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One Last Purge: The Doctors’ Plot

One Last Purge: The Doctors’ Plot

In 1948, Stalin received a letter from a doctor which alleged that Andrei Zhdanov, a powerful Politburo member, had been incorrectly treated in the hospital before his recent death. Stalin read the letter and marked it “into the archive,” where it stayed for nearly four years, before the MGB—the predecessor of the KGB—“discovered” it, and launched an investigation into its allegations.

The investigation into this “Doctors’ Plot,” beginning in 1952 and gathering pace until Stalin’s death in 1953, initially centered on claims that Soviet doctors, aided by the security services, had been secretly poisoning and purposely mistreating Soviet leaders over a period of years. Thirty-seven doctors, and even more members of the security services, were arrested. Once the plot was made public, the vigilant doctor who had “uncovered” it with her letter was awarded the Order of Lenin and extolled as a people’s hero.

Stalin avoided written instructions to the interrogators, but glimpses of his guiding role can be seen. For instance, one interrogator said: “Comrade Stalin as a rule spoke with great anger, continually expressing dissatisfaction with the course of the investigation. He cursed, threatened and, as a rule, demanded that the prisoners be beaten: ‘Beat them, beat them, beat them with death blows!’”[1] Nikita Khrushchev, in the 1956 “Secret Speech” in which he denounced Stalin, confirmed that “[Stalin] personally issued advice on the conduct of the investigation and the method of interrogation of the arrested persons.”

The Doctors’ Plot overlapped with the so-called anticosmopolitan campaign, in which thousands of the Soviet Union’s Jewish citizens were persecuted, imprisoned, interrogated and executed, like the 13 members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee who were shot in August 1952. As the Doctors’ Plot unfolded, it too came to take on an anti-Semitic nature. Stalin shepherded articles through TASS, the state news agency, accusing the “doctor-wreckers” of being involved in an “international Jewish Zionist organization.”[2]

In reality, only one of the doctors who had treated Zhdanov at the time of his death was Jewish. The connections that Stalin’s lackeys invented, therefore, were often as tenuous as they were sinister. When the USSR’s minister of state security, V. S. Abakumov, was implicated in the case, there was no evidence or potential motive for his aiding a supposedly Jewish conspiracy. In fact, Abakumov wasn’t Jewish and had vigorously participated in persecuting the Soviet Union’s Jews during the anticosmopolitan campaign. The case used a forced confession from Abakumov’s Jewish MGB colleague, who claimed that “Abakumov, for some reason, was well disposed to individuals of Jewish nationality… he wanted to mask criminals in the ranks of the Jews.”[3] His supposed motivation never emerged. Despite writing anguished pledges of allegiance to “comrade Stalin” from his cell in Sokolnichesky Prison, he was eventually executed the year after Stalin’s death.[4]

As the pace of purges picked up, propaganda began more stridently denouncing Jewish nationalism, which was seen by Stalin as admiration for the newly-founded state of Israel and its allies, the United Kingdom and the United States. This orchestrated vitriol had its effect on the masses. One witness recounted: “Meetings were held at all factories and offices, some organized, some spontaneous, and almost all openly anti-Semitic. Speakers would vehemently demand that the criminals should be put to a terrible death. Many went as far as to offer their services in carrying out the actual executions.”[5] And perhaps most chillingly of all, construction on new concentration camps in Central Asia and the Far East began. Stalin had already deported and exiled Poles, Germans, Crimean Tatars, Koreans, Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians, Chechens and Ingush, and many other nationalities. Were Soviet Jews next?

Fortunately, this wave of frenzy, torture and executions broke before it fully engulfed Soviet life. Immediately after Stalin’s death the case was closed and denounced in Pravda in an article entitled “Soviet Socialist Law Is Inviolable,” which claimed that Stalin had been deceived. The article criticized members of the security services, who they said had been “remote from the people, from the party. They forget that they are servants of the people and duty bound to guard Soviet Law.”[6] And the doctor whose letter was used to begin the plot was stripped of her state honors.

The finer points of the plot and its potential outcome can be found in Jonathan Brent and Vladimir P. Naumov’s Stalin’s Last Crime. Examining these details reveals just how driven and irredeemably inhumane Stalin still was in his old age, and how suited to his purpose the Soviet system was. But though he was secretly denounced by Khrushchev after his death, Stalin was never publicly disavowed in the Soviet Union. The cynical culture of distrust and lies that he had nurtured proved too hard to break. Scapegoats and a dishonest about-turn were the only currency this morally bankrupt enterprise had to offer when faced with its appalling enabling of the dictator’s crimes. While this particular cycle of torture and murder luckily came to an early end, true justice and honesty about the Soviet Union’s crimes would have to wait until its collapse forty years later.


[1] S. A. Goglidze, quoted in Jonathan Brent and Vladimir P. Naumov, Stalin’s Last Crime, (John Murray, 2003), 217.

[2] Ronald Grigor Suny, ed., The Cambridge History of Russia, vol. 3, The Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 264.

[3] L. L. Shvartsman, quoted in Brent and Naumov, 256.

[4] Brent and Naumov, 152.

[5] Ibid., 293.

[6] Ibid., 325.