Solomon (Shloyme) Mikhoels (Yiddish: שלמה מיכאעלס [also spelled שלוימע מיכאעלס during the Soviet era], Russian: Cоломон (Шлойме) Михоэлс, 16 March [O.S. 4 March] 1890 – 13 January 1948) was a Soviet Jewish actor and the artistic director of the Moscow State Jewish Theater. Mikhoels served as the chairman of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee during World War II. However, as Joseph Stalin pursued an increasingly anti-Semitic line after the War, Mikhoels's position as a leader of the Jewish community led to increasing persecution from the Soviet state. He was assassinated in Minsk in 1948 by order of Stalin.
Born Shloyme Vovsi in Dvinsk (now Daugavpils, Latvia), Mikhoels studied law in Saint Petersburg, but left school in 1918 to join Alexis Granowsky's Jewish Theater Workshop, which was attempting to create a national Jewish theater in Russia based on the Yiddish language. The workshop moved to Moscow in 1920, where it established the Moscow State Jewish Theater. This was in keeping with Vladimir Lenin's policy on nationalities, which encouraged them to pursue and develop their own cultures under the aegis of the Soviet state.
Mikhoels was the company's leading actor and, as of 1928, its director. His memorable roles included Tevye in an adaptation of Sholom Aleichem's novel Tevye the Milkman (which was adapted for an American audience as Fiddler on the Roof); and the title role in a Yiddish translation of Shakespeare's King Lear, in 1935. As a director he commissioned a new Bar Kochba, written by Shmuel Halkin, which the company successfully staged as a socialist turn on the traditional story.
These plays were ostensibly supportive of the Soviet state; however, historian Jeffrey Veidlinger has argued that closer readings suggest they actually contained veiled critiques of Stalin's regime and assertions of Jewish national identity. It is now believed[by whom?] that 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. On August 24, 1941, Mikhoels led a gathering of thousands in central Moscow's Gorky park. The rally was explicitly a Jewish rally, one aimed to raise funds for the Soviet war effort from the international Jewish community. Speakers included writer David Bergelson. :79–80 Mikhoels actively supported Stalin against Adolf 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.
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.
Mikhoels died in Minsk in January 1948. Sources claim he was assassinated on Stalin's personal ordersand his death was disguised as a hit-and-run car accident. Mikhoels was allegedly taken to a Ministry for State Security (MGB) dacha and killed, along with the theatre critic and MGB informer Golubov-Potapov, under supervision of Stalin's Deputy Minister of State Security Sergei Ogoltsov. Their bodies were dumped on a roadside in Minsk and run over by a truck. Mikhoels received a state funeral and was buried at the New Donskoy Cemetery in Moscow.
Mikhoels was married to Anastasia Pototskaya, a Russian of Polish descent. He had two daughters from his first marriage to Sara Kantor, Nina and Natalya Vovsi.
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 Mikhoels' son-in-law, the Polish-born composer Mieczysław Weinberg. In 1983, Mikhoels' daughter, Natalia Vovsi-Mikoels, wrote a biography of her father: My Father Shlomo Mikhoels: The Life and Death of a Jewish Actor.