Stalin and His Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him - Donald Rayfield (2005)


Chapter 8. Feliks Dzierzynski: The First Forty Years

THE PUBLIC OF PETROGRAD and Moscow had heard only of Lenin and Trotsky; other Bolsheviks were shadows emerging from the underground. Stalin was, as backstage manager of the revolution, the least visible of the Bolshevik Central Committee that took power. Leon Trotsky was a genius, creating the Red Army out of disaffected soldiers, workers, and peasants. Vladimir Lenin bullied and cajoled fractious colleagues into a semblance of unity. Nevertheless, the revolution needed a third man against its enemies: it had to be armed against the unseen threat from those on the left and the right who wanted not a Marxist dictatorship but a pluralistic, democratic forum.

Within six weeks of the October revolution, Lenin’s men felt surrounded by such hostility that they set up a secret police. Feliks image, a middle-aged Pole, pallid from years in prison, created a punitive, deterrent, and intelligence organization, the Cheka. image became the role model for all future Soviet secret police chiefs, just as Lenin set the example for leaders of the Soviet party and state. It was the symbiosis of image and Stalin which would determine the fate of the USSR after Lenin fell ill and died.

image, who put himself forward for the post despite being as unlikely a leader as Stalin, was the ideal chief for a repressive organization. Like Stalin, he was neither Russian nor an intellectual in the sense that Lenin and Trotsky considered themselves. He had unique experience: nobody had worked as hard in eleven years of prison and exile on unmasking traitors to the revolutionary movement—chairing a committee of prisoners that interrogated suspected provocateurs, as his widow proudly recorded. Nobody was as flamboyantly self-sacrificing for the cause as image: his sense of propriety and duty were hypertrophied. From 1918 on, in his Lubianka office imageinterrogated prisoners and rummaged through their files and drove out to make arrests—like Stalin taking advantage of the lowest point in his victims’ biorhythms; image liked working late at night. The only task he, like Stalin, left to his underlings was executions. Only once did image shoot anybody dead—a drunken sailor who was swearing at him— and this induced a convulsive fit. In power even more ascetic than Stalin, image subsisted as he had in prison, on mint tea and bread, in an unheated office, his greatcoat for a blanket. He rolled cigarettes from rough Russian tobacco. Unlike Stalin, image was a pedantic purist. He threw away pancakes cooked by his sister because she had bought flour from a private trader; he dismissed his niece, and the man who had given her a job, from service on the railways because she had profited from the family name. image fled in indignation on the only occasion he went to an art gallery, never attended a concert and read only Polish romantic poetry or Marxist exegeses. image had his son fostered in a working-class family, where “it is easiest to preserve and enrich one’s soul.” image’s aesthetic sense was sublimated in work. His successor Menzhinsky wrote in his obituary: “Were it not for his artistic nature, his love of art and nature . . . for all his experience underground, he would never have reached the perfection of Chekist art in taking his opponents apart, which made him stand head and shoulders above all his colleagues.”

image gave the Cheka and its subsequent acronymic transformations a pseudo-chivalrous image of “sword and flame of the revolution,” and the conviction that they should be the central, sometimes supreme, power. The principles—“every communist must be a chekist”—and the extrajudicial powers of the Cheka were established by image, although he always meant it to be subject to the party’s leader: to implement and enforce, not create, ideology and policy.

Without image’s authority and support, Stalin might never have come to power. In 1922 image would swing the half-million paramilitaries he controlled away from Trotsky’s principled “opposition,” to Stalin’s “loyal support” for Lenin’s appeasement of those in the party who wanted civil peace, a partial restoration of capitalism, and the rule of law. From 1917 to 1922, as Lenin’s faithful hound, he did more than Stalin for revolutionary unity but sided with Stalin when choices between fractions had to be made.

What brought together these two men of largely incompatible temperament, class, and nationality? image and Stalin were drawn to each other, as other Georgian and Polish intellectuals and rebels always had been. For Georgians, Poland was a congenial part of the Russian empire for university study or exile. Poles and Georgians shared a tradition of eloquence, a cult of honor, and pride in a heroic medieval age of chivalry. Both nations also believed that they had been chosen by God to defend Christian values—the Poles the Catholic faith and Western culture, the Georgians the Orthodox religion and Byzantine civilization— against the barbarians of the East.

Personally, Stalin and image had much in common, apart from dour fathers and doting mothers. From childhood to adolescence they had been destined by their family and temperaments to be priests; the adolescent Stalin could have said what image told his brother Kazimierz: “If I ever concluded that God did not exist, I’d put a bullet through my head.” Both at the age of nineteen underwent violent conversion to atheism and revolution. Equally unsmiling and uncommunicative in private life, they spent years of political resistance brooding in prisons and hunting in Siberia. They did not debate in Swiss cafés nor study in French libraries. Unlike the uxorious Lenin and Trotsky, their solitude was broken by only a few months of arid marital life and they both left in their native lands young sons whom they hardly knew. Both had been poets: they declaimed and catechized, they did not expatiate or analyze. Both were shy of public speaking and arcane Marxism. Neither finished his education, and both spoke Russian as a foreign language.1 Stalin and image prided themselves on their aloofness, and on their nose for treachery. No wonder then that their meeting in Petrograd in summer 1917 after a brief encounter in Stockholm in 1906 led to an alliance.

They were also diametrically different. Feliks image was a Polish noble, even if his family had been reduced to a manor house and some two hundred acres on the borders of Lithuania and Belorussia. Unlike Stalin, image was cosseted by loving siblings—particularly his sisters—and brought up by a well-educated mother. But image had, like Stalin, a harsh father who soon vanished from his life and a religious mother. Above all, he remained affectionately attached to his siblings and his nephews and nieces. Unlike Stalin, image had a dual nature; in April 1919, when the Cheka was slaughtering hostages by the thousand, image could write to his elder sister:

I can tell you one truth: I have remained the same. I sense that you can’t come to terms with the thought that this is me—and, knowing me, you can’t understand. Love. Today, as years ago, I hear and feel a hymn to it. This hymn demands war, unbending will, tireless work. And today, apart from the idea, apart from striving for justice, nothing has any weight on the scales of my actions. It’s hard for me to write, it’s hard to argue. You see only what is, and what you hear about in exaggerated colors. You’re a witness and victim of the Moloch of war. The ground you once lived on is subsiding under your feet. I am an eternal wanderer, in motion, in the process of change and creating a new life. You turn your thoughts and soul to the past—I see the future and want, and have, to be in movement. Have you ever reflected what war really is? You have pushed aside the images of bodies ripped apart by shells, of the wounded on the floor, of the crows pecking out the eyes of the living. . . . And you can’t understand me, a soldier of the revolution. . . . My Aldona, you don’t understand me—it’s hard for me to write any more to you. If you saw how I live, if you looked into my eyes, you’d understand, rather you’d sense that I have remained the same I always was. I kiss you powerfully. Your Fel2

Edmund-Rufin image, Feliks’s father, earned his living by teaching. He seduced a pupil, Elena Januszewska. They married, but had to leave Lithuania. Edmund-Rufin went to the southern Russian port of Taganrog to teach mathematics, where his pupils included three Chekhov brothers, including Anton. The historian of the Taganrog grammar school, himself a pupil of the hated Pole, reported in 1906 that image senior was “a pathologically irritable man who tormented boys.” 3 In 1875 Edmund-Rufin was forced to resign and returned to his family estate.

Feliks was the only one of seven children to rebel; his siblings tried to live middle-class lives. The eldest girl, Aldona, seven years older than Feliks, became a second mother to the family when their father died unexpectedly in 1883. Other tragedies hit the family. When Feliks and his elder brother Stanisław were handling a rifle, one of them killed their fourteen-year-old sister Wanda. This accident may have prompted Feliks’s sudden apostasy. He never spoke of Wanda’s death but attributed his loss of faith in God and Tsar to witnessing Cossacks attacking Lithuanian peasants in 1893. Like Stalin, image sublimated his fellow countrymen’s crusade against their Russian conquerors into hatred for all governing classes. He confessed later, “I dreamed of a cap of invisibility and of the annihilation of all Muscovites.”

Feliks’s mother, Elena, died in 1896, leaving Aldona to bring up the younger children alone. The image family loved their black sheep: Aldona visited Feliks in prison, sent him parcels and letters, even after his rise to head the Cheka. Aldona married and remained in Poland, personally devoted if politically opposed to Feliks.Feliks’s other elder sister, Jadwiga, was to be, together with her daughter (also Jadwiga), his helpmate in Russia. (In 1949 Jadwiga senior died in Stalin’s camps.) Stanisław image, who became a biologist, was murdered on the family estate by bandits in 1917.Two of Feliks’s brothers, the youngest Władysław, a professor of medicine, and Kazimierz, an engineer, paid dearly for their surname: they were murdered by the Gestapo in 1943 and 1942 respectively. Of Feliks’s brothers only Ignacy (1880–1953) died of natural causes.

Feliks, like Stalin, left education just before his final examinations. He plunged into the factories and slums of Vilnius as a Marxist agitator rousing the proletariat to action, for which he learned Yiddish and Lithuanian as well as Russian. Before he was twenty he had made an impact on the Polish social democrats, urging them to abandon Polish nationalism and parliamentarianism in favor of international revolutionary socialism. The adolescent Feliks, like Stalin, combined fanatical rebelliousness with moonstruck romantic musing. image’s unpublished poetry echoes the decadence of the “Young Poland” modernists such as his own favorite, Antoni Lange. Typically morbid are Feliks’s lines:

Every night something comes to see me
Incorporeal and soundless,
A mysterious vision
Stands over me in silence.
It gives me the present of a kiss,
This gift does not tell me:
Are you offering me your heart,
Or are you mocking me, cold Lady?

image, unlike Stalin, remained in thrall to sentimental morbid chivalry, even when acting with cold-blooded ruthlessness. Years of exile and prison blinkered him, and he had little understanding of real life: he was to apply Karl Marx and Lenin to public life with the same naïveté as he adapted Polish romanticism to his private life. On May 27, 1918, he wrote, as if he were a saint in the desert, to his wife (who remained in Zurich until 1919):

There is no time to think of my family or myself . . . the more powerful wheel of enemies that encircles us, the closer it is to my heart. . . . Every day I have to take up more terrible weapons. . . . I have to be myself just as terrible, so as like a faithful hound to tear apart the villain. . . . I live just on my nerves. . . . My thought orders me to be terrible and I have the will to follow my thought to the end. . . .

Like Stalin in Vologda, image in exile attracted women. Stalin played mentor to Polina Onufrieva, while image was the pupil in his relationship with Rita (Margarita Fiodorovna Nikolaeva), a fellow exile three years older than him, in the northern Russian town of Viatka in 1898.image was then twenty-one; this was his first exile and his first love. Declaring himself Rita’s fiancé, he volunteered to follow her farther north to Nolinsk. Here, on an allowance of five and a half rubles a month each, they set up house. She was the well-educated daughter of a priest; thanks to her image acquired fluent Russian and even struggled through Das Kapital. But classics such as Goethe’s Faust, image confessed to her, were beyond him.

image had even then discovered his personal power: he wrote to his sister: “When I get carried away and begin to defend my views too ardently, the expression in my eyes becomes so frightening to my opponents that they cannot look me in the face.” Twenty years later, in 1919, he told Aldona with relish: “For many people there is nothing so frightening as my name.”

The Russian gendarmes found image not frightening but “hot-tempered, irritable, unrestrained.” In January 1899 they exiled him farther north, to the settlement of Kaigorodskoe. image spent days with a rifle, shooting game. Fellow exiles gave him a bear cub as a pet; he trained it to dance and it caught him pike perch on command. As the bear grew, it started killing chickens and attacking cows so image chained it. The bear lunged at passersby; he shot his pet dead. The relationship with Rita lingered on through daily letters. She persuaded the authorities to let her settle in Kaigorodskoe with image. He found her, like the bear, troublesome. In August 1899 he made the first of his escapes. This involved little danger: the police circulated just a description of a tall auburn-haired man with a “good figure” whose “exterior gives an impression of arrogance.” In a few weeks, image was back in Poland, splitting off from the Polish social democrats the hard-line internationalist and Marxist Social Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania. Rita was forsaken.7

By 1900 image was behind bars, where another liaison affected him more deeply: he nursed his fellow prisoner Antek Rosół who was dying of tuberculosis. The suffering of Rosół haunted image, and the suffering that he in turn inflicted on his prisoners was undoubtedly justified in his mind to some extent by what the Tsar’s government did to Rosół.Two years later Feliks was exiled again, to Arctic Yakutia, after fomenting in a Siberian jail a strike of political prisoners. In Siberia he again spent his days hunting. His wife recalls that he shot a female swan, and when the male returned, fired to put it out of its misery, but missed; the swan then plunged to its death. “Józef [Feliks’s underground name] told this with emotion and amazement at the swan’s fidelity.”9

image escaped again in 1903. A few weeks later, now a legendary figure, he was a refugee first in Berlin, then in Kraków, at the time part of Austro-Hungarian Galicia. image’s next fiancée, Julia Goldman, was a romantic figure more like the phantoms of his lyrics: she died of TB in 1904. In 1905 image went back to Russian territory, to Warsaw, to stir up violent unrest. Strikes and arrests led to concessions and amnesties from the new Russian parliamentary government. image became a key figure in the Russian social democrat movement: in 1906 he was in Stockholm, where he met Lenin (as well as Stalin, Voroshilov, Rykov, and Plekhanov). Lenin liked image’s phenomenal singlemindedness. Like Stalin, in Lenin’s eyes image was uncouth but valuable as an unquestioning executive. Years passed before image resented being patronized by Lenin.

In 1908 he was arrested again. This time he spent long enough in prison to become expert in interrogation, denunciation, and retribution. Many instructions he would issue the Cheka ten years later were based on the practices of his own interrogators and wardens or were derived from his observation of prisoner psychology. image was a doctrinaire Bolshevik, arguing with heretics, especially the non-Marxist social revolutionaries, and investigating, calculating, confronting in order to establish which prisoners were stool pigeons, traitors, or double agents— skills which served him well in power.

All this image articulated graphically in his Diary of a Prisoner (Pamieimagetnik wieimagezimagenia ), printed in the Polish-language Red Standard from May 1908 to August 1909. Ironically for a future hangman, image describes as movingly as Victor Hugo or Dostoevsky the effect of hangings on victims, prisoners, and wardens, emphasizing the utter depravity and horror of the death penalty. One wonders how image could have failed to remember, when ordering the deaths of thousands, lines he had written just ten years previously:

On the night of the 8th and 9th the Polish revolutionary Montwiłł was executed. While it was still light they took off his leg-irons and moved him to the condemned cell. The trial had been on the 6th. He had no illusions and on the 7th he said goodbye to us through the window as we were taking our exercise. He was executed at 1 A.M. The executioner Egorka got, as usual, 50 rubles for the job. The anarchist K. told me, by knocks on the ceiling, that “they had decided not to sleep all night,” and the gendarme told me that just the thought of execution “sends a shiver through you and you can’t get to sleep and you keep turning over.” And after his horrible crime nothing here has changed:bright sunny days, soldiers, gendarmes, changing the guard, exercise. Only in the cells things are quieter, the voices of people singing are not to be heard, many await their turn. . . .

The diary rails at the cruelty of the Tsar’s courts, the use of torture to get confessions, and vaunts the discipline of social democrats, so unlike the depravity of anarchists. The reader is struck first by image’s fair-mindedness and then by puzzlement that the man who wrote this would soon be a jailer far more ruthless than those whom he denounced. Narrow-minded conceit blinded image to his contradictions. He preened himself, outwitting the gendarmes who interrogated and guarded him; he praised his own psychological subtlety in identifying a female informer, Hanka, who, liberated from a madhouse by radicals, denounced her liberators and blamed another woman for the betrayal.

Eighteen months passed before image was sentenced again to exile in Siberia. The diary stops, but he continued to write in similar vein to his sister Aldona. Again, he escaped within days, and in 1910, after making the revolutionary’s equivalent of the hajj—a visit to the radical Russian writer Maxim Gorky on the island of Capri—he was back in Kraków.

That year image married one of his admirers, Zofia Muszkat, the twenty-eight-year-old daughter of a rebellious bookshop worker. Zofia was an acolyte, ready to carry out dangerous archival and secretarial duties for the party; she was resigned to separation and exile. image took her walking in the Tatra mountains. Back in Warsaw, in a room furnished with two iron bedsteads and a table, image fathered a son. He did not see his little Jasiek for years: Zofia was arrested in Warsaw; the baby was born prematurely in prison and suffered from convulsions and malnutrition. Zofia was exiled to Siberia; Jasiek was fostered. Not until 1912 did Zofia escape from Siberia and reclaim her child; by then image had been rearrested.

This time, image was kept in closed city prisons, first Warsaw, then Oriol in central Russia (designated for revolutionary recidivists), finally in Moscow. This experience was far worse than Stalin’s exile in Turukhansk. image was kept in leg irons until his muscles tore; clean underwear came once a fortnight; there were over a hundred men in a cell designed for fifteen; tuberculosis was rife. Conditions were nearly as bad as those imagewould preside over five years later. image had little human contact and few books. By all accounts, he was despondent in Oriol, but he did get a cell to himself and his siblings’ gifts of money and newspapers kept him nourished and informed. 10 Like Stalin, image was not released until the revolution of February 1917 suspended all political imprisonment.

Letters to Aldona when world war broke out suggest that image survived on fanatical faith in the future: “When I think of the hell you are all now living in, my own little hell seems so small. . . .” Like Lenin, he approved of this hell, for he wrote to his wife in 1915 from his prison cell: “When I think of what is happening now, about the universal smashing of all hopes, I come to the certainty that life will blossom all the more quickly and strongly, the worse the smashing is today.” His siblings’ and Zofia’s letters sustained image: Zofia used citric acid as invisible ink, and a code based on a poem they both loved by Antoni Lange, “Dusze ludzkie samotnice wieczne” (Human souls eternally alone). Feliks wrote verse for Jasiek:

Felek has his son on the wall
in three photographic snaps
stuck on with prison bread
If I look at the first, I hear laughter. . . .
If I look at the second, there, concentrated,
Jasiek studies the world.
as though tears had frozen in his eyes.
And from the child’s eyes, at the father
looks the lonely pain of the mother
in the anguish of the prisoner’s heart. . . .
Jasiek’s father turns and tosses in his dreams
and stillness embraces his breast,
and his heart looks for his son’s heart
and tries hard to hear if from afar
his anguished voice should cry. . . .

Stalin was physically and spiritually toughened by four years of Siberian exile; image was physically weakened and intellectually narrowed by five years of Russian prisons. All that he learned, when moved to the Moscow prison of Butyrki where he was employed in the workshops supplying the army, was to cut and stitch trousers and tunics. Nevertheless, as a leader among prisoners, organizing hunger strikes, protests, and inquisitions, he narrowed the single-minded fanaticism that enabled him to make the Cheka an autonomous body with the desire and ability to control an entire population. But, a guard dog in need of a master, image needed political direction, and it would be Stalin whose guidance he found most intelligible and consistent.