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


Chapter 19. A New Role for OGPU

IN 1927 OGPU was not yet a centralized, miniature totalitarian state. The credit (or blame) for the reforms that enabled OGPU to dominate political and economic life in the USSR and made it Stalin’s chief instrument of rule by the late 1920s is Menzhinsky’s. Although he never held a revolver or watched an execution Menzhinsky took firm control of the psychopaths, criminals, or intellectuals who dispatched their victims with enjoyment in Stalin’s cause. Menzhinsky and Genrikh Iagoda adopted the same motto as image—“a cold head, a warm heart and clean hands”—in their dirty but vital task, anticipating Himmler, a man too fastidious to wring a chicken’s neck yet who urged the SS on to slaughter Jews.

The samurai at the head of OGPU had higher politics in mind, while still condoning sadism and class murder in the Russian provinces, in the Ukraine, the Caucasus, and central Asia. Their dual role as political arbiters and repressive policemen caused overwork and illness; they took the waters of the north Caucasus more and more often. image wrote from his sanatorium to Iagoda in summer 1925:

The most serious attention must be paid to Comrade Menzhinsky’s health. I ask for a concilium of doctors, appropriate specialists, to be organized to outline the treatment: where, in what conditions, for how long, etc. . . .

Dear Genrikh Grigorievich! Here I am, the fifth day now. I can feel I am getting better, although I shall only start the Narzan baths on Sunday. Viacheslav Rudolfovich [Menzhinsky] has become considerably better, but to consolidate this improvement and to complete treatment, treatment must nevertheless be prolonged until October 1.33

Menzhinsky, with his flair for languages and knowledge of Europe, focused OGPU not on domestic but on foreign enemies although Soviet Russia was now officially at peace with its neighbors. Foreign agents now fell under the remit of the intelligence services, not the Red Army. image’s Latvians in the Cheka had coped clumsily with espionage—shooting dead, for instance, the British consul in Petrograd— and had looked on the new nations of Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland, still forming in the crucible of war, as territory for armed forays. Menzhinsky was subtler: for him Tsarist White Guards were not an army to be fought in the field; they were saboteurs to be eliminated in cellars. Activity abroad had to be covert and, if revealed, disavowed.

In the early 1920s there were over 2 million White Russians split into factions spread over Europe and the Far East. Monarchists, liberals, and Social Revolutionaries believed that, with help from neighboring states, they might yet regain power in Russia. As Soviet Russia had only restricted diplomatic representation abroad it was hard to monitor émigré activities and any success by OGPU’s counterrevolutionary section came from intercepting the correspondence of small conspiracies inside Russia. Larger exercises were crude and counterproductive. For instance, Lenin had instructed image to send chekisty disguised as counterrevolutionaries into Latvia and Estonia: “Cross the border for a kilometer somewhere and hang 100–1,000 of their officials and rich people. . . . Under the guise of ‘greens’ [nationalist bandits] (we’ll put the blame on them) we’ll go 10–20 kilometers and hang all the rich peasants, priests, landowners.”34

Menzhinsky needed lessons in how to do the job better, and he took a step unique in the history of the Cheka. He consulted one of his prisoners, the nobleman Vladimir Dzhunkovsky, the sole senior official of the Tsar’s regime to pass on his wisdom to the Cheka. Dzhunkovsky had run the Tsar’s gendarmerie and secret services but was highly principled.35 Unlike Dmitri Tolstoi, he had forbidden the recruitment as informers of teachers, army officers, or anyone with public trust. Dzhunkovsky had even outed his own agent Roman Malinovsky, leader of the Bolshevik faction in the Duma, as a police spy. After the revolution, Dzhunkovsky gave evidence to the tribunal which condemned Malinovsky to death and volunteered his services as a consultant to the Cheka, the one organization, in his view, that could restore stability after the revolution.36 Dzhunkovsky taught image, Menzhinsky, and Artur Artuzov a technique that had worked spectacularly well under Sergei Zubatov in the Tsar’s Ministry of the Interior. This involved creating a puppet legal opposition, supporting factions in illegal opposition and manipulating subversives into working for, not against, the state.

OGPU learned Dzhunkovsky’s technique well. Using the skills of the polyglot Artur Artuzov (né Frautschi) and of Latvians such as Pillar and Jekabs Peterss, Menzhinsky set up fictitious resistance movements to lure émigré agents into the arms of OGPU including the Trust, an imaginary counterrevolutionary union of monarchists and Social Revolutionaries. A real counterrevolutionary, a Latvian called Opperput, was offered his life in exchange for mounting a disinformation operation. Under the name Eduard Staunitz, Opperput became the Moscow resident and treasurer of the Trust, which was stuffed with press-ganged ex-officers from the Tsar’s army. They were to pose as counterrevolutionaries and were given genuine information to sell to Polish intelligence.

The target in this operation was by far the most fearsome exiled opponent of the Bolsheviks, Boris Savinkov. Menzhinsky and Savinkov knew each other well. They had studied law together in St. Petersburg, and had both made promising literary debuts before descending into the revolutionary underground. But Savinkov had become a Social Revolutionary, believing in terror to destroy the old regime, and in the peasantry to create a new world. He had fled Russia after being sentenced to death for organizing the murders of ministers and generals but returned after the revolution of February 1917 and was a minister in Kerensky’s government. After the Bolshevik takeover, Savinkov formed another revolutionary party, the Union of Defense of Homeland and Freedom, which fought the Bolsheviks. Savinkov then left for France and Poland. In France his novels, particularly The Pale Horse, won him an international reputation; the romantic view of modern revolutionary politics shared by André Malraux and Albert Camus stems from Savinkov. The novelist Ilya Ehrenburg thought Savinkov “the most inscrutable and terrifying person” he had ever met; Somerset Maugham felt that Savinkov was “what the ancient Romans feared, Fate looking at you.” Winston Churchill was struck by “his mortally pale face, quiet voice . . . impenetrable gaze.”

After two years’ careful disinformation Savinkov fell for Opperput’s bait of an anti-Bolshevik underground, a National Union for the Defense of Homeland and Freedom allied to liberal democrats with connections in OGPU waiting for Savinkov to come to Moscow and help them overthrow the Bolsheviks. Together with his mistress and her husband, the Derentals, Savinkov crossed the border. At breakfast in a Minsk apartment he was arrested by his hosts Pillar and Filipp Medved. “Nice work,” Savinkov told the chekisty. “May I finish my breakfast please?” He then joined his fellow conspirators in a special carriage for Moscow. In the Lubianka, Savinkov and Artuzov treated each other with respect. Savinkov’s mistress, Liubov Dikgof-Derental, was allowed to live with him.

In just twelve days Savinkov was tried, pleaded guilty to charges of counterrevolution, and was sentenced to death. However in intensive negotiations with image and Menzhinsky he agreed to write to his associates, insisting that further resistance to the Soviet regime was pointless. He was told that his life would be spared, that he would soon be found work to match his talent. OGPU’s bargain was not kept. Savinkov wrote to image on May 5, 1925: “there’s no point reforming me: life has reformed me. This was how the question was put in conversation with Menzhinsky, Artuzov, and Pillar: either shoot me or give me an opportunity to work.” image had wanted to shoot Savinkov from the start and Menzhinsky’s plans to save his rival were thwarted by Stalin after the trial: “I am in favor of a ten-year sentence. This sentence can’t be shortened, it’s dangerous, the change from death penalty to three years, when applied to somebody like Savinkov, won’t be understood.”37

Menzhinsky had played cat and mouse with Savinkov for eight months before breaking off contact and leaving him to stew. On May 7, 1925, Savinkov fell to his death from the window of a fifth-floor office. The sequence of events suggests suicide, but a casual remark by Stalin in the 1950s implies that image, on Stalin’s instructions, ordered the murder. 38 Stalin himself edited the communiqué that image published in Pravda announcing Savinkov’s death.

The Trust and another OGPU front, Syndicate-2, had other successes before they were wound up by Menzhinsky. In 1925 the British spy and common murderer Sidney Reilly (Shlomo Rozenblium), who had escaped a death sentence in 1918 for counterrevolution in his native Odessa, was lured across the Finnish border. After a number of polite discussions with Jekabs Peterss, Reilly was shot in the back during a walk in the forest on Stalin’s orders. 39In 1926 Menzhinsky’s best disinformation exercise was to arrange for the monarchist Vasili Shulgin to visit Soviet Russia in disguise and, escorted by chekisty pretending to be counterrevolutionaries, to search for his son, who had in fact just died in a psychiatric hospital. The OGPU agents escorted Shulgin back out of the country, urging him to write a book. This had a double effect: it persuaded readers that there was an underground opposition operating in the USSR and, at the same time, that Soviet Russia was a flourishing state with popular support.

These plots and the successful abduction, assassination, and recruitment of émigrés justified OGPU’s existence. Stalin was more paranoiac than Menzhinsky and particularly suspected the British of subverting Russia, convinced they were taking revenge for Soviet support for the General Strike. When Reilly was caught, and after an explosion in Moscow attributed to British agents, Stalin telegraphed Menzhinsky:

My personal opinion: 1) London’s agents are deeper entrenched here than we think, and their meeting places will persist; 2) mass arrests must be used to destroy English spy links, for recruiting new collaborators among those arrested in Artuzov’s department and to develop a system of volunteers among young people to help OGPU and its organs; 3) it would be good to set up one or two show trials in the courts on the lines of English espionage, so as to have official material to be used in England and Europe; . . . 5) the publication of such evidence has enormous significance if you set it up skillfully and find authors of the appropriate articles on espionage in the military, aviation, the navy. When do you plan to publish Reilly’s statements? This business has to be set up skillfully. Greetings, Stalin.40

Stalin was already fascinated by foreign spies and the prospect of show trials. Menzhinsky and OGPU counterintelligence encouraged this mania and began to frequent Stalin’s office. They were often the last to report to Stalin before he went to the Black Sea to rest, and the first to report when he returned, even though, in the mid-1920s, intelligence and foreign relations were not among Stalin’s many official remits.

OGPU’s widely publicized counterintelligence operations established the Soviet secret services as the most formidable and well funded in the world. Within the Soviet Union there was a conviction that only the Cheka and OGPU worked efficiently, so much so that for every emergency an Extraordinary Commission would be set up. There was even a Cheka for the production of felt boots.

The Tikhon affair of 1922–5 had shown Stalin that Menzhinsky could stage a trial as a theater director stages a play, every actor working from a carefully composed script. When Stalin decided to get rid of foreign and prerevolutionary experts in order to give the party a signal that all dissent was now fatal and the public the message that all failures in the economy were due to sabotage, Menzhinsky was given the task of providing proof. The Shakhty, Prompartiia, and Menshevik trials were not as well rehearsed as the trials of the Great Terror—Menzhinsky and Iagoda would not use physical violence on the accused and could not convince all of them that justice was dead—but Menzhinsky’s show trials did require OGPU leaders and underlings to suspend any vestigial notions of justice, morality, or verisimilitude, and to work for months with little sleep.

One important set of documents published in the last five years is the register of visitors to Stalin’s Kremlin office from 1924 to his death. We see that representatives of every department of government and party were summoned to his Kremlin office, but that OGPU officers came more often and stayed longer. The records also show that, during his battle for sole control, Stalin felt sufficiently secure to take a month’s holiday each year from 1924 to 1926, relying on couriers and encrypted telegrams from Molotov in the government and from Iagoda and Menzhinsky in OGPU to maintain his grip. Once assured that his opponents had been defeated, Stalin was free to devise at leisure grander scenarios for OGPU to stage.

By 1926, Stalin was sure that OGPU depended on him as much as he on them: they had no one else capable of offering patronage. On the other hand, the chiefs of OGPU were not Stalin’s men, in that they had not been appointed by him. It would be ten years before Stalin could make OGPU as much his creature as the party Central Committee and Politburo had become. Menzhinsky and Iagoda and their underlings enjoyed the company of sophisticated intellectuals such as Bukharin and Rykov. When Stalin turned against Bukharin and the right he would also need to weed them out of OGPU and replace them with thugs and automatons from his party apparatus.