Sixty-two years ago today, on January 13, 1953, the official Soviet Communist Party newspaper Pravda reported an explosive development: several doctors in Moscow had been arrested by state security police and charged with trying to assassinate top leaders of the USSR by means of intentional medical malpractice. The cabal of evil doctors was supposedly “bought by American intelligence” and recruited from the members of a notorious anti-fascist committee that was suspected of having ulterior motives. Notably, however, most of the doctors accused were Jewish, and the committee from which they came was a Zionist organization; Pravda also named the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a Jewish charity headquartered in New York City, as one of the organs behind the nefarious plot. The inference that Pravda seems to have intended was that the Jews were trying to bring down the Socialist Motherland.

The strange story of the “Doctors’ Plot” begins in May 1945, immediately after the USSR’s victory over Germany at the end of World War II. A noted Soviet official and writer, Alexander Scherbakov, who some say drank heavily, suffered heart failure and died at a Moscow hospital. Three years later, in August 1948, another Soviet bigwig, Andrei Zhdanov, also an alcoholic, died under the same circumstances. In both cases Kremlin doctors treating the men had some sort of consulting relationship with a Jewish doctor named Yakov Etinger. In the fall of 1951 an MGB (Ministry for State Security) official named Mikhail Ryumin wrote a letter to his superior, Abakumov, alleging that Dr. Etinger had killed both Scherbakov and Zhdanov by artificially inducing heart failure. Abakumov did not believe the story, but Dr. Etinger was arrested anyway. If he was innocent, he never got the chance to tell the MGB; he died after being tortured the night before his scheduled interrogation by Abakumov.

Andrei Zhdanov . Soviet statesman and party leader

Andrei Zhdanov died in August 1948. What killed him: a sinister Zionist plot, medical misdiagnosis, or too much vodka?

The next year, 1952, more allegations of deliberate malpractice by doctors surfaced. Though almost certainly trumped up by MGB chiefs looking for a nefarious plot to burnish their reputations with the big boss, Joseph Stalin, some of them may have had a small grain of truth; it was possible that Zhdanov may have died as a result of medical malpractice, with the other Kremlin physicians prescribing the wrong treatment, and then trying to cover it up to avoid punishment. In any event, the MGB became heavily invested in establishing wrongdoing by doctors of Jewish descent, and those who could be linked to Zionist agendas whether real or imagined. Arrests began in September 1952, first of non-Jewish doctors, but then predominantly Jews. Eventually hundreds of people were rounded up by the MGB and, under torture, gave “confessions” implicating others. The MGB was egged on in their efforts by Stalin, who urged that greater measures be taken to uncover the plot.

But was there ever any plot? Probably not, but this doubtless wouldn’t have mattered to Stalin. The Doctors’ Plot indeed looks suspiciously like the expanding wave of terror that followed the December 1934 assassination of Sergei Kirov, a murder that ultimately became an excuse for Stalin to purge the Communist Party, the Army and ultimately broader Soviet society of people he felt were (or might be thinking about) opposing him. Stalin probably arranged the murder of Kirov. If he did actively ferment the MGB’s hysteria over the Doctors’ Plot, this time he didn’t even bother staging an assassination; the natural-cause deaths of Scherbakov and Zhdanov were just fine as excuses, and so long as one Jewish or Zionist doctor could be linked to those cases, they were off and running.

big three

Was Stalin (shown here on the right with his fellow victors of World War II) plotting a new world war? And was the Doctors’ Plot somehow a prelude to that? We’ll never know.

If this flimsy conspiracy theory was in fact a figment of Stalin’s imagination–which certainly wouldn’t be surprising–what was he trying to do with it? Historians differ, but the idea that he was planning another massive series of purges, as he’d done in the 1930s, is hard to dismiss. As World War II approached Stalin destroyed anyone who could possibly be a threat to him, leaving the country totally dependent on his leadership for its very survival when the USSR was eventually (as Stalin probably foresaw) attacked by Germany. In Stalin’s final years there is some evidence that a World War III, this time against the United States, was part of his long-range plans. If that is true, he might have thought he needed more purges to clean out the experienced political and military leaders who had helped him win World War II, thus again leaving the country utterly at his mercy if and when another war situation arose.

A larger question, though, is why Stalin chose to target Jews. Religion was supposedly nixed in Russia after the 1917 Revolution, but Jews as an ethnic and cultural minority remained a significant segment of Soviet life, even after the terrible toll taken upon them by Hitler’s Holocaust in the areas of the USSR that fell under German control. It’s possible that the Doctors’ Plot was arranged as an excuse for ethnic cleansing, but it’s also possible it could have been a loyalty test. A letter was found among Stalin’s papers in which numerous leading Jews in the USSR were supposed to declare their loyalty to the state and denounce the evil doctors who had been in on the plot. The letter was never released due to Stalin’s death. If the letter would have become policy, the whole thing might have been a ploy to scare Soviet Jews into submission to Stalin’s rule, as opposed to attaching their loyalties to Zionist causes which were seen in the USSR as unacceptably pro-Western and imperialist. We’ll never know.

The Doctors’ Plot was fake, but ironically Stalin may have met his end as the result of a real one, or something like it. On the evening of March 1, 1953, barely six weeks after the announcement in Pravda and while many of the accused plotters were still in custody, Stalin went to bed at his dacha outside Moscow after drinking heavily and watching a film in the company of his various toadies. The next morning his staff thought it strange that he didn’t rise at his usual early hour, but they were afraid of disturbing him, so they let him be. Finally at 10PM someone went into his room and found the 74-year-old dictator sprawled on the floor, barely alive, dressed only in pee-stained underwear and pajama bottoms. He had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. Three days later he was dead of a stroke, never having regained consciousness. There were whispers around the Kremlin, however, that someone had peeked into Stalin’s room well before 10PM, saw him lying there and decided to keep quiet until all possibility of saving him was gone; and others in Stalin’s circle, especially the odious Lavrenti Beria, supposedly told others they’d slipped something into Stalin’s wine the night before. In any event, if medical attention had been forthcoming sooner, he might have survived, but it seems at least possible that someone wanted Stalin–who had caused so much suffering in his life–to suffer himself a little more.

soviet commendation

This document of commendation was issued to one of the accusers who “uncovered” the nonexistent plot by the doctors. It was withdrawn in 1954, a year after Stalin’s death.

The Leader’s death proved a deliverance for the accused doctors. Stalin’s successors, especially Beria, quickly defused the investigations, releasing the plotters and telling Pravda in April that they had been cleared. Some historians allege that Stalin himself was planning to bring the campaign to an end but this was cut short by his death. One way or another, if he was planning a purge, clearly it never happened.

The Doctors’ Plot remains a mysterious episode in Soviet history because so little of it–that was genuine, at least–ended up on paper, and so much could have been ascribed to the mercurial motives and whims of one man, Stalin, who was very hard to know or predict. Exactly what was fact and what was fiction in the Doctors’ Plot will probably never be known. The real truth about why it was dreamed up or what its aims were died, mercifully, on that winter day when the monster Stalin breathed his last.

The header image in this article includes a photograph by Wikimedia Commons user Ericmetro, used under Creative Commons 3.0 (Attribution) license.