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

Part VIII. THE RISE OF LAVRENTI BERIA

Chapter 49. Mopping Up After Ezhov

TWO MONTHS AFTER ARRIVING in Moscow, Beria refined the terror. After November 15, 1938, victims were no longer chosen at random, but, as before 1936, for their links to others. Purges that Ezhov had begun in the armed forces, the NKVD, the Communist Youth Movement, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the intelligentsia were either wound up or stepped up. The NKVD was, after Ezhov’s appointees had been shot, also a happier place. They now had a leader supposedly trusted by Stalin and, instead of Ezhov’s unpredictable and scorpionlike ingratitude to his own juniors, a Caucasian set of relationships between boss and underlings: treachery was cruelly punished, but Beria stood by his men and loyalty was rewarded.

Beria learned faster than Ezhov, but had at first to seek Stalin’s advice—he lacked his predecessors’ familiarity with the Moscow elites: writers, journalists, army officers, diplomats. From September 1938 to Stalin’s death there were few periods when Beria and Stalin did not meet at least twice a week—and often daily. At first the meetings lasted less than an hour but by spring 1939 the two were talking for two hours at a time. In 1940, Beria was sometimes closeted with Stalin from 6:00 p.m. until 5:00 the next morning. Even after 1949, when Stalin was seventy and saw fewer people for less time, Beria usually visited weekly for two hours.

Beria’s first task was to purge the NKVD of Ezhov’s appointments and the remnants of Iagoda’s men. From September 1938 to February 1939 ninety-seven NKVD bosses were arrested, as many as in the whole two years of Ezhov’s rule. Most were shot in 1939, well before Ezhov died, but some were milked for two years to provide material for future arrests. Among the victims was Beria’s former boss Stanislav Redens. Beria personally signed the warrant. Vacancies were filled by Beria’s own men.

In the lower ranks, in one year Beria dramatically raised the educational level of the NKVD: graduates rose from 10 to over 35 percent, while those with no secondary education fell from 42 to 18 percent. Ezhov’s Slav chauvinism was mitigated by the transfer of half a dozen men, not all of them Georgians but mostly from Tbilisi’s NKVD, notably Sergo Goglidze, a commissar of state security under Ezhov, and Goglidze’s deputy Mikeil Gvishiani. Beria sent Goglidze to Leningrad and Gvishiani to Vladivostok as his satraps. The Belorussians came under the control of Lavrenti Tsanava.18 The Uzbeks too were policed by a Georgian, Aleksi Sajaia. Twenty years before, under his pseudonym Dr. Kalinichenko, Sajaia had been notorious as the most sadistic chekist in Odessa. In 1939 the whole of the USSR could be said to be controlled by Georgians and Mingrelians.

Notable among Beria’s parvenus were the Tbilisi Armenian brothers Bogdan and Amayak Kobulov, Vladimir Dekanozov, a Georgian from Baku, and Solomon Milshtein, a Vilnius Jew who had joined the Transcaucasian Cheka with Beria and whose promotion of physical education in Tbilisi made him into the fittest of Beria’s torturers. Amayak Kobulov soon became councilor at the Soviet embassy in Berlin, and Dekanozov also went to Germany, as Stalin’s ambassador to Hitler. Bogdan Kobulov, a man who rationalized his brutality by seeing himself as part of an elite with a right to rule, graduated to be Beria’s deputy.19 Solomon Milshtein was to oversee the USSR’s railways.

The intellectual in Beria’s team was a Caucasian Russian, Vsevolod Merkulov, who had studied physics for three years at St. Petersburg University and had proved his mettle in quelling the Ajarian rebellion of 1929. Beria’s most violent henchman, a Jew from Tbilisi, Leonid Raikhman, held a key post in the NKVD’s training school. Someone whom Beria genuinely liked and brought to Moscow was Prince Shalva Tsereteli, a brave dimwit who had been in prison with Beria in Kutaisi in 1920, escaped to become a bandit and joined the Georgian Cheka as a professional killer. As under Iagoda, the secret police again included a token aristocrat. Beria also brought from Tbilisi the Latvian A. P. Eglitis. Two men who would have a future in the KGB were picked by Beria from the Red Army: Sergei Kruglov, a tank mechanic, took charge of NKVD personnel, and Ivan Serov, the butcher of Budapest in 1956, learned his trade as commissar of the Ukrainian NKVD.

Beria kept on very few key figures from Ezhov’s regime: Pavel Meshik, a Ukrainian specializing in state security, was too talented to shoot and still young enough to retrain as an economist for the NKVD; Iakov Rapoport, the only long-lived Latvian Jew in the NKVD elite, continued to build canals with GULAG labor; Leonid Fokeevich Bashtakov, chief disciplinary officer in the OGPU and NKVD training schools, was chosen by Beria to deal with extrajudicial killings, euphemistically called special operations. Lev Vlodzimirsky, a Russian despite his Polish surname, had ruled the north Caucasus under Iagoda, been brought to Moscow by Ezhov, and was now promoted by Beria to take charge of the directorate for investigations.

Beria kept on especially talented interrogators such as Esaulov, who questioned Ezhov. Lev Aronovich Shvartsman, a semiliterate promoted by Ezhov for his talent in beating prisoners and editing their statements, was promoted. So was his close colleague Boris Veniaminovich Rodos, who battered Ezhov into submission. Rodos enjoyed Beria’s confidence, and his purview included all who had ever brought up Beria’s role as a double agent in Baku. On Beria’s behalf Rodos tortured and dispatched many Caucasians including Betal Kalmykov, first secretary of the Kabarda-Circassian party, and Sergo Orjonikidze’s younger brothers and secretaries. The miracle is that Beria let Rodos, who knew so much, outlive him.

Beria let Rodos loose on the central Asian party leadership in spring and summer 1939. Working in the specially equipped Moscow prison of Lefortovo and scorning the usual truncheons, drugs, or electrodes, he trampled victims with his boots or urinated into their mouths. Another of Ezhov’s men Beria singled out, Aleksandr Langfang, made a brilliant career. A former concrete pourer, he was known for his brutality as a “chopper” (kolun), reducing many former diplomats and Comintern representatives into unrecognizable pulp. Even more fearsome was Shvartsman, who specialized in torturing women and then editing their incoherent confessions, despite his lack of education, with an elegance and grammatical correctness unrivaled in the Lubianka.20

NKVD men who had fled to other areas of government were hounded down, as they had been by Ezhov; almost none previously arrested were spared by Beria. Béla Kun underwent another year’s interrogation before being shot in November 1939. His consort Rozalia Zemliachka kept her post in Party Control. Stalin shielded her for sentimental reasons—in 1903 she had been almost the first of Lenin’s emissaries to contact the young Jughashvili.

A very few NKVD men arrested by Ezhov were retrieved by Beria. Andrei Sverdlov, the son of the first head of the Soviet state, had as a boy stolen Iagoda’s cigarettes and later been found work as the GPU’s youngest interrogator. Ezhov, no doubt at Stalin’s behest, had Sverdlov arrested. He was interrogated unusually gently and delivered to the Lubianka. Beria apologized to him on behalf of the Central Committee and appointed him assistant to the man who had just interrogated him. Sverdlov, at twenty-eight, became Beria’s specialist in academicians, poets, and the wives of arrested old Bolsheviks; he was noted for mixing physical violence with sophisticated conversation.

Beria was resisted by only one veteran chekist, Mikhail Kedrov, now head of an institute of neuropsychology. Kedrov’s son Igor, a serving NKVD officer, was horrified at Beria’s promotion and urged his father to tell Stalin what he had last said in 1923—that Beria had been an Azeri police agent. Beria arrested Mikhail Kedrov in February 1939 and Igor two months later. Kedrov senior was, to Beria’s fury, acquitted by the USSR’s supreme court. Not until October 1941, when Beria evacuated a trainload of prisoners to Saratov on the Volga, could he shoot Kedrov out of hand.

Beria extinguished the last spark of humanity in Ezhov’s satrapy. Lefortovo prison, which broke prisoners who held out in the Lubianka, had a hospital where torture victims were restored so that interrogation could resume. Anna Anatolievna Rozenblium, the “good fairy of Lefortovo,” reverted to the Tsarist tradition of compassionate prison doctors, like Dr. Haas who had nursed the young Dostoevsky back to sanity in Omsk. Anna Rozenblium in two years’ service at Lefortovo certified forty-nine cases in which prisoners died under torture and nursed many more back to health. The few who survived Lefortovo and the GULAG remember her as the last human being in the NKVD. On January 31, 1939, Beria arrested Anna Rozenblium, and Boris Rodos trampled her. Convicted as a Polish spy, she emerged fifteen years later from the GULAG to testify against her torturers.

The NKVD was superficially reformed: officers still took the furniture and apartments of those they arrested, but Beria now stipulated “that the furniture is to be stock-checked and temporarily given to employees quartered in these apartments,” although no NKVD or KGB man ever gave back to rehabilitated survivors the possessions they stole. Prisoners were no longer driven about the streets in marked vehicles, but were discreetly transported in vans signed “Vegetables” or “Meat,” thus serving two propaganda purposes at once.

Beria decided to give the NKVD the same cultural gloss as the Red Army, establishing the world’s only secret-police song and dance ensemble. It was to perform for Stalin’s official sixtieth-birthday celebrations in December 1939.21 This ensemble would give in 1941 an unlikely refuge to the satirical dramatist Nikolai Erdman, who had infuriated Stalin in the 1920s with his play The Suicide. In 1933 Erdman had incurred arrest and three years’ exile in Siberia by inducing the actor Vasili Kachalov to recite in front of Stalin his fable:

The GPU arrested Aesop
And smashed his glasses and his teeth up.
The moral of our fable’s this:
Don’t ever dare to take the piss.
 22

The belief that Beria would restore justice and moderation to NKVD activities was fostered by the release of prisoners when an NKVD investigator was arrested or dismissed. Those released were able to protest their innocence and denounce illegal torture; little did they know that in 1939 Stalin repeated in writing the telegraphed authorization he had in 1937 given the NKVD to use “physical methods of influence.”

The chief prosecutor, Andrei Vyshinsky, easily adapted to Beria’s regime. He staged public demonstrations of legality: a group of veterinarians accused of spreading anthrax among horses found a lawyer, Boris Menshagin, to defend them and were released.23 Vyshinsky himself moved into government, as deputy chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars. As always, Vyshinsky survived by throwing his colleagues to the wolves. In the previous two years he had denounced any prosecutor with a sense of legality or conscience to Ezhov. Faina Niurina, vulnerable as a woman and a Jew, had signed her own death warrant in 1937 when she quoted the guillotined French revolutionary Olympe de Gouge: “If a woman has the right to mount the scaffold, she has the right to join the tribunal.”24 Now the ruthless Grigori Roginsky, whom Vyshinsky had used to dispatch rival prosecutors such as Krylenko, was sanctimoniously handed over to Beria as a counterrevolutionary. Beria put Roginsky in the hands of his hardest men, Bogdan Kobulov and Lev Vlodzimirsky.25 By 1940 the prokuratura was run by Viktor Bochkov, an army officer who knew no law but had advised Ezhov on which army officers to arrest. Beria could rely on Bochkov to fit the law to the NKVD’s needs.

Arrests in the Red Army dwindled under Beria in 1939. That year only 847 officers were dismissed and forty-one arrested; under Ezhov some 38,000 had been dismissed of whom nearly 10,000 were repressed. The naval officer Piotr Smirnov-Svetlovsky, arrested in March 1939, was perhaps the last accused conspirator in the armed forces. In 1939 Beria even had some 5,570 dismissed officers reinstated.26 Two years later the NKVD recorded at least 18,000 Red Army men alive in its prisons and camps, and some were retrieved for service in the Second World War.

The GULAG population nevertheless grew relentlessly—by January 1, 1939, to 1,344,408, with another 315,584 in corrective labor camps and the same number in prison. The courts began to acquit some of those accused of counterrevolution; convictions for political crimes fell to a tenth of the 1938 figures. Shootings also tailed off. Beria and Stalin cut counterrevolutionary executions from 328,618 in 1938 to 2,552 in 1939 and a mere 1,649—if the murder of 21,000 captured Poles and the thousands of shootings in the GULAG camps are ignored—in 1940. The mortality of prisoners in the GULAG fell to 50,000, half the 1938 figures. Beria is credited with an amnesty, but in reality fewer (223,622) were freed from the GULAG in 1939 than had been in 1938 (279,966). In 1940 over 300,000 were let out. These figures however pale beside the influx of new prisoners: 749,647 in 1939 and 1,158,402 in 1940. Terror under Beria was just as massive, only less immediately deadly.

Stalin wanted a more pliable, not a more humane, NKVD, and on occasion gave Beria orders to kill without arrest, let alone trial. Under Iagoda and Ezhov such killings had been largely done abroad; now they happened in the USSR. The first victim, in July 1939, was the Soviet ambassador to China, Ivan Bovkun-Luganets. He was not to be arrested lest his colleagues still in China panic and defect. Beria and Bogdan Kobulov reserved a Pullman railway carriage to take Bovkun-Luganets and his wife, Nina, to Georgia, to the mountain resort of Tsqaltubo. Three senior NKVD men shared the carriage, two of Beria’s acolytes, Lev Vlodzimirsky and Shalva Tsereteli, and the bodyguard Veniamin Gulst, an Estonian Jew. Tsereteli killed the ambassador with a hammer, Vlodzimirsky battered the ambassador’s wife, and Gulst strangled her. At Kutaisi station the bodies were unloaded in sacks. The head of the Georgian NKVD, Akvsenti Rapava, had the bodies driven into the mountains. An accident was staged. The driver of the car was shot and all three bodies were buried in Tbilisi. The ambassador and his wife— but not the chauffeur—were then exhumed and reburied with full honors on Stalin’s orders.

The same summer Stalin decided that Marshal Grigori Kulik must be punished for protesting at the army killings in 1938. But because of the Finnish war of winter 1939–40 the marshal himself, an artillery specialist, seemed temporarily indispensable. It was decided in 1940 just to kill his wife, and for two weeks the killers of the Bovkun-Luganetses, Vlodzimirsky, Tsereteli, and Gulst, staked out the marshal’s apartment until she came out alone. She was interrogated by Beria and, believing she had been recruited as an agent, sent by Kobulov to be shot by Blokhin at Sukhanovka prison. Marshal Kulik reported her as a missing person.27 Vlodzimirsky and Tsereteli were given medals; Gulst was made deputy commissar for internal affairs in newly conquered Estonia. Stalin had Beria put on hold plans to kill Commissar for Foreign Affairs Maksim Litvinov and the nuclear physicist Piotr Kapitsa. For the first lover of Stalin’s daughter, the film director Aleksei Kapler, Beria’s men merely arranged a beating.