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


Chapter 13. From Cheka to State Political Directorate

image SHOT chekisty found taking bribes; he deducted alimony from the salaries of unfaithful married men. But the Cheka chiefs did not even mildly reprimand those who shot the innocent or battered prisoners into confessing. The decision to slaughter the Tsar’s family in Ekaterinburg and Perm, taken in July 1918 by local party and Cheka officials, was not authorized by the Moscow Cheka but the fait accompli was approved. When the Tsar’s family and servants were dead Gorky pleaded, and Lenin apparently agreed, that the killings could stop. But Jekabs Peterss ordered the Cheka to kill the grand dukes imprisoned in Petrograd, including the harmless and respected historian Nikolai Mikhailovich. The grand dukes were beaten, stripped half-naked, and, some on stretchers, shot. Peterss was not even reproved.

Only when cases were fabricated en masse did image sometimes act. In June 1921 at Sebezh on the Latvian border the chekist Pavlovich invented a conspiracy called Tempest (Vikhr) and rounded up a hundred victims to be shot. Vasili Ulrikh, who was to preside over Stalin’s worst show trials in the 1930s, and Agranov, image’s acolyte, believed in Tempest; it took image months to expose the fabrication and have Pavlovich shot. Within a year, however, image stopped such investigations, and a series of fabricated trials in the early 1920s cost hundreds their lives.

In early 1920 the death penalty was abolished. Although, because of the war with Poland, it was reinstated on May 22, the Cheka announced its humanity: a directive of outrageous disingenuousness was signed by image and Iagoda:

Those arrested in political cases, members of various anti-Soviet parties, are often kept in extremely bad conditions; the attitude taken to them by the administration of places of detention is wrong and often even rough. The Cheka points out that these categories of person must be considered not as persons to be punished, but as persons temporarily isolated from society in the interests of the revolution, and the conditions of their detention must not be of a penal nature.

In 1922 the death penalty was briefly abolished again, except in frontier zones; the Cheka moved its condemned prisoners to frontier zones for shooting. A few surviving grand old radicals still called for the total abolition of capital punishment (the death penalty had been more vehemently opposed in Tsarist Russia than in any other country) and in 1925 the distinguished Tolstoyan Ivan Gorbunov-Posadov pleaded with the Politburo on the hundredth anniversary of the execution of the five Decembrist rebel leaders: “Are we really going to greet the tenth anniversary of the triumph of communists (who began the condemnation of the death penalty) and the coming centenary of Tolstoi with shootings, with laws on bloody reprisals? Are you really going to drag on without end in this way along the inhuman, bloody, senseless path trod by the Tsarist tradition?”52

imageThe year 1921 had seemed a disaster for the Cheka. In March the Council of People’s Commissars cut its funding by a quarter; in November Lenin relegated it “to purely political tasks” and commissioned Kamenev and image to find it less punitive roles. He did this reluctantly, presumably impelled by economic necessity, as he had yielded to pressure to restore private trade in the New Economic Plan. On one note from Kamenev he wrote, presumably about Kamenev’s willingness to give way on questions of security: “Poor, weak, timid, intimidated little man.”53

On February 6, 1922, in a decree encouragingly entitled “On the abolition of the All-Union Extraordinary Commission and on the rules for carrying out searches, confiscations and arrests,” the Cheka became the GPU (State Political Directorate) and was made nominally answerable to the Ministry of the Interior. Also encouraging for the Soviet population were the execution statistics: by 1923 executions of political offenders had fallen (officially) to 414 from 1,962 in 1922 and 9,701 in 1920.

image ruled the GPU as he had the Cheka, but he had less scope for his insatiable energy. His time—when he was not ill—was spent restoring the railways, requisitioning grain, and spreading, if not terror, then a spirit of panic in the economy. His tendency to put revolutionary sentiment before economic logic put him at loggerheads with better-educated commissars, on the left and on the right. Kamenev and Rykov in the Union of Labor and Defense set up in 1923 to revive the economy treated him condescendingly. image turned to Stalin for support. He wrote to him on August 3, 1923 (the letter was apparently never sent), “Given my weak voice, which can’t reach its goal, another voice must be raised.” Doubts left “iron Feliks” hopelessly malleable: “But then there will be cracks in our Soviet building.”54

Like Stalin, image was impatient and incompetent with economics; he used retribution to tackle economic problems. When workers complained of devalued earnings, image wrote (March 28, 1923) to Iagoda demanding confiscation of all property and the exile from cities of all speculators, bar owners, and money dealers, but the state’s own currency operations broke down and the money dealers had to be pardoned. 55 image, however hard he worked, was uneasy with economists. One economist found image’s presence at discussions unnerving: “It was hard to keep the thread of one’s thoughts in one’s head, to keep track of Rykov’s objections and to reply to him. I felt that image’s cold pupils were boring right through me like X-rays and, after me, were vanishing somewhere in the stone wall.” By the mid- 1920s, however, trains ran, factories produced goods, and the public credited these achievements, however shoddy, to image’s self-sacrificing energy. To inject life into any sphere of activity, image was made chairman: although he never went to a cinema, he was chairman of a film association and, more appropriately, he was elected chairman of the Society for Interplanetary Relations. image was left desolated and vulnerable by Lenin’s death. In a long letter to Stalin and Orjonikidze, he confessed: “I am not a theoretician and I am not a blind follower of persons—in my life I have personally loved only two revolutionaries and leaders. Rosa Luxemburg and Vladimir Lenin—nobody else.” 56 The film that image commissioned of Lenin’s funeral was the only cinema film he ever watched.

When Lenin died, image’s personal power was at its peak: he was at last a member (if nonvoting) of the Politburo; he was people’s commissar for transport and soon to become commissar for the whole economy; he was co-chairman with Menzhinsky of OGPU, the United State Political Directorate that consolidated the GPU in September 1923. His attachment to Stalin was not based on affection but panic that the party would fall apart without him. The monosyllabic and unexcitable Stalin seemed to image and many others a calm center in the struggle between the hysterical polemics of the left (Trotsky) and of the right (Bukharin). The left threatened to engulf the USSR in a worldwide revolutionary conflagration; the right seemed ready to abandon the dictatorship of the proletariat for some Scandinavian compromise between socialism and capitalism. image, as a fanatical but fearful Bolshevik, had no choice but to support Stalin.

Like Stalin in the effect of his gaze, image resembled Stalin in refusing to delegate the smallest trifle. Every detail—passengers traveling without tickets, rats in baggage compartments, matchboxes that contained not 100 but 85 matches—bothered him more than the general economic desolation and financial destitution facing the Soviets in 1923. The more image was mocked by Trotsky, the more he relied on Stalin. He asked Stalin for the right to deport “speculators, idlers, leeches” as those responsible for price inflation.57 Trotsky recalled: “image would catch fire on any question, even a secondary one, his fine nostrils would shiver, his eyes spark, his voice would tense and often break. . . .” image’s boast was: “I never ever spare myself. And that is why all of you here love me, because you trust me.”

As Lenin lay paralyzed and speechless, the danger of civil war in the Soviet Union between an army that admired Trotsky and a bureaucracy that depended on Stalin had the rank and file of OGPU, itself both an army and a bureaucracy, vacillating. image held a meeting of OGPU functionaries during which he shouted hysterically, “I hate you!” at his co-speaker, the convinced Trotskyist Evgeni Preobrazhensky, editor of Pravda and co-author of The Alphabet of Communism. By the end of 1923, Stalin’s power, still threatened by those closest to Lenin, nevertheless had a wider basis than his rivals.’ Stalin thrived, for he held three crucial posts in the party and the government: he was general secretary of the party, the dominant figure in the party’s organizational bureau, and he was commissar for national minorities. But image, traveling the length and breadth of the Soviet Union to inspect OGPU, the railways, and the economy, was physically and spiritually flagging. His secretary Vladimir Gerson protested but got no understanding from Stalin’s aides. One telegraphed:

Omsk. image’s health is now worse than in Moscow, the work no less. He gets more worked up, he curses more, since things are as bad as they could be. image’s presence here is indispensable, otherwise we could have complete collapse. There is no need for medical examination, I don’t understand how you, Gerson, can demand he be examined so that he doesn’t know, why don’t you tell me how?58

image was suffering from years of malnutrition, tuberculosis, and a heart condition exacerbated by frenetic work and travel. Once Lenin was dead, only Menzhinsky, Iagoda, and Gerson cared if image wore himself out. Apart from their personal affection for him, he was the only chekist who had any charisma, and they basked in his chivalrous image. In 1925 Stalin instructed image, whom he now no longer needed, to reduce his working week to thirty-five hours; the Kremlin doctors forcibly X-rayed him and tested his blood. Together with Menzhinsky, his neighbor in the country, and Iagoda, image took the waters at Essentuki in the Caucasus. The doctors prescribed warm showers, regular enemas, a semi-vegetarian diet, Caucasian mineral water, and long weekend breaks. image got no better. Typical of his attitude to his health and doctors is a letter to his secretary a year before he died: “I am still coughing, especially at night. I have thick yellow phlegm. Please give me medicine to disinfect my lungs and fix the phlegm. I need not be examined. I can’t stand the sight of doctors and will not consent to being examined. I request that the question not even be raised.” 59

On July 20, 1926, in the middle of a rambling, impassioned speech defending the peasantry against the left opposition’s program of collectivization, image collapsed; he recovered briefly at home and then died. The autopsy revealed that his coronary arteries were blocked: he died, like Lenin, of arteriosclerosis.

Managing the Soviet economy, image had had to concede that there was no alternative to the market and moved closer to Bukharin’s position. He even stopped attacking Trotsky who, as mere chief of science, technology, and trade concessions, was now a spent force. It was dawning on image that Stalin, an apparent advocate of the New Economic Plan, would be the man to undo it. But disillusion with Stalin came too late. Seventeen days before he died, image prophesied in a letter to Stalin’s protégé Valerian Kuibyshev:

Dear Valerian. I am aware that my speeches could strengthen those who will certainly lead the party to perdition, i.e. Trotsky, Zinoviev, Piatakov, Shliapnikov. But what am I to do? I am completely convinced that we will deal with all our enemies if we can find and adopt the right line for managing the country and the economy in practice. . . . If we don’t find the line and the tempo, the opposition will grow and the country will then find its dictator the grave digger of the revolution. . . . Almost all dictators now are former Reds—Mussolini, Piłsudski. I am tired of these contradictions. 60

The phrase “grave digger of the revolution” was Trotsky’s sobriquet for Stalin.