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Doctors’ Plot

Antisemitic campaign that unfolded in the Soviet Union between 1948 and 1953. The so-called Doctors’ Plot has historically been viewed as the culmination of the vicious antisemitic campaign undertaken by Stalin in the final years of his life. Stalin died before the last stage could be completed and since his death much speculation has grown up about his intentions, the extent of the action envisioned against the Jews, and the meaning of the episode in the context of the cold war.

Recent research suggests that the Doctors’ Plot was not simply the culmination of Stalin’s antisemitic campaign, begun after World War II, but rather was integral to the Soviet dictator’s larger strategy of reconsolidating his position as undisputed head of the party and the government, and purging Soviet society of elements that could compete with him for power.

Andrei Zhdanov’s death on 31 August 1948 has historically been regarded as initiating the Doctors’ Plot. Zhdanov had been head of the Leningrad party before becoming the powerful chief of ideology in the Central Committee; he was also Stalin’s close associate. In December 1952, Stalin accused a group of largely Jewish doctors, along with the minister of security Viktor Abakumov, the head of the Kremlin Guards Nikolai Vlasik, and others of having participated in Zhdanov’s murder. The basis of this accusation was a letter written by Lidiia Timashuk, the head of the Kremlin hospital cardiographic unit, to Vlasik, dated 29 August 1948, in which she warned that the doctors underestimated “the unquestionably grave condition of comrade Zhdanov,” and that “this regimen may lead to a fateful outcome.” Stalin claimed that this letter had been withheld from him by Abakumov. In January 1953, articles in Pravda and Izvestiia exposed the so-called “plot of the doctor-wreckers,” causing worldwide concern about the fate of Soviet Jews.

From 1948 to 1952, Stalin had worked carefully to give the accusation credibility. Contrary to legend, he did not discover Timashuk’s letter in December 1952. Rather, he received it one day after it was sent and filed it in his personal archive. He signed the document and wrote “archive” across the bottom. Among the doctors Lidiia Timashuk accused none was Jewish. No conclusive evidence proves Timashuk’s charge of medical malpractice, but circumstantial evidence suggests that the doctors facilitated Zhdanov’s death, quite plausibly with Stalin’s approval.

The plot assumed a Jewish character only after the death of the prominent Jewish doctor Iakov Etinger, arrested in November 1950 as part of the liquidation of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. Etinger died under mysterious circumstances in prison in March 1951. In July 1951, without any evidence, a “Secret Letter” composed by the Central Committee at Stalin’s behest alleged that Etinger had confessed to the medical murder in 1945 of Central Committee secretary Aleksandr Shcherbakov; that this assassination was the work not of Etinger alone, but of a “conspiratorial group” of doctors; and that Abakumov was implicated in the affair.

From July 1951, when this “Secret Letter” was disseminated, to November 1952, the Ministry of State Security (MGB) sought to establish the specifically Jewish nature of the conspiracy by connecting the death of Zhdanov with the alleged confessions of Etinger.

A key element in this was the effort to link Abakumov with the “Jewish conspiracy” and to prove that the conspiracy was directed by the American government. Abakumov was arrested in July 1951 and his case quickly became the case of Abakumov-Shvartzman. L. L. Shvartzman was the Jewish deputy head of the Investigative Unit for Especially Important Cases, an investigative arm of the MGB. He and other Jewish MGB officers were made to confess their complicity in this conspiracy in terms that revived the slanders of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

The core group of 37 doctors (and their wives) arrested between 1951 and January 1953, when the “Plot” vastly expanded, included only 17 Jews. Many others were added between January and March 1953.

A large number of prominent Jewish doctors were arrested, among them Miron Vovsi, chief internist of the Red Army from 1941 to 1950 and the cousin of Solomon Mikhoels, the director of the Moscow State Yiddish Theater who had been assassinated in January 1948 on Stalin’s orders. The interrogations of the doctors, which were accompanied by torture, sought to establish links within a widespread conspiracy involving Jewish nationalists, the American government, the security organs, and party leaders including Central Committee Secretary Aleksei Kuznetsov, a former boss of the Leningrad party and protégé of Zhdanov. Ultimately, it was alleged, the conspiracy would have made an attempt on the life of Stalin himself.

The reasons for Stalin’s actions are traceable to circumstances at the end of World War II: the onset of the cold war; Stalin’s failing physical condition; his desire to prevent the rise of any of his lieutenants to too dominant a role, particularly as undisputed heir apparent; and a revival of international Jewish solidarity associated with the founding of the State of Israel. Soon after the victory over Hitler, Stalin suffered some kind of physical collapse, which necessitated long periods of recovery in his Crimean residence. The exact nature of Stalin’s physical ailment is not known. This left Molotov and other members of the Politburo in charge of the daily affairs of the Soviet state. Western media speculated that Molotov would soon succeed Stalin. Molotov gave reason to believe that he favored closer relations with the Western powers as well as a relaxation of censorship. Stalin criticized him bitterly for this, calling both him and Politburo member Anastas Mikoyan in December 1952 subversive. In parallel, the demonstrations at Moscow’s Main Synagogue in 1948 welcoming Golda Meir (Meyerson), Israel’s first envoy to the USSR, caused Stalin to recognize the power of Jewish nationalist sentiment. Furthermore, many prominent leaders, among them Viacheslav Molotov and Kliment Voroshilov, had Jewish wives, frequently with relatives in the United States or Israel. The potential disloyalty of Jews in a conflict with America was thus linked to the potential disloyalty of Stalin’s colleagues in government. American Ambassador George Kennan had been declared persona non grata in September 1952; in the wake of the announcement of the Doctors’ Plot, Moscow severed diplomatic relations with Israel.

Many believe that the purge envisioned by Stalin would have had the character of the Great Terror of the 1930s and would have spread to all facets of Soviet society and political life. Evidence that Stalin contemplated an international confrontation with the United States can be found in documentation concerning the little-known Varfolomeev Case. Completely manufactured by Stalin’s security organs, this case was designed to prove that America planned a preemptive nuclear strike against the Soviet Union in March or April 1952.

Stalin apparently wanted the defendants in the Doctors’ Plot and the Varfolomeev Case to come to trial at approximately the same time. The 13 January 1953 Pravda article on the Doctors’ Plot noted that the Americans and their “junior partners,” the British, sent “spies into the rear of the USSR.” I. I. Varfolomeev was arrested in Manchuria in December 1950. He was executed in September 1953 and all traces of the plot vanished with him.

Although some new evidence supports the idea that mass deportations of Jews from major Russian cities had been planned, the question remains open. A letter to be signed by Ilya Ehrenburg and numerous other eminent Jewish intellectuals and artists was set in type but never published. It denounced the United States, Israel, and the Jewish doctors, but did not, as legend has it, beg Stalin to deport Jews from the cities to save them from the righteous wrath of the Russian people. No available evidence supports the equally mysterious legend of “Day X” when massive deportations were supposedly to take place. However, documents dated February 1953 authorizing the construction of four new concentration camps in Soviet Asia confirm that Soviet authorities were preparing for a large influx of new political prisoners at a time when few remained after World War II.

Stalin’s death on 5 March 1953 may well have been connected with the Doctors’ Plot. Politburo members Khrushchev, Beria, Malenkov, and others had reason to fear for their own lives; they also feared the consequences of Stalin’s rabid anti-Western policies and wished for more openness with the West. Knowing of the Varfolomeev Case, they may have feared a nuclear standoff with America. Documents show that they allowed Stalin to die by delaying medical help for many hours after learning he had suffered what appeared to be a serious stroke. The available account of his medical treatment and symptoms suggests that Stalin may have been poisoned.

Upon Stalin’s death, the Doctors’ Plot was repudiated by Soviet authorities. The doctors were released from prison and rehabilitated, and those who put them in prison were themselves incarcerated. Eventually most of the latter were shot. Beria accused Mikhail Riumin, former deputy minister of the MGB, of having concocted the Doctors’ Plot out of opportunism. However, only Stalin had the comprehensive vision to guide the conspiracy from the Kremlin Hospital to the Ministry of Security to the Politburo and Central Committee, culminating in a possible nuclear confrontation with the United States.

Suggested Reading

Jonathan Brent and Vladimir P. Naumov, Stalin’s Last Crime: The Plot against the Jewish Doctors, 1948–1953 (New York, 2003); Yoram Gorlizki and Oleg Khlevniuk, Cold Peace: Stalin and the Soviet Ruling Circle, 1945–1953 (Oxford and New York, 2004), chap. 6; Roy Medvedev, Let History Judge: The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism, ed. and trans. George Shriver, rev. and exp. ed. (New York, 1989); Iakov L’vovich Rapoport, The Doctors’ Plot of 1953, trans. N. A. Perova and R. S. Bobrova (Cambridge, Mass., 1991); Dmitrii Antonovich Volkogonov, Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy, ed. and trans. Harold Shukman (Rocklin, Calif., 1992).