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


Chapter 54. “Brothers, Sisters!”

HITLER’S ATTACK on the USSR on June 22, 1941, did not alter Stalin’s view of his people. When he had recovered from the shock of Hitler’s “treachery” and the humiliating rout of the Red Army, Stalin broadcast to the nation in terms he had never used before and would never use again, speaking like a Christian, calling on his “brothers and sisters.” However, nothing significant had changed in Stalin or his hangmen. Beria and Merkulov’s secret police went on shooting prisoners, including those arrested for anti-German statements. Absurdly draconian measures were announced to deter troops from surrendering or retreating, however inevitable or logical such a tactic might be.

What altered on June 22, 1941, was the attitude of the Soviet people. German cannon and SS extermination squads, scorched earth, and starvation neutralized fear of the party and NKVD. Some gave vent to despair. Anna Akhmatova was heard declaring, “I hate, I hate Hitler, I hate Stalin, I hate those who are bombing Leningrad, I hate those who are bombing Berlin, I hate everyone who is conducting this absurd, horrible war.” Some felt uplifted by the suffering of a just war. Pasternak’s poem “A Terrible Fairy Story” announces that “The fear that has furrowed faces / Will never be forgotten,” but anticipates, as did very many Soviet citizens, that for this suffering there would be a compensation: “A new better age will dawn.” What made the horrors of the 1940s more tolerable than those of the 1930s was that everyone’s fate was bound together. If the Soviet people gave in to the Nazis, Stalin and all his henchmen would go down with them. For once, the leaders of the country depended on the people, and had to show it. Pasternak called the war “a purifying storm, a stream of fresh air, a wafting of redemption.” The Leningrad poet Olga Berggolts exulted: “In mud, dark, hunger, grief, / Where death followed our heels like a shadow, / We felt such happiness, / We breathed such stormy freedom, / That our grandchildren would envy us.” For free speech, people still paid with their lives—in punishment battalions or by firing squad—but the fear had abated.

War forced Stalin to dismantle his monolith. Within months he had learned that he could not micromanage a successful response to blitzkrieg, that generals and colonels had to make their own decisions. He had to allow the Church to rally the people. He could not win without the support of the hated West, and he had to make concessions. At times Stalin even had to tell the truth to his people. In his decree of July 28, 1942, he admitted: “The population is beginning to be disillusioned by the Red Army, and many curse it for handing our people to the yoke of the German oppressors, while retreating to the east . . . we no longer prevail over the Germans in human resources or supplies of grain.” British and then American officers had to be allowed to walk the streets of Moscow and the northern ports, even fraternizing with Soviet officers and befriending Soviet women. Winston Churchill set aside all his knowledge and hatred of the Bolsheviks and welcomed Russia as an overnight ally, the first ray of hope for a beleaguered Britain. German planes would for a time have no more fuel from the Soviet oil fields, and the troops poised to invade Britain were now pouring east. Roosevelt, when six months later the United States joined the war, had no hesitation in embracing Stalin as an ally—or at least a deterrent—to tie down a significant number of Japanese divisions. Just as pragmatically, Stalin had to mask his contempt for Western statesmen and make some concessions in order to receive from his new allies leather, meat, vehicles, munitions, and information that might stem the German tide. Stalin pretended to forget about Anglo-American intervention against the Bolsheviks in 1919; the British and Americans enforced silence in their own countries about Stalin’s crimes against humanity.

Stalin’s hangmen abandoned prophylactic killing; they had to see to their own survival and the nation’s. For a short while they encouraged Stalin to avenge the army’s defeats by shooting one hapless general after another, but within a year, like Stalin, they understood that professional officers, engineers, and administrators were too precious to waste. The blood of the rank and file, civilians or soldiers, was still shed prodigiously, but the hangmen observed a truce in their war of attrition against the professional classes.