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Chicago Tribune
June 29, 2003
book review
Trying to unravel a Stalinist conspiracy
Soviet dictator's desire to solidify power led to plot, authors argue

By Hal Piper.

Hal Piper is the editor of the JoongAng Daily newspaper in Seoul. He was the Baltimore Sun's bureau chief in Moscow from 1975 to 1979.

Stalin's Last Crime: The Plot Against the Jewish Doctors, 1948-1953
By Jonathan Brent And Vladimir P. Naumov
HarperCollins, 399 Pages, $26.95

On Jan. 13, 1953, beneath the terrifying headline "Base Spies and Murderers Under the Mask of Professor-Doctors," Pravda, the organ of the Soviet Communist Party, exposed a monstrous plot aimed at nothing less than destroying the Soviet Union and plunging the world into nuclear war.

The plot was extraordinarily complex. Only fiendish minds, beasts masquerading as human, could have devised it. Doctors, most of them Jewish or influenced by Jews, were systematically maltreating Kremlin leaders and military officers, hastening their deaths. They were "the paid agents of American intelligence" with links to known Jewish bourgeois nationalists. Thus it could be seen that Jews constituted a vast fifth column of secret conspirators plotting the downfall of the Soviet Union. Their American bosses, "[f]everishly preparing for a new world war, . . . urgently sent their spies into the rear of the USSR."

Even that was not all. The article concluded:

"It is also true that, besides these enemies, we have still one more enemy--the thoughtlessness . . . of our own people. Do not doubt but that where there is thoughtlessness . . . among us--there will be wrecking. Consequently: in order to liquidate wrecking it is necessary to finish off thoughtlessness in our own ranks."

Purging the Jewish doctor-murderers, then, would not be enough. Soviet patriots must purge their own souls of "thoughtlessness," of the laxity that allows Jewish-bourgeois-imperialist plots to penetrate into the midst of the motherland.

Twelve weeks later, on April 6, the danger had passed. Pravda published a new article under the reassuring headline "Soviet Socialist Law is Inviolable." The doctors, it turned out, had been arrested "without any legal basis." Overzealous investigators, "remote from the people, from the party . . . [had forgotten] that they are the servants of the people and duty bound to guard Soviet law."

What happened between the two Pravda articles to change a vast conspiracy into a reaffirmation of the rule of law? Quite simply, on March 5, Soviet leader Josef Stalin died. It took scarcely a month to unwind the plot. Those doctors who survived their brutal interrogations were released and their interrogators arrested; most were subsequently shot. The hero, compared to Joan of Arc, whose vigilance had exposed the doctor-murderers had her Order of Lenin revoked.

Because the plot came and went so quickly--and because Stalin's successors rapidly and systematically scattered the evidence--Jonathan Brent and Vladimir P. Naumov, co-authors of "Stalin's Last Crime: The Plot Against the Jewish Doctors, 1948-1953," argue that its enormity has been insufficiently appreciated for half a century.

The plot was no mere anti-Semitic scapegoating, Brent and Naumov maintain, although one strand of it appears to have been preparing the deportation of more than 1 million Jews from Moscow, and perhaps more millions from other cities.

Nor was it paranoia, ideology, a mirror image to U.S. McCarthyism or intrigue among ruthless Kremlin infighters.

Stalin's design, the authors argue, was suggested by the last paragraph of the first Pravda article: It was "to finish off thoughtlessness in our own ranks."

After the Great Terror of the 1930s and the great victory in World War II, Soviet discipline was slackening. Judges were starting to expect proof when prisoners were being railroaded for reasons of state; bureaucrats were losing their revolutionary fervor. "Here, look at you," Stalin taunted his colleagues. "Blind men, kittens, you don't see the enemy; what will you do without me--the country will perish because you are not able to recognize the enemy."

"Thoughtlessness" was the enemy, and the external forces in the U.S. and elsewhere that would seize advantage from Soviet thoughtlessness. Stalin needed a plot so spine-tingling that it would snap Soviet society into renewed vigilance against the enemy and unquestioning obedience to Stalin.

"Underlying Stalin's strategy was the deeply rooted principle, inherited from Lenin, that enemies were more useful to Soviet power than friends," the authors write. Nikolai Bukharin, from his prison cell in 1937, pleading for his life with his former comrade, explained the dynamic in a letter to Stalin:

"What serves as a guarantee . . . is the fact that people inescapably talk about each other and in doing so arouse an everlasting distrust in each other. . . . In this way, the leadership is bringing about a full guarantee for itself."

Painstakingly, over five years, Stalin assembled his plot. For perhaps half of this time, Brent and Naumov suggest, Stalin did not know how the plot would come together. He was like a parsimonious housewife, saving string, bakery boxes, plastic bags, in case he might need them for something later. A letter from a young electrocardiogram technician, complaining that a ranking Politburo member's illness had been misdiagnosed, found its way to Stalin in 1948. "To the archive," he wrote on it. More than four years later it was produced with a flourish as damning evidence.

Meanwhile, internal-security interrogators were flogging confessions out of Jews who had applauded the creation of Israel (as had Stalin at the time). One by one, they admitted to harboring hatred for the Soviet Union and admiration for the U.S. as the supporter of international Jewry.

At the same time, the senior ranks of the security police were being purged of interrogators who failed to produce the confessions Stalin required; they were covering up the plot. In this way, too, the officials who knew enough to guess the larger picture of what Stalin was up to were constantly being replaced by eager juniors who knew only their newest orders.

And the groundwork was being laid for getting rid of the men closest to Stalin: the old Bolshevik Vyacheslav Molotov and the powerful Georgy Malenkov. They, too, did not "recognize the enemy."

The authors compare the intricacy of Stalin's plotting to "the cross-eyed, left-handed craftsman in Nikolai Leskov's famous story, who engraved his initials on the head of each microscopic nail used to shoe the czar's golden flea." At last all the parts fit together. Pravda broke the news to a stunned world. And then Stalin died.

Was the death merely providential? Could Stalin have been, ironically, the victim of a political or medical conspiracy to shorten his life? For half a century, rumors have insisted that Stalin was, if not murdered, at least allowed to die. Most strikingly, Lavrenti P. Beria, head of the secret police at the time, boasted: " 'I did him in! . . . I saved all of you.' " But perhaps he said that hoping to save his own skin; almost the second thing Stalin's heirs did, after unwinding the Doctor's Plot, was to arrest and shoot Beria, who knew too much.

Brent and Naumov, noting the radically differing accounts put forth by supposed eyewitnesses, give some credit to the rumors. At the least, many hours appear to have elapsed between the discovery of Stalin sprawled on the floor of his room, unconscious and paralyzed, and the summoning of medical help. "[C]omplicity at the highest level of Soviet government appears to have ensured that Stalin would die." But, they add, "We will never know for sure."

Stalin was 73, with hardened arteries. A year previously his personal physician had advised him to retire, warning that he was risking an early death by keeping up his grueling Kremlin schedule. A furious Stalin vowed never to consult a doctor again. "He was ready to die," the authors write. "The question is whether he was ready to die just then, two weeks before the Jewish doctors allegedly were to be put on trial."

Brent and Naumov try to document the death as carefully as may be possible 50 years later. But their larger interest is to understand the plot itself, and the mentality that allowed subordinates to manufacture Stalin's truth out of monstrous lies. "The question of your guilt is decided by the fact of your arrest," one interrogator, M.D. Ryumin, explained to his victim, "and I do not wish to hear any kind of conversation on this."

Another interrogator, Pavel Grishaev, when the tables were turned on him, blamed his "party conscience" for his " 'sins in this shameful case.' "

"I am used to believing my comrades in work, to believing my leaders. . . . I believed that everything they ordered agreed with the authorities and consequently was the dictate of the party, the dictate of the Central Committee."

The authors comment, "Loyalty to the system . . . replaced any other guiding moral perspective." Though it moderated after Stalin, the Soviet Union never fully freed itself of this flaw.

Brent is the founder of Yale University's "Annals of Communism" series, which, since the Soviet demise, has made use of the newly opened archives to document the 74-year (1917-1991) experiment in constructing a socialist utopia on earth. Naumov was a documentarian of human-rights abuses even before the Soviet collapse.

Their research is painstaking, but for the reader, alas, it can be tedious. Who attended what meeting--and who, significantly, did not attend? Which confession preceded the other? Only such minute detective work can piece together the mosaic of Stalin's plot. But that does not mean that the pages turn easily. Working chronologically, the authors try to help by providing frequent summaries of what was known to whom at this or that date; but these summaries become repetitive.

One or two quibbles. The authors persistently refer to the man who immediately took over from Stalin as Grigory Malenkov. Every other reference I have ever seen, including footnote 79 to this book's Chapter 2, says his given name was Georgy. Evidently, Brent and Naumov have not been well served by their editors.

The du Pont family also figures as evil capitalists allegedly backing the doctors' plot. My long experience in newspaper journalism has taught me that if the name is spelled Dupont, as Brent and Naumov have it, a stiff letter will follow. I assume they have already been chastised and do not need my reproof.

Minor matters. This book is an invaluable addition to the literature of the most extraordinary misadventure of the 20th Century, the gigantic Soviet attempt to engineer the human future. "Stalin," the authors remind us, "is a perpetual possibility."

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