Though the Great Terror of the late 1930s is widely viewed as the height of Stalin's purges, the number of arrests actually peaked in the early 1950s, and Stalin was planning hundreds of thousands more on the eve of his death in 1953. These arrests were spurred by the "doctors' plot," a supposed conspiracy among Jewish doctors to kill members of the government and destroy the U.S.S.R. at the behest of the Americans. Brent, the editorial director of Yale University Press, and Naumov, executive secretary of Russia's Presidential Commission for the Rehabilitation of Repressed Persons, trace how Stalin himself put together false evidence of the "doctors' plot," which was far more than a simple exercise in anti-Semitism and paranoid senility. According to the authors, Stalin intended to use the "doctors' plot" to accomplish several goals: to purge his Ministry of Security and upper ranks of government; to defuse the potential threat posed by Soviet Jews, many of whom had ties to the U.S. and the new state of Israel; and to provide fuel for an armed conflict with the U.S. Brent and Naumov provide a riveting view of Stalin's modus operandi: over the course of several years, he patiently and meticulously gathered forced confessions that would weave together unrelated events-the death of a top Party official here, the arrest of a Zionist doctor there-into a story of massive conspiracy. One of the reasons for his great care, the book contends, is that the popular mood had subtly shifted in the postwar era; revolutionary fervor had died down, there was a desire for legal legitimacy and, in contrast to their 1930s counterparts, top bureaucrats were loath to convict without evidence. One wishes that the authors had elaborated on fascinating points like these. Their narrative is a complicated one, full of minor characters and bureaucratic missives, and, by necessity, most of this narrowly focused book is taken up with close readings of documents.
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