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

Part VIII. THE RISE OF LAVRENTI BERIA

Chapter 52. The Katyn Massacres

THE KATYN MASSACRES, in which 22,000 Polish officers, policemen, and civil servants were murdered by the NKVD, are probably the most notorious and senseless of Stalin’s crimes. Ezhov probably shot more ethnic Poles in 1937 and 1938, but they were Soviet citizens. The Katyn murders show lack of foresight: the USSR would be held internationally accountable. Even if Poland was wiped off the map, did Stalin really believe, like Hitler, that he could do such a thing and suffer no consequences at all?

The documentation suggests that the decision to kill the Poles was taken at leisure—four months after the surrender—and repented in haste—when the Soviet authorities found they could not cover up their waste of a valuable resource for the coming war against Hitler. 42 The surrender of Polish army units which had neither been captured by the Germans nor broken through to neutral Romania had not been planned for, and the prisoners of war were handed over by Voroshilov to Beria’s NKVD, which knew how to set up prison camps. The military had no food for the prisoners and wanted to let go at least those who were ethnically Belorussian or Ukrainian, but Lev Mekhlis, now Stalin’s political commissar in the army, had objected. The only prisoners repatriated by the Soviets were German soldiers captured by the Poles.

Beria set up eight camps in western Russia and put one of his secretaries, Piotr Karpovich Soprunenko, in charge. Soprunenko had been for ten years an army machine gunner, ideal for what the NKVD had in mind for the Poles. Camps were set up at Kozelsk in the monastery of Optina wilderness, at Starobelsk in a former nunnery, at Ostashkov in the St. Nil wilderness monastery on Lake Seliger, at Putivl in the Safronii monastery, in an old TB asylum and an orphanage. Here prisoners starved and froze in pigstys and derelict sheds. So many died that Mekhlis decided to release those who were ethnically or politically unobjectionable, and 43,000 who came from German-occupied Poland were handed over to the Nazis. Another 25,000 NCOs and soldiers were marched off as forced labor to build highways in the Carpathian mountains near the new border with the German Reich and 11,000 went to the Ukrainian mines. Only the Jews could count themselves lucky; they had from the Soviets what Hitler would deny them, a chance to live.

Senior Polish officers, although robbed of their watches by Red Army officers, were at first treated gingerly; Beria ordered those above the rank of lieutenant colonel to be given separate bunks and adequate nutrition and to be addressed politely. Privileges were accorded to those to be sent back to German-occupied Poland lest they speak badly of the Soviet regime. All were assured that their detention was temporary. The Polish officer contingent was very heterogeneous as it included recently mobilized journalists, academics, artists, doctors, judges, and priests— Poland’s professionals and intellectuals—as well as its military caste. There were also a few women, notably Janina Lewandowska, the Polish aviator.

In Lithuania 3,000 more Polish officers had been interned; the NKVD went there to collect them. By December 1939 the camps had been infiltrated by NKVD informers planted among or recruited from the prisoners, but their reports of Polish intransigence angered Beria. The NKVD was unused to prisoners who knew their rights and international conventions. Polish officers wrote letters pointing out that either Poland was at war with the USSR, in which case they were POWs, or it was not, in which case they were illegally detained. Their wives and mothers, either still living in eastern Poland or exiled to Kazakhstan and Siberia, flooded the NKVD and Stalin’s secretariat with inquiries about their missing menfolk. There were 135,000 Polish deportees, mostly women and children, who were tolerably treated: each family was allowed to take half a ton of possessions into Siberian exile.

The NKVD began making arrests: a beekeeper who gave his fellow officers lectures was removed for “counterrevolution.” The camp authorities broadcast recordings of Molotov’s speeches, put on films and lectures, arresting Poles who asked “casuist” questions of the lecturer. Playing cards and money were confiscated; chess sets were issued. Hospitals were set up, and in some months in some camps mortality dropped to zero. A few provisions of the Soviet decree on treatment of POWs, a pastiche of the Geneva convention, were observed.

The Polish officers expressed no gratitude for small mercies. In Starobelsk camp a group of colonels demanded protection from a foreign embassy with a Polish interests office and from the Red Cross; they wanted their relatives informed and, if arrested, they wanted formal charges. They asked to be spared watching films that “offend our national feelings.” They were indignant at the infrequency of mail. (Those in German captivity received all the letters they wanted and could write once a month.) The more reasonable the requests, the more brutal the response. By January 1940, in the Ostashkov camp, on Beria’s orders the NKVD had photographed and fingerprinted all the prisoners in order to charge them with “struggling against the international communist movement.” Intransigent individuals were sent to Kiev or Moscow for trial. Other camps followed suit in February. The NKVD contemplated deporting the officers together with other Polish prisoners, a total of 140,000, across Arctic Siberia to the permafrost of the Kolyma. Nevertheless, some lists of names were given to the Red Cross in February 1940.

Overwhelmed by his charges and expecting more prisoners from the war against Finland, Soprunenko was the first to suggest “unloading” (razgruzka) the camps. He recommended releasing the old, the sick, convinced (or convincing) communists, and murdering frontier police, staff, and intelligence officers. Beria passed this on to Merkulov, who relieved Soprunenko of some of his burdens by recommending moving 22,000 civil servants and landowners to city prisons. But the camps were still crowded.

Beria finally made an unambiguous recommendation to Stalin on March 5, 1940: “They are all thoroughgoing enemies of Soviet power, saturated with hatred for the Soviet system . . . the only reason they wait for liberation is to be able to take up the fight against Soviet power. . . .” The inmates of three camps, 14,700 POWs, and 11,000 Poles held in prisons “should be dealt with by special measures and the highest measure of punishment, shooting, should be applied to them.” The victims were not to be informed of the charges or the sentence. The Politburo voted the same day in favor of murder. Stalin signed first, then Voroshilov, Molotov, and Mikoyan; Kaganovich and Kalinin agreed by telephone.

What made Stalin’s inner circle so eager to murder these officers who the whole world knew were in NKVD hands? Clearly, neither Stalin nor Voroshilov had ever gotten over the defeat which the Red Army, under their direction, had suffered at the hands of these same men in 1920. Now, with the Finns also wreaking havoc on the Red Army, they were doubly frustrated by their incompetence.43 The age-old mutual hatred of Poles and Russians, nations that straddle the fault line between Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy, only inflamed the viciousness. Russians had never appreciated being portrayed as the barbarians against whom only Polish chivalry shielded western Europe.

Beria may have initiated this solution. Stalin, when he could tear himself away from his books, was depressed to the point of inertia by the defeats that the Red Army—an army without generals—was suffering at the hands of the well-trained, well-armed, and highly motivated Finns. The only meetings Beria had in Stalin’s office in February and March were with army marshals and it is unlikely that Polish POWs figured much on the agenda. Stalin did however make a curious amendment to Beria’s proposals: from the troika—Beria, Merkulov, and the head of special operations Bashtakov—that would sign the death sentences, Stalin crossed out Beria’s name and substituted that of his subordinate Bogdan Kobulov. Did he foresee the operation going wrong and want to spare Beria becoming a scapegoat, or was mass murder too routine an operation for the commissar of the NKVD and Stalin’s best adviser when a world war was in the offing?

Bogdan Kobulov held a conference in Moscow of a dozen NKVD officials, where it took a week to plan the killings. All victims’ families had to be deported at dawn on one day, April 15, to Kazakhstan for ten years. Inquiries had to be made of Hitler’s authorities to ensure that Poles from central Poland were returned to the Germans. Kobulov, Merkulov, and Bashtakov drew up identity slips with the death sentences for each of 22,000 victims. About 600 men were reprieved, some at the request of Pavel Sudoplatov of the NKVD’s foreign directorate, because their military experience would be crucial in a future war with Germany or because they were candidate puppets to rule a future communist Poland; their families were also exempted from deportation. Three future generals, Władysław Anders, Zygmunt Berling, and Jerzy Wołkowicki, thus lived to form new Polish armies a year later.

Fifty Poles of international renown, including the impressionist painter Józef Czapski, were rescued by Mussolini and other influential Westerners. Hitler’s government begged the life of Wacław Komarnicki, who would ironically become minister of justice in the exiled London government. Polish fascists, even if virulently anti-Bolshevik, were handed over unharmed to the Germans. A few were saved so late that they witnessed NKVD atrocities: Professor Stanisław Swianiewicz, on a death train, was identified as an expert on the German economy and removed.

To transport all the prisoners to the execution sites in the forest around Katyn, Beria’s railways boss Solomon Milshtein timetabled trains and laid on trucks. The executioners of the Lubianka and Sukhanovka under Vasili Blokhin had in March 1940 finished the elimination of Ezhov’s men and the intellectuals implicated by Mikhail Koltsov, so a contingent was assembled and equipped with German weapons and ammunition.44 Soprunenko went off to exchange prisoners with the Finns and the work of compiling lists fell on Arkadi Gertsovsky, one of the main managers of the massacres.

Eleven generals, an admiral, 77 colonels, 197 lieutenant colonels, 541 majors, 1,441 captains, 6,061 lieutenants and other ranks, 18 chaplains, and the Polish army’s chief rabbi were all to be shot in April, together with the remnants of the Polish civil service and bourgeoisie. The condemned were joined by other Poles who had attracted adverse attention, such as Ludwig Helbardt, dying of stomach cancer in a Ukrainian hospital, who had written to Molotov asking to be reunited with his destitute family. Few suspected what was awaiting them. Many were distressed, some to the point of suicide, by being deprived of all mail from March, but when the trains were marshaled in mid-April some wrote in their diaries that they were going home, although they feared being returned to German-controlled Poland.

Some executions were carried out more humanely than usual by Blokhin and his men. In Kalinin (Tver), where the Ostashkov prisoners were killed one by one, each Pole was taken into the prison club room and his identity carefully checked, before being handcuffed and led into a neighboring soundproofed chamber and shot in the back of the neck. The bodies were then dragged through a back door, thrown into covered trucks and taken to the countryside at Mednoe, to the grounds used for the NKVD men’s dachas, a site chosen by Blokhin. A total of fifty executioners was used, Blokhin in his leather apron, helmet, and gauntlets taking a leading part. Each evening a body count was telegraphed to Merkulov in Moscow.

The same procedure was used in Kharkov, the bodies disposed of in the grounds of an NKVD sanatorium next to the secret-police dachas, where a large number of Soviet victims had already been buried.

The victims buried in Katyn forest—4,143 bodies were exhumed by the Germans in 1943—left graphic memorials: one victim had carved in a piece of wood a diary of his last days; another diary ends, “they have taken away my rubles, my belt, my penknife.” These men suffered: they were stood in groups by open pits, many of them had their hands bound with barbed wire and some had nooses around their necks. Others, notably some Catholic priests, buried at Katyn had been shot in Smolensk prison in an underground execution chamber and their bodies stacked in the pits.

As the shootings ended, in mid-April, the unsuspecting families were deported east. Many died of starvation and cold. Surviving Polish men were assigned to a group of 135,000 prisoners sent to the Arctic to build a railway to the coal mines of Vorkuta. One NKVD man, Daniil Chekholsky, showed a spark of kindness. Sacked for letting Poles post letters as they went off to execution, he admitted sending telegrams to relatives: “Your husbands have left. We don’t know the address. . . .” Other NKVD men took to drink. In October Beria rewarded the executioners with an extra month’s salary, while the organizers all received medals and awards.

The camps now had space for prisoners from Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia as Stalin had delayed his takeover of the Baltic republics until mid-June 1940, when the Finnish war was over. The NKVD had few Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian speakers left, and the Baltic republics had few resident communists to collaborate with the new authorities. The Soviet occupiers needed many months to identify the nationalists, the intellectuals, the property owners who could be deported. Apart from the deportees, some 60,000 Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians were killed; only the outbreak of war halted the slaughter. Until then, western Russia’s railways were crowded with trains. One week before Hitler attacked, over 17,000 Lithuanians and the same number of Latvians left for Siberia, Kazakhstan, and the Komi republic; seven trainloads of Latvian and Lithuanian prostitutes went to Uzbekistan. On the previous night, from the territories grabbed from Romania—Bessarabia and the Bukovina—another 30,000 were deported. Until June 20, 1941, Poles and nationalist Ukrainians were still being railroaded east.

No sooner were the killings in Katyn over than the consequences began to emerge. Thousands of letters from wives and children reached Moscow, and some leaked abroad. When Hitler defeated France and Soviet intelligence began to admit to itself, if not to Stalin, the probability of war with Germany, they realized it had been madness to slaughter the cream of the Polish army. In August 1940, first the Hungarian, then the International Red Cross began to ask about missing persons. They got no answers.

The survivors, gathered at Griaznovtsy camp, numbered a few hundred officers. In October 1940 they were suddenly well treated and Lieutenant Colonel Berling was sent first class to Moscow to talk to Beria and Merkulov about forming a Polish army on Soviet soil. Berling said, “Fine, we have magnificent staff for an army in the camps.” Merkulov replied, “No, not those. We made a big mistake with them.” Berling was put in a luxurious dacha near Moscow with other senior Poles. By November Beria dared tell Stalin that he had a nucleus of twenty-four anti-German Polish officers, who would cooperate if Władysław Sikorski’s government in London authorized them. Stalin feared antagonizing Hitler but Beria went on regardless. More Poles, interned in Latvia, were retrieved in August 1940, and although many went to the GULAG, Beria formed two Polish brigades of officers.

After war between Germany and the USSR broke out in June 1941, about two thirds of the Polish soldiers sent to the GULAG were retrieved to fight against the Nazis. Most opted to serve alongside the British in North Africa and Sikorski continued to press for news of the missing officers. Stalin pretended to telephone Beria about them and then claimed that they had walked to Manchuria or had not been reported by lazy camp commandants. Vyshinsky claimed they had been freed in Poland. Stalin told General Anders that the Germans must have captured them. In 1942 100,000 Poles with their families left the USSR through Iran; tens of thousands remained in Russia, increasingly harassed.

On April 13, 1943, the Germans began exhuming Katyn, and Stalin added falsification to prevarication. The Germans called in the Swiss Red Cross, but to their disgrace the British and Americans denounced the Swiss report and concurred with the Russian version, that the Germans had buried old newspapers with the corpses to calumniate the innocent Soviets. In January 1944, the Soviets set up their own special commission, from which the party and the NKVD were conspicuously absent. Two academicians, a metropolitan bishop, the chairman of the Soviet Red Cross, and the writer Aleksei Tolstoi connived to produce “witnesses” to prove German “provocation.” A film was also made. Aleksei Tolstoi, as perceptive as he was unprincipled, warned Nikolai Shvernik, Stalin’s head of anti-German propaganda, that the film “is not only unfit for showing but can even have a negative effect . . . the witnesses seem to be repeating a lesson they have learned by heart . . .”

When in March 1946 at the Nuremberg trials Goering’s defense tried to bring up Katyn, the Soviet commission led by Vyshinsky protested forcibly. Katyn was not discussed. In Minsk, German officers were hanged for allegedly massacring Polish officers at Katyn. The lying went on until 1988.

The treatment of two Polish Jews taken prisoner in October 1939 was just as calamitous as Katyn for Soviet credibility and the war effort. Henryk Erlich and Wiktor Alter were leaders of the Jewish socialist Bund, effectively the heart and mind of a Jewish anti-Hitler committee. They were taken to Moscow and charged as Polish spies and hostile critics of the Molotov–Ribbentrop pact. Beria’s men worked slowly; the war with Germany had been raging for a month by the time Alter was sentenced to death. Instead of death, however, Erlich and Alter were first given ten years’ imprisonment and then offered their freedom if they would head a Jewish antifascist committee. By mid-September they had offices in the Hotel Metropol and were looked after by Beria’s Polish liaison officer. Beria proposed Erlich as president and Alter as secretary, while the world-famous Yiddish actor Solomon Mikhoels would be vice president. But things did not go according to Beria’s plan. Erlich and Alter used their initiative: they worked with the British, Polish, and American ambassadors, and proposed a Jewish legion to fight alongside the Red Army. They also began to search for missing Polish officers. Beria sent Leonid Raikhman to arrest them on December 4, 1941, this time as Nazi agents spreading pacifism. Erlich hanged himself in prison the following May while Alter wrote letters to Stalin threatening suicide. Only in early 1943, when the discovery of Katyn ruined relations with the Poles and Stalin felt he had little to lose, did Molotov reply to the inquiries of Albert Einstein and other distinguished Americans and instruct Litvinov to announce that both Erlich and Alter had been shot for treason on December 23, 1941. Beria in fact had Alter shot three days after this announcement. Sergei Ogoltsov, head of the NKVD in evacuation at Kuibyshev, personally supervised the execution and the burning of his possessions. Roosevelt and Churchill both silenced protests in their own countries, but Jewish trust in Stalin as their savior collapsed.

image image imageIn 1940 and 1941 Stalin’s instincts and cunning had completely failed him. Initiating a winter war with Finland when the Red Army had been lobotomized by the NKVD ruined his prestige. Sanctioning the murders of Poland’s officer corps and two internationally respected Jewish activists were acts as stupid as they were atrocious. Appearing to dismiss as Anglo-American disinformation all the reports that his intelligence received about Hitler’s intentions was his most catastrophic failure. About the first two lapses Stalin was uncharacteristically unvindictive. He quarreled with Voroshilov over the latter’s inept conduct of the Finnish campaign, but when Voroshilov in fury retorted, “You killed all the senior officers!” smashed a plate and stormed out, Stalin did nothing. Voroshilov was replaced as commissar and given less crucial defense posts—where he performed with equal incompetence—but never fell from favor. Nor did Beria, Merkulov, and Bogdan Kobulov suffer for killing those Polish officers who would have been so useful a year later.

What was going through Stalin’s mind in 1940? All his enemies dead, with Beria running internal affairs and Molotov external affairs, as hopeful as Neville Chamberlain that he had brought “peace in our time,” Stalin withdrew into what he took to be philosophy. He had taken Hitler seriously enough to have had Mein Kampf translated and studied. Stalin read the same books as Hitler—Clausewitz’s On War and Otto von Bismarck’s memoirs—but drew different conclusions. Reading Clausewitz, Stalin could well have concluded that no German leader would repeat Napoleon I’s mistake of invading Russia; reading Bismarck, that no German leader would dare fight another war on two fronts. Stalin and Hitler were both gamblers: Stalin was a calculating player; Hitler, staking everything on one card, blitzkrieg, played a different game.

While his minions ruled, Stalin recast both history and himself. Since the Marxist historian Pokrovsky had died, the moving force of history had, for Stalin, reverted from class struggle to kings and queens. Soviet textbooks in the 1930s reflected this change by showing Russian nationalism and empire building in a positive light. In 1938 Stalin had the “newly literate” languages of the USSR switch from the Roman to the Cyrillic alphabet. Tsarism was now “progressive”: it had built a multiethnic centralized nation. Anniversaries of Russian classic authors were celebrated with pomp and ceremony throughout the USSR; generous Stalin prizes were awarded to any composer, painter, film director, or writer who glorified Russia’s past as the prelude to an even greater future. Andrei Zhdanov commissioned patriotic operas, films, and novels.

The cinema became for Stalin the supreme art. Sinners among film directors were forgiven. He even let Kapler, who had been beaten for kissing Svetlana Allilueva, work, although in 1943 he was sent to the camps for ten years. Sergei Eisenstein, who had come close to arrest for his years in America and for his religious portrayal of the peasantry in Bezhin Meadow, was recruited. Together with Lev Sheinin, Vyshinsky’s favorite interrogator, Eisenstein proposed a film about the trial and acquittal of the Jew Mendel Beilis, accused in Kiev of drinking a Christian infant’s blood for Passover. But a Jewish project was anathema to Stalin; anti-Semitism was part of his Russian chauvinism. Eisenstein was directed to make a film not about honest Russian jurymen, but about Ivan the Terrible. Stalin saw himself too as a harsh, divinely appointed ruler who would save his country in a war on two fronts: the Germans and the Japanese of 1941 were reincarnations of the Livonians and Tatars of 1540. Aleksei Tolstoi, with clairvoyant perception of what Stalin wanted, drafted a three-part drama on Ivan. Stalin edited the first published version until Ivan came across as sufficiently stable and unrepentant for his taste.

Not Ivan the Terrible, but Russia’s great generals obsessed Stalin in 1940. A film was proposed glorifying Catherine the Great’s General Aleksandr Suvorov, who had fought Swedes and Turks with equal success. Stalin read the script and told the director to make Suvorov less kindly. Stalin’s Suvorov was in his own image as generalissimo:

The script doesn’t reveal Suvorov’s characteristic policies and tactics: 1) correctly taking into account the enemy’s faults, and knowing how to exploit them fully; 2) a properly thought-out and bold attack combined with a diversion to strike the enemy in the rear; 3) the ability to choose experienced and bold commanders and to direct them to the object of attack; 4) the ability to promote boldly to senior posts those who excel, without regard to rank, taking little notice of the official seniority or origins of those promoted; 5) the ability to sustain in the army harsh, truly iron discipline.45