A single small light emitted a faint glow in the absorbent stone prison. To the man sitting with his back propped against the wall in the back of the room, it seemed as though the cold damp stone consumed that faint hopeful glow like a famished dragon. The man’s sparse white beard was testament to his age. His coarse wool coat, which just a few weeks before had fit so snuggly, sagged over his body like his now gaunt cheeks. He looked down at his watch, which they had let him keep. It was nearing noon on Friday, it wouldn’t be long till the Jewish Sabbath would begin. On the side of his watch he saw etched the letters Ya and E. It was all he had left, his watch, and his name, Yakov Etinger.
The door to the prison opened and three men in army uniforms entered boldly displaying the hammer and sickle on their chests. Yakov shuddered at what was going to happen. He had only recently been transferred to this new prison in Lefortovo, and it was much worse than his old one. Being an old soviet doctor he was no stranger to the inside of a prison cell, but he knew his luck had taken a turn for the worst. One man approached him with a clipboard. “Stand up, comrade.” Yakov slowly stood up, he could feel his cold joints contract and stiffen. “Describe your involvement in Shcherbakov’s death.” Yakov emitted a faint sigh of relief; this was one of the same old questions he’d been asked for weeks. Maybe he’d still make it out.
“I wasn’t directly involved in the care of Shcherbakov when he passed away. When his condition worsened I was used as a consultant for a second opinion. Standard procedure for a comrade of his caliber.”
“And what was the name of the doctor who used you as a consultant?”
“Well there were many, but the charge doctor was Vinogradov.” The man smiled ingenuously and made a note on his clipboard. Once again this was all quite ordinary interrogative procedure. The light seemed to glow brighter in the room.
“Describe your role in Zhdanov’s death.” Once again this was a rather ordinary question for Yakov.
“I was his doctor. I did everything that I could for him.”
“But a letter here from one of the junior doctors says that both he and Shcherbakov had heart murmurs months before, and you and the other doctors did nothing.”
“Yes, there were signs that they were old. We were well aware of it, and we did our best to prevent it from getting worse.”
“By doing nothing?”
“We did what we could, but we’re doctors not magicians.” The man waved to the men in the back who stepped forward as he hurriedly jotted down more notes. This was new, Yakov stiffened with fear, but only for a moment, he’d long ago given up his fate. He only wished he could see his son once more.
“You are anti-Stalinist yes?”
“No.” Suddenly a hand collided with his rib cage. Yakov fell to the floor from the sharp pain.
“Get up! You are anti-Stalinist, and we have a recording of you expressing your views as such! Are you a Zionist as well?”
“I believe Jews are being mistreated in this country.” Once again a hand collided with his side but this time as he fell down a kick followed flipping him onto his back on the floor. He moaned from the pain. He wondered if he had already broken a rib.
“Now stop beating around the bush! I know you’re an anti-Stalinist, you’re a Zionist. What else? Were you planning to kill Stalin? You already finished off Shcherbakov and Zhdanov! How much do you know about the Jewish-American terrorist organization called Joint? Do you know the leader of the group? Are you the leader?” Yakov unsteadily rose to his feet, and took a deep breath. He had done this for weeks already, torture wasn’t going to change anything.
“I’m an honest man. For years I have treated high ranking officials like Selivanovskii. I’ve done my best to ensure that Socialism be built in this country and tried to help those most involved with building it. Shcherbakov was doomed. We did our best to save him, but we can’t change fate. He died from complications arising from the stress of his office and his age.” Once again he was cut short as fists embedded themselves in his old flesh. Once again he fell to the floor. It was December 1950. In a few months time Yakov would be dead, and his timely death would lead to the fabrication of the so-called “Doctor’s Plot” that arrived on Stalin’s desk in January of 1953, something many believe was the beginning of a second purge starting with the Jews in the USSR. It was supposedly a plot by doctors attending high-ranking officials in the Soviet government, in which they were plotting to kill them. After Stalin’s death they were all exonerated, except for Etinger and one other who had refused to confess and had died in prison. As tragic as this event is, it begs the question-What if senior members of the politburo had been killed? What if Stalin’s life had been cut…short?