The Worst of the Terror

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

by Jonathan Brent and Vladimir P. Naumov
HarperCollins, 399 pp., $26.95

On August 7, 1948, Yuri Zhdanov wrote a letter to Pravda, the Communist Party newspaper. Yuri Zhdanov was not only the son of A.A. Zhdanov, a Politburo member and one of Stalin’s “favorites,” he was also Stalin’s son-in-law, and a Central Committee member in his own right. Nevertheless, the letter was an admission of grave error. Yuri had criticized T.D. Lysenko, the quack botanist who believed that acquired traits can be inherited. At the time, Lysenko was Stalin’s favorite scientist, and Yuri’s apology was abject. “I unquestionably made a whole series of serious errors in my presentation at a seminar of lecturers on the controversial questions of contemporary Darwinism,” his letter began. But the confession that followed is not easy to interpret. Here is an excerpt:

Being devoted with all my heart to the Michurinist doctrine, I criticized Lysenko not because he was a Michurinist, but because he had insufficiently developed the Mi-churinist doctrine. However,…the Michurinists objectively lost from such criticism and the Mendelev-Morganists won.

By reading the letter carefully, it is just possible to understand Zhdanov’s grammar. Having put in the effort, however, the contemporary reader will invariably be disappointed. Stalinist-era scientific disputes are so obscure, Stalinist-era phraseology—“Mendelev- Morganism” and “Michurinism”—now seems so unrelated to reality, that even a well-informed reader will find it hard to understand what Zhdanov was really apologizing for, what excuses he really meant to give, and what the whole affair was really about.

But then, the “Plot Against the Jewish Doctors”—the Stalinist conspiracy of which Zhdanov’s father may have been the first victim—is like that: while it is possible to read the documents and put together a chronology, the deeper motivations and concerns of the main characters remain obscure. In part, this is so because the documentary record is still incomplete. Mostly, however, it is because the alleged conspiracy—whether by Stalin or the doctors or both—largely existed within Stalin’s mind, and Stalin’s mind remains unfathomable. At one point in Stalin’s Last Crime, Jonathan Brent and Vladimir Naumov attempt to illustrate the problem with a literary analogy. “Stalin is Godot,” they write, “absent from an empty landscape. We wait, we guess, we attribute motives, we receive incomprehensible communications, but in the end he will not reveal himself, and there is no direct way toward understanding him as a ‘person.'”

Still, Brent and Naumov have made enormous efforts to pin down what exactly happened, and to whom. They have mapped out, for the first time, the convoluted sequence of events which came to be known as the Doctor’s Plot. They are well equipped to do so. Brent is the editorial director of Yale University Press and founder of its remarkable Annals of Communism series. Naumov, a Russian historian, has been the executive secretary of the Russian presidential commission for the rehabilitation of Stalin’s victims since it was set up by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1989. With unique access to Soviet archives, they were able to add previously unknown elements to what has always been an…

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