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


Chapter 43. Disarming the Army

. . . there were two guiding rules. One: the more harm a leader does, the more good he does for the fatherland. If he abolishes learning, good; if he burns down a city, good; if he terrifies the population, even better. . . . Two: to have as many bastards as possible to do your bidding. . . .

Then [the leader] gathered the “bastards” and said to them: “Bastards, write denunciations!” . . . They write denunciations, draw up harmful plans. . . . And all this semi-literate stinking matter gets to the zealous leader’s office. . . .

[The leader] gathered the “bastards” and said: “Tell me, bastards, what do you think real harm consists of?”

And the bastards replied unanimously: “. . . That the harm we bastards do should count as good; and good, if done by anyone else, count as harm. That nobody should dare to say a word about us bastards, while we bastards can yap what we like about whomever we want to. . . .”

Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, The Tale of the Zealous Leader (Stalin’s own underlining, c. 1951)30

STALIN WAS NOT only carrying out a cull of everything suspect in the general population; he made the February–March plenum of 1937 endorse a yet more demented campaign that would threaten to cripple the economy. The logic was that every commissariat must be badly infested by enemies. Kaminsky at health and Orjonikidze at heavy industry demurred; their commissariats, they were sure, were clean. These denials cost them their lives. Kaminsky was arrested, and on February 18, 1937, Orjonikidze, the last man to talk to Stalin as an equal, either shot himself or was shot by Stalin’s emissary.31

At first Voroshilov, war commissar, also resisted Stalin and Ezhov’s thesis. Voroshilov argued that the army took only the best sons of the people, but then changed his mind and announced to the assembled Central Committee news that “will make even your steel-hard hearts shake.” Several commanders were under arrest. At the plenum forty-two army officers spoke up in support of Voroshilov and against their comrades—thirty-four of them were to perish. Voroshilov was to preside over the murder of the army’s commanders, but he hung on to their gifts, cushions embroidered by their wives.32

Beheading the Red Army was certainly a successful preemptive strike. An army of NCOs could never mount a coup d’état, nor would the killing of army officers stir up the same horror among the intelligentsia as the slaughter of the peasantry or the urban professional classes; like Kamenev and Zinoviev, Tukhachevsky and his fellow civil war commanders were up to their necks in blood. And Stalin’s blow at his own power base had its paranoiac logic. The army was the last force outside Ezhov’s NKVD that could conceivably overthrow Stalin and it still contained officers from the Tsarist army. In addition, most Red Army commanders had been appointed by Trotsky and many despised the performances of Stalin and Voroshilov in the civil war—two had published accounts of the 1920 campaign against the Poles that showed Stalin at his worst. Moreover, for fifteen years the officers had collaborated with the German army in tactics and technology and, who knows, in ideology. Stalin especially distrusted the supreme commander, Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky. The marshal had charisma, and was so admired abroad that the German and the émigré Russian press had called him the USSR’s future Bonaparte.

Tukhachevsky had been arrested in 1923 and, with other commanders, came under Menzhinsky’s suspicion in 1930. Suspect officers were sent abroad as attachés, which in 1937 made them foreign spies. Did they really plot against Stalin? In his dotage Molotov insisted that Tukhachevsky had planned a coup; the NKVD defector Aleksandr Orlov alleged that Tukhachevsky had gotten hold of a document proving that Stalin had been an Okhranka agent. Tukhachevsky must have considered a coup d’état at some point. But, given the all-pervading NKVD—every two senior officers were monitored by a political commissar—and its overwhelming strength around the Kremlin, a coup could not be discussed, let alone mounted.

Stalin’s ingratitude toward the Red Army, without whose brilliance and energy he could have died on the gallows in 1919 or 1920, is attributed by some to a German sting. Soviet agents in the 1930s reported Nazi leaders mooting an officers’ plot against Stalin; in early 1937 Pravda received reports, which Stalin saw, that Alfred Rosenberg was cultivating anti-Semitic Red Army officers. The Gestapo and Abwehr allegedly concocted documents proving that Tukhachevsky’s staff was in German pay, and fed them to the NKVD through Beneš, the Czechoslovak foreign minister.33

Eight outstanding commanders—Tukhachevsky, Iona Iakir, Ieronim Uborevich, Avgust Kork, Robert Eideman, Boris Feldman, Vitali Primakov, and Vitovt Putna—were “tried” on June 11, 1937. Ezhov’s penciled notes of Stalin’s wishes has their names with “a” for “arrest” and a tick for “arrested.” A ninth victim, Gamarnik, bedridden, shot himself before the NKVD came. Stalin sadistically appointed, under Ulrikh’s chairmanship, the victims’ comrades as judges: Jekabs Alksnis, Vasili Bliukher, Ivan Belov, Semion Budionny, Pavel Dybenko, Nikolai Kashirin, and Boris Shaposhnikov. Before the trial began, the accused were beaten into making incriminating statements against their judges. Just two of the judges—the superannuated cavalryman Budionny, famous for the slaughter of Poles and Jews by his Cossacks in 1920, and the untalented Shaposhnikov—survived; the rest were executed within eighteen months.34 All the accused except Boris Feldman were badly tortured by Ezhov’s men. Feldman said whatever his interrogator wanted to hear,35 and had a comfortable cell, cigarettes, apples, even biscuits with his tea.

For months Tukhachevsky had had forebodings: his trip to London for the coronation of George VI had been canceled “in case of an assassination attempt by German and Polish agents.” On May 13, 1937, Stalin received him in the Kremlin for forty-five minutes in the company of Ezhov, Molotov, Voroshilov, and Kaganovich; possibly Stalin at this meeting offered him his life in exchange for a confession. Nine days later he was arrested and, after a week, battered by the truncheons of Ushakov and Izrail Leplevsky, he told Ezhov in person that he had conspired with Trotsky. He then had to concoct his plan to let Germany defeat the Red Army; this, with everyone else’s statements, was sent to Stalin to edit. Tukhachevsky’s statements are stained with his blood. Ushakov later boasted how he worked without sleep right until the day of the trial, forcing Feldman, Tukhachevsky, and Iakir to incriminate each other. By June 7 all eight had ceased to deny the charges, and Stalin, Kaganovich, and Voroshilov summoned Ezhov and Vyshinsky to plan the trial. On June 9 Stalin received pleas for mercy. On the most heartfelt of them, Iakir’s, the Politburo scribbled their observations: “Swine and prostitute, I. Stalin,” “A perfectly precise definition, K. Voroshilov,” “For a bastard, scum, and whore there is only one punishment—the death penalty, L. Kaganovich.” That evening Stalin was visited by Vyshinsky, Ezhov, and Lev Mekhlis, editor of Pravda.

At the trial the accused apparently—the transcript is “edited”— kept to their scripts. When the discomfited judges sought further details, the accused said they were unable to add any. Feldman alone spoke at length, in support of the prosecution. Budionny made regular reports to Stalin; another judge, Ivan Belov, told Voroshilov that the accused “had not told all the truth, they have taken a lot to the grave.” Feldman was the only prisoner to nurse any hopes: “Where is the concern for the living human being if we’re not reprieved?” he asked. At 11:35 p.m. on June 11 Ulrikh sentenced all eight to death. Ezhov and Vyshinsky asked each condemned man if he had anything to say as they were led off one by one to be shot by Vasili Blokhin, the Lubianka’s senior executioner.

NKVD investigators received medals. A campaign was launched by Stalin and Voroshilov to advertise a new army “cleansed of rotten gangrene down to healthy flesh,” an army from which 34,000 officers, not counting NCOs and rank and file, were dismissed in the following eighteen months. 36 The death toll was comparable to that of a major war, except that the highest ranks had a casualty rate typical of the rank and file. The lower the rank the smaller the chance of dismissal, and the greater the likelihood of avoiding subsequent arrest and execution. Of ninety dismissed komkory (generals) only six survived; of 180 divisional commanders dismissed just thirty-six escaped. Of captains 7,403 were dismissed and 5,613 escaped arrest, although a few received GULAG sentences and in 1941 were retrieved, variously crippled, to fight Hitler.

Even after Ezhov’s fall, when investigations were aborted and some interrogators arrested for falsification, Lavrenti Beria went on executing army officers. Some, like Bliukher, were beaten with a brutality exceeding even Ezhov’s. Bliukher died on November 9, 1938, under interrogation, blind in one eye, of a blood clot in the lung, after his abdominal organs had been reduced to pulp. Beria then telephoned Stalin, who ordered Bliukher to be cremated.

Slaughtering generals and sparing lieutenants could, a cynic might think, reanimate rather than demoralize an army. One can argue that the Red Army’s fiascos—the attack on Finland in 1940 and the retreat from Hitler in 1941—were compensated for by the prowess of its youthful command in 1943. But not even Voroshilov could have believed that the surgery he, Stalin, and Ezhov inflicted on the Red Army would make it fitter to defend the USSR. Paranoia and resentment, not military logic, dictated Stalin’s purge.

For potential opponents in Japan, Germany, Poland, and the Baltic states, the Red Army purge was a godsend; the Soviet public, however, applauded the murders of civil war heroes only feebly. They had gotten used to seeing Trotsky, Kamenev, Zinoviev, and Bukharin as opposition, but the Red Army leaders had remained official heroes right until their arrests. It was hard to regard Tukhachevsky, who in 1935 had written on the menace of Hitler’s new army, as a German spy. The intelligentsia, whose salons had sought out the suave Tukhachevsky at a time when it was suicidal to seek patronage from the old Bolshevik guard, composed no hosannas for this slaughter.

Stalin then gave his neighbors in eastern Europe a second present: he purged the Comintern, throwing foreign communists and their Soviet controllers to Ezhov’s wolves, in particular to Aleksandr Ivanovich Langfang. Langfang worked with excessive enthusiasm: he beat Jaan Anvelt, the Estonian communist leader, to death on December 11, 1937, and was reprimanded for “hindering by clumsy actions the exposure of a dangerous state criminal.” The Yugoslav Josip Broz (Tito), the Bulgarian Dimitrov, the Czech Klement Gottwald, the Italian Ercoli (Palmiro Togliatti), the German Wilhelm Pieck, the Finn Otto Kuusinen survived only by denouncing rivals. Survival came by Stalin’s whim: Langfang extracted incriminating evidence on everyone in the Comintern—Mao Tse-tung, Chou En-lai—and even some of the Politburo—Andreev, Zhdanov, and Kaganovich. Comintern members tried to show Stalin that they were his, body and soul: Kuusinen’s son was arrested, and when Stalin asked why he had not protested, Kuusinen replied, “No doubt there were serious reasons for his arrest.” (Kuusinen junior was released.) Some, like Harry Pollitt of Britain or Jacques Duclos of France, survived because their countries’ embassies did not wash their hands even of communists.

Stalin claimed that the Comintern was infected with Trotskyism and cosmopolitanism. Osip Piatnitsky, former secretary of the Comintern, and his friend Commissar for Health Kaminsky at the 1937 plenary meeting called Ezhov “a cruel man with no soul.”37 Stalin gave Piatnitsky two weeks to recant.38 In a vote condemning Piatnitsky, only Krupskaia and Litvinov abstained. At a banquet in November 1937 for the depleted Comintern under Dimitrov’s secretaryship, Stalin proclaimed, “We shall destroy every enemy, even an old Bolshevik, we shall annihilate his kith and kin.”