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


Chapter 41. Targets for Extermination

What have the little piglets done
That they should be slaughtered year after year, just
To keep these foxes in luxury? The very sacred Dragon
In the ninefold depth of his pool, does He know
That the foxes are robbing him and gobbling up His little piglets,
Or does He not?

Bertolt Brecht, after Po Chiu-i

IN SPRING 1937 terror spread from the party leadership to the urban population. Ezhov assigned targets (limity) to each region for arrests, executions (“Category 1”—73,000 in all), and imprisonment (“Category 2” —just under 200,000) of enemies of the people. Eighteen months later these targets had been exceeded ninefold. The Smolensk NKVD chief was told by Ezhov, “better to overdo it than not do enough.” Novosibirsk soon exceeded its target of 5,000: by October 4 the local NKVD had arrested 25,000 and sentenced 13,000 of these to death. As Novosibirsk had, until 1938, Japanese and German consulates, thousands were designated spies. The NKVD was backed up by the militia, which was diverted from detaining thieves and hooligans to hunting enemies of the people. They arrested anyone who came to a police station, even on an innocent errand; they visited farms and removed a percentage of peasants as saboteurs. In 1937 the Novosibirsk militia arrested 7,000 people in this way.

There was some official resistance: one prosecutor, M. M. Ishov, arrested the most eager hangmen including Maltsev and freed their victims. Ishov was soon arrested himself, with his brother and colleagues, and badly beaten by Maltsev although, extraordinarily, he lived to be reinstated. Even at the end of 1938, when Ezhov’s writ no longer ran, and memoranda from Moscow rebuked the NKVD for illegal procedures, Maltsev could not stop. When Beria finally removed the incorrigible heads of the Novosibirsk NKVD, the region was left to the mercy of their juniors, psychotic drunkards who beat their wives, fell down mine shafts, stole public and private property, and were sent away to prisons or sanatoria. In southern Russia and the Caucasus, even before Stalin authorized torture, the sadism was such that the living envied the dead; few of those tortured were fit for the GULAG.

For one measure Ezhov won popularity: he reversed the Soviet policy of treating common criminals as redeemable brothers of the working class. In April 1937 Ezhov proposed, to Stalin’s approval, rearresting recidivists and career criminals, who would now be deported and executed. By July 40,000 common criminals, mingled with kulak refugees, had been arrested. Of these 8,000 were shot. The streets of Moscow and Leningrad were still dangerous at night, but now that banditry was punished almost as severely as telling anti-Soviet jokes, some of the public regained confidence.

Ezhov sent those he spared the bullet into the GULAG, which he expanded into a hitherto unimaginable inferno. When Iagoda fell, over 800,000 slaves were working in the GULAG, while NKVD prisons held another quarter of a million and many hundreds of thousands of exiles worked in conditions indistinguishable from slavery. By 1936 annual mortality in the GULAG had dropped to about 20,000 and in Iagoda’s last year of power the NKVD recorded only 1,118 executions. 19 This was, in the poetess Anna Akhmatova’s phrase, a “vegetarian” era, compared with the carnivorous Ezhov period.

Under Ezhov the growth of the camps was limited only by the harsh terrain of the Soviet Arctic and the logistics of transporting, housing, guarding, and exploiting prisoners. Purges within the NKVD killed off the GULAG’s best managers. In December 1938 the GULAG population passed the million mark, and there were nearly as many in the prisons and other labor colonies. In 1938 mortality in the GULAG— overcrowded, chaotic, run by inexperienced and frightened administrators—soared to 90,000 or 10 percent of the inmates. Even so, the camps could not keep up with the mass arrests; those detained in grotesquely overcrowded prisons often died of typhus, dysentery, heat, malnutrition, or torture before they could be executed.

Stalin and Ezhov therefore decided that the percentage of “enemies” sentenced to death rather than forced labor must rise from 0.5 to 47 percent. In 1937 and 1938 the NKVD’s own records show that 1,444,923 persons were “convicted” of counterrevolutionary crimes, and of these 681,692 were shot. The flow to the camps was halved, but processing so many prisoners—who had to be beaten into incriminating others and thus provide further fodder for the NKVD—was still unmanageable. The NKVD ran out of paper to record sentences and executions.

Prisoners could be shot expeditiously—200 in a night was the average in Leningrad, and experienced butchers could manage this number single-handed—but disposing of the corpses, given the shortage of bulldozers and open spaces in cities, was harder. Sometimes victims were taken to areas where NKVD officers had dachas; they dug their own graves, on which pine trees would be planted and wooden chalets built. From December 1937 the NKVD stopped sending its corpses to hospital morgues to be processed with those who had died naturally. Three times as many bodies now had to be disposed of daily in Leningrad. The NKVD took over twenty-seven acres of forestry land at Pargolovo near the closely guarded Finnish border, where 46,771 corpses were buried.

Thanks to the efforts of a few dedicated men and women, we now have full knowledge of what happened in Leningrad and in parts of Moscow. The Leningrad Martyrology gives details of the 47,000 men and women of the city and the province who perished at the hands of the NKVD over eighteen months.20 None of the arrests resulted from an investigation. The target set by Ezhov for Leningrad had been 4,000 shot and 10,000 sent to the camps over four months from July 1937. Ezhov instructed all NKVD headquarters that all former kulaks, common criminals, Germans, Poles, and those repatriated from Manchuria after the Japanese seizure were to be rounded up and results reported to him every few days, with the warning: “If in the coming days the present position is not put right, the appropriate conclusions will be applied to you.”

Certain categories of the population were more vulnerable to arrest than others: 95 percent of those shot were men. Xenophobia was key: non-Russians, only 18 percent of the population, provided 37 percent of the victims. Poles, Finns, Estonians, and Latvians were singled out to the extent that the USSR in 1937 had half as many ethnic Poles and Balts as it had in 1926. Virtually all ethnic Poles—some 144,000—were arrested and three quarters of these were shot.

Ironically, Zakovsky, head of the Leningrad NKVD from the murder of Kirov until March 1938, was a Latvian—his real name being Štubis. Aleksandr Radzivilovsky, who began his Cheka career in the 1921 bloodbath of the Crimea, revealed his instructions when interrogated by Beria’s men in 1939:

I asked Ezhov how to carry out in practice his directive on exposing the anti-Soviet Latvian underground, and his reply was that there was no need to feel embarrassed by the absence of concrete material, but I should mark out several Latvians who were party members and beat the necessary statements out of them. “Don’t beat about the bush with this lot, their cases will be decided in batches. You need to show that Latvians, Poles, etc. in the party are spies and saboteurs.” Frinovsky recommended that I should, in cases where I failed to get confessions from detainees, sentence them to shooting just on the basis of indirect witness evidence or simply unchecked informants’ materials.21

Manual workers and peasants made up 24–28 percent of the victims; 12 percent were professional workers, a much smaller group within the population. The Leningrad purges (and they were typical) thus hit hardest skilled professionals—doctors, veterinary surgeons, agronomists, engineers—and priests, as well those previously accused of counterrevolution. Blue-collar railway workers, thanks to Kaganovich’s vigilance, also suffered badly. Some minority peoples effectively faced genocide, but only the Chechen and Ingush in the high Caucasus took up arms against Ezhov’s NKVD.

Anyone who lived in the same building as arrestees or was related to them was natural prey. NKVD men scanned lists in concierges’ offices and arrested those with unusual surnames as spies. Just possessing a desirable apartment or furniture was a motive for arrest. Most victims were sentenced by a troika or a joint commission of the Public Prosecutor and the NKVD; some received quasi-judicial sentences from the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court. Nearly all were sentenced under Article 58, covering counterrevolution, of the Soviet criminal code. Most of Ezhov’s victims were charged with those crimes (Article 58, Paragraphs 10 and 11) that needed least evidence—“propaganda and group activity”—offenses which could be committed by a chance remark or playing cards with friends.

Because it had so many officials, professionals, and persons from other regions and countries, Moscow province and city, with twice the population of Leningrad, had three times as many casualties. Here too the executioners were overstretched. In 1937, some time before Hitler, Stalin’s NKVD hit on gassing as a means of mass execution. Trucks advertising bread drove around the Urals, pumping exhaust gases into the rear compartment where naked prisoners lay roped together in stacks, until their loads were ready for the burial pits.

The society called Memorial has traced 21,000 buried just in the Butovo military area south of Moscow. The victims include hundreds of local peasants, most of the monks and priests of the Troitse-Sergeev monastery in Zagorsk who had survived earlier purges, inmates from the Dmitlag—the camps which supplied the labor force for the Moscow– Volga canal—and thousands from central Moscow prisons. Many professionals vital to the economy, such as Leopold Eikhenvald, a professor of radio-electronics, had naturally studied and researched abroad; their “spylike way of life and anti-Soviet agitation” doomed them. There was no gratitude: the Tsar’s head of gendarmerie, the elderly General Dzhunkovsky who had taught the Cheka all he knew about countersubversion, was shot. Any contact with Europe was lethal. The Commissariat of Foreign Affairs lost ten diplomatic couriers to the pits at Butovo. Forty-seven Austrian refugees from Hitler were shot as Nazi spies, as were 600 Germans and over 1,000 Latvians. Butovo specialized in artists: over a hundred painters, iconographers, sculptors, and designers, the 1920s Moscow avant-garde, perished in December 1937 and January 1938.

As men and women were shot, their names were struck off endless typed lists which bore the signatures of an NKVD troika or, if the condemned were of any importance, of Politburo members. Attached to the lists were photographs of harrowed and beaten faces, taken shortly after arrest—the NKVD owned perhaps the world’s largest photographic archive, of some 10 million faces. The execution orders bore just one instruction: “When carrying out the sentence it is obligatory to check the person against the photograph.”

Butovo was a killing ground from August 8, 1937, to September 19, 1938. The flow of corpses peaked in September 1937 (3,165) and March 1938 (2,335), and varied from a handful to 474 victims in one night. Most of the 21,000 were executed by a small team of NKVD hangmen: M. I. Semionov, I. D. Berg, and P. I. Ovchinnikov. Most killers in the NKVD never rose high and few were ever held to account; their usual punishment was alcoholism.

When Ezhov vanished—unmourned, unmentioned in the press— and the terror paused before taking new directions, it was assumed that Stalin had reasserted control over the purges which he had temporarily lost. But now it is indisputable that he was aware of all Ezhov’s actions in detail and in advance. Ezhov not only enthusiastically sought authority to purge more and more spheres of industry or classes of person; Stalin himself spurred Ezhov on, pointing out, for instance, the Baku oil fields as an area likely to be harboring great numbers of saboteurs and spies. Whenever senior party members or key professionals were sentenced, lists went to the Politburo—to Stalin, Kaganovich, Molotov, and Voroshilov—for their emendations. The names of some 7 percent of the victims of the Great Terror—40,000—were perused by one or more of these four. Occasionally Stalin crossed out a name or substituted imprisonment for death; Molotov, for reasons he would not later recall, did the opposite. All four added comments: “deserves it,” “prostitute,” “scum.” On one day they confirmed over 3,000 death sentences. Georgi Malenkov had, as the Central Committee’s personnel officer, a hard job finding replacements and Stalin told each new commissar to appoint two deputies to take over if he was arrested. From time to time Stalin would gently apply the brakes, requiring a party secretary or prosecutor to sanction certain arrests.

Ezhov exercised all his ingenuity to keep up the pace. His original target, agreed with Stalin, of 200,000 arrests and 73,000 executions, was exceeded ninefold, with Stalin’s full cooperation. Moreover, Stalin’s younger acolytes Malenkov, Khrushchiov, and Andreev never deviated from his line by a millimeter, and starred in the troikas that sent thousands to their death. Stalin brought Ezhov into the Politburo in October 1937 and saw him almost every day. In 1937 and 1938 they spent over 840 hours working together. Only Molotov saw more of Stalin at that time.

Either Ezhov needed a tight rein or Stalin found mass murder so enthralling that he could not delegate, but in 1937 and 1938 Stalin forwent the annual break of two months or so that he had taken in the Caucasus or on the Black Sea ever since ousting Trotsky from the Politburo. After terror came war, and Stalin would not take a holiday again until October 1945.