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Stalin and His Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him

Stalin and His Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him

by Donald Rayfield

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Stalin did not act alone. The mass executions, the mock trials, the betrayals and purges, the jailings and secret torture that ravaged the Soviet Union during the three decades of Stalin’s dictatorship, were the result of a tight network of trusted henchmen (and women), spies, psychopaths, and thugs. At the top of this pyramid of terror sat five indispensable


Stalin did not act alone. The mass executions, the mock trials, the betrayals and purges, the jailings and secret torture that ravaged the Soviet Union during the three decades of Stalin’s dictatorship, were the result of a tight network of trusted henchmen (and women), spies, psychopaths, and thugs. At the top of this pyramid of terror sat five indispensable hangmen who presided over the various incarnations of Stalin’s secret police. Now, in his harrowing new book, Donald Rayfield probes the lives, the minds, the twisted careers, and the unpunished crimes of Stalin’s loyal assassins.

Founded by Feliks Dzierzynski, the Cheka–the Extraordinary Commission–came to life in the first years of the Russian Revolution. Spreading fear in a time of chaos, the Cheka proved a perfect instrument for Stalin’s ruthless consolidation of power. But brutal as it was, the Cheka under Dzierzynski was amateurish compared to the well-oiled killing machines that succeeded it. Genrikh Iagoda’s OGPU specialized in political assassination, propaganda, and the manipulation of foreign intellectuals. Later, the NKVD recruited a new generation of torturers. Starting in 1938, terror mastermind Lavrenti Beria brought violent repression to a new height of ingenuity and sadism.

As Rayfield shows, Stalin and his henchmen worked relentlessly to coerce and suborn leading Soviet intellectuals, artists, writers, lawyers, and scientists. Maxim Gorky, Aleksandr Fadeev, Alexei Tolstoi, Isaak Babel, and Osip Mandelstam were all caught in Stalin’s web–courted, toyed with, betrayed, and then ruthlessly destroyed. In bringing to light the careers, personalities, relationships, and “accomplishments” of Stalin’s key henchmen and their most prominent victims, Rayfield creates a chilling drama of the intersection of political fanaticism, personal vulnerability, and blind lust for power spanning half a century.

Though Beria lost his power–and his life–after Stalin’s death in 1953, the fundamental methods of the hangmen maintained their grip into the second half of the twentieth century. Indeed, Rayfield argues, the tradition of terror, far from disappearing, has emerged with renewed vitality under Vladimir Putin. Written with grace, passion, and a dazzling command of the intricacies of Soviet politics and society, Stalin and the Hangmen is a devastating indictment of the individuals and ideology that kept Stalin in power.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Leon Aron
… as he gives us stomach-wrenching details of these torments and portraits of the men who engineered them (beginning with first-rate essays on Stalin and the founder of the Cheka secret police, Feliks Dzierzynski, the son of a Polish nobleman, a fanatical Bolshevik and hollow-cheeked ascetic who subsisted on the diet of tea and bread to which he became accustomed as a prisoner in czarist jails), Rayfield, a professor of Russian and Georgian at the University of London and the author of a very fine biography of Chekhov, manages to make this abstract and often unimaginable evil feel close and real. Layered with subplots and striking vignettes and filled with voices (both the victims' cries for help and the commissars' orders for more killing), the horrid saga acquires texture, color and an immediacy that will mesmerize readers almost despite themselves. One marvels at the sheer mastery of craftsmanship that has made this relentlessly depressing, often repugnant material into such a compelling tale.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
This investigation of Stalin and his coterie is at its best when it focuses on the latter-henchmen such as Feliks Dzierzynski, Viacheslav Molotov and Lavrenti Beria-showing that it was their "spellbound submission" that made it possible for tens of millions of Soviet citizens to be killed, while the account adds nuance to our understanding of how the brutality of the U.S.S.R. was possible. As Rayfield (Anton Chekhov), a professor of Russian and Georgian at the University of London, shows, the leaders Stalin appointed also needed no direct instructions to turn their hands to violence; Beria, for instance, who took over the secret police in 1938, was a "vindictive sadist" who combined "unscrupulousness" with "finesse." Rayfield focuses less than Moses Montefiore in his recent biography of Stalin on the personal lives of top Soviet officials, and more on their policies. When Rayfield concentrates on Stalin, however, while some of the details are new, the picture overall is familiar. By focusing on Stalin's tactics and network of violent underbosses, though, Rayfield makes an important argument: discussions of Stalin's ideology should be secondary to the brutal means he used to remain in power for 30 years. 32 pages of photos, maps, not seen by PW. Agent, Irene Skolnick Agency. (Dec. 14) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
An English expert on Russian history (recently decorated with an OBE by Queen Elizabeth II), Rayfield (Russian & Georgian, Univ. of London) traces the development of Joseph Stalin from a provincial seminary student to a cunning, amoral, power-hungry tyrant capable of generating large numbers of Russian corpses without thinking twice. Stalin's campaign against the peasants alone is estimated to have cost as many as ten million lives, while the crackdown on free thought during the 1930s saw about 750,000 Russians executed. Rayfield focuses on Stalin's ability to enlist willing followers to do his dirty work, specifically key secret police and security force leaders like Genrikh Yagoda and Lavrenty Beria. Rayfield illuminates their careers and personalities while also highlighting their more prominent victims, including artists, scientists, lawyers, and writers. That loyalty was no guarantee of life best reveals the ruthlessness of Stalin's regime; whenever party officials fell out of favor, they and their families disappeared. Highly recommended for all libraries collecting in Soviet history. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 8/04.]-David Lee Poremba, Detroit P.L. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.

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Childhood and Family

Instead of saying something like “X was raised by crocodiles in a septic tank in Kuala Lumpur,” they tell you about a mother, a father . . .

Martin Amis, Koba the Dread

In the Russian empire, especially Georgia, 1878 was not a bad year to bring a child into the world. True, Georgians of all classes seethed with resentment. Their Russian overlords, into whose hands the last Georgian kings had surrendered their shattered realm at the beginning of the nineteenth century, ruled the country through a bureaucracy that was often callous, corrupt, and ignorant, while those Georgian children who went to school were instructed in Russian. The Russian viceroy in Tbilisi, however humane and liberal, was determined to keep things as they were: Armenians ran commerce, foreign capitalists controlled industry, while Georgian aristocrats and peasants, upstaged in their own capital city, led a more or less tolerable life in the fertile countryside.

Georgians had some reasons to be grateful for Russian rule. For nearly a century Georgia had been free of the invasions and raids by its neighbors that had devastated and periodically nearly annihilated the nation since the thirteenth century. Russians might impose punitive taxes, Siberian exile, and cultural humiliation, but, unlike the Turks, they did not decapitate the entire male population of villages and, unlike the Persians, they did not drive away the survivors of massacres to be castrated, enslaved, and forcibly converted to Islam. Under Russian rule towns had been rebuilt and railways linked the capital to the Black Sea, and thus the outside world. The capital city, Tbilisi, had newspapers and an opera house (even if it had no university). A new generation of Georgians, forced to become fluent in Russian, realized the dreams of their ancestors: they were now treated as Europeans, they could study in European universities and become doctors, lawyers, diplomats—and revolutionaries. Many Georgians dreamed of regaining independent statehood; so far, few believed that they should work toward this by violence. Most Georgians in the 1870s grudgingly accepted Russian domination as the price of exchanging their Asiatic history for a European culture.

For the inhabitants of the empire’s metropolis, St. Petersburg, 1878 was a year that threatened to totter into anarchy. The terrorists who would kill Tsar Alexander II in 1881 were already tasting blood: the honeymoon between the Russian government and its intellectuals and new professional classes was over. The seeds of revolution found fertile ground not in the impoverished peasantry nor in the slums that housed the cities’ factory workers, but among the frustrated educated children of the gentry and the clergy who were not content to demand just human rights and a constitution. They went further and were plotting the violent overthrow of the Russian state. Such extremism might be fanatical but was not unrealistic. A rigid state is easier to destroy than to reform, and the Russian state was so constructed that a well-placed batch of dynamite or a well-aimed revolver, by eliminating a handful of grand dukes and ministers, could bring it down. The weakness of the Russian empire lay in its impoverished social fabric: the state was held together by a vertical hierarchy, from Tsar to gendarme. In Britain or France society was held together by the warp and weft of institutions—judiciary, legislature, Church, local government. In Russia, where these institutions were only vestigial or embryonic, the fabric was single-ply.

The killers of Tsar Alexander II, the generation of Russian revolutionaries that preceded Lenin, saw this weakness but they had no popular support and no prospect of achieving mass rebellion. Russia in the 1880s and 1890s was generally perceived as stagnant, retrograde, even heartless and cynical—but stable. Episodes of famine, epidemics, and anti-Jewish progroms rightly gave Russia a bad international name in the 1880s. The 1860s and 1870s had been a period of reform, hope, and, above all, creativity: Fiodor Dostoevsky, Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoi, and Nikolai Leskov were writing their greatest novels. But the zest was gone: only the music of Piotr Tchaikovsky and the chemistry of Dmitri Mendeleev testified to Russian civilization. Nevertheless, there was tranquillity in stagnation. This was the Russian empire’s longest recorded period of peace. Between Russia’s victory over Turkey in 1877 and its defeat by Japan in 1905, half a human lifetime would elapse.

Around the time Ioseb Jughashvili was born on December 6, 1878, in the flourishing town of Gori, forty miles west of Tbilisi, the atmosphere among the town’s artisans, merchants, and intellectuals was quietly buoyant. A boy whose parents had a modest income could secure an education that would make a gentleman of him anywhere in the Russian empire. Few observers had cause to agree with the prophecies of Dostoevsky and the philosopher Vladimir Soloviov: that within forty years a Russian tyranny so violent and bloody would be unleashed that Genghis Khan’s or Nadir Shah’s invasions would pale into insignificance by comparison. Even less did anyone sense that Ioseb Jughashvili, as Joseph Stalin, would be instrumental in establishing this tyranny over the Russian empire and would then take sole control of it.

yyyThe family that begot Ioseb (Soso) Jughashvili had no more reason than other Georgians to fear the future. The cobbler Besarion Jughashvili was in 1878 twenty-eight years old, a skilled and successful artisan working for himself; he had been married six years to Katerine (Keke), who was now twenty-two. She was a peasant girl with strong aspirations, well brought up, and had even been taught to read and write by her grandfather. Their first two sons had died in infancy; this third son, by Georgian (and Russian) tradition, was a gift from God, to be offered back to God. Katerine Meladze’s father had died before she was born, and she was brought up by her uncle, Petre Khomuridze. In the 1850s the Khomuridzes had been serfs from the village of Mejrokhe near Gori but in 1861 Tsar Alexander II made them, like all serfs, freemen. Petre Khomuridze, once freed, proved an enterprising patriarch: he raised his own child and the children of his widowed sister. Katerine’s brothers Sandro and Gio became a potter and a tile-maker respectively; when Katerine became a cobbler’s wife, all the Meladze siblings had succeeded in rising from peasant to artisan status.

The family of Stalin’s father Besarion seemed to be on the same upward course. Stalin’s paternal great-grandfather, Zaza Jughashvili, had also lived near Gori, in a largely Osetian village. Zaza was also a serf. He took part in an anti-Russian rebellion in the 1800s, escaped retribution and was resettled, thanks to a charitable feudal prince, in a hovel in the windswept and semi-deserted village of Didi Lilo, ten miles north of Tbilisi. Here Zaza’s son Vano moved up the social ladder: he owned a vineyard. Zaza’s two grandchildren Giorgi and Besarion seemed destined to climb further. After Vano’s death, Giorgi became an innkeeper but their rise to prosperity was brutally interrupted: Stalin’s uncle Giorgi was killed by robbers, and his younger brother Besarion, destitute, left for Tbilisi to be a cobbler. By 1870 the Jughashvilis had resumed their climb: working for an Armenian bootmaker, Besarion acquired not only his craft, but learned to speak some Russian, Armenian, and Azeri Turkish, as well as Georgian. Unlike most Georgian artisans at that time, Besarion was literate.

One in three great dictators, artists, or writers witness before adolescence the death, bankruptcy, or disabling of their fathers. Stalin, like Napoleon, Dickens, Ibsen, and Chekhov, was the son of a man who climbed halfway up the social ladder and then fell off. Why did Besarion Jughashvili fail, when everything seemed to favor a man of his origins and skills? Contemporaries recall little of Besarion. One remembers that the Jughashvilis never had to pawn or sell anything. Another remembers: “When Soso’s father Besarion came home, we avoided playing in the room. Besarion was a very odd person. He was of middling height, swarthy, with big black mustaches and long eyebrows, his expression was severe and he walked about looking gloomy.” Whatever the reasons, in 1884, when Stalin was six, Besarion’s affairs went sharply downhill. The family moved house—nine times in ten years. The cobbler’s workshop lost customers; Beso took to drink.

Early in 1890 the marriage of Stalin’s parents broke up. This was the last year the young Stalin had any contact with his father: the twelve-year-old boy was run over by a carriage and his father and mother took him to Tbilisi for an operation. Besarion stayed in the capital, finding work at a shoe factory. When the boy recovered, Besarion gave him an ultimatum: either become an apprentice cobbler in Tbilisi or return to Gori, follow his mother’s ambitions, train to be a priest, and be disowned by his father. Soso went back to school in Gori in autumn 1890. Besarion, after visits to Gori to beg Katerine to take him back, vanished. (Stalin later stated in official depositions that his father had abandoned the family.) Besarion Jughashvili became an alcoholic tramp. On August 12, 1909, taken to the hospital from a Tbilisi rooming house, he died of liver cirrhosis. He was buried in an unmarked grave, mourned only by one fellow cobbler.

Some Georgians found it hard to believe that Stalin could have such lowly origins: they speculated that Stalin was illegitimate, which would explain Besarion deserting his “unfaithful” wife and her offspring. Legend puts forward two putative fathers for Stalin: Nikolai Przhevalsky, explorer of central Asia, and a Prince Egnatashvili. It is true that Stalin physically resembled Przhevalsky but the latter was a misogynistic homosexual, camped on the Chinese border when Stalin was begotten. In Soviet times two Egnatashvili brothers, related to the priest who married both Stalin and Stalin’s parents, and to the Prince Egnatashvili for whom Katerine allegedly did housework, led remarkably charmed lives. Stalin was frequently called a bastard and whoreson, but the abuse was figurative. Adultery in a small Georgian town was rare: Keke was a conventional, if strong-willed, wife and mother, and Ioseb was undoubtedly Besarion’s son.

Stalin discouraged prying into his origins and was most evasive about his father; only in 1906 did he give him the most cursory acknowledgment when he briefly adopted a new pseudonym for his journalism: Besoshvili (son of Besarion). Katerine exerted a more prolonged influence on her son. She bequeathed her obstinacy in pursuing goals. Ruined then deserted, constantly moving house, demoted from artisan’s wife to drudge, she nevertheless scraped together the money and cajoled the authorities to get her son off the streets and into school. By several accounts she beat Ioseb as often as Besarion did, but for nobler reasons. Religious piety and instinct told her that education, preferably directed at the priesthood, provided the only way in which her son could make his way in the world. Katerine was nothing if not single-minded; religion and her son were her only interests. Her sole surviving letter to Stalin, from the 1920s, shows how much she had in common with him: “My dear child Ioseb first of all I greet you with great love and wish you a long life and good health together with your good family. Child, I ask nature to give you complete victory and the annihilation of the enemy. . . . Be victorious!”

If Stalin avoided speaking of his father, he was conventionally, if casually, fond of his mother. He sent her short letters and sporadic gifts of money. In the 1930s Katerine could be seen, an austere widow in black, carrying her basket to Tbilisi’s collective-farm market accompanied by a squad of smart NKVD guards—at the fawning initiative of Lavrenti Beria, not at her son’s behest. Stalin visited his mother twice in the 1920s and once in 1935. He just sent a wreath to her funeral.

All who came across Stalin in power were struck by his self-sufficiency and solitude. Perhaps Stalin’s solitary habits came from being the only son of an impoverished and lonely woman, but was his childhood the solitary hell that would produce a psychopath? What we can glean of Ioseb’s childhood does not bear this out. The Jughashvilis lived on amicable terms with their neighbors, who were cosmopolitan, upwardly mobile artisans. Nearby lived Katerine’s extended family—craftsmen and innkeepers, with connections to merchants and even aristocrats. Like Beso’s first two short-lived sons (Mikhail 1875, Giorgi 1876) Ioseb Jughashvili had prominent godfathers on whom the family could also count for support. The young Stalin had for company a foster brother (apprenticed to Besarion) a year younger than himself, Vano Khutsishvili. Vano had no complaints when in 1939 he recalled their apparently happy childhood in a letter to Stalin.6 Even after Besarion parted from his wife and son, Katerine and Ioseb kept up contact with that side of the family. Besarion’s sister was married to a Iakob Gveseliani, and although they lived near Tbilisi their offspring, Ioseb’s cousins, often visited Gori. As for Katerine, she and her children were part of an extended family in Gori, including her cousin Mariam Mamulashvili, who had seven children. Not until his twenties could Stalin have known involuntary solitude.

Stalin’s cousins—particularly Pepo (Euphemia) Gveseliani on his father’s side and Vano Mamulashvili on his mother’s side—kept in touch with him until his death. They sent letters—ingratiating, begging, sometimes affectionate. They came to Moscow and on two occasions threatened to commit suicide if Stalin refused to see them. His cousins were the only family category for whom Stalin never sanctioned arrests (Stalin’s in-laws, the Svanidzes and Alliluevs, suffered the same near-extermination as did other “old Bolsheviks”). Admittedly, Stalin did his blood relatives few favors—they endured the same hardships all Georgia’s peasantry and artisans underwent after the revolution—but they were the only human beings with whom Stalin sustained a semblance of normal relations. In his old age he would send them and some schoolmates parcels of cash (his earnings as a Supreme Soviet deputy). In 1951, General Nikolai Vlasik, the commandant at Stalin’s dacha, drew up a list of Stalin’s surviving relatives and schoolmates for a bus trip to a reunion in Georgia. Vlasik would not have dared to do so had Stalin not shown some last flicker of human affection.

The most telling events in Stalin’s childhood are his brushes with death: his years in Georgia were marked by crippling illnesses and ghastly traffic accidents. All his life Stalin was rarely free of physical pain—which must have stimulated his sadism and irritability—and most of his pain, mental as well as physical, was a residue of childhood. He survived all the childhood illnesses—from measles to scarlet fever—that had carried off his infant brothers but in 1884 caught smallpox and was left badly scarred, earning the nickname Chopura (Poxy). Soon afterward he was run over by a carriage, and the subsequent blood poisoning apparently withered his left shoulder and arm. In early 1890 in another street accident his legs were run over by a carriage and Ioseb acquired another nickname, Geza (Crooked).

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Donald Rayfield is professor of Russian and Georgian at the University of London and the author of a number of books on Russian writers and intellectuals, including an acclaimed biography of Anton Chekhov.

From the Hardcover edition.

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