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Stalin, Mikhoels, and the Doctors’ Plot

January 12, 2018

Solomon Mikhoels, the Soviet Union’s foremost Jewish actor and theater director, was arrested and murdered on Stalin’s orders on January 12-13 in 1948. Mikhoels was the artistic director of the Moscow State Jewish Theater and chaired the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, which had traveled widely to rally international Jewish support for the Soviet Union during World War II. Stalin ultimately arrested and “liquidated” nearly every member of the Committee. Rather than risking a public trial for the Jewish community’s best-known artist and intellectual, however, Stalin arranged for Mikhoels to be beaten to death; the body was run over by a truck to make the crime appear to be a tragic accident, and a state funeral was held. Five years later, also on January 12-13, nine prominent Kremlin physicians — six of them with obviously Jewish names — were arrested on Stalin’s orders and accused of participating in a vast plot by “imperialists” and “Zionists” to murder Soviet political and military leaders. The dictator’s death in March 1953 preempted a show trial, as Stalin’s successors declared the so-called “Doctors’ Plot” to be a fabrication in which confessions had been obtained by torture. Shortly before Stalin’s death, four large camps had been constructed in southern and western Russia, and rumors swirled that they were meant for the mass incarceration of Soviet Jews.

“[Stalin] issued orders to arrest a group of eminent Soviet medical specialists. . . . Stalin personally called the investigative judge, gave him instructions, and advised him on which investigative methods should be used. These methods were simple — beat, beat, and beat again. Shortly after the doctors were arrested, we members of the Politburo received protocols with the doctors’ confessions of guilt. . . .” —Nikita Khrushchev, “Special Report to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union,” February 25, 1956