The Worst of the Terror

On August 7, 1948, Yuri Zhdanov wrote a letter to Pravda, the Communist Party newspaper. Yuri Zhdanov was not only the son of A.A. Zhdanov, a Politburo member and one of Stalin’s “favorites,” he was also Stalin’s son-in-law, and a Central Committee member in his own right. Nevertheless, the letter was an admission of grave error. Yuri had criticized T.D. Lysenko, the quack botanist who believed that acquired traits can be inherited. At the time, Lysenko was Stalin’s favorite scientist, and Yuri’s apology was abject. “I unquestionably made a whole series of serious errors in my presentation at a seminar of lecturers on the controversial questions of contemporary Darwinism,” his letter began. But the confession that followed is not easy to interpret. Here is an excerpt:

Being devoted with all my heart to the Michurinist doctrine, I criticized Lysenko not because he was a Michurinist, but because he had insufficiently developed the Mi-churinist doctrine. However,…the Michurinists objectively lost from such criticism and the Mendelev-Morganists won.

By reading the letter carefully, it is just possible to understand Zhdanov’s grammar. Having put in the effort, however, the contemporary reader will invariably be disappointed. Stalinist-era scientific disputes are so obscure, Stalinist-era phraseology–“Mendelev- Morganism” and “Michurinism”–now seems so unrelated to reality, that even a well-informed reader will find it hard to understand what Zhdanov was really apologizing for, what excuses he really meant to give, and what the whole affair was really about.

But then, the “Plot Against the Jewish Doctors”–the Stalinist conspiracy of which Zhdanov’s father may have been the first victim–is like that: while it is possible to read the documents and put together a chronology, the deeper motivations and concerns of the main characters remain obscure. In part, this is so because the documentary record is still incomplete. Mostly, however, it is because the alleged conspiracy–whether by Stalin or the doctors or both–largely existed within Stalin’s mind, and Stalin’s mind remains unfathomable. At one point in Stalin’s Last Crime, Jonathan Brent and Vladimir Naumov attempt to illustrate the problem with a literary analogy. “Stalin is Godot,” they write, “absent from an empty landscape. We wait, we guess, we attribute motives, we receive incomprehensible communications, but in the end he will not reveal himself, and there is no direct way toward understanding him as a ‘person.'”

Still, Brent and Naumov have made enormous efforts to pin down what exactly happened, and to whom. They have mapped out, for the first time, the convoluted sequence of events which came to be known as the Doctor’s Plot. They are well equipped to do so. Brent is the editorial director of Yale University Press and founder of its remarkable Annals of Communism series. Naumov, a Russian historian, has been the executive secretary of the Russian presidential commission for the rehabilitation of Stalin’s victims since it was set up by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1989. With unique access to Soviet archives, they were able to add previously unknown elements to what has always been an unusually murky story. While they don’t, ultimately, provide clarity–the nature of the subject probably renders that impossible–they do reveal a great deal about the attitudes of Stalin and his inner circle along the way.

Their story begins in 1948, the year Israel declared statehood and A.A. Zhdanov, Yuri’s father, died at a clinic for the Party elite. Within days of his death, Lidia Timashuk, the doctor assigned to read Zhdanov’s electrocardiogram, bitterly complained, in a series of public and private statements, that he had not received proper treatment. Instead of being prescribed bed rest, she said, his doctors–some of whom were Jewish–had allowed him to get up and walk around. This criminal negligence, she claimed, had caused his death. The chief doctor in charge of the case dismissed Dr. Timashuk’s objections. “They believe me and not some sort of Timashuk,” he told her.

For many years, all accounts of this story have taken it for granted that Dr. Timashuk was merely a busybody, anxious to discredit her superiors and further her own career. But there may have been more to her objections than that. From the archival evidence, Brent and Naumov now conclude that in fact no one involved, not Dr. Timashuk and not the other Kremlin doctors who had attended Zhdanov either, acted in isolation or out of purely personal spite. In view of her subordinate position, Dr. Timashuk was exceptionally persistent. According to Brent and Naumov, Dr. Timashuk in fact had friends in the MGB, as the Soviet secret police were then called, egging her on.

But the Kremlin doctors, as they came to be known, had a wide range of mysterious MGB contacts too, and they may also have been acting according to higher orders. After Zhdanov’s death, they devoted a great deal of attention to an examination of his corpse –more than they had spared on his body when he was still alive–and they seemed exceptionally eager to exonerate themselves from Timashuk’s accusations, especially when we consider how scornfully they dismissed them. Brent and Naumov think it is possible, even probable, that they really did kill Zhdanov. Stalin might well have had reason to want him out of the way. Zhdanov was, by Kremlin standards, an independent thinker, a hero of wartime Leningrad, and, as it happens, a critic of Lysenko. Those around him seem to have had an inkling of what was coming. Yuri Zhdanov’s otherwise incomprehensible letter to Pravda may well have been a last-ditch attempt to save his father.

If this were the case, that means that different parts of the Soviet secret police were acting in opposition to one another, apparently in ignorance of one another’s motives. Some were trying to kill Zhdanov, others had been told to unmask his killers. As in Dostoevsky’s Devils, no one could ever be certain who was serving whose interests, who was a traitor and who a double agent. All were operating “in the dark of Stalin’s Russia,” as the authors put it, and it seems Stalin intentionally sowed this confusion. It suited him, in 1948, to let the doctors win the argument against Dr. Timashuk. When he received and read her official report of the suspicions she had, he made no reply, merely penning the words “into the archive” at the bottom.

It also suited him, in 1952, to change his mind, retrieve the report from the archive, arrest Zhdanov’s doctors for murder–and link the affair to others. Soon after Zhdanov’s death, the leaders of the Jewish Anti-fascist Committee, who had helped drum up support for the Soviet war effort in the West, had also been arrested. At about the same time, the MGB grew interested in another Jewish doctor, Yakov Etinger. Like Zhdanov and his son, Etinger had criticized the untouchable Lysenko. Worse, from Stalin’s point of view, Etinger had told friends how distressed he felt about the Soviet Union’s failure to come to the aid of Israel. “If the Soviet government does not wish to help the Israeli Jews,” one quoted him saying, “then [they should] allow us to.” At about the same time, in September 1950, the leaders of the Leningrad section of the Communist Party were arrested, tried, and executed for corruption. Nine months later, the MGB turned on itself. Its leader, Viktor Abakumov, was arrested–along with many secret police officers, most of them Jewish.

Over four years, in other words, the charges that arose over a single doubtful medical case evolved into the systematic persecution of Jewish doctors, and Soviet Jews in general. Slowly, Stalin directed his henchmen to accumulate “evidence” of the plot. He took direct interest in the details of the various cases, and personally ordered his secret policemen to make connections between them–by force if necessary. When the investigations appeared to be going too slowly for his taste, he threatened his chief of secret police: “I am not a supplicant to the MGB. I can demand and give it to you in the face if you don’t fulfill my demands.” In November 1952, he met with the leaders of the MGB and ordered them to beat all of the doctors with “death blows” until they confessed to murder.

This they did. One of the interrogators told one of the doctors that “we will beat you every day, we will tear out your arms and legs, but we will all the same learn everything down to the last detail about the life of A.A. Zhdanov, and all the truth.” The doctors confessed not only to murdering Zhdanov but to serving the cause of “Jewish nationalism” and carrying out the orders of the “Anglo-American bourgeoisie.”

Yet Stalin needed a linchpin, something to tie all of these disparate cases and unrelated accusations together into one vast conspiracy. In 1950, the MGB had uncovered one for him. They had been investigating the bizarre (and hitherto unknown) case of Ivan Varfolomeyev, a non-Jewish Russian whose parents had fled the revolution and emigrated to Japan in 1919. In 1950, Soviet agents arrested Varfolomeyev in China, and took him back to the Soviet Union. Under interrogation, he told his Soviet captors that he was an American spy with close ties to American capitalists. He also invented, probably under torture, a truly fantastical story involving the American industrialist Pierre Dupont, a handful of American generals including Omar Bradley, and an alleged plot, supposedly hatched by President Harry Truman, to blow up the Kremlin with nuclear devices fired from the window of the American embassy in Moscow.

It all sounds absurd–and so it was. One wonders, in fact, how much of the Varfolomeyev testimony anybody, including his interrogators, could possibly have believed. Yet Stalin seems to have believed it. Or if he didn’t believe it, he intended to make it believable. The facts would be molded to fit the conspiracy. “One could expect anything from the Americans,” he told doubters, “and therefore if the confessions of Varfolomeyev are unconvincing, then…the MGB must make them convincing for the trial.”

For it seems Stalin intended Varfolomeyev to star in a new round of show trials, along with the Kremlin doctors who were, by 1952, languishing in prison. At these trials, all would be revealed. The American plot to destroy Moscow; the Jewish plot to kill the Kremlin leaders; the bourgeois-Zionist goals of the conspirators; the Jewish-imperialist infiltration of the Leningrad Party committee and the secret police; all of the dots would be connected. If he had needed it, Stalin would then have had an excuse to declare war on America. Or an excuse to rid himself of his rivals. Or an excuse to threaten the hundreds of thousands of Soviet soldiers and civilians who had been exposed to the West, during World War II, and had come back more skeptical of the USSR, and potentially more critical of its leader. Or all of the above. In fact, the zenith of Stalinist terror was not, as many assume, the 1930s, but rather the late 1940s. This was the era of the “re-arrests” of former Gulag prisoners, of new investigations into “anti-Stalinist conspiracies,” and, of course, the era of raised paranoia about the United States and the new cold war. According to the archival statistics available, the camps of the Gulag contained more prisoners than ever before in 1950.

On January 13, 1953, the case finally went public. Another article in Pravda informed the Soviet people of the newly discovered “conspiracy.” Entitled “Spies and Murderers Under the Mask of Doctors,” the article said that

the bosses of the USA and their English “junior partners” know that success in ruling another country cannot be achieved by peaceful means. Feverishly preparing for a new world war, they urgently sent their spies into the rear of the USSR and into the countries of People’s Democracy….

The article went on to list only the names of the Jewish doctors who had been arrested, referring to the non-Jewish doctors as mere co-conspirators in the Zionist-American plot. Two days later, Izvestia, the Soviet government newspaper, published another article calling for greater “political vigilance”:

The spies, diversionists sent by imperialist intelligence agents into our midst or recruited from within our country from among the secret enemies of the people, the unannihilated remainder of anti-Soviet riff raff, do not come out frankly and boldly. They work “on the sly,” they masquerade in the guise of Soviet people in order to penetrate our institutions and our organizations, worming their way in to develop their traitorous work.

Across the country, Jews and physicians became the object of suspicion and hatred. Paranoia spread. In her exile village in Karaganda, Olga Adamova-Sliozberg, a Jewish Gulag survivor, heard a local post office worker claim to have opened a package from America, addressed to a Jew. Allegedly, it had been filled with typhus-bearing lice.1 Jews lost their jobs, feared arrest, stayed at home. Rumors of a new mass deportation of Jews circulated in Moscow, Leningrad, and among the millions of people still in camps or in exile.

Some circumstantial evidence suggests that Stalin planned precisely that: the mass exile of the Soviet Jews out of the major cities, and into the Far East and Central Asia where, Brent and Naumov point out, the MGB in January 1953 actually ordered the construction of new concentration camps. True, the new camps could have been intended for others. From 1948, the Soviet secret police had in fact built a whole series of “special camps” for “especially dangerous” political prisoners, mostly those arrested after the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland during the war, or during the Red Army’s march west. But if Stalin had been toying with an idea of a new mass arrest, he would certainly have been well prepared. There would have been a terrible, tragic irony if he had carried out such a plan. Only ten years before, hundreds of thousands of Jews in the western part of the country had been murdered by Hitler. Hundreds of thousands more had deliberately fled to the Soviet Union, seeking refuge.2

Jews were not the only ones who worried. If a bourgeois-Zionist-American conspiracy had indeed penetrated the country, then someone would have to be held responsible. And the only people who could possibly be held responsible for a plot of that complexity would have to be members of Stalin’s inner circle. Many, including Viktor Abakumov, were already in jail. Others, including Lavrenty Beria, the former secret police boss and the man most closely associated with the repressive measures of the 1940s, were directly threatened by the accumulating “evidence” of secret police participation in the conspiracy. Many of those in Stalin’s inner circle had risen to power thanks to the “Great Purge” of the Communist Party in 1937 and 1938, which had decimated an early generation of leaders. All knew perfectly well that another purge threatened them and their families. The Jewish wife of Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet minister of foreign affairs, had been arrested in 1949.

But then–just as the propaganda began building up, just as the interrogators were preparing their victims for trial, just as the newspapers began publishing ominous references to the “lack of vigilance” in Soviet society, just as Soviet leaders began falling ill, suffering heart attacks from sheer terror and panic–Stalin died.

Was it a coincidence? Ever since Stalin’s death, allegedly from a stroke, on March 5, 1953, only weeks after the public announcement of the Doctor’s Plot, many have wondered. The timing certainly was suspiciously convenient. But although many have tried to prove that one of his henchman, Beria, killed Stalin, no one has quite succeeded. Different witnesses, including Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin’s successor, and Svetlana Alliueleva, Stalin’s daughter, have provided different accounts of the dates and times of Stalin’s initial stroke. He may or may not have been drinking the night before; he may or may not have been deliberately denied medical assistance after he collapsed; he may or may not have been found by a maid or a security guard. Perhaps Stalin’s son, Vasily, really did burst into the dying man’s room shouting “They’ve killed my father, the bastards!” Perhaps Beria really did tell Molotov, a few days later, that “I did him in! I saved all of you!” Or perhaps not.

Brent and Naumov do not conclusively prove that Stalin’s death was a murder either. What they do show is how comprehensively the published accounts, written by those who were there at the time, contradict the archival evidence, and indeed how the archival evidence contradicts itself. The authors have discovered a new document: two draft versions of a twenty-page account of Stalin’s final illness, written by the ten doctors who attended him between March 2, when they claim he first suffered his stroke, and March 5, when he died. The drafts, which were submitted in final form to the Central Committee only in July, differ from one another substantially, and the accounts they give have clearly been manipulated for political reasons. An early version describes a stomach hemorrhage which Stalin suffered just before his death. A later version leaves out the stomach hemorrhage, perhaps because it might have raised the question of whether Stalin had been poisoned. None of the public reports of Stalin’s final illness mentioned the stomach hemorrhage at all.

The doctors’ account also fixes the time of Stalin’s stroke as early in the morning of March 2, not the evening of March 1, as other eyewitnesses have claimed. This too might be evidence of a cover-up: if only a few hours passed between the stroke and the arrival of the doctors at 7:00 that morning, then there is no cause to think Stalin was deliberately denied medical treatment. If his stroke occurred many hours earlier, however, then it is quite possible that the doctors were deliberately kept away from him. Not that there is any reason to think their ministrations would have helped much. When they arrived, the doctors immediately applied eight leeches to the skin behind his ears, and gave him cold compresses and enemas of magnesium sulfate, glucose, and Vaseline. One wonders, in fact, how he survived as long as he did.

Whether or not Beria really helped to kill Stalin, he certainly put an end to the investigation of the Doctor’s Plot. Within a week of Stalin’s funeral, Beria had set up a special commission to review the case, and began personally questioning some of the doctors. By March 31, the MGB had issued an internal decree stating that the doctors had been “illegally imprisoned.” On April 6, Pravda proclaimed that they had been arrested “incorrectly.” Within weeks, the Soviet leadership had also put an end to the investigations of the other “plots” within the MGB. The effect on Soviet society was profound: never before had the authorities admitted to judicial wrongdoing. Olga Adamova-Sliozberg, still in exile, remembered the day the plot was denounced: “What a joyful moment that was. We wept, daydreaming that our shameful sentences would be repealed, and that we’d be allowed to go home to our children.”

The Soviet Union did change, in some ways, after Stalin’s death. Over the subsequent few years the Soviet authorities dismantled a large part of the Gulag, released millions of prisoners, and launched a short-lived public discussion of Stalinism. But the at-mosphere of secrecy, conspiracy, and counterconspiracy at the very top of Soviet society, effectively captured by the documents published in Stalin’s Last Crime, was not abolished so quickly. Khrushchev’s putsch against Beria–which ended with Beria’s secret execution, in December 1953– remains as shrouded in secrecy and contradiction as Stalin’s death. Once in power, Khrushchev continued to use the secret police to manipulate his colleagues, as did Leonid Brezhnev and then Yuri Andropov. Throughout the rest of the existence of the Soviet Union, the Kremlin leaders launched plots and counterplots against one another, making ample use of the secret police, recording one another’s conversations. They stopped killing one another, it is true, and no Soviet leader ever quite matched Stalin’s gift for bending reality to create the illusion of conspiracy. But they kept up the paranoid search for “enemies,” perpetuated the ludicrous judicial system, and falsified trials. In the 1970s and 1980s, new camps were built for political dissidents, and the Stalinist system lived on, in a new form.

Indeed, that atmosphere of intrigue and subterfuge continues to haunt Russia today. A few years ago, a series of bombs went off around Moscow and elsewhere in Russia. President Vladimir Putin blamed the Chechens, and used the bombs as an excuse to launch the second Chechen war. Others blamed “rogue elements” in the Russian security services, and even offered evidence. Still others blamed the President himself. Was Putin telling the truth? Was he lying? And if some rogue elements in his security services really had been acting independently –or had been told, deliberately, to act in opposition to one another–how would anyone know? How can the truth be established?

The political culture Stalin created did not prove so easy to dismantle. “We ourselves,” he told his security chief, “will be able to determine what is true and what is not.” And this, in the end, is the best reason for Russians and their Western friends to keep pushing for a more open Russian society–in order to prevent anyone from ever again possessing that kind of power over the public imagination.


1 Olga Adamova-Sliozberg, “My Journey,” in Till My Tale Is Told, edited by Simeon Vilensky (Indiana University Press, 1999), pp. 79-81.

2 The best account of the deportation rumors is in Joshua Rubenstein and Vladimir P. Naumov, Stalin’s Secret Pogrom (Yale University Press, 2001).

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