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


Chapter 10. Poles, Latvians, and Jews

THE ETHNIC COMPOSITION of the Cheka aroused as much hostility and terror as its powers. With some justification, émigrés asserted that the Russian revolution was “made by Jewish brains, Latvian bayonets, and Russian stupidity.” Up to the mid-1930s Russians were a minority in the Cheka and its successor organizations. A few of image’s formidable henchmen were Russians: Ivan Ksenofontov, a former factory worker and army corporal, chaired revolutionary tribunals and organized mass shootings of hostages. Like image a puritan—he tried to ban chekisty from drinking alcohol—he too worked himself to exhaustion: by 1922, at the age of thirty-eight, Ksenofontov was known as Grandad. Transferred to the Commissariat for Social Security, he died of stomach cancer in 1926. A more horrifying Russian chekist was the semi-qualified doctor and virtuoso pianist Mikhail Kedrov, who would slaughter schoolchildren and army officers in northern Russia with such ruthlessness that he had to be taken into psychiatric care. Kedrov’s consort Revekka Maizel personally shot a hundred White officers and bourgeois and then drowned another 500 on a barge.

The Caucasians in the Cheka were a small, fearsome clique. For a short time, there was a Georgian in the Cheka’s governing body, Stalin’s close ally Sergo Orjonikidze. A Georgian, Aleksi Sajaia, calling himself Dr. Kalinichenko, tortured prisoners in Odessa. Georgians, Armenians, and Azeris brought to the Cheka a sadism their own country had gotten used to under Mongol and Persian overlords. Georgi Atarbekov, whom Stalin knew well, machine-gunned a trainload of Georgian doctors and nurses who were returning to Georgia from Russian war hospitals; he hacked a hundred hostages in Piatigorsk to death with a saber; he murdered his own secretary in his office; and in Armavir, a town of exiled Armenians, he killed several thousand hostages. image furiously defended Atarbekov’s actions.12

image surrounded himself with fellow Poles, notably a trusted friend from the Warsaw underground in the 1900s, Józef Unszlicht. Unszlicht was to command the Cheka’s 300,000 paramilitaries, an army of “special purpose units” that came into existence despite Trotsky’s opposition to splitting up the armed forces and fell upon rebellious civilians, obstreperous peasants, Cossacks, and routed soldiers until 1925. image and Unszlicht anticipated revolution triumphing in eastern Europe and Germany; until Marshal Józef Piłsudski’s Poland defeated the Red Army in August 1920, they planned to incorporate Poland into a Union of Soviet Socialist Republics of Europe and Asia. Their dislike of Russia was overriden by a crusade on behalf of the world’s proletariat, but the Poland that snatched independence in 1917 was a nationalistic country, led by its landed gentry. The Polish left and Polish Jews who wanted political equality were marginalized by Marshal Piłsudski’s state and saw their best chance of power as a Soviet-inspired revolution—hence the prominent role they played in the Cheka.

Latvians were an even more effective ethnic group at both the highest and lowest levels of the Red Army and the Cheka. The Latvian Joachim Vacetis saved Lenin’s government in July 1918 when the junior party in the revolution, the Social Revolutionaries, assassinated the German ambassador and kidnapped image. Vacetis’s disciplined Latvian troops shelled the building that held the Social Revolutionary division of the Moscow Cheka and destroyed the Social Revolutionaries, who commanded wide support among the peasantry, as a political force. Repression was no new role for Latvians in Russian tyranny: they had been hired to help Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great achieve absolute power. The Latvians in the Soviet Cheka were not, however, mere mercenaries. Latvia won its independence in 1919 in the turmoil of world and civil wars, but the new middle-class state had no patience with the left-wing agitators infesting Riga’s factories. Militant working-class Latvians became a community of exiles in Russia, numbering perhaps a quarter of a million and living from Petrograd to the Pacific, with their own journals and cultural centers. Some 12,000 Latvian soldiers, from Latgale in eastern Latvia, an area where Russian was understood, fought hard in the First World War, to be abandoned in 1917 by their Russian officers and cut off from their homeland by the Germans. Brutalized by their betrayal, they were natural recruits for the Red Army and the Cheka. In 1919 75 percent of the Cheka’s central management was Latvian. When Russian soldiers refused to carry out executions, Latvians (and a Chinese force of some 500 men) were brought in. Latvians won battles in the Urals against the White Army and Vacetis was commander of the Red Army for a year. From their formation in April 1918 to their dissolution in November 1920 the Latvian riflemen had an influence wholly disproportionate to their numbers.

Two formidable Latvians assisted image: Jekabs Peterss and Maimagertinņš Laimagecis. In Riga, Peterss was an agitator among the dock workers; in 1905 he was interrogated by the Tsar’s police during which his fingernails were ripped out. He immigrated to London with a group of Latvian and Russian Social Democrats to raise money by armed robbery. Peterss won notoriety in the 1911 Siege of Sidney Street, when three policemen were killed. Peterss was working with so-called anarchists, including two of his cousins, Peter Piaktov (Peter the Painter) and Fritz Svaars. At the Old Bailey Peterss was acquitted, thanks to a barrister hired by the Social Democrat Party and to the laziness of Scotland Yard who, despite eyewitness evidence, let the policemen’s deaths be blamed on a dead anarchist. While on the run, Peterss challenged the British authorities: “You had best take care of your Van when riding up to the police station. . . . We mean KILL. . . . I am here in Manchester; We will have that bloddy swine of a Churchill before ere long the days are numbered. . . . Yours, Peters.”

Peterss married an Englishwoman, May Freeman, and had a daughter, Maisie, by her. In 1917 he went to Russia to join the Cheka. In Moscow Peterss entrapped the British agent Robert Bruce-Lockhart, who was sounding out possible anti-German collaboration between the Allies and the Bolsheviks. After the assassination of the German ambassador, when image in a hysterical fit resigned his post for two months, Peterss took over as head of the Cheka. He subsequently remained its deputy chief, as head of the Petrograd Cheka. Like other Latvians, Peterss insisted that the Cheka should answer to nobody except the head of the government and that it must be free to carry out “searches, arrests, executions.” In Moscow Peterss led raids which killed a hundred anarchists, and in Petrograd he used the prerevolutionary telephone book to round up the middle classes, merchants, civil servants, intelligentsia, and officer corps as hostages for reprisals.

Peterss’s brutality earned him a posting to central Asia, where in the early 1920s he took charge of suppressing the nationalist rebellion by the Uzbek and Turkmen Basmachi. Yet, Robert Bruce-Lockhart testifies: “There was nothing in his character to indicate the inhuman monster he is commonly supposed to be. He told me that he suffered physical pain every time he signed a death sentence.”13 Clearly, the pain quickly abated; typical of Peterss was the joint Cheka-party operation with Stalin in Petrograd on June 12–13, 1919, involving 15,000 armed men. Hundreds of suspects, some merely relatives of deserters, were rounded up and shot.

In private Jekabs Peterss was just as ruthless. Releasing Bruce-Lockhart, he gave him a letter to deliver to his wife in London, and in March 1921 May and Maisie arrived in Moscow, to discover that Peterss now had a Russian wife and a son. Peterss refused to let his first family leave the country. 14 The journalist Mikhail Koltsov, writing from the safety of the Ukraine, interviewed Peterss in 1918: “He hunched his shoulders at the spring slush and began pulling his gloves on his big hands. Old, worn-out suede gloves. The fingertips were worn through and sewn up with thick thread, badly, as lonely old men sew. This is how unpleasant sullen bachelors living in sour-smelling nasty low-ceilinged furnished rooms darn.”15

Laimagecis was more articulate than Peterss. Before and after the revolution he composed satirical and civic verse and comic plays in Latvian. He wrote a parody of the paternoster, addressed to Tsar Nicolas II: “Our father, Who art in Petersburg, Cursed be Thy name, Destroyed be Thy power . . . ” In 1912 he published his poem “The Heart Aches . . . ” dedicated to his ancestral mother, Latvia. His investigative work began in the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD), then still the semblance of a normal government ministry. In May 1918 Laimagecis spectacularly exposed a monarchist conspiracy and was promoted to the Cheka, and in 1919 he distinguished himself in Kiev, where his nephew Paraputs also worked as a chekist and was infamous for appropriating victims’ money and jewelry. Laimagecis and Peterss devised intricate traps, for instance opening in Kiev a “Brazilian consulate” which sold visas for large sums of money and then arrested all visitors in the name of the Cheka; Peterss himself acted as the Brazilian consul. When Kiev was recaptured by the Whites some 5,000 corpses were discovered, and 7,000 other Cheka detainees could not be accounted for.

Laimagecis became the Cheka’s publicist, defending it from the strictures of the People’s Commissariat for Justice, and founded a journal called The Red Sword to publish execution statistics (grossly underestimated) broken down by gender, social origin, and time of year. He declared:

The Cheka is not just an investigative organ: it is the battle organ of the party of the future. . . . It annihilates without trial or it isolates from society by imprisoning in concentration camps. Its word is law. The Cheka’s work must cover all areas of public life. . . . When interrogating, do not seek material evidence or proof of the accused’s words or deeds against Soviet power. The first question you must ask is: what class does he belong to, what education, upbringing, origin, or profession does he have? These questions must determine the accused’s fate. This is the sense and essence of red terror. . . . It doesn’t judge the enemy, it strikes him. It shows no mercy, but incinerates anyone who takes up arms on the other side of the barricades and who is of no use to us. . . . But it isn’t a guillotine cutting off heads at a tribunal’s instance. . . . We, like the Israelites, have to build the Kingdom of the Future under constant fear of enemy attack. 16

Laimagecis claimed that only 21,000 persons were executed between 1918 and 1920. He exulted in the details, however: the crushing of a Social Revolutionary rebellion in Iaroslavl in July 1918, shooting 57 rebels on the spot and 350 after surrender, after bombing the city from the air and engulfing it in artillery fire from an armored train.

Laimagecis later became, like image, an overlord of the Soviet economy; he was always pushing the Cheka to extend its remit far beyond security. In his tribute to image, he declared: “whoever hinders if only by laxness the development of the country’s productive forces . . . is liable to eradication and the Cheka must deal with all of this.” 17 As his energy flagged Laimagecis became a member of the Latvian section of the Union of Writers and even saw his plays performed in the Latvian theater in Leningrad. He died, apparently of a ruptured aorta, in 1937, commanding railway paramilitaries in eastern Siberia, just before Ezhov’s arrests would have swept him away along with almost every other senior Latvian chekist.

imageThe prominent role of Jews in the killings of 1918–21 is a very thorny question, if only because one has to share debating ground with Russian chauvinists and plain anti-Semites.18 From Trotsky down to the executioners of Odessa, Russia’s Jews ruthlessly avenged the victims of a century’s pogroms, and the perceived Jewishness of the Cheka, in the minds of not just anti-Semitic fascists but even otherwise fair-minded Russian monarchists and liberals, reflected a widespread view of the Bolshevik party and its Central Committee as a Jewish cabal. We cannot dismiss the upsurge of violence in 1918–21 by Jews against Russians as simply redressing the balance after centuries of Tsarist oppression. One might compare it to the violence in 1947–48 of the Stern gang and Irgun in Israel against Arab inhabitants and British rulers, an explosion of self-assertion after a far worse persecution. The motivation of those Jews who worked for the Cheka was not Zionist or ethnic. The war between the Cheka and the Russian bourgeoisie was not even purely a war of classes or political factions. It can be seen as being between Jewish inter-nationalists and the remnants of a Russian national culture.

In the traditional Russian and Nazi definition of Jewishness, where parentage and surname counts as much as religious and cultural affiliation, such a view is plausible. But what was Jewish except lineage about Bolsheviks like Zinoviev, Trotsky, Kamenev, or Sverdlov? Some were second- or even third-generation renegades; few even spoke Yiddish, let alone knew Hebrew. They were by upbringing Russians accustomed to a European way of life and values, Jewish only in the superficial sense that, say, Karl Marx was. Jews in anti-Semitic Tsarist Russia had few ways out of the ghetto except emigration, education, or revolution, and the latter two courses meant denying their Judaism by joining often anti-Jewish institutions and groups.

The Bolsheviks had strong support among the ordinary Jewish population of the miserable shtetls of western Russia and the Ukraine. Firstly, because for the first years of Soviet power the authorities did not regard Zionism as a heinous crime.19 Secondly, the Jewish Bund, which many even nonintellectual or pro-Zionist Jews supported, was a socialist party in alliance, like the Bolsheviks, with a wide spectrum of social democrats. And thirdly, the 5 million Jews of Russia, particularly in the thirty years before the removal of restrictions in 1913, had been subject to violent pogroms and fantastical accusations, and were denied access to major cities, civic rights, and the professions. One Russian minister of the 1880s, Konstantin Pobedonostsev, is credited with the remark that Russia’s Jews should be dealt with by “one third emigration, one third assimilation, and one third extermination.” In the First World War the front line between the Austro-Hungarian and Russian armies had cut through a region of Jewish townships. Over half a million Jews were in 1915 summarily deported east. Between 1918 and 1920, during the civil war, Jews suffered from pogroms at the hands of White Cossacks, Ukrainian nationalists, and Polish invaders; White generals such as Anton Denikin did not always rein in their juniors’ anti-Semitism. Among the Red Army, only Semion Budionny’s Cossacks consistently committed anti-Jewish atrocities.

In the Cheka and the party, Lenin feared, Jewish brains were as much a drawback as an advantage, and the Jews themselves were only too aware of the backlash they might provoke. Lenin took care to see that Trotsky’s name was removed from the commission set up to destroy the Russian Orthodox Church. Zinoviev, visiting the Ukraine, warned that there were “too many Jews.” Kaganovich, in the mid-1920s general secretary of the Ukrainian party and a Ukrainian Stalin, cut within three years Jewish representation at Kharkov university from 40 to 11 percent and raised that of Ukrainians from 12 to 38 percent. Any initiative known to emanate from Trotsky or Iagoda could make Russia’s smoldering anti-Semitism flare up. Jews loomed large in the repressive organs of government and in the party, while their proportion among the semi-starving, freezing population of Petrograd and Moscow for a while sharply declined. In 1922, they reached their maximum representation in the party (not that they formed a coherent group) when, at 15 percent, they were second only to ethnic Russians with 65 percent.