Stalin’s Last Crime — The Plot Against the Jewish Doctors, 1948-1953 by Jonathan Brent and Vladimir P. Naumov is an in-depth study in psychological survival in a nightmarish police state — Stalin’s Russia, circa 1948-1953. The untangling of this Gordian knot of conspiracies and plots is the convincing achievement of the authors of this suspenseful, historical drama. They accomplished an almost inscrutable task, the successful unraveling of Joseph Stalin’s (photo, left) byzantine, evil plot against the Jewish doctors.
The problem for the protagonists and antagonists in this Stalinist nightmare is that of survival. The moral conundrum is how to survive without denouncing other innocent persons, as this Kafkaesque drama unfolds. And yet, perceived survival, or at least the delaying as long as possible of the loss of life or limb by the avoidance of physical torture, could only be attained at the expense of denouncing and putting in jeopardy the lives of others. And, what is one to confess to without divining what was being formulated in Stalin’s monstrous mind?
Thankfully for some, there was the critical issue of timing, the clock was ticking rapidly, and time was running out. Some of the victims beat the clock and survived; others did not and perished.
Jewish Bolsheviks and the Anti-Cosmopolitanism Campaign
During the period 1945 to 1947, overt anti-Semitism was suppressed in the USSR. Why? Firstly, 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. Secondly, many of the old Bolsheviks were Jewish, Leon Trotsky, Lev Kamenev, Gregory Zinoviev, Lazar Kaganovich, Maxim Litvinov, Yakov Sverdlov, Polina Zhemchuzhina (the wife of Molotov), etc. Jewish communists, such as the legendary founder of the Cheka, Felix Dzerzhinsky, and his successors, 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.
But then in the fall of 1948 Golda Meir visited the Soviet Union. Russian Jews had been too festive, too enthusiastic, and had shown too much admiration for the Israeli Prime Minister! The U.S. and Israel also seemed to be developing closer ties of friendship and cooperation. Many Jews in Russia had families and acquaintances in the U.S. and the West. And then there was the matter of the Jewish Antifascist Committee (JAC). Many of its “cosmopolitan” members had traveled extensively outside the USSR, and the vozhd (“the great leader”) had become suspicious of this as well!
So by 1948, Stalin had become convinced that Israel and Jewish internationalists, including Russian Jews, were a threat to the Soviet State. He cautiously began his anti-cosmopolitanism campaign that soon developed a life of its own in Mother Russia, the land of pogroms and antisemitism.
Suddenly, all Jews were potential traitors, enemies of the Soviet state, spies in the service of American and British Intelligence. On Stalin’s direct order Solomon Mikhoels (photo, left), leader of the JAC, was assassinated in Minsk in January 1948, and by August 12, 1952 virtually all of the members of JAC had been arrested and shot.
As Talleyrand so well stated, treason is only a matter of timing. And 1948 was that pivotal year, not only for the formulation of the Soviet Jewish question, but also for Stalin’s belief that the old guard in the MGB (i.e., the feared Soviet repressive security organ and precursor to the KGB) and its Minister, Viktor S. Abakumov, could no longer be trusted.
The Soviet Security Organs — “Waiters in White Gloves, Ordinary Nincompoops”!
Viktor Abakumov, the former head of SMERSH (i.e., Russian acronym for “Death to Spies”; the counterintelligence, death-squad units) during World War II, knew too much. He was, like his predecessors, Nikolai Yezhov and Genrikh Yagoda, simply expendable now. He was arrested and charged with being a sympathizer and protector of the nonexistent, criminal Jewish underground — even though, just recently, Abakumov had arrested and wiped out the Jewish Antifascist Committee!
The once feared Abakumov (photo, right) was thrown unceremoniously in the pot, linked to the Jewish Doctors’ Plot, and likewise accused of working for the American and British intelligence services!
For good measure, names of former communist officials previously involved in the "Leningrad Affair” were added to the developing plan and linked to the Jewish Doctors’ Plot as well. These party officials had already been arrested in 1949 and then executed in 1950, simply because they had had the temerity of staging a trade fair in Leningrad without Stalin’s permission!
Stalin believed that there was a malaise in Russia. The citizens of the USSR were becoming stagnant. The Russian people had been overcome with “thoughtlessness,” losing sight of “wreckers” and failing to “unmask the enemies of the people” living in their midst. Even the members of the Politburo, his close inner circle, “could no longer see the enemy in front of their noses.” Vyacheslav Molotov, Lavrenti Beria, Georgy Malenkov, Nikita Khrushchev, and Anastas Mikoyan — all had been dressed down at one time or another. Stalin even rhetorically asked them, the supposed “collective leadership”: “When I am gone, the capitalists will drown you like blind kittens…what would you do without me? The country will perish because you do not know how to recognize enemies."
For their part, the MGB security officers had become merely “waiters in white gloves.” And when the interrogations seemed to be going too slow, Stalin harangued the MGB Minister, Semyon Ignatiev (who had succeeded Abakumov) that the MGB “see nothing beyond their noses,” and yelled, “If you want to be Chekists, take off your gloves. You are degenerating into ordinary nincompoops!” Stalin demanded and insisted that torture be used to obtain the necessary confessions. He sensed the clock was ticking, and that he needed results quickly.
"Criminal (Jewish) Doctors...Wreckers," and “Medical Saboteurs”
The trigger for the inception of the master plan against the Jewish physicians was the death on August 31, 1948 of A. A. Zhdanov (photo, below) from a heart attack. Stalin had already sacked and secretly disgraced Zhdanov, a leading member of the Politburo and Minister of Culture and the Arts. Zhdanov had fallen from grace because his son, Yuri Zhdanov, a young scientist, had openly criticized the Soviet geneticist, Trofim D. Lysenko, who was then in high favor with Stalin. The vozhd was still hoping that the charlatan Lysenko would deliver on his promise to produce a large harvest of the genetically engineered “potato-tomato” crop that would revolutionize Soviet agriculture.
Unhappily for Zhdanov’s doctors, Dr. Lidia Timashuk, an MGB operative and EKG specialist in the Kremlin hospital, the Lechsanupra, wrote letters of denunciation to Stalin, alleging that Zhdanov’s medical treatment was criminal. The Kremlin doctors led by Professor P. Yegorov were implicated in the letter. These physicians, as it turned out, were not Jewish but Russians, part of the Soviet nomeklatura, which even included Stalin’s personal physician, Professor V. N. Vinogradov.
But fortune had not smiled on the old venerable physician. Recently, Professor Vinogradov had had the temerity to recommend to Stalin that he should step down as head of government because of his failing health and high blood pressure, a grave mistake!
As the accusations mounted and the nightmare unfolded, imaginary plots were uncovered (under torture, of course) and members of the Soviet intelligentsia were arrested. Gradually the denunciations came to include the necessary Jewish physicians. Prestigious doctors, such as Sophia Karpai and Yakov G. Etinger, the latter the most eminent physician in Russia, were arrested. Dr. Etinger, both Jewish and outspoken, became the obvious and necessary link in the plan. But unfortunately for Stalin, Dr. Etinger died a few weeks later during interrogation and torture. His confession was incomplete and not credible.
Another Jewish physician had to be found. Dr. Sophia Karpai, a young cardiologist, became the next link in the plan, but the seemingly delicate, EKG specialist turned out to be a hard nut to crack. Incidentally, Dr. Karpai was the only doctor in this horrible nightmare who did not crack, even under intensive, prolonged, physical torture. (The other notable exception was Viktor Abakumov, who knew first hand that his confession would not help him.) Her failure to admit complicity in the nonexistent plot gave many doctors the time they needed to survive the ordeal.
Nevertheless, as Stalin’s diabolical plan evolved, all through the period of July 1951 through December 1952, more and more people were caught in the net of denunciations in the Doctors’ plot. And Stalin was careful to unwrap his master plan circumspectly, fostering the illusion of a slow, piece-by-piece collection of evidence being uncovered by the security police (MGB).
A “Pygmy” Terrorist at the Helm
Stalin also appeared to have conceptualized the full dimensions of his plan after the arrest of the prominent Jewish physician in 1951, which conveniently connected Dr. Etinger back in time, however tenuously, to both the Zhdanov (1948) and the Shchervakov (1945) cases.
A. S. Shchervakov was a party member who had died of a heart attack during the World War II Soviet Victory celebration in 1945. Nevertheless, his case provided another necessary link to the plot of the “medical saboteurs.”
Past closed cases, then, were no obstacle, and even the doctors who ministered to Maxim Gorky and his son were again denounced for having poisoned them in the 1930s. Stalin was trying to tell the people “there was a pattern to this deviltry,” going back in time and extending into the future!
The torture and death of Dr. Etinger coincided with Abakumov’s removal from office and arrest on July 12, 1951. The secret letter of the Central Committee (zakrytoe pismo) in acceptance of Stalin's Doctors’ Plot was a direct result of the MGB operative Mikhail D. Ryumin’s letter of July 2 denouncing his boss Viktor Abakumov and the rest of the Jewish leadership in the MGB.
Mikhail D. Ryumin (photo, right) was a short, balding man with a paunch, who did not mind getting his hands dirty or bloody during interrogations. He had preserved his job in the MGB (where he was about to be fired for corruption and incompetence) by denouncing Abakumov. By that denunciation, Ryumin had provided Stalin with the evidence the vozhd needed to proceed with his master conspiracy plan.
Following Abakumov's arrest, Ryumin quickly became Deputy Minister of the MGB and Head of the Investigative Unit. But Stalin was no fool, and recognized Ryumin for what he really was, calling him “pygmy.” Nevertheless, from now on it would be MGB Deputy Minister Ryumin, who would be uncovering plots and extracting the necessary confessions, until he too (near the end of the conspiracy) was replaced by S. A. Goglidze, and both men eventually executed.
A Multi-Dimensional Conspiracy Conceived in Stalin’s Mind
One could see the workings of Stalin’s mind. Shortly after the death of Georgi Dimitrov, the communist leader of Bulgaria, Stalin was vacationing at Sochi, his favorite resort in the Black Sea. It was the winter of 1949 and he had a conversation with his friend, Minister of Health Security Yakov Smirnov. Stalin was in an unusually jovial mood showing his citrus fruit trees, when suddenly, he turned to Smirnov and said, “Isn’t it strange, the same doctors treated Zhdanov and Dimitrov, and they both died?” Smirnov was shaken and tried to defend the doctors.
Not long after this incident, Minister Smirnov was sacked and arrested, enmeshed in the plot. But it is instructive of the workings of Stalin’s mind that he was pondering the question of “medical sabotage” and “medical wrecking,” two full years ahead of complete conceptualization. He needed time, though, to build his case, while remaining in the background, just as he did in the 1930s during the kangaroo trials. The working of his hands could not be seen until the very end.
The plot was not only multi-dimensional in time but also in space. Vertically it now extended up the chain of command to implicate the head of the MGB, Victor Abakumov, his deputies, and a slate of Jewish MGB officers, as well as the head of the Directorate of Kremlin Guards, Lieutenant General Nicolai S. Vlasik, who had been Stalin’s loyal, longtime bodyguard. It extended back in time to include the already executed members of the "Leningrad Affair," A.A. Kuznetsov and N. A. Voznesensky (both shot in 1950). Horizontally, the plot expanded to include the imaginary Jewish underground, Jewish bourgeois nationalists, the medical wreckers, all controlled by the proverbial American and British intelligence services. And it was still expanding.
Ryumin’s torture was yielding results. Dr. Yegorov, the Kremlin doctor and head of the Lechsanupra, was said to have sold out to Kuznetsov for a mess of pottage. Jews were said to have ”wormed themselves into the MGB,” and Stalin told Ryumin’s new boss, MGB Minister Semyon D. Ignatiev (photo, left), that he “no longer trusted the old guard in the MGB.” In other words more arrests were needed, the security organs needed to be further purged.
The Plot to Blow Up the Kremlin
To go from the strange to the bizarre, the MGB further uncovered the “Plan of the Internal Blow,” an enemy plan confessed to by a newly arrived prisoner named Varfolomeyev. The prisoner was a White Russian arrested in China as a spy and brought to Moscow for interrogation at Lefortovo prison, the same prison where many of the doctors and MGB personnel were held.
Varfolomeyev claimed to be part of a plot hatched by American intelligence to blow up the Kremlin and the Soviet leadership. MGB interrogators did not believe him; time, people, and places did not add up. The MGB concluded that Varfolomeyev’s side plot was implausible and contrived. But Stalin thought otherwise; it could be a useful addition to the Jewish conspiracy. He sternly told the MGB interrogators, “it was the job of the MGB to make it believable,” and that the enemy plot needed to be weaved into the tapestry of the Doctors’ Plot.
Stalin had to connect the dots and weave the threads is his own mind, and the MGB still had to do more of his bidding before he could reveal it to the Russian people. More months of denunciations and confessions followed. But by December of 1952 and January of 1953, Stalin was ready to act, and he ordered the arrest of the remaining doctors, mostly Jewish physicians, only tenuously connected to the alleged plot. Stalin called them “criminals in white coats.” The vozhd ordered the MGB to “beat them with death blows,” until they confessed of being part of his invented, world Jewish conspiracy.
Members of the Politburo were not privy to all of Stalin’s intentions. He told an assistant, “If this matter is successful, I myself will tell them.” And so the alleged Jewish Doctors’ Plot (dyelo vrachey) was not revealed to the Politburo until November of 1952, and not to Russia and the rest of the world until January 1953, when it was announced in Pravda.
Conspiracies and Kangaroo Court Trials that Failed to Materialize
The trial against Viktor Abakumov and the MGB “nincompoops” (most of them, but not all of them, Jewish) was to take place in closed session, while the doctors’ were to be used in open show trials to make the “thoughtless” nation aware of the vast conspiracy that was threatening Mother Russia. The trials were planned for late March 1953.
What was this final conspiracy? A vast plot by a Jewish underground network directed by the American and British intelligence services to annihilate the Kremlin leaders, including Comrade Georgy Malenkov (photo, left with Stalin From Life Magazine, 1953); Stalin, the vozhd himself; Stalin's son, Vasili; and Stalin's daughter. Svetlana — and ultimately overthrow the Soviet government.
How this vast conspiracy was invented by Stalin and unraveled by the authors is the subject of this book. I don’t want to reveal more of the fine interconnecting details of the plot because I don’t want to spoil it by unwrapping the diabolical enigma contained within the dark recesses of Stalin’s multi-dimensional mind. Suffice to say, the Jewish Doctors’ Plot was an invention concocted by Stalin, and directed not only against the Jewish physicians but also against the Russian nation — for Stalin’s own ulterior and political motives. It was not just anti-Semitism and paranoia. Stalin had wanted to unleash a new reign of terror in Russia and, perhaps, even commence World War III before his own health failed him.
Let us only say that Stalin had several conspiratorial threads and objectives going on simultaneously in his own mind. Only he was privy to how and when they would become interconnected in his master plan. These threads were separated in space and time, but they were meant to converge when the time to act was right. And then heads would begin to roll, and a new holocaust would engulf Russia and the world.
According to Dmitri Volkogonov in Stalin—Triumph and Tragedy (1991), the night before Stalin became ill, he inquired from Lavrenti Beria (photo, below) about the status of the case against the doctors and specifically about the interrogation of Professor Vinogradov. Beria responded, "Apart from his other unfavorable qualities, the professor has a long tongue. He has told one of the doctors in his clinic that Comrade Stalin has already had several dangerous hypertonic episodes."
Stalin responded, "Right, what do you propose to do now? Have the doctors confessed? Tell Ignatiev [Minister of the MGB security organs] that if he doesn't get full confessions out of them, we'll reduce his height by a head." Beria reassured Stalin, "They'll confess. With the help of Timashuk and other patriots, we'll complete the investigation and come to you for permission to arrange a public trial." "Arrange it," Stalin, ordered. And so, to the last moments of his conscious life, Stalin was thinking of completing his sinister master plan. Only his death averted the unfolding catastrophe.
Why Unleash a Soviet Jewish Holocaust in 1953?
Stalin wanted not only to eliminate potential political opponents, but more grandiosely, to replicate the times of the great purges and the Red Terror, the terrible days of the 1930s. He needed to arouse the stagnant Soviet nation to action, the surveillance, and the terror, the “unmasking “of ”wreckers, spies, and saboteurs,” while exercising further his already absolute power. Stalin abided by the old revolutionary precept of Nikolai Chernyshevsky, subscribed to by Lenin himself: The worse the conditions of the people, the better. And illegitimate power can only be preserved in a climate of such fear and terror, in an atmosphere of perpetual crisis in which an autocrat must exert his iron hand of order and eliminate the real or imagined “enemies of the people.”
Stalin was a master at creating such terrible conditions for the exertion, potentiation, and perpetuation of power. Fortunately for some of the doctors, the world, and the Russian people (although most of them did not appreciate it then) — it was the vozhd, who had run out of time! He was, after all, mortal. In the end, only Stalin’s death on March 5, 1953 saved the doctors, the Jews, and possibly the world from an impending holocaust — and even a third World War!
After Stalin’s death, Lavrenti Beria quickly (but briefly, as it turned out) took over the reins of Soviet power. He released the imprisoned doctors and MGB officers, who were been prepared for the trials (that never took place). The doctors were fully exonerated. Beria was embarking on a liberalization program, when in June 26, 1953 he was suddenly arrested (along with his close security personnel) and subsequently executed on December 23, 1953. Beria could not be trusted by the collective leadership. Eventually, Nikita Khrushchev emerged as the leader, and in 1956 after the 20th Communist Party Congress secret speech, he began his de-Stalinization program and admitted that the Doctors' Plot had been wholly and fully contrived by Stalin.
I highly recommend this book for history buffs, Soviet scholars, and avid readers of Stalin and his time, as well as students and academicians in the field of the social and biological sciences. Doctors, nurses, and health personnel will be mesmerized with this book and pleased with the incorporation of the secret document entitled “The History of the illness of J. V. Stalin.” This bonus material, summarized in the penultimate chapter, describes the clinical course of Stalin’s final illness and death (March 1-5, 1953). As a final treat, this document adds forensic evidence to the lasting suspicion that Stalin was poisoned by members of his own inner circle, who also feared for their own lives.
The only detractions in this otherwise highly recommended book is that, at times, it is slightly repetitive, and although it is well-annotated and contains a nice index, glossary, and chronology, it has no illustrations — for which I have, regrettably, given it 4 stars rather than 5 in the Amazon Book Review section. The illustrations in this review are my own. Additionally, I have found that no book today is publishable without an obligatory claim to political "fairness," and so we find the following statements irksome and misplaced in an otherwise unblemished and moral book:
"While Jews in the Soviet Union were accused en masse of being 'a spying nation,' in the United States, Ethel, who was innocent, and Julius Rosenberg, who was guilty, were in prison sentenced to death for betraying the United States to the Soviets. As McCarthyism spread recklessly throughout American society, confusing authentic patriotism with demagoguery..."
These statements should have been omitted as misleading and as to tending to give moral equivalence to the plight of the Jews in both countries, a minor slip up, but needed to be pointed out. As the authors demonstrated, there was no comparison between the evil system of the USSR under Stalin and the American Republic under Dwight D. Eisenhower.
But these are minor detractions, and I again recommend the thoughtful readers of this website to hunt for this treasure and read it!
Reviewed by Dr. Miguel Faria
Dr. Miguel A. Faria, Jr. is a former Clinical Professor of Surgery (Neurosurgery, ret.) and Adjunct Professor of Medical History (ret.) Mercer University School of Medicine; Former member Editorial Board of Surgical Neurology (2004-2010); Recipient of the Americanism Medal from the Nathaniel Macon Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) 1998; Ex member of the Injury Research Grant Review Committee of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) 2002-05; Founder and Editor-in-Chief of the Medical Sentinel (1996-2002); Editor Emeritus, the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS); Author, Vandals at the Gates of Medicine (1995), Medical Warrior: Fighting Corporate Socialized Medicine (1997), and Cuba in Revolution: Escape From a Lost Paradise (2002).
A shorter and unillustrated version of this review also appeared on Amazon.com. Moreover, the photographs used to illustrate this longer, exclusive essay for Hacienda Publishing, came from a variety of sources and do not necessarily appear in Brent's and Naumov's book, Stalin’s Last Crime.
This article was featured in RealClearHistory.com on March 11, 2013.
Copyright ©2011 Miguel A. Faria, Jr., M.D.