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Stalin's Last Crime: The Plot Against the Jewish Doctors, 1948-1953

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Stalin's Last Crime: The Plot Against the Jewish Doctors, 1948-1953

Stalin's Last Crime: The Plot Against the Jewish Doctors, 1948-1953

Everyone is at least vaguely aware of the fact that Joseph Stalin’s brutal policies caused the arrests and deaths of untold numbers of innocent people during his dictatorial reign. The extent of his crimes are still coming to light, though, and we may never know all the details. One attempted purge, which fortunately did not go as far as planned, was the “doctor’s plot,” an alleged conspiracy of Jewish doctors working on behalf of Western imperialists and Zionists to kill the Soviet leadership.


Title: Stalin's Last Crime: The Plot Against the Jewish Doctors, 1948-1953
Author: Jonathan Brent, Vladimir Naumov
Publisher: HarperCollins
ISBN: 006019524X

• Comprehensive look at an important, but generally unknown, Stalinist purge
• Explores briefly the nature of charismatic, totalitarian government systems

• Very heavy on details

• Account of Stalin’s plot to eliminate Jewish doctors and other important Jews
• Explains how this was merely a prelude to a general purge of the government and society
• Argues that had Stalin lived and succeeded, it might have lead to a war with the West

Book Review

The “doctor’s plot” led to the arrests and execution of thousands of Jewish doctors, artists, poets, and more. Because of this and because it launched a wave of anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, it is generally seen as simply an anti-Semitic pogrom in modern Russia. In many ways, that’s true; yet the purge was also far more than that. As Jonathan Brent and Vladimir Naumov are able to demonstrate in their book Stalin’s Last Crime: The Plot Against the Jewish Doctors, 1948-1953, the purge was aimed at least as much at the Soviet government as it was at Jews generally.

Stalin intended to eliminate as many as several hundred thousands with this purge and it took a long time to set up. It was also difficult to make it work because the Soviet system was already growing beyond him. Soviet prosecutors wanted evidence to convict alleged conspirators, even manufactured evidence, and were unwilling to move forward just on Stalin’s command.

Torture was producing conflicting testimony which wouldn’t work in show trials and the police wanted consistent evidence in order to pursue their investigations. In effect, the Soviet system was becoming more fully based on rational and legal standards rather than the charismatic leadership of Stalin. It was this Stalin was likely trying to prevent with the purge

To understand why Stalin would launch a plot against his own government, it’s necessary to understand why such purges were created in the first place. They weren’t designed to get rid of enemies, but to create enemies and remove political agents whose loyalty might be to certain ideals or to the system rather than to those currently in charge (i.e., Stalin himself). The legitimacy of the whole system was based upon the personality of Stalin; because of this, it was necessary to eliminate those who might disagree and to keep people focused upon enemies of Stalin rather than Stalin’s own failure to govern well.

Stalin's Last Crime: The Plot Against the Jewish Doctors, 1948-1953

Stalin's Last Crime: The Plot Against the Jewish Doctors, 1948-1953

There is quite a bit in Stalin’s Last Crime which touches upon very interesting issues involving the conflict between absolutist, charismatic government and legal or rationalistic government. The book probably would have been even more interesting, to me at least, had these themes been explored in more detail, but most of the detail is about the plot itself. In fact, there is so much detail about the plot that most readers may find it all to be far too much. This book should be great for scholars or those with a deep interest in Stalin and Soviet history; others, though, will end up skimming large sections.

Stalin’s plan was ultimately foiled by his own death. Those who succeeded him had no interest in continuing the farce and quickly ended it — even going so far as to launch their own purge of those involved in the conspiracy. For this, everyone should be thankful because as the authors argue, it was likely that Stalin may have intended to use the purge as an excuse to go to war with the West. Indeed, it’s possible that Stalin was killed by his eventual successors precisely because they recognized the madness of his goals and wanted a quick change before matters got out of hand.

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