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


Chapter 23. Operations Abroad

OGPU, UNDER MENZHINSKY AND STALIN, spread its wings abroad as an organization parallel to the Soviet diplomatic corps. After entrapping Boris Savinkov, OGPU set up more fictitious centers of resistance but, once bitten twice shy, émigrés no longer fell for them. Agent Opperput was sent, or perhaps fled, to Finland and persuaded the Russian General Warriors’ Union that he had changed sides again. They backed Opperput’s botched attempt to blow up a GPU hostel in Moscow but Opperput’s group was finally gunned down near Smolensk. The only retaliations the union mounted were the assassinations of a Soviet diplomat in Warsaw and a chekist in Belarus, and the bombings of a Leningrad Communist Party club and the Lubianka reception room.

The more the émigrés proved that they were too weak and disunited to be any threat to the Soviet regime, the more OGPU nurtured Stalin’s obsessions. His suspicions fed by the first defectors from his inner circle, Stalin decided that no citizen who fled the Soviet Union should be left unpunished; no activists among the White army in exile should be left alive. On New Year’s Day 1928 Stalin’s personal secretary Boris Bazhanov slipped across the Iranian border, evading his GPU pursuers. He wrote a sensational memoir of his time in Stalin’s office, but lived. Shortly afterward Georgi Agabekov, OGPU resident in Turkey, also defected and wrote a book about the Cheka; it took nine years for Stalin’s killers to reach him.

Stalin was hindered by his diplomats, especially by Chicherin, who reminded him how badly he needed capitalist financial credits and technology, from taking violent action against all defectors and ill-wishers abroad. Although in 1927 Britain broke off relations because of Soviet support for the General Strike, Weimar Germany and the Soviet Union enjoyed throughout the 1920s a close but covert military relationship. There was also an understanding between the Abwehr and OGPU. In the early 1920s, Atatürk’s Turkey and the Soviet Union had together fought off dismemberment by the British and French, though this friendship turned sour when Atatürk suppressed Turkish communists. For seven years, the Soviet secret services and military had intervened in China, in the strife between the Kuomintang, communists, and warlords. OGPU had also kidnapped the Cossack leader Boris Annenkov and a White general.28 OGPU’s success in China collapsed when the Soviet resident Mikhail Borodin, with Stalin’s approval, backed a communist coup, against diplomatic and military advice. Chiang Kai-shek slaughtered the Shanghai communists and—to cries of “I told you so” from Trotsky—Soviet influence in China evaporated. Only in Poland did OGPU mount successful attacks. In 1923 Józef Unszlicht took pleasure in blowing up the Warsaw citadel where he had been a prisoner; the explosion killed over a hundred and nearly obliterated Warsaw’s Jewish quarter.

Russian émigrés and defectors were concentrated in France, which also had a large communist movement and became OGPU’s main base. In February 1927 the French Sûreté arrested over one hundred Soviet agents, but the French government stopped short of a full purge lest it harm trade with the USSR. In 1928 and 1929 two cautious émigré leaders in France, General Piotr Vrangel and Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaievich, died; the Russian General Warriors’ Union was now led by General Aleksandr Kutiopov, whose slogan was, “We cannot wait for the death of Bolshevism, we must annihilate it.” In January 1930 Kutiopov was kidnapped by OGPU agents and delivered in a wooden box to a Soviet cargo boat waiting offshore. He died from the chloroform that the kidnappers used.

OGPU corrupted many in the Russian diaspora: General Nikolai Skoblin, fallen on hard times, was induced by his wife, the singer Nadezhda Plevitskaia, a woman of no political convictions or scruples, to help OGPU kidnap other Tsarist generals; the businessman Sergei Tretiakov was offered concessions in Russia if he handed over to OGPU refugees and defectors who sought his help. Other émigrés were exploited: the Tsar’s ambassador to London Nikolai Sablin sent to another former Tsarist ambassador, Mikhail Giers, better information on British foreign policy than any Soviet agent could obtain; copies went to Moscow. OGPU usually managed to smooth over the diplomatic rows provoked by trails of corpses across France and Switzerland. Their expertise in political murders had no peer among international secret services.

Menzhinsky was busy with fodder for show trials; his deputy Iagoda was repressing the kulaks and turning overflowing concentration camps into a pool of slave labor. Meer Trilisser ran foreign operations in 1930. Trilisser had organized terror in the civil war in Siberia and despised Iagoda as an “office rat.” Their quarreling, and Stalin’s dislike of the bespectacled, giggling Jewish chekist, led to Trilisser leaving OGPU.

While Trotsky was in Alma-Ata, OGPU summarized for Stalin hundreds of letters and telegrams that linked him to a network of unrepentant supporters. Menzhinsky then stopped Trotsky’s correspondence, arrested his courier, and forbade Trotsky even to shoot pheasants around the city. Trotsky was cut off from his younger daughter, Nina, who, harassed by the police and refused medical help, died of tuberculosis in June 1928. Stalin wanted Trotsky out of the country but Politburo members balked at setting such a precedent for the treatment of a former leader. Stalin spoke mildly: “I propose to send him abroad. If he comes to his senses, the way back won’t be barred.”

Only Turkey agreed to accept such a notorious deportee. On December 16, 1928, OGPU called on Trotsky and told him that they were raising “the question of a change of address for you.” A month later Trotsky was transported across Russia, avoiding railway stations where demonstrations might be held. Trotsky protested by calling his towel Iagoda and his socks Menzhinsky. He, his wife, and elder son were delivered to Istanbul where, after an unhappy stay in the Soviet consulate, he was allotted a magnificent brick villa in which Sultan Abdul Hamid’s chief of security had once lived, on the island of Büyükada in the Sea of Marmara.

Menzhinsky’s and Iagoda’s mistake was to let Trotsky take most of his archive. That archive, despite raids by Stalin’s agents, gave ammunition to Trotsky for a ten-year propaganda barrage. During his four years on Büyükada, Trotsky was a magnet not just for OGPU’s agents but for dissident socialists, Soviet and European. Iakov Bliumkin, forgiven for murdering the German ambassador in 1918 and now OGPU’s most flamboyant agent, was operating, as Sultan-Zadeh, in Istanbul, trading in Hebrew incunabula (he spoke fluent Hebrew, Turkish, and Persian). In 1923 Bliumkin had worked in Trotsky’s secretariat, editing articles on the civil war to reflect the glory of Trotsky’s command of the Red Army. Bliumkin remained, despite the danger, so drawn to Trotsky that he not only visited him, but took back to Moscow a letter from Trotsky instructing his supporters how to act.

Bliumkin thus became a hare to his own hounds. His mistress was set up to ensnare him, and a former Trotskyist whom he told about the letter denounced him to Stalin. Bliumkin shaved off his beard, hijacked a car, but was caught and interrogated—“with prejudice,” as Stalin instructed. The sentence was dictated by Stalin to Menzhinsky. Iagoda co-opted his hated rival Trilisser, Bliumkin’s protector, onto the OGPU troika that condemned Bliumkin. Menzhinsky and Iagoda outvoted him and imposed the first death sentence carried out for Trotskyism. In autumn 1929 Bliumkin had thus made history again as the first senior OGPU man to be killed by Stalin. The rest of OGPU drew its conclusions.

Otherwise, deporting Trotsky was a success. His supporters were demoralized and Trotskyists in the USSR could now only carp at the “empirical” (i.e., brutally inefficient) way in which Stalin’s henchmen were carrying out the policies they had advocated. Some Trotskyists were tired of provincial exile and, like Kamenev and Zinoviev a year earlier, wanted to worm their way back into power and the metropolis. If Stalin stopped using Article 58 of the criminal code (anti-Soviet crimes from agitation to treason) against them, they would reunite with the party. Four of Trotsky’s supporters announced a “rupture, in ideas and organization, from Trotskyism”: Ivan Smirnov, who had opposed Stalin since 1923; Ivar Smilga, a libertarian Latvian; Evgeni Preobrazhensky, who with Trotsky had opposed the Brest-Litovsk treaty and who had overseen the killing of the Tsar and his family; the party’s wit and cynic Karl Radek.29

Stalin did not deign to speak personally to penitent Trotskyists. Emelian Iaroslavsky, secretary to the party’s Central Control Commission, Stalin’s panegyrist and nicknamed for his militant atheism “the Soviet priest,” had them sign a public recantation. Not all Trotskyists gave in. The Bulgarian communist Khristian Rakovsky, who had been Soviet ambassador to Britain and France and felt that, despite being exiled to Saratov, he was shielded by his prestige in the Comintern, demanded democratic discussion within the party. Some 500 “oppositionists” in ninety-five labor colonies and prisons supported Rakovsky’s demand, but by shooting Iakov Bliumkin, the messenger, Stalin and Iagoda had made contact with Trotsky a capital offense.

In 1929 Stalin’s fiftieth birthday was celebrated with sycophantic posters and eulogies. Stalin stopped mediating between left and right and veering from one to the other. He named 1929 the year of the “great turnabout” (perelom—the word also means fracture). In April the first five-year plan of industrialization began, incorporating the projects that Stalin had denounced, when Trotsky put them forward, as absurd: “As if a peasant who’d saved a few kopecks for a new plow were to go and buy himself a gramophone.” Economists knew what was demanded of them: they proposed doubling in five years the output of coal, steel, electricity, and gold. Stalin took the wildly optimistic figures and doubled them again, campaigning to achieve the five-year plan in four.

New ways were needed to approach these targets. Foreign investment, given Stalin’s hostility to foreigners as saboteurs, played a minor part, although Henry Ford greedily offered assembly lines for tractors and trucks. Capital reserves were too small. In the world depression, Russia’s oil and timber fetched less than ever. Grain had to be taken from the peasants even more ruthlessly. Russia had vast reserves of coal, gold, and rare minerals in its frozen far north, but even the one and a half million unemployed in the cities could not be lured there. Despite the losses of the First World War and the civil war, Russia had labor in plenty—but it had to be forced.