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


Chapter 59. The Scent of Freedom

IT IS A TRUISM that after losing a war any Russian government makes concessions to its population, and after winning a war the ungrateful regime turns on its own people. Stalin in 1945, only a thousand times more brutally, did what Alexander I had done in 1813 and crushed his nation’s hopes that its loyalty and suffering would be rewarded.

In Russia’s western provinces and the Ukraine, the Soviet authorities faced a problem unique in Europe: they sometimes had to deal with people nostalgic for the German occupation. All German administrators of occupied territory had been murderous to Jews and communists; many had treated the rest of the population as subhuman slaves. Some, however, especially in the regions adjoining the Baltic, had given small towns and villages their first experience of good administration. Peasants had had their land restored and the tithes they had to supply the German occupiers with were not unduly onerous. These memories had to be eradicated. The peace that came with Germany’s unconditional surrender in May 1945 was illusory east of the Elbe. Stalin turned his war machine on his own minorities, on eastern Europeans who sought to revive their prewar independence, and, as in the 1930s, on his own too buoyant intelligentsia and party. The bourgeois contagion that the Anglo-American alliance had brought had to be scrubbed out.

The Red Army, however, was stimulated to unsocialist behavior by Stalin’s own policies. What remained of German industry and infrastructure was dismantled and sent back to the USSR as the beginning of war reparations. Not only industrial plants, but art galleries and museums were looted, sometimes recovering what the Germans had looted from the east. When Soviet soldiers raped German women and took German watches, bicycles, crockery, and clothes, they were only imitating the state. Officers packed whole trains with loot: cars, dinner services, books, even herds of cattle for their dachas. Stalin said that he saw nothing wrong with rape, and he tolerated the massive looting, noting that if he had to arrest a senior Red Army officer he could now easily find a pretext. The criminalization of the Red Army began in 1945. The USSR was flooded with foreign currency and consumer goods: American aid, from Jeeps to secondhand shoes; German loot, from prize cattle to cameras. The black market, which had virtually vanished in the mid-1930s, reappeared. Nothing that Stalin or his successors threatened could kill it off. Likewise, the underworld, so badly damaged by Ezhov, thrived on postwar inequalities. The cities were infested with deserters, demobilized soldiers, and thugs freed from the GULAG; in 1947 there were 10,000 murders and hundreds of thousands of violent robberies in the USSR.

Alliance with the Western democracies shook communist ideology and brought about the rehabilitation of the Russian Orthodox Church. When Easter bells rang out, on Stalin’s orders, in Moscow in 1942, the effect was astounding. On September 5 Metropolitan Sergi, accompanied by two senior bishops, all wearing ordinary suits, and by Molotov and Vsevolod Merkulov, talked to Stalin while Beria, Malenkov, and Mikoyan waited outside. The result was the restoration of Church property, generous funding, and permission to print the Bible. Andrei Vyshinsky was entrusted with finding a censor who could purge the Bible of anti-Soviet sentiments. The choice fell on the dramatist Nikolai Virta, who was paid 500,000 rubles by the Church and declared both the Old and New Testaments to be completely in accord with party ideology.

The Church was now, like that of Ivan the Terrible or Henry VIII of England, an arm of the state. In Stalin’s first broadcast to the Soviet people after the outbreak of war, he had flabbergasted his listeners by addressing them not as “comrades” but, like a Christian pastor, as “brothers and sisters.” Promoting Orthodoxy had been more effective in galvanizing the nation to fight than reiterating the slogans of Stalinism. Stalin may also have listened to an American envoy, who had pointed out that Congress would not hesitate to send the USSR military aid if religious suppression stopped. Right until Stalin’s death Russian metropolitan bishops were delivered in large black limousines to appear on international platforms, such as peace congresses, in the company of such stalwart atheists as Fadeev and Ehrenburg.

Russian intellectuals recalled reacting with relief to the outbreak of war. Some had hoped for defeat, hoping that Hitler would establish a puppet Russian state as tolerable as Vichy France; most longed for victory, forgetting that after every major victory the Russian state had tightened the screws. For rallying round, Soviet intellectuals expected gratitude, even though Stalin’s remark “Gratitude is a dog’s virtue” was widely quoted. Even the peasantry assumed that Stalin would have to pay for Anglo-American support: rumors swept the country that Churchill and Roosevelt had demanded the abolition of collective farms as the price of help.

Writers, composers, and painters had been treated with a care they were no longer used to. Very few were stranded in blockaded Leningrad; most were evacuated not to the Volga and Urals, where the government and heavy industry were relocated, but to the warmth and relative plenty of central Asian cities such as Tashkent. Scarce resources were allocated to print poets such as Akhmatova and Pasternak. Symphonies were commissioned; public readings turned writers into stars. Those who reported from the front, such as Konstantin Simonov or Ilya Ehrenburg, were treated like party leaders. No major writer was imprisoned or shot, although the very few still alive in the GULAG were not released. Only Nikolai Zabolotsky, after Ilya Ehrenburg, Samuil Marshak, and Nikolai Tikhonov wrote a letter to Beria in March 1945, was taken off heavy labor and given work as a draftsman which would enable him to survive.

One major poet died a tragic death. Marina Tsvetaeva, lured back to Russia in 1939 despite Pasternak’s warnings of 1935, found herself a pariah. Her husband, one of Beria’s contract killers, was shot, her sister and daughter arrested as French spies, and she was barred from publishing. Evacuated with other writers to Elabuga near Kazan and starving in a garret, washing dishes in the canteen where favored writers ate, she hanged herself. Almost her last poem is a reproach to her fellow poets, none of whom—not even the repentant Pasternak—had dared to be a Good Samaritan:

And there is no coffin!
There is no separation!
The table’s spell is broken, the house is woken.
Like death to a marriage feast,
I am life that has come to a supper.
You are nobody to me: not brother, son, husband, or friend—
and still I reproach you:
you, who laid the table for six souls,
without giving me a seat at the far end.

Pasternak, who had once thought himself in love with Tsvetaeva, wrote a poem in her memory, which he dared in 1943 to read to audiences. Its grief is understated almost to the point of callousness:

In the silence of your departure there is an unexpressed reproach.
Losses are always enigmatic.
In the fruitless searches which are my reply
I agonize without result: death has no outlines.
Oh, Marina, it’s long been time, and not such a terrible trouble,
to transfer your neglected ashes from Elabuga in a requiem.

Returning to Moscow in spring 1943 by riverboat, Pasternak dared to write in the captain’s journal, “I want to have a bath and I also thirst for freedom of the press.” The free speech of the writers was carefully recorded by those of their friends who reported to the NKVD. In 1943 and 1944 Vsevolod Merkulov collated the remarks for Stalin’s perusal. 21 The most loyal communists had views that strangely anticipate those of many modern Russians: “. . . it’s an irony of fate that we are shedding blood and devastating our country in order to strengthen Anglo-American capitalism . . . So Hitlerism has played its historic role, for it has saved capitalism from death,” remarked a literary critic, Boris Valbe. Others were more sanguine: the grandson of the great Maecenas Savva Morozov, a journalist who had by a miracle not paid for his ancestry with his life, declared, “it’s clear that after the war life in this country must change radically, under the Allies’ influence the government will be forced to make decisive changes internally. It’s very likely that opposition parties will emerge in the country.” In summer 1943 many writers believed that the generals who were winning the war—Zhukov and Rokossovsky—would gain such political clout that they could become dictators, that the returning soldier would demand the dissolution of collective farms and Soviet power.

Only the hardbitten like the critic Viktor Shklovsky—his brother, a priest, had been shot—had an inkling of what Stalin would do: “Victory will give us nothing good. . . . Our regime has always been the most cynical of any that have ever existed; the anti-Semitism of the communist party is just delightful. . . . I have no hope of the allies exerting any beneficial influence. They will be declared imperialists the moment peace talks begin.” Even a conformist like Aleksei Tolstoi feared that “when war comes to its completion we shall still have to fight our allies for the partition and remaking of Europe.” The novelist Sergei Golubov was equally grim:

Any kind of changes for the better, any freedom of thought, of artistic creation is out of the question for us, for we have the inertia of power, of an order which has been established for all time. The authorities are incapable, even if they wanted to, of the slightest concessions in public life or the collective farms, the economy, for that might make a crack into which all the dissatisfaction that has piled up would gush.

Like many writers, Golubov was overwhelmed by poverty: “Where else, except in the USSR, can a writer be asked such a crazy question as: ‘Are you suffering from malnutrition?’ A writer can be gratified with a sack of potatoes or a pair of trousers.”

By summer 1944, optimism was fading. Books were not passing the censor; writers were being reprimanded by cretinous party officials. Kornei Chukovsky, the translator and much-loved children’s poet from Leningrad, complained of the most terrible centralization of literature, its subordination to the tasks of the Soviet empire. . . . I am living in an anti-democratic country, in the country of despotism. . . . The dependence of our press today has led to the silence of talents and the squawk of the sycophants. . . . With the fall of the Nazi despotism, the world of democracy will find itself facing our Soviet despotism.

Stalin and Merkulov cracked down on the self-assertion of intellectuals as mercilessly as they had on the national identity of the Chechens or Crimean Tatars. Merkulov announced that all writers who had expressed rebellious opinions were being “worked on.” The monthly journals, their main outlet and source of income, were brought to heel. Stricter editors were installed. Writers and film directors were told to produce epics showing Stalin’s wise and heroic conduct of the war.

Stalin’s younger acolytes Georgi Malenkov and Andrei Zhdanov, relatively well-educated members of the Politburo, were told they had to restore order in the arts. The Leningrad journal Zvezda (Star) annoyed them most. Leningrad, despite its authoritarian rule by Andrei Zhdanov, nurtured the illusion that its extraordinary suffering during the war entitled it to speak more freely. The poetry in Zvezda spoke too much of the realities of war: “bridges made of frozen corpses,” “a rotten scum of bile and anguish,” tuberculosis, and prostitution. Contributors failed to see that the alliance with America was over and continued being conciliatory to religion and the bourgeoisie. Nikolai Aseev, otherwise a Stalinist poet, had written to the Americans: “You have an Abraham, we have a Joseph . . . let’s make a new Bible.”

The self-esteem of the intelligentsia and of the Red Army’s generals had to be crushed; Stalin was preoccupied with preventing his satraps getting above themselves. Beria, Abakumov, Molotov, and Malenkov all found their freedom of action and their certainty of power curtailed. Stalin had gotten all he wanted from the Allies in Potsdam in summer 1945 and had quickly joined the war against Japan in August, but in that same month everything changed with the American detonation of two atom bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Arguably, these bombs saved many more lives than they took. Not only were the Americans spared the loss of life that an invasion of Japan would have cost, but, having lost the atomic race, the Soviets could no longer contemplate overwhelming the smaller forces of the British and Americans in Europe and realizing Lenin and Trotsky’s dream of a Soviet Union from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Stalin had not had a break nor seen the Caucasus since the autumn of 1936. On October 9, 1945, he left Moscow for Sochi and stayed so low and so long that rumors began to spread that he was ill, that Molotov would take over the reins of power. Now nearly sixty-seven and suffering from arteriosclerosis, Stalin was exhausted. He had summaries of British and American newspaper reports of his health sent to him in Sochi; he was both irritated and amused by the speculation but held out until mid-December before returning to Moscow.