Doctors' Plot

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On January 13, 1953, TASS and Pravda announced the exposure of a conspiracy within the Soviet medical elite. Nine doctorsincluding six with stereotypically Jewish last nameswere charged with assassinating Andrei A. Zhdanov and Aleksandr S. Shcherbakov and plotting to kill other key members of the Soviet leadership. These articles touched off an explosion of undisguised chauvinism in the press that condemned Soviet Jews as Zionists and agents of United States and British imperialism. The Doctors' Plot (Delo vrachei ) was the product of an intensely russocentric period in Soviet history when non-Russian cultures were routinely accused of bourgeois nationalism. It marked the culmination of state-sponsored anti-Semitism under Josef Stalin and followed in the wake of the 1948 murder of Solomon M. Mikhoels and subsequent anti-Cosmopolitan campaigns.

Much of the Doctors' Plot remains shrouded in mystery, due to the fact that virtually all relevant archival material remains tightly classified. Even its design and intent are unclear, insofar as the campaign was still evolving when it was abruptly terminated after Stalin's death in March 1953. Although it was officially denounced shortly thereafter as the work of renegades within the security services, most scholars suspect that Stalin played a major role in the affair. Some believe that the inflammatory press coverage was intended to provoke a massive wave of pogroms that would give Stalin an excuse to deport the Soviet Jews to Siberia. Adherents of this view differ over what precisely was to catalyze such a wave of popular anti-Semitism. According to some commentators, the court philosopher Dimitry I. Chesnokov was to publicly justify the sequestering of the Jews in Marxist-Leninist terms. Others suggest that the campaign in the press would climax with the show trial and execution of the Jewish "doctor-murderers" on Red Square. But the most common story involves an attempt to publish a collective letter to Pravda signed by approximately sixty prominent Soviet Jews that would condemn the traitorous doctors and propose that the entire Jewish community be "voluntarily" deported to Siberia to exculpate its sins. In each of these cases, the exiling of the Jews was to be accompanied by a thorough purge of party and state institutions, a murderous act that would apparently combine elements of the Great Terror with the Final Solution.

Of the three scenarios, only the collective letter to Pravda finds reflection in extant archival sources. Composed at Agitprop in mid-January 1953 by Nikita. A. Mikhailov, the collective letter condemned the "doctor-murderers," conceded that some Soviet Jews had fallen under the influence of hostile foreign powers, and demanded "the most merciless punishment of the criminals." I. I. Mints and Ia. S. Khavinson circulated this letter within the Soviet Jewish elite and coerced many, including Vasily S. Grossman and S. Ia. Marshak, to sign it. Others, however, refused. Although the letter did not explicitly call for mass deportations, Ilya G. Ehrenburg and V. A. Kaverin read the phrase "the most merciless punishment" to be a veiled threat against the entire Soviet Jewish population.

When Ehrenburg was pressured to sign the letter in late January 1953, he first stalled for time and then wrote a personal appeal to Stalin that urged the dictator to bar Pravda from publishing material that might compromise the USSR's reputation abroad. This apparently caused Stalin to think twice about the campaign and a second, more mildly worded collective letter was commissioned later that February. This letter called for the punishment of the "doctor-murderers," but also drew a clear distinction between the Soviet Jewish community and their "bourgeois," "Zionist" kin abroad. It concluded by proclaiming that the Soviet Jews wanted nothing more than to live as members of the Soviet working class in harmony with the other peoples of the USSR. Curiously, although Ehrenburg and other prominent Soviet Jews ultimately signed this second letter, it never appeared in print. Some commentators believe this to be indicative of ambivalence on Stalin's part regarding the Doctors' Plot as a whole during the last two weeks of his life.

Although neither draft of the collective letter explicitly mentioned plans for the Siberian exile of the Jews, many argue that this was the ultimate intent of the Doctors' Plot. Since the opening of the Soviet archives in 1991, however, scholars have searched in vain for any trace of the paper trail that such a mass operation would have left behind. The absence of documentation has led some specialists to consider the rumors of impending deportation to be a reflection of social paranoia within the Soviet Jewish community rather than genuine evidence of official intent. This theory is complicated, however, by the accounts of high-ranking party members like Anastas I. Mikoyan and Nikolai A. Bulganin that confirm that the Jews risked deportation in early 1953. It is therefore best to conclude that speculative talk about possible deportations circulated within elite party circles on the eve of Stalin's death, precipitating rumors and hysteria within the society at large. That said, it would be incautious to conclude that formal plans for the Jews' deportation were developed, ratified, or advanced to the planning stage without corroborating evidence from the former Soviet archives.

See also: jews; pravda; stalin, josef vissarionovich


Brent, Jonathan, and Naumov, Vladimir. (2003). Stalin's Last Crime: The Plot against Jewish Doctors. New York: HarperCollins.

Kostyrchenko, Gennadi. (1995). Out of the Red Shadows: Anti-Semitism in Stalin's Russia Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

David Brandenberger