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

Part VIII. THE RISE OF LAVRENTI BERIA

Chapter 51. Ethnic Cleansing

IN 1939 STALIN, as Kaganovich would reminisce, changed personality. The mass cull of his own citizens stopped and he started to leave not just the day-to-day administration but many major political decisions to his henchmen, especially Molotov and Beria. Stalin viewed the storm gathering over Europe as good weather for the USSR: Germany, Britain, and France would fight each other to exhaustion while Russia would peacefully benefit, economically and territorially. To judge by his scribbles in the margins of books, Stalin devoted much of his time to reading: he devoured and annotated film scripts, historical novels and monographs, Georgian and Russian literature, linguistics. His cultural tastes became markedly conservative, his politics more nationalistic than socialist.

In spring 1939 Stalin broke off overtures to Britain and France and made an accommodation with Hitler. The gigantic administrative and policing tasks that ensued from the division of Poland and the annexation of the Baltic states, which Stalin and Hitler secretly agreed to in May 1939, left Lavrenti Beria no time to pursue his purge of the intelligentsia and the diplomatic corps. If Russians now slept better at night, non-Russians became insomniacs. What Ezhov had unleashed on Soviet citizens, Beria turned on Poles, Ruthenians (Western Ukrainians), Moldavians, Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians, not to mention German and Jewish refugees from Hitler.

Beria’s was not the first ethnic cleansing in the USSR. Genrikh Iagoda and Nikolai Ezhov, at Stalin’s behest, had already singled out those ethnic groups that straddled the USSR’s borders and those within the country which might have allegiance to another state.37 Between Leningrad and the Finnish border had lived 200,000 Inkeri Finns. After Kirov’s murder, their Finnish-language schools, newspapers, collective farms, and village councils were shut down, and in spring 1935 Iagoda had 30,000 deported to northern Russia and Tajikistan. Leningrad lost the dairy products that the Inkeri Finns had supplied. Then 45,000 Poles and Germans were deported to Kazakhstan from the frontier areas of the Ukraine. In 1937 Ezhov had singled out Poles and Latvians living, usually as Soviet citizens, in Russia’s cities for extermination. The next stage was to dispense with any pseudo-legal framework of arrest, trial, and sentence, and to move whole peoples away from border areas to the steppes of Kazakhstan and other areas of Siberia and central Asia, where pastoral nomads had been virtually eradicated in the early 1930s.

The first to suffer were Koreans living between Vladivostok and the Korean border, and elsewhere in the Far Eastern region. They had been highly regarded immigrants: some were Orthodox converts who had moved to Russian territory at the turn of the century after being threatened with beheading by the Korean emperor. Later waves were fleeing the Japanese, who colonized Korea in 1910. The Koreans had supported the Bolsheviks in 1917; they supplied most of the USSR’s rice and soybeans and underwent collectivization with less suffering than other ethnic groups. They had lost in the purges some of their intelligentsia and party leadership, but they hoped for political autonomy and, despite ominous accusations in Pravda that Chinese and Koreans were tools of the Japanese secret services, never expected to be told in August 1937 that all 180,000 of them were to be deported to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.38

Soviet Koreans were better equipped, morally and physically, and luckier than later deportees. Each was allowed to take sixty-five pounds of luggage, and most chose rice and soybean seeds so as to start farming again in central Asia. Few spoke Russian, let alone Kazakh or Uzbek, but they were welcomed by the central Asian party leaders, who had not yet been purged, and they adapted to growing cotton and watermelons as well as rice. Nevertheless, some died on the slow train journey across Siberia, and many froze to death in their first central Asian winter. In 1938 they suffered further. Korean-language schools were closed, as were all their newspapers except one. A process of forced assimilation had begun that after two generations would kill the Korean language in central Asia. The land from which the Koreans had been driven was seized by NKVD frontier guards and a few thousand Russian peasant deportees.

In winter 1937 and 1938 it was the turn of the Kurds, especially those living in the enclave of Nakhichevan on the Turkish–Iranian border. A people without a state for 600 years, hounded by Turkey, Iran, the British rulers of Iraq, and the French in Syria, the 48,000 Kurds from Nakhichevan and as many more from the rest of Azerbaijan and Armenia were given twenty-four hours to get into the trains the NKVD had marshaled. They had none of the Koreans’ luck, going in summer clothing to open steppes in temperatures of −40°. They were split up, two or three families to a Kazakh village, and the senior male of each household was taken by the NKVD, never to be seen again. Only in prison and the GULAG were groups of Kurds able to support each other; the resistance of 140 Kurds who used their boots as weapons against the thieves and bandits who ran a camp barracks is celebrated in a Kurdish folk ballad. 39Statistics, if kept, have not been found, but forbidden to speak their language, to meet each other, let alone to return home, survivors believe that about 40 percent of the Kurds perished.

In February 1938 all Iranians in the USSR, refugees from the Shah or not, were marked out for arrest. Once again, numbers are unknown. That spring, as party leaders were building dachas around Sochi and in the mountains of the western Caucasus, Ezhov deported several thousand local Greeks. A few escaped to Greece; most shared the fate of the Kurds.

The open and secret protocols of the Molotov–Ribbentrop pact gave the USSR almost everything that the Tsar and Lenin had lost: the Baltic states and Poland’s eastern territories. Beria’s task was to filter out from 20 million new citizens all who would in the USSR have been purged. From September 1939, when Poland was invaded by Hitler and Stalin, to June 1941, when Hitler attacked the USSR, these new Soviet citizens were sorted by two criteria: ethnic and sociopolitical. Poland’s eastern territories were predominantly populated by Jewish townspeople, Ukrainian and Belorussian peasants, and ruled by Polish landlords, administrators, and urban intelligentsia. At first the Ukrainians and Belorussians were treated gently, collectivization being the worst they underwent. Some even welcomed liberation from their Polish overlords. The nationalist Western Ukrainians or Ruthenians, however, hated both Soviets and Poles, and were reclassified by Beria as hostile.

In the Baltic states, the Soviets removed all government employees, those who owned land or factories, or who belonged to noncommunist parties, and those whose intellectual prestige fostered national pride. Too little time was left between the Soviet invasion of June 1940 and the Nazi counterinvasion for Beria to do more than begin this task.

For Stalin, humiliated so badly in 1920, Poles were the prime target. In dealing with them Stalin had Hitler’s full cooperation. Both sides thought the Polish state “an abortion of the Versailles treaty”; both planned to reduce the Polish population to a subservient minority. Hitler, unlike Stalin, had singled out the Polish Jews for extermination, but his “Aktion A-B” to reduce the Polish intelligentsia and military to insignificance was halfhearted compared with Stalin and Beria’s policy. Some 400,000 inhabitants of pre-1939 Poland—Poles, Jews, Ukrainians, and some Belorussians—were deported east to camps and hard labor in three major operations during spring 1940.40 One in six died in their first year of exile.41 The deportees, however, were luckier than those Poles detained in camps in western Russia.