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

Part V. IAGODA’S RISE

Chapter 28. The Trophy Writer

One night a werewolf slipped away
From wife and child and went to see
A village teacher in his grave
And asked him, “Please, will you decline me?”
The pedagogue climbed up and out
Onto his coffin of brass and lead
And spoke to the werewolf, who, devout,
Crossed his paws in front of the dead. . . .

Christian Morgenstern

IN 1929 STALIN put the littérateur Menzhinsky in charge of crushing the peasantry, and chose the provincial ignoramus Genrikh Iagoda to bring the literati to heel. The choices follow Stalinist logic: the hangman should have nothing in common with, and no sympathy for, the condemned, although, for all his ignorance, Iagoda had two links to the literary world. His brother-in-law Leopold Averbakh was a critic, and Iagoda himself was virtually a kinsman of Russia’s most prestigious left-wing writer, Maxim Gorky. In 1928 Iagoda’s career was boosted when Stalin used him to bring Maxim Gorky back to the USSR. For six years, ostensibly for his health, Gorky had lived on the island of Capri.13

Gorky had his reasons to return. While he was widely read in the Soviet Union, his reputation in the West was waning. The sagas he now composed about decaying Russian merchant families were dreary; Stalin himself found The Artamonov Business hard going.14 Homesickness and penury bothered Gorky while OGPU and Stalin felt that Gorky on Capri was a magnet for undesirable heretics. Stalin had always found Gorky unreliable; he had crossed swords with him in 1917, calling his protests “geese cackling in intellectual marshes,” but he longed for a sage to validate his actions, a bard to laud his genius. Stalin had silenced the USSR’s wittiest political panegyrists, Kamenev and Bukharin, and needed better flattery than Demian Bedny’s doggerel or the proletarian hacks’ stilted dramas. Gorky had written encomia to Tolstoi and Lenin; he could do the same for Stalin, who now put off other potential hagiographers.15 Stalin calculated that in Gorky’s wake intellectuals from Britain, America, France, and Germany would flock to the USSR.

The conversation of Voroshilov, Kaganovich, and Molotov (Gorky privately called them “camp-following trash”) must have stultified Stalin, who now had no literate penfriend. Demian Bedny, slow to follow changes in Stalin’s taste, had disgraced himself by writing the anti-Russian satire, Get off the Stove! and Stalin had broken off their friendship. Stalin began to discuss in letters to Gorky the plays he had read. Their correspondence reads like exchanges between a publisher’s reader and a copy editor, or the reports of a minister to a president. Stalin wrote, “We’re moving the cart: of course, it squeaks, but we are moving ahead. . . . Transport is in a poor state (too overloaded), but we’ll get it right very soon.” 16

Both Iagoda and Stalin baited Gorky with secret material on “wreckers” for a play: “I’ve gathered some new material,” wrote Stalin, sending transcripts from OGPU’s questioning of the economist Kondratiev and of the Mensheviks. Gorky enthused about the punishment meted out but never wrote the promised play. In return Gorky fed Stalin flattering snippets: Moura Budberg, Gorky’s mistress, had told him that London’s bestselling book was a treatise on the Soviet five-year plan and that Bertrand Russell had declared that only in the USSR could scientists experiment on human beings. Gorky advised Stalin to publish a book on how laws are made in the Soviet Union.

In December 1931 Gorky showed Stalin how much he cared:

There is particular verbal raging from monarchists and their terrorist organizations. All in all, they are stalking you intensively, one can’t help thinking that now efforts will increase. And you, dear comrade, I hear and I have seen, behave rather carelessly, you drive at night to No. 6 Nikitskaia [Gorky’s apartment]. I am completely sure that you have no right to behave like that. Who would replace you if the bastards knock you off? Don’t be angry, I have a right to worry and give advice.

The Politburo subsequently passed a resolution, after a communication from OGPU, that Stalin should cease going about Moscow on foot. With Gorky’s help, Iagoda had secured a major victory: Stalin could no more play Harun-al-Rashid, walking the streets, dropping in unannounced to see writers and commissars. His contacts outside the Kremlin were overseen by OGPU, and he was as much a prisoner of OGPU as its overlord.17

Gorky’s chief asset as a writer was curiosity, his weakness vanity. He was lured back to the USSR with promises that he would be told everything. His jubilee would be celebrated, all the literary initiatives begun under Lenin would be resumed. He would revitalize Russian literature. For the first five years after his return he spent May to September in Russia and the winter in Capri for his lungs. From 1933, when Hitler’s rise made it even less conscionable for a Soviet writer to live in fascist Italy and Stalin feared that Gorky could be infected by Trotskyism, Gorky was kept in golden cages in Moscow and the Crimea. His hometown Nizhni and Chekhov’s Moscow Arts Theater would both take his name but the tribute he most appreciated was Stalin’s establishment of the Gorky Literary Institute, which was to nurture gifted writers.

Without Iagoda, Stalin could not have coaxed Gorky back. Iagoda had recruited Piotr Kriuchkov, Gorky’s secretary, into OGPU. Through Kriuchkov, Iagoda not only learned everything about Gorky’s life; he could also feed Gorky with ideas and books that inclined Gorky to see Soviet Russia as the only bulwark against fascism.

Iagoda made Moura Budberg, previously the mistress of Robert Bruce-Lockhart and of H. G. Wells, indispensable to Gorky. No woman who entered Gorky’s orbit ever left it. His legal wife, Ekaterina Peshkova, who had the thankless task of running the Soviet Red Cross for Political Prisoners, still adored him. So did the actress Maria Andreeva, a long-standing Bolshevik from the Moscow Arts Theater; Iagoda retrieved Maria Andreeva from exile in Berlin to join the harem in Capri. Moura Budberg had been beholden to the Cheka ever since she had been blackmailed by Jekabs Peterss over her marriage to an aristocrat and her affair with the British agent Bruce-Lockhart in 1918. She engineered the return of Gorky, and his archive, to the Soviet Union.

Gorky looked on Iagoda not just as a fellow countryman from Nizhni, he was kith and kin. In the 1890s Gorky had adopted Zinovi, Yakov Sverdlov’s rebellious brother, who was both third cousin and uncle by marriage to Iagoda. Zinovi took Gorky’s surname, Peshkov.18

OGPU kept Gorky’s household on Capri under surveillance, as did Mussolini’s secret police. Both Moura Budberg and Gorky’s son Max Peshkov worked for Iagoda (Max confided to the poet Khodasevich that he was once given a confiscated stamp collection by image as payment for helping the Cheka make arrests). Gorky felt that returning to Moscow would give him peace but on his first homecoming in 1928 his Moscow apartment, which belonged to his wife, was effectively controlled by Iagoda. It seethed even more than Capri with competing women: Ekaterina Peshkova, Maria Andreeva, the nurse Lipa Chertkova (once wardrobe mistress in the Moscow Arts Theater), and Timosha, Max’s wife, who many suspected preferred her father-in-law to her feckless husband. Gorky remarked, “I never had luck with women. There’ve always been a lot, but did any sense come out of it?”

Stalin broke Gorky in gently; the writer was not at first told of the Shakhty death sentences. Iagoda moved him to a dacha that had belonged to the merchant Savva Morozov, who had financed the Moscow Arts Theater and the Bolsheviks before the revolution. Back in Europe Gorky found himself ostracized by Russian émigrés for shaking Stalin’s hand. He tried to make the best of his ambiguous position: from Sorrento he wrote to Iagoda, asking for reprieves for an ornithologist in the Urals, an elderly Ukrainian littérateur, and a Siberian Esperantist. Iagoda proved more responsive than image to Gorky’s appeals. When in May 1929 Gorky returned to Moscow Iagoda had more intimate reasons to stay close: he was infatuated with Gorky’s daughter-in-law Timosha. Despite this, Genrikh and Ida’s only child Garik was born that year.

Iagoda sent Gorky, supervised by an OGPU major from Nizhni, to the special purpose camps in the former monasteries on the Solovetsky islands. Gorky willingly put on his blinkers. He met famous academics dying in the frozen north, but all he and Timosha expressed to Iagoda on their return was their delight at the clean sheets, good food, daily newspapers, and rehabilitation which OGPU officers gave their prisoners. Emboldened by Gorky’s appreciation, Iagoda responded: “Some frontier guards have asked me to send you a collection of their poems for your opinion. This is their own work, there is some pretty good verse. . . . I personally add my voice to theirs. That’s all I ask. But I would so much like to see you. . . . You seem to have forgotten your ‘intimate friend.’ Perhaps you’ll write, eh? Timosha also is upsetting me—she’s quite, quite forgotten me!” 19

Gorky was, he willingly admitted, two-faced and sly; he had always played up to his patrons, whether rich merchants or OGPU chiefs. He was, he confessed to Chekhov, “absurd . . . a locomotive with no rails,” but he drew the line at writing a preface to poetry by frontier guards. They were, he told Iagoda, “graphomaniacs” who would be mocked by the critics. But Gorky would write admiringly about frontier guards. He could not write fully about the Solovetsky camps for the Cheka had purloined his notebooks, but by 1932 he was writing “about the unprecedented, fantastically successful experiment of re-educating socially dangerous people in conditions of free socially useful work.”

Stalin appreciated the gloss that Gorky put on the camps and he wanted Gorky as commissar for literature. The present commissar, Anatoli Lunacharsky, once a decadent poet and a relatively liberal even principled man, was dying. The literary atmosphere had darkened. Iagoda’s brother-in-law Leopold Averbakh was terrorizing literature, attacking in print and in letters to Stalin any non-proletarian, unengaged writing. Averbakh believed himself untouchable: he was Sverdlov’s nephew and Iagoda’s brother-in-law, while his wife, Elena Bonch-Bruevich, was the daughter of an old friend of Lenin’s. Averbakh believed he had the party and OGPU behind him. But his Association of Proletarian Writers stifled creativity and the proletarians wrote no plays Stalin could watch with pleasure or novels which depicted heroes convincingly. Stalin’s chief of cavalry, Budionny, wanted Isaak Babel shot for his portrayal of marauding Cossacks in Red Cavalry, Pilniak infuriated Stalin by implying he was a murderer, and Zoshchenko put caricatures of Stalin in his stories but they entertained Stalin, and he even read Zoshchenko out loud to his daughter. Gorky’s homecoming raised hopes that Averbakh’s grip on literature would loosen.

Through Gorky, Iagoda now had access to artists who could speak to OGPU chiefs. Iagoda loved directing writers’ lives. He never achieved the understanding dialogue that, for instance, Iakov Agranov had with Mayakovsky, but he had the satisfaction of dispatching Mandelstam to the Urals and Nikolai Kliuev to Siberia. Writers who had not yet fallen foul of OGPU were intimidated by Iagoda’s “magpie’s eyes.” The novelist Leonid Leonov was aghast: “Once Gorky and I were at the same table. Iagoda stretches across the table toward me, drunk, flushed with cognac, his eyes popping and literally croaks: ‘Listen, Leonov, answer me, why do you need hegemony in literature? Answer, why do you need it?’ I then saw in his eyes such spite that I knew I would fare ill if he could get me.”

Suborning Gorky was Stalin’s triumph over the imagination. The party now corrupted lesser writers using reassurance, even affection. Small services—material to be used, approaches to be taken—were requested and paid for, and soon the victims accepted with joy whatever was forced on them.

Much blame for the loss of their honor and conscience attaches to Soviet writers, who had even before the revolution aped revolutionary parties by forming mutually warring groups, ostracizing those who would not accept their ideology. Theater directors taught Menzhinsky, Iagoda, and Stalin how to run their show trials. Meierkhold and his Georgian acolyte Sandro Akhmeteli treated actors as the party treated its members. In 1924 Tbilisi’s Rustaveli theater actors signed pledges: “I shall have no brothers, sisters, parents, friends, or kith and kin outside the membership; I submit absolutely, and always will, to the corporation’s decisions, I sacrifice my life and future to the corporation’s will.” It was easy for such bullies and cowards to adjust to Bolshevik dictates.

Soviet writers irretrievably abased themselves in 1932 when they took a cruise on a government mission along the White Sea canal, 140 miles from Lake Onega to the White Sea. The canal had been built on Iagoda’s initiative by OGPU’s political prisoners, kulaks, and convicts. Even the engineers were prisoners. Iagoda prided himself on the speed and cheapness with which he built this canal—under two years, for a fifth of the budget—which showed Stalin what OGPU might do for the economy. The death toll was well above 100,000. Some 300,000 prisoners —underfed, freezing in winter, tormented by midges in summer— had cut through bogs and granite. There was little reinforcing iron for the concrete; human bones and tree branches were used. All for nothing. The canal was too shallow for ships that could withstand the Arctic Ocean; it was ice-free only for half the year and in any case the canal duplicated an all-weather railway to Murmansk and Arkhangelsk. Before it was finished it was crumbling and has since been reconstructed twice.20

Iagoda saw the White Sea canal as a personal triumph. His brother-in-law Leopold Averbakh, with Semion Firin, deputy chief of the GULAG, and Gorky, led boats laden with Soviet intelligentsia. Averbakh, Firin, and Gorky contributed to a book glorifying OGPU’s humanity and expertise, and the re-education of criminals and subversives by labor. Among the writers who volunteered for, or were cajoled into, this act of prostitution were the “Soviet Count” Aleksei Tolstoi and the satirist Mikhail Zoshchenko. Prince Dmitri Sviatopolk-Mirsky, recently repatriated from England, and the innovative Victor Shklovsky were two literary critics on the flotilla of ships, and the graphic Hemingway style of the 600-page panegyric to slave labor betrays the latter’s hand. Imprisoned writers like the futurist Igor Terentiev were presented to the tourists as seekers of redemption by labor. Nobody on board could have been fooled. The statistics in The Stalin White Sea–Baltic Canal are lies: a figure of 100,000 laborers is given—the number at any one time and a third of those actually used. Fewer than 13,000 of the survivors were freed when the canal was finished.

Only one contribution to this volume can be read without revulsion: Mikhail Zoshchenko wrote “History of a Re-forging,” the biography of a con man, Abram Rottenberg, a Jew from Tbilisi. Rottenberg’s cosmopolitan adventures end on the White Sea canal, but unlike other prisoners portrayed Rottenberg is reluctant to redeem himself, and Zoshchenko concedes that he could take up fraud again. Apart from Zoshchenko, who refrained from murderous slogans, every contributor also valiantly called, like Gorky and Stalin, for “the enemy to be finished off.”21

The one foreign correspondent who wrote objectively about forced labor, the German journalist Nikolaus Basseches, got short shrift from Stalin. Kaganovich and Molotov, who had “like idiots put up with this capitalist shopkeepers’ puppy,” were told “to pour filth on the pages of Pravda and Izvestiia over this capitalist scum, and after a short time chase him out of the USSR.”22 Just one major Russian poet, Nikolai Kliuev, beggared and ostracized, living on the charity of friends and foreigners, wrote the truth about the White Sea canal. The lines only survive because he later quoted them under interrogation by the NKVD in Siberia:

That was the White Sea canal of death
Akimushka dug it,
So did Prov from Vetliuga and Auntie Fiokla.
Great Russia got soaked
To the bones with the red shower
And hid its tears from people,
From others’ eyes in alien bogs
[ . . . ]
Russia! Better to be in smoke and soot
Than the blood of canal locks and the lice of brushwood causeways
From Ararat to the Northern seas.

Before 1931, when Stalin still roamed the streets late in the evening, he, Molotov, and Voroshilov would stroll over from the Kremlin, sometimes several times a week, to see Gorky. They stayed, eating, drinking, and talking, until late at night. A motley group of writers came to these gatherings and many were awed by Stalin’s modest bonhomie. Conspiratorially cautious as ever, Stalin always sat facing the door. He fed the gathering tidbits of inner party gossip: “Lenin knew he was dying. Once, when we were alone, he asked me to bring him potassium cyanide. ‘You’re the cruelest man in the party, you can do it,’ he said.” Stalin invited writers to speak their minds.23 “There will be unity only in the cemetery,” he told them, but few appreciated how close they were to that cemetery. Like Mao Tse-tung and his slogan “Let a thousand flowers bloom,” Stalin wanted to mark out the weeds in his literary garden.

A few writers were emboldened by the relaxed atmosphere. One declared that Politburo members should not be portrayed as demigods, that Stalin should be shown with his pockmarks. Another interrupted a toast, declaring that Stalin must be fed up with all this acclaim. Neither survived very long. Korneli Zelinsky noted: “When Stalin talks, he plays with a mother-of-pearl penknife. . . . When he laughs, his eyebrows and mustache move apart and something cunning appears. . . . He has caught everything on the radio station of his brain, which operates on all wavelengths. . . . But be on your guard if he is being charming. He has an enormous range of anesthetics at his disposal.”

While Stalin, Molotov, and Voroshilov enjoyed the company of writers, and did not mind meeting Menzhinsky, Iagoda, and other OGPU agents at Gorky’s, they loathed crossing paths with Bukharin and Kamenev, of whom Gorky was fond. Gorky tried to reconcile them, even forcing Bukharin and Stalin to kiss. Offering his lips for the kiss, Stalin said: “You won’t bite?” “If I bit you,” said Bukharin, “I’d break my teeth; you have iron lips.”24

Gorky persuaded Stalin to give the two opposition leaders a respite before “finishing them off” (dobit, Stalin’s favorite verb). Bukharin became editor of the government newspaper Izvestiia, while Kamenev ran the publishing house Akademiia. Kamenev published memoirs and world classics of a quality and with an objectivity not seen in the Soviet Union before or since. Bukharin made Izvestiia as readable a newspaper as censorship and Stalin would permit. From Stalin’s point of view only on Zinoviev was Gorky sound: Gorky never forgave Zinoviev his lust for intellectuals’ blood. In 1935 Zinoviev was in prison awaiting his first trial, accused of “moral responsibility” for Sergei Kirov’s murder. He was allowed to appeal to Gorky:

. . . to be honest, I have often thought that personally you have never liked me. But a lot of people write to you. So let me too, one of the most unhappy persons in the whole world, turn to you. You are a great artist. You know the human soul. You are a life teacher. . . . I beg you, think hard for a minute what it means for me to be now in a Soviet prison. . . . Of course I realize that the party cannot fail to punish me very severely. But still I fear more than anything ending my days in an asylum for the insane. . . . I end this letter January 28, 1935, in remand prison, and today I’m told I am being taken away. . . . I don’t know where yet. Help, help!25

Gorky did not intercede for Zinoviev, but he did for Kamenev and Bukharin, which disgruntled Stalin. Iagoda was told to isolate Gorky further. Dubious figures were visiting Gorky including Prince Sviatopolk-Mirsky, the literary historian and son of a Tsarist minister who had converted to communism while a lecturer in London. He was denounced to Iagoda as a British agent and only Gorky’s favor delayed his arrest.26 Similarly, the Franco-Russian journalist Victor Serge, arrested for protests against repressions, was released when Gorky and Romain Rolland combined forces.

Gorky’s glorification of Stalin’s terror—“If the enemy doesn’t surrender he is to be annihilated”—was a betrayal but he was able to rescue some. He had Chinese herbs brought by diplomatic courier to treat an illness that was apparently threatening Sholokhov’s life and commended him to Stalin’s protection; Evgeni Zamiatin, unable to publish in the USSR, was allowed to leave for France; the Moscow Arts Theater was ordered to employ Mikhail Bulgakov, and OGPU had to return to Bulgakov the notebooks it had impounded.27 Even Vladimir Zazubrin, the celebrator of Cheka executioners but now in disgrace, was, thanks to Gorky, brought back from Siberia and given a job in publishing (he was shot in 1938). Gorky begged Stalin not to punish the editors who attacked Gorky’s “softness.” He lobbied for publishing nineteenth-century Russian classics even when they repudiated communist ideology.28

Stalin now devised an obligatory ideology for all the representative arts, “socialist realism,” and in 1932 set up the Union of Writers. Gorky agreed to preside over its first congress in 1934 although, despite his brilliant table talk, he floundered on public platforms. To his credit, Gorky loathed those writers, such as Aleksandr Fadeev and Vladimir Stavsky, whose chief talent was political wrangling and who dominated the new union. Gorky’s price for conducting the first congress was that Stalin should let Bukharin take a leading role in the proceedings.

Gorky sent a draft of a frank opening speech for Stalin’s comments. On August 14, Kaganovich, an unlikely critic, reported his misgivings to Stalin, who was relaxing in the Caucasus:

As it is, the lecture won’t do. Above all, its construction: three quarters, if not more, is taken up by general historical philosophical reflections, and those are wrong. His ideal is primitive society. . . . Clearly this position is un-Marxist. . . . Soviet literature is almost unmentioned. . . . In view of the seriousness of our alterations and the danger of the lecture going wrong, we (I, Molotov, and Voroshilov) went to see him and after a fairly long chat he agreed to introduce corrections and changes. His mood seems to be bad. . . . It’s not just that he started talking about difficulties . . . but the taste his objections left.29

Gorky was clearly not completely reliable and the congress had to be carefully orchestrated. In August 1934, Kaganovich and Stalin’s Central Committee satrap for the arts, Andrei Zhdanov, decided which writers should run the union. Of the thirty-three men and one woman nominated for the union presidium, only a handful—Gorky, Aleksei Tolstoi, Mikhail Sholokhov, and the Georgian novelist Mikheil Javakhishvili— had any distinction, the rest were party apparatchiks. Fifty-nine writers of various ethnic affiliations were chosen for the plenum. For Buriat Mongolia, Yakutia, and Karelia, Kaganovich and Zhdanov could not suggest anybody. Overall, there were a few real writers—Boris Pasternak, Ilya Ehrenburg, Samuil Marshak (the children’s writer and translator of Burns), and Paolo Iashvili, the Georgian poet—but the majority were either hacks or thugs. Some, like Demian Bedny or Zazubrin, were both.

The union’s self-government was a sham. Iagoda controlled those writers who were OGPU agents and Andrei Zhdanov oversaw the congress. Zhdanov and others nervously listened to Bukharin’s speech but restrained the Stalinist left from howling it down. Foreign delegates including André Malraux were stopped from circulating freely. As the congress began, OGPU found nine copies of an anonymous leaflet addressed to foreign delegates, apparently composed by a group of Soviet writers:

. . . We Russian writers remind one of prostitutes in a brothel, with just one difference, that they trade their bodies and we trade our souls; just as they have no way out of the brothel, except death by starvation, neither have we. . . . At home you set up various committees to save victims of fascism, you assemble antiwar congresses, you make libraries of books burned by Hitler, all very well. But why do we not see you acting to save victims of our Soviet fascism, run by Stalin? . . . Personally we fear that in a year or two the failed seminary student Iosif Jughashvili (Stalin) will not be satisfied by the title of world-class philosopher and will demand, like Nebuchadnezzar, to be called at the very least the “sacred bull.” Do you understand the game you’re playing? Or are you, just like us, prostituting your feelings, conscience, duty? But then we shall never forgive you for that, never ever. . . .30

The authors of this manifesto were never identified, nor did any foreign delegate speak of it. OGPU informers summarized participants’ private comments for Stalin’s perusal:

Isaak Babel: The congress proceeds as dead as an imperial parade, and nobody abroad believes in it. Our press can inflate its stupid fictions about the delegates’ colossal enthusiasm. But there are foreign correspondents who will shed the right light on this literary requiem. Look at Gorky and Demian Bedny. They hate each other, but they sit at the congress together like turtledoves.

Iagoda and Agranov had unsettling feedback: Malraux had reacted to honors bestowed as “a coarse attempt to bribe me”; writers were signing an appeal for the return of Nikolai Kliuev; a parody of Aleksandr Pushkin’s tribute to Gavriil Derzhavin was circulating: “Our congress was joyful and bright, / And this day was terrible nice— / Old Bukharin noticed us / And, seeing us off to the coffin, blessed us.”

The Politburo dictated the congress’s final resolutions: the writers’ mission was to glorify the crushing of class enemies and the leadership of Stalin, and the union’s “leading organs” were to improve and increase production of “works of art of high artistic standard, imbued with the spirit of socialism.”

Nobody at the congress spoke of the two suicides that had shaken the Russian literary world. Esenin had hanged himself from a heating pipe in December 1926, and Mayakovsky, who had reproached Esenin for “taking the easy way out,” had in spring 1930 shot himself, an act that Pasternak daringly called “Mount Etna surrounded by cowardly hillocks.” Just as Tsar Nicholas I had been blamed for the fatal duels of Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov, so OGPU was implicated in both suicides. Esenin had been led astray by Iakov Bliumkin, and Mayakovsky by Iakov Agranov, who gave him the fatal revolver. Esenin and Mayakovsky had felt themselves rejected. By 1926 peasant poets like Esenin were being condemned as the voice of the kulak. Mayakovsky, in his late play The Bedbug, depicted a future puritanical communist society in which poets are as undesirable as bedbugs.

For letting Bukharin speak freely at the congress, as well as earlier blunders, Stalin sent Iagoda a signal in June 1931 by temporarily demoting him from first to second deputy head of OGPU. Now Iagoda needed Gorky’s advocacy if he was to succeed Menzhinsky as head of OGPU.

Iagoda made strenuous efforts. He manipulated Gorky into praising show trials. It is said that Gorky accused Iagoda of murdering innocents when he heard that forty-eight officials accused of sabotaging food supplies were shot, but archive documents show Gorky approving such reprisals. Gorky did not read exposés in the Western press that proved OGPU’s falsifications. Gorky’s letters to Iagoda, “Dear Friend and Fellow-countryman,” ooze sadism, sycophancy, and, worse, sincerity: “I’d very much like to come to the trial and look at the ugly mugs of these ‘people come down in the world’ . . . at these crushed villains . . . . I have been reading the statements of these sons of bitches about organizing terror and was extremely astounded. If they hadn’t been such vile cowards they might have shot at Stalin. And you [Iagoda], I hear, walk quite carefree down the streets. You walk and drive about. An odd attitude to your life. . . .”

Iagoda, knowing that Stalin would read copies of these letters, wrote pathetically to Gorky:

Like a dog on a chain, I lie by the gates of the republic and chew through the throat of anyone who raises a hand against the peace of the Union. . . . Do you know, Aleksei, what pride stirs one when one knows and believes the party’s strength and how enormous the party’s strength is when it falls like lava on any fortress; add to this the leadership of a million-strong party by such an exceptional leader as Stalin. True, I have something to live for, to struggle for. I am very tired, but my nerves are so tensed that you don’t feel the tiredness. Now, I think, the kulak has been finished off, and the peasant has realized, and thoroughly so, that if he doesn’t sow, if he doesn’t work, he’ll die, and there is nothing more to be hoped for from counterrevolution. . . . I’m almost alone now, Viacheslav [Menzhinsky] is ill....31

The events in Russia during Gorky’s winters on Capri—the roundups of Trotskyists, the deportation of kulaks, the suicide of Nadezhda Allilueva—were conveyed to him by Iagoda as acceptable if unfortunate events in a heroic war. Gorky kept Iagoda’s letters with pride. He, his son, and his daughter-in-law, Timosha, were caught in Iagoda’s web. Gorky became devoted to his captor: “I have got very ‘used’ to you, you have become ‘one of the family,’ and I have learned to value you. I very much love people like you. There aren’t many of them, by the way. Please give a cordial greeting to Menzhinsky. . . .”

Timosha became Iagoda’s mistress. (Max was complaisant.) Stalin was assured that Gorky would settle permanently in the USSR, organize writers into “engineers of the soul,” and create an international chorus to praise the leader. But when Gorky asked Stalin to spare Shostakovich the vicious tirades in Pravda which he had commissioned, he had gone too far. Moreover, he was disparaging the cult of Stalin in his diary, which his secretary Kriuchkov was certainly leaking to Iagoda. Gorky would now pay for his golden cage. On May 11, 1934, his son Max died of pneumonia after lying outside all night on the grass. He had been drinking iorsh—beer and vodka—with Piotr Kriuchkov, Gorky’s secretary. Iagoda was later accused of murdering Max. It is true that Iagoda, in love with Timosha, had an interest in Max’s death, and neither he nor Dr. Leonid Levin, appointed by OGPU to look after Gorky’s family, discouraged his drinking. Iagoda and Stalin tried to comfort the inconsolable father; the latest giant passenger aircraft was named Maxim Gorky. It crashed.

A luxury river cruiser, also named Maxim Gorky, staffed with an OGPU crew, took Gorky down the Volga and away from human contact. He saw nothing of the famine that had depopulated the Volga the previous year. The journey must have been unbearable for Iagoda, who had secured adjacent cabins on the boat with Timosha and had an intercommunicating door knocked through between them. Timosha however was still in shock from her husband’s mysterious death and very likely overcome by revulsion for her lover. Iagoda, grim and silent, left the cruise at the first stop. He remained as infatuated with Timosha as he was hypnotized by Stalin, but from that summer of 1934 he became even more of a cornered rat than before. He sensed that he would be compelled to frame and murder the people to whom he was drawn: the intellectuals of the party and the professionals. They could not be called his friends—Iagoda had no friends—but they provided respite from his dark, hangman’s life and offered him the comforts of wine, beautiful women, poetry, witty conversation. Always a stranger at the feast of life, at least he could be a spectator. As Stalin’s policies grew grimmer and Iagoda was directed to repress those closest to him, and as those closest to him—Gorky’s family—began to sense the degree to which he was their jailer not their protector, Iagoda became more withdrawn, sluggish and melancholy, less and less capable of taking any measures that would avert Stalin’s wrath.

imageGorky died on June 18, 1936. In 1938 Iagoda, together with three doctors—Leonid Levin (who had attended image), Dmitri Pletniov (Russia’s leading cardiologist), and Ignati Kazakov (an unorthodox therapist patronized by Menzhinsky)—would be accused of killing him. Like Chekhov, Gorky had worn out his heart, pumping blood through lungs ravaged by tuberculosis. On June 8 he was semiconscious; given a massive dose of camphor he then had an impassioned discussion with Stalin on his future plans. 32 For nine days Gorky read and wrote. A witness (the testimony is thirdhand) claims that on June 17 Iagoda’s car brought Moura Budberg to the dacha, and that Gorky then died.

The circumstances of Gorky’s death repay study.33 First, Dr. Levin was an NKVD doctor whose diagnoses were often suspiciously at odds with autopsy reports; Stalin had foisted him on Gorky, even sending him at Christmas 1930 to Capri for six weeks. Second, Stalin’s office diary for June 17, 1936, mentions no visitors to his office except for a stenographer. Third, Stalin was now about to try Kamenev and Zinoviev for their lives and Gorky would have protested. Fourth, there were four sudden deaths of writers who had displeased Stalin—Panait Istrati, Henri Barbusse, Gorky, and Eugène Dabit.34 Fifth, Moura Budberg vanished to London after Gorky’s funeral. Budberg, Timosha, and Ekaterina Peshkova refused all their lives to discuss his last days.

At Gorky’s funeral Iagoda stood in the guard of honor, Stalin bent over the coffin and his brother-in-law Stanislav Redens controlled the crowds outside.