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


Chapter 55. Beria Shares Power

IN 1941, AS WAR LOOMED, Stalin began to manipulate his henchmen in a new way. The dangers of arrest and execution receded, but so did the security of power. Stalin began to duplicate powers, to split commissariats, to switch his favors from one to another, to make his underlings jealous and suspicious of each other. The change in Stalin can be ascribed to his realization that his mental and physical powers were waning—he was now sixty-two years old—and that, for the first time since he had achieved power, his plans were going awry. The Red Army almost defeated by the Finns, Hitler sweeping through the Balkans, first isolating, then threatening the USSR, all proved his fallibility. He could no longer crush every obstacle in his path. He trusted nobody—not even himself, as he told Khrushchiov—and saw a potential assassin in every guard and every associate. Even more than before, he duplicated the channels that fed him information and avoided written instructions, often even verbal ones. A clenched fist to his teeth, a raised eyebrow was an order which could more easily be disavowed. Stalin began to be unpredictable and his hangmen reacted accordingly. They too hesitated to take any course of action that could not be stopped or reversed. They cooperated less and watched each other more. Even the old circle of Kaganovich, Voroshilov, and Molotov lost its coherence.

Beria was better equipped, by personality and intelligence, than anyone else to cope with an aging Stalin, but even he must have been dismayed on February 3, 1941. Days after making him general commissar of state security, Stalin sliced his empire in two. Beria remained commissar for internal affairs, but his remit was now mundane: traffic police, firemen, and the GULAG empire. A separate Commissariat for State Security was hived off and Stalin appointed Beria’s loyal deputy, Vsevolod Merkulov, to the new commissariat. Beria had been warned not to monopolize power, but he was not in as precarious a position as Iagoda and Ezhov had been when they had lost sole command of state security. Beria and Merkulov were after all old allies; their working and personal relationships remained close.

Vsevolod Merkulov’s appointment was typical of the new tactics. Stalin was throwing several scorpions into the box to see if one would kill the others. Another of Beria’s subordinates, Viktor Abakumov, replaced Merkulov as Beria’s deputy and was subsequently put in charge of military counterintelligence. After the war, a couple of lesser scorpions from the security services, Rukhadze and Riumin, were thrown in to counteract these three.

Experience with Iagoda had taught Stalin that the security services could be controlled only by appointing someone from outside their remit. Stalin therefore promoted his former secretary and the editor of Pravda, Lev Mekhlis, into an intelligence and security overlord. Stalin was also tinkering again with the machinery of state. The party Politburo became a dead letter; decision-making passed to the government, the Council of Commissars, and, when the Germans invaded, to the State Defense Committee, which comprised Stalin and his closest cronies. Apart from Molotov, Stalin now tended to prefer younger men—Beria, Zhdanov, Malenkov, Khrushchiov. Their servility was balanced by ruthless infighting that ensured they would never conspire together. Kaganovich was shifted away from the center of power to terrorize the coal and oil industries and occasionally rally the armed forces’ morale with firing squads. Voroshilov was given tasks where he could do the war effort least damage.

Beria was too energetic and efficient to be dispensable. Stalin jokingly called him “our Himmler,” but he was also the Soviet Union’s Albert Speer. Like Kaganovich and Mekhlis, Beria used executions to terrify the hesitant, cowardly, or incompetent; unlike them, he grasped military and technical arguments and was a canny judge of character and ability. Beria remained cool in the face of opposition and danger.

Merkulov, the most articulate and least repulsive member of Beria’s inner circle, throughout the war supplied foreign intelligence. He was an officer’s son and had been a second lieutenant in the Tsar’s army. In Tbilisi Merkulov had taught for three years in a school for the blind and in September 1921 he joined the Georgian Cheka. He faithfully stuck to Beria until the last day of their lives. At the height of the terror Merkulov cannily left the NKVD for trade and transport. When in September 1938 Beria took Merkulov to Moscow and back into the NKVD, he at first balked at the physical torture of detainees. He was teased by Beria—“Theoretician!”

After dutifully organizing the killing of Poles at Katyn, Ostashkov, and Smolensk, Merkulov’s next mission was in summer 1940, when he went incognito to Riga to purge Latvia’s middle classes. On his appointment as commissar for state security Merkulov found the Soviet intelligence service laid waste by Ezhov’s purges with the remnants too frightened of Stalin to tell him unpalatable truths. The NKVD’s best spies, including Richard Sorge, were not trusted.1 Two of Beria’s acolytes, Amayak Kobulov, Bogdan’s younger brother, and Dekanozov, were stationed in Berlin, Kobulov from September 1939 as first secretary and intelligence officer, Dekanozov from November 1940 as ambassador after spending the summer terrorizing Lithuania. Neither spoke German. The German Foreign Ministry did not know whether to be insulted or amused that the Soviet Union had sent such a physical and mental dwarf as Dekanozov, a toad with stubble, to match their urbane ambassador to Moscow, Count Schulenburg. Amayak Kobulov, on the other hand, was charming but dim, which made him an ideal conduit for Nazi disinformation. Vsevolod Merkulov thus transmitted to Stalin on May 25, 1941, what Stalin wanted to hear: “War between the Soviet Union and Germany is unlikely. . . . German military forces gathered on the frontier are meant to show the Soviet Union the determination to act if they are forced to. Hitler calculates that Stalin will become more pliable and will stop any intrigues against Germany, but above all will supply more goods, especially oil.”

Stalin had sent Molotov to Berlin in November 1940 to negotiate terms on which the USSR might become an ally of Germany, Japan, and Italy but the talks foundered on Molotov’s insistence that the USSR should take over Iran and western India. If Hitler contemplated letting the USSR take over parts of the British Empire, then, Stalin reasoned, the USSR was safe. Even Hitler’s attack on Yugoslavia in spring 1941 left Stalin unperturbed.

Beria himself had completed Ezhov’s work destroying Red Army intelligence: everyone of the rank of colonel or above had been shot. A few terrorized majors remained, their credentials having ethnically Russian surnames and knowing no foreign languages. To guess Hitler’s next move, they relied on gossip gleaned from central European military attachés or drunken SS officers. They drew no conclusions even when the German embassy in Moscow packed its furniture and families off home. They miscalculated the number of German troops on the Soviet frontier as 40 percent instead of 62 percent of all Hitler’s forces. As late as March 1941, Lieutenant General Filipp Golikov, the squat, bald, scarlet-faced blimp who now headed Red Army intelligence, perversely concluded: “Rumors and documents that speak of the inevitability of war against the USSR this spring must be assessed as disinformation emanating from English and even perhaps from German intelligence.” 2

When war broke out, Vsevolod Merkulov had the wit to steal others’ intelligence. Naum Eitingon was entrusted with nurturing five traitors in the British intelligence services—Burgess, Maclean, Philby, Blunt, and Cairncross. Through them, once the British had cracked the German Enigma encoding machine, Merkulov obtained for Stalin and his generals information on German armaments and plans. There were Soviet spies in Nazi Germany, but their warnings were dismissed and they were so carelessly handled that the Gestapo soon caught them. Moreover, Stalin insisted on raw intelligence; in his conceit, he would not let professionals analyze the information they gathered.3

Even as commissar for state security, Merkulov devoted time to creative work. He had already written a pamphlet about Beria, “Loyal son of the Lenin-Stalin party.” Using the grandiose pseudonym Vsevolod Rokk (all-powerful fate), Merkulov staged his play Engineer Sergeev to applause all over Russia from 1942 to 1944. In the first disastrous months of the war, Sergeev has to blow up the electricity station he built. German agents, a former kulak, a White Guard, and a Baltic German officer try to stop him. Helped by an NKVD lieutenant Sergeev destroys his beloved power station, killing himself and the German agents.

After Hiroshima, when Stalin conceded that the USSR had to have its atom bomb, Merkulov came into his own. With his education in physics, he understood what questions to ask his spies in Britain and America. Until then, Merkulov performed best his traditional NKVD work: reporting to Stalin on everything writers and filmmakers said when they thought they were not overheard. Stalin and Zhdanov’s attack on the intelligentsia in 1946 was fueled by intellectuals’ utterances during the war, when they felt courted, even treasured, and began to think aloud.

Beria’s other rival was Viktor Semionovich Abakumov. Supposedly born in 1908 to a hospital boilerman and a laundress, and without formal education, Abakumov matched Merkulov’s patrician style but was violent, uncultured, and devious.4 Outside secret police work, Abakumov, tall and handsome, was interested only in women and luxury. In his early days Abakumov was called “Foxtrotter” but in 1934 his career faltered when he began taking dancing partners to OGPU safe houses, not only for sex but to make them denounce whomever he next proposed to arrest. He was demoted to GULAG guard. In 1937 he found a new niche in the secret political and operational directorates of the NKVD for whom he installed listening equipment, and made searches and arrests. His physical strength and love of the job at tracted the attention of Bogdan Kobulov, who induced Beria to let Abakumov run the turbulent southern city of Rostov on the Don. In February 1941, when Beria’s empire was cut in two, Stalin arranged for Abakumov to replace Merkulov as Beria’s deputy in the NKVD.

At first Abakumov ran border guards, uniformed police, and fire brigades, but when war began, Stalin put Abakumov in charge of military counterintelligence. Here Abakumov made an impact. He answered directly to Stalin and could ignore Beria. In spring 1943, as the fortunes of war turned in Russia’s favor, counterintelligence became a powerful force. Abakumov became deputy to Stalin, who made himself both commissar of defense and supreme commander. Abakumov’s organization, even more dreaded than Beria’s, was SMERSH (Death to Spies). It had seven branches: it conducted surveillance over the army staff and all forces, it pursued and killed deserters and self-mutilators, it formed “blocking squads” to shoot retreating soldiers, it supervised quartermasters and field hospitals, it filtered suspected collaborators in reoccupied territory, it watched over contact with allies and the enemy. SMERSH terrorized the army and all who lived in combat zones, and squeezed everything it could from German prisoners. SMERSH made death in battle preferable to retreat for Russians and to surrender for Germans, but as an intelligence organization it was a liability. Most of its men were as aggressive and ignorant as Abakumov; they shot or hanged many loyal and able officers and men.

Abakumov controlled his empire from a building opposite the Lubianka, from which he would emerge to stride the streets of Moscow, flinging 100-rouble notes to beggar women. Like Beria, Abakumov was considered just, even compassionate, only by his subordinates. In 1945 Stalin put Abakumov on the Soviet commission to prepare for the Nuremberg trials of German war criminals. In 1946 Abakumov took Merkulov’s place as minister of state security, and held it until 1951. Beria, absorbed by the campaign to build atomic weapons, was no longer a rival, but although Abakumov oversaw two purges and numerous murders for Stalin, even he ultimately proved insufficiently vicious.

The Red Army had not just the enemy and SMERSH to fear; the military collegium of the Soviet supreme court also traveled the front, holding courts-martial and issuing death sentences on the most trivial pretexts.5 It was headed by Ulrikh’s deputy I. O. Matulevich; he and his men, hardened by the terror of 1937–8, typed thousands of death sentences on slips of cigarette paper. A soldier had only to admire the quality of German aircraft design or to roll a cigarette in a German leaflet he had picked up, a nurse had only to treat a wounded German, to be shot. In such a terrible war some soldiers greeted the firing squad with indifference, even relief, and so on April 19, 1943, Stalin took a leaf from the Germans’ book and brought in execution by public hanging: “Shooting is abolished because of the leniency of this punishment.” This measure resulted in spectacles that revolted even Matulevich: destitute civilians would strip the bodies of the hanged for their clothes. But public hanging was a punishment Stalin kept in his arsenal until the end of his life.

Stalin’s least-known but most vicious scorpion—whom the army loathed even more than they did Beria, Abakumov, and Matulevich— was Lev Mekhlis. Stalin had met him on the southwestern front in the civil war, where Mekhlis was a political commissar who detested former Tsarist officers as deeply as Stalin did. Mekhlis helped Rozalia Zemliachka murder captured White officers in the Crimea.6 From the Crimea Mekhlis moved to join Stalin in the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspectorate, and then, with Bazhanov and Tovstukha, became Stalin’s secretary. In 1926, Mekhlis was sent with Nikolai Ezhov to be educated at the Communist Academy, where he contrived to adopt and, at the right time discard, the Bukharinite views of the academy’s teachers. By 1931 Mekhlis was literate enough to become editor of Pravda, which he turned into Stalin’s mouthpiece, receiving material from Stalin on former party leaders to be denounced in the paper and then arrested by Ezhov. For seven years Mekhlis took not a single day off and dragged into the paper, against their better judgment, fine writers such as Mikhail Koltsov, to make Pravda more readable.

Mekhlis was the sole new member of the party’s Central Committee of summer 1937 who survived the terror. In December of that year, with the purge of the Red Army under way, Stalin made Mekhlis head of its political directorate. Mekhlis traveled across Siberia to pick out officers and political commissars for arrest.7

There was a wave of suicides in Mekhlis’s wake: in 1940, over a thousand Red Army men killed themselves “for fear of being held responsible.” Mekhlis spoke to Stalin over the head of Voroshilov. Officers hated Mekhlis for his bullying and denunciations, even if they grudgingly conceded his courage. Like Voroshilov, Mekhlis was unafraid of bullets; he made political commissars hold their propaganda meetings at the front, not in the safety of the rear. By summer 1940, however, Stalin judged that the army had suffered enough. He created for Mekhlis a new Commissariat of State Control, primarily to frighten the Soviet bureaucracy—an institution three times the size of the Red Army—into a semblance of honesty, efficiency, and frugality. Here Mekhlis worked with Malenkov to build up a small army of 4,500 inspectors. By the time war broke out—to his disbelief, as much as Stalin’s—Mekhlis could investigate or veto any expenditure or plans by any of forty-six other commissariats.

To replace the military intelligence apparatus he had destroyed, Mekhlis recruited thousands of men in his own image, many from his old school, the Institute of Red Professors. They acted as political commissars and brought back dual command, political and military, to the Red Army. This system of command contributed to the defeats of 1941 and 1942, and Stalin and Mekhlis reluctantly rescinded it.

Mekhlis had army officers trained on the basis of Stalin’s textbook, The History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union—A Short Course, a book which singled out Mekhlis for praise, while the rank and file learned slogans glorifying Stalin. Mekhlis worked almost without sleep as Stalin’s troubleshooter and Stalin backed him on most points, balking only at issuing arms to untrained “communist squads.” Over two years, Mekhlis raced thousands of miles across the fronts, killing as many Red Army generals as the Germans. His cruelty was legendary: if the Germans used human shields of Russian POWs or women and children, the Red Army was to mow them down. The NKVD was to slaughter all prisoners in cities that lay in the enemy’s path. A solider who answered back to a sergeant was to be shot in front of the ranks.

Mekhlis was as ridiculous as he was atrocious: when he found captured Germans with playing cards depicting naked women, he printed 11 million leaflets to shower on the enemy: “How Hitler is depraving his army.” Officers were arrested not for fighting badly, but because they had been arrested before, had received secondary education under the Tsar, or were sons of priests. General V. Kachalov, who had already been killed in his tank, was sentenced to death because he was seen putting into his pocket a German leaflet as he drove off to the front; the general’s wife and mother-in-law went to the GULAG.

A real test came in the Crimea, which in 1942 the Red Army was trying to hold against the Germans. Never had Mekhlis been so frenetic in giving battle orders, recruiting political workers, and dismissing officers; this was ground he had conquered twenty-two years ago. Now everything went wrong. Mekhlis was responsible for the disaster of May 1942, when the Russians were swept off the peninsula by a German army half their size. Mekhlis escaped without a scratch but with a besmirched military reputation. A key territory, 400 tanks, 400 aircraft, and nearly half a million men had been lost. Stalin sent a menacing telegram:

You hold a strange position, as if you were a bystander or observer not responsible for the deeds on the Crimean front. This position is very convenient, but it is rotten through and through. . . . If you had used attack aviation against tanks and enemy forces, and not on sideshows, the enemy would not have broken through the front....8

Oddly, back in Moscow Mekhlis was not court-martialed; Stalin set up a party military and political propaganda unit, in which he could do less harm. He nevertheless continued to range over the fronts, encouraging blocking squads to shoot retreating soldiers and moving on when he had enraged local commanders. When political commissars were abolished, the panic had abated, and victory over Hitler seemed certain, Mekhlis became just a bogeyman, and commanders could even appeal against his slanders. Now they might be demoted, but not shot.

imageWar had changed Soviet society. Initiative had been encouraged, even rewarded when it succeeded. Victory over a real enemy, not some Trotskyist chimera invented by Stalin, had restored the individual’s faith in himself. The Red Army—into which nearly a quarter of the entire population had been recruited—had become more powerful, more supportive, and more worth fighting for than the party. Above all, German bullets had steeled men and women to overcome their fears. It would need a very heavy hand indeed after victory in 1945 to return the population to the servile and gullible state of the 1930s. Stalin, Abakumov, Beria, and Mekhlis would have to use all the punitive force at their command to get the population back into its cage.

Like Stalin, Mekhlis was more perturbed than jubilant when the Red Army moved into central Europe: “Not just in the history of the Soviet Union, but in the history of our Fatherland, for the first time millions of people have visited abroad. They will bring back all sorts of things. Much of what they will see makes no sense to our people. . . . And what would they say if they’d been to America (skyscrapers, industry)?” 9 Stalin and Mekhlis were right. The sight of prosperity beyond a Russian soldier’s dreams, even in war-ravaged Germany, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, did have an effect on his mind. Mekhlis would have to combat the corrupting effect of capitalism on the army of occupation. This prompted Stalin in March 1946 to make him once again minister of state control, where he could cut out the rot in the bureaucracy and the officer caste.