|A Soviet labour camp, one of thousands that constituted the Gulag|
Whatever Stalin’s lack of sensitivity to Red Army soldiers sexually assaulting foreign and Soviet women, he was deeply troubled by the thousands upon thousands of soldiers, who, through no fault of their own, had made contact with the West. Those who had encountered Western soldiers, especially American, were treated as though they had been infected with a contagious disease and the only way to lance the virus was to quarantine them in the camps or liquidate through summary execution. As barbarous as the Wehrmacht conducted itself, and as horrific as the conditions of war, where millions of soldiers and civilians alike expired from disease, starvation and cold, they in no way can account for all the deaths on the Soviet side.
In human lives alone, the war had been extremely costly for the Soviet people. Current estimates indicate that overall Soviet deaths exceeded twenty five million; between eight and eleven million were military casualties and the rest were civilian. Another way of putting it is that 84 percent of the 34.5 million men and women mobilized were killed, wounded or captured. Instead of rewarding its citizens, the Stalinist system demanded more blood. As the war ended, Soviet citizens released from German concentration and death camps, such as Auschwitz, were returned as contaminated prisoners of war to their homeland. Over five million Soviet citizens, among them the forced labourers in Germany, were stranded in occupied Europe. Against their will, at the request of the Soviet Government, the British forcibly repatriated thousands. They even returned émigrés, 20,000 Cossacks with their families, some former White officers, now citizens of other countries, who had fled the Soviet Union twenty-five years earlier. They and their families faced immediate death or a slower one in the camps, and for many, suicide was their only alternative. From the total number stranded, about one half, who voluntarily returned or were repatriated, were either shot or shipped to the Gulag as traitors. How many of them might have thought, like one of the characters in Darkness at Noon who could not believe that he was sent home, that he must have been put on the wrong train? The intellectuals and Jews that returned were greeted with a lingering suspicion and became a new target for the regime’s insatiable need for enemies.
By the late 1940s during another wave of Stalin’s terror, the Gulag had become a fully-fledged “camp industrial complex” scattered throughout the Soviet Union that reached an industrial might in 1950-52. In the 1940s, because every industrial centre had its own local camps, it was inconceivable for citizens going about their business and be unaware of the living dead in the camps. Despite the huge supply of cheap labour, the camps were not economically efficient and their productivity, understandably, was almost three times less than that of free labour, a fact that probably explains why Khrushchev began to constrict their economic operation in the 1950s. In their slovenly work habits, corruption and sullen disregard for life, the camps were a microcosm of the abattoir-like prison the Soviet Union had become. The difference between the two was essentially one of degree. The prisoners themselves referred to the world outside the camps as “the big prison zone” larger and less deadly than the “small zone” of the camp but certainly no more humane. The Soviet defector, Victor Kravchenko retrospectively described ( I Chose Freedom, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1946) the Russia of 1938 in terms that could equally apply to the post-war era: “a battlefield strewn with corpses, blotched with gigantic enclosures where millions of wretched war prisoners toiled, suffered and died.” Even those “who escaped the purge were maimed in their minds and wounded in their spirits” The astuteness of these perceptions were borne out by the reflections of contemporaries like Olga Freidenberg (cousin of Boris Pasternak) who alluded to the “moral and intellectual pogroms [that] have spread like a plague through the cities of Russia” where “Marxism is neither a philosophy nor a scientific method [but] a bludgeon.”
Their insights also tally with our knowledge of Stalin’s post-war murderous assault on Soviet citizens. Although he bore an abiding hatred for any ethnic group that threatened his power in governing a multinational country, Stalin’s instinctual anti-Semitism became more obsessive as he increasingly perceived Jews as a nest of vipers, a fifth column within that were traitorous. Those whom he had encouraged during the war years to solicit funds from their constituents’ abroad in order to support the Soviet war effort now became his enemies. The geopolitical situation had changed with the emergence of Israel in the American camp and he feared that the power of Jews in America would dislodge the loyalty of Jews within the Soviet Union to their leader. Personal considerations such as his daughter, Svetlana’s, brief romantic entanglement with an older Jewish playboy that Stalin quickly nixed by having him arrested as a British spy, and her brief marriage to another Jew likely contributed to his virulent anti-Semitism. By 1953 several Jews had already been arrested, tortured and executed; fifteen of the most prominent were subjected to a show trial in the summer of 1952.
|Among the murdered were thirteen writers known as the "Night of the Murdered Poets"|
A number of prominent Jewish doctors were accused of attempting to poison the leaders of the Kremlin. As an expression of his toxic chauvinism, rumours circulated that Stalin was planning a mega-purge, the deportation of the entire Jewish population in the Soviet Union to remote parts of Eastern Siberia. A secret service order to build four large new concentration camps in January 1953 provides an empirical basis for this scuttlebutt. The public exposure by Pravda of the “murderers in white gowns” of Kremlin doctors, who allegedly had been ordered by American intelligence to kill the nation’s leaders was to serve as the pretext for this massive ethnic cleansing, a process that was derailed only when Stalin died. The murder of two close aids to Stalin by doctors a few years earlier supposedly provided credence to this gigantic plot. What has been generally understood as the Doctors’ Plot—a conspiracy by the government against Jewish doctors—has recently been interpreted as a government plot in the person of Stalin to eliminate most of Stalin’s lieutenants in order to prepare the country for war against the United States.
|A cartoon displayed during the do-called Doctors Plot indicating that they were unmasked for their crimes|
If the doctors were co-conspirators in a Zionist-American plot, they were only its tip and could only have operated under the directions of some higher authority within the Party and the police who were spinning a fantastic conspiracy that America was about to declare war on the USSR. Security forces resuscitated the pre-revolutionary libel of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion to substantiate their belief that nationalist Jews were penetrating all the “chinks of Soviet life to influence policy.” This meant the existence of traitors within high places: elements in Stalin’s inner circle and the secret services themselves had been infiltrated and contaminated, and the accumulated evidence was pointing to the security chief, Lavrenty Beria. With his deeply entrenched conspiratorial mindset, Stalin was fully prepared to inflict on Soviet citizens as much pain as he could muster to assuage both old and current hatreds. But just as the investigators continued with their interrogation and beatings and Pravda incited pogroms against the Jews as potential foreign agents that resulted in children being beaten at school and adults being publicly harassed and assaulted, Stalin suddenly died. Whether Beria ordered Stalin’s wine spiked with a blood thinning drug such as warfarin that caused him to hemorrhage has never be conclusively established. Regardless, the Doctors Plot collapsed with Beria taking the lead in dismantling it by interrogating the surviving doctors and arresting the lead investigators. Within a month of Stalin’s death, the secret service issued an internal decree that the doctors had been “illegally imprisoned.” Significantly, the vicious anti-Semitic campaign that had been conducted in Pravda mysteriously stopped on the first day of Stalin’s stroke. The official newspaper later published the lame and hypocritical pronouncement that the doctors had been arrested “incorrectly without any legal basis” and complying with the new Party line accused the security force for being “remote from the people.”