Seventy-one years ago this past weekend, on January 13, 1953, the official Soviet Communist Party newspaper Pravda reported a curious and potentially explosive development: several doctors in Moscow had been arrested by state security police and charged with trying to assassinate top leaders of the USSR by means of intentional medical malpractice. The cabal of evil doctors was supposedly “bought by American intelligence” and recruited from the members of a notorious anti-fascist committee that was suspected of having ulterior motives. Notably, however, most of the doctors accused were Jewish, and the committee from which they came was a Zionist organization. Pravda also named the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a charity headquartered in New York City, as one of the organs behind the nefarious plot. The inference that Pravda seems to have intended was that Jews were trying to bring down the Socialist Motherland. It was the beginning of another outbreak of antisemitism in Russia, but a uniquely complex one.
The strange story of the “Doctors’ Plot” begins in May 1945, immediately after the USSR’s victory over Germany at the end of World War II. A noted Soviet official and writer, Alexander Scherbakov, who some say drank heavily, suffered heart failure and died at a Moscow hospital. Three years later, in August 1948, another Soviet bigwig, Andrei Zhdanov, also an alcoholic, died under the same circumstances. In both cases Kremlin doctors treating the men had some sort of consulting relationship with a Jewish doctor named Yakov Etinger. In the fall of 1951 an MGB (Ministry for State Security) official named Mikhail Ryumin wrote a letter to his superior, Abakumov, alleging that Dr. Etinger had killed both Scherbakov and Zhdanov by artificially inducing heart failure. Abakumov did not believe the story, but Dr. Etinger was arrested anyway. If he was innocent, he never got the chance to tell the MGB. He died after being tortured the night before his scheduled interrogation by Abakumov.