A tangled conspiracy tale, Soviet style
A plethora of Stalin studies -- his life, politics, thinking, psychology, relations to Lenin, Trotsky, Hitler, World War II etc. -- does not appease our ache for more about him. Despite works such as Robert Tucker’s monumental two-volume study “Stalin as Revolutionary” (1973) and “Stalin in Power” (1990), Adam Ulam’s “Stalin: The Man and His Era” (1989) and Robert Conquest’s “Stalin: Breaker of Nations” (1992), at least 10 new books in English have been recently published, each attempting to explain and disclose this man, whose secretive, autocratic legacy still lingers over Russia.
“Stalin’s Last Crime” makes such an effort to unmask him. But what distinguishes it from the rest is the way in which the authors combine crime-story narrative techniques with unprecedented, previously unknown documents from recently opened KGB archives to produce their account. Their book suggests that Stalin had a plan for worldwide chaos, starting by fabricating a Jewish conspiracy and ending in nuclear war. Even more startling, the authors suggest that this plan was foiled by one of Stalin’s own men, who killed the leader.
Jonathan Brent, editorial director of Yale University Press, and Russian historian Vladimir P. Naumov seek to untangle what happened to Stalin’s “final masterpiece of deception,” the Jewish Doctors’ Plot of 1953. Threatening to create purges across Soviet society to rival those in the 1930s, the plot alleged that a conspiracy existed among Jewish doctors to kill high-ranking KGB officers. Brent and Naumov attempt to uncover the truth behind such a plot and its origins in the 1948 death of Andrei Zhdanov, the Soviet state ideological grand inquisitor. Was Zhdanov’s death the result of a bureaucratic and medical oversight, or was it a masterful manipulation of that bureaucracy by its commander in chief, Joseph Vissarionovich himself?
The narrative starts with Lydia Timashuk, a KGB informant and Kremlin doctor, who was the first to blow the whistle on a possible doctors’ conspiracy against Zhdanov, best known for denouncing two of Leningrad’s leading writers, Anna Akhmatova and Mikhail Zoshchenko. Timashuk’s letter, written to her KGB handlers, described her suspicion that Zhdanov’s heart disease had been intentionally mistreated by his doctors to cause a heart attack.
The letter got into the hands of Dr. P.I. Yegorov, head of the Kremlin hospital and a high-level KGB affiliate responsible for the well being of all Politburo members. Yegorov, his own credibility at stake, got an upper hand in the fight with Timashuk, having her letter dismissed by Stalin v arkhiv (into the archive) and having her disappear for almost five years.
During those years the notion of a conspiracy expanded, not changing direction, but leaders. The disgraced and deposed Timashuk got rehabilitated in 1952, and Yegorov along with other doctors was put away. The conspiracy thickened to involve and then destroy the KGB officials, as well as many others -- the typical vintik (screw) and “pygmies” (as Stalin called them) including doctors, Jewish and not. “All played roles,” the authors write, “in a drama without explicit stage directions or directives.” The plot development, the authors suggest, is similar to that of “Waiting for Godot”: “Each [participant] attempted to interpret Stalin just as Vladimir and Estragon search out the hidden motives, intentions and plans of the invisible Godot for whom they hopelessly wait.”
One of the book’s great strengths is the use of cultural allusions -- from Samuel Beckett to Mozart to Akhmatova’s poetry. After all, Stalin, the subject of this study, “was interested in art -- simple, classical, direct....” The Jewish Plot was his own artistic masterpiece, where “plot fit inside plot in the intricate underworld of Stalin’s universe, as figure fits inside figure in the traditional Russian Matrioshka dolls.” These Matrioshka plots subsequently included seemingly unrelated cases that threatened to have a wider effect on Soviet society: Included was the so-called Leningradskoe delo (Leningrad case), in which the city’s communist head Alexei Kuzhnetsov was accused of machinations against Moscow leadership and even the vozhd (leader) himself.
The Jewish Antifascist Committee and its president, the famous Soviet Jewish actor Solomon Mikhoels, was also named part of the conspiracy, and there was a rumored plot to destroy the Kremlin called “The Plan of the Internal Blow.” That plan revolved around the case of I.I. Varfolomeev, an alleged “spy who had worked for the Japanese prior to the Great Patriotic War [World War II] and for the Americans beginning in 1948.”
Five nuclear devices were to be fired from the windows of the U.S. Embassy (then on Red Square) at the Kremlin: The whole Soviet central government “would go up in smoke, as would most of Moscow.” Here, Stalin’s paranoia moves from the world of Beckett to Eugene Ionesco and to the theater of the absurd.
The book pays great attention to details, explaining through documents and analysis that “Timashuk’s letter had nothing to do with inaugurating the plot. It had everything to do, after the fact, with helping to establish the existence of the conspiratorial group,” because “underlying Stalin’s strategy was the deeply rooted principle, inherited from Lenin, that enemies were more useful to Soviet power than friends.”
“Stalin,” the authors add, “wasn’t simply paranoid. He didn’t see enemies everywhere -- he invented them because he needed them.”
The book’s impressive documentation allows for Stalin to be studied the way we study Machiavelli’s accounts of Medicis and Borgias. Stalin had no such Machiavelli to write about him, and he left very little in writing that conveys his thoughts. True, there are works on linguistics and speeches on political economy, but these are propaganda texts, while his real strategic thinking transpires in a few but important comments, such as v arkhiv: “Stalin rarely, if ever, acted directly against those he destroyed. He invariably used proxies.”
To deconstruct Stalin’s strategies in creating the Jewish conspiracy case, Brent and Naumov use vintik confessions, letters by various officials, articles published in Pravda and Izvestia and a few of Stalin’s own, mostly unofficial, remarks. The authors’ account is flawlessly and meticulously researched, at times maybe a little too meticulously for a smooth-flowing narrative. But in all, a reader should count on the thrill of a good historical detective story unraveling in front of one’s eyes. Its characters are more powerful and real than the characters of Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. These include not only the small and middle-size Soviet bureaucrats but also the story’s heavy machinery: Lavrenty Beria, 1938-45 security chief; Georgy Malenkov, 1948-53 secretary of the Central Committee; Vyacheslav Molotov, minister of foreign affairs; Anastas Mikoyan, member of the Politburo; Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin’s successor (1956-64) and others.
“It was not by accident that the medical and the political sides of the plot were expanding in the same way toward greater and greater inclusiveness,” the authors assert. “The plotters were potentially all Jews, and all Jews were potential enemies of the state.”
They explain that “by providing the plot with Jewish characters, Stalin could broaden the conspiracy ... to the international scene in which America and the newly formed state of Israel posed significant, if still potential, threats to Soviet power and prestige. The Jews would become the ‘canal’ through which American subversion flowed directly into the Soviet government, threatening to destroy it. The new menace would have both an external and an internal component.”
“The Plan of the Internal Blow” along with the “Jewish conspiracy” of which the vozhd himself would become a target was to justify a Soviet holocaust and the possible “hot war” between the Soviet Union and the United States. This particular hypothesis, offered by Brent and Naumov, lacks consistent documented proof; however, it appears convincing and even credible precisely because of the earlier narrative they have constructed around other documents.
This new holocaust on Russian soil, unlike that of the Israelites in Exodus or of the victims of Hitler, would not have been just about ethnicity or geography. It was about Stalin’s power, and not just in Russia, but about Stalin’s power around the world. According to the authors, he wouldn’t hesitate to take down the world to get on top. Stalin was not simply anti-Semitic, as some may misconstrue; he was anti-people: “His greatest enemy was human nature itself and the millions of years of evolution that had produced the capacity for rational thought.”
The final speculation of the book is the least documented and is at best contradictory (and, thus, the most intriguing): Threatened by possible nuclear holocaust, Beria (with the likely knowledge of Khrushchev) executed his own plot in poisoning Stalin right before the vozhd’s “masterpiece of deception.” So the Jewish Doctors’ Plot reached its fatal culmination -- fatal to its creator. Here is the perfect -- unsolvable -- finale for a historical crime story: Stalin’s skeleton will forever remain in Russia’s closet, keeping analysts, researchers and the nation busy sorting out his legacy. *