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


A camel claimed political asylum on the Polish border: “They’re exterminating all the rabbits in the USSR.” “But you’re a camel,” said the border guard. “You try proving you’re not a rabbit!” replied the camel.

Chapter 38. The Birth of the Great Terror

May my prayer be received
As incense before Thee,
Raised up by my hand,
A Vespers sacrifice.
Hear me o Lord

Orthodox hymn occasionally sung by Stalin, Voroshilov, and Molotov in the 1930s

AS STALIN was condemning the last of the old Bolshevik guard to death, he was also preparing his own remedy for dissidence and free thought in the general population. The ensuing “Great Terror” raged across the Soviet Union from spring 1937 to autumn 1938 and resulted in around 750,000 executions and twice as many sentences to lingering death in the camps. What minds could conceive then organize such a massacre? More puzzling still: how could a literate urban population submit to a reign of terror and actively, even enthusiastically, collaborate in offering victims up to it?

Stalin in the 1930s exemplified the degenerative psychotic who, with every enemy exterminated, saw yet more enmity to be extirpated and whose serial killing progressed not arithmetically but geometrically. Then there was Nikolai Ezhov, who was promoted to conduct the terror and then removed when the ravages were complete. We shall try to unravel something of the psyche of Nikolai Ezhov. As for Kaganovich and Molotov, their murderousness, like that of other Politburo members who survived Stalin including Malenkov, Mikoyan, and Khrushchiov, stemmed not from any inner compulsion to kill, but from a total, doglike submission to their psychopathic master. The difference between the terror of 1937–8 and the killings that had gone before was its cannibalism. The two main instruments of terror, the 4-million-strong Communist Party and the NKVD, were also its victims.

As for the Soviet population of the mid-1930s, it is necessary to understand how every bond linking one human being to another had been shattered by twenty years of Soviet rule and a decade of Stalinism. Hitler had to negotiate with the Protestant and Catholic churches and even make minor concessions to them over, say, euthanasia for the congenitally ill; he had to soothe, admittedly with no difficulty, the relict ethical scruples of the military, of the business community, the legal and academic professions. Only in the furor of wartime, and by allowing the civil population to pretend that they were not complicit in mass murder, could Hitler proceed to his campaigns of mass extermination.

Stalin had to make no such compromises. The Orthodox Church had been crushed. The Red Army had no coherent code of behavior; it had slaughtered civilians in the civil war and peasants in 1929–32. The intelligentsia was abroad, in prison, or compromised and bribed. There was no communal ethic left alive outside the party. The population had simply to endure each crisis and hope peace and stability would ensue. In 1917–18 they had acquiesced to the Bolshevik coup, in 1926 to the replacement of the collective leadership by a dictator, in 1929 to the enslavement of the peasantry. In 1937–8 effectively every tenth adult male in each city or town would vanish; surely Stalin and the party would then have finished and the survivors, like the Saved in an Anabaptist world, could live in paradise.

The population had incentives to collaborate with its oppressors. If you did not run with the hounds you were a hare to be torn apart by them, and those who disappeared left behind vacant jobs, rooms to live in, clothes, food and drink to be consumed. The terror also hit hardest those between thirty and forty-five in managerial and professional jobs. Like the war against the peasant, the urban terror pitched the young, the dispossessed and unskilled against the middle-aged who had riches and skills. Whether an anonymous slanderer or an arresting NKVD officer, the oppressor often had a personal vendetta or something to gain.

Stalin understood the worst in human nature and motivated his executives and the population accordingly. By installing Nikolai Ezhov, he had acquired the ideal instrument. Undoubtedly, had Ezhov refused to carry out the terror, Stalin would have used Kaganovich or Molotov or his newer acolytes Andreev or Zhdanov instead. But the terror was amplified by Ezhov’s uniquely maniacal compliance and the stimulation that he and Stalin applied to each other. We know a little more today about Ezhov than we did, and he merits a biographical excursion.