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


Chapter 44. Martyrdom for Poets

IN 1937, EVERY ORGANIZATION, from writers’ unions to collective farms, held, under the supervision of local party and NKVD officers, a miniature version of the February–March Central Committee plenum. Writers, composers and artists, engineers, doctors, and academics sentenced each other to expulsion and arrest. Panicked ranks offered up, in propitiation, their most talented members for sacrifice.

Writers were already at loggerheads with the Politburo. Ezhov’s acolyte V. Ostroumov collated reports on the conversations, regardless of prestige or talent, of authors from Babel to Demian Bedny. Babel, a lover of Ezhov’s wife, attracted special attention.39 He had, said an informer, spread rumours that Gorky had been murdered on orders from above. On Trotsky Babel had remarked, “it’s impossible to imagine the charm and the strength of his influence on anyone who encounters him”; on Kamenev, “the most brilliant connoisseur of language and literature.” Pasternak had been praised by Bukharin, had relatives in Britain, had complimented André Gide, and was repeatedly denounced. 40

Ostroumov informed Stalin that the poet Mikhail Svetlov had said, “everyone’s being rounded up, literally everyone. Commissars and their deputies have moved to the Lubianka. But what is ridiculous and tragic is that we walk among these events without understanding a thing about them. . . . What are they so afraid of ? . . . we are just pathetic remnants of an era that has died . . . This isn’t trial, but organized murder.”

Demian Bedny again missed an ideological about-face: he produced an operatic satire, Mythical Heroes, which set a burlesque medieval Russia to music by Borodin. But Stalin now thought medieval Russia an edifying prelude to his own rule and approved of the conversion to Christianity in the tenth century. Demian’s opera was banned, and he was excluded from the party for “moral degeneracy.” His reaction, according to the NKVD source, was suicidal:

The oppression and terror in the USSR are such that neither literature nor science is possible. . . . It seems I’ve been in a party, 99.9 percent of whom were spies and provocateurs. Stalin is a horrible person and is often motivated by personal scores. All great leaders always created around themselves brilliant pleiades of comrades in arms. But whom has Stalin created? He’s exterminated everybody, there’s nobody, everyone’s been annihilated. Only Ivan the Terrible did anything like that. . . . The army is completely destroyed. . . . The peasants are afraid of nothing because they think that prison is no worse than the collective farm.41

Stalin mercifully let his old friend die in his bed of diabetes. He penned a note to be read aloud to Demian, saying that “we Soviet people have enough literary junk anyway, so it is unlikely to be worth your while increasing the layers of such literature with yet another fable . . .” and apologizing to “Demian-Dante for my involuntary frankness.”

Three of Russia’s greatest poets, Osip Mandelstam, Nikolai Kliuev, and the young Nikolai Zabolotsky, were marked out for destruction. The writers’ union secretary, Vladimir Stavsky, wrote to Ezhov on March 16, 1938:

In a section of the writers’ milieu the Osip Mandelstam question has been discussed with a great deal of apprehension. As you know, for obscene libelous verses and anti-Soviet agitation, Mandelstam was exiled to Voronezh three or four years ago. The term of his exile has ended. He now lives with his wife near Moscow (outside the 100-kilometer zone). But in fact he often visits his friends, mainly literary people, in Moscow. They support him, collect money for him, make him into a “martyr,” a poet of genius whom nobody recognizes. . . . The question is about the attitude of a group of prominent Soviet writers to Mandelstam. And I am turning to you, Nikolai Ivanovich, with a request for help.

Mandelstam has just written a series of poems [the Voronezh notebooks that became famous thirty years later]. But they have no particular value—even in the general opinion of the comrades whom I have asked to take a look at them (especially Comrade Pavlenko, whose report I enclose). 42

Piotr Pavlenko, both police spy and critic for years, confirmed that Mandelstam was dispensable—“not a poet, but a versifier . . . his language is complex, obscure, and smells of Pasternak.” In May, at a sanatorium to which he was lured, Mandelstam was arrested and given ten years in the camps, a sentence which not even a healthy man could expect to survive. He died in his first Vladivostok winter.

Stalin rarely bothered to inquire about the fate of those the NKVD sent to the GULAG, even when he himself sanctioned the arrest. They were “camp dust,” as good as dead to him. Stalin took only an initial predatory interest in Mandelstam. But nobody understood Stalin better than this other Joseph. In 1937 Mandelstam imagined Stalin as a dehumanized prisoner of the Kremlin:

Inert, inside a mountain lies an idol In thrifty, boundless, happy rooms, And from his neck drips the fat of necklaces, Guarding the ebb and flow of dreams . . .

The scattered bones are tied into a bundle, The knees, the hands, the shoulders humanized. He smiles with his most serene mouth, He thinks in bone and feels with his brow And tries to recollect his human guise.

Many Leningrad writers were also engulfed; the NKVD invented a conspiracy linking children’s writers, translators, and poets to the civil war poet Nikolai Tikhonov. The NKVD and the editor Nikolai Lesiuchevsky, who advised them, as Pavlenko did in Moscow, were however disconcerted when Stalin and Tikhonov took a shine to each other at the Pushkin jubilee celebrations. The NKVD nevertheless drove mad the surreal poet Daniil Kharms, who had recently written his best-known lines for children:

He kept going straight and ahead, and kept looking ahead. He didn’t sleep, he didn’t drink, he didn’t drink, He didn’t sleep, he didn’t sleep, drink or eat. And then one day at sunset he entered a dark forest, And since then, since then, since then he has vanished.

They also arrested the maverick poet Nikolai Oleinikov. His interrogator, Major Iakov Perelmuter, himself shot in 1940, told him, “I know you’re innocent, but the lot has fallen on you and you must sign this fake statement, or else you will be beaten until you sign it or die.” Oleinikov was shot as a Japanese spy on November 24, 1937.

Nikolai Zabolotsky was luckier: on March 19 he was arrested and tortured, but his vivid imagination caused him to go mad. His tormentors were bored by psychiatric cases and Zabolotsky was sent to the GULAG. His charm and talent as a draftsman saved him from hard labor; he was the only important poet to survive the camps and convey what he experienced:

So here it was, the land of melancholy, The Hyperborean barracks, In which Pliny the Ancient had seen An orifice stretching into hell!

Any poet who had, like Mandelstam, been exiled by Iagoda was certain of death from Ezhov. Nikolai Kliuev, denounced to Iagoda by Gronsky, editor of Izvestiia, was in the wilds of Siberia. His appeals to the Political Red Cross and to Kalinin went unanswered even though he recanted: “I respect and exalt the Great Leader of the world’s proletariat, Comrade Stalin!” Kliuev was moved 300 miles nearer Moscow, to Tomsk where, half-paralyzed, he was embroiled by the Tomsk NKVD in the fictitious “Union for the Salvation of Russia.” After months of agony Kliuev was shot in a batch of hundreds on waste ground outside Tomsk around October 24, 1937. When the victims were exhumed in 1956, in the presence of Kliuev’s arresting officer, now rector of Tomsk University, Kliuev’s suitcase with his last manuscripts was found by his bones.

The theatrical world was handled more gingerly as the party bosses valued theater for relaxation. The Bolshoi and Moscow Arts theaters, which provided ballerinas for the Politburo’s beds and informers for the NKVD, received awards and pay increases. Other theaters trembled— Stalin exploited directors’ egos, inducing Vsevolod Meierkhold and Aleksandr Tairov to denounce each other—but of all Leningrad’s and Moscow’s directors and theaters only Meierkhold and his theater were doomed, partly because the actress Zinaida Raikh, Meierkhold’s wife, wrote to Stalin on April 29, 1937:

I keep arguing with you in my head, trying all the time to prove how wrong you sometimes are about art. . . . You are being so infinitely, infinitely deceived, they hide from you and lie to you that you have now rightly addressed the masses. For you I am now the voice of the masses and you have to listen to the bad and the good from me. . . . I have planned a meeting with you for the 5th of May, if you can. . . . I shall now write to Nikolai Ezhov about organizing this meeting....43

Two prose writers—Pilniak and Babel—had a year or two to wait before martyrdom, although terror had already silenced both. Andrei Platonov was ostracized, and his adolescent son arrested. Only Bulgakov, dying of kidney disease, still worked, dictating to his wife the last part of The Master and Margarita with its Manichaean vision of Stalin as Satan, the Professor Woland whose cosmic evil is the artist’s refuge against the mundane evil of his enemies.

One writer alone—Mikhail Sholokhov—dared denounce, at length, Ezhov’s horrors to Stalin.44 Sholokhov’s dogged courage, or blind despair, may have steered Stalin toward thinking that the Great Terror had done enough, and that Ezhov could now go. Living with servants, a motor car, and his own livestock like a feudal lord among the Cossacks who furnished the material for Quiet Flows the Don, Sholokhov would not stay quiet. With his friends he sat on the district party committee and ran his Vioshenskaia Cossack station as best he could. Unable to finish Quiet Flows the Don, he feuded with the NKVD and party authorities that ruled the Cossacks from Rostov on the Don. The enemy was Ezhov’s ally Efim Evdokimov. Sholokhov’s associates and a cousin were charged with counterrevolution and tortured. Sholokhov got his closest friend released, and took the war onto Ezhov’s territory.

The previous autumn Sholokhov had been received by Stalin twice, on both occasions with Molotov and Ezhov; they talked for over two hours. On February 16, 1938, Sholokhov sent Stalin a twenty-page letter. He accused the local NKVD of aiming to “destroy all the Bolshevik leadership” in the district and told Stalin, “it is time to unravel this tangle.” He denounced Evdokimov, the torture and the falsifications. Absurdly, Sholokhov’s cousin, a schoolmaster, had been accused of uprooting 10,000 fruit trees from school grounds of less than an acre. Stalin admired the power of Sholokhov’s portrayal of Cossacks divided by revolution and collectivization, even though Sholokhov’s querulous-ness exasperated him. Stalin had Sholokhov’s friends released, but made only perfunctory gestures to relieve the fear gripping Vioshenskaia and its Cossacks.

Stalin scrawled over Sholokhov’s letter, “Check this!” He sent Matvei Shkiriatov from the party Control Commission to investigate. Shkiriatov freed only three of the hundreds arrested around Vioshenskaia and found no reason to punish any NKVD officers. Sholokhov came to Moscow and saw Stalin twice more, getting his word in before Ezhov entered the office. The second time, on October 31, 1938, with him were two delegations, one of persecuted officials from Vioshenskaia, the other from the Rostov NKVD. In the presence of Beria, Ezhov was grilled by Stalin. In Moscow Sholokhov took even more extraordinary risks: he visited Ezhov and then, like Babel, slept with Ezhov’s wife. Their lovemaking in the Hotel National was recorded and a transcript given to Ezhov.45 But by October 1938 Ezhov was enfeebled: he could not take retaliatory action without Beria’s countersignature, although only Stalin’s intervention saved Sholokhov from the fate of others who had slept with either of the Ezhovs.

Sholokhov’s was a lone voice. Others blocked out their terror by celebrating the mirage of happiness over the Soviet horizon. Using Bukharin’s drafts, Stalin had in 1936 promulgated a constitution that promised secret ballots, freedom of speech, inviolability of the person, and privacy of correspondence. The census figures of 1937 were pulped; the demographic catastrophe that had happened was denied. Some memoirs of the mid-1930s evoke a golden age. The new Soviet elite with its special shops, sanatoria, villas, and servants could pretend, if it drank enough, to be secure. Just as elderly Germans maintain that they were unaware of the fate of their Jewish neighbors and recall in the mid-1930s only full employment, national pride, and public order, so some elderly Russians, often the pampered children of the new bureaucracy, deny being afraid for themselves or sorry for others at that time. Today’s cynical neo-Stalinists argue that the terror affected barely 1.5 percent of the population and that this price was worth paying to guarantee victory in the Second World War.

But what Soviet family or community was not scarred by Stalin’s tyranny? Was the price of victory not so high because the country’s morale, population structure, and armed forces had been crippled? Diaries of the 1930s, even when lyrical and hedonistic, have false, hysterical tones that betray fear and guilt.46

The Soviet glitterati and their attitude to the NKVD remind one of the Eloi in H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine—frolicking on lawns by day, sleeping in frightened huddles at night when out of subterranean shafts come apelike, pasty-faced Morlocks, the “human spiders” who snatch and eat them. Vladimir Stavsky, as he was snaring Osip Mandelstam for the NKVD, was enthusing to his diary about rescuing his cat, about rabbits and mice in the snow, the star-studded sky, Moscow’s new skyscrapers, and Lazar Kaganovich’s athletic physique. But Stavsky was bothered by his inability to write a single sentence of artistic worth, and in the summer of 1938 the beaches of Sochi, once crowded with the families of officials, were deserted. The prisons, camps, and mass graves overflowed. Institutions were breaking down for want of skilled workers.

Even though Stalin intervened directly in the management of terror, it still destroyed the very people that he needed to preserve. The USSR lost its astrophysicists when the Pulkovo Observatory in Leningrad was raided; Moscow’s low-temperature physics laboratory could have exploded when its physicists were taken by the NKVD. One also wonders what went through Stalin’s mind when he learned from a despairing relative’s letter in April 1938 that of the many thousands of women whom the NKVD had plucked from the streets in Moscow and lost in the camps one was his own daughter, Pasha Mikhailovskaia, the first of his illegitimate children.47

In autumn 1938 the terror seemed to stop, as suddenly as it had started eighteen months before. Stalin had for some time been giving Ezhov conflicting signals. He was awarded the Order of Lenin in July 1937—he shaved his head for the occasion—and was brought into the Politburo in October. But he knew that promotion from Stalin often foretold a favorite’s doom. On December 20, 1937, when Ezhov was the star of the evening at the Cheka’s twentieth-anniversary celebrations, Stalin stood Ezhov up; Anastas Mikoyan delivered the encomium to the “Iron Commissar.” Ezhov had been put on a pedestal as high as image’s—panegyrics were commissioned from folk poets in Dagestan, towns named after him—but Stalin had snubbed him.

Ezhov’s worsening drinking bouts forced the Politburo to grant him leave in December 1937. In February 1938 Ezhov took his protégé Uspensky to Kiev to install him as commissar of the Ukrainian NKVD. With Nikita Khrushchiov’s help, Ezhov and Uspensky, often too drunk to stand, decimated the Ukrainian chekisty. Ezhov was now arresting his own appointees. Some perished for complicity with Iagoda; some, like Iakov Deich of Rostov on the Don and Piotr Bulakh of Vladikavkaz, were arrested on the previously inconceivable pretext of “excesses.” “Excesses” were condoned again in September 1938, when local NKVD chiefs were told by Stalin to pass death sentences without referring them to the center, in other words to Ezhov. This last frenzy—105,000 shot by regional troikas—was, however, limited to two months. Its end was also Ezhov’s.