In Russia, Anti-Semitism Has Long Been the Opiate of the Intellectuals

Even though the author tries to downplay it, a new book shows how deeply rooted anti-Semitism was in Soviet ideology.

Aug. 25 2020
About the author

Gary Saul Morson is the Lawrence B. Dumas professor of the arts and humanities at Northwestern University and the author of, among other books, Anna Karenina in Our Time (Yale).

In his 1938 article “Christianity and Anti-Semitism,” the Russian Orthodox philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev observed that “for us Christians, the Jewish question does not consist in knowing whether the Jews are good or bad, but whether we are good or bad.” Berdyaev, a fervent believer in what he called “the Russian idea,” here acknowledged a stain on the Russian conscience. In his view, the Russian psyche harbored a deep-seated hatred of Jews that has had disastrous consequences not only for the Jews but also for the Russian soul.

As Berdyaev knew, Jews had suffered endless persecutions in the century preceding the revolution. The blood libel—the myth that Jews murder Christian children to use their blood in making Passover matzah—was used to justify persecution and led to brutal pogroms. In the second decade of the 20th century, this accusation was leveled against a Russian Jew named Menaḥem Mendel Beilis, who was eventually acquitted after a very public trial (1911-1913). That trial, as Elissa Bemporad observes in her new study Legacy of Blood, left a lasting impression on Russian Jewry.

How did such an absurd myth persist so long?

At the turn of the 20th century, Russians associated with the far-right groups known as the Black Hundreds concocted the most influential anti-Semitic document in modern history, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which purported to document Jewish plans to take over the world. The Protocols is not taught in courses on Russian intellectual history, but it should be. It fits well with the apocalypticism of Russian thought of the time. Brought by Baltic Germans from Russia to the Third Reich, it became a centerpiece of Hitler’s propaganda. Russians have often defined Russianness as the antithesis of Germanness, but in this case the two were in concord.

We usually think of anti-Semitism as a superstition of the ignorant, to be cured by education, and that is how Bemporad presents it. But in Russia anti-Semitism has been, and remains, a preoccupation of the most highly educated people and has been favored by serious philosophical treatment. No less a figure than Dostoevsky, who once argued for Jewish rights, came to believe in the blood libel toward the end of his life. His anti-Semitism during this period, appalling even by Russian standards, has understandably perplexed and shocked readers who, like Berdyaev himself, embraced the great novelist’s ethic of empathy and compassion. Today anti-Semitism flourishes in the Eurasianist movement, pioneered by the pro-Putin political philosopher Aleksandr Dugin. As Bemporad points out, in the 1990s the organization Memory (Pamiat’) described the execution of the Romanov family, ordered by the Jewish Bolshevik leader Yakov Sverdlov, as a Jewish ritual murder. An official commission formed in 2018 is looking into the matter.

When Russian intellectuals incline to one or another form of populism—that is, any ideology that romanticizes the common folk—they often embrace, or at least go along with, anti-Semitism as well. In Anton Chekhov’s story about Russian intellectual fanaticism, “On the Road,” Likharev, a Russian intellectual who describes his personality as the distilled essence of Russianness, jolts from one extremist ideology to another, populism included. Near the end of the story, which takes place at Christmas, we find him delighted by a group of peasants singing:

Hey, you, Russian lad,

Take your thin knife,

We will kill, we will kill the Yid,

The son of misery . . .

The kindly Likharev listens with pleasure to these appalling verses, “looking feelingly at the singers and tapping his feet in time.” He apparently approves of anything from “the people.” With his characteristic tact, Chekhov does not explicitly condemn this approval, but if we reflect on Russian events just before the publication of this story in 1886, we recognize the immediate relevance of these murderous words.

Following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, Russia witnessed a series of murderous pogroms. We usually think of pogroms as inspired by the government, as was the case in the early 20th century (or in Fiddler on the Roof), but in the 1880s, government officials saw the violence as an intolerable breakdown of public order. When the reactionary Dmitri Tolstoy became minister of the interior in 1882, he had more than 5,000 pogromshchiks arrested.

It was the revolutionaries who welcomed these pogroms. On August 30, 1881 the executive committee of the revolutionary terrorist group the People’s Will, whose agents had assassinated the tsar, issued a manifesto, written in Ukrainian and addressed to “good people and all honest folk in Ukraine,” beginning: “It is from the Jews that the Ukrainian folk suffer most of all. Who has gobbled up all the lands and forests? Who runs every tavern? Jews! . . . Whatever you do . . . you run into the Jew. It is he who bosses and cheats you, he who drinks the peasant’s blood.” As the historian Adam Ulam observed, such statements have “been a source of deep embarrassment to many historians of the liberation movement. Some break off the narrative in 1881, largely, one suspects, to avoid dealing with this episode.”

In short, Russian anti-Semitism has come from both the top and from the bottom of society, from the left and the right, from Christians and atheists, and from peasants and intellectuals.

As Bemporad points out, anti-Semitism was particularly horrific during the civil war that followed the Bolshevik coup of November 1917. This war wasn’t a straightforward contest between Bolshevik “Reds” and anti-Communist “Whites”: there were also Ukrainian nationalists under Symon Petliura, the Polish army, anarchists under Nestor Makhno, agrarianist Greens, and others. As Mikhail Bulgakov dramatizes in his novel White Guard, Kiev and other cities in Ukraine kept changing hands, and as they did, massacres of opponents and pogroms against Jews followed. In the course of a year, the Jewish community of Dubovo was wiped out as the town came under control of Reds, Whites. Petliura loyalists, and what Bemporad calls “diverse groups of armed peasant bands whose political allegiance vacillated inconsistently [sic] according to the needs of the day.” Over 100,000 Jews were murdered in Ukraine.

Theoretically, the Bolsheviks were internationalists who opposed anti-Semitism, but in fact they, too, killed many thousands of Jews. Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry stories, and the diaries on which they were based, brilliantly describe Red anti-Semitism and a Jewish Bolshevik commissar’s complex reactions to it. For Bolsheviks, Jews—like everyone else—were expendable. Trotsky maintained that genocide might not be a bad thing if done to achieve the right goals. “If the realization of Communism should require the sacrifice of Jewry in its entirety,” he wrote in 1930, “this would be the most beautiful mission that could ever fall to the lot of any people.”


“Pogroms and blood libels constitute the two classic and most ex­treme manifestations of tsarist anti-Semitism,” Bemporad’s study begins. These horrors and what she calls their “afterlife” remained an ever-present memory for Soviet Jewry. And not just a memory: as she amply illustrates, anti-Semitism, including belief in the blood libel, continued in the Soviet period. The story she tells includes a wealth of details, many unknown or barely known to me.

Since the Bolsheviks were, at least in theory, opposed to anti-Semitism, Bemporad argues, Jews flocked to join them. The result was what she calls “the Soviet-Jewish alliance.” From the beginning, however, official ideology insisted on interpreting violence against Jews in Marxist class terms. In reviewing a 1923 exhibit on pogroms, for instance, Pravda, the official mouthpiece of the Communist party, insisted that the Jewish bourgeoisie, along with “the Rothschilds and Mendelssohns gave money to [the White general Anton] Denikin to kill the Jews.” As a result, only poor Jews were murdered—never by Russian workers, one must understand, because they viewed the Jewish poor as a class ally. This absurd reasoning was to persist. Although it was not permissible, under the Soviet regime, to accuse Jews of the blood libel or to foment pogroms—both of which continued anyway—one could accuse Jews of petty-bourgeois commercial activity or exploiting the New Economic Policy, which temporarily allowed a modicum of market activity for part of the 1920s.

On the whole, however, the Soviets in the 1920s and 1930s tried, inconsistently to be sure, to suppress anti-Semitism as such. Bemporad describes several fascinating incidents. The Commission for Investigating Blood-Libel Trial Materials, established in 1919 and comprising four Jewish and four non-Jewish historians, was divided on whether, just possibly, ritual murder might have been committed by some obscure secret Jewish sect. If that could seem plausible to historians as eminent as Sergei Platonov and Lev Karsavin, then the myth had not, for educated Russians, come to be classified with other medieval superstitions. Of course there were no witches, but ritual murder was still an open question.

Interestingly enough, confusion arose because two other Jewish practices—circumcision and kosher slaughter—did involve bloodletting and, to some, seemed to make the murder of Christian children for their blood plausible. What is more, Bemporad explains, those who suffered under Soviet rule sometimes resorted to the blood libel as a form of resistance just because it was officially rejected.

Bemporad is perhaps most interesting when discussing what she calls the “secularization” of the blood-libel myth. The more atheist the Soviet people became, the more forms the myth could take. In tsarist times, the victim was always a Christian boy, who represented Jesus, but in an atheist milieu attractive young Christian women could substitute. In a perverse form of gender equality, accused perpetrators came to include Jewish women as well as Jewish men. And of course, the victims could be Muslim or Communist. Bemporad makes plausible the suggestion that the “Doctors’ Plot” of Stalin’s last years—when Jewish doctors were accused of deliberately administering ineffective or dangerous treatments to Communist officials—represents yet another transformation of the blood libel.


Given how much interesting material this book contains, its shortcomings prove all the more trying. If there is a way to understate, apologize for, marginalize, place in a subordinate clause, or in some other way downplay Bolshevik crimes, Bemporad does so. When I came across her reference to “the Bolshevik experiment”—a phrase I used to hear in my pink-diaper upbringing—I wondered if she was aware that it is a way of apologizing for Soviet mass killings as some sort of noble, if not entirely successful, social-science experiment. When Bemporad mentions the anarchist Emma Goldman, who opposed Bolshevik bloodthirstiness, she writes: “Strong in her anti-Soviet positions, the anarchist thinker described the Jews’ appreciation for the new political power, which had put an end to the pogroms, with some skepticism,” as if the skepticism were uncalled for. Since Bemporad is often an uncareful writer—she can refer to “false blood-libel allegations” as if there were true ones, as she does not believe for a minute—I wondered if she might be unaware of what she was suggesting. But there are too many other forms of downplaying Soviet horrors to make this excuse plausible.

To take just one example, Bemporad refers (in a subordinate clause) to “Stalin’s campaign against ‘enemies of the people,’ which resulted in hundreds of thousands of accusations of a great variety of crimes.” She does not say that an “accusation” was an automatic conviction, nor that the numbers run into the millions. If we restrict ourselves just to Communist-party members and candidate members, the Great Purge of 1936-8 entailed the arrest of just under a million people, 353,074 of whom were shot and the rest sent to the Gulag. Understatement and burying sometimes-diminished facts in a subordinate clause also characterize Bemporad’s two mentions of Stalin’s war against the peasants, which took over 10 million lives.

One of Bemporad’s key theses is that anti-Semitism came from below—“a bottom-up focus [that] shatters the myth of a monolithic Soviet government.” It is an odd thesis to maintain in this context since, from 1947 on, the Soviet government actively fostered anti-Semitism. Thus, in discussing the Doctors’ Plot, Bemporad can refer to accusatory “petitions to Soviet authorities about Jews” in positions of authority that “soared exponentially,” as if the government were trying to manage these spontaneous petitions rather than directing them and providing their content. They didn’t soar, they were ordered to take wing.

By the same token, Bemporad repeatedly refers to the “Bolsheviks’ aversion to anti-Semitism” and describes the persistence of anti-Semitism as a “failure of the Sovietization process” when this is at best true only of the 1920s and 1930s, that is, for considerably less than half of Soviet rule.

Bemporad mentions, but again downplays, the vicious anti-Semitic campaign culminating in the Doctors’ Plot. The recent study by Jonathan Brent and Vladimir P. Naumov, Stalin’s Last Crime: The Plot Against the Jewish Doctors, 1948-1953, based on archival material that became available after the fall of the Soviet Union, makes crystal clear that “all sides of the plot were being coordinated from above by Stalin.” The vozhd (leader, as Stalin was known within the party) dictated every step of the campaign, working out who was to be accused of what, who was to be tortured and what they were to confess to, and what Soviet press and the party Central Committee were to proclaim about the Jews and their supposed allies in the secret police. A lot more than a few doctors were to die.

We know: a special torture chamber was set up in the Lefortovo prison. Stalin ordered that those investigated were to be beaten “with death blows.” He told the presidium of the Communist party that “every Jew is a potential spy for the United States,” and his (temporarily) favored investigator M.D. Ryumin declared that “the Jews are a spying nation.” Not only were Jews thrown out of jobs all over the Soviet Union—this is the context of what Bemporad seems to consider spontaneous petitions—but Stalin also ordered that Rudolf Slansky, general secretary of the Czech Communist party, be tried and hanged as a Zionist conspirator for planning to use doctors to do away with the Czech president Klement Gottwald. The Jewish conspiracy, and its medical strategy, transcended borders.

Stalin had several times deported whole nationalities to Siberia, a process that sometimes entailed the loss of perhaps half their population, so it did not take much imagination to guess what he had in mind for the Jews. The highest leadership, as Brent and Naumov observe, “was seriously considering the idea of the detention and deportation of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of innocent people.” Ryumin also explained: “In Moscow there live more than a million and a half Jews. They have seized the medical posts, the legal profession, the union of composers, and the union of writers. I’m not even speaking of the trade networks. Meanwhile of these Jews only a handful are useful to the state, all the rest are potential enemies of the state.” Being a “potential” enemy was more than enough for a death sentence.

Brent and Naumov confirm that Stalin ordered the construction of four new concentration camps. Although we cannot be sure exactly what would have happened had Stalin not suddenly died at the beginning of March 1953, it is clear that, less than a decade after the Holocaust, another mass extermination of Jews would have taken place. And not only of Jews. Something resembling the Great Terror of 1936-8, which condemned millions to execution or long sentences in the Gulag, was in the offing. Then no part of society, no profession, region, or ethnic group, was safe. Anyone could be accused of being a Trotskyite or spy. Once again, it seemed, the same would happen, with the accusation no longer being sympathy with Trotskyism but recruitment by Zionists and their backers in American intelligence. Amazingly enough, that was the accusation leveled against the bloodthirsty anti-Semitic minister of state security V.S. Abakumov, who was shot.

As in 1937, a purge of the secret police was ordered. Vyacheslav Molotov, Anastas Mikoyan, and Kliment Voroshilov—for decades Stalin’s most loyal associates—were denounced, their lives hanging by a thread until Stalin died. There were signs that, as in 1937, the military was next, and then who knows. It is no wonder, then, that within a month of Stalin’s demise his successors announced that the entire Doctors’ Plot was a fraud and—the first time this was publicly stated—that confessions had been extracted by torture.

And how does Bemporad refer to this rather dramatic, new danger to Soviet Jewry? “During and following World War II in particular, Soviet authorities gradually desisted from their commitment to struggle against anti-Semitism”; “in the postwar period the regime fundamentally revised its avowed policy of intolerance of anti-Semitism and revisited its view on the place Jews should occupy in Soviet society” (italics added). In the book’s introduction, she correctly refers to the massacre of the Yiddish intelligentsia and the use of a secularized form of the blood libel when “Jewish doctors were accused of assassinating high-ranking officials by medical means.” She then observes: “The systematic purge of Yiddish cultural personalities and the campaign against the Jewish doctors might accidentally have served as a distraction from blood libels and pogroms, domesticating and deflating popular anti-Semitism.” Toward the end of the book, when her narrative at last reaches the postwar period, she refers to “the dreary ‘black years’ of 1949-1953, when equating Jews with imperialists, Zionists, and enemies of the USSR had become culturally acceptable.” Dreary?

One of Bemporad’s key points is that Jews were so loyal to Bolshevism—the “Soviet-Jewish alliance”—that they flocked to join the secret police in disproportionate numbers. The result was that the people enforcing Bolshevik exterminations and tortures were often Jews. I would have liked to see how her thesis of such an “alliance” squares with her (appropriate) rejection of what she calls “the myth of Judeo-Bolshevism.” Such an explanation is indeed necessary, as the information she provides is bound to suggest to many that the Jews had it coming.

Despite Bemporad’s tendency to reduce anti-Semitism to the hateful prejudice of the ignorant, she provides enough disturbing evidence to support the point of view of those who wish to understand why Soviet policies fostered anti-Semitism. Not only were a disproportionate number of NKVD agents Jews, but their principal motives, according to Bemporad, included sheer revenge for past anti-Semitism. Given the death of millions of Ukrainians, Kazakhs, and others from Bolshevik policy, it does not take much of a leap to recognize that the moral implications of a “Soviet-Jewish alliance,” along with the outsized presence of vengeful Jews in the security forces, are not something to leave entirely to the attention of anti-Semites seeking excuses.

The regime created by Lenin and Stalin depended on constant terror and repeated crises to keep itself in power. Terror, Lenin insisted, was not a temporary necessity of the Civil War but was integral to Soviet power at all times. When D.I. Kursky, the people’s commissar of justice, was formulating the first Soviet legal code, Lenin demanded that terror and arbitrary use of power be written into the code itself. “The law should not abolish terror,” he insisted. “It should be substantiated and legalized in principle, without evasion or embellishment.” So far as I know, never before had the law prescribed lawlessness.

In its essence, Soviet power depended on creating crisis after crisis and enemy after enemy. Brent and Naumov explain in detail why it was not just Stalin’s paranoia but the very nature of the Soviet regime that required crises, like the Great Purge and the Doctors’ Plot. It should come as no surprise that when a regime depends on crises and seeks enemies, sooner or later the Jews—regardless of any previous “alliance”—will find themselves in danger of something much worse than the tsarist pogroms. Nor is every “alliance” worth the risk.

More about: Anti-Semitism, History & Ideas, Soviet Jewry, Soviet Union