On this day in 1953, the Soviet newspaper Pravda published an article entitled “Vicious Spies and Killers under the Mask of Academic Physicians.” The article – which alleged that 9 famous Moscow doctors were plotting to poison high-level Soviet officials – was part of an effort to expose the Doctors’ Plot, a conspiracy targeting Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. The plot was comprised of predominantly Jewish doctors and academics, and was, like most of Stalin’s Jew-related fears, completely fake.
Soviet security forces acted quickly and within days of the article’s publication, most of Moscow’s best doctors had been killed, fired or sent to the Gulag (Russian prison camps for “bad communists”). Stalin no longer felt threatened, and breathed a sigh of relief. The Soviet leader had always intensely disliked Jews, a dislike which of course had deadly implications: the Dekulakization of the USSR, an effort to wipe out the prominent wealthy kulak class of peasants, resulted in many millions killed or deported and was partially based on anti-semitic notions about class. Ironically, Stalin’s deadly fear of a Jewish plot is what got him killed. Months after the Doctors’ Plot was uncovered, Stalin suffered a stroke. With no competent physicians left in Moscow, the Soviet leader went untreated and died on March 5th, 1953, surrounded by people who feared and detested him.
The fictitious Doctors’ Plot is, of course, a classic example of the role print media plays in demonizing certain ethnic groups and political enemies within a dictatorship. Pravda was, ostensibly, an independent publication; but it served as a mouthpiece for the Kremlin (Communist HQ). Today, one does not have to look long to find similar examples of media sources – intentionally or otherwise – publishing distorted facts or outright lies in the service of polarizing the citizenry of any given nation.