It may have been the summer heat, because I read this book in August, but I had the impression as I turned the pages that I had stepped back into the last century. Unlike some kinds of nostalgia, this was not a pleasant sensation. The 1970s was not the best decade for historical writing about Russia. But here it was again; the rumours, the twisted plots, the accusations, triumphantly accompanied by facts and served up in the best melodramatic style. While it survived, the Soviet state told so many lies that books that sought to expose them were forced to adopt a forensic approach. They would sift through scraps of detail to build a case rather than creating historical narratives as other cultures understood them. Back then, with so much propaganda to transcend, the effort was worthwhile.
A great deal of effort has been expended in this new book, too. Jonathan Brent and Vladimir P. Naumov have collected hundreds of archival documents. I know this partly because most of what they found appears, unedited and in bold print, in their finished work, a practice that an old hand in this business once likened to serving the vegetable peelings with the soup. The result is neither easily assimilated nor elegant. It may aspire to the dramatic tension of a spy novel, but it never gets beyond the complex, wordy, cluttered style of old-world Sovietology.
"The doctors' plot" was revealed to the Soviet public in January 1953. Readers of Pravda , the Communist Party newspaper, were informed that a conspiracy had been unmasked whose goal was nothing less than the destruction of the Soviet leadership. Doctors - the very people who should care for the weak and vulnerable - had been discovered abusing their trust.
They had already killed more than one famous national figure. Their victims included Andrei Zhdanov, the wartime head of the Communist Party in Leningrad, and, it was alleged, the writer Maxim Gorky. Both men had died some years before, and no one had suspected foul play. But now, the "monster doctors" had been caught plotting against figures such as Georgi Malenkov, and even, rumour had it, against Stalin himself. Pravda also denounced the plot's foreign instigators. "The whole world," it proclaimed, "can now see once again the true face of the slave master - cannibals from the USA and England."
The news unleashed national panic. Significantly, the doctors named in the plot were almost all Jews, and the case against them developed in an atmosphere of deepening anti-Semitism. People in Russian cities shrank from visiting Jewish doctors, while medical students openly snubbed Jewish specialists, and often any specialists at all. There were rumours that Stalin was preparing to deport the entire Jewish population of the Soviet Union. Their destination was not to be Israel, the home of "Ben-Gurionists, charadists and simple warmongers", but Birobidzhan, the Siberian wasteland that had been identified as a potential home for Soviet Jews for two decades. Vigilant communists started to finger "hidden" Jews amid their ranks. The people whose army had been the first to liberate the Nazi death camps a few years before gave vent to hatreds of the darkest and most shameful kind. Catastrophe was averted in March 1953 when Stalin, who had masterminded the campaign, conveniently died.
This story has been told before. We even have memoirs from some of the protagonists, many of whom are quoted in this book. What our two authors promise is a fresh explanation, as well, enticingly, as "striking new disclosures from Russia's secret archives". There are, it is true, several genuinely pungent details. "The plan of the internal blow", for instance, a Soviet counter-intelligence fantasy in which a scheme to launch nuclear missiles at the Kremlin from the windows of the American Embassy was allegedly uncovered, forms a colourful interlude. On a Gothic note, we are reminded that the organs of all Soviet leaders were preserved in jars of formaldehyde and stored in the Kremlin, for that was how parts of the case against the doctors were substantiated. But this book is not meant to be humorous. Its tone is accusatory and its readers are supposed to share its rage.
The trouble is that we have read it all before. I do not know an author who would claim that Stalin was a kindly man, or that he did not weave complex designs against the men and women he disliked. No one would now suggest that he did not follow important political cases personally, or that he was inept at turning them to his advantage at moments of his own choosing. So Brent and Naumov's urgent tone is otiose. It is no revelation to discover that Stalin was a ruthless, cruel schemer. The authors' more specific aim is to show that "The doctors' plot" was a long-term plan on Stalin's part to link America, Britain and Israel with a poisonous conspiracy to undermine his leadership. Soviet citizens would have known that the next stage would be a wider purge at home, for "enemies" seldom came in twos or threes. It is possible that Stalin was preparing for a repetition of the 1930s, when terror was used to break all opposition to him. All this is reasonable enough, and a good book could have been distilled from the materials here. But the tale is lost in the detail, and Brent and Naumov never find their smoking gun. Stalin did not write down what he thought.
"Stalin is Godot," the authors muse, "waiting in an empty landscape. We wait, we guess, we attribute motives... but in the end he will not reveal himself."
The final chapter takes us back to another golden oldie; not Sovietology but McCarthyism. "A great part of western intellectual life" was "lulled" by Stalinism, and the totalitarian idyll "continues to shape the rhetoric of militant Arabs... against Israel". Worse, Stalinism's "mental inclinations... still dominate a large portion of the western intelligentsia in Italy, France, Germany, England and America". The authors are entitled to their politics. But the Soviet Union is well and truly dead, and history has moved on since glasnost spilled the secret files.
Catherine Merridale is reader in European history, Bristol University.
Stalin's Last Crime: The Doctors' Plot
Author - Jonathan Brent and Vladimir P. Naumov
Editor - John Murray
Pages - 399
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 7195 5448 9