Jonathan Brent
Vladimir Naumov

Stalin's Last Crime

Vinogradov was anxious to prove that Karpai, like the others in Valdai, had conspired to hide the truth of Zhdanov's heart attack. But the truth was unclear. Karpai let the doctors understand this. She was dangerous precisely because she knew that the diagnosis of Zhdanov's medical condition was ambiguous; she also knew what Timashuk did not, which is that faced with the identical ambiguity in July, the doctors had reacted with requisite extreme caution. In August they took advantage of the ambiguity not to show such caution. Karpai alone could have provided a measurement of the alteration in the doctors' approach to what amounted to the same medical situation. The doctors may have hoped to conceal this foreseeable alteration in the quality of care they provided. On August 7 they did not know that the blockage Karpai had detected on July 25, but which had disappeared by July 31, would return, but they knew well enough what measures not to take if it did.

The seventh of August was therefore a watershed date in the first phase of the conspiracy. It marked the point at which the doctors became trapped in their own eventual undoing. On this date the doctors were not the target of the conspiracy—Andrei Zhdanov was. They understood from Yuri's letter in Pravda and the overwhelming victory of Lysenko over the scientific community that it would be convenient for Stalin to remove his former favorite. They would be the means by which this could be most expeditiously achieved. There was no evidence that the doctors themselves—Jewish or otherwise—were or would be conceived as the ultimate victims of Stalin's maneuvers against Zhdanov. All the signals to the doctors up to this point had been positive. Yuri Zhdanov's letter gave them objective confirmation of what they suspected and of the rumors swirling around the Kremlin at the time, which certainly would have reached Yegorov if not the others. They knew of the explosive rupture between Stalin and Zhdanov. Stalin demanded 'vigilance.' He demanded it from the scientists who pledged unwavering support for Lysenko, and now, without a direct command, he demanded it from the doctors. They saw clearly what happened to those scientists who refused to go along—they were reviled, demoted, despised, arrested. Yegorov, a Stalinist toady and drinking buddy of Vlasik, would not be among them.

In the December 1948 incident at Blizhnyaya dacha we saw Stalin work through Poskrebyshev to 'test' Molotov and Mikoyan. In August 1948, by writing 'into the archive' at the bottom ofTimashuk's letter, Stalin also was working through subordinates, this time through Abakumov to communicate his attitude about Zhdanov and Timashuk to Yegorov. Stalin did not need to speak directly with Yegorov. Abakumov's silence was understood by Vlasik and eventually by Yegorov as a sign of Stalin's tacit approval. Timashuk, Karpai, Yegorov, Vasilenko, Vinogradov, and Maiorov all played roles in a drama without explicit stage directions or directives. Each attempted to interpret Stalin just as Vladimir and Estragon search out the hidden motives, intentions and plans of the invisible Godot for whom they hopelessly wait. Stalin's world was defined by conspiracies and plots. The dimensions of this conspiratorial world can be judged from Ignatiev's observation that when he became minister of state security in 1951 there were approximately ten million informants in the Soviet Union—some working for money and some of their own free will.

The system compelled people to spy on and denounce one another, often without any idea where their denunciations might lead. Had Timashuk not denounced the doctors, she was in danger of being denounced herself by the others at Valdai. Self-interest was the operative principle in Soviet life. Denunciation was also a means of career advancement, and Timashuk would have known that denouncing her superiors might lead to significant recognition and therefore benefit for herself. She turned out to have been both right and wrong.

Yegorov understood this principle and knew that the entire Kremlin Hospital system was filled with informants who often worked blindly to satisfy what they took to be the interests of the Kremlin. Yegorov thought he knew what those interests were. He, too, was both right and wrong. Abakumov's call on August 30 or 31 gave Yegorov what he thought was a signal of Stalin's intention and illustrated how another side of the system worked: Abakumov called to say that Stalin had received a copy of Timashuk's letter. He said nothing more. He did not need to. Poskrebyshev's approval for the autopsy in Valdai was another illustration. These two signals in combination with whatever information Vlasik had conveyed made him relatively sure of his ground. Yegorov's fury at Timashuk came from his sense that she was stupidly trying to use the system against him. The extraordinary September 6 session in his Kremlin Hospital office was a highly coded performance. Both Timashuk and Yegorov were struggling against each other in the dark; each found his certainties in how the system worked upset: Timashuk because she saw her letters go unanswered, Yegorov because Timashuk's insistence might have meant that he had in fact misunderstood the nature of Stalin's unspoken directive. Knowing he followed a higher order, Yegorov regarded himself as innocent, though he knew he was guilty for the reasons Timashuk stated. On her side, Timashuk knew that the EKG (though in fact she had misinterpreted its results) justified her accusation against the doctors, but the Kremlin took no notice, as though she were in the wrong.

Timashuk became a formidable menace to the doctors not because she was right and they were wrong, but because at a certain point in time, circumstances changed and her allegations of criminal mistreatment came to suit 'the interests of the state'—the new interests of the state. Yegorov might have worried about such an eventuality, but there was little he could do about it. At the time, neither Yegorov nor Timashuk understood that they both might be serving the interests of a security service working at cross purposes with itself.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.