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


Chapter 15. Viacheslav Menzhinsky’s Belated Rise

“WHY MENZHINSKY?” Lenin asked, baffled when image put forward another Pole, Viacheslav Rudolfovich Menzhinsky, in September 1919 to head the Cheka’s Special Plenipotentiary Section, which covered intelligence and counterintelligence. “Who else?” image replied. Lenin knew Menzhinsky as a dilettante who had failed to make his mark at law, poetry and prose, in revolutionary politics, music, painting, languages, finance, or diplomacy. The choice was outlandish, but inspired.

image proposed Menzhinsky not as a fellow Pole or friend; before 1917 they had met only once, in 1910, in Paris. True, in the last form he ever filled in, his Moscow electoral card for 1933, Menzhinsky put, under ethnic affiliation, “Polish,” but his background, education, and speech were wholly Russian. Menzhinsky’s father was a Russified Pole, a professor of history, whose lectures, reproduced on a duplicator, were popular cramming material; his mother was a woman of letters and helped Tolstoyans provide uplifting reading for the Russian peasantry.

Menzhinsky belonged to the ruling classes; his elder brother Aleksandr was an auditor for the Tsar’s Ministry of Finances and Viacheslav began his own career as a law student. His dissertation, “Communal Land Ownership in Populist and Marxist Literature,” was returned as “unsatisfactory” by one professor who read it and as “unlikely to be assessable by a civilian” by another. The dissertation scornfully surveyed the peasantry whom thirty years later Menzhinsky would help Stalin destroy. “The peasant commune,” Menzhinsky asserted in 1898, is “one of the major brakes on Russia’s agricultural development . . . the commune is disintegrating, dying a natural death.”1

In the early 1900s Menzhinsky practiced law, but his literary ambitions drew him into the decadent circle around a notorious homosexual, satanist, and multifarious genius, Mikhail Kuzmin. Menzhinsky left little trace in this circle. He also dabbled in Bolshevism: his mother Maria Nikolaevna was a friend of the great-aunt of Elena Stasova, who was close both to Lenin and to Stalin in his Tbilisi years. On weekends Menzhinsky followed the family hobby of workers’ education and preached revolution. The authorities paid him little attention; he was apparently leading a respectable life in a villa in the provincial town of Iaroslavl, employed as a railway administrator. A bourgeois on workdays, a Bolshevik on Sundays, and a decadent at night, Menzhinsky showed remarkable duplicity.

For a decade Menzhinsky was married to Iulia Ivanovna, who had been governess to the Russian branch of the Nobel family and was preoccupied with the theory and practice of bringing up children. The topics of the Menzhinskys’ correspondence with their friends the Verkhovskys in the early 1900s are the most bourgeois of any Bolshevik’s: office, garden, children. Only Menzhinsky’s distress at literary set-backs—his friends insisted on shortening the novel he eventually published—and references to the Nietzschean superman hint at his longing for fame.

In February 1905 the Menzhinskys suffered a trauma: their young daughter died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Menzhinsky left Iaroslavl for St. Petersburg, where he worked with Lenin and Krupskaia, and after the crackdown on Bolsheviks in 1906 underwent two weeks of imprisonment, his only ordeal in the name of the revolution. He went on hunger strike and was released. Menzhinsky’s marriage broke up; his wife took the children. She devoted herself to pedagogy and never mentioned Menzhinsky again. 2 Menzhinsky drifted abroad. He roamed France, Italy, and Britain and even the United States for eleven years, working as a bank clerk for Crédit Lyonnais in Paris, as a watercolor painter, as a teacher at the Bolshevik school in Bologna. Like image, Menzhinsky was more deeply attached to his sisters than to any other human being. Neither Vera nor Liudmila ever married. With Vera he hiked over the hills of northern Italy, and the death of Liudmila in 1932 was the worst blow in his life.

What Menzhinsky did in 1909 should have blighted his future prospects with the Bolsheviks forever: in the Russian émigré journal Our Echo he attacked Lenin for “appropriating” the proceeds of Bolshevik banditry for his own personal use. Menzhinsky abused Lenin: “another half-mad Tsar Paul I . . . The Bolsheviks’ aim is power, influence over the people, their desire is to bridle the proletariat. Lenin is a political Jesuit, twisting Marxism according to his own whim and using it for ephemeral aims. . . . Leninists are not a political group but a noisy gypsy camp. They like waving whips around, they imagine that they have an inalienable right to be the cattle-drovers of the working class.” But Menzhinsky shared the views he ascribed to Lenin: a friend recalls him declaring: “the peasantry are cattle to be sacrificed to revolution.” Both Lenin and Stalin knew of Menzhinsky’s outbursts. Lenin dismissed them with casual contempt as he always dismissed attacks from those beneath him; Stalin, on the other hand, cultivated men who had lapses that made them hostages to fortune. In any case, Stalin likewise saw peasants as “cattle” and Lenin as the “cattle-drover.”

Returning to Russia from France in spring 1917 via Britain and Finland, Menzhinsky was a bystander during the October revolution. He played Chopin waltzes on a grand piano in the Smolny Institute when all around him was chaos and panic. The Petrograd Bolsheviks nevertheless found work for Menzhinsky. Thanks to his and his brother’s banking experience he was appointed commissar for finance. Lenin first met Menzhinsky fast asleep on a divan in a corridor. To the divan was stuck a label, “People’s Commissariat of Finances,” and Menzhinsky was so far its sole employee.

Trotsky claimed that Menzhinsky had trouble forcing the banks to disgorge their funds to the revolution so Lenin and Trotsky then tried to utilize Menzhinsky’s suave manners and knowledge of languages. In April 1918 he was sent to the Soviet mission in Berlin where, during the mission’s seven months of life, Menzhinsky made a positive impression, and not just with his polyglot skills—he spoke most European and several oriental languages—but with his flair for intelligence gathering and analysis. When the Germans expelled the Soviet mission for spreading revolutionary propaganda, Menzhinsky was given riskier work. He spent much of 1919 as commissar for national inspection in the Ukraine, where the Russian Bolsheviks were targets for Ukrainian nationalists. Here Menzhinsky proved his fearlessness, enough for image to make him the third Pole in the Cheka leadership.

A shrewd judge of men and information, a chess player who used real people as pawns and—it turned out—a prodigious fabricator of plots and scenarios, Menzhinsky took over from image even before the latter’s death in 1926 and kept his post until his death in May 1934. Apart from People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs Georgi Chicherin (an intimate member of Mikhail Kuzmin’s decadent circle), Menzhinsky was the only commissar who looked like a banker, in a three-piece suit, tie, and bowler hat. Like Chicherin, he was also constantly ill. In exile he suffered from kidney infections and a hernia; a car accident in Paris had given him spondylitis, and he was unable to stand or even sit for long. He interrogated prisoners reclining on a divan under a traveling rug which his second-in-command Genrikh Iagoda tucked round his legs. Menzhinsky also had the “Kremlin syndrome”: arteriosclerosis, an enlarged heart, and migraines.

Without Menzhinsky’s shrewdness, Stalin could not have in the 1920s defeated his enemies abroad and at home; without Menzhinsky’s ruthlessness, Stalin could not have pushed through collectivization in 1929, nor staged the show trials of the early 1930s. However far apart in education and origin, Stalin and Menzhinsky had a real affinity. They shared a calm ruthlessness: neither ever raised his voice or spoke at unnecessary length. Menzhinsky cultivated silence to extremes; on the tenth anniversary of the revolution, expected to make a forty-minute speech on the Cheka’s glorious role, he mounted the tribune, said, “The main merit of a chekist is to keep silent,” and stepped down.

Like Stalin, Menzhinsky had been a poet. Stalin’s lyrics reveal a tortured psyche obsessed by the moon, swinging between euphoria and depression, expecting ingratitude and even poison from his audience, and terrified of old age. Menzhinsky’s persona is an arrogant and depraved cynic. Perhaps it is significant that Stalin was an adolescent and Menzhinsky in his early thirties when each was first published.

Menzhinsky’s published writings give us the best insight into his mentality.His novel Demidov’s Affair appeared in 1905 in The Green Anthology (resembling the English decadent Yellow Book) next to thirteen sonnets by Mikhail Kuzmin. Menzhinsky’s piece was singled out by one critic as the best in the anthology. The story of Vasili Demidov, “a very elegant youth” who values “only the freedom of the individual,” has the blend of depravity and socialism that we find in Oscar Wilde. The novel is narcissistic: its hero is a handsome young lawyer who helps radical women to run workers’ Sunday and evening classes but shocks women teachers with blasphemous and erotic lyrics, which he recites at a college gathering. The austere director of the college, Elena, fourteen years older, falls in love with Demidov despite disapproving of him. Their subsequent marriage is strained: the repressed woman and the hedonist prove incompatible. The work mixes decadent amorality with chekist ruthlessness.

Menzhinsky’s hero recites a “Poem to the God of Temptation.” In this version of the Book of Job, God challenges the poet:

Can you measure the radiance of my freedom,
The gravity of the abyss, the joy of being one’s self?
You cower? Stand back. Not everyone can grasp
The wondrous art of seeing in dreary commandments
Lighthouses only for bold temptations,
The goal of happiness in separation, the path to betrayal in friendship.

To which challenge Menzhinsky’s Job replies:

Enough! I have decided. The field is yours.
I shall build an eternal shrine to you.

When Demidov falls for Anna, a secretary in his office, Menzhinsky’s novel ends in an improbable idyll. Both women are in Demidov’s apartment, Elena sorting out rags, Anna dropping clothes on the floor— a realization of the “three-in-a-bed” love lyric which Menzhinsky has his hero recite at a school concert:

Under passionate searches so passionately
Your body writhes!
I, a great artist, laugh,
No tears, no shame—only yells,
And sighs and quivering do you know.
[ . . . ]
It has come! I have seen another woman
With my burning tensed gaze,
I tickle and kiss her,
I have bent down, I embrace her, you are next to us.

Demidov’s Affair shows how well Menzhinsky understood his future self: when Demidov becomes a legal official, he reflects that he was “the smallest spoke in the chariot of justice and he felt no personal guilt if that chariot crushed anybody.”

In 1907, in the anthology A Thawed Patch (Protalina), in the company of two leading poets—Aleksandr Blok and Mikhail Kuzmin— Menzhinsky published two prose poems, pastiches of the Gospels, “Jesus” and “Barabbas.” Menzhinsky’s Christ is an epileptic, a suicidal charismatic not a messiah, who takes his disciples to view Golgotha; Barabbas, the killer of tax gatherers, is acclaimed by the mob, released by Pontius Pilate, and discreetly killed by the Romans.

29. There was nobody who would cry out “Release Jesus.”
30. But the crowd yelled, “Give us Barabbas, and crucify Jesus.”
31. And Barabbas, standing in the crowd, saw Jesus dragged to
the place of execution.
32. And Barabbas did not die as a slave on the cross.
33. The Romans killed him in the wilderness and the fifty men
who were faithful to him.
34. Barabbas fell with his sword in his hand, and Judaea wept for
him, and Galilee tore its hair, groaning:
35. “Barabbas has died, Barabbas the terror of the dishonorable,
the destroyer of Romans, the exterminator of tax collectors!”

As in Gorky’s play The Lower Depths, in Menzhinsky’s verses the Christian hero is superseded by the revolutionary bandit.Menzhinsky’s verses not only echo Stalin’s distrust of an ungrateful mob, they give us an uncanny insight into how Menzhinsky would treat the Jesuses, Pontius Pilates, and Barabbases he would work against, for, and with in Soviet Russia. Messianic obsessions link Menzhinsky to image and to Stalin. What drew them together was repressed Christian piety. All three are unquiet Dostoevskian atheists. Denying God was not enough; they longed to usurp him.

Like Stalin, Menzhinsky, after abandoning creative writing, took a morbid interest in poetry and poets. Both intervened, as patrons, censors, or hangmen, in poets’ work and lives but in Menzhinsky’s first years in the Cheka, with a blotted ideological copybook, he was precluded from rooting out Social Revolutionaries, Mensheviks, anarchists, or other heretics. He was valued for his ability, rare in an institution largely staffed with illiterates and foreigners, to draft a letter, resolution, or verdict in Russian which combined a lawyer’s precision with a poet’s elegance. But despite his backroom role, as the Cheka evolved into OGPU, Menzhinsky stood out. Those he interviewed were struck by the hunched body, the spectacles or pince-nez, the couch and the rug. He made much of his long pianist’s fingers, rubbing his hands with pleasure, smiling, excruciatingly polite, even—or especially—when he was sending his collocutor to execution.