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


Chapter 18. Stalin’s Struggle for Sole Control

Whosoever hath any thing fixed in his person that doth induce contempt, hath also a perpetual spur in himself to rescue and deliver himself from scorn. Therefore all deformed persons are extreme bold: . . . Also, it stirreth in them industry, and especially of this kind, to watch and observe the weakness of others, that they may have somewhat to repay. Again, in their superiors, it quencheth jealousy towards them, as persons that they may at pleasure despise; and it layeth their competitors and emulators asleep, as never believing they should be in possibility of advancement. . . .

Francis Bacon, Of Deformity

FROM SPRING 1923 Lenin was a living corpse, unable to call anyone to order. The New Economic Plan for Lenin had been a necessary but unwelcome step backward; for the Politburo it represented a weakening of both the monopoly and the severity of the party’s power.

For Stalin, however, this was the time to secure that monopoly for himself. “Personnel decides everything” ten years later became one of Stalin’s famous slogans. From April 4, 1922, when Stalin secured his own position as general secretary of the party—a “cook who will make some hot dishes,” Lenin warned—he put this slogan into practice by turning the secretariat of the Central Committee into a party and state personnel office.

If Stalin had genius, it was as a personnel officer. He recruited apparently mediocre men and used them to great effect. The party’s Central Committee became Stalin’s instrument: he installed as fellow secretaries his sidekicks Viacheslav Molotov and Valerian Kuibyshev, the latter a loyal Stalinist who had shown considerable initiative in the civil war but was now a malleable alcoholic. Stalin cannily turned the secretariat from an administrative service into a political powerhouse. He funneled or withheld information, he compiled agendas, he kept records, and thus directed the agenda and decided the participants in party deliberations.

Once general secretary, Stalin appointed another crony, Lazar Kaganovich, to the party’s organizing and distributing section. This section decided which members were posted where, and who would attend party congresses. Stalin already had a second source of authority as a Politburo member where, for the time being, he spoke less and listened more to his eloquent fellow leaders. These two posts gave him a preponderance of power during Lenin’s last illness, but Stalin also had his hand on a third lever of power: he was a member of the small Orgburo, the body which decided how and by whom Politburo resolutions were carried out. Stalin dominated the Orgburo: apart from Molotov and Kuibyshev, who always concurred, he had only to win over image and Andrei Andreevich Andreev, a former waiter whom Stalin had made a secretary to the Central Committee, to have his way, with the “liberals” Rykov and Tomsky easily outvoted.

Stalin also controlled the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspectorate, which reviewed all government decisions, and ran the Commissariat of National Minorities, which in the early 1920s, against Lenin’s intentions, made the Soviet Union a centralized empire rather than a federation of nation-states. As commissar, Stalin oversaw with GPU help the crushing of national rebellions from his native Georgia to Bashkiria. Non-Russian communists were arrested, and some shot, for “nationalist” deviations: they had misunderstood the role of the Russian Federal Republic in the Soviet Union and had taken their own autonomy seriously. They had not heeded Stalin’s and Zinoviev’s speeches explaining the difference between the Tsar’s imperialism and Soviet centralization. Zinoviev in 1919 expressed Stalin’s idea with inimitable cynicism: “We cannot do without Azerbaijan’s oil or Turkestan’s cotton. We take these things which we need, but not in the way that the old exploiters took them, but as elder brothers who are carrying the torch of civilization.”

Finally, Stalin dominated the Comintern. Here his cronies the Hungarian sadist Béla Kun and the robotic Finnish journalist Otto Kuusinen ensured blind adherence by most foreign communists to Stalin’s line. No wonder, then, that Lenin’s famous “testament” of 1922 accused Stalin of concentrating enormous power in his hands.

Lenin’s testament reads like a headmaster’s report. The six most likely candidates to succeed were all weighed and found wanting. Stalin was singled out for his reckless use of power and capriciousness (his sulks when thwarted) and, in a postscript, for his coarseness and disloyalty. But Lenin advised only that the party should “consider” removing Stalin from his general secretaryship. None of Stalin’s faults were, in Bolshevik eyes, grave. Coarseness and impoliteness were virtues in a revolutionary, and Stalin, whenever anyone threw the testament in his face, retorted, “Yes, comrade, I actually am coarse. Ilyich suggested you find somebody else who differs from me by being more polite. All right, try and find him!” Lenin’s critiques of Trotsky, Zinoviev, and Kamenev were far more damning: they had all committed heresy by being against armed revolt at some point before October 1917. Bukharin and Piatakov were damned for their poor Marxist credentials: the first was an economist, the second an administrator.

There was no way of holding together the collective leadership that Lenin wanted to succeed him. Trotsky and Stalin, the two leading contenders in the eyes of the party’s rank and file, were both set on sole dictatorship; the satraps of Petrograd and Moscow, Zinoviev and Kamenev, saw themselves as a duumvirate but had limited and localized support. Zinoviev was also something of a joke. Few could take seriously a man who resembled Chico Marx and served his guests with a dish of steaming horse meat cooked by himself and within minutes was screaming that he would shoot them all.20 As for Piatakov and Bukharin, they preferred playing second fiddle, the former to Trotsky, the latter to Stalin, although in the early 1920s Bukharin, the only one of them who might have won a popular election in Soviet Russia, pondered his chances of ruling without Stalin. He even sounded out Stalin’s zombie head of state Mikhail Kalinin about the feasibility of dispensing with Stalin’s leadership. Kalinin kept silent about this approach but felt guilty and afraid all his life. After he died in 1946, his daughter passed on to Stalin his written confession:

Now I am on the threshold of death I have recalled something from the past which, to be honest, I had not thought significant before. Probably it was in the first year after Lenin died. . . . After a session [of the Politburo] Bukharin invited me to his apartment to look at his hunting trophies. When he was showing me various birds and small animals he asked me, as if by the way, what I would think of a leadership without Stalin. . . . I understood even then that I was being sounded out. 21

Charisma won few votes in a party congress or on the Central Committee; patronage was decisive. The Bolsheviks were polarized between Trotsky and Stalin. Trotsky’s reputation had soared in times of war and danger; Stalin’s apparent moderation was attuned to the fatigue that now beset the party after a turbulent decade. In August 1924, to shut out Trotsky, Stalin hived off from the Politburo a group of seven “to agree on the most odious questions,” as Kalinin put it. Its membership was approved by a claque of twenty Central Committee members—Stalin and his supporters—who called themselves the governing collective. Stalin was thus able to decide in advance the Politburo’s agenda and make it accountable only to his exclusive group of seven.

Stalin’s struggle for sole control passed unremarked by the Russian public. They were relieved that 1923 had been a year of relative normality compared to the shocks and upheavals of the past six. The horrors of revolution were best evoked in The Apocalypse of Our Time by the philosopher Vasili Rozanov in 1919, who had died that same year of emaciation in the Troitse-Sergeev monastery:

La divina Commedia
With clanking screeching an iron curtain is lowered over Russian 
“The performance is over.”
The audience got up.
“It’s time to put on your fur coats and go home.”
They looked round.
But it turned out that there were no fur coats and no homes.

By the summer of 1923 city trams ran, the theaters were open and there were even casinos; those who had money could buy goods. Books printed in Berlin were sold in Moscow and writers could travel between the two cities. In the countryside the peasantry had enough grain for their own needs, for seed corn and even to sell privately. But compare the first Soviet Petrograd directory of 1923 with the last Tsarist edition of 1917 and you see a metamorphosis: the addresses and buildings were the same, but only 10 percent of those in the 1917 directory were still there six years later. The city had been drained of its bourgeoisie and filled with soldiers, workers, and peasants. The change in Russia is best summarized in two lines by Nikolai Gumiliov: “Only snakes shed their skins. We change our souls, not our bodies.” The populace which the Politburo fought among themselves to control had lost all continuity with Tsarist civic society. By 1923 nobody dreamed of influencing the government; people were reduced to fear, their best hope that they would be left alone.

While Stalin and the Politburo wrangled, the state seemed to retreat and OGPU became more discreet. In 1923, according to official figures, only 414 persons were shot, the lowest number since Tsarist times and until 1947 when Stalin suspended the death penalty.22 In fact Menzhinsky had retracted one tentacle of OGPU and extended others. The Cheka had shifted its tactics from brutality to more subtle but no less lethal surveillance. Menzhinsky’s foreign department concentrated on settling scores with émigrés and was a polyglot elite of imaginatively murderous experts under a chief who enjoyed his métierIn domestic affairs, OGPU took a leaf or two from the book of Dmitri Tolstoi, minister of the interior under Tsar Alexander II, who had designated three classes of men with close contact with the population—schoolteachers, gendarmes, and priests—police informers. OGPU had 40,000 literate employees intercepting mail and telephone calls and thousands of others—20,000 in Moscow alone—informing on citizens’ conversations and discussions so that regular summaries of the mood of the public could be compiled. Even with this enormous covert civilian army, OGPU fought for new territory.

image asked Iagoda to write a report on “completely open, obvious profiteering, enrichment and brazenness” to persuade the Central Committee to employ OGPU to expel profiteers and their families from major cities, confiscate their property, and colonize with these people the wildernesses of northern Russia and Siberia. The Politburo took halfhearted action against smugglers and bar owners; the commissar of finances had to protect the urban retail trade from image’s narrow-minded obsessions.

A real blow to OGPU came from Bukharin in autumn 1924:

Dear Feliks . . . I consider that we must as soon as possible move to a more “liberal” form of Soviet rule: fewer repressions, more legality, more discussion, more self-rule (under the party’s guidance naturaliter [Bukharin liked to use Latin]), etc. . . . That is why I sometimes speak out against proposals to widen the rights of the GPU, etc. Understand, dear Feliks (you know how much I love you) that you have no reasons whatsoever to suspect me of any bad feelings to you personally or the GPU as an institution....23

image passed the letter to Menzhinsky with his own commentary:

We have to take account of such moods in the Central Committee’s ruling circles, and pause for thought. It would be a very great political mistake if in principle the party on the question of the GPU were to surrender to the philistines and give them a holiday—as a party line, as a policy, as a declaration. That would mean giving in to capitalist enterprise, philistinism, tending to the denial of Bolshevism, this would be the triumph of Trotskyism and a surrender of positions. To counteract these moods we must re-examine our practice, our methods and get rid of whatever might feed such moods. This means that we (the GPU) have perhaps to be a bit quieter, more modest, resort to searches and arrests more cautiously, with better evidence. . . . We have to re-examine our policy on letting people go abroad— and visas. . . .24

The hangmen had to try a new tack. OGPU was under attack from Commissar for Foreign Affairs Chicherin as its methods undermined his diplomatic efforts abroad. Commissar for Justice Nikolai Krylenko, reverting to the legality he had been trained in, also put pressure on OGPU: he demanded that crimes, even against the state, be dealt with by the prosecutor’s office, the prokuratura, under his commissariat. To Zinoviev, image complained: “A very difficult stage has come for OGPU. Its workers are mortally tired, some to the point of hysterics. But in the higher echelons of the party a well-known section is beginning to doubt the necessity of OGPU (Bukharin, Sokolnikov, Kalinin).”25image complained bitterly that Krylenko was usurping the role of OGPU: suppose, he said, the Commissariat for Justice took over political cases, “that would, at a time when the political circumstances are changing, threaten the very existence of the Soviet Union.”26

OGPU began to present itself as a band of principled intellectuals, many with legal training, but still executed 2,550 people in 1924. It did, however, clean up its act and find its worst sadists other work. It sent a commission to the special purpose northern camps between Murmansk and Arkhangelsk, extermination camps manned by chekisty who had disgraced themselves in metropolitan areas. One camp, Kholmogory, in the hands of a sadistic Lithuanian called Bachulis, was as bad as any of Hitler’s would be. The surviving prisoners were sent to the monastery complexes of the Solovetsky islands; the guards went with them. In 1929 Stalin and Iagoda had 600 of them shot, together with many of the prisoners.

This retreat emboldened the liberals in the party: a commission charged OGPU with 826 judicial killings and widespread bribe-taking. To stop depraving soldiers and policemen still further, Lunacharsky, Radek, and Krylenko demanded that only criminals should act as executioners. Mass murderers such as the Siberian bandit Kultiapy were therefore reprieved in 1924 and set to work as prison executioners. A few young sadists, however, were too useful to lose: Mikhail Frinovsky, a man who like Stalin had left theological college to become a murderer, was to rise to ministerial status in the 1930s, while Vsevolod Balitsky, who had tortured and raped in Kiev, became chairman of the Ukraine GPU and then Ukraine’s commissar for internal affairs. Stalin would order him to starve the Ukraine’s peasants to death. 27

The top OGPU echelons, if they wanted to keep their fiefdoms, had to serve the intrigues of a new master. In 1925, step by step, Stalin was eradicating his potential rivals: “the superb measurer of doses” as his victims, only belatedly feeling the cumulative effects of his poisons, called him. Manipulating rivals to eliminate enemies, Stalin showed real genius. He used his insight into the base side of human nature, an ability to work while opponents slept or convalesced, a magisterial calmness in the face of righteous indignation, and an understanding of game theory which only the best poker players have. Above all, he assured OGPU of a prominent future role in government.

Trotsky, and others ousted by Stalin, blamed their defeat on naznachenstvo,Stalin’s fixing of appointments. The posts that Stalin occupied in the party and in government let him determine who went where to serve the state. By 1925 the Soviet bureaucracy was more numerous than that of Tsarist Russia; posts of any importance were reserved for members of the nomenklatura, the list of politically reliable party members; and appointments were decided by the party apparatus. As one Central Committee party member put it, “You were hardly likely to vote ‘no’ if you then got sent to Murmansk or Tashkent.” Party gatherings voting on debating points put forward by Trotsky, Stalin, Zinoviev, and Kamenev were packed with those who depended on Stalin’s favors.

Stalin prepared meticulously for each encounter. He filled plenary meetings, conferences, and congresses with his claque; he spoke as a prosecutor, forcing his opponents onto the defensive. Stalin’s intimates had no doubts of the outcome for all who got in his way. In July 1924 Demian Bedny asked Stalin, long before the latter had Zinoviev removed from the Politburo, “Have you heard the latest joke? The English are willing to let us have Marx’s ashes . . . in exchange for Zinoviev’s.” Stalin’s private correspondence with Demian Bedny shows the anti-Semitism behind the campaign against Trotsky. In 1926 Bedny wrote to Stalin:

If I touch on Trotsky,
The whole opposition roars.
What’s the problem, ethnic claque?
Explain it to me carefully:
If I hit Shliapnikov, I get a brawl!
If I go for Trotsky it’s a pogrom!

The differences between Trotsky and Stalin were in style, not substance. They were both Leninists: they believed in the dictatorship of the proletariat, in world revolution, and in turning the peasantry into workers on the land. Where they differed was on emphasis and timing. Trotskyism—a term of abuse devised by Stalin’s supporters, who called themselves true Leninists—was nostalgia for the Red Army’s glories and the inclination to pour oil on any revolutionary fire, whether in Germany reeling from hyperinflation, in Britain facing a general strike, or in China torn apart by warlords. Stalin had caution and reticence on his side. Trotsky promised to wind up the NEP, to squeeze resources from the peasantry and begin massive industrialization as well as world war. Stalin bided his time, meanwhile letting the right wing, notably Bukharin, relax the state’s pressure on the economy so that the peasants built up reserves worth confiscating.

Trotsky and Stalin criticized each other’s records of heresy from October 1917 to the end of the civil war, their successes and failures in forcing Red Army commanders on to victory, and the number of occasions each had angered Lenin. In such arguments Trotsky came off worse.

At first Stalin let Zinoviev and Kamenev, who envied Trotsky his military laurels, do the dirty work. On January 4, 1925, Zinoviev drafted a proposal: “To deem it impossible, in the present condition of things that Trotsky has created, for Trotsky to hold such posts as the Chairman of the Military Council and member of the Politburo. . . . ” Stalin and Bukharin meanwhile wore masks of neutrality. Trotsky reacted wildly: he declared himself too ill to take part in the plenum and published in Pravda a defense against “monstrous accusations,” but his sense of party discipline was so entrenched that he obeyed the Central Committee.

image wrote Trotsky off. “The party has had to dethrone Trotsky solely because he, by virtually attacking Zinoviev and Kamenev and other members of the Central Committee of our party, has raised his hand against party unity . . . ”he wrote to Stalin and Orjonikidze on October 6, 1925. By now Stalin could dispose of his temporary allies: Zinoviev and Kamenev, used by Stalin to weaken Trotsky’s grip, were themselves declared to be a faction. image, as unhappy as a sheep-dog whose flock has scattered, hated factional infighting; he accused Zinoviev and Kamenev of self-serving cowardice, of setting the workers against the peasants. He and OGPU were now entirely Stalin’s men— there was no other shepherd for the sheepdogs to follow.

The dispute in 1925 and 1926 between Zinoviev and Kamenev on the one hand, and Stalin and Bukharin on the other had real basis. Zinoviev and Kamenev’s supporters were Leningrad (as Petrograd had been renamed in 1924) and Moscow factory workers, aggrieved by unemployment and by the low purchasing power of their wages when in work; their real income was half what it had been before the revolution. “What did we struggle for?” was the workers’ slogan. The prosperity of the NEP men, who lived by retail trade, gambling, and racketeering, and the peasantry, too poor to purchase manufactured goods but self-sufficient, made the workers resentful. They supported Zinoviev and Kamenev who, within a few months of disarming Trotsky, were arguing for Trotsky’s program: winding up the NEP and dispossessing the peasantry for the sake of the urban proletariat who had made the revolution.

In December 1925 at the fourteenth party congress Zinoviev spoke out against Stalin’s moderate line on agriculture and industrialization but the brilliance of his oratory was useless. Stalin, not Zinoviev, received an orchestrated “storm of applause.” Zinoviev was removed from the Politburo, from his chairmanship of the Comintern, and from his power base in Leningrad. Too late, Zinoviev saw Stalin for what he was: “a bloodthirsty Osetian who doesn’t know what conscience is . . . ” That remark sealed his fate.

Stalin kicked hardest when his opponent was down; he turned on Zinoviev for neglecting his job in the state planning office. Zinoviev tried to rouse the rabble in his fiefdom in Leningrad.29 But Stalin’s cronies had grudges against Zinoviev and Stalin himself loathed the whole of Leningrad as a nest of opposition vipers.

Opposing Stalin at the party congress, Kamenev chose words more judicious but just as damning as Zinoviev’s: “We are against the theory of single rule, we are against creating a ‘leader.’ . . . I think that our general secretary is not the person who can unite the old Bolshevik headquarters around himself.” Kamenev first lost his full membership in the Politburo and then, in January 1926, was made commissar for trade. A few months later he was ambassador to Italy and out of the Politburo.

During their struggle Stalin and the Zinoviev–Kamenev duo had both made conciliatory overtures toward Trotsky.30 Trotsky was still tempted by power, but his last conversation with Stalin disabused him and he looked for other straws to clutch at. However, image’s death in July 1926 removed the last influential Bolshevik who truly believed in reconciliation. In his letter to Stalin and Orjonikidze of October 1925 he had warned them, and Zinoviev and Kamenev:

Without unity, without this condition, Thermidor is inevitable. . . . The result is inevitable: Leninists, like spiders, will devour each other, as foreseen by the Mensheviks and by Trotsky, who are now coming onto the scene, the first as “equality and democracy,” the other as a “communist” Bonaparte. . . . You claim to be the official and sole heirs of the leader [Lenin] of the workers and peasants. Ambition is killing you. . . .31

It was too late: the spiders were set to devour each other.

For a few months Trotsky, Zinoviev, and Kamenev forgot the insults they had hurled at each other and formed an opposition. Still unsure that Stalin would win, Menzhinsky was slow to close down their printing presses. In 1926 and 1927 opposition leaflets made it seem, at home and abroad, that debate, even a two-party system, might be burgeoning in the USSR: Stalin and Bukharin would be the conservatives, and Trotsky, Kamenev, and Zinoviev the radicals.

But Stalin had ground his ax. His draft circular to the Politburo shows the care and feeling that he put into his attack: “On a personal question”:

Comrade Trotsky is wrong to say that Lenin “insisted” on Stalin being removed from the post of general secretary. Actually, Lenin “suggested” the party congress “consider” the question about transferring Stalin, leaving the decision on the question to the party congress. And the congress, after consideration decided unanimously to leave Stalin in the post of secretary, a decision which Stalin was bound to submit to.

Comrade Trotsky is wrong to assert than if Stalin had not been secretary “there would not be the struggle we now have.” Stalin was not secretary either in 1920 or 1918 when Trotsky waged a frantic campaign against the party and Lenin both in 1918 (Brest treaty) and in 1920 (trade union movement) . . . it is stupid to attribute discord in the party to a “personal aspect.”

Comrade Trotsky is wrong to assert that “Stalin is calling him a revisionist of Leninism.” Not Stalin but the thirteenth party conference . . . Not just Stalin but first and foremost Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Krupskaia [did so]. . . . 32

Trotsky’s arrogance undid him. He considered image a mindless agent of others’ policies, Menzhinsky an effete spook, and Orjonikidze a Caucasian bandit. image and Menzhinsky resented being patronized by Trotsky and swung the pro-Trotsky element within OGPU, against all its instinctive revolutionary romanticism, over to Stalin. At the end of 1927 Trotsky was thrown out of the party with seventy-five of his prominent supporters including Kamenev and Zinoviev. Zinoviev became rector of Kazan University; Kamenev took on the scientific and technical directorate of the Commissariat for the Economy. Trotsky, deluded by his faith in the intuition of the workers and by his sense of destiny, lost his last post, the fur concession, and was deported to Kazakhstan.