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

Part VIII. THE RISE OF LAVRENTI BERIA

Chapter 48. Beria as Satrap

IN TBILISI BERIA commissioned a history of the Bolshevik movement in the Caucasus. Unwilling himself to read a book from cover to cover let alone write one, he selected the university rector and chairman of the Union of Georgian Writers, Malakia Toroshelidze, and the commissar for education, Eduard Bedia, to gather and falsify material on Stalin as the Lenin of the Caucasus. After Stalin’s editorial amendments, Beria assumed the authorship, and the book became required reading in colleges throughout the Caucasus. Beria had not committed the fatal lapse of Abel Enukidze, who had dared to produce a History of Underground Printing in the Caucasus in which Stalin’s name did not loom large.

Conducting the Great Terror on his home ground, Beria outshone both Stalin and Ezhov, with his knowledge of Georgia’s technological and creative elite. Many of the old party guard had been driven out or arrested by Iagoda or Ezhov; the rest were arrested by Beria in 1936 and 1937, their appeals to Stalin, whom many had known as a friend, unanswered. In 1935, when Stalin came to see his mother in Tbilisi, Malakia Toroshelidze had linked arms with Stalin and Beria while they sang folk songs.11 On December 16, 1936, his daughter Susanna begged Stalin: “My father, mother, and elder brother have been arrested. . . . I am seventeen . . . my other brother has been expelled. You can understand, Uncle Soso, my brother Levan has always been highly strung. . . . Uncle Soso, we worship our father.” 12 Toroshelidze and his co-author Bedia were shot.

While Beria ruled Transcaucasia—this “super-republic” was on paper dismantled in 1936—he was as ruthless with Armenia as with Georgia and its minorities, Mingrelian, Ajarian, Osetian, or Abkhaz. Jafar Bagirov, by himself, made Azerbaijan a living hell. In July 1936 Beria personally shot dead Khanjian, secretary of the Armenian party, and five months later he poisoned Nestor Lakoba and thus crushed the Abkhaz. 13 Stalin and Ezhov packed the Moscow Politburo and NKVD with Russians; Beria put Georgians in charge of Georgia, purging the minorities mercilessly.

Older Georgian Bolsheviks had close links to the intelligentsia. After dealing with them, Beria turned on Georgian writers, artists, musicians, and actors directly and with deadly effect. Between 1936 and 1938 a quarter of the members of the Georgian Union of Writers were destroyed; the survivors lost their capacity to speak or write. The writers were so easily conquered because they were so divided. Before Beria, the poets Paolo Iashvili and Titsian Tabidze had sat in judgment on the works of others. The files of the union are a list of altercations: a drunken remark, quarrels over the union’s Ford car, spawned feuds to which Beria’s purges gave fatal outcomes. Few saw the threat that Beria represented.

Beria’s relations with Georgian intellectuals were forged at parties and during altercations. He liked to walk into theater rehearsals; he liked to summon writers to meetings. In summer 1937 a dozen prominent writers were arrested. “Some of you,” said Beria, “still have undeclared links with enemies of the people. I omit the surnames.” Then Beria called the poet Titsian Tabidze over: “Among the omitted surnames, Mr. Tabidze, was yours.”

Old Bolsheviks like Beso Lominadze had been to school with poets like Paolo Iashvili and Titsian Tabidze, the founding members of the “Blue Horns” school, so called because it aimed to reconcile the blue of French symbolism with the drinking horns of Georgian hedonism and then make them amenable to Bolshevik ideology. Beria’s rise had at first encouraged poets. In 1934 Beria put Paolo Iashvili on the Transcaucasian Central Committee; the poet Galaktion Tabidze joined the Georgian Central Committee; even the feckless Titsian Tabidze sat on the Tbilisi soviet. When they realized the price of participation it was too late to step back.

The previous Georgian regime between 1929 and 1931 had inclined leftward. The Georgian classics had been banned: Shota Rustaveli as a feudalist, Ilia Chavchavadze as a bourgeois. Beria announced celebrations of the centenaries of both Rustaveli and Chavchavadze, sweeping aside Trotskyist fundamentalism and Russian chauvinism at the same time.

Beria showed theatrical talent: his first purge outside the party involved the director of the Rustaveli Theater, Sandro Akhmeteli. Akhmeteli fled to Moscow, only to find that Beria had powers of extradition. The director was imprisoned as a British spy who had plotted to kill Beria and Stalin. He was tortured until mute and paralyzed, then shot, on June 28, 1937, Beria’s final touch being an auction of all his goods in the theater.

Beria’s next target were Blue Horns poets. Their leader, Grigol Robakidze, his wife, and adopted daughter had been allowed by Orjonikidze to travel abroad. Robakidze defected to Germany, where he wrote novels set in Georgia. One, The Murdered Soul, has Stalin’s “horoscope,” a devastating psychopathological study: “Consumed with activity, Stalin sat in the Kremlin, a power-holder, not a ruler: the power line of revolutionary forces, a being, not a human being. A power cable with the warning ‘Danger of Death’ . . . He towered, full of cruel current, undefeatable, the cold, blind fate of the Soviet land and perhaps of the whole world....” 14 Robakidze’s defection was to provide Beria with all the excuse he needed to kill his friends.

In 1936 Georgian writers competed to offer hospitality to André Gide when he visited Tbilisi, Tsqaltubo, and Sukhum with a party of French communists. Those authors who gave Gide dinner and fulsome praises were, after Retour de l’URSS was published, indicted as fascists. The novelist Mikheil Javakhishvili had remarked, “André Gide has some good ideas.” Paolo Iashvili admitted that hospitality to visiting dignitaries was his sycophantic recidivist disease, and wrote a poem, “To the Traitor André Gide”: “Treacherous, black-faced Trotsky’s cur, following your master.” But to no avail. Nothing that Georgian poets did could exempt them from mass damnation in May 1937.

The journal Literary Georgia was Beria’s mouthpiece. It devoted a whole issue to Beria’s review of the progress Georgian writers had made in reforming their verse and behavior to meet his demands and those of Stalin. Giorgi Leonidze was the first of several Georgian writers to compose a work on the childhood of Stalin. The idea was typical of Beria’s bidding system, in which almost every writer participated and in which only bids that were neither too innovative nor too trite succeeded. In 1934 every Georgian capable of versification contributed to a luxuriously produced anthology on Stalin; in 1935 offers were invited for “artistic biography.” By 1939 those that survived had all produced a novel or a poem.

Beria reminded Georgian writers that while the Germans were burning Heine he was reprinting Rustaveli. He insisted on the supremacy of his patronage above all other reasons for writing. By 1937 what was not attributed to Beria was dedicated to him. A young sycophant, Grigol Abashidze, wrote:

To Lavrenti Beria

You are everywhere, wherever coal is cut Or open meadows heartily plowed, You lead in front and in our land Stalin’s idea has become fact.

The great blow came on May 15, 1937, in Beria’s report to the party. Under a photograph of Beria in NKVD uniform came a list of works published or aborted, like trees planted or uprooted, coalfields exploited or abandoned. Achievements and failures in poetry, prose, drama, and criticism were enumerated group by group. Beria’s venom was reserved for critics who had misled fellow writers. The first arrest was of Benito Buachidze, a critic trying to live down the connotations of the name he had chosen when Benito Mussolini was admired by Russian poets. Buachidze had terrorized non-proletarian Georgian writers with his hard-left criteria; ironically, his strictures were plagiarized by Beria.

To Davit Demetradze, an ineffectual critic, Beria entrusted the conduct of writers’ union sessions from May to October 1937, at which writers had to incriminate themselves and others. Only two stayed away: Georgia’s most popular poets, Galaktion Tabidze and Ioseb Grishashvili. Beria exempted them as Stalin had exempted Pasternak, and controlled them as Stalin controlled his protégés.15 Everyone else underwent sessions that went on from 7:00 p.m. until 3:30 in the morning. 16

After ritual adulation of Beria’s speeches, writers had to confess their links to those previously arrested. The wretched victim was then led off by NKVD agents waiting in the foyer.

Blue Horns poets incriminated themselves, or exculpated themselves and incriminated others. Nikolo Mitsishvili, who had recruited Osip Mandelstam as a translator and thus brought his own poetry and Tabidze’s to the attention of Russian readers, was arrested during the proceedings. Mitsishvili’s apogee had been in 1934: his panegyric had been printed on the first page of Beria’s anthology of poetry to Stalin and then translated by Pasternak. His nemesis followed a drunken party where he said what he thought of Soviet leaders; he was the first Blue Horn to be shot.

The Georgian poet whose doom most horrified Russian poets was Paolo Iashvili—friend of Pasternak, translator of Pushkin. Seated on a white horse, Iashvili had in 1921 greeted the communist invaders at the city boundaries. Iashvili’s downfall was precipitated by his intimacy with Red literati from Moscow and Paris, leading scientists such as Gogi Eliava and Volodia Jikia, and discredited party leaders. Iashvili had shouted loudest for Kamenev and Zinoviev to be shot, but sensed his vulnerability, replying to his fellow writers’ interrogation: “What is a Soviet writer supposed to do when he is drinking wine in some dubious cellar and some drunk, a stranger, stands up and makes an insincere speech to you, praising your literary achievements to the sky and you are forced to stand up and publicly respond with a speech of thanks to a man who is very often extremely suspect?”

On July 22, 1937, during a session debating his expulsion, Paolo Iashvili pulled out a concealed gun and shot himself dead. The writers’ union plenum then passed a resolution expressing the wish that Iashvili would be remembered with “unbounded loathing” and condemning his “treacherous work.” Titsian Tabidze walked out of the proceedings and was denounced for decadence and for loyalty to the defector Robakidze. Titsian resigned himself to his fate, and his lyric genius returned:

Many more races will pass, Perhaps the Pontus Euxine may dry up, All the same the poet’s throat, slit from ear to ear, Will live in the atom of verse.

Tabidze was slowly tortured to death.

At these meetings Georgia’s finest prose writer, Konstantine Gamsakhurdia (father of Georgia’s future president), defended Titsian Tabidze from abuse and refused to speak unless NKVD agents were silenced. He reported an assurance received from Orjonikidze that dissident intellectuals would not be sent to concentration camps, “because this would be imitating Hitler.” Gamsakhurdia was a Mingrelian, like Beria, and had been the independent Georgian government’s envoy in Germany. He had been sent to the Solovetsky islands as a bourgeois nationalist. On his return he had translated Dante’s Inferno and then written an outrageous novel about collectivization, Stealing the Moon, in which a Beria-like party activist rapes his mother and murders his father. Beria nevertheless gave Gamsakhurdia an inscribed revolver, and when he was arrested for an affair with Lida Gasviani, the “Trotskyist” director of the state publishing house, he was released. Gamsakhurdia’s relations with Beria were based on mutual respect and detestation. Gamsakhurdia was the only living Georgian novelist whose work Stalin, despite scribbling abuse in the margin, admired.

Georgia’s other major novelist, Mikheil Javakhishvili, was a marked man. On July 26, 1937, the union voted: “Mikheil Javakhisvili, as an enemy of the people, a spy and diversant, is to be expelled from the Union of Writers and physically annihilated.” One brave friend, Geronti Kikodze, walked out of the hall.17 Javakhishvili was beaten in Beria’s presence until he signed a confession; he was shot on September 30. His property was looted, his archives destroyed, his brother shot, his widow turned into a recluse for the next forty-five years.

Beria wiped out most of the major writers of Armenia, Abkhazia, and Osetia but he could not touch any Russian writers except for those already arrested. On December 10, 1937, Beria addressed the survivors. He linked all his victims—engineers, theater directors, poets—with a plot to spread typhoid, to sell Ajaria to the Turks, and to kill Lavrenti Beria.

image imageLike Ezhov, Beria seduced or raped women by first arresting their husbands, lovers, or fathers. Unlike Ezhov, he made his sexual predilections public. Sandwiched on the backseat of an open-top Buick between two guards—appropriately named Sikharulidze (son of joy) and Talakhadze (son of mud)—Beria curb-crawled Tbilisi, abducting schoolgirls. On moving to Moscow, Beria at first refrained from these expeditions, but soon after the war his black car and two guards, now Sarkisian and Nadaraia, the latter the executioner of Metekhi prison, resumed cruising for young girls. Beria inspired loathing among his party colleagues, many as murderous as he, largely because of his predilection for their wives, mistresses, and daughters.