Stalin and his Hangmen

The Age, Australia
June 26 2004

Stalin and his Hangmen
Reviewer Gideon Haigh

By Donald Rayfield
Viking, $49.95

In her 1922 poem I Am Not One Of Those Who Has Left the Land, the
Russian Anna Akhmatova described her countrymen as “the people
without tears/straighter than you, more proud”.

Given Joseph Stalin had just ascended to the post of Communist Party
general secretary, it would prove a handy national attribute.

In Stalin’s three decades of homicidal misrule of the Soviet Union,
as Donald Rayfield presents it, there seems scarcely to have been
time for grief or sadness, so utterly was the environment one of
fear, pain and blood. The reader of Stalin and his Hangmen, however,
will almost certainly feel differently. This is a harrowing account,
occasionally painful to read, of a time when “terror” was a daily
reality rather than a political buzzword worn hollow.

Rayfield’s approach is to analyse the relationships between Stalin
and Feliks Dzierzynski, Viacheslav Mezkhnisky, Genrikh Iagoda,
Nikolai Ezhov and Lavrenti Beria – the chiefs, consecutively, of
Russia’s security services.

Yet referring to the Cheka and its successors, the OGPU, NKVD and
KGB, as “security services” at all is almost to collude, because by
all accounts they secured only Stalin, never his country.

Almost without exception, the threats they neutralised were phantoms
of imagination or contrivances of propaganda.

Simon Sebag Montefiore’s recent biography dared to try to humanise
the man of steel; Rayfield’s Stalin is mostly inscrutable, an
originator of the most nihilistic aphorisms (“Gratitude is a dog’s
virtue”; “There will be unity only in the cemetery”) and the bleakest
jests (when his son tried to shoot himself, Stalin laughed; “Ha, so
you missed!”).

In this, the author is shrewd: Stalin’s gift as a dictator was the
distance he preserved from his subordinates, so that none ever felt
other than on probation and all competed for his favour.

Stalin’s recurring bouts of paranoid psychosis afforded ample
opportunities to be the most loyal, the most doctrinaire, the most

And, as Rayfield says: “Party workers knew that going too far was far
less dangerous than not going far enough.” The numbers in Stalin and
his Hangmen bear this out.

Stalin’s own estimate was that collectivisation of agriculture, by
bullet and noose, cost 10 million lives. The NKVD’s photo archive was
at one time the world’s largest, containing 10 million images.

NKVD records of 1937’s Great Terror show the implausibly precise
aggregate of 681,692 shot of the 1.44 million convicted of
“counter-revolutionary crimes”, although Rayfield notes dryly that
the service eventually simply “ran out of paper” to record sentences
and executions.

Yet, heeding Stalin’s advice about a single death being a tragedy and
a million a statistic, Rayfield’s narrative brings individuals
sharply into focus.

Dzierzynski, for example, is a chilling figure, so extreme in his
puritanism that he once spurned pancakes made by his sister because
she had bought the flour from a private trader, and prone to musings
of deepest morbidity: “My thought orders me to be terrible and I have
the will to follow my thought to the end . . .”

For all the bloodiness of their rises, Iagoda and Beria cut tragic
figures in their falls. Dismissed from his post, Iagoda awaited
arrest in his new office, making paper aeroplanes.

He responded to questions at his show trial by repeating: “It wasn’t
like that, but it doesn’t matter.” With two guns at the back of his
head in a central committee meeting, Beria wrote 19 times the word

The stories from Stalin’s charnel houses are so vivid as to make Abu
Ghraib look like Butlins, whether of a theatre director being
tortured until mute and paralysed then shot, or of an Armenian who
appealed for clemency by slitting his wrists and writing in his own

But nothing is quite so haunting as the letters to Stalin of his
former colleagues Zinoviev and Bukharin while awaiting their fates.

“Can’t you see,” pleaded Zinoviev, “that I am no longer your enemy,
that I am yours body and soul, that I have understood everything,
that I am ready to do everything to earn forgiveness, mercy?”

“I still want to do something good,” Bukharin entreated. “And now I
must tell you straight: my only hope is you.”

Rayfield writes expertly and stylishly. Sometimes even he sounds
incredulous. “An observer of the show trials,” he muses, “would have
had to conclude that all Lenin’s party except for a tiny circle
around Stalin had for some reason carried out a simulated Bolshevik
revolution at the behest of world capitalism.”

This outstanding book might have been better still had Rayfield
addressed more closely the questions of public pathology that he
poses at intervals; in essence, as he puts it: “How could a literate
urban population submit to a reign of terror and actively, even
enthusiastically, collaborate in offering victims up to it?”

What does the thrall exerted by Stalin’s hangmen tell us about the
hanged, and survivors too?

Akhmatova’s reflection on her people may be as true today as ever –
Russia being ruled, with increasingly brutality, by a former secret