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


Chapter 40. Purging of the Guard

The white bread is spread thick with caviar, The tears are hotter than boiling water. Hangmen also get sad. People, have pity for hangmen! Hangmen have a very bad time at night, If hangmen dream of hangmen, and as in real life, but even harder Hangmen hit hangmen across their mugs.

Aleksandr Galich, “Dance Song”

EZHOV MAY NOT HAVE BEEN first choice to replace Iagoda; Stalin had considered someone very different, his Abkhaz friend Nestor Lakoba, who had very little blood on his hands and genuine popularity among his people. In the summers of the early 1930s Stalin, Beria, Lakoba, their wives and children played together in villas and on beaches at Sukhum or in shepherds’ huts on the shores of Lake Ritsa. Stalin trusted Lakoba enough to go hunting wild boar with him. Lakoba was a crack shot, whose party trick was shooting a raw egg off his cook’s head. It was on one such occasion that Stalin made his famous quip “Me Koba, you Lakoba.” Lakoba sent Stalin hundreds of lemons and planted mandarin trees around his villa. Nadezhda Allilueva gave Sarie, Lakoba’s wife, the gift traditional for the highest ranks of OGPU, a gold-plated pistol.

Stalin talked at greater length to Lakoba than to anybody else. 9 In 1930, Stalin had exempted Abkhazia from collectivization, criticizing officials who did not “take account of the specific peculiarities of Abkhaz social structure and made the mistake of mechanically transferring Russian models of social engineering to Abkhaz soil.” Nevertheless, Stalin did gently note Lakoba’s errors: “despite his old Bolshevik experience, he mistakenly lets his policies rely on all layers of the Abkhaz population (that is not a Bolshevik policy) and finds it possible not to submit to the provincial committee’s decisions. . . . I think that Comrade Lakoba can and must free himself from this mistake.”10Although not the idyll of Fazil Iskander’s novel Uncle Sandro from Chegem, Abkhazia under Lakoba was cunningly steered between Stalinism and its ancient pagan traditions.

Surviving relatives say that when Stalin asked Lakoba to take on the NKVD in Moscow Lakoba refused. Why did Stalin ask? Lakoba, like Sergo Orjonikidze, was as personal a friend as Stalin could have and, as a fellow Caucasian, Stalin could judge his intonations and responses with certainty. But it was inconceivable that Lakoba would turn the NKVD into the slaughterhouse that Stalin wanted. Certainly, Stalin’s behavior in autumn 1936, when Lakoba last saw him, just before Ezhov’s appointment was announced, was grim; hell had no fury like Stalin spurned.

The blots in Lakoba’s copybook would have damned others long before. In 1924 he had guarded Trotsky, another fine marksman, and come to like him. Even in 1926 the Lakobas had sent affectionate letters to Lev Davidovich. A Caucasian vendetta, hidden behind smiles, raged between Lakoba and Lavrenti Beria, who wanted Abkhazia back under Georgian rule. Beria showed his duplicitous character in letters to Lakoba.11 Beria’s servility wore thin in 1935 when Lakoba’s half-brother Mikhail put a Brauning revolver to his temple after Beria had uttered an obscenity in the presence of women.12

On November 20, 1936, Lakoba went to Moscow with Orjonikidze to see Stalin. They resurrected the long-standing suspicion that Beria had in 1920 been a genuine, not a double, Azeri nationalist agent.

But by this time Stalin’s trust in Lakoba had evaporated. Lakoba found it hard to grasp that his position had changed and that he was no more exempt from Beria’s control than any local Caucasian leader. On December 26 Beria summoned Lakoba to Tbilisi where his wife pressed Lakoba to come to their apartment for dinner. Lakoba was reluctant; a few months earlier a girl had been found dead in Lakoba’s villa, shot with his handgun, and Beria’s inquest implied that she had been Lakoba’s mistress. Beria’s wife and mother cooked Lakoba a trout. Two hours later at the opera, Lakoba doubled up and died in convulsions.13 The body, minus its vital organs, was returned to Sukhum, where Beria and his wife were chief mourners, and Lakoba was ceremoniously buried in the botanical gardens.

The doctors who autopsied the victim were arrested. A month later Lakoba’s tomb was flattened and the body exhumed. Lakoba was declared an enemy of the people; Sarie, his widow, was charged with plotting to kill Stalin with the pistol Allilueva had given her and tortured for two years until she died. Lakoba’s mother was bludgeoned to death by Beria’s hangman Razhden Gangia. Beria slaughtered almost the entire Lakoba clan, keeping the children in prison until they were old enough to execute. Lakoba’s young son Rauf was tortured in Moscow by the notorious Khvat, sentenced to death by Ulrikh and shot in 1941. One brother-in-law and two nieces survived. Most of the Abkhaz intelligentsia perished; Georgians and Mingrelians colonized southern Abkhazia. Beria’s revenge was directly sanctioned by Stalin without Ezhov’s signature. After Lakoba’s murder Stalin stayed away from the Caucasus for nine years.

imageIn autumn 1936 Ezhov first had to complete Iagoda’s tasks: to prepare two show trials, which would dispose of those, first on the left, then on the right, implicated at the trial of Kamenev and Zinoviev. To make the NKVD do as Ezhov wished it was to be purged; the hangmen themselves were first in line for the gallows. Each previous new leader had made a smooth transition. Even when Iagoda took over from Menzhinsky, quarreling with many who disliked his “sergeant-major” rudeness, OGPU-NKVD had remained cohesive. On that occasion Stalin had removed only a handful—Stanisław Messing, Meer Trilisser— whom he either disliked or needed for other work.14 Just a few—Efim Evdokimov, Iakov Agranov—genuinely objected to Iagoda’s style. They disliked the fabrications in the early 1930s not because they found them distasteful; they wanted more sophisticated methods of falsification.

Ezhov laid waste the NKVD, as he would the party, the army, the intelligentsia, and the urban population. He first removed the most prominent—sometimes letting them stew for a few months in provincial demotion. The moment Ezhov took over, a chief of the secret political directorate, I. V. Shtein, killed himself. After Iagoda’s arrest, Gleb Bokii, the terror of Petrograd and Turkestan, was seized. Georgi Molchanov, Iagoda’s head of the secret political directorate, was arrested a month before Iagoda and shot “by special arrangements,” in other words without formal interrogation or sentence, after violent questioning from his colleagues Nikolai Nikolaev-Zhurid, the Latvian Ans Zalpeter, and Sergei Zhupakhin, the axman of Vologda, who would themselves soon follow their victim. Molchanov, a handsome man, was beaten into a shadow of his former self and must have found execution a relief. One of Stalin’s candidates for Iagoda’s post, Vsevolod Balitsky, was shot by Ezhov as a Polish spy.

Neither his acumen, nor having Stalin as his neighbor at Zubalovo, nor helping to topple Iagoda, saved Iakov Agranov. He helped Ezhov settle in, prepared Radek and Piatakov for trial, and after three transfers in seven months was arrested in July 1937. Agranov was tormented for over a year before being shot. Efim Evdokimov, whom Stalin had proposed to Ezhov as the interrogator of Iagoda, was also ill rewarded: in May 1938 he was transferred to the Commissariat of Water Transport, which had now become death row for chekisty. Soon Lavrenti Beria would exterminate Efim Evdokimov and all the north Caucasus men who owed their careers to him. Iagoda’s head of the Gorky (Nizhni Novgorod) NKVD, Matvei Pogrebinsky, shot himself when Iagoda was arrested; a few days later I. I. Chertok, Iagoda’s deputy head of counterespionage, jumped to his death. Even one of Ezhov’s favorites, Commissar of State Security third rank Vladimir Kursky, who took over from Georgi Molchanov, killed himself on July 8, 1937; the last straw for him was the order to interrogate and dispatch Zinaida Glikina, Ezhov’s unwanted mistress. The last aristocrat in the NKVD, Pillar von Pilchau, was arrested as a Polish spy. Of Iagoda’s 110 most senior men, ninety were arrested by Ezhov. Most perished. Ezhov arrested 2,273 chekisty at all levels and, by his own count, dismissed another 11,000.

The NKVD purge first hit non-Russians. Jews and those who had affiliations with Germany and with the so-called limitroph countries, Poland, Romania, the Baltic states—countries where communists could expect no protection—were marked men. The NKVD paid heavily for its cosmopolitanism. In recent years only two senior NKVD officers, Bliumkin and his friend Rabinovich, had been shot; many non-Russian chekisty had voluntarily or involuntarily changed careers. In vain: every famous Latvian—such as Peterss—and Pole—such as Messing and Unszlicht—in the economy or in cultural life followed their former colleagues into oblivion.

Rank and file NKVD men were dismissed or transferred; arrest and shooting were largely reserved for senior staff. Fear spread through the service. The new NKVD—Beria would finish what Ezhov began— would look very different. On October 1, 1936, of the 110 senior operatives, only 42 were Russians, Ukrainians, or Belorussians; 43 declared themselves Jews, there were nine Latvians, five Poles, and two Germans. By September 1938, just before Ezhov fell, senior staff had increased to 150, but Russians predominated with 98; there were no Latvians and only one Pole, while Jews had diminished to 32. A year later, under Beria, there were 122 Russians and only six Jews. The only significant non-Slavs were Beria’s 12 Georgians.15

Ezhov’s Russification of the NKVD reflected Stalin’s conversion to Tsarist chauvinism. Operations abroad, already crippled when Stalin in 1936 closed down the NKVD network in Germany to avoid annoying Hitler, became a shambles for they depended on polyglots of Baltic, German, or Jewish origin. Ezhov got rid of Abram Slutsky, the head of the foreign directorate of the NKVD, with a lethal injection as an arrest might have frightened Slutsky’s subordinates into defecting. Ezhov then had Artur Artuzov, his best counterintelligence officer, arrested; he was half-Swiss, half-Estonian, and had lived next door to Iagoda.

Ezhov also homogenized the NKVD’s class structure. Iagoda had employed more white-collar executives; under Ezhov, the workers and peasants took over, a trend that Beria accelerated. Iagoda had used former gentry and petit bourgeois, even a former priest and a Baltic baron; under Ezhov they were almost all purged. Likewise, the educational level of the NKVD’s senior men changed. Those with just elementary schooling still formed 35–40 percent of the personnel (Beria was to reduce this by half by introducing two-year courses in literacy and arithmetic), but Ezhov reduced the proportion of staff with higher education from 15 to 10 percent. Beria then recruited intellectuals, so that over a third of the NKVD’s management had degrees by 1939. These purges meant promoting younger officers and drafting in new staff from Communist Youth and orphanages. Between 1937 and 1939 the average age of senior NKVD men dropped from forty-two to thirty-five. The promotion of youth over age, of Slav over non-Slav, of peasant over white collar reflected Stalin’s bias toward persons with no outside ties and no past.

Those few who held on to their posts in the NKVD cadres after Iagoda’s and Ezhov’s falls were low-fliers: rarely seen at headquarters, they skulked in remote regions. Typical of these lucky few was Dmitri Orlov, in charge of exiled kulaks on the steppes of northern Kazakhstan. NKVD men realized that a summons to Moscow for a posting or an award was in fact a death sentence. Surprisingly few tried to evade their fate. Some committed suicide after a telephone call from Ezhov: for instance, Vasili Karutsky, who had just been promoted to run the Moscow province NKVD, or, at the end of Ezhov’s reign, Daniil Litvin, who had conducted the slaughter of nearly 50,000 in Leningrad during 1938. Some defected, like Genrikh Liushkov, who crossed the Manchurian border in thick fog ostensibly to meet an agent, and then worked for the Japanese until they dispensed with him in 1945. The commissar of the Ukrainian NKVD, Aleksandr Uspensky, faked suicide, adopted a new identity, and raced the length and breadth of European Russia, sheltering with mistresses or old friends for five months, before he was caught outside the left-luggage office at a remote station in the Urals.

Most NKVD men, like Ezhov, drowned fear for their own fates in alcohol and sadism: they hated the innocents who were slow to confess, for the interrogator who failed to secure a statement might follow his prisoner to the executioner. Nobody now called Ezhov “blackberry” or “hedgehog”; the lasting pun on his name was ezhovye rukavitsy, literally “hedgehog-skin gauntlets” or “rod of iron.”

In 1937 Stalin authorized the use of active physical torture and the horrors at the Lubianka were replicated in dozens of provincial centers. 16 The NKVD archives of Novosibirsk in central Siberia tell a grim story.17 Novosibirsk was praised by Ezhov as the second most efficient city outside the capital for the numbers of spies, wreckers, and hostile social elements it filtered out of the population—probably some 10 percent of the male adults and adolescents of the area. Many kulaks and Trotskyists had been exiled to Novosibirsk so targets for arrest were easily met. In April 1937 Ezhov sent out one of Iagoda’s men, Lev Mironov, to arrest as many as he could in the army garrisons and railway depots of the region. Two months later, exhausted, Mironov was arrested. Karl Karlson, a Latvian chekist, formerly deputy commissar of the Ukrainian NKVD and ranking second to Ezhov, went to central Siberia in August 1937. By January 1938, he too had been arrested. The experienced Grigori Gorbach replaced Karlson; he lasted less than a year. Gorbach terrified his colleagues: Ezhov had instructed him to find enemies not just in central Siberia but within the Novosibirsk NKVD. 18 After Gorbach came Major Ivan Maltsev, the most demented of all; he was to die in the camps.

Novosibirsk bonded its men in blood; all officers took part in mass executions called “marriages.” One officer, Konstantin Pastanogov, denounced his own uncle but demurred when ordered to shoot him. He survived only because Lev Mironov took pity on him. The special and secret political directorates of the Novosibirsk NKVD were at half strength from purges within their ranks. The deficit was made up with men who found writing up statements more laborious than beating victims into signing them. Ezhov sent out fifty students from Moscow’s NKVD school to help.