The Magazine

Stalin and the Jews

The Doctors' Plot was the beginning of the Communists' Final Solution.

May 19, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 35 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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Stalin's Last Crime

The Plot Against the Jewish Doctors 1948-1953

by Jonathan Brent and Vladimir P. Naumov

HarperCollins, 399 pp., $26.95

THERE'S NOTHING NEW about the upsurge in recent months of leftist theories about Jewish conspiracies, particularly in Europe. Anti-Semitism has long been established in the history of the radical left. It reached its peak in the Soviet repression and mass murder of Jewish Bolsheviks during the 1920s and 1930s. And it found tragic repetition in the early 1950s, when Joseph Stalin launched new purges against the Communist elite both in Moscow and in Eastern Europe.

Along with the purges went a pogrom directed at a group of Soviet doctors, many of them Jewish, as a pretext for wholesale deportation, and yet another effort at mass murder, of the Jews. The episode, known as "the Doctors' Plot," represented the last convulsion of Stalinism in its most extreme, pathological form. This year--on the fiftieth anniversary of the Soviet dictator's death--Jonathan Brent and Vladimir P. Naumov have published "Stalin's Last Crime: The Plot Against the Jewish Doctors 1948-1953." Brent is the head of Yale University Press and best known for directing the outstanding "Annals of Communism" series issued by Yale, which translates and annotates archival documents. Naumov is a leading Russian historian and former state official. Together, their scholarship makes Stalin's homicidal, Judeophobic intentions undeniable.

The essence of "Stalin's Last Crime" is stated in its preface: "Standing at the apex of the state, Stalin had absolute power. He had achieved this not because absolute power was conferred on him by the state, but because he succeeded in finding means to delegitimize the state itself. The Doctors' Plot became his most powerful weapon in the last years of his life in pursuing this end; it starkly demonstrates that Stalin's power did not derive from the state and its institutions but from the underlying system that allowed him to manipulate them."

Brent and Naumov present a great deal of new material in "Stalin's Last Crime," including the suggestion that a real conspiracy brought about the end of the dictator, by putting warfarin, a colorless and tasteless rat poison, in his food. Even more remarkable is the book's revelation of Stalin's intention to use the Soviet Jews as a symbol of rapacious Western imperialism, espionage, and sabotage of the socialist paradise.

The extent of Stalin's anti-Semitism had already been established by a series of recent books. Even Robert Weinberg, author of a horrifyingly misguided 1998 volume called "Stalin's Forgotten Zion: Birobidzhan and the Making of a Soviet Jewish Homeland," admits that Russian Jews themselves, in contrast with Western fellow travelers, considered Birobidzhan a terrible hoax. Stalin long intended to kill all the Jews.

As I have written elsewhere, he failed to do so only because of the inherent inefficiency of Soviet genocidal practices when applied to large ethnic groups such as the Jews and Ukrainians, who numbered in the millions. Stalin's murderous policies were more effective against smaller groups, such as the Muslim Chechens and Ingushes, Balkars, and Karachais--together with the Lamaist-Buddhist Kalmyks, the Muslim Crimean Tatars, the Soviet Kurds, the Christian Volga Germans, the Soviet Greeks, and the Soviet Koreans. These entire nations and ethnic groups were rounded up and deported to Central Asia en masse during World War II. Stalin's repression was especially devastating when applied to individuals, families, and classes leading a more atomized existence, such as Trotskyists, Communist party cadres, the so-called "kulaks," and many more besides.

BY THE LATE 1940s, it was the Jews' turn again. The Stalinist plot against the doctors--rather than, as was originally asserted by the Kremlin and its propagandists, a plot by the doctors--began with the mysterious death in 1948 of Andrei Zhdanov, a gruesome "junior Stalin" in his own right, who had been party boss in Leningrad during World War II and was infamous as the agent of a purge in Soviet cultural affairs. (He denounced, for instance, the great poet Anna Akhmatova as "a nun and a whore who combines harlotry with prayer.") It's possible that Zhdanov's demise itself was arranged to provide a pretext for a new massacre; such theories have always surrounded the death in 1934 of an earlier Leningrad party boss, Sergei M. Kirov, whose assassination was the signal for the beginning of the great purges. And there's even a motive: Zhdanov may have been selected for liquidation because of ideological misbehavior by his son.