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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?

Ben Cohen
February 26, 2013

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.

“Evidence of a crime,” cartoon from the January 1953 edition of Krokodil.(NCBI)
“Evidence of a crime,” cartoon from the January 1953 edition of Krokodil.(NCBI)

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.”

Robert paused to gather his thoughts. “Also, you have to remember that Jews were strongly represented in the medical profession,” he added, “so I thought that the Jewish origins of the majority of the accused was just a reflection of our disproportionate numbers.”


Other historical and psychological associations helped to delay the realization among Jews like the Kesselmans that anti-Semitism was becoming state doctrine in the Soviet Union. To begin with, Stalin’s coterie included a fair number of Jews. Among them were Lev Mekhlis, the editor of Pravda, and Solomon Milshtein, who, in his capacity as the boss of the Soviet railway system, oversaw the mass deportation of hundreds of thousands of prisoners to the gulags. And with memories of World War II still fresh, many Jews still believed that Stalin was their savior. In their minds, anti-Semitism was a dogma rooted in racist pseudoscience, indelibly linked to the Nazi atrocities. The notion that it might adapt to Soviet conditions seemed unthinkable.

Then there were the gruesome fates of other national minorities. For example, in Kalmykia, a constituent republic of the Russian Federation in the south of the country, 90,000 Kalmyks, a Buddhist people who trace their origins to northwestern China, were deported en masse by the Soviet authorities during a single night in December 1943. Such bestial acts that targeted, in this case, mainly women and children, cemented the belief among Jews that, while they might be victims of prejudice, others had it far worse.

Moreover, the deadly blend of Soviet patriotism and Russian nationalism encouraged by Stalin after the war forced the belief upon Soviet Jews that they had suffered not as Jews, but as Soviet citizens. Under the Soviet regime, the monument at Babi Yar, a ravine near Kiev where almost 34,000 Jews were shot by the Nazi Einsatzgruppen in 1941, made no mention of the Jewish origins of the victims. On the bitterly cold steppe of Gulshan Balka, the site of a mass execution committed by the Nazis in Kalmykia during six months of occupation in 1942, the stark angular monument referenced not Jews but “resistance fighters.”

A handful of elderly Jews still reside in Elista, the capital of Kalmykia. Grigory Goldvarg, an 87-year-old Red Army veteran with a gaunt face and an icy stare, is one of them. A German speaker, Goldvarg served with the Red Army units that liberated Auschwitz in January 1945. In a voice scorched by the Russian cigarettes he still smokes, he recalled approaching the concentration camp with his comrades. “The odor of burning flesh was everywhere,” he said. “We’d heard rumors about what a dreadful place this was. We were thinking, ‘We’ll free the camp and take the glory.’ But once we were inside, we started to weep.”

Yet despite having witnessed these horrors himself, Goldvarg didn’t present Auschwitz as a Jewish tragedy. There were Jews among those who were liberated, he said, but also Russians, Bulgarians, Poles, and Ukrainians. Throughout our conversation, he spoke of Stalin in reverential tones. When I asked about the Doctors’ Plot, he shrugged his shoulders and said he’d never heard of it.

Was this the fading memory of an elderly man, or was it self-censorship? When I met with Goldvarg’s brother Boris later that day and reported what Grigory had told me, he laughed. “My brother is an incorrigible Communist,” he said, “but I love him.” Asked if he remembered the Doctors’ Plot, Boris said, “Of course” he had, adding: “All the problems of the Jews started with this. You could feel it in the air then and after, in ’54, ’55, and ’56. In ’56, I was a student in Stavropol. Some of my fellow students would whisper about me, ‘He’s one of them.’ ”


A good deal of evidence has amassed that suggests that Stalin had a grand plan to deport the Soviet Jewish population en masse. In his book Stalin Against the Jews, journalist Arkady Vaksberg quotes a number of aides close to Stalin who claimed that the dictator intended, after the seven surviving doctors had been publicly hanged in Red Square, to transport the Jews to the eastern gulags. Ultimately, it was Stalin’s death on March 5, 1953, that saved the Jews of the Soviet Union–or at least transformed them into accidental survivors. As Vaksberg notes with a certain relish, one of the reasons Stalin’s life could not be saved was that the most eminent doctors were either in prison or had been executed or deported.

This last point was underlined by Alexander Tchen, a doctor from Kazakhstan who accompanied me to the Jewish museum in Moscow. The son of a Polish Jewish mother, who fled the Nazis only to wind up in the gulag, and an adoptive Korean father, Tchen told me that it was thanks to the Doctors’ Plot that “real medicine arrived in Kazakhstan.”

Many of Tchen’s professors were Jews forcibly sent to Kazakhstan in the wake of the Doctors’ Plot. “They were afraid to speak about what happened,” he said, “because we could have had another Doctors’ Plot, another instance of ‘blame the Jews.’ The events that happened then could have been repeated under Brezhnev or any of the other Soviet leaders.”

Indeed, while it’s true that the mild thaw that followed Stalin’s death eased the pressure on the Jews–Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, admitted that the Doctors’ Plot had been a hoax and revoked Lidia Timashuk’s Order of Lenin–a distinctly Soviet model of anti-Semitism continued to flourish upon fertile ground. In the decades that followed, Jews continued to face admission quotas at universities and bans from any jobs deemed sensitive, all the while being subjected to a constant barrage of anti-Zionist propaganda. “The rule was that some are more equal than others,” said Robert Kesselman. “I was head of the orthopedic department at the hospital in Sumy, but I never had any special privileges, like a car or a bonus, because I was a Jew. It was the same for other Jews.”

If Kesselman sounds stoic about his fate, it is because the outcome could have been so much worse. Had Stalin lived, it is very likely that he would have set into motion a second Holocaust less than a decade after the first one ended with the defeat of the Nazis.

Ben Cohen, a former BBC producer, is a writer based in New York who publishes frequently on Jewish and international affairs. His Twitter feed is @BenCohenOpinion.