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

Part VIII. THE RISE OF LAVRENTI BERIA

Chapter 50. The Last of the Intellectuals

THE FIRST BIG PROJECT assigned to Beria by Stalin was the show trial of a vast network of alleged spies. Dozens of intellectuals and party officials made hundreds of confessions, incriminating virtually every writer who had not yet been arrested and every ambassador and official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Between the first arrests and the final executions two years would pass but Stalin finally decided against the show trial itself. At the end of 1939 his pact with Hitler and the partition of eastern Europe would occupy the limelight. In any case, some of those incriminated might yet be of service to the Soviet state.

The scapegoat was the journalist Mikhail Koltsov. If Pravda featured a readable piece in the 1930s, Koltsov was probably the author. His versatility and courage—he was a pioneer pilot and had been a a front-line war correspondent from Kronstadt to Barcelona—belied his frail appearance and made him genuinely popular. Koltsov could toe the Stalinist line and would even help the NKVD murder “enemies of the people” with whom he was acquainted, but in his writing he could be bitingly satirical. 28 He was also famous in Europe for his Spanish Diary, which had recorded as graphically, if not honestly, as George Orwell the corrupted idealism of the Spanish Civil War. The USSR had been officially neutral in this war and Koltsov had invented an alter ego, Don Miguel, for his fighting role.

Stalin, Ezhov, and Beria distrusted Soviet participants in the Spanish war. Military advisers like Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko, the Soviet general consul in Barcelona, and journalists like Koltsov were open to infection by the heresies, especially Trotsky’s, prevalent among the republic’s supporters. NKVD agents sent to Spain were therefore keener on abducting and murdering anti-Stalinists among republican leaders and International Brigade commanders than on fighting Franco. The defeat of the republic, in Stalin’s eyes, was caused not by the NKVD’s diversionary efforts, but by the treachery of the heretics.

Stalin had twenty years’ worth of grudges against Koltsov. He had spent 1918 in his native city Kiev, where under Kaiser Wilhelm’s benign occupation the Ukrainian press had printed his liberal and anti-Bolshevik articles. In 1923, against Stalin’s wishes, Koltsov had printed in Ogoniok —the magazine he founded and which outlasted the Soviet Union—a photomontage “A Day in the Life of Trotsky.” When Koltsov organized the world 1935 congress of writers in support of culture against fascism, he had failed to make the participants praise Stalin as loudly as they condemned Hitler. Moreover Koltsov had made Stalin give in to blackmail: unless the USSR sent real writers such as Babel and Pasternak not just Soviet party hacks—all dressed in identical coats and suits ordered for the occasion—the French delegates would walk out.29 Koltsov was friendly with French leftists like André Malraux, who were distancing themselves from Stalin, and had invited André Gide to Russia, let him meet Soviet intellectuals unmonitored by the NKVD, and had failed not only to stop Gide publishing his Retour de l’URSS, but also to refute Gide’s “slanders.”

Stalin greeted Koltsov jovially on his return from Spain and on May 14, 1938, summoned him for an hour’s meeting with himself, Voroshilov, and Ezhov to discuss why republican Spain was losing the war to the fascists. Koltsov was alarmed by his parting exchange with Stalin: “Do you own a revolver?” “Yes.” “You’re not thinking of using it to shoot yourself, are you?” Koltsov told his brother that he read in Stalin’s eyes the judgment “too smart.” Arrested on December 13, 1938, Koltsov found his interrogator, who could not write two words without three spelling mistakes, convinced of the existence of a conspiracy by all Russia’s major prose writers and poets still at liberty. Koltsov’s arrest was sensational; nobody believed that a man admired all over Europe could be disgraced.

Whenever a writer was arrested, Stalin would summon the novelist Aleksandr Fadeev, secretary of the presidium of the Union of Writers, to accept complicity in the repression.30 Fadeev saw Stalin reading two files of the statements that Koltsov had been tortured into making and perused them himself. “Now do you believe in his guilt?” Stalin asked. Koltsov was accused of being recruited by both French and German intelligence, together with his French friends and German communists in Russia including Koltsov’s refugee German girlfriend, Maria Osten. Babel, Pasternak, Ilya Ehrenburg, and Aleksei Tolstoi were implicated in Koltsov’s statements.

Questioned by clever interrogators, Beria’s notorious Shvartsman and Raikhman, Koltsov admitted links with those already shot or about to be shot: he had been a friend of Karl Radek; he had known Iagoda’s deputy Georgi Prokofiev and had employed his wife as a journalist; he was the employer and lover of Ezhov’s wife; he had known the NKVD defectors in Spain, Valter Krivitsky and Aleksandr Orlov. Shvartsman and Raikhman gave Koltsov a list of those living and at liberty whom they needed to incriminate. His conscience suffered little when he named the secretary of the Union of Writers, Vladimir Stavsky, and he did no harm by naming André Malraux as a spy. But by May 1939 Koltsov had been tortured into implicating people he respected: Vsevolod Meierkhold, the charismatic director of experimental theater, five Soviet ambassadors—Vladimir Potiomkin and Iakov Surits in Paris, Ivan Maisky in London, Boris Shtein in Rome, Konstantin Umansky in Washington—and Commissar for Foreign Affairs Litvinov. These “cosmopolitan intellectuals” had supposedly been corrupted by Western intelligence services.

To back up Koltsov’s admissions, Beria arrested Evgeni Gnedin, the press officer at the Commissariat of Foreign Affairs. Gnedin miraculously lived to publish his memoirs: “Beria and Kobulov put me on a chair and sat on either side and punched me on the head, playing ‘swings.’ They beat me horribly, with the full force of their arms, demanding I give evidence against Litvinov.” By August the NKVD could confront Gnedin and Koltsov and make them leaders of an anti-Soviet conspiracy of intelligentsia and diplomats.

Late at night on February 1, 1940, Mikhail Koltsov was tried before Vasili Ulrikh. He retracted all his confessions but was, of course, found guilty and shot that night. The same night Vsevolod Meierkhold was dragged out—both his legs had been smashed—to be shot. Meierkhold also retracted his confessions at his trial and wrote a protest to Andrei Vyshinsky:

I was placed facedown on the floor, beaten on the heels and back with a truncheon; when I sat on a chair I was hit by the same rubber truncheon on the legs (from above, with a lot of force) the pain was such that I thought they had poured boiling water on the injured sensitive parts of my legs (I shouted and wept with pain).31

A week later Ulrikh sentenced Isaak Babel to death. All three were shot by Vasili Blokhin, and their ashes thrown into Burial Pit No. 1 at the Donskoe cemetery. Ulrikh smilingly assured Koltsov’s brother that the official sentence of “ten years without right of correspondence” meant that Koltsov was alive in a camp in the Urals.

Many in the Koltsov affair survived untouched. Ehrenburg was allowed to return to live in France. None of the diplomats named were shot: Maisky remained ambassador to London. Litvinov lived, but was replaced by Molotov in May 1939; the Nazi Ribbentrop would not have signed a pact with so prominent a Jew as Litvinov.

In a separate case, Stalin had the novelist Boris Pilniak shot, revenge for Pilniak’s Tale of the Extinguished Moon. Russia’s last prose writers were dead or cowed. Mikhail Bulgakov was blind and dying, Andrei Platonov deeply depressed. After Meierkhold’s arrest and the gory murder of his wife, Zinaida Raikh, Russia’s theater directors came to heel. Stalin decided personally to oversee cinema directors like Sergei Eisenstein. 32

image imageFor all his engineering training, Beria was—at least until world war broke out—as vicious to technologists or scientists as to writers. In Georgia he had killed a world-class bacteriologist, Gogi Eliava, whose mistress he fancied, and a great engineer, Volodia Jikia. In Moscow the first arrests that Beria ordered included those of Andrei Tupolev, Russia’s most productive aircraft designer, and Sergei Koroliov, the pioneer of rocket engineering. Beria realized quickly enough the importance of such men and reprieved them. They did their engineering in special technical prisons, the carrot being: “The plane flies, you get a Stalin prize and freedom,” the stick: “It crashes and you’re shot.”

In 1939 and 1940 some mice, thinking that the NKVD cat was away, played. Censorship became so lax at times that one might have thought it abolished. The state printed the bawdy and irreverent letters written to Anton Chekhov by his oldest brother, Aleksandr, and even set in type Anna Akhmatova’s poetry of the last thirty years. All over the USSR journals printed material which a year ago would have doomed both editor and author. In Georgia the young Ivane Ioseliani published “Teimuraz III,” a pathetic tale of the last pretender to the Georgian throne; the Soviet Geographical Journal published the homosexual love letters of the great explorer Nikolai Przhevalsky to his favorite Cossack.

Beria’s false dawn soon ended. With advice from Andrei Zhdanov, Stalin’s new favorite, who both literally and figuratively played the piano while Stalin sang, Beria clamped down. The editor of Aleksandr Chekhov’s letters, Ivan Luppol, died in the camps; Akhmatova’s collected verse was pulped. “It is simply a disgrace, if I may say so, when collections of verse appear. How could this Akhmatova ‘fornication to the glory of God’ appear? Who promoted it?” Zhdanov scribbled in rage on a report which cited a hundred of Akhmatova’s best lines as damning evidence.33

A few scientists and scholars were freed from prison in 1939 by Beria, including the soil specialist Academician Boris Polynov and the professors who specialized in the western and southern Slavonic languages—Czech, Polish, Church Slavonic, Serbo-Croat, and Bulgarian. This group had been repressed in the late 1920s and early 1930s because their subject linked them to the bourgeois governments of eastern Europe and the Balkans, and because of the medieval texts their students studied. Andrei Vyshinsky, as rector of Moscow University, would not concede that a student of Church Slavonic had to read the Gospels. By 1939 Stalin’s view of Russian history and of Russia as the elder brother in the Slavonic family overrode Marxist ideology, and the Slavonic linguists now dominated academia.

Whatever Marx and Engels had not foreseen in modern science upset Stalin’s minions. Einstein’s relativity and Max Planck’s quantum mechanics clashed with materialism, denied the infinity of time and space, and distorted the Newtonian symmetry of Marxism. Stalin and Andrei Zhdanov, to whom Stalin referred questions of philosophy, were tactfully told that Einstein and Max Planck were indispensable to modern electronics and in the exploitation of atomic energy. With ritual denunciations of bourgeois idealism, physicists continued to work on bourgeois theories. Nevertheless, the German physicist Hans Helman, a refugee from the Nazis who had published Quantum Chemistryin Russia in 1937, was shot, and his colleagues Iuri Rumer and Nikolai Fuchs were arrested, one by Ezhov, the other by Beria. Lev Termen, the pioneer of television and inventor of one of the world’s most unearthly musical instruments, the theremin, was sent to the GULAG in July 1938. Three brilliant theoretical physicists, Matvei Bronshtein, S. P. Shubin, and Aleksandr Vitt, were shot or died in the camps in 1938. Professor Ivan Bashilov, the only scientist refining radium from uranium in the USSR, was arrested in July 1938 and sent to dig ditches around the radium refinery he had set up. When the plant, under NKVD management, could not work without him Bashilov was returned, as a prisoner, to his own laboratory.

Beria can take no credit, at this stage, for rescuing the Soviet atom program; first he wrecked it. Just one major nuclear or low-temperature physicist, Piotr Kapitsa, avoided arrest. Kapitsa argued with both Stalin and Molotov that they would never find a physicist to replace him. In 1934 Kapitsa was forbidden to return to Lord Rutherford’s Cavendish laboratory at Cambridge or to see his family. By sheer force of personality he made the Soviet government buy a replica of his Cambridge equipment and intervened with Ezhov, Beria, and Vsevolod Merkulov, Beria’s educated underling, to save his colleague Lev Landau and one of Russia’s finest mathematicians, Nikolai Luzin.

Medicine and biology in the USSR fared worse than physics. The Soviet medical profession was disgraced, not so much when Professor Dmitri Pletniov was sentenced to twenty-five years on the charge of having killed Gorky and his son, but when Pletniov’s pupils Drs. Vladimir Vinogradov and Meer Vovsi perjured themselves by testifying that Pletniov was indeed a murderer. Biology died with collectivization. Desperate to restore grain production after the murder of the kulaks, Stalin believed, or feigned belief, in miracles. There were ill-fated experiments to breed rabbits—the breeding stock was eaten by the peasants—and even kangaroos; at Askania-Nova in the Ukraine, zoologists tried to domesticate African eland; in the north they harnessed moose to plow. The maddest solution of all captured Stalin’s imagination: Trofim Lysenko, a Ukrainian peasant with a horticultural diploma, claimed to have discovered the secret of training cereals to adapt to poorer soils and climates. Lysenko, unwittingly, had resurrected the evolutionary theory of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who had held that evolution occurs by changes in behavior passed on to progeny. If cosmologists had announced that the earth was a disc resting on the back of a giant tortoise, they could hardly have been more obscurantist than this. Lysenko incarnated Jonathan Swift’s Academician of Lagado who promised:

All the fruits of the earth shall come to maturity at whatever season we think fit to choose, and increase an hundred fold more than they do at present, with innumerable other happy proposals. The only inconvenience is, that none of these projects are yet brought to perfection, and in the mean time, the whole country lies miserably waste, the houses in ruins, and the people without food or clothes.

Modern genetics was discarded and declared counterrevolutionary. Lysenko was awarded a doctorate and made an academician, although to judge by his mocking comments scribbled on Lysenko’s articles, Stalin knew he was a charlatan. His influence outlasted Stalin and completed the ruin of Soviet agriculture.

The few biologists who dared denounce Lysenko as a charlatan were arrested as saboteurs. The internationally acclaimed geneticist Nikolai Vavilov prepared microscope slides of the chromosomes whose existence Lysenko denied; Lysenko would not even look. Genetics was by 1939 a Jewish-bourgeois heresy called “Weissman-Morganism.” In June 1939, Lysenko’s henchman Isai Prezent wrote to Molotov—Lysenko had poor spelling and grammar; he appended his signature to Prezent’s letter. Ostensibly the letter was about the seventh international genetics congress, held in Edinburgh in 1939, with the honorary president’s chair, for Vavilov, left empty. Lysenko wanted Vavilov arrested.

Recently our own Morganists have begun adding their voice to the choir of capitalist yapping dogs. In a series of public speeches Vavilov has been declaring that “we shall go to the stake,” representing the situation as if Galileo’s times had been resurrected in our country. . . . The behavior of Vavilov and his group has recently taken on an intolerable nature. Vavilov and the Vavilovites have really taken their gloves off, and the conclusion is inescapable that they are trying to use the international genetics congress to strengthen their positions. . . . Vavilov has recently been doing everything he can to portray our country as one where science is being persecuted. . . . The congress could become a means for struggling against the turn our Soviet science is taking toward pragmatism, to the needs of socialist production. . . .34

Using this letter, on July 16 Beria asked Molotov for permission to arrest Vavilov as “the leader of the bourgeois school of ‘formal genetics.’ ”

Vavilov was picked up in August 1940, and after 1,700 hours of interrogation by the notorious Lieutenant Aleksandr Khvat, confessed to being a saboteur working for Iakov Iakovlev, the executed commissar of agriculture. Vavilov’s elderly teacher, Academician Dmitri Prianishnikov, appealed to Beria. Prianishnikov had a little leverage as he was supervising the dissertation that Beria’s wife, Nina, was writing. Vavilov was sentenced to death; after two appeals the sentence was commuted to twenty-five years. In Saratov Prison Vavilov was offered a milder regime and work in a laboratory but, wrecked by torture and famine, he died of malnutrition in January 1943.35 Two experimental biologists, Vavilov’s associates Nikolai Koltsov and Nikolai Ivanov, died suddenly and mysteriously on December 2 and 3, 1940. Prianishnikov begged Beria at least to release Vavilov’s followers and save what was left of biology and genetics in the USSR. Beria did not respond.

Nikolai Vavilov’s younger brother Sergei was a physicist. In June 1945 Stalin made him president of the Academy of Sciences. Stalin liked to have in the highest posts people whose brothers, sons, or wives were in prison or had been executed. Sadism apart, Stalin felt safer when he held his appointees as moral hostages. Vavilov wanted to know his brother’s fate so Stalin telephoned Beria and let him listen in: “Lavrenti, what’s happened to our Nikolai Vavilov? He died! Oh, how could we have lost such a man!”

Lysenko was not the only charlatan Stalin cultivated. In linguistics Stalin was much taken with Nikolai Marr, the son of a Scottish adventurer and a Georgian peasant girl. Marr achieved a professor’s chair for discovering and editing a Georgian translation of a lost Greek commentary to the Song of Solomon. After 1917, Marr invented Marxist linguistics, the Japhetic theory, which grew from an idea about the unity of Caucasian languages into sheer lunacy: all language, he stated, had developed with the evolution of social classes from the four magic syllables “sal,” “ber,” “yon,” and “rosh.” Marr died in 1934. His ravings did include intuitions about language that were far ahead of his time, but his protégés, mediocre sorcerer’s apprentices, made Marrism their road to promotion. Linguists who kept to the mainstream were for fifteen years denounced as the dupes of émigrés and foreign intelligence.36