Stalin’s last purge: the Doctors’ Plot

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Stalin’s last purge: the Doctors’ Plot

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By the end of the Second World War Stalin had managed to turn the Soviet Union into a superpower, both politically and militarily. Soviet troops were stationed in most of what soon became known as the East European countries, with devastating effect. One country after another came under Communist control. It took some time for the West to respond. Nato was not founded until April 1949, under the leadership of the United States: a defensive alliance in which an attack upon any of the countries would precipitate an immediate response by all of them. The new enemy of the Soviet Union, in Stalin’s eyes, was the United States — and, by extension, all the Jews. How did Stalin come to this conclusion?

The years after the war saw the establishment of the state of Israel. The first country to recognise Israel in 1948 was the Soviet Union. The most likely reason was that the Arab states at the time still had friendly relations with the United States. So Soviet Realpolitik supported Israel. Also Israel was run by the left-wing Labour Party, standing ideologically closer to the Soviet Union. Stalin might have hoped that Israeli troops would take the Suez Canal thereby delivering a mighty blow to the economy of the capitalist world. In fact, the survival of Israel in its 1948 War of Independence was helped by the delivery of weapons from the Soviet bloc.

In June of that year Golda Meir was appointed as the first ambassador (“Minister Plenipotentiary”) of Israel to the Soviet Union. She arrived in Moscow shortly before Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Despite being born in Kyiv, she spoke no Russian. But she was welcomed by a crowd of 50,000 at the Choral Synagogue of Moscow. This was also an opportunity for Golda Meir to speak Yiddish to Polina Zhemchuzhina, wife of the Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov, the language both of them had spoken in their childhood. There were reports that Zhemchuzhina acted as an informal interpreter for her husband in talks with Golda Meir.

All this was enough for Stalin’s innate anti-Semitism to resurface. He decided that the presence of Jews in the Soviet Union represented a security risk. He declared that every Jew in the Soviet Union was a potential American spy. This was a reversal of his policy on Israel and sharply in contrast to his policy conducted during the war years, when an Anti-Fascist Committee had been set up in order to persuade the government of the United States to help the Soviet war effort against German Fascism. But with Nazi Germany out of the picture, the Soviet Union no longer needed any Anti-Fascists. All the members of the Committee but one were executed, in a clear continuation of the trials of the 1920s and 1930s. The exception was Lina Shtern, a member of the Soviet Academy. Stalin, now himself in his seventies, was very interested in her academic work on longevity.

In the last few months of his life Stalin did not see any reason to hide his anti-Semitism. An opportunity to do so was provided by a letter to him by Dr Lydia Timashuk, a radiologist, who claimed that several leaders of the Soviet Union including Zhdanov were deliberately misdiagnosed, thereby shortening their lives. This developed into a major investigation, with several mostly Jewish Kremlin doctors arrested. Dr Timashuk was awarded the Order of Lenin for her vigilance in unmasking the doctors. This was the notorious Doctors’ Plot.

Stalin’s ultimate aim was probably to deport all Jews to remote parts of Siberia. In the meantime he introduced laws restricting the livelihood of the Jewish community. Khrushchev describes in his memoirs (Khrushchev remembers) talking to Stalin around this time. The subject was  some trouble reported in an aviation factory in which some Jews were allegedly involved. Stalin turned to me and said: “The good workers at the factory should be given clubs so they can beat the hell out of those Jews at the end of the working day.”

There was a long list of Stalin’s anti-Jewish measures introduced (see Medvedev’s Let History judge) from which I shall choose some representative examples, as follows:

Purge of Jews from the Central Committee.

Quotas for Jews entering Universities.

Complete ban on Jews entering elite Universities.

The fabrication of the Slansky case, (a Czech Communist politician accused of contacts with Zionist organisations).

The closing of the Jewish theatre.

Murder of Mikhoels, a well-known Jewish actor and a ban on any investigation into his death.

The arrest of Jewish officials at several factories.

Discharge of Jewish political officials from the Army,

The removal of the portrait of Felix Mendelssohn from the Moscow Conservatory — an unusual way of assessing musical talent.

The arrest of Jews who expressed a desire to go to Israel.

Inflammatory articles in leading newspapers, including Pravda and Izvestiya.

Stalin forced his daughter Svetlana to divorce her Jewish husband.

Malenkov forced his daughter Volya to divorce her Jewish husband.

Dismissal of Jewish staff from academic institutions.

Demotion of heads of various institutions who refused to dismiss their Jewish staff. One of those demoted was Chumakov, who introduced Sabin’s polio vaccine to the Soviet Union.

Meanwhile the debate went on what should have been the correct treatment for Zhdanov. Stalin did not reply to Timashuk’s letter, probably waiting for Zhdanov to die, so providing for him a corpus delicti. The Security Services were disoriented. The head of the organisation, Abakumov, was arrested. He was replaced by his deputy, Ryumin, whose contribution to the science of Criminology is worth mentioning: “The question of your guilt is decided by the fact of your arrest.” Nonetheless, in spite of Ryumin’s efficiency in finding criminals, he was also executed.

Unfortunately for Stalin, progress was slow. In contrast to the politicians of the 1920s and 1930s, the doctors were reluctant to confess to the fabricated crimes, or they confessed but later repudiated their confessions. Stalin recommended to the investigators “to beat them until they confess”. The advice was taken. Two of the accused died under interrogation, but still the elements of the grand plan just did not fit together. The jigsaw had many blocks still missing. Some historians argue that there was not much evidence for the existence of a grand plan. Those who argue that there were already advanced plans point out the known presence of a fleet of cattle-wagons at some Moscow railway stations. Big new camps were built in Birobidzhan — a remote town on the border with China that had been the centre of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast in the Soviet Union since the 1920s. It seems unlikely that the full truth will ever be known.

How did the world learn that the Doctors’ Plot had been fabricated? I know how it happened in Hungary, where I was living when Stalin died in 1953. A few weeks after his death, there was a brief report at the bottom of page 4 in the Communist Party newspaper: “Dr Timashuk’s Order of Lenin has been withdrawn.”


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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 91%
  • Interesting points: 97%
  • Agree with arguments: 91%
17 ratings - view all

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