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Flatiron Hot! News | January 17, 2018

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“The Last Days of Stalin” at the Center for Jewish History

“The Last Days of Stalin” at the Center for  Jewish History
Tod Shapiro

Reported by the Flatiron Hot! News Editorial Staff

The Center for Jewish History offered another in its excellent series of public events this past week, this time featuring a lecture and multimedia presentation inspired by the recent book “The Last Days of Stalin”, by noted historian Joshua Rubenstein. Stalin, the notorious dictator and leader of Soviet Russia during World War II and at the start of the Cold War, was the absolute ruler of the Communist state, and after World War II reigned supreme as he confronted the United States and its allies. As the two blocs faced each other in growing suspicion and tension in the aftermath of the Holocaust and World War II, the fate of the many Jews that survived the War and were now in the Soviet Union would be determined by the whims and predilections of the dictator. Stalin, during his long reign as Lenin’s successor, had alternated between periods of relative accommodation and abject terror, murder, and persecution towards Jews (and many other Soviet citizens and ethnic groups) during the formative years of the Soviet state. As he consolidated power, he became ever more suspicious of Jews, as many of his rivals in the Communist Party were of Jewish descent.

During the war, as Stalin beat back a devastating challenge from Nazi Germany, he embraced the United States and Great Britain as allies, and at that time welcomed the support of anybody that aided the Soviet cause – and that included many Jews, who lived in the Soviet Union or had fled there from the Nazis, and served in the Communist Party and in the Red Army in many capacities. However, as Rubenstein made clear in a review of historic records, as the Cold War heated up and he became alarmed at the challenge of the United States and its allies, his relative tolerance of the Jews in the Soviet Bloc ebbed, and his always- present paranoia and antisemitism began to reassert itself, culminating in a renewed threat to persecute the Jews.

Professor Rubenstein, in his talk and very compelling slide presentation, including a brief movie showing live clips of Stalin in his last days, recounted all of this terrifying history for his audience. He showed some very disturbing pictures of antisemitic agitation by Stalin’s acolytes, as well giving a thumbnail summary of the jockeying for position and power by his contemporaries as Stalin slowly lost his health and grip on power. Professor Rubenstein, in a panel discussion with two Russian immigrants who lived in the Soviet Union at that time, discussed what it was like to actually live through those frightening times. In perhaps the most enlightening part of the evening, Rubenstein considered some of the great “what if?” questions of history that directly concerned the Jews of Russia – such as, what would have happened if Stalin had not died when he did. The audience heard some frightening stories about how, in his last days, Stalin and his henchmen seemed to be preparing for a new reign of terror and spasm of persecution against the Jews of the Soviet Union based on his paranoid thoughts around the so-called “Doctor’s Plot”, even going so far as to prepare a new series of concentration camps to receive Jews in a mass roundup and prospective forced deportation, according to written orders and other documents that he reviews in his research for the book. Stalin’s sudden death put a stop to these efforts, as his successors moved to cancel the orders.

Following the talk, Professor Rubenstein was available for discussion and to sign copies of his books, as the panelists and attendees enjoyed a reception. All in all, it was a worthy addition to the series of CJH public programs. For those who couldn’t make it, here is a quick video clip of the evening’s proceedings.