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Rootless cosmopolitan (Russian language: безродный космополит, "bezrodniy kosmopolit") was a Soviet euphemism widely used during Joseph Stalin's antisemitic campaign of 1948–1953, which culminated in the "exposure" of the alleged Doctors' plot. The term "rootless cosmopolitan" referred mostly (but not explicitly) to Jewish intellectuals, as an accusation in their lack of patriotism, i.e., lack of full allegiance to the Soviet Union. The expression was first coined by Russian literary critic Vissarion Belinsky to describe writers who lacked (Russian) national character. [1]



Towards the end of and immediately after World War II, the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC) grew increasingly influential to the post-Holocaust Soviet Jewry, and was accepted as its representative in the West. As its activities sometimes contradicted official Soviet policies,[2] it became a nuisance to Soviet authorities. The CPSU Central Auditing Commission concluded that instead of focusing its attention on the "struggle against forces of international reaction", the JAC continued the line of the Bund — a dangerous designation, since former Bund members were to be "purged".

In January 1948 the JAC's head, the popular actor and world-famous public figure Solomon Mikhoels, was killed by the Soviet Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) on Stalin's orders; his murder was framed as a car accident where a truck ran over him as he was taking a walk on a narrow road.[3] This was followed by eventual arrests of JAC's members and its termination.

The USSR voted for the 1947 UN Partition Plan of Palestine and in May 1948 it recognized the establishment of the State of Israel there, subsequently supporting it with weapons (via Czechoslovakia, in defiance of the embargo) in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Many Soviet Jews felt inspired and sympathetic towards Israel and sent thousands of letters to the (still formally existing) JAC with offers to contribute to or even volunteer for Israel's defense.

In September 1948, the first Israeli ambassador to the USSR, Golda Meir,[4] arrived in Moscow. Huge enthusiastic crowds (estimated 50,000) gathered along her path and in and around Moscow synagogue when she attended it for Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah.

The September 21, 1948 edition of Pravda contained Ilya Ehrenburg's article "Regarding one letter", in which he criticized anti-Semitism but argued that the fate of Soviet Jews was assimilation into the united "Soviet people". Later he admitted that it was ordered by the Politburo.[5]

These events corresponded in time with a visible upsurge of Russian nationalism orchestrated by official propaganda, the increasingly hostile Cold War and the realization by the Soviet leadership that Israel had chosen the Western option. Domestically, Soviet Jews were being considered a security liability for their international connections, especially to the United States of America, and growing national awareness.

With growing connections between Israel and United States, the latter becoming the opponent of the Soviet Union, by the end of 1948, the USSR switched sides in the Arab-Israeli conflict and began supporting the Arabs against Israel, first politically and later also militarily. For his part Ben Gurion declared support for the United States in the Korean War, despite opposition from left-wing Israeli parties. From 1950 on, Israeli-Soviet relations were an inextricable part of the Cold War - with ominous implications for Soviet Jews supporting Israel, or perceived as supporting it.

"About one antipatriotic group of theater critics"

The aggressive stage of the state-wide campaign was set out on January 28, 1949 when an article entitled "About one antipatriotic group of theater critics" appeared in the newspaper Pravda, an official organ of the Central Committee of the Communist Party:

"unbridled, evil-minded cosmopolitans, profiteers with no roots and no conscience… Grown on rotten yeast of bourgeois cosmopolitanism, decadence and formalism… non-indigenous nationals without a motherland, who poison with stench… our proletarian culture."… "What can A. Gurvich possibly understand about the national character of a Russian Soviet man?"

Standard Stalinist accusations of conspiracies[6] were accompanied by a crusade in the state-controlled mass media to expose pseudonyms.

Many Yiddish writers were arrested and eventually executed in the event known as the Night of the Murdered Poets. Yiddish theaters and newspapers were promply shut down, books by some Jewish authors (including Eduard Bagritsky, Vasily Grossman, Mikhail Svetlov, Iosif Utkin, Boris Pasternak and others) were seized from libraries. Even Vyacheslav Molotov's wife, Polina Zhemchuzhina, who was Jewish, did not escape arrest in 1949.

Stalin's daughter Svetlana Alliluyeva recalls in her book Twenty Letters to a Friend that when she asked her father about her arrested father-in-law, I.G. Morozov (also Jewish), he replied: "You don't understand! The entire old generation is infected with Zionism and they teach their youth."[7] In a December 1, 1952 Politburo session, Stalin announced:

"Every Jewish nationalist is the agent of American intelligence service. Jewish nationalists think that their nation was saved by USA (there you can become rich, bourgeois, etc.). They think they're indebted to the Americans. Among doctors there are many Jewish nationalists."[8]

Ehrenburg, who visited the US in 1946 and whose decidedly anti-American articles echoed the Soviet propaganda, and who was by then an international peace activist and the winner of the Stalin Prize (1947), was so afraid of being arrested that he wrote Stalin a letter asking to "end the uncertainty". He claimed later that he was spared because the regime needed to conceal the campaign from the West, where the plight of Soviet Jews was becoming a major human rights concern.


In result of the campaign, scores of Soviet Jews were fired from their jobs. In 1947, Jews constituted 18% of Soviet scientific workers, but by 1970 this number declined to 7%.[9]

Anything Jewish became suppressed by the Soviet authorities, and even the word Jew disappeared from the media. Many were shocked to find a Yiddish verse (sung by Mikhoels) cut out from the famous lullaby in the Soviet classic movie Circus ("Tsirk", 1936), known by heart by millions and still very popular in the post-war Soviet cinemas.

A historian of Zionism Walter Laqueur noted: "When, in the 1950s under Stalin, the Jews of the Soviet Union came under severe attack and scores were executed, it was under the banner of anti-Zionism rather than anti-Semitism, which had been given a bad name by Adolf Hitler." [10]


  1. ^ Orlando Figes The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia, 2007, ISBN 0-08050-7461-9, page 494.
  2. ^ See Black Book as an example
  3. ^ According to historian Gennady Kostyrchenko, recently opened Soviet archives contain evidence that the assassination was organized by L.M. Tsanava and S. Ogoltsov of the MVD
  4. ^ At the time, her last name was Myerson. She changed it to Meir in 1956.
  5. ^ Joshua Rubenstein, Tangled loyalties. The Life and Times of Ilya Ehrenburg
  6. ^ See Great Purge
  7. ^ Svetlana Alliluyeva, Twenty Letters to a Friend. Letter 17 (Russian language 2000 ed. ISBN 5-8159-0065-6 p.174)
  8. ^ From the diary of Vice-Chair of the Sovmin V.A. Malyshev. See G. Kostyrchenko, Gosudarstvennyj antisemitizm v SSSR, Moscow, 2005, pp. 461, 462
  9. ^ Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews
  10. ^ Walter Laqueur: Dying for Jerusalem: The Past, Present and Future of the Holiest City (Sourcebooks, Inc., 2006) ISBN 1-4022-0632-1. p. 55

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