Vladimir Putin’s jocular comment, floating the possibility of erecting a statue of Stalin in Russia — since one of “the cruel dictator”, Cromwell, stood outside the House of Commons — clearly went down well among Russian nationalists.
Putin’s comment “to treat with respect every period of our history” should have sounded the alarm bells. In his books, the historian Simon Sebag-Montefiore shows clearly how the young Josef Djugashvili — Stalin’s real name — was both a dedicated revolutionary and devout antisemite.
On accruing power, Stalin intensified the persecution of all Jewish nationalists, Zionist or anti-Zionist. In September 1924, 3000 Zionists were arrested and sent for many long years to the embryonic Gulag. The development of a Yiddish-based proletarian culture was endorsed by the Kremlin, but its real aim was to ensure that any form of Jewishness withered away over time.
During the war against Nazism, Stalin galvanised Jewish support by promoting a national Jewish spirit. When this was no longer needed, even with the revelations of the Shoah, he began once more to liquidate any expression of Jewish national consciousness.
In 1947, the Soviets, after decades of repression of Zionists, began to advocate that the Jews should have their own state. This was not an ideological volte-face, but a means of ousting the British from the Middle East. Indeed, would the Zionists have acquired the requisite two-thirds majority in the UN vote in November 1947, had it not been for Stalin?
Soviet external policy supported the Zionists in Palestine.
Soviet internal policy sent them to experience the permafrost of the Gulag. As soon as the British had left Palestine, Stalin reverted to his traditional approach, since Soviet interests lay with the feudal Arab world rather than with progressive Israel.
In the Soviet press, hard-line Stalinists were accused of “Zionism” in show trials in eastern Europe. In November 1952 in Czechoslovakia the Slansky trial took place, where most of the defendants were assimilated Jews, many of whom had fought fascism in Spain. Their ashes were scattered on the icy roads of Prague. One of the few who survived, deputy Foreign Minister Artur London, later reported that his prison interrogator had told him that Hitler was right about the Jews and “we will finish what he started”.
In 1952, a group of Yiddish poets, Jewish writers and old Bolsheviks were tried on spurious charges, found guilty and executed. The apogee of these black years of Soviet Jewry was the Doctors’ Plot of January 1953, when a group of Kremlin doctors, the majority of whom were Jewish, were arrested and accused of attempting to poison the Soviet leadership. Soviet Jews feared persecution and pogrom after the trial and there were rumours that Stalin would deport the Jews to Central Asia to “save them” from the enraged Russian populace. Stalin dropped dead a few weeks later and it was discovered that “an unfortunate mistake” had been made by the organs of state security.
Putin would very much like to initiate an “understanding” for Stalin’s policies to suit his internal political needs. Hence the equivalence of the murderous Stalin and the flawed Cromwell. Jews, however, remember that Cromwell allowed them to settle in this country. Stalin tortured them and stopped them from leaving Russia.
As Ben-Gurion put it so succinctly at the time: “With the exception of the Nazi regime, the world has never known so oppressive a regime of murderers and world arsonists as this one”.