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


Chapter 65. Stalin’s End

. . . he worried as he felt all power ebbing from him—then Stalin was just Soso Jughashvili, a simple Georgian. He recalled far-away Georgia, of which he retained just the taste of turkey in walnuts, the taste of Kakhetian wine, the song “Live ten thousand years” and the Georgian curse: magati deda ki vatire, “I should make their mothers weep.”

Grigol Robakidze, The Murdered Soul

DEMENTIA EXPLAINS Stalin’s decision to add his own doctor, Vladimir Vinogradov, an ethnic Russian despite gossip his real name was Weintraub, to the Jewish doctors’ conspiracy. On January 19, 1952, Vinogradov examined Stalin for the last time and advised him, in view of his arteriosclerosis, to stop working. Stalin sent a note to Beria: “Sort out Vinogradov,” and along with fourteen other Kremlin doctors, not all of whom were Jewish, he was arrested. Lidia Timashuk was interrogated and awarded a medal. Vlasik was accused jointly with Abakumov of suppressing Lidia Timashuk’s warning of the incompetence of the Kremlin doctors, something which Stalin himself had in effect done.

Abakumov was in a bad way. Goglidze, working for Ignatiev as happily as he had for Ezhov, Beria, Abakumov, and Riumin, accepted a doctor’s report: “Prisoner No. 15 seems to have heart disease and can be interrogated no more than 3–4 hours and only in daytime . . . if necessary, urgent medicine can be given to restore his health so that he can be actively interrogated when acute methods have to be used.” Abakumov’s interrogator now wanted to know why he had not warned Stalin that Tito was splitting Yugoslavia from the communist bloc. The question was ridiculous: Stalin himself had given Tito a series of ultimatums in 1947 and 1948, demanding that he subordinate Yugoslavia’s foreign and domestic policies to the USSR. Stalin had underestimated Tito’s enormous ego and the strength of his army and secret police; when Yugoslavia broke away from the Soviet bloc in summer 1948, it was not for want of intelligence from Abakumov.

Leaving Abakumov to stew, Stalin had the Kremlin doctors handcuffed and tortured. Riumin carried this out in the Lubianka, in a specially equipped room. The interrogators explained, “We don’t use red-hot iron rods. But we do thrash people.” The doctors understood pain only too well. Some quickly confessed to killing not only Zhdanov but the Bulgarian communist Dimitrov, the French Maurice Thorez, and even to harming Stalin’s children. One doctor claimed that he had learned euthanasia from Dr. Pletniov’s killing of Gorky. They were told that they would be hanged unless they said which plotters they were working for.24 Dr. Meer Vovsi, a cousin of Mikhoels, confessed to being simultaneously a Nazi and a British agent, even though the Nazis had killed his family. Vinogradov and Vovsi, the indictment concluded, meant first to poison Stalin, Beria, and Malenkov, and then fire on their limousines.

Stalin was so absorbed in the Jewish doctors’ plot that he took no break at all in 1952. His paranoia accelerated as his physical health declined, and in February 1953 he dismissed his secretary and last real devotee, Poskriobyshev, who had not even complained when Stalin had his Polish-Jewish wife shot. On December 1, 1952, Stalin made his last speech to the Presidium of the Central Committee. As usual, he said that the more successful the party, the more enemies would sabotage it. He called Jews agents of American intelligence, warned that many were doctors, and then turned on the MGB: “They’ve admitted themselves that they are sitting in dung.” In eastern Europe the inevitable finale to the Kremlin doctors’ plot was being rehearsed: eleven alleged Zionists in the Czechoslovak party were hanged on December 3, 1952, for using doctors to shorten their leader’s life. On January 9, 1953, Pravda featured a sensational headline: “Murderers in White Gowns.” Jews would now be tried on a wave of public panic and hatred. Twenty-eight more doctors were arrested, and nine spouses.

Rumors of a massive pogrom raged among Moscow’s anti-Semites, Jews, and diplomats. In the MGB Goglidze collected these rumors: after the doctors had been hanged in Red Square, 400,000 Jews would be deported to Siberia to “save” them from the people’s wrath; cattle wagons were ready in Moscow’s railway marshaling yards. There was no basis for any of this: the railway archives show no deportation preparations, and even a senile Stalin would have forbidden anything as spontaneous as a pogrom. However, a letter to Pravda was prepared, and sixty prominent Jews were told to sign it—they included the physicist Lev Landau, the poet Samuil Marshak, the novelist Vasili Grossman, and the film director Mikhail Romm. The signatories demanded the eradication of “Jewish bourgeois nationalists” and “spies and enemies of the Russian people.” Kaganovich chose to sign a separate version of the letter. Ilya Ehrenburg signed only after writing to Stalin to warn him that the letter might “confuse people who are not yet aware that there is no Jewish nation.”25

Seven weeks before his fatal stroke Stalin lost interest in the whole fabrication, and it fell apart before he was declared dead on March 5. Most of the doctors were lucky: two died under torture, but the others, physically and psychologically traumatized, were released a few weeks later by Beria. None of Stalin’s heirs was in such good health that they could afford to alienate the country’s leading medical consultants.

The Jewish antifascists were less fortunate: their interrogators such as P. I. Grishaev, a polyglot lawyer, were fresh from the Nuremberg trials. Some were beaten to death by the “choppers” while Grishaev wrote up his doctoral dissertation; others were executed by Abakumov in November 1950.26 The rest were saved for trial, and Yitzhak Fefer was even produced in the Hotel Metropol when the American singer Paul Robe-son came to Moscow and asked to see him. Fourteen, including Fefer, Peretz Markish, and Academician Lina Shtern, survived long enough to be tried in secret, with neither defense nor prosecutor but with “expert” witnesses and at surprising length—from July 11 to 18, 1952. The trial was held in the secret-police image club room inside the Lubianka. The judge, Cheptsov, later claimed to have had doubts about his verdicts, which he attributed to Abakumov’s, Riumin’s, and Grishaev’s incompetence rather than the defendants’ innocence. Fefer acted as bellwether; others spoke defiantly, but all were shot except Lina Shtern, the sole survivor to tell the tale.

Even Beria’s power seemed to be waning. After 1949, when the atom bomb had been tested and Soviet physicists were at work on the world’s first hydrogen bomb, Beria had time to spend in Stalin’s company at the Kuntsevo dacha and in Sochi. However, as Stalin aged, his nocturnal meetings became shorter and he now rarely saw Beria without Malenkov, Mikoyan, or Molotov. Stalin told Beria to replace the Georgian household staff at his dacha with Russians. In autumn 1951, while on the Black Sea coast of the Caucasus, Stalin brought a party commission to Georgia to arrest Beria’s Mingrelians in the party for bribery and nationalism. Worse for Beria was the next wave of arrests: Gegechkoris—relatives of Beria’s wife—and at least one of his mistresses were caught in the net. Teimuraz Shavdia, a son of the family which had brought up Nina Beria-Gegechkori, was sentenced to twenty-five years in the GULAG. Shavdia had deserted from the Red Army and fought with the Nazi SS before joining the French Maquis; inexplicably, he had been living openly in Tbilisi.

Beria’s subordinates sensed his power ebbing and helped Ignatiev and Stalin undermine him. After Beria’s appointee Rapava fell, an eastern Georgian, General Nikolai Rukhadze, took over the Georgian MGB. He dined with Stalin at Sochi and was told to report direct. Rukhadze, like Riumin, disappointed Stalin: he boasted to his cronies of privileges but was uninventive. He alleged that Beria was Jewish but could not follow up Beria’s connections with Georgian émigrés in Paris. Nevertheless, a Politburo resolution of November 9, 1951, named a Gegechkori as the target of American intelligence. On March 27, 1952, another Politburo resolution did more damage: Kandid Charkviani, to whom Beria had entrusted the Georgian party, was replaced by another eastern Georgian, Akaki Mgeladze.27 Apart from Beria only one other Mingrelian still retained power outside Georgia: Lavrenti Tsanava in Belorussia, the murderer of Mikhoels. He too was dismissed in June 1952. Lastly, Stalin threw out Beria’s sole ally in the Red Army, its chief of staff, General Sergei Shtemenko, who had with Beria held the Caucasian passes against the Germans. By June 1952 Beria was cowed. Thousands of Mingrelians were arrested and their language was banned from official use. Before 1952 Georgians had represented less than 1 percent of the population of the GULAG although they were 2 percent of the population of the USSR; the Mingrelian affair rectified this anomaly.28

Rukhadze very quickly overreached himself: Stalin transferred Georgian state security to another candidate and brought Rukhadze to Moscow where “his fate will be decided.”29

Beria’s fawning now grated on Stalin, but he was irreplaceable. Few others, certainly neither Riumin nor Rukhadze, met Stalin’s essential criteria: “clever, active, and strong.” Only Andrei Vyshinsky approached Beria in Stalin’s esteem. Since 1949 Vyshinsky had been no less intransigent and rather more eloquent a minister of foreign affairs than Molotov. Vyshinsky’s part in the judicial murders of the 1930s was notorious, but the disgust he inspired at international conferences was in Stalin’s eyes an asset. MGB men looked down on Vyshinsky as “the Menshevik,” but Vyshinsky was important enough for his Kremlin office, like Stalin’s, to have a telephone which let him monitor all calls in the complex.30

Even Vyshinsky must have blanched when Stalin gave a rambling ninety-minute speech to the Central Committee on October 16, 1952. One by one, Stalin berated his closest associates in tones that had always presaged a fall. The unsinkable Mikoyan—“from one Ilyich [Lenin] to the other [Brezhnev] without heart attack or paralysis”—for once turned pale. Stalin damned Molotov: “What about Molotov’s offer to hand the Crimea to the Jews? . . . Comrade Molotov respects his spouse so much that hardly have we in the Politburo taken a decision on an important political question than it quickly becomes known to Comrade Zhemchuzhina. . . . Clearly such behavior by a member of the Politburo is impermissible.”

Even as Stalin railed in Moscow his puppets in Budapest, Prague, Bucharest, and Sofia were carrying out his instructions. Stalin had insisted on purges in eastern Europe partly because he was furious at the failure of the MGB to destroy Tito. Stalin had said, “I have only to move my little finger, and Tito is finished,” only to find Tito and his security minister Ranković more than a match for him. East European leaders who thought Stalin and Molotov too intransigent toward Tito—all but the Hungarians and Albanians were slow to follow Stalin’s line—were branded Titoist, Trotskyist, and Zionist. In Tirana, Enver Hoxha, supervised by an MGB officer, was the first to mete out a death sentence: in June 1949 Koci Xoxe, the Albanian Beria, was shot.

Władysław Gomułka, the Polish general secretary who had spent the war underground, was too soft. Stalin had Bierut remove Gomułka, who eventually accepted an invitation to see Stalin at Kuntsevo in December 1948 and managed to charm him. Gomułka kept his life and liberty, even though Stalin and Ogoltsov had forty state security men preparing a dossier.

Among Bulgarian communists, as among the Poles, those who came to power with the Red Army and the MGB were at loggerheads with wartime resistance communists. At the end of December 1948 Georgi Dimitrov, hero of the Reichstag fire trial and villain of Stalin’s Comintern, had Stalin’s sanction to dispose of two men who had spent the war in the Bulgarian resistance, one of them the deputy prime minister, Traicho Kostov. Dimitrov had gone back to Russia to die and Stalin trusted only a Moscow Bulgarian to take over. Lev Shvartsman led a team of MGB men to Sofia, where they tormented Kostov and a dozen others. Interrogation records in Bulgarian and Russian were sent for Stalin to peruse. Some victims were economists trained in the West, and Stalin’s hatred of “specialists” imbues his comments: “The Kostov affair will help purging these agents and all hostile elements.” 31 Abakumov proposed framing Kostov as an agent of Tito, and Sergei Ogoltsov flew down with three regiments of MVD troops in civilian dress to draw up an indictment, which they did not even bother to translate into Bulgarian. Kostov was hanged in December 1949 and a thousand Bulgarians went to prison.

In Hungary Rákosi longed to be rid of his rival, Minister of Internal Affairs László Rajk, who had graduated from a Nazi concentration camp, not from the Comintern. It took years for Rákosi to persuade his Soviet masters, who doubted his sanity, to help but in May 1949 they arrested Živko Boarov, an attaché at the Yugoslav embassy in Budapest, and an American journalist, Noel Field, who traveled between Budapest and Prague collecting material for his articles and had in 1943 refused to collaborate with the NKVD. Field’s and Boarov’s interrogators in Budapest forced them to implicate Rajk as an American and Yugoslav agent but used such terrible tortures that the confessions they extracted were too wild even for a Soviet-style trial. Rákosi, like Stalin, wanted Rajk charged with trying to assassinate him and asked Andrei Vyshinsky and Stalin for a Yugoslav prisoner as an additional witness.32 Soviet advisers reined back the Hungarian torturers and Rajk admitted to being a fascist for twenty years and a Yugoslav agent for ten. Abakumov wrote the indictment for Rákosi; Rákosi and Stalin then hammered out a draft for TASS. On September 22, 1949, Stalin wrote to Rákosi: “I consider that L. Rajk must be executed since any other sentence won’t make sense to the people.” Rajk and two others were hanged; over a hundred others imprisoned.

Rákosi’s fertile imagination concocted for Stalin a list of over 500 communists of all nationalities from Austrian to Australian but mostly Czechs and Slovaks to be repressed. Rákosi asked the Poles to try Gomułka. He asked the Czech leader, Gottwald, to arrest all Czech communists who had lived in the West. Polish and Czechoslovak secret policemen collected Rákosi’s dossiers from Budapest. The Poles merely dismissed Gomułka; the Czechoslovaks asked Moscow to send them the advisers who had worked so well in Bulgaria.

Klement Gottwald was no more anxious than Bierut to arrest his ministers but was more cowardly; the Soviet MGB men had to find a Czech equivalent to Rajk. Preliminary arrests under Abakumov’s instructions soon brought the necessary “evidence.” Gottwald was happily imprisoning and murdering social democrats, but extending the purge to “cosmopolitan” communists created in Prague from 1949 to 1952 an atmosphere grimmer than anywhere else in eastern Europe. By February 1951, sixty Czech and Slovak communists were in prison. Gottwald knew that if he showed mercy or courage he too would fall victim to Rákosi and Stalin so laid down the lives of his friends to save his own. Rákosi and Enver Hoxha then began new purges; Rákosi’s own deputy János Kádár was jailed.

In Yugoslavia Tito neither hanged nor shot his Stalinists, but tens of thousands of pro-Soviet Yugoslav communists went to concentration camps to be broken physically and morally. The USSR did not intercede for these Yugoslavs; Stalin, Abakumov, Rukhadze, Riumin, and Ignatiev were preoccupied with their own purges in Leningrad and Mingrelia. By the end of 1951, when they looked west again, Zionism was the main foe, and in any case Viktor Abakumov was in prison and Moscow had nobody with Abakumov’s competence. It was left to Rákosi to make the running. He was equal to the task and produced a list of Jews to be removed which included those who had helped him torture the “Titoists.” The Czechoslovaks too were told by Moscow to eliminate their Jews. Rudolf Slánský was the ideal scapegoat, a Jew who had appointed other Jews and who could be blamed for economic failures in Czechoslovakia. Klement Gottwald was awarding Slánský the Order of the Republic on his fiftieth birthday when Stalin sent the order to arrest him. A year later, Gottwald met Stalin at the nineteenth plenum of the Soviet Central Committee in October 1952 and within a month Slánský and ten others had been hanged in Prague.

Only the Romanians dawdled. Gheorghiu-Dej told the Soviet ambassador that he knew of no Romanians linked to Slánský. When pressed, the Romanian leader threw three members of his Politburo— two Jews and one Hungarian—to the wolves. They were luckier than the Czechoslovaks: Stalin’s death let Gheorghiu-Dej off the hook. One victim died in prison; the other two were set free.

imageIt is no wonder that Malenkov, Molotov, and Beria let thirteen hours pass before they called for doctors, when on March 2, 1953, they were summoned to Stalin’s semiconscious body, which had been lying on the floor in vest and pajama bottoms for over twenty-four hours. They waited to be sure that the stroke was fatal and then Beria called to his driver, “Khrustaliov, the car!” and raced off to the Kremlin.