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


Chapter 27. Bringing Up a Guard Dog

AS MENZHINSKY’S HEALTH deteriorated at the end of the 1920s, Stalin had to deal more frequently with his deputy Genrikh Iagoda. Stalin’s tone to Iagoda was far cooler, while Iagoda’s responses and reports were guarded, fearful, and dull. Stalin had reasons for disliking Iagoda. He had been a protégé of the first Soviet head of state, Iakov Sverdlov, with whom Stalin had quarreled as early as 1913; Iagoda had maintained friendly relations with such enemies as Bukharin and, worse, had been named by Bukharin as one man in OGPU on whom the opposition could rely, should Stalin be overthrown. However, Iagoda not only knew where all the corpses were buried; he was a hardworking, unscrupulous, and compliant henchman. It would take Stalin five years to be sure that he had a replacement; someone who would be loyal not to OGPU but to him, who would be ruthless and energetic, and who would willingly face down the hostility of professional chekisty to an outsider. This man would be Nikolai Ezhov.

In the meantime, Iagoda had neither image’s fanaticism nor Menzhinsky’s erudition. He was evasive and self-serving—a “guard dog on a chain,” he called himself. He had no creative talent, even if in later life he liked to recite poetry with pathos. Iagoda’s private letters are strained and inexpressive. He was an awkward provincial in the metropolis, both envious and enamored of those more suave than he. But he understood Stalin well enough to fear the future. His last years gave his sulky personality a tragic aura; one’s revulsion is tinged by pity.

Genrikh Iagoda came from a Polish Jewish family.He was born in 1891 in northern Russia, in Rybinsk where his family had just moved, nobody knows from where. In 1892, the Iagodas settled in Nizhni Novgorod, a city officially closed to Jews. Gershon, Genrikh’s father, was a cousin of Movsha, the father of Iakov Sverdlov. Gershon Iagoda was a printer, and ran, with Movsha Sverdlov, a shop making seals and stamps to authenticate fake documents for revolutionaries. Genrikh had two brothers and six sisters. The family was impoverished, but Genrikh completed six years of secondary school, probably paid for by his future father-in-law the merchant Leonid Averbakh, two hundred miles east in the city of Simbirsk. Iagoda’s spelling and general knowledge suggest he was a poor pupil.7

Leading Bolsheviks such as Dr. Nikolai Semashko, Lenin’s future commissar for health, frequented the Sverdlov–Iagoda printshop. Nizhni was the hometown of the then-notorious radical writer Maxim Gorky. In 1904 the printshop was raided and a visitor with manifestos and thirty kilos of type seized, but the Sverdlovs and Iagodas were left in peace, a fact which fed rumors that Genrikh may have been, at thirteen, a police spy.

Iagoda, like Lenin, was traumatized by the death of his elder brother: in 1905 Mikhail Iagoda, a bystander, was hacked to death by Cossacks at Nizhni’s barricades. (In 1916 Iagoda’s other brother, Lev, an army recruit, was shot for insubordination.) Like image and Menzhinsky, Iagoda as a youth depended emotionally on his sisters; one gleans the impression that Genrikh was an unloved son, even more so after the deaths of his brothers, and that the only affection he received, or at least reciprocated, came from his five sisters. Certainly, his subsequent eager allegiance with leading Bolsheviks and chekisty shows the ingratiating clinging sycophancy of a boy chronically starved of parental love. Iagoda’s elder sister, Esfir, worked in a shop in St. Petersburg. Another older sister, Roza, was at nineteen an assistant pharmacist in Moscow and an anarchist. Under Roza’s wing Genrikh worked as an apprentice pharmacist for six months—hence his reputed expertise in poisons—and joined anarchist circles. Nizhni’s anarchists were led by a police informer, Chembarisov. The young Iagoda would never cause serious trouble and was benignly watched by the gendarmerie and Okhranka both in Nizhni and in Moscow.

Iagoda in his callow adolescence was recalled as “thin, middling height, hunched shoulders, with long black hair . . . Unsociable, introverted, sullen.” To another he seemed “a wolf cub at bay.” (His adult demeanor, with an unsmiling Velásquez face and a toothbrush mustache, was that of a cornered rat.) Police spies code-named him “Little Owl” or “Lonely.” The police description of 1910, when Genrikh visited his sister in Moscow, conjures up a very un-Bolshevik Iagoda: “Wearing white shirt with long white tie, greyish jacket, black trousers, large grey tie pin . . . long hair.” Iagoda, as a pharmacist, was supposed to procure explosives for bombs to rob a bank in Nizhni, but he was so inert that the police did not bother to arrest him until May 16, 1912. They found nothing incriminating beyond false papers and did not even link Iagoda with the notorious Iakov Sverdlov. Iagoda was sent to Simbirsk for two years under police supervision.

In 1913 the Romanovs celebrated their tercentenary and Genrikh was amnestied. He moved to Petersburg, where Nikolai Podvoisky, a newspaper editor who became the first Bolshevik minister for the armed forces, impressed by his connections to the Sverdlovs and by his eagerness to please, found him work in the health insurance office of the Putilov steelworks. Podvoisky was a fruitful contact: he was the brother-in-law of two future Cheka chiefs, Kedrov and Artuzov. Iagoda secured even better connections by marrying in 1914 Ida Averbakh, Iakov Sverdlov’s niece and the daughter of his possible childhood benefactor. Ida was intelligent, but too unprepossessing to reject such a lowly suitor as Iagoda. For Genrikh, however, she was a catch; her ambitious brother Leopold Averbakh would dominate Soviet literary politics.

In 1915 Iagoda was conscripted. He rose to lance corporal, was wounded, and discharged. When revolution broke out, Iagoda joined the Bolsheviks, backdating his membership to 1907. Just before his death in 1919, Iakov Sverdlov wrote to image recommending Iagoda for the Cheka rank and file. image valued reliability above education or intellect and quickly promoted Iagoda. Sverdlov had also found Iagoda work in the Supreme Military Inspectorate. In disputes between Trotsky and Stalin over military policy, Sverdlov’s military inspectorate took Stalin’s side. Iagoda was soon editing with Stalin a soldier’s edition of Pravda. He was now indissolubly linked to Stalin and to the Cheka.

Like Stalin, Iagoda traveled all over Russia, inspecting the military from the safety of the rear. Iagoda also had a post in the Commissariat for Foreign Trade, where he befriended a con man, Aleksandr Lurié. Lurié and Iagoda both had sticky fingers and Lurié interested Iagoda in everything foreign, from fine wines and dildos to literature and spies. Iagoda rescued Lurié from prisons in Russia and Germany, and Lurié helped Iagoda profit from lucrative concessions, notably the diamond trade. The Cheka and Foreign Trade Commissariat were linked since one confiscated the valuables which the other sold abroad for hard currency. What marked out Iagoda from image and Menzhinsky was that he was corrupt and acquisitive. This did not disqualify him in Stalin’s eyes. Quite the contrary: a Iagoda vulnerable to blackmail was more malleable. Without intellectual distinction or convictions, Iagoda fitted the mold of Stalin’s acolytes. He intuited the wishes of his masters, he questioned nothing, and he worked tirelessly day and night.

Iagoda also came to Lenin’s attention as he knew a lot about medicine and was expert at finding sanatoria where Bolshevik leaders could get their overtaxed hearts and minds treated. Iagoda’s links with doctors, some of whom he intimidated into committing murder, would make him indispensable to Stalin.

As the civil war ended, Iagoda rose to the top of the Cheka. On June 6, 1921, image wrote to Unszlicht: “I suggest that Comrade Iagoda should be appointed deputy to Comrade Menzhinsky, who because of his health needs to have a limit on his working hours in the Cheka.” Soon Iagoda was on warm terms with both image and Menzhinsky, whom he treated with perhaps genuine affection: “Dear Viacheslav Rudolfovich, I am sending a cab driver with a fur coat [confiscated from a detainee]. I think you may need it. On the whole, it’s quiet in the republic. . . . I’m not writing to you, and I shan’t do so, about cases and new appointments, I’m told it has a bad effect on the health. . . . G. Iagoda.” 8

When Stalin became general secretary, Iagoda grasped that the Georgian would succeed Lenin. He began reporting to Stalin directly, bypassing the GPU’s channels and playing deftly on Stalin’s suspicions.9 Iagoda also curried favor with Stalin’s cronies such as Voroshilov.

When the Cheka faced peacetime contraction, its salaries paid late, its uniforms and rations withheld, Iagoda lobbied for money. He had an accountant certify that the GPU’s financial position was “catastrophic” and scared the government with the prospect of “mass desertion” from its ranks, “incidents of demoralization, bribe-taking and other sins.” Such energy made Iagoda liked by both image and the lower ranks. He was good at fund-raising; he arrested persons who had wealthy relatives in neighboring states such as Latvia, where Russian exiles had little legal protection, and extorted ransoms.10 Stalin was also impressed by Iagoda’s manipulation of displaced persons: White Cossack refugees in Bulgaria and Turkey fell for Iagoda’s reassurances of amnesty if they went back to their ravaged farms. Helped by the Bulgarian secret police, Iagoda filtered out anticommunists and suspected spies from the returning Cossacks before resettling them and persuaded the League of Nations to bear the costs. OGPU obtained experience that would be used more ruthlessly when many more Cossacks were repatriated after the Second World War.

Iagoda did, however, blunder. He let the head of the Tsarist police, Alexei Lopukhin, leave for France; Lopukhin understandably failed to return. In the 1920s and 1930s a number of defections infuriated Stalin, even if the defectors were of no importance. Worse, Iagoda took visible steps to insure himself lest Stalin lose power. Iagoda naturally gravitated to the right opposition of the party, mainly because Bukharin, Rykov, and others on the right were better company. Unlike the puritanical left, they patronized writers, musicians, and artists; they spoke about Europe (which Iagoda knew only from their stories), they drank good wine and mixed with attractive women. Iagoda loved courtship from the literati, who asked him how to behave if they fell into his clutches. He told Babel, “Deny everything, whatever charges we may bring. Say ‘No,’ only ‘No,’ deny everything, and we are powerless.” But Iagoda feared retribution for his proclivities. Ivan Gronsky, editor of Izvestiia, noticed, “Iagoda was terribly afraid of the Central Committee.”11

By 1929, with Menzhinsky’s connivance, Iagoda had all sectors of OGPU staffed with his own protégés: Frinovsky in the special department, which hunted down deviant party and government members; Iakov Agranov in the secret department, created in 1923 to control intellectuals; and Karl Pauker in the operative department, which guarded Stalin. As Menzhinsky lay dying, OGPU feared that either Kaganovich or Mikoyan, both Stalin’s creatures, would be put in charge of them. Iagoda, Frinovsky, Agranov, and Pauker did their utmost to block outsiders from chairing OGPU.

Disaster struck Iagoda when Bukharin sought out Kamenev to propose an anti-Stalin coalition. Bukharin’s total words were: “Iagoda and Trilisser are with us.” OGPU knew Stalin had his own informants so they had to get in first with an explanation. On February 6, 1929, Menzhinsky, Iagoda, and Trilisser reported to Stalin Kamenev’s “nonsensical slander either of Comrade Bukharin or of us, and whether or not Comrade Bukharin said anything of the sort, we deem it essential to refute this slander categorically in front of the party.” Henceforth, Iagoda avoided Bukharin, but Stalin’s trust, once lost, was irretrievable.

From 1929, Iagoda felt more and more vulnerable. In response, he aimed to be indispensable. He and Agranov infiltrated the intelligentsia so thoroughly that by 1932 the party was able to take complete control of all the creative arts. Iagoda and Frinovsky devised ambitious enterprises for the GULAG that made it vital to Stalin’s industrialization. From this frantic activity, Iagoda sought Baudelairean relief in luxe, calme et volupté, falling helplessly in love with Gorky’s daughter-in-law.

The inventory of Iagoda’s possessions, compiled by two lieutenants, two captains, and a brigadier of the NKVD who arrested him, says much about Iagoda and Ida’s lifestyle:

Soviet money 22,997 rubles 59 kopecks, include savings book for 6,180.59

Various wines, 1,229 bottles, most foreign and of 1897, 1900 and 1902 vintages

A collection of pornographic photographs—3,904 items

Pornographic films—11

Cigarettes, various foreign, Egyptian and Turkish—11,075

Foreign tobacco—9 boxes

Men’s coats, most foreign—21

Fur coats and squirrel fur jackets—9

Ladies’ coats, various foreign—9

Foreign shirts, Jäger—23

Foreign underpants, Jäger—26

[ . . . ]

Gramophones, foreign—2

Radiogram, foreign—3

Gramophone records, foreign—399

[ . . . ]

Silk ladies’ shifts, mostly foreign—68

Knitted cardigans, mostly foreign—31

Ladies’ panties, silk, foreign—70

Cosmetic boxes in leather suitcases—6

Foreign children’s toys—101 sets

[ . . . ]

Fishing equipment, foreign—73 items

Field binoculars—7

[ . . . ]

Various revolvers—19

Sporting guns and small-arm rifles—12

Infantry rifles—2

[ . . . ]


[ . . . ]

Pipes and cigarette holders (ivory, amber, etc.), most pornographic—165

[ . . . ]

A rubber artificial phallus

[ . . . ]

Antique crockery—1,008 items

[ . . . ]

Various foreign objects (ovens, refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, lamps)—71

[ . . . ]

Foreign sanitary and hygienic objects (medicines, contraceptive sheaths)—115


[ . . . ]

Counterrevolutionary Trotskyist, fascist literature—542

Foreign suitcases and trunks—2412

image and Menzhinsky had fatal flaws and arrogance, but their probity was never doubted, and they received solemn state funerals. Compared to them Iagoda was a petty figure; his arrogance and his cruelty reflected an inner insecurity, which was to be his undoing. His ashes would be thrown in a nameless pit, not placed in a mausoleum.