Surviving Stalin’s Purges
Why couldn’t Soviet Jews see the dictator—who died 60 years ago—for the anti-Semitic murderer that he was?
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.
Sitting in their overheated, book-lined apartment decorated with furniture and wallpaper from the 1950s, the Kesselmans become animated when our conversation turns to the past—though their cheeriness is an uncomfortable contrast with the narrative of dispersal, persecution, and mass murder that unfolds in their living room. Before the Doctors’ Plot, they explain, there was the Nazi Holocaust, which claimed the lives of more than 2 million Soviet Jews. And before the Holocaust, there were the great purges of the Communist Party engineered by Stalin during the late 1930s.
“Prior to the war, my family lived in Kiev,” Ella recalled. “My father was the head of a factory that manufactured machine parts; my mother was a secretary in the office of the local Communist Party.” In the early part of the 1930s, Ukraine, commonly known as the “breadbasket” of the Soviet Union, had been the site of a terrible famine engineered by Stalin against those he termed kulaks, supposedly wealthy peasants hell-bent on cheating the Soviet authorities in their quest to requisition grain. The total number of deaths and deportations has been estimated at around 10 million people. And after the famine, there came the Great Purge of 1937-38, during which half a million Soviet citizens were executed and millions more were deported, as Stalin sought to prove through brute force that any form of dissent was futile.
“Every night, we would hear the elevator creaking as the NKVD men combed through the building where we lived, taking people away,” said Ella, referring to the Soviet secret police. “I was only 6 years old, but I knew something was wrong. I still don’t understand how my own family was spared.”
Being spared meant that once war with Nazi Germany broke out in 1941, Ella’s family was evacuated eastward, along with many Jews living in the European territories of the USSR, to Uzbekistan. Robert, meanwhile, found himself serving on the front line with the Red Army. He fought in the epic battle for the Kursk salient in 1943, when the decisive Soviet victory turned the war in the USSR’s favor.
“I was an artillery officer,” Robert said, sitting upright. “Among the artillery men there were lots of Jews, because you had to be mathematical, organized. When you fired a cannon, you had to first calculate the trajectory of the shell.” Such pride in the Red Army has persisted into the post-Soviet era: At the entrance to Sumy, as with many other towns around the region, visitors are greeted by a replica of the T-34 tank that became emblematic of the Soviet success in, as Winston Churchill put it, “tearing the guts out of the German army.” At the sparkling Jewish historical museum in Moscow, which opened last year in a gale of publicity, a side exhibit proudly commemorates the designer of the T-34: a Jewish engineer by the name of Isaak Zaltsman.
Wounded by German artillery at Kursk, Robert underwent an agonizing operation to remove shrapnel from his stomach, liver, and lungs. “I had a brilliant surgeon, a Jew,” he told me. After the war, he was given a posting in Sumy, where he practiced as an orthopedist and met and married Ella, herself recently qualified as an ophthalmologist.
Historically, Sumy was located outside of the Pale of Settlement, a vast territory created in 1791 by Catherine the Great and composed of parts of Russia, Ukraine, and several other neighboring countries, to which Jewish residency was restricted. When Robert and Ella Kesselman began their medical careers, Sumy, with its handful of Jewish families, was a world away from other Ukrainian cities like Odessa, where one could still hear Yiddish in the streets. Hidden away from the metropolitan centers of the Soviet Union, the various dress rehearsals for the Doctors’ Plot—the elimination of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in 1948; the Rudolf Slansky trial in Czechoslovakia in 1952, where the word “Zionism” acquired a sinister, pejorative ring; Stalin’s increasingly hysterical rants against “Jewish nationalists” in the years following the creation of Israel in 1948—passed the Kesselmans by. When the Pravda story appeared on Jan. 13, 1953, the couple had little sense of being in the midst of a fevered anti-Semitic campaign that abruptly ended with the dictator’s death two months later.
“It didn’t seem like another Beilis,” said Robert, referring to the 1913 trial of a Kiev Jew, Mendel Beilis, who was falsely accused of murdering a young Ukrainian boy before being acquitted in one of the last trials based on the notorious “blood libel” to reach a courtroom. “I thought it was going to be like the 1937 purge, when Jews were not particularly singled out.”
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