On January 13, 1953, the so-called Doctors’ Plot, a fabricated conspiracy that attempted to frame, among others, a number of Soviet Jewish physicians for allegedly trying to murder key members of the country’s political leadership, entered a critical phase: publicity. It was on this day that the newspapers Pravda and Izvestiya informed readers of the existence of the alleged plot, and of the arrests of a number of “killer doctors,” who wanted to bring down the regime.
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According to Pravda, the plotters had been recruited by “the international Jewish bourgeois-nationalist organization called ‘Joint,’" (the Joint Distribution Committee), which was working on orders from “American intelligence.”
Had the drama been permitted to run its course, the initial group of suspects would surely have been convicted of any number of crimes at trial and quickly executed. They were saved, however, by the death of Joseph Stalin, the Communist Party secretary general, on March 5, 1953.
To this day, there is lack of agreement regarding just how deeply Stalin was involved in creating the plot, and just what his ultimate goal was in manufacturing and then revealing such an alarming criminal conspiracy. What can be said is that, three years later, in his 1956 “Secret Speech” to the 20th congress of the Communist Party, Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, pinned responsibility for the entire affair on Stalin.
Stalin's friend dies
The roots of the Doctors’ Plot go back to the August 1948 death of Andrey A. Zhdanov, a senior party official and close friend of Stalin’s. At the time, Zhdanov’s death was regarded as natural in cause. But four years later, evidence came to light that suggested he had received to improper medical care.
The emergence of this evidence – a letter from a Kremlin doctor, Lidiia Timashuk, to her superiors complaining about the treatment Zhanov was receiving, written several days before his death -- only in 1952 led to suspicions not only that Zhdanov my have been murdered, but also that his death had been covered up. In fact, writes historian Jonathan Brent, it was Stalin himself who received and filed away the letter, for revelation when it served his purposes.
Opportunity arose two years later. Although the Timashuk letter had not incriminated any Jewish doctors, in 1950, a physician named Yakov Etinger had been arrested. Under torture, he confessed to the 1945 medical murder of party official and former army officer Alexander Shcherbakov. Etinger died in prison in 1951.
Linking Shcherbakov’s death to Zhdanov’s did not require too much imagination, and Etinger’s supposed confession was used to weave a complex conspiracy that initially included a group of nine elite physicians – at least six of them Jews. By the time Pravda reported their arrests, all were said to have confessed to membership in the plot, which was working in the service of international Jewry.
There is evidence that Stalin ultimately intended to exile the Jews of the Soviet Union en masse to a new network of prison camps he ordered built in Soviet Asia. Some historians speculate that Stalin was planning a major purge within the party, one similar to the Great Terror of the 1930s, in which he purged the Communist Party and other institutions of anyone who constituted a potential threat to his power.
At the least, the Doctors’ Plot was the start of a spiraling series of arrests, aimed disproportionately at Jews, that uncovered complex conspiracies supposedly intended to destabilize the country.
Thus, it was highly convenient that Stalin died when he did, just before the initial trials of defendants got under way.
By April, a month after his death, Pravda was reporting that the charges against the doctors had been dropped, after it had been discovered that their confessions were extracted under torture. The following year, several security officials were even prosecuted and executed for their supposed part in the false charges.
Finally, in his earth-shattering “Secret Speech” (which didn’t remain secret for very long), made before the Party Congress in February 1956, Khrushchev revealed that the entire Doctors’ Plot had been cooked up by Stalin, and that it was intended to serve as the opening shot in a major political purge.