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Stalin - The Doctor's Plot

The 5 months between the Nineteenth Congress in October 1952 and Stalin's death in March 1953 witnessed the first phase of a new purge which would certainly have attained large proportions and destroyed thousands of suspected but innocent persons if Stalin had remained alive. In many respects the new purge was patterned on the memorable operation of the late 1930's; in particular, false "confessions" had already been introduced as a step toward condemnation and execution.

It was apparent that there was a new and horrible dementia in Stalin's mind, a return of the plot psychosis which had caused him to ravage Russia during the years of the thirties. What was brewing within the secret walls of the Kremlin, clearly, was a new massacre of the Streltzi a blood purge of the men standing closest to Stalin, similar to that of Peter the Great or to the demoniac slaughter in which Ivan the Terrible struck off the heads of the boyars of Novgorod and of thousands of men who had been his firmest supporters.

Stalin's second Great Terror probably had motivations similar to the first. From 1936 to 1939, Stalin blotted out the memory of other Old Bolsheviks, laying a convenient foundation for his own "cult of personality." Stalin's purges left behind few key players from the October 1917 events and the unfolding history of Bolshevik rule thereafter. The slate was clean for a new history of Soviet communism. A second round of Terror would erase Stalin's collaborators in the Great Patriotic War, eliminating all who might recall a narrative other than the wise leadership of the Great Stalin.

The main novelty of the new purge was the fact that it was coupled with an anti-Semitic drive of tremendous scope. In the fall of 1944 at a meeting in the Kremlin, there was talk about the "Jewish problem" and calls for "increased vigilance", after which the appointment of Jews to high positions became difficult. Stalin's anti-Semitic orientation had been strengthened when postwar developments proved the sympathy of many Soviet Jews with the pro-Western culture and way of life; the scope of this sentiment had become manifest when the first envoy of the new State of Israel arrived in Moscow.

Golda Meir's arrival in the Metropole Hotel had touched off unprecedented manifestations. Hundreds if not thousands of Jews, not only from Moscow but from other Russian cities, came to the Metropole to pay their respects. Many came, actually, to inquire about emigrating to Israel. Some days there were long queues of people outside the temporary Israeli offices, in a Metropole Hotel suite.

The desire of thousands of Soviet Jews to emigrate from "Socialist" Russia to a "capitalist" country contradicted the claim of freedom for nationalities in the Soviet Union and of the satisfaction of Soviet citizens with the prevailing system.

As a measure of repression, Jewish professors were quietly being dropped from their university posts. Many Jewish writers, including a number who long since had adopted Russian names, found that editors no longer desired their contributions, and critical articles appeared in the press, attacking persons who hid their true identity under pen names and giving lists of such Jewish writers.

A group of Yiddish writers, including Feffer and Markish, was tried in camera in the summer of 1952. On trial with them were Lena Stern, member of the Soviet Academy of Science and Stalin Prize recipient for her research in biochemistry, and Solomon A. Lozovsky, former Deputy Foreign Minister and former chief of the Soviet Information Bureau (known to foreign correspondents in Kuibyshev during the war as the Kremlin's voice). On August 12, 1952, all defendants but Lena Stern, were executed. Ilya Ehrenburg, it is rumored, was the finger man in the case.

In mid-January 1953 the Soviet government announced the discovery of a plot of physicians against the leaders of the Communist party ; almost all of the physicians involved were Jews. The case of the "doctors' plot' was concocted on Stalin's orders in the winter of 1952-53 by the then Minister of State Security, S.D.Ignatiev, and his deputy, Ryumin. Several dozen of the leading doctors in Moscow were arrested [the number crucially mentioned was 16], headed by the top specialists of the Kremlin hospital who treated Stalin and all the Soviet chieftains. They were officially charged with using improper medical techniques in order to murder their patients. Specifically, they were accused of having poisoned Andrei A. Zhdanov and Alexander S. Shcherbakov and of attempting to poison Marshals Konev, Vasilevsky, Govorov and others.

The first official announcement of the case appeared on 13 January 1953 in Pravda and Izvestia, Two of the arrested doctors, Professor M.B.Kogan and Professor Y.G.Etinger, died under torture. The stage was being set for a major trial, with the doctors and their accomplices accused of being agents of foreign intelligence (chiefly American).

At the same time, the former leaders of the MGB were accused of insufficient vigilance. This was directed first and foremost at Beria himself. Khrushchev later shed some light on the "doctors' plot." Members of the Politburo, he admitted, were shown some false "documents" yet they backed Stalin: "Shortly after the doctors were arrested, we members of the Political Bureau received protocols containing the doctors' confessions of guilt. After distributing these protocols, Stalin told us, "You are blind like young kittens; what will happen without me? The country will perish because you do not know how to recognize enemies." The case was so presented that no one could verify the facts on which the investigation was based. There was no possibility of trying to verify facts by contacting those who had made the confessions of guilt."

Once the original announcement of the plot was made there was little time lost in building on the symbolism of the purges of the 1930's. An article in the 14 January issue of Kommunist linked the "Kostm, Rajks, and Slanskys" with the "Trotskyites and Bukharinites" of the 30's and the timing suggested that all would be linked to the doctors' plot. The magazine also charged that many Party cards had been acquired by "alien enemy elements" in Leningrad. This effort to re-create a situation allegedly existent at the time of the Kirov assassination in 1934 appeared to be an obvious attempt to connect that earlier situation with the present.

Meantime, one blow after another struck a multitude of Jews all over the country. Madame Molotov (a Jewess) disappeared, banished to Siberia. The Jewish jazz band leader, Utiesov, was arrested. Mekhlis, the Jewish security administrator who had been ill for several years, died. Kaganovich (a Jew) headed the funeral procession.

Jews, however, were merely "stage effects for a new and greater Georgian Othello". It was plain as could be that this wildfire would not halt with Beria and the Jews. They were stage effects for a new and greater Georgian Othello. Every day the sickness was spreading. Each fresh batch of provincial newspapers that was brought into my office reported new scandals, new exposures, new arrests. At first the victims, almost invariably, were Jews, usually in trade organizations but also in professional posts. Doctors, lawyers, writers and actors were involved. Any Jew was a fair target.

The heaviest run of cases was in the Ukraine that old seedbed of anti-Semitism. It was also Khrushchev's territory. First came the exposure and arrests of the Jews. Then the drumfire was laid down against the Party organizations which had permitted the "corruption." The target quickly broadened out. Khrushchev was involved because his Party chiefs were being attacked. Beria was involved because of the security angle. Mikoyan was involved deeper and deeper because of the alleged scandals in the trade organizations. And Malenkov was dragged in because in one city after another his Party lieutenants were implicated.

But implicated most deeply and most dangerously of all was that dry and pedantic little man who had survived so much before, Viacheslav Molotov.

At the height of the new purge Stalin fell ill. He died on March 5, 1953. His death was officially ascribed to a brain hemorrhage; the illness and death bulletins were signed by a number of doctors and ministers.




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