The Doctors' plot (Russian: дело врачей [delo vrachey, "doctors' affair"], врачи-вредители [vrachy-vreditely, "doctors-saboteurs"], or врачи-убийцы [vrachi-ubiytsy "doctors-killers"]) in 1952–53 was the most dramatic anti-Jewish episode in the Soviet Union during Joseph Stalin's regime, accusing a group of prominent Moscow doctors, predominantly Jews, as conspiratorial assassins of Soviet leaders. This was accompanied by trials and anti-Semitic publications in the media. Scores of Soviet Jews were promptly dismissed from their jobs, arrested, sent to the Gulag, or executed. The doctors' plot was to be the catalyst of Stalin's campaigns against Soviet Jews but was ultimately stopped short by Stalin's sudden death in March 1953. After the death of Stalin, the new Soviet leadership stated a lack of evidence, and the case was dropped. In 1956, the Soviet leadership declared that the case was fabricated.
As early as 1907, Stalin wrote a letter differentiating between a "Jewish faction" and a "true Russian faction" in Bolshevism. Stalin's secretary Boris Bazhanov stated that Stalin made anti-Semitic outbursts even before Vladimir Lenin's death. Anti-Semitic trends in the Kremlin's policies were fueled by the exile of Leon Trotsky. After dismissing Maxim Litvinov as Foreign Minister in 1939, Stalin immediately directed Vyacheslav Molotov to "purge the ministry of Jews". This was likely a signal to Nazi Germany that the USSR was ready for talks on non-aggression; however, some critics see a purely anti-Semitic reason for this. According to historian Yakov Yakovlevich Etinger, many Soviet state purges of the 1930s were anti-Semitic, and after more intense anti-Semitic policy toward the end of World War II, Stalin reportedly said privately in 1946 that "every Jew is a potential spy." Furthermore, after purportedly ordering the development of bombers capable of reaching America, supposedly convinced that Harry Truman was Jewish, Stalin reportedly remarked in private that "we will show this Jewish shopkeeper how to attack us!"
Nevertheless, during the period 1945 to 1947, overt antisemitism had been suppressed in the USSR, because Stalin was considered the savior of the Jews, the man who defeated Hitler and had liberated the Eastern European concentration camps from the Nazis. Moreover, during those years, Stalin needed the Jews for propaganda purposes, and some of the old Bolsheviks were Jewish, including Leon Trotsky, Lev Kamenev, Gregory Zinoviev, Lazar Kaganovich, Maxim Litvinov, Yakov Sverdlov, and Polina Zhemchuzhina (the wife of Molotov). Jewish communists Abram Slutsky, Sergei Shpigelglas, and Genrikh Yagoda had led the intelligence and security organs of the Bolsheviks and subsequently the Soviet state, and there were still many Jewish cadres in the cultural organs, the Party, the intelligence services, and the security apparatus. Thirdly, Stalin had initially supported the creation of the Jewish state of Israel.
With the beginning of the Cold War, the State of Israel allying with the West, and Stalin's suspicions of any form of Jewish nationalism (and indeed nationalism in general), the Soviet regime eliminated the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in 1948 and launched a campaign against rootless cosmopolitans. Also, in the course of his career, Stalin became increasingly suspicious towards physicians. In his later years, he refused to be treated by doctors and would only consult with veterinarians about his health. After trials of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee thirteen members were secretly executed on Stalin's orders in the Night of the Murdered Poets.
Events of 1951 and 1952
In 1951 MGB investigator Mikhail Ryumin reported to his superior, Viktor Abakumov, minister of the MGB, that Professor Yakov Etinger, who was arrested as a "bourgeois nationalist" with connections to the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, had committed malpractice in treating Zhdanov and Shcherbakov, allegedly with the intention of killing them. However, Abakumov refused to believe the story. Etinger died in prison due to interrogations and harsh conditions. Ryumin was then dismissed from his position in the MGB for misappropriating money and was held responsible for the death of Etinger. With the assistance of Malenkov, Ryumin wrote a letter to Stalin, accusing Abakumov of killing Etinger in order to hide a conspiracy to kill off the Soviet leadership. On July 4, 1951 the Politburo set up a commission, which was headed by Malenkov and included Beria, to investigate the issue. Based on the commission's report, the Politburo soon passed a resolution on the "bad situation in the MGB" and Abakumov was fired.
The death of Marshal Khorloogiin Choibalsan in Moscow early in 1952 concerned the aging Stalin, who commented, "They die one after another. Shcherbakov, Zhdanov, Dimitrov, Choibalsan ... die so quickly! We must change the old doctors for new ones... The MVD insists on arresting them as saboteurs."
In a December 1, 1952, Politburo session, Stalin is said to have announced:
"Every Jewish nationalist is the agent of the American intelligence service. Jewish nationalists think that their nation was saved by the USA (there you can become rich, bourgeois, etc.). They think they're indebted to the Americans. Among doctors, there are many Jewish nationalists."
One of the agenda items of a December 4 meeting of the Presidium of the CPSU was "The situation in MGB and sabotage in the ranks of medical workers." It was brought up by Stalin and vice-minister of MGB (Ministry of State Security) S. A. Goglidze. "Without me," Stalin declared, "the country would be destroyed because you are unable to recognize enemies." An outcome of this session was a decision to consolidate all intelligence and counter-intelligence services under the GRU, headed by S.I. Ogoltsov (later accused of organizing the killing of Solomon Mikhoels in 1948).
In the wake of the Prague Trials, 11 former Communist leaders and high Party officials of Czechoslovakia (14 were on trial in total, 11 of whom were Jews) were executed on December 3, 1952. On December 16, at the National Conference of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, President of Czechoslovakia Klement Gottwald announced: "During the investigation and trial of the anti-state conspiratorial center we discovered a new channel by which treachery and espionage penetrate into the Communist Party. It is Zionism." One of the charges brought against Rudolf Slánský was "taking active steps to cut short" Gottwald's life with the help of "hand-picked doctors from the enemy camp."
Abakumov was arrested and tortured soon after being dismissed as head of the MGB. He was, like his predecessors Nikolai Yezhov and Genrikh Yagoda, simply expendable now. Abakumov was charged with being a sympathizer and protector of the criminal Jewish underground — even though, just recently, he had arrested and wiped out the Jewish Antifascist Committee. This arrest was followed by the arrests of many agents who worked for him in the central apparatus of the MGB, including most Jews.
The doctors-killers case was revived in 1952 when the letter of cardiologist Lydia Timashuk was dug up from the archives. In 1948 Timashuk wrote a letter to the head of Stalin's security, General Vlasik, explaining that Zhdanov suffered a heart attack, but the Kremlin doctors who treated him missed it and prescribed the wrong treatment to him. Zhdanov soon died and the doctors covered up their mistake. The letter, however, was originally ignored.
The Kremlin doctors were arrested, but they were all Russian. To keep the conspiracy as Zionist, Ryumin and Ignatyev (who had succeeded Abakumov as head of the MGB) had the Jewish doctors Etinger supposedly specified also arrested; many of them had been consulted by the Kremlin's medical department. Vlasik was fired as head of Stalin's security and eventually also arrested for ignoring the Timashuk letter.
Initially, 37 were arrested, but the number quickly grew into hundreds. Under torture, prisoners seized in the investigation of the alleged plot were compelled to produce evidence against themselves and their associates.
Stalin harangued the MGB minister, Semyon Ignatyev, and accused the MGB of incompetence. He demanded that the interrogations of doctors already under arrest be accelerated. Stalin complained that there was no clear picture of the Zionist conspiracy and no solid evidence that specifically the Jewish doctors were guilty.
An article in Pravda
To mobilize the Soviet people for his campaign, Stalin ordered TASS and Pravda to issue stories along with Stalin's alleged uncovering of a Doctors' plot to assassinate top Soviet leaders, including Stalin, in order to set the stage for show trials. On January 13, 1953, some of the most prestigious and prominent doctors in the USSR were accused of taking part in a vast plot to poison members of the top Soviet political and military leadership. Pravda, the official newspaper of the CPSU, reported the accusations under the headline "Vicious Spies and Killers under the Mask of Academic Physicians".
Today the TASS news agency reported the arrest of a group of saboteur-doctors. This terrorist group, uncovered some time ago by organs of state security, had as their goal shortening the lives of leaders of the Soviet Union by means of medical sabotage.
Investigation established that participants in the terrorist group, exploiting their position as doctors and abusing the trust of their patients, deliberately and viciously undermined their patients' health by making incorrect diagnoses, and then killed them with bad and incorrect treatments. Covering themselves with the noble and merciful calling of physicians, men of science, these fiends and killers dishonored the holy banner of science. Having taken the path of monstrous crimes, they defiled the honor of scientists.
Among the victims of this band of inhuman beasts were Comrades A. A. Zhdanov and A. S. Shcherbakov. The criminals confessed that, taking advantage of the illness of Comrade Zhdanov, they intentionally concealed a myocardial infarction, prescribed inadvisable treatments for this serious illness and thus killed Comrade Zhdanov. Killer doctors, by incorrect use of very powerful medicines and prescription of harmful regimens, shortened the life of Comrade Shcherbakov, leading to his death.
The majority of the participants of the terrorist group… were bought by American intelligence. They were recruited by a branch-office of American intelligence — the international Jewish bourgeois-nationalist organization called "Joint." The filthy face of this Zionist spy organization, covering up their vicious actions under the mask of charity, is now completely revealed…
Unmasking the gang of poisoner-doctors struck a blow against the international Jewish Zionist organization.... Now all can see what sort of philanthropists and "friends of peace" hid beneath the sign-board of "Joint."
Other participants in the terrorist group (Vinogradov, M. Kogan, Egorov) were discovered, as has been presently determined, to have been long-time agents of English intelligence, serving it for many years, carrying out its most criminal and sordid tasks. The bigwigs of the USA and their English junior partners know that to achieve domination over other nations by peaceful means is impossible. Feverishly preparing for a new world war, they energetically send spies inside the USSR and the people's democratic countries: they attempt to accomplish what the Hitlerites could not do — to create in the USSR their own subversive "fifth column."...
The Soviet people should not for a minute forget about the need to heighten their vigilance in all ways possible, to be alert for all schemes of war-mongers and their agents, to constantly strengthen the Armed Forces and the intelligence organs of our government.
Among other famous names mentioned were Solomon Mikhoels (actor-director of the Moscow State Jewish Theater and the head of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, assassinated in January 1948), who was called a "well-known Jewish bourgeois nationalist," Miron Vovsi (therapist, Stalin's personal physician and a cousin of Mikhoels), V. Vinogradov (therapist), Mikhail Kogan (therapist), Boris Kogan (therapist), P. Yegorov (therapist), A. Feldman (otolaryngologist), Yakov Etinger (therapist), A. Grinshtein (neuropathologist) and G. Mayorov (therapist). Six of the nine mentioned doctors were Jewish.
The list of alleged victims included high-ranked officials Andrei Zhdanov, Aleksandr Shcherbakov, Army Marshals Aleksandr Vasilevsky, Leonid Govorov and Ivan Konev, General Sergei Shtemenko, Admiral Gordey Levchenko and others.
Stalin's death and the consequences
After Stalin's death on March 5, 1953, the new leadership quickly distanced itself from the investigation into the plot. The charges were dismissed and the doctors exonerated in a March 31 decree by the newly appointed Minister of Internal Affairs, Lavrentiy Beria, and on April 6, this was communicated to the public in Pravda. Chief MGB investigator and Deputy Minister of State Security M. D. Ryumin was blamed for making up the plot and was arrested and later executed.
Historian Zhores Medvedev argues that Stalin was getting ready to end the Doctors' Plot case right before his death. Attacks on the alleged plotters abruptly disappeared from Pravda on 2 March 1953, the day after Stalin suffered a stroke, but it is unlikely that the new leaders were responsible for this. Propaganda associated with the plot continued in other publications, and the case itself continued for weeks after Stalin's death. Most likely Stalin himself called the newspaper a day or two before his stroke and ordered the attacks to stop, but this was only reflected in the print on Monday, 2 March. According to Medvedev, the execution of the leading Soviet doctors would not have given Stalin any political gains and the international reaction would have been obvious. Medvedev further hypothesizes that Stalin intended to use the closing of the Doctors' Plot to remove from power those who had been involved in it.
Former Komsomol official, Nikolai Mesyatsev recalls that Malenkov, on orders from Stalin, assigned him and two other Komsomol activists to thoroughly review the Doctors' Plot case. The investigation concluded by the middle of February 1953 that the case was obviously falsified. Therefore, Mesyatsev explains, allegations that the case was stopped due to Stalin's death are incorrect.
In his 1956 "Secret Speech", Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev stated that the Doctors' plot was "fabricated... set up by Stalin," but that Stalin did not "have the time in which to bring it to an end," which saved the doctors' lives. Khrushchev also told the session that Stalin called the judge in the case and, regarding the methods to be used, stated "beat, beat and, beat again." Stalin supposedly told his Minister of State Security, "If you do not obtain confessions from the doctors we will shorten you by a head."
Khrushchev also claims that Stalin hinted to him to incite antisemitism in Ukraine, saying, "The good workers at the factory should be given clubs so they can beat the hell out of those Jews."
According to Khrushchev, Stalin told Politburo members, "You are blind like young kittens. What will happen without me? The country will perish because you do not know how to recognize enemies." Recently, an article published by Miguel A. Faria Jr. M.D. in a peer-reviewed medical publication, Surgical Neurology International (SNI), provides evidence supporting the long-held suspicion that Stalin was indeed poisoned with the anticoagulant warfarin that caused his stroke. This was carried out by members of his own inner circle, most likely Lavrenti Beria, and perhaps even Khrushchev, all of whom feared for their position within the Party at the time of Stalin's death.
Alleged planned deportation of Jews
According to one source, Nikolai Nikolayevich Polyakov, Stalin purportedly created a special "Deportation Commission" to plan the deportation of Jews to these camps. Poliakov, the secretary of the commission, stated years later that, according to Stalin's initial plan, the deportation was to begin in the middle of February 1953, but the monumental tasks of compiling lists of Jews had not yet been completed. "Pure blooded" Jews were to be deported first, followed by "half breeds" (polukrovki). Before his death in March 1953, Stalin allegedly had planned the execution of Doctors' plot defendants already on trial in Red Square in March 1953, and then he would cast himself as the savior of Soviet Jews by sending them to camps away from the purportedly enraged Russian populace. There are further statements that describe some aspects of such a planned deportation. Others argue that any charge of an alleged mass deportation lacks specific documentary evidence and that attempts to move the then-geographically-assimilated Jewish population would not have comported with Stalin's other postwar methods.
Yakov Etinger (son of one of the doctors) said that he spoke with Bulganin, who told him about plans to deport Jews. Etinger's credibility was questioned, however, when he claimed to have published a previously unpublished letter to Pravda signed by many Jewish celebrities and calling for Jewish deportation. The alleged original two versions of the letter have been published in Istochnik and other publications. Not only did they lack any hint of a plan to deport Jews to Siberia, they called for the creation of a Jewish newspaper. The alleged text of the famous letter serves as an argument against the existence of the deportation plans. Etinger was asked to publish the notes taken during his alleged meetings with Bulganin, but they are still unpublished.
Four large camps were built shortly before Stalin's death in 1953 in southern and western Russia, with rumors swirling that they were for Jews, but no directive exists that the camps were to be used for any such effort.
Based on these and other asserted facts, a researcher of Stalin's antisemitism, Gennady Kostyrchenko, concluded that there is no credible evidence for the alleged deportation plans and that there is much evidence against their existence. Some other researchers disagree, asserting that the question is still open. Аccording to historian Samson Madiyevsky, the deportation was definitely considered, and the only thing in doubt is the time-frame. He also said that Коstyrchenko himself said that the deportation might have happened later on.
According to Victor Suvorov, there were new camps built in the Russian Far East in expectations of incoming Jews, and the lack of documentation cannot be considered as negative evidence, as all deportations during Stalin's tenure were conducted on verbal orders and were documented on paper postfactum.
According to historian Zhores Medvedev, such a massive deportation would have been very difficult. It required the creation of specialized departments in the security ministries and the building of infrastructure for settling the deportees. There are no signs that any of this was started, and this could not all have been authorized by just verbal orders. Furthermore, Medvedev points out that many Soviet Jews were assimilated into Soviet society and had feelings of patriotism towards the USSR rather than Israel. The deportation would have also had a destructive effect on healthcare, the education system, science, culture, film making and other important fields of public life.
The prevailing opinion of many scholars outside the Soviet Union, in agreement with what Khrushchev said, is that Joseph Stalin intended to use the resulting doctors' trial to launch a massive party purge.
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