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


. . . if you magnified an ordinary flea several thousand times you’d get the most fearful animal on earth which nobody would be strong enough to control . . . But history’s monstrous grimaces produce such magnifications in the real world, too. Stalin is a flea which Bolshevik propaganda and the hypnosis of fear have magnified to unbelievable proportions.

Gorky’s diary, according to witness1

Chapter 26. Toward Sole Dictatorship

The Czar can send any of his officials to Siberia, but he cannot rule without them, or against their will.

John Stuart Mill

FORCED COLLECTIVIZATION confirmed Stalin’s tyranny. Not just public opinion, but the party, the Central Committee, and now the Politburo could be set aside. From 1930 onward, all power in the USSR flowed from Stalin’s Kremlin office, ten minutes’ walk from his chief executive agency, Menzhinsky and Iagoda’s OGPU. Stalin’s office, together with those of his closest circle in the Kremlin, was the nerve center from noon to about two in the morning, and spent annually nearly a million rubles on secretaries and OGPU couriers, encrypted telegrams communicating Stalin’s decisions, and generous rations of food, tea, and cigarettes.2

Stalin entrenched himself in an office that worked better after dark. A spider at the center of a web, he was alert to any disturbance and could neutralize any threat. In the Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarkom) and in the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspectorate, Stalin had only his cronies appointed. Kalinin, head of state, the last remaining leader appointed in Lenin’s time, blackmailed for his promiscuity in private, his liberalism in politics, and a dossier that proved he had been an informant for the Tsar’s gendarmerie, was enslaved to Stalin. Once Stalin ousted the last of the right, Rykov—“He was getting under our feet,” Stalin wrote to Gorky—he made Molotov chairman of Sovnarkom, effectively prime minister. Key commissariats were in Stalinist hands: Orjonikidze controlled the super-ministry for the economy, while Voroshilov held, to the army’s contempt, the Commissariat for War.3

All power in the Soviet Communist Party’s four organs—Politburo, Secretariat, Orgburo, Central Control Commission—was in Stalin’s hands. After Bukharin’s removal, only vestiges of the right remained in the Politburo, which was controlled by men who never disagreed with Stalin—Molotov, Voroshilov, Kalinin—backed up by equally loyal candidate members like Andreev, Kaganovich, and Mikoyan. As general secretary, Stalin controlled the party’s agendas and membership, and Stalin, Molotov, and Kaganovich—the Secretariat—formed a triumvirate that brooked no contradiction. The party’s Orgburo was dominated by the same triumvirate. Stalin sat everywhere but on the Central Control Commission, which purged party membership, but since Orjonikidze was the chairman and Stalin’s sycophant Iaroslavsky was a secretary, this too was Stalin’s instrument.

Stalin’s cronies were chosen on the same principles that a lion tamer chooses his lions: “the lion that is the most amenable . . . is the omega animal,” as Yann Martel’s hero remarks in The Life of Pi. Generally, Stalin reciprocated the loyalty of his omega animals; they remained in post even if they lost wives, brothers, and friends to the GULAG and the executioner. Ever since 1912 Stalin had sensed what others missed in Molotov, the uncommunicative pen pusher. Others knew Molotov as “stone arse” for his desk-bound outlook.Molotov lacked human warmth outside his immediate family and his passion came to the fore only when he signed death warrants. Even his own underlings he protected only if he thought them irreplaceable and defensible. His initials VM also stood for vysshaia mera (highest measure), the death sentence; on lists of the condemned Molotov would append not just “VM” but “Bastards” or “They deserve it.” Molotov remained an unapologetic believer until his death in 1986, forgiving Stalin even the arrest of his beloved wife, Polina.5

Lazar Kaganovich likewise surrendered his family to Stalin: his brother shot himself on learning of his impending arrest. He took over from Stalin the organizational and distributive section of the party, so that acolytes took key posts and the untrusted were sent to the ends of the earth. As Stalin’s double—general secretary—in the Ukraine Kaganovich was so crass that he had to be recalled to Moscow. He was insensitive to others’ suffering (his father’s trade had been driving cattle to slaughter) and was vicious when it was safe to be so—he beat his crippled secretary, Misha Guberman. Kaganovich was a single-minded factotum who could govern while Stalin rested, and whose bullying forced the pace of any enterprise, such as building Moscow’s underground. Kaganovich genuinely adored Stalin. Unlike Molotov, Kaganovich was embarrassed by his inability to spell or to punctuate, and unlike Molotov, who used a dry workmanlike tone, Kaganovich became more servile every year. Responding to instructions in 1932, he wrote, “Comrade Stalin, you have put the question from the party point of view so broadly and clearly that there can be no serious vacillations. And anyway you have not only the official political, but also the comradely moral right to dispose of someone whom you have formed as a politician, i.e. me, your pupil.”

Of these Stalinists, only Sergo Orjonikidze had eventually to go. A fellow Georgian, Orjonikidze argued with Stalin and physically wrestled with him. His energy and self-confidence and his feudal loyalty to his protégés would lead to a head-on collision with Stalin, but for seven years, with brutality and ingenuity, he forced workers to turn some of the fantasies of the five-year plans into reality.

Two centers of power alone still evaded Stalin’s control: the Red Army and OGPU. Voroshilov coped as best he could with generals more distinguished than he: the Red Army was too vital for protecting the state against imaginary foreign enemies or real peasant rebels, and the alliances with German and Chinese generals that Tukhachevsky, Iakir, and Vasili Bliukher used to modernize and train the army were beyond the competence of Stalin’s acolytes to supervise. Only in 1937 was Stalin ready to crush the military. OGPU, like the Red Army, was run by men whom Stalin had not appointed, even if they worked closely with him. Menzhinsky, however ill, went to Stalin’s office many times between 1928 and 1931, especially when show trials were being prepared. These meetings were not minuted but the correspondence they generated suggests they resembled a Hollywood scriptwriters’ session, in which director and scriptwriter would agree on storylines and interpretations. These performers were more gladiators than actors. Pasternak, in a poem of 1932, saw Moscow like Nero’s Rome: “which, / Instead of rubbish and twaddle, / Demands from the actor not a reading / But full perdition in earnest. / When a line is dictated by feeling, / It sends a slave onto the stage, / And art ends there / And soil and fate breathe.”

Stalin usually saw Menzhinsky and Iagoda separately in his office as their functions were distinct. Menzhinsky dealt with words and fictions: counterintelligence, show trials, maneuvers against the left and the right in the party. Iagoda dealt with numbers and physical violence: organization, repressions, gathering incriminating evidence, exploiting convicts, mayhem, and murder. Some days when Iagoda visited, Stalin saw nobody else. On other occasions, Iagoda brought to Stalin his grimmest associates. Stanisław Messing, Gleb Bokii, and Efim Evdokimov, who had personally tortured, executed, and raped, sat with Stalin to discuss operations. The only OGPU officials who disgusted Stalin were those who handled foreign intelligence. Meer Trilisser was rarely admitted, and Artuzov was not invited until 1933, when Hitler’s advent to power forced Stalin to talk personally to OGPU’s foreign department.

Despite hours closeted together, Stalin kept Iagoda at a distance. Iagoda was related by blood, marriage, and friendship to circles hostile to Stalin, both left and right. By 1930 Stalin had for Iagoda’s post his own candidates. So far they merely monitored OGPU; very soon they would oversee and then veto and eventually direct it. At no point, however, did Stalin foresee a diminishing role for OGPU; when one enemy was crushed, he sought a new one.

Stalin looked on hostile elements as a homeopath views a drug: the more diluted the dose, the more powerful the effect. Stalin constantly asserted that the nearer to victory and homogeneity a socialist society was, the more desperate the battle with the remnants of capitalism and the bourgeoisie. For this reason he closely watched OGPU. In August 1931, when OGPU declared that it “remained the unsheathed sword of the working class and has accurately and skillfully smashed the enemy,” Stalin put the last phrase in the present tense: “is striking at the enemy.”

Stalin gathered information—the chief source of his power—not just from Menzhinsky and Iagoda but through his own channels. Through his secretariat he double-checked information from the party, the commissariats, and OGPU. His secretaries Ivan Tovstukha and Aleksandr Poskriobyshev were the only recourse for citizens to whom nobody else listened. Tovstukha, a discreet, cunning sifter of rumors, had been Stalin’s trusted aide since the leader had been just commissar for ethnic minorities. Poskriobyshev channeled the information that could have inundated Stalin into a manageable flow. Unlike Tovstukha, Poskriobyshev without demur organized and covered up murders. Stalin could not have ruled as he did without the particular unscrupulousness of Molotov and Poskriobyshev.

Bodyguards, assigned to Stalin by the operative department of OGPU, were another source of information. Karl Pauker, a hairdresser and makeup artist in the Lwów operetta when the city was in Austria-Hungary, deserted to the Russians in the First World War and headed Stalin’s guard for thirteen years. An uproarious clown at Stalin’s parties, Pauker told Stalin the OGPU gossip that Menzhinsky or Iagoda thought unfit to pass on.

Stalin’s final information channel was the press. In 1930 Stalin replaced Bukharin as editor of Pravda with an Odessa Jew, Lev Mekhlis. Mekhlis had been Stalin’s chief assistant in the party secretariat and, despite his Zionist background, was as valuable as Poskriobyshev, operating over a range of posts staggering for a former office boy and schoolteacher. Mekhlis made Pravda Stalin’s mouthpiece, turgid but compulsory reading. Like Stalin’s secretariat, Pravda was a magnet for citizens’ complaints and, like OGPU, was snowed under by denunciations. Mekhlis’s summaries of letters received but not printed were even more use to Stalin than those that Iagoda supplied.

By 1931 OGPU’s independence was weaker. Menzhinsky’s diseased back, heart, and kidneys forced him to delegate his work. In his last two years, mental distress after the death of his beloved sister Liudmila disabled him. Menzhinsky had no scruples; he had even before the revolution called the peasantry “cattle,” and his Nietzschean adoration of the strong kept him loyal to Stalin, but he liked neatness in the tragedies he engineered. A Jacobean fifth act, strewn with corpses, was not his style. The ground that Menzhinsky had prepared for Stalin—staging show trials, creating the strongest foreign spying organization in history, using forced labor, getting OGPU troops to do what the Red Army might not, and, furthest from the original remit of the Cheka, repressing dissent within the party—all this would be cultivated by Iagoda, who lacked Menzhinsky’s authority and was easier to command.

The scale and duration of Menzhinsky’s work belies Trotsky’s casual dismissal of him as an intellectual dilettante caught up with professional thugs. More intelligent than image, more educated than any other head of the Cheka, polite and sensitive, he was Stalin’s enabler for the crucial period between the death of Lenin and the murder of Kirov, when Stalin was still working toward total control.