People who have read a little about the paranoia that afflicted the Soviet Union are familiar with a poisonous work of fiction usually called "the Doctors' Plot." It was an anti-Semitic myth of the 1950s that floated through the last days of Josef Stalin, adding one more to the many alleged crimes charged against the Jews in Russian history. The most remarkable aspect of it was the inventor. While most libels of the Jews emerged as folkloric inventions from the murk of Russian peasantry, this one appears to have been created by Stalin himself.
For half a dozen decades this story has been one of the haunted houses of modern politics. Because Stalin rarely committed his plans to paper and instead issued orders across his desk in latenight vodka binges, we have only a sketchy idea of what he had in mind -- or even what he wanted the world to believe he had in mind. But in 2016 the Doctors' Plot has produced, through the magic of literature, a phantasmagoric novel, The Yid (Picador), by Paul Goldberg, a Russian-born American Jew with a wild imagination. Goldberg explores, as he says, "the hateful mythology of an international Jewish conspiracy." The Yid invites us to revisit Stalinism as both a nightmare and a dream.
Even more than most dictators, Stalin was a man of many plots. He was a plotter who was forever plotted against, at least in his own mind. As he sat there in the Kremlin, controlling his empire with lies and accusations, he grew convinced that his enemies were scheming against him. He assumed they were like him.
In the 1930s he staged mock trials claiming to prove that some of the most powerful men in Moscow were traitors to the Soviet Union. After torture forced them to admit guilt, they were executed, along with many of their friends. A desperate fear spread through Soviet officialdom and the purge reached out to Mexico to assassinate Leon Trotsky, a former candidate for the dictator's job. Even Stalin's best friends, even the men he promoted to major appointments, were recast as enemies.
As a peasant taught from childhood to be afraid of anyone different from himself, Stalin inevitably fell into fear of the Jews. And in 1953, as he grew sick, he noticed that the medical men giving him bad news about his future were often Jews. By then Jews were depicted in Communist language as "rootless cosmopolitans," lacking inner patriotism and the essential goodness of the New Soviet Man. They were, in the popular imagination, capable of anything.
So Stalin put it about that Jewish doctors were planning the most hideous crime he could imagine -- not poisoning the wells or murdering the Saviour but the killing of Josef Stalin himself. The apparatus of the state moved into action. On January 13, 1953, the newspaper of the Communist party, Pravda, carried a headline: "Vicious Spies and Killers under the Mask of Academic Physicians." TASS news agency reported that saboteur-doctors were planning to shorten the lives of Soviet leaders, making falsely ominous diagnoses and killing behind the veil of science. Stalin intended to recreate a pogrom right out of Russian history, terror follow by murder.
Goldberg begins his version of this madness by describing the air of menace that filled Moscow: "At night, Moscow is the czardom of black cats and Black Marias." We watch Soviet police going about their regular business, picking up victims of the state for transport to jail, where they will be tortured and then either executed or sent to the gulag in Siberia. Goldberg depicts or refers to several historic figures, such as Solomon Mikhoels (1890-1948), head of the Moscow State Jewish Theatre, a star until Stalin had him murdered in 1948. His body was run over to simulate a traffic accident. In Soviet-speak he was labelled "a well-known Jewish bourgeois nationalist," which meant that as an artist he was an individualist.
In the book's opening scene the police are about to pick up the fictional Solomon Levinson, a lesser version of the real Solomon Mikhoels. But this time the Jews fight back. Levinson has certain circus skills. Confronted by two cops, he turns into "a one-man Judean Air Force: a single pirouette, two Finnish daggers, two throats slit." With the cops disposed of, Levinson leads a gang of assassins to kill Stalin and save the Jews. He's joined by a black American, disillusioned by his attempt to escape racism by embracing Communism. Off they go, wisecracking terrorists intent on writing a Jewish conclusion to an unhappy era. Goldberg, born in the Soviet Union, emigrated to the U.S. in 1973 when he was 14. He's written about the Soviet human rights movement and on the American health care system. He edits The Cancer Letter, a publication about the business and politics of the disease. As a novelist he adopts the literature of the absurd, with a trace of postmodernism in his inclusion of remarks-tothe audience on making the story work. His style shows the influence of Quentin Tarantino's scripts for films such as Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Like Tarantino's scripts, Goldberg's prose is both brutal and funny.
Many will find the title of his first novel disturbing or offensive. In the mouths of anti-Semites, "yid" is an insulting word for a Jew but Goldberg sees it as a reflection of reality, past and present. He hesitated before using it but decided it was true to the subject he had chosen -- and, of course, a way of attracting attention to what he had to say: "In a manner that mimicked my own experience, the epithet did not remain contained. Too big to hide, the Yid scraped his way to the title page. It was what my novel wanted. Who was I to stand in the way?" Goldberg has heard that some stores won't stock his book, for fear of driving away Jewish customers. He stuck with it anyway, because it was the closest English equivalent to the Russian epithet "zhid." He also remarks, "If anyone wishes to accuse me of anti-Semitism, I say, 'mazel tov.'"