Below is an excerpt from my Tablet feature on the sixtieth anniversary of the notorious "Doctors' Plot" in the Soviet Union, which unravelled only after Stalin's death in March 1953. To read the article in full, please visit the Tablet website.
On a freezing morning in January 1953, Robert Kesselman, a Jewish doctor living in Sumy, a hardened provincial city in eastern Ukraine, picked up a copy of Pravda, the official Communist newspaper. The front page of Joseph Stalin's mouthpiece was splashed with the lurid headline "The Murderers in White Coats." Kesselman, a newly certified orthopedist, tore through the report, which claimed that leading Soviet doctors, most of them Jews, were engaged in a nefarious conspiracy to poison the top leadership of the Communist Party.
According to the Pravda propaganda, nine prominent medical specialists, six of whom were Jewish, stood accused of murdering two of Stalin's close colleagues, Andrei Zhdanov and Alexander Scherbakov. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a non-political aid agency that had been assisting needy Jews in the Soviet Union since the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, was identified as the "Zionist spy organization" behind the doctors' conspiracy. Had the "terrorist" doctors not been unmasked, Pravda declared, many more leading Soviet military and political officials would have been murdered. Two of the doctors died in custody, while the remaining seven confessed to their "crimes" under torture. Lidia Timashuk, a medical assistant whose accusations grounded the entire fabrication, was awarded the Order of Lenin as a token of Stalin's esteem.
What we now refer to as the "Doctors' Plot" is regarded by many historians as the opening move of Stalin's grand plan to deport and eliminate the Jews of the Soviet Union. A CIA report of June 1953 emphasized that the plot "had clearly anti-Semitic overtones." Three non-Jewish doctors had been included among the accused, the report observed, only because no Jews had actually attended Stalin's two colleagues, both of whom died several years earlier.
But to Soviet Jews like Robert Kesselman, now 88, and his wife Ella, an ophthalmologist who turns 82 later this year, the Pravda story and other signals from Moscow were ambiguous. "When I read the Pravda story, my first reaction was not to believe it," Robert told me in January, when I visited the Kesselmans in Sumy. "I also didn't see the anti-Semitism at first, and I didn't think that what was happening would impact me."
To contemporary ears, that last remark is hard to believe, let alone understand. We know, from the innumerable histories of the Stalin era, that spreading and manipulating public fear of the security services was the Kremlin's supreme means of retaining control. For Jews and other beleaguered nationalities in the USSR, ethnic origin was simply a reason to feel doubly scared. To properly comprehend why the reports of the Doctors' Plot didn't strike the Kesselmans as worrisome, at least initially, one has to delve into the events of the decades immediately prior—events that, for Soviet Jews like Robert and Ella, were intimate family affairs, but that, for outsiders, are a masterclass in survival in the face of a totalitarian state.
Sixty years after the Doctors' Plot and Stalin's death, those Jews who survived the dictator's reign are now settling into their twilight years, safe in the knowledge that they can share their memories without the fear of the gulag. Against the background of their experiences, today's threats—even the anti-Semitism that has again surfaced in Ukraine through the nationalist Svoboda Party, which won more than 10 percent of the vote in the 2012 elections—seem mild by comparison.