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


Chapter 6. The Lone Sadist

Thought unrevealed can do no ill
But words past out turn not again.
Be careful aye for to invent
The way to get thine own intent.

King James VI of Scotland

UNTIL 1913, Stalin in the Caucasus and Vologda was not outstandingly different from other revolutionaries in behavior, thought, and morality. In 1917, an embittered recluse after his journey to Kraków and Vienna and four years in Siberia, he was now an outsider. He now brooked no equals and recognized only one superior, Lenin. He was on intimate terms with fellow revolutionaries, such as Kamenev, but they could presume no intimacy. After the deaths of Kato Svanidze and Suren Spandaryan, both women and men deluded themselves if they thought they had a personal relationship with Stalin.

Stalin had for some time been complicit in murders—assassinations or retributions possibly including the betrayal of comrades. But he could not, on his euphoric return from exile in Siberia to the threshold of power in Petrograd, have contemplated the killing of enemies and the manipulation of comrades on the scale that was to come. The maelstrom of revolution, the temptations of power, the character of his comrades and underlings, as much as his unscrupulous personality, determined this escalation.

Cynical about everything else, Stalin nevertheless professed one constant ideal: Leninism. From his first encounters with Lenin in 1906 and 1907 to the point when he became Lenin’s manager, caretaker, and interpreter, Stalin looked up to him as a disciple looked to Jesus Christ. We may see Stalin as Saint Paul, Saint Peter, Saint Thomas, or Judas, but Lenin’s writings were for Stalin holy writ.

Stalin’s sincerity is most evident in his correspondence with the Bolshevik poetaster Demian Bedny.30 Before Stalin outgrew, or suppressed, his need for permanent friends, Demian Bedny was one of very few correspondents who could write to Stalin freely and coarsely, and receive a reply in the same vein. The letters of 1924 between Stalin and Demian, the latter at the time in the Caucasian resort of Essentuki, like Stalin’s scrawls in the margins of books, are unguarded words, which give us some insight into Stalin’s personality: 31

Stalin to Demian July 15: Our Philosophy is not “cosmic grief,” our philosophy was rather neatly put by the American Whitman: “We are alive. Our scarlet blood boils with the fire of unused strength.”

Demian to Stalin July 29: I can’t boast that I know you “inside out.” And anyway that would be unrealizable. What would you be worth then? But “grasping Stalin” must attain a certain, maximum degree . . . you are my “benchmark,” “axial” friend. . . . If you venture far into the Caucasus, then bring me a nice Circassian girl.

Stalin to Demian August 27: Greetings, friend. You’re utterly right that it is impossible to know somebody “inside out” . . . But I am always ready to help you in this respect. [There then follows a ten-page exegesis of Lenin’s views of the dictatorship of the proletariat, as distinct from the dictatorship of the party, ending] . . . as for the proletariat, the party cannot be a force for dictatorship. I ask you not to copy this letter of mine, not to make a noise about it.

Demian’s reply shows how taken aback he was by Stalin’s fanatical outburst: “Instead of a Circassian girl you warmed me up with a treatise.” In response to Stalin’s other remarks about his cunning political strategy—attacking leaders of the opposition and then wooing their adherents in order to put an end to fractions and factions—Demian felt himself on surer ground. Here he and Stalin were cronies again. Demian wrote: “If the best husband and wife start arguing sharply, even if the reasons are purely matters of principle, the argument can end with either the husband fucking somebody else or his wife being fucked by others. I am sure that you and I will not refuse somebody else’s and will not let go of our own, and if we do let go, then it will be because ‘she’s a whore,’ even if she’s festooned with quotations.”

imageThe Bedny–Stalin letters convey the contradictions in Stalin’s thinking: coarse in tactics and expression, arcane in professed ideology.

The same duality is apparent in Stalin’s relationships with his wives and children. Some of his behavior is ascribable to Georgian custom: a wife must never show her husband up in public, must never act disrespectfully or frivolously. Children, too, however much loved, must defer in public. Among Georgian highlanders, a husband makes no display of affection in public to his wife or children, not even to single out his own child for rescue from general danger.

Stalin was, even by these standards, an exceptionally unfeeling parent. Not until his second marriage, after the 1917 revolution, did he take a cursory interest in Iakov, whom he had handed over as a baby to his sister-in-law and Mikhail Monaselidze, her husband. When, in 1928, Iakov tried to shoot himself, Stalin greeted him with “Ha, so you missed!” Iakov fled to his stepmother’s parents, the Alliluevs. Stalin wrote to Nadezhda, his second wife: “Tell Iakov from me that he has acted like a hooligan and a blackmailer with whom I do not and cannot have anything in common. Let him live where and with whom he wants.”

In 1941, less than a month after the outbreak of war, Iakov was captured by the Germans. Stalin refused Count Bernadotte’s offer to negotiate Iakov’s release. The refusal was interpreted as putting national before personal interests, but Stalin went further: he had Iakov’s wife imprisoned as a deserter’s spouse, and when Iakov’s picture was used by the Germans for propaganda leaflets, Stalin asked the Spanish communist Dolores Ibarruri “La Pasionaria” to infiltrate undercover agents among Spanish fascists in Germany in order to reach Iakov in his POW camp and presumably kill him. In 1943, however, Iakov was electrocuted and shot dead by the Germans.

To his daughter Svetlana Stalin was at first affectionate, even playful, calling her Khoziaika (housewife) or Satanka, but after she began a succession of ill-judged liaisons, she too fell out of favor and saw little of her father.

Stalin’s marital history falls just short of the pathological. The inquisitive mind of a pedant and autodidact, behind a brooding romantic face, attracted women. Old flames flare up in the letters Stalin kept in his archive: “Do you remember the beautiful neighbor Liza, who used to look after you . . . that’s me.”32 Stalin’s first wife, Kato, made no complaints—she was no mute peasant; she had been educated by private tutors and her brother had studied in Germany—but, a conventional Georgian wife, she kept in the background. Stalin’s subsequent liaisons with Onufrieva, Pereprygina, and others, and his second marriage to the seventeen-year-old Nadezhda Allilueva—apart from a preference for adolescent girls and for solitude—do not suggest grossly abnormal sexuality.

Stalin liked female nudity, as his choice of postcards showed. In his marginalia to Anatole France’s dialogue on prudery, he underlined the comment, “Few women know how beautiful nudity is,” and wrote, “Very original” against the statement that “a plant shows with pride what a human being conceals.” When, years later, widowed again, he read the diary that Tolstoi’s wife kept for 1910, the last and most unhappy year of a stormy marital life, Stalin found much to comment on, singling out in particular Sofia Tolstaia’s entry: “Only the Trubetskoys bathed, husband and wife together in the river, and astounded us by so doing.”

After Stalin married Nadezhda in 1917, it was said that he had first raped her; even that he had slept with her mother nine months before Nadezhda was born. The notorious temperament of Olga Allilueva, the fact that both parties had been in the same city in 1900, and the tension toward the end of the marriage support the rumor, though Nadezhda had many other reasons to kill herself in 1932.

Obsessed with pursuing power and crushing opposition, Stalin remained in some areas of his life relatively normal. He was active sexually: Nadezhda had two live births and, her medical records show, ten abortions during their marriage. After her death, to judge by Stalin’s well-documented routine, there was little time for sexual relationships. His young housekeeper Valentina Istomina probably met his occasional needs and a few ballerinas and opera singers claimed to have been Stalin’s mistresses in the 1930s and 1940s. By all accounts Stalin’s sexual behavior was peremptory and rough, but there is no psychosexual theory explanation of Stalin’s sadism; it was cold-blooded.

Perhaps in his austerity we can find the key to Stalin’s remorseless concentration on the task at hand, his refusal to soften: there were few people close to him whom he was not prepared to destroy and few objects that had any value for him. With the resources of half the world at his disposal he lived in ill-furnished rooms and slept on uncomfortable divans. His wardrobe was sparse, without silk or fur. If not as ascetic (not as chaste and abstemious) as Hitler, Stalin had little interest in physical pleasure. In food he valued simplicity, not delicacy; he checked only that it was not poisoned. His alcohol and tobacco intake was controlled: he made his guests drunk, not himself, and the famous pipe was a rarely lit prop.

One explanation for the Marquis de Sade’s need to inflict pain was that he himself was never free of it. Dostoevsky’s “Underground Man” proclaims that anyone suffering from toothache badly wants others to feel the same pain. This is plausible in the case of Stalin. The agony he inflicted on others grew out of his own. His medical records imply that he was in constant pain.33 In addition to his scarred face and webbed toe, his left arm atrophied so much that in his fifties it could barely lift a cup. Stalin’s annual checkups in the Kremlin suggest a middle-aged man in chronic pain: in the mid-1920s Stalin had sciatic pain in all his limbs and was plagued by chronic myalgia, arthritis, and eventually muscular atrophy. From 1926 he had irritable bowel syndrome, which caused constant diarrhea and public embarrassment. Prison and Siberia had given him, like other old Bolsheviks, tuberculosis, and although the disease abated, he was left with a weakened right lung stuck to his pleura. His voice was never strong enough to make a speech without a microphone. In the 1920s his teeth rotted and gave him hell: a dentist, Shapiro, extracted eight roots and filed and crowned most of his remaining teeth in Sochi in 1930.34 In 1921 Stalin was operated on for appendicitis. All the time he held power he had attacks of dizziness, respiratory and bowel infections, and would complain, by the time he took his extended late-summer breaks in the south, of mental symptoms: exhaustion, irritability, inability to concentrate, bad memory.

Stalin’s paranoiac suspicions of the doctors who treated him were not entirely unjustified: the misdiagnoses and sudden deaths of Feliks image in 1926 and Andrei Zhdanov in 1948 suggest that the Kremlin professors of medicine were fallible, or worse. Stalin’s suspicions caused him to have his medicines fetched from the pharmacy under a false name, and he would have a bodyguard take any medication first. Dr. Shneiderovich was asked by Stalin in 1934: “Doctor, tell me just the truth: do you occasionally feel a desire to poison me?” To Shneiderovich’s denial, Stalin responded, “Doctor, you’re a timid weak person, you’d never do it, but I have enemies who are capable of doing it.” In January 1937 Stalin turned to Dr. Valedinsky at dinner and, apropos of nothing, growled, “There are enemies of the people among the doctors.” Fifteen years were to pass before Stalin took a step unprecedented even for tyrants, and had most of his doctors arrested.

While physical and mental pain do not account for the extermination of whole classes and conditions of mankind, they do explain the sudden bursts of fury with which Stalin would turn on loyal servants before he threw them to his wolves.

One simple explanation of Stalin was clear to Trotsky and other victims: they saw him as a bandit, murderer, impostor, traitor—“Genghis Khan who’s read Marx,” to quote Bukharin. But the boundary between expropriation and robbery, execution and murder, betrayal and tactical maneuver is fuzzy, and most revolutionaries confuse or overstep it. Stalin can be singled out from Lenin, Trotsky, Sverdlov, and the rest only in his willingness to take criminal measures as first, rather than last resorts, and to use them on intimates as well as strangers. The revolution relied on many criminals’ lack of inhibitions to seize power and kill their opponents; Stalin can be seen as just a criminal on whose services the revolution was forced to depend.

But Stalin is too easily categorized as a serial killer. Extrapolating twenty years back from the 1930s leads to unfounded allegations such as Roman Brackman’s that Stalin hired an ax murderer to kill his father in Telavi in 1906. There were violent deaths among Stalin’s companions and enemies that he welcomed, but a causal link is often undemonstrable and even ludicrous.

Stalin is often dismissed as a bandit. In 1907 he sought Lenin’s agreement, against the policy of the Social Democrats, Menshevik and Bolshevik, to fund the party by armed robbery; he may also have taken part in wrecking a ship off Batumi. Such expropriations, however, were a vital source of funding, and Stalin’s enthusiastic banditry does not set him morally or ideologically apart from most terrorists.

The most odious criminal charge against Stalin (to his fellow revolutionaries) is of cooperating with the Okhranka, acting as a secret police agent, betraying his colleagues and the cause. The evidence is copious but, discounting obvious forgeries which Stalin may have engineered to discredit real evidence, ambiguous. For one thing, collaboration with the Okhranka was often justified. Both socialists and gendarmes wanted a Bolshevik party strong enough to split the left, especially the Social Democrats, and several colonels in the Russian secret service maintained a working relationship with those they were supposed to be jailing, exiling, and hanging. In the 1900s the interpenetration of secret service and revolutionary underground was so tangled that agents of either side could find it hard to remember what aims were paramount in their activities. Stalin’s sources of income, his apparent ability to travel from Siberia to Baku without hindrance, even faster than the train timetables allowed, and the ease with which he crossed the Russian, Polish, and Finnish frontiers with dubious papers all make it plausible that he had come to arrangements with the Okhranka.

For the whole of the 1920s and some of the 1930s, Stalin’s Okhranka file was considered a bombshell that could destroy him or whoever tried to use it against him while the files of other old Bolsheviks were carefully stored to damn any whom Stalin needed to discard. This however is not enough to categorize Stalin as a traitor. Like Lenin and Sverdlov, only with less hesitation, he used any means for his absolute end. If cooperation with the Okhranka proves that a Bolshevik was an impostor, then the whole of Lenin’s Politburo and their revolution becomes a capitalist plot, as absurd and pointless as the legendary last session of the Communist Party of the State of Utah, when it dawned on the seventeen participants that they were all FBI agents.

The striking quality that marks Stalin apart from his comrades is isolation. Before he first saw Lenin in 1905, he worshipped no living human being. There were Georgians at the seminary whom he admired: the murdered thinker and poet Lado Ketskhoveli, for instance. He also admired Seit Devdariani, who led a group of radical students. Devdariani became a philosopher and was in 1937 shot by Beria, unquestionably with Stalin’s assent, and the only copy of his manuscript A History of Georgian Thought perished, except for a brief fragment, with him. Stalin’s serious intellectual rivals in the Tbilisi seminary did not live long.

In Stalin’s few friendships he dictated the agenda and he was more loved than loving. Lenin, even after his brain had been shattered by strokes, however, remained a superior being in Stalin’s eyes: as ruthless and peremptory as himself, even more charismatic and, above all, with the ability to produce the right words for every theory and the right theory to justify every event, using irony, logic, and abuse to convince. This worship was not fully reciprocated. Lenin saw Koba as “the marvelous Georgian” but had trouble remembering the surname Jughashvili. From the start, Koba stood out from Lenin’s comrades as an atavistic executor of the party’s, especially of Lenin’s, will, balking at nothing, yet calm and collected (when not rude and irritable), a factotum who could even write polemical treatises and expound doctrine, if not an original thinker.

Lenin gave Stalin enough praise to encourage his conceit. From newspaper articles in Georgian, summarizing what he had read in Russian, Stalin in 1913 graduated to treatises in Russian. In Lenin’s ruthless cynicism about the means used to achieve the end and in his readiness to take drastic measures, to deceive and manipulate, Stalin found a kindred soul.

Lenin held sacred the famous principle of democratic centralism: decisions reached after a vote in the party’s Central Committee were binding on all. (In fact, where necessary, a minority opinion was massaged into a majority opinion.) Stalin was an adept pupil, as he explained to Molotov:

Let’s suppose there are 80 people in the Central Committee, of whom 30 take the right position and 50 the wrong one, thus being active enemies of your policy. Why should the majority submit to the minority? . . . A minority has never expelled a majority. This takes place gradually. Seventy expel 10–15, then 60 expel another 15 . . . And gradually, all this being done in the framework of democratic centralism, without any formal infringement of the rules. Actually, this ends with the minority of the majority remaining in the CC.35

For all his unprincipled remorselessness, his energy and patience, Stalin needed not just the right moment to take power but the right associates, those willing not just to die, but to kill for him.