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


Chapter 11. The Chekist as Intellectual and Organizer

WHEN THE FIRST WORLD WAR ended, the old empires of Britain and France and the largely middle-class governments of the newly independent states of the Baltic and central Europe turned their attention to the threat posed by Bolshevik Russia. The Cheka had to divert resources from internal repression to external enemies, and both espionage and counterintelligence assumed greater importance. The Cheka would need educated linguists as desperately as it had sharpshooters. To deal with spies, to devise propaganda, agents needed skills in disinformation, manipulation, and falsification. For these tasks men with higher education, not just experience in killing, were needed. Jewish recruits best filled this need. Few Baltic or Polish recruits to the Cheka were intellectuals, although Baron Romuald Pillar von Pilchau, a renegade German aristocrat from Latvia, and the fastidious Petrograd lawyer Ronchevsky were outlandish exceptions to the rule.

The Cheka was an essential instrument not just for suppressing counterrevolution or providing intelligence, but for making the shattered economy function. From the start, Lenin and Trotsky secretly planned the totalitarian organization of labor, with mobile labor armies and cooperatives of peasants on state land. In summer 1918 Trotsky organized the first concentration camps in the southeast of the country. Nothing could shake Trotsky’s belief that “the unproductive nature of compulsory labour is a liberal myth,” but it took a decade for Cheka labor camps to make any perceptible contribution to the economy.

Anticipating Hitler, the Cheka’s activities were economically important in more primitive and horrible ways. Desperately needed money accrued to the Soviet state not just from nationalizing banks and businesses; the murdered Tsaritsa’s crown jewels, delivered to Moscow in ten suitcases by her killers, fetched about $100 million. When sentenced to be executed, real or imaginary counterrevolutionaries forfeited their property to the Cheka. In late 1919, when the Cheka spawned its provincial and departmental offspring—railways, factories, and military units as well as districts, parishes, and towns got their own Cheka units—executions in the open were abandoned. A shot in the back of the neck in a cellar or garage became standard practice. Victims were first stripped naked and usable clothing stored. Lenin himself received a suit, a pair of boots, a belt, and braces worn by a victim of the Moscow Cheka.20Underwear went to Red Army soldiers or Cheka prisoners. Gold teeth were prized from the corpses. (Mikhail Frinovsky, a chekist who was to become notorious in the Great Terror of 1931 and whose teeth were kicked out by a recalcitrant prisoner, had himself a complete set of implants made from the gold teeth of his victims.)

Soviet forces were desperately short of supplies by the end of the civil war; they needed loot to operate. A report to Iagoda from a unit sent to put down a peasant rebellion in Simbirsk runs: “Because of the complete absence mainly of footwear in the Red Army no conspiracies or counterrevolutionary manifestations have been noted.”21 Red Army units would list every trophy they won after successful actions. In 1920, at Kazan, Commander N. Epaneshnikov proudly reported to headquarters that he was sending them “64 ram-rod guns, 17 hunting rifles . . . 86 various rifles, one axe, 16 tanned sheep- and goat-skins, 11 old greatcoats, 1 ripped greatcoat . . . 2 knitted underpants . . . 10 ordinary underpants, 2 sacks of newspaper, 45 raw horse skins . . . a bell . . . and a distilling pipe.”22

Vladimir Zazubrin, in 1918 a deserter from the White forces and later a lively writer of fiction and memoirs, shot by Stalin in 1938 for his frankness, recalled the hard life of the Cheka executioners:

White, grey carcasses (undressed people) collapsed onto the floor. Chekisty with smoking revolvers ran back and cocked the triggers immediately. The legs of those shot jerked in convulsions. . . . Two men in grey greatcoats nimbly put nooses round the necks of the corpses, dragged them off to a dark niche in the cellar. Two others with spades dug at the earth, directing steaming rivulets of blood. Solomin, his revolver in his belt, sorted out the linen of those shot. He carefully made separate piles of underpants, shirts and outer clothing. . . . Three men were shooting like robots, their eyes were empty, with a cadaverous glassy shine. . . .

Like Laimagecis or Zazubrin, other chekisty fancied their talents as writers—just as some writers were later to test their skills as NKVD interrogators. In 1921, in newly conquered Tbilisi, the chekisty published an anthology, The Cheka’s Smile. The contribution by Aleksandr Eiduk, executioner and roving military emissary, ran:

There is no greater joy, not better music
Than the crunch of broken lives and bones.
This is why when our eyes are languid
And passion begins to seethe stormily in the breast,
I want to write on your sentence
One unquavering thing: “Up against a wall! Shoot!”

While in the Moscow Cheka Eiduk admitted “with enjoyment in his voice, like an ecstatic sexual maniac” to a diplomat friend that he found the roar of truck engines, used to drown the noise of prisoners being executed in the inner courtyard of the Lubianka, “Good . . . blood refines you!” Eiduk, shot on Stalin’s orders in 1938, was in 1922 assigned by the Soviet government to watch over the American Relief Agency as it fed 10 million starving peasants on the Volga.

More deplorable even than Eiduk’s verses were contributions from poets with reputations once worth defending such as Vladimir Mayakovsky, who declared, “Enough of singing of moon and seagull, I shall sing of the Extraordinary Committee . . . ” and then advised, “Any youth thinking over his future, / deciding on whom to model his life, I shall tell, without hesitating: ‘Base it / On Comrade image.’ ”

Chekisty and poets were drawn to each other like stoats and rabbits—often with fatal consequences for the latter. They found common ground: the need for fame, an image of themselves as crusaders, creative frustration, membership of a vanguard, scorn for the bourgeoisie, an inability to discuss their work with common mortals. There was an easily bridged gap between the symbolist poet who aimed to épater le bourgeois and the chekist who stood the bourgeois up against a wall.

One outstanding intellectual chekist was the twenty-year-old Social Revolutionary Iakov Bliumkin. Joining the Odessa Cheka, he became notorious as “Fearless Naum” and startled the world when he entered the German embassy in Moscow with a mandate bearing image’s signature and shot the ambassador, Count Mirbach, dead—allegedly to avenge the humiliating Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and to provoke a breach with Germany and thus world revolution. Bliumkin received only a nominal prison sentence (Had this Social Revolutionary coup in fact been stage-managed by the Bolsheviks?) and reappeared as a Cheka officer in Kiev in 1919.

Bliumkin had genius: he was fluent in many European and Asiatic languages, he wrote verse and, despite the sadistic jokes he played, fascinated admirers with his exploits. Bliumkin personified to the extreme the brilliant intellectual corrupted by the license to kill with impunity. In June 1918, before the killing of the German ambassador, the poet Osip Mandelstam heard Bliumkin boast that he was having a “spineless intellectual” shot and raised a storm of protest. Through Larisa Reisner, Mandelstam, who had a reckless disregard for his own safety, obtained an interview with image. The Cheka boss responded to his indignation: the intellectual may have been saved. Bliumkin also befriended the peasant poet Sergei Esenin and took him to Iran, where in 1920 there was a short-lived Soviet republic thus inspiring Esenin’s Persian lyrics. Bliumkin’s circle was the first where chekisty and poets mingled. Even the principled monarchist poet Nikolai Gumiliov, shortly to be shot by the Cheka, was proud to meet Bliumkin. He wrote in his poem “My Readers”: “A man who had shot an emperor’s envoy in a crowd of people came up to shake my hand, to thank me for my verses.” These associations of poet and chekist were mutually destructive. Few of image’s men, or Russia’s poets, would live out their allotted spans. Esenin committed suicide and Bliumkin was shot by Menzhinsky for his links with Trotsky. Mayakovsky was to kill himself, and his Cheka friend Iakov Agranov was executed.

Whether aghast at power like Mandelstam, who found authority as “revolting as a barber’s hand,” or fascinated by it like Mayakovsky and Esenin, the paths of poets and chekisty intersected. In 1919 the greatest of the Russian symbolist poets, Aleksandr Blok, was interrogated by the Cheka as a Social Revolutionary and “mystical anarchist” sympathizer. He periodically interceded, sometimes successfully, for other detainees: Blok’s chekist contact Ozolin, who had himself supervised mass murder in Saratov, declared himself a fellow poet. Max Voloshin, a poet whose reputation as a magus overawed both Reds and Whites, who survived atrocities as the Crimea was conquered and lost by both sides, eloquently testified in 1921 as to what the demented deposed leader of the Hungarian soviets, Béla Kun, and his consort Rozalia Zemliachka had done:


They gathered to work at night.
They read denunciations, certificates, cases.
They hurriedly signed sentences.
They yawned. They drank wine.
[ . . . ]
At night they chased barefooted, naked people
Over ice-covered stones
Against a northeast wind
Into wastelands outside town.
[ . . . ]
They threw them, not all killed yet, into a pit.
They hurriedly covered them with earth.
And then with an expansive Russian song
They returned home to town.

Béla Kun had summoned Voloshin to read through lists of condemned, ostentatiously deleted the poet’s own name, and then invited him to perform an act of unbearable complicity: crossing off the name of one man in ten.24

It was harder for intellectuals to mix with chekisty once the latter began mass killing. “Red Terror” was decreed on September 1, 1918, as a defensive measure which suspended both legality and morality. The pretext was the assassination on August 30 by the young poet Leonid Kannegiser of the head of the Petrograd Cheka, Moisei Uritsky—ironically, Uritsky was one chekist who loathed bloodshed. Lenin was unhappy with image’s plans to proceed with mass terror against counterrevolutionaries, but on August 31 he was hit by a bullet allegedly fired by a former anarchist, Fanny Kaplan, and was temporarily put out of action. Kaplan was an unlikely assassin. Not even Lenin’s entourage knew until the last moment that he would be speaking at the Moscow factory where he was shot and Kaplan suffered from periodic total loss of sight, caused by an explosion in a terrorist bomb factory a decade before. A revolver was “found” four days later, but could not have fired the bullet extracted from Lenin’s neck. Kannegiser, Uritsky’s killer, was quickly arrested and confessed, but was interrogated for a whole year in the hope that he would name co-conspirators before being shot. Fanny Kaplan told the Cheka nothing, even when questioned by Peterss, and was handed over to Kremlin interrogators. She was shot a week later in a garage by Pavel Malkov, the Kremlin commandant; the poet Demian Bedny, Stalin’s closest friend among the intellectuals, helped Malkov cremate her in a steel oil drum.25

Cheka killings escalated. Assassination attempts and advancing White armies, aided by Anglo-French forces invading from the north, the south, and the west, were the pretexts for an orgy of killing that lasted three years. The moral effect on image’s organization was horrendous: an explosion of criminal sadism swept the country. In a matter of days, hundreds were shot in Moscow. Uritsky’s successor in Petrograd, the redoubtable pervert Gleb Bokii, shot 1,300, although the target set by image was 500.26 Trotsky and Karl Radek acclaimed the terror; Radek even wanted executions to be public. Lenin in July 1918, before he was fired on, had argued for hangings, rather than shootings, so that the public could better contemplate the corpses.27

Killings also arose from the panic and vindictiveness of civil war: fearful atrocities occurred in cities like Kiev or Astrakhan which changed hands several times between 1918 and 1920. Convicted criminals and certified psychopaths appointed themselves officers of the Cheka and terrorized, raped, and murdered whom they liked. Surrendering White army officers, given safe passes, were summoned to “register” and then shot, burned in furnaces, drowned on barges, or hacked to death. Other executions aimed to improve results on the battlefield by decimating Red Army deserters and retreating units, a party policy that Trotsky, Stalin, and other roving emissaries enforced at the front. Statistics exist only for 1921, a mild year and the last of the civil war, when 4,337 were shot in the army alone. 28 Sometimes a whole ethnic group was declared White and genocide took place. Iona Iakir, a famous Red Army general, had 50 percent of male Don Cossacks exterminated, and used artillery, flamethrowers, and machine guns on women and children.29 Red Cossacks declared their non-Russian neighbors White and massacred Circassian villagers and Kalmyk cattle-herders. In Moscow, under image’s command, indiscriminate mass murder took place. “Counterrevolutionaries” were executed by list; in 1919 all Moscow’s Boy Scouts and in 1920 all members of the lawn tennis club were shot.

Not all chekisty were men. In the Crimea Stalin’s Baku comrade Rozalia Zemliachka and her lover Béla Kun, with Lenin’s approval, murdered 50,000 White officers who had trusted Commander Frunze’s safe conduct. Zemliachka, a Cheka sadist who would live to enjoy a pension, tied the officers in pairs to planks and burned them alive in furnaces, or drowned them in barges that she sank offshore. She had been educated in a Kiev grammar school and at the Sorbonne.

Two women in the Odessa Cheka were particularly feared: Vera Grebeniukova, known as Dora, who for two and a half months in 1918 mutilated 700 prisoners before shooting them, and the “Pekinese,” a Latvian sadist, who was chief executioner. In the Kiev Cheka a Hungarian, Removér, was consigned to a psychiatric ward after she began shooting not just prisoners but witnesses. And in Moscow’s central prison in 1919, a woman executioner specialized in fetching the condemned from the hospital ward and whipping them down to the cellars.

Many Cheka killers were convicts, for example Iankel-Iakov Iurovsky, the killer of the Tsar, and the sole black in the Cheka, Johnston of Odessa, who flayed his victims alive. Some of these killers went uncontrollably mad: Saenko of Kharkov, who worked in a special torture chamber, attacked his superiors and was shot; the same fate befell Maga, chief executioner in Moscow. When the killer was of political importance, milder measures were taken. Béla Kun was put in a psychiatric hospital, from where he was released to play a key role in the Comintern. Dr. Mikhail Kedrov, friend and publisher to Lenin and cousin of two Central Committee members, was relieved of his post when, after reenacting the drownings of the French Revolution with captive White officers, he prepared to exterminate the inhabitants of Vologda and other northern towns. Kedrov suffered from hereditary madness; his father, a violinist, had died in a lunatic asylum. The son spent some time in psychiatric care before reemerging to work, just as cruelly, for the Cheka around the Caspian Sea. He retired from the Cheka after the civil war and was head of a neurosurgical institute when Beria arrested him in 1939. 30

The White armies, too, were guilty of mass murder and terror. The killing of 30,000 Reds by the Finnish Marshal Karl Mannerheim in January 1918 provoked Bolshevik revenge, as did the concentration camps used by the new Estonian and Finnish governments to confine Bolsheviks. In the south of Russia, there were White atrocities, although such lapses were infrequent in the White army, which was staffed with many principled officers and backed up an administration which had not completely discarded its ethics. Insane sadists like Baron Roman Ungern-Sternberg, who killed thousands in Mongolia, were exceptional. Only the Ukrainian “anarchist” Nestor Makhno and some Cossack forces systematically employed terror on a scale comparable to the Red Terror.

Red Terror and civil war thus produced in the USSR a body of men and women for whom summary arrest and execution, often en masse, was a normal, salutary procedure. The holocaust that took place between 1918 and 1922 seems less horrific than Hitler’s or Stalin’s only because it was directed more at a class than at a race, because most survivors remained cut off from the Western world, because the paper trail has been destroyed, and because, as Stalin liked to say, “Victors are not put on trial.” Above all, the terror was never repented, let alone atoned for. In the later 1920s, like a dormant infection, those capable of slaughtering “class enemies” without remorse waited for the moment when they could ravage the body politic again.

The easiest way to comprehend the scale of the holocaust that Lenin, Trotsky, image, and Stalin unleashed is through demographic statistics. We can compare the actual population figures of the USSR in the 1920s with the figures predicted ten years earlier; we can use the reliable 1926 census figures, and extrapolate from figures produced in areas where records were maintained. From 1914 to mid-1917 just under 3 million men of the Russian empire were killed in the war, as were over 300,000 civilians. From 1917 to 1920 the population of European Russia declined by 6 million (5 percent), and proportionately the Ukraine, Belorussia, and the Caucasus suffered equally.31 Major Russian industrial cities had always had higher death rates than birthrates; they grew by sucking in fresh working forces from the countryside, where on average there were 60 deaths to 100 births before the revolution. But from 1917 to 1920 deaths outnumbered births in the countryside and in the cities mortality more than doubled. Epidemics and famines were bigger killers even than the bullets of the Cheka or Red Army. Lenin in December 1919 declared that, “Either the [typhus] louse will defeat socialism, or socialism will defeat the typhus louse.” Tuberculosis, heart disease, and dysentery, arising from malnutrition, cold, and stress, ravaged the country.

Overall, the number of people killed during the revolution and civil war amounted to: nearly 2 million soldiers of the Red Army and Cheka with over 500,000 in the White armies; 300,000 Ukrainian and Belorussian Jews in pogroms by Ukrainian, Polish, and White armies; 5 million dead of starvation in the Volga region in 1921. Moreover, 2 million Russians emigrated to Europe and Asia. This amounts to 10 million fewer inhabitants. How many other human beings should have been alive in the USSR in 1922 but were not is a matter for conjecture. Plausible evidence reveals that the actual numbers executed or sent to death camps vastly exceeded the official figures of 12,000 shot in 1918, and 9,701 shot and 21,724 sent to camps for 1921. The repression that followed the rebellions in Kronstadt or Tambov in 1921 alone resulted in tens of thousands of executions.

The age, class, and gender of the victims aggravated the disaster: soldiers killed were typically men in their twenties, while the émigrés lost to the country were largely members of the professional classes. Those most needed to plow the land, rebuild the factories, and run the economy had gone. image understood this very well. The Bolshevik leadership had lost two generations; their only hope for the future was the children, many of whom were starving, homeless orphans, a waste of human resources and a threat to public order. They would be the raw material of Stalin’s Soviet Union. Strategy not sentiment motivated the Cheka, GPU, and NKVD to establish colonies for homeless children. Orphanages, children’s communes, and theories of education were a major concern for the secret police; having created the mass of orphaned children, they wanted to use them.32

imageThe excuse that image, Lenin, and Stalin made for the Cheka’s brutal excesses was inexperience. Sailors, schoolteachers, and factory workers could not be expected to maintain professional calm or observe consistent legality in such a furnace of counterespionage and counterterror. In all spheres of government during the first years after the revolution there was a desperate shortage of competent leadership. Men undertook tasks for which they had not the most elementary competence or qualifications. For a soldier, doctor, stoker, or peasant to become a chekist only a short apprenticeship was required to inure him to the violence of the job.

If we take a typical chekist we are as likely to find upward mobility from the dispossessed Jewish shtetl as downward mobility from a Russian middle-class family. Mikhail Frinovsky, for instance, was one of eight children born to comfortably off parents (his father was a schoolteacher and his mother a landowner). Like image the son of a somewhat sadistic man and like Stalin educated in a theological seminary, Frinovsky may seem to have been predestined to rebel. But, like many Russians of his generation, Frinovsky was so patriotic that he falsified his age in order to volunteer to serve in the Tsar’s army, and he quickly became an NCO in the cavalry. Disillusioned by the slaughter, he deserted. Once outside the law he gravitated to anarchism and terrorism, and in 1917 took part in torturing a major general to death. He hid from the authorities as a bookkeeper in a military hospital, and when the Bolsheviks took over his crimes were transformed into qualifications for the Cheka. After brief service in the Red Army he became one of the most brutal chekisty in Moscow, and then with Stalin was let loose at the front in the 1920 war against Poland.

Then there were chekisty like Naftali Frenkel, who, but for the war and the revolution, would have remained a chancer and fixer on the fringes of the building trade and gangster rackets in Odessa. Frenkel had become rich on wartime building contracts and dock work, and when revolution broke out and nobody built or imported anymore, he helped the Cheka take Odessa from the Whites. Most of the gangsters were then shot by their former allies but Frenkel’s organizing talents were too good to waste. He was allowed to continue racketeering in the port and also worked for the Cheka until image found the combination too compromising. Frenkel was sent, ostensibly as a prisoner, to the far north, where he became a de facto concentration camp commandant and rose to become the chief contractor on the slave-labor White Sea canal in the 1930s.

There were tens of thousands of Frinovskys and Frenkels in the Cheka. It took in men who ten years earlier had intended to pursue wealth or a career and disseminated those it had corrupted throughout Soviet society. Success in the Cheka meant being delegated to take charge of any failing area, military or economic. Thus executioners and interrogators spread into every sector of government, applying their methods to problems once solved by negotiation and persuasion. From mid-1919 on, image, like Stalin and Trotsky, was sent by Lenin to any part of the front where the army was collapsing, to any province where stores of grain might be requisitioned for the starving cities, to any local party which was becoming fractious—wherever ruthlessness and blind belief in the cause could salvage the situation.

Despite constantly losing men to other commissariats, by mid-1919 image had set up a Union-wide Cheka that could work in his absence. His immediate subordinates, Peterss, Laimagecis, Ksenofontov, Menzhinsky, and Iagoda—particularly the latter two—were as devoted to the cause as he.33 The atmosphere was remarkably amicable for such a vipers’ nest; the leadership had charisma, and the lower echelons, who knew where their interests lay, showed them loyalty. Together they created a myth that ennobled the sordid bloodshed.

image himself considered that two years in the Cheka was all that could be expected of a recruit, and like Himmler, he saw virtue in the carnage he oversaw. Maimagertinņš Laimagecis declared, “However honorable a man may be, however crystal-clear his heart, Cheka work, carried out with almost unlimited rights and in conditions which have an exceptional effect on the nervous system, leaves its mark.” None ever expressed doubts, but their bodies rebelled with fainting fits, colic, and headaches. Like Trotsky, image was prone to hysterical crises which led to breakdowns. image broke down hysterically after the assassination of Count Mirbach in July 1918: detained by Social Revolutionaries, he bared his chest, inviting them to shoot him. When he was released and the Social Revolutionaries had been crushed, he resigned. In autumn, humiliated by his failure to prevent the assassination of Uritsky and the attempt on Lenin’s life, image shaved his hair, forged himself Polish papers in the name of Feliks Domaimageski, and turned up in Switzerland at the house where his unsuspecting wife and son lived. Only after an interlude on Lake Lugano did he recover and return to Russia. image’s wife and son followed when the Swiss expelled the Soviet diplomatic mission from Bern. From 1919 on, now supported by a wife, a sister, a sister-in-law, and two nieces, but still sleeping in his office and subsisting on bread and tea, image was used by Lenin in a series of special missions. This brought him into Stalin’s orbit.