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


Chapter 34. Women and Children

THE FATE OF ZINOVIEV and Kamenev and the mystery around Kirov’s murder were enough to convince anyone in the Central Committee of the party, let alone the Politburo, of the lethal consequences of dissidence. However, one group, barely represented in the top echelons, could still risk speaking out: women. Under the Tsars women had been prominent in opposing tyranny—with guns and bombs as well as words—and the state, with some remnant of chivalry, had hesitated to come down on them with the same force that it applied to male revolutionaries. In the USSR the voice of female protest was far weaker, but it could still be heard until the mid-1930s.

Stalin removed women from power as assiduously as he dismissed Jews. Women Trotskyists shared exile with male Trotskyists, and the wives of Stalin’s real or imaginary political opponents were subjected to measures only a degree or two milder than were their husbands, unless they had renounced and divorced them. Nevertheless, 95 percent of those sentenced to the camps or to death for counterrevolutionary activity were men.

Three dowagers exerted vestigial influence. The most important was Nadezhda Krupskaia, Lenin’s widow. In the mid-1930s she remained a deputy commissar for education and sat on party commissions. Stalin had loathed her ever since December 1922, when he had abused her for taking dictation from Lenin against doctors’ orders. She had begged Kamenev and Zinoviev to “protect me from coarse interference in my private life, from unworthy cursing and threats. . . .” Since then Krupskaia had been overridden by Stalin on every question including the mummification of Lenin and the cult of his name. “If you want to respect Lenin’s name, then build nurseries, kindergartens, houses, schools, and so on,” she had said.

Krupskaia had first gravitated to Zinoviev and Kamenev, the most Leninist in education and outlook of the leadership. When Zinoviev and Kamenev were ousted, Krupskaia, like Lenin’s sister Maria, moved right, to Bukharin. When collectivization began in 1929 Krupskaia took Bukharin’s side, claiming that Lenin had intended cooperatives, not collective farms, to supersede the peasant smallholder. Krupskaia, the daughter of an army lieutenant and a governess, was a narrow-minded bigot compared to whom, on questions of culture and education, Stalin was a liberal, but she could not tolerate the repression of Lenin’s colleagues. She protested at Stalin’s falsification of party history; he lambasted her for idolizing Trotsky. Stalin saw to it that foreign visitors were kept away from her and even threatened to declare the compliant old Bolshevik Elena Stasova Lenin’s real widow if Krupskaia did not cave in. “In what way actually is Comrade Krupskaia different from any other responsible comrade?” Stalin asked, calling Krupskaia’s speech at the fourteenth party congress “pure rubbish.”26

Krupskaia’s protests became fainter as Stalin’s recriminations became harsher. On March 19, 1935, for the first and last time, she was summoned to Stalin’s office where she remained for two hours. Agranov, Iagoda’s deputy, and Nikolai Ezhov, shadowing the NKVD for Stalin, had arrived two hours earlier. To judge from the gaggle of NKVD and commissars present that afternoon, the subject was the forthcoming prison sentences to punish Zinoviev and Kamenev for “moral” responsibility for Kirov’s murder. Krupskaia was mute when Kamenev and Zinoviev were tried for the third time and shot. After that she connived at Stalin’s murders and was too compromised to speak out. In 1937, on a commission with Politburo members to decide Bukharin’s fate, Krupskaia even voted for the harshest proposal: expulsion, arrest, and shooting. 27

Krupskaia received hundred of letters from victims—often children—of Stalin’s repression who hoped that she could make Stalin set injustices right, but her only protests were against Russian chauvinism: she deplored the damage to minority languages from having Russian compulsorily taught in all schools.

Lenin’s youngest sister, Maria Ulianova, was the second dowager. She was even more peremptorily disempowered (though she had always disclaimed privilege). Ulianova was a close friend, as well as political ally, of Bukharin and, on his breach with Stalin in 1929, she lost her post of secretary to Pravda. She died, ostracized in semi-exile, in 1937. Stalin rendered harmless a third widow without having to imprison or kill her.28 Until 1939 Gorky’s legitimate widow, Ekaterina Peshkova, ran the Political Red Cross, which in the 1920s had been able to monitor and even alleviate the conditions in which some political prisoners were held by OGPU. While Iagoda was in office—if only because he was in love with her daughter-in-law—Peshkova secured a few reprieves, or at least relief, for the repressed and their families, but when he fell, Peshkova offered only guarded sympathy.

One woman, and the least likely, was singled out by Stalin for a real political role. Aleksandra Kollontai, daughter of one Tsarist general and, by her first marriage, the wife of another, left her husband and child in 1898 to become a feminist, a libertine, and a Bolshevik. Exceptionally beautiful and a talented writer, although six years older than Stalin she enchanted him, as she did many men and women. She suspended his Georgian predilection for discreet, silent, and chaste women.

Trotsky loathed Kollontai, and perhaps Stalin loved her for this alone. When revolution broke out, she began a torrid affair with a man seventeen years her junior, Pavel Dybenko, a muscular Ukrainian sailor who became commissar for the navy. Sailors ignored orders from Trotsky unless Dybenko confirmed them and Trotsky had Dybenko court-martialed. Kollontai, now commissar for social security, begged prosecutor Nikolai Krylenko to release Dybenko. Krylenko made her abjure her principles and become Dybenko’s wife. Kollontai’s love letters were copied by the Cheka to the Politburo and the couple inspired scabrous verse in Petrograd:

Russia has turned into a brothel,
The Bolsheviks’ orchestra roars out,
And various scum is dancing
A Soviet can-can with no knickers.
The crook Lenin greets the guests.
The glasses are brimming over,
And seeing the blood in them, hysterically
Bawls that whore Kollontai.

Kollontai had to be sent away until the scandals died down. Stalin appointed her a semiofficial envoy to Sweden and Norway; the latter was persuaded to recognize Soviet Russia partly because it had herrings to sell. Kollontai—an exemplary socialist—charmed the Scandinavian bourgeoisie and proved herself the Soviet Union’s most effective diplomat, even though the Swedes expelled her for political and sexual profligacy (she had long since cast off Dybenko). Thanks to Kollontai, the USSR secured half a million tons of Norwegian herring, and a grateful fishing industry stopped the Oslo press calling her a whore.

In 1925, however, Pravda began attacking Kollontai’s depravity. She had helped write the first Bolshevik family code, which recognized a woman’s right to abortion and divorce on demand, but the party’s mood had changed. Again, Kollontai turned to Stalin for protection, professing loyalty to the “general,” in other words Stalinist, line. Pravda fell silent. Kollontai’s carefully edited diary shows that she was a genuine Stalinist, loyal to his every political twist, although she did admit to lingering unhappiness about the lack of democracy within the party.29 The memoirs of her lovers and the diary pages that she failed to edit suggest that her fondness for Stalin was like her infatuation with Dybenko: a love of coarse, self-assured authority. Her mind, however, was as clear as her conscience was murky. Stalin, she told one lover, lacked Trotsky’s culture and oratory but had two merits: “hellish patience” and insight. She found Molotov, eventually commissar for foreign affairs and thus her boss, “the incarnation of greyness, dullness and servility,” but she still preferred Stalin’s entourage to the intellectuals of Zinoviev’s or Bukharin’s circles. She broke with anyone like Karl Radek who incurred Stalin’s disapproval. In 1923, with prescience, Kollontai asked Stalin never to link her name with Dybenko’s again.

Stalin enjoyed blackmailing Kollontai: he showed her a letter for his eyes only from image. The letter contained a semiliterate peasant’s complaints about the orgies at a Siberian peasant commune named after her. Kollontai rode out the storm: she went to Mexico City for a year before returning to Scandinavia. From Oslo Kollontai sent a photograph of herself to Stalin and consoled him for the deaths of Sergei Kirov and, two months later, Kuibyshev:

Dear, much respected Iosif Vissarionovich. On a day when two persons close to you have been ripped out of life, I couldn’t help having warm personal thoughts about you and what you are going through. Many years ago you helped me so responsively and simply at a very, very bad moment in my life. I shall never forget it.30

By 1935 Kollontai had many responsibilities including monitoring “deviations” in the Norwegian Communist Party. When Trotsky was seeking asylum, Kollontai persuaded Stalin that assassinating Trotsky in Norway would be “too noisy” and suggested a solution: to stop purchases of herring until he had been expelled to a country where Stalin’s NKVD could operate freely against him.31

Kollontai writhed in private: “Executions . . . They are always, invariably, my grief and agony,” she wrote in the original version of her diary.32 She even wondered if Stalin was paranoiac. Soviet instructions often made her a laughingstock in Oslo, for instance when she asked the Norwegian government to ban performances by the émigré ballerina Anna Pavlova. Norwegians began to shun her; Stalin transferred her to the Stockholm embassy, where the military attaché and first secretary had just defected. Here too Kollontai looked foolish; the Swedes refused to hand over the two defectors. She confessed her failure to Stalin in terms that he would accept: “I consider the main reason for defection to be the presence of opposition in the party and the intensification of provocative work by foreign forces hostile to us.” Kollontai remained an asset to Stalin: she soothed the Scandinavians even when Stalin invaded Finland.

No Soviet ambassador had so much leeway from Stalin as Kollontai. When she complained that OGPU’s arrest of a Swedish engineer, Rossel, undermined her position, Stalin telephoned Menzhinsky: “Make sure that Rossel is not on Soviet territory within twenty-four hours.” In Moscow Stalin, with schadenfreude, invited Kollontai to dine with him and with her former husband Dybenko. Stalin poured wine and made Dybenko (whom he soon had shot) sing Ukrainian songs. When dinner was over, Stalin asked, “Why did you break up with Kollontai? You did a very stupid thing, Dybenko.”

imageStalin disempowered women but empowered children. Stalin’s corruption of tens of millions of young people is perhaps an even greater evil than the premature deaths of so many millions of innocent adults.

When all ideological resistance had been crushed there still remained instinctive, family values. These had always been a hindrance to Russian tyrants. In medieval times the notion of “mutual responsibility” (krugovaia poruka) held spouses, parents, children, even neighbors of miscreants responsible for their actions. Lenin and image reintroduced krugovaia poruka to keep Tsarist officers loyal to the Red Army; Stalin extended it to defectors and any “traitor to the motherland.” A spouse had to divorce a counterrevolutionary immediately if they hoped to escape their fate. Such evil idiocies reached their nadir when in 1936 Georgi Piatakov, deputy commissar for heavy industry and under investigation, begged Nikolai Ezhov to let him shoot his convicted wife.

Children were induced to transfer their affections from their families to Stalin; children who denounced their parents were lionized. Lenin had abolished the prerevolutionary Boy Scouts and shot their leaders; Stalin had by 1931 formed the Pioneers to replace them.

In rural areas the Pioneers were unpopular and it needed an act of terror to promote them. In 1932, in the Urals village of Gerasimovka— though the Pioneers had not yet reached the area—OGPU fabricated a Pioneer martyr, Pavlik Morozov, who had fought and died for his Soviet principles against grain-hoarding kulaks. The Pioneers became a mass movement. Pioneers all over the Soviet Union called for “Murdering kulaks to be shot!”

Maxim Gorky acclaimed the martyr: “Pavlik Morozov’s heroic action . . . could have had very broad social and educational significance in the eyes of Pioneers. Many of them would probably realize that if a ‘blood’ relative is an enemy of the people, he is no longer a relative, but just an enemy and there are no further reasons to spare him.” Every Soviet child for the next fifty years would be indoctrinated with the Morozov legend.

The real story was unearthed in a thorough and very brave investigation by Iuri Druzhnikov from the 1950s to the 1980s, when witnesses in the Morozov affair were still alive.33 Pavlik Morozov’s father, Trofim, was for a time the chairman of the village council, trying to balance the authorities’ demands for grain against the villagers’ desire to survive. Gerasimovka was surrounded by camps for displaced kulaks from southern Russia who were desperate to flee and offered bribes for false papers. Meanwhile, the prosperous peasants of Gerasimovka were themselves being deported to the Siberian tundra. In November 1931, Pavlik denounced Trofim to OGPU for protecting kulaks; Trofim went to a camp for ten years.

Pavlik did not benefit by his actions—his own family’s property was confiscated as part of Trofim’s punishment—but he began to denounce any villager hoarding grain, selling potatoes, or expressing discontent. He was ostracized by the villagers until his reign of terror ended on September 4, 1932, when his body and that of his brother Fedia were found under cranberry bushes deep in the forest.

The authorities acted with alacrity: the boys were buried with no autopsy. After three months’ imprisonment, their grandparents (in their eighties), a nineteen-year-old cousin, and an uncle were put on trial in the village hall—to which journalists and an audience from the nearest town were bused. The defense counsel abandoned his clients; the prisoners, admitting nothing, nevertheless pleaded guilty. The prosecution berated kulaks generally. After the verdict, the four were led to a pit, undressed, and shot. Trofim Morozov was apparently shot in the camps after hacking out his grave in the permafrost.

Pavlik and Fedia Morozov were, most likely, dispatched by the bayonet and rifle butt of an OGPU killer, Spiridon Kartashov.34 The order to stage such a murder must have come from Iagoda, and probably from Stalin; such a fabrication was too important to be left to local initiative. The subject remained very sensitive for the Soviet censors; when Sergei Eisenstein made a film about the child martyr, using the title of Turgenev’s story Bezhin Meadow,Stalin was furious at the iconographic portrayal of Pavlik Morozov and his uncle as Isaac and Abraham and the film was largely destroyed. Stalin henceforth forbade making any film without every word in the script being vetted.

There were more Pavlik Morozovs. Druzhnikov found fifty-seven cases in the 1930s. Denunciations overwhelmed the NKVD: some denouncers asked for a month’s stay in a sanatorium as a reward for their tireless efforts. Adults even denounced children. Childish absurdities were taken seriously. For instance, on July 5, 1935, little Niura Dmitrieva from Volsk on the lower Volga sent Stalin a ten-page letter listing in detail “all the children who have been teasing, hitting, and making fun of me.” Niura also denounced her teacher for assigning too much homework. Stalin had a commission sent to Volsk to punish the guilty and bring the girl to an elite boarding school in Moscow.35