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


Chapter 56. Evacuation, Deportation, and Genocide

Send, o Lord, the Soviets Thy help,
And from the master race protect our land,
Because Thy sacred Ten Commandments
Are broken more by Hitler than by us.

Nikolai Glazkov

BERIA, LESS EASILY FOOLED by Hitler than was Stalin, took in what he heard from Sorge in Tokyo and Dekanozov, who in 1940 shuttled between Moscow and Berlin. In Moscow the German ambassador, Schulenburg, a Russophile, told Dekanozov Hitler’s plans. Stalin ordered that bearers of bad tidings should be told to “fuck their mothers.” Beria sycophantically concurred; even on June 21, 1941, the night before German tanks crossed the Bug River, he promised that “accomplices of international provocateurs will be ground into GULAG dust.” He had the gall to ask Stalin to recall his own protégé Dekanozov from Berlin for “bombarding” him with reports of imminent attack. To judge by the change in Beria and Bogdan Kobulov’s treatment of Polish officers from summer 1940, they well knew that war was looming; when in spring 1941 General Wołkowicki asked for permission to fight the Germans in Yugoslavia, Beria was sympathetic. But Beria never confronted Stalin, who had made up his mind that Hitler would not attack the USSR until he had finished off Britain.

In the panic and despondency of July 1941, Stalin kept Beria close by, using him as his number two on the State Defense Committee. Beria took specific responsibility for the defense industry as so many of its factories and workers were part of the GULAG empire. Another of his tasks was to liquidate potential collaborators and to scorch the earth wherever the Red Army was in retreat, so that Hitler, like Napoleon 130 years before, would find neither food, fuel, nor sympathizers.

The NKVD was one of the first commissariats to set up, together with the diplomatic corps shepherded by Andrei Vyshinsky, in evacuation at Samara on the Volga. Of 3,000 prisoners sent to the Volga from Butyrki prison the 138 most important were shot in October. They included Abram Belenky, Lenin’s chief bodyguard and one of Stalin’s oldest cronies, Béla Kun, Mikhail Kedrov, the chekist and neuropsychologist, several air force generals whose planes had been destroyed on the ground in the first hours of the war, and the last head of Red Army intelligence, Iosif Proskurov, who shared the fate of his six predecessors. Generals who survived the first attacks on the western front were arrested by Vsevolod Merkulov and also shot in Samara.

From Oriol prison, reserved for prominent political prisoners— image had spent four years there—154 were taken into the forests and shot. They included an unusual number of women, among them Trotsky’s sister Olga Kameneva and the legendary Social Revolutionary Mariia Spiridonova, as well as victims of the show trials who had been promised their lives such as Gorky’s doctor, Pletniov. These murders Beria assigned to the organizers of the Katyn killings, Bogdan Kobulov and Leonid Bashtakov. Worse were the massacres perpetrated on Beria’s orders in the newly acquired Western Ukraine: perhaps 100,000 civilian prisoners were shot in Lwów as the Red Army retreated.10 When the Germans captured a city very rapidly, as at Poltava, the local NKVD, to make flight easier or to avoid leaving behind anyone who might welcome the invaders, would kill prisoners and “untrustworthy” citizens on its own initiative. Other deaths were ordered from Moscow: in November 1941, in eight days, 4,905 persons were shot on Beria’s orders.

The losses of men in 1941—2,841,900 of the Red Army killed or captured in summer and autumn alone—forced Beria to limit executions and to retrieve military manpower from wherever he could. Two generals in the GULAG, Kirill Meretskov and Boris Vannikov, were patched up in a sanatorium and sent to their commands. Meretskov was one of the few who had fought well in the Finnish war. He was so crippled by torture that he became the only general allowed to report to Stalin sitting down. Vannikov had been commissar for the defense industry until his arrest two weeks before war broke out; he recovered from his ordeals better than Meretskov and eventually provided the military coercion for Beria’s atom bomb project.

Only in November 1941 did Stalin dare trust Sorge’s assurances from Tokyo that Japan would not attack and move Siberian troops to the European front, but prisons and GULAG resources—more than 80 percent of the 2 million prisoners were men of military age—were still untapped. However, just 3,000 kulak exiles were considered safe material for the Red Army and in 1941 over 200,000 more peasants and “socially dangerous elements” had been exiled east for forced labor. From 1941 to 1944 over a million men out of a total of 29 million conscripted into the Soviet forces during the war were taken from the GULAG to the front. The NKVD’s executioners were still busy. Officially, only 1,649 counterrevolutionaries not including Polish officers were shot in 1940; in 1942 the toll was 23,278, excluding untold thousands shot out of hand by NKVD or military tribunals. Long after the rout of 1941, Stalin still had senior officers shot. The choice of victim was arbitrary: some, like General Kozlov, who had lost the Crimea and nearly lost the Caucasus to the Germans, lived on.

Beria had one major deportation to undertake: 1,500,000 ethnic Germans, most skilled farmers in an autonomous republic on the left bank of the Volga, were moved. On August 3, 1941, Stalin, hearing that these Germans had fired on retreating Soviet troops, sent a note to Beria: “They must be deported with a bang.” It is said that Beria and Molotov had already tested the loyalty of the Volga Germans by sending in parachutists in German uniform and rounding up every household that gave them shelter. 11 The deportation—by the standards of Beria’s later operations, even the standards of the British and American internment of enemy aliens—was humane: each family could take up to a ton of possessions and was given vouchers for the livestock they left behind, although these were rarely honored. Some 900,000 ethnic Germans were deported, largely to Kazakhstan; the rest were recruited into labor armies. Like the Koreans before them, the Germans had a strong social and religious structure and were respected by the Kazakhs. Their mortality in Kazakhstan was low, and the land around Alma-Ata flourished under their care.

Stalin twice sent Beria, in August 1942 and March 1943, to stiffen the Russian defense of the Caucasus. Stalin complained to Roosevelt and Churchill that he often had to visit the front, but in fact went only twice in the war as the noise of gunfire loosened his bowels. Beria showed no such cowardice, but the regular army had no faith in him.12 In the winter of 1942–3 the Germans failed to take the passes over the Caucasus despite, or because of, Beria’s measures. Beria was no general: he replaced Caucasians—Armenians, Azeris, Dagestanis—in the ranks with Russians, and maintained a strong presence of NKVD troops, even if this meant denying arms and transport to the regular army battling on the passes with Hitler’s Edelweiss mountain units. Beria’s actions could always be disavowed. This is why Stalin let Beria’s men contact the Bulgarian ambassador and the short-lived pro-German Yugoslav government to sound out Hitler’s terms for peace. Beria also supervised experiments in bacteriological warfare and excelled himself moving the defense industry to the Urals, with the help of the GULAG and a labor army composed of those ethnic groups not trusted to fight. The production of steel and electricity soon exceeded that of the areas lost to the Germans.

In summer 1943, with the factories in the Urals working and the German tide ebbing, Stalin again hived off state security as a separate commissariat under Merkulov. This was not a diminution of Beria’s power; Stalin was allocating him some new tasks.

Several peoples of the USSR were branded as collaborators. First came the Turkic shepherds of the northwest Caucasus, the Karachai. In the winter of 1942–3 they had allegedly shown German patrols the mountain passes into Georgia and joined Nazi militias. Like many Caucasian peoples, some Karachai had hoped that Hitler would free them after twenty years of terror. Even after the Germans left, a Karachai national committee, fewer than a hundred desperadoes, fought a guerrilla war. But most Karachai did not collaborate: many families in the mountains even hid evacuated Russian Jewish children. During the brief German occupation, Colonel Unukh Kochkarov, the leader of the Karachai Red partisans, had been captured. When he escaped and rejoined the Red Army he was shot by the NKVD. Beria and his deputy Ivan Serov were interested only in the fiction of a “traitor-nation.” Serov and Mikhail Suslov, the NKVD controller of partisans, personally led the repression. In mid-October 1943 the Karachai autonomous district was abolished and 53,000 NKVD troops moved in to deport 69,267 Karachai, mostly women and children, to Kazakhstan. They were joined by their menfolk when the latter were demobilized. The deportation was cruel: no possessions, even warm clothing, were allowed. A million sheep were left untended. On the long freezing rail journey to Kazakhstan and on the central Asian steppes, 40 percent of the deportees, including 22,000 children, perished.

Then it was the turn of the Kalmyks. These Buddhist Mongols whose land lies between Volgograd and the Caspian Sea had been for centuries a football kicked between the Russian and Chinese empires. On December 27, 1943, they were accused of handing over their cattle to the Germans and their autonomous republic was also abolished. The Kalmyks were to be scattered from the Arctic to eastern Siberia, steppe cattle herders used as forced laborers in forestry and dam building. With one hour’s notice, without clothing or food and in terrible cold, over 90,000 Kalmyks were deported, to be followed by 20,000 of their menfolk still fighting in the Red Army. The trucks taking the Kalmyks to the railheads were American war aid.

On April 2, 1944, Beria reported to Stalin that the deportation had been carried out “without events or excesses.”13 The Kalmyks were so dispersed that any figure for the number of dead must be guesswork but the 1953 census located only 53,019. In 1939 there had been 134,000. In some areas only one in fifteen families survived, eating grass and twigs. On discharge, Kalmyk soldiers were treated worse than GULAG prisoners—forced to labor all day for 700 grams of bread. In November 1944 Beria was compelled by complaints from the Siberian authorities to ask Anastas Mikoyan to provide 36 tons of soap, 18 tons of tea, 90 tons of salt, some wool and cotton so that survivors might last through the next winter. Molotov, in the name of the Council of Commissars, insisted that the destitute Kalmyks pay.

Solomon Milshtein boasted to Bogdan Kobulov that, by banning baggage and cutting space, as half the deportees were children, he had cut the number of trains to 194, each of 64 carriages, to deport 150,000 Karachai and Kalmyks; the typhus that broke out was not, in his view, his fault.

Two successful genocidal operations led Beria to undertake a more difficult deportation: that of the Ingush and Chechens. These two related peoples (the Vainakh) had for 200 years fought a guerrilla war against the Russian invaders. In Soviet times the resistance, particularly of the eastern Vainakh, the Chechens, had been fierce. Chechen rebellions in the 1920s and 1930s, when they captured whole towns and drove out the GPU and Red Army, had not been forgiven by Stalin; nor had the Chechens and Ingush forgotten the NKVD’s violence against them. Some educated Chechens looked to Germany. Hitler’s ideologists had declared Chechens, Circassians, and other indigenous Caucasians proto-Aryans, and the Germans promised recognition as human beings, even political autonomy.

As Georgians, Stalin, Beria, and Kobulov detested the Ingush and Chechens with that antipathy of lowland townsmen to highland warriors that goes back to the dawn of history and is still felt in Georgia. The NKVD chiefs who conducted the Chechen and Ingush operation were also predominantly Georgian. On February 17, 1944, Beria announced that he would deport 459,486 people in eight days; as well as Chechen and Ingush, some of their Osetian, Dagestani, and even Russian neighbors would be rounded up. Beria requested leave for this “serious operation”; he wanted to take personal part.

Copying Hitler’s techniques with the Jews, Beria forced the Chechen leaders and mullahs to dissuade their people from resisting. All accessible villages were surrounded by NKVD troops and the villagers called to an assembly from which a few were allowed back to the houses to fetch possessions. This time, the deportees were allowed to take half a ton of possessions per family. As a result, 14,200 carriages and 1,000 open wagons crowded the railways to the Urals and to Siberia at a time when military supplies and troops needed the tracks. Nineteen thousand troops, horses, and American trucks—brought in through Iran—were mustered; bridges and roads were repaired; Siberian and Kazakh authorities were warned of the influx. Beria sent Stalin telegrams assuring him that the operation was going smoothly. It was not. Heavy snow meant some villages could not be evacuated, so Beria’s men, determined to finish the operation in eight days, burned the villagers alive in barns, stables, and mosques. Mikeil Gvishiani flew from Vladivostok to help Beria. At Khaibakh, near Nashkh—the heart of Chechen culture and the center of resistance—Gvishiani locked several hundred villagers, from newborn babies to men of 110, in stables and set fire to them, machine-gunning those who broke out.14

The Chechen and Ingush deportees, toughened by highland life and allowed to take some possessions, stood up to deportation better than the Karachai and Kalmyks. As Dostoevsky had noticed in prison in Omsk and as Solzhenitsyn was to remark, Chechens and Ingush had the mettle necessary to endure. Even so, by October 1945, of the half-million deported, a fifth had perished. Chechnya and Ingushetia were wiped from the map: parts of the territories, like that of the Karachai, were added to Georgia, some given to the Lak people of Dagestan. For their efforts the Supreme Soviet awarded Beria, Bogdan Kobulov, Kruglov, and Serov the Order of Suvorov (first degree); Gvishiani, Merkulov, and Abakumov received less prestigious decorations.

As he received his award, Beria was deporting yet another Caucasian people, the Balkars, Turkic shepherds like the Karachai. The Balkars had suffered badly from the 37th Red Army on November 28–9, 1942: suspected of collaborating with German patrols, over 500 Balkar villagers—mostly women and children—in the Chereke valley had been shot in their houses. On March 7, 1944, the Balkars were given thirty minutes to get into the NKVD’s Studebaker trucks. In the Kabarda-Balkar capital of Nalchik, Beria informed the local Circassians that the Balkar lands would be given to Georgia. Three weeks later the Balkars were unloaded from trains in the frozen Kirgiz steppes, where they were ostracized as traitors. Of the 37,000 who had left the Caucasus, about 2,000 died on the journey or soon after. Some Kabarda Circassians had been accidentally deported and were sent back, some of them to be deported again with other Kabarda later that year.

The Crimean Tatars were next. In April 1944, Kobulov and Serov drew up for Beria an ethnic map of the Crimea and accused Tatar soldiers of deserting to the Germans.15 Beria informed Stalin of “the undesirability of Crimean Tatars residing any longer in a frontier zone” and arranged with the Uzbek authorities for them to be moved 2,000 miles across central Asia. Stalin’s State Defense Committee issued a resolution—which no Crimean Tatar saw for forty-five years—confiscating their cattle and requiring them to pay for their transportation. The NKVD and NKGB allocated 32,000 men to round them up and the government ordered 75,000 planks for the cattle wagons in which the 165,000 Tatars were to travel. The Uzbeks were allocated 400 tons of fuel to truck the Tatars to the remote villages where they would be confined under threat of twenty years’ hard labor in the camps if they moved more than three kilometers. By May 18, two weeks ahead of the deadline, Kobulov and Serov, under Beria’s direction, had deported all the Tatars, mostly children and their mothers. Some went to northern Russia as forced labor for cellulose factories; 6,000 were arrested as anti-Soviet elements, and 700 shot or hanged as “spies.”

When Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin met in Yalta in February 1945, not one of these indigenous inhabitants of the Crimea was left. Their fishermen’s houses and their vineyards had been torn down to build villas and sanatoria for Russian party officials. The ethnic cleansing of the Crimea was completed by deporting 15,000 Greeks, 12,000 Bulgarians, and 10,000 Armenians. By the end of 1945, nearly half the deported Tatars had died of cold, hunger, disease, and despair. Many died on the journey and were buried in sand and ballast by the railway tracks. Their barracks in Kazakhstan had no glass in the windows; the bread ration was cut to 150 grams a day. There were no schools for the children; dysentery and scabies, as the NKVD admitted, raged. Those Tatar men who survived the war, however many medals they had, were dispatched on demobilization into exile. The only Tatars released were women married to Russians.

Beria still had some mopping up to do. Muslims in the Caucasus were again the victims. In 1944 47,000 Meskhi, Turkish-speaking Georgians living near the Turkish border, were dispatched to central Asia, as were 1,400 Hemshins (Muslim Armenians), the 9,000 remaining Kurds in Armenia, and some 30,000 people of unspecified nationality. Again, over half of the deportees were children. Between 12 and 33 percent of these deportees died. A few hundred Laz, a Muslim people living around Batumi and related to the Georgians, were mistaken for Meskhi and also deported but the Laz intellectual Mukhamed Vanlishi succeeded in persuading Beria to repatriate, and even compensate, the survivors a year later. In this final phase 413 NKVD men received medals for “bravery” and “fighting merit.”