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


Chapter 16. Repressing Peasants and Intellectuals

IN EARLY 1921 the civil war wound down, the Caucasus was reconquered, and the Poles and the Baltic states signed peace treaties with the USSR. The Cheka, like the Red Army, was opposed mainly by those in whose name it had been fighting as internecine war broke out between Bolsheviks and peasantry. On the Volga grain surpluses and seed corn were confiscated by army and Cheka units to feed soldiers and urban workers, and during the “Antonov” rebellion the peasants were crushed by army units under men like Tukhachevsky, directed by Trotsky, and mopped up by the special purpose units of image’s deputy Józef Unszlicht. Tukhachevsky’s ruthless slaughter of hostages and rebels worsened the famine brought by war and drought. Few remained alive for the Cheka to torture or kill.

Before the “Antonov bandits” could be shot or sent to camps, the factories and garrisons of Moscow and Petrograd went on strike. Bread rations were at starvation levels; fuel had dried up. The workers, seeing the Whites defeated, could not understand why they were still hungry, cold, out of work, and under martial law. In March 1921, the naval garrison on the fortress island of Kronstadt outside Petrograd demanded free elections, free speech, and land for the peasantry. Their delegation was arrested and Trotsky and Tukhachevsky bullied troops into crushing the uprising. The Petrograd Cheka was in disgrace for not forestalling the rising: image sent a fellow Pole, Stanisław Messing, with another senior chekist, Iakov Agranov, from Moscow to try the rebel sailors, many of whom were shot.

Menzhinsky and his colleague in the Cheka Dr. Mikhail Kedrov drafted a warning to the Central Committee. Lenin, Zinoviev, and Stalin were told that the peasant rebellions were well organized and that if conditions deteriorated the metropolitan workers would strike in solidarity with the peasantry. They also warned that the trade union movement— courted by Trotsky—was undermining the party and that the Red Army was no longer a reliable tool. The note recommended that only special purpose detachments—the Cheka’s own forces—be used to restore order in army units and factories.

Ensuing disasters proved the Cheka right. Menzhinsky tried to explain this to Trotsky, whom he had previously warned that Stalin was intriguing against him. Trotsky rashly refused to respond—he thought Menzhinsky inconsequential—but he conceded that Menzhinsky was right on one point: the Petrograd Cheka had been secretly sympathetic to the Kronstadt rebels. Menzhinsky’s role in liquidating the Kronstadt rebellion had been to dispatch a thousand dissident sailors to Odessa— which nearly led to the subsequent rebellion there. Eight years passed before Menzhinsky took part in more mass repressions.

imageDuring the early 1920s Menzhinsky oversaw the intelligentsia. In spring 1921 the poets Aleksandr Blok and Fiodor Sologub pleaded for exit visas.Anatoli Lunacharsky, commissar for education and the softest of the Soviet leaders, had himself been a symbolist dramatist. He sympathized: “We have literally driven Blok to the point of no return.” Maxim Gorky interceded for Blok and Sologub even though he disliked their verse. For the Cheka, Menzhinsky and Unszlicht took a harsher view: Unszlicht complained of the “completely impermissible attitude of the People’s Commissariat for Education on travel by artistic forces abroad. There is no doubt that the overwhelming majority of performers and artists who travel abroad are lost to Soviet Russia. . . . Moreover, many of them conduct open or covert campaigns against us abroad.”

Of twenty-four allowed out, only five had returned. Menzhinsky was adamant: “Not just Lunacharsky but Bukharin vouched for Konstantin Balmont [who stayed in France]. Blok is a poetic nature; if anything makes a bad impression on him he will quite naturally write verse against us. I don’t think he ought to be let out, Blok should be given good conditions in some sanatorium.”Lunacharsky protested to Lenin over Menzhinsky’s stance. When the Politburo decided on July 23, 1921, in Blok’s favor, the poet was dying. The agony of Russia’s best-loved poet embarrassed the Politburo to the extent that it let Blok’s close friend Andrei Bely, symbolist poet and novelist, immigrate to Berlin.

Menzhinsky clashed with Lunacharsky again in 1926. He overruled the commissar and banned Mikhail Bulgakov’s play The Day of the Turbins. Only in his last years did Menzhinsky protect fellow writers: when Mikhail Kuzmin went to see him in 1931, he was promised that his lover Iuri Iurkun would not be harassed by OGPU, a promise that was kept until Kuzmin’s death in 1936.

The Cheka accused Petrograd’s intellectuals of being the puppet masters of the Kronstadt sailors. Iakov Agranov, Menzhinsky’s deputy, constructed out of the sailors’ rebellion one of the first imaginary anti-Bolshevik conspiracies.Agranov first lured back to Russia those sailors who had fled to Finland: Cheka couriers, pretending to be White Guard agents, smuggled sailors across the border to “safe houses” in Petrograd. Then Agranov claimed that the Kronstadt sailors were linked to a “Petrograd Fighting Organization” led by members of the intelligentsia. (The only signs of such an organization were two explosions at monuments to the two Bolsheviks assassinated in Petrograd in 1918, Moisei Uritsky and Moisei Volodarsky-Goldstein.) Agranov employed as provocateur a certain Korvin-Kriukovsky, the scion of a distinguished family, to act as a malcontent chekist and inveigle Professor Vladimir Tagantsev, a soil scientist, into a few symbolic actions including sticking up dissident flyers. The professor was thereupon arrested with his father (an elderly senator), his entire family, and a truckload of others.

Summer 1921 in Petrograd was the Cheka’s first successful rehearsal of the techniques for terror perfected in the mid-1930s. In 1921 it took Agranov forty-five days to make Professor Tagantsev accept an ultimatum: to confess and name all fellow conspirators or be executed together with everyone arrested. They signed an agreement on July 28, 1921, ending: “I, Agranov, promise, provided that Tagantsev keeps his side of the bargain, that neither Tagantsev, nor his associates nor any other accused, even the couriers from Finland, will be subject to the death penalty.”Tagantsev was given a cell with a shower, meals from the staff kitchen and within a couple of days—one of which he spent being driven round the city to establish the addresses of his contacts—had given Agranov 300 suspects, so many that on the appointed night every motor vehicle at the Cheka’s disposal was out rounding them up. After consulting image and Lenin, Agranov broke his bargain with Tagantsev and sentenced over one hundred to death. Tagantsev, the chemist Professor Mikhail Tikhvinsky, and, to widespread public horror when the Cheka published the list of condemned, Nikolai Gumiliov—now Russia’s greatest living poet and still growing in stature—were to be shot together with many former civil servants. To accuse Gumiliov of conspiracy, a cavalier monarchist who engaged only in open combat, was absurd.

The sentences produced a flurry of telephone calls, telegrams, and personal visits to image, Lenin, and Krupskaia in Moscow. Krupskaia rescued some victims but Lenin refused to save Professor Tikhvinsky, a man with whom he was on Christian-name terms, saying that “counterrevolution and chemistry are not mutually exclusive.” Lenin reacted too late to appeals on behalf of Gumiliov from Gorky and from women admirers. In Petrograd Grigori Zinoviev, atoning for his laxness over Kronstadt, was impatient for blood. The Petrograd Cheka treated the condemned atrociously. Put in a large cell, handcuffed to each other, and left for thirty-six hours without food, water, or lavatory facilities, they were loaded at dawn onto trucks and driven out to a firing range. Tagantsev, Gumiliov, and some eighty others dug their own graves, were undressed, shot by riflemen, and buried, wounded or dead.

A similar trial in Moscow that spring, of the so-called Tactical Center, involved operatives including Menzhinsky who were subtler than Agranov. But these prisoners were braver and more eloquent than Tagantsev: they refused to bargain for their freedom or lives. The accused included Tolstoi’s daughter Aleksandra, the philosopher Nikolai Berdiaev, and the historian Sergei Melgunov; the death sentences were commuted. In Moscow Agranov, entrusted only with interrogation, was shamed into silence by the retorts of Tolstoi’s daughter.

The prosecution was conducted with a parody of legality by Nikolai Krylenko. Krylenko, who had a law degree, had achieved fame by being appointed the first commander-in-chief of the Russian army after the Tsar’s General Nikolai Dukhonin had refused to swear loyalty to the Soviets and been murdered by his troops. In summer 1918, Krylenko went back to the law, which he twisted to fit Soviet requirements. Krylenko had an appreciation of the absurd. In June 1918, after the Soviets had voted to abolish the death penalty, as the prosecutor responsible for sending Admiral Shchastny to the firing squad for not scuttling the Baltic fleet, he declared that the admiral was to be shot, not executed. During the “Tactical Center” trial, Krylenko burst out laughing when the defense exposed the Cheka’s absurdity.

Agranov, Menzhinsky, and image—who explained to intercessors that he could not reprieve a major poet without reprieving all the condemned—belatedly grasped that the Petrograd executions of August 1921 had put professionals and intellectuals off working for, as well as against, the regime. The misjudgment was one reason for reforming the Cheka as the GPU in 1922. A revised criminal code, drawn up by Lenin, provided a new punishment for dissidents: deportation from the Soviet Union.In May 1922 this penalty was inflicted on those intellectuals whom a committee—Lenin, image, Menzhinsky, and Unszlicht— classified as undesirables. Stalin, preoccupied that summer with unleashing bloody repression on central Asia and enforcing discipline in Georgia, made no objection to such gentle measures. Even the bloodthirsty Zinoviev supported the venture: “We are now resorting to a humane measure, to deportation; we can resort to a less humane measure, we shall not hesitate to unsheathe the sword.”10

Hitherto deportation had been voluntary; the first intellectuals granted deportation had been those Jewish writers, headed by Khaim Bialik, who wrote in Hebrew. Jews were encouraged to write in Russian and allowed to write in Yiddish, but Hebrew, the language of Zionism, was banned by Lenin in 1920. In Moscow a hundred Zionist congress participants were arrested and nineteen put in prison. Trotsky’s own brother-in-law by his first marriage Ilia Sokolovsky belonged to the Hebrew writers’ group. Sokolovsky decided to ask his brother-in-law for “a ticket out of this paradise you are making.” Khaim Bialik made a fraught journey through the war-ravished Ukraine to Moscow, saw Gorky and obtained from Lenin the visas that took Hebrew literature out of Russia to Palestine.

Famine as well as Cheka bullets thinned out independent-minded intellectuals: seven academicians including the mathematician Aleksandr Liapunov and the linguist Aleksei Shakhmatov starved to death. Only Russia’s Nobel Prize winner, Ivan Pavlov, whose experiments in vivisection were seen as Bolshevism in biology, was given extra rations. Lenin was enraged by “professors and writers . . . counter-revolutionaries, complicit with the Entente, spies, corrupting our youth.” Even in 1919 he had written to Gorky about intellectuals “who think themselves the nation’s brains . . . actually not brains, but shit.” On May 19, 1922, he set image on them but nine days later had his second stroke. Incoherently but intransigently, four days after recovering his handwriting, Lenin scrawled to Stalin on July 17:

Has it been decided to eradicate all the National Socialists? . . . I think all should be deported. They’re worse than any Social Revolutionary because they are more cunning . . . . The Mensheviks Rozanov (a doctor, devious). . . . S. L. Frank (author of Methodology) . . . A commission under Messing and Mantsev [two senior GPU men] must draw up lists and several hundred such gentlemen should be mercilessly expelled abroad. We’ll clean Russia up for a long time. . . . This must be done right away. By the end of the trial of the Social Revolutionaries, no later. Arrest several hundred and without declaring the reasons, “out you go, gentlemen!” All the authors of The House of Writers, of Thought in Petersburg, turn over Kharkov, we don’t know that town, it’s abroad for us. . . . 11

Lenin sent lists of “active anti-Soviet intellectuals” whose names he could still recall for Menzhinsky and Unszlicht to track down, whether they were at liberty or in a GPU prison, and asked Kamenev and Unszlicht for further names. Editors of academic journals who gave contributors too much freedom; doctors who at conferences kept up prerevolutionary traditions of free speech; economists and agronomists with their own ideas on factories and land—all had to go. The expulsion by the dying dictator of the country’s greatest doctors anticipated Stalin’s “doctors’ plot” of thirty years later.

On September 4, 1922, image discussed the list with Lenin and instructed Unszlicht to comb through all contributors to academic and literary journals. Unfortunately, neither Pole knew enough Russian philosophy or literature to judge whom to deport and whom to keep. image wrote:

I think that things won’t progress if Comrade Menzhinsky himself does not undertake it. Have a word with him and give him this note. We must work out a plan, constantly correcting and adding to it. We must divide all the intelligentsia into groups. For example: 1) literary writers; 2) journalists and political writers; 3) economists, and here we need subgroups: a) financial, b) energy, c) transport, d) trade, e) cooperatives, etc.; 4) technical (more subgroups): a) engineers, b) agronomists, c) doctors, d) general staff; 5) professors and teachers, etc., etc. Each intellectual must have a file. . . . It must be remembered that our section’s task is not just deportation, but active help in straightening out the [party] line on specialists, i.e. causing disintegration in their ranks and bringing forward those who are prepared without reservations to support Soviet power. . . .12

In autumn 1922 the cream of Moscow’s intelligentsia was gathered at the Lubianka (similar roundups took place in Petrograd, Kazan, Minsk, Kiev). Most were charged with counterrevolutionary activity; a few got their names taken off the list; some were classified essential workers by Soviet institutions. OGPU failed to trace some deportees while others were in their custody awaiting “trial” on other political charges. The detainees did not realize how lucky they were; those who were allowed to stay in the motherland rarely survived more than fifteen years. By the end of September 1922 Genrikh Iagoda had arranged for the remaining 130 or so to be deported to Germany. The German chancellor protested that “Germany is not Siberia” but the consul in Moscow issued visas to those deportees who certified that they were leaving voluntarily. All deportees naturally did so, and, forbidden to take books or manuscripts with them, assembled on the Petrograd docks.

The two shiploads that left for Stettin were Russia’s greatest gift to Europe and America. We owe structural linguistics to Trubetskoi and Iakobson, and Christian existentialism to Nikolai Berdiaiev. The historians Sergei Melgunov and Aleksandr Kizevetter were major influences on Western historiography. Prague’s Russian Academy and Paris’s Sorbonne were enriched by this forced exodus. Conversely, the USSR was deprived of some of its best minds, while those that remained drew the obvious conclusions and withdrew into themselves. The deportations of 1922 were as catastrophic for civic society in the USSR as the executions of 1921.

Negotiating with such eloquent and self-assured victims was an education for the GPU. In one interrogation, image, Menzhinsky, and Lev Kamenev were subjected to an hour-long lecture by the idealist philosopher Nikolai Berdiaev. image was dumbfounded; he could only mutter, perhaps thinking of himself, “One can be a materialist in theory and an idealist in life or, conversely, an idealist in theory and a materialist in life,” after which he ordered Menzhinsky to find a motorcycle and sidecar to take Berdiaev home. In the summer and autumn of 1922, the Moscow and Petrograd chekisty were subjected to many more hours of principled refutation of everything they claimed to stand for. When Menzhinsky told the historian Melgunov that he would never see Russia again, the latter retorted, “I’ll come back in two years; you won’t hold on any longer.” Menzhinsky replied, “No, I think we’ll last another six.”

Appeals and intercessions grated on Lenin. He decided on foreign sanatoria for men like Gorky and Korolenko who opposed his repressions but were too prestigious to execute, imprison, or deport. To Commissar for Health Nikolai Semashko he wrote in March 1922: “Please appoint a special person (best, a well-known doctor) knowing abroad (and known abroad) to send abroad to Germany Tsiurupa, Krestinsky, Osinsky, Kuraev, Gorky, and Korolenko. It needs skillful inquiries, requests, propaganda, writing to Germany, helping the sick, etc. Do it ultra-carefully (taking pains). . . .”

Gorky, however, would neither shut up nor pack up. In August Lenin insisted: “You are having hemorrhages, and not going! Tut, tut, this really is shameful and irrational. In Europe you will have treatment in a proper sanatorium and work three times as much. Really. But we have no treatment, no work—only fussing about. . . . Go away, get cured. Don’t be stubborn, I beg you.”

imageIn October 1921 Gorky left for Berlin and then convalescence in Capri, a paradise from which only Stalin could coax him back.

The executions of Tagantsev and Gumiliov, the deportations of Berdiaev and Gorky, at first seem like monstrous overkill, depriving the state of the very people it needed to entrench and validate it. But these draconian measures had the desired effect. After 1922 few professionals and intellectuals at liberty in the USSR saw any future in living by their traditional codes of free speech and love of humanity. If science or art was to survive in any form, then it had to collaborate with the Bolshevik regime. For the next thirty years, with very few suicidal exceptions, dissent dared not speak its mind, and formerly free spirits sought only terms on which they could capitulate.

But there was no point putting muzzles on the writers without blinders on the readers. Soviet ideology resented the trickle of imported literature and the emergence of private publishers allowed by the New Economic Plan. In summer 1922 Glavlit, the directorate for literature, was set up. 13 It answered to the liberal Commissar of Education Lunacharsky, but Stalin put his own protégé Pavel Lebedev-Poliansky in charge. Lebedev-Poliansky was the same age as Stalin and likewise educated at Church school and theological college. He had to steer an ingenious course between moronic demands from party extremists to ban great classics of literature and philosophy, and the excessive tolerance of liberal socialists.

Glavlit, supervised by the GPU, warned in October 1922: “It is to be deemed indispensable that we move from preliminary censorship to a punitive form of censorship,” in other words not just banning undesirable works but punishing those responsible for offering them for publication. Józef Unszlicht of the GPU insisted that publications should also be read by the Politburo, which became a literary committee. Trotsky, the most widely read, was given the greatest load: he read all military and religious literature as well as sharing economics with Lenin. Zinoviev and Kamenev read journalism, philosophy, and fiction. Rykov and Tomsky shared industry and agriculture. Stalin was the least burdened: he shared military works with Trotsky and read works on ethnic minorities. As Glavlit acquired police powers and a monopoly on censorship, the Politburo was able to shift this load. Nevertheless, the highest authority in the Soviet Union—including of course Stalin—never ceased to take a direct interest in literature.

Citizens’ private letters were read as thoroughly as publications. Even under the Tsarist regime, although interception of the mail was illegal (as it would be under the Soviet constitution) the government had practiced perlustration, reading 38,000 letters a year by 1882. The GPU created a directorate for political control, run by Ivan Surta, a paramedic.14 Surta developed the system to such an extent that every correspondent in the USSR could be sure of being read by the GPU: by the end of 1923 5 million letters and 8 million telegrams a year were being read, 250 letters and 2,500 telegrams per perlustrator per day. OGPU’s readers, writers, and informants were former soldiers and clerks, men who under the Tsar would have been sucked into the bureaucracy after seven years’ schooling, or literate recruits from those who had been adolescents when the revolution broke off their education and their prospects of normal office work.