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


Chapter 62. Crushing the Last of the Literati

THE LITERATI were unluckier than the physicists. Andrei Zhdanov was told to bring them to book. Zhdanov began with Leningrad, working closely under Stalin’s supervision. The propaganda apparatus of the Central Committee undertook literary criticism. They found war stories objectionable if the soldier heroes were downcast, poems deplorable if they lamented ruined cities. Humor was utterly beyond Zhdanov. Targeting the Leningrad journal Zvezda, he picked on one of the satirist Mikhail Zoshchenko’s funniest stories, The Adventures of an Ape, and raged at the idea of an ape escaped from the zoo becoming an example for human beings.

On August 9, 1946, Stalin himself, with Zhdanov and a rehabilitated, chastened Malenkov, railed at Zvezda’s unfortunate editor, Vissarion Saianov, for printing a parody of the nineteenth-century civic poet Nekrasov. 8 A parody, said Stalin, was “a trick, the author is hiding behind someone.” Stories like Zoshchenko’s, said Stalin—even though he had read him to his daughter Svetlana—proved that the editors were “tiptoeing after foreign writers . . . encouraging servile feelings.” Others, notably the playwright Vsevolod Vishnevsky, joined the attack: Zoshchenko’s autobiographical tale Before Sunrise, Vishnevsky told Stalin, was “undressing down to his dirty underwear,” Zoshchenko’s heroes were “drunks, cripples, invalids.” Stalin damned Zoshchenko as “the preacher of non-ideology,” his stories as “malevolent rant.” Anna Akhmatova was called by Stalin “nothing but an old name.” One editor stood up for Akhmatova, saying that if rejected by Zvezda she would be printed in Znamia, to which Stalin retorted, “We’ll get round to Znamia too, we’ll get round to the lot of them.” Finally, Stalin conceded that there were “diamonds mixed with the dung” but the Akhmatova and Zoshchenko cult was blamed on Leningrad’s unsound ideology. The journals were put under new editorship; Akhmatova, one of Russia’s two greatest living poets, and Zoshchenko, its best short-story writer, were outlawed. The next day the MGB denounced Zoshchenko’s “anti-Soviet” views, his doubts about victory, his remark that “Soviet literature is now a pathetic spectacle,” and his bad influence. Zoshchenko was not however arrested; possibly he was saved by writing an emotional but dignified defense to Stalin.

Also on August 9 Stalin made a speech to the party’s Orgburo on the films he had seen. Scenes that showed homeless coal miners after the war should be thrown out of films. He compared Russian scriptwriters unfavorably to Charlie Chaplin.Soviet poets were lazy compared to Goethe who had worked for thirty years at Faust (Faust was always a literary benchmark for Stalin). He disliked the second part of Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible with its remorseful Tsar and its carousing secret police whom Eisenstein had depicted as “the lowest mangy rabble, as degenerates, something like the American Ku Klux Klan.”

Stalin’s rant signaled a crackdown: the ninety-volume edition of Tolstoi which had been coming out since 1928 was shortened, Tolstoi’s Christianity neutralized by Leninist prefaces. The novelist Fadeev, complicit in the execution of so many writers in 1937–8, was made general secretary of the Union of Writers. Access to foreign literature was strictly limited to those who Stalin felt had a need to see corrupting matter.

Literature was crushed but Stalin was gentler with the cinema, the Politburo’s main source of relaxation. On February 23, 1947, late at night, Eisenstein and Nikolai Cherkasov, who had played Ivan the Terrible, were brought to see Stalin, Molotov, and Zhdanov in the Kremlin. 10 Everything that Stalin said was self-revelation. He lectured Eisenstein on history, and then criticized his Ivan: “you made him too indecisive, like Hamlet.” Ivan, said Stalin, had been the first ruler to nationalize all foreign trade. It was right to show Ivan as cruel, Stalin told Eisenstein and Cherkasov, but wrong not to show why he had to be cruel. His only mistakes were “not cutting the throats of the last five feudal families” and “letting God get in the way and spending a long time repenting and praying.” “Of course,” said Stalin, “we’re not very good Christians, but we can’t deny the progressive role of Christianity.” Stalin showed a grasp of cinematography; Zhdanov and Molotov could only add puerile remarks. By midnight the atmosphere was amicable. Cinema and music were the only two art forms where Stalin forgave an artist’s mistakes.

imageBy autumn 1946, like naughty schoolboys, Malenkov, Mikoyan, Molotov, Kaganovich, and Voroshilov had been punished and reinstated. Under Beria’s supervision, they could be left to run the country while Stalin took another break of over three months in Sochi. The Politburo was not popular; the population had to endure frozen wages, raised prices, lower food rations, higher collective farm quotas, and rampant crime. Some things, however, were going well. The Nuremberg trials had run smoothly; the German defendants had not alluded to Stalin’s war crimes. No British or American politician or lawyer had remarked in public that half of the Soviet commission for trying Hitler’s war criminals belonged in the dock with them. Stalin had not let victory go to his generals’ heads. Marshal Zhukov, the conqueror of Berlin, ran Germany as his fiefdom only until March. Stalin had Abakumov and Beria collect evidence against Zhukov who, like most senior officers in the Red Army and the NKVD, had furnished his dacha and house with German loot, and even considered casting him as a British spy. Like Tukhachevsky eight years earlier, Zhukov was given an intimation of his mortality by demotion to a provincial command; unlike Tukhachevsky, Zhukov was not pushed over the precipice.

Despite fearful anticipation, 1947 did not bring a return to terror; it was the most stable year of Stalin’s regime. There were no sudden falls from grace or tergiversations of policy. Andrei Zhdanov was on his way out, drinking himself to death, and the promotion of other juniors whom Stalin consulted more and more, such as Nikolai Voznesensky from the State Planning Ministry and the charismatic Leningrad party boss Aleksei Kuznetsov, did not yet alarm the established satraps.11 Stalin reinstated prewar foreign policy by forbidding American capital in the form of the Marshall Plan to “enslave,” as Vyshinsky was told to put it, the economies of eastern Europe.

In 1947, those who cooperated with Russia’s wartime allies suffered. Two cancer specialists in Leningrad, Professors Nina Kliueva and Grigori Roskin, had been offered equipment by the American ambassador in exchange for sharing their research into crucin, an antitumor drug. Zhdanov called this a betrayal of state secrets and revived in a nastier form the prerevolution “court of honor” to deal with professional misconduct, after which the wretched professors were handed to Abakumov’s MGB. The Ministry of Internal Affairs and MGB were also busy hunting down Ukrainian partisans; they killed some 3,000 and sent 13,000 to the GULAG. Hundreds of Abakumov’s most experienced officers were now “advisers” to the new security services of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Albania, where they sometimes had to hold back, not egg on, the local recruits. Yugoslavia needed no advice; Tito had a secret police as ruthless as Stalin’s.

The year was unusual in that more refugees entered the USSR than left it. After the defeat of the communists in the Greek civil war, five Soviet ships went to Durrës in Albania and evacuated thousands of guerrillas, their families and orphans. The Greeks were bitterly disillusioned when, like Soviet Greek deportees, they were settled in Kazakhstan. From Iran, a Kurdish army led by Mustafa Barzani fled to Soviet territory; Stalin understood the potential of a Soviet-trained Kurdish force to topple the pro-British Iraqi regime, but the Kurds too were dispatched far away, to the outskirts of Tashkent.

Stalin nevertheless surprised the world. On May 26, 1947, he abolished the death penalty, except for collaborators with the Germans. In no country has capital punishment been so often and so briefly abolished as in Russia: twice in the eighteenth century by the Empresses Elizabeth and Catherine, once, unofficially, by Tsar Alexander I, once by the provisional government in February 1917, and once in the 1920s. This time the state abstained from executions for nearly three years. The substitute sentence, twenty-five years’ hard labor, was imposed very frequently— nearly 37,000 sentences in 1948 as opposed to 12,000 in 1946—so that the mortality of those convicted of capital crimes actually rose, since around 3 percent of such prisoners died each year.