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


Chapter 30. From Unity to Uniformity

IN THE EARLY 1930s the party was too preoccupied with purges within its ranks to even think of debating the human cost of collectivization. Better to be accused of genocide than be suspected of loyalty to Bukharin, Kamenev, or Trotsky. From spring 1930 to autumn 1932 the party could see where Stalin’s policies, which they had endorsed, were leading. Many feared the consequences of collectivization and the impossibly ambitious industrial projects, and believed that strikes and uprisings could encourage the USSR’s neighbors to invade. Yet what alternative was there to Stalin? Bukharin, Zinoviev, and Kamenev had by recanting their deviations lost all credibility and had nothing in common but their demand for “democracy” within the party. New men were known only to one region of the country or within one field of industry, the bureaucracy or the party.

Undoubtedly, there was discontent, dismay, and even moral turmoil among party members, especially the middle and older generations who owed little to Stalin. But they failed to act. They had no leaders with any leverage on power; they had no clear idea of how to industrialize the economy without violence against the peasantry. Above all, they had no political principles, no civic beliefs and, consequently, little civic courage. Most were just sick of the bloodshed and feared for their own lives at the hands of the Politburo and OGPU.

Doubters knew that Stalin had to be voted out if policies were to change. They also knew that such a vote, if it failed, would be suicidal, and no more than a quarter of the members of the Central Committee, which Stalin had packed with his cronies, would vote against him. The only other recourse—which had been suggested to, and rejected by, Trotsky a decade earlier—was armed force. Some Red Army commanders like Bliukher deplored Stalin’s policies but others such as Marshal Tukhachevsky had no inhibitions about slaughtering peasants, and without Trotsky there was no political figure the army respected enough to follow in revolt. In any case, senior officers were so closely shadowed by party commissars and OGPU agents that any conspiracy would almost certainly be nipped in the bud. OGPU, citing denunciations from teachers at the military academy, warned Stalin that the army had “rightist” sympathizers at its highest levels—including Tukhachevsky— who might try to arrest Stalin and seize power. On September 10, 1930, Menzhinsky, who thrived on exciting his leader’s suspicions, advised Stalin, then resting in the Caucasus, to get his blow in first:

It is risky to arrest the members of this grouping one by one. There can be two ways out: either immediately arrest the most active participants of the group, or wait for you to arrive, and meantime just use surveillance, so as not to be caught unprepared. I consider it necessary to note that at the moment all rebel groups get ready very quickly and the second solution carries a certain risk.41

Stalin, for once, was skeptical; he consulted nobody except Molotov, and wrote only to Orjonikidze after musing over Menzhinsky’s warning for a fortnight: “Tukhachevsky, it appears, has been in thrall to anti-Soviet elements among the right. . . . Is that possible? Apparently the right are ready to have even a military dictatorship in order to get rid of the Central Committee. . . . This business can’t be dealt with the usual way (immediate arrest, etc.). We have to think it over very carefully. . . .” 42 In the chaos of collectivization Stalin needed the military to back up OGPU and dared not let his suspicions carry him away. Stalin and the military did nothing except grumble and speculate about each other.

image imageBetween 1930 and 1932 there were two serious explorations of how to overthrow Stalin. Both were quickly detected and crushed, and Stalin by all accounts was not much shaken. The first centered around Sergei Syrtsov and Beso Lominadze, neither rightists or leftists. The serious dissident was Syrtsov, an economist and candidate Politburo member, party secretary in Siberia and possessor of impeccable Stalinist credentials: in the civil war he had slaughtered Cossacks, and in 1928 facilitated Stalin’s grain requisitioning expedition to Siberia. Lominadze was a handsome young Georgian and a friend of Sergo Orjonikidze. In 1924 Lominadze had been removed from the Georgian government for nationalism, in other words leniency toward anticommunists. Stalin, lenient in turn, found him work in the International Youth Movement, and in 1930 let him go back to the Caucasus.

Syrtsov had disliked Stalin’s “great turnabout.” From autumn 1930 he protested at OGPU’s proposals to use short-term prisoners as slave construction workers. He criticized the bad quality of industrial output, the waste of resources, the falsification of statistics, the bureaucracy— the latter a keyword for Trotskyist critics of Stalinism. Syrtsov was backed by other economists, particularly in Siberia. Beso Lominadze in the Caucasus, where agriculture was largely small-scale sheepherding and fruit-growing, went further. His “Address from the Transcaucasian Party Committee” called collectivization “pillage” and blamed Stalin personally.

In autumn 1930, while Stalin was away on the Black Sea coast, Lominadze was summoned to Moscow to explain himself. There he and Syrtsov joined forces as “Marxist-Leninists” or, as Stalin was to call them, the “Left-Right Fraction.” They decided to try to remove Stalin at the December plenum of the Central Committee and Central Control Commission.

The Politburo banned Syrtsov from publishing his criticisms of the economy and dismissed his demand that Stalin be recalled from the Caucasus to deal with the economic crisis. Lev Mekhlis, editor of Pravda, heard about Syrtsov and Lominadze’s plan to “remove” (ubrat) Stalin. This word meant to Stalin and many of his circle one thing only: kill. Mekhlis denounced Syrtsov as a dissident. On October 21, 1930, the day after Stalin received the denunciation, Syrtsov was hauled before an interrogating commission chaired by Orjonikidze, which included the butcher of the Crimea, Rozalia Zemliachka. The commission bullied Syrtsov and Lominadze into admitting “antiparty” activity, and by December they had been expelled. Stalin now had a pretext to get rid of any rightists still in office. He replaced Rykov, chairman of the Council of Commissars, with his automaton Molotov. Disarmed so rapidly, Syrtsov and Lominadze realized that their fellow conspirators must have been planted on them by OGPU.

Syrtsov and Lominadze were at first dealt with mildly, perhaps because of Orjonikidze’s affection for the latter. Orjonikidze found Syrtsov work in the Urals. Here he lived until the Great Terror, despite being denounced in 1935 for commenting, “Stalin is paving his road to power on Kirov’s bones.”43

In the Great Terror, Stalin turned against his old ally Orjonikidze principally because he had shielded Lominadze:

Comrade Orjonikidze had a very bad, unpleasant and un-party-like letter from Lominadze. He came to see me and said, “I want to read you Lominadze’s letter.” “What’s it about?” “Something nasty.” “Give it to me, I’ll bring it to the Politburo’s attention, the Central Committee must know what sort of people it has working for it.” “I can’t.” “Why not?” “I gave him my word.” 44

Orjonikidze packed Lominadze off to the Urals too, employing him in industrial Magnitogorsk. But Lominadze was a fellow Georgian, and his disloyalty had insulted Stalin who, it is said, envied Lominadze’s guardsman height. On the evening of May 29, 1934, Stalin summoned Lominadze, with Orjonikidze, for a two-hour dressing-down.45

He made me wait for two hours in the reception room. When I went in . . . he didn’t look up, didn’t raise his head. I lost my temper. How could he treat someone so, degrade someone? I stood on the threshold and thought of turning round straightaway and leaving forever. Too late. He raised his head, made a vague gesture as if to say, “Come on in, why are you standing?” I went up to him and said hello. He didn’t even nod in reply to my greeting. He gave a harsh laugh and said haughtily, “What have you got to say for yourself, know-it-all?” . . . He flung his black pipe at me and swore at me in Georgian. . . . Since then I have been waiting for the ax to fall.

Lominadze, like other Georgians threatened by Stalin, did not wait for the ax to fall. His chauffeur reports: “We were driving onto the Upper Urals high road . . . both in sheepskin jackets, warm and comfortable. Suddenly I heard a sharp bang like a shot. I stopped, turned to Lominadze and said with annoyance, ‘A tire’s burst.’ He said, ‘No, it’s not a burst tire, I’ve put a bullet in my chest. . . .’ ”46 Lominadze was buried in Magnitogorsk; the monument was soon torn down, the grave leveled, and all of his staff arrested.

The second challenge to Stalin came in 1932. Martemian Riutin, who had once worked in a candy store and was now secretary of the Krasnaia Presnia district of Moscow, mounted, from this lowly post, a challenge to Stalin’s dictatorship. Like Syrtsov, Riutin had been a career Stalinist, telling Zinoviev and Kamenev in 1927 that “the party will walk over the opposition’s head and the opposition will be thrown onto history’s rubbish heap.” Like Syrtsov, Riutin was sickened by Stalin’s destruction of the Siberian peasants.

In June 1932 two documents circulated around Moscow, written by Riutin as a member of the “Union of Marxist-Leninists” within the Bolshevik party. The papers became known as the Riutin Platform. One document of 167 pages was called “Stalin and the Crisis of Proletarian Dictatorship.” Riutin was not the sole author; others—identifiable outcasts from both right and left—had left stylistic and ideological traces in his text. A lecture by Riutin called “Crisis in the Party and Proletarian Dictatorship” was worked into a short “Address to the Party.” This manifesto demanded “liquidation of the dictatorship of Stalin and his clique,” new elections to party organs, an immediate party congress and elections to the soviets, a new judiciary, a “decisive” purge of OGPU, and slower industrialization. Stalin had turned party leaders, according to Riutin, into “a band of unprincipled, mendacious, cowardly intriguers. . . . Not even the boldest and most brilliant provocateur could have devised a better way to destroy proletarian dictatorship and to discredit Leninism than Stalin and his clique’s leadership.”

Copies of the Riutin Platform reached academics and party members and were read in the Ukraine, Belorussia, even Poland. Stalin’s wife, Nadezhda, read the manifesto, which circulated in the industrial academy where she was studying. Stalin’s suspicion that she had read the document and said nothing was one of the straws that broke the back of their marriage.

Menzhinsky and Iagoda mishandled the Riutin Platform, which OGPU did not show to Stalin until September 1932. A wave of arrests and a purge of half a million party members ensued. Balitsky and Molchanov of OGPU interrogated Riutin, who quickly recanted. His daughter, who brought him fresh underwear, was convinced from the state of his linen that he was being physically tortured. At Riutin’s premises OGPU “discovered” documentation that incriminated Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Bukharin.47

On October 11, 1932, Menzhinsky, Iagoda, and Balitsky, with an OGPU prosecutor, sentenced Riutin to death. In 1932 death sentences on party members still had to be confirmed by the Politburo. It is believed that only Stalin voted for shooting Riutin; his subordinates Kirov, Kuibyshev, and Orjonikidze voted for ten years’ solitary confinement, while Molotov and Voroshilov abstained. Riutin went to prison.48

The fates of Syrtsov, Lominadze, and Riutin discouraged other overt opposition. Stalin could by the end of 1932 be sure that, whatever the horrors in the countryside, no internal force could shake his rule. He was now cocooned in the Kremlin and his dachas, moving between them in bulletproof cars escorted by heavily armed convoys. He no longer visited intellectuals or incited them to speak their innermost thoughts. He no longer needed to charm or persuade anybody. Intimidation had proved quicker and more reliable.

On November 9, 1932, Stalin’s last remaining tie with normality was severed. His wife, Nadezhda, was found dead—they slept in separate rooms in the Kremlin—in a pool of blood, a small pistol which her brother had given her by her side. The previous evening at a party Stalin became, or acted, drunk and had thrown bread, cigarette ends, and orange peel at her, shouting, “Hey you, drink!” “Don’t ‘hey’ me,” she said, and left.49 Bukharin, Molotov, Marshal Budionny, and Nikita Khrushchiov all had explanations for her suicide: Stalin had another woman; he uttered violent threats to her; she was a typically neurotic Alliluev; she was horrified by what she heard about ordinary citizens’ lives and wanted to punish her husband for his crimes against the people.

The letters that Stalin and Nadezhda exchanged in 1930 and 1931, when Stalin was in the Caucasus without her, show mutual affection, mingled with fearful resentment on her part and wrathful impatience on his. She showed jealousy: “I’ve heard about you from a young attractive woman who said that you looked splendid, she saw you at dinner at Kalinin’s, you were in remarkably good spirits and teased everyone mercilessly who was embarrassed at being there with you.” She interceded for those she felt were unjustly treated. She hinted at hardships: “The public’s mood in the trams and other public places is bearable: they grumble, but good-naturedly. . . . I must say that the mood about food supplies, among students and teachers, is only average, everyone is worn out by the queues. . . . Prices in the shops are very high, that’s why there are a lot of goods. Don’t be angry at such details, but I’d so much want these disparities to vanish from people’s lives....”50

These were tame objections. Nadezhda applauded Stalin’s extreme actions, such as the demolition of the cathedral of Christ the Savior. His replies were curt and sometimes sarcastic—“For some reason recently you have started praising me. What does this mean?”—but his letters to Nadezhda also often ended in baby language—“kiss you wots and wots.” Whatever tipped the balance and made death better than life with Stalin happened in summer 1932 but the letters for that year have disappeared. Had Nadezhda grasped how much he was responsible for the miseries of the countryside? Did she agree with the Riutin Platform?51

Stalin forbade an autopsy, allegedly because, “All the same, it will be said that I killed her.” The death certificate signed by Dr. Vladimir Rozanov, one of Lenin’s doctors, who had treated Stalin for the previous ten years, states, “Committed suicide by a shot to the heart”; Dr. Boris Zbarsky, who had mummified Lenin and prepared Nadezhda’s body for her lying-in-state, told a friend a year before he died that he had masked a wound in her temple.52 Reports of Stalin’s behavior after her death are contradictory. He attended or he stayed away from the funeral; he kissed her body during the lying-in-state or he pushed the coffin angrily away. Over Stalin’s immediate circle her death cast a pall; the notion that he might have murdered his wife or driven her to suicide, as he had provoked his son Iakov to shoot himself, made his allies nearly as fearful as his opponents.

Stalin, a consummate actor, could not hide his bitterness. For him all suicides were betrayals. To the army commander Budionny he complained, “What normal mother would leave her children orphans? I didn’t have time to give them attention, and she has left me bereft. Of course, I was a bad husband; I didn’t have time to take her to the cinema.”53 Not grief but murderous vindictiveness overcame Stalin. Those who had found Nadezhda’s body were soon in camps or condemned cells, as were most of her relatives and friends and, apart from Nikita Khrushchiov, her fellow students.

Kaganovich recalled that he had known Stalin as five or six different persons, and that a new personality began in 1932 and lasted until 1940. 54 Stalin now felt vulnerable to assassination. Riutin had proposed “removing” him, then a year later at Sochi his motorboat came under fire from the shore—either because the frontier guards had not been notified that the boat would leave Soviet waters or because his host, the Georgian chekist Lavrenti Beria, was trying, as OGPU had the previous year, to impress on Stalin that he needed protection from assassins. After Nadezhda’s death, Stalin charged those he singled out for death with plotting his assassination.

imageThe year 1934 seemed to Soviet citizens and foreign observers to mark a change, perhaps for the better. To the Soviet public, the British and French were no longer portrayed as devils, although a worse devil, Hitler, was consolidating his hold on Germany. News, even visitors, from abroad seeped through. The harvest was good: the collective farms, supplied with working machinery and with several million fewer mouths to feed, delivered more food to the cities; OGPU executed a mere 2,000 for counterrevolution, down from 20,000 in 1930 and 10,000 in 1931. A record number, 139,000, of counterrevolutionaries had gone to the GULAG in 1933 and deaths in the camps shot up five times to more than 62,000, but these casualties were invisible to those in the cities. When the writers wound up their congress in September 1934 they assumed that Stalin had dealt with his opponents and had carried off, albeit by the skin of his teeth, his risky economic enterprise. They believed that they could breathe freely.

As for Iagoda, long before Gorky’s death his days were numbered. On October 29, 1932, Menzhinsky visited Stalin’s office for the last time; thereafter, he worked desultorily at his dacha. Stalin’s notes to Menzhinsky show that he, not Iagoda, had Stalin’s confidence:

Comrade Menzhinsky! I ask you to keep secret the content of our conversation about affairs in OGPU (for the time being!). I mean by this the OGPU collegium (including Iagoda), whose members must not know for the time being the content of our conversation. As for the secretaries of the Central Committee, you can talk to them completely freely. Greetings! I. Stalin.55

But Menzhinsky’s days were numbered too. In summer 1933, at a sanatorium in Kislovodsk, he was watching only himself. His notebooks end: “No work. Just lie there for 24 hours a day, with an ice pack or a hot-water bottle on your chest, bath or massage. This is death. You lie all day in a hammock . . . what a pleasure it is to watch life passing! I’ve been forced to live, to take up psychology. . . .” He died on May 10, 1934, at the age of fifty-nine of heart and kidney disease, and his family was looked after. 56 Iagoda was later accused of poisoning Menzhinsky (and others) with mercury vapor, and Menzhinsky’s nephew Mikhail Rozanov declares that to this day he can remember the smell of the lethal wallpaper Iagoda had installed in their apartments.

Iagoda helped organize Menzhinsky’s funeral. Not until July did Stalin, after sounding out other candidates, decide that he had, as yet, no alternative. In August OGPU underwent metamorphosis: Iagoda became the head of the giant NKVD (People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs) ministry of police and security.

Iagoda might have felt promoted had he not sensed the watchful eye of Stalin’s devoted favorite, the boyish chief of the Central Committee’s personnel department, Nikolai Ezhov.