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


Chapter 22. Bringing the Writers to Heel

IF THE SOVIET PEOPLE had any hope of intercession at the end of the 1920s, before everyone’s conscience and common sense was obliterated by terror, that hope lay with the creative intellectuals, especially the writers. For over a hundred years, from Pushkin to Tolstoi, Russian poets, novelists, and philosophers had stood up for the people against oppression, enduring prison, exile abroad or in Siberia, poverty, and obloquy. But if the novelist Leo Tolstoi and the philosopher Vladimir Soloviov had courted repression to save the lives of those whom the Tsarist state proposed to kill, their successors Vladimir Mayakovsky and Mikhail Bulgakov stood back from the brink. Five years of the New Economic Plan had given them back a semblance of the security, prestige, and prosperity poets and novelist had once enjoyed but they had not recovered the moral security destroyed by the civil war. They might intervene for close friends, and would still protest when OGPU purloined their diaries or when Glavlit banned their works, but they did little more.

Not a single writer with the exception of Osip Mandelstam now had the courage to confront Menzhinsky and Stalin on any matter; to stand up for liberty of conscience, let alone free speech or the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. True, poets and philosophers all had friends, wives, mistresses, and children who would go down with them; “ ‘I have a wife and children’ is the best cog in the machinery of tyranny,” said the Slovak novelist Jan Johanides. Undoubtedly, Stalin was more terrible than Nicholas I or Alexander III. So much worse then, the crime of conniving at his atrocities than assenting to the Tsarist oppression of the nineteenth century. The cowardice of Soviet intellectuals led to a punishment as terrible as that which moral courage would have incurred.

Stalin was now preparing to deal with the intelligentsia, but because he regarded himself as a creative mind, because he depended on writers, cinematographers, and composers for his entertainment, he moved stealthily. New cadres of engineers could be trained, peasants replaced by tractors, and the Politburo was easily replenished from the eager ranks of the Central Committee. It was far harder, Stalin knew, to find new writers, composers, actors, and painters; the young proletarian writers to whom the old guard had been ordered by Lunacharsky and Gorky to pass on their skills, produced, as Stalin knew, little but trash.

Stalin took great interest in the arts from 1928. The theaters, cinemas, concert halls, and publishing houses of Moscow and Leningrad were thriving but the quarrelsome intelligentsia were like headless chickens; their patrons—Trotsky, Bukharin, Zinoviev, Kamenev—had fallen from power. As NEP foundered under taxation and persecution, independent publishing vanished and authors were cut off from Russian culture abroad, writers were left to the mercy of editorial boards and state publishers, controlled by Glavlit’s censors.

In 1927 Lebedev-Poliansky of Glavlit, reporting to the Central Committee, called for Stalin’s intervention. Lebedev-Poliansky had shown vulpine deviousness in letting through, for certain audiences at certain times and places, a few books or plays of artistic merit such as Isaak Babel’s civil war stories Red Cavalry, and Mikhail Bulgakov’s drama The Days of the Turbins. In this he had set himself against Lenin’s widow Krupskaia and his sister Maria, two bigots who exercised fundamentalist censorship in the Commissariat for Education. But censorship grew oppressive. It was now retrospective: secondhand-book shops had their stocks weeded, and libraries were purged of ideological impurity, although state libraries were allowed special closed holdings of banned books. Lebedev-Poliansky complained of “walking on a razor’s edge” between political and artistic criteria. He knew that Glavlit was hated and quoted a prose writer: “There is a general groan over the whole front of contemporary literature. We cannot be ourselves, our artistic conscience is constantly being violated. . . . If Dostoevsky were to appear among us today . . . he too would have to put all his manuscripts back in the drawer with a ‘prohibited’ stamp from Glavlit.” The great poets— Voloshin, Akhmatova, Mandelstam—abandoned verse. Pasternak had stopped writing lyrics. Sergei Esenin had hanged himself, leaving a farewell poem written in his own blood. Bulgakov’s satirical prose on the Soviet mission to transform nature had fallen foul of the censor: “Fatal Eggs” portrayed imported Marxism as irradiated reptile eggs brought in by mistake as hens’ eggs, whose hatchlings devastated the country instead of feeding it; “The Heart of a Dog” depicted Homo sovieticus as a vicious hybrid between a dog and a human being. Stalin himself took umbrage at much of what he read. Pilniak’s story “Tale of the Moon Extinguished” recounted the death of the civil war commander Mikhail Frunze, implying that his fatal abdominal operation had been ordered by Stalin.20 Author, editor, and journal were severely punished.

Nevertheless, a few literary decisions in 1928 were benevolent. Two of Bulgakov’s plays were authorized for performance, on the grounds that one gave experience to young actors and the other was the sole source of income for a small theater. Stalin’s most liberal authorization was for an edition of all Tolstoi’s work (eventually ninety volumes). Tolstoyans imprisoned and exiled by OGPU were partially amnestied, despite the opposition to Bolshevism that Tolstoi’s religious and philosophical work enjoins. Tolstoi’s disciple Vladimir Chertkov, deported by the Tsar to Great Britain in 1896, had an audience with image in 1920 and with Stalin in 1925. He persuaded image that Tolstoyans, like other nonviolent sectarians, were harmless to the state. Chertkov’s argument to Stalin was ingenious: he warned that Tolstoi’s works would be published abroad if the Soviet authorities did not preempt this. Tolstoyans suffered in the collectivization; their communal working of the land could not coexist with Stalin’s measures but Chertkov, and after his death in 1936 his son, secured for Tolstoi’s work and his followers indulgences that Stalin granted to no other unorthodox believers.21

One group of writers, the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers and the Proletarian Theater, had already appointed themselves the secret police of poetry; they were nonplussed by Stalin’s apparent liberalism. They protested about performances of Bulgakov’s The Days of the Turbins and Flight, both showing the plight of the Whites in the civil war with some sympathy. A commission of the Central Committee, including Krupskaia and Rozalia Zemliachka, demanded instead mass printing of works by specified communist authors.

Stalin made himself the arbiter of literary disputes. Wearing his mask of tolerance, he told proletarian playwrights that concepts of right and left did not apply to “such a nonparty and incomparably broader sphere as is artistic literature, the theater, etc.” Stalin “would have nothing against the staging of Bulgakov’s Flight if he added to his eight ‘dreams’ one or two more showing the inner social springs of the civil war.” The Days of the Turbins was a good play, because it leaves the impression that “if even people like the Turbins are forced to lay down their arms and submit to the will of the people . . . then the Bolsheviks are invincible,” and if Bulgakov’s plays were staged frequently that was because proletarians couldn’t write good plays. “Literature should progress not by bans, but by competition.”22

Talking to Ukrainian writers in February 1929, Stalin applauded literature in local languages and prophesied that when the proletariat conquered the globe French not Russian would be the universal language. Stalin even conceded: “You can’t insist that literature be communist.”

Stalin not only loved theater, he and Menzhinsky learned from it. OGPU developed Stanislavskian theories of acting and the theater in a direction more barbarous than Konstantin Stanislavsky could ever have dreamed of for their show trials, aiming to make their victims act as if they believed in their own guilt. The Bolshoi Theater for opera and ballet, and for drama Stanislavsky’s Moscow Arts Theater, were Stalin’s, and thus the Politburo’s, regular haunts. Few performers from either ended up in the Lubianka, except as informers. Stanislavsky, once the owner of cotton mills, was forgiven his past but was not allowed to forget it. His brother and nephews had been shot in the Crimea, and in the next few years he would lose a dozen nephews and other relatives to the GULAG and the executioner’s bullet. Chekhov’s widow, Olga Knipper, was forgiven her tours abroad during the civil war, and her letters of 1918 cursing the Bolsheviks as power-crazed killers. Her nephew the actor Mikhail Chekhov was allowed by Iagoda to leave for Germany and the United States, and his ex-wife Olga Tschechowa became one of Hitler’s and Goebbels’s favorite actresses. Stalin forbade reprisals against the family and Olga Knipper and at least one of her nephews became NKVD informers. Other theater directors, however left wing, were damned for their failure to bend their experimentalism to Stalin’s conformist tastes. The theater director Vsevolod Meierkhold, however outspokenly pro-Soviet, annoyed Stalin intensely with his modernism, which Stalin called in 1929 “affectation, mannerisms.” He was doomed.

The Russian theater had always lived on state patronage; now the Soviet authorities controlled the repertoire, the funding, and the fate of actors, authors, and directors. Literature was a more private and independent activity. Control required deep penetration by OGPU; writers had to be recruited to detect undercurrents that a simple chekist might miss. Poets acquired OGPU friends: Esenin had Iakov Bliumkin to report on his activities, while Mayakovsky was handled by Iakov Agranov—who gave him the revolver that he was to shoot himself with—and by his mistress’s husband, Osip Brik, on whose door someone once scrawled:

The man who lives here, Osip Brik, is Not just a linguist and a critic. He’s a grass, a police dog who Interrogates his friends for OGPU. 23

Skilled chekisty wrote poor poetry; talented poets were bad secret policemen. One Bohemian “proletarian” poet, Ivan Pribludny, Esenin’s friend, was hauled in for his incompetence and in 1931 repented:

I formally took upon myself the obligation to be an OGPU collaborator some years ago, but I have done virtually no work and haven’t wanted to, because the demands I had to meet as a collaborator interfered with my private life and my literary creativity. When I was summoned to OGPU on May 15, I asked the comrade who summoned me permission to go to the lavatory. When I got permission, I went there and wrote the following on the door: “Lads, ring Natasha [his wife] on South Moscow 17644 and tell her I’m not there.” . . . I confess that I thus broke the conspiratorial status obligatory for me as a secret collaborator of OGPU. . . .24

Certain genres of literature had priority for the Soviet state: writers of history were subjected to special ideological rigor. Mikhail Pokrovsky, an old Bolshevik who had edited Lenin’s work, helped set up a Communist Academy and an Institute of Red Professors; he worked until his death in 1932 to suppress conventional historical research. He recognized only his own doctrines, which saw even the Middle Ages as an era of proletarian struggle, and rejected all national history. Russia’s major historians lost first their right to publish, then their teaching jobs, and finally their liberty.

One institution of Tsarist Russia was not yet destroyed: the Academy of Sciences. Its membership had shrunk through emigration, execution, deportation, and starvation but enough men of international prestige survived for Stalin and OGPU to be circumspect with this last bastion of independent thought. Unlike the state and government, the academy remained in Leningrad until 1934, and not until 1925 did it even change its name from “Russian” to “All-Union.” Until 1934 it elected members from capitalist states including Lord Rutherford from Britain and Albert Einstein from Germany. Stalin’s Politburo tried to pack the academy with its own candidates and bribed academicians with trips abroad but in 1928 ungrateful academicians blackballed three communists. They had to hold a new ballot.

Even Bukharin, an economist of some standing, was blackballed— by the physiologist Ivan Pavlov—on the grounds that “Bukharin’s hands are covered in blood.” Only when Bukharin burst in, uninvited, on Pavlov’s family having dinner, inspected his butterfly collection and proved that he was a knowledgeable lepidopterist, did Pavlov relent: the Politburo had one representative in the academy. Ivan Pavlov, famous for making dogs salivate at the sound of a bell, enjoyed unique immunity: Lenin ordered Zinoviev in 1920 to ensure that Pavlov had whatever he needed to keep his staff and animals alive. By 1928, Pavlov, born in 1849, was so unafraid of death that he could proclaim Jesus of Nazareth, not Lenin, to be the greatest human being, and tell Molotov with impunity that the Soviet government was “shit.” In 1929, on the hundredth anniversary of the birth of the biologist Ivan Sechenov, Pavlov began a speech: “O stern and noble comrade! How you would have suffered if you had remained among us! We live under the domination of a cruel principle: state power is everything, the individual personality is nothing. . . . On this foundation, gentlemen, no cultured state can be built, and no state whatsoever can hold out for long.”

imageHundreds remembered that speech. Pavlov asked his audience to stand and, quivering with fear, they did so. In the 1930s Ivan Pavlov was the only prominent citizen in the Soviet Union apart from Stalin who spoke his mind with no regard for the consequences.25 Academicians quaked whenever Pavlov spoke as they knew that Stalin’s vengeance would be wreaked on them.

OGPU left Pavlov alone, but harassed as “spies” academicians who had “foreign collaborators.” In the academy 15 percent of the tenured academics and 60 percent of the untenured lost their jobs. Then Menzhinsky prepared a show trial of 150 leading scholars and scientists. The academy was alleged to be hiding state secrets in its archives. Arrests began in October 1929: OGPU first took four leading historians, among them Sergei Platonov. Platonov was, like Pavlov, very old. He admitted that he was a monarchist by conviction; in his youth he had taught the Tsar and his brothers.26

The academy case was conducted by hardened chekisty like Agranov and Jekabs Peterss. After auditioning the 150 detainees, they chose sixteen victims, mostly historians, for public trial. Menzhinsky took a pedantic interest, even correcting the German grammar in statements from the historian Evgeni Tarle, who confessed that academicians kept guns and ammunition in the Pushkin House in Leningrad, and titillated the Bolshevik historian Pokrovsky with statements squeezed out of the detained academics (Menzhinsky and Pokrovsky had been friendly as exiles in Paris). OGPU did all it could to help the “Professor with the Pike,” as Pokrovsky was called, to bring the academy under the heel of his Institute of Red Professors.

Academicians who would not incriminate Platonov were put in cells infested with typhus-bearing lice. They were promised leniency for testimony and crippling beatings for silence. Platonov was frail and his death under interrogation would have been politically embarrassing. As it was, international protests at his detention provoked Maxim Gorky to write in Pravda that foreign critics were silent about arrests and trials of communists in their own countries but raised a hue and cry about the fate of monarchists like Platonov, who was then given a room with clean sheets in the remand prison where he was even allowed to have his cat with him. After a year he confessed to running an underground military organization and to receiving large sums from the Polish government.27 Platonov, like Tarle, was spared public trial and given a mild sentence of exile. When Pokrovsky died and Stalin reverted to the old monarchist view of Russian history, these two were still in good health and were rehabilitated.

It took another decade to drag the academy to Moscow, where it would be under the nose of the party, and to interest Stalin more keenly and balefully in the academy’s research into mathematics, genetics, and linguistics. Then the NKVD would terrorize the academy into surrendering its greatest members to the Lubianka and accepting scoundrels like Vyshinsky as members. But for the first half of the 1930s the Academy of Sciences was the last beacon of free thought in the USSR.