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


Chapter 12. Stalin and Dzierzynski in Tandem

UNTIL THE CIVIL WAR ENDED, Commissar for Nationalities Stalin had little to do except formulate policy. Stalin’s real remit was to solve, by any means, supply problems—getting munitions and men to the front, grain to the cities—and to swing the party’s weight behind repressive measures taken by the Cheka or Red Army. The first of Stalin’s missions was from May to September 1918 with his old friend Klim Voroshilov to Tsaritsyn (later Stalingrad, now Volgograd). Stalin’s task was to bring grain from the still-productive south up to Moscow and Petrograd, but instead he and Voroshilov, who commanded an army approaching Tsaritsyn, interfered in the defense of the city against the Whites. Stalin branded the Red commander Andrei Snesarev, who was a protégé of Trotsky, a deserter and a collaborator with the French. Well out of artillery range on the Volga, Stalin and Voroshilov presided over a tribunal which summoned officers from Tsaritsyn. The officers were put on barges on the Volga which were then raked with machine guns. Stalin also commandeered all available troops in the area, including six detachments on their way to Baku to rescue the Bolsheviks there from a takeover by Social Revolutionaries and the British; the deaths of the twenty-six Bolshevik Baku commissars can thus be laid at Stalin’s door.

Stalin was accompanied by his new bride, the seventeen-year-old Nadezhda Allilueva, and made his brother-in-law Fiodor take part in the killing of suspected “spetsy,” the career Tsarist officers on whose skills the ill-trained Red Army depended. Fiodor Alliluev went mad. Stalin however cemented his alliance with Voroshilov and with the Cossack commander Budionny. Their hostility to professional army officers simmered for almost twenty years before it was to boil over into a campaign of extermination. Stalin, strongly supported by image, clashed with Trotsky over the latter’s use of spetsy. Trotsky, as commander-in-chief, responded by forcing image to release Tsarist officers from prison for service in the Red Army, their loyalty assured by the threat of imprisoning or shooting their wives and children if they deserted. image was pushed further toward Stalin, who from this point began to replace Trotsky as the ultimate patron of the Cheka.

In the early stages of the revolution image had several times sided with Trotsky. When Lenin caved in to the Germans at Brest-Litovsk in January 1918 image, like Trotsky, refused to endorse what he called “a capitulation of our entire program.” Unlike Trotsky, however, image distrusted anyone who had been in Tsarist service: for the Cheka he recruited almost nobody who had served in the Tsar’s secret police.

The instant dislike that Stalin and Trotsky had taken to each other in Vienna in 1913 now erupted into a feud that would only end when one killed the other. In 1918 Trotsky countered Stalin’s interventions around Tsaritsyn with a threat: “I order Stalin to form immediately a Revolutionary Council for the Southern Front on the basis of non-interference by commissars in operational business. Failure to carry out this order within twenty-four hours will force me to take severe measures.”34 On the same day Stalin complained at length to Lenin:

Trotsky, generally, can’t refrain from histrionic gestures. . . . Now he’s striking a new blow with his gesture about discipline, and all this Trotskyist discipline actually consists of having the most prominent people active at the front watching the behinds of military specialists from the “non-party” camp of counterrevolutionaries and not stopping these people from ruining the front. . . . Trotsky can’t sing without falsetto. . . . Therefore I ask now, before it is too late, for Trotsky to be put in his place, given limits, for I fear that Trotsky’s crazy commands . . . handing the whole front to so-called bourgeois military specialists who inspire no confidence . . . will create discord between the army and the command. . . .35

Shooting commanders pour encourager les autres was a strategy common to Stalin and Trotsky. Their overall styles were, however, very different. Trotsky’s train carried motor cars, a cinema photographer, and a brass band; stations ahead were telegraphed to lay in butter, quails, and asparagus for the commissar. Shootings of deserters and retreating officers alternated with rousing speeches to the soldiery. Stalin, on the other hand, traveled in ostentatious discomfort; he had no praise for the soldiery, and even less trust: “I must say that those non-working elements who constitute the majority of our army, the peasants, won’t fight for socialism, they won’t! They refuse to fight voluntarily. . . . Hence our task is to make these elements go into combat. . . .”36

The Whites besieging Tsaritsyn ultimately failed to capture the city, but Stalin’s brutality had done more damage to his own side than to the enemy. Voroshilov was threatened by Trotsky with a court martial; Lenin concurred, telling the southern army it could appoint anyone as commander except Voroshilov. This humiliation made Voroshilov dependent on Stalin for his military future. Stalin had now collected two men, Voroshilov and image, whom Lenin and Trotsky had humiliated and spurned.

When demoralized Reds surrendered the Ural city of Perm at the end of 1918 to the Whites, thus allowing British forces to link up with Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak, ruler of Siberia, Stalin and image were dispatched together, in their first collaborative venture, to punish and rally the army. All January 1919, based at Viatka, where image had spent his first exile, he and Stalin were inseparable inquisitors. They were so ruthless that in February 1919 the party’s Central Committee had to issue an order releasing the surviving officers “arrested by Stalin’s and image’s commission to be handed over for the appropriate institutions to deploy.”

This, image’s first visit to the front, shook his morale but not his resolve, and in April 1919 he wrote to his sister Aldona:

But you can’t understand me—a soldier of the revolution, warring so that there shall be no more injustice in the world, so that war shall not give whole millions of people as booty for rich conquerors. War is a terrible thing. . . . The most wretched nation has been the first to rise up in defense of its rights—and has put up resistance to the whole world. Would you want me to stand aside here?37

The following year image moved even closer to Stalin. In 1920, waiting in the Ukraine for the Soviet conquest of Poland, the images lived in a dacha near Kharkov with the couple then most intimate with Stalin, the poet Demian Bedny and his wife. That summer, as the Red Army pushed the Poles out of the Ukraine and back to the outskirts of Warsaw, Stalin and image worked together and again showed Lenin and Trotsky their limitations. Stalin had promised Lenin in July 1920 an unimaginable victory: “Now that we have the Comintern, a defeated Poland . . . it would be sinful not to encourage revolution in Italy . . . and in states that are not yet strong like Hungary, Czechoslovakia. . . . In short, we have to loose the anchor and move before imperialism has time to put its broken cart in order. . . .” But for all the brilliance and experience of Commander Tukhachevsky, who had begun his career as a Tsarist officer, by August 1920 the Red cavalry, like that of the Mongols 700 years before, was bogged down in the Polish forests and marshes with neither tents nor coats to keep off the incessant rain. Stalin, however, loudly insisted that the Soviet government should reject David Lloyd George’s offer to mediate peace with the Poles on the basis of the Curzon line boundary (today’s Polish–Belorussian–Ukrainian border) and grab as much Polish territory as possible before any truce could be negotiated. As a result, the Red Army spent resources besieging Lwów, the capital of the Polish Carpathians. The Poles counterattacked and took 100,000 Russian prisoners, forcing the Soviets to concede a vast belt of territory. The glory went to Poland’s ruler Piłsudski, the disgrace to image and Stalin.38

image had expected to join the Red Army in Warsaw to help form a Soviet Polish government. He amused his fellow Poles among the Bolsheviks, Karl Radek in particular, by his modest surmise that he might take on the ministry of education in the new Poland, after putting Piłsudski up against a wall. The defeat of the Red Army on the Vistula left him crestfallen. Stalin, image, and Voroshilov had anticipated victory. Now image, like Voroshilov in 1918, was bound to Stalin in disgrace. Voroshilov wrote to Orjonikidze with amazement, “We expected rebellions and revolution from the Polish workers and peasants but got chauvinism and stupid hatred of ‘Russians.’ ”39

Trotsky was mercilessly sarcastic about Stalin’s lapses—whose treatment twenty years later of the Polish officers who had disabused his dreams would be as barbarous as his reckoning with him. Voroshilov lost for a short time all taste for command: in March 1921 he served as a common soldier, attacking the mutinous sailors of Kronstadt across the ice. In November 1921 he wrote to Stalin, “Working in the war department no longer appeals to me. . . . I suppose I shall be more useful in a civilian career. . . . I’ll take any work [in the Don basin] and hope to shake myself out of it, for I’ve started to get poorly (mentally). I embrace you strongly. . . .” 40

In February 1921, the Red Army invaded Georgia and completed the reconquest of Transcaucasia. The Georgian communists who gained power were, however, not Leninist puppets and pursued a liberal line— leaving at liberty members of the Menshevik government who had not fled the country. Budu Mdivani and Pilipe Makharadze resisted Stalin’s decision to subsume the Georgian republic into a Transcaucasian federation. Likewise, the Soviet detachment of Abkhazia from Tbilisi’s rule, making it an autonomous republic amenable to Russian exploitation, upset the Georgians. Stalin often expressed contempt for his native country: “Tbilisi is picturesque, but Baku is more interesting,” he would write to Demian Bedny. In 1923 he told Trotsky, “Georgians behave like an imperial power toward Armenians, Abkhaz, Ajarians, Osetians. This deviancy is of course less dangerous than Russian imperialism, but it’s still dangerous enough. . . .”41 Stalin showed such ruthlessness in the Caucasus—in autumn 1920 he supervised the bloody suppression of Circassians and Osetians—that Lenin remarked that there was nobody worse than a “Russified aborigine” at imposing Russification with insensitivity.

The task of dealing with the Georgians was handed over to Sergo Orjonikidze, who had demonstrated his ruthlessness by shooting Azeri and Armenian nationalists, whether communists or not. When Georgian communists complained to Lenin, Stalin and Orjonikidze were furious and the latter struck one of them in the face for calling him “Stalin’s mule.” Lenin was furious with Orjonikidze—“he had no right to the irritability that he and imageblame everything on”—and put Stalin and image in charge of a commission to investigate and repair the damage. These two, however, exonerated Orjonikidze. Lenin could only attempt to placate the offended Georgians with a short note in March 1923, the last he dictated before arteriosclerosis took away his speech: “Strictly secret. To comrades Mdivani, Makharadze et al. Copy to Trotsky and Kamenev. Respected comrades! I follow your cause with all my heart. I am indignant at Orjonikidze’s coarseness and Stalin’s and image’s connivance. I am preparing notes and a speech for you.”42

There were personal reasons why Stalin gathered a coterie around him of men such as Voroshilov, image, and Orjonikidze. Stalin was a loner. During the civil war, he stood out in his isolation. Other Bolsheviks had intimate allies: wives, sisters, and mistresses. Even image, once Zofia had arrived from Zurich, was eventually cajoled into living in the Kremlin; his wife found work first in the Commissariat for Education, then as a party propagandist. Wives of leading revolutionaries were placed in inconspicuous but crucial government and party posts. Zinoviev’s second wife, Zlata Lilina, was a power in education, while her brother Ionov controlled state publishing in Petrograd. Olga Bronshtein, Kamenev’s wife and Trotsky’s sister, although she had never been to school, recruited major poets to teach the proletariat to create; later she ran the theaters and then the Lenin museum. Lenin’s wife, Krupskaia, was nominally in charge of education: in 1923 she issued circulars banning the publication or teaching of Plato, Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer, John Ruskin, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Tolstoi. Trotsky’s wife, Natalia Sedova, controlled the State Depository of Confiscated Valuables and the museums.

Divorce and remarriage linked people’s commissars to poets, painters, university professors but, despite the Bolsheviks’ proclamation of sexual equality, very few free female spirits—Larisa Reisner, Aleksandra Kollontai—roamed the fringes of power. The wives of Bolshevik leaders (but not Zofia Dzierimageyimageska) had salons where those intellectuals who had not emigrated or were in hiding sought protection from these influential and underemployed consorts. Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Radek, and Bukharin—not to mention Lenin—were patrons whose friends, counselors, admirers, and supplicants coalesced, even before the civil war was over, into a new class of hangers-on: the revolutionary intelligentsia. The process worked in reverse, too. The poet Larisa Reisner, who had flirted with Blok and Mandelstam and slept with Gumiliov, became, as soon as revolution broke out, the consort of the commander of a group of Petrograd sailors, Raskolnikov, and later of the wittiest and most cynical of the Bolshevik inner circle, Karl Radek. But she never burned her bridges with the world of poetry and gave such apolitical outsiders as Anna Akhmatova and Mandelstam protection.

Such half-revolutionary, semi-decadent bourgeois circles were alien to Stalin. No intellectual except Demian Bedny would, until Stalin acquired total power, be seduced into a dialogue. Stalin’s child bride, Nadezhda, was no use in forging alliances; the only connection she gave Stalin was with the Alliluevs. They were Bolsheviks, but apart from Stanislav Redens, head of the Odessa Cheka and married to Nadezhda’s elder sister, they offered Stalin no useful contacts. Even Stalin’s underlings Molotov and Voroshilov had wives who opened more doors.

Stalin, however, had one particular resource to win him allies and neutralize enemies: his fellow Caucasians. Apart from Sergo Orjonikidze, he had another boon companion in Nestor Lakoba, the Abkhaz leader famed for his aquiline eyesight and profound deafness. With Stalin’s assistance Lakoba, once a junior policeman, detached his small Black Sea homeland from Georgia and made it an island of prosperity in a war-ravaged Caucasus. The Bolsheviks connived at Lakoba’s avoidance of reforms and purges; the prerevolution palaces and villas along the coast were neither sacked nor destroyed. Stalin invited Lakoba to stay at his dacha at Zubalovo.43 When image’s mental and physical health faltered and he agreed to take annual breaks, Stalin sent not just him but most of the Cheka leaders to Lakoba.44 Sergo Orjonikidze wrote to Lakoba on September 25, 1922:

Dear Comrade Lakoba,

. . . Comrades image, Iagoda and others are coming to stay with you for two months. They must be put in the best villa (clean, with no insects, with heating, lighting, etc.) right on the sea. You must be in all respects a hospitable host worthy of the Abkhaz name, which I do not have the slightest doubt about. The bearer of this note will give you more details. Be well. I shake your hand warmly. Your Sergo. 45

Caucasian hospitality, after decades of sunless privation, seduced even the ascetic image. Lakoba, whom Stalin cultivated for fifteen years, was his best tool for managing and eliminating rivals. When Lenin’s death was imminent, Stalin’s close protégé Abram Belenky, then Kremlin commandant, had Trotsky sent off for two months to Abkhazia, ostensibly for his health. Belenky told Lakoba on January 6, 1924:

I consider the best place for housing him is . . . where you used to put up Comrades image and Zinoviev. The doctors have prescribed Comrade Trotsky complete peace and although our people will provide Trotsky’s guards, I nevertheless ask you, dear Comrade Lakoba, with your sharp eye and care, to take Comrade Trotsky under your wing, then our minds will be completely at rest . . . we have no need to speak any more on this subject, I am sure you will have understood me completely. Obviously there are to be no meetings or formal parades. . . . Comrades image and Iagoda send you a warm cordial greeting. 46

By the last year of Lenin’s life image shared Stalin’s hostility to Trotsky and he actively helped Stalin get him out of the way. A civil war hero, Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko, who had admired Trotsky’s organizational genius, was rebuked by image: “You’ve gone too far and you are not devoted to the party and revolution . . . keeping the dictatorship of the proletariat . . . demands from the party the greatest unity of ideas and unity of action. . . . And that means Trotsky has to be fought with.”

Trotsky’s vulnerable point was his hypochondria. image had arranged treatment for him before, and in May 1921 Lenin was worried by Trotsky’s symptoms: chronic colitis, arterial spasms, fainting fits. The Politburo decided on April 23, 1921: “Comrade Trotsky is to be told to leave for treatment in the country, taking into account his doctors’ prescriptions when choosing the place and time. Supervision of Trotsky’s compliance with this decision is the responsibility of Comrade image.” 47 Trotsky was sent to the north Caucasus.48

On January 5, 1924, as the struggle to dominate the post-Lenin USSR intensified, Stalin saw to it that “leave for Trotsky” was the first item on the agenda for the Politburo. A week later, three days before Lenin died, imagemade it even clearer to Lakoba that he must keep Stalin’s rival away from the levers of power:

Comrade Lakoba! Dear Comrade! Because of the state of Comrade Trotsky’s health, the doctors are sending him to Sukhum. This has become widely known even abroad and therefore I am afraid lest there be any attempts on his life by White Guards. My request to you is to bear this in mind. Because of his state of health, Comrade Trotsky will not generally be able to leave his dacha and therefore the main task is not to let any outsiders or unknown persons in. . . .

When Lenin died, Stalin with extraordinary cunning arranged the succession so that his authority would be undisputed. He placated Lenin’s leftist heirs, Zinoviev and Kamenev, by joining them in what would be a short-lived triumvirate. The liberal right he reassured by seeing to it that Rykov was chosen as “prime minister,” i.e., chairman of the Council of Commissars. Stalin, as the party’s general secretary, held the reins of power, and he ensured the Soviet economy came under his control by making image economic overlord. Meanwhile, image’s agents sampled public reaction to Lenin’s death and reassured Stalin that the Soviet man in the street was most afraid of Trotsky seizing power, bringing back militant communism and ending the New Economic Plan. The NEP allowed private capital to set up small businesses and even operate state concessions; it let peasants farm the land as if they owned it and allowed businessmen and intellectuals to travel abroad. But the authors of the NEP saw it as only a temporary retreat from socialism to allow the economy and population to prepare for the next stage in the creation of a communist society.

While Trotsky languished in the Caucasus, Stalin and image took care of everything from Lenin’s embalming to the Politburo’s agenda. It dawned too late on Trotsky how disastrous his acquiescence had been. The evening after Lenin died, Stalin composed a telegram: “To Iagoda, to be given immediately to Trotsky. I regret the technical impossibility of your arriving in time for the funeral. There are no reasons to expect any complications. In these conditions we see no necessity to interrupt your treatment. Naturally we leave a final decision to you....”49 Trotsky saw that he would have no say in the Politburo until May 1924, when Lenin’s last will and testament would be read out to the thirteenth congress of the Russian Bolshevik party. This secret “Letter to the Congress,” Trotsky hoped, would name him the legitimate heir to power and Stalin unfit to inherit Lenin’s mantle. Until then his demands would be modest. “Do you consider my immediate return to Moscow a good idea? My physical state makes it possible to take part in closed sessions, but not in public speeches. Trotsky.” 50

image readily acquiesced in politically disabling Trotsky, who was clearly erratic and divisive, but found Stalin’s suppression of other dissident voices within the Bolshevik party harder to swallow. The stroke that silenced Lenin in spring 1923 had deprived the party of the force that could pull everyone together. Lenin, unlike Stalin, allowed others to let off steam before he imposed his own views, and did so without recriminations. But, at Stalin’s insistence, the Cheka moved from suppressing other left-wing parties to actions that contradicted the policy of Democratic Centralism preached by Lenin in order to make Stalin’s the controlling voice in the Politburo.

image and the Cheka actually had a motivation as strong as Stalin’s for repressing dissent: the Cheka needed something to do when peace came or it risked dissolution. In autumn 1919 the White armies had been definitively repulsed from central Russia. Civil war raged for two more years, but the existence of the Soviet state was no longer in doubt. The need for the Cheka came under question. image sought new roles and on May 1, 1920, he had won the Cheka peacetime powers: “The law gives the Cheka the possibility of using administrative measures to isolate those who infringe labor rules, parasites, and persons who arouse suspicion of being counterrevolutionary, persons for whom there is not enough evidence for judicial punishment and where any court, even the most harsh, will always or most often acquit them.”51 In March 1921, Zinoviev, aggrieved by malcontents in Petrograd’s factories, invited image to put Cheka groups in every trade union branch: the unions, which Trotsky had seen as the foundation of workers’ power, were emasculated.

Information was the Cheka’s commodity in its transactions with Stalin. In 1918 it had been concerned with who people were, not what they thought; now the control of thought and speech offered expansion instead of retrenchment. When Russia’s postal services were restored to a shadow of their former glory, the Cheka took on enough perlustrators to intercept and read every item of mail. Information on the public mood—on conversations in queues, on dissident intellectuals, on grumbling peasants—was gathered from informers into weekly reports for Stalin and the party. But real counterrevolutionaries were now extinct and the surviving populace was too tired, hungry, and dejected. Even though factory workers in 1922 were once again faced with starvation, as inflation ravaged the Soviet economy as badly as Weimar Germany and the authorities looted pay packets for fictitious grain or gold bonds, there was no resistance that would tax even a local Cheka.

Stalin nevertheless needed the Cheka, but one with a changed ethos in order to harass his opponents. For Stalin, image’s only defect was fastidiousness: he disliked fabricating evidence. Still less was he willing to repress party members, even when Stalin persuaded him that fractions menaced the party and that all fractious discussion was therefore counterrevolutionary. One reason image’s energy was diverted first into the railways and then into restoring the Russian economy was that Stalin needed the services of the cleverer, more inventive, and less principled deputy heads of the GPU (the Cheka’s name from 1922), namely Viacheslav Menzhinsky and Genrikh Iagoda, and began to deal with them directly.