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


. . . we doubt if any man ever passed through life, sympathising so slightly with mankind; and the most wonderful part of his story is, the intensity of sway which he exerted over the minds of those in whom he so seldom permitted himself to contemplate anything more than the tools of his own ambition.

John Gibson Lockhart,
Napoleon Buonaparte

Chapter 20. Clearing the Terrain

IN MID-JANUARY 1928 Stalin and Trotsky each took trains across the Urals. One traveled by choice, the other by compulsion. Stalin was beginning his first year of tyranny, of ruling without allies; Trotsky was in exile, on the road to oblivion. How had Stalin managed to outmaneuver and silence men more articulate than him, more educated in political theory and economics; men who had thirty years of intrigue and opposition under their belts; men who were better known to, and sometimes better liked by, the public?

Stalin’s chief technique had been dissimulation. He was the con man who pretends to be duped. Three forces—Kamenev and Zinoviev’s uncompromising Marxist left, Bukharin and Rykov’s flexible right, and Trotsky’s militancy—aimed to take power after Lenin’s death. All three sides had seen Stalin and his cronies as the center ground that had to be captured if they were to overthrow the other two. Kamenev and Zinoviev, certain that they were Lenin’s ideological heirs, had embraced Stalin in order to disempower Trotsky. When Trotsky had been sidelined, Bukharin, Rykov, and the other “soft” Social Democrats had supported Stalin against Kamenev and Zinoviev to prevent the New Economic Plan coming to a premature end.

Now in 1928, with Kamenev, Zinoviev, and Trotsky all out of the running, Stalin and his underlings Kaganovich, Molotov, and Menzhinsky turned against Bukharin. In a volte-face, they were going to deal with the peasantry as Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Trotsky had proposed: they would take their grain and their liberty and use their wealth and their labor to create an industrialized and militarized totalitarian society. Only Zinoviev and Kamenev would have no part to play in the industrialization, and Trotsky had been removed from control of the armed forces. The rationale for letting Bukharin share power vanished once liberal economic policies were disavowed and Stalin began a ten-year game that would end with a bullet in Bukharin’s neck.

Stalin’s skill in ousting all the old guard while implementing many of their ideas shows his profound understanding firstly of the weaknesses of human nature, especially the self-esteem of the intellectual in power, and secondly of the importance of the levers of power, primarily the intelligence apparatus. From January 1928 Stalin gathered the power, as well as the will, to destroy the lives not only of Lenin’s Politburo, but of millions of peasants, intellectuals, and workers. There would be no more constraints on his paranoia.

A few months before, in September 1927, apart from on the street and in the semi-legal press, there was just one forum where Trotsky might challenge Stalin, the Comintern. To foreign communists Trotsky repeated Lenin’s warnings about Stalin and Bukharin: “Stalin’s personal misfortune, which is more and more that of the party, is a grandiose disproportion between Stalin’s resources in ideas and the might which the party-state apparatus has concentrated in his hand.” Kuusinen and Bukharin parried this attack and Stalin did not need to say a word. The Comintern voted unanimously to expel Trotsky.

Stalin had let Bukharin and Trotsky argue each other to exhaustion; now he used Menzhinsky to deliver the knockout blow. In November 1927, Stalin presented to the Central Committee a sensationally imaginative report by Menzhinsky in which OGPU said it had proof that Trotsky and “the opposition” were planning a coup.The aim was to seize the Kremlin, the post office, and the radio stations, and to blow up railway lines. The conspirators had also supposedly fomented mutiny in army garrisons in Leningrad and the Ukraine. Menzhinsky outbid Stalin: he recommended “liquidating” the opposition leaders “before it is too late.”

Stalin postponed any liquidation and kept a moderate face. Three months later, Trotsky was handed his sentence by OGPU: “In accordance with the law punishing any person for counterrevolutionary activity, citizen Lev Davidovich Trotsky is to be deported to Alma-Ata. No time limit for his stay there is indicated. The date for dispatch to exile is January 16, 1928.”

Stalin was bombarded with protests from Trotsky’s admirers. An anonymous letter of 1927 runs:

Comrade Stalin, . . . You and your colleagues are wrong to curse Trotsky. You’re told the workers curse him, not true, not true. Comrade Stalin, I call to you from the depths of the party: Trotsky is more loved than you or Zinoviev, etc. by the workers. . . . Trotsky’s been toppled and you’re kicking him when he’s down. Trotsky is a fighter, he’s a force and a decent party member. . . . With the rotten Leninism you’ve taken up we’ll soon collapse. . . .2

The last spontaneous demonstration in Moscow for sixty years took place at the railway station where Trotsky’s train was waiting, and a dozen OGPU agents were beaten up, although Trotsky was actually still at home. After OGPU came for him two days later, a telegram was sent to Stalin’s train in Siberia: “they had to use force and carry him out in their arms, since he refused to come, had locked himself in his room and the door had to be broken down.” Trotsky was accompanied by his wife, his elder son, Lev, and thirty followers.

When Trotsky arrived in Kazakhstan, Stalin was in Siberia, implementing his version of Trotsky’s policies. The “scissors” problem of the NEP was to be resolved by force. One blade of the scissors was the decreasing price of grain, which deterred peasants from selling surpluses or planting more. The other blade was the sluggishness of Russia’s factories, where the incompetently managed workers on their seven-hour days and rickety production lines were making too few shoddy goods too expensively: a meter of cotton cloth cost the same as fifteen kilos of wheat. The peasants might survive without goods from the cities, but the workers could not live without grain. By the end of 1927, shortages had led to rationing of basic commodities. Stalin understood sticks not carrots. His solution, to the dismay of Bukharin and other liberals, was not to raise factory productivity or prices for farm produce; it was to terrorize the peasantry into handing over grain and money to the state, to confiscate whatever they hid and arrest those who hid, or traded in, grain.

This policy required the peasantry to be sorted into three categories: the rich peasant or kulak (tight fist) to be eliminated, the poor peasant to inherit the earth, and the middle peasant to be left where he was. A kulak was a peasant who farmed more land than his own family could cope with; a poor peasant was one who had lost his land or was unable to subsist on it, and hired out his labor; the middle peasant, on whom Bukharin wanted to stake the future, produced enough both to subsist and to pay his taxes. At first Stalin’s organized pillage of the kulak and middle peasant worked: a million extra tons of grain were collected and famine in the cities was averted in 1928. But over large tracts of Siberia and southern Russia the peasants understood that the years of peace during which, by working hard, they had fed themselves were over.

Stalin’s expedition to Siberia in 1928 was a trial run for a crime against humanity. In the next two years, requisition and dispossession under the names of collectivization and “dekulakization” would lay waste virtually all the arable lands of the USSR. Arrests, deportations, and killings escalated, probably beyond what even Stalin and Menzhinsky had anticipated, into a holocaust unmatched in Europe between the Thirty Years’ War of the seventeenth century and Hitler. Stalin’s attack on the peasantry ravaged Russian agriculture and the Russian peasant to such an extent that for perhaps a century Russia would be incapable of feeding itself. It introduced irrational and unquestioned rule by fear and turned people back into beasts of burden. Stalin was now using OGPU to repress not counterrevolutionaries but a peaceful population.

Most of what Stalin did, however brutal, before 1928 can be ascribed to necessity, to the logic of events. The violence of the civil war can be explained as preemptive self-defense against an enemy who, given the chance, would have hanged Lenin’s Politburo from public gallows in Moscow. Stalin’s dirty tactics in the battle for the succession to Lenin can be justified by the view, which was not just Stalin’s, that only a dictator could rule the country and that his rivals were even worse. But Stalin’s collectivization and the eradication of the rich peasant as a class makes little sense on economic grounds. The war on the peasantry that Trotsky, Kamenev, and Zinoviev had proposed and which Stalin implemented was ideological, like Hitler’s war on the Jews, but it lacked even the populist basis that underpinned Hitler’s extermination of the Jews. Half of Europe could enthusiastically unite behind anti-Semitism, but few Russians blamed the kulak for their misery.

The arbitrary violence of 1928 left the authorities no other option but to go further and enslave the peasantry on collective farms. Russia would never have voluntarily produced surplus grain again, and private trade in grain or withholding it from the state now became criminal offenses.Resistance, even by shouts or a show of fists, was terrorism.

For the first time since the civil war and the last time ever, Stalin traveled the country to enforce a policy rather than take a holiday. He took with him a trainload of OGPU, party, and government workers; his cronies worked in parallel. The Armenian Bolshevik Anastas Mikoyan, to whom Stalin had transferred Bukharin’s economic tasks, was terrorizing the grain belt of the north Caucasus; Viacheslav Molotov was taking his train through the black earth of European Russia, the middle and south Volga. At each stop Stalin, Mikoyan, and Molotov mobilized local officials and issued targets for grain. Kulaks, traders, and lax officials were arrested. The poorer peasants and officials in each area did OGPU’s dirty work. Sometimes they acted out of fear or in a frenzied mass; sometimes they were covetous or just vindictive. The poor peasant wanted the tools, clothes, houses, and livestock of the rich; the local party or soviet worker hoped to earn himself promotion. In any case, party workers knew that going too far was far less dangerous than not going far enough. They seized even the seed corn for next spring and the sixteen kilos of grain per head per month that the peasant was allotted for personal survival.

OGPU enforced confiscation wherever Stalin, Mikoyan, and Molotov were unable to visit. For example, on January 19, 1928, Menzhinsky telegraphed the GPU chief in Bashkiria: “Communicate by telegraph immediately what you have undertaken to ensure the process of grain requisitioning. What operations have been carried out, how many have been arrested, and who? Has there been any supervision of the movement of factory goods to the country and requisitioned grain to the railways? Are those who buy up coupons for goods in the country being arrested?”

imageMenzhinsky, with Stalin’s sanction, was implementing what he had proposed in his university thesis thirty years ago: breaking up the peasant community. All Menzhinsky’s senior staff were requisitioned by Stalin for the task in 1928. Iakov Agranov, deputy director of the secret department of OGPU, was taken off his espionage duties and was soon taking his interest down to village level: “Carry out an investigation urgently on the pillaging of the collective farm at Lutsenkovo parish, paying most attention to the leading kulaks. At the same time process the anti-Soviet element in the parish. Inform the secret department of results in detail.” Genrikh Iagoda, too, was roped in to see that OGPU, not the courts, dealt with those arrested for speaking out against requisitioning or for “sabotage.” 4 OGPU’s regular reports also warned Stalin that even from the cowed peasantry there might be a backlash. The Red Army was recruited from the peasantry; the letters soldiers had from home undermined morale and made it unwise to use the army to put down peasant uprisings.

Molotov, touring the Volga, was more cautious than Stalin. He enforced party policy but protested at arbitrary arrests or at local officials using the campaign to settle private scores. Not that there was a grain of humanity in Molotov: he rated bureaucratic efficiency above all else, and blamed party disorganization rather than the kulak for the breakdown in the supply of grain. Stalin used every trick: the peasantry were not allowed to pay in money; every purchase and every tax was in grain. They had to pay taxes in advance and buy government bonds and compulsory insurance until nothing was left. The mills only gave back to the peasants a tiny proportion of their grain as flour.

OGPU was flooded with reports of discontent and open rebellion, as well as abuse from drunken officials “discrediting Soviet power.” A few officials were killed by peasants; many were assaulted or had their houses burned down. So many peasants were arrested after Stalin’s stay in Novosibirsk that the local GPU could not cope; Iagoda had to hand over kulaks to the militia and the courts.

The peasantry were perplexed by this renewed assault. Was the Soviet Union about to go to war and therefore requisitioning grain? Was the ruble about to collapse and therefore money not being accepted? They concluded, in the words of a letter intercepted by OGPU, “For food we are left with 16 kilos a month per head, but we’re against that and we say we’ll fight to the death, rather than die of famine.” Support for kulaks grew: “Now we shan’t vote for the paupers, we voted for them for two years and they ruin everything; we must vote for a well-off peasant who has property as a pledge so that he is answerable,” wrote another peasant. 5

Stalin’s entourage was enslaved to doctrine. The kulak was to be eliminated even though he was rarely rich enough to be an exploiter, but often employed the poor peasants, giving them corn to survive the winter and buying them tools. Worse, to meet targets for confiscation, middle peasants were arrested as kulaks. The idiocy of Stalin’s policy was that the peasants who could farm the land and worked hard were turned off it, very often to die, and those who could not farm and would not work inherited the earth as members of collective farms. All the achievements of Piotr Stolypin, the prime minister who had in 1908 granted the incentives that revived Russian agriculture and sent wagonloads of butter from Siberia to Britain and grain from Odessa to Germany, were nullified.

Why was there no effective protest from within or outside the party at this campaign of unprovoked violence against the class that all of Russian society had long professed to be the core of the nation? Was it ignorance of what was happening? Did people believe the Stalinist propaganda that the USSR had to become industrially strong, if necessary at the expense of the peasantry? Did dissenters fear deadly reprisals? All three factors deterred intellectuals and party workers from taking a stand. The deafening silence must lead us to conclude that Stalin’s apparatus on the one hand and Menzhinsky’s OGPU on the other had by 1928 established their reputations for omniscience and ruthless intolerance.

One man did remonstrate with Stalin: Georgi Chicherin, commissar for foreign affairs. Stalin had inherited him from Lenin and for all his allegiance to Marxism-Leninism Chicherin was as fastidious and rational as any traditional minister of foreign affairs. Stalin put up with Chicherin partly because he quite liked him—Chicherin was a genteel decadent in the style of Menzhinsky—partly because there was nobody else as competent as Chicherin or as acceptable to Western governments and partly because Chicherin, mortally ill, would soon vanish from the scene of his own accord. In March 1929, from his sanatorium in Germany, Chicherin expressed lukewarm support for Stalin’s “general line in peasant policies” but refrained from judging the details and pointed out that it was Stalin’s fault there was no meat to be had in Moscow. He also said, “How good it would be, if you, Comrade Stalin, could change your appearance and travel abroad for some time, with a proper interpreter, not a biased one. Then you’d see reality. You’d learn the value of these outbursts about a final struggle. You’d see the utterly revolting rubbish in Pravda in its real nakedness.”Chicherin was a voice crying out in the wilderness, but a disinterested one. Bukharin’s protests could be dismissed as the whining of a dismissed satrap.

In a typical maneuver, Stalin put right a nominal amount of the damage he had done: by March 1929 a few unjustly arrested and destitute peasants had been amnestied. OGPU also cut down on its executions: officially, in 1928 only 869 were shot in the Soviet Union, a third of the figure for 1927 when Trotskyism was being suppressed. But OGPU noted that “class warfare has now become more acute in the countryside” and they were eager to proceed with mass arrests of the kulaks they had flushed out.

To the July 1928 plenum of the Central Committee, Stalin justified what he had done: Russia had to hit the peasantry hard in order to build railways and hydroelectric power stations. “England squeezed the juice out of all its colonies for hundreds of years. . . . Germany built its industry on 5 billions of reparations after the Franco-Prussian war. . . . America developed its industry by raising loans in Europe . . . our country cannot, must not, go in for robbing colonies or foreign countries. . . . ” Extraordinary measures, Stalin insisted, “have saved the country from a general economic crisis.” He claimed that in future years there would be reserves of grain and that the requisitions had been a one-off measure. Bukharin bickered about the brutality and Stalin set his cronies on him: “Give us your panacea,” shouted Voroshilov. When Bukharin complained that he had to spend two days at OGPU to get the facts, Menzhinsky was asked, “Why did you lock him up in OGPU?” to which Menzhinsky replied, to loud laughter, “For panicking.”

Bukharin’s group had to grovel in order to hang on to a shred of power. They applauded the first show trials, knowing that the allegations were absurd and the confessions forced; they assented to exporting grain in order to finance industrialization. Only in June 1928, when Stalin decided that the peasantry would have to enter collective farms not just the cooperatives that Bukharin had envisaged, did he protest to Stalin: “Koba, I’m writing to you, not orally, since anyway I am too upset to talk and I fear you won’t hear me out, while you will still read a letter to the end. I consider the country’s internal and external situation to be very bad . . . people are afraid to talk. . . . I shan’t fight and I don’t want to. . . . ”7 He was ready, once he had finished presiding over the Comintern, “to go wherever you like, with no fight, no noise, no struggle.”

Bukharin knew very well that all his movements and conversations were monitored by OGPU and that Stalin had installed a fifth telephone in his office to monitor calls made by any senior member of the party or government. 8Stalin had read to Bukharin a transcript of Zinoviev’s most intimate telephone conversations. Nevertheless, on July 11, when Kamenev came to Moscow, Bukharin phoned him to arrange a meeting. How did Bukharin imagine that Kamenev and Zinoviev would deal with him after years of relentless hounding in which Bukharin had sided with Stalin? Did Bukharin fear that Stalin, having turned against the peasantry, might bring Kamenev and Zinoviev back into power, in which case Bukharin, Rykov, and Tomsky would be isolated? Bukharin’s desperate ploy was to recruit them first.

Kamenev was skeptical and yet gullibly optimistic—he expected a counteroffer from Stalin. He took notes on the conversation in order to brief Zinoviev. Later, Kamenev made sure that Trotsky, too, had a summary. Kamenev had known Stalin for over twenty years; he must have known OGPU and Stalin would find out everything. His behavior was as staggering as Bukharin’s, but the prospect, however dim, of retaining power clearly blinded them both to Stalin’s inexorable vindictiveness.

In 1930 Kamenev’s secretary was arrested by OGPU, who found concealed in a relative’s bedstead minutes of the conversation. Bukharin’s bridge-building to the left opposition gave Stalin the material in order to destroy, one after the other, the left and right deviations in the party. Only now did Bukharin appreciate Trotsky’s point. Calling Stalin a “Genghis Khan who had read Marx” he said, “Stalin knows only one means: vengeance and putting a knife into your back at the same time.” Kamenev knew that too; he had been present in 1923 when Stalin told image that his ideal of happiness was to prepare revenge and then go to bed.

During their conversation Bukharin told Kamenev that Stalin had said to Bukharin in 1928, when preparing the Politburo’s agenda, “You and I are Himalayas, the rest are nonentities. . . . ” When Kamenev asked Bukharin who was backing him, the latter named the rest of his troika, Rykov and Tomsky. Bukharin also said that the deputy head of OGPU, Genrikh Iagoda, and its head of foreign intelligence, Meer Trilisser, were sympathetic, an allegation that was to damn Iagoda and Trilisser in Stalin’s eyes. Bukharin posed the dilemma: “1) If the country perishes, we perish; 2) If the country manages to get out of the crisis, Stalin steps back in time and we still perish.” Bukharin, Rykov, and Tomsky felt that it “would be far better if, instead of Stalin, we now had Zinoviev and Kamenev.”

Kamenev and Zinoviev saw that it was mad to take part in a half-baked plot: there was no hope even of making Stalin revert to the collective leadership of 1923, let alone of his stepping down. When Rykov heard the phrases Bukharin had uttered, and to whom, he yelled at Bukharin (according to Anna Larina, who was to be Bukharin’s last wife), “You’re an old woman, not a politician!” Gods like Stalin demented their victims before destroying them. It boggles the mind that Kamenev and Bukharin, who had spent decades before 1917 evading detection, could be such bungling conspirators.

Stalin had from Iagoda and Agranov in OGPU a full record of these damning discussions and Kamenev’s reflections, too. Just after Stalin gracefully let Kamenev and Zinoviev back into the party, OGPU reported Kamenev speculating, “The only progressive cause that this group (Bukharin, Rykov, Tomsky) can achieve is to remove Stalin from the post of general secretary. . . . I think their chances are less than 25 percent. . . . But actually removing Stalin by this group would mean a right-winger taking Stalin’s place. . . . It is extremely likely that when Stalin has beaten the right, he will himself turn doubly right.” Kamenev outlined five courses of action of which only one appealed to him: “To seek a union with Stalin on acceptable terms.” 9 He decided to avoid Bukharin, to attack him in print, and to contact Stalin—a meeting which Stalin had just refused. Kamenev feared Stalin might outmaneuver him by making a pact with Trotsky and his notes end on a pessimistic note with a very astute prediction of Stalin’s future entourage: Molotov, Voroshilov, Mikoyan, Orjonikidze, Kalinin, Kirov.

Martemian Riutin, a Moscow Bolshevik who would mount in 1932 the last attempt to depose Stalin, recalled Bukharin “totally demoralized, in tears” and saying, “I now feel that I have been literally smeared with shit from head to toe.” Bukharin recovered sufficiently by the end of 1929 to publish an article, “An economist’s notes,” denouncing the collectivization of the peasantry as “irresponsible and opportunist.” When attacked in the Politburo, Bukharin boldly called Stalin a “petty oriental despot.” Bukharin lost his posts. In November 1929 Stalin removed him from the Politburo. Then Bukharin broke. He variously groveled or snorted defiance, as in his letter to Stalin of October 1930:

Koba. After our telephone conversation I immediately left work in a state of despair. Not because you “frightened” me—you can’t scare me and won’t frighten me off. But because those monstrous accusations you threw at me clearly point to the existence of some satanic, foul and low provocation which you believe, on which you build your policies and which will end badly even if you were to destroy me physically with the same success with which you are destroying me politically. . . .

I consider your accusations monstrous mad slander, crazy and, in the final count, stupid. . . . Or does the fact that I don’t lick your behind or write articles in your praise à la Piatakov make me “a preacher of terror”? Then say so! God, what hellish madness is happening now! And you, instead of explanations, ooze spite against someone who is full of just one thought: to help in any way, to pull the cart with everybody, but not to turn into a sycophant, there are a lot of them and they are ruining us.10

Stalin had paralyzed his opponents. Trotsky still conducted a copious correspondence from Alma-Ata—all the better for OGPU to keep track of the opposition—but he was about to be deported. Zinoviev and Kamenev were grateful for small mercies. Bukharin writhed like a worm on the hook. All would be physically destroyed in a decade; already they were corpses politically. OGPU used provocateurs against them. While Bukharin recuperated in the high Caucasus from the shock of his fall— now he had lost the editorship of Pravda—he was doorstepped by a young man called Platonov who claimed to be a Communist Youth member horrified by the treachery of OGPU toward the workers and Bukharin. Platonov elicited enough from Bukharin for Stalin to damn him in the eyes of the Central Committee. In a similar sting, OGPU “unmasked” as a former White Guards officer Trotsky’s printer.

The events of 1928 demonstrated the speed and ruthlessness of Stalin as a politician. He had rehearsed his methods for eliminating not only political rivals but also any class from which future opposition might spring. He had one more device still to try out: the fabricated show trial, a spectacle which Menzhinsky and his subordinates including Iakov Agranov had been rehearsing for nearly a decade.