Forget cheap Dickensian antitheses. It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. Between 1948 and 1953 the chief lunatic of Soviet Russia’s insane asylum planned another mass primal-scream session, at least as spectacular as the 1930s bouts of Moscow show-trial therapy. Only now, with Stalin’s Last Crime, are most readers in a position to perceive how near Uncle Joe came to achieving his valiant goal. This harrowing, unforgettable account dwells, as its authors themselves observe, “in the borderland between Marx Brothers absurdity and Shakespearean tragedy.” It provides an improbable assurance that major commercial publishers can still issue serious historical research, as opposed to what Garry Wills and Daniel Goldhagen peddle.Before the 1940s, Stalin’s public attitudes towards Jews in general consisted of unabashed spite followed by comparative prudence. At a 1907 congress he cheerily urged, to weed out Mensheviks, “a pogrom within the party”: language that sounded rather insensitive even in 1907. Afterwards Stalin minded his tongue with greater skill, not least because many leading Bolsheviks were Jews, and even those who were Gentiles (Sergei Kirov, V.M. Molotov, and Kliment Voroshilov, to name three of the most renowned) had Jewish wives. We find him, in his dictatorship’s early years, making anti-Semitic behavior punishable by imprisonment or death and deeming such behavior “the most dangerous vestige of cannibalism.” (Not for him, by this stage, Khrushchev’s folksy candor in complaining to Poland’s Communist leadership, “You have already too many Abramoviches.”) The Order of Lenin’s 1939 recipients included a batch of writers in Yiddish; Trotsky himself stopped short of bemoaning any anti-Jewish malice on Stalin’s part; as late as 1948, Jews accounted for 40 out of 190 Stalin-Prize recipients. Yet restrictions on Jews’ employment within the Soviet bureaucracy had begun during the Second World War. Snarls in Pravda editorials against “rootless cosmopolites” started in 1947. And Golda Meir’s visit to Moscow —where she attracted frenzied crowds that could have been easily enough dispersed by Stalin’s fiat—occurred only months after the assassination (sorry, comrades, “fatal car crash”) of Jewish Antifascist Committee boss Solomon Mikhoels.

Much as Kirov’s murder served as the immediate pretext for the 1930s purges, so the origins of the “Doctors’ Plot” lay in the August 1948 demise of Andrei Zhdanov, who for most of the previous two years had been among Stalin’s most internationally notorious henchmen, principally for his crusade against any poet, novelist, or composer with the slightest capacity for creative independence. Zhdanov’s tirades had included his description (in a perverse way, immortal) of Anna Akhmatova as “a nun or a whore—or rather both a nun and a whore who combines harlotry with prayer.” Even Brent and Naumov, incidentally, cannot surpass Clive James’s analysis of Zhdanov’s diatribes:

Reading his [Zhdanov’s] smug prose is like being vouchsafed a glimpse into the mind of an obscene phone-caller, except that the range of ambition not merely encompasses the disturbance of your domestic innocence but includes starvation, torture, bitter cold and a broken back. Lavish mourning in unctuous official prose and verse marked Zhdanov’s death (“You went your glorious way, Comrade Zhdanov, / Leaving eternal footsteps behind,” lamented one Pravda poetaster). Such agitprop glossed over the awkward reality that Zhdanov’s career had been on the skids for months, partly because his son Yuri had politely criticized T.D. Lysenko’s pseudo-science, then at its specious glory’s zenith. Yuri eventually reinstated himself in officialdom’s good graces, going so far as to marry Stalin’s daughter Svetlana. Zhdanov Senior proved less fortunate, though Stalin spared him such vulgarly humdrum garbage-disposal methods as a bullet in the neck. A victim of chronic heart disease, Zhdanov spent his last weeks at the mercy of doctors who—in Brent’s and Naumov’s own words—“took no positive steps to murder [him, but] … took a series of negative steps that demonstrated that they had undertaken their assignment—the [electrocardiogram] technician was not replaced for three weeks, the nursing care was negligent, they did not take standard precautions.”Once the obsequies for the late Commissar of Culture had ended, more than two years elapsed before his fate became a live political issue. In January 1951 the Jewish physician Yakov Etinger died, after an interrogation, in the Lefortovo jail. At this penitentiary, “the marble stairs have been so worn down by the myriads of doomed prisoners … that today these stairs can be climbed only by placing one’s feet on the outermost margins of each step.” (Lefortovo’s torture chamber had special soundproofing to muffle prisoners’ shrieks.) M.D. Ryumin, Etinger’s interrogator, charged State Security Minister Viktor Abakumov—responsible for the NKVD secret police, or, as it now called itself, the MGB—with concealing Etinger’s admission of having eliminated Central Committee member A.S. Shcherbakov in 1945. Actually, Etinger had made no such admission, and historians agree that Shcherbakov so far defied the law of Politburo averages as to have died of natural causes. But by this time Stalin had the concept of medical malpractice on the brain. Inflicting permanent panic upon “decadent” scribblers and “formalist” tunesmiths was all very well, but how many divisions did they have? Better for the Vozhd (“Great Leader”) to pursue doctors—whose real or alleged roles in killing Maxim Gorky and other such delicate flowers of Soviet culture could always be turned against them—and, simultaneously, purge the security police.

Thus the heroic machine of Soviet mendacity cranked into renewed motion. Khrushchev commented in his memoirs, “Stalin … used to say that if a report was ten percent true, we should regard the entire report as fact.” Ryumin voiced similar postmodernist sentiments: “We ourselves will decide what is truth and what is a lie.”

Before Zhdanov had perished, Dr. Lidia Timashuk, an MGB operative at the hospital “treating” him, had protested in writing against the inadequate care the sick man received. When the extermination of potential Leningrad rivals had emboldened Uncle Joe anew, Dr. Timashuk’s complaints magically reappeared from the archives. Abakumov, from his cell, spouted the same sort of masochistic verbiage that Grigori Zinoviev and his fellow Old Bolsheviks had once oozed forth: “Whatever assignment You may give me … I have no other life than to struggle for the work of Comrade Stalin.” Alas, such verbiage stopped well short of formally confessing his guilt in approved 1930s style. Sophia Karpai, one of the physicians accused of slaying Zhdanov, demonstrated equal recalcitrance about specifics. So did Solomon Mikhoels’s leading Jewish Antifascist Committee colleagues, though they ended up being shot anyway. Even some Soviet judges dug their heels in—as they conspicuously had not done in 1935-38—at the concept of automatically committing judicial murder without hard evidence. Besides, in 1951-53, Hitler’s military threat no longer existed to sharpen Stalin’s domestic resourcefulness. Little wonder, then, that in December 1952 Stalin raged at the Central Committee, “Here, look at you, blind men, kittens.” (During his last years he ransacked the animal kingdom for freakish metaphors: he described slothful security policemen—still widely called “Chekists,” though the name “Cheka” had officially been abandoned in 1922—as “hippopotamuses.” Perhaps the words “kittens” and “hippopotamuses” sound more menacing in Russian; or perhaps Stalin’s vituperation, as Thurber might have put it, lost something in the original language.)

In January 1953, the Soviet news media formally proclaimed the “Doctors’ Plot” to an astonished world. Informer Timashuk received the Order of Lenin, attracted delirious public applause, and inspired incautious comparisons with Joan of Arc. Then … nothing. When Stalin died the following March, the doctors remained alive: incarcerated and horribly thrashed, true, but alive. Brent and Naumov postulate the hypothesis that Lavrenti Beria ensured regime change by quietly slipping some crystals of the blood-thinner Warfarin into Mr. Nice Guy’s diet before the latter could unleash World War III. Once Beria had taken over, he not only ordered the doctors’ release and had Timashuk stripped of her official honors but may actually have boasted to Molotov: “I did him [Stalin] in! I saved all of you!” He failed, nevertheless, to save himself. The charges brought against him included complicity in that same Doctors’ Plot frame-up that he bragged of aborting. (Brent and Naumov follow the received wisdom of accepting Dec. 23, 1953 as the date of Beria’s execution. The present reviewer, like Beria’s biographer Amy Knight, retains his doubts as to whether anyone with Beria’s attested cunning would really have been allowed to survive for months after his downfall.) Abakumov and Ryumin were both shot in 1954; Timashuk lived till 1983, vainly seeking rehabilitation.

Is Stalinism’s habitat a vanished past? We should be so lucky. While the smallest suggestion of doing Hitler’s state some service routinely blackens careers (ask Kurt Waldheim), the erstwhile KGB gangsterism of President Putin and former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov has gone entirely unpunished. Moreover, last March the New York Times reported, “The latest poll of 1,600 adults by the All-Russian Public Opinion Center … shows that more than half of all respondents believe Stalin’s role in Russian history was positive, while only a third disagreed.” What this statistic indicates about the average contemporary Russian’s capacity to civilize himself—let alone to become a good little law-abiding Fukuyama devotee by next week—is not readily answered. Nor is the question of whether we can ever expect a significantly different outcome from Moscow’s rulers, especially given the West’s refusal in 1992 to obey Solzhenitsyn’s demand for a Nuremberg-style international criminal trial of the Warsaw Pact’s chief thugs. That raising these issues nowadays appears paradoxical, if not vaguely treasonous, surely indicates how greatly millenarian pipe-dreams of universal democratization have softened (even since 1991) Western leaders’ brains.

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R.J. Stove lives in Melbourne, Australia, and is the author of The Unsleeping Eye: Secret Police and Their Victims.