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


Chapter 64. Vengeance on Leningrad

I not only detested pure words
And the strictures of higher judges,
I basked in flatterers’ hypocritical duplicity,
I encouraged slanderous intentions
And pronounced false condemnations.
I had no pity for widows’ tears
Nor for orphans’ inarticulate sobbing,
I did not clothe the loins of paupers . . .

King David of Georgia (the Builder), “Hymn of Penitence VII”

IN THE LATE 1940s Stalin’s entourage noted with alarm his weakened concentration each time he returned to Moscow from his three months’ autumn holiday. He now abandoned one project before starting another and new favorites were as liable as old colleagues to incur wrath and distrust. Stalin became more secretive, and set members of the Politburo against each other. Tired, he looked only at selected papers and suspected that facts were being hidden from him. He wrote very few notes; instructions, often ambiguous and contradictory, were conveyed by a few words or gestures during dinner and drinking bouts at Stalin’s dacha.

Stalin sensed ideological betrayal all around. One traitor was Professor Petre Sharia, secretary for propaganda in the Georgian party, who was editing and translating into Russian all Stalin’s Georgian prose. In 1943 Sharia’s twelve-year-old son, Dazmir, was killed by a car and the boy’s English teacher gave Sharia Tennyson to read for consolation. Under Tennyson’s influence Sharia wrote, in Russian, a poem which, the Politburo reported, “recognizes the immortality of the soul and the reality of life beyond the grave.” Worse, in 1948 Sharia let his deeply moved friends secretly print seventy-five copies on state printing presses. Sharia went to prison despite his defense that grief had driven even Karl Marx to throw himself into his first son’s grave.

When in August 1948 Andrei Zhdanov died of heart disease despite or because of the attention of several leading Kremlin doctors, Stalin reacted with strange equanimity. Zhdanov had looked after ideology and had kept Leningrad free of heresy, enduring the blockade, albeit in his well-supplied bunker. In the first weeks of the siege, however, Zhdanov had organized the defense of the city and an evacuation of civilians. Stalin had countermanded his plans, complaining in his telegrams of Leningrad behaving as if it were “an island in the Pacific,” not a part of the USSR. Moreover, after Zhdanov’s son became Stalin’s son-in-law, both father and son were suspected of intriguing against Stalin. In any case, with or without Zhdanov, Leningrad still seemed to Stalin, as in the 1930s, a nest of vipers.

Abakumov set to work in 1949 to prove that the Leningrad party had planned to make the city the capital of a Russia autonomous within the USSR. Some Leningraders, notably the ideologist Mikhail Suslov and Aleksei Kosygin, had the foresight to abandon the Leningrad party as soon as Zhdanov died and align themselves in Moscow with Malenkov and Beria. Thousands of Leningrad officials lost their jobs and 200 were arrested. Aleksei Kuznetsov had been congratulated by Stalin for his leadership in Leningrad, moved to the Kremlin, told that “the motherland will never forget you,” and put in charge of party personnel. He had no inkling of his fate until he got into a lift with Malenkov, who cut him dead. Andrei Voznesensky, the former head of state planning, was arrested as he came home from a cordial supper with Stalin. He, Kuznetsov, and several dozen others were kept without sleep in the new Moscow special prison, Matrosskaia tishina (Sailor’s Silence), watched over by the head of party control, Matvei Shkiriatov. For torture they were driven at night to Lefortovo prison, where the airplane engines in an adjacent factory drowned out their screams.

However unscrupulous, Abakumov had no aptitude for falsification and preferred factual charges: Voznesensky’s indictment was for losing ministry papers. Abakumov ignored Kuznetsov’s links by marriage to other leaders which could have brought down Mikoyan, Aleksei Kosygin, and General Gvishiani. Stalin was impatient with this pettifogging investigation. He had Voznesensky’s brother and sister shot.

On January 12, 1950, “in view of requests from the national republics, trade unions, peasant organizations, and figures in the arts,” the death penalty was reintroduced “as an exception” for “traitors to the motherland, spies, subversive wreckers.” Kuznetsov and his fellow prisoners, convicted of slander, of defying the Central Committee, of squandering funds, just qualified for death. In the early hours of October 1 the Leningrad victims were sentenced, taken by electric train outside the city, shot, and buried. The Leningrad purge of 1949 was cruel, but smaller by several orders of magnitude than Ezhov’s purge of eleven years before. Dozens, not tens of thousands, were shot; hundreds, not hundreds of thousands, imprisoned. Older victims could have reflected that they were atoning for their own parts in much more murderous frame-ups.

The Leningrad sentences were not made public and the arrests petered out. Moreover the arrests of Jews and other “cosmopolitans” had not produced fabrications strong enough to withstand a public show trial, despite the efforts of several dozen interrogators. Lev Sheinin, the short-story writer and prokuratura interrogator, who in the 1930s had whipped up public enthusiasm for the NKVD’s purges, failed—he himself was Jewish—to compose a scenario that would persuade even an anti-Semitic public. Sheinin was dismissed and imprisoned with Abakumov’s men.

In June 1951 Stalin found a more ruthless hangman, Lieutenant Colonel Mikhail Riumin, and a more compliant minister, Semion Denisovich Ignatiev. 18 Viktor Abakumov, to his own and his henchmen’s amazement, had to go.19Riumin wrote to Stalin accusing Abakumov of corruption and suppressing evidence. Sitting in Ignatiev’s office, he had copied out what his masters had drafted—the real author being Malenkov’s aide Dmitri Sukhanov.20 Riumin had been easily blackmailed: he had left secret files on a bus, he had concealed his dubious background—his father had been a cattle dealer, his siblings convicts, his father-in-law a White officer.

Riumin’s allegations were partly true. Abakumov had spent a fortune, the proceeds of plundering Germany, on an enormous apartment where he lived with his second, trophy wife. Abakumov had also in November 1950 arrested, at Stalin’s instigation, a Jewish doctor, Professor Iakov Ètinger. The professor read the English Jewish Chronicle, and his aspersions on Stalin to his stepson had been recorded. Being Beria’s physician did not save Ètinger; he died in Lefortovo prison after being put in a specially refrigerated cell, a torture Abakumov had copied from the Gestapo. Riumin accused Abakumov of suppressing Ètinger’s confession that he had conspired with other doctors to murder party leaders using inappropriate treatment.

Riumin had found the piece missing from Stalin’s jigsaw puzzle. The show trial of 1938 had put in the dock a chief hangman, Iagoda, with a mainly Jewish cast of Bolshevik intellectuals and three murderous doctors to do their bidding. The forthcoming trial would have the same mix.

The key piece of evidence was a letter from Lidia Timashuk, a cardiologist in the Kremlin hospital. In 1948 she had administered the dying Andrei Zhdanov’s cardiograms and ordered him to stay in bed. She was overruled by Stalin’s doctor, Professor Vladimir Nikitich Vinogradov, who told Zhdanov to go for walks, even to the movies. The cardiograms prove Timashuk right.21 On August 30 a heart attack killed Zhdanov. Timashuk had long been an MGB informer but the letter she wrote, with her minority diagnosis, was meant to cover her back, not damn the Kremlin professors. The professors’ postmortem report confirmed their diagnosis, and they did what they could to silence Timashuk. 22 Timashuk’s letter was set aside not by Abakumov, but by Stalin, who read it and sent it to his own archive.

Abakumov, like Ezhov before him, found himself friendless. Beria, Malenkov, Ignatiev, and Shkiriatov all signed a warrant for his arrest on July 12, 1951. Ignatiev took over the MGB, with Riumin, now a colonel, as his deputy. Abakumov became “No. 15” in the special prison; his wife, a baby at her breast, was in another Moscow prison. Like Ezhov’s first wife, Abakumov’s previous wife was lucky to have been deserted: she was evicted from her apartment but not arrested. The purge in the MGB struck at a handful of Abakumov’s colleagues: Lev Aronovich Shvartsman, as a Jew, was doomed; Naum Eitingon, despite Stalin’s promise and thanks for killing Trotsky, was also arrested.

Abakumov’s torments were to last for three and a half years. When given pen and paper, he wrote to Stalin, neither groveling nor remonstrating, but Stalin then ordered full sets of interrogation records for himself, Beria, and Malenkov every ten days. Egged on by Riumin, three interrogators worked with rawhide whips to generate enough material to keep Stalin happy. Chekisty like Abakumov, as Stalin reminded his henchmen, needed extra beating to break them. Abakumov and his underlings were first made to confess to beating their own prisoners. Abakumov was put into leg-irons and handcuffed; he had no cell mates; he was hungry and cold. On April 18, 1952, Abakumov appealed to Beria and Malenkov: “Dear L. P. and G. M. . . . I’ve never ever seen such bestiality and I didn’t even know there were such refrigerated cells in Lefortovo, I was misled. . . . This stone sack can kill, cripple, or cause terrible illness. . . . I kept asking who authorized such nasty tricks to be played on me. . . . I realized that it was Riumin.”

Lev Shvartsman, who had previously composed statements for incoherent victims of torture to sign, now went mad—or simulated madness. Sent for more interrogation, Shvartsman then took another tack: he confessed that he was the leader of the Jewish nationalists, that he had sodomized Abakumov, the British ambassador, and his own son, as well as slept with his daughter. This time he was certified insane.

Riumin worked slowly, too slowly for Ignatiev’s composure or Stalin’s pleasure. However dim, Riumin knew that once the case was over, he would be disposable; he was in no hurry to conclude interrogations. He took a year to extract statements that Abakumov had framed the aviation minister in order to embarrass Malenkov, that he was in league with the Leningrad renegades whom he had sent to their deaths, that he was planning a coup d’état. All Riumin lacked was proof that Abakumov was a Jew. By April 1952, Abakumov, still refusing to confess, was a cripple and Riumin risked killing him if torture continued. Riumin nevertheless indicted him on November 3, 1952, as the leader of the MGB’s Jewish nationalists. Eleven days later, Stalin, after angrily penciling comments on Abakumov’s halfhearted confessions, dismissed Riumin and sent him to join the other failed state security ministers among the accountants at the Ministry of State Control.

It was now Ignatiev’s chance to shine, but he preferred his desk to visiting the Lubianka. Stalin roared at him, “You want to keep your hands clean, do you? You can’t. Have you forgotten Lenin ordered Fanny Kaplan to be shot? And image said Savinkov had to be annihilated. If you’re going to be squeamish, I’ll smash your face in. If you don’t do what I tell you you’ll be in a cell next to Abakumov’s.”23 Ignatiev had a heart attack. When he recovered, he moved Abakumov to Butyrki prison, to a cell surrounded by five empty cells. A guard and a doctor watched Abakumov, who was beaten a little less violently than the Jewish doctors and the recalcitrant MGB officers.

Yet more astonishing arrests were made: General Vlasik, Stalin’s confidant, chief bodyguard, and tutor to his children, had been dismissed in spring 1952 for squirreling away dinner plates and caviar, and carousing with loose women. He was arrested in the autumn. Not even a dog could have been more devoted than Vlasik. Was Stalin demented? And, if so, could Beria and Malenkov now seize power?