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


Chapter 61. Exploding the Bomb

STALIN RETURNED from his long holiday on the Black Sea to Moscow in December 1945. On December 1, still in Sochi, he had received a letter from his daughter Svetlana, to whom he had uncharacteristically sent a box of mandarins. “I’m very, very glad you’re well and resting well, because Muscovites, unused to your absence, have begun to circulate rumors that you are very gravely ill.” 1 Svetlana continued: “the last six weeks bandits and hooligans have started robbing and killing Muscovites horribly.” Stalin was sure that without him chaos threatened. He was yet more contemptuous of his underlings. Stalin reassembled the mechanics of power. Kalinin, the head of state, was dying; his replacement, Shvernik, who had headed the trade unions, was even more of a cipher. Since 1941, Stalin had headed all three branches of power: the legislature, on the Supreme Soviet, as Shvernik’s puppet master, the party as general secretary and Politburo dictator, and the executive as chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars. He began to look for more malleable acolytes. War had required technocrats like Beria and Malenkov; after the war, Stalin sought ideologists to restore a totalitarian state.

Prewar henchmen were demoted: Kaganovich was moved down from transport to building materials, Marshal Voroshilov became the Soviet overlord of Hungary. While Stalin had been on holiday he had delegated power to Beria, Malenkov, Mikoyan, and Molotov. In December 1945 Molotov’s star fell. Stalin telegraphed his four commissars from Sochi:

December 5: I warned Molotov on the telephone that the Foreign Commissariat’s press department was wrong to pass The Daily Herald’s reports from Moscow setting out all sorts of fantasies and slanderous thoughts about our government, about the relations between members of the government and about Stalin. Molotov answered me that he thought foreign correspondents ought to be treated more liberally. . . . Yet today I read a report . . . in The New York Times . . . in a still coarser form. . . .

December 6: I consider your telegram completely unsatisfactory. It is the result of the naïveté of three of you and the sleight of hand of the fourth, i.e., Molotov. . . . None of us had the right to decide on his own matters involving a change in our policy. But Molotov did usurp that right. Why, on what basis? Is it not because libelous slanders are part of his work plan? . . . I have become convinced that Molotov does not value very much the interests of our state and the prestige of our government as long as he can get popularity in certain foreign circles. I can no longer consider such a comrade to be my first deputy.2

Beria, Malenkov, and Mikoyan read the telegram aloud to Molotov. They reported: “We summoned Molotov . . . after some thought he said that he had made a whole pile of mistakes but thinks this mistrust unfair, there were tears in his eyes.”

Molotov had angered Stalin by failing to secure a Soviet veto in the allied consultative commission on the future of Japan; in London he had let France and China have a say in peace treaties with Germany’s allies. Molotov was banished to New York, as envoy “Mr. Nyet” to the United Nations. Mikoyan also incurred Stalin’s wrath for failing to report on the new harbors and rich fishing grounds of the newly acquired Kurile Islands.

In March 1946 the Supreme Soviet renamed commissariats ministries. Stalin told the Council of Ministers, “A people’s commissar . . . reflects a period of unstabilized system, the period of civil war, of revolutionary breakup etc., etc. . . . The war has proved our social system is very strong . . . it is appropriate to change from people’s commissar to minister. The people will understand this easily because there is a plague of commissars.”3

Whether commissar or minister, any pretext—rain falling after fine weather was forecast—sufficed for Stalin to abuse his underlings. These bouts of anger did not always have the fatal outcomes of 1937 or 1938 but they shook men once confident of their hold on power.

Malenkov was unseated. The pretext was a letter sent to Stalin by his surviving legitimate son, Vasili, a drunken hooligan promoted to air force commander. Other pilots had paid with their lives for telling Stalin that Soviet aircraft were “flying coffins”; Vasili, although his father detested him, spoke freely about the Yak-9 fighter and its crashes. Stalin knew that half the 80,000 Soviet aircraft lost in the war had crashed due to mechanical failure. Abakumov also fed Stalin statistics comparing the deadly exploits of the Luftwaffe with the Soviet air force’s failures. Stalin dismissed Aleksei Shakhurin, minister for the aviation industry, within days of his return to Moscow and in spring had Abakumov arrest him together with Marshal of Aviation Aleksandr Novikov. They spent seven years in jail.

A Politburo resolution on May 4, 1946, pointed at the real culprit:

To confirm that comrade Malenkov, as the boss of the aviation industry responsible for certifying aircraft and for the air force, is morally answerable for the appalling failings which have been uncovered in the work of these departments (producing and certifying substandard aircraft), that he, knowing of these appalling failings, failed to make the Central Committee aware of them.

To deem it essential that Malenkov be removed from the Secretariat of the Central Committee.4

In March Malenkov, hitherto at only forty-five the rival of Andrei Zhdanov as Stalin’s heir apparent, was packed off to Kazakhstan.5

Beria alone seemed safe. In 1946 he left his ministry in order to manage the atomic weapons project, but from the Politburo he still oversaw internal affairs. The minister, Sergei Kruglov, was an unimaginative, spasmodically brutal bureaucrat. His main tasks for Stalin were to develop the GULAG and build more canals with slave labor. On Stalin’s insistence he put 200,000 political prisoners into special camps to be worked to death in harsher conditions, their only consolation being that they were moved away from the common criminals who had raped, robbed, and murdered them.

Beria lost his subservient, urbane minister for state security, Vsevolod Merkulov; Stalin wanted a more forceful minister. Viktor Abakumov came from SMERSH and reported direct to Stalin. Beria and Abakumov had no time for each other. Abakumov brought with him to the Ministry of State Security (MGB) two SMERSH generals, although Beria’s position in the Politburo left him with a little leverage over Abakumov, who retained several of Beria’s henchmen. One was Sergei Ogoltsov, who had cannily declined to be minister on the grounds of “lack of knowledge and experience”—disingenuous considering that he had joined the Cheka at the age of eighteen, had terrorized the Ukraine and Kazakhstan, and in winter 1941–2, under siege in Leningrad, had shot thirty-two prominent academics as “counterrevolutionaries.” Abakumov, like Beria, stood by his staff however much he abused them verbally; he even kept on the NKVD’s token Latvian, Eglitis, as well as two Georgian satraps of Beria’s, Goglidze in the Far East and Tsanava in Belorussia. In Georgia, however, he got rid of Beria’s nominee Rapava.

Beria took the atomic bomb project over from Molotov, who had failed to organize even a supply of uranium. Until Hiroshima, Stalin had paid little attention to his physicists’ warnings of the Allies’ and Germans’ progress. Now Stalin gave Beria first call on all resources as long as he got a bomb. If Beria failed, he would undoubtedly be shot.

In the event, Beria’s four years’ managing atomic weaponry were impressive. He seemed to get as much enjoyment from engineering projects as from arresting and killing enemies of the state. The atmosphere in which Soviet physicists and engineers worked was electric, and rather more luxurious than Los Alamos. This was Stalin’s one project where almost nobody was arrested and where all deadlines were met.There were many unnamed victims: thousands died mining uranium. More prisoners built laboratories, villas, garages, railway lines, even whole cities. Tens of thousands—three generations—of Kazakhs were condemned to death and radiation sickness when the bomb was tested in 1949. For once, however, the scientific community in the USSR felt valued.

The Soviet atomic bomb was built from information provided by Western scientists—some because they were communists, some believing that world peace would be secured by both sides in the cold war possessing nuclear deterrents, a few for mercenary reasons. Beria and NKVD men like Sudoplatov took the credit; Soviet foreign intelligence had revived in the ten years since Ezhov had annihilated it. The NKVD learned nuclear physics from Klaus Fuchs, metallurgy from Melita Nor-wood. Germany was scoured for scientists, students of Werner Heisenberg, who could enrich uranium and produce heavy water, and for the engineers who had built the V-2 rockets that would develop into intercontinental ballistic missiles. Physicists were retrieved from the GULAG and POW camps to be well fed and housed on the Black Sea.

First Beria located his uranium. In June 1946 Ivan Serov and another close associate, General Mikhail Maltsev, founded a company called Bismuth staffed by MGB troops. It took over twenty-seven sites in Upper Saxony and by October they were mining uranium from the old silver and lead mines. More uranium came from the Urals and the Russian Arctic.

Next Beria assembled his personnel. General Boris Vannikov, who had been tortured and then released in the first months of the war, maintained discipline; he clumsily bullied the physicists with a loaded revolver on his desk. Pavel Meshik, an old hand of Beria’s, came fresh from SMERSH and the subjugation of Poland. He ensured hermetic secrecy around a project employing 100,000 persons. Beria kept constant watch, traveling the length and breadth of the USSR in a specially adapted train to dozens of sites in Siberia, the Urals, the Caucasus, and Kazakhstan. Physicists were rewarded with a freedom to publish rivaled only by the Orthodox Church.7

The physicist who adapted Western information to Soviet resources was Igor Kurchatov. Piotr Kapitsa, used to working for the tactful Lord Rutherford, would not be bossed by Beria. In November 1945 he complained to Stalin: “Comrade Beria’s weakness is that a conductor has not only to wave his baton around, he has to understand the score. That’s where he’s no good . . . marking proposed resolutions with a pencil in his chairman’s armchair does not amount to managing a problem.” Kapitsa urged Stalin to let the physicists run the project themselves: “scientists are the leading force, not the subordinates in this business.” After Beria visited him in person Kapitsa withdrew from the project, and when Beria demanded his arrest, Stalin replied, “You’re not to touch him.” Kapitsa spent seven years working in his own laboratory at his dacha.

In summer 1949 Igor Kurchatov took a nickel hemisphere with a critical mass of plutonium to the Kremlin. Stalin stroked it and felt the heat. The Soviet bomb was tested in Kazakhstan at 7:00 a.m. on August 29, 1949, eleven years earlier than American experts had predicted. Beria’s euphoria was spoiled only by Stalin, who, woken at 4:00 a.m. in Moscow, responded “I already know” to the news. Kurchatov and Beria distributed dachas, cars, and fat bonuses to all those involved. According to Kurchatov, Beria had a notebook which listed each person’s punishment—from shooting to the camps—if the bomb failed: the rewards were calculated accordingly.