by Stephen Schwartz
May 19, 2003
The Doctors’ Plot was the beginning of the Communists’ Final Solution.
Stalin’s Last Crime
The Plot Against the Jewish Doctors 1948-1953
by Jonathan Brent and Vladimir P. Naumov
HarperCollins, 399 pp., $26.95
THERE’S NOTHING NEW about the upsurge in recent months of leftist theories about Jewish conspiracies, particularly in Europe. Anti-Semitism has long been established in the history of the radical left. It reached its peak in the Soviet repression and mass murder of Jewish Bolsheviks during the 1920s and 1930s. And it found tragic repetition in the early 1950s, when Joseph Stalin launched new purges against the Communist elite both in Moscow and in Eastern Europe.
Along with the purges went a pogrom directed at a group of Soviet doctors, many of them Jewish, as a pretext for wholesale deportation, and yet another effort at mass murder, of the Jews. The episode, known as “the Doctors’ Plot,” represented the last convulsion of Stalinism in its most extreme, pathological form. This year–on the fiftieth anniversary of the Soviet dictator’s death–Jonathan Brent and Vladimir P. Naumov have published “Stalin’s Last Crime: The Plot Against the Jewish Doctors 1948-1953.” Brent is the head of Yale University Press and best known for directing the outstanding “Annals of Communism” series issued by Yale, which translates and annotates archival documents. Naumov is a leading Russian historian and former state official. Together, their scholarship makes Stalin’s homicidal, Judeophobic intentions undeniable.
The essence of “Stalin’s Last Crime” is stated in its preface: “Standing at the apex of the state, Stalin had absolute power. He had achieved this not because absolute power was conferred on him by the state, but because he succeeded in finding means to delegitimize the state itself. The Doctors’ Plot became his most powerful weapon in the last years of his life in pursuing this end; it starkly demonstrates that Stalin’s power did not derive from the state and its institutions but from the underlying system that allowed him to manipulate them.”
Brent and Naumov present a great deal of new material in “Stalin’s Last Crime,” including the suggestion that a real conspiracy brought about the end of the dictator, by putting warfarin, a colorless and tasteless rat poison, in his food. Even more remarkable is the book’s revelation of Stalin’s intention to use the Soviet Jews as a symbol of rapacious Western imperialism, espionage, and sabotage of the socialist paradise.
The extent of Stalin’s anti-Semitism had already been established by a series of recent books. Even Robert Weinberg, author of a horrifyingly misguided 1998 volume called “Stalin’s Forgotten Zion: Birobidzhan and the Making of a Soviet Jewish Homeland,” admits that Russian Jews themselves, in contrast with Western fellow travelers, considered Birobidzhan a terrible hoax. Stalin long intended to kill all the Jews.
As I have written elsewhere, he failed to do so only because of the inherent inefficiency of Soviet genocidal practices when applied to large ethnic groups such as the Jews and Ukrainians, who numbered in the millions. Stalin’s murderous policies were more effective against smaller groups, such as the Muslim Chechens and Ingushes, Balkars, and Karachais–together with the Lamaist-Buddhist Kalmyks, the Muslim Crimean Tatars, the Soviet Kurds, the Christian Volga Germans, the Soviet Greeks, and the Soviet Koreans. These entire nations and ethnic groups were rounded up and deported to Central Asia en masse during World War II. Stalin’s repression was especially devastating when applied to individuals, families, and classes leading a more atomized existence, such as Trotskyists, Communist party cadres, the so-called “kulaks,” and many more besides.
BY THE LATE 1940s, it was the Jews’ turn again. The Stalinist plot against the doctors–rather than, as was originally asserted by the Kremlin and its propagandists, a plot by the doctors–began with the mysterious death in 1948 of Andrei Zhdanov, a gruesome “junior Stalin” in his own right, who had been party boss in Leningrad during World War II and was infamous as the agent of a purge in Soviet cultural affairs. (He denounced, for instance, the great poet Anna Akhmatova as “a nun and a whore who combines harlotry with prayer.”) It’s possible that Zhdanov’s demise itself was arranged to provide a pretext for a new massacre; such theories have always surrounded the death in 1934 of an earlier Leningrad party boss, Sergei M. Kirov, whose assassination was the signal for the beginning of the great purges. And there’s even a motive: Zhdanov may have been selected for liquidation because of ideological misbehavior by his son.
In any event, his death in 1948 was followed by a denunciation, in which the Kremlin doctors were accused of deliberate malpractice. That was an explosive allegation in a Soviet system run on suspicion, but the charge eventually came to rest on Jewish doctors–and that claim was even more horrendous, drawing on the most ancient and dreadful libels against the Jewish people. Yet distrust of doctors had a long history in Soviet society; similar charges had also peppered the purges of the 1930s.
Eventually, thirty-seven prominent doctors were arrested, of whom seventeen were actually Jewish. The plot might have died there, but it was soon caught up in the agitation that followed the arrest in 1949 of the leading Soviet members of the Jewish Antifascist Committee. As described by Brent and Naumov, the trial of the committee members had an unpredictable aspect: “The government could not extract the necessary confessions from the defendants. This had never been a problem in the past.” The defiance of the Jewish accused, themselves no angels in terms of their involvement in the crimes of the party-state, nonetheless spurred Stalin’s paranoia to new extremes.
In the same period, North Korea attacked its southern neighbor, and the world held its breath, recognizing that if the United States did not defend South Korea, Stalin would be encouraged to invade Western Europe. In addition, the party leaders in Leningrad were purged and shot–suggesting that Stalin wished to repeat the massive bloodletting of the 1920s and 1930s, to be followed by a new war. Propaganda against America and Britain became even more shrill and feverish.
THE MEMBERS of the Jewish Antifascist Committee were executed in the late summer of 1952. Stalin then ordered his secret police to use “death blows” in interrogating arrested physicians. On January 13, 1953, the “Doctors’ Plot” was unveiled in the Soviet media. Three weeks later, orders were issued for the construction of new prison camps in Central Asia and the far north. As the trials of the doctors approached, rumors circulated among the Russian Jews of an impending mass deportation to Siberia. Anti-Semitism reached extraordinary degrees. “Stalin’s Last Crime” quotes a grimly humorous anecdote about a non-Jewish Russian, hounded by the secret police for allegedly hiding his Hebrew identity. The investigators sent an inquiry to the remote village, distant from Moscow, in which he had been born. The peasants there said they had never heard of the Jews before, writing back, “What is a Jew? Perhaps it’s a new kind of cow. We have practically no cows left. They all died from lack of fodder.”
And then, on March 5, 1953, Stalin himself died. By the end of the month, the prosecution of the doctors had ended and they were freed. The Russian Jews, Soviet society, and perhaps the world were saved from an inconceivable horror. Brent and Naumov comment, “Though it appears to have been the work of madness, the plot was slowly and meticulously constructed and, though it moved awkwardly like Frankenstein’s monster, it developed a life of its own.”
Excellent as “Stalin’s Last Crime” is, it lacks extended discussion of the prostituted writers and intellectuals who served the Stalinist regime in the West, including the recently deceased Herbert Aptheker, loudly mourned as a scholar of African-American history by the New York Times. These wretches flocked to acclaim the “justice” of the doctors’ arrests in the New York Daily Worker and other journals of the time. In a particularly nauseating example, the Daily Worker for several weeks advertised a New York Communist youth forum on “The Arrests in Moscow” (admission price 35 cents), with keynote speaker A.B. Magil, horribly nicknamed “the Rabbi,” whose father had edited a standard Jewish prayer book.
What Brent and Naumov do give in “Stalin’s Last Crime,” however, is an unforgettable picture of the man himself and the terror that surrounded him. How could it not have aimed, even at the end of his life, at yet another attempt to destroy more Jews? Stalin’s longtime associate in revolutionary conspiracies and in power, Vyacheslav M. Molotov, was once asked whether Stalin ever appeared in his dreams, and he answered, “Sometimes. In extraordinary situations. . . . In a destroyed city. . . . I can’t find a way out, and I meet him.”
Stephen Schwartz is a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.