Find more information about

at the Center for Jewish History:

NOTE: you will be redirected
to the Web site for the

Anticosmopolitan Campaign

Euphemism for the victimization of the Jewish intelligentsia in the late Stalin years. The anticosmopolitan campaign did not commence as an anti-Jewish offensive, but rather as a concomitant of the policy of promoting “Soviet patriotism,” which in the immediate postwar years dictated the eradication of extraneous influences in culture and the reversal of the relative ideological relaxation of the war years. This trend was the other face of the isolationism the Soviet Union fostered as it instituted the Iron Curtain.

The new trend was heralded by an August 1946 speech by Communist Party Central Committee Secretary Andrei Zhdanov, followed by three resolutions stipulating that “Communist morality” was the sole criterion and directive for cultural activity. The subsequent politicization of all art forms quickly overflowed into other fields, notably higher education, the sciences, and the media. It involved an extensive flurry of “criticism and self-criticism” with several targets: activities and works that seemed “irrelevant” to Soviet reality and its challenges; “groveling” to the West and its cultural and scientific values and achievements; and “bourgeois nationalism,” although this would appear to be the antithesis of cosmopolitanism, which is inherently universal and therefore antinationalist.

The onslaught upon Jewish “cosmopolitans” was given wide publicity. It was initiated in mid-December 1948 at the Twelfth Board Plenum of the Writers Union, where Jewish drama critics were depicted as representatives of a “hostile group” striving to conceal “antipatriotic views.” In late January 1949, a Pravda editorial lashed out against these same critics, emissaries of “rootless cosmopolitanism,” to whom the “sentiment of Soviet national pride was foreign” and who sought flaws in patriotic and politically purposeful works. Party criticism, the article laid down, will “smash/crush the bearers of views alien to the people.” Other papers and journals focused on Jewish critics, literary figures, and intellectuals, reiterating charges of “formalism,” “aestheticism,” “kowtowing” to the West, rejecting the achievements of Soviet and prerevolutionary Russian culture, and being alien to and contemptuous of the Russian nation and its traits.

The group of people singled out in this assault was homogenous in its ethnic background rather than in its ideas. Although those accused of cosmopolitanism included non-Jews, the national character of the “cosmopolitans” as a group was transparent. More than 70 percent of the people whose names appeared in the press in this context during February and March 1949 were Jews. The campaign emphasized the ethnic Jewishness of most of its victims, their lack of roots in the Soviet Union—into whose cultural life and institutions they had deceitfully insinuated themselves—and their “clannishness” and “tribelike solidarity.”

When Jewish “cosmopolitans” used non-Jewish-sounding pseudonyms, the original names or patronymics would be provided in parentheses to highlight their ethnic identity. The media similarly made frequent use of Jewish family names as collective nomenclatures—the Iuzovskiis and Gurviches, the Borshchagovskiis, frequently rendering the first letter in lower case. Jewish “rootlessness” was underscored by phrases such as “lacking kith or kin” and “passportless vagabonds.” Purportedly, group favoritism had enabled these Jews to attain influential positions in Soviet cultural life, publishing houses, professional magazines, and elite associations.

By mid-February 1949, the campaign had turned into a large-scale incitement and purge operation. The central and local media reported numerous party meetings at which secretaries of professional aktivs (leadership groups) and cells condemned their peers for manifestations of cosmopolitanism in literature, theater, music, architecture, the natural sciences, higher education, and a host of other fields. Frequent and extensive personnel changes in institutions followed; the accused were removed from their posts and professional organizations and expelled from the party, and their works were no longer published.

The campaign spread to Soviet republics and, indeed, to the length and breadth of the country. Ukrainian Writers Union Secretary Aleksandr Korneichuk dwelled on the way the cosmopolitans had long aspired to obstruct the burgeoning of a Ukrainian culture, heaping lies and slander upon “our national pride,” and lifting their “filthy heads” against the Ukrainian people’s great writers. These “homeless” cosmopolitans, “aestheticizing degenerates,” were aided by their fellows in Moscow, “pygmies” who sought to “slander the works of Ukrainian writers in the eyes of the Russian reader,” and to denigrate the Ukrainians’ role as “the first to follow their elder brother, the Russian people, on the road of the great October” and the task of Ukrainian artists in developing “all the best that each national culture of the fraternal peoples of our Motherland brings to the working people of the whole world.”

Occasionally, “cosmopolitans” would be lambasted for their interest in Jewish topics—manifest evidence of their anti-Soviet inclinations. One article in Literaturnaia gazeta charged that the authors of a draft glossary on the literature of the peoples of the Soviet Union for the second edition of the Bol’shaia sovetskaia entsiklopediia (Great Soviet Encyclopedia) had given undue space to Jewish literature. Moreover, the authors addressed “all of Jewish literature,” failing to differentiate between countries and regimes, “placing Soviet writers in a single row with the contemporary arch-businessmen of America, Palestine, and other countries.” Another article harshly criticized the 1948 book Years-Life, by Aleksandr Isbakh (pseudonym of Isaak Bakhrakh), for narrating the childhood and youth of a Jew, accusing it of “glorifying” the Jewish religion and promoting Zionism. The critique likewise pummeled the book’s publishing house, where “people without kith and kin and without an origin, the antipatriotic levins, danins, and so on, have been working.”

Just as the campaign had gained momentum rather suddenly in late January 1949, it changed course in late March without explanation. Jewish intellectuals, academics, and members of the free professions continued to be censured and purged, yet their Jewishness was no longer underscored and the crudest and most blatant expressions of antisemitism were dropped. While the “cosmopolitan” remained an unequivocal traitor, the campaign shifted to broader ideological issues relating to the cold war and interbloc confrontations.

The reasons for the transformation in emphasis are unclear, even in archival materials that came to light in the late 1980s and through the 1990s. The anti-Jewish motif may have been inflated as a cover for the extensive purges connected with the Leningrad Affair, which targeted both a Politburo member and a Central Committee secretary, as well as other senior officials connected in one way or another to Leningrad, and peaked in the period mid-January to mid-March 1949. It may also have been designed to gain popularity among certain sectors of the population for the regime’s struggle against the intelligentsia. The sudden ending of the anti-Jewish emphasis may perhaps be explained by the approaching World Peace Congress, which was to initiate the World Peace Movement in Paris in April, and probably dictated a certain mitigation of the anti-Jewish flavor of the campaign. Whatever the motivation, the change was not spontaneous, but, like the virulent anti-Jewishness of the preceding two months, emanated from the top Soviet leadership. The metamorphosis, moreover, was formal, rather than presaging any qualitative change. Indeed, the anticosmopolitan campaign persisted in subdued form, flaring up again in connection with the Doctors’ Plot in 1953 just prior to the plot’s “exposure.”

Suggested Reading

Benjamin Pinkus, The Soviet Government and the Jews, 1948–1967 (Cambridge and New York, 1984), chap. 4; Yaacov Ro’i, Soviet Decision Making in Practice: The USSR and Israel, 1947–1954 (New Brunswick, N.J. and London, 1980), chap. 7; Stalin i kosmopolitizm, 1945–1953: Dokumenty (Moscow, 2005).