"Doctors' Plot,"

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"DOCTORS' PLOT," the most dramatic anti-Jewish episode in the Soviet Union during *Stalin's regime involving the "unmasking" of a group of prominent Moscow doctors, mostly Jews, as conspiratorial assassins of Soviet leaders. It was a continuation of the "cosmopolitanism" accusations against Jewish scientists in the field of medicine. On January 13, 1953, Pravda and Radio Moscow announced that nine eminent doctors were under arrest and had confessed to murdering two Soviet leaders of the past, A.S. Shcherbakov and A.A. Zhdanov (who had died in 1945 and 1948, respectively). They were reported to have also admitted conspiring to murder a number of prominent figures in the Soviet armed forces, including the war minister, Marshal A.M. Vasilevski, the chief of staff, General S.M. Shtemenko, and the popular war hero, Marshal I.S. Konev. Six of the nine doctors were Jews. The number of arrested grew to 37 through 1952, of which 28 were doctors and the others family members. Among them were Professors Pevzner, Vinogradov, Ettinger, Vovsi, and others. "Most of the participants in the terrorist group," read the statement, "were connected with the international Jewish bourgeois nationalist organization, the 'Joint' (*American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee) established by American Intelligence … (in order to) conduct extensive espionage terrorist, and other subversive work in many countries including the Soviet Union."

These accusations unleashed panic among the Jews of the Soviet Union and were met by reactions of disbelief and foreboding in Western Europe, the U.S.A., and Israel. On January 19, the Israeli foreign minister, Moshe Sharett, bitterly condemned the Soviet action. A bomb exploded in the courtyard of the Soviet embassy in Tel Aviv on February 9, wounding four of the staff. Despite prompt apologies from the Israeli government, the U.S.S.R. immediately broke off diplomatic relations. The Soviet press now stepped up its attacks on Israel, the "Joint," Wall Street, Zionism, and imperialism. "The pack of mad dogs from Tel Aviv," wrote Yuri Zhukov in Pravda, Feb. 14, 1953, "is loathsome and vile in its thirst for blood." An article published in Trud on February 13 noted that the "Joint" had organized major anti-government conspiracies not only in the U.S.S.R. but in Hungary and Czechoslovakia as well – direct reference being made to the *Slansky Trial of November 1952.

Stalin died on March 5, and on April 3 Pravda announced that the doctors were not guilty and had been freed, and those responsible for using "impermissible means of investigation" had been arrested. On July 20 diplomatic relations between Israel and the Soviet Union were restored.

The Plot was apparently part of Stalin's plan for a new purge of the top Soviet leadership. It was probably directed against Lavrentii Beria, the minister of the interior (mvd), who had been responsible for security matters when Shcherbakov and Zhdanov had died. The Pravda editorial of January 13 specifically criticized "the agencies of state security" that had failed to "discover the doctors' wrecking, terrorist organization in time." (Moreover, the Plot was clearly modeled on the 1938 case of G.G. Yagoda, an earlier chief of the Secret Police who had been found guilty of recruiting medical specialists to murder such prominent citizens as Maxim Gorki.) Stalin's death enabled Beria to regain control of the Secret Police (mgb) and merge it with his ministry, the mvd. The release of the doctors and the arrest of their interrogators evidently formed part of Beria's desperate, but ultimately futile, effort to consolidate his power. Seen in broader perspective, the Plot proved to be the last of those macabre "conspiracies" that were manufactured during Stalin's reign but did not reappear in such a form in the subsequent Soviet regimes, though many of the anti-Jewish manifestations that had accompanied the Doctor's Plot were to reemerge later (see *Antisemitism in the Soviet Bloc).

In his secret speech at the Twentieth Party Congress (1956) Nikita Khrushchev blamed the Doctors' Plot on Stalin, but carefully ignored its antisemitic aspects and even took the opportunity to exonerate S.D. Ignatev, who had headed the mgb during the Plot, in early 1953. In fact, Ignatev was reelected to the Party's Central Committee in 1956.


R. Conquest, Power and Policy in the USSR (1962), index; B. Nicolaevsky, Power and the Soviet Elite (1965), passim; S. Schwarz, Yevreyi v Sovetskom Soyuze s nachala vtoroy mirovoy voyny (1939–65) (1966), passim. add. bibliography: G. Kostyrchenko, V plenu u krasnovo faraona (1994).

[Jonathan Frankel]

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