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


Chapter 67. The Hangmen’s End

The wild plums blossom in Tbilisi—
A joy for Molotov to see,
For Voroshilov all the merrier.
But not for L. P. Beria.
Lavrenti Pavlych Beria
Has failed the main criteria.
A heap of ash, Deo volente,
Is all that’s left of our Lavrenti.

Anonymous, 1953

BERIA KNEW EVERYTHING about everyone, but from March to June 1953 he gave no hint of intending to use his knowledge to slaughter his colleagues. Never had there been fewer arrests in the USSR, and there were virtually no executions. Beria had lost his taste for blood. Dismissed party secretaries became ambassadors or managers. The MVD halted its assassinations abroad. Beria’s threat was not to Khrushchiov and Malenkov, but to the system that kept them in power. 40 The mystery is why Beria did nothing to protect himself. For thirty-three years he had been one of the most skillful political operators on earth, and now he let a group of mediocrities forget their differences and topple him.

Personal popularity in the USSR, even among the secret police, counted for little; in any case, even if Beria had brought relief to the surviving 2 million Jews and dozens of professors of medicine, yet another Georgian governing a fundamentally Russian state would have been intolerable for the rank and file of the party. Beria started building a holiday village of dachas for government and party officials near Sukhum, but to many this bribe looked like a trap.

East Germany gave Khrushchiov an opportunity. Beria’s proposals to defuse the tension had come too late and rioting workers in Berlin and other cities had been crushed, on Beria’s own orders, by Soviet tanks. To Molotov, minister for foreign affairs, this proved Beria’s incompetence. Fear overrode caution, Molotov joined the conspiracy and his seniority ensured its success.

Khrushchiov had first to detach Malenkov, often photographed arm in arm with Beria but now worried by the demotion of many of his protégés. Khrushchiov then battled with Voroshilov’s timorousness and Kaganovich’s vacillation. The plot was hatched in parks and on the streets, lest Beria’s men were tapping their telephones or bugging their apartments. By the end of June, the Presidium was won over, although Mikoyan and Voroshilov, likewise sated with bloodshed, wanted Beria not killed but sent back to Baku where the party had found him, as minister for oil production.

Two armed forces had to be won over: at least part of the secret police and the army. In the MVD Sergei Kruglov and Ivan Serov willingly betrayed their master; they hated Beria’s Caucasians—the Kobulovs, Goglidze—being promoted over Russian heads. Khrushchiov sounded out the army through Bulganin. Beria had a few friends in the Red Army, but men like General Shtemenko, whom he had made chief of the general staff, were shunned, and many senior officers had never forgiven or forgotten Beria’s torture and murder of Bliukher in 1938. Khrushchiov won over Marshal Moskalenko and carefully seduced Marshal Zhukov, who had been demoted by Stalin and saved from death by Beria, with promises of glory.

It was hard to gather armed men without alerting Beria’s agents. In May, Bulganin sent army officers who might not have cooperated to the provinces on exercises while Malenkov and Molotov encouraged Beria to pay a flying visit to Berlin with army generals. Beria was suspicious and discovered a Presidium meeting was to be held. He flew back; the conspirators were in disarray and the meeting confined itself to tedious agricultural questions. Some witnesses report Beria alerting groups of parachutists outside Moscow and arming party workers in the Caucasus.

The coup was staged on June 26 during another Presidium meeting. Only Malenkov, Bulganin, and Khrushchiov knew what would happen. Each Kremlin guard was shadowed by an army officer, ostensibly for training purposes. Bulganin brought his trusted generals in his limousine, all except Zhukov carrying handguns, against the rules, into the Kremlin. Marshal Zhukov, the generals, and a dozen party men lurked in the waiting room outside Stalin’s study. Khrushchiov told them to enter when a bell rang twice.

Beria arrived late, wearing a crumpled gray suit and no tie. He asked about the agenda, and was told “Lavrenti Beria.” Malenkov’s notes for the start of the meeting are the only surviving document:

Enemies have tried to place the MVD above party and government . . . Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia. Are these measures necessary? . . . Beria . . . controls the party and government. This is redolent of great dangers, if delayed, too late to put right. . . . We need a monolithic collective and we have one. . . . Comrades are not sure who’s eavesdropping on whom . . . make him minister of oil production. Next! . . . Who wants to discuss it?41

A farcical meeting began. Beria was replying to the abuse when Malenkov rang the bell and Marshal Zhukov entered with four officers. They stood behind Beria, two men putting revolvers to his head. Beria sat and wrote the word “alarm” nineteen times. He was taken to the anteroom and searched. His pince-nez, which he never saw again, was removed.

Beria was driven first to an army barracks. The next day he was visited by his former deputy Kruglov, who now took his job. Because of the rumored parachutists, Beria was moved to an underground concrete bunker. Army officers occupied the Lubianka. Tanks entered Moscow and Bulganin told the soldiers that Beria, Abakumov, and the rest of the old MGB were planning mass terror. The tanks left town to disarm two divisions of MVD troops before returning to surround the city center.

Beria’s portraits were removed from all offices. Three MVD men swept the contents of Beria’s safe into a sack; most papers were burned for fear of what they might contain. In Berlin Ulbricht breathed a sigh of relief as Beria’s agents were recalled and the danger of the GDR merging with West Germany receded.

In his first week in the bunker Beria obtained from his warder, General Batitsky, scraps of paper and a pencil. He appealed to Malenkov at once: “Egor do you really not know I’ve been picked up by some strange people I want to set out the circumstances when you summon me.” Two days later, he sent another slip of paper: “Egor, why don’t you answer?” Beria asked for his selfless work to be remembered, for forgiveness “if there was anything to forgive during these fifteen years of hard, intense work together,” and for his mother, wife, and son to be looked after. Beria’s son, pregnant daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren had been arrested the same day; Nina Beria followed them. Beria’s deaf-mute sister and elderly mother were for a time left alone.

On July 1 Beria wrote to Malenkov and his other accusers a rambling penitential letter: “My behavior toward you, where I am 100 percent in the wrong, is especially bad and unforgivable.” He reminded Malenkov that they had agreed on some of the reforms, and that his mistake had been to circulate Interior Ministry documents that might embarrass Khrushchiov and Bulganin. He regretted his proposals to free East Germany and his actions against Rákosi. Beria could not rouse Malenkov’s conscience but he could appeal to his sense of self-preservation. The letter hinted that they might go down together.

To convince Molotov that he had always spoken well of him, Beria begged him to contact his family. He also reminded Molotov how they had gone to see Stalin when war broke out to rouse him to action. He appealed to Voroshilov, Mikoyan, Kaganovich, Khrushchiov, and Bulganin: “I’ve never done anything bad to you.” Beria wanted badly to live and offered to work on a farm, a building site.

The next day self-pity turned to panic: “Dear comrades,” Beria wrote, “they are going to get rid of me without trial or investigation, after five days’ incarceration, without one interrogation, I beg you not to allow this, to intervene immediately, or it will be too late. You have to get in first by telephone.” He asked for his case to be investigated by a commission. “Dear comrades, surely executing a member of the Central Committee, and your comrade, in a cellar after five days in prison is not the only correct way of deciding and clarifying a case without a trial. . . . I beg Comrades Malenkov and Khrushchiov not to be stubborn would it really be bad if a comrade was rehabilitated?”

Beria was given no more paper. Khrushchiov chose a new chief prosecutor, the young and eager Roman Rudenko who had shone at Nuremberg, as the previous prosecutor Grigori Safonov had queried Beria’s arrest, which had been carried out by army officers with no warrant. On July 2 a plenary Central Committee meeting began. For six days several hundred men and two women, a handful of whom had suffered at Beria’s hands and many of whom owed their careers to him, listened, baying like hounds, to denunciations and disavowals. The participants all spoke so basely that the records of the meeting had to be falsified.42 There had been less moral turpitude in the terrifying plenum of spring 1938 which condemned Bukharin and Iagoda.

Khrushchiov admitted that the doctors’ plot and the Mingrelian affair had been fabrications—not that his audience thought that they should be put right. Khrushchiov implied that Beria only reprieved people who then became his agents. His preamble then degenerated into the incoherence that overcame most speakers. Beria, it turned out, had caused shortages of bread and meat; he did not care about the workers, which was why they lived in dugouts. His rehabilitation of the doctors was pure self-publicity; he had amnestied half the GULAG to build up a fief of thieves and murderers loyal to him. He was a man “of Bonaparte spirit ready to cross mountains of corpses and rivers of blood” for power.

Georgian leaders were bitter: rehabilitated Mingrelians, they complained, were now demanding ministerial posts. Beria’s crony in Azerbaijan Bagirov was so spiteful—he was to share Beria’s fate—that for once the audience turned on a speaker. Molotov and Kaganovich came better prepared. They portrayed Beria as a man who had misled and corrupted Stalin, frustrated economic planning and put the state at risk to please capitalists; he had probably been a fascist plant since 1920. Others thought up new accusations: Beria had engineered the fatal quarrel between Stalin and Orjonikidze and the estrangement between Stalin and Molotov. Beria, said Andrei Andreevich Andreev, who had left his sickbed for the meeting, was a second Tito—this perhaps the most perceptive of all accusations. Beria, complained others, visited them in their nightmares.

Malenkov in his summing-up tacitly conceded that Beria was right—there had been a personality cult of an elderly dictator who had lost his grip, the doctors and the Jewish antifascists had been unjustly arrested, East Germany’s “building of socialism” had been misconceived. But Beria, Malenkov insisted, was right for the wrong reasons.

On July 15 Beria lost all his medals, awards, and titles. The intensive interrogation began of everyone who had had contact, official or private, with him. Several dozen women—wives and daughters of party officials, actresses, opera singers, professional prostitutes—were questioned about his sexual techniques. Witnesses came from Baku and Tbilisi to testify that Beria was a British spy who had begun as an Azeri nationalist.43

Six of Beria’s men, Dekanozov, Merkulov, Vlodzimirsky, Meshik, Goglidze, and Bogdan Kobulov—all from Tbilisi except Pavel Meshik, a Ukrainian—were included in the indictment. Hoping to escape their master’s fate, they were cooperative. Beria’s medical records added to the indictment, showing that he frequently had intercourse knowing he was infected with venereal diseases. Fantastic accusations against Beria were made by his servants—that he stuffed women’s bodies down the drains or dissolved them in sulfuric acid—but these were not used in court.

Beria held up well, but when Rudenko finally read out an indictment a hundred pages long he held his hands to his ears and went on hunger strike. The trial was held behind closed doors in the second half of September 1953 with no defense lawyers. The chief judge was Marshal Konev, a fighting general with no legal training. Another judge was General Moskalenko, arrested by Beria in 1938. Moskalenko had the buttons cut off Beria’s trousers to stop him jumping up and down in the dock.44

Just as he refrained from citing Stalin as his accomplice—he had been warned not to—Beria gallantly asked the court to withhold the names of female witnesses testifying to his moral depravity. None expressed any affection for him; the mother of one even demanded Beria’s property as compensation for her daughter’s lost honor. Beria’s own cousin Gerasime Beria gave evidence that he had been a Menshevik spy when in prison in Kutaisi. Even Beria’s son Sergo linked him to enemies of the people. Witnesses accused Beria of engineering murder after murder, from the infamous Tbilisi airplane crash of 1925 that killed Mogilevsky, Atarbekov, and Aleksandr Miasnikian to Solomon Mikhoels’s death in Minsk.

Beria’s six henchmen denied him all merit and virtue, and gave graphic accounts of prisoners beaten not just on his orders but by his own hand. Beria admitted charges that were self-evidently true— murders of innocent citizens, membership of the Azeri Musavat party, sexual intercourse with minors—but denied everything else: he had not plagiarized his book on Stalin’s leading role in the Caucasus; he had not protected foreign spies.

The sentence for Beria and his co-defendants on December 23, 1953, was, as expected, death.45 All were shot on the same night. For Beria a special execution cell was set up, with a wooden shield to which he was tied so that no ricochet could injure the spectators. Beria was dressed in his best black suit for death. He faced his executioners with courage and tried to speak but Rudenko had his mouth stuffed with a towel. There was a scuffle among the officers over who would fire the first bullet. In the event, General Batitsky, who had been guarding Beria for six months, shot him straight in the forehead, and the body was wrapped in canvas and driven to the crematorium. Only the prison carpenter who had made the shield and brought Beria his food was upset by the spectacle.

Beria’s relatives were hounded and deported to the Urals, Kazakhstan, and Siberia. Mirtskhulava wrote from Georgia on August 25, 1953, “His close relatives are busy with baseless vicious conversations, they are sources for the spreading of various provocational rumors. Beria’s mother, Marta Beria, a deeply religious woman, visits churches and prays for her son, an enemy of the people.”46 Beria’s two female cousins were imprisoned for complaining about his fate.

Khrushchiov and Malenkov were not consistent in punishing Beria’s associates and Stalin’s other surviving hangmen. Many languished in prison. Bogdan Kobulov’s younger brother, Amayak, and Solomon Milshtein were not executed until October 1954. Shalva Tsereteli, the illiterate aristocrat who had specialized in abduction and murder, was flown from retirement to Moscow and shot. Lev Shvartsman again simulated insanity—he claimed to have invented a miraculous loom—but was shot in April 1955. Akvsenti Rapava, the head of the Georgian MVD, was not shot until November 1955. The last to die, in April 1956, was Shvartsman’s sadistic partner Boris Rodos.47

In April 1957 Aleksandr Langfang was the last, perhaps the vilest, of Beria’s henchmen to be tried. He defended himself vigorously: “If you’re trying me, why not try Molotov, whose guilt is proven?” When the prosecutor demanded twenty-five years, Langfang asked for shooting on the grounds that he would be murdered in prison. The Soviet supreme court appealed against Langfang’s sentence of ten years. He finally got fifteen. Constantly protesting his honor, Langfang served his sentence and then lived a further eighteen years.48 Others got off more lightly: Leonid Raikhman, described by his interrogator as “a large, terrible beast, experienced, sly, skillful, one of the immediate perpetrators and creators of lawlessness,” served one year in prison before the amnesty of 1957, and then lived until 1990.

Those who had served Beria and then Abakumov in foreign intelligence, such as Naum Eitingon and Pavel Sudoplatov, were given tolerable prison conditions. Beria’s more intellectual friends were also treated gently. The novelist Konstantine Gamsakhurdia never had to account for his twenty years’ friendship with Beria and even acquired moral authority and wealth as Georgia’s greatest living writer, living like a feudal lord in Tbilisi and preparing his son to rule their country. Petre Sharia, the editor of Stalin’s Georgian works, went back to prison, where he again wrote verse:

It’s hurtful, bitter to perish, not knowing why. For I have nothing to repent of, or to struggle with! If only I knew what fateful force Burns me so slowly on the fire.

Like others in prison for their links to Beria, Sharia spent a decade locked up with polite warders, access to books, and an unshaken belief in Stalin, before retiring to Tbilisi. His dying words, however, were, “I’m choking in blood.”49

Ivan Serov was well rewarded for his treachery. He headed Khrushchiov’s new KGB and died of old age in 1990. Kruglov, however, was pensioned off in 1958, expelled from the party and evicted from his large apartment for “involvement in political repression.” He was run over by a train in 1977. Some, like Mikeil Gvishiani, who murdered even more Chechens than Kruglov, were saved from retribution by being sons-in-law of prominent party leaders. Gvishiani merely lost his general’s rank in November 1954 for “discrediting himself.” The same demotion was suffered by Vasili Mikhailovich Blokhin, the NKVD’s chief executioner; a sick man, he died at the age of sixty in 1955. Nadaraia, Beria’s executioner and, with Sarkisov, his pimp, spent a short time in prison. Aleksandr Khvat, the torturer of Vavilov, was still receiving a generous pension in the 1990s.

Abakumov knew Beria had fallen when his interrogations began again; they were perfunctory, however, merely selecting material for his indictment. Abakumov was moved to the Lubianka where doctors could keep him alive. Malenkov did not care about Abakumov’s arrests of Jews or doctors; it was the framing of the aviation ministers in 1946 and of the Leningrad party in 1949 for which Malenkov wanted revenge. The officers’ club in Leningrad where Kuznetsov and Voznesensky had been sentenced to death was therefore chosen for the trial of Abakumov and five of his henchmen. Abakumov had recovered enough to fight back. He blamed Beria and Riumin for his plight; he had only obeyed Stalin’s orders in torturing his victims. He and three of his men were sentenced to death. Abakumov had no idea that the sentence would be carried out immediately and was saying, “I shall write to the Politburo—” when the bullet hit him on December 19, 1954.50

Lavrenti Tsanava, even though arrested by Beria was kept in prison by Malenkov and Khrushchiov. He hanged himself in October 1955. Ignatiev’s deputy, the cautious Ogoltsov, was released by Khrushchiov in August 1953. He was deprived of his general’s rank for “discrediting himself while working in the organs” but lived on his pension until 1977. Ignatiev, the minister who had supervised the persecution of the Jews, was sent by Malenkov to the foothills of the Urals as Bashkir party secretary. He enjoyed an early, and long, retirement.

Riumin, who had tortured the Jews and the doctors, had to face the music. Completely isolated, Riumin did not know Beria had fallen when he wrote to him in August 1953:

Dear Lavrenti Pavlovich, in the past, when I went to the Central Committee, my thoughts often turned to you, I always expected valuable advice, help and protection from you. Now I have come to be deeply aware how hard it is to endure the tears of children, wives and mothers. . . . Now I am overwhelmed every minute by the tears of three children, my wife and my mother who is living (if she hasn’t died) her last days with heavy grief. Dear Lavrenti Pavlovich, I beg you forgive.51

Abakumov’s consolation was that his tormentor Mikhail Riumin was executed five months before him, on July 7, 1954.

Rukhadze, the fabricator of the Mingrelian affair against Beria, had expected to be released but remained in prison and was shot in 1955. By contrast, after a short spell in jail, Professor Grigori Mairanovsky, chief poisoner to Iagoda, Ezhov, and Beria, reapplied to the KGB and continued his work in a laboratory in Dagestan.

The party elite—Kaganovich, Khrushchiov, Malenkov, Molotov, and Voroshilov—had as many deaths on their consciences as Beria or Abakumov but died in their beds, surrounded by their families. Except for Khrushchiov, who had glimmers of humanity as well as peasant cunning, they died quite uncontrite.

imageThe Soviet Union and its successor states have never achieved what psychiatrists call closure. Khrushchiov’s “destalinization” was essentially a series of political maneuvers to achieve sole power at the expense of his co-conspirators Molotov and Malenkov. It was impossible for him, and for the rest of the old guard such as Mikoyan, to entirely renounce Stalin without offering themselves up for trial as murderers. Many victims of Stalin, Trotskyists for instance, had in Khrushchiov’s and his successor Brezhnev’s eyes deserved their fate. Survivors of the GULAG and relatives of those executed received not justice, not even an act of contrition, but a “rehabilitation” that consisted of an often mendacious certificate and a month’s salary. Whenever Soviet historians or novelists dared to take destalinization a step further, the brakes were applied—books were banned, people lost their jobs—and the public was upbraided about the sanctity of Lenin’s heritage and the “positive” aspects of Stalin’s leadership. Even after perestroika, when historians began to publish archival secrets and mass graves were opened up, the KGB—soon to be the FSB—took part in the process in order to limit and then stop the revelations.

It is a paradox that Russia’s two greatest novelists, Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoi, in all their work insisted that only by full confession could the crimes of the past be absolved and life become endurable again, yet today’s Russian state refuses to abjure Stalin and his hangmen. Denunciations have come either from nongovernmental organizations—Memorial, the Sakharov Center—using whatever material they have been able to compile or extract, or else from men who, like Khrushchiov, were up to their neck in blood. Stalin and his secret services are still lauded in print and in official speeches. The official myth, passively or actively believed by much of the population, is that Stalin’s murders and terrorism were aberrations into which he was inveigled by Ezhov and Beria. Today’s secret police, the FSB, take pride in their Cheka ancestry. They foster the cult of themselves as image’s samurai, this time protecting the Russian nation, rather than the working class, against its enemies. It takes breathtaking ignorance to regard Menzhinsky’s and Iagoda’s murderers as noble warriors who fell victim to an inferior tribe of butchers under Ezhov and Beria, but the corrupt Russian media and ramshackle educational system do little to dissipate it. The dwindling number of victims receive no recognition of their suffering; their elderly torturers get big pensions and parade their medals with pride.

The Russian state in 2004 is ruled by a man who is, by career and choice, a successor to Iagoda and Beria. And while Russia’s political prisoners number hundreds, not hundreds of thousands, the FSB has taken, in alliance with bandits and extortioners, the commanding heights of the country’s government and economic riches, and goes on lying to, and when expedient murdering, its citizens. Russia is now locked into a global economy and today’s rulers have no reason to murder millions of peasants or terrorize the professional classes. Genocide, however, is carried on by other means, and not only in Chechnya. In the last ten years, for instance, half of the indigenous peoples of Russia’s Arctic regions have perished: 240,000 were alive in 1989, 120,000 are alive today. By destroying their pastures and fishing grounds, removing every support for their existence except vodka and tobacco, Russia’s present government has proved as lethal as the GULAG. For Chechens, today’s war of extermination is even worse than yesterday’s repressions and deportations, for there is no effort to conceal the horrors, given the compliance and complacency of the rest of the world.

As the fates of Galina Starovoitova, Sergei Iushenkov, and Dmitri Kholodov have shown, any genuinely democratic politician or journalist in Russia has not much more life expectancy today than under the Bolsheviks. Russian citizens are too preoccupied with making ends meet and surviving to old age to be interested in forcing the state to account for itself, or to insist on electing honest men and women to power. Much of the truth about the past is locked up in closed archives which with every month grow even less accessible. School history textbooks, with few exceptions, pass over in silence the record of Stalinism.52 Until the story is told in full, and until the world community insists that the legacy of Stalin is fully accounted for and expiated, Russia will remain spiritually sick, haunted by the ghosts of Stalin and his hangmen and, worse, by nightmares of their resurrection.