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

Part VI. MURDERING THE OLD GUARD

Chapter 35. Pigs in the Parlor, Peacocks on Parade

A GENERATION OF CHILDREN had grown up in the USSR with no memories of life before the revolution. Their education, apart from exposing them to a few Russian classics, gave them no hint that there was any morality, let alone conscience, outside Stalin’s Communist Party by which they should be governed. They grew up believing, many of them fanatically, that foreigners were spies, that the children of the bourgeoisie, the rich peasantry, and the clergy were renegades, that all political prisoners were guilty, that the NKVD and the courts were infallible.

The new generation was strongly represented in the NKVD. The chekisty of the civil war period had moved into the bureaucracy and into industry, carrying with them their belief in ruthless repression as the best means of administration. Some, who persuaded themselves that they had not lost all semblance of humanity, retired into academia or literature. Their places were taken by the orphans of the civil war, by party workers who had been drafted into, or felt drawn to, an organization where their authority would be unquestioned. The new intake was ethnically more Russian and less Jewish, Latvian, or Polish; it was less well educated, often semiliterate. It had no interest in, let alone sympathy for, the ideas of Trotsky or Bukharin, or any ideas at all. It saw itself as a punitive weapon in Stalin’s and Iagoda’s hands. Under Nikolai Ezhov it would prove itself a mindless tool of a paranoiac murderer. Even in 1935 the NKVD no longer questioned the most absurd indictments and directives from above.

By mid-1935, except for a few Chechen outlaws, the entire population of the USSR was under the NKVD’s total control. Iagoda had knuckled under to Stalin’s new favorite Nikolai Ezhov and was concocting material for the show trials of those opposition leaders who were still alive, some even at liberty. Ezhov began writing for Stalin a pamphlet entitled “From Fractionalism to Open Counterrevolution.” He was instructed to argue that Trotsky had made terrorists of ideological opponents like Kamenev and Zinoviev and to blame Iagoda for lack of vigilance.36

Lazar Kaganovich had now covered Moscow with asphalt and furnished it with an underground railway. The city began to impress foreign visitors. Iagoda cleared Moscow of its 12,000 professional beggars: instead of going back to their villages, where begging was a respected profession, they were sent to Kazakhstan. Thanks to the GULAG’s output of timber, coal, and nonferrous and precious metals, the Soviet economy was growing. The camps had over 500,000 inmates in 1934, and 750,000 in 1935. The GULAG was also more efficient: inmates’ annual mortality dropped from 15 percent in 1933 to 4 percent in 1935. Deported kulaks added their labor as industrial workers or farmers in Siberia and Kazakhstan. Their death rate also dropped to a fraction of the appalling 13 percent of 1933.

Iagoda was rewarded; the NKVD got new ranks and uniforms. On November 26 Iagoda became general secretary (a rank that hitherto only Stalin had enjoyed) of state security, equivalent to an army marshal. He ordered himself a tunic covered with gold stars and raspberry-striped dark blue trousers; his underlings were only slightly less garish. They exemplified William Cobbett’s “pigs in the parlour, peacocks on parade.” Secret police the NKVD were not.

Iagoda should have known that these marks of favor augured doom. Stalin had never forgotten that Iagoda had been named by Bukharin as a potential supporter of a right coup. He also failed to provide the forced labor he had promised for the Moscow–Volga canal and the Moscow underground; these projects were completed with paid and voluntary labor. The economic uses of the GULAG were limited.

In October 1935 the curious case of the old army commander Gai Gai-Bzhishkian exhausted Stalin’s patience with Iagoda. Gai had told a drinking companion, “Stalin has to be gotten rid of.” He was denounced and sentenced to five years in prison. On the train taking him away, his guards let him go to the lavatory, where he smashed the window and leapt onto the track. Gai, Iagoda had to admit to Stalin, had escaped. Two days later, he was found by a peasant.

Stalin was furious. He raged:

To catch one sniveling wretch the NKVD mobilized 900 men from frontier guard school, all their own workers, party members, Communist Youth, farmers and made a ring that must have consisted of several thousand people over 100 kilometers. One wonders who needs a Cheka and why it exists anyway if every time, in every trivial case, it has to ask for help from Communist Youth, farmers, and the whole population? Moreover, does the NKVD understand how disagreeable for the government is the uproar created by such mobilizations? . . . I think that the Cheka part of the NKVD is suffering from a serious disease. It’s time we started treating it.37

Iagoda received from Gai in prison a tearful letter of penitence: “I miss nothing, not my family, my little daughter, nor my invalid elderly father, I miss to the point of burning pain my old name, Gai, combat commander of the Red Army. Comrade Iagoda, it’s very painful for me to talk about this to you. . . . Give me the chance to atone for my guilt with blood. It’s dark in the cell and tears make it hard to write.”38 Iagoda had Gai examined by the Kremlin doctors, who diagnosed pneumonia. On November 7, 1935, a note, signed by Agranov not Iagoda, reported to Stalin that Gai had died. In fact he was very much alive. Stalin must have found out Iagoda’s deceit, for Gai was shot two years later.

Typically, Stalin pretended to forgive Iagoda’s lapse and made him general commissar of state security. Important tasks were, however, taken out of his hands. While Iagoda’s men summoned Kamenev and Zinoviev from prison for further interrogation, Stalin, with Kaganovich and Ezhov, rewrote their confessions and dictated the course of further questioning. Iagoda and the NKVD now came under the party secretariat’s control. The forthcoming show trial was outlined by Stalin more minutely than the wreckers’ trials which Menzhinsky had prepared under his supervision.

Nothing shifted Stalin from his determination to physically “finish off” those he had destroyed politically. Kamenev, whose sentence had been increased from five to ten years, kept a stoic silence, bargaining with his persecutors only for his family’s survival. Zinoviev showered the Politburo with appeals from his prison cell. On one occasion he begged Stalin to let him publish the memoirs he was writing in prison and to help his “academically talented” Marxist son. To his oppressor he wrote:

One desire burns in my soul: to prove to you that I am no longer an enemy. There is no demand which I would not meet in order to prove that. . . . I am reaching the point where I stare for long periods at portraits in the newspapers of you and other members of the Politburo with the thought: look into my soul, can’t you see that I am no longer your enemy, that I am yours body and soul, that I have understood everything, that I am ready to do everything to earn forgiveness, mercy?39

Stalin had however decided to show that Zinoviev and Kamenev were Trotsky’s agents, aiming to overthrow the Soviet state by violence. He would prove to socialists abroad that Trotsky was a terrorist and a Gestapo collaborator. Formally, in July 1936, Iagoda and the chief prosecutor, Andrei Vyshinsky, asked Stalin for the go-ahead to retry Kamenev and Zinoviev on the grounds that they had secured light prison sentences in 1935 by concealing their guilt. Iagoda arrested Zinoviev’s former secretary Pikel and an old associate of Trotsky, Dreitser, and broke them by sleep deprivation into signing the necessary statements. Zinoviev and Kamenev were not, strictly speaking, tortured although Zinoviev was kept in overheated cells, where he suffered from asthma and liver pains. He was a broken man; perhaps he believed assurances that Stalin “would not shed the blood of old Bolsheviks.”40 Kamenev was resigned.

So well did Kaganovich and Ezhov supervise Iagoda that Stalin could spend all August and September on holiday in the Caucasus, while the fantastic Trotsky-Zinoviev “Moscow center” was set up and then demolished. Kaganovich, like Ezhov and, one suspects, Stalin, was able to hypnotize himself into believing his inept conspiracy fantasies. On July 6, 1936, Kaganovich announced to Stalin:

I’ve read the statements by those bastards Dreitser and Pikel. Though it was clear before, they are revealing with all details the true bandit face of the murderers and provocateurs Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Smirnov. Now it is absolutely clear that the main inspiration of this gang is that mercenary shit Trotsky. It’s time I think to declare him “outside the law” and to shoot the rest of the swine whom we have in our prisons. 41

Iakov Agranov worked viciously on those of Zinoviev and Kamenev’s codefendants who had not yet broken. Ivan Smirnov, a Siberian civil war veteran and former supporter of both Zinoviev and Trotsky, had in 1927 publicly called for Stalin’s removal. He went on hunger strike. So did the Armenian Vagarshal Ter-Vaganian, who slit his wrists and wrote to Stalin in his own blood: “People are slandering, slandering vilely, shamelessly, their slander is shriekingly obvious. . . . Nevertheless I am powerless against these brazen lies.” Agranov force-fed both men. Other defendants were designated to show that Trotsky worked for the Gestapo. Four German-Jewish communists stood trial for their lives—Moise Lourié, W. Olberg, G. B. Berman-Jurin, and I. I. Fritz-David. They had taken refuge in the USSR, not dreaming that Stalin would kill far more German communists than Hitler.

In August 1936 Kaganovich told Stalin that he, the prosecutor Vyshinsky, and Judge Ulrikh had fully rehearsed the trial for performance from the 19th to the 22nd, and Kamenev and Zinoviev would appear as the seventh and eighth of sixteen abject penitents. “The role of the Gestapo is to be brought out in full. If the accused name Piatakov and others [on the right] they will not be stopped.” On the first day Zinoviev confessed to knowing all about Kirov’s murder as it happened, and Smirnov admitted receiving instructions from Trotsky. The second day, Kaganovich and Ezhov reported, went even better. All defendants were singing the same tune and Zinoviev’s demeanor was “more depressed than any of the others.” Only Kamenev—Kaganovich underlined this point—was “keeping up a pose that was defiant compared with Zinoviev’s. He’s trying to put on airs, acting the leader.” Best of all, the victims’ statements would damn every other of Stalin’s opponents: Rykov, Tomsky, Bukharin on the right; Radek, Grigori Sokolnikov, Piatakov, and Leonid Serebriakov on the left were all mentioned.

So vile were the smears that on the last day of the trial Mikhail Tomsky shot himself—as Stalin’s former secretary Boris Bazhanov had predicted he would—at his dacha. The suicide note ran:

. . . here is my last request—don’t believe Zinoviev’s brazen slander . . . Now I end this letter after reading the court’s resolution that I should be investigated. . . . I feel that I shan’t be able to endure that, I am too tired for such shocks as being put in the same dock as fascists. . . . I ask forgiveness from the party for my old mistakes, I ask that Zinoviev and Kamenev be not believed. . . . P.S. Remember our nighttime conversation in 1928. [At a barbecue in Sochi a drunken Tomsky had warned Stalin, who was grilling the kebabs, “Our workers will soon begin firing at you.”] Don’t take what I blurted out seriously—I have been repenting that deeply ever since. But I couldn’t change your mind, for you’d never have believed me. If you want to know the names of the people who pushed me down the road of right-wing opposition in May 1928, ask my wife personally, then she’ll say who they were.42

Maria Tomskaia, the widow, would not talk to the NKVD’s secret department so Stalin and Kaganovich sent Nikolai Ezhov with the suicide note to her. She hinted that Iagoda had “been playing a very active role in the trio who led the right [opposition] . . .” A niche was ready for Tomsky’s ashes in the Kremlin wall and his death mask was taken. But Stalin, who unlike Hitler hated disgraced comrades to commit suicide, ordered him to be buried in his garden; the body was later dug up and disposed of. Two years later the rest of the right opposition could only envy Tomsky.

Tomsky’s suicide note, Ezhov told Stalin, implicated Iagoda:

. . . who has played a very active part in the guiding troika of the right and has regularly provided them with material about the state of play in the Central Committee . . .

A lot of failings have been shown up in the NKVD and in my view they can in no way be tolerated anymore. . . . Among the ruling clique of chekisty moods of self-satisfaction, complacency, and bragging are more and more blatant. Instead of drawing conclusions from the Trotskyist case and criticizing their own faults and correcting them, these people are dreaming now only of medals for the case they have cleared up. . . .

We’ll have to shoot quite an impressive quantity. Personally I think that we have to face up to this and once and for all finish with this scum [Zinoviev and other defendants].43

All the defendants received death sentences. Most declared that they expected nothing less. Even Kamenev ended abjectly: “The practical management of organizing this terrorist act [killing Kirov] was carried out not by me, but Zinoviev.” Vyshinsky excelled himself in the absurdity of his rhetoric: “In their dark cellar Trotsky, Zinoviev, and Kamenev throw out a vile call: get rid of him, kill him! An underground machine begins to work, knives are sharpened, revolvers loaded, bombs assembled.” Vyshinsky attacked Zinoviev as a “villain, a murderer weeping for his victim.” Not a scrap of evidence was produced, and, thanks to Iagoda’s carelessness, the confessions could easily be proven false. One minor defendant, E. S. Goltsman, alleged he had met Trotsky’s elder son in 1932 in the Copenhagen Hotel Bristol; Lev Trotsky junior was taking his examinations at the time in Berlin, and the hotel had been demolished in 1917.

Ulrikh took twenty-four hours to deliver the verdicts. Stalin in Sochi insisted on editing them and told Kaganovich:

It needs stylistic polishing . . . you must mention in a separate paragraph of the verdict that Trotsky and Sedov [Lev Trotsky junior] are liable to trial or being tried, or something like that. This has great significance for Europe, bourgeois and workers. . . . You must cross out the final words: “The sentence is final and cannot be appealed.” These words are superfluous and make a bad impression. We mustn’t allow an appeal, but it is stupid to put that in the sentence. . . .

The next morning fifteen of the sixteen petitioned Stalin for a reprieve, which was immediately refused. All were shot a few hours later. Nikolai Ezhov was present. He extracted the bullets from the corpses and wrapped these souvenirs in paper slips with the condemned men’s names. Kamenev and Smirnov walked to the execution cellar stoically, but Zinoviev clung to the boots of his guards and was taken down by stretcher. This scene was reenacted several times at supper at Stalin’s dacha, the bodyguard Karl Pauker playing the part of Zinoviev—begging for Stalin to be fetched and then crying out “Hear, o Israel”—until even Stalin found the charade distasteful.44

Writers within the USSR put up little or no opposition to the trial and the executions. Ehrenburg, Sholokhov, and Aleksei Tolstoi had clamored for the execution of their former patrons whom they knew to be innocent, at least of the crimes of which they were convicted. A very few, like Pasternak, withstood the pressure to sign petitions demanding that the accused be shot. Ehrenburg’s and Sholokhov’s compliance is more pardonable than the complicity of Western intellectuals and observers. Some had watched Hitler’s Reichstag trial, admired the spirited defense put up by the Bulgarian communist Dimitrov, and applauded his acquittal. They claimed that Vyshinsky and Ulrikh’s pastiche of European legal proceedings could not have been wholly falsified, that the Soviet judiciary had not sold its soul to Stalin.

Kaganovich reported to Stalin on the second day of the trial that all the foreign correspondents’ telegrams made a special point of the evidence incriminating the right wing. The best-informed outside observer, Trotsky, was gagged; the Norwegian government feared a Soviet boycott of its herrings, and Kaganovich drafted a letter from Stalin to Norwegian minister of justice Trygve Lie, naming Trotsky as the main organizer of terrorism in the USSR and demanding his removal. Trotsky, the first foreigner to be interned and held incommunicado in Norway, was not allowed to sue those European newspapers that repeated Vyshinsky’s slanders from the trial.

Western radical opinion in 1936 had no desire to annoy Stalin. Hitler had invaded the Rhineland; General Franco had risen against the Spanish republic; Japan was invading China; the USSR was sending a delegation to a European peace congress. Democrats believed that in the cause of fighting fascism critics of Stalin’s judicial murders had to be muzzled. Historians, jurists, and diplomats assured the European public that the trial had been legally impeccable. Writers like Theodore Dreiser and Bernard Shaw vouched for Stalin’s character. Bertolt Brecht, on the other hand and with impenetrable cynicism, told a friend perplexed by the confessions of Kamenev and Zinoviev: “The more innocent they are, the more they deserve to die.”45 Kamenev and Zinoviev knew what Stalin had done and what he might yet do: if they were innocent of plotting his death, they had sinned by not committing tyrannicide, an act which even St. Thomas Aquinas condoned: “God looks with favor upon the physical elimination of the Beast if a people is freed thereby.” Bertolt Brecht probably meant something else, but if ever tyrannicide was a moral imperative, then in 1936 failing to assassinate Stalin was a crime that deserved the death penalty.