The Unquiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalinby Adam Hochschild
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Although some twenty million people died during Stalin’s reign of terror, only with the advent of glasnost did Russians begin to confront their memories of that time. In 1991, Adam Hochschild spent nearly six months in Russia talking to gulag survivors, retired concentration camp guards, and countless others. The result is a riveting evocation of a country still haunted by the ghost of Stalin.
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Despite all the changes brought by glasnost, one significant part of the national memory remained, at the time I was in Mos- cow, almost totally hidden from sight: the records of the executioners. Survivors have told us about their experience of interrogation, torture, and prison, but what would the notes of the jailors themselves say? And what could we learn from them about people who had never lived to tell their stories? It was impossible to find out.
The major reason, of course, is that despite all the recent changes in Russia, the secret police are still there. Today's officers still work in the same rooms and buildings where people were tortured and shot some 40 years ago. The bulk of the gulag was not shut down until three years after Stalin's death, in 1956, and some older officers still now in uniform began their careers before then.
Like many a product trying to improve its image, the Soviet secret police has changed its name at various times over the years; parts of it have been spun off to other ministries and then taken back again. If you draw a chart of all these changes, it begins to look like a genealogical diagram of a large, heavily intermarried, divorce-ridden, extended family. Immediately after the Revolution, the secret police was known as the Cheka, an acronym from several words in its full title: The All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for the Struggle Against Counterrevolution, Speculation and Sabotage. It changed its name twice in the 1920s, and then in 1934 became the NKVD--the People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs. After several more divisions and name changes, the core of the force became the KGB, or Committee for State Security, in 1954. But officers still proudly call themselves Chekisti, just as they did 75 years ago.
Even this list leaves one or two twigs off the family tree. More recently, as the Soviet Union dissolved, there has been yet another layer of branches and name changes in each republic. In Russia itself, the KGB has already changed its name twice just since the coup attempt of August 1991, although everyone still calls it the KGB.
Although the large-scale arrests and executions ended after Stalin's death, the force remained immensely powerful. The KGB persecuted and exiled people like Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn, and sent thousands of dissidents to jails, labor camps and psychiatric hospitals. Visiting the Soviet Union during the 1960s, '70s, and early '80s, I often found that whenever conversation became too political, people would point meaningfully at an apartment's ceiling, and, instead of talking, would start scribbling notes to each other, which were later burned in ashtrays or torn up and flushed down the toilet.
By the beginning of the 1990s, of course, all this had changed dramatically. But without listening in on hidden microphones and the like, what's a secret policeman supposed to do all day? The KGB was in transition--but to exactly what, no one knew. The government several times announced that the agency would play a key role in the country's battle against rapidly- growing organized crime. But, just as J. Edgar Hoover's FBI long found snooping on America's minuscule number of Communists much simpler than pursuing the Mafia, so had the KGB found harassing the pre-glasnost Soviet Union's tiny community of dissidents far easier than pursuing real criminals. By the time I got to Moscow, rival gangs from the Caucasus extorted merchants and restaurants by day, and by night took to the city's parks to settle scores with each other with knives and guns.
As reforms went forwards, KGB officials worried that the agency might be shrunken or dismembered. For now that censorship had dissolved, adding to the KGB's woes was a bad press. To fight back, the agency started publishing a magazine, set up a small museum in its headquarters at the Lubyanka building near Red Square, announced production of a joint Soviet-Italian 13 episode TV series called The KGB Tells All, and held a "Miss KGB" contest, in which the contestants wore bullet-proof vests. The winner, Ekaterina Maiorova, declared her favorite hobby knitting, her favorite drink orange juice (a nod to Gorbachev's ill-fated temperance program), and her favorite film "Gone With the Wind." Her favorite man was James Bond.
To get a taste of the KGB's new look, I went with some friends one day to an unusual forum in a public meeting hall, advertised as "The KGB Without Mysteries." This was billed as the first meeting at which KGB officials would answer questions from the general public.
The public, however, did not look too general. Most seats in the packed auditorium were occupied by stolid-looking men in their 30s and 40s who seemed to have arrived early. Other chunky young men were stationed at the doors, their eyes roaming the crowd. A more ordinary-looking variety of Muscovites of both sexes filled the aisles and stood around the back and sides of the room.
Miss KGB, alas, was nowhere in sight. Instead, the dozen or so people on stage were all men in their 50s, 60s and 70s, mostly on the heavy side and looking ill-at-ease. Around the walls of the auditorium was a photo exhibit on the Border Guards, who are a unit of the KGB, vigilantly defending "the gates of the motherland" with helicopters, ships, guard dogs and snowmobiles.
Whatever their faults, KGB officers don't speak for more than their allotted time. Each man took his ten minutes and then promptly turned over the microphone to the next. After each speaker, the men in the auditorium's center seats applauded dutifully. The crowd standing in back or sitting in the aisles was mostly silent.
The KGB's new enlightened look was not much in evidence. Instead, most speakers echoed a familiar theme: the source of all trouble in Russia is foreigners. Colonel Anatoly Grinenko of counter-intelligence, for example, charged that Americans and Europeans had forged connections with organized crime. "We can expect Western intelligence agencies to try to exploit these links for their own purposes."
Another speaker was, apparently, an in-house novelist. Ivan Shevtsov was introduced as a former Border Guard who now writes on "the Border Guard theme." He said: "Even in the first hours of the war, we believed in our victory. We believed in the values that are now trampled and spat upon!" In the question period, one member of the audience accused Shevtsov of being anti-Semitic. The novelist indignantly defended himself by naming various of his villains who were not Jewish.
All in all, it seemed, the KGB still needed an image consultant. But I was less interested in the KGB today than in its vast archives, and the secrets they might hold about how Russian Revolution had turned on itself. Unlike many other sorts of government and Party archives, secret police files were still closed. Although this was later to change somewhat under Boris Yeltsin, during the entire Gorbachev period even people who were rehabilitated seldom got to see their own files. Usually, like Susanna Pechuro, they were only sent a certificate saying that they were not guilty after all. At the time of my stay in the city in the first half of 1991, none of the Memorial researchers I met had ever set foot in the KGB archives in Moscow, much less examined files on their shelves. And if the KGB was not going to show its materials to Russian researchers, I thought, it surely was not going to show them to a foreigner.
I was wrong.
One May afternoon, as I was making preparations for my long-planned trip to Kolyma, the telephone rang. The caller was another American I had gotten to know in Moscow, Kathleen Smith. She was writing a Ph.D. dissertation about Memorial, and we had occasionally interviewed people together. Smith had just met a woman from the Moscow Prosecutor's office, she said, who had some stunning news: "The KGB has some files about Americans in the gulag. And they're looking for an American journalist to give them to. And they'll give us a tour of their archives."
On a sunny morning a few days later, I met Smith on the square outside the Bolshoi Theater. It was here that her contact in the Prosecutor's office had arranged to meet us and take us to the KGB. The last time I'd gotten off the subway at this stop, the station had been called Sverdlov Square, after an early Bolshevik leader. But now, I noticed, as part of the country-wide epidemic of name changes, it had just been renamed Teatralnaya, after the theater.
The square was an ironic spot for us to meet, for it is the site of an annual summer reunion of old Kolymyaki--survivors of the Kolyma labor camps who live in Moscow. But Arctic Kolyma felt very far away on this warm spring day when the trees were all in leaf. After waiting for a few minutes on a bench outside the theater, Smith and I were joined by Olga Matlash, a pleasant, forthright woman in her mid-30s. She was the supervisor of rehabilitations in the Moscow office of the state Prosecutor. It was this work that had led her to old secret police files on people with U.S. connections.
The Soviets began formally rehabilitating Stalin's victims soon after his death in 1953. But the roll of names of those jailed or shot was some 20 million long, and rehabilitation officials got only part way through it. After he took power in 1964, the conservative Brezhnev quickly brought rehabilitations to a stop--and actually unrehabilitated some people whose names had just been cleared. More than 20 years later, Gorbachev started rehabilitations again in earnest, although by this time most victims of Stalinism were dead. The Russian government today claims to have more than 2,000 employees working on rehabilitations.
Rehabilitation seems odd to us because, as a secular society, we put little stock in posthumous status. But Soviet Communism from the beginning was, psychologically speaking, a religious culture. Just as the Great Purge was Inquisitorial in its fervor, so rehabilitation, and posthumous restoration of Party membership, have offered a kind of sainthood for martyrs. (The Inquisition also operated posthumously: the dead could still be convicted of heresy, and their bones burned). For Soviet prison camp survivors still alive, rehabilitation is also the nearest thing to an official apology. Many times in my six months in Russia, people pulled out and showed me rehabilitation certificates for themselves, or for a mother or father who had been shot. There is a practical side to all this, too, increasingly urgent in a collapsing economy where the elderly suffer most: rehabilitated people still living get compensation payments (the sum is based on how long you were in prison), and sometimes, like World War II veterans, extra food and pension benefits.
After a short walk, Olga Matlash, Kathleen Smith and I arrived at attractive old building of blue stucco with gingerbread white trim. It had been a prerevolutionary mansion; from its balcony, Matlash told us, Napoleon had watched Moscow burn.
A small plaque with gold lettering on black plastic, the same style as for all Soviet government agencies, marked the building as the priom, or reception room, of the Moscow region of the KGB. The Prosecutor's office has "oversight" over the KGB, Matlash explained. But she was so nervous as we arrived at the KGB priom and then waited on the sidewalk outside until exactly the right time, that the "oversight" seemed the other way around. Promptly at 10 a.m., a thin, impassive man in civilian clothes came out onto the sidewalk and conducted us inside. He introduced himself as Colonel Nikolai Grashoven. He took us past a raised counter manned by a uniformed guard, then through several doors fitted with remote-controlled, electrically-operated locks, with black wires running to them along the walls.
We found ourselves in a bare, inner office with a wooden desk and adjoining table and chairs. On the desk were three yellow telephones. These rang periodically during the next hour or two, often with wrong number calls; even the KGB, it seemed, was not immune from the ancient switching equipment sends many Moscow phone calls astray. A white curtain covered a window. The walls were paneled in mottled birch; on one was a photograph of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the secret police. In mustache and goatee, Dzerzhinsky looked shrewd and almost rakish, gazing down at us out of the corner of his eye as we took our seats around the table.
Col. Grashoven was 49 years old, with pale, washed-out blue eyes, a blue tie and a pinstriped suit. He was the chief, he said, of a group of 30 KGB officers in the Moscow area who work on rehabilitations, which means that he is constantly dealing with Stalin-era archives. In the three hours we spent in this room, on this day and the next, Col. Grashoven did most of the talking. His face was angular and forbidding face; guilty or innocent, I would not want to be facing him on the other side of an interrogation table. However, in contrast to many other Soviet officials I've talked to over the years, he had a no-nonsense, military directness. He made clear the reason we had been invited here: public relations.
"We're interested in showing you [Americans], through your media, that we're not withholding information from you about what we're doing," the colonel said briskly. He spoke in a business- like way, but without enthusiasm. Perhaps he was overcoming some repugnance at the idea of showing a lot of old dirty linen to foreigners, but orders were orders. As part of the KGB's desire to show how open things are now, he continued, the agency was releasing, to one correspondent from each major Western country, information about people from that country who disappeared in the Soviet Union during the Stalin years.
Americans and Europeans inquiring about vanished relatives are now encouraged to write for information, the colonel said. He estimated that the KGB has files on "several thousand" Stalin-era victims who either were born in the United States, lived in the U.S. for a time, or have relatives in the U.S. today. As proof of the agency's new openness, he went on, they would give us some sample files.
After a few minutes' talk, another man entered the room, Col. Grashoven's deputy, Major Mikhail Kirillin. He carried a bundle of file folders under his arm. Maj. Kirillin was 38, spoke with a Byelorussian accent, and had a thick shock of black hair and a mobile face that went quickly to a smile or frown. He had recently helped find information for French and Italian groups of relatives of Stalin's victims. Because of this, he told us with great animation, he had been invited to Paris the next month. It was the first time, he joked, that any KGB officer had gone there "by invitation." Several times during the next hour, the subject of Maj. Kirillin's forthcoming trip to Paris came up, and each time his face uncontrollably broke into a delighted grin. I couldn't help liking him.
Before getting down to business, the two officers seemed eager to talk about the KGB itself and especially about its long- time chief, Yuri Andropov, who went on to briefly head the Soviet Union before his death in 1984. "In a way," Col. Grashoven began, "The KGB triggered perestroika, telling the country's leaders the truth about what was going on--in the economy, in transportation, in agriculture."
"I'd like to tell you something about perestroika," added Maj. Kirillin earnestly, "In the West, they count its days from 1985 [when Gorbachev took over]. But we Chekisti count it from 1982, from when Andropov came to power. When the government was made up of 75-year-olds, they didn't realize what the real situation in the country was. The apparatus that surrounded them met their needs, and they played their game. But Yuri Vladimirovich [Andropov], having spent 15 years in this organization, knew the situation in the country from A to Z. Without Andropov there would have been no Gorbachev."
Although the two officers acknowledged that the KGB had unjustly harassed dissidents in the pre-Gorbachev years, they claimed that even then 98 or 99% of its manpower was at work at legitimate tasks like catching common criminals. (Who, then, was keeping track of "the situation in the country from A to Z"? I didn't press the point.) But they did not try to downplay the secret police role in Stalin's terror. At one point, referring to the KGB's national headquarters just down the block from here, Col. Grashoven even made the familiar joke: "What's the highest building in Moscow? It's the Lubyanka. Because from the top floor, you can see all the way to Kolyma . . ."
Listening to the two men talk, looking like any other bureaucrats in their suits and ties, I wondered whether the rehabilitations section of the KGB was a career-path backwater--a distinct feeling I had had once when I happened to meet these officers' closest American counterpart: a dispirited CIA man who dealt with people looking for old files under the Freedom of Information Act. Surely, I hinted, rehabilitating the long-dead must feel less glamorous than catching Soviet crooks or American spies. Major Kirillin confessed that he had been dismayed when first assigned to this work. "I had been in on the beginning of the Uzbekistan case. I grabbed the hand giving the first bribes. Suddenly I was sent to the archives!" (The Uzbekistan case was a huge embezzlement scandal connected with cotton production. The hand Maj. Kirillin had grabbed, it seemed, may have be- longed to someone with friends in high places.)
But now, both men maintained, they were glad to be here, and were flooded with applications for transfers from people in other KGB departments. The reason they gave sounded plausible: it's the only job in the KGB where people are grateful to you. Maj. Kirillin described one old woman who had been trying for years to find out what had happened to her father. They found his file. She wrote back, asking "that somebody come to her, because before her death she wants to look into the eyes of the person who had found the fate of her father and to give him a big, human, peasant thank you."
"To be objective," Col. Grashoven added, "It should be said that 99 out of 100 are letters of thanks, but there's always one: 'Get lost! For God's sake, we've forgotten everything and you're reminding us!' Or, 'I spent 20 years in the camps . . . get me an apartment! Give me a washing machine!' People are sure that the KGB can do anything."
Sometimes, said the major, "We invite someone who'd been repressed to come in and pick up his rehabilitation certificate, and he says, 'Anywhere else, just not in your building . . .
'" Unfailingly polite, the colonel and the major were among the few people I met in Russia who didn't ask, "And why are you so interested in all this?" Instead, eager to show their openness, they seemed ready to talk about whatever we wanted. Kathleen Smith and I brought up a question historians have long argued about: just how many deaths was Stalin responsible for? The two officers referred to some of the different positions in this debate, which they seemed very familiar with, but they did not take one themselves. Here in an adjoining building, they said, they have records of 120,000 people shot or sent to the gulag, but these are only half the existing records for the Moscow area alone. Many more files have been lost or destroyed.
During almost all this conversation, it was hard to remember that I was talking to two secret police officers. Except for their defense of the present-day KGB, almost everything Col. Grashoven and Maj. Kirillin had to say could have come from one of the Memorial activists I had interviewed over the last few months. The major knew Shalamov's prison camp short stories; the colonel quoted the poet Nekrasov about Russian passivity and Alexander Herzen on the nature of guilt. They used words like totalitarianism and slave labor. Col. Grashoven ruefully blamed "the Iron Curtain--nobody in, nobody out" for the fact that the country was so backward that his rehabilitations department didn't even have a computer. Echoing many Russians I had talked to, Maj. Kirillin said it would take two generations for the bureaucracy to really outgrow its old authoritarian habits. He talked about the reason so many of the best intellectuals left the Soviet Union in the 1920s: "Why? Because any reasonable person, read-ng Article 58 [of the criminal code, which had vague and sweep- ing prohibitions against "counter-revolutionary" activity] would understand everything. A person could be arrested for anything."
Was all this merely a performance for my benefit? Had the two officers been carefully trained to say what a Western writer would want to hear? Possibly, but I doubted it. They lacked the practiced veneer of many Soviet officials who spend a lot of time talking to foreigners, and they did not speak English.
The other possibility was that they spoke what they be- lieved. This is not as unlikely as it sounds. Like other parts of the Soviet power structure, the KGB long had in its ranks both hard-liners and those who knew that some kind of drastic change was necessary. Given what the Soviet secret police has represent- ed over the years, it would be tempting to lean toward the more cynical explanation of the two officers' opinions. But the more that I think back over this conversation, and listen again to my tape recording of it, the more I hear in their voices the ring of a certain sincerity.
After we had been talking an hour or so, we began looking through the stack of papers Maj. Kirillin had brought into the room with him. They were in file folders of faded purple or tan cardboard, each one labeled "Case Number ---" in large black type. These were five cases, found by Maj. Kirillin in the ar- chives, of gulag victims with American ties. Each folder was thick with yellowing, dusty paper: transcripts of interrogations, forms listing confiscated belongings, indictments, sentences, and death certificates, all typed on the manual typewriters of the day or filled out by hand. None of the prisoners whose fates were recorded in all this paperwork were at all prominent, but the files on them were large: the longest was 54 pages.
Stalin's men were not alone in keeping meticulous records. The military rulers of Brazil did so also, which later embarrassed them when it provided evidence of widespread, systematic tor- ture. The Nazis kept enormous amounts of paperwork as well. "Procedure meant a great deal to our rulers," writes Nadezhda Mandelstam, "and the whole farrago of nonsense was always meticulously committed to paper. Did they really think that pos- terity, going through these records, would believe them just as blindly as their crazed contemporaries?" Now, in this room, for these particular records, we were the first representatives of "posterity."
In these files now opened on the table before me, an occasional page seemed to be missing. But in general, the cases were amazingly complete. I had expected that, as in CIA and FBI files released under our Freedom of Information Act, names of police agents and informants would be whited out. Not so. Everything was there: the names of denouncers, of interrogators, of their superiors, of secret police units, and of the victims' anguished relatives, begging for information. In each file of dusty, brittle pieces of paper lay a mosaic of an entire life, and sometimes of a whole family's life as well.
Two cases stand out with particular vividness. One of these young men was born in New York, the other in Massachusetts. In Moscow, they moved in different circles and probably did not know each other. But by coincidence or plan, both were shot on the same day in 1938. And possibly by the same executioner: in each file, the brief certificate stating that the death sentence has been "implemented" is signed by the same scrawling hand.
In the first file, an NKVD biographical information sheet lays out the facts. They are filled in by hand, in blank spaces like those of an application form:
Name: Arthur Talent
Place of birth: Boston, U.S.A.
Year of birth: 1916
Army Service: none
Party Membership: none
Arthur Talent had been brought from the United States to Russia when he was six years old. He lived in Moscow for the rest of his short life. At the time of his arrest on January 29, 1938, he was 21.
This was not a good moment to be arrested. That very day, a new chief took over the Moscow branch of the NKVD, Leonid Zakovsky. According to Robert Conquest, Zakovsky immediately called a meeting of the city's top Chekisti, railed at them furious- ly for being too slow in rounding up "enemies of the people," and ordered a daily quota of 200 arrests.1 This pace surpassed even Torquemada, who during the Inquisition managed a mere 35 prosecutions of Spanish heretics per day. Zakovsky actually had an eye for such historical comparisons: he reportedly boasted that with his techniques he could have made Karl Marx confess to being an agent of Bismarck.
Arthur Talent was held at Moscow's Taganskaya Prison. From survivors' accounts, we know that the cells there were dirty and dark, with paint peeling from the walls and floors of broken asphalt. Senior prison officials lived in an adjoining building; the commandant's flat had a piano.
One thing immediately sticks out in Arthur Talent's file: the officer who kept the record of his first interrogation, a Lieutenant Salov, was not very literate. Many commas and periods were missing from his transcript. In the '20s and '30s, the lower ranks of the secret police often came from the working class or the peasantry. Two interrogators grilled Arthur; some of the rage that they seem to have felt toward their prisoner may have been sheer class envy. Arthur Talent had been born abroad and apparently spoke at least three languages: English, Russian, and Latvian--his parents had immigrated to the U.S. from Latvia before he was born.
The warrant for Arthur Talent's arrest says only that he was sought for "involvement with espionage activity." In his interrogators' questions sounds that ancient Russian suspicion of anything foreign. The first interrogation, two days after his arrest, begins:
Question: When did you work in the Novomoskovskaya Hotel?
Answer: I worked as an elevator operator in the Novomoskovskaya Hotel for five months in 1932.
Question: What foreigners were your close friends when you worked in the Novomoskovskaya Hotel?
Answer: I met with a foreigner, a Negro, Henry Scott, who performed in the hotel's restaurant as a dancer. .lm 0"
Page after page, the interrogators ask Arthur about his contacts with foreigners. For a time, Arthur says, he shared an apartment with Henry Scott, who performed with a jazz band. Arthur met many of Scott's friends: a jazz musician, an American boxer, "Olsen, a correspondent for a foreign newspaper," an anonymous German, "a certain John Goode . . . a foreigner and a Negro," and John Goode's sister, who was married to Paul Robeson, the singer.
After getting all these names from Arthur, the NKVD interrogators ask him,
Question: Judging from the above, what purpose do you think your apartment served?
Answer: I have to admit that my apartment was a clandestine address of a foreign state, and I was its keeper.
Question: You have not told everything to the inquest. We demand you give true testimony.
Later the interrogator asks:
Question: What state used your apartment as a clandestine address?
Answer: I am not able to give an exact answer to that question, since John Goode is an American citizen. Henry Scott also. While the person who sold me the boots is a German citizen . . .
Soon after this, the transcript ends with the words, "The interrogation has been interrupted."
What went on, unrecorded, between Arthur Talent and whoever "interrupted" this interrogation? It is not hard to guess. By 1938, torture of Soviet prisoners had long been routine. Even the Purge's elaborate facade of legality didn't try to conceal this: NKVD regulations ex- plicitly allowed "physical pressure" in questioning prison- ers. Thomas Sgovio, a young American who had arrived in Moscow from Buffalo, New York some three years earlier, was an inmate in Taganskaya prison at exactly the same time as Arthur Talent. In the prison's communal baths, he writes, "We stood in packed lines of bony humans, more than half of them covered with blue, blood-crusted welts from beatings received during interrogations."
Arthur Talent probably was desperate to admit to something to save himself from these beatings. Kafka, in The Trial, had mysteriously anticipated all of this more than 20 years before. Another character tells the accused, Joseph K.: "You can't fight against this Court, you must confess to guilt. Make your confession at the first chance you get . . . " But, like Kafka's hero, Arthur sounds bewildered: what was he supposed to confess to? Being a spy for the United States? For Germany?
The next interrogation picks up where the previous session left off. What the dry words of the dialogue do not show is the atmosphere in which it probably went on: interrogations were routinely done at night, with bright lights shining in the prisoner's eyes. Arthur, apparently more frightened than ever, now makes up something specific to confess to:
Question: The inquest demands that you stop disavowing and tell how you were re- cruited for espionage activities.
Answer: I plead guilty that I have been concealing from the inquest that my apartment was a secret address of a foreign intelligence service. I learned this from John Goode, who was living in my apartment . . .
Question: When did John Goode tell you that your apartment was a clandestine address for foreign intelligence, and what state did it belong to?
Answer: It was at the end of 1936. John Goode told me that my apartment was going to be a clandestine address for British intelligence and asked me not to tell anybody about it, and promised me a payment for being silent.
In naming John Goode as a British spy, Arthur must have hoped he would satisfy his interrogators' relentless hunger for names of "conspirators." Perhaps for a moment he did: the file shows that because of his testimony, the police issued an arrest warrant for Goode. But Arthur knew he was not putting his friend in any danger: According to books on the period, Goode had moved back to the United States the previous year. All Soviet prisoners faced the dilemma of what to do when asked to name names. One memoir comments: "The best way out was to name people who were dead or had left the Soviet Union for ever."
After this last exchange between Arthur and his questioners, an ominous gap appears in the file: five and a half weeks from which there are no interrogation transcripts. The next recorded interrogation, before a new officer, is dated March 8, 1938, 38 days after that last session. We have no way of knowing what happened to Arthur during those 38 days, but it probably was not pleasant. His signature, large and confident when he had signed the formal acknowledgement of his arrest, now becomes small and shaky, the letters cramped together, as he signs the transcripts of this new round of interrogations.
By contrast, the handwriting of Arthur's new interrogator is firm and bold, and it is strewn with underlin- ings and exclamation marks in the parts recording Arthur's confessions. It is as if we can look over the interrogator's shoulder, and see him glorying in extracting these statements from the terrified prisoner in his charge.
These underlinings and exclamation marks also speak of the intense pressure on interrogators. "Those who could obtain [a confession] were to be considered success- ful operatives," writes Robert Conquest, "and a poor NKVD operative had a short life expectancy." Conquest quotes a manual for secret police officers of the '30s: " . . . Failure to confirm the evidence . . . is indicative of poor work by the interrogators." Almost never, however, was there any evidence--but that just made confes- sions even more important.
The new interrogator seems to be under orders to get Arthur to confess to spying not for Britain, but for Latvia. In the handwritten record, the interrogator has vigorously underlined Arthur's answer to his first question:
Question: You are arrested and accused of espionage activities in the U.S.S.R. on behalf of a foreign state. Do you plead guilty?
Answer: Yes! I plead guilty to spying for Latvia. After a 38-day disavowal I have decided to tell the inquest the whole truth.
After now confessing to being a Latvian spy, Arthur is then interrogated a second time the very same day by two more officers. One was a major, who seems to have stepped in to gain credit for this much-wanted confession. An NKVD major then was equivalent in rank to a Red Army brigadier general.2 Why should such a senior official bother with a 21-year-old artist and former elevator opera- tor when there were so many higher-ranking Great Purge victims to interrogate? We can only speculate. Finding Latvian spies might have been a good path to promotion in 1938: some months earlier, Stalin had ordered a sweeping purge of the Communist Party of Latvia. The NKVD dutifully responded by uncovering various Latvian conspiracies in the Red Army and elsewhere. At that time Latvia was an independent country, which the Soviet Union was preparing to absorb, via the Hitler-Stalin Pact of the following year. It may be ripples from these events that shape the major's interrogation of Arthur:
Question: Who recruited you into this organization and when?
Answer: At the beginning of 1937, I was recruited into the Latvian counterrevolutionary espionage organization by Bantsan, brother of the director of the Latvian Theater.
Question: What do you know about the goals of the counterrevolutionary Latvian nationalist espionage organization?
Answer: When Bantsan recruited me, he told me that the organization wanted to unite all Latvians to overthrow Soviet power and create a mighty Latvia on the territory of the Soviet Union.
Arthur Talent goes on to name several actors in the Latvian Theater in Moscow. Now we see a hint about why he had evidently held out for five and a half weeks before naming these people, who were apparently his friends. Unlike John Goode, safely in America, the Bantsan brothers and the Latvian actors were in Moscow. Thanks to the NKVD's careful cross-reference filing system, carbon copies of their documents are in Arthur Talent's file. Immediately after Arthur named them as Latvian spies, these papers show, both Bantsan brothers and one of the actors were immediately arrested and shot.
Stalin's paranoia about conspiracies against him was never limited by probability or geography. Creating "a mighty Latvia on the territory of the Soviet Union" was about as feasible as creating a mighty Costa Rica on the territory of the United States. With a key spy ring strategically placed in a Costa Rican theater in New York.
Logic, however, was not the point. Stalin always imagined his enemies not as lone rebels but as members of plots and groups. If one person was arrested, he or she had to have co-conspirators. An interrogator who did not come up with such names might be accused of insufficient vigilance and shot. "It was the duty of a patriot," explains Nadezhda Mandelstam, "to fulfill his quota. Names given to an interrogator could either be used immediately or kept in reserve against a shortage. Names of 'accomplices' were the interrogator's stock in trade, and in case of need, he would dig into his reserves. . . . Even when the terror was at its height, some kind of nominal excuse was always found for a person's arrest: a denunciation, information from police spies, or best of all, the fact that your name was mentioned during the 'investigation' of someone else."
After supplying the necessary names, Arthur Talent was indicted. Just to be safe (those who drew up indict- ments could also be accused of insufficient vigilance), the indictment charges him with ties to both Latvian and British intelligence. As part of the evidence against him, it includes the accusation that he "led a wide-ranging life, often visited restaurants, and had connections with foreigners."
All the documents in the file are numbered, in order by date. The next piece of paper is small and crumpled. So many executions happened at this time that they were recorded on a special printed form, about the size of a traffic ticket. Only the prisoner's name and the dates are handwritten, filling in the blanks:
"The Resolution of the NKVD of the U.S.S.R. of May 23, 1938 on the shooting of Arthur Karlovich Talent was implemented on June 7, 1938."
A space for the time of day is left empty. The signature is illegible. Two months earlier, in prison, Arthur had passed his 22nd birthday.
For nearly two decades after Arthur Talent's execution, no more documents appear in his file. Then, in 1957, Arthur's maternal aunt, Minna Gabalina, appeals for information about her nephew's fate. From the whole extended family, it seems, she alone survived to tell its story.
Minna Gabalina describes her nephew as "a modest young fellow." She has more to say about her sister, Arthur's mother, Elena, who was arrested around the same time. The letters makes clear the real reason for Arthur's arrest: his parents were both Old Bolsheviks, Party members from before the Revolution. In her appeal, Minna Gabalina summarizes the family's history. It began in Latvia, which before World War I was part of the old Russian Empire. "In 1910," she writes about Arthur Talent's father, " . . . Party member Karl Veniaminovich Talent was arrested by the Tsarist police and sent to permanent exile in Yenisei province [in Siberia]. In 1911 he escaped. . . . He and his wife, E. M. Gabalina-Talent, an underground worker, escaped abroad, first to the city of Bordeaux in France and from there quickly to Boston in the U.S.A." Her sister's code name in the Party underground was "Pigeon." Minna Gabalina herself helped smuggle the fugitive couple onto the steamship that took them abroad.
"Finding themselves in America, they continued to work as members of the Bolshevik Party . . . Karl Talent took part in founding the Communist Party of the USA, as one of its leaders. For his activity, he was fired from his work; he and his wife and their child were evicted from their home." At that time, Arthur Talent was a small child. The family lived in the Boston neighborhood of Roxbury.
The year 1923 brought a big change in Arthur's life. "Ill with cancer, Karl Veniaminovich Talent . . . sent his wife . . . with their 6-year-old son to the Soviet Union, to Moscow, where her mother, two brothers and two sisters lived." The family were all veteran revolution- aries; one of those brothers had even been chief of Lenin's bodyguard.
"In coming to the U.S.S.R., [Elena] Talent had with her a scrap of silk cloth showing her membership in the Communist Party of the U.S.A., which in 1923-24 [was] . . . exchanged for a membership card of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Her husband Karl V. Talent died in 1923 in Boston . . . "
It is easy to imagine why the young Elena Talent and her son Arthur joined the thousands of sympathizers from all over the world who flocked to Russia after the Revolution. The young widow had personally experienced the repressions of Tsarist Russia, and of the brutal post- World War I red scare in the United States, in which thousands of leftist immigrants like the Talents were arrested and threatened with deportation. Now, leaving the U.S. for the new Soviet state, she must have felt that she and her son were at last headed for a place of safety, the very capital of the promised land. And where, to boot, well-placed family members and a Party membership card were waiting for her.
Elena Talent and her young son settled in Moscow. Fifteen years later, when the Great Purge was under way, they were both arrested. As a Party member since the year 1907, Elena Talent was clearly destined for trouble. Women were less likely than men to be shot, however: after being tortured in prison, she was sent off for ten years of exile--ironically, to the same part of central Siberia where her husband had been exiled under the Tsar nearly 30 years earlier.
"In the spring of 1948, my sister was freed and came back to me in Riga," writes Minna Gabalina. But in the last few years of his life, Stalin ordered new waves of arrests. Often the secret police filled their quotas by simply rearresting people who had been arrested in the '30s--"repeaters," they were called when taken in for the second time. If they were spies then, the reasoning went, they must be spies now.
"In January 1949," her sister continues, "[Elena] Talent again was imprisoned in Riga Central Prison--the same prison to which I, from 1908 to 1910, still a girl, went with my sister on visits and carried messages to political prisoners who were members of the [Bolshevik] Party." Elena Talent was again sent back to the same part of Siberia. She was not released until five years later, after Stalin's death. "After 16 years of suffering, [Elena] Talent came back to Riga in 1954, completely ill and not of sound mind, and died on March 9, 1955. She found out nothing of the fate of her son."
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Meet the Author
ADAM HOCHSCHILD is the author of seven books. King Leopold's Ghost was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, as was his recent To End All Wars. His Bury the Chains was a finalist for the National Book Award and won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and PEN USA Literary Award. He lives in Berkeley, California.
- San Francisco, California
- Date of Birth:
- October 5, 1942
- Place of Birth:
- New York, New York
- A.B., Harvard College, 1963
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