One Foot In The Past

The Soviet “Doctors' Plot”—50 years on

BMJ 2002; 325 doi: (Published 21 December 2002) Cite this as: BMJ 2002;325:1487
  1. A Mark Clarfield, Sidonie Hecht professor of gerontology (
  1. Faculty of Health Sciences, Ben Gurion University, Beersheva, Israel
  1. Correspondence to: Department of Geriatrics, Soroka Hospital, PO Box 151, Beersheva 84101, Israel

    A half century has passed since Stalin accused a group of doctors—most of them Jewish—of plotting against the state. The ramifications of this case continue to the present day

    Just under 50 years ago, on 4 April 1953, Pravdacarried a prominent statement by Lavrenty Beria, Stalin's infamous head of secret police, exonerating nine Soviet doctors (seven of them Jews) who had previously been accused of “wrecking, espionage and terrorist activities against the active leaders of the Soviet Government.” The Soviet people, especially its Jews, were astounded to learn that just a month after Stalin's death the new leadership now admitted that the charges had been entirely invented by Stalin and his followers. Seven of the doctors were immediately released—two had already died at the hands of their jailers.

    The infamous “Doctors' Plot” speaks volumes about Soviet politics, Stalin's role, the persistence of a medieval view of doctors as potential poisoners, and the survival of overt anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, despite the known horrors of the recent Holocaust. 1 2 For Stalin, whose deeds easily matched those of Hitler and whose deceits had been evident throughout his life, the Doctors' Plot and intended show trial were meant to cleanse the Soviet Union of “foreign,” “cosmopolitan,” and “Zionist” (read Jewish) elements. In fact, it was the only one of Stalin's show trials that did not come off—only because he died just before the spectacle was to begin.3

    Summary points

    Stalin used show trials—as well as mass murder and forced migration—to terrify and silence citizens of the Soviet Union

    In early 1953 Stalin planned to stage a show trial of several doctors, most of whom were Jewish and who were falsely accused of acting against the state—a trial that underlined Stalin's anti-Semitism

    Despite the state's exoneration of the doctors immediately after Stalin's …

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