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Given the importance of its subject, relatively unexplored, and the talents of its author (The Prosecutor, 1991), this must be judged a major disappointment. Long before he rose to power in the Soviet Union, Stalin had written a much-quoted essay on ""the national question"" in which he argued that the Jews were not a true nation; thus, according to Stalin, they had no right to self-determination. However, as Vaksberg makes abundantly clear, the Soviet leader would happily exploit those who did feel that the Jews were a nation -- and felt threatened by it -- when it suited his purposes. Vaksberg traces the rise and fall of numerous Jews within Stalin's inner circle, showing how their presence allowed him to whitewash the anti-Semitism of his policies. Ironically, the Hitler-Stalin pact delayed the start of open hostilities against the Jews in the Soviet Union by taking the ""Jewish question"" off the national agenda temporarily. During the war, Stalin needed the prominent members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC), whose appeals to Jews in America produced aid for the Soviet war effort; but it was precisely those Jews in the JAC who would be targeted as ""Zionist conspirators"" after the war. In fact, Vaksberg asserts, the infamous ""Doctors Plot"" of 1952 was supposed to inaugurate a wholesale deportation and murder of Soviet Jews. Fortunately, Stalin's death on the eve of the trials ended that threat. It did not, Vaksberg notes in the book's final chapter, end the political manipulation of anti-Semitism by Stalin's successors. Vaksberg writes with a corrosive sarcasm that becomes wearing with repetition, and the book lacks the sort of documentation and scholarly apparatus that would make it more valuable to historians. He refers often, for instance, to Stalin's secret thoughts while also noting that the dictator rarely committed anything to paper. One hopes that a more comprehensive and comprehensible retelling of this story will become available soon.

Pub Date: April 22nd, 1994
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Knopf