On 12 January 1948, Premier of the Soviet Union Joseph Stalin’s secret police murdered Yiddish actor Solomon Mikhoels in an incident that was meant to resemble a road accident.
Shortly after Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Stalin established the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC), whose highly respected Jewish artists and intellectuals solicited sympathy and assistance for the Soviet war effort. When the war ended, the JAC’s mission became to preserve what remained of Jewish culture in liberated Eastern Europe.
Following the war, Stalin became concerned that the committee’s well-known relationship to Yiddish represented the group's intention to cultivate its own language and culture. He became convinced and paranoid that the group’s loyalty ultimately lay with Israel, Zionism, and the United States, and thus decided to dismantle it and execute its members.
In an effort to make Mikhoels’ death appear as a tragic accident, Stalin ordered his body to be placed on the highway, where a car accident would be staged. Mikhoels was subsequently given a state funeral, which was attended by thousands of Jews, and the Yiddish State Theater was even renamed in his memory.
The murder of Mikhoels is regarded as a major turning point in the history of Soviet Jewry, marking the transition to a policy of official antisemitism. On 12 August 1952, thirteen Jewish intellectuals were executed by firing squad in Moscow’s Lubyanka prison after being convicted on charges of treason and espionage. This mass execution, which would become known as the “Night of the Murdered Poets,” was one of Stalin’s final acts of persecution before he died less than a year later.
Among the defendants were five Yiddish writers who were members of the JAC. Their trials were kept secret even well after the verdicts were determined and the executions had been carried out.
Soviet authorities falsely accused Mikhoels of engaging in anti-Soviet activity in collaboration with other governments as part of the Doctors’ Plot, when Soviet authorities arrested nine doctors, six of whom were Jewish, for conspiring to assassinate the country’s political leadership.
While Stalin’s death in 1953 was a relief for Soviet Jews, antisemitism remained a threat, leading to a wave of Soviet Aliyah in the 1960s and 1970s.
In February 1956, Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, delivered an address to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party, where he said that Stalin had orchestrated the Doctors’ Plot.