Russify” Jews – including in Birobidzhan, the Jewish “Garden of Eden.”

In the early 1960s, baking matzot for Passover was virtually banned in Russia, as were other Jewish religious observances, although vigorous protests from abroad slowly led to a slight easing of the restrictions by the end of Khrushchev’s regime.

At that time, Khrushchev also mounted a campaign against “economic crimes” and enacted “anti-parasite” laws; foremost among the arrested and convicted were Jews, and more than 75 percent of defendants receiving death sentences were Jews. Khrushchev often publicly emphasized the Jewish names of “enemies of the state,” and over 400 Jewish trials were prominently reported in the press during the Khrushchev years.

Khrushchev’s belief that a rising tide of Arab nationalism would sweep away British and American interests in the Middle East marked a turning point in Soviet policy, as he otherwise supported Egypt’s closing of the Suez Canal and its 1956 Sinai War against Israel. His policy was marked by strident anti-Israel propaganda; Soviet Jews having contact with Israeli officials were charged with sedition, and the gates of Jewish emigration were shut tight. During his regime, books and pamphlets appeared that strongly denounced, not only Zionism and Israel, but also Judaism itself, and these publications were often accompanied by crude anti-Semitic cartoons.

The duplicitous Russian leader even went so far as to use Soviet Jews as pawns in a complex international chess game, as he sought to gain an edge with Arab leaders by proudly citing his maltreatment of Soviet Jews. And why, he reasoned, did Soviet Jews need to go to Israel, “a miserable swamp of a land from which even the Jews were fleeing,” when they already had the ultimate Jewish Promised Land, Birobidzhan?

Yet, these very policies boomeranged, as many young Soviet Jews, hitherto ignorant of their identity and ancestral culture, now felt the urge to self-identify as Jews. Thus, Khrushchev’s anti-Jewish and anti-Israel policies led indirectly to the rise of Jewish consciousness, the birth of the Refusenik movement, greater sensitivity of the democratic world to the plight of Soviet Jewry, and a massive Soviet emigration to Eretz Yisrael when the gates finally flew open.

* * * * *

Lazar Moiseyevich Kaganovich (1893-1991) was a leading figure in the Soviet government beginning in the 1920s when he rose to power as Stalin’s protégé, chief henchman, and heir apparent. He eventually became the Secretary of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party, a position he held until the 1950s, when he was dismissed from office by Khrushchev.

For many years, he was the only Jew to hold a top position in the leadership of the USSR and was one of the most powerful – and repugnant – individuals in the Soviet Union despite his modest origins as an uneducated shoe repairman. Some biographers attribute his long-term close relationship with Stalin, even amidst purges and planned mass exterminations, to the fact that Kaganovich’s sister, Rosa, was intimately involved with Stalin and may have married him – which would mean, incredibly, that Stalin may have married a Jew.

As Stalin’s closest confidant, as a member of the Politburo, and as chairman of the Soviet Presidium, Kaganovich established the unification of state security forces that later became the infamous KGB. Most scholars credit him and Molotov with responsibility for purposefully causing the Holodomor, the 1932-33 Ukrainian famine which claimed the lives of millions of peasants, as punishment for the Ukrainian resistance to Stalin.

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A champion of forced collectivization, he directed the implementation of many of Stalin’s economic policies, including the government takeover of agriculture and rapid industrialization. A ruthless bureaucrat, Kaganovich also played a key role in personally supervising the widespread Russian purges in the 1930s and 1940s, a brutal campaign that ravaged the peasants and villages of the Ukraine.

The bloodiest of all Communist leaders, Kaganovich urged and orchestrated the deaths of some 20 million people, thereby earning the monikers “the Butcher of the Ukraine” and “the Soviet Eichmann.” He may well have been the fourth greatest mass murderer of all time, following Mao’s 60 million, Stalin’s 40 million, and Hitler’s 30 million (all figures are estimates).

The son of two Jewish parents, Kaganovich was raised in the Jewish tradition, even attending a yeshiva and, ironically, he attended his first Communist meeting at 18 when he heard the Jewish Leon Trotsky give an address at a Kiev synagogue. He originally believed that he could develop and promote the relationship between the Soviet regime and the Jews – who, having seen enough pogroms under the czar, generally supported the Bolsheviks – and his visit to Birobidzhan in February 1936 was encouraging to the Jewish leadership there at the time.

But as he consolidated his position, he determined that the Jewish revolutionaries that had played such an important role in supporting Lenin had to be crushed because of their refusal to yield to the party line and renounce their Jewish identities. He instituted arguably greater restrictions and quotas against the Jews than any other Soviet leader, including Stalin himself, as he jubilantly went on a rampage destroying synagogues.

Stalin, after recognizing the new State of Israel – which he saw as both a strong anti-Great Britain move and as an opportunity to gain a new ally and expand the Soviet sphere of influence in the Middle East – grew furious at the Jews and assigned Kaganovich the responsibility to direct the grand sadistic Russian purge of Soviet Jews.

As Commissioner of Transportation, Kaganovich organized the arrests of thousands of railroad administrators and supervisors as “saboteurs” and directed the construction of the Moscow Metro, a fantastic subway system that bore his name. He was singly responsible for razing Moscow’s buildings, including beloved landmarks and memorials, in favor of the well-known uniform and bleak grey concrete that became emblematic of Communist architecture.

In each of his positions, including Commissioner for Heavy Industry (1937-39) and Commissioner of Oil Industry (1939-40), he issued arrests and oversaw purges to improve “discipline” and compliance with Stalin’s policies. As an emissary of the Communist Party Central Committee, he traveled the length of the Soviet Union demanding the acceleration of collectivization and repressions against Stalin’s opponents, especially Jews, who were generally used as scapegoats for the slow progress of Soviet collectivization. He was responsible for heavy industrial policy in the Soviet Union, turning the Soviet Union into a world power while starving the peasants.

Exhibited here is the third (signature) page of a very rare document from my collection, an official October 8, 1947 document in Russian relating to agricultural progress in Soviet Russia, signed by both Khrushchev (left), as Chief of the Council of Ministers of the Ukraine (CMU), and Kaganovich (right), as Secretary of Party Central Committee of the Ukraine (PCCU).

After World War II, the 4th Soviet “Five-Year Plan” (1946-53) emphasized the development of heavy industry and a military buildup at the expense of consumer needs, including food, and, as a result, a famine claimed nearly a million Russian lives. Thousands of Jewish families subsisted on the meager rations that they were able to get from Western Jewry, including overseas relatives and Jewish institutions such as the American Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish Colonization Organization, and ORT. In this document, the two Russian leaders discuss the manifest failure of the Soviet government to meet its goals for producing fodder and foodstuff:

The CMU and the PCCU notes that you failed to take measures to discharge the September 12 resolution, which is the cause for the utterly unsatisfactory situation with stock-breeding . . . Over the last decade, only 74.5% of the goal was met. In some regions, the foodstuff stock situation is perilous. In the Khmelevsky region, the plan met only 25%; in Peschano-Brodsky, 35%; Novo-Arcangel, 37%, Zlatopolsky, 33%, and other regions fulfilled less than 30%….

In several kolkhozes [collective farms], after combine harvesting the straw remains unstacked, is carelessly strewn, are not maintained in proper condition and, as a result, spoils. The regional agricultural departments do not even provide any accounting for already stocked up foodstuff….

The CMU and PCCU demand: Send to each oblast (administrative region) and kolkhoze assigned the duty to organize and fulfill all the stock-breeding tasks as established by the CMU and PCCU on September 12, 1947…. Pay special attention to the opportune harvest of corn stalks and other cultivation wastes that may be used as cattle fodder. All instances where corn stalks are negligently left on the field during the harvesting and keeping of straw must be considered as fodder damage and the persons who are guilty must be punished immediately. Because of lack of time, the fodder accumulation brigade personnel must be increased to complete the established plans.

During the coming days, the situation with social stock-breeding must be discussed at general meetings of all the kolkhoze members. All kolkhoze members are charged with unconditional fulfillment of the State plan for stock-breeding and the preparation of cattle for the winter season.

Khrushchev was ousted in 1964 in a plot led by Leonid Brezhnev, who succeeded him as party leader, while Alexei Kosygin succeeded him as prime minister. The situation for Russian Jews remained essentially the same throughout their rule and thereafter until President Mikhail Gorbachev enacted perestroika (“restructuring”) and glasnost (“transparency”); re-established diplomatic relations with Israel; and opened the long-sealed doors to Jewish immigration, leading to the largest Jewish exodus in modern history.


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