Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin: the undisputed leader of the USSR for almost a quarter of a century. Stalin’s reign was said to be one of the darkest periods in Soviet history. In the 1930s he began a series of bloody purges to consolidate power, and later again during 1948-53 he unleashed another reign of terror where multiple executions were the order of the day and none, not even his closest associates, were spared. Of the various purges and plots planned by him, the last perhaps was the dyelo vrachey or the Doctors’ Plot. This preplanned conspiracy against the top Jewish doctors of the Soviet Union was aimed to “show” that Jews in the highest positions of power were spies in the USSR and were being used in a grand plan by the enemies of socialism to destroy the Soviet state. Farfetched as it may sound, it did unleash an anti-Semitic campaign that led to executions of doctors, artists, poets and writers after false accusations of treason had been made against them.
In Stalin’s Last Crime: The Plot Against the Jewish Doctors, Jonathan Brent and Vladimir Naumov have put together the various events that comprised the Doctor’s plot. Sifting through mounds of classified materials and secret documents from the KGB and other military and state archives, the authors have reconstructed the details of the planning and execution of the whole event, and they have done a commendable job indeed. It must be mentioned that Naumov, as executive secretary of the Presidential Commission for Rehabilitation of Repressed Persons, an organization established by Mikhail Gorbachev, has earned a reputation for exposing several plots, anti-Semitic or otherwise, hatched by the Kremlin’s villainous machinery.
To guide readers to understand the Doctors’ plot, the authors begin with the system of governance in the USSR where all power was vested in the state -- and Stalin, at the apex, had absolute power. His coterie comprised Zhandov, Molotov, Mikoyan, Malenko and the ruthless Beria. According to the authors, the plot was haphazard to begin with because initially there was no clear plan on Stalin’s part. However, sometime around 1950 he began to manipulate the state machinery and fabricate events to show that Jewish doctors were involved in a conspiracy to eliminate top communist leaders by medical negligence. The focus then shifted to two Soviet leaders, Comrade A.S. Shcherbakov, who died in 1945, and Comrade A. Zhandov, who died in 1948.
However, none of the doctors directly involved in the treatment were Jewish. The KGB and the state apparatus had to therefore invent an elaborate scheme and rope in members of the Jewish antifascist committee and link them to the doctors. An all-encompassing scheme was finally put in place that showed the doctors were a part of a larger Jewish conspiracy managed by a Jewish doctor, Dr. Yakov Etinger, who was a part of the Kremlin Hospital. That Dr. Etinger was associated with the Jewish Antifascist Committee and had a brother living in Israel helped make him a scapegoat.
The plot eventually grew beyond the anti-Semitic action and led to arrests and executions of non-Jews too, including high ranking officers of the Red Army, Soviet police and top leaders of the Kremlin like Stalin’s trusted men Molotov and Mikoyan. Such was the manner in which Stalin’s mind worked. As Bulganin, who succeeded Stalin as the premier of the USSR, once said after leaving Stalin’s home after dinner, “You come to Stalin’s table as a friend, but you never know if you’ll go home by yourself or if you’ll be given a ride--to prison.”
This great purge ended with the dictator’s death in March 1953, whereupon his successors erased all traces of the Doctors’ Plot. And so it might have remained, unknown and unacknowledged to the world, had it not been for the authors’ efforts in tracing the numerous letters, statements, personal communications, plots and subplots that give us a glimpse into the horrors of the Stalinist world where distrust and hatred, spying and denouncing one another reigned supreme.