The absurd “Doctors’ Plot” is considered the crown of Stalinism. State security agencies came up with a whole conspiracy: supposedly Soviet Jewish doctors, at the instigation of American intelligence, intended to kill Soviet leaders. The hero whistleblower of this case was cardiologist Lydia Timashuk, who reported on the improper treatment of Comrade Zhdanov. After Stalin’s death, Timashuk became an outcast in the professional community, but only recently it became known that she was the initiator of the doctors’ case unwittingly. Read about whether a zealous cardiologist really triggered a wave of repression in the article of Gazeta.Ru.
Andrei Zhdanov was a real “old Bolshevik” who survived the October Revolution. He joined the RSDLP (b) in 1915 at the age of 19, and therefore at the time of the revolutionary events of 1917 he held lower positions. However, in the 1930s, Zhdanov became a member of the Central Committee, one of the main ideologists of Stalinism and, among other things, personally endorsed execution lists during the Great Terror. During the Great Patriotic War, Zhdanov was one of the organizers of the defense of besieged Leningrad, and after Stalin made Zhdanov essentially the second person in the country.
In this capacity, the old Bolshevik managed to become famous as a fighter against Russian culture, instilling the ideas of socialist realism. It was in his report that the famous characterization of Anna Akhmatova appeared as “an enraged lady, rushing between the boudoir and the prayer room,” whose inner world consisted of “dying hopelessness, mystical experiences mixed with eroticism.” In the same report, the writer Mikhail Zoshchenko was called a “literary scumbag,” and Dmitry Merezhkovsky, Fyodor Sologub and others also received criticism.
By the age of 50, Zhdanov began to have serious heart problems, and in the summer of 1948 he once again found himself undergoing treatment at the Valdai sanatorium of the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party of Bolsheviks. The best Soviet medical professors, including Pyotr Egorov, Vladimir Vinogradov and Vladimir Vasilenko, tried to cope with his pain and shortness of breath.
Lydia Timashuk (born in 1898) at that time was the head. Department of functional diagnostics of the Kremlin clinic. She was summoned to Valdai, where, during the next examination on August 28, she took Zhdanov’s cardiogram. After analyzing it, she came to the conclusion that the Bolshevik had suffered a myocardial infarction – in this case, the patient needed strict bed rest. However, Vinogradov and Vasilenko, being immeasurably more experienced doctors, did not agree with her diagnosis. They believed that Zhdanov was suffering from an exacerbation of ischemia, forced Timashuk to remove the heart attack from the conclusion and prescribed the patient to walk more around the sanatorium. On August 31, Zhdanov died of heart paralysis.
The cardiology professors failed to convince Timashuk that they were right, and therefore she began to complain to her superiors. First, she wrote a memo to the USSR Ministry of State Security, to which Lechsanupr (Kremlin Hospital) was then subordinate, and reported that Comrade Zhdanov was treated incorrectly. However, the security officers did not understand anything about cardiology and forwarded Timashuk’s complaint to the head of Lechsanupra Egorov – that is, to the person against whom she complained. He did not remain in debt, and on September 6, the cardiogram specialist was “demoted”: he was removed from his leadership position and appointed an ordinary doctor in a branch of the clinic.
This story was forgotten for four years, until the famous “Doctors’ Plot” began. It is important to mention that the MGB personally informed Stalin about Timashuk’s complaints immediately after Zhdanov’s death. He reviewed the note and personally took it to the archives without taking any action. However, in August 1952, the cardiologist was called to the MGB and asked to tell in detail about the circumstances of the death of Comrade Zhdanov.
By that time, the security officers were investigating the greatest anti-Soviet conspiracy of murderous doctors, which they had invented from beginning to end. The history of the fake began on June 2, 1951, when the investigator for especially important cases, Dmitry Ryumin, reported to Stalin that the Jewish nationalist and cardiologist Yakov Etinger, who had been interrogated shortly before, allegedly admitted that he had killed Politburo member Alexander Shcherbakov using sabotage methods of treatment. It is interesting that this data is not even in the protocol – there the doctor admits only to anti-Soviet agitation. However, Stalin gave personal instructions to “uncover American terrorist agents among the doctors.” This is where Timashuk’s old notes came to court.
Soon Egorov, Vinogradov, Vasilenko, as well as many other doctors were arrested, and by the end of the autumn of 1952 Stalin was informed that they had confessed to deliberately shortening the lives of party leaders. Such confessions are not surprising, given that Stalin personally ordered the torture of doctors (“beat to death”), and argued that “any Jewish nationalist is an agent of American intelligence.”
In January 1953, TASS reported the arrest of 9 terrorist doctors. Soon their number tripled and, according to many contemporaries and historians, the matter was to develop into a new Great Terror. Timashuk became a hero, albeit not for long. “She helped tear the mask off the American mercenaries, the monsters who used the doctor’s white coat to kill Soviet people. The news of awarding L. F. Timashuk the highest award – the Order of Lenin – for her help in exposing thrice damned murderous doctors spread throughout our country,” the Pravda newspaper wrote in February 1953.
However, in March, Stalin died, the “Doctors’ Plot” and other repressions ceased, and the Order of Lenin was taken away from the vigilant cardiologist. In 1956, at the 20th Congress of the Central Committee CPSU Nikita Khrushchev mentioned Timashuk as one of the initiators of the repressive campaign, and soon her name became a curse, like the name of Pavlik Morozov. She was especially hated and despised by her former colleagues who found themselves in dungeons due to (allegedly) her fault.
Not an informer, but a victim
First, it’s worth figuring out whether Zhdanov was really treated incorrectly—whether at the instigation of American intelligence or simply by mistake. According to modern cardiologists, Timashuk was wrong – the cardiogram preserved in the archive corresponds to the picture of acute ischemia and does not allow diagnosing a heart attack. The final decision can only be made taking into account the entire medical history. At the same time, a scientific dispute between doctors about the health of a seriously ill person is the norm in medicine, even if an incorrect but reasoned opinion has won. But even taking into account Timashuk’s wrongfulness, she can hardly be considered an informer in the classical sense of the word – that is, a person who turns over friends and colleagues to the state security agencies with a non-dangerous, far-fetched or fictitious accusation to society.
Despite the massive hatred, the cardiologist was not fired from the Kremlin clinic, where she worked until 1964, when she retired. Under Khrushchev, she did not try to fight for her good name (since he accused her), but after Brezhnev came to power, she began, as many years ago, to write letters “to the top.” So, in 1966, in a letter to the CPSU Congress, she insisted that she never accused her colleagues of sabotage and that she herself became a victim of the “doctors’ case.” She demanded that the Soviet authorities restore the reputation of a man “who gave his whole life for the benefit of the sick.” Moreover, her involvement in the campaign against “pest doctors” took place without her participation.
“After 4.5 years [после смерти Жданова], in the summer of 1952, I was suddenly called by telephone to investigator Novikov, and after some time to investigator Eliseev in the case of the late Zhdanov, and I again confirmed what I knew. After another six months, 20/I-1953, I was invited to the Kremlin to see G. M. Malenkov, who informed me that I had been awarded the Order of Lenin. I didn’t think that the doctors who treated A. A. Zhdanov were “pests,” and objected to G. M. Malenkov that I didn’t deserve such a high award, because as a doctor I didn’t do anything special,” she wrote. This is consistent with the recollections of her relatives, who claim that Timashuk was not at all happy about the sudden popularity.
Her letter was sent to the KGB, and in response the security officers wrote a secret certificate, which stated that Timashuk really could not be considered the initiator of the “doctors’ case.” The certificate was published only in 2023. It says that from 1943 to 1953 the doctor was a recruited agent of the NKVD-MGB. “In her reports, she reported on shortcomings in the work of the Kremlin hospital, on individual cases of erroneous diagnoses, and on the dishonest attitude towards the official duties of some employees of the Kremlin Medical Center,” KGB officers wrote. If you believe this document, then we can conclude that Timashuk did not write about “slander against Comrade Stalin” or about “espionage in favor of the cap. countries,” not even about anti-Soviet jokes from colleagues, which would be classic denunciation.
According to the recollections of her colleagues, Timashuk greatly respected her medical knowledge, and in private conversations about Zhdanova’s diagnosis she often insisted that she was right. It was probably her zealous attitude to work that explained the complaints to the State Security authorities, and in them she stated only the facts and her professional opinion. These were her notes on Zhdanov’s treatment.
Her letters were only used by the MGB as good material for a new round of terror, which the security officers write about in a 1966 certificate: “from the materials stored in the KGB under the Council of Ministers of the USSR, it is clear that Timashuk’s statements and intelligence reports were not the reason for the emergence of the so-called “Doctors’ Affairs”
Some might blame Timashuk for not arguing with the theses about sabotage, but then, according to the practice of those years, she could quickly find herself accused of attempting a cover-up.
The Soviet leadership of the 1960s considered it inappropriate to publicly refute Timashuk’s guilt, probably so as not to again raise the topic of Stalin’s repressions in society.