Solomon (Shloyme) Mikhoels (real surname - Vovsi), Yiddish: שלמה מיכאָעלס; Russian: Соломон Михайлович Михоэлс (Вовси) (16 March [O.S. 4 March] 1890 - January 12/13, 1948) was a Soviet Jewish actor and director in Yiddish theater and the chairman of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee.
Born Shloyme Vovsi in Dvinsk (now Daugavpils), Latvia, Mikhoels studied law in Saint Petersburg, but left school in 1918 to join Alexander Granovsky's Jewish Theater Workshop, which was attempting to create a national Jewish theater in Russia based on the Yiddish language. Two years later, in 1920, the workshop moved to Moscow, where it established the Moscow State Jewish Theater. This was in keeping with Lenin's
policy on nationalities, which encouraged them to pursue and develop
their own cultures under the aegis of the Soviet state. Mikhoels, who
showed outstanding talent, was the company's leading actor and, as of 1928, its director. He played in several memorable roles, including Tevye in an adaptation of Sholom Aleichem's comic short stories about Tevye the Milkman (which were adapted for an American audience as Fiddler on the Roof) as well as in many original works, such as Bar Kochba, and translations.
Perhaps his most noted role was as King Lear in a Yiddish translation of the play by William Shakespeare.
These plays were ostensibly supportive of the Soviet state, however,
closer readings suggest that they actually contained veiled critiques
of Stalin's regime. It is noteworthy that two of the Shakespearean plays put on by the theater company were King Lear and Richard III, both studies in tyranny. It is now believed that the Ukrainian director Les Kurbas
contributed to the original King Lear production after he was ousted
from his Berezil theater in 1934. He seems to have had a lasting
influence on Mikhoel's directing style.
By the mid-1930s, Mikhoels' career was threatened because of his association with other leading intelligentsia, who were victims of Stalin's purges, notably author Isaac Babel. Mikhoels actively supported Stalin against Hitler, and in 1942, he was made chairman of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee.
In this capacity, he travelled around the world, meeting with Jewish
communities to encourage them to support the Soviet Union in its war
against Nazi Germany.
Mikhoels and Einstein in 1943
While this was useful to Stalin during World War II,
after the war, Stalin opposed contacts between Soviet Jews and Jewish
communities in non-Communist countries, which he deemed as "bourgeoisie."
The Jewish State Theater was closed and the members of the Jewish
Anti-Fascist Committee were arrested - all except for two were
eventually executed in the purges shortly before Stalin's death.
January 1948. One of the last photographs
Mikhoels was the most visible of the intellectual Jewish leadership,
and a show trial would have cast aspersions on Stalin's rule. Such
claims lead most people to a suggestion that Stalin had him
assassinated in Minsk in January of 1948
masking his death as a car crash, and Mikhoels received a state
funeral. According to documents unearthed by the historian Gennady
Kostyrchenko, the organizers of the assassination were L.M. Tsanava and
S. Ogoltsov, and the "direct" murderers were Lebedev, Kruglov and
Mikhoels' cousin Miron Vovsi was Stalin's personal physician. He was arrested during the Doctors' plot affair but released after Stalin's death in 1953, as was his son-in-law, the composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg.
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