Dubbed “the Sherlock Holmes of the Russian Revolution” for exposing misdeeds of the tsarist secret police, he has always been a fascinating figure. My curiosity was therefore instantly provoked when, as I was doing research in the UCLA library, I happened upon a dedication he had written in one of his books. The book was Protocols of the Elders of Zion – A Proven Forgery.* The inscription read: “To dear Vasily Alexeyevich Maklakov from his client (1913). Vladimir Burtsev, February 24, 1938. In this book I defend that which you have always defended.”
Just what was it that Burtsev spent his life defending? “The fight against anti-Semitism is our common cause!” he never tired of proclaiming, and, over the course of his long life, he was unwavering in his adherence to this idea. This fight took on new importance after the October Revolution, when the presence of a few prominent, ethnically-Jewish Bolsheviks among its leaders led many in the White émigré community to blame Jews as a whole for the revolution. (Even today, Jews are called on to publicly repent the misdeeds of Sverdlov, Zinoviev, Yurovsky and other prominent revolutionaries with Jewish roots.) During the Civil War that followed the revolution, frenzied antiSemitism led to a spike in bloody pogroms.
In late 1919, Burtsev began a series of trips to Crimea and the Caucasus to gain audiences with Generals Denikin and Wrangel, to ask, convince, and ultimately insist that they take urgent measures to stop the barbarity. He tenaciously argued that the communist leaders were “renegades of the Jewish nation” with “no ties to Jewish history, Jewish religion, or the Jewish masses,” calling them “nothing but internationalists preaching ideas shared by socialists from other ethnic groups” and “outright enemies of the Jewish nation as a whole.” They were “swindlers who cut their ties to Judaism” and had absolutely nothing to do with it. Russia’s Jews as a whole “were not involved in Bolshevism and were not responsible for it, including those Jews forced to live and work under the Bolsheviks despite not being Bolsheviks themselves, just like many Russians who are committed anti-Bolsheviks.”
Although he himself was not Jewish, Burtsev took a lively and heartfelt interest in the Jewish question.
He found himself “at the wellspring of most of the Jewish national currents,” including the Bund and Zionism. Ties of friendship bound Burtsev with prominent Jews holding the most varied political views, such as the Zionist Daniil Pasmanik and the anti-Zionist Henrik Sliozberg, along with many others who attracted him with their “sincerity, honesty, and competence.” He was present at the First Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897, presided over by Theodor Herzl, who impressed Burtsev with his exuberance and charisma and whose idea of creating a Jewish homeland in Palestine he enthusiastically supported. Burtsev relentlessly attacked anti-Semitism on the pages of the Russian-language newspaper he published in Paris, Common Cause (Obshchee delo, 1918-1922, 19281933), contending that the entrenched Judeophobia infecting a significant portion of the White émigré community only served to undermine the “common cause” under whose banner all true patriots of Russia should be uniting: the struggle against the communist regime.
His talent for exposing the workings of anti-Semitism were on full display when he served as a witness at the Berne Trial of 1933-1935. It was this trial that proved that the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion had been fabricated by the tsarist secret police. Contemporary historians have called this document “the greatest lie in history” and a “warrant for genocide.” Besides Burtsev, witnesses for the prosecution at this trial included the Russian historians and politicians Pavel Milyukov and Sergei Svatikov, and the Russian Marxist Boris Nicolaevsky.
The book I was reading in the UCLA library represents the culmination of Burtsev’s life’s work. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion – A Proven Forgery features the trenchant subtitle: Rachkovsky Fabricated The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Hitler Made Them Famous. Drawing on a wide array of documentary sources and oral accounts, the book convincingly exposes The Protocols (which were originally published in 1903) as a brazen forgery, while also showing its misanthropic and destructive intent. (The Nazis later picked up the Protocols baton and translated the forgery into many languages; today, millions of copies are circulating all around the world, continuing the job of duping and corrupting the ignorant.) As Burtsev put it: “Those who propagandize The Protocols are wittingly promoting a dishonest, heinous, and violent cause. It cannot be said of them: ‘They know not what they do.’ No! No! They know perfectly well what they are doing.” Burtsev saw his book as “a starting point in the struggle against pernicious superstition and the dangerous mass psychosis of peoples infected with a maniacal and extremely vicious anti-Semitism.”
But let us return to the inscription Burtsev made in the copy I found in the UCLA library. Who was this “Vasily Alexeyevich Maklakov”? What did Burtsev mean when he wrote that they were both defending the same thing, and what was the significance of “1913”?
It turns out that Vasily Alexeyevich Maklakov (1869-1957) was a leading member of Russia’s Constitutional Democratic Party (the Kadets) and an outstanding orator during the Second, Third, and Fourth State Dumas. After the February 1917 revolution, the Provisional Government had appointed him as a Ministry of Justice commissar. There were even plans to appoint him minister, but Alexander Kerensky wound up taking that post. For a while, Maklakov chaired the Provisional Government’s Legal Conference. Later, in emigration, he served as the Provisional Government’s ambassador to France, and played an active role in the White movement.
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