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The Doctors' plot (Russian: дело врачей, "doctors' case", врачи-вредители, "doctors-saboteurs" or врачи-убийцы, "doctors-killers") was an episode of antisemitism in the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin's regime. In 1952–1953, a group of prominent Moscow doctors (predominantly Jews) were accused of conspiring to assassinate Soviet leaders. This was later accompanied by publications of anti-Semitic character in the media, which talked about the threats of Zionism and condemned people with Jewish names. Many doctors, officials and others, both Jews and non-Jews, were promptly dismissed from their jobs and arrested. A few weeks after the death of Stalin, the new Soviet leadership stated a lack of evidence and the case was dropped. Soon after, the case was declared to have been fabricated.
A number of theories attempt to explain the origins of the Doctors' plot case. Historians typically relate it to the earlier case of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee and to the campaign against the so-called rootless cosmopolitans in the second half of the 1940s, as well as to the power struggle within the Soviet leadership during that time.
In 1951, Ministry for State Security (MGB) investigator Mikhail Ryumin reported to his superior, Viktor Abakumov, minister of the MGB, that Professor Yakov Etinger, who was arrested as a "bourgeois nationalist" with connections to the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, had committed malpractice in treating Zhdanov (died 1948) and Shcherbakov (died 1945), allegedly with the intention of killing them. However, Abakumov refused to believe the story. Etinger died in prison (2 March 1951) due to interrogations and harsh conditions. Ryumin was then dismissed from his position in the MGB for misappropriating money and was held responsible for the death of Etinger. With the assistance of Malenkov, Ryumin wrote a letter to Stalin, accusing Abakumov of killing Etinger in order to hide a conspiracy to kill off the Soviet leadership. On 4 July 1951 the Politburo set up a commission (headed by Malenkov and including Beria) to investigate the issue. Based on the commission's report, the Politburo soon passed a resolution on the "bad situation in the MGB" and Abakumov was fired.
Abakumov was arrested and tortured soon after being dismissed as head of the MGB. He was charged with being a sympathizer and protector of the criminal Jewish underground. This arrest was followed by the arrests of many agents who worked for him in the central apparatus of the MGB, including most Jews.
The doctors-killers case was revived in 1952 when the letter of cardiologist Lydia Timashuk was dug up from the archives. In 1948 Timashuk wrote a letter to the head of Stalin's security, General Nikolai Vlasik, explaining that Zhdanov suffered a heart attack, but the Kremlin doctors who treated him missed it and prescribed the wrong treatment to him. Zhdanov soon died and the doctors covered up their mistake. The letter, however, was originally ignored.
The Kremlin doctors involved in the cover up were to be arrested, but they were all Russian. To keep the conspiracy as Zionist, Ryumin and Semyon Ignatyev, who had succeeded Abakumov as head of the MGB, had the Jewish doctors Etinger supposedly specified also added to the arrest list; many of them, like Miron Vovsi, had been consulted by the Kremlin's medical department. The arrests started in September 1952. Vlasik was fired as head of Stalin's security and eventually also arrested for ignoring the Timashuk letter.
Initially, 37 were arrested, but the number quickly grew into hundreds. Under torture, prisoners seized in the investigation of the alleged plot were compelled to produce evidence against themselves and their associates.
Stalin harangued Ignatyev and accused the MGB of incompetence. He demanded that the interrogations of doctors already under arrest be accelerated. Stalin complained that there was no clear picture of the Zionist conspiracy and no solid evidence that specifically the Jewish doctors were guilty.
Stalin ordered TASS and Pravda to issue reports about the uncovering of a doctors' plot to assassinate top Soviet leaders, including Stalin. The possible goal of the campaign was to set the stage for show trials. Other sources say that the initiative came from Beria and Malenkov, who continued to use the plot for their own interests. Beria pushed the Politburo to decide to publicize the plot on 9 January 1953. For him it was especially important that the Doctors' Plot got more attention than the Mingrelian Affair, which personally affected him.
On January 13, 1953, some of the most prestigious and prominent doctors in the USSR were accused of taking part in a vast plot to poison members of the top Soviet political and military leadership. Pravda, the official newspaper of the CPSU, reported the accusations under the headline "Vicious Spies and Killers under the Mask of Academic Physicians."
Today the TASS news agency reported the arrest of a group of saboteur-doctors. This terrorist group, uncovered some time ago by organs of state security, had as their goal shortening the lives of leaders of the Soviet Union by means of medical sabotage.
Investigation established that participants in the terrorist group, exploiting their position as doctors and abusing the trust of their patients, deliberately and viciously undermined their patients' health by making incorrect diagnoses, and then killed them with bad and incorrect treatments. Covering themselves with the noble and merciful calling of physicians, men of science, these fiends and killers dishonored the holy banner of science. Having taken the path of monstrous crimes, they defiled the honor of scientists.
Among the victims of this band of inhuman beasts were Comrades A. A. Zhdanov and A. S. Shcherbakov. The criminals confessed that, taking advantage of the illness of Comrade Zhdanov, they intentionally concealed a myocardial infarction, prescribed inadvisable treatments for this serious illness and thus killed Comrade Zhdanov. Killer doctors, by incorrect use of very powerful medicines and prescription of harmful regimens, shortened the life of Comrade Shcherbakov, leading to his death.
The majority of the participants of the terrorist group… were bought by American intelligence. They were recruited by a branch-office of American intelligence — the international Jewish bourgeois-nationalist organization called "Joint." The filthy face of this Zionist spy organization, covering up their vicious actions under the mask of charity, is now completely revealed…
Unmasking the gang of poisoner-doctors struck a blow against the international Jewish Zionist organization.... Now all can see what sort of philanthropists and "friends of peace" hid beneath the sign-board of "Joint."
Other participants in the terrorist group (Vinogradov, M. Kogan, Egorov) were discovered, as has been presently determined, to have been long-time agents of English intelligence, serving it for many years, carrying out its most criminal and sordid tasks. The bigwigs of the USA and their English junior partners know that to achieve domination over other nations by peaceful means is impossible. Feverishly preparing for a new world war, they energetically send spies inside the USSR and the people's democratic countries: they attempt to accomplish what the Hitlerites could not do — to create in the USSR their own subversive "fifth column."...The Soviet people should not for a minute forget about the need to heighten their vigilance in all ways possible, to be alert for all schemes of war-mongers and their agents, to constantly strengthen the Armed Forces and the intelligence organs of our government.
Among other famous names mentioned were Solomon Mikhoels (actor-director of the Moscow State Jewish Theater and the head of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, assassinated in January 1948), who was called a "well-known Jewish bourgeois nationalist," Miron Vovsi (therapist, Stalin's personal physician and a cousin of Mikhoels), V. Vinogradov (therapist), Mikhail Kogan (therapist), Boris Kogan (therapist), P. Yegorov (therapist), A. Feldman (otolaryngologist), Yakov Etinger (therapist), A. Grinshtein (neuropathologist) and G. Mayorov (therapist). Six of the nine mentioned doctors were Jewish.
The list of alleged victims included high-ranked officials Andrei Zhdanov, Aleksandr Shcherbakov, Army Marshals Aleksandr Vasilevsky, Leonid Govorov and Ivan Konev, General Sergei Shtemenko, Admiral Gordey Levchenko and others.
Stalin intended to publish in Pravda a letter signed by many well-known Soviet Jews in which the Jews involved in the plot would be denounced, but the difference between them and the rest of the Soviet Jews, who are loyal to the USSR and socialism, would be made clear. Two versions of the letter were created, but it was never published. Stalin eventually decided not to publish it or it was still being worked on by the time of his death.
After Stalin's death on March 5, 1953, the new leadership quickly distanced itself from the investigation into the plot. The charges were dismissed and the doctors exonerated in a March 31 decree by the newly appointed Minister of Internal Affairs, Lavrentiy Beria, and on April 6, this was communicated to the public in Pravda. Chief MGB investigator and Deputy Minister of State Security M. D. Ryumin was blamed for making up the plot and was arrested and later executed.
Historian Zhores Medvedev argues that Stalin was getting ready to end the Doctors' Plot case right before his death. Attacks on the alleged plotters abruptly disappeared from Pravda on 2 March 1953, the day after Stalin suffered a stroke, but it is unlikely that the new leaders were responsible for this. Propaganda associated with the plot continued in other publications, and the case itself continued for weeks after Stalin's death. Most likely Stalin himself called the newspaper a day or two before his stroke and ordered the attacks to stop, but this was only reflected in the print on Monday, 2 March. According to Medvedev, the execution of the leading Soviet doctors would not have given Stalin any political gains and the international reaction would have been obvious. Medvedev further hypothesizes that Stalin intended to use the closing of the Doctors' Plot to remove from power those who had been involved in it.
Former Komsomol official Nikolai Mesyatsev recalls that Malenkov, on orders from Stalin, assigned him and two other Komsomol activists to thoroughly review the Doctors' Plot case. The investigation concluded by the middle of February 1953 that the case was obviously falsified. Therefore, Mesyatsev explains, allegations that the case was stopped due to Stalin's death are incorrect.
In his 1956 "Secret Speech", First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev stated that the Doctors' plot was "fabricated... set up by Stalin," but that Stalin did not "have the time in which to bring it to an end," which saved the doctors' lives. Khrushchev also told the session that Stalin called the judge in the case and, regarding the methods to be used, stated "beat, beat and, beat again." Stalin supposedly told his Minister of State Security, "If you do not obtain confessions from the doctors we will shorten you by a head."
Khrushchev also claims that Stalin hinted to him to incite antisemitism in Ukraine, saying, "The good workers at the factory should be given clubs so they can beat the hell out of those Jews."
According to Khrushchev, Stalin told Politburo members, "You are blind like young kittens. What will happen without me? The country will perish because you do not know how to recognize enemies."
According to one source, Nikolai Nikolayevich Polyakov, Stalin purportedly created a special "Deportation Commission" to plan the deportation of Jews to these camps. Poliakov, the secretary of the commission, stated years later that, according to Stalin's initial plan, the deportation was to begin in the middle of February 1953, but the monumental tasks of compiling lists of Jews had not yet been completed. "Pure blooded" Jews were to be deported first, followed by "half-breeds" (polukrovki). Before his death in March 1953, Stalin allegedly had planned the execution of Doctors' plot defendants already on trial in Red Square in March 1953, and then he would cast himself as the savior of Soviet Jews by sending them to camps away from the purportedly enraged Russian populace. There are further statements that describe some aspects of such a planned deportation. Others argue that any charge of an alleged mass deportation lacks specific documentary evidence and that attempts to move the then-geographically-assimilated Jewish population would not have comported with Stalin's other postwar methods.
Yakov Etinger (son of one of the doctors) said that he spoke with Bulganin, who told him about plans to deport Jews. Etinger's credibility was questioned, however, when he claimed to have published a previously unpublished letter to Pravda signed by many Jewish celebrities and calling for Jewish deportation. The alleged original two versions of the letter have been published in Istochnik and other publications. Not only did they lack any hint of a plan to deport Jews to Siberia, they called for the creation of a Jewish newspaper. The alleged text of the famous letter serves as an argument against the existence of the deportation plans. Etinger was asked to publish the notes taken during his alleged meetings with Bulganin, but they are still unpublished.
Four large camps were built shortly before Stalin's death in 1953 in southern and western Russia, with rumors swirling that they were for Jews, but no directive exists that the camps were to be used for any such effort.
Based on these and other asserted facts, a researcher of Stalin's antisemitism, Gennady Kostyrchenko, concluded that there is no credible evidence for the alleged deportation plans and that there is much evidence against their existence. Some other researchers disagree, asserting that the question is still open. According to historian Samson Madiyevsky, the deportation was definitely considered, and the only thing in doubt is the time-frame. He also said that Коstyrchenko himself said that the deportation might have happened later on.
According to Zhores Medvedev, such a massive deportation would have been very difficult. It required the creation of specialized departments in the security ministries and the building of infrastructure for settling the deportees. There are no signs that any of this was started, and this could not all have been authorized by just verbal orders. Furthermore, Medvedev points out that many Soviet Jews were assimilated into Soviet society and had feelings of patriotism towards the USSR rather than Israel. The deportation would have also had a destructive effect on healthcare, the education system, science, culture, film making and other important fields of public life.
The prevailing opinion of many scholars outside the Soviet Union, in agreement with what Khrushchev said, is that Joseph Stalin intended to use the resulting doctors' trial to launch a massive party purge.
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