Stalin against the Jews: How the Soviet dictator lost his last fight

80 years ago, Stalin’s death brought an end to Jewish persecution and the famous “Doctor’s Case”

Stalin against the Jews: How the Soviet dictator lost his last fight

Stalin against the Jews: How the Soviet dictator lost his last fight

80 years ago, the Georgian strongman's death brought an end to persecution of the religious minority and the infamous “Doctor’s Case”

Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s “purges," targeted at groups of his perceived rivals, are a unique historical and psychological phenomenon as well as the subject of considerable research. In the 1920s, the Georgian indiscriminately eliminated political competitors from opposing parties and classes, former White Army officers, and workers of the tsarist military-industrial complex. In the 1930s, he went after internal party opponents, the entire leadership of the Red Army, and the NKVD [forerunner to the KGB). Fortunately, the terror was briefly halted during World War Two. 

By the end of the conflict, the search for internal enemies guilty of “impeding the construction of communism” resumed. The new enemy of the Stalinist regime was presented in the image of a cosmopolitan and... a Jew. The so-called ‘Doctors' Case’ was to become the highlight of this new anti-Semitic purge, but the legal process was abruptly closed immediately after Stalin’s death. 

Rootless cosmopolitanism

The USSR’s joint victory over Germany and Japan together with Western allies gave rise to a geopolitically unjustified, “friendly” attitude towards Western countries. Ordinary Soviet people just couldn’t see how people that helped them throughout the war suddenly became the enemy in a new, ‘cold’ war.

To fix this cognitive dissonance, the USSR launched a campaign against cosmopolitanism. The authorities advocated the idea that the war against Hitler was won by one great nation – the Soviet people, as Stalin proclaimed in his famous toast on May 24, 1945. Now, if this nation defeated the world's evil, it surely possessed the best of everything. Thus, any attempts to compare the domestic situation to life in other countries were labeled as “kowtowing before the West.”

Citizens expressing “cosmopolitan” views and statements, especially those whose work implied contacts with foreigners, could easily fall victim to the “anti-Soviet” Article 58 of the Criminal Code. Legal formulations based on observed behavior ranged from “admired American weapons and military equipment” (received by the USSR under lend-lease) to “nurtured anti-Soviet sentiments” or “had ties resulting in suspicions of espionage.”

The campaign proceeded at all levels. Newspapers and Soviet “courts of honor” launched a campaign against “idealism,” “cosmopolitanism," “formalism,” and “Jewish bourgeois nationalism.” The latter was particularly important, since after Israel’s War of Independence, it became clear that, contrary to Stalin’s calculations – not to mention his supply of weapons to the Zionists – Israel would not become a satellite state of the USSR in the Middle East.

In 1948, the Soviet authorities began purging the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC), which they had created just a few years earlier. The organization’s leader, world-famous theater director and Jewish public figure Solomon Mikhoels, was killed in Minsk on Stalin's personal order.

The JAC answered to the NKVD and was initially established for propaganda purposes in 1942. Soviet Jews, scientists, and intellectuals were members of the organization. Their primary job was to collect financial assistance from the international community on behalf of the Jews fighting Nazism under the red banner.

Among other things, the committee collected information regarding the Holocaust on German-occupied Soviet territory. The ‘Black Book’ was printed in New York in 1946, but was never published in the USSR. According to the official stance of the authorities, the entire population of the Soviet Union was affected by the war, not just several nationalities. Therefore, the only Holocaust memorial was erected in Kiev, in Babi Yar. Memorials at other places of mass executions of the Jews were forbidden, despite numerous appeals by the Jewish community.  

As the war ended and USSR’s political failure in Israel became apparent, the organization was deemed useless and said to merely attract “unnecessary” attention. So the JAC was dissolved in 1948.

At that time, the two campaigns – against “kowtowing before the West” and that of latent anti-Semitism –  merged into a single fight against cosmopolitanism. Jews, especially Zionists, became the most frequent victims. In order to achieve solid results in the mobilization economy, the enemy had to have a face. While England and the US were the image of the external enemy, “cosmopolitans” became the USSR’s internal "fifth column."

Russia is the homeland of elephants

The campaign was conducted by the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the Central Committee of the CPSU and was led by Andrey Zhdanov. The department's attitude was explicitly clear:

“There can be no talk of any civilization without the Russian language, without the science and culture of the Soviet peoples. They have the priority.The capitalist world has passed its zenith and is convulsively rolling down, while the country of socialism, full of power and creative forces, is on the rise.The Soviet system is a hundred times greater and better than any bourgeois system, and the bourgeois democracies, with their political systems lagging an entire epoch behind the USSR, will have to catch up with the first country of true people’s power.” Party organizations were told to “focus on educating workers in the ideas of Leninism, encourage the sacred feelings of Soviet patriotism and a burning hatred of capitalism and all manifestations of bourgeois ideology.”

Ogonyok magazine reproduced images of works by Western artists, such as Salvador Dali, with harsh criticism of the “militant imperialism and zoological misanthropy.” Western literature was hardly ever translated. “Nord" cigarettes were renamed “Sever” [Russian for ‘North’] and “French bread” was renamed “urban bread.” During this period there were also attempts to attribute the discovery of the Law of Conservation of Matter to Mikhail Lomonosov, not Antoine Lavoisier, and the invention of the radio telegraph to Alexander Popov instead of Guglielmo Marconi. A joke underlining the absurdity of the campaign emerged at the time: “Russia is the homeland of elephants.”

In January 1948, Zhdanov first used the epithet ‘rootless cosmopolitan’ in his speech. "Internationalism is born where national art flourishes. Forgetting this truth means... losing your face, turning into a rootless cosmopolitan."

In another article, one of his deputies stated that cosmopolitanism is the ideology of the imperialist bourgeoisie. This included Pavel Milyukov, Nikolai Bukharin, Leon Trotsky, all Vlasovites and collaborators. In short, all the political opponents of the Stalinist regime and the enemies of the people were labeled cosmopolitans. From a seemingly amorphous accusation, ‘cosmopolitanism’ turned into a term as dangerous as ‘traitor of the Motherland.’

The campaign was accompanied by outbursts of severe criticism in the newspapers, including certain literary and theatrical publications, with most of it directed against Jews. However, there were no severe mass repressions. From 1948 to 1953, things didn’t move beyond aggressive public sentiments. 

“International center of espionage”

At the end of August 1948, Zhdanov experienced troubles with his heart. Like the rest of the country’s top leadership, he was monitored by the best doctors of the USSR, who worked in the medical and sanitary department of the People's Commissariat of Health. On August 28, the head of the functional diagnostics department, Lydia Timashuk, did a cardiogram at Zhdanov's country house and diagnosed a heart attack. However, more experienced and high-ranking doctors ignored her conclusion, excluded the diagnosis of heart attack, and prescribed other treatments. Timashuk wrote to her superiors explaining her position, but these letters were also ignored. Three days later, Zhdanov died of a heart attack.

This incident later formed the basis of the ‘Doctors' Case.’ However, it wasn’t immediately given due attention. In those years, the Soviet authorities had plenty of other motives for removing undesirable people. For example, the purge of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee was then in full swing. In 1949, a criminal case was initiated against the organization and the authorities arrested the entire leadership of the JAC. Fifteen people were accused of “ties to Jewish nationalist organizations in America..." Of those, 13 were shot in 1952, and about a hundred more members of the organization were repressed.

Antisemitic processes also took place across Eastern Europe. In November 1952, the Rudolf Slansky trial took place in Czechoslovakia. At the time, part of the leadership of Czechoslovakia – a key republic of the Eastern bloc – tried to establish direct ties with socialist Yugoslavia ruled by Josif Tito. Moscow’s reaction to this was severe. Thirteen people were put on trial, including Slansky, the secretary general of the Central Committee of the CPC, Foreign Minister Vladimir Klementis, and other senior officials. Of the 13 people, 11 were Jews, which made the accusation directly antisemitic. Moreover, at the trial, Israel was called a tool in the hands of the supporters of a new world war, and an international center of espionage.

Against this background, Timashuk's reports were seen in a new light. It turned out, her superiors who did not back the diagnosis were mostly Jews. Many of them were arrested, and an article titled ‘Vile spies and murderers in the guise of medical professors’ was published in Pravda and other newspapers. A detailed official report of the incident followed:

“The investigation established that members of the terrorist group, abusing the status of physicians and the trust of patients, deliberately and villainously undermined their health, made incorrect diagnoses, and killed the patients with improper treatment. Under the guise of the high and noble title of physicians – men of science, these fiends and murderers trampled the sacred banner of science. Embarking on a path of monstrous crimes, they have defiled the honor of scientists.”

The same TASS report stated: “It has been established that all members of the terrorist group worked for foreign intelligence services, to whom they sold body and soul, and were their hired paid agents.” It went on to say their goal was to “kill active officials of the Soviet state.”

Another quote from the same report:

“Most members of the terrorist group – Vovsi, B. Kogan, Feldman, Greenstein, Etinger, and others – were hired by American intelligence. They were recruited by the international Jewish bourgeois-nationalist organization ‘Joint’ – a branch of American intelligence. The dirty face of this Zionist spy organization, which hides its vile activities under the guise of charity, has been completely exposed.”

‘Joint’ was indeed a charity organization that had existed since World War One and provided relief to Jews around the world. Two world wars, the Great Depression, the rise of the Nazis to power, and Israel’s War of Independence offered plenty of occasions for humanitarian aid. It is not surprising that the arrested doctors could have had contact with such a powerful international organization.

Stalin's personal dislike of the Jews played a large part in these events. On December 1, 1952, Stalin declared: “Any nationalist Jew is an agent of American intelligence. Nationalist Jews believe that their nation was saved by the United States... Among doctors, there are many nationalist Jews.”

The tone of accusations in media outlets like Pravda and TASS, as well as the high rank of the arrested ‘killers in white robes’ left no doubt that a large-scale public trial was being prepared. Only this time, the accused were not servicemen or Trotskyists, but doctors and mostly Jews.


The main defendant was Miron Vovsi. In 1941-1950, Vovsi was the chief physician of the Soviet Army, held the titles of academician and major general, and was one of the developers of military field therapy. Following his arrest at the end of 1953, he was named the leader of the group of ‘killer doctors.’

Besides Vovsi, the accused included the head of the Department of Hospital Therapy of the First Moscow Medical Institute Boris Kogan, the creator and head of the ENT Department of the Central Institute for Advanced Medical Training Alexander Feldman, Joseph Stalin's physician Vladimir Vinogradov, the head of the Kremlin's medical and sanitary department and Stalin's leading physician Pyotr Egorov, and Yakov Etinger – the personal physician of people’s commissars Georgy Chicherin, Sergo Ordzhonikidze, Semyon Budyonny, Maxim Litvinov, and Palmiro Togliatti. 

These doctors along with several other famous medical professors were imprisoned in late 1952-early 1953. All the defendants were actively interrogated and preparations for a public trial were underway. Essentially, all were brought up on the same charges – the deliberate ill-treatment of major party officials.

However, the hearing never took place, because in early March 1953, Stalin himself suddenly fell ill and soon died. 

Nikolai Mesyatsev, former special case investigator in the USSR Ministry of State Security, claimed that the link between the closure of the doctors' case and Stalin's death was based on speculation. According to Mesyatsev, the decision to close the case was reached by mid-February 1953. This explanation is contradicted by the growing accusations against the doctors and anti-Jewish stories in the press – both of which surged in mid-February and ceased only after the dictator's demise.

Historians agree that Lavrentiy Beria initiated the closure of the case on March 13 – a week after Stalin's death. Everyone arrested in the "Doctors' Case'' was released and reinstated a month afterwards. On the following day, an official announcement proclaimed that the confessions were obtained using “unacceptable investigative methods.” Lieutenant Colonel Ryumin, the official in charge of the case had been dismissed from the Ministry of State Security and was immediately arrested on Beria's order. He was shot in the summer of 1954 during Khrushchev’s trials of perpetrators of mass repressions. 

The case was quickly overshadowed by the national mourning of the death of Stalin and a feeling of inevitable internal policy changes. All of a sudden, there was a sense of relief. 

In the Soviet Union, anti-Israel rhetoric faded away until the Six-Day War of 1967. Meanwhile, Khrushchev's trips to the US put an end to the persecution of “cosmopolitans.” Incidentally, not long before this he would’ve surely been accused of “kowtowing before the West.”