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Stalin's Last Crime: The Plot Against the Jewish Doctors, 1948-1953

Stalin's Last Crime: The Plot Against the Jewish Doctors, 1948-1953

by Jonathan Brent

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A new investigation, based on previously unseen KGB documents, reveals the startling truth behind Stalin's last great conspiracy.

On January 13, 1953, a stunned world learned that a vast conspiracy had been unmasked among Jewish doctors in the USSR to murder Kremlin leaders. Mass arrests quickly followed. The Doctors' Plot, as this


A new investigation, based on previously unseen KGB documents, reveals the startling truth behind Stalin's last great conspiracy.

On January 13, 1953, a stunned world learned that a vast conspiracy had been unmasked among Jewish doctors in the USSR to murder Kremlin leaders. Mass arrests quickly followed. The Doctors' Plot, as this alleged scheme came to be called, was Stalin's last crime.

In the fifty years since Stalin's death many myths have grown up about the Doctors' Plot. Did Stalin himself invent the conspiracy against the Jewish doctors or was it engineered by subordinates who wished to eliminate Kremlin rivals? Did Stalin intend a purge of all Jews from Moscow, Leningrad, and other major cities, which might lead to a Soviet Holocaust? How was this plot related to the cold war then dividing Europe, and the hot war in Korea? Finally, was the Doctors' Plot connected with Stalin's fortuitous death?

Brent and Naumov have explored an astounding arra of previously unknown, top-secret documents from the KGB, the presidential archives, and other state and party archives in order to probe the mechanism of on of Stalin's greatest intrigues — and to tell for the first time the incredible full story of the Doctors' Plot.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Though the Great Terror of the late 1930s is widely viewed as the height of Stalin's purges, the number of arrests actually peaked in the early 1950s, and Stalin was planning hundreds of thousands more on the eve of his death in 1953. These arrests were spurred by the "doctors' plot," a supposed conspiracy among Jewish doctors to kill members of the government and destroy the U.S.S.R. at the behest of the Americans. Brent, the editorial director of Yale University Press, and Naumov, executive secretary of Russia's Presidential Commission for the Rehabilitation of Repressed Persons, trace how Stalin himself put together false evidence of the "doctors' plot," which was far more than a simple exercise in anti-Semitism and paranoid senility. According to the authors, Stalin intended to use the "doctors' plot" to accomplish several goals: to purge his Ministry of Security and upper ranks of government; to defuse the potential threat posed by Soviet Jews, many of whom had ties to the U.S. and the new state of Israel; and to provide fuel for an armed conflict with the U.S. Brent and Naumov provide a riveting view of Stalin's modus operandi: over the course of several years, he patiently and meticulously gathered forced confessions that would weave together unrelated events-the death of a top Party official here, the arrest of a Zionist doctor there-into a story of massive conspiracy. One of the reasons for his great care, the book contends, is that the popular mood had subtly shifted in the postwar era; revolutionary fervor had died down, there was a desire for legal legitimacy and, in contrast to their 1930s counterparts, top bureaucrats were loath to convict without evidence. One wishes that the authors had elaborated on fascinating points like these. Their narrative is a complicated one, full of minor characters and bureaucratic missives, and, by necessity, most of this narrowly focused book is taken up with close readings of documents. (Apr.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
These two publications deal with similar topics but have different areas of focus. In Stalin's Last Crime, Brent, editorial director of Yale University Press, which publishes the distinguished "Annals of Communism" series, and Naumov, executive secretary of the Presidential Commission for the Rehabilitation of Repressed Persons in Moscow, have researched materials previously buried in KGB archives to make the startling but long-suspected assertion that Stalin was poisoned by Politburo members and allowed to die. Their focus is the "doctors' plot" that Stalin concocted to implicate Jewish doctors in the deaths of two top Kremlin leaders in 1945 and 1948. These incidents were tangled together with his paranoid suspicions that the Jews and the Americans were planning to invade Russia (and nuke Moscow), which he used as a cover to purge the MGB (precursor to the KGB). As Stalin fabricated the plot, he had concentration camps built to hold the Jews of Moscow and then all of Russia, and he planned to detain or deport the entire Jewish population. In contrast, Lustiger's Stalin and the Jews begins with the repression of the Jews from the time of Catherine II (the Great) through the tsars of the 19th century to the known anti-Semitism of Nicholas II as background for its own account of the "doctors plot "and the plight of the Jews in Soviet Russia. The Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAFC) was established in 1942 to muster Jewish support for the war against Hitler's Germany. But its remarkable success was not enough to convince Stalin, who saw demons in the organization's leaders and, with forced confessions, false evidence, and compliant underlings, had the JAFC leadership murdered after a secret mock trial. Both books are well researched and complement each other. But while Brent and Naumov do a great deal of guessing, asserting what Stalin probably did, Lustiger-a survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald and an independent publisher and writer-is less interpretive. Both books are recommended for all libraries with Russian history collections.-Harry Willems, Southeast Kansas Lib. Syst., Iola Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A worthy, attention-getting study revealing Stalin’s plans to revive state terror after WWII, this time with Soviet Jews as the target and perhaps a war with the US on the horizon. The pretext for the new pogrom, write Yale University Press editor Brent and Russian historian Naumov, was the 1948 death of Communist Party apparatchik A.A. Zhdanov, to all appearances the victim of a bad heart and a bad lifestyle. The Stalin government alleged, however, that Zhdanov was the victim of a widespread conspiracy on the part of Jewish doctors to destroy the Kremlin leadership one party boss at a time. "Fantastic stories circulated," write Brent and Naumov, "that Jewish doctors were poisoning Russian children, injecting them with diphtheria, and killing newborn infants in maternity hospitals." Stalin himself charged that the "Jewish doctors" were part of a larger plot organized by the capitalist powers to invade the Soviet Union, and he apparently planned a retaliatory war that in at least one scenario would have brought Soviet troops to America’s West Coast. Over the next few years, hundreds of doctors were arrested and imprisoned, most of the members of Jewish organizations such as the wartime Jewish Antifascist Committee were executed, and plans were laid to create a special gulag for Jews. When Stalin died in 1953--among the most headline-making elements here is the suggestion that he was slowly poisoned by his lieutenant, Beria--the notion of a Jewish plot against the state was quietly dismissed and the doctors freed. That Stalin was using the affair as an excuse to reinstate terror as a political instrument is made clear, the authors suggest, by the fact that not only Jews were specifictargets, but also elements of the Kremlin leadership, members of the state security apparatus, and indeed anyone who looked sideways at the Great Man in his last days. More evidence for the essential evil of the Stalin regime, joining such recent studies as Stéphane Courtois’s Black Book of Communism (1999) and Anne Applebaum’s Gulag (p. 196).

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Harper Perennial
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Sales rank:
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5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.94(d)

Read an Excerpt

Stalin's Last Crime
The Plot Against the Jewish Doctors, 1948-1953

Chapter One

The Untimely Death Of Comrade Zhdano

Moscow, September 6, 1948

You went your glorious way, comrade Zhdanov
Leaving eternal footsteps behind

-- Aleksander Zharov, Pravda, Sept.1, 1948

With what biting sarcasm he threatened all the old enemies, all those
who would poison young Soviet literature with their pernicious
poison! With what annihilating scorn and hatred he exposed
the mercenary bourgeois literature of the West today, that
corrupts the minds of readers, that aids reaction, that served
fascism once in no small way and now serves the lackeyism of the
imperialists -- the instigators of a new war!

-- Mikhail Sholokhov, Pravda, Sept.2, 1948

The workers of the entire world mourn the untimely death of com. A. A. Zhdanov

-- Izvestia, Sept.3, 1948

On August 31, 1948, at about 4 o'clock in the afternoon, Andrei Aleksandrovich Zhdanov, a powerful member of Stalin's Politburo, "unexpectedly" died in Valdai, a health resort for members of the Soviet political elite, about two and a half hours by car to the north and west of Moscow, on the road to Leningrad. Zhdanov was fifty-two years old. His death provoked a public outpouring of grief throughout the Communist world. Condolences were published over many days. Mao Zedong from China and Georgi Dimitrov, the new president of Bulgaria, expressed their sorrow, as did the leaders of Communist parties of Great Britain, France, and Austria, as well as all the Soviet satellites. His body was borne on a gun carriage through Red Square to the Great Hall that housed the Politburo, followed by a procession of dignitaries and mourners, with Stalin in the lead. Eulogies by Molotov and other Politburo leaders were declaimed in Red Square to a sea of mourners. Poems were dedicated to his eternal memory. Mikhail Sholokhov and other noted writers, along with members of the cultural elite, referred to the "great heart" and the "crystal bright mind" of this "true son of the Motherland and the party." It was said at the time that no Kremlin leader had been buried with such public attention since Sergei Kirov, who died in 1934.

A. A. Zhdanov had been the former, brutal boss of the Leningrad party and the architect of Soviet postwar ideology and cultural policy. It was he who gave the keynote speech at the 1934 International Writers' Congress, where he had invoked Stalin's dictum that writers were the "engineers of human souls." In 1946 Zhdanov had issued the infamous "report" on literature and ideology that included, among other things, harsh criticism of the poetry of A. A. Akhmatova, and led to her banishment from the Writers' Union. Akhmatova, Zhdanov wrote, was "A nun or a whore -- or rather both a nun and a whore who combines harlotry with prayer." He described her poetry as "utterly remote from the people ... What can there be in common between this poetry and the interests of our people and State? Nothing whatsoever." Another time he had rebuked Shostakovich for not writing music the average Soviet worker could hum. Zhdanov's report unleashed what came to be termed the "Zhdanovshchina," which terrorized Soviet arts and letters for a decade until the Khrushchev "Thaw."

After the Second World War Zhdanov had been represented as a hero of the siege of Leningrad; he had given his life to the "interests of the State." At the time of his death he was considered by many to have been the most powerful member of the Soviet government after Stalin. He had defended Stalin and Stalinism all his life and had earned the respect of the people as well as Stalin's confidence. In September 1947 Stalin entrusted Zhdanov, not Molotov, with delivering the keynote speech at the Szklarska Poreba conference in Poland that set out the basic terms of Stalin's Cold War vision to leaders of the satellite countries and foreign Communist parties. Zhdanov depicted the postwar world as "irrevocably divided into two hostile camps." American expansionism, he charged, was comparable to that of the fascist states of the 1930s.

More than just professional or political sympathy drew Stalin and Zhdanov together. Stalin was said to have personally preferred him because Zhdanov was educated and more literate than most of the other Politburo leaders. Zhdanov enjoyed playing the piano at Stalin's dacha and discussing literature with Gorky. In the spring of 1949 his son, Yuri, married Stalin's daughter, vetlana Alliluyeva, something that was possibly more a sign of political realities than of personal choice.

But in early July 1948 Zhdanov had fainted on the way to his office in Old Square near the Kremlin, returning from a Politburo meeting held in Stalin's "nearby" dacha the Blizhnyaya. Though just over fifty, he had had a bad heart for some time, the result of years of overwork, drinking, and hypertension. Earlier that spring Stalin had given him other reasons to be anxious. In April, only nine months since Zhdanov's historic speech at Szklarska Poreba, Stalin had reacted very negatively to the role Zhdanov's son, Yuri, had played in discussing the botanist T.D. Lysenko at a meeting held under the auspices of the Central Committee, saying that those responsible for this provocation should be punished in "exemplary "fashion. Although not formally dismissed from the posts of Secretary of Ideology of the Communist Party and head of the Leningrad party, Zhdanov knew his position in the party was now at risk and his life might also be in jeopardy. Stalin's suggestion that he recover in Valdai had carried with it the same solicitude that had accompanied the demotion of other Kremlin leaders since the thirties. The head of the Kremlin Hospital signed the medical certificate authorizing Zhdanov's leave and he was sent to Valdai on July 13. "Strict bed rest" was ordered for him to safeguard his health, but its other purpose, as Zhdanov might have guessed, would have been to keep him out of active political life.

On September 6, 1948, one week after Zhdanov "went his glorious way," an emergency session of experts was convened in the Kremlin Hospital to investigate whether the doctors who treated him in Valdai had misdiagnosed Zhdanov's illness and had provided criminally negligent treatment. The Kremlin Hospital doctor responsible for the last EKGs of Zhdanov's heart had sent a secret letter accusing the doctors of this negligence to Lieutenant General Nikolai Vlasik, the Head of the Kremlin Bodyguards, known as the Okhrana. In her letter of August 29, 1948 -- two days before Zhdanov's death -- Lidia F.Timashuk asserted that the attending doctors had underestimated the "unquestionably grave condition of comrade Zhdanov." Soon after his death this evaluation turned into an accusation of outright murder.

For some fifty years this accusation has been viewed as the essential element in the instigation of the Doctors' Plot, and for fifty years, ever since the accusation against the doctors was dismissed by the Soviet government after Stalin's death, it has been widely assumed to have been a false charge, stemming from a premeditated plan to launch a conspiracy against the doctors ...

Stalin's Last Crime
The Plot Against the Jewish Doctors, 1948-1953
. Copyright © by Jonathan Brent. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Jonathan Brent, editorial director of Yale University Press and founder of its distinguished Annals of Communism series, holds a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and is writing a biography of the Soviet Jewish writer Isaac Babel.

Vladimir P. Naumov, a professor of history, has been executive secretary of the Presidential Commission for the Rehabilitation of Repressed Persons in Moscow since its inception under former president Mikhail Gorbachev.

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