On Russophobia

In the 1930s, as he prepared for Germany’s master plan of conquest and annihilation, Hitler built a passenger ship for his “Strength through Joy” program. Jews and other non-desirables had already been stripped of their jobs or worse; other German workers, deprived of the right to unionize and worked to the bone to serve the war machine, were given carefully supervised Kraft durch Freude holidays during which they were further indoctrinated in Nazi ideology and Aryan racial togetherness. It was all very jolly. The ship was to have been christened the Adolf Hitler; but when a young Jew named David Frankfurter assassinated the leader of the Nazi Party in Switzerland, the Führer commanded it be named the Wilhelm Gustloff instead.

Nearly a decade later, as the tide of war was turning and German strength and joy were at a low ebb, the fascists were using the Gustloff to evacuate their own SS and Wehrmacht personnel, German colonists who had used Soviet citizens as slave labor on their plantations, East Prussian German civilians, and local collaborators and their families from the Baltic coast. These were territories the Red Army was liberating or reconquering after four years of occupation. Many of the evacuees were natives of the Baltic states— Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians. Very many people among these populations had participated, collectively and enthusiastically in the Holocaust, volunteering for the special mobile death squads called Einsatzgruppen.

Before the gas chambers and crematoria were up and running— before the industrialization of mass murder— came what has come to be called the Holocaust of bullets, in which about a million Soviet Jews were rounded up, forced to dig their own mass graves, and shot. The Einsatzgruppen locals were even more zealous in their task than the Germans, some of whom, sensitive souls that they were, found shooting children in their mothers’ arms disagreeable. But it’s a tough job and ya gotta do it, right? Lithuanians and Ukrainians in particular stood out for their sadistic brutality. They enjoyed their sanguinary work. And these volunteer forces all went on to man the death camps of Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec, Majdanek, Auschwitz-Birkenau, etc. They served in the suppression of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

On a cold night in the winter of 1945 the Gustloff was laden with about 9,000 passengers, many of them the creatures I have described. Commander Alexander Marinesko of submarine S-13 torpedoed and sank the enemy ship. I am happy to tell you there were very few survivors. Marinesko was posthumously awarded the order of Hero of the Soviet Union, and the Russian Federation has issued a stamp honoring his submarine. His memory, and that of the 20 to 30 million citizens of the many nationalities of the Soviet Union who were victims of the Nazi monsters, who fought to their last drop of blood to rescue the world from the darkest evil in its history, is immortal and sacred. Marinesko is a Moldavian surname; an Armenian commanded the Belorussian Front; and Jewish soldiers, the second most decorated ethnic group of soldiers, fought shoulder to shoulder with Belorussians, Uzbeks, Siberians, Georgians. People nowadays lump them all together as Russians. It isn’t accurate, but let it be: it is an honor to be called a Russian. I wish I were worthy to be called one.

In the aftermath of the war, the USA declared the Baltics and others “captive nations” and gave them “embassies”; many war criminals were quietly “de-Nazified” in the new crusade against Communism. When the Soviet Union was dissolved, the Baltic states set about sanitizing their horrific past, painting themselves as victims by stressing their experience of Stalinist repression and eradicating the record of their grisly collaboration with Hitler. In the Ukraine and the Baltics, organizations that had worked with the Nazis and assisted in the Final Solution have re-emerged as political parties, erecting statues of local war criminals, mass murderers, re-invented as national heroes. The United States, which had solemnly assured the Russian Federation that it would not extend its NATO strike capabilities onto former Soviet territory, broke every promise: NATO forces are now stationed in Estonia, a minute or two as the missile flies from Russia’s second largest city, St. Petersburg/Leningrad. (Cuba, where the USSR once tried to put its own missiles, back in 1962, is twice as far from the nearest point in the US.) The US, through various intelligence, cultural, and other vectors, covert and open, has sought to influence every facets of the politics, economy, social life, and culture of most every former Soviet republic or Warsaw Pact member. (One might recall that American forces actually invaded Russia, during the civil war that followed the Great October Socialist Revolution of 1917, as part of the intervention designed, as Winston Churchill then put it, to “strangle this baby in its cradle”.)

Russia today is a country where the ancient Orthodox Church flourishes once more, as do the many other faiths of the country— Muslim, Buddhist, shamanist. The Chabad Lubavitch rabbi of Moscow is a frequent and friendly guest in the Kremlin. Russia and Israel have no visa restrictions on travel, and their leaders confer regularly on security issues. The writers whose works were censored in Soviet times are read, loved, and studied— Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Brodsky, Nabokov. When I was young, my teacher Prof. Zoya Viktorinovna Trifunovich, a survivor of both Stalin and Hitler, used muse about being at home some day again for Easter. It was an unbelievable dream then. I don’t know whether she has lived to hear the church bells ring again. I have, and, thinking of her, I cry when I hear them, wishing she, and Nabokov, had been able to come home. Why me and not them? It makes no sense. It is not the apostle of Marxism-Leninism anymore. But to the West it still has to be The Enemy.

In the mid-1990’s, when Russia and the rest of the former USSR were on the edge of total collapse, with the life expectancy of the average male plummeting from about seventy to around fifty-seven, a Harvard professor got on National Public Radio and smugly declared that the aim of American policy should be to reduce Russia to Moscow and its environs. That did not happen, and the country has revived. So a new stage in the long-term hate campaign of demonization of the Russians by the American Deep State began.

It started with the NATO takeover, and the engineering of the chaos in the Ukraine. Then came the seemingly endless farce of the witch-hunt against President Trump, whose legal victory in the 2016 general election his political opponents want to delegitimize by any means necessary. Even though many of them are self-proclaimed socialists and would have been armchair “useful idiots” for Soviet propaganda in the day, they have found it convenient to make it a major issue that Russians tried to influence the electorate through the social media. Really? Jesus Christ would say, Don’t look at the mote in your brother’s eye. Look at the plank in your own. Or as Claude Raines’ character says in the movie Casablanca as he pockets his evening winnings, “I’m shocked, SHOCKED to hear gambling is going on in this establishment.” Russia is a convenient target of opportunity, and besides, it has to be strangled yet again. A bugbear. (And don’t bears live there anyway? I once saw one on Nevsky Prospect. And another at St. Isaac’s Cathedral. Newly-weds like to be photographed next to a cute little bear. But the RUSSIAN BEAR? Growl!)

As any reader of George Orwell’s 1984 can tell you, for the big lie to succeed it’s not enough to control the present: you must also control the past. There is an orchestrated campaign to falsify the past, in which the USSR was this country’s wartime ally. So let us return to the sinking of the good ship Gustloff.

A few years ago (on NPR of course, where else) I listened with astonishment to an interview with Ruta Sepetys, an American writer of Lithuanian extraction, about her new novel for young adults, an easy read entitled Salt to the Sea. Without portraying the Germans as perfect angels— some of them have a few flaws, but it takes all kinds, right?— she presents the Gustloff as a rescue, a haven, a salvation for all those innocents fleeing the barbaric onslaught of the murderous, sadistic, lustful Russian horde. The end pages have some nice things to say about “Strength through Joy”. The Holocaust in the Baltics doesn’t figure. She doesn’t exactly deny it. It’s just not part of the story. I contacted NPR about this astonishing book, with no response. It went on to garner adulatory reviews in the media of the Deep State machine: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Entertainment Weekly. Penguin’s now issued the masterpiece in paperback. And at the Starbucks Café at Barnes & Noble, here in humble Fresno, it’s offered as a special: just five bucks, if you buy it with your cup of joe.

Look, your reporter said to the Manager. It’s a free country. Sort of. The First Amendment guarantees freedom of the press. Most of the time at least, and to those who can afford it and belong to the establishment. By all means sell this book. Sell Mein Kampf too. And The Turner Diaries. Or a book glorifying the Ku Klux Klan. But just don’t PROMOTE it. I agree with you, she replied, but Corporate makes these decisions. OK, how do I talk to “Corporate”, please? Here’s the number. I call it, and they tell me… We agree with you, but Corporate makes these decisions. Have you ever called customer service and been told your call is very important, please stay on the line? It’s a euphemism on the same lines as the rhetorical phrase, With due respect. Which actually means, I don’t respect you or care a fig for your thoughts. Does this book, shall we say, buttress Lithuanian Holocaust revisionism? Maybe, and that’s too bad. But look at the bigger picture: this book helps the campaign of Russophobia. Corporate has decided. Dial 1-800-DEEP-STATE. Press one for Holocaust denial. Press two for East European revanchist nationalist fascism. Press three for Russophobia. Para Español oprima dos.

* * *

This time last year a former pupil of mine, now a dean at Fresno State, came over for tea in the evening with an interesting young Israeli, an experienced hiker, who was traveling around the States after high school before doing military service. He had applied for an intelligence unit and was eagerly waiting to hear. The way we Jews do, I asked about his parents and grandparents and where they were from, and it turned out it was his grandpa who was the hero who had shot and killed the Nazi Gustloff. Tomer was a gentle young man, typically kind and personable as most Israeli kids are when you get to know them. He had arrived in Fresno in the small hours a few nights before and had walked to a fast-food place on Blackstone where he became instant friends with some of the very questionable, scary night owls. They treated him to a dish of fries.

A few days later, while hiking with another bunch of new friends in Yosemite, Tomer slipped near a waterfall and fell to his death. Shortly thereafter, a letter came to his home informing him he had been accepted into the elite IDF unit he was so hoping to join. A year later, one pays homage to his memory, and to all the other brave men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice for the eternal truth, rather than reaping the rewards of the big lie. David Frankfurter. Alexander Marinesko. The martyrs of the Holocaust.

Бессмертным героям Советского народа и его Красной Армии.

Никто не забыт и ничто не забыто.

Господи, благослови Россию.

About the Author
James R. Russell is Mashtots Professor of Armenian Studies at Harvard University (semi-retired), Distinguished Visiting Professor of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and a part-time Lecturer in Jewish Studies and Biblical Hebrew at California State University, Fresno. He is on the Editorial Board of the journal Judaica Petropolitana, St. Petersburg State University, and a founding member of the International Association for Jewish Studies, chartered in the Russian Federation. His PhD is in Zoroastrian Studies, from the School of Oriental Studies of the University of London; and he taught Ancient Iranian languages and religions at Columbia University from 1982-1992.
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