On January 13, 1953, the Soviet newspapers “Pravda” and “Izvestiya,” which served as official mouthpieces of Josef Stalin’s regime, broke news of a shocking story.
The Soviet authorities had foiled a major plot, thwarting the “nefarious plans” of a group “in the service of foreign intelligence.” Paid agents of Britain and America, the papers reported, had conspired to bring down the Soviet Union through a most insidious scheme. Through an “international Jewish bourgeois-nationalist organization called ‘Joint,’” the papers claimed, a group of nine Jewish doctors who tended to Soviet leaders worked to assassinate members of the government and destroy the USSR.
The Joint is a nonprofit relief organization called the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee—but the reports claimed to “completely reveal” the real, “filthy face of this Zionist spy organization” that covered its “vicious actions under the mask of kindness.” The Joint had recruited the “terrorist group of doctors” and only the intervention of the Soviet authorities prevented “the accomplishment of their monstrous goals.”
If this front-page news sounds a little unhinged and paranoid…well, this was the official mouthpiece of Stalin’s USSR. The papers reflected the state, which in turn reflected its leader. Stalin was, by 1953, unhinged and paranoid. He was also incredibly powerful, the absolute authority in one of the world’s two superpowers, armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons. So news of the putative conspiracy did not just make headline news in Russia, but reverberated around the world.
Today the doctors’ plot serves both as an example of life in Stalin’s Russia—a paranoid place of plots—and his attitude towards Jews. Speaking to the former, the report in “Pravda” ended with a chilling conclusion. “Apart from these enemies, we still have another enemy: the lack of vigilance of our people,” it stated. “One may not doubt that, as long as we are absent-minded, there will be sabotage. Consequently, in order to liquidate sabotage, it is necessary to purge lack of vigilance from our ranks.” In other words, spy on each other. In other words, look out.
Look out especially if you’re a Jew. When a paranoid looks for people to blame, you know your name may well come up. Stalin didn’t disappoint. He was not just super paranoid; he was convinced that Israel and the Jews were against him. As a result, the situation of the Jews in the Soviet Union had long been precarious.
Things got worse for the Jews in 1948, paradoxically at their finest hour: the creation of the State of Israel. After the Jewish state came into the world, its first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion rebuffed Stalin, rejecting the help of Soviet advisors in the war against the Arabs. There were many prudent reasons why Ben-Gurion refused help from Moscow, not the least of which was he did not want the country to become like Spain in the 1930s—the battle site of competing political ideologies.
But the unintended consequences of this decision would be felt thousands of kilometers from Tel Aviv. As he recalled the Soviet Union’s advisors from Israel, Stalin was now convinced that the Jewish state was exclusively an ally of America—and as such, his implacable enemy.
When thousands of Soviet Jews delighted in Israel’s creation and victorious war of independence, little did they know that this would in the mind of Stalin pit them against their leader. This was most stark when Golda Meir visited Moscow in 1948. A vast crowd of Russian Jews met her arrival at the Choral Synagogue on Rosh Hashanah with rapture. Stalin saw this outpouring of Jewish love as dangerous. It represented a bond among Jewish people that was deeper than anything he could have imagined. He found it incomprehensible that Soviet Jews could care about a land so far from the USSR. Worse, they cared about a country that was his enemy. To his eyes, the Jews clubbed together, problematically.
The hell of Stalin’s world is murky. It is a world of conspiracy and violence, a world devoid of trust. A world that was capricious. One day you could be his favorite, the next you could be dead. As Jews became enemies of the state, in late 1952, by which time he had decided to run the Pravda article, Stalin assembled his politburo. “This nation will perish,” he said, “because you do not recognize our enemy.” The Jews were allied with the West—with America and Britain and capitalism and the bourgeoisie and enemies of the USSR.
So the doctors’ plot became front-page news. It was Stalin’s casus belli against the Jews.
The news stoked up fears of a new Holocaust. The Soviet leadership had declared Jews enemies of the state. Many Soviet Jews were convinced that, just eight years after the end of World War Two, another genocide would take place. And not only Jews feared this. The story created a sensation around the world. Eleanor Roosevelt considered Russian Jews so imperiled that she sent a letter to President Eisenhower begging him to intervene on their behalf.
But the plot against the Jewish doctors was not ultimately aimed against the Jews; the Jews were the pretext. It was aimed at the entity that Stalin identified as the real enemy—the West, and America. He would get at the west and America through the Jews. He wanted to turn the country against America. He was convinced there was going to be a war with the USA. And it could only be a nuclear war. Stalin was in his mid-70s and in failing health but he was ready for a final conflict. Other Soviet leaders like Beria and Khrushchev found this prospect terrifying but what could they do? Stalin was in control.
The doctors’ plot was actually less the USSR versus the West, and more a case of Stalin against his own government. The alleged conspiracy was a powerful weapon for Stalin at the end of his life, a reason he could use to reassert complete control of the country. As he had become physically weaker, he had felt that his government was taking power from him. He wanted it back.
The doctors’ plot was quickly followed by mass arrests and executions. Stalin’s Soviet Union became even more paranoid. By that time there were over 10 million informants in the Soviet Union. They were everyday people. They could be your neighbors. Indeed every day, people informed on their neighbors. This was an atmosphere of mistrust, conspiracy and fear. Arbitrary power trumped the rule of law.
In the end it took something more powerful than Eisenhower or the West to stop this reign of terror—it took the death of Stalin. Less than a week after the dictator died in early March 1953, the doctors’ plot was discredited. Beria, the head of the Soviet security services, called for the doctors to be pardoned. He wanted to distance the USSR from the case and from any resultant confrontation with the West. Now, the official line was inverted: the plot had been by the government and its secret services against the Jewish doctors rather than by the doctors against the government.
Again, this tapped into the mindset of a Soviet system where conspiracy consistently trumped the rule of law.
There is one possible final twist to the doctors’ plot. Some historians now believe that the Soviet politburo, worried that Stalin would lead the country to war and/or ruin, killed their leader. For proof these conspiracy theorists cite that Stalin exhibited symptoms, such as vomiting blood and turning blue with cyanosis, which were never made public. That they were left out of the final report into his death and never acknowledged publicly might point to a plot against Stalin. This would of course be the ultimate irony. For if anyone deserved a conspired death it’s surely the man who created a society that was defined by its conspiratorial nature.