The Doctors' Plot: Background information when reading The Betrayal

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The Betrayal

A Novel

by Helen Dunmore

The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2011, 336 pages
    Sep 2011, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Sarah Sacha Dollacker

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About this Book

Beyond the Book:
The Doctors' Plot

Print Review

The Betrayal is loosely based on a series of investigations that took place toward the end of Joseph Stalin's rule in 1953, formally known as "The Doctors' Plot." This bizarre scheme wrongfully accused nine prominent Moscow doctors - the majority of whom were Jewish - of coordinating the deaths of high-ranking Soviet Party members. Rather than respecting these doctors' medical authority and accepting terminal diagnoses, the Party members turned on them and suspected them of plotting their assassinations.

According to a report disclosed by the CIA under the US Department of State Freedom of Information Act, the doctors were singled out, "as part of a ring of spies working for a 'Jewish-bourgeois nationalist group,' which in turn was sponsored by the American and British Intelligence organizations."

Joseph Stalin The plot originated from a deep-seated anti-Semitism that had long existed in Soviet Russia and Stalin's own paranoia; in 1946, Stalin is reported to have said that "all Jews are potential spies." Millions of Jews were imprisoned or killed during the Great Purge of the 1930s, but the attack on the doctors was a new twist - it revealed Stalin's pronounced and increasing paranoia. As Stalin aged and became worried about his own ill health, he grew more deeply affected by the passing of his colleagues. According to Simon Montefiore's book Stalin: The Court of the Red Star, after a series of deaths of fellow Party members, Stalin said: "they die one after another. [They] die so quickly! We must change the old doctors for new doctors."

After the deaths of Aleksandr Shcherbakov, and Andrei Zhdanov - both Stalin's contemporaries - it was alleged that their doctor, Yakov Etinger, knowingly committed malpractice with the purpose of killing them. Mikhail Ryumin, the Deputy Minister of State Security and the instigator of the Doctors' Plot allegations, took his suspicions directly to Stalin who viewed this event as a broader plan to eliminate Soviet power.

Propaganda was produced by the media to rally support for the Soviet leaders' suspicions; for example, Russia's premier publication, Pravda, claimed the following:

Investigation established that participants in the terrorist group, exploiting their position as doctors and abusing the trust of their patients, deliberately and viciously undermined their patients' health by making incorrect diagnoses, and then killed them with bad and incorrect treatments. Covering themselves with the noble and merciful calling of physicians, men of science, these fiends and killers dishonored the holy banner of science. Having taken the path of monstrous crimes, they defiled the honor of scientists.

Dozens were arrested and subjected to torture. "Evidence" was found to prove that the Kremlin doctors had assassinated the Party members; soon, hundreds of Jews were implicated in the plot and were killed or sent to the GULAG.

KhrushchevThe paranoia and terror of the Doctors' Plot simmered down quickly after Stalin's death in 1953 as the new regime under Nikita Khrushchev distanced itself from the investigation. Over the next few years, case reviews and rehabilitations of political prisoners increased, and many who had been implicated - if they were still alive - were exonerated and released. In April 1953, Pravda cited Lavrentii Beria, a high ranking MGB (later KGB) leader, saying that "illegal methods" were used by Soviet intelligence to secure evidence against those suspected of participating in the Doctors' Plot. In 1956, Khrushchev admitted in his Secret Speech, that the Doctors' Plot was completely fabricated.

For more information, please see BookBrowse's brief history of The Siege of Leningrad - a historic and devastating event that provides a backdrop to The Betrayal.

Top photo of an aging Stalin, 1949
Bottom photo of Khrushchev, credit Peter Heinz Junge

This article is from the November 3, 2011 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.

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