In Stalin’s World of 1948, Timashuk was wrong, and the doctors were right
Presented below is an excerpt from my new memoir, “Living has Become Better, Comrades. Living has Become Happier” that is being worked on. It is an expanded version of my earlier publication, Dunaevsky, V., “A Daughter of the ’Enemy of the People,’” Xlibris, 2018.
A substantial portion of the memoir presents a fresh look at life in the Soviet Union in the middle of the XX century. A multifaceted memoir addresses the lives of the author’s family members woven into the fabric of the epoch’s larger events, including Stalin’s purges of the 1930s, the relevant events of WWII and Holocaust, and Stalin’s post-war repressions. The abridged excerpt highlights the early 1950s characterized by the anti-Semitic and anti-cosmopolitan campaigns.
My parents’ good friends were also my dad’s boss and his wife. In the late 1940s, the boss was a chief engineer with the last name of Khronovsky. He was a nice tall fellow of Russian Polish descent who often wore a leather coat. Something in his face was very appealing and suggested a decent and resolute nature. His wife was a slim, petite, attractive, and mercurial woman. Although she did not occupy any prominent position in the city’s social life; she was self-assured, well-spoken, and (that was important in my mother’s judgment, who liked to be with her) in possession of good taste in women’s attire.
Being well dressed practically and fashionably was not easy. In Soviet times, the garment industry was inferior to European standards, and there were financial hurdles to take into account. In that regard, the ability to sew a dress or mend it (or to know a good seamstress) was important. One such seamstress happened to be the wife of one of my father’s acquaintances, Engineer Goldstein. We often visited them, and I very much enjoyed the borscht his wife used to feed us during dinnertime. This was after making or mending a particular dress was discussed. To my grandmother’s dismay, I openly said at one of these dinners that I liked Goldstein’s borscht more than that of Grandma’s.
Despite the good dinners, Goldstein’s acquaintance brought certain troubles for my father. He was called into the Ministerstvo Gosudarstvennoj Bezopasnosti (MGB) headquarters. The Ministry of State Security was the successor to the NKVD and the predecessor to the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD). In Murmansk, the MGB occupied a large, street-block-sized building. It was here my father was asked to be an informant and keep tabs on Goldstein’s family, reporting on all their guests, correspondence, etc.
This invitation coincided with the anti-cosmopolitan and anti-American campaign instigated by Stalin. It predominantly targeted the Jewish cultural and professional elite. Goldstein was targeted because he had some interaction with Americans. It is also possible either he or one of his relatives stayed in America during WWII for some time because of the line of duty.
The American contact was sufficient to blackball Goldstein and make him a suspect in the anti-Soviet activity. The wartime Soviet American alliance gave way to the Cold War with mutual accusations of spying and warmongering. According to my mother’s accounts, my dad refused to cooperate. The security apparatus did not easily forgive this disobedience, and as I understand, he was periodically blackmailed and threatened into cooperating.
The episode with Goldstein was a relatively mild example of the atmosphere in the USSR characterized by the anti-Semitic, anti-cosmopolitan campaigns that began shortly after WWII was over and continued until Stalin died on March 5, 1953. There were several intertwined motives for this postwar atmosphere. The Cold War between the United States and the USSR, the first phase of which began immediately after the end of 1945, and Israel orientation on America were a feeding ground on which Stalin continued his chess play of permanent witch hunts and periodic mass purges of the population. The anti-cosmopolitan campaign also started with a chauvinistic platform of overrating everything Russian and Soviet and underrating everything foreign and “bourgeois.”
The following joke satirizes the mentality of the time: “In France, a monograph called Introduction to the Study of Elephants was published. Therefore, the USSR published a book called The USSR Is the Motherland of the Elephants. In turn, Bulgaria, a satellite of the USSR, issued a book with the name A Bulgarian Elephant Is a Younger Brother of the Russian Elephant.”
Under the political and ideological terror of the Stalin regime, whole branches of science were abolished and branded bourgeois, and their leaders were persecuted. These developments caused the USSR and then the CIS, the Commonwealth of the Independent States, to lag in the fields of genetics, computers, agriculture, and others.
The anti-cosmopolitan campaign also benefited by downplaying the concentrated Nazis’ effort to exterminate Jews and downplaying Jewish contributions to the war effort (in industry, government, science, the partisan movement, and directly, the Soviet Army). Although the Jews won the fourth-largest number of medals in WWII (after Russians, Ukrainians, and Byelorussians), the atmosphere of the day, especially on a folksy level, presented Jews as draft dodgers or “Tashkent partisans.”
Stalin actually helped with the recognition of Israel. The USSR was the first country to officially recognize Israel’s independence, followed by the United States. Stalin allowed the transfer of arms from Czechoslovakia to Israel, and he also permitted a limited number of Russian Jewish pilots to join the military forces of Israel. Stalin hoped Israel would be a military base in the Middle East under the USSR’s command and act against British and American interests. This, however, did not exactly happen.
Stalin, ever the internationalist, couldn’t understand the Jewish population’s enthusiasm (at least a portion of it) for reviving Jewish culture and language, and he couldn’t understand their fervent attachment to Israel. His vision of a Communist doctrine strongly opposed nationalism, even though Stalin was a Georgian turned into a Great Russian chauvinist. Stalin even persecuted Georgians and other nationalities for their nationalism’s perceived expressions. He saw how enthusiastically the Jewish people greeted Golda Meir, the first Israeli premier, on her 1948 Moscow visit. Polina Zhemchuzhina, the Jewish wife of the Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs, V. Molotov, spoke in Yiddish with Meir, and as a consequence of this act, she was arrested and eventually banished from Moscow. This action was also a symbolic attack against Molotov and a reminiscence of the purges of the 1930s could be in the offing.
In this atmosphere, and as part of a newly launched official anti-Semitic campaign, the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC) was dismantled in November 1948. The JAC was created during WWII by the Russian Jewish culture’s leading representatives to lobby the American Jewry for financial assistance to the Soviet Union. But six months after the birth of Israel, it was gone. In the same year, the chairman of the JAC, an actor, and the head of the Moscow Jewish Theater, Michoels, was murdered on Stalin’s orders.
Most of the JAC members were arrested. They were accused of being spies for the United States for having floated the idea of a Jewish homeland in the Crimea instead of Birobidjan (the Jewish Autonomous Oblast in the Russian Far East). This idea was supported by Jewish agricultural communities that had existed in Crimea since the 1920s. Another of those grisly Soviet courtroom dramas seemed in the offing.
It was almost four years before the case came to trial. In the meantime, savage interrogation, often laced with anti-Semitic abuse, elicited phantasmagorical confessions from the prisoners. After confessing, they repeatedly recanted and were subject to more fearsome pressure, capitulated only to retract again. The investigators failed to produce any evidence of seditious activity, however specious, and the interrogations dragged on. On August 12, 1952, twelve Yiddish writers were executed in the Lubyanka Prison cellars. This secret was kept long after Stalin died in 1953.
A plot against Jewish doctors (дело врачей [delo vrachey, the “doctors’ case”]) was forming in parallel with these events. The anti-Jewish campaign was presumably set in motion by Stalin as a pretext to dismiss and replace Lavrentiy Beria, prosecute other Soviet leaders, to launch a massive purge of the Communist Party, and even to consolidate the country for future World war III.
The plot started without Jewish overtones. It was simply an outgrowth of the macabre atmosphere of intrigue in the upper echelons of government and security apparatus structures interspersed with informants and denunciations. The immediate origin was the death in 1948 of Zhdanov, a prominent Soviet leader, in the Kremlin sanatorium at Valdai, near Novgorod. Because of his death, Dr. Lydia Timashuk, responsible for Zhdanov’s latest EKG, sent a secret letter to Stalin’s chief bodyguard, Vlasic. In the letter, she alleged criminal negligence in Comrade Zhdanov’s treatment by his leading physicians, high-ranking doctors in Soviet medicine, and the Kremlin system. None of them was Jewish.
Timashuk was an MGB informer and hoped her information would be appreciated. She hoped the professors she accused of negligence would be brought to justice. Their anti-Soviet activity, which had possibly led to another Soviet leader’s earlier death, Shcherbakov, would be unmasked. Timashuk acted out of what she thought were the interests of the state. At the same time, she worked out of self-interest. If she did not denounce the other doctors, she was in danger of being condemned.
Timashuk’s plans did not work out as expected. When Stalin received her letter, he sent it to the archives without further investigation. Timashuk found herself in a precarious position and sent a few more letters to the security organs, which also went unanswered. In Stalin’s world of 1948, Timashuk was wrong, and the doctors were right.
Because of Stalin’s diabolical mind bent on restoring the political climate of the Great Purges of the 1930s and several other opportunistic events (particularly the Leningrad affair, the Leningrdskoe dyelo, the execution of Communist leaders from Leningrad and the purging of the security apparatus; and the case of the JAC), the pendulum that Timashuk helped swing began gradually moving in her favor.
The doctors’ plot was alleged to be a widespread conspiracy within the Soviet medical profession organized by Jewish physicians against Kremlin leaders. In the early 1950s, the Russian doctors who Timashuk accused have been arrested. On Stalin instructions, employing torture, including savage beatings, the doctors were forced to self-incriminate and admit that they were recruited by another prominent doctor, Jewish, who was already under arrest in connection with the JAC case and was accused of being a Jewish nationalist and the agent of the American and British intelligence bent on the destruction of the Soviet government. Beria and Malenkov both tried to use the situation to expand their power through gaining control of the MGB.
The case was growing, and the leading Jewish doctors were arrested. They were accused of murdering leaders such as A. A. Zhdanov, A. S., Shcherbakov, and others or planning their murders in league with American intelligence and corrupt Ministry of State security. Hundreds of doctors were arrested over a period of five months, beginning in October 1952 and ending in February 1953. Timashuk even received the Order of Lenin. (After Stalin’s death and the case’s closure, this was revoked.) The vicious anti-Semitic campaign already underway allegedly found evidence of international espionage, betrayal, terrifying plots to overthrow the government and poison the nation’s health. Fantastic rumors circulated that Jewish doctors were poisoning Russian children, injecting them with diphtheria, and killing newborn infants in maternity hospitals. Terrible clouds gathered on the horizon of Soviet society and even reverberated beyond its borders. In Czechoslovakia, eleven alleged Zionists, the members of the Communist Party, were hanged on December 3, 1952.
Being the Machiavellian he was, Stalin maintained a semblance of impartiality, apparently for external consumption. He even bestowed a Stalin Prize on I. Ehrenburg, on January 27.
Meanwhile, a few days earlier, on January 13, 1953, ‘Pravda featured a sensational headline: “Murders in White Gowns.” Jews would now be tried on a wave of public panic and hatred. Twenty-eight more doctors were arrested, and nine spouses. Rumors of a massive pogrom raged among Moscow’s anti-Semites, Jews, and diplomats. The MGB, which tried the doctor, collected these rumors: after the doctors had been hanged in Red Square, 400,000 Jews would be deported to Siberia to “save” them from the people‘s wrath; cattle wagons were ready in Moscow’s railway marshaling yards. There was no basis for any of this: the railway archives show no deportation preparations, and even a senile Stalin would have forbidden anything as spontaneous as a pogrom.’
‘The article revealed the lack of vigilance in the security services, a signal that Beria himself was a target. Not only were Beria’s allies were arrested in Georgia; his protégé in Moscow, such as the Chief of Staff, Shtemenko, was sacked. His ex-mistress V. Mataradze was also arrested. He “expected the death blow …at any minute,” wrote his son. Beria “expressed his disrespect for Stalin more and more boldly,” noted Khrushchev, “insultingly.”He even boasted to Kaganovich that “Stalin doesn’t realize if he tried to arrest me the Chekists would organize an insurrection.”’
‘However, a letter to Pravda was prepared, and sixty prominent Jews were told to sign it-they included the physicist Lev Landau, the poet Samuil Marshak, the novelist Vasili Grossman, and the film director Mikhail Romm. The signatories demanded the eradication of “Jewish bourgeois nationalists” and “spies and enemies of the Russian people.”
Two versions of the letter were created.  But it was never published. Either Stalin eventually decided not to publish it, or it was still being worked on by the time of his death. Meanwhile, Rayfield  wrote that ‘Seven weeks before his fatal stroke Stalin lost interest in the whole fabrication, and it fell apart before he was declared dead on March 5.’ Yet, some historians believe the deportation was definitely considered, and the only thing in question was the time-frame.
Although the doctor plot hysteria was rampaging predominantly in Moscow and Leningrad, its echo reverberated throughout the Soviet state. In the Murmansk clinic where Alla worked, a colleague of hers, a diminutive Jewish woman dentist, Dr. Kornibat, whose services I often used, was accused of infecting her patients with cancer. As with many denunciation victims, she was laid off and went through a sort of show trial among her colleagues before the formal charge was handed down. Fortunately, the world is not without good people, and in this case, the clinic director had the courage to defend Kornibat from the absurd accusations.
Typically, the participants in these discussions, while they understood the accusations’ absurdity, were silent or supported them. They “unmasked” the perpetrators, being afraid for their own situations. My aunt Lyalya (the daughter of Prof. Alexander Iosifovich Dombrovsky, my Grandma Lyuba’s brother-in-law) wrote:
‘Flourished was the hypocritical atmosphere from which there was no way to hide. I attended the Scientific Council of the Rostov Medical Institute (where my father was subject to his colleagues’ show trial). It is still too painful to recall this meeting even now. Many co-workers and students, whom my father worked many years with, stood up and denounced him.
The only one of his post-graduate students who found the courage to tell the truth was Dr. Vladimir Palamarchuck. He was then Chair of the X-Ray Department in the military district hospital. He said that all these accusations are complete nonsense and that he feels embarrassed to participate in this farce. He asserted that the new method of angiography that my father developed was the newest method that helps in the diagnostics of the most serious illnesses. My father was very thankful to Vladimir for his demonstrated support to the end of his life. Fortunately, in March of 1953, all this ugly campaign was over, and dad was not repressed.’ 
That meeting took place a couple of weeks after Stalin’s death when the anti-Semitic campaign was already waning. However, the province kept a watchful eye over the events fearing that the winds of change might alter their direction.
The anti-Semitic sentiment promulgated among the grown-ups in the early 1950s, began to trickle down to the children’s world and even in school. In the elementary school, which I attended in 1950-1954, a class journal was assigned to each class. One of the pages of this journal contained names of the pupils of that class and their nationality. –This is in the socialist state where all nationalities are supposed to be equal in their rights!
Typically, during the lesson, the teacher kept the book open on that page. Apparently, this helped spell the name of a pupil correctly when calling him up with a question. In 1952-53, when I was in the 2nd/3rd, I already knew that my nationality was Hebrew, which could be a source of trouble, in the form of taunting me or even ostracizing, if some children knew my nationality. At the same time, I did not perceive any teachers’ animosity. When teachers left the classroom for the intermission, they sometimes left the book on the table open on that page. Being worried that children now may glance into that page and discover my “true” identity, I tried to keep things under control and prevent this from occurring. Not very many options I had. Usually, I would have closed the book or turned the page as soon as the teacher would leave the classroom. I had to do it in such a way that the children did not pay strong attention to what I am doing. Therefore, besides learning the teacher’s disciplines, I was also becoming a professional sleuth.
My opinion about the teachers’ impartiality was, probably, a little naïve. I recall that in a parallel class, there was a little quiet pupil with a Jewish-sounding last name, Spitzer, and Semitic facial features. He often was on a receiving end of the teachers’ frustration, whatever was its cause. This was expressed in teachers yelling at him or let him spent a portion of the lesson behind the door for minor infractions of the school order. These punishments were applied to him definitely more often than to other pupils who were more prone to these infractions or me.
It also became unsafe to play with certain children in our backyard if they knew you were Jewish. One day, I went to the backyard area, where we usually played our favorite war games. There were three boys, two of whom I knew. One of them was Seva Rudin, the colonel’s son and used to go to school with me. Another, the son of a trawler captain who lived in our building. The small talk I struck up with the boys turned into the officer’s son, asking me if I was Jewish because he saw me with my parents in the company of an officer he knew was Jewish. I knew if I admitted I was Jewish, the boys would start ridiculing me. I also suspected the new boy was from a street gang who could harass me if he shared my identity with the gang.
Since I had not yet developed strong moral scruples and convictions, but to avoid trouble and mainly participate in the game, I told the boys that I was not Jewish, to their apparent disappointment. To that, the trawler captain’s son gladly informed me it had been customary to do a pogrom on the Jews and the new boy added it was too bad Hitler did not finish all the Jews. The officer’s son did not say much. However, he later became a victim of the “class” warfare that some schoolchildren from poorer families played out on richer families’ children.
However, on March 5, Stalin died, and the Delo vrachey came to a halt. Pushed by Beria, on March 31, 1953, the Ministry of Internal Affairs (which had replaced the MGB) recommended the arrested doctors are exonerated and pardoned in full.
On April 6, 1953, Pravda printed an article generally accusing the security services and the former minister of state security, S. D. Ignatiev, of dereliction, putting an end to the organized madness threatening to overwhelm Soviet society. The doctors who survived the ordeal were released and pardoned in full. Meanwhile, several leading security personalities spearheaded the doctors’ case were arrested and shot. Reference , however, throws out a provocative question, which it analyzes in detail: was the group of non-Jewish Kremlin doctors who were originally accused by Timashuk completely innocent, considering that nothing in the totalitarian Soviet state happened without the direct or indirect influence of its boss, Uncle Joe?
Stalin’s death was an epochal event. Many people cried and lamented that they would not know how to live now, acting like children who had lost their father. In Moscow, hundreds, if not thousands, perished in a stampede because of unwise logistics from authorities concerning a visitation of Stalin’s body lying in a governmental building in the center of Moscow. The day of Stalin’s funeral, March 7, was announced as a national mourning day. At noon, all country activities stopped for a few minutes while sirens went off. In our class in school, the boys agreed not to laugh that day, and those who violated this rule were supposed to be beaten.
However, these rules were not enforceable, and giggles and skirmishes took place periodically as usual. In the evening, one of my schoolmates, a chubby Russian boy with freckles and red hair with the last name Yakovlev, came to our flat to play with me. When the current events were discussed over a cup of tea, he asserted that, according to his parents, all Jews were glad Stalin had died. My grandma began dissuading him from that “strange” opinion. Nobody knew yet where the political winds would blow.
Красильщиков Аркадий - сын Льва. Родился в Ленинграде. 18 декабря 1945 г. За годы трудовой деятельности перевел на стружку центнеры железа,километры кинопленки, тонну бумаги, иссушил море чернил, убил четыре компьютера и продолжает заниматься этой разрушительной деятельностью.
Плюсы: построил три дома (один в Израиле), родил двоих детей, посадил целую рощу, собрал 597 кг.грибов и увидел четырех внучек..