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


Everything might have come right in the course of time. Russian life could have been pulled into order. . . . What bitch woke up Lenin? Who couldn’t bear the child sleeping? There is no precise answer to this question. . . . Anyway, he himself probably didn’t know, although his supply of vengeance never dried up. . . . And spiteful in his failure, he immediately started a revolution for all, so that nobody escaped punishment. And our fathers followed him to Golgothas with banners and songs. . . . In Russia you mustn’t wake anybody.

Naum Korzhavin

I have tried, rather than write a new biography of Stalin or another his-tory of the USSR, to examine Stalin’s path to total power and the means—and the men—which enabled him to hold on to it. The careers and personalities of Stalin’s henchmen occupy the foreground, especially the five who headed the security forces and secret police which we call by a sequence of different names: the Cheka (Extraordinary Commission), GPU and OGPU ([United] State Political Directorate), NKVD (People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs), MVD (Ministry of Internal Affairs), and MGB (Ministry of State Security). After Stalin, the latter became known as the KGB and is today the Russian FSB.

Of these five—Feliks image, Viacheslav Menzhinsky, Genrikh Iagoda, Nikolai Ezhov, and Lavrenti Beria—the last two were appointed by Stalin, while the first three were induced to do his bidding. They were the instruments of a mind more malevolent than theirs. They looked after the means, while Stalin looked after the end. A study of their motivations and actions sheds a strong light on Stalin’s tyranny.

The Nuremberg trials established the principle that obeying orders is no defense against charges of crimes against humanity. There is a moral, not just a legal and tactical, aspect to obeying orders, even if disobedience is fatal. What Stalin’s and Hitler’s henchmen lacked was a social or moral structure firm enough to induce them to disobey. Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners, a much criticized but important book, established (a) that the murder of the Jews was known to most Germans and (b) that involvement was not required on pain of death, at least for most who participated in this genocide. Goldhagen’s thesis needs revision if we apply it to Stalin’s Soviet Union. Abstaining from the witch hunt for enemies, real or imaginary—bourgeois, Trotskyists, Bukharinites, saboteurs, fascists, Zionists—would have classed the dissenter as an enemy. But there were situations and spheres of activity in which a moral choice was offered, particularly for intellectuals, who were, admittedly, the state’s dependents and servants, but who had been brought up to follow professional and ethical codes, and who knew or guessed what was happening. As in Nazi Germany, a few individuals stood their ground against threats, privations, torture, and death. But why so few, and why did Stalin, supported by a group of fanatics, cynics, sadists, and moral cowards, never encounter serious resistance?

Stalin valued in his underlings the ability to choose managers and executives; he himself excelled at personnel management. As well as the heads of the secret police, others in Stalin’s close circle—after 1930, when he no longer compromised with other politicians—were as impenetrably callous as image and his successors. We must delve deeply into the activities of Viacheslav Molotov, Lazar Kaganovich, and Klim Voroshilov, who signed death warrants by the thousand, for without their spellbound submission Stalin could not have done what he did.

Parallel study of Stalin and Hitler often misleads. The differences are as striking as the similarities. The Nazis had a symbiotic relationship with German business and the German army, and their murderous aggression was directed at others, whether Slav or Jew, homosexual or communist. An ordinary German citizen wearing large blinkers could, making allowances for the horrors of total war, live much as he or she had under other regimes. Stalin’s aggression turned on his own kind: loath to make war on his neighbors, he would murder his own generals, his professional elite, even his own family—people on whom his economic and political lifeblood depended. However revolting, there is consistency, even logic, in Adolf Hitler’s gamble: genocide and blitzkrieg united a people and gave it goals. Stalin’s policies dragged others deep into his paranoia. An amoral intellect like Albert Speer’s could throw in his lot with Hitler; mere calculation was not enough for throwing in your lot with Stalin—it needed extreme fear, sadism, moral idiocy, or delusion as well.

Every country has a heritage which its heirs cannot easily renounce, but Russia’s fate in the twentieth century cannot be dismissed as that of a barbarous, semifeudal country erupting into primeval violence. Russia in the 1900s and 1910s lagged behind the rest of Europe economically; its political institutions had grave flaws. But the culture that gave the world novelists like Fiodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoi also had historians, newspaper magnates, philosophers, lawyers, doctors, and politicians the equal of any in the world. It had a small, highly motivated middle and professional class, as well as a gentry and merchant class that had not lost its social coherence. Nineteenth-century Russia was more brutal, corrupt, and ignorant than England or France, but not by many orders of magnitude.

What was done to innocent victims in the USSR is not unique to totalitarian regimes; the difference is that it was done at home, to those of the same national group. The British committed atrocities on the other side of the world: they founded concentration camps in the Transvaal, the Andaman Islands, and Kenya, and mined African tin with forced labor. King Leopold II of Belgium killed and maimed as large a proportion of the Congolese as Stalin did of the Russians. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and when the fabric of a complex society is torn to shreds by world war, famine, and emigration, absolute power falls into the hands of whoever grabs it.

Historians must learn from zoology: nothing is more violent than a large group of chimpanzees or baboons when short of food or territory under the leadership of an alpha male. Life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” to quote Thomas Hobbes, when a society loses the complex play of forces—judiciary, army, executive, public opinion, religion, culture—that keep each other in check, and both anarchy and tyranny at bay. Russia and Germany were unlucky in that evil geniuses— Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and Hitler—seized power when world war and pariah status in the postwar world had left their countries shattered. And even in a society protected by a balance of authorities, enough people can be found in a small town to staff Auschwitz, as the American psychologist Stanley Milgram proved. In the 1960s Milgram had no trouble inducing two thirds of volunteers from the public to obey men in white overalls and administer what they were told were lethal electric shocks to actors pretending to be inadequate pupils in a game of “teacher and pupil.”

In Germany, “Holocaust deniers” have no credibility outside a lunatic fringe. The last articulate writer to deny Hitler’s Holocaust, David Irving, does however serve one useful purpose: he forces historians to marshal their facts again and tell the story more cogently than before, in order to silence him. But people still deny by assertion or implication, and not only in Russia, Stalin’s holocaust.

The Nuremberg trials, however many criminals escaped judgment, began a process of rehabilitation for Germany. In the USSR, neither the shooting of a dozen of Beria’s men, nor Nikita Khrushchiov’s twentieth Communist Party congress speech of 1956 brought the Soviet population face-to-face with the realities of the past. The guilty were, by and large, not brought to account nor even removed from power. Despite all the revelations in ten years of perestroika, Stalinism remains a deep-seated infection in Russia’s body politic, liable to flare up at any crisis. Vladimir Putin’s Russia has rejoined the world community but it does not so much deny as set aside Stalin’s holocaust, by celebrating Stalin instead as the architect of victory and the KGB as Russia’s samurai. The mayor of Moscow has proposed reerecting the statue of image opposite the Lubianka. In 2002, without comment abroad or at home, the Russian post office issued a set of stamps, “The 80th Anniversary of Soviet Counterintelligence”: the stamps show Artur Artuzov né Frautschi, one of the most dreaded OGPU leaders in the early 1920s; Sergei Puzitsky, who organized the killing of half a million Cossacks in 1931; Vladimir Styrne, who slaughtered thousands of Uzbeks in the 1920s; Vsevolod Balitsky, who purged the Ukraine and enslaved the Soviet peasantry. Imagine the uproar if Germany issued stamps commemorating Reinhard Heydrich, Heinrich Himmler, and Adolf Eichmann. Nobody in Germany smokes “Auschwitz” cigarettes but Belomorkanal cigarettes, commemorating a camp where 100,000 were exterminated, are still sold in Russia. The city of Dzerzhinsk, appropriately the most polluted township in the world, still commemorates Feliks image. (Admittedly, there is a sprinkling of rues Robespierres in France—another case of pride in the atrocities of the past.) How can Stalin and his hangmen be exorcised if we fail to take heed when George W. Bush and Tony Blair drink beer with Putin and the Russian army carries on Beria’s genocidal work in Chechnya?

A new focus is one reason for writing this book; a second is the flood of material. Like the Nazis, the Stalinists left a trail of paper behind their most shameful crimes. In 1989 the Soviet archives, themselves under the control of the KGB, opened their doors to researchers, foreign and Soviet. In the early 1990s both the Presidential Archive and even the KGB’s offered access. For most researchers, the State Archive of Social-Political History (formerly the Communist Party Archives, then the Russian Center for the Preservation and Study of Documents of Modern History) and the State Archive of the Russian Federation have been the richest resources. Recently the Presidential Archive has declassified less and less, and restricted access, while the new FSB opens its archives only to the families of the repressed or to its former employees.

I have relied on my own research in these archives and others (the Georgian Central State Archive, the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art) and a few private holdings, notably the surviving Nestor Lakoba Archive (now acquired by the Hoover Institute). There is enough material for seven maids with seven mops for seven thousand years, and much remains unexplored, particularly since archival catalogues give only the vaguest indication of what anything may hold.

Fortunately, several dozen dedicated and ill-rewarded Russian historians have published in the last decade some 200 important monographs and many hundreds of articles, and these I have drawn on, in some cases heavily. The most important are compilations of formerly inaccessible documents—unedited records of Central Committee meetings and Politburo discussions, telegrams, telephone calls, and letters from and to Stalin (particularly to his inner circle), NKVD indictments, interrogations, and sentences, biographical records of hundreds of NKVD men, correspondence of intellectuals, economists, and scientists, diaries, OGPU and NKVD reports of public and private opinion, and so on.

In using articles and monographs, one must bear in mind the bias and background of the writer, and Russian and Western historians fall into several categories. The rarest and most valuable group gives a presentation as objective as possible of the material, and suggests rather than imposes an interpretation of the relative weight to be attached to, or the reasons behind, events. These include, above all, Oleg Khlevniuk and A. I. Kokurin; Aleksandr Ostrovsky, the author of a pioneering study of the early Stalin, Kto stoial za spinoi Stalina (Who Backed Stalin?); K. A. Zalessky, who compiled a biographical encyclopedia, Imperia Stalina: biograficheskiièntsiklopedicheskii slovar (Stalin’sEmpire); the biographers of Ezhov, Marc Janson, and Nikita Petrov; the latter, with Skorkin, co-author of the biographical reference work Kto rukovodil NKVD 1934–1941 spravochnik (Who Ran the NKVD 1934–1941); and Michael Parrish, who followed up Robert Conquest with his The Lesser Terror.

A valuable group arranges original material to make a good story: Leonid Mlechin, Kirill Stoliarov, Arkadi Vaksberg, Vitali Shentalinsky, Boris Sokolov, the late Dmitri Volkogonov.

Another useful group comprises those who were personally involved, either as victims or relatives of the victims, or oppressors or their children. They have information and sometimes access denied to others; they have axes, some good, to grind. Former KGB operatives have access to otherwise closed archives, but a lifetime devoted to disinformation imposes caution on the reader.

To be used with great reserve are historians with an ideological position. Some of the most prolific and cogent, such as the late Vadim Rogovin, believe that Stalin has to be understood as a betrayer of Leninism-Trotskyism. Others, such as Valeri Shambarov, believe the West to bear responsibility for destroying Russia in 1917, 1941, and 1991.

Western historians naturally lag behind but have written a number of peerless works. Forty years later, Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror remains a classic. Though his sources were a tiny fraction of today’s in quantity, Conquest got it right. Catherine Merridale’s chronicle of death and mourning, Night of Stones, and Simon Sebag-Montefiore’s Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar show that non-Russian writers can provide insights as deep as any native historian or sociologist.

The only useless works are those that justify Stalin’s ways. The majority (both in titles and print runs) of works in Russian bookshops today belong to this category. Some authors, like Iuri Mukhin, even assert that the Katyn forest massacres were carried out by the Nazis.

Documents can lie, and rumors can tell the truth. A number of issues, such as Stalin’s part in the deaths of Mikhail Frunze, Sergei Kirov, and Sergo Orjonikidze, the degree of initiative shown by henchmen such as Ezhov, and the motivation for Beria’s sea change in March 1953, need a juror’s intuition as much as a judge’s trained logic to resolve. I have tried to indicate degrees of certainty in a legalistic way. First comes “beyond reasonable doubt,” in other words, sufficient to secure conviction in a criminal court. An example is Stalin and Viktor Abakumov’s murder of Solomon Mikhoels. Second comes the “balance of probabilities” sufficient to decide a civil case (for instance, the poisoning of Nestor Lakoba by Beria). Third are cases in which there is sufficient evidence to begin a prosecution (Stalin’s plans to deport the Jews en masse) but not to reach a conclusion. Fourth, as in the murder of Kirov, the evidence suffices to begin an investigation but not to prosecute. Fifth is se non è vero, è ben trovato, in which, with or without regret, our suspicions have to be discarded (for example, Molotov’s assertion that a real military coup was planned by Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky).

The bibliography, as well as remarks in the text and notes, shows not just sources, but the degree of my reliance on, and trust in, them. Sources have been referenced to original language sources, printed or archival. In some cases, where the source is readily identifiable, I have not always given detailed references: for instance, a letter from Stalin to Lazar Kaganovich or Molotov on a specific date will be found quickly in editions of Stalin’s correspondence with these associates.

Russian names are presented in a slightly simplified readable version of the standard Anglo-American system; Polish spellings are used for Poles, and Georgian names are transliterated directly from Georgian. Thus we have image, not Dzerzhinsky, Jughashvili, not Dzhugashvili. All translations are my own, unless otherwise indicated.