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

Part VI. MURDERING THE OLD GUARD

Chapter 32. Removing Zinoviev and Kamenev

The works [of Machiavelli] have thus played a prominent role in the great work of revealing the true nature of power in a class society, a work which has been taken to its end only today, in the works of Marx and Engels, Lenin and Stalin.

Lev Kamenev, Introduction to Volume I of the 
Works of Machiavelli

ZINOVIEV AND KAMENEV were in 1934 contrite hacks, hoping to rise again when Stalin’s anger and suspicion had been allayed. Zinoviev began writing on Marx and Engels. Stalin kept a vengeful eye open and on August 5, 1934, condemned Zinoviev’s commentary on Engels in The Bolshevik: “We can’t leave The Bolshevik in the hands of morons which Comrade Zinoviev can always make dunces of. Those guilty must be found and removed from the editorial office. Best of all to remove Comrade Zinoviev.”7

Stalin treated Kamenev more subtly. Their early acquaintance was founded on Kamenev’s gift to Stalin of Machiavelli’s The Prince; the last inch in the rope that Stalin allowed Kamenev was a foreword to the first volume of a new edition of Machiavelli. Kamenev’s essay shows belated insight into what he and Stalin had inherited from Cesare Borgia, Lorenzo de’ Medici, and Niccolò Machiavelli:

Machiavelli made of his treatise a strikingly expressive and wide-ranging catalogue of rules, which a ruler of his time must be guided by in order to win power, keep it and victoriously resist all attempts against him. This is far from being the sociology of power, but this set of recipes gives us splendidly the zoologicalfeatures of the struggle for power. . . . The immorality, the criminality, the cruelty of Machiavelli’s book about The Prince is entirely contained by the fact that he decided . . . to speak out about things as they are.8

When Kamenev and Zinoviev were charged with Kirov’s murder, the new edition of Machiavelli was stopped, and the volume with Kamenev’s foreword was pulped.

Weeks passed before Zinoviev and Kamenev were charged. First, Stalin and Iagoda replaced the disgraced Leningrad NKVD men with their Moscow chiefs. Iakov Agranov, who had fabricated conspiracies ever since 1921, conducted the main interrogations assisted by an articulate prosecutor, Lev Sheinin, who made a good living writing up his investigations in the style of Sherlock Holmes stories. Agranov and Sheinin, a sledgehammer and a crowbar, broke everyone who had unluckily befriended, or merely met, Leonid Nikolaev. Soon a worse ogre than Agranov appeared. Nikolai Ezhov, although officially a Central Committee not an NKVD man, came to interrogate some of the accused.

Stalin personally wrote out the indictment of Nikolaev and his alleged associates. Stalin’s text delighted Vyshinsky, who had only to add the finishing touches. The indictment stated that the accused were wreaking vengeance on Kirov for crushing the Zinovievites. The decree of December 1 was made retroactive. The trial started at 2:40 p.m. on December 28 and sentence was pronounced at 6:40 the next morning. On December 25 Vasili Ulrikh, by now a notorious hanging judge, had visited Stalin to find out what sentence to pass. Nevertheless, Ulrikh telephoned Stalin twice during the trial, so perturbed was even he by Nikolaev’s insistence that he had acted alone. Ulrikh’s fellow judges and his common-law wife both recall that he wanted to refer the case for further investigation, but that Stalin was adamant: “No further investigation, finish the trial . . . they must all have the same sentence—shooting.” This snuffed out the last spark of legality in Ulrikh. He never demurred again.

All fourteen were shot that same morning. Agranov and Vyshinsky stood by the cells as the victims went to the death cellar. Nikolaev’s executioner reminisced: “I picked Nikolaev up by his trousers. I was crying. I was so sorry for Kirov.” The last to be shot was the second arrested, Ivan Kotolynov. Agranov and Vyshinsky asked him, “You’ll be shot now, so tell the truth, who organized Kirov’s murder, and how?” A guard testified twenty-two years later that Kotolynov replied, “The whole of this trial is nonsense. People have been shot. I’m going to be shot now. But none of us, except Nikolaev, is guilty of anything.”

These executions were only the beginning. In March, Nikolaev’s wife, sister-in-law, and brother-in-law were shot. Leningrad party officials were told to list former Zinoviev supporters. They replied that it would be easier to list those who had not supported Zinoviev.9 Throughout December 1934 and January 1935, the Leningrad party was cleared of those who had worked under Zinoviev: 663 were exiled to Siberia, 325 to other cities in European Russia. Almost every Bolshevik who had belonged to a fraction, even before Lenin’s death, was expelled and hundreds of “democratic centralists” and trade unionists were sent to the backwoods, effectively holding pens for the condemned. After Leningrad’s NKVD and party came the former aristocrats, civil servants, merchants, and bourgeois who were still at large: several trainloads left Leningrad in early 1935.

Stalin closed in slowly on his quarry; Kamenev was even included in the guard of honor at Kirov’s funeral. He and Zinoviev avoided each other. On their reinstatement in the party in 1933, when each was received by Stalin in his office for the first time in four years and the last time ever, they had decided never to say or do anything that OGPU could use against them. Kamenev had, thanks to Gorky, found refuge in literary work. Zinoviev, however, scorned journalism: only political power interested him.

At the seventeenth party congress in February 1934 both right and left oppositions had prostrated themselves. Bukharin proclaimed Stalin “a mighty herald not just of economic but of technical and scientific progress on the planet . . . a glorious field marshal of proletarian forces” and qualified his earlier statements as “Parthian arrows bordering on the criminal.” Kamenev made an act of contrition: “We aimed our most powerful sting, all the weapons we then had, at the man who hit us harder, who more penetratingly than anyone pointed out the criminal road we had taken, at Comrade Stalin.” Zinoviev excelled them both: “Stalin’s report was . . . a chef-d’oeuvre which joined the treasury of world communism the moment it was pronounced.”

As Zinoviev’s apartment was being searched by OGPU on December 16, 1934, he penned a letter to Stalin: “In no way, in no way, in no way am I guilty before the party, before the Central Committee or before you personally. . . . I beseech you to believe my honest word. I am shaken to the depth of my soul.”10 A week later, the NKVD was still ferreting for evidence against Zinoviev and Kamenev. The two were rearrested in mid-January 1935, when a former supporter broke down under questioning. The subsequent first trial of the “left opposition” was a travesty, even by Soviet standards of the 1930s. Kamenev was told as the trial opened that if he repeated his confessions his life would be spared. Ulrikh gave Zinoviev ten years in prison, and Kamenev five. Later Iagoda applied tougher interrogation techniques, and Zinoviev and Kamenev faced capital charges. Meanwhile, seventy-seven alleged members of “the Zinoviev Leningrad opposition group” went to prison or into exile, and another 12,000 members of the “exploiting classes” were deported from Leningrad.

Before finishing off the left opposition, Stalin took a broom to his own stables. Iagoda’s men combed the Kremlin, arresting cleaners, librarians, secretaries, and guards for plotting to murder Stalin, their pretext that relatives of Kamenev worked in the Kremlin. There was one surprising victim of this operation: one of Stalin’s most trusted friends, a Georgian he had known in Baku, Abel Enukidze.11 Expelled from the party for “depravity,” he found himself a niche running the spas around Kislovodsk. Stalin then demoted Enukidze to running road transport in Kharkov, where he was arrested two years later. Enukidze was the only rightist victim of 1935, and was presumably victimized for personal reasons. Stalin first eliminated the remnants of the left, after adopting their policies of forced collectivization and industrialization, because those on the left were close to Trotsky, and despite Trotsky’s impotence in exile, Stalin feared them more.

Stalin had other reasons to strike again at enemies he had knocked down eight years before. In February 1935, during the Kremlin purge, Iagoda arrested Mikhail Prezent, the secretary of the journal Soviet Construction. Prezent was small fry except that he was Abel Enukidze’s friend. Prezent was not shot; deprived of insulin, he died in prison in three months. His diary was a bombshell. Iagoda passed it on to Stalin. 12 Prezent knew Gorky, Demian Bedny, and many Trotskyists, whose gossip he recorded from their fall in 1928 to their partial rehabilitation in the early 1930s. Stalin annotated the diary and, where it exasperated him, tore pages out before returning it to Iagoda. Trotsky was described as the last intelligent man in Soviet politics, someone to whom “today’s barking pack of dogs used to hand his galoshes and brush the dust off his suit.” Prezent recorded sarcasms at Stalin’s expense, some from favorites like Demian Bedny and the journalist Mikhail Koltsov making fun of Stalin’s uncouth habits such as opening uncut pages in books with his greasy thumb. Prezent’s diary showed that the semi-rehabilitated left felt that they still mattered. Their jokes did not amuse Stalin. One he underlined: “Trotsky decided to commit suicide, so sent Stalin a letter challenging him to socialist competition.”

If Kirov’s death was tragedy, Prezent’s diary was the farce preceding the massacre, but Iagoda seemed increasingly unlikely to be the one to conduct it. His lapses of vigilance were disqualifying him.13 Soft sentences on the Leningrad NKVD and on Zinoviev and Kamenev looked like inertia. Iagoda stuck out like a sore thumb. Younger men brought in to replace the ousted old Bolsheviks were not inhibited by the unwritten rules that had settled party disagreements bloodlessly. They had been children in the civil war; often they had lost or left their parents. Stalin was their father and Stalinism the only ideology they knew. They saw nothing sacred about Bukharin or Kamenev and nothing absurd in the idea that Lenin’s cohorts might be spies and saboteurs.

Stalin had a new framework for repression. As well as the law of 1932 which had put stealing a handful of food on the level of treason and accelerated the procedure for trying terrorists, a wider concept of treason, “betraying the motherland,” now applied to citizens who left the country or failed to return: their relatives, cohabitants, and dependents were punished by five years’ exile. “Special sessions” (oso ) had first been introduced by Tsar Alexander III to exile revolutionaries; under Stalin an oso could execute its victim. Each oso consisted of an NKVD man, a prosecutor, and a party official. Hundreds of thousands of prisoners a year could be processed as quickly as cattle through a slaughterhouse.

The lawyers mutely assented. Krylenko agreed with Stalin that there was an emergency, that the fewer class enemies there were left, the harder they would resist. Only the chief prosecutor, Ivan Akulov, whom Stalin had in 1931 thought tough enough to replace Iagoda, demurred. Akulov ran the first trial of Kamenev and Zinoviev but would not condemn them for Kirov’s murder. In mid-1935 he was transferred to less bloodthirsty work.14

Ulrikh and the other hanging judges never questioned the sentences prescribed. Only to embarrass Iagoda did the Politburo periodically display token leniency. In September 1934 a committee was set up to “free innocent persons who have suffered . . . to purge OGPU of those who use ‘specific techniques’ [torture] and to punish them, whoever they are.” A few defense lawyers had previously taken on cases where the NKVD was prosecuting; one was Nikolai Borisovich Polynov, editor of The Lawyer ( Iurist) before the revolution. Before 1933 he occasionally secured an acquittal, even when the verdict had been dictated by OGPU, but now defense lawyers were appointed by the prosecution.

Only one traditional legal skill was upheld by Andrei Vyshinsky. Koni and Plevako, two eminent Russian lawyers of the nineteenth century, had loved the sound of their own rhetoric and published their speeches. But Koni and Plevako had been defense lawyers whereas Vyshinsky’s genius for invective was placed exclusively at the prosecution’s service. Vyshinsky and Krylenko fought to dominate the legal system and in 1935 attacked each other in print. Vyshinsky triumphed, passing to Stalin Krylenko’s fatal remark that legal decisions need not heed Stalin’s speeches. Krylenko was no saint but he did publish in SovietJustice a feature called “Black Tables,” exposing miscarriages of justice or failures to observe the policies of the Commissariat for Justice. Another column called “Red Tables” lauded judicially or politically correct actions. Just one of Vyshinsky and Krylenko’s colleagues—Faina Niurina—took justice seriously. She lobbied for the independence of the investigator from the prosecution—a tradition of the Tsarist legal system. Her naive energy and “token woman” status took her some way until, in 1937, she fell foul of Vyshinsky and was shot a year later. Of six judges in the Court of Appeal, five were killed and one sent to the camps. Soviet justice was virtually extinct.