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


In stormy student years he became famous for his cynical statement at a meeting that he didn’t care about his comrades. . . . Mixing with people who considered it shameful to play the piano when people all round were dying of hunger, Demidov ardently rushed into music studies. . . . Indifferent to mockery, indignation or abuse, Demidov was still not pleased with himself. He wanted to win total inner freedom.

Viacheslav Menzhinsky, 
Demidov’s Affair

Chapter 14. A False Dawn

IMAGINE IF THE BOLSHEVIK government had been overthrown on Lenin’s death in January 1924. Suppose that the surviving Politburo and OGPU chiefs had been brought to trial on charges of mass murder, treason, torture, and robbery. Their lawyers would have advised Trotsky, Stalin, and image to admit guilt, but plead mitigation on five grounds: they were engaged in the overthrow of an unjust and repressive political system; they withdrew from a war that was claiming millions of lives; they were defending themselves against enemies who would have acted as badly or worse; they were fighting foreigners and the ruling classes not the people; they were motivated by the ideal of a just, non-exploitative society in which dictatorship was a temporary phase. And it seems there might have been some grounds for leniency.

After civil war ended in Russia in 1921 there were dramatic drops in executions, enforced labor sentences, political trials, and repressed rebellions. The New Economic Plan (NEP) gave citizens limited rights to engage in trade and manufacture for profit. There was a civil service of a kind. A judiciary and quasi-independent lawyers began to function. The improvements just before and after Lenin’s death in 1924 might bear out the claim that the killings and injustices of 1917–21 were an inevitable product of revolution and civil war and not simply instruments by which the Bolsheviks meant to seize and consolidate power. A closer examination of the postwar period, however, shows that there was no real relaxation in the terror. The same men, now at each other’s throats, remained in power. The institutions of repression, notably the Cheka-OGPU, had briefly contracted, but they were being more professionally and permanently organized. OGPU was recruiting a new type of officer. They now intended to disable the surviving intelligentsia and bourgeoisie, and their new and better method for doing so was to recruit educated men from these doomed groups.

The approach to the enemy was subtle: not just fear and bullets, but flattery, corruption, and rewards. OGPU evolved from a paramilitary organization which valued heroism and violence into a bureaucratic structure which placed secrecy, hierarchy, and system above revolutionary clichés. This process paralleled OGPU men transferring their allegiance from Trotsky and the commanders of the Red Army to Stalin and his civilian cohorts. image had already shifted OGPU in this direction; his deputy and successor, Viacheslav Menzhinsky, was, however, much better suited by temperament, talents, and origin to the business of turning OGPU into Stalin’s chief instrument of power. Menzhinsky ran OGPU for a decade but stayed in the shadows, making no speeches, holding no party posts. No cities were named after him, nor statues raised. A man few have praised and very few have liked, even among Soviet apologists for the Cheka, Menzhinsky has long deserved history’s full obloquy.