Book: Stalin, Volume 2

Stalin, Volume 2



Paradoxes of Power, 1878–1928

Armageddon Averted:

The Soviet Collapse, 1970–2000

Magnetic Mountain:

Stalinism as a Civilization

Steeltown, USSR:

Soviet Society in the Gorbachev Era

Uncivil Society:

1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment

Stalin, Volume 2


An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

375 Hudson Street

New York, New York 10014

Copyright © 2017 by Stephen Kotkin

Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

Photograph credits appear here.

Kotkin, Stephen.

Stalin / Stephen Kotkin. volumes cm

Includes bibliographical references and index. Contents: Volume I. Paradoxes of power, 1878–1928.

ISBN 9781594203794 (hardcover)

ISBN 9780143127864 (paperback)

Volume II. Waiting for Hitler, 1929–1941.

ISBN 9781594203800 (hardcover) / ISBN 9780735224483 (e-book)

1. Stalin, Joseph, 1879–1953. 2. Stalin, Joseph, 1879–1953—Psychology. 3. Heads of state—Soviet Union—Biography. 4. Dictators—Soviet Union—Biography. 5. Soviet Union—Politics and government—1917–1936. 6. Soviet Union—Politics and government—1936–1953. 7. Political culture—Soviet Union—History. 8. Soviet Union—History—1925–1953. I. Title.

DK268.S8K65 2014

947.084”2092—dc23 [B]


Maps by Jeffrey L. Ward

While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers, internet addresses, and other contact information at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author assumes any responsibility for errors, or for changes that occur after publication. Further, publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party Web sites or their content.


for Alex Levine and Joyce Howe

who, beginning with the rough patches in graduate school, held me together

Midway on life’s journey

I found myself in a dark wood,

for the straight path was lost.


The Divine Comedy, 1308–1321

It cannot be called virtue to kill one’s fellow citizens, betray one’s friends, be without faith, without pity, without religion; by these methods one may indeed gain power, but not glory.


The Prince, 1513











CHAPTER 1 | Triumph of the Will

CHAPTER 2 | Apocalypse

CHAPTER 3 | Victory

CHAPTER 4 | Terrorism

CHAPTER 5 | A Great Power



CHAPTER 6 | On a Bluff

CHAPTER 7 | Enemies Hunting Enemies

CHAPTER 8 | “What Went On in No. 1’s Brain?”

CHAPTER 9 | Missing Piece



CHAPTER 10 | Hammer

CHAPTER 11 | Pact

CHAPTER 12 | Smashed Pig

CHAPTER 13 | Greed

CHAPTER 14 | Fear










But if there isn’t a tsar, who’s going to rule Russia?

ALEXEI, 1917, when his father, Nicholas II, abdicated for both of them

THROUGH THE FIRST THIRTY-NINE YEARS OF HIS LIFE, the achievements of Iosif Stalin (b. 1878) were meager. As a teenager, he had abandoned a successful trajectory, with high marks in school, to fight tsarist oppression, and published first-rate poems in a Georgian newspaper, which he recited in front of others. (“To this day his beautiful, sonorous lyrics echo in my ears,” one person would recall.) But his profession—revolutionary—made for a “career” of hiding, prison, exile, escape, recapture, penury. It had gotten to the point, in far northern Siberia, that even escape had become impossible. He persevered, known only to the tsarist police and some of his fellow revolutionaries, who were dispersed in remote internal exile, like him, or in Europe. Only the world-shattering Great War, the shocking abdication of the tsar and tsarevich in February 1917, the return of Vladimir Lenin to Russia that April thanks to imperial German cynicism, the suicidal Russia-initiated military offensive in June, and a fatal pas de deux between Prime Minister Alexander Kerensky and Supreme Commander Lavr Kornilov in August had altered Stalin’s life prospects. All of a sudden, he had become one of the four leading figures in an improbable Bolshevik regime. He played an outsized role in the 1918–21 civil war and territorial reconquest, and a foremost role in the invention of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. In 1922, five years removed from desolate isolation near the Arctic Circle, he found himself in the uncanny position of being able to build a personal dictatorship within the Bolshevik dictatorship, thanks to Lenin’s appointing him Communist party general secretary (April), followed by Lenin’s incapacitating stroke (May). Stalin seized that opportunity passionately and ruthlessly. By 1928, he had decided that 120 million peasants in Soviet Eurasia had to be forcibly collectivized. The years 1917–28 proved to be astonishingly eventful. But the years from 1929 through 1941—the period covered in this volume—would prove still more so.

This volume, too, examines Stalin’s power in Russia, recast as the Soviet Union, and the Soviet Union’s power in the world. But whereas in the preceding volume he was offstage for long stretches as global developments unfolded around him, now the opposite and, in fact, more difficult challenge of narration awaits: Stalin is present on nearly every page. He is now deep into the violent reshaping of all Eurasia that he announced at the end of volume I, continuing to micromanage the ever-expanding party-state machinery, delving into the granular details of armaments production and grain collections, while also conducting a comprehensive foreign policy touching all corners of the planet and, for the first time, overseeing cultural affairs. But volume II takes place largely in his office, and, indeed, in his mind. Whereas right through 1927, he had not appeared to be a sociopath in the eyes of those who worked most closely with him, by 1929–30 he was exhibiting an intense dark side. As the decade progresses, he will go from learning to be a dictator to becoming impatient with dictatorship and forging a despotism in mass bloodshed. Volume I’s analytical burden of explaining where such power comes from remains, but volume II raises questions of why he arrested and murdered immense numbers of loyal people in his own commissariats, officer corps, secret police, embassies, spy networks, scientific and artistic circles, and party organizations. What could he have been thinking? How was this even possible?

Stalin’s mass terror of 1936–38 was a central episode, but not the central episode, of his regime in the period covered by this volume. That designation belongs, first, to the 1929–33 collectivization of agriculture, then to the 1939 Pact with Nazi Germany and its aftershocks. If Stalin’s foil in volume I was Trotsky (who, though politically vanquished, will haunt him more than ever), now a second materializes, and not a foreign exile wielding little more than a pen, but another dictator presiding over the rearmament of the greatest power on the continent.

Adolf Hitler was eleven years Stalin’s junior, born in 1889 in a frontier region of Austria-Hungary. He lost his father at age fifteen and his mother at eighteen. (The Jewish physician who tended to his mother would recall that in forty years he had never seen anyone as broken with grief over a mother’s death as her son.) At age twenty, Hitler found himself on a breadline in Vienna, his inheritance and savings nearly spent. He had twice been rejected from Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts (“sample drawing unsatisfactory”) and was staying in a homeless shelter behind a railway station. A vagrant on the next bed recalled that Hitler’s “clothes were being cleaned of lice, since for days he had been wandering about without a roof and in a terribly neglected condition.” The vagrant added that Hitler lived on various shelters’ bread and soup and “discussed politics.” With a small loan from an aunt, he got himself into better quarters, a men’s home, and managed to find odd jobs, such as painting picture postcards and drafting advertisements. He also frequented the city’s public libraries, where he read political tracts, newspapers, the philosopher Schopenhauer, and the fiction of Karl May set in the cowboys-and-Indians days of the American West or the exotic Near East. Hitler dodged the Austrian draft and the police. When they finally caught up with him, they judged the undernourished and gloomy youth to be unfit for service. He fled across the border to Munich, and in August 1914 he joined the German army as a private. He ended the Great War still a private, but its aftermath transformed his life prospects. He would be among the many who migrated from left to right in the chaotic wake of imperial Germany’s defeat.

During the November 1918 leftist revolution in Munich, Hitler was in a hospital in Pomerania, but he was released and marched in the funeral cortège of provincial Bavaria’s murdered leader, a Jewish Social Democrat; film footage captured Hitler wearing two armbands, one black (for mourning) and the other red. After Social Democrats and anarchists, in April 1919, formed a Bavarian Soviet Republic, the Communists quickly seized power; Hitler, who contemplated joining the Social Democrats, served as a delegate from his battalion’s soviet (council). He had no profession to speak of, but appears to have taken part in leftist indoctrination of the troops. Ten days before Hitler’s thirtieth birthday, the Bavarian Soviet was quickly crushed by the so-called Freikorps of war veterans. He remained in the military because a superior, the chief of the German army’s “information” department, had the idea of sending him to an antileftist instructional course, then using him to infiltrate leftist groups. The officer recalled that Hitler “was like a tired stray dog looking for a master,” and “ready to throw in his lot with anyone who would show him kindness.” Be that as it may, the assignment as informant led to Hitler’s involvement in a minuscule right-wing group, the German Workers’ Party, which had been established to draw workers away from Communism and which Hitler, with the assistance of rabidly anti-Semitic émigrés from the former imperial Russia, would remake into the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, or Nazis.

Now a transfixing far-right agitator, Hitler remained a marginal figure. When Stalin was the new general secretary of the Communist party of the largest state in the world, Hitler was in prison for a failed attempt, in 1923 in Munich, his adopted hometown, to seize power locally, which would be derided as the Beer Hall Putsch. To be sure, he had managed to turn his trial into a triumph. (One of the judges remarked, “What a tremendous chap, this Hitler!”) Indeed, even though Hitler was an Austrian citizen and convicted, the presiding judge had refrained from having him deported, reasoning that the law “cannot apply to a man who thinks and feels as German as Hitler, who voluntarily served for four and a half years in the German army at war, who attained high military honors through outstanding bravery in the face of the enemy, was wounded.” During his first two weeks in prison, Hitler refused to eat, believing he deserved to die, but letters arrived congratulating him as a national hero. Richard Wagner’s daughter-in-law Winifred sent paper and pencil, encouraging him to write a book. Hitler had an attendant in confinement, Rudolf Hess, who typed his dictation, creating an autobiography dedicated to the sixteen Nazis killed in the failed putsch. In Mein Kampf, Hitler portrayed himself as a man of destiny and pledged to revive Germany as a great power and rid it of Jews, anointing himself “the destroyer of Marxism.” In December 1924, after serving thirteen months of a five-year sentence, he was released, but his book sales disappointed, a second book failed to find a publisher, and his Nazi party proved ineffectual at the ballot box. Lord d’Abernon, the British ambassador to Berlin at the time, summarized Hitler’s political life after his early release from prison as “thereafter fading into oblivion.”

History is full of surprises. That this Austrian in a fringe political movement would become the dictator of Germany, and Stalin’s principal nemesis, was scarcely imaginable. But Field Marshal Count Helmuth von Moltke the Elder (1800–91), chief of the Prussian and then German general staff for thirty-one years, had conceived of strategy as improvisation, a “system of expedients,” an ability to turn unexpected developments created by others or by happenstance to one’s advantage, and Hitler turned out to be just such a master improviser: often uncertain, a perpetrator of mistakes and a beneficiary of luck, but a man possessed of radical ideas who sensed where he was ultimately going and grasped opportunities that came his way. Stalin, too, was a strategist in von Moltke’s sense, a man of radical ideas able to perceive and seize opportunities that he did not always create but turned to his advantage. The richest opportunities perceived by Stalin and Hitler were often supposedly urgent “threats” they inflated or invented. If history is driven by geopolitics, institutions, and ideas, especially that triad’s interaction, it takes historical agents to set it all in motion.

No country had seemed capable of surpassing Great Britain, whose overseas empire would soon encompass a quarter of the globe, and whose power obsessed both Stalin and Hitler as the prime mover of the entire world. But Stalin had also grown up in an epoch when Germany had begun to stand out for having the best manufacturing processes and engineering schools. His direct experience of Germany consisted of just a few months in 1907 in Berlin, where he stopped on the way back to Russia from a Bolshevik meeting in London. He studied but never mastered the German language. But like several tsarist predecessors, especially Sergei Witte, Stalin was a Germanophile, admiring that country’s industry and science—in a word, its modernity. For the longest time, though, Stalin had no idea of Hitler’s existence.

Tsarist Russia had aimed in the Great War to destroy forever the threat of German power by breaking up the Hohenzollern and Habsburg realms and establishing a belt of Slavic states that would presumably be friendly to Russia. German and Austrian war aims, conversely, had sought to diminish a perceived Russian menace by stripping it of its western borderlands. If Russia had won the war, it would likely have enacted something like the German-imposed Brest-Litovsk Treaty in reverse. But Russia lost (on the eastern front), just as Germany and Austria-Hungary lost (on the western front), leading to the Versailles Peace. Contrary to received wisdom, Europe’s postwar security system did not disintegrate because of spinelessness or blundering. Only the dual collapse of Russian and German power had made possible Versailles, which could have succeeded only if German and Russian power never rose again. (Britain effectively recognized the instability of Versailles, for, having failed to reach a modus vivendi with German power before the Great War clash, would spend the entire postwar period pursuing an accommodation.) The two Versailles pariahs, Germany and the Soviet Union, entered into clandestine military cooperation. Then, in 1933, as we shall see, Hitler was handed the wheel of the great state Stalin admired. The lives of the two dictators, as the biographer Alan Bullock wrote, had run in parallel. But it was the intersection that would matter: two very different men from the peripheries of Russian power and of German power, respectively, who were bloodily reviving and remaking their countries, while unknowingly and then knowingly drawing ever closer. It was not only the German people who turned out to be waiting for Hitler.


This is a book about authoritarian rule, coercion, manipulation of social divisions and invention of enemies, institutionalized prevarication, but it is based on research into facts. Stalin left an immense historical record. His surviving personal archive (“fond” or collection 558) exists in two parts, now brought together. The first ten sections (identified in Russian by “opis” or finding aid) consist of materials systematized from his own and other archives in connection with a biography planned for his sixtieth birthday in 1939 by the Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute (now called RGASPI). These include his personal photo albums, correspondence, and reminiscences about him. Books from his personal library (opis 4) would be added after his death. The more valuable second part consists of one vast section (opis 11), which was his working personal archive, located in the “special sector” of the apparatus, later called the Politburo (now the Presidential) Archive, but transferred to RGASPI in 1998–99. Stalin decided what would go into this working archive, but these materials do not always show him in the best light; on the contrary, many documents he kept demonstrate his policy mistakes and his gratuitous cruelty to his opponents and loyalists (who, despite their own crimes, sometimes emerge worthy of sympathy). Some of Stalin’s personal archive—how much remains impossible to say—was destroyed by him and others. For example, he was known to make notes in two sets of notebooks, one black (for technology) and one red (for personnel), but none of these have turned up, save for a few pages. Files of compromising materials on the members of his inner circle, believed to have been in his Kremlin office safe or a cupboard at his Near Dacha, have not turned up. The invaluable logbooks for visitors to his two offices (Old Square and the Kremlin) have been published, but the ones for his Moscow dacha have not and are feared to have been lost or pulped. His enormous record collection vanished, and the bulk of his library was dispersed. Nonetheless, the amount of materials that has survived and become accessible is staggering.

Not only do we have Stalin’s personal archive, but also colossal party and state archives, in the capital and in regions, while for foreign affairs there are the archives of other governments, too. Even though in Stalin’s case we lack a Mein Kampf, recorded “table talks,” or bona fide accounts by mistresses, we do have his voluminous correspondence while on holiday in Sochi or Gagra, when he issued detailed instructions to those running affairs on his behalf back in the capital. In addition, many other minions recorded his instructions—the boss of the film industry, the head of the Comintern, the notetaker for the government—in real time. Subsequent memoirs, some of which are revealing, enhance and sometimes unlock the archival materials. Regime transcripts for instructional dissemination were made of all party congresses, most of Stalin’s extended remarks at Kremlin receptions, and a handful of key politburo and Central Committee meetings. The central press, which he tightly controlled, also affords excellent material on his thinking. Archives of the secret police, counterintelligence, and bodyguard directorate remain almost entirely closed, and those for the military and foreign policy arm can be very difficult to access, but these institutions have published enormous quantities of document collections, and those scholars who have enjoyed unusually good access, including to the secret police materials, have published monographs with extensive quotations. There is also the phenomenon of scanning, which permits the quiet sharing of documents. So the evidentiary record, while not complete, is astonishingly rich.

Many scholars have been working on these materials, and this volume is indebted to the excellent research produced by R. W. Davies on the economy, Oleg Khlevniuk on the party-state machinery, Vladimir Khaustov on the secret police, Matthew Lenoe on events surrounding Sergei Kirov, Vladimir Nevezhin on the conception of the Soviet state as a great power, Adam Tooze on Nazi Germany’s grand strategy, Gabriel Gorodetsky on the British establishment and on Stalin’s foreign policy, and countless others, acknowledged in the endnotes.

Words cannot express how much better this book became thanks to my U.S.-based editor, Scott Moyers, and the rest of the team at Penguin. It exists at all thanks to him and my agent, Andrew Wylie. Many others—alas, far too numerous to list—deserve to be singled out for their kindness and perspicacity. Let me here express my gratitude to all, particularly archivists, librarians, and fellow scholars in Russia. Oleg Budnitskii took me on as an associate senior researcher at his International Center for the History and Sociology of World War II and Its Consequences at the National Research University Higher School of Economics, in Moscow. I have also benefited tremendously from being a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, whose Library and Archives are a treasure beyond belief, and I am deeply grateful to the L&A director, Eric Wakin. Above all, Princeton University has provided me a dream scholarly home and spectacular students for the better part of three decades.

Stalin, Volume 2

Stalin, Volume 2

Stalin, Volume 2

Stalin, Volume 2

Stalin, Volume 2

Stalin, Volume 2

Stalin, Volume 2

Stalin, Volume 2

Stalin, Volume 2


Here he is, the greatest and most important of our contemporaries. . . . In his full size he towers over Europe and Asia, over the past and the present. He is the most famous and yet almost the least known man in the world.

HENRI BARBUSSE, Stalin, 19351

IOSIF STALIN WAS A HUMAN BEING. He collected watches.2 He played skittles and billiards. He loved gardening and Russian steam baths.3 He owned suits and ties but never wore them, unlike Lenin, and, unlike Bukharin, he did not fancy traditional peasant blouses or black leather jackets. He wore a semi-military tunic of either gray or khaki color, buttoned at the top, along with baggy khaki trousers that he tucked into his tall leather boots. He did not use a briefcase, but he sometimes carried documents inside folders or wrapped in newspapers.4 He liked colored pencils—blue, red, green—manufactured by Moscow’s Sacco and Vanzetti factory (originally built by the American Armand Hammer). He drank Borjomi mineral water and red Khvanchkara and white Tsinandali wines from his native Georgia. He smoked a pipe, using the tobacco from Herzegovina Flor brand cigarettes, which he would unroll and slide in, usually two cigarettes’ worth. He kept his desk in order. His dachas had runners atop the carpets, and he strove to keep to the narrow coverings. “I remember, once he spilled a few ashes from his pipe on the carpet,” recalled Artyom Sergeyev, who for a time lived in the Stalin household after his own father’s death, “and he himself, with a brush and knife, gathered them up.”5

Stalin had a passion for books, which he marked up and filled with placeholders to find passages. (His personal library would ultimately grow to more than 20,000 volumes.) He annotated works by Marx and Lenin, but also Plato and the German strategist Clausewitz in translation, as well as Alexander Svechin, a former tsarist officer whom Stalin never trusted but who demonstrated that the only constant in war was an absence of constants.6 “Stalin read a great deal,” noted Artyom. “And always, when we saw him, he would ask what I was reading and what I thought about it. At the entrance to his study, I recall, there was a mountain of books on the floor.” Stalin recommended the classics—Gogol, Tolstoy—telling Artyom and Vasily that “during wartime there would be a lot of situations you had never encountered before in life. You will need to make decisions. But if you read a lot, then in your memory you will already have the answers how to conduct yourself and what to do. Literature will tell you.”7 Among Russian authors, Stalin’s favorite was probably Chekhov, who, he felt, portrayed villains, not just heroes, in the round. Still, judging by the references scattered among his writings and speeches, he spent more time reading Soviet-era belles lettres.8 His jottings in whatever he read were often irreverent: “Rubbish,” “Fool,” “Scumbag,” “Piss off,” “Ha-ha!”

His manners were coarse. When, on April 5, 1930, a top official in the economy drew a black-ink caricature of finance commissar Nikolai Bryukhanov hanging by his scrotum, Stalin wrote on it, “To members of the politburo: For all his current and future sins Bryukhanov is to be hung by the balls; if his balls hold, he is to be considered acquitted by the court; if his balls do not hold, he is to be drowned in the river.”9 But Stalin cultivated a statesmanlike appearance, editing out his jokes and foul language even from the transcripts of official gatherings that were meant to be circulated only internally.10 He occasionally jabbed the air with his index finger for emphasis during speeches, but he usually avoided histrionics. “All Stalin’s gestures were measured,” Artyom recalled. “He never gesticulated severely.” Artyom also found his adoptive father reserved in his compliments. “Stalin never used expressions of the highest degree: marvelous [chudesno], elegant [shikarno]. He said ‘fine’ [khorosho]. He never went higher than ‘fine.’ He could also say ‘suitable’ [goditsia]. ‘Fine’ was the highest compliment from his mouth.”11

Stalin invoked God casually (“God forbid,” “Lord forgive us”) and referred to the Pharisees and other biblical subjects.12 In his hometown of Gori, he had lived across from the cathedral, attended the parish school, sung beatifically in the choir, and set his sights on becoming a priest or a monk, earning entrance to the Tiflis seminary, where he prayed nine to ten times per day and completed the full course of study except for sitting his last year’s final exams. By then he had become immersed in banned literature, beginning with Victor Hugo, evolving toward Karl Marx, and had come to detest organized religion and abandoned his piety.13 Rumors that Stalin attended church services in the 1930s have never been substantiated.14 In Stalin’s marginalia in works by Dostoevsky and Anatole France, he continued to be drawn to issues of God, the church, religion, and immortality, but the depth and nature of that interest remain difficult to fathom.15 Be that as it may, he had long ago ceased to adhere to Christian notions of good and evil.16 His moral universe was that of Marxism-Leninism.

He appears to have had few mistresses, and definitely no harem. His family life was neither particularly happy nor unhappy. His father, Beso, had died relatively young, not uncommon in the early twentieth century; his mother, Keke, lived alone in Tiflis. His first wife, Ketevan “Kato” Svanidze, a Georgian to whom he was married in 1906, had died in agony the next year of a common disease in Baku. He married again, to Nadezhda Alliluyeva, a Russian better known as Nadya, who had been born in Tiflis in 1901 and lived in Baku, too. Stalin had known her since she was a toddler. They had married in 1918, when he was officially thirty-nine (actually forty). She worked as his secretary, then as one of Lenin’s secretaries, but she had higher ambitions. The couple had two healthy children, Vasily (b. 1921) and Svetlana (b. 1926). He also had a son from his first marriage, Yakov (b. 1907), whom he had abandoned to relatives in Georgia for the first fourteen years of the boy’s life. Stalin avoided contact with his many blood relatives from his father’s and mother’s families. He did live among in-laws—Kato’s and Nadya’s many brothers and sisters and their spouses—but his interest in them would wane. Personal life was subsumed in politics.

•   •   •

STALIN WAS A COMMUNIST and a revolutionary. He was no Danton, the French firebrand who could mount a rostrum and ignite a crowd (until he was guillotined in 1794). Stalin spoke softly, sometimes inaudibly, because of a defect in his vocal cords. Nor was he the dashing type, like his contemporary the Italian aviator Italo Balbo (b. 1896), a Blackshirt squadrista who, a jaunty cigarette dangling from his lips, lived the fascist ideal of the “new man,” leading armadas of planes in formation across the Mediterranean and then the Atlantic, attaining international renown (until he died in a crash caused by his own country’s antiaircraft guns).17 Stalin turned white during air travel and avoided it. He relished being called Koba, after the Georgian folk-hero avenger and the real-life benefactor who underwrote his education, but one childhood chum had called him Geza, a Gori-dialect term for the awkward gait Stalin had developed after an accident. He had to swing his hip all the way around to walk.18 This and other physical defects apparently weighed on him. Once, near his beloved medicinal baths at Matsesta, in the Caucasus, according to a bodyguard, Stalin encountered a boy of about six, “reached out his hand and asked, ‘What’s your name?’ ‘Valka,’ the boy answered firmly. ‘Well, my name is Smallpox-Pockmarks,’ Stalin said to him. ‘Now we are introduced.’”19

Like the twisted spine of Shakespeare’s Richard III, it is tempting to find in such deformities the wellsprings of bloody tyranny: torment, self-loathing, inner rage, bluster, a mania for adulation. The boy at Matsesta was around the age Stalin had been when he had contracted the disease whose lifelong scars he bore on his nose, lower lip, chin, and cheeks. His pockmarks were airbrushed from public photographs, and his awkward stride kept from public view. (Film of him walking was prohibited.) People who met him saw the facial disfigurement and odd movement, as well as signs that he might be insecure. He loved jokes and caricatures, but never about himself. (Of course, the supposedly ultraconfident Lenin had refused to allow even friendly caricatures of himself to be printed.)20 Stalin’s sense of humor was perverse. Those who encountered him further discovered that he had a limp handshake and was not as tall as he appeared in photographs. (He stood five feet seven inches, or about 1.7 meters, roughly the same as Napoleon and one inch shorter than Hitler, who was 1.73 meters.)21 And yet, despite their initial shock—could this be Stalin?—most first-time onlookers usually found that they could not take their gaze off him, especially his expressive eyes.22 More than that, they witnessed him shouldering an immense load, under colossal pressure. Stalin possessed the skills and steeliness to rule a great country, unlike Shakespeare’s Richard III. He radiated charisma, the charisma of dictatorial power.

Dictatorship, in the wake of the Great War, was widely understood to offer a transcendence of the mundane, a “state of exception,” in the words of the future Nazi theorist Carl Schmitt.23 For Soviet theorists, too, dictatorship promised political dynamism and the redemption of humanity. In April 1929, Vladimir Maksimovsky (b. 1887), who had known and once opposed Lenin (over the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with imperial Germany) and had supported Trotsky’s right to be heard, delivered a lecture on Niccolò Machiavelli that he published the same year in the USSR’s main Marxist history journal. Maksimovsky turned the Renaissance Florentine into a theorist of “revolutionary bourgeois dictatorship,” which the author deemed progressive in its day, in contrast to the reactionary dictatorship of Mussolini. The assessment rested on the class base. Thus, the working-class Soviet dictatorship was progressive, too. Maksimovsky, following Machiavelli, conceded that dictatorship could descend into tyranny, with a ruler pursuing purely personal interests.24 But Maksimovsky did not explicitly address the question of a given dictator’s personality, or how the process of exercising unlimited power affects a ruler’s character. Subsequent scholars have rightly noted that only a near-permanent state of emergency—made possible by Communist ideology and practice—allowed Stalin to give free rein to his savagery. But what has been missed is that Stalin’s sociopathology was to a degree an outgrowth of the experience of dictatorial rule.

Stalin’s childhood, diseases and all, had been more or less normal; his years as general secretary were anything but.25 He emerged from the 1920s a ruler of seemingly irreconcilable contradictions. He could flash burning anger, visible in yellowish eyes; he could glow with a soft, capacious smile. He could be utterly solicitous and charming; he could be unable to forget a perceived slight and compulsively contrive opportunities for revenge. He was single-minded and brooding, soft-spoken and foul-mouthed. He prided himself on his voracious reading and his ability to quote the wisdom of Marx or Lenin; he resented fancy-pants intellectuals who he thought put on airs. He possessed a phenomenal memory and a mind of scope; his intellectual horizons were severely circumscribed by primitive theories of class struggle and imperialism. He developed a feel for the aspirations of the masses and incipient elites; he almost never visited factories or farms, or even state agencies, reading about the country he ruled in secret reports and newspapers. He was a cynic about everyone’s supposed base motives; he lived and breathed ideals. Above all, his core identity was as heir and leading pupil of Lenin, but Lenin’s purported Testament had called for his removal, and from the time it first appeared, in the spring and summer of 1923, the document haunted him, provoking at least six resignations, all of which had been rejected but left him embattled, resentful, vengeful.

Stalin’s painstaking creation of a personal dictatorship within the Leninist dictatorship had combined chance (the unexpected early death of Lenin) and aptitude: he had been the fifth secretary of the party, after Yakov Sverdlov (who also died prematurely), Yelena Stasova, Nikolai Krestinsky, and Vyacheslav Molotov. His self-fashioning as savior of cause and country who was menaced from every direction dovetailed with fears for the socialist revolution and Russia’s revival as a great power menaced from every direction. Lenin’s party, with its seizure of power in the former Russian empire, had enacted upon itself a condition of “capitalist encirclement,” a structural paranoia that fed, and was fed by, Stalin’s personal paranoia. But those feelings on his part, whatever their now untraceable origins, had ballooned in his accumulation and enactment of the power of life and death over hundreds of millions. Such were the paradoxes of power: the closer the country got to achieving socialism, the sharper the class struggle became; the more power Stalin personally wielded, the more he still needed. Triumph shadowed by treachery became the dynamic of both the revolution and Stalin’s life. Beginning in 1929, as the might of the Soviet state and Stalin’s personal dictatorship grew and grew, so, too, did the stakes. His drive to build socialism would prove both successful and shattering, and deeply reinforcing of his hypersuspicious, vindictive disposition.26 “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” an English Catholic historian wrote in a private letter in reference to the Inquisition and the papacy.27 Absolute power also shapes absolutely.

Communism was an idea, a dream palace whose attraction derived from its seeming fusion of science and utopia. In the Marxist conception, capitalism had created great wealth by replacing feudalism, but then it became a “fetter” that promoted only the interests of the exploiter class, at the expense of the rest of humanity. But once capitalism was overcome, the “forces of production” would be unleashed as never before. What is more, exploitation, colonies, and imperialist war would give way to solidarity, emancipation, and peace, as well as abundance. Concretely, socialism had been difficult to imagine.28 But whatever it was, it could not be capitalism. Logically, socialism would be built by eradicating private property, the market, and “bourgeois” parliaments and putting in their place collective property, socialist planning, and people’s power (or soviets). Of course, the capitalists would never allow themselves to be buried. They would fight to the death against socialism, using every means—wrecking, espionage, lies—because this was a war in which only one class could emerge victorious. The most terrible crimes became morally imperative acts in the name of creating paradise on earth.29

•   •   •

MASS VIOLENCE RECRUITED legions ready to battle implacable enemies who stood on the wrong side of history.30 The purported science of Marxism-Leninism and the real-world construction of socialism, on the way toward Communism, offered ostensible answers to the biggest questions: why the world had so many problems (class) and how it could be made better (class warfare), with a role for all. People’s otherwise insignificant lives became linked to building an entirely new world.31 To collect grain forcibly or operate a lathe was to strike a hammer blow at world imperialism. It did not hurt that those who took part stood to gain personally: idealism and opportunism are always reinforcing.32 Accumulated resentments, too, fueled the aspiration to become significant. People under the age of twenty-nine made up nearly half of the Soviet population, giving the country one of the younger demographic profiles in the world, and youth proved especially attracted to a vision that put them at the center of a struggle to build tomorrow today, to serve a higher truth.33 The use of capitalism as antiworld also helps explain why, despite the improvisation, the socialism that would be built under Stalin coalesced into a “system” that could be readily explained within the framework of the October Revolution.

Stalin personified Communism’s lofty vision. A cult would be built around him, singling him out as “vozhd,” an ancient word that denoted someone who had earned the leadership of a group of men through a demonstrated ability to acquire and dispense rewards, but had become tantamount to “supreme leader,” the Russian equivalent of duce or Führer.34 By acclaiming Stalin, people could acclaim the cause and themselves as devotees. He resisted the cult.35 Stalin would call himself shit compared with Lenin.36 In draft reportage for Pravda of his meeting with a collective farm delegation from Odessa province in November 1933, he inserted the names Mikhail Kalinin, Molotov, Lazar Kaganovich, simulating collective leadership.37 Similarly, according to Anastas Mikoyan, Stalin rebuked Kaganovich, saying, “What is this? Why do you praise me alone, as if one man decides everything?”38 Whether Stalin’s objections reflected false modesty, genuine embarrassment, or just his inscrutable self remains hard to say, but he indulged the prolonged ovations.39 Molotov would recall that “at first he resisted the cult of personality, but then he came to like it a bit.”40

•   •   •

STALIN ALSO PERSONIFIED the multinational Union. The USSR, like imperial Russia, was a uniquely Eurasian sprawl across two continents, at home in neither. Stalin was skeptical that nationality would eventually wither, unlike many leftists who worshipped class.41 Nation, for him, was both stubborn fact and opportunity, a device for overcoming perceived backwardness.42 Implanting loyal party rule in, say, Ukraine or his native Georgia would preoccupy him, but not nearly as much as the history and geopolitics of Russia.43 Russia had come to see itself as a providential power ordained by God, with a special mission in the world. Its court splendor surpassed any other monarchy, but for all its industrialization it had remained an agrarian empire resting on the backs of peasants. Resources never stretched as far as ambitions, a discrepancy compounded by the circumstance that Russia lacked natural boundaries. This had spurred conquest of neighboring lands, before they could be used as presumed springboards of invasion, thereby creating a dynamic of “defensive” expansionism. Such was the Russia that the Georgian inherited and wholly devoted himself to as the socialist motherland.

A human being, a Communist and revolutionary, a dictator encircled by enemies in a dictatorship encircled by enemies, a fearsome contriver of class warfare, an embodiment of the global Communist cause and the Eurasian multinational state, a ferocious champion of Russia’s revival, Stalin did what acclaimed leaders do: he articulated and drove toward a consistent goal, in his case a powerful state backed by a unified society that eradicated capitalism and built industrial socialism.44 “Murderous” and “mendacious” do not begin to describe the person readers will encounter in this volume. At the same time, Stalin galvanized millions. His colossal authority was rooted in a dedicated faction, which he forged, a formidable apparatus, which he built, and Marxist-Leninist ideology, which he helped synthesize. But his power was magnified many times over by ordinary people, who projected onto him their soaring ambitions for justice, peace, and abundance, as well as national greatness. Dictators who amass great power often retreat into pet pursuits, expounding interminably about their obsessions, paralyzing the state. But Stalin’s fixation was a socialist great power. In the years 1929–36, covered in part III, he would build that socialist great power with a first-class military. Stalin was a myth, but he proved equal to the myth.


We reject the concept of rule-of-law state. If a person seeking to claim the title of Marxist speaks seriously about a rule-of-law state and moreover uses the term “rule-of-law state” in connection with the Soviet state, this means he is led by bourgeois jurists. This means he departs from Marxist-Leninist teaching on the state.

LAZAR KAGANOVICH, Institute of Soviet Construction, November 4, 19291

There, in Europe, let them meow, in full voice . . . about the USSR’s “collapse.” They will not alter one iota either our plans or our cause. The USSR will be a first-class country with the largest, technologically best-equipped industrial and agricultural production. Socialism is invincible. No longer will we have “miserable” Russia. An end to that! We’ll have a powerful and prosperous modern Russia.

Stalin to Maxim Gorky, in Sorrento, December 1930 2

MAURICE HINDUS, an émigré who returned to his native village in southern Ukraine to bear witness, grasped that Stalin’s forced wholesale collectivization and breakneck industrialization were “a stupendous gamble.”3 Twelve years earlier, a separate peasant revolution, parallel to the urban Bolshevik one, had expropriated most of Russia’s gentry, as well as many peasant landholders, and resulted in the creation of a smallholding population of 25 million peasant households. Undoing this new socioeconomic landscape of de facto land ownership seemed a nearly unimaginable proposition. Lenin’s quasimarket New Economic Policy had been a grudging concession to this peasant revolution, and although the mass of Communists had little love for farmers, as the NEP’s benefits were available to be appropriated, many Communists in the countryside had come to accept peacefully growing into socialism. Ironically, this vision was never stronger than at the height of central party actions—price regulation, creeping statization, industrialization ambitions—that fatally undermined NEP’s already faltering viability. Stalin repudiated pro-NEP Communists in the same way he lacerated European Social Democrats and their so-called parliamentary road to socialism. “Can we imagine that?” he wrote in the margins of an essay by Engels, republished in 1930, on the peaceful attainment of socialism in France and the United States. “No, that is incorrect!” 4

Stalin insisted that small farms had to be consolidated to enable the mechanization and application of agronomy needed to achieve higher levels of output. All that was possible without collectivization, of course—it had happened in the United States, as Stalin himself pointed out, but there it had entailed large-scale, mechanized private farms, and for Marxist-Leninists, class and property relations ultimately determined political systems. Some politburo members did think or hope they could collectivize agriculture voluntarily, but as of 1928, voluntary collectivization had occurred on just 1 percent of the country’s arable land. Coercion was the only way to attain wholesale collectivization. The extreme violence and dislocation would appall many Communists. But Stalin and his loyalists replied that critics wanted to make an omelet without breaking eggs. The only real alternative to forced collectivization was Communist acceptance of capitalist social relations and the long-term political consequences that entailed. Either the peasant revolution would be overcome or the regime would be under permanent threat. To these weighty considerations was added a do-or-die imperative to industrialize, which had to be financed somehow. Getting more grain, including for export, by squeezing the peasants seemed to be the answer and was dubbed primitive socialist accumulation. Russia had experienced centuries of cruelty toward peasants, but the inhumanity was now given supposed scientific and moral authority.5

Stalin was not head of the government (the Council of People’s Commissars). He was general secretary of the Communist party, which controlled all regime communications, personnel appointments, the secret police, and the army, and supervised the government. (For elucidation of the workings of the Soviet party-state system, see the explanatory note on page 907.) From his office (Room 521) at party headquarters on Moscow’s Old Square, he propelled the building of socialism in a furious storm of mass mobilization.6 His actions in 1929–30 were improvised, but they sprang from deep Marxist premises.7 Stalin, like Lenin, accepted the historical obsolescence of the “petit bourgeois” peasantry, the irredeemability of capitalism, the vileness of class enemies, the inevitability of violence in revolution, and the value of tactical flexibility amid firmness of will. He was Leninist to the core.8 Stalin sharpened the sense of urgency to force-build socialism by banging on about the dangers of “capitalist encirclement.” Millions of urbanites and some of the rural populace became entranced by the combination of real class warfare and modern machines. The mass appeal of taking part in the creation of a new and better world recruited a new generation of party activists, and captured imaginations worldwide.

The savage upheaval of building socialism would also further reveal, and further shape, the darkness within Stalin’s mind. “Right deviationists,” “social fascists,” “liquidation of the kulaks,” “wreckers,” “right-left bloc,” “terrorist acts,” “military coup plots,” “Trotskyites”—all these tropes, rooted in the Bolshevik repertoire, now took on an even more sinister edge. Stalin emerges in the documents as self-assured yet on a knife’s edge, a supreme bully with a keen eye for others’ weak spots yet roiling with resentment. Even his moments of satisfaction come across as laced with venom. No matter how much he crushed rivals, he was under siege. No matter how many enemies were deported, imprisoned, or executed, new ones emerged—and they were coming after him. No matter how much power he accumulated, he needed more. All the while, regime violence seemed to beget the very foes within and threat of war from without that secret police reports incessantly warned about. Stalin’s chip-on-the-shoulder, suspect-the-worst persona fed into, and was fed by, the drive to build socialism in the overheated atmosphere he fostered. The revolution’s destiny and Stalin’s personality became increasingly difficult to distinguish.


For a man possessed by raison d’état, Stalin’s actions were often highly personal. Nikolai Bukharin, unlike Trotsky, was close to the Soviet dictator. The two had met in Vienna in 1913, and from the mid-1920s Stalin had shown genuine affection for him. Alexei Balashov, who as a young man worked loyally in Stalin’s inner secretariat, would recall, late in life, that “when they brought him the forms with the results of politburo member voting by telephone poll, frequently, without looking up from the document, Stalin would ask, ‘How did Bukharin vote?—For?’ Stalin, for a time, held Bukharin’s views in high regard, and they informed the positions he himself would take.”9 Also unlike Trotsky, Bukharin had been careful not to come out in open opposition to Stalin. But in 1929, while forcing through his radical shift to coercive wholesale collectivization, Stalin charged Bukharin and his allies with “deviation” from the party line. Thus did the dictator fashion for himself and the regime a new high-profile internal foe.10

Bukharin, who had been instrumental in enabling Stalin to smash Trotsky, inadvertently facilitated his own demonization by Stalin. The stepped-up attacks were set in motion by the sudden appearance of a pamphlet published by a shadowy Trotskyite underground on January 23, 1929, which carried Lev Kamenev’s “notes,” nominally for Zinoviev, of a clandestine meeting Bukharin had initiated with Kamenev back on July 11, 1928.11 Bukharin was caught out: he had met on the sly with a former oppositionist and divulged to him internal party matters while privately voicing the opposite position to the July 1928 plenum resolutions that he himself had drafted. The incident went to the party’s Central Control Commission, chaired by the Stalin loyalist Sergo Orjonikidze, who generally disliked Stalin’s political vendettas and, till now, had tried to reconcile Bukharin and his patron. But Kamenev’s “notes” had Bukharin asserting that Orjonikidze had bad-mouthed Stalin behind his back. Kamenev, for his part, submitted written testimony, which, like the “notes” themselves, proved damning of Bukharin, a further act of ingratiation with Stalin. Bukharin belatedly surmised that he had fallen into a trap, while Stalin gave the appearance of being pained to have to take action. (“Sad as it is, I must report the fact of . . .”) At the first of two joint sessions of the politburo with the presidium of the Central Control Commission, on January 30, 1929, Stalin condemned Bukharin, as well as his associates Mikhail Tomsky and Alexei Rykov, as “a right deviationist, capitulationist group advocating not for the liquidation of capitalist elements of the city and countryside, but for their free development.”12

Thus did opposition to forced collectivization and coercive grain collection become advocacy for capitalism. Bukharin, Rykov, and Tomsky wrote an appeal invoking Lenin’s Testament—“since these words were written, this ‘unbounded power’ has become even more ‘unbounded’”—but on February 9, 1929, with Orjonikidze in charge, the party censured Bukharin, for having met Kamenev, and Rykov and Tomsky, for having failed to report it.13

Stalin, in parallel, had been reading summaries by the secret police (OGPU) of the intercepted correspondence between Trotsky and his adherents exiled at the far ends of the USSR who were gloating that Stalin’s radical turn had vindicated their long-standing leftist advocacy for class war against kulaks and NEPmen. Stalin read out excerpts at the politburo, which acceded to his pique and voted to deport Trotsky.14 Turkey granted a visa, and on January 20, the OGPU appeared in Alma-Ata and loaded up the Trotsky family and their belongings. On February 10 in Odessa, an OGPU convoy smuggled him, his wife, Natalya Sedova, and their elder son, Lev Sedov, aboard the steamship Ilich. Troops lined the harbor. There were no other passengers. The order for deportation was silent about Trotsky’s personal archives—and if not expressly told to confiscate, the secret police did not confiscate. Trotsky managed to carry out crates of documents and books.15 It took fewer than two weeks for two of his essays to appear in the “bourgeois” press. In “How Could This Happen?” Trotsky explained his defeat by allowing that Stalin was “gifted in a practical sense, endurance, and perseverance in the pursuit of outlined goals,” but added that “his political horizon is inordinately narrow. His theoretical level is just as primitive. His pastiche booklet Foundations of Leninism, in which he tries to pay tribute to the party’s theoretical traditions, teems with schoolboy errors. . . . What is Stalin?” Trotsky concluded. “The outstanding mediocrity in our party.”16

Trotsky was evicted from his temporary residence at the Soviet consulate in Istanbul, and for safety he relocated to Prinkipo (Prince’s Isle), twelve miles away, or an hour and a half by boat, in the Sea of Marmara. It had been used to exile rivals to the Byzantine emperors and now was mostly deserted except for summer holidaymakers.17 He arrived at the “red-cliffed island set in deep blue” (in the words of Max Eastman) on March 8, 1929, and took up residence at a spacious, run-down villa in the outskirts of the main village. Turkish policemen stood guard outside the gates to the rented quarters, where there was little in the way of furniture. But, as in Soviet Sukhum, where Trotsky used to convalesce, a veranda faced the sea. Lev Sedov set up shop on the ground floor to keep track of the voluminous correspondence, and Trotsky began outfitting an office on the second floor. He tried to move on to Europe, but governments refused him a visa, beginning with Germany’s Social Democrats, whom Trotsky had incessantly ridiculed.18 From remote Prinkipo, his exposure of the Soviet regime’s lies reverberated around the world—and inside Stalin’s office.19

While still in the Soviet Union, Trotsky had lost any public voice, but abroad he not only wrote for periodicals in several European languages but also established a Russian-language Bulletin of the Opposition (Leninist-Bolsheviks). His inaugural publisher’s note set out the party opposition’s right to exist and promised facts and documents; in that vein, he wrote an open letter to the workers of the USSR denying that he had left the Soviet Union voluntarily.20 The OGPU spread a rumor that Trotsky had been deported to enliven the revolutionary movement in the West, an invitation for émigré White Guards to assassinate him.21 The Bulletin, printed in Paris in small print runs, was not legally available inside the USSR, though for a time some Soviet officials who traveled abroad would smuggle the exotic broadsheets home and pass them around.22 It carried an astonishingly well-informed account of the party sessions behind closed doors in Moscow involving Bukharin, who complained that “in the twelfth year of the revolution [there is] not a single elected provincial party chief; the party does not participate in decision making. Everything is done from above.” Bukharin was shouted down: “Where did you pick that up—from whom? From Trotsky!”23

Trotsky, in fact, refused common cause with Bukharin and those he deemed expressions of petit bourgeois class interests. “The rightists think that if one affords greater space to individual peasant economy, then the current difficulties can be overcome,” he wrote in a March 1929 essay, also in the Bulletin’s inaugural issue. “A wager on the capitalist farmer (the European or Americanized kulak) would doubtless yield fruits, but they would be capitalist fruits that at some near-term stage would lead to the political downfall of Soviet power. . . . The course toward the capitalist farmer is absolutely incompatible with the dictatorship of the proletariat.”24 For Stalin, however, the “right deviation,” which wanted to continue the existing party policy of the NEP, was in cahoots with the smashed left opposition, which had wanted to overturn the NEP. Both, in criticizing the party line, exposed disunity and therefore weakness, an invitation for the capitalist powers to intervene and overthrow socialism. And because Stalin incarnated party unity and the resolve to build socialism, he was, logically, their prime target of assassination. Thus did opposition to Stalin’s policies become equated with terrorism, thanks also to a big hand from Wiaczesław Mężyński, chairman of the OGPU.25

All the while, Stalin’s inner circle craved his favor. On March 10, 1929, Pravda had published a report by Klim Voroshilov to a Leningrad provincial party conference analyzing the international situation, socialist construction, and the party opposition to collectivization, and four days later Voroshilov wrote to the dictator asking whether he had “screwed up 100 percent or just 75 percent.” Stalin responded by praising his account as “a good, principled report,” and, in reference to the U.S. president and the British foreign secretary, added, “All the Hoovers and Chamberlains and Bukharins got it in the ass.”26

Bukharin had grimly foreseen that Stalin would twist his words and label him a schismatic to extract political advantage, but Stalin’s cruelty was something his friend would puzzle over for a long time. And no matter how underhandedly the dictator undercut Bukharin, Stalin was the victim. “Don’t try to compel me to be quiet, or hide my opinion by your shouts that I ‘want to teach everyone,’” Stalin wrote to Bukharin on April 16, 1929, the day of a politburo confrontation. “Will you at some point desist from the attacks against me?”27


Following the politburo session, on that same day, Stalin convened a punitive joint Central Committee–Central Control Commission plenum, lasting a week, at which his loyalists spewed venom at Bukharin.28 On April 18, amid intense heckling, Bukharin launched a counterattack against Stalin’s peasant policy for coercing poor and middle peasants, too, insisting that “the number of kulak households is few,” and that “we can allow individual farming to develop without fear of rich peasants.” Stalin did not formally respond until the evening session on April 22. “Friendship is friendship, but state service is service,” he noted. “We all serve the interests of the working class, and if the interests of the working class diverge from the interests of personal friendship, then down with personal friendship.”29

Stalin wielded a compelling strategic vision—accelerated, noncapitalist modernity—but he was at pains to deny that he was abrogating Lenin’s NEP. (Otherwise, he would be the deviationist.) The NEP, he explained, had always had two sides—a retreat, to be followed by a renewed offensive—and “Bukharin’s mistake is that he does not see the two-sided nature of NEP; he sees only the first side.”30 Stalin cited Lenin to the Manichaean effect that everything came down to “‘who defeats whom,’ us or the capitalists. . . . Every advance of capitalist elements is a loss for us,” and that the peasantry was “the last capitalist class.” He reminded attendees that Rykov and Bukharin had been the first to repudiate his offer to resign (back in December 1927), and he threw Lenin’s Testament back in Bukharin’s face, reading aloud the parts about Bukharin and commenting, “A theoretician without dialectics. A theoretician of our party about whom it can scarcely be said—with great doubts can it be said—that his outlook is fully Marxist.” After all that, Stalin posed as conciliator, coming out “against the expulsion of Bukharin and Tomsky from the politburo.”31

Stalin might not have had the votes for expulsion. All the same, Bukharin was sacked as editor of Pravda, and Tomsky quit as head of trade unions. Rykov remained head of the government, which coordinated the economy.32 Stalin managed to have the plenum repudiate Rykov and Bukharin’s policy alternatives, such as importing grain (“It is better to squeeze the kulak and extract from him surplus grain, which he has in no small quantity”), but plenum resolutions summarizing the right’s position (even in condemnation) were not published.33

Developments in the countryside supported Stalin’s critics. The 1928–29 harvest had come in at only 62–63 million tons (well below the official figure of 70–71 million), and total state grain collections amounted to only around 8 million tons—2 million less than the previous year.34 Leningrad had already introduced food rationing in November 1928. Moscow soon followed, as did other industrial cities, going beyond bread to sugar and tea, then meat, dairy, and potatoes. But Stalin argued that the problems caused by his antimarket coercion required more coercion. In spring 1929, he dispatched Kaganovich as a plenipotentiary to the Urals and Western Siberia, some of the same districts the dictator himself had visited the year before. By summer 1929, however, food shortages loomed. The regime would need to spend scarce hard currency (the equivalent of 30 million convertible or gold rubles, or almost $15 million) to import a quarter million tons of grain.35 Those were just facts. Stalin anticipated that the ramped-up coercion would serve as a device of political recruitment, cleaving off the poor and middle peasant from the kulak. This was a complement to his invention of a schismatic “right deviation,” which forced his faction to redeclare its loyalty and held the party mass in check.36

Stalin’s political opportunism was at the service of implanting socialism (noncapitalism) in the countryside and collecting grain to feed and finance noncapitalist industrialization in the cities. He had seized the gift of Bukharin’s political amateurism, but in a larger way he had created his own moment, taking advantage of a crisis that his emergency measures had helped create to force through permanent emergency-ism. Mikoyan would admit, in June 1929, that “had it not been for the grain difficulties, the question of strong collective farms and of machine-tractor stations would not have been posed precisely at this moment with such vigor, scope, and breadth.”37 He had been appointed by Stalin a candidate member of the politburo already in 1926, at age thirty, as well as head of trade, making him the youngest people’s commissar. In that capacity he worked directly under Rykov and, for a time, was close to Bukharin (like Stalin), but now Mikoyan emerged as one of Stalin’s key minions who enacted the new hard line. And yet, Mikoyan remained the recipient of Stalin’s relentless pressure. “No concessions in grain procurements,” Stalin would soon write to him. “Hold the line and be maximally unyielding! If you now pity them and vacillate even one iota from our plan, . . . no one will pity either the Central Committee or the trade commissariat.”38


Upon the close of the plenum, the regime convened the 16th party conference (April 23–29, 1929), which once more ratified the “optimal” (maximalist) variant of the Five-Year Plan.39 This wild-eyed scheme, which had officially commenced in October 1928, reversed the NEP-era loss of revolutionary élan and envisioned a nearly fourfold increase in investment in the state sector of the economy, to achieve a GDP leap of around 20 percent per annum.40 The phantasmagorical document also foresaw an absolute increase in household consumption. Still, the emphasis fell upon machine building, or, in Marxist terms, expansion of the means of production, in order to emancipate the USSR from dependence on foreign capitalists.41 That age-old dream, which predated the Bolshevik regime, always went unrealized, because the West possessed critical advanced technology that Russia needed in order to compete against the West. Stalin’s gamble on collectivization and socialist industrialization to emancipate Russia depended on eliciting foreign capitalist cooperation as well.42 But the Soviets broadcast an intention to overthrow capitalism globally.43

The young Soviet state had been unable to reclaim tsarist Poland, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania, which had become independent states; Bessarabia, which had been seized by Romania; or Kars and Ardahan, which were claimed by Turkey. Communist revolutions in Hungary and parts of Iran had been overturned or aborted; Communist coups had failed abjectly in Germany, Bulgaria, and Estonia. Attempts to forge a loyal ally out of Nationalist-governed China had blown up in Stalin’s face. Traditional Russian influence had emerged enhanced in Mongolia, a Soviet satellite, but diminished in Korea and Manchuria (Japan had annexed the first and coveted the second). And so, even as the Soviets laid claim to being the antidote to the existing world order of imperialism, they found themselves pursuing a policy of coexistence, meaning trying to win recognition and trade from the capitalists.44 Lenin had once boasted that the capitalists would sell the rope that the Communists would use to hang them, but because of his repudiation of tsarist and Provisional Government debts, the Soviets had not been able to secure long-term credits for foreign purchases.45 Stalin’s extreme violence and accompanying desecration of churches added to the reputational costs for capitalists if they sold to the Communists. It remained a mystery how Stalin was going to obtain blueprints, machines, and know-how from the advanced capitalist countries.


Soviet industry, construction, and transport employed, at most, 6 million workers in 1929—of whom 4.5 million performed manual labor—out of a working population of well more than 60 million.46 Alongside familiar output norms, piece rates, and labor discipline, Soviet factories were supposed to be crucibles for new forms of socialist labor. “Shock work,” connoting overfulfillment of work norms via all-out exertion and rationalization, spread during the Five-Year Plan in conjunction with so-called socialist competitions among brigades for honors and better rations.47 In early 1929, Pravda had published “How to Organize Competition?” This previously unpublished article by Lenin, about unleashing workers’ creative energies, was part of a campaign in which workers took vows, often in writing, not to slack off or show up drunk or go AWOL, and to fulfill the plan. Some work collectives were afforded Union-wide publicity.48 Stalin had never really been a worker himself, had clashed bitterly with the one genuine worker in the politburo (Tomsky), and rarely visited factories. But he nurtured a deep populist streak.

A journalist for the newspaper Female Peasant, Yelena Mikulina (b. 1906), was having difficulty publishing her pamphlet, “Socialist Competition of the Masses,” on textile workers in Ivanovo-Voznesensk. In early May 1929, she boldly dropped the manuscript off for Stalin at the party secretariat, imploring his aides for an audience. Stalin, surprising his functionaries, had his top aide, Ivan Tovstukha, summon her to Old Square on May 10. “You wanted to tell me something?” he was said to have asked Mikulina, who recalled answering, “‘I have nothing to say, because I am frightfully afraid, and completely stunned.’ . . . ‘Ha, ha ha,’ Stalin laughed. And in his laugh he showed his teeth. And his entire face, sown with large pockmarks, also laughed.” They talked about where else Mikulina might venture to write firsthand about socialist construction—perhaps Kazakhstan, where the Turkestan–Siberian Railway was being built.49 She asked Stalin to write a preface to her essays, which he did the next day, sending it by courier to her dormitory. The preface, which touted how “the powerful production rise of the toiling masses has begun,” was published in Pravda (May 22, 1929). The state publishing house immediately issued Mikulina’s pamphlet in a print run of 100,000. She sent Stalin an autographed copy, with the dedication “I cannot tell you how powerfully I love you.”50

Stalin, in his preface, warned anyone who dared to impede “the creative initiative of the masses.”51 Then the reviews arrived. One, from a newspaper editor in Yaroslavl, told Stalin that “workers greet the pamphlet with mocking laughter,” but nonetheless inquired whether his own censorious draft review (which he enclosed) merited publication.52 Another, forwarded to Stalin by the party boss of Ivanovo-Voznesensk, provoked a response. “It is not so easy to take in comrade Stalin,” the dictator wrote. “I am decisively against writing prefaces only for pamphlets and books of literary ‘big-shots,’ literary ‘names.’ . . . We have hundreds and thousands of young capable people, who are striving with all their might to rise up from below.”53


Bolshevism, like Italian fascism, was an insurrection against both a liberal constitutional order and European Social Democracy. In Stalin’s formulation, codified at the Sixth Comintern Congress (1928), a bourgeoisie desperate to retain its hold on power sought to establish extreme fascist regimes by co-opting Social Democrats. Therefore, Social Democracy—which reconciled workers to capitalism, and thus lured them away from their supposed true home in the Communist party—constituted a handmaiden of fascism (“social fascism”).54 Social Democrats returned and often instigated the enmity, expelling Communists from trade unions and agitating against the Soviet regime. During clashes on May Day 1929, the German Social Democrat Party supported the police against banned worker street rallies encouraged by German Communists; 30 people were killed, nearly 200 injured, and more than 1,000 arrested.55 The Comintern condemned the Berlin events as Social Democratic “terror.” A German Communist party congress the next month resolved that “Social Democracy is preparing . . . the establishment of the fascist dictatorship.”56

In Moscow, the Comintern opened its tenth expanded plenum on July 3, 1929, with seventy-two delegates, half of whom had voting rights. Otto Kuusinen, the Finnish-born Comintern secretary general, noted that “factories would determine the outcome of the next war and the next civil war,” a summons to close ranks behind Soviet industrialization.57 Stalin had inserted the following into the theses: “The Comintern executive committee plenum suggests paying special attention to strengthening the fight against the ‘left’ wing of Social Democracy, which is retarding the disintegration of Social Democracy by sowing illusions about this wing’s opposition to the policies of Social Democracy’s leadership, but in fact strongly supports social fascism.”58 Bukharin, formally chairman of the Comintern executive committee, had not even been showing up at headquarters, and on the plenum’s final day (July 19) he was replaced by Molotov.59 Privately, Clara Zetkin, the high-profile German Communist, had confided to a Swiss comrade that “the Comintern has turned from a living political body into a dead mechanism, which, on the one hand, is capable only of swallowing orders in Russian and, on the other, of regurgitating them in different languages.” Publicly, she continued to lend her prestige to the cause by keeping her mouth shut.60

Other foreign Communists exulted in the Soviet party’s militant turn under Stalin. Klement Gottwald, responding to allegations that the Czechoslovak Communist party was under Moscow’s thumb, boasted to his country’s National Assembly, “We go to Moscow to learn from the Russian Bolsheviks how to wring your necks. (Outcry). And you know the Russian Bolsheviks are masters at it! (Uproar).”61


Voroshilov, as he wrote privately (June 8, 1929) to Orjonikidze, who was away convalescing, had gotten into a row with Bukharin at a politburo session. “I lost my self-control and blurted out in Little Nikolai’s face, ‘You liar, bastard, I’ll punch you in the face,’ and other such nonsense and all in front of a large number of people,” he lamented. “Bukharin is trash and is capable of telling the vilest fabrications straight to your face. . . . Still, I did not behave properly. . . . After this scene Bukharin left the politburo meeting and did not return.” Voroshilov had just voted to accommodate Bukharin’s wishes in the matter of his next appointment, forming part of a rare politburo majority in that vote against Stalin.62 Soon thereafter, Stalin had the politburo revisit the military aspect of industrialization, just months after formal approval of the maximalist variant of the Five-Year Plan. On July 15, two secret decrees were issued that, to a considerable degree, belatedly sided with Voroshilov and the Red Army against Rykov’s fiscal prudence.63

The first decree underscored the long-standing view that all the states neighboring the USSR to the west needed to be viewed as a “likely enemy,” which required attaining military parity with them. It also called for acceleration of the components of the Five-Year Plan that served defense (nonferrous metals, chemicals, machine building) by means of “foreign technical assistance and aid, and acquisition of the most vital prototype models.”64 Red Army growth was set to reach 643,700 active troops by the end of the Five-Year Plan. Improvements were mandated in soldiers’ housing and vigilance against “kulak moods, anti-Semitism, [and] distorted disciplinary practices” (hazing). The second decree, on military factories proper, complained that they were overseen by “the caste of old tsarist-era specialists,” many of whom stood accused of “wrecking.” Voroshilov tasked the army staff—headed by Boris M. Shaposhnikov, a tsarist-era officer descended from Orenburg Cossacks—with redoing its economic plans and administration to facilitate mass production of advanced aircraft, artillery, and tanks.65 “Everyone has a magnificent impression,” the commissariat’s business manager wrote to Voroshilov of the secret decrees. “Boris Mikhailovich even declared that he got more effect from this document than from his medical treatment in Germany.”66

Secret military cooperation with Germany, in violation of the Versailles Treaty, had been under way for years. More than 100 Soviet officers had attended German general staff academy courses on state-of-the-art military science. (Some German officers, such as Friedrich von Paulus, presented guest lectures in Moscow.)67 Most of the Soviet brass, including Mikhail Tukhachevsky, made brief trips to Germany, but a few, such as Jeronimas Uborevičius, known as Uborevich, studied there for long stretches (in his case, from late 1927 through early 1929).68 A peasant from Lithuania (a land of free peasants) who had graduated from imperial Russia’s artillery school, then joined the Bolsheviks in 1917, Uborevičius spoke fluent German, resembled a German general staff type—precise, punctual, professional—and admired that country’s technology and organization. He became a favorite of the Reichswehr while enjoying Stalin’s favor, who assigned him to the new armaments directorate.69 The entire Red Army tank park numbered perhaps ninety units, mostly of Great War vintage, such as French-made tanks captured from the Whites. Artillery had been an area of rapid technological change since the Great War, but in August 1929 Stalin received yet another damning report deeming Red Army artillery “on the same technical level as in 1917, if not 1914,” despite considerable expenditure.70 In late summer and fall 1929, almost the entire artillery directorate and inspectorate were arrested for wrecking. Ten people were executed; others “testified” against tsarist-era military specialists beyond those in artillery, foreshadowing more arrests to come.71


All dictators risk overthrow when, for their own power, they empower a secret police. Kamenev’s “notes” of his conversation with Bukharin included the latter’s assertions about the OGPU’s supposed sympathies (“Yagoda and Trilisser are with us”). Genrikh Yagoda and Meyer Trilisser, aka Mikhail Moskvin, the longtime head of OGPU foreign intelligence and, like Yagoda, an OGPU deputy chairman, had been compelled to submit explanations to Stalin, with a copy to Orjonikidze at the party Control Commission.72 Yagoda had to admit that he met regularly with Rykov, who, after all, was the head of the government, including in Rykov’s private apartment (in the same building as Stalin’s). Yagoda and Rykov both hailed from the Volga region.73

Complicating the situation, the OGPU chairman, Mężyński, suffered numerous ailments, from severe asthma to a spinal injury as a result of a car accident in Paris. (He often received subordinates while half lying on a couch.) People whispered that he had never fully recovered his spirits after his young wife had died during surgery.74 Stalin ignored his requests to resign. On April 21, 1929—precisely the moment of Stalin’s machinations against the right deviation—Mężyński had a massive heart attack. He was ordered to curtail his smoking and sugar intake and to rest. After several months, on August 1, the doctors allowed him to return to work, but only if he went to the office every other day and for no more than five hours each time; Mężyński rejected these conditions and returned to Lubyanka anyway.75 But his absences and continued illness heightened the already sharp jockeying in the secret police. With Yagoda down south on holiday, Trilisser, at a meeting of the Sokolniki ward of the Moscow party organization where OGPU officials were registered, demanded self-criticism to rid the secret police of unworthy people, and accused Yagoda of “retreating from the general line of the party with the right deviation.”76

Police operatives had recently been instructed to omit the name and location of their branch even when signing their secret internal correspondence, so as to reduce any outsider’s ability to decipher the organization’s structure in case of a leak.77 Now, Stalin wrote to Mężyński (September 16, 1929), “it turns out you (the Chekists) have taken a course toward full-bore self-criticism inside the GPU. In other words, the Chekists are committing the same mistakes that were committed not long ago in the military body. . . . Do not forget that the GPU is no less a militarized agency than the military body. . . . Would it be impossible to undertake decisive measures against this evil?”78 Trilisser lost out, replaced by Stanisław Messing, who was close to his fellow Pole Mężyński. At the same time, the Stalin favorite, Yefim Yevdokimov, was brought from the North Caucasus to run the central OGPU secret-political directorate, which oversaw the secret, counterintelligence, special (army), informational (intelligence analysis), Eastern, and operative departments—a counterweight to Yagoda.79

Among the 2,000-odd operatives in the central OGPU at this time, Yevdokimov stood out. His North Caucasus bailiwick had become the most medal-bedecked in the Union, thanks to the protracted counterinsurgency against a well-armed populace (“bandit formations”), a civil war after the civil war.80 What is more, the place where Stalin took his holidays fell within his jurisdiction. In conspiring with the dictator to manufacture the 1928 Shakhty trial, Yevdokimov had become an all-Union star (and in 1930 would receive his fourth Order of the Red Banner).81 He looked after his subordinates’ families and gathered them at his house for banquets and singing—Ukrainian choral songs, Cossack songs, Russian folk ditties—with one Chekist playing the piano and another the accordion. “Yevdokimov had formed a powerful group that would implement his any command,” recalled one member. “By giving out awards, taking care of their daily life concerns, and corrupting their behavior, Yevdokimov had succeeded in forging a strong nucleus of Chekists loyal to him to the end. In turn, these people forged groups of operatives loyal to one another and, by extension, to Yevdokimov.”82

There was no assignment from which Yevdokimov would shrink on behalf of his patron. Innocently, Stalin, in the letter to Mężyński on September 16, 1929, had written: “I got wind that Yevdokimov is being transferred to Moscow to secret-operative work (it seems in place of Deribas). Would it not follow to simultaneously make him a member of the OGPU collegium? It seems to me it would follow.” Yevdokimov was named to the collegium even before his relocation to Moscow took effect.83

Stalin did not instigate this anti-Yagoda revolt. But he had again extracted advantage from others’ actions. Yagoda was promoted to first deputy chairman of the OGPU, from merely “deputy,” while Messing became a new second deputy chairman. But Stalin allowed Yevdokimov to implant his North Caucasus minions into the many departments in the capital that he now oversaw.84 Yevdokimov’s top deputy was now Jan Kulikowski, known as Olsky (b. 1898), another Pole of noble descent, who remained the head of the powerful counterintelligence department while becoming concurrently head of the special department for the army. Artur Artuzov, deputy chief of foreign intelligence and a long-standing Yagoda nemesis, became Yevdokimov’s other top deputy.85 Yagoda would have to overexert himself to demonstrate separation from the “right deviation” and loyalty to Stalin.


All during the OGPU machinations, Stalin was on holiday down south, from the third week of July 1929, staying mostly at the Puzanovka dacha in Sochi. He had caught severe flu. He promoted “Bolshevik self-criticism” when it suited him, but in a letter of July 29 to Molotov, whom he had left in charge, he denounced some articles he had seen in Communist Youth League Pravda and the journal Young Guard as tantamount to “a call for a review of the general line of the party, for the undermining of the iron discipline of the party, for the turning of the party into a discussion club.”86 Stalin drafted politburo resolutions and instructions on foreign affairs, ordered that close attention be paid to the new iron- and steelworks under construction, and directed that the internal exile Cristian Rakovski, whose damning essay Stalin had read in the first issue of Trotsky’s Bulletin of the Opposition (July 1929), be deported to an even more remote locale (which turned out to be Barnaul, Siberia). Stalin complained about low grain procurements and demanded surveillance over collective farm directors and arrests of urban “speculators.” He congratulated Molotov (August 29) for savage attacks against Bukharin in Pravda, and reported, “I’m beginning to recuperate in Sochi.”87

Stalin directed talks to restore diplomatic relations with Britain (severed in mid-1927). The negotiations, supported by British industrialists, were launched after the Labour party won elections and the Labourite Ramsay MacDonald was returned as prime minister (in June 1929). “No haste should be displayed on the British question,” he instructed Molotov, denigrating deputy foreign affairs commissar Maxim Litvinov. “Remember we are waging a struggle (negotiations with enemies is struggle) not with England alone, but with the whole capitalist world, for the MacDonald government is the vanguard of the capitalist governments in the work of ‘humiliating’ and ‘bridling’ the Soviet government with ‘new,’ more ‘diplomatic,’ more ‘masked,’ in a word, more ‘valid’ methods. The MacDonald government wants to show the whole capitalist world that it can take more from us (with the help of ‘soft’ methods) than Mussolini, Poincaré, and Baldwin, that it can be a greater Shylock than the capitalist Shylock himself. And it wants this because only in this way can it win over the trust of its own bourgeoisie (and not only its bourgeoisie). We would be the bottom of the barrel if we could not manage to reply to these arrogant bastards briefly and to the point: ‘You won’t get a friggin’ thing from us.’”88

Stalin was assiduously courting Maxim Gorky, the Russian writer, to return permanently from Italy, and in 1929, for the second year in a row, he visited the USSR. “I heard Gorky evidently went to Sochi,”—Stalin’s wife, Nadya, wrote to him on August 28.89 “He will probably visit you, a pity, without me.” After traveling down the Volga, Gorky made it to Tiflis and, apparently, Sochi, but soon began spitting blood and cut his trip short.90 Nadya was in Moscow to sit entrance exams for the Industrial Academy. “I send you a big kiss, like the kiss you gave me when we parted,” she wrote to her husband in the August 28 letter, delivered by airplane. He wrote the next day about how “I have already managed to take two medicinal baths. I think I’ll take ten.” On September 1, he wrote that he had evidently “been close to pneumonia,” and still suffered from a persistent cough. “As soon as you get 6–7 free days, get down here to Sochi. How are things with the exam? I kiss you, my Tatka.”91

Nadya wrote the next day of daily life in the capital, “I must say that the mood about food supplies, among students and teachers, is only so-so; everyone is worn out by the queues.” She added knowingly, “Do not be angry at such details.”92 She had the further audacity to intervene on behalf of a member of Pravda’s editorial collegium, the secretary of its party cell, Kovalev, who had fallen afoul for publishing a critical article about the need for criticism, without seeking prior authorization from the Central Committee. But Kovalev had received authorization from higher-ups at Pravda. “I cannot be indifferent about the fate of such a good worker and comrade of mine,” Nadya wrote to Stalin, revealing that she knew a politburo meeting had been scheduled to adjudicate the matter. (Nadya also wrote, “And, if you can, send 50 rubles, I do not have a kopeck left.” Stalin sent her 120 rubles.) He accepted her account of Kovalev’s scapegoating (“I think you are right”) and sent a telegram to Molotov that same evening asking to delay any decision. The next day, Stalin instructed Orjonikidze and Molotov to establish firmer control over Pravda. Orjonikidze wrote to Stalin that “Kovalev has so far not been touched even though he committed a mass of idiocies. I agree with you that the leaders of Pravda are more at fault.” (Kovalev would be fired from Pravda all the same.) Orjonikidze pointedly added, “I must say, the sooner you return, the better.”93

Molotov and Orjonikidze had just written a joint letter to Stalin (September 13, 1929), pleading for newspaper criticism of leading officials to be reined in, but that same day, Stalin wrote back, “I consider your proposal risky in that it could objectively lead to curbing of self-criticism, which is unacceptable.” The next day, he added that “full-on self-criticism activates the mass and creates a state of siege for all and all kinds of bureaucrats. This is a great achievement.”94

Stalin read newspapers assiduously on holiday. After finding an account in Pravda of a mid-September Rykov speech, he erupted in a telegram he sent to Molotov, Voroshilov, and Orjonikidze, making known that at a minimum, he wanted Rykov removed from chairing politburo sessions. (“Can you not put an end to this comedy?”)95 Meanwhile, Nadya wrote to him from Moscow (September 27) that “without you it is very, very boring,” and pleaded, “In a word, come back. It will be nice together. . . . I kiss you firmly, firmly.” She detailed the infighting at the Industrial Academy, where she was studying chemical dyes and synthetic fibers for clothing applications. “Students here are graded as follows: kulak, middle peasant, poor peasant. There is such enormous laughter and argument every day. In a word, they have already put me down as a rightist.”96

Stalin did not react to her naïve “joke” on the touchiest (for him) of subjects in his next letter (September 30), noting only that he would be back in Moscow in a week. On October 3, Britain and the USSR signed a one-page protocol restoring relations, without settling their outstanding disputes, just as Stalin had insisted.97 With his return imminent, he wrote to Molotov (October 6), “It is necessary to think Bukharin will be kicked out of the politburo.”98 Stalin also revealed his prickliness yet again. “For some reason, recently, you have started praising me,” he wrote to Nadya (October 8). “What does this mean? Good, or bad?”99


Stalin had not been abroad since 1913. “How good would it be if you, comrade Stalin, changing appearance, traveled for a certain time abroad with a genuine translator, not a tendentious one,” foreign affairs commissar Georgy Chicherin had recently written. “You would see reality.”100 (Stalin would not set foot outside the USSR until 1943.) The dictator continued to direct intelligence officials to focus on threats posed by Britain, France, Germany, and Japan, as well as the “limitrophes,” the immediate borderland states (Poland, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Romania). They were reporting what he solicited.101 “The Turkish general staff has received testimony from Germany, Poland, and England that war between the USSR and Poland will happen in early 1930,” one report stated (October 11, 1929), in passages Stalin underlined. “Poland is seriously preparing for war. . . . Rumors are circulating as well among the [military] attachés in Moscow about a war coming soon.”102

Gorky had returned to Sorrento already, and Stalin, back in Moscow, resumed his side of their correspondence via diplomatic pouch. “Things are not going badly here,” he noted (October 24). “We’re moving the cart along; of course, with creaking, but we’re moving forward. . . . They say that you are writing a play about wrecking and that you would not be against receiving related materials. I gathered materials on wrecking and I’ll send them to you presently. . . . How’s your health?”103 Other pressing business included dispatching central functionaries to oversee grain collections in the North Caucasus, Bashkiria, the Central and Lower Volga, and Ukraine.104 Stalin was using the heavy-handed procurements to force peasants into collective farms. He and other regime officials either ignored the disposition of animals altogether or publicly insisted on immediate full socialization. Rather than hand their animals over to the collectives, peasants had been trying to sell them since summer, but markets were flooded and prices had cratered, so the peasants had begun slaughtering animals en masse in protest. The livestock that had been socialized were often up to their knees in dung, and dying.105 A catastrophe was unfolding.

Also on October 24, the United States stock market lost 11 percent of its value at the opening bell. Trading on that “Black Thursday” was heavy, and the ticker tape could not keep up—people had no idea what stocks were worth. Bankers tried to arrest the slide with bulk purchases of blue chips above trading prices. But when the market opened on Monday, it fell 13 percent. “Black Tuesday” (October 29) saw a 12 percent drop amid record trading (a record not broken for four decades), which brought the Dow Jones to 40 percent below the peak it had reached in September. The Wall Street crash came after a speculative boom in which stocks were being purchased at an average price-to-earnings ratio of 32, far above historic levels, thanks partly to the invention of margin buying. When prices dropped, investors could not pay back the loans they had assumed to purchase the stocks. Just one in six U.S. households owned stocks, but the shock provoked business bankruptcies, credit contraction, worker layoffs, and psychological uncertainty. Most remarkable, the weeklong drop in share prices occurred almost instantaneously on all financial markets in the world except Japan—and the Soviet Union, which, of course, did not have a stock market.106

On November 5, 1929, following protracted negotiations between Britain and the Soviet Union, the House of Commons ratified restoration of diplomatic relations by a wide margin (324 to 199).107 Each government continued to accuse the other of treachery, but for Stalin, diplomatic recognition by the world’s “leading imperialist power” denoted acknowledgment of the Five-Year Plan for rapid industrialization.108 That same day, a politburo decree ordered the execution of the OGPU espionage operative Yakov Blyumkin. His fatal act had been to meet on Prinkipo with Trotsky, his former patron, who revealed that he had managed to carry out secret documents, which he intended to publish to expose Stalin, and predicted the regime’s downfall, averring that the underground “Bolshevik-Leninists” needed to strengthen their opposition. Blyumkin evidently sensed that Trotsky was fantasizing, yet he had agreed to carry messages to Moscow from Trotsky, written inside books in invisible ink.109 He became one of the first Communist party members executed by the Soviet regime for a political crime.


The permanency, or not, of ad hoc regime violence in the countryside was set to be clarified at the year’s second Central Committee plenum, scheduled to open November 10, 1929, and Stalin went on the offensive, with a newspaper article, “The Year of the Great Break,” in Pravda on the revolution’s anniversary (November 7). “We are going full speed ahead by means of industrialization to socialism, leaving behind our traditional ‘Russian’ backwardness,” he declared. “We are becoming a country of metal, a country of the automobile, a country of the tractor.” In the run-up to the plenum, regime officials had begun to boast of fulfilling the Five-Year Plan in just four years, and, at the plenum itself, this would become a “vow” attributed to “the proletariat” and, soon, a ubiquitous slogan—“ 5 in 4.”110 His article predicted giant new farms of 125,000 to 250,000 acres, larger than even the biggest U.S. farms of the time, and insisted that “the peasants are joining collective farms . . . as whole villages, whole counties, whole districts, even sub-provinces”—a supposed movement from below, refuting the rightists. He further boasted that “the country in something like three years will become one of the most grain-rich, if not the most grain-rich, in the world.”111 That would allow for vast grain exports, to pay for imported machinery.112

Local party committees, under intense central pressure, claimed to have doubled the number of collectivized households since June 1929—the basis of Stalin’s plenum’s assertions—but even so collectivization still amounted to only 7.6 percent of households.113 And it was eyewash anyway. “We had wholesale collectivization on the territory of dozens of villages,” the Ukraine party boss Stanisław Kosior admitted to the plenum, “and then it turned out that all of it was inflated, artificially created, and that the population did not take part and knew nothing.” Critical comments were also uttered by Sergei Syrtsov, who had hosted Stalin in Siberia the year before and been brought back to Moscow by him in 1929, becoming a candidate member of the politburo and head of the Russian republic’s Council of People’s Commissars (Rykov’s lesser position, taken away from him).114 When Syrtsov bemoaned the lack of thought given to policy implementation, Stalin interrupted, “You think everything can be ‘prepared beforehand’?”115

Stalin had the plenum compel a new capitulation from the rightists, which Pravda would publish (“We consider it our duty to declare that . . . the party and its Central Committee have proved right”), and on the final day (November 17) he prompted them to expel Bukharin from the politburo.116 But the dictator, passing a handwritten note to Orjonikidze acknowledging the hall’s sentiment, proved unable to finish off Rykov.117 Still, plenum resolutions warned of “the sharpening of the class struggle and the stubborn resistance by capitalist elements to socialism on the offensive.”118 In fact, before the year was out, the secret police would record at least 1,300 spontaneous, uncoordinated peasant protests against party policy.119 But Stalin forced through a decree that transformed his theretofore ad hoc pronouncements into an official mandate for wholesale Union-wide collectivization.120


Also on November 17, 1929, the Soviet Union launched the second part of a major military operation in Manchuria. Stalin’s China policy, a “united front” that forced the Chinese Communists into a junior partnership with the Soviet-supported “bourgeois” Nationalists (or Guomindang) to prioritize resistance to imperialism, had been in disarray. The Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek had massacred Chinese Communists, and had gone on to unify much of north and south China. The main exception was Manchuria, ruled by a warlord based in Mukden, Zhang Xueliang, known as the Young Marshal, who had taken over for his Japanese-assassinated father. In a conspiracy coordinated with Chiang, Zhang raided the Soviet consulate in Harbin, produced documents of Soviet subversion, and occupied the jointly managed Chinese Eastern Railway, a tsarist-built shortcut for the Trans-Siberian that afforded a sphere of influence.121 Aiming to evict the Soviets, Zhang’s troops violated the extraterritoriality granted by treaty and detained Soviet rail officials, charging them with spreading Communist propaganda and instigating rebellion. The USSR arrested Chinese merchants on Soviet soil and, in August 1929, broke off diplomatic relations.122

Stalin suspected that the Mukden warlord, no less than the Nationalist government in Nanking, was in the pay of the British, the Japanese, or the Americans (or all three), so that the railroad seizure might be a diversionary action. He authorized formation of a Special Far Eastern Army consisting of local conscripts (as well as some ethnic Germans from the Volga region, a separate ethnic Buryat cavalry division, and one battalion of Soviet Koreans). They were commanded by Vasily Blyukher, the former top military adviser to Chiang.123

Zhang’s Mukden regulars and irregulars numbered up to a quarter million, aided by thousands of former émigré White Guards. Japanese troops were stationed just 125 miles south of Harbin, guarding a rail spur, the South Manchurian Railway, from Harbin down to Port Arthur, which tsarist Russia had also built, but ceded the lease to Japan as war spoils in 1905. (This area was known in its Chinese characters as Guāndōng or Kwantung, meaning “east of the mountain pass,” beyond which lay Manchuria.)124 Given these realities, Stalin had hesitated to punish the Chinese by force, despite Voroshilov’s urgings, but after the Soviet consul general in Tokyo obtained assurances from a well-connected Japanese industrialist that Japan would not interfere in a Soviet showdown with China as long as Red Army forces did not move too deep into Manchuria, Stalin agreed to the strike.125 More than 300,000 soldiers, sailors, and aviators were mobilized on the two sides, including Soviet reserves and border guards—approximately 20 percent of the entire Red Army ended up being sent to or near the front. Blyukher drew up the war plan (availing himself of pre-1917 archives); Voroshilov took up field headquarters in Chita, Siberia. Both Chiang and the Young Marshal had underestimated Soviet resolve and capabilities, such as their superior air power and battlefield command.

Blyukher’s offensive was cleverly designed to annihilate the enemy before its full force could be mustered. Employing fast maneuvering in a combined sea-air-land operation, he encircled Chinese troops in just forty-eight hours, despite Soviet shortages of artillery. The Far Eastern Army had managed to operate on two salients separated by 600 miles and to synchronize three major operations: naval and amphibious assaults down the Sungari River (October 1929), a western thrust from Manzhouli, and an eastern one from Suifenhe (both in November 1929). The Soviets claimed to have had just 812 killed in action (though the toll was likely higher).126 The Far Eastern Army was awarded the Order of the Red Banner.127 Some foreign newspapers in the Far East lauded Blyukher as a “Red Napoleon.”128 China’s government sued for peace, agreeing to restore Soviet co-control over the railroad and “disarm the White Guard detachments and expel their organizers and instigators from [China’s] Three Eastern Provinces.”129 The Soviet military action beyond its borders reinforced deep anxieties among Polish and French diplomats. Japan’s Kwantung Army command, for its part, was in no mind to accept Soviet successes in Manchuria. High officials in Tokyo—who had allowed the Soviets to weaken Chinese forces—now concluded that Chinese troops could be easily vanquished, an inference that, if acted upon, could bring Japan and the USSR into collision.130

Stalin was ecstatic. “Obviously our fellows from the Far East Army gave [the Chinese] a good scare,” he crowed on December 5, 1929, to Molotov (now the one on holiday). “We rebuffed America and England and France rather rudely for their attempt to intervene. We could not have done otherwise. Let them know what Bolsheviks are like! I think the Chinese landowners will not forget the object lessons taught them by the Far East Army.” Stalin added: “Grain procurements are progressing. We are raising the supply allocations for industrial cities like Ivanovo-Voznesensk, Kharkov, and so on. The collective farm movement is growing by leaps and bounds. Of course, there are not enough machines and tractors—how could it be otherwise?—but simply pooling peasant tools results in a colossal increase in sown acreage.”131


From December 5 through 10, 1929, the regime staged the First All-Union Congress of Shock Brigades. “Workers took to the podium and spoke not only about their factory, their plant—they spoke about planning in general, about standardization, about control figures, and so on,” Valerian Kuibyshev, the head of the Supreme Council of the Economy, boasted from the dais. “That is how people can speak who feel themselves the masters of their country.”132

On December 15, seven weeks after Black Tuesday on the New York Stock Exchange, a Pravda editorial declared that a general economic crisis had engulfed the United States. As other customers for large capital orders became scarcer, Stalin shopped the great capitalist department store. Starting with the American companies Freyn Engineering and Arthur McKee, Moscow signed “technical assistance” contracts to import the new American wide-strip steel mills and heavy blooming mills with which to build brand-new integrated steel plants at Magnitogorsk (Urals), equivalent in size to the flagship U.S. Steel plant in Gary, Indiana, as well as others in Kuznetsk (Siberia) and Zaporozhe (Ukraine). Additionally, the Soviets contracted with the Ford Motor Company to build an integrated mass-production facility in Nizhny Novgorod for cars and trucks, on the basis of recent Ford patents and its famed River Rouge plant. Caterpillar was engaged to re-equip factories in Kharkov and Leningrad to mass-produce tractors and harvesters, while giant tractor plants were contracted for Stalingrad and, very soon, Chelyabinsk, intended to be the largest in the world. Contracts would be signed with DuPont and Nitrogen Engineering to manufacture ammonia, nitric acid, and synthetic nitrogen, and Westvaco for chlorine. There would be ball-bearings technology from Sweden and Italy, advanced plastics and aircraft from France, turbines and electrical technology from Britain.133 Virtually every contract would contain at least one turnkey installation—an entire plant from scratch to operation.134 The Soviets had to pay with foreign-currency-earning exports (grain, timber, oil) or gold reserves.135 But now Stalin’s regime even managed to obtain foreign credits, which, although short term, were frequently on favorable terms with foreign government guarantees and did not even necessitate that they redeem the pre-Communist state debts.136

On December 21, 1929, Stalin officially turned fifty. Pravda had begun printing congratulations three days earlier, and on the actual day, the paeans occupied six and a half of the issue’s eight pages, with some of the approximately 1,000 congratulatory telegrams coming from factories and organizations, but not from collective farmers.137 Molotov sent a private note. “I know that you are diabolically busy,” he wrote. “But I shake your fifty-year-old hand.” 138 The state publishing house issued a collection of the tributes in an edition of 300,000 copies. “Wherever Stalin is,” it stated, “there is success, victory.”139 The Pravda birthday issue carried the iconic photograph of Stalin with Lenin at the latter’s dacha and hailed the dictator as “the best pupil, heir, and successor of Lenin.” But that made him a target: “Stalin stands at the head of the Leninist Central Committee. Therefore he is invariably the object of savage abuse on the part of the world bourgeoisie and the Social Democrats.”140

Stalin struck a modest pose in a published response (December 22), crediting the Leninist party and the working class, “which bore me and reared me in its own image and likeness,” and making a solemn vow: “You need have no doubt, comrades, I am prepared to devote to the cause of the working class, the cause of the proletarian revolution and world Communism, all my strength, all my ability, and, if need be, all my blood, drop by drop.”141

The newsreel agency produced a six-part silent amalgamation of Stalin moments caught on film: smiling, waving, graciously accepting accolades, wise, benevolent.142 It conveyed his revolutionary bona fides with tsarist-police photographs and fingerprints and images of the shacks he inhabited during exile in Solvychegodsk and Kureika. Viewers also saw his birth hovel and hometown of Gori, with its medieval-fortress ruins on the hill, a pantheon of childhood photos, and a long interlude at the current Tiflis home of his bespectacled mother, Keke Geladze, as she assembled a care package with his beloved homemade walnut jam. Now Stalin also became the organizer of the Red Army, an innovation canonized in Voroshilov’s birthday pamphlet, “Stalin and the Red Army.” Trotsky was provoked to consider writing a history of the Red Army and the civil war in rebuttal, but that would not get done: a suspicious fire at his residence destroyed many of his papers and books on the subject.143 Voroshilov’s draft, meanwhile, had been sent to Stalin for prior approval. The defense commissar had written that Stalin made fewer mistakes than the others. Stalin wrote back, “Klim! There were no mistakes—cut that paragraph.”144


Those who wanted to be part of the world-historical building of socialism would have to fall in line. “It is now completely clear that one cannot be for the party and against the present leadership,” the Trotsky apostate and state bank head Georgy “Yuri” Pyatakov wrote in Pravda (December 23, 1929). “One cannot be for the Central Committee and against Stalin.”145 Unlike Italian fascism, however, Marxism had trouble admitting a cult of the leader. This delicate question was directly addressed—for perhaps the last time under Stalin—in the lead article of the journal Party Construction, published in connection with Stalin’s jubilee. The author, K. Popov, characterized leadership as necessary and Stalin’s as “armed with Marxist-Leninist revolutionary theory, forged by multiyear experience of the struggle for Leninism, hand in hand with Lenin.” Popov referred to a “leading group” within the party and to Stalin as “the genuine ‘first among equals,’” because, in his struggle for Leninism, he “invariably expresses the will of hundreds of thousands and millions.” Stalin’s illiberal regime, in other words, was democratic. Popov quoted Lenin to the effect that “one person can represent the will of hundreds and tens of thousands of people,” and underscored the “democracy” of party congresses, whereby “the will of the collective party leadership and the will of the leaders merge with the will of the masses.”146

Soviet newspapers had taken to berating actual Soviet workers as shirkers, absentees, and drunks, ruining the regime’s industrial plan with indiscipline. The Menshevik émigré press speculated that “capitalist” types had regained control of the factories. Gorky, also abroad, was taken aback. “Negative reports must be balanced by positive reporting,” he urged in a letter to Stalin in late 1929. “Progress in carrying out the Five-Year Plan must be reported on a week-to-week and month-to-month basis . . . : the construction of housing, factories, plants, bakeries, community centers, canteens, and schools. . . . The press should keep reminding itself and its readers . . . that socialism is being built in the USSR not by sloppy individuals, hooligans, and raving morons, but by a genuinely new and mighty force—the working class.” Soon enough, updates on “socialist construction” and worker heroes—alongside the encomiums to Stalin and lurid tales of sabotage—would saturate the public sphere.147


Already by early December 1929, the Soviet state had procured 13.5 million tons of grain—more than twice as much as in any preceding year of the regime.148 But the state had to feed many more rural folk (who had previously purchased or traded for food on the market), set aside grain for ambitious surges in export, and meet the rationing norms for the industrial cities and construction sites, as well as the Red Army.149 In that connection, the November 1929 plenum had created a new USSR land commissariat. Stalin appointed Yakov Epstein, known as Yakovlev, the editor of Peasant Newspaper and a member of the disciplinary Central Control Commission, as commissar.150 He presided over a commission on the tempos of collectivization and forms of collectives, which decided not on the kommuna—full socialization of everything—but on an intermediate form, the artel, with socialization of land, labor, draft animals, and fundamental implements, but private ownership of cows, other livestock, and some everyday tools. Collectivized peasants were also to be allowed to retain household plots. The commission’s thorniest question was whether the “class enemy” kulak would be permitted to join the new socialist agriculture. Disposition of kulaks had largely been left to locals, and many collective farms were admitting them. The Yakovlev commission warned against any blanket approach.151

Suddenly, however, in a speech on the last day (December 27, 1929) of a weeklong Congress of Agrarians-Marxists, Stalin preempted the commission, thundering in words Pravda carried two days later that “we have gone over from a policy of limiting the exploiting tendencies of the kulak to a policy of eliminating the kulaks as a class.” Liquidating an entire class? “Is it possible to accelerate tempos of our socialized industry more while having such an agricultural base as small peasant farms, incapable of expanding production and yet predominating in our economy?” he asked rhetorically. “No, not possible. Is it possible to continue for a more or less long period to base Soviet power and socialist construction on two different foundations—on the foundation of the largest and most consolidated socialist industry and on the foundation of the most subdivided and backward small-scale peasant economy? No, not possible.” He continued: “What’s the solution? The solution is to make agriculture large-scale, make it capable of accumulation, of expanding production, and in this way transform the agricultural base of our economy.”152 Stalin had a famously soft voice, but one audience member called his ultra-class-war speech “electrifying.”153

Once again, the dictator had enacted a conspiracy within the regime: at Old Square, more than a month before, he had received the OGPU hierarchs—Yagoda, Messing, Yevdokimov, and others—as well as Georgy Blagonravov, the former head of the secret police transport department and now first deputy commissar of railroads.154 This would be the kulak liquidation team.

Stalin also used his pencil to hand victory to the more rabid members of the Yakovlev commission: the partially socialized artels were no longer to be allowed as the main form of collectives indefinitely, but would be superseded by a leap to the “higher-form” kommunas. Stalin also crossed out mention of farmers retaining minor implements, chickens, or a milk cow and wrote in that collectivization was to be completed in just one to two years (depending on region), using dekulakization. All this became a politburo resolution approved on January 5, 1930.155 Six days later, Yagoda asked his top subordinates how many people could be interned in existing labor camps and where new camps might be quickly established, encouraging them to “think creatively.”156 The upshot was that each territory would have a deportation quota.157 “Not everyone has the nerves, strength, character, and understanding to appreciate the scenario of a tremendous breakup of the old and a feverish construction of the new,” Stalin exulted in a letter to Gorky in Sorrento (January 17). “Naturally, with such a ‘baffling turmoil,’ we are bound to have those who are exhausted, distraught, worn out, despondent, and lagging—and those who go over to the enemy camp. These are the inevitable ‘costs’ of revolution.”158

Stalin issued secret circulars to local party machines on the dekulakization of more than 2 million peasants, using every available instrument: the procuracy, courts, regular police (militia), secret police, party activists, urban workers, and, if necessary, soldiers.159 Orjonikidze let slip the recklessness at the Central Control Commission on January 18: “Do not forget that in our conditions, what yesterday was considered correct today might already be incorrect.”160


There were more than 500,000 settlements in just the European part of the Soviet Union. Newspaper articles and decrees made their way to the county level and even below, but the party-state lacked rural cadres that could see through consistent implementation.161 Stalin, however, had an ace in his deck: a decision to recruit urban workers to build socialism in the countryside had been announced at the November 1929 plenum. Trade unions (“Time does not wait!”) were recruiting “politically literate” workers who were to inject their superior “consciousness” into the vast “spontaneity” of the petit bourgeois countryside.162 Worker volunteers were backed by considerable force. Red Army men would be used sparingly—the OGPU was warning of “kulak” moods even among poor peasant soldiers—but thousands of OGPU internal troops were deployed.163 “Those who are joining the collective farm, sign up with me,” one activist announced. “Those who do not want to join, sign up with the police chief.”164

Of Stalin’s many instruments, however, none was greater than the enchanted vision of building a new world. The regime had planned to mobilize up to 25,000 urban workers; more than 70,000 were said to have volunteered, and around 27,000 were accepted. More than two thirds were party members, and more than four fifths were from industrial regions. The vast majority had between five and twelve years’ factory experience, but nearly half belonged to the 23–29 age cohort.165 Only one in fourteen were female. “Your role is the role of the proletarian leader,” Kaganovich told a group of Moscow and Leningrad “25,000ers” about to depart for villages. “There will be difficulties, there will be kulak resistance and sometimes even collective farmer resistance, but history is moving in our favor. . . . Either we destroy the kulaks as a class, or the kulaks will grow as a class of capitalists and liquidate the dictatorship of the proletariat.”166 Semyon Budyonny, the civil war cavalry hero, and Voroshilov had appeared at Moscow train stations to conduct send-offs to “the grain front.”167 One worker recruit was quoted as saying, “It has been necessary for a long time to carry out such a firm policy, the sooner to catch up to capitalist countries.”168

The 25,000ers descended on the countryside in late January/early February 1930, in advance of the spring sowing drive.* They discovered that the regime-instigated class war was eliciting both social solidarity—poor peasants hiding or aiding kulaks—and peasant eagerness to benefit from expropriating those betteroff.169 Peasant property, seized in the name of the state without compensation, was supposed to be turned over to the new collectives after settlement of outstanding debts of the household in question, and its value counted toward the joining fees for poor peasant members.170 But activists (or onlookers) who evicted “kulaks” could take their possessions. One OGPU report stated that members “of lower echelons of the party-soviet apparatus deprived members of kulak and middle peasant households of their clothing and warm underwear (directly from their body), ‘confiscated’ headwear from children’s heads, and removed shoes from people’s feet.”171 A favored trick was the “auction”: one new village party secretary managed to obtain a four-room house, valued at 700 rubles, for 25.172

The OGPU secretly reported that some of the volunteers tried to rape village women and lusted for power. (“If I command it, you must do it, whether to jump into water or fire, otherwise it’s a bullet to the forehead.”)173 Administrative chaos ensued in many places. Even conscientious 25,000ers were not well versed in management or agronomy, and most faced material hardships on-site, as well as armed resistance. “Remember, you sons of bitches, we’ll get even with you,” read notes delivered to 25,000ers in their names.174 Ambushes by peasants with axes and sawed-off shotguns spread fear, concretizing the Manichaean propaganda.175 But the orgy of confiscation occurred alongside rampant idealism.176 Some 25,000ers reported indignantly that kommuna—not artel—collective farms had been imposed; others wrote earnest letters about “violations of socialist legality” (to the very authorities who committed them), risking charges of playing into the “kulak’s hands.” Many of the 25,000ers had escaped villages not long before and imagined that they were helping to overcome darkness and bring modern life to the countryside.


Early OGPU reports had been channeling Stalin’s delusion that “middle” and “poor” peasants were “turning toward the collective farm,” but soon enough the secret police reported mass resistance. (“Down with collectivization!” “No one is taking an ounce of grain from here!”) In March 1930 alone, the OGPU would register more than 6,500 spontaneous “anti-Soviet group protests.”177 Peasants could not coordinate their opposition across regions, had no transregional leaders or access to the press, and were armed, if at all, only with hunting rifles. This was by no means a “civil war.” Of the 2.5 million peasants who joined protests, according to the secret police count for the year, most did so nonviolently, refusing to join the collectives. Still, peasants would assassinate more than 1,100 rural officials and activists in 1930. Another weapon was arson, “the Red Rooster,” set loose on administrative buildings.178 Most frequently, protesters destroyed their own livestock: already one quarter of the country’s farm animals had been lost, a higher proportion than during the cataclysmic civil war. Almost half the mass peasant actions in 1930 would occur in Ukraine, where, in strategic regions bordering Poland, revolt overtook every inhabited settlement. Many villages elected their own leaders, ringing church bells to signal mobilization. Hundreds of leaflets were printed, in thousands of copies: “Down with Soviet power!” “Long live a free Ukraine!”179

Stalin had been warning of how “liquidation of the kulaks” and the “sharpening of the class struggle” would encourage “imperialist intervention” in the USSR.180 Had the “imperialists” been anywhere near as aggressive as he and Soviet propaganda painted them, they would have taken full advantage of his reckless destabilization.

Almost no one had foreseen Stalin’s stunning turn to complete liquidation of the kulaks, but now came another bolt from the blue: on March 2, 1930, Pravda published his article “Dizzy with Success,” castigating local functionaries as “blockheads” caught up in “communist vainglory” who “feared acknowledging their errors.” Stalin took no responsibility himself for the dislocation. “The collective farm must not be imposed by force,” he admonished. “That would be stupid and reactionary.”181

Despite his apparent retreat, intended to ease the pressure, the OGPU reports on domestic rebellion kept coming: uprisings in Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, the Central Black Earth region, Siberia’s Barabinsk steppe.182 Enraged especially about the overthrow of Soviet governing bodies along the frontier with Poland, Stalin privately ripped into the OGPU “to stop making speeches and act more decisively” (March 19, 1930). An offended Vsevolod Balytsky, Ukraine OGPU chief, claimed to the republic party boss, Kosior, that he was already doing just that, from a command post in the field. Orjonikidze, dispatched to the scene, wrote that peasant rebellions in border regions were being smashed “using machine guns and, in some places, cannons.”183

Trotsky, of all people, published an open letter to the Communist party (dated March 23) condemning the “adventurism” of violent collectivization and breakneck industrialization. Very few Soviet Communists could read the exile’s text, but they did not have to.184 The Pravda issue with Stalin’s article was reselling for 3, 4, or 5 rubles in the countryside, and peasants were gathering to listen to it being read.185 One peasant in the Lower Volga observed, “We have two governments—one in the center that writes to take back everything and the other local one that does not want this.”186 In fact, some local officials did reject Stalin’s retreat. “If they saw someone with a newspaper, they beat them harder and condemned: ‘So, you’re reading comrade Stalin’s article,’” M. Kvasov wrote, in a letter published in Peasant Newspaper, apropos of a village assembly on March 27. “When the peasants showed the party cell secretary, Petrov, Stalin’s article, they declared, ‘You are concealing the party line.’ But Petrov answered coldly: ‘You, comrades, are non-party, and this does not concern you. Don’t believe everything in the newspapers.’187 Local officials began to accuse Stalin of “right deviationism.”188

In the regime’s urban strongholds, money was giving way to barter amid galloping inflation, coins (which contained silver) were being hoarded, and even cigarettes could not be had. “At Moscow Tricotage no. 3,” a trade union functionary wrote in his diary (March 14), “one worker gave a speech stating, ‘Stalin wrote a correct article, only late. Bukharin wrote about this half a year ago and now it is being done Bukharin’s way. Ilich was right, saying, “Don’t trust Stalin, he will ruin you.” ’”189 Moscow provincial party boss Kārlis Baumanis—who had been ahead of Stalin in publicly promoting wholesale collectivization—was now made a sacrificial lamb, accused of extreme leftism. Kaganovich replaced him as party boss for Moscow in April 1930, while remaining a Central Committee secretary. Dispatched to Western Siberia that month (Roberts Eihe, the party boss there, was said to have appendicitis), Kaganovich got an earful, but he forced the local party bureau to adopt a secret resolution condemning as “leftist” their complaints against Stalin’s scapegoating of them.190

Nikolai Kin, a worker in the southern Ukraine city of Kherson, sent Stalin a blistering rebuttal to “Dizzy with Success,” detailing how the Central Committee was at fault, the party’s authority was damaged, and regime policies were self-defeating: “We are liquidating the kulak, and developing orphans and the indigent, throwing the children of kulaks, who are guilty of nothing, on the street.” Stalin responded privately. “Time will pass, the fury will subside, and you will understand that you are incorrect from beginning to end,” he wrote (April 22), admonishing Kin not to take pride in being a worker. “Among workers all kinds of people are found, good ones, bad ones. I know old workers with long experience in production who are still following the Mensheviks and even now cannot emancipate themselves from nostalgia for the old capitalist masters. Yes, comrade Kin, all kinds of workers are found on the earth.”191


To immense fanfare, on April 25, 1930, the separate constructions of the northern and southern sections of the Turkestan–Siberian Railway, known as Turksib, were joined at Aina-Bulak, some eight months ahead of schedule, using excavators purchased abroad and gargantuan amounts of manual labor, amid climate extremes and self-generated chaos. The Soviets engaged and persecuted “bourgeois” specialists and Kazakh jataki (horsemen without herds); unemployed Slavic workers had flocked in for the ration cards. The upshot would be Siberian grain imported to Central Asia to allow further expansion of cotton crops, and, in the short term, a propaganda coup.192 To the ceremony/banquet for thousands in the steppes (“Long Live Turksib! Long Live Stalin!”), a special train from Moscow carried officials and foreign guests, “a microcosm of the Soviet world . . . and its capitalist encirclement,” quipped an American journalist.193 A single Turksib could occlude many fiascoes, especially for people who wanted to believe. Not every person would be ideologized to the same depth, but life outside Communism was becoming unthinkable.194

The Rostov Agricultural Engineering Works followed, the largest of its kind in Europe, pronounced complete on June 1, 1930, after three years of construction.195 An iconic power station, Dneprostroi, at the cataracts of the Dnieper in Soviet Ukraine, was under fevered construction. Never mind that, for a time, half the derricks were occupied picking up the other half: the symbolism of harnessing nature in order to power a new industrial complex of projected aluminum plants and an integrated steel plant at Zaporozhe was linked in saturation coverage to individual transformation. “We build the dam, and the dam builds us” became the oft-repeated slogan.196 Epic constructions of the state-of-the-art steel blast furnaces—and of new people—at far-off Magnitogorsk and Kuznetsk were bathed in bright spotlights, too, attracting hordes of foreign correspondents, many of whom were moved to renounce their skepticism.

The sites also drew peasant laborers seeking to transform themselves, escape from dekulakization, or find food. Reports of spot food shortages and starvation-induced disease were most extensive already in summer 1930 and emerged from the Central Black Earth region, the North Caucasus, Ukraine, the Soviet Far East, and Western Siberia.197 The authorities in Kiev implored Mikoyan to send emergency supplies (“All local resources have been used”). The OGPU noted that collective farmers in Ukraine were refusing to work because they were not being fed, threatening a vicious food-shortage circle.198 But it was in the Kazakh autonomous republic that hunger and mass flight were most extensive in the summer of 1930. More than 150,000 Kazakhs, and their nearly 1 million head of livestock, were said to be heading for Siberia, Uzbekistan, Iran, Afghanistan, and China.199 Propaganda notwithstanding, the collectivization that was supposed to finance industrialization was instead threatening to starve it.200


Stalin kept up the pressure to suppress resistance; the OGPU had made 140,724 arrests between January 1 and April 15, 1930, and from the latter date through September 30 it would make another 142,993. But he was powerless to reverse an anticollectivization wave unintentionally incited by his “Dizzy with Success” article.201 The proportion of collectivized households, on paper, would collapse, from 56 percent as of March 1, 1930, to 24 percent by the summer.202 In the Tatar autonomous republic, collectivized households fell from 83 to 13 percent. Altogether, perhaps 8 million households quit, taking 7 million draft animals. At the same time, at least 5 million households remained in collectives, and more than 4 million of them had joined only recently, meaning that this was their first agricultural season in the new way.203 The regime’s violence and the peasants’ resistance had put the spring sowing and thus the fall harvest under threat, with consequences for industrialization. Stalin—and the country—needed a miracle.

Getting collective farms up and running was not for the squeamish. A few 25,000ers were able to pry loose scarce tools, scrap metal, construction materials for barns and silos, spare parts for machines, generators, books, tobacco, and workers from their home factories for their collective farms, and many put their skills to use as mechanics to repair inventory. Peasants went from threatening 25,000ers to protesting their transfers.204 Tellingly, the vast majority of the volunteers would end up staying in the countryside as new rural officials. (On average, a 25,000er ended up in one of every three collective farms in the principal grain-growing regions, and in one of every five collective farms overall.) By and large, despite minimal regime support and their own ignorance, it seems they helped salvage the spring 1930 sowing season. One key contribution was their introduction of the brigade system into the fields.205

Regime concessions were even more consequential for the spring sowing. Peasants who quit collective farms were given back their seed grain if they promised to sow crops. Belatedly, the regime made clear that although the main fields, draft horses, and plows would be collectivized, some livestock could remain in households’ possession. For those who stayed in the collectives, gigantomania, whereby entire counties were combined into a single collective farm, was abandoned.206 Those who remained were also permitted to cultivate their own household plots of fruit and vegetables. Perhaps 33 percent of what these farmers grew in 1930 would come from these plots. The regime was keen to demonstrate the collectives’ superiority to individual household farming and allowed the collective farms to retain a sizable 3.5 tons of grain per household. Stalin would never again countenance such a generous retention. What the farmers did not consume, they could sell. Stalin assumed that the collectively worked fields would soon render small household plots and the maintenance of animals uneconomical, but for now his regime sent out a decree to “forbid the closing of markets, reopen bazaars, and not hinder the sale of their products on the market by peasants, including collective farmers.”207

Beyond 25,000er mobilization and grudging regime flexibility, local solutions to the chaos emerged. The central authorities had proved unable to settle on how collective farmers would be compensated, but the farmers sowed crops anyway as locales came up with their own compensation formulas.208 Sheer luck made an incalculable contribution in the form of spectacularly favorable weather. “Nature gave us an extra month of spring,” one official rejoiced, and, given how late the sowing campaign had begun, that month was crucial for the harvest.209 With harvest projections suddenly going from doubtful to promising, grain exports to earn hard currency for machinery imports would be increased far beyond what the Five-Year Plan had anticipated for 1930, to more than 5 million tons. Mikoyan crowed at a Moscow regional party conference in early June that “one more year, and we shall not only secure ourselves enough grain, but become one of the largest grain producers in the whole world.”210


In the early summer of 1930, Stalin had sent Nadya to German doctors in Karlsbad for a stomach ailment. “Tatka! . . . What was the journey like, what did you see, have you been to the doctors, what do they say about your health, write to me,” he wrote on June 21. “We open the [party] congress on the 26th. Things are not too bad. I miss you very much. Tatochka, I am at home alone, like an owl. . . . Come home soon. I kiss you.”211 The 16th Party Congress opened as scheduled, the first since December 1927 and a massive affair, attended by 2,159 delegates, 1,268 of them with voting rights. Yet another purge had expelled more than 170,000 party members, especially in the countryside, for “passivity,” drunkenness, “defects in personal life,” “alien” social origins, or being “concealed” Trotskyites, and intimidated those who sympathized with the rightists.212 But because of new recruitment of worker members, sometimes of entire factory shops, membership in 1930 would rise by more than 500,000, to 2.2 million. Still, that was 1.4 percent of a total population of perhaps 160 million. Only one quarter of state functionaries belonged to the party, and in industrial management it was significantly less.213

Stalin’s lengthy political report, over both the morning and the afternoon of June 27, proceeded in his now familiar catechism fashion of rhetorical questions, enumerated points, and key-phrase repetition, in a self-congratulatory tone. “Today there is an economic crisis in nearly all the industrial countries of capitalism,” he gloated. “The illusions about the omnipotence of capitalism in general, and about the omnipotence of North American capitalism in particular, are collapsing.” He deemed the crisis one of overproduction, and asserted that capitalism’s contradictions were sharpening, which goaded the bourgeoisie to foreign adventurism. “Capitalist encirclement is not simply a geographical conception,” he warned. “It means that around the USSR there are hostile class forces, ready to support our class enemies within the USSR morally, materially, by means of financial blockade, and, when the opportunity arises, by means of military intervention.” Stalin bragged, however, that the party’s industrialization tempos were making the Trotskyite super-industrialists of the 1920s seem “the most extreme minimalists and the most wretched capitulators. (Laughter. Applause.)”214

Stalin remonstrated that “people who chatter about the necessity of reducing the rate of development of industry are enemies of socialism, agents of our class enemies (applause).” “Dizzy with Success” rural caution was abandoned: “Either we vanquish and crush them, the exploiters, or they will vanquish and crush the workers and peasants of the USSR.”215 Because the “socialist sector” had come to dominate the economy, he declared, the USSR had entered “the period of socialism.” Congress delegates enjoyed the right to purchase scarce goods at the restricted OGPU store, including fabric for a suit (3 meters for just 54 rubles), a coat, a shirt, a pair of shoes, two pairs of underwear, two knitting needles, two chunks of regular soap, and one of bath soap. They also received, gratis, 800 grams of meat, 800 grams of cheese, 1 kilo of smoked sausage, 80 grams of sugar, 100 grams of tea, and 125 cigarettes. “This is, of course, a blatant buy-off,” observed Ivan Shitts, a Russified Baltic German (Shutz) and an editor at the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, in his diary, noting that despite propaganda trumpeting the “heady growth of production,” the opportunity to buy mundane goods was treated as a perquisite.216

Budyonny, the country’s most famous horseman, joked at the congress that “we will destroy the horse as a class.” He had in mind not the peasants’ destruction of livestock, which the regime had provoked, but the introduction of tractors. Just in time for the congress, the Stalingrad Tractor Factory, whose construction had been rushed through the brutal winter, produced its first tractor. Stalin had sent a congratulatory telegram, printed in Pravda on June 18, thanking “our teachers in technology, the American specialists and technicians,” and lauding the plant’s prospective annual tractor output as “50,000 missiles exploding the old bourgeois world, and laying the road to a new socialist order in the countryside.”217 This was the USSR’s first conveyor belt plant, but only 60 percent of the machine tools had been installed. Instead of a planned 2,000 tractors in the July–September 1930 quarter, the factory would produce 43, and an American engineer on-site noted that “after 70 hours of work they begin to go to pieces.” Soviet steel was awful, copper ribbon for radiators arrived scratched beyond use, thousands of the assembly-line workers were touching nuts and bolts for the first time. Two of the high-priced American engineers died from typhoid; others begged to go home.218 Mastering Fordist assembly lines would take time. But a twenty-five-year-old Pravda correspondent, before he died of tuberculosis, gushed about the “uninterrupted flow of life, if you wish, the conveyor belt of History, the laws of its development in socialist conditions with all its breakdowns, terrible disruptions, savagery, filth, outrages.”219

At pre-congress meetings in educational academies, factories, and major party organizations, sharp attacks had been leveled at party policy.220 But rather than attempt to lead this widespread sentiment—that is, behave like an opposition—Rykov and Tomsky had traveled to party gatherings and warned of attempts by “petit bourgeois elements” in the village and the “bourgeoisie” abroad to take advantage of divisions inside the party. Their reward was to be rebuked at the congress for insufficient zeal in repudiating their potential followers.221

Bukharin, ill with pneumonia—what Trotsky contracted while under political assault—had gone to Crimea, where he hooked up with Anna Larina; she was sixteen, he was forty-one.222 Rykov was left to shoulder the burden and, through vicious heckling, once again admitted his errors (“of tremendous political significance”) but denied that he was part of any opposition.223 During the proceedings, Stalin wrote to Nadya (July 2) in Germany, “Tatka! I got all three letters. I could not reply immediately, as I was very busy. Now at last I am free. The congress will end the 10–12th. I shall be expecting you, do not be too long coming home. But stay longer, if your health makes it necessary. . . . I kiss you.”224 The congress dragged on to the 13th. Tomsky, Bukharin, and Rykov were reelected to the Central Committee, which returned Rykov to the politburo. But Tomsky was left out of the politburo, and his people were systematically purged from trade union positions. “It could be said that this is a violation of proletarian democracy,” Kaganovich told the congress delegates, apropos of the firings, “but comrades, it has long been known that for us Bolsheviks democracy is no fetish.”225

Kaganovich was “elected” to full membership in the politburo. Voroshilov and Orjonikidze departed the capital immediately for holidays of around two months. On July 17, the Stalin loyalist Sergei Kirov reported on the party congress to the Leningrad party organization he oversaw. “In a word, do not be in a hurry,” he said, mocking the rightists. “If the question arises that it is necessary to press the kulak, why do it? We are building socialism anyway, and sooner or later the kulak himself will disappear. . . . If we need to conduct grain collections, if the kulak must hand over his surplus, why squeeze him when the price paid could be raised and he will then give it over himself. . . . In a word, the rightists are for socialism, but without particular fuss, without struggle, without difficulties.”226

Two days later, state bank chairman Pyatakov, the recanted Trotskyite, who had been talking heart to heart to Orjonikidze, wrote to Stalin detailing a fiscal crisis and runaway inflation from lack of attention to costs and promiscuous printing of money. He proposed radically streamlining imports, curbing exports of animal products, raising prices on many goods, and tightening expenditures at the wasteful iconic construction projects.227 It was, effectively, a belated post-congress brief for a course correction. Stalin did not immediately respond.


Stalin’s personal dictatorship—known as the party’s “secret department”—got a new director on July 22, 1930: Alexander Poskryobyshev (b. 1891), whose father, like Stalin’s, had been a cobbler and who had trained as a nurse before the revolution. “One day,” the shaven-headed Poskryobyshev would recall, “Stalin summoned me and said, ‘Poskryobyshev, you have a frightful look about you. You’ll terrify people.’ And he engaged me.”228 On July 23, Stalin departed for his annual southern holiday, taking Poskryobyshev with him. Molotov was left to mind the store in Moscow. Nadya, after visiting her brother Pavel Alliluyev, the Soviet trade representative in Berlin, had returned from Germany and joined her husband. On July 26, Stalin’s Rolls-Royce, exiting the territory of the Puzanovka dacha, crashed into a car from the nearby resort Red Storm. Nadya, Budyonny, and Stalin’s main bodyguard, Ivan Jūsis, were also in the vehicle. A piece of flying glass cut Stalin’s left eyebrow.229

Stalin had been suffering occasional dizziness and a flaring of nerves, and doctors confirmed a diagnosis of neurasthenia.230, 231 His medical record for 1930, signed by Usher Leib “Lev” Levin, a top Kremlin physician who had taken care of Lenin, characterized the ruler’s living conditions (“good”), diet (“good”), work conditions (“intellectual, significant, interesting, indeterminate number of hours in the day”), drinking (“rare”), and smoking (“a lot”). It listed his appendectomy, which had left a scar, and illnesses over the years (chest pains, flu, polyarthritis, chronic tonsillitis, coughing). Stalin’s outward appearance was noted as “fatigued”; his liver and spleen as not enlarged. He was said to have frequent pain in his left shoulder muscles, which were atrophying, a result of a childhood contusion. Down south, he had his usual joint and muscle aches and undertook sulfur baths at Matsesta, near Sochi, which worked wonders. “After the course of baths, K. E. Voroshilov came over for a walk, and they drank cold, naturally carbonated water,” Stalin’s physician, Ivan Valedinsky, recalled. “After the walk Stalin’s throat hurt, [and he developed] so-called follicular sore throat with attacks and flaring.” Stalin’s temperature reached 102. It took four days to drop. After that, he complained of pains in his left leg. Valedinsky saw his patient every day for three weeks, and the dictator appreciated his company, speaking to him on a wide variety of topics: labor discipline, collective farms, the intelligentsia. When it was time for Valedinsky to depart, Stalin inquired how he could recompense him. “I asked for help in changing my apartment, which was a former merchant’s horse stable,” the doctor recalled. “Stalin smiled after this conversation. When I returned to Moscow, I was called by the Central Committee and told they would show me an ‘object,’ which turned out to be a five-room apartment.”232

Stalin cherished his recuperative time on the Black Sea. On August 13, 1930, he notified Molotov, back in Moscow, “P.S. Bit by bit I’m getting better.” Exactly one month later, he would write, “I’m now completely recovered.”233 But, as always, this was a working holiday, and he received ciphered telegrams every day, and fat packets of longer documents eight to twelve times a month. Many of the far-reaching changes to the country and the regime he set in motion the previous winter and spring were now consolidated.234 The secret police enjoyed a further ballooning in personnel.235 Strangely, there had been a reversal of fortunes between agriculture and industry. Meat and dairy production had fallen off a cliff, but the grain harvest—ultimately fixed at 77.2 million tons—turned out to be the best in Soviet history to date.236 With the agricultural cooperatives that had been marketing peasant products transformed into collectors of grain, and machine tractor stations also facilitating collections, the regime would procure a whopping 22 million tons at state-set prices. (The peasants ate or sold the rest on the market.)237 All the while, however, from July through September 1930, critical metal-producing and fuel industries declined, undermining industry as a whole. Labor supply became tight, railways devolved into bottlenecks, and inflation proceeded unabated. Glaring underproduction of tractors compared with plan targets and mass loss of livestock cast doubt on agriculture’s future, too.

Already in the summer and fall of 1930, while luminaries such as H. G. Wells, the British science fiction writer, were lauding the Five-Year Plan as “the most important thing in the world today,” the “planlessness” of Soviet planning was exposed in an incisive analysis by the Menshevik émigré newspaper Socialist Herald, which pointed out that setting maximal quantitative targets and goading each factory to meet them, where some would succeed and others not, and where even successes would be at varied levels, rendered coherence impossible. Overfulfilling the output target of nuts only led to waste if they exceeded the production of bolts; an increased supply of bricks provided no extra utility with insufficient mortar.238 Hoarding and wheeling and dealing via illegal markets—a shadow economy—became indispensable to the working of the “planned” economy but rendered shortages and corruption endemic. “We buy up materials we do not need,” noted the head of supply at Moscow’s electrical engineering plant, “so that we can barter them for what we do need.”239 With no legal market mechanisms to control quality, defective goods proliferated. Even priority industrial customers suffered anywhere from 8 to 80 percent defective inputs, with no alternative suppliers, and one factory’s poor inputs became another factory’s low-quality output.240

Stalin was well informed about the problems.241 But he understood next to nothing of the structural pathologies he had embedded by eliminating private property and legal market mechanisms. Unaccountable regional party machines, meanwhile, were consumed by skirmishing. After a collective denunciation had arrived from Western Siberia against Roberts Eihe, Stalin wrote to Molotov (August 13, 1930) that Siberia had just been divided into two regions, west and east, and that no one had complained about Eihe when he had run all of Siberia. “Suddenly Eihe turns out to be ‘unable to cope’ with his assignments? I have no doubt this is a crudely masked attempt to deceive the Central Committee and create ‘their own’ artel-like regional committee based on mutual protection. I advise you to kick out all the intriguers and . . . put full trust in Eihe.”242 Convoluted infighting near his holiday dacha, in the South Caucasus federation, involving Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan party bosses, was giving Stalin fits.243

The dictator also kept a close eye on Mikhail Kalinin, who enjoyed a high profile because of his peasant origins and his role as ceremonial head of state (chairman of the Soviet central executive committee).244 At the politburo, Kalinin occasionally allowed himself to vote against Stalin (as in the case of closing the cafeteria for the Society of Old Political Prisoners). Orjonikidze, at the party Control Commission, had received materials from the tsarist police archives to the effect that Kalinin, as well as Jānis Rudzutaks, had squealed while under arrest, leading to incarceration of other comrades in the underground.245 Then, individuals accused of belonging to a fabricated “Laboring Peasant Party” testified in prison about their plans to include Kalinin in a replacement government. Molotov hesitated to circulate the extracted testimony. “That Kalinin has sinned cannot be doubted,” Stalin insisted (August 23), intent on narrowing Kalinin’s scope to act independently. “The Central Committee must definitely be informed about this in order to teach Kalinin never to get mixed up with such rascals again.”246

Even as he attended to his personal power, Stalin drove the financing of industrialization. “We have one and a half months left to export grain: starting in late October (perhaps even earlier), American grain will come onto the market in massive quantities, and we will not be able to withstand that,” he warned Molotov (August 23). “Once again: we must force through grain exports with all our might.”247 Stalin insisted on sales even though world grain prices had fallen 6 percent in 1929 and would fall another 49 percent in 1930. (The equivalent of a year’s grain exports were being stockpiled across countries.) Prices for industrial machinery remained more or less stable, meaning that in 1930, twice as much Soviet grain had to be exported per unit of machinery imported than had been the case in 1928.248 “Some clever people will come along and propose holding off on the shipments until the price of grain on the world markets rises ‘to its ceiling,’” he cautioned Molotov in the August 23 letter. “There are quite a few of these clever people in trade. They ought to be horsewhipped, because they are dragging us into a trap. In order to hold out, we must have hard currency reserves. But we don’t have them. . . . In short, we must push grain exports furiously.”249

The Soviets would export just over 5 million tons of grain at an average price of only 30 rubles per ton (half that of 1926); they would earn 157.8 million foreign-currency rubles, equivalent to a bit more than $80 million.250 But whereas Soviet cereals had effectively accounted for zero percent of world market share in 1928, before 1930 was over the USSR would capture fully 15 percent.251

Stalin continued to insist that the economic troubles in the capitalist world had only reinforced the dependence of Poland, Finland, and the Baltic states on the imperialist powers, which eyed these states as platforms for attacking the Soviet Union. In fact, the Polish government had secretly rebuffed the urgent entreaties of the Ukrainian national movement in Poland to invade the Soviet Union, evidently deterred by Soviet military measures on the frontier.252 Still, Stalin warned Molotov about likely provocations by Poland or Romania and about Polish diplomacy. “The Poles are certain to be putting together (if they have not already done so) a bloc of Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, Finland) in anticipation of a war against the USSR,” he wrote (September 1, 1930). “To repulse both the Polish-Romanians and the Balts we should prepare to deploy (in the event of war) no fewer than 150 to 160 infantry divisions, that is, (at least) 40 to 50 divisions more than are provided for under our current guidelines. This means that we will have to bring our current army reserves up from 640,000 to 700,000 men.” Otherwise, Stalin asserted, “we are not going to be able to defend Leningrad and the right bank of Ukraine.”253


The bulkiest papers in Stalin’s holiday mailbag had become OGPU reports of plots and accompanying protocols of interrogation. Thousands of specialists had been sentenced.254 From Sochi, Stalin had instructed Molotov to circulate to Central Committee members new “testimony” extracted from specialists in two agencies (food supply and the statistical administration). That same day, in a belated and indirect response to Pyatakov’s devastating memo on state finances, Stalin wrote to Mężyński demanding a report on “the struggle” against speculators.255 He had also written to Molotov “that two or three dozen wreckers from the [finance commissariat] must be executed.” He wanted them linked to the rightists, adding that “a whole group of wreckers in the meat industry must definitely be shot and their names published in the press.”256 Pravda (September 3) duly publicized arrests of prominent specialists. Executions would follow.

Privately, Stalin acknowledged his didactic purposes. “By the way,” he wrote to Molotov, apropos of a “Menshevik Party” trial, “how about Misters Defendants admitting their mistakes and disgracing themselves politically, while simultaneously acknowledging the strength of the Soviet government and the correctness of the method of collectivization? It would not be a bad thing if they did.”257 A scapegoat dimension was also manifest: on September 13, he wrote that supply commissariat “wreckers” had plotted to “cause hunger in the country and provoke unrest among the broad masses and thus facilitate the overthrow of the dictatorship of the proletariat.”258 Pravda announced the executions of forty-eight “food wreckers,” and the OGPU reported worker approval and intelligentsia disapproval of the sentences. (“In tsarist times there were also executions, but they were rare; now they look at people as if they are dogs.”)259 Stalin issued instructions for a trial of a “Union for the Liberation of the Ukraine,” which was staged in Kharkov’s Opera House with forty-five defendants: writers, theologians, philologists, schoolteachers, a librarian, medical personnel. “We ought not to hide the sins of our enemies from the workers,” he wrote to the bosses of Soviet Ukraine. “In addition, let so-called ‘Europe’ know that the repressions against the counterrevolutionary part of the specialists who try to poison and infect Communists-patients are completely justified.”260

The entire country, it seemed, was honeycombed with wreckers—including in the Red Army command: on September 10, 1930, Mężyński sent Stalin interrogation protocols incriminating Tukhachevsky and other high-placed military men in a conspiracy against the regime.261

Tukhachevsky had been demoted from chief of staff to commander of the Leningrad military district. He remained a polarizing figure, a former nobleman who mixed prominently with tsarist general staff types, even though he had never gone to the general staff academy. Many people deemed him, as one put it, “smart, energetic, firm, but vile to the last degree, nothing sacred besides his own direct advantage.”262 At a public book discussion, he had been the target of resentful shouts in the hall (“You should be hung for 1920,” a reference to the Polish-Soviet War debacle).263 Recently, he had submitted a fourteen-page memorandum to Voroshilov calling for massive increases in military industry. Tukhachevsky argued that no modern army could prevail without tanks, aircraft, chemical weapons, and parachute infantry for greater mobility. He called for annual production of no less than 50,000 tanks and 40,000 airplanes (which would rise in the future to 197,000 tanks and 122,500 aircraft). This unsolicited program had put Voroshilov—already anxious about Stalin’s fondness for Uborevičius, another modernizer—on the spot.

Voroshilov had had the memo vivisected by the new chief of staff, Shaposhnikov. Although Tukhachevsky had not specified the size of his proposed standing army, Shaposhnikov reckoned it at a preposterous 11 million, fully 7.5 percent of the Soviet population.264 Then the defense commissar had sat on these materials for weeks.265 Immediately after “Dizzy with Success” was published castigating excesses, Voroshilov had sent the original and Shaposhnikov’s damning assessment to Stalin, noting that “Tukhachevsky wants to be original and . . . ‘radical.’”266 Stalin had answered, “You know that I greatly respect comrade Tukhachevsky as an especially capable comrade,” a remarkable admission. But Stalin, too, dismissed Tukhachevsky’s “‘fantastic’ plan” as out of touch with “the real possibilities of the economic, financial, and cultural order,” and concluded that “to implement such a ‘plan’ would entail ruining both the country’s economy and the army. It would be worse than any counterrevolution.”267

Stalin’s letter had deemed Tukhachevsky a victim of “faddish ‘leftism,’” but in Mężyński’s September 10, 1930, letter, he was accused of harboring “rightist” sentiments as the head of a military plot. Collectivization had provoked hints of wavering in the Red Army (something Voroshilov denied), and Stalin was preternaturally given to seeing an ideological affinity between the party right deviation and the tsarist-era officers. Police informants who suffused the military milieu reported gossip, on the basis of which the OGPU had arrested two military academy teachers close to Tukhachevsky.268 At first their “testimony” was vague, involving his Gypsy lover (who might be working for foreign intelligence), but under police direction they began to “recollect” Tukhachevsky’s possible links to “right deviationists,” until soon enough they spoke of a monarchist-military plot to seize power.269 “I reported this case to comrade Molotov and asked for authorization, while awaiting your directives,” Mężyński wrote in his letter to Stalin, asking whether he should immediately arrest all the top military men named or await Stalin’s return, which, given the alleged existence of a coup plot, could be risky. Stalin instructed Mężyński to “limit yourself to maximally careful surveillance.”270

Had Stalin believed in the existence of a genuine military plot, could he have suggested waiting to arrest the plotters and remained on holiday, far from the capital, for another month? It is impossible to establish his thinking definitively. Still, it appears that for him the “coup plot” derived not from facts per se, but from Marxist-Leninist logic: criticism of collectivization ipso facto meant support for capitalism; support for capitalism meant colluding with the imperialists; furthering the cause of imperialism meant effectively plotting to overthrow the Soviet regime; plotting an overthrow perforce entailed assassinating Stalin, since he embodied the building of socialism.

Elections in Germany on September 14, 1930, meanwhile, delivered a sensation: the National Socialists received 6.37 million votes, 18.25 percent of the total, and increased their parliamentary deputies from 12 to 107, becoming the second-largest party in the Reichstag, after the Social Democrats, at 143. Communist deputies increased from 54 to 77. Pravda (September 16) deemed the vote a “temporary success of the bourgeoisie,” even while noting that millions of those who had voted for the Nazis had rejected the existing order.

Stalin at this time seems to have been more fixated on his nemesis Rykov, complaining to Molotov (September 13) that “the Council of People’s Commissars is paralyzed by Rykov’s insipid and essentially anti-party speeches. . . . Clearly, this cannot continue. Radical measures are needed. As to what kind, I shall tell you when I get to Moscow.” But Stalin could not wait, writing again from Sochi, “Rykov and his lot must go as well. This is now inevitable. . . . But for the time being, this is just between you and me.” By September 22, Stalin was urging Molotov to take Rykov’s place as head of government. “With the arrangement I am proposing to you,” Stalin noted, “we will finally have a perfect union between the top levels of the state and the party, and this will reinforce our power.” Stalin instructed Molotov to discuss the idea “in a tight circle with close friends” and report any objections. He appears to have written the same to Kaganovich.271 Stalin also showed deep frustration over circumvention of central directives, despite newspaper exposés. In the same letter, he proposed “a standing commission established for the sole purpose of systematically checking up on implementation of the center’s decisions.”272

From reports of eavesdropped conversations, Stalin could read that the populace was unhappy with the consequences of wholesale collectivization, dekulakization, and accelerated industrialization—which was why Rykov was especially dangerous: he was a leader who could rally the disaffected and the opportunistic. It was not Rykov alone, moreover: at a politburo meeting on September 16, 1930, the Stalin protégé Syrtsov, head of the Russian republic’s Council of People’s Commissars, had agreed with Rykov, head of the USSR Council of People’s Commissars, regarding an accumulation of problems not being addressed, and supported Rykov’s proposals to sell scarce goods, such as sugar, at market prices to stabilize state finances.273 Molotov told the dictator that at the politburo meeting, Syrtsov had spoken “with frantic right-wing opportunist claims that it is not possible to solve acute economic problems with repressive ‘OGPU’ methods.”274 Despite Stalin’s impatience, the removal of Rykov—an ethnic Russian with a peasant background, who had worked with Lenin, occupied Lenin’s former position, and refused to embrace the role of opposition—would be no simple matter.275

Stalin forwarded the OGPU interrogation protocols incriminating Tukhachevsky to Orjonikidze on September 24. “Read without delay the testimony,” he suggested. “The material, as you see, is utterly secret, and Molotov, myself, and now you are the only ones to know about it. I do not know if Klim knows. It turned out that Tukhachevsky is a captive of anti-Soviet elements and was thoroughly worked over by anti-Soviet elements from the ranks of the rightists. . . . Is it possible? Of course, it is possible, since it is not excluded. . . . It seems the rightists are prepared to embark on the path of military dictatorship if only to escape from the Central Committee, collective and state farms, Bolshevik tempos of industrialization.” Here, again, was that objective “logic” of conspiracy. And yet, Stalin concluded the letter ambiguously: “We cannot end this affair in the usual way (immediate arrest and so on). We need to think this through.”276

On October 2, 1930, Mężyński sent Stalin interrogation materials relating to a clandestine Industrial Party. “To the OGPU, comrade Mężyński. In person only. From Stalin,” the dictator wrote back, specifying the exact content of the conspiracies and demanding corroborating testimony, which, if extracted, “will be a serious victory for the OGPU.” Stalin either believed or made it appear that he believed in the fabrications, instructing Mężyński’s interrogators to ascertain: “1) Why was the [foreign military] intervention in 1930 put off? 2) Is it because Poland was not ready? 3) Perhaps because Romania was not ready? 4) Perhaps because the Baltic states and Romania have not yet come to terms with Poland? 5) Why have they put off the attack to 1931? 6) Might they put it off to 1932?” Stalin added that the confessions would be made available to “the workers of the world. We shall launch as broad a campaign as possible against interventionists and thwart them in their attempts for the next one or two years, which is of great significance to us. Everything understood?”277


Nadya had already returned to Moscow in August. “How was your travel?” Stalin had written with tenderness (September 2, 1930). “Write about everything, my Tatochka. I’m getting a little better. Your Iosif.” Writing again, he asked her to send his textbook for English.278 On September 8, he had written her about his difficult dental work. He sent peaches and lemons from his Sochi orchard. But something was amiss. “The Molotovs scolded me for leaving you alone,” she answered him (September 19). “I explained my departure by reference to my studies, but that of course was not the real reason. This summer I did not feel that you would like me if I prolonged my stay; quite the contrary. Last summer I felt very much that you would, but this time I did not. Of course, there was no point in staying in such a mood. Write, if my letter does not make you cross, but as you like. All the best. A Kiss. Nadya.” Stalin (September 24) denied that her presence had been undesirable (“Tell the Molotovs from me that they are wrong”) and assured her that, despite having had eight teeth filed down in a single day, “I am healthy and feel better than ever.” On September 30, she wrote that she had required an operation on her throat and had been bedridden for days. On October 6, she complained that “for some reason I am not hearing anything from you. . . . Probably you are distracted by your quail-hunting trips. . . . I heard from a young, interesting lady that you are looking fantastic—she saw you at lunch at Kalinin’s. She said that you were exceptionally jolly and gave no rest to everyone taken aback by your personage. I am glad to hear it.”279

On October 7, Molotov, Voroshilov, Orjonikidze, Kuibyshev, Mikoyan, and Kaganovich—but not Kirov (in Leningrad), Kosior (in Ukraine), Rudzutaks, or Kalinin (both away on holiday and outside the innermost circle)—met without Stalin to discuss his proposal that Molotov replace Rykov.280 The next day, Voroshilov wrote to Sochi that “Mikoyan, Molotov, Kaganovich, in part Kuibyshev, and I think that the best resolution would be unification of the leadership.” He left out Orjonikidze. Voroshilov added that “as never before, the Council of People’s Commissars needs someone with the strategist’s gift.” Stalin’s episodic interventions in day-to-day government operations had a disruptive quality, and regularizing them could be beneficial.281 It is also possible that they reasoned that having Stalin shoulder responsibility for the details of government could diminish his dictatorial behavior, for someone else would have to run the controlling party apparatus. Voroshilov admitted in his letter that “the most important, the most, from my point of view, acute question in the combination under discussion would be the party leadership.”282

Mikoyan, in a separate letter, affirmed his support for “a consolidated leadership,” “like what we had when Ilich was alive.” Kaganovich wrote to Stalin (October 9) leaving it to him to decide, noting that “the most important strategic maneuvers in the economy and politics were determined, and would be determined, by you, wherever you might be. But will things get better if there is a change? I doubt it.” He concluded that this argued for Molotov’s appointment. Molotov wrote that same day, listing the reasons he was unsuitable and encouraging Stalin to take the post, but acknowledging that party work and the Comintern would suffer. Unsurprisingly, Stalin decided to hold on to the party apparatus, which afforded him the final word on policy and personnel without the day-to-day burdens of the government. Orjonikidze had ascertained from private conversations that Stalin felt it was “inexpedient at the current time to have a complete (including externally, in front of the whole world) merger . . . of the party and Soviet leadership.” Orjonikidze, perhaps the other obvious choice to replace Rykov, agreed with Stalin that Molotov should be the one. “He [Molotov] expressed doubts about how much authority he would hold for the likes of us,” Orjonikidze wrote to Stalin, “but of course all that is nonsense.”283


Stalin returned to Moscow and, on October 14, 1930, received the OGPU hierarchs Mężyński and Olsky (the newly named head of the special department for the army).284 That same day, Bukharin phoned him on Old Square, requesting a face-to-face meeting. Stalin had forwarded to Bukharin some Industrial Party interrogations that mentioned a terrorist plot against the dictator, with connections to the right deviation. On the phone, Stalin accused Bukharin of fostering an atmosphere for terrorist acts by criticizing the party line. Bukharin exploded that day in a private letter: “I consider your accusations monstrous, demented slander, wild and, in the last analysis, unintelligent.” Stalin circulated the missive to the other politburo members.285 On October 15, the politburo removed Pyatakov from the state bank but postponed a decision on Bukharin until he could appear in person.286

Formal politburo sessions continued to take place, as in the time of Lenin, in the rectangular meeting room on the third floor of the Kremlin’s Imperial Senate, in front of Lenin’s preserved corner office. But officials were bypassing formal structures to obtain Stalin’s approval. Back from holiday, in his Old Square office, he received economics officials, the head of the railroads, a professor who had founded the Soviet biochemical industry, and the new head of foreign trade, Arkady Rosenholz (known as Rozengolts), in tandem with the foreign affairs commissar.287 On October 17 and again on the eighteenth, Stalin received Vissarion “Beso” Lominadze, recently appointed South Caucasus party boss, whom he did not trust, and Ruven “Vladimir” Polonsky, newly appointed Azerbaijan party boss. The second day’s tête-à-tête to sort out the Caucasus infighting lasted three and a half hours.288

The politburo assembled again (October 20) and, with Syrtsov reporting, ordered the designation of several priority regions—Moscow, Leningrad, the Donbass, Baku—with higher norms of supply for workers.289 The body also directed the OGPU to continue investigations of wrecking by alleged underground parties; decided to move the secret department of the central party apparatus from Old Square to the Imperial Senate, instructing Voroshilov to clean out undesirables still living in the Kremlin; and obliged Stalin to cease walking on foot in Moscow.290 Bukharin seems to have asked what more was demanded of him, accused Stalin of violating their truce, and stormed out of the session. The politburo ruled that Stalin had been correct in refusing the one-on-one meeting. The dictator supposedly said, “I wanted to curse him out, but since he has left, there’s nothing to say.”291

Stalin was not the only one engaged in provocations. On October 21, Boris Reznikov, a student and party organizer at the Institute of Red Professors, who had worked under Syrtsov in Siberia as a deputy newspaper editor and had joined Syrtsov’s group of intimates in Moscow, sat in the office of Lev Mekhlis, a Stalin aide and editor at Pravda, and wrote a denunciation of “factional activities” by Syrtsov as well as Lominadze. According to Reznikov, Syrtsov’s “group” foresaw a collapse of Stalin’s regime as a result of economic catastrophe. Mekhlis forwarded Reznikov’s denunciation to Stalin that evening.292 Reznikov, who nursed his own grievances against the dictator, played the role of agent provocateur, initiating a second informal meeting on October 22, in a private apartment, where he and Syrtsov again made critical remarks about the Stalin regime. Reznikov had aggressively solicited secret information from Syrtsov about the recent politburo meeting, and proposed that they link up with the right deviation, which profoundly worsened Syrtsov’s indiscretions.293 That same day, Stalin summoned Syrtsov to Central Committee HQ, on Old Square.294 Those present when Syrtsov had spoken, summoned to a confrontation with Reznikov, repudiated his accusations, but all the same, they were expelled from the party and arrested, and they confessed. As Orjonikidze would put it, “They did not want to speak the truth to the Central Control Commission, but when they were imprisoned in the OGPU they bared their souls in front of comrade Mężyński (laughter).”295

Reznikov further claimed that Syrtsov had said that if push came to shove, a number of party secretaries, including Andrei Andreyev (North Caucasus), Nikolai Kolotilov (Ivanovo-Voznesensk), and Roberts Eihe (Western Siberia), “might turn on Stalin.” Syrtsov had also stated, according to Reznikov, that “a large share of party activists, deeply dissatisfied with the current policy and political regime, still believe a tradition of collective leadership exists in the politburo. . . . We need to dispel these illusions. The ‘politburo’ is a fiction. In reality, all decisions are made behind the backs of politburo members, by a small clique of party insiders, who meet in the Kremlin or in the former apartment of Clara Zetkin.”296

The next day, Stalin forwarded the written denunciations by Reznikov against Syrtsov and Lominadze’s factional group (“essentially right-deviationist”) to Molotov—now the one away on holiday—commenting, “It is unimaginable vileness. Everything goes to show that Reznikov’s reports correspond with reality. They played at staging a coup; they played at being the politburo.”297

Meanwhile, Tukhachevsky, in the presence of Stalin, Voroshilov, Orjonikidze, and other politburo members, had been made to confront his two accusers from the military academy, and he, in turn, accused them of lying. It seems that Jan Gamarnik (head of the army political department), Iona Yakir (commander of the Ukrainian military district), and the latter’s deputy, Ivan Dubovoi, were also present and vouched for Tukhachevsky.298 Whether Stalin intended merely to intimidate the military men or had really wanted to incarcerate them remains unclear. In the October 23, 1930, letter to Molotov, he wrote, “As for the Tukhachevsky affair, he turns out to be 100 percent clean. This is very good.”299

Syrtsov and Lominadze would not get off as easily. “I considered and consider Stalin’s unwavering firmness in the struggle against Trotskyites and the right opposition an enormous historical service,” Lominadze wrote in his defense (November 3, 1930). “But at the same time I thought that Stalin has a certain empiricism, a certain lack of ability to foresee. . . . Further, I did not like and do not like that sometimes (especially during the days of his 50th jubilee), in certain speeches in the press, Stalin was placed on the same plane as Lenin. If memory serves, I said this to comrade Orjonikidze and pointed to the corresponding places in the press.” Lominadze’s admission put Orjonikidze in a bind.300

Their cases were adjudicated at a joint session of the Central Committee and the Central Control Commission presidium (November 4), where Lominadze and Syrtsov both confessed to engaging in political discussions with the other. Syrtsov did not back down from claims that politburo decisions were pre-decided.301 “I did not doubt for one minute the need for the liquidation of the kulaks as a class,” he stated. “But I believe that, in addition to slogans, it is necessary and correct to have a detailed discussion of the implementation of these measures in a Central Committee plenum or a detailed meeting of the politburo. It seems to me we could have avoided many of the costs by doing so.” For stating the achievements of regime policy but also the problems—the precipitous drop in workers’ real wages, the shortages of goods (“an enormous counterrevolutionary danger emanates from queues”), the mass loss of livestock, inflation, budget shortfalls—and for suggesting the reintroduction of market mechanisms such as free trade, Syrtsov was accused of being a right opportunist and pro-capitalist, like Rykov.302

Stalin in his remarks denied using Clara Zetkin’s unused Kremlin apartment in the Grand Kremlin Palace—except maybe a little, to avoid distracting phone calls as he composed his report to the party congress. “While I was working in this apartment at different times, Molotov, Kalinin, Sergo, Rudzutaks, and Mikoyan each came to see me once,” he further divulged. “Did we, certain politburo members, occasionally meet? Yes, we did, mostly in the Central Committee building [on Old Square]. What is bad about that?” In a passage Stalin would edit out of the transcript, he inadvertently confirmed Syrtsov’s charge, elaborating how the regime actually worked: “Sometimes a question arises, you phone Voroshilov: Are you home? Home. Come over, let’s talk.”303

So Syrtsov was right: the “politburo” had become a kind of fiction.

Stalin played the victim (“Let them abuse me. I’m used to that”) and sought to accentuate the seriousness of the affair.304 “School pupils gathered, fancied themselves big politicians, and decided to playact as the politburo—is it worth it for us to waste time on these pupils?” he asked. “In another time and under different circumstances, one could agree with that assessment. But in the current conditions, when the class struggle has sharpened to the ultimate degree, when every factional sally against the party leadership strengthens the front of our class enemies, and double-dealing of unprincipled people is transformed into the most dangerous evil of interparty life—in such conditions, such an assessment of the ‘left’-right bloc would, at the least, be careless.” He characterized talk that blamed him as an invitation to “a host of terrorists.” Before closing, he turned his fangs on Rykov: “Your post does not exist for ceremonial purposes, but for implementing party orders on a daily basis. Is this the case now? Unfortunately not. . . . Such a state of affairs cannot last long.”305 When it came to the decision on Syrtsov and Lominadze, Stalin sought to appear the moderate, as usual, proposing only their demotion from full to candidate status. But a vote for expulsion from the Central Committee had already passed.306


Soviet newspapers (November 11, 1930) published lengthy indictments of prominent scientists and engineers accused of establishing a clandestine Industrial Party. It was said to contain more than 2,000 members who had worked undetected for years to wreck Soviet industry and transport and, ultimately, overthrow the regime with the assistance of foreign military intervention (by half a dozen countries), thereby delivering Ukraine’s wealth to Poland and France, and Caspian oil to Britain. “If the enemy does not surrender,” Gorky, from Italy, obligingly wrote in Pravda (November 15), “they will be annihilated.”307 Under klieg lights in the chandeliered House of Trade Unions (the former nobility club) on November 25, in front of scores of Soviet and foreign correspondents, eight engineers stood in the dock. Meetings at Soviet factories and the Academy of Sciences approved resolutions demanding the death penalty. Columns of workers were marched through snow in Moscow and other cities carrying banners: NO MERCY FOR THE CLASS ENEMIES.308 Thirteen days of delirium and treason tales ensued, with blanket coverage. The politburo decree specified the headlines, including “Our answer to the class enemy—millions of workers in the ranks of shock workers.”309

The problems faced by Soviet workers were all too real. An internal report (November 10) from a secret OGPU survey of cafeterias noted that half were being patronized far beyond capacity, and that “in all cafeterias (even in restricted ones) there are long queues, which causes worker dissatisfaction and negatively affects labor discipline.” The OGPU found rats (dead and alive), cockroaches, and flies (including in the soup), a lack of spoons, forks, and knives (forcing long waits for their reuse), lunches far below daily caloric norms, theft by employees, and filth beyond description.310

Just as in the Shakhty trial two years earlier, the only “evidence” in the Industrial Party trial consisted of confessions recorded in secret police custody, which were repeated at the proceedings. (The published indictments had noted that one arrested engineer had “died under questioning.”) No witnesses were called. All eight defendants pleaded guilty. Leonid Ramzin, director of the All-Russian Thermal Engineering Institute, confessed to leading the underground “party,” and spoke of foreign panic at Soviet successes and of a pending invasion by Romania, to be joined by Poland, then France, and supported by the British Royal Navy, with émigré collusion.311 Two of the émigrés named had died before the supposed meetings took place. Also, Ramzin named as the prospective head of a replacement “bourgeois” republic a Russian engineer who admired Herbert Hoover (as an engineer) but who had already been executed, without a public trial, in a previous case.312 Never mind: Nikolai Krylenko, the prosecutor, hinted at veiled links between the “bourgeois specialists” and rightists in the party. All in all, the published trial transcript might be the best extended record to date of the workings of Stalin’s mind: the possible and the actual were fused into a narrative that could be—must be—true.313

Stalin’s truculence, too, was evident. If in the Shakhty case he had willfully put several German citizens in the dock during negotiations for a Soviet-German trade agreement, now he targeted France, which he had recently called “the most aggressive and militarist country of all aggressive and militarist countries of the world.”314 France had imposed restrictions on Soviet imports; the Soviets had countered with reductions in imports from France.315 Krylenko elicited laughter by reading out French news accounts of Russian émigrés in Paris gathering in protest of the proceedings: grand dukes, clergy, merchants—that is, “former people.” But Ramzin testified at trial that he and other plotters had cooperated directly with none other than the former French president and prime minister Raymond Poincaré. The latter’s office issued a denial, which was adduced at trial as “proof” of the plot.316 A foreign affairs commissariat official tried to render the charges credible, giving a briefing for foreign representatives that waved off necessarily simplistic propaganda of an imminent military intervention but insisted that influential anti-Soviet circles in capitalist countries were inciting war through provocations such as assassinations of Soviet foreign envoys, seizure and publication of secret Soviet documents, and press campaigns about Soviet kidnappings abroad.317

Stalin needed no further evidence of such Western plots, but he had received a copy of a transcript of a recent confidential conversation between Winston Churchill, the former chancellor of the exchequer (out of office following the Labour party victory), and Prince Otto von Bismarck, a grandson of the famous chancellor. Churchill was recorded as telling the prince, who served in the German embassy in London, that “the growing industrialization of the Russian state presents all Europe with an extremely great danger, against which we can manage . . . only by creating a bloc of all the rest of Europe and America against Russia.”318 Behind the scenes, Czechoslovakia’s foreign minister, Edvard Beneš, had sought to ingratiate himself with Moscow by telling the Soviet envoy in Prague (September 1930), “Confidentially, not long ago in Geneva, the French strongly insisted on action by Poland against the USSR with the active support of all members of the Little Entente” (an alliance of Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Yugoslavia, which the French hoped to direct against Germany and the members saw as directed against Hungary). Beneš shocked the Soviet foreign affairs commissariat by adding that if a military intervention against the USSR by France, Britain, and Italy took place, Czechoslovakia was “a member of the European states and will do the same that they do.”319

Presiding judge Andrei Vyshinsky, as per instructions, read out guilty verdicts, sentencing three to prison terms and five, Ramzin included, to death. This came without right of appeal. The hall erupted in an ovation. Two days later, the regime announced that Soviet power was strong and had no need for revenge: the executions had been “commuted” to eight- or ten-year terms.320 The morning after sentencing, Ramzin was spotted at his institute office cleaning out his desk, without apparent guard.321 He was permitted to continue scientific work while serving his prison term.322 Some Soviet workers saw through the “wrecking” burlesque.323 But the leniency might have provoked the greater fury.324 Even émigré enemies of the USSR acknowledged that a majority of workers accepted the guilt of the “bourgeois” specialists. “They got 3,000 [rubles per month] and traveled in cars, while we live on bread and potatoes,” the well-informed Menshevik Socialist Herald quoted Soviet workers as saying. “They sold themselves to the capitalists.”325

Lurking in the background was Stalin’s long-standing personal nemesis, whose pen was once again prolifically engaged.326 Now forty-eight years old, Trotsky in 1930 published My Life: An Attempt at an Autobiography, in Russian, German, English, and French, aiming to document how he was the true Leninist. He also wrote a stirring three-volume History of the Russian Revolution, in which his own and Lenin’s roles were uppermost and Stalin’s nonexistent; the book’s preface was completed on Prinkipo on November 14, 1930. As it happened, that same day, Stalin returned a devoted young apparatchik of uncommon diligence to the central party apparatus as department head for economic personnel. His name was Nikolai Yezhov (b. 1895). Stalin received him on November 21, the first of what would be hundreds of private audiences connected to rooting out sabotage and treason.327


Rumors that Stalin had been killed were being spread out of independent Latvia, where many governments ran their intelligence operations against the Soviet Union, and on November 22 Eugene Lyons, a Belorussia-born, New York–raised UPI correspondent in Moscow and a Soviet sympathizer, suddenly got summoned to Old Square for a seventy-minute audience. Stalin had last granted an interview four years earlier, to the American Jerome Davis, and was still pursuing the same aim of normalizing relations with the United States, which had become the USSR’s third-largest trading partner, after Germany and Britain, but remained the only great power that withheld diplomatic recognition. In Stalin’s office, Lyons noted portraits of Marx, Engels, and Lenin on the wall. “My pulse, I am sure, was high,” he would recall. “No sooner, however, had I stepped across the threshold than diffidence and nervousness fell away. Stalin met me at the door and shook hands, smiling. . . . He was remarkably unlike the scowling, self-important dictator of popular imagination. . . . ‘Comrade Stalin,’ I began the interview, ‘may I quote you to the effect that you have not been assassinated?’ He laughed.”

Lyons established for a foreign audience that Stalin had a wife and three children (the Soviet populace did not know), and that he could be charming. “Commenting on the fact that he is called Russia’s Dictator,” Lyons wrote, “Comrade Stalin exclaimed with another hearty laugh: ‘It is just very funny!’”328 Lyons was treated to tea and sandwiches in an adjacent room while typing his dispatch. Russia’s dictator approved the typescript (“in general, more or less correct”), allowing it to be transmitted to New York, where the scoop created a sensation. Lyons returned to the United States for a twenty-city lecture tour. “One cannot live in the shadow of Stalin’s legend,” he observed, “without coming under its spell.”329

The Soviet-friendly New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty erupted at his handlers over Lyons’s scoop. Belatedly, Duranty, too, was granted an interview, also of seventy minutes, on November 27. He wrote that Stalin believed that the current global crisis in capitalism would deepen but not mark its demise, and yet the result would be a war over markets in the future, and the downfall of the the Versailles settlement.330 “Stalin is the most interesting personality in the world,” Duranty enthused in his telegram to the United States, which passed Soviet censors. “But of all national leaders he is the least known, he remains removed from everyone, mysterious, like a Tibetan Dalai Lama.”331

A friend of Duranty’s, H. R. Knickerbocker, got his own scoop: an interview with Stalin’s mother, Keke Geladze, in Tiflis, for the New York Evening Post (December 1, 1930). “Revolutionary posters and the eternal appeal for harder work on the Five-Year Plan reminded one that all the way from Siberia to the edge of Persia the Soviet Union is dominated today by a single purpose, and a single will,” Knickerbocker wrote. Keke, speaking through an interpreter of Georgian, took responsibility for Stalin’s failure to finish the seminary: “He was not expelled. I took him out on account of his health. He did not want to go. I took him out. He was my only [surviving] son.” She pointed at a pile of periodicals, all mentioning Stalin. “See how he works,” she said. “All this he has done. He works too hard.” The article was titled “Stalin Mystery Man Even to His Mother.”332


All authoritarian regimes require a sense of being under siege by sinister “enemies.” The inhabitants of the USSR found themselves exhorted to relentless vigilance against class enemies, supposedly longing for foreign military intervention to overturn the Soviet regime, restore capitalism, and exact revenge. Under such a vision, even diehard socialists could be denounced as “White Guards”—as Lenin and Trotsky had denounced the Kronstadt sailors in 1921—if they opposed the Soviet regime. Pervasive domestic difficulties rendered the treason tales plausible, press reports gave them life, and Stalin afforded them great intensity.333 During the proceedings against Syrtsov and Lominadze, he had interrupted Mikoyan to say of his Communist party critics, “Now they are all White Guards.”334 Working intimately with the obliging Mężyński, he had elaborated a comprehensive scenario: a right deviation, a right-left bloc, “bourgeois specialist” wreckers, and a military conspiracy with right-deviation links, all of them with foreign ties, aiming to bring on war, reverse collectivization, sabotage industrialization, and remove him.335 He was the fulcrum.

On December 1, 1930, Syrtsov became the first politburo official expelled by the method of merely polling Central Committee members over the phone, without a plenum.336 During the whole year, not a single multiday Central Committee plenum had taken place. One had been postponed, perhaps because Stalin had to cajole members into accepting the sacking of Rykov.337 Now Stalin wrote to Gorky in Sorrento, divulging Rykov’s imminent replacement by Molotov, calling it “unpleasant business” while championing Molotov as “a bold, smart, utterly modern leader.”338 As for Bukharin, Stalin wrote to him on December 13, in his now customarily put-upon fashion, that “I have never refused a conversation with you. No matter how much you cursed me, I have never forgotten that friendship that we had. I am leaving aside the fact that the interests of the cause require each of us unconditional forgetting of any ‘personal’ insults. We can always talk, if you want.”339

Finally, on December 17, 1930, the delayed plenum opened, and at the last minute it became a joint session of the Central Committee and the punitive Central Control Commission.340 On the third day, after Rykov’s report had been lacerated by all and sundry, Kosior suddenly proposed relieving Rykov of his post and nominated Molotov to head the government. No one could doubt who stood behind the move. The vote was unanimous.341 “Until now I have had to work mostly as a party functionary,” Molotov told the joint plenum. “I declare to you, comrades, that I go to the work in the Council of People’s Commissars as a party functionary, as a conductor of the will of the party and its Central Committee.”342 Bukharin, in a speech also delivered on December 19, mocked himself and his allies and joked about executions of rich peasants and the shooting of party oppositionists, eliciting laughter, while still managing to score points about Stalin’s wild-eyed industrialization and collectivization—a bravura performance. (“This is turning into an incoherent discussion. I am deeply sorry for this fact, but it is not my fault.”)343 Over repeated interruptions, Bukharin had finally just told Molotov that they would do whatever they wanted, since “all power and authority are in your hands.”

Molotov had no prior experience in government, but he would prove himself up to the task. Born the ninth of ten children, in 1890, to a shop clerk in central Russia, under the name Skryabin (he was a nephew of the composer and pianist Alexander Skryabin), he had joined the Bolshevik faction in 1908 while a teenager, and in 1912 took the name Molotov (“Hammer”). Bukharin, speaking to Kamenev, had fumed about “that blockhead Molotov, who tries to teach me Marxism,” but Molotov had attended the St. Petersburg Polytechnic and edited Pravda before Bukharin did. Molotov’s underground hardening and diligence had attracted him to Lenin, who called him Comrade Filing Cabinet. An underling recalled that “everything he was given to do was done faultlessly, in time, and at any price.”344 Another observer, who described Molotov as “fully conscious of his importance and power,” noted that he could sit for long hours of hard work and was informally called Stone Ass.345

On the final day (December 21), Rykov was expelled from the politburo; Orjonikidze assumed his spot on that supreme body.346 Kaganovich assumed Molotov’s place as Stalin’s top deputy in the party. Whereas Molotov had been methodical and wooden, Kaganovich was dynamic and showy. The Menshevik Socialist Herald rightly judged the latter to be “of quite exceptional abilities,” with an excellent memory for names and faces, “a quite exceptional ability to deal with people,” an immense capacity for work, and willpower.347 Kaganovich ran the orgburo, which oversaw personnel and ideology, but Molotov, as head of government, would now chair politburo meetings, by tradition going back to Lenin. Molotov had known Stalin since 1912, and Kaganovich had known Stalin since 1919.348 “He was generally personally always against me,” Molotov recalled of Kaganovich later in life. “Everybody knew this. He would say, ‘You are soft, you are an intelligent, and I am from the workers.’” Molotov added, “Kaganovich, he is an administrator, but crude; therefore, not all can stand him. He not only pressurizes, but is somewhat personally self-regarding. He is strong and direct—a strong organizer and quite a good orator.”349

Voroshilov and Orjonikidze were closer to Stalin personally (the former had known him since 1906, the latter since 1907), and while Voroshilov continued to oversee the military, Stalin appointed Orjonikidze head of the Supreme Council of the Economy, in place of the faltering loyal dog Kuibyshev, who was transferred to the state planning commission.350 Kuibyshev had gone from voicing skepticism about lunatic plan targets to promoting them zealously; now Orjonikidze went from sharply criticizing industrial cadres to being their protector, and gathered around him capable “bourgeois” experts, even if they had been imprisoned for a time.351 Sounding a bit like the sacked state bank chairman and former Trotsky supporter Pyatakov, whom Orjonikidze would make his deputy, he pointed out, in a long memorandum on industry in December 1930, that “money is being spent without any budget. . . . Accounting is exceptionally weak and muddled.” Stalin made only superficial notes on the memo; these were Orjonikidze’s worries now.352

None of the men in Stalin’s faction had the revolutionary profiles of Zinoviev or Kamenev, let alone Trotsky, but the Stalinists were hardened Bolsheviks and, under the pressure of events, strove to enforce his line and resolve problems, sometimes presenting him with solutions.353 He confided in them, writing scathingly about everyone else in the regime, and to an extent he allowed them room to work, reserving the right to reverse any of their decisions; they acknowledged his power to do so, knowing the burdens he shouldered. The heart of the regime remained awkwardly divided between party headquarters on Old Square, where Stalin had his principal office, and the Imperial Senate in the Kremlin, where the government had its offices but where the secret department of Stalin’s apparatus had moved, the politburo met, and Central Committee plenums were held. Voroshilov, in his letter concerning Rykov’s replacement, had noted that “having the headquarters and main command point” on Old Square was “cumbersome, inflexible, and . . . organizationally problematic,” adding that “Lenin in the current situation would be sitting in the Council of People’s Commissars” in the Kremlin.354 Clara Zetkin’s empty apartment in the Kremlin had served as a kind of transition to a permanent move to the Kremlin by Stalin, but this transition would be gradual; he continued to use his top-floor Old Square suite.355 In any case, as Kaganovich had mentioned, the regime was now wherever Stalin’s person happened to be.

•   •   •

INTO 1929, his seventh year as general secretary, Stalin had continued to enlarge his personal dictatorship within the Bolshevik dictatorship, and by the end of 1930 he had amassed still vaster power. This process of acquiring and exercising supreme power in the shadow of Lenin’s supposed Testament calling for his removal and the criticisms in the party made Stalin who he was.

Around the time of the December 1930 plenum, Iona and Alexander Pereprygin, two of the six siblings of Lydiya Pereprygina—the orphaned, scandalously young teenager with whom Stalin had had a long cohabitation during his last Siberian exile—were arrested for long-ago White Army service. They wrote an appeal to Stalin, reminding him of the “former friendship you nourished with us.”356 The brothers did not mention the son (Alexander) whom Stalin had allegedly fathered with Pereprygina and abandoned, but it is possible that one of Pereprygina’s sons was Stalin’s. (“Ёsif was a jolly fellow, singing and dancing well,” Anfisa Taraseyeva, of Kureika village, would recall. “He desired girls and had a son here, with one of my relatives.”)357 Pereprygina, who had married a local fisherman, was now a widow with numerous children; Stalin never assisted her. What action, if any, he took in response to her brothers’ letter remains unknown.358 When doodling, Stalin would sometimes draw wolves, but his days in a remote eight-log-cabin settlement among the indigenous Evenki on the Arctic Circle—where he almost died in sudden blizzards while hunting or fishing through holes cut in the ice—were a world away.

What Stalin forced through all across Eurasia was flabbergasting, using newspaper articles, secret circulars, plenipotentiaries, party discipline, a few plenums, a party congress, the secret police and internal troops, major foreign technology companies and foreign customers for Soviet primary goods, tens of thousands of urban worker volunteers and a tiny handful of top politburo officials, and the dream of a new world. Trotsky perceived him as an opportunist and cynic, a representative of the class interests of the bureaucracy, a person bereft of convictions. With Rykov’s expulsion from the politburo, Trotsky even predicted, in his Bulletin of the Opposition, that “just as the rout of the left opposition at the 15th Party Congress [in 1927] . . . preceded the turn to the left . . . the rout of the right opposition presages an inevitable turn to the right.”359 Others in the emigration knew better. “Stalin is acting logically in the new peasant policy,” Boris Bakhmeteff, the former Provisional Government ambassador to Washington and a civil engineering professor at Columbia University, had observed of collectivization to a fellow émigré as early as February 12, 1929. “If I were a consistent Communist, I would be doing the same.” No less shrewdly, he added, “Stalin is capable of adapting, and, in contrast to other Bolshevik politicians, possesses tactical gifts. But it seems to me wrong to think that he is an opportunist and that for him Communism is a mere name.”360

The Soviet state, no less than its tsarist predecessor, sought control over grain supplies to finance imports of machinery to survive in the international system, but Stalin ideologically excluded the “capitalist path.” His vision was one of anticapitalist modernity. The perpetual emergency rule required to build socialism afforded free rein to his inner demons as well. Stalin’s persecution of his friend Bukharin in 1929–30 revealed new depths of malice, as well as self-pity.361 At the same time, his deft political neutering of Bukharin, Tomsky, and Rykov had demanded considerable exertion.362 The rightists possessed an alternative program that—whether or not it could possibly work to achieve socialism—commanded support. Indeed, it is striking how much potential power the right wing of the party had possessed within the politburo, and how Stalin crushed them anyway.363 They were hard pressed to match his cunning, and immobilized by their own aversion to schism: amid the mass peasant revolts that Rykov himself had predicted, the rightists shrank from too public a challenge to the party line.364 Tactics aside, the rightists were handcuffed by party structures and practices: they had no way to capitalize on the deep disillusionment in the army and the secret police, except via a conspiracy, even when they were still members of the politburo. Rykov was respected but had made no friends throttling army budgets, and, unlike Stalin, had not earned plaudits at the front in the civil war.365

Stalin had adroitly positioned himself as the incarnation of the popular will and historical necessity, but his resounding political triumph of 1929–30 had demonstrated a certain dependency, beyond even the luck of the harvest. His power rested on Mężyński and Yagoda, who were in operational command of the secret police and not personally close to him, though keen to demonstrate their loyalty—but could Stalin be sure? Not for nothing had he promoted Yevdokimov. More fundamentally, Stalin’s power rested upon just four fellow politburo members: Molotov, Kaganovich, Orjonikidze, and Voroshilov. The first two seemed unlikely ever to waver. But Orjonikidze and Voroshilov? Had they acted on their knowledge of the dangerous muddle Stalin had created with his “Great Break” and embraced the well-founded critiques put forward by the Stalin protégé Syrtsov and the Orjonikidze protégé Lominadze, the two authoritative figures in the politburo could have taken Stalin down. Of course, the question would have been, Who could replace him? No one in Stalin’s faction appeared to consider himself the dictator’s equal. Still, what if, going forward, they changed their minds? What if further difficulties arose, and this time foreign capitalists selling their state-of-the-art technology, and the peasants and the weather delivering a bounteous harvest, did not come to Stalin’s rescue?


Using deception, slander, and cunning against party members, with the aid of unbelievable acts of violence and terror, under the guise of a struggle to uphold the purity of Bolshevik principles and party unity, and using a powerful centralized party apparatus as his base, Stalin has over the past five years cut off and eliminated from positions of leadership all the best, genuinely Bolshevik cadres in the party and has established his personal dictatorship within the party and throughout the country as a whole, breaking with Leninism and taking a path of the most unbridled adventurism and uncontrolled personal tyranny, bringing the Soviet Union to the brink of the abyss.

MARTEMYAN RYUTIN, Communist party official, August–September 1932 1

IN THE FALL OF 1930, Japan celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of its victory in the Russo-Japanese War with fanfare, paying tribute to Admiral Tōgō (who was still active) and other “war gods” and reenacting Port Arthur’s capture at the Kabuki Theater. “As a father,” a general declares in the play, spurring wild applause, “I am pleased with the death of my two sons for the emperor.”2 That same fall, as soon as the surprise harvest bounty had been gathered, Stalin renewed his all-out forced collectivization and kulak deportations.3 The December 1930 Central Committee plenum rubber-stamped his extremism, demanding 80 percent collectivization over the course of the next year in top grain-growing areas (Ukraine, North Caucasus, Lower Volga, Central Volga), and 50 percent in the next group (Central Black Earth, Siberia, Urals, steppes of Ukraine, Kazakhstan).4 When the Eastern Siberians balked, Stalin replied that 50 percent was “a minimum target.”5 The plenum had also formally approved fulfillment of the Five-Year Plan within four years (by the end of 1932), while stipulating that 1931 would see the most ambitious industrial leap yet: a 35 percent rise in GDP, and a 45 percent jump in industry.6 Stalin was spearheading a depiction of industrialization as class war, a revolutionary upsurge against a stepped-up offensive by alien elements, which struck a deep chord.7 Some contemporaries did note the obvious falseness of the regime’s ubiquitous slogans, but other observers, such as the American journalist Eugene Lyons, would remark that “these boys are geniuses for advertising.”8

Mikhail Koltsov, the journalist-propagandist, boasted in Pravda (January 1, 1931) that “we are welcoming this new year happily and joyfully, without vacillations and doubts.”9 To enforce that steadfastness amid his distrust, Stalin used the police and party discipline.10 He also turned to the bully pulpit, decrying the inept factory boss, the consummate red-tapist, the windbag, all of whom were successes at profusions of loyalty but failures at delivering the goods. More ominously, he would warn of deliberate deception, collusion, double-dealing, and sabotage. But the dictator himself would turn out to be the grand saboteur, leading the country and his own regime into catastrophe in 1931–33, despite the intense zeal for building a new world.11 Peasants would speak of the biblical Apocalypse, some saying that the Virgin Mary had sent a letter in golden script warning that bands of horsemen would descend and destroy the collective farms.12 Instead, the Four Horsemen arrived in the form of the enforcement of the collectives and mass starvation. Rumblings within the party would surface, demanding Stalin’s removal.


Henry Ford popularized the fact that manufacturing could be revolutionized by large capital investments and superior organization, throwing up a direct challenge for industry throughout the world economy. Mass manufacturing required costly, risky, up-front investments and a large market, but the Soviet statized economy removed competition (internal and foreign) and manipulated domestic demand, enabling industry to take advantage of assembly lines.13 During the Five-Year Plan, the USSR would erect from scratch or wholly rebuild more than 1,000 factories, many in Fordist fashion.14 All the advanced technology, with the exception of synthetic rubber, would be imported from leading foreign companies, and had to be paid for in hard currency.15 The imports were assimilated with difficulty, and limited to priority sectors, such as steelmaking, chemicals, and machine building. The construction industry continued to use brick and timber rather than concrete; steam, not electricity, continued to power railways.16 And even where blast furnaces or turbines were installed, auxiliary work was often still performed by hand or with primitive tools. Still, industry expanded significantly, and simultaneously with a plunge in production all across the capitalist world. Tsarist Russia had produced almost no machine tools in 1914; the Soviet Union, in 1932, produced 20,000.17

Under the slogan “Catch and Overtake” (the capitalists), the regime was on its way to acquiring not just a new industrial base but, finally, a substantial working class.18 Already in 1930, employed labor nearly reached the plan target for 1932–33. Full employment, a magical idea, resonated globally. By the end of 1930, unemployment had reached 2.5 million in Great Britain, more than 3 million in Germany (it soon doubled from that), and more than 4 million in the United States (it soon tripled). But the disappearance of the unemployed in the USSR gave rise to unprecedented labor turnover—workers had options—which in turn provoked draconian laws such as prison sentences for violations of labor discipline or perceived negligence, and mandatory labor books to track workers.19 Many workers and some managers fell into the inconsistently applied dragnet, but the excess of demand over worker supply subverted regime efforts to “plan” labor allocation. The flux was staggering: as many as 12 million rural folk permanently resettled in cities or at construction sites that became cities during the plan. (Moscow, which received migrants from other cities, too, swelled from 2 million to 3.7 million.)20 Many tramped from place to place.21

No central decree explicitly outlawed private trade, but Stalin incited attacks against NEPmen (traders).22 The number of shops and kiosks shrank from more than 600,000 in 1928 to 140,000. Party-state pressure also squeezed out individual artisans. (Molotov then decried the severe scarcity of wooden spoons at factory canteens and the sheer impossibility of having clothes or shoes mended.)23 Many NEPmen disappeared back to villages, but a large number found employment in supply departments, enjoying privileged positions in the new socialist order.24 Meanwhile, with rationing for bread and other staples already introduced in major cities, Stalin had placed the Achilles’ heel of worker provisioning on the December 1930 plenum’s agenda. The gathering endorsed a practice, initiated at some factories, to form “closed” cooperatives inside the gates to distribute groceries and clothes. The larger factories would soon establish their own farms, granaries, and goods warehouses, an unplanned yet foreseeable result of the suppression of legal private trade and private enterprise.25

Simply by virtue of its monopoly over politics and the public sphere and its dynamic mass organizations, the Soviet party-state stood out from other contemporary authoritarian regimes, but piecemeal introduction of a socioeconomic monopoly, too, added another major dimension to fulfilling the aspirations of totalitarian control. Centralized procurement and distribution imposed a nearly impossible administrative burden, and vast corruption and everyday ingenuity afforded people space to maneuver. Still, the Soviet state now asserted sway over not just people’s political activities and thoughts but also their employment, housing, children’s schooling, even their caloric intake—effectively, their families’ life chances.26

The state itself was in upheaval, undergoing headlong expansion, thanks to elimination of private property, and political purging.27 Skilled workers were promoted to fill many of the vacancies created by expansion and arrests.28 This altered the demographics of the apparatus (but not its behavior) and of the working class, pushing the ratio of workers in large-scale industry aged twenty-two and under up to one third; the percentage of female workers rose as well.29 New managers and engineers would have far more hands-on experience than tsarist-era ones, but for now, competence was in short supply and, combined with the frenzied pace, caused an epidemic of accidents and waste.30 Some high-profile projects had to be shelved. Orjonikidze opened an All-Union Conference of Leading Personnel of Socialist Industry (January 30–February 4, 1931) with a speech that defended quantitative output targets but called for controlling costs, supplementing centralized allocation with direct factory-to-factory contract relations for additional supplies, and holding managers accountable for financial results and output quality. Further, he defended the “bourgeois” specialists, who for eighteen months had been subjected to withering public denunciations and trials for wrecking.31

But on the final day, Stalin arrived in the hall. “It is sometimes asked whether the pace can be reduced a bit, and the speed of development restrained,” he stated. “No, this is impossible!” His reasoning was revealing: “To slacken the tempo would mean falling behind. And those who fall behind get beat up. But we do not want to get beat up! One feature of the history of old Russia was the continual beatings she suffered because of her backwardness. She was beaten up by the Mongol khans. She was beaten up by the Turkish beys. She was beaten up by the Swedish barons. She was beaten up by the Polish-Lithuanian pans. She was beaten up by the Anglo-French capitalists. She was beaten up by the Japanese lords. All beat her—because of her backwardness, her military backwardness, cultural backwardness, political backwardness, industrial backwardness, agricultural backwardness. Such is the law of the exploiters: beat up and rob the backward and the weak, capitalism’s law of the jungle. You are backward, you are weak—and therefore you are wrong; therefore you can be beaten up and enslaved. You are mighty, therefore you are right, therefore we must handle you carefully.” He concluded: “We are a hundred years behind the advanced countries. . . . We must make good this gap in ten years. Either we do it, or they will crush us.”32

The dictator tapped into Russia’s perennial torment over relative weakness vis-à-vis the West, and more recent fears of foreign forces ganging up on the socialist motherland. One participant would recall that Stalin “literally opened a valve through which the steam could be released.”33 But he challenged bosses to get out of their offices. “There are many people among us who think that management is synonymous with signing papers,” he said. “This is sad, but true. . . . How is it that we Bolsheviks, . . . who emerged victorious from the bitter civil war, who have solved the tremendous task of building a modern industry, who have swung the peasantry on to the path of socialism—how is it that in the matter of the management of production, we bow to a slip of paper? The reason is that it is easier to sign papers than to manage production.” He enjoined them to “look into everything, let nothing escape you, learn and learn again. . . . Master technology. It is time Bolsheviks themselves became experts. . . . Technology decides everything. And an economic manager who does not want to study technology, who does not want to master technology, is a joke and not a manager.”34


Who, precisely, was a kulak—an owner of three cows? Four cows? Criteria could be murky. But centrally imposed quotas forced answers.35 Naming “kulaks” often involved preemptively denouncing others to save oneself or settling old scores. “Socialism was a religion of hatred, envy, enmity between people,” a group from Kalinin province (formerly Tver) wrote to Socialist Husbandry (March–April 1931).36 Some peasants were motivated by class-war sentiments, but the quotas could be met only if many middle and poor peasants suddenly got classified as “kulaks.” Those who refused to join the collectives became “kulaks,” no matter how poor. The designation “kulak henchman” made anyone fair game, and ambitious secret police officials exceeded their quotas.37 According to the OGPU’s own classifications, many of those swept up in antikulak operations were petty traders, “former people,” priests, or random “anti-Soviet elements.”38 The haste, arbitrariness, and wanton violence facilitated the operation by inciting chaos and fears of things slipping out of control, spurring further harsh measures.39 Stalin ordered a second wave of internal deportations beginning in late May (through early fall 1931), which proved nearly twice as large as the previous year’s.40 He relied on local party bosses but especially the OGPU, and on the barbed rivalry between Yagoda and Yevdokimov for his favor.41

All told, around 5 million people were “dekulakized”—by the police, by their fellow peasants, or by choosing to flee, with an untold number perishing during deportation or not long after. Up to 30,000 heads of households were summarily executed. OGPU operatives improvised colonization villages, soon rechristened “special settlements,” which were intended to be self-sufficient, but despite a torrent of decrees, actual settlements with housing would be formed only belatedly.42 The dispossessed who survived the journeys in cold, dark cattle cars to the taiga had to make it through the first winter in tents or under the open sky.43 They helped build the Magnitogorsk Metallurgical Combine, the Chelyabinsk Tractor Plant, and other Five-Year Plan showcases. The self-dekulakized and peasants who were dispossessed but not internally deported sought livelihoods at the same construction sites, provoking accusations of “infiltration.”44 The deputy OGPU plenipotentiary to Eastern Siberia reported mass flight from the special settlements, too, because of “severe living conditions and the food situation,” as well as “epidemic diseases and high mortality among children.” People, he wrote, “were completely covered in filth.”45

All the while, the regime was supposed to be facilitating the planting for the next harvest, the first in which the collective and state farms would predominate.46 The Five-Year Plan had originally envisioned a 1931 harvest of 96 million tons, and as late as the end of 1930 the harvest was estimated at 98.6 million, far larger than the best prerevolutionary harvests.47 But in 1931, a cold spring followed by a summer drought—a fatal combination—struck the Kazakh steppes, Siberia, the Urals, the Volga, and Ukraine.48

Stalin got warnings of lagging harvest preparation as well as locust infestation and ordered some actions, but the regime seems not to have perceived the danger.49 Kalinin wrote to the holidaying Avel Yenukidze (May 27, 1931), the secretary of the central executive committee of the Soviet, about the “unprecedented weather” in Moscow (“It’s just like the hot south; rain is rare and brief”) yet still asserted that “by all data the harvest should be good.”50 He made no mention of the devastating loss of draft animals (slaughtered animals do not consume grain, but they do not pull plows, either).51 Matters were most dire in Russia’s Kazakh autonomous republic, where the regime had decided that, in order to overcome “backwardness,” it would force-settle nomads.52 This region was the country’s main meat supplier, but it was made a destination for several hundred thousand deported kulaks, further diminishing land for herds and increasing claimants on local food. State procurements took such a large proportion of the grain grown here that herders and their animals were effectively left to starve.53 Reports reached Moscow of significant deaths among Kazakhs from famine and of mass flight to Uzbekistan, Siberia, Turkmenistan, Iran, and China in search of food.54 Only the mountain territories of Dagestan matched the depth of starvation and epidemics seen again in 1931 in the Kazakh autonomous republic, a territory larger than Western Europe.55

Urban rationing, meanwhile, was mired in bureaucracy, while investment in housing, health care, and education took a backseat. Stalin attended both days of a conference of industrial managers (June 22–23, 1931).56 In a rousing closing speech, he stressed no-excuses fulfillment of plan targets, while enumerating six conditions for industrial development, such as promoting higher-education graduates and factory workers into administration, and observed that “no ruling class has managed without its own intelligentsia,” a euphemism for the emerging Soviet elite. His other conditions included expanding trade and differentiating workers’ wages to stimulate productivity. “Socialism,” Stalin concluded, “is the systematic improvement of the position of the working class,” without which the worker “will spit on your socialism.”57


Control over the military is always an issue in a dictatorship. OGPU special departments continued to maintain watch lists for officers with tsarist pasts. Anti-Soviet émigré organizations, in parallel, strained to perceive tensions within the Red Army and infused their correspondence with fantasies about an officers’ anti-Communist putsch. But the OGPU had infiltrated émigré groups and created front organizations to intercept their correspondence, track agents infiltrating from abroad, and entrap disaffected military men at home.58 Many former tsarist General Staff Academy graduates would have been glad to see the Communist regime evolve into something else, but, having been relegated to administrative or teaching posts, they were in no position to work for an overthrow.59 The smarter ones feared a foreign military intervention, precisely because the regime would round them up as presumed traitors (or, conversely, the occupiers would not forgive them for serving the Reds).60 Voroshilov, the only quasimilitary figure in Stalin’s politburo, beat back the OGPU provocations to dredge up “enemies,” including against his own aide-de-camp.61 Still, dossiers accumulated.62 The central special department, in a kind of military equivalent to the Industrial Party trial, brought together initially disparate arrests, alleging a plot for a putsch in coordination with a military attack by the old Entente powers in spring 1931. Hence, the counterintelligence operation was code-named Springtime.

Mężyński certainly knew how to please Stalin, but he might have received direct instructions.63 Stalin suspected Red Army commanders, few of whom were proletarians, to be “rightist” sympathizers secretly opposed to collectivization who would prove “opportunistic” in the event of an aggression from without. The roots of the “plot” were placed in Ukraine, even though the head of the Ukraine OGPU, Balytsky, had initially not taken to the task—until Mężyński reminded him that Ukraine’s Chekists had missed the Shakhty Affair (a “discovery” of the North Caucasus OGPU).64 Balytsky telegrammed Moscow (February 15, 1931) about a “counterrevolutionary military organization” in Kharkov. “Ivanovsky talked about the existence of a general operational plan for an uprising in Ukraine,” he wrote of extracted testimony. “The plan was sketched on a map, which Ivanovsky destroyed during the Industrial Party Trial.” Ivanovsky was also said to have corresponded with a parallel Moscow organization; that correspondence, too, had been burned.65

More than 3,000 former tsarist officers in Kharkov, Kiev, Moscow, and Leningrad were charged with conspiracy and espionage.66 Shaposhnikov, the chief of staff of the army, whom Stalin had recently allowed to enter the party without the mandatory period of candidate status, was made to confront an arrested staff officer who accused him of belonging to the clandestine “organization.” Shaposhnikov exposed his accuser as a slanderer, avoiding arrest but suffering demotion, in April 1931, to commander of the Volga military district.67 Several score officers were not merely intimidated but executed. The sixty-six-year-old tsarist major general Andrei Snesarev—who, despite having joined the Reds, was Stalin’s old nemesis during the Tsaritsyn days of 1918—was already in a labor camp on a death sentence commuted to ten years. Now he became one of the alleged plot’s “leaders” and was resentenced to death in summer 1931, although, once again, the dictator commuted his sentence (“Klim! I think, for Snesarev, we could substitute ten years instead of the highest measure”).68

Tukhachevsky’s name, yet again, had surfaced in the “testimony” of those arrested. But Soviet intelligence had intercepted and decoded a telegram sent March 4, 1931, by the Japanese military attaché in Moscow, Lieutenant Colonel Yukio Kasahara, to the general staff in Tokyo, belittling the Red Army’s capabilities, and urging “a speedy war” before the propitious moment passed.69 After four discussions of Japan at the politburo, on June 10, in a surprise for the brass, Stalin returned Tukhachevsky from the Leningrad military district and promoted him to replace the head of armaments, Uborevičius (who went to the Belorussian military district).70 As a deputy defense commissar to Voroshilov once more, Tukhachevsky made a summer inspection tour of strategic regions. Thus was the sweeping Springtime operation wound down, for now; the collection of compromising materials on Tukhachevsky and others did not cease.71

Stalin, in parallel, kept a watch on military technology. In mid-June 1931, with Voroshilov in tow, he visited the central aerodrome, in Moscow, to inspect Soviet aircraft, climbing into the cabin of the new Polikarpov I-5 fighter, under the direction of Alexander Turzhansky (b. 1898), of the Air Force Research Institute. “Listening to my explanations, Stalin suddenly asked, ‘Where’s the radio?’” Turzhansky recalled. “‘On fighters there is no radio yet.’ ‘And how do you fight an air battle?’ ‘By maneuvering the aircraft.’ ‘That is unacceptable!’” A radio engineer hastened to the rescue, reporting that there was a prototype plane with a radio, but it awaited testing. Next up for inspection was a French Potez aircraft. Stalin asked, “‘And the French plane has a radio?’” Turzhansky answered in the negative. “‘Aha!’ said a surprised Stalin. ‘All the same, we need a radio on our fighters. And before them.’”72


Some OGPU operatives looked askance at the primitive fabrications against what were unthreatening military administrators and teachers already on a short leash. Additionally, although Yagoda liked to advertise his office on the third floor of Lubyanka, 2, as open, many operatives despised him. Messing, the second deputy chief and head of foreign espionage, teamed up with Olsky, Yevdokimov, and Abram Levin (who oversaw the regular police and was known as Lev Belsky), to accuse Yagoda and Balytsky of artificially “inflating” cases.73 The rebels were hardly strangers to fabrication (Yevdokimov and Olsky had recently framed a group of microbiologists).74 But they saw Yagoda as walking on eggshells over alleged ties to the right deviation. Mężyński’s continuing ill health helped spur the intrigue as well. His weight had ballooned to more than 250 pounds, exacerbating his heart condition, bronchial asthma, and endocrinal deficiency, and he had been reporting to work at Lubyanka perhaps twice a week for a few hours, before finally being sent to Crimea.75 (He evidently spent time studying Persian, dreaming of reading the verses of the medieval polymath Omar Khayyám in the original.)76 Mężyński returned to work only on June 8, 1931, and not at full strength.77

Stalin could have seized on the intrigues to promote a favorite, such as Yevdokimov. The latter knew Stalin had no fondness for Yagoda, but he had miscalculated the dictator’s appetite for disorder in the organs, and for having Chekists force personnel decisions on him. On July 15, 1931, Stalin had Yevdokimov sent on holiday to the spa town of Kislovodsk and, ten days later, installed Ivan Akulov (a deputy head of the workers’ and peasants’ inspectorate) as first deputy chief of the OGPU. Yagoda nominally fell to second deputy. Stalin also advanced Balytsky to third deputy, a new post.78 Akulov’s appointment from outside was Stalin’s response to the criticisms of OGPU illegalities.79 Balytsky’s spot in Ukraine was given to Stanisław Redens, Stalin’s brother-in-law (through his first wife). Yevdokimov was assigned to run the OGPU in Leningrad in place of Filipp Medved (who was reassigned to Belorussia), but then the politburo reversed itself.80 Medved stayed; Yevdokimov ended up in Central Asia.81 The regime warned those transferred not “to bring along any functionary at all close to him from the regions they were leaving when transferring from one place to another,” an entrenched practice of cliques that no decree could halt.82 A clique was how Stalin had achieved and exercised power.

Global financial shocks were spiraling, but how much Stalin understood or paid attention remains uncertain. France and the United States together held two thirds of the world’s gold, but their monetary authorities intervened to hold down the money supply, thereby failing to check the inflows of gold and causing global deflation. On July 6, 1931, France reluctantly accepted Herbert Hoover’s proposal for a one-year moratorium on intergovernmental payments, including Germany’s reparations. Hoover was concerned that Germany would default after the failure, in spring 1931, of Creditanstalt, Austria’s largest bank, founded by the Rothschilds and considered impregnable (but lacking liquidity because of efforts to sustain the country’s old industrial structure). That, in turn, had provoked bank runs in Hungary and Germany, too, and attacks on sterling. On July 8, strict controls were imposed on all German foreign exchange transactions, but five days later, one German bank collapsed. British officials fumed over France’s perceived intransigence vis-à-vis Germany’s hardship. “Again and again be it said,” British prime minister Ramsay MacDonald confided to his diary (July 22), “France is the enemy.”83 British recognition of the need to “fix” the Versailles Treaty had only become more acute.

Despite the intense pressure on him, Stalin’s flashes of anger were rarely seen, although at the politburo on August 5, 1931, he exploded in full view at a fellow Caucasus comrade for not removing a skullcap.84 The next day, evidently his last in Moscow, he convoked an ad hoc politburo “commission” to draft a party circular on the OGPU events. It explained that the dismissed operatives had “conducted a completely intolerable group struggle against the leadership of the OGPU” by spreading rumors that “the wrecking case in the military was artificially ‘inflated.’”85 New rumors spread about what had really transpired.86 Yagoda dispatched his own secret circular, approved by Stalin, admitting that “some individual operatives” had “forced the accused to give untrue testimony,” but Yagoda denounced accusations of systematic falsification as slander by “our class and political enemies.”87


Voroshilov traveled for more than two months in the summer of 1931, stopping in Khabarovsk, Vladivostok, Blagoveshchensk, Ulan Ude, Chita, Irkutsk, Novosibirsk, Chelyabinsk, and Magnitogorsk, and writing to Stalin about the benefits. “You are right: we do not always take into account the colossal significance of personal travel and firsthand familiarization with people, with business,” Stalin answered. “We would gain a lot (and the cause would especially gain a lot) if we traveled more frequently to locales and got acquainted with people at work.” But the dictator did not follow his own advice, leaving Moscow only for Sochi: “I did not want to leave on holiday, but then I surrendered (I got tired).”88

Stalin took full advantage of his southern holiday, writing to Yenukidze about having spent ten days in Tsqaltubo, in central-western Georgia, twelve miles from Kutaisi, where he had once sat in a tsarist prison. Its radon-carbonate springs boasted a natural temperature of 91 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit. “I took twenty baths,” he observed. “The water was marvelous.”89 But field couriers delivered regime business in staggering volume: OGPU reports about Japan’s aggressive behavior, fuel problems, foreign currency expenditures, forestry, nonferrous metals, politburo minutes.90 Functionaries often sat paralyzed until he responded. His mailbag was the nexus of what normally would be called the policy-making process. He chose what to read (or not), and his preferences and habits profoundly shaped state behavior. He tended to go on holiday during harvest season and inquired often about grain procurements while paying little attention to the cultivation of crops or animal husbandry.91 Stalin’s non-holiday mail was also voluminous. In the six months leading up to August 1931, the apparatus processed 13,000 private letters in his name—enumerating each writer’s identity, social origins, and employment and appending summaries of every letter, transferring most to the archives, sending some to government agencies for response, and forwarding 314 of them to Stalin.92 His aides tended to pass him letters purporting to be from former acquaintances (requesting material aid or seeking the status of association with him); any that took up Marxist-Leninist theory; and those proposing scientific inventions (one letter from Egypt was forwarded with the annotation “not particularly trustworthy proposal for invention of ‘death rays’”).93 Another type concerned allegations of abuse by officials. Stalin usually forwarded this filtered correspondence to responsible functionaries, expecting an answer. (In May 1931, a member of the Young Pioneers scouts group had written back to report that local officials had finally come through with a pair of boots, making school attendance possible, thanks to Stalin’s intervention.)94 “You are now all-powerful,” wrote one correspondent. “Your word determines not only the life but even the freedom of a person.”95

The holiday correspondence revealed that Stalin knew of the terrible food situation. “Now it is clear to me that Kartvelishvili and the Georgian Central Committee secretariat, with their reckless ‘policy of harvest gathering,’ have brought a number of regions in western Georgia to famine,” he wrote to Kaganovich (August 17, 1931), using a word the regime would not publicly allow. “They do not understand that the Ukraine methods of harvest gathering, necessary and expedient in grain-growing regions, are not expedient and harmful in non-grain-growing regions that in addition lack any industrial proletariat. They’re arresting people by the hundreds, including party members openly sympathizing with those dissatisfied and not sympathizing with the ‘policy’ of the Georgian Central Committee.”96 Stalin directed Mikoyan to send emergency grain to western Georgia.97 One could never know which denunciation might catch Stalin’s eye.98 He could even rise to officials’ defense when he perceived them to be victims of a vendetta.99 Word reached him that one of his old Tiflis Theological Seminary teachers, seventy-three-year-old Nikolai Makhatadze, was imprisoned. “I know him from the seminary and I think he cannot present a danger for Soviet power,” Stalin wrote to Kartvelishvili in Tiflis. “I request that the old man be released and that I be informed of the result.”100

Kaganovich was now Stalin’s top deputy in the party, and for the first time, the thirty-eight-year-old was managing affairs in the dictator’s absence. Stalin took pride in what he called, to Kaganovich, “our leading group, which was formed historically in the struggle with all forms of opportunism,” and reacted angrily to quarrels among them.101 “I don’t agree with you about Molotov,” he wrote to Orjonikidze (September 11, 1931). “If he’s giving you or the Supreme Economic Council a hard time, raise the matter in the politburo. You know perfectly well the politburo won’t let Molotov or anyone else persecute you or the Supreme Council of the Economy. In any event, you’re as much to blame as Molotov is. You called him a ‘scoundrel.’ That can’t be allowed in a comradely environment. You ignore him, the Council of People’s Commissars . . . Do you really think Molotov should be excluded from this ruling circle that has taken shape in the struggle against the Trotsky-Zinoviev and Bukharin-Rykov deviations? . . . Of course Molotov has his faults. But who doesn’t have faults? We’re all rich in faults. We have to work and struggle together—there’s plenty of work to go around. We have to respect one another and deal with one another.” Soon, an exasperated Stalin would reprimand Orjonikidze yet again: “We work together, come what may! The preservation of the unity and indivisibility of our ruling circle! Understood?”102

In Sochi, Stalin was staying up high at the Zenzinovka dacha and measuring temperature differences with the lower Puzanovka dacha, in a reprise of his youthful days as a weatherman at the Tiflis observatory. Nadya had again departed early; her fall classes were resuming. “Everything is according to the usual: a game of gorodki, a game of lawn bowling, another game of gorodki, and so on,” he wrote, addressing her affectionately as “Tatka!” (September 9, 1931). Nadya replied that she had gotten safely back to a dreary capital. On the 14th, he wrote again: “I’m glad you’ve learned how to write substantive letters. There’s nothing new in Sochi. The Molotovs have left. They say Kalinin is coming. . . . It’s lonely. How are you doing? Have Satanka [Svetlana] write something to me. And Vaska, too. Continue to keep me ‘informed.’ I kiss you.” Nine-year-old Vaska (Vasily) wrote to his father (September 21) about how he was riding his bike, raising guppies, and taking photos with a new camera. Stalin wrote to Nadya about a visit from Kirov. “I went one time (just once!) to the seaside. I went bathing. It was very good! I think I’ll go again.” Nadya wrote back, “I’m sending the book by Dmitrievsky (that defector) On Stalin and Lenin. . . . I read about it in the White press, where they say that it has the most interesting material about you. Curious?”103


Instigator of mayhem at home, Stalin received a jolt from abroad. On the morning of September 18, 1931, an “explosion” just outside Mukden, on the South Manchurian Railway, disrupted a few yards of track; it did not even prevent the arrival of the latest train.104 But within an hour, Japan’s Kwantung Army had begun massacring Chinese garrison soldiers sleeping in their barracks in northern Mukden, and by September 19 the Japanese flag already flew over the Chinese city. Japan’s military quickly seized other Chinese cities, revealing a premeditated plan.105 Manchuria had long been a kind of Balkans of the east, a battleground in successive clashes dating back to the Sino-Japanese War (1894–95). Now, Japan claimed to be restoring stability following the supposed vacuum opened up by the Red Army withdrawal after its 1929 military confrontation with China over the Chinese Eastern Railway.106 Half the world’s soybeans were grown in Manchuria, which found a hungry market in Japan, while exports of Manchuria’s iron ore enabled Japan to become the top steel producer in East Asia. Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government in Nanking, which faced opposition from Chinese Communists and a breakaway Nationalist faction in Canton, ordered no retaliation by the Manchurian warlord Zhang Xueliang, and sought recourse in the League of Nations.107

Soviet-Japanese relations had been tense, but Soviet exports to Japan had doubled between 1925 and 1931, while Japanese exports to the USSR, from a very low base, had increased tenfold. Still, Japan’s actions in Manchuria violated the 1905 Treaty of Portsmouth, which recognized a Russian sphere of influence around the Chinese Eastern Railway. Tokyo pressured Moscow to allow it to use that rail line to move its troops against Chinese forces and, when Moscow refused, arrested some of the Soviet employees; one died in custody (from typhus, Japan claimed), another from supposed suicide. Belatedly, the Soviets acquiesced in Japan’s use of the railroad to chase down Chinese resistance—right to the borders of the Soviet satellite Mongolia and the Soviet Union itself.108 And so, after all the propaganda about looming “imperialist intervention” and the fabricated crimes of Red Army officers supposedly lying in wait to commit treason in the event of an external attack, an “imperialist” power had acted.

Stalin was preoccupied with the limitrophes, the former tsarist lands on the western frontier.109 Soviet war plans took as their point of departure an enemy coalition of neighboring states, above all Poland (P) and Romania (R), which would be incited and supported by the Western imperialist powers. This “PR series” of contingency plans, drawn up in 1931–32, envisioned advancing in the Baltic region to protect Leningrad and the right flank, but mostly defending the presumed main axes, the center and the south, even retreating as far as the Dnieper River until full Soviet mobilization enabled a counteroffensive.110 But Stalin was well aware of Soviet vulnerabilities in the Far Eastern theater, too. By 1931, Japan’s Kwantung Army numbered 130,000, with another 127,000 Manchurian soldiers, out of a total Manchurian population of 30 million, versus fewer than 100,000 troops in the Soviet Far Eastern Army and a total Soviet Far East population of just 800,000, of whom one quarter were ethnic Koreans and Chinese.111 Soviet rail capacity there was perhaps no more than four or five trains per day, too slight for mass reinforcements.112 The Soviet Far Eastern Army had yet to acquire a fleet, air force, or storehouses in case the Trans-Siberian artery was cut off by enemy air strikes. Japan’s military did not need to read the secret OGPU reports to know that collectivization and dekulakization had undermined Red Army morale. The Kwantung leadership judged the USSR incapable of real war, so that if the Red Army did engage, the Japanese would pounce—and if the civilian government in Tokyo opposed a full-scale clash, then let it fall.113

Stalin chose not to hurry back to Moscow. At the politburo, some officials demanded resolute action to uphold Soviet administration of the Chinese Eastern Railway, just as in 1929, but Stalin suspected other countries would take advantage of a Soviet-Japanese clash, especially after Kaganovich and Molotov informed him of the lack of reaction by the British and the French. “Most probably, Japan’s intervention is being conducted by agreement with all or some of the great powers on the basis of the expansion and strengthening of spheres of influence in China,” he speculated to his minions (September 23, 1931). “Our military intervention is, of course, excluded; even diplomatic involvement is now not expedient, since it would only unite the imperialists, when it is advantageous to us for them to quarrel.”114

On October 1, 1931, the Council of People’s Commissars quietly raised the investment plan for armaments. Production had barely increased in the first nine months of the year.115 Stalin finally left Sochi for Moscow on October 7. Ten days later, the regime created a “committee of reserves” charged with stockpiling grain in anticipation of war. The ambitious export plans to pay for imported industrial machinery remained in place.116 But heavy rains were hitting drought-stricken areas, ruining part of the harvested grain that had been stacked. Across the Union, the larger-than-expected bulge in the urban labor force had pushed the number of people on rations to 46 million by fall 1931, from 26 million at the start of 1930.117 The army and the growing prison population, not to mention the bureaucratic hydra responsible for distribution of grain, had to be fed, too.118 Grain stocks in the entire Soviet Far East amounted to a mere 190,000 tons.


On Monday morning, September 21, 1931—nearly simultaneously with the Japanese aggression in Manchuria—Great Britain stunned the world, abandoning the gold standard, even though it had not run out of reserves.119 Within four weeks, eighteen countries followed the UK off gold. Stocks on the New York exchange lost half their value, the second crash in eighteen months. The pound’s resulting devaluation had global consequences, because Britain, along with the United States, served as the world’s principal short-term lender.120 Soon London would embrace “imperial free trade,” meaning free only for British dominions, alongside protectionist tariffs for other countries, and would improvise a sterling bloc. This effectively ended a long epoch of Britain upholding an open global economic order.121

Pravda (September 22, 1931) triumphantly deemed the gold-standard démarche “not only a weakening of Britain, but a weakening of international imperialism as a whole.” Marxists like Stalin assumed the crisis inhered in the functioning of capitalism. In fact, human decisions transformed structural problems into what came to be known as the Great Depression. Central bankers and their acolytes had long believed in the necessity of convertibility between currencies and gold, but a fixed-exchange-rate system works only if there is convergence in the macroeconomic performance of the participants (similar levels of wage and price inflation, public and private deficits, competitiveness) and an absence of shocks. Now, confronted with a shock, monetary authorities chose to raise interest rates, exacerbating the problems. And finances became unglued anyway. By year’s end, nearly 3,000 banks in the United States, the citadel of world finance, would fail or be taken over as confidence and GDP cratered, accompanied by deflation in asset and commodity prices, disruption of trade, and mass unemployment.122

The Depression’s impact proved worse in Eastern Europe than in Western, because largely peasant countries were whiplashed by the commodity price crash while their governments (Czechoslovakia excepted) depended on foreign financing, which dried up. Most Eastern European countries hesitated to depreciate their currencies, for fear of a repeat of hyperinflation, but they closed banks, imposed foreign-exchange and trade controls, raised tariffs, and postponed or suspended foreign debt payments—moves toward autarchy that magnified arbitrary bureaucratic power at the expense of markets and imparted further impetus to authoritarianism, right-wing populism, and xenophobia.123 The USSR was also a predominantly peasant country, and although capitalist economic troubles initially had allowed Stalin to enjoy nearly unfettered Western technology transfer, now he was caught out, dependent on commodity prices and foreign financing for those industrial purchases.124

Stalin had been preoccupied with a possible French-led collective boycott that could cut the Soviets off from all advanced technology, and Orjonikidze had bent over backward to a delegation of German industrial luminaries, while Stalin restrained the insurrectionist impulses of the German Communists.125 Berlin, for its part, faced shrinking foreign markets and rising unemployment—and was coming around to the idea that Stalin’s crazy building of socialism might work. A bilateral trade agreement had been signed that extended German government-guaranteed credits to the USSR for a period of twenty-eight months, longer than the usual. The Soviets were to use the funds to purchase an additional 300 million marks’ worth of German industrial goods, at favorable prices.126 The deal was supposed to underwrite the wild industrial leap of 1931 and put to rest, for now, the feared anti-Soviet boycott. German exports to the USSR would jump to double the level of 1929. But the agreement had not resolved the severe Soviet balance-of-payment problems.127 The Soviets even failed to reap the benefits of the pound’s devaluation because of their renewed economic reliance on Germany.128

Soviet reliance on expensive short-term credits—the only kind predominantly available to the Communist regime—imposed relentless pressure to retire maturing debt and obtain new loans. With Soviet foreign debt more than doubling in the period 1929–31 (it would increase 50 percent in 1931 alone), rumors of a pending default spread in the Western press. (Turkey and much of Latin America defaulted at this time.)129 On October 6, 1931, the British chargé d’affaires in Moscow wrote to London that the severe Soviet balance-of-payments crisis, on top of the failures to meet 1931 output targets, would even compel Moscow to break off rapid industrialization and collectivization.130 Wishful thinking aside, the worsening terms of trade and tariffs did force the Soviets to curtail imports of consumer and even capital goods.131 But the Soviets meticulously paid their debts. The pressure to do so partly explains the regime’s continued export of grain despite fears for the harvest and low global prices.132 Only state-imposed deprivation allowed the USSR to avoid external default.


Compared with the robust 1930 harvest—officially estimated at 83.5 million tons, but closer to 73–77 million—the 1931 harvest would come in somewhere between 57 million and 65 million tons. A cutback in grain exports loomed, but Stalin stalled the reckoning, continuing to lash out at the “liberalism” of rural officialdom for failing to extirpate “the kulak.”133 He also countenanced intensified religious persecution and ruination of churches.134 Still, he had grudgingly allowed a slight reduction in procurement targets for the Volga, the Urals, Siberia, and Kazakhstan, the most drought-stricken regions, while holding the line on Ukraine’s targets and raising the quotas for the North Caucasus (which had largely escaped the drought).135 Mikoyan, on October 31, 1931, told a Central Committee plenum that on the eve of the harvest, “we had awaited the season of the grain collections with rainbow perspectives.”136 Regional party bosses, given the floor, uttered the truth: drought and a poor harvest had rendered even the reduced quotas impossible. Stalin—who got his back up when officials cited natural causes as excuses—exploded, sarcastically mocking one speaker’s “exactitude” in adducing data on lower crop yields.137 And yet, the dictator agreed to gather separately with plenum delegates from the grain-growing regions, which resulted in additional procurement reductions.138

Growers were reluctant to sell even what they had at the regime’s punishingly low prices: in 1931, the market price per tsentner of rye was 61.53 rubles, versus the state price of 5.50; for wheat, the disparity was greater still.139 But now, procurement agents grabbed even the food for minimal consumption. State collections in fall 1931 (and into early 1932) would leave farmers with less grain, meat, and dairy than in any year since the mid-1920s. “Comrade Stalin, I ask you to look into how collective farmers live on the collective farms,” urged one of the countless letters pouring in about the starvation. “At the meetings it is impossible to speak up; if you do speak up, then they say you are an opportunist.”140

Stalin was the sole bulwark against retreat from building socialism. On November 16, 1931, as he was walking the short distance between party headquarters on Old Square and the Kremlin, down Ilinka Street, a former White officer and presumed British agent, whom the OGPU had under surveillance, chanced upon him.141 The man, who used the alias Yakov Ogarev, was said to have been so startled that he failed to pull his revolver from under his heavy overcoat. In another telling, the OGPU operative shadowing him had grabbed the enemy’s hand. Either way, Ogarev was arrested. “I recognized [Stalin] immediately from the likeness to his portraits I had seen,” he would testify. “He appeared shorter than I expected. He was moving slowly and looked at me intently. I also did not take my eyes off him.” There was no trial, no mention in the press.142 The politburo issued another secret resolution forbidding Stalin from walking Moscow on foot. The chance encounter somewhat recalled that of Gavrilo Princip and Franz Ferdinand on a Sarajevo street outside Moritz Schiller’s Delicatessen in 1914. But the armed Ogarev was no Princip.


Japan, with its invasion of Manchuria, had seized an industrial territory larger than Germany, France, and Austria combined, while losing just 3,000 killed, 5,000 wounded, and 2,500 frostbitten.143 “Japan plans to seize not only Manchuria but also Peking,” Stalin wrote presciently to Voroshilov (November 27, 1931), adding, “It is not impossible and even likely that they will seize the Soviet Far East and Mongolia to soothe the feelings of the Chinese clients with territory captured at our expense.” He further surmised that the Japanese would claim to be safeguarding the region from “Bolshevik infection” while creating their own economic base on the mainland, without which Japan would be boxed in by “militarizing America, revolutionizing China, and the fast-developing USSR.”144 Stalin supported “serious preventive measures of a military and nonmilitary character,” including additional units for the Soviet Far East, walking a fine line between showing weakness, which might invite attack, and overly strong measures, which might offer a casus belli.145 He also reinforced Soviet efforts to conclude nonaggression pacts with countries on the western frontier. Such a pact had been signed with Lithuania (1926), but he sought them with Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Romania, and, above all, Poland.146

Amid reports that the French government was encouraging Japan to launch a war against the USSR and trying to insert a clause into its draft bilateral pact with Moscow that would be invalidated by just such a third-party attack—all of which fit Stalin’s cynical view of the imperialist powers—he suffered an unpleasant surprise: fierce resistance to a nonaggression pact with Poland from inside the foreign affairs commissariat.147

Stalin, finally, had replaced foreign affairs commissar Chicherin—a hypochondriac frequently absent abroad for treatment—with his deputy, Maxim Litvinov.148 (In a bitter parting memorandum, Chicherin fulminated against Litvinov, the Comintern, and “the GPU, [which] deals with the foreign affairs commissariat as with a class enemy.”)149 Litvinov, never a close associate of Stalin’s, became the face of the USSR abroad.150 Whereas Chicherin was aristocratic and urbane, Litvinov was rough hewn. He was also Jewish. He had lived in exile in the UK from 1907 through early 1918 and afterward as a midlevel embassy counselor, spoke fluent accented English, and had married an English writer, Ivy Low, the daughter of a prominent Jewish family, whom he called his bourgeoise. He continued Chicherin’s orientation on Germany while seeking to make all of Europe his bailiwick, but Stalin subdivided the department and inserted rivals.151 Still, issues of Stalin’s control remained (foreign affairs personnel, about one third of whom were Jews, were better educated than functionaries of any other government body).152 A Polish offer to Litvinov to resume talks for a nonaggression pact had been rebuffed—and Stalin had been informed only ex post facto.153

The dictator was convinced that Poland’s ruler, Józef Piłsudski, was secretly working to undermine Ukraine, but also that, without Poland, a major imperialist attack on the Soviet Union would be far less feasible.154 A Polonophobe himself, he nonetheless warned Kaganovich not to be taken in by the foreign affairs commissariat’s “anti-Polonism.”155 Stalin discovered, however, that any decrease in tensions with Poland threatened bilateral relations with Germany: the Reichswehr chief of staff, on a visit to Moscow, expressed fears that a Soviet-Polish nonaggression pact would guarantee Poland’s existing borders.156

Litvinov was also working assiduously, alongside his deputy Lev Karakhan, for a nonaggression pact with Japan, hewing to Stalin’s line to stress Soviet noninterference and to make concessions.157 On December 13, 1931, the OGPU decoded and forwarded to Stalin an intercepted transcript of a conversation between the Japanese military attaché in Moscow, Kasahara, and his superior (visiting from Tokyo), advocating for war before the USSR became too strong and underscoring that “the countries on the Soviet western border (i.e., at a minimum Poland and Romania) are in a position to act with us.”158 The attaché added that the Japanese ambassador to Moscow, Kōki Hirota, thought “the cardinal objective of this war must lay not so much in protecting Japan from Communism as in seizing the Soviet Far East and Eastern Siberia.” Stalin circled these territories and circulated the intercept to the politburo and the military command, advising that the Soviet Union risked becoming, like China, a rag doll of the imperialists.159

Also on December 13, Stalin sat for a two-hour interview with the German psychoanalytical writer Emil Ludwig. When Ludwig noted “a bowing before all things American” in the USSR, Stalin accused him of exaggerating. “We do respect American business-like manner in everything—in industry, in technology, in literature, in life,” the dictator allowed, adding: “The mores there in industry, the habits in production, contain something democratic, which you cannot say of the old European capitalist countries, where, still today, feudal aristocrat haughtiness lives.” Still, in terms of “our sympathies for any one nation, . . . I’d have to say it would be the Germans.” Stalin had been exiled in Siberia, and Ludwig delicately suggested a contrast with Lenin’s European emigration. “I know many comrades who were abroad for twenty years,” Stalin answered, “lived somewhere in Charlottenburg [Berlin] or the Latin Quarter [Paris], sat for years in cafés and drank beer, and yet did not manage to acquire a knowledge of Europe and failed to understand it.”160 Ludwig inquired whether Stalin believed in fate. “Bolsheviks, Marxists, do not believe in fate,” he answered. “The very notion of fate, of Schicksal, is a prejudice, nonsense, a survival of mythology, the mythology of the ancient Greeks.” Ludwig pressed: “So the fact that you did not die is an accident?” Stalin: “There are internal and external factors whose totality led to the circumstance that I did not die. But utterly independent of that, another could have been in my place, because someone had to sit right here.”161


Despite Soviet groveling, the Japanese government did not bother to reply through diplomatic channels to renewed offers of a nonaggression pact.162 Voroshilov, in a note to his deputy Gamarnik (January 13, 1932), parroted Stalin’s line of a likely Japanese invasion, yet added skepticism. “The creation of a Far Eastern Russian government is being projected and other claptrap,” he noted. “All of this is rumor, very symptomatic.”163 On January 29, Artuzov forwarded to Stalin a secret report (obtained via a mole) by French military intelligence, which envisioned four scenarios for the outbreak of a war: German occupation of the Rhineland, following a possible Nazi revolution; an Italian strike against Yugoslavia, drawing in France; a grudge match between Poland and Germany; and “a conflict with the USSR agreed by many countries.”164 The fourth scenario—Stalin’s fixation—was supported by other reports of France supplying Japan and Franco-German rapprochement.165 Anti-Soviet circles in Paris were fantasizing that Japan would make available liberated Soviet territory for the émigrés’ triumphal return.166 Molotov, at the 17th party conference (January 30–February 4, 1932)—lower in stature than a congress—warned that “the danger of imperialist attack has considerably increased.”167

A pseudonymous “letter from Moscow” published in Trotsky’s Bulletin abroad reported that at the party conference, Stalin had been largely silent. “After every sitting, delegates and visitors were asked, ‘What did Stalin say?’” the report claimed. “‘Nothing.’”168 True enough. Secretly, however, Stalin had embarked on energetic steps. Japan had changed his mind.

Whereas Tukhachevsky and the brass had long wanted to prioritize military production, Stalin prioritized heavy industry in general—the base of a modern economy, in his view—but now, just six months after having rejected Tukhachevsky’s wild spending requests, Stalin was himself demanding forced creation of 40 to 50 new divisions.169 Following the replacement (January 5) of the Supreme Council of the Economy by three commissariats—heavy industry, light industry, and forestry—the regime created a unified main mobilization directorate in heavy industry for the defense factories.170 On January 19, Stalin agreed to a commission on “tankification” of the Red Army, on which he placed Tukhachevsky, and rammed through a plan for 10,000 tanks in 1932. Fewer than 2,000 had been manufactured in 1931, but Stalin wielded the preposterous new target to force expansion of assembly lines and creation of systematic tank-building capability at tractor and automobile factories, too.171

Stalin needed advanced tank designs—and, amazingly, he got them. The Soviet trade mission in Britain had secured permission to purchase 15 Vickers-Armstrong medium (six-ton) tanks, 26 Carden Loyd light armored machine-gun carriers, and 8 Carden Loyd amphibious tanks, as well as a license for production and blueprints.172 In parallel, working undercover at the Soviet trade organization in New York, the OGPU had overcome the lack of diplomatic relations and a legal injunction to procure specifications for the Christie M1931 tank. (J. Walter Christie was an engineer, who sometimes tested his designs with race car driving, and his dual-drive tank designs were notable for their innovative suspension and speed; he had offered to sell the technology to the U.S. military, but it had declined.) Two “tractors” shipped out of New York were in reality Christie tanks without the turrets, which became the basis for production of the Soviet track-wheeled “BT” at the Kharkov Locomotive Plant.173 The imported designs demanded more sophisticated motors, gearboxes, chassis, caterpillar tracks, optics, traversing mechanisms, and armor plating than Soviet industry had been producing.174 Still, by the end of 1932, the Soviets, who had been incapable of producing a single decent tank, would manufacture 2,600.175 Soviet military spending would skyrocket in 1932 to 2.2 billion rubles, from 845 million—all of which Stalin kept concealed.176


Japanese troops entered Harbin, the main Soviet railway junction in China, on February 5, 1932, to the euphoria of anti-Soviet émigrés.177 In late February, Soviet intelligence delivered another intercepted Kasahara letter to Tokyo promising that “if we were to attack the USSR, Poland, Romania, and the Baltic states would join (but not immediately), supported actively by the French and the not inconsiderable force of White Russians along the border.”178 Japanese military aircraft were violating Soviet airspace; Stalin ordered Soviet forces not to yield to the provocations of warmongers.179 Still, the regime established the Far Eastern Fleet as a separate command and ordered up additional submarines.180 On March 4, 1932, Izvestiya published excerpts from the decrypted secret Japanese telegrams calling for seizure of Siberia and the Soviet Far East. (Evidently, the Japanese had discovered that the Soviets had broken their codes.) Izvestiya underscored that, while Moscow maintained neutrality in the Sino-Japanese conflict, “the Soviet Union will not permit anyone to violate Soviet borders, advance into its territory, and capture even a tiny parcel of Soviet soil.”181 Tukhachevsky revisited the “PR” war plan, with preemptive destruction of Poland by “heavy bomber strikes in the Warsaw region” and tank armies on the ground.182

Japan did not annex Manchuria, as it had the far smaller Taiwan and Korean Peninsula, but it orchestrated the proclamation of a puppet state of Manchukuo (Manchu Land) and, on March 9, installed Henry Pu-Yi, the deposed last Qing emperor (whom the Japanese had recently kidnapped), as head of state in what was the Qing ancestral homeland.183 Ten days later, Karakhan offered assurances of Soviet restraint to Japan’s ambassador Hirota, who secretly advised Tokyo that it could do as it pleased in Manchuria.184 Quietly, the Soviets were offering to recognize Manchukuo, sell Japan the Chinese Eastern Railway, and negotiate fishing rights, oil leases, and trade, in exchange for a Japanese halt to sponsorship of anti-Soviet émigré groups, but Tokyo displayed indifference. The Soviet envoy in Tokyo was instructed to convey that Moscow would not be intimidated.185 Stalin’s options were narrow, however. Negotiations for nonaggression pacts had been concluded with Finland (January 21, 1932) and Latvia (February 5), and one would be signed with Estonia (May 4), but talks with Romania deadlocked over its disputed annexation of Bessarabia.186 Negotiations with France were torturous and would not succeed until late fall.187

Stalin received fresh reports that Warsaw had not desisted from attempts to destabilize Ukraine or cooperate with Japan in a possible military strike against the USSR.188 Even so, negotiations with Poland would bear fruit in late summer, albeit in a pact valid for just three years. German fears were borne out: Stalin would bow to Poland’s insistence to insert a clause about the inviolability of the latter’s frontiers.189 But Voroshilov had complained bitterly in a letter (March 12, 1932) to the Soviet envoy in Berlin that only because of necessity were the Reichswehr high commanders “‘friendly’ with us (hating us in their hearts).”190 The pacts with Poland and France would effectively mark a break in the Soviet pursuit of the elusive special relationship with Germany predicated on Versailles pariah status. This posture had always been aimed at preemption of an anti-Soviet bloc, which the 1931 trade agreement with Berlin and the 1932 nonaggression pacts with Warsaw and Paris would manage to accomplish, for now.191 Still, Soviet intelligence, obsessed with the emigration, had difficulty discerning the motives of foreign governments.192 And the USSR had no alliances. Nonaggression pacts were signed between enemies.193


A land commissariat internal report in early 1932 noted that peasants were quitting the collectives by the hundreds of thousands to roam industrial sites in search of food.194 The politburo shrank the bread allocation in cities for people on the lower-priority ration lists (numbers 2 and 3), affecting 20 million souls. There was little to ration.195 Stalin knew. But every time he conceded grain procurement reductions, every time he allowed strategic reserves to go unfilled, the already low rations for workers had to be lowered and grain was not exported, putting the military-industrial buildup at risk. The much delayed first blast furnace at the Magnitogorsk Metallurgical Combine had been started up early 1932, in a furious rush in horrendous frosts, to coincide with the 17th party conference. Two giant chemical factories, the first aluminum factory, and a ball-bearing plant were started up, and the first four trucks rolled off the line at the Nizhny Novgorod auto factory. But these were political startups. At Magnitogorsk, the new blast furnace’s cone caved in; it had to be completely rebuilt. Industrial output began to stagnate or even decline in spring 1932.196

Voices were being raised. “Although you, comrade Stalin, are a pupil of Lenin, your behavior is not Leninist,” the delegate Fedorintseva of the rural soviet “Soldier,” in the Black Earth region, wrote to Izvestiya in spring 1932. “Lenin taught: factories to the workers, land to the peasants, and what do you do? You confiscate not only land but livestock, huts, and possessions from the middle and poor peasants. You threw out Trotsky and call him a counterrevolutionary, but you, comrade Stalin, are the real and first Trotskyite, and a pupil not of Lenin but of Trotsky. Why? They taught us in political circle that Trotsky proposed to build socialism with force at the expense of the muzhik.”197 Trotsky added his own voice. “Separated from the apparatus, Stalin is . . . a nullity, an empty void,” he wrote in a new “open letter” to the party, in his Bulletin of the Opposition (March 1, 1932), predicting that “the man who yesterday was the symbol of the might of the apparatus tomorrow might become in everyone’s eyes the symbol of its bankruptcy.”198

Suddenly, the regime backed down from socialization of all livestock, with a decree (March 26, 1932) initiated by land commissar Yakovlev and accepted by Stalin. Functionaries in the commissariat interpreted it as a retreat from collectivization—some asked whether it contained a typo—but the aim was tactical: to end flight from the collectives. Local officials did not hurry to return collectivized animals.199

Not coincidentally, speculation about the dictator’s health, typical in any dictatorship, intensified. “This is not the first time that false rumors that I am ill have circulated in the bourgeois press,” Stalin wrote in a letter published in Pravda (April 3). “Sad though it may be, the fact is that I am in perfect health.”200

Ukraine party boss Kosior reported to Stalin that one quarter of the republic’s horses had died, and that the surviving ones were “skin and bones.”201 The OGPU reported that in Borisov, in the Belorussian republic, a crowd had seized grain warehouses, and several hundred women and children had marched on the local Red Army barracks (“signs of commiseration could be seen among the soldiers and officers”).202 In the textile mills of the Ivanovo region, ration cuts of up to one half, on top of labor intensification measures, provoked strikes and spontaneous assemblies.203 A sign placed in a shopwindow read “Even as the starving workers of Vichuga and Teikovo were being fired upon because they agitated for bread, here, behind the store’s drawn curtains, Communist functionaries and Red police of the GPU were fattening themselves up.”204 Ten thousand demonstrators ransacked the party and police buildings (“Toss the Communists . . . out the window”). Stalin dispatched Kaganovich, who mobilized local party agitators to speak with workers and himself heard out their grievances.205

Ivanovo’s striking workers did not reject socialism, only its building at their expense, and mostly blamed local officials for their plight.206 They shared a resolute anticapitalism with the Soviet regime, but that anticapitalism afforded the regime bureaucratic control over workers’ employment, housing, and food. The strikers were further stymied by the state monopoly over newspapers, radio, and the public sphere. More profoundly still, the strikers were trapped in the socialist vocabulary of class war.207 Kaganovich’s report for Stalin unfurled clichés, but, unlike the workers, the regime drew power from Bolshevik language: in conditions of “capitalist encirclement,” Kaganovich could equate worker criticism with playing into the imperialists’ hands. He managed to browbeat most strikers back to the shop floor, after which the OGPU arrested worker organizers and officials accused of worker sympathies.208


In parades on the May Day holiday in 1932, the Soviets offered the first public demonstrations of the Red Army’s mechanization—not only in Moscow, but in Leningrad, Kharkov, Kiev, Tiflis, and Khabarovsk.209 That same day, the first stage of the Dneprostroi hydroelectric dam supplied power, and this launch would prove durable. (“We are talking to you from the roof of an immense Bolshevik triumph!” gushed Soviet radio.)210 Still, workers could not eat or clothe themselves with tanks and electricity.211 On May 4, Stalin led a politburo discussion that culminated in reduced procurement targets and acceptance of a commission’s recommendation to purchase hundreds of thousands of livestock from Mongolia, western China, Iran, and Turkey.212 On May 6 and 10, the regime issued decrees announcing the grain procurement reductions for collective farmers and the remaining individual household farmers, from 22.4 million to 18.1 million tons. The targets for state farms were raised, from 1.7 to 2.5 million, for a new overall target of 20.6 million. This was just 81 percent of actual 1931 procurements. The decrees even forbade further liquidation of individual household farms, ordered the return of confiscated livestock and an end to lawlessness, and stipulated that, after peasants had met procurement quotas for the harvest (deadline: January 15, 1933), they could freely trade in any surplus directly with consumers at “collective farm markets.”213

Could it be? As recently as the October 1931 party plenum, Mikoyan, speaking for Stalin, had flatly rejected suggestions to permit rural trade at market prices after fulfillment of state obligations.214 But now peasants were permitted to maintain their own cows (though not horses), cultivate household plots, and sell a significant portion of the fruits of their labor at market prices.215 To be sure, private property in the means of production remained outlawed (household plots could not be sold or inherited). Still, it turned out that peasants had to be incentivized with private livestock holdings and market sales of even some of their collective farm output. Workers, too, had to be provided incentives through wage differentiation.216 State-owned and state-managed factories were not permitted to engage in direct marketlike relations with one another, but they did so illegally. “The necessity of avoiding a break in production,” one official at Magnitogorsk explained, “will compel the receiving factory to seek the necessary materials from other sources by every possible means.”217

The surprises kept coming. Stalin returned Shaposhnikov to a high-profile post in the capital, as director of the Frunze Military Academy, and on May 7, 1932, he even sent a written apology to Tukhachevsky for having denounced his January 1930 super-rearmament memorandum as Red militarism. “Two years later,” Stalin wrote, with a copy to Voroshilov, “when some unclear matters have become clearer for me, I must confess that my judgment was too severe, and that the conclusions of my letter were not correct in all respects.” Stalin noted that Tukhachevsky had been suggesting a peacetime army not of 11 million (per Shaposhnikov’s accusations) but of “8 million souls” and suggested that 6 million well-supplied, well-organized troops were “more or less within our capabilities.” (Soviet forces still numbered fewer than 1 million.) Stalin added: “Do not curse me for the fact that I corrected these shortcomings outlined in my [1930] letter with a certain tardiness.”218

What was next? Stalin had long forbidden directing more consumer goods to villages to incentivize the flow of grain, but now he acquiesced in this, too.219 He even agreed to importing grain (“54,000 tons of grain have already been purchased in Canada,” he telegrammed the party boss of Eastern Siberia on May 8. “You will get your share”).220 Tellingly, however, Stalin does not appear to have initiated a single one of these concessions, and invariably he issued barbed reminders of the need for unconditional fulfillment of centrally assigned procurement targets and the perfidy of capitalism.221 Unlike Lenin in 1921, Stalin was not willing to admit a “retreat” or neo-NEP.222 This reflected his touchiness about admitting any mistakes, desire to maintain his authority at the system’s apex, and nonnegotiable ideological commitment.223

Mongolia, the Soviet satellite, provides a stark contrast. Zealots of the Mongolian People’s Party, egged on by Comintern advisers, had launched a “class war” against “feudalism,” confiscating estates, ransacking Buddhist lamaseries, killing nobles and lamas, and collectivizing herders.224 At least one third of the livestock—the country’s main wealth—was lost. Inflation soared, shortages proliferated. In spring 1932, revolts led by lamas overtook four provinces in the northwest, amid rumors that either the elderly Panchen Lama (from Tibetan exile) or the Japanese would arrive with troops to liberate Mongolia from Communist occupation.225 The uprisings took Stalin by surprise (“The latest telegrams reported successes; therefore, such an unexpected and sharp deterioration is incomprehensible”). The Soviets dispatched consumer goods and ten fighter planes, which strafed the rebels; about 1,500 would be killed. Facing annihilation, rebels engaged in murder and cannibalism.226 On May 16, the politburo condemned the Mongolian party for “blindly copying the policy of Soviet power in the USSR.” Mongolian ruling officials were ordered to abandon collectivization of nomads, proclaim an “all-people’s government,” and publicly repudiate the noncapitalist path in Mongolia’s current conditions. The shift would be confirmed at a Mongolian People’s Party plenum and be dubbed the New Course.227 It was the full reversal Stalin would not countenance at home.


Whether the grudging concessions could save the situation was uncertain. “Stalin figured out trade with collective farms late,” the OGPU reported of one worker’s reaction in Minsk. “If he had thought about this in 1929–30, it would have been better, but now nothing will come of it, because the peasants have nothing; everything was destroyed.”228 Union-wide stocks of food and fodder amounted to perhaps a month’s supply, with less than that in Ukraine, the North Caucasus, and the Lower Volga. A rattled Kuibyshev handwrote a supersecret memo in blue pencil on May 23, 1932, proposing to slice rations even for those with absolute highest priority (“special list” and “list 1”). The politburo rejected this, but it reduced allocations to the Red Army by 16 percent and resolved to accelerate grain imports from Persia.229 Molotov led a commission to Ukraine that reported (May 26) that “the situation is worse than we supposed,” and suggested granting still more “loans” of seed, fodder, and food. Stalin conceded release of another 41,000 tons of seeds from the strategic reserves in Ukraine and Belorussia.230 These loans—which would reach 1.267 million tons Union-wide for the year, three times the amount provided in spring 1931—were supposed to be returned from the pending 1932 harvest, seed for seed.231

In late May, Stalin departed for his annual southern holiday, which would be especially prolonged (through late August). “The number of politburo inquiries has no effect on my health,” he wrote from Sochi. “You can send as many inquiries as you like—I’ll happily answer them with pleasure.”232 He rebuffed requests to send Red Army troops to Mongolia. “We cannot conflate Mongolia with Kazakhstan or Buryatia,” he instructed Kaganovich (June 4), adding that Mongolian officials “should announce that the leaders of the rebellion are agents of the Chinese and especially the Japanese imperialists, who are seeking to strip Mongolia of its freedom and independence.”233 He also ordered documents concerning Soviet-Mongolian relations evacuated from Ulan Bator.234 “The Japanese, of course (of course!), are preparing for war against the USSR,” he wrote to Orjonikidze in June 1932, “and we need to be ready (for sure!) for everything.”235 Stalin kept up the pressure. “Will our industrialists produce the planned number of tanks, airplanes, antitank weapons?” he wrote to Voroshilov (June 9). “Have the bombers been sent to the East? Where, exactly, and how many? The trip on the Volga was interesting—I’ll say more: magnificent. A great river, the Volga. Damn.”236

Stalin’s mood oscillated. “It seems I shall not be getting better anytime soon,” he complained to Kaganovich in mid-June. “A general weakness and real sense of fatigue are only now becoming evident. Just when I think I am beginning to get better, it turns out that I have a long way to go. I am not having rheumatic symptoms (they disappeared somewhere), but the overall weakness is not going away.”237 He was chauffeured to his usual polyarthritis salt baths at nearby Matsesta. While on the terrace or out fishing, he would tell tales of the revolutionary underground and prison. He tended to his mandarins, berries, and grapes and played badminton or skittles with a cook against a bodyguard. Evenings, he competed in billiards, and the losers, which included himself, crawled under the table to absorb the winners’ banging from above. Gypsy dances and other performances accompanied the late-evening meals and drinking. The lights usually went out in his quarters at 2:00 or 3:00 a.m.

Stalin’s holiday mailbag delivered increasingly dire news. “Because of the general famine, as you know, villagers have started flocking” to train stations, the Stalin loyalist Hryhory Petrovsky, in Ukraine, wrote on June 10, 1932. “In some cases, two thirds of the men had left their villages in search of bread.”238 (Yagoda reported on construction of a dacha settlement in the environs of Moscow using state funds for the grain collection commissariat.)239 Stalin held firm, proposing (June 18) the convocation of party secretaries from the main grain-growing provinces and republics to ensure “unconditional fulfillment of the plan.”240 He ordered up an editorial in Pravda demonstrating “with documentation the complete victory of the collective and state farms in agriculture, since the weight of the individual farming sector this year does not even reach 20 percent” (a reference to sown acreage). He added, “It is necessary to curse rudely and sharply all the lackeys of capitalism—Mensheviks, SRs [Socialist Revolutionaries], Trotskyites, and right deviationists—stating that the attempts of the enemies of the toilers to return the USSR to the capitalist path have been decisively defeated and turned into ashes, that the USSR has irreversibly adopted the new socialist path, that the decisive victory of socialism in the USSR can be considered already finalized.”241 The editorial duly appeared (June 26, 1932). That same day, Stalin conceded a significant reduction in grain exports for the third quarter.242

The first mass-produced Soviet heavy bomber, the four-engine TB-3, had been tested in the air, but Voroshilov reported (“Dear Koba”) that just four had been manufactured, and that even these had malfunctioning radiators.243 He also had to inform Stalin about a shocking number of crashes in training: eleven aircraft downed just between June 5 and 20, killing thirty crew members. Voroshilov asked permission to join Stalin for a few days down south (“I have not been sleeping normally for a long time”). Stalin wrote back on June 24: “The most worrisome are the crashes and the deaths of our aviators. The loss of airplanes is not as scary (the hell with them) as the loss of living people, aviators. Live human beings are the most valuable and most important thing in our entire cause, especially in aviation.”244, 245

Regional party bosses gathered in Moscow on June 28, 1932, and Molotov read out Stalin’s stern letter (sent ten days earlier): “In Ukraine, despite a harvest that was not bad, a number of districts with good harvests turned out to be in a state of ruin and famine.”246 This was the second known documented instance when Stalin used the word “famine” (golod).247 Molotov and Kaganovich approved only a slight reduction in procurements.248 Stalin, in two telegrams (July 1 and 2, 1932), spewed venom on Ukraine’s leadership (“demobilizers”) and ordered both of his top minions to attend Ukraine’s upcoming party conference.249 At that gathering (July 6–9), Kosior (a USSR politburo member) pointed out that some regions were already starving, while Ukraine government head Vlas Chubar (a candidate USSR politburo member) challenged Molotov and Kaganovich to go out and see for themselves.250 Afterward, Kaganovich wrote to Stalin that “all members of the [Ukraine] politburo . . . spoke in favor of lowering the plan” for deliveries, but “we categorically turned aside a revision.”251

Then, on July 24, Stalin undermined their hard work. “Our governing directive that the grain collection plan for the USSR be fulfilled unconditionally is correct,” he wrote to Kaganovich and Molotov. “But bear in mind that an exception must be made for the districts in Ukraine that have suffered especially. This is necessary not solely from the point of view of justness, but also in view of the special condition of Ukraine and its common frontier with Poland.”252 The next day, he again tried to explain his turnabout, suggesting that at the time of the Ukraine party conference he had not wanted “to derail the grain procurements.” What Kaganovich and Molotov made of Stalin’s zigzagging remains unknown. Stalin was banking on the harvest, whose “prospects,” he wrote, “will become clear (they have already become clear!): they are doubtless good for the USSR as a whole.” But the harvest was being overreported, and Stalin latched on to what he wanted to hear.253

Sown acreage had shrunk noticeably. Tractive power, seed grain, and fodder were scarce. The spring sowing season had proved short, and wheat sown beginning in late May always produced lower yields and was more susceptible to August rains, which would descend torrentially as early as the beginning of the month. Rust epiphytotics damaged a significant part of the wheat harvest, to the surprise of officials who had failed to identify it.254 Demoralized farmers forced into collectives were threshing and using manure sloppily and showing disregard for collectivized animals.255 Voroshilov had been granted his holiday, and on July 26 he wrote to Stalin about what he saw traveling south: “a scandalous infestation of the grain with weeds” in the North Caucasus.

The defense commissar appeared to be buckling under the pressure, complaining that “when one sees our military cadres, it is enough to make one a misanthrope,” and adding: “I cannot even say that these people do not work; on the contrary, they work until they are exhausted, but with no results.”256 Stalin kept up the pressure. “Six bombers for the Far East is nothing,” he responded (July 30). “We need to send no fewer than 50 to 60 TB-3s. And this needs to be done as soon as possible. Without this, the defense of the Far East is only an empty phrase.”257

An OGPU report to the “Central Committee” (August 1, 1932) estimated rifles at just 85 percent of needs, stationary machine guns at 68 percent, hand grenades at 55, revolvers at 36, modernized howitzers at 26 percent, 107-millimeter shells at 16 percent, and 76-millimeter shells at 7. Only a third of the projected 150 divisions could be fully outfitted.258 Nonetheless, that same day, the politburo confirmed Kuibyshev’s recommendation to reduce capital investments by a whopping 10 percent—more than that in heavy industry. Orjonikidze exploded. Kaganovich sought to conciliate him (“My friend, the financial situation required it”) while making clear that Stalin had signed on (“We wrote to our chief friend, and he thought it absolutely correct and timely to make cuts”).259 In mid-August, yet another Chinese commander resisting the Japanese managed to flee to Soviet territory, but the Japanese army pursued him. The war minister in Tokyo was said to have been barely restrained from launching an attack on the USSR.260


Telegrams, letters, and reports swamped Sochi with news of mass death of horses, mass failure to sow crops, mass starvation, mass flight from collective farms, and a bewildering lack of government response.261 Andrew Cairns, a Scottish Canadian agricultural expert sent by the Empire Marketing Board, in London, to determine if Western farmers might learn something from Soviet collectivization, managed to travel around Ukraine, Crimea, the North Caucasus lowlands, and the Volga valley from May through August 1932, and he observed women pulling up grass to make soup. Of urban canteens he noted, “As each worker finished his meal there was a scramble of children and one or two women and men for their soup plates to lick, and their fish bones to eat.”262 Throughout August 1932, unsigned editorials in Pravda lashed out at kulak “machinations” and grain “speculators.”

Stalin also received reports that “spoilage” was exaggerated and that grain was being stolen from slow-moving freight trains or slipped into ample pockets during mowing, stacking, or threshing, or just not being gathered (remaining in the fields to be eaten). He insisted to Kaganovich that just as private property under capitalism was sacred, so state property under socialism had to be recognized as “sacred and inviolable.”263 The dictator drafted a law, issued on August 7, 1932, that imposed the death penalty for the minutest theft of collective farm grain.264 He congratulated himself (“It is good”) and ordered a follow-up secret directive on the law sent to party organizations.265 Pravda (August 8) placed the pitiless law on an inside page; Kaganovich corrected this the next day with a front-page editorial.266 Other articles called for firing squads no matter the size of the theft. (One could view the compulsory state grain procurements—paying a mere 4.5 to 6.1 rubles per 100 kilos of rye, and 7.1 to 8.4 rubles for wheat, below production costs—as a form of grand theft, even as this enabled black bread to be sold in cities for just 8 to 12 kopecks a kilo.)267 Some politburo members had objected to the law in draft, but in reporting the objections to Sochi, Kaganovich had omitted names.268

Stalin exploded at Kaganovich (August 11) over fresh requests from Ukraine to lower procurement targets yet again. “Things in Ukraine have hit rock bottom . . . about fifty county party committees having spoken out against the grain procurement plan, deeming it unrealistic. . . . This is not a party but a parliament, a caricature of a parliament.” He demanded removal of Kosior and Chubar, and the demotion of Ukraine OGPU chief Redens. “Bear in mind that Piłsudski is not daydreaming, and his agent network in Ukraine is much stronger than Redens or Kosior think,” Stalin noted. “Also keep in mind that the Ukrainian Communist party (500,000 members, ha-ha) contains quite a few (yes, many!) rotten elements, conscious and unconscious Petliurites [a reference to the civil war Ukrainian nationalist], even direct agents of Piłsudski. If things get worse, these elements will not hesitate to open a front inside (and outside) the party, against the party.” Stalin warned direly: “Without these and similar measures (economic and political strengthening of Ukraine, in the first place in its border districts and so on), I repeat, we may lose Ukraine.”269

Polish spies were infiltrating the USSR, and being caught.270 At the same time, the Polish government had just signed the three-year bilateral nonaggression pact with Stalin, easing the pressure.271 Perhaps he was using the threat to sustain Kaganovich’s severity or just could not let go of his fixation on an imperialist intervention provoked by internal difficulties. In the same note, Stalin informed Kaganovich that he had decided to appoint Balytsky as OGPU plenipotentiary in Ukraine and had already spoken with Mężyński. On the sacking of Kosior and Chubar, however, the crafty Kaganovich pushed back, ever so gently—“It is harder for me to judge than you”—and Stalin relented.272 Belatedly, the dictator also accepted land commissar Yakovlev’s critique of excessive expansion of sown area, which disrupted crop rotation, and he reluctantly allowed a slowing to enable crop rotation to be reintroduced.273 But when, on August 20, 1932, Boris Sheboldayev, party boss in the North Caucasus, telegrammed to report that the harvest had turned out even lower, and farmers were in revolt, Stalin answered, with a copy to Kaganovich: “Either the local party committee is being diplomatic toward the population or it is leading the Central Committee by the nose.”274

Nadya had again accompanied him to Sochi, with the children, Vasily (then ten) and Svetlana (five), but she again returned to Moscow before he did. “We have built a marvelous little house,” Stalin wrote of a new Sochi dacha, to the man in Moscow responsible for such properties down south, Yenukidze, just as his holiday was coming to a close.275


Stalin had made the USSR more vulnerable to its enemies, especially Japan. Collectivization-dekulakization was his policy, which all party officials knew, having been bombarded by extremist directives in his name. They also knew that the right deviation had predicted calamity. Individual efforts to get Stalin to ease up provoked his rage. Officials’ ability to act collectively was limited to Central Committee plenums, but those took place under the watchful eye of his hard-line loyalists, the secret police, and the stool pigeons who chauffeured vehicles and staffed hotels. Conspiratorially, late one night in August 1932, a few veterans of the revolution and the civil war gathered in a private apartment near Moscow’s Belorussia train station that belonged to Martemyan Ryutin (b. 1890), an editor at Red Star, the army newspaper, to discuss the crisis.276 Stalin had promoted the peasant-born Siberian to candidate membership in the Central Committee—the top elite (then 121 people)—but then in 1928 had sacked him for a “conciliatory attitude toward the right opposition.” Not long thereafter, he had Ryutin expelled from the party.277 Now, Ryutin and the party members Vasily Kayurov, a department chief in the state archives, Mikhail Ivanov, an employee of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR) workers’ and peasants’ inspectorate, and Kayurov’s son Alexander, a senior inspector in the USSR supply commissariat, had channeled their worries into a seven-page “Appeal to All Members of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks),” which labeled Stalin an “unprincipled intriguer,” “a sophist, a political trickster, and actor,” “theoretically worthless,” “a dictator” like “Mussolini, Napoleon, Piłsudski, Horthy, Primo de Rivera, Chiang Kai-shek,” and “the gravedigger of the revolution in Russia.”278

“Gravedigger” was the epithet that Trotsky had once hurled at Stalin. Ryutin, infamously, had been a Trotsky scourge.279

Secretly, at a hut in a village about forty miles outside Moscow, on August 21, 1932, Ryutin presented the “Appeal to All Members” as well as a much longer document, “Stalin and the Crisis of the Proletarian Dictatorship,” to perhaps fifteen middling officials in various bureaucratic entities.280 They constituted themselves as the Union of Marxist-Leninists and held elections to leadership posts. One of them hosted a follow-up meeting in his apartment, where it was decided that the documents should be circulated hand to hand. Jānis Stens, an ethnic Latvian professor at the Institute of Red Professors, passed copies to Kamenev and Zinoviev at the dacha they shared outside Moscow. Another conspirator passed copies to Trotskyites in Kharkov. A copy got to the disgraced former Moscow party boss Nikolai Uglanov (Ryutin’s former patron), who was close to Bukharin. (Bukharin would later deny that he had received a copy or knew of the Ryutin group.)

Ryutin’s nearly 200-page “Stalin and the Crisis of the Proletarian Dictatorship” was a marvel. It condemned the “adventuristic rate of industrialization” and “adventuristic collectivization with the aid of unbelievable acts of violence and terror,” defended Trotsky as a genuine revolutionary despite his shortcomings, and excoriated the rightists for capitulation, yet underscored how “the right wing has proved correct in the economic field.” Ryutin brimmed with rage at Stalin’s muzzling of party members, and with idealism about Marx and Lenin. (“To place the name of Lenin alongside the name of Stalin is like placing Mount Elbrus alongside a heap of dung.”)281 He proposed twenty-five concrete measures, from new elections to party organs on the basis of intraparty democracy to a mass purge of the OGPU, from dispersal of coercively formed collective farms and loss-making state farms to ending dekulakization, state procurements of grain and livestock, and agricultural exports.282 Ryutin’s prerequisite for these proposals was fulfilling Lenin’s Testament. He concluded that “putting an end to Stalin the dictator and his clique” was “the primary duty of every honest Bolshevik.”283

There it was again. Remove Stalin. Lenin’s Testament. The subject of endless party discussions that had prompted Stalin to offer to resign at least six times between 1923 and December 1927.

Ryutin acknowledged that “the removal of Stalin and his clique via the normal democratic means guaranteed by the rules of the party and the Soviet Constitution is completely impossible” and explained that “the party has two choices: to continue meekly to endure the mockery of Leninism and the terror, and wait calmly for the final collapse of the proletarian dictatorship; or to remove this clique by force and save the cause of Communism.”284 But his text, even in the version of the document typed up by the OGPU, made no direct call for assassination. And he undertook no such preparations.285 Instead, having diagnosed the party as the instrument of oppression, he imagined it as the instrument of liberation.286 Two party members with knowledge of Ryutin’s texts sent a written denunciation to the apparatus on September 14, 1932.287 Stalin was informed the next day. Arrests followed. Ryutin was hauled in on September 22. That same day, Kamenev and Zinoviev were summoned to explain why, having read the Ryutin documents, they had failed to report them, a party crime.288

Ryutin was not alone. In its September 1932 issue, Trotsky’s Bulletin published a “draft platform” (missing the first page) attributed to unnamed members of a “left opposition” underground in the USSR. It declared a “crisis of the Soviet economy” and called for fixing (in Marxist terms) the imbalance between industry and agriculture by reducing expenditures on industry to ease inflation, dispersing nonviable collective farms, ceasing the coerced liquidation of kulaks, and attracting foreign capital through the old practice of leases (or foreign concessions). Quixotically, the authors even offered to cooperate with “the faction that is ruling at present,” as part of a shift from “the current obviously unhealthy and obviously nonviable regime to a regime of party democracy.”289 That same month, a traveling Soviet official passed a second text, by Ivan Smirnov, a onetime Trotsky supporter who worked as deputy head for transport equipment in the state planning commission, to Trotsky’s son Lev Sedov, in Berlin, who amplified it and published it in the Bulletin. It consisted of selected material from an internal state planning commission report on the first six months of 1932. “In view of the inability of the present leadership to extricate itself from the economic and political blind alley,” the published article concluded, “the conviction is growing in the party that it is necessary to replace the leadership.”290

Sedov wrote to his father—in invisible ink—that a “bloc” had formed inside the USSR of “Zinovievites, the Sten-Lominadze group, and Trotskyites,” an apparent reference to the small Ryutin conspiracy. But Trotsky fretted that the “left” was incorrectly throwing its lot in with the “rightists” and instructed Lev that, with the émigré Constitutional Democrat “Milyukov, the Mensheviks and Thermidorians of all sorts” demanding Stalin’s removal, “we may temporarily have to support him. . . . The slogan ‘Down with Stalin’ is ambiguous and should not be raised as a war cry at this moment.”291


In September 1932, back from his three-month holiday, Stalin quietly softened his August 7 law: no death penalty for theft of tiny amounts of grain, just sentences of ten years.292 The 1932 harvest was coming in at fewer than 60 million tons, and possibly as low as 50 million, which was close to the horrific result in the famine year of 1921.293 Reports to Stalin would peg the harvest as bad but much higher than reality, up to 69 million tons, a discrepancy he never came to appreciate.294

Half of all Kazakhs—as many as 2 million—had picked up their tents and remaining herds and fled the collectives. Half of the party functionaries in that republic were said to have deserted their posts.295 One official report to Stalin in August had noted that the Kazakh autonomous republic now counted 6 million head of livestock, down from 40 million in 1929.296 Finally, on September 17, he presented a decree for a politburo voice vote that loosened the form of collective farms in Kazakh territories, allowing each household to own eight to ten cattle, up to 100 sheep and goats, and three to five camels, but still insisted that forced settlement would continue “to eradicate economic and cultural anachronisms.”297 He also authorized reductions in grain collections for the Kazakh regions (47,000 tons), along with food assistance (33,000) and postponement of repayment of seed and food advances (98,000)—which together totaled more than one quarter of their original procurement plan.298 Quotas had already been reduced for Ukraine, but “it is completely incontrovertible that Ukraine will not deliver this amount of grain,” the Ukraine official Mendel Khatayevich had courageously written to Stalin, who underlined this passage in red pencil.299 At the end of September, the North Caucasus received a massive 660,000-ton grain procurement reduction, albeit to a level still unattainable.300

Exports cratered. In 1932, the regime would export just 1.73 million tons of grain, down from 5.06 million in 1931 and 4.76 in 1930. Tsarist Russia in 1913 had exported more than 9 million tons of grain.301

With the country in famine’s death grip, Stalin convened a joint Central Committee–Central Control Commission plenum (September 28–October 2, 1932) devoted to trade, consumer goods, and ferrous metallurgy. With the harvest over, he aimed to reduce the spring concessions to household plots and private markets. The plenum also condemned the Ryutin group “as traitors to the party and to the working class who, under the flag of a spurious ‘Marxism-Leninism,’ have attempted to create a bourgeois-kulak organization for the restoration of capitalism and particularly kulakdom in the USSR.” Ryutin, under OGPU interrogation, had claimed sole authorship, to shield his comrades. The plenum adopted Stalin’s resolution calling for immediate expulsion of all who knew about but did not report the group.302 Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Uglanov, who visibly wept, repented yet again, but they were nevertheless kicked out of the party yet again and sentenced to internal exile for three years (Zinoviev to Kustanai, Kazakhstan; Kamenev to Minusinsk, Eastern Siberia).303

Several tons of meat, sausage, chicken, and fish, 300 kilos of caviar, 600 kilos of cheeses, and large amounts of fruit, vegetables, and mushrooms had been ordered up for the plenum, some of which the attendees were allowed to haul home.

Gossip in Moscow had Stalin tendering his resignation, only to have it rejected.304 In fact, the inner circle closed ranks behind him. “Now,” Kirov stated in a report (October 8, 1932) on the plenum to the Leningrad party, published in Pravda, “everyone can see that we were utterly correct, that the further we proceed on the path of constructing socialism, the more manifest is the counterrevolutionary character of every oppositionist tendency.” Ryutin got ten years. He was remanded to the prison near the large Urals village of Verkhne-Uralsk, joining Trotskyites he had once condemned.305 On November 7, 1932, the revolution’s fifteenth anniversary, in the first of Ryutin’s many letters from prison to his wife, Yevdokiya—aware that any correspondence was read by the authorities—he wrote, “I live now only in the hope that the party and the Central Committee will in the end forgive their prodigal son.” He added, “You will not be touched. I have signed everything.”306


For someone building a new world, Stalin’s home life was unremarkable. As only insiders knew, he lived in an apartment on the second floor of the three-story Amusement Palace, the Kremlin’s only surviving seventeenth-century boyar residence, with vaulted ceilings and wood-burning stoves. He slept on a divan in an undersized bedroom. Nadya had her own, more ample room, with an oriental carpet of distinct color, a Georgian takhta (divan) on which she placed embroidered pillows, as well as a bed, desk, and drawing table. Her window opened onto the Kremlin’s Alexander Garden and scenic Kutafya Tower. Between the couple’s bedrooms was the dining room, “large enough to have a grand piano in it,” their daughter, Svetlana, would recall. Down a hall were bedrooms for Svetlana and Vasily; Svetlana shared hers with a nanny, Alexandra Bychkova. (“If it hadn’t been for the even, steady warmth given off by this large and kindly person,” Svetlana would later write, “I might long ago have gone out of my mind.”)307 Vasily bunked with Artyom, known as Tom (also the nickname for the boy’s deceased father). Stalin’s grown son from his first marriage, Yakov, no longer lived with them. Farther down the same hall, the governesses had a room, as did Karolina Til, an ethnic German from Latvia who oversaw the household. The children could see their father everywhere—on posters and newspaper front pages—but not so much at home.

Most visitors to the Kremlin apartment were regime officials. Stalin had no surviving siblings, and his father was deceased. Keke, his mother, lived alone in Tiflis; Nadya, in letters, expressed regret that Keke could not come to Moscow because of the severe climate. The one surviving letter from Keke to her son, from the 1920s, has her wishing him complete annihilation of his enemies.308 Eighteen of Stalin’s letters to her (in Georgian) have survived, containing a word about his health and the children and wishes for her health and long life, all brief and signed “Your Soso.”309 They invariably included an apology for their rarity (“I, of course, am guilty”).310 Stalin had nothing to do with his mother’s or father’s relations. Relatives from both of Stalin’s marriages would stop by the Kremlin apartment: Alexander Svanidze (the brother of Stalin’s deceased first wife, Kato) and his wife, Maria, a former opera singer from a well-off Jewish family; Kato’s sisters, Mariko and Sashiko; Nadya’s father, Sergei Alliluyev, and mother, Olga; Nadya’s brothers, Fyodor and Pavel, and the latter’s fetching wife, Yevgeniya (Zhenya); and Nadya’s sister Anna, who had married Redens (they lived in Kharkov).311 Several of them lived at the Zubalovo dacha complex, where the Stalins had a dacha that they had remodeled, adding a balcony to the second floor and an outdoor bathhouse. He planted an orchard, and raised pheasants, guinea fowl, and ducks, and liked to lie down on the warm tiled stove in the kitchen to alleviate the pain in his joints.312 He also liked to wind up the player piano or gramophone and sing. While Kirov, Voroshilov, and even Molotov danced, he watched.313

Nadya made occasional use of her husband’s position, but she refused to play the smiling wife of the leader, an opportunity other Kremlin wives would have killed for.314 “We spoke among ourselves, and many times to Nadya, that she was not a match for him,” recalled Galina Serebryakova, the spouse of a regime official. “He needed a different wife!”315 She attended the Industrial Academy under her maiden name, Alliluyeva, and it remains unclear whether her fellow students knew she was Stalin’s wife.316 (Nadya belonged to the party, and Nikita Khrushchev, the academy’s party secretary, learned her husband’s identity.) The effects of her exposure to the student milieu—young women in the city selling themselves to make ends meet; students with ties to the famine-stricken countryside—remain difficult to gauge. She kept an emotional distance.317 She dressed simply: a white blouse, navy blue skirt below the knee, low-heeled shoes, little jewelry, no perfume. “There was nothing striking about her,” recalled Irina Gogua, who worked in the Kremlin. “In Iosif’s presence she seemed plain; it was obvious that she was tense.”318 Svetlana would later try to recollect moments of tenderness, or even attention, from her mother but could not.319 “A woman of very strong character,” Karl Pauker, the head of regime bodyguards, was said to have told a Kremlin doctor. “She is like a flint. The Master is very rough with her, but even he is afraid of her sometimes. Especially when the smile disappears from her face.”320

Nadya was diagnosed with a defective heart valve, angina, and general exhaustion and suffered from migraines, evidently from a cranial impairment that the best doctors could not alleviate. (Some observers thought she had clinical depression or schizophrenia.)321 Regime intimates witnessed shouting matches between her and Stalin, laced with his obscenities. But there were episodes of affection, too. “Once, after a party at the Industrial Academy, where Nadezhda was studying, she returned home severely ill from having drunk some wine, and she felt badly,” Vladimir Alliluyev, the son of Anna and Stanisław Redens, recalled. “Stalin laid her down, comforted her, and Nadezhda said, ‘Anyway, you love me a little bit.’”322

Nadya rarely revealed the stress of their almost parallel lives. “Altogether, we have terribly little free time, both Iosif and I,” she had written to Keke. “You have probably heard that I have gone back to school (in my old age). I do not find studying in itself difficult. But it is pretty difficult trying to fit it in with duties at home. . . . Still, I am not complaining, and so far I am coping with it all quite successfully. Iosif has promised to write to you himself. As far as his health is concerned, I can say that I marvel at his strength and his energy. Only a really healthy man could stand the amount of work he gets through.”323

In November 1932, Nadya was weeks from graduation and facing exams.324 On November 7, Svetlana, Vasily, and Artyom watched the Revolution Day parade on Red Square. Nadya marched with the Industrial Academy delegates. “It was cold, and Stalin was on the Mausoleum, as always, in an overcoat,” recalled Khrushchev, who marched with her. When the wind gusted, she said to him, “Look at mine: he did not bring his scarf, he’ll catch a cold and again be sick.”325 After joining her children, according to Artyom, Nadya complained of a headache and went home early. The children were taken to the Sokolovka dacha, another state facility used by the family, where they could ski. On November 8, Stalin was in his office between 2:30 and 8:05 p.m., which resulted in a menacing circular to Ukrainian officials that cut off all consumer goods until grain flowed again, and a telegram to the Kazakh leadership accusing it of providing low harvest numbers aimed at “deceiving the state.”326

Nadya was in the apartment, preparing for the customary holiday banquet that evening in the Voroshilov residence in the Grand Kremlin Palace.327 She put on an unusually stylish (for her) black dress of fabric imported from Berlin, with embroidered red roses, and placed a red tea rose in her dark hair. She was thirty-one years old; her husband was turning fifty-four.328 Stalin, it seems, sat across from her and drank more than usual. Some witnesses say he flirted with Galina Yegorova, the thirty-four-year-old actress wife of his military crony Alexander Yegorov. There had been much talk of dalliances (a hairdresser; a pretty woman who worked in protocol).329 Voroshilov tried to ease the tension, but an eruption occurred. Stalin threw something at Nadya (a bread crust, an orange peel, a cigarette butt).330 She stormed out. Molotov’s wife, Pearl Karpovskaya, known as Polina Zhemchuzhina, followed her. Witnesses mostly cite Stalin’s rudeness; Molotov faulted Nadya. “Alliluyeva was already something of a psychopath at that time,” he would recall. “She left the gathering with my wife. They took a walk on the Kremlin grounds. It was late at night, and she complained to my wife: ‘I do not like this, I do not like that. . . .’ She spoke about the young female barber Stalin saw. It was all simple: Stalin had drunk a little too much, he made some jokes. Nothing special, but it had an effect on her.”331

On the morning of November 9, Karolina Til found Nadya in a pool of blood in her room, near a small toy-sized pistol. (It fit into a lady’s handbag; her brother Pavel had brought it from Germany as a gift.) When Stalin emerged from his room into the dining room, Til evidently told him, “Nadya is no longer with us.”332

Nadya had shot herself in the heart.333 A call came in to the Sokolovka dacha to prepare the children for return to Moscow; apparently, Voroshilov went to pick up Vasily and Artyom and tried to talk to Svetlana, who was six and a half, but he kept breaking down in tears. Svetlana appears to have remained behind with her nanny.334 Nadya’s open casket was placed upstairs in a nonpublic section of the State Department Store (GUM), across from the Kremlin on Red Square, where the central executive committee presidium, run by Yenukidze, had offices. “Early morning for the ceremony of bidding farewell, we climbed the second floor of GUM,” Artyom recalled. “Vasily and I climbed the stairs ahead of Stalin. He moved in silence. He was glum. I remember: as soon as Iosif Vissarionovich approached the casket, he began simply to cry, he broke down in tears. . . . Vasily literally hung on to him and said, ‘Papa, don’t cry, Papa, don’t.’”335 Molotov recalled, “I had never seen Stalin weeping before, but as he stood there by the coffin, tears ran down his cheeks. She loved Stalin very much—that is a fact. . . . He went up to [the coffin] and said, ‘I did not take enough care of you.’”336

Pravda (November 10, 1932) announced the death of Nadezhda Sergeyevna Alliluyeva in what was the first mention in the Soviet press of Stalin’s marriage.337 No cause was given.338 She had been diagnosed with acute appendicitis but had put off the operation until after her exams, and this became the unofficial cause of death, spread by the secret police.339 Rumors that Stalin shot her over political disagreements were instantaneous. Some people claimed they heard from a Kremlin doctor or a servant that Nadya’s screams for him to stop had been heard by neighbors (through impossibly thick walls).340 Others whispered that he had driven her to suicide.341 Still other rumors had Stalin marrying Kaganovich’s sister Rosa (no such person existed).342 Kirov and Orjonikidze, Stalin’s two closest comrades, were said to have stayed in the Kremlin apartment with him the night of her death. Bukharin, who used to visit Nadya in the apartment, would offer to exchange Kremlin apartments with Stalin. Stalin accepted. Soon, however, he and the children instead moved into the Imperial Senate, to an apartment one floor below his Kremlin office. It comprised seven rooms on a long corridor, with rooms for servants and bodyguards at each end and windows looking out onto the Arsenal.343

The casket was placed on a white catafalque for an unhurried procession to the Novodevichy Cemetery on November 12. The newspaper had announced the schedule, and Moscow’s streets were lined with people (many of them plainclothes police). Stalin exited the Kremlin on foot, behind the horse-drawn hearse. Whether he marched the full four miles, through many narrow and winding streets, is uncertain.344 TASS announced that grave-site eulogies were delivered by Bukharin (for the Krasnaya Presnya ward party committee, Nadya’s primary party organization) and Kaganovich (Moscow party boss). “We are burying one of the best, most loyal members of our party,” Kaganovich stated. “Raised in the family of an old Bolshevik proletarian, going forward after the revolution for many years in a state of the greatest loyalty to the cause of the working class, Nadezhda Sergeyevna was organically linked with the worker movement, with our party. . . . We, close friends and comrades, understand the severity of the loss of comrade Stalin, and we know what duties this imposes on us with respect to comrade Stalin.”345

After Nadya was lowered into the grave, “Stalin threw a handful of dirt on it,” Artyom recalled. “He told Vasily and me to do likewise. Returning home, we had lunch. Stalin sat silently, contemplatively. Soon he left for a meeting of the government.”346 Pravda published a grace note from the dictator (November 18) offering “heartfelt gratitude to all organizations, comrades, and individuals who had expressed their condolences on the occasion of the death of my close friend and comrade Nadezhda Sergeyevna Alliluyeva-Stalina.” He exhibited remorse and self-pity, fury and his sense of victimhood.347 Svetlana’s subsequent account, unreliable in most respects, rightly surmised that her father “was too intelligent not to know that people always commit suicide to punish someone.”348


Secret reports were now mentioning a threat of starvation even for Moscow and Leningrad.349 Military intelligence estimated that Japan had a standing army of 1,880,000, Poland 1,772,000, Romania 1,180,000, Finland 163,000, Estonia 75,000, and Latvia 114,000.350 Absorbing his personal loss, his subjects starving, his eastern and western borders facing formidable enemies, Stalin could have been moved to carve out a breathing space. But the spring 1932 concessions had failed to produce a harvest miracle, and now he ratcheted up the repression again to squeeze blood from a stone.351 He had formed a commission to purge the party in the North Caucasus, sending Kaganovich there to bang heads, and returned Yevdokimov to its capital, Rostov, ordering that villages that failed to fulfill grain quotas be deported in their entirety. (Their houses and fields were to be taken by “conscientious Red Army collective farmers who have too little land or bad land in other regions.”)352 Molotov was dispatched to Ukraine, whence he complained to Stalin (November 21) that in the “opportunist, bourgeois, kulak situation,” local functionaries were urging that farmers’ consumption needs be met before more grain went to the state.353 That same day, Stalin accused the party boss in the Kazakh republic, Filipp Goloshchokin, of having surrendered despite “a maximal reduction” in procurement quotas, and ordered him to “strike those Communists in counties and below who are in the hands of petit bourgeois anarchy and have slid onto the rails of kulak sabotage.”354

The Soviet agricultural press in November 1932 carried headlines of peasants dying from starvation in Poland (“It is not a crisis; it is a catastrophe”), Czechoslovakia (“dying villages”), China (“hunger despite a good harvest”), and the United States (“poverty and ruin”).355 Not a word about the famine in the Soviet Union.

Once again, the party “opposition” played into Stalin’s hands: he received a denunciation (on or before November 19) against two officials, Nikolai Eismont, commissar of food for the RSFSR, and Vladimir Tolmachev, head of road transport for the RSFSR, who, in connection with the Revolution Day holiday, had been drinking in Eismont’s apartment. They gathered again the next day with Alexander Smirnov, a former agriculture commissar who had been demoted to a position in forestry, and criticized anew Stalin’s destructive policies. Smirnov had become a Central Committee member back in 1912, the same year as Stalin. Eismont had been on the recent commission to the North Caucasus led by Kaganovich and had seen the swarms of starving refugees at railroad stations. Under the influence, the trio had discussed possible replacements for the general secretary: Voroshilov, Kalinin, even Smirnov.

There it was, yet again. Remove Stalin.

The Central Control Commission, now overseen by the Stalin minion Jānis Rudzutaks, deemed the lubricated conversations a “counterrevolutionary grouping.”356 Stalin added the disgraced rightist Mikhail Tomsky (head of the state publishing house) to the “conspiracy,” and summoned a joint session of the politburo and the Control Commission presidium on November 27. “These people,” the attack dog Yemelyan Yaroslavsky fulminated, “are like the Ryutin group, only in a different form.” By now, though, the crisis under Stalin’s rule was pervasive and even some arch-loyalists shrank from full-throated condemnation of their loose-tongued comrades. Kuibyshev referred to Smirnov by his nickname (“Foma”) and recalled their long association, dating back to Narym exile. (Stalin had been there, too, and Smirnov had fed him.) Mikoyan, who used to be Eismont’s boss, awkwardly said almost nothing (until the very end).357

Rumors again circulated that Stalin had verbally offered to resign, and that after an awkward silence Molotov had spoken up to reassure him he had the party’s confidence.358 Be that as it may, Stalin found himself defending his policies.359 He grumbled that the conspirators “represent matters as if Stalin were guilty of everything” and warned that the choice was between becoming a victim of the imperialists—the fate of China—or a socialist industrial power that could defend itself. “What matters is not Stalin, but the party,” he concluded. “You can remove Stalin, but things will continue just as they are.”360

Eismont and Tolmachev were the ones expelled from the party, and Smirnov from the Central Committee, although they were not arrested.361 Stalin had a transcript of the proceedings made for circulation to party organizations. He sent another vituperative telegram (also signed by Molotov), this one to officials in the Urals (December 7, 1932), condemning as “unpersuasive” their explanations for local state farms’ failures to fulfill procurement quotas. “The provincial leadership cannot escape its responsibility,” it said, asking for names of the state farm directors. “Announce to the directors that a party card will not save them from arrest, that an enemy with a party card warrants greater attention than an enemy without a party card.”362


On December 12, 1932, the Soviet Union restored diplomatic relations with Chiang Kai-shek’s government in Nanking. The next day, Japan belatedly replied to the Soviet offer of a nonaggression pact in a note to Soviet envoy Alexander Troyanovsky with a rejection.363 The Japanese leaked distorted versions of the exchange; the Soviet press published the originals, aiming to demonstrate Japan’s belligerence.364 Stalin, meanwhile, decided to widen the party purge he had imposed on the North Caucasus: on December 11, Pravda had carried a resolution in the name of the Central Committee announcing a multiregion party cleansing for 1933.365 His mood was captured in his greeting to the secret police on the fifteenth anniversary of their founding, December 20, which Pravda printed that day—“I wish you success in your difficult task of extirpating the enemies of the dictatorship of the proletariat!”366

Stalin also took the time to repudiate Thomas Campbell, an agricultural expert from Montana who several years earlier had been afforded an audience, and had now published a book about his experiences and meeting with Stalin (“piercing black eyes which concentrate on you even while talking through an interpreter”). It was mostly sympathetic, but on the touchy subject of Comintern subversion, he wrote that Stalin had “unhesitatingly admitted, with disarming frankness, that under Trotsky there had been an attempt to spread Communism throughout the world. He said this was the primary cause of his break with Trotsky. . . . He explained that they had neither the time nor the money to try to communize the whole world, even should they wish to do so.” In his published repudiation (December 23, 1932), Stalin denied that Trotsky’s name had come up, and noted that Campbell’s book mentioned a transcript of their conversation but shrank from including it. Stalin’s rebuttal contained a purported transcript, which had him stressing the need for diplomatic recognition to normalize trade relations and had Campbell mentioning meeting with then President-elect Herbert Hoover prior to setting out for the Soviet Union and promising to convey the Stalin conversation back to Hoover.367

Before the year was out, Stalin pushed through a decree on an internal passport system to purge urban areas of “alien” and “non-laboring elements.”368 Recipients were to include permanent residents aged sixteen or older in cities and towns, and at construction sites, as well as transport workers and state-farm laborers, but not collective farmers. He aimed to diminish the pressure on the urban food supply and force peasants back into the collectives.369 On December 29, 1932, a furious directive in the name of the politburo threatened collective farms that failed to meet procurement quotas with a compulsory early repayment of credits, a cutoff from machine-tractor-station equipment, and confiscation of “all the grain they had, including the so-called seed funds”—the basis for the spring sowing campaign.370

Despite the greater repression, procurements as of January 1, 1933, had reached only 17.4 million tons, 3.7 million fewer than collected by the same time the previous year (and 3 million below the plan).371 On January 7, Stalin opened another joint plenum of the Central Committee and the Central Control Commission, boasting that “we had no iron and steel industry. . . . We now have one. We had no tractor industry. We now have one. We had no automobile industry”—and so on, through aircraft and more. He admitted that the first Five-Year Plan prioritized heavy industry but baldly asserted that living standards had improved. He had reduced industrial growth targets for the second Five-Year Plan to a more realistic 13–14 percent per annum.372

Stalin’s most important declaration concerned a sharpening of the class struggle as the country got closer to socialism, a cudgel he had used against Bukharin in 1928 (and a concept Trotsky had articulated a decade earlier). “We need to keep in mind that the increase in the power of the Soviet state will strengthen the resistance of the last holdovers of dying classes,” Stalin asserted. “Precisely because they are dying out and in their last days, they will switch from some forms of striking to other, sharper forms, appealing to the backward strata of the population. . . . On this soil, smashed groups of old counterrevolutionary parties of SRs and Mensheviks, bourgeois nationalists of the center and periphery, may stir and come to life, shards of counterrevolutionary elements of Trotskyites and right deviationists may stir and come to life.” He added: “This, of course, is not scary. But all this needs to be kept in mind if we want to do away with these elements quickly and without especially large numbers of victims.”373

Opposition, according to Stalin, now worked “on the sly,” masked behind simulated loyalty. In a second set of remarks to the plenum (January 11), he asserted—in line with the reports he received—that “our harvest was not worse, but better than in the previous year.” He blamed any problems on “anti-Soviet elements” and concealed “nests of counterrevolution.” “They sit right in the collective farm, holding positions as storemen, business managers, bookkeepers, secretaries, and so on,” he averred. “They will never say ‘Down with the collective farm.’ They are ‘for’ the collective farm.”374

Trotsky was ever present—his writings had been demanding that 1933 be the year of the major overhaul, an otherwise obscure proposal condemned at the plenum as “slander.”375

The politburo closed ranks around the dictator, and the others fell in line. “We, as members of the Central Committee, vote for Stalin because he is ours. (Applause.),” declared Rudzutaks. “You won’t find a single instance when Comrade Stalin hesitated or retreated. That is why we are with him. Yes, he vigorously chops off what is rotten, he chops off what is slated for destruction. If he didn’t do this, he would not be a Leninist.” Similarly, the disgraced Bukharin stated, “We have won dazzling victories in the building up of the Five-Year Plan. We are currently at war and must exercise the strictest discipline. . . . That is why such groupings must be hacked off without the slightest mercy, without being in the slightest troubled by any sentimental considerations concerning the past, concerning personal friendships.” Smirnov, in futile self-defense, denied that he or any other party member could have uttered the words about the need to “remove comrade Stalin”: “I think that only someone drunk out of his mind or insane could ever say such a thing.”376

At the plenum’s close (January 12), the regime announced suspension of recruitment into the party and the pending purge. That same day, Stalin permitted the politburo to approve, in a poll vote, another reduction in the yearly grain procurement for Ukraine, of 457,000 tons; other regions got smaller reductions. Twelve days later, the dictator sacked the party bosses in Ukraine’s Dnepropetrovsk, Odessa, and Kharkov provinces.377 He did the same to the party boss of the Kazakh republic.378 Yagoda reported that eighty-seven “Trotskyites” had been rounded up or soon would be.379 Regime decision making was becoming more and more informal, with most key matters adjudicated in Stalin’s office.380 Secret police reports were claiming an ever greater share of his paperwork.381 He floated the notion with the OGPU of deporting another 3 million peasants, a target soon sliced to 2 million, then 500,000, and finally only half of that.382

The OGPU, in any case, was consumed with forming local detachments to enforce a draconian decree, on January 22, 1933, ordering interdiction of peasant flight from grain-growing regions and blaming local authorities for allowing an exodus, which had helped spread epidemics and become a weapon for discrediting regime policies.383 Railway ticket sales were suspended and dragnets set up from the Caucasus to the Urals on one side and along the western borderlands on the other.384 Perhaps Stalin feared an unraveling of the collective farm order. In any case, the decree showed that he was very anxious to prevent the spread of further discontent to the urban socialist core. He also had to feed the cities, which could become death traps. Overall, the number of fleeing peasants captured and sent back would be relatively small (low hundreds of thousands, when there were 17 million peasants in collective farms in Ukraine alone). Many farmers were already trapped in regions without adequate food.385

Molotov, meanwhile, gloated to the central executive committee of the Soviet on January 23, 1933, that more and more capitalist states were recognizing the Soviet Union. “Some clever ones still consider further ‘study’ of the USSR necessary (i.e., to delay recognition),” he stated. “It should not be difficult to guess how Soviet might has increased, how our economy is expanding, how much the international weight of the USSR has grown. Those who are full of useless and empty phrases about further study of the USSR are the ones who have the most to lose from the absence of diplomatic ties.”386 Stalin sent a congratulatory note: “The confident-contemptuous tone with respect to the ‘Great Powers,’ the belief in our own strength, the simple spitting in the pot of the swaggering ‘Great Powers’—very good. Let them ‘eat it.’”387


The Nazis had lost thirty-four seats in Germany’s November 1932 parliamentary elections, seeing their vote drop by 2 million—to 33.1 percent, from 37.4 percent in July 1932.388 The party, an amalgam of territorial organizations and divergent interests, was wracked by dissension and defections, partly triggered by Adolf Hitler’s refusal, even after the electoral reversal, of any post short of chancellor.389 A key driver of Nazi support, the Depression, had bottomed out, and a slow recovery was under way. And yet, traditional conservatives desperate for stability and order proved unable to fashion a parliamentary majority that achieved their goal of excluding the Social Democrats and defanging the trade union movement and the Communists.390 The maladroit octogenarian president, former field marshal Paul von Hindenburg, had appointed defense minister Kurt von Schleicher, another soldier turned politician, as chancellor in early December 1932, elbowing aside the ambitious archconservative Franz von Papen. But when Hindenburg refused to declare a state of emergency and allow Schleicher to dissolve the Reichstag to avoid a no-confidence vote, the chancellor resigned. Schleicher colluded with Hitler to try to stop the return of his nemesis von Papen, while the latter persuaded Hindenburg to appoint Hitler, even though the field marshal had trounced the Nazi in elections to the presidency and mocked him as a mere corporal.391 Traditional conservatives imagined that they could “tame” Hitler and the radical right while achieving a broadened anti-left coalition. On January 30, 1933, von Papen—having secured the vice chancellorship for himself—escorted the Nazi ruffian into the Chancellery, for the oath of office, through a rear door.392

“A stubby little Austrian with a flabby handshake, shifty brown eyes, and a Charlie Chaplin mustache,” wrote the world’s best-selling daily newspaper, the London Daily Herald. “What sort of man is this to lead a great nation?”393

Nazi ranks were electrified. “Hitler is Reich Chancellor,” marveled Joseph Goebbels. “Just like a fairy-tale.”394 Goebbels improvised a torchlight parade through Berlin, playacting a seizure of power, even though Hitler had come to power legally (just like Italy’s Mussolini).395 Success had not come out of nowhere, however. By 1929, the Nazis had 3,400 party branches around the country and were mounting countless public rallies, sponsoring concerts, putting up Christmas trees and maypoles, spotlighting local heroes. They spoke to German people’s fears and prejudices, but also to their aspirations and interests, promising a reckoning with the disgraceful recent past and a future of national unity and rebirth.396 Paramilitary Nazi Brownshirts, known as the SA, engaged in street brawling with the Social Democrats and the Communists (who fought each other as well). The Nazi leadership encouraged violence and lawlessness, just as the Bolsheviks had on their path to power, but the Nazis accused the Communists of fomenting the chaos and called for order.397 Organized opposition to the Nazis was either irresolute or at loggerheads.398 The Reichswehr was focused on rearmament.399

There was one political force that could compete with Nazi storm troopers in the streets—the Communists—but they proactively subverted Weimar democracy, even knowing that this facilitated Nazi aims. Through the Comintern, Stalin was enforcing a struggle to the death—with Social Democracy. “The Nazi tree should not hide the Social Democrat forest,” the German Communist leader Ernst Thälmann had warned.400 The catastrophe of the Comintern policy of “social fascism” was vividly brought home in the November 1932 elections, when German Communists had garnered nearly 6 million votes, and the Social Democrats more than 7 million, as compared with the Nazis’ 11.7 million. In no free and fair election did the Nazis ever win more votes than the Communists and Social Democrats combined.401

Many Communists imagined Nazism, which they labeled “fascism,” to be the terminal stage of the crisis of “monopoly capitalism,” so that the turmoil in Germany would eventually redound to them, which meant they needed to make themselves ready by outbattling their rivals on the left.402 Some Communists even welcomed the Nazi accession to power. Stalin did not.403 Still, he appears to have underestimated Hitler, as many—but not all—contemporaries did. He interpreted Hitler and Nazism as creatures of finance capital, a class-based analysis, and assumed that German militarists would continue to shape state policy.Secret German-Soviet military cooperation had been failing.404 But Stalin hoped it would be renewed.405 Werner von Blomberg, who had played a hand in Hindenburg’s appointment of Hitler and stayed on as war minister, would pass on to the Soviet embassy that “a change in Soviet-German relations is out of the question under any circumstances.”406 But Nazism’s appeal to German workers was manifest, and its intense ideological radicalism was directed at the Soviet Union.407


As the Nazis reveled in Hitler’s chancellorship, Stalin’s regime staged the First all-Union Congress of Collective Farm Shock Workers (February 15–19, 1933), attended by more than 1,500 delegates, nearly 900 of whom held no bureaucratic office and half of whom were not party or Communist Youth League members. They were recognized for labor performance.408 Kaganovich addressed them in a folksy manner, reciting peasant proverbs, while praising the vicious injunction against theft of socialist property as a “great law.” He boasted of the creation of 200,000 collective farms and 5,000 state farms, asserting that only collectivization had made possible industrialization and the preemption of foreign military intervention.409 One collective farm brigadier, who had been asked by Kaganovich whether the collectivized system was better, answered, “Things are, of course, better now. Still, before I was master of my fate, and now I am not the master.”410

On the final day, Stalin, putting on a folksy air, too, warned biblically that he who did not work would not eat, but promised that each collective farmer would have a cow (“prolonged applause”).411 He scolded those who underestimated women (“Women on the collective farms are a great force”). He acknowledged that “quite a number of people, including collective farmers,” had been skeptical of party policy, but dismissed the idea of a third way, individual farming without capitalists and landowners, because it would inevitably give rise to a “kulak-capitalist regime.” Silent on the famine, he asserted that “the multi-million-mass poor peasants, previously living half starving, have now become middle peasants in the collective farms, they have become well-off. This is an achievement that the world has not seen before.”412

On February 27, a fire consumed the German Reichstag, and a young, unemployed bricklayer, recently arrived from the Netherlands, was found inside and arrested. He was a member of the Dutch Communist party. The Nazi party was still a minority in the parliament, but now Hitler persuaded President Hindenburg to sign an emergency decree suspending the governments of Germany’s federal states and most civil liberties “as a defensive measure against the Communists.”413 Dissolution of parliament and snap elections, which were scheduled for March 5, afforded Hitler a campaign of intense hysteria about Communist subversion. The Nazis still won only 43.9 percent (288 of 647 seats), but with their partners, the German National People’s Party, who won 8 percent, they had a governing majority.414 Hitler had been handed power, but now he seized it, proposing an Enabling Act to promulgate laws on his authority as chancellor without the Reichstag for a period of four years. It required a two-thirds vote. Only the Social Democrats, twelve of whose deputies had been imprisoned, voted against the measure, which passed 441 to 94.415 Soon the Nazis were the sole legal party in Germany.

Hitler—who had become a German citizen only in 1932—was dictator of the country, upending the traditional conservatives.416 “With few exceptions, the men who are running this government are of a mentality that you and I cannot understand,” the American consul general wrote in a message to the state department. “Some of them are psychopathic cases and would ordinarily be receiving treatment somewhere.”417

Elements in the Nazi movement—assisted by colluding police—exuded fanatical delight in physically annihilating leftist property, institutions, and people. Hitler fulminated against “Judeo-Bolshevism” as a worldwide conspiracy.418 At the same time, he received the Soviet envoy, Lev Khinchuk, on April 28, 1933, and shortly thereafter allowed Germany to ratify the long-delayed extension of the 1926 Berlin treaty, ostensibly reaffirming good bilateral relations.419 “The cornerstone of Soviet foreign policy is the maintenance of peace,” Izvestiya editorialized (May 6). “In this spirit, the Soviet Union does not wish to alter anything in its attitude to Germany.” But Radek penned an essay in Pravda (May 10) noting that the fascist regimes led the way in “revision of the robber baron peace of Versailles,” and warning that this would entail “the creation of a worse Brest-Litovsk peace.” He hinted at a Soviet effort to cozy up to Poland.420

Communist parties outside the USSR numbered 910,000 members, and the German party had accounted for 330,000 of them, the second largest after China (350,000).421 But Hitler crushed them. This left the French and Czechoslovak parties, with just 34,000 and 60,000 members, respectively, as the next largest. Communists in France and Czechoslovakia pressured Moscow to abandon the “social fascism” policy. But in spring 1933, when seven Social Democratic parties issued a joint public appeal for a nonaggression pact with Communists, Stalin approved instructions “to step up the campaign against the Second International,” arguing that “it is necessary to emphasize the flight of Social Democracy to the fascist camp.” This stance was shared by many of the foreign Communists he had gathered at Comintern HQ.422 The long-standing civil war on the left persisted.423


Upward of 50 million Soviet inhabitants, perhaps as many as 70 million, were caught in regions with little or no food.424 More than a million cases of typhus would be registered in 1932–33, and half a million of typhoid fever.425 The OGPU claimed in a report to Stalin (March 1933) that it had interdicted 219,460 runaways in search of food, sending 186,588 back to their points of origin and arresting the others.426 Human and animal corpses littered county roads, railroad tracks, the open steppe, the frontiers. Peasants ate dogs and cats, exhumed horse carcasses, boiled gophers. The Dnepropetrovsk OGPU reported to Kharkov (March 5, 1933) “on the rising cases of tumefaction and death on the basis of famine, verified and confirmed in documents by physician observation.” The regional OGPU boss sent tables with the numbers of starving families by county, and named conscientious laborers who were starving, adding that a traveling commission had delivered grain from the reserves to the suffering areas.427 It was, of course, too little too late.

Death and disease wracked the entire Soviet wheat belt—Ukraine (including the Moldavian autonomous republic), the North Caucasus (including the Kuban, Stavropol, and Don provinces), the Middle and Lower Volga valley (from Nizhny Novgorod to Astrakhan, including the Volga German autonomous republic), and the Central Black Earth region—but also Vologda and Arkhangelsk in the north, the Urals, and the Kazakh autonomous republic.428 Party officials begged for emergency aid to “save the lives of many people from starvation death,” as the ethnic Kazakh official Turar Ryskulov wrote to Stalin (March 9, 1933).429 An OGPU operative assembled a summary of starvation in the cities in the Urals, Volga valley, and North Caucasus, underscoring the negative effects on workers’ political mood.430 Reports of cannibalism in Ukraine were averaging ten per day. Parents were killing one child and feeding it to the others; some prepared soup stock and salted the remaining flesh in barrels to preserve it.431 The secret police reported on cannibal bands that targeted orphans: “This group cut up and consumed as food three children, including an eleven-year-old son and an orphan whose parents perished from starvation.”432

Reports and letters to Stalin’s office were graphic.433 The documents show that he became livid not when he learned that people were driven to eating human flesh but when he learned that an American correspondent was given permission to travel to famine-stricken regions (“We already have enough spies in the USSR”).434 When even the unsqueamish Kaganovich confirmed the catastrophe, it evidently got through to the dictator.435 On March 20, 1933, the politburo, with Stalin signing the protocol, resolved to supply more tractors (though fewer than requested), send more food aid to Ukraine, allow free trade in foodstuffs in Kharkov and Kiev, and mobilize all internal resources for the sowing campaign.436 (That same day, the politburo directed the OGPU to remove guns from the population.) 437

Voroshilov, on holiday again, had written to Stalin complaining of insomnia and stomach problems. Stalin answered, “I still feel poorly, sleep little, and am not getting better, but this is not manifested in work.” Orjonikidze wrote to Voroshilov (April 9) that he was sick and exhausted and complained about how his first deputy, Pyatakov, worked hard but did not believe in the party’s strategy, and how Orjonikidze needed a trusted deputy who could relieve him as commissar, because “I am rather ill and cannot make it much longer.”438

How did the regime not come apart altogether? How did higher-ups writing and receiving the reports not concede that the situation called for repudiation of regime policies? How did local officials persist in implementing orders?

Lev Kopelev (b. 1912) was a Communist Youth League militant, the editor in chief of an agitation paper, and a 25,000er requisitioning grain in his native Ukraine from late 1932 into spring 1933. He had been arrested, for ten days in 1929, for putting out leaflets defending the “Bolshevik-Leninists” (as Trotskyites called themselves).439 Young and naïve, he had admitted his error. His life rippled with meaning. “The grain front!” he recalled of the procurement campaigns. “Stalin said the struggle for grain was the struggle for socialism. I was convinced we were warriors on an invisible front, fighting kulak sabotage for the grain which was needed by the country, by the Five-Year Plan.” Kopelev noted how a local OGPU operative was the son of a miner and had worked in a mine himself (“We believed him without reservation”), while meetings with villagers took place under religious icons. “Every time I began to speak, I wanted to prove to these people that they were making a serious mistake by hiding the grain”—after all, workers in the cities were putting in two and three shifts yet did not have enough food; Japanese militarists and now German fascists surrounded the country. Villagers were eating grass and gnawing on twigs, denying that they had grain to give, before being hauled off—“and I persuaded myself, explained to myself: I mustn’t give in to debilitating pity,” Kopelev said. He convinced himself that “the famine was caused by the opposition of suicidally unconscientious peasants, enemy intriguers, and the inexperience and weakness of the lower ranks of [party and soviet] workers.”440

Kopelev was “speaking Bolshevik,” or making the revolution personal, internalizing its inescapable vocabulary, worldview, and presentations of self. The regime compelled people to write and recite autobiographies using prescribed categories and ways of thinking. Kopelev was a true believer, but it was not necessary to believe. It was, however, necessary to appear to believe and even the reluctant came to employ the language and thought processes of the regime to view the world through party directives and official reportage—class and enemies, factory output, and imperialist threats, false versus genuine consciousness. This is what gave Stalin’s regime its extraordinary power.441

Even in the hospital with diarrhea, Kopelev devoured the reportage of Five-Year Plan triumphs and Stalin’s catechismal speeches. If doubts crept in, he took inspiration from role models—like the orphaned son of a hired farm laborer who had worked for “kulaks” but become chairman of a village soviet. Stalin purged the Ukrainian party apparatus and replaced the Kharkov party boss with Pavel Postyshev, a Bolshevik originally from industrial Ivanovo-Voznesensk, who now became the number two in Ukraine. Postyshev, Kopelev wrote, “stood in line at grocery stores, cafeterias, bathhouses, and he sat with petitioners in the waiting rooms of various government establishments.” Postyshev opened cafés in factory shops, had flowers planted, and viciously condemned Ukrainian intellectuals as bourgeois nationalists and agents of fascism. “For me, Postyshev became a hero, a leader, a paragon of the true Bolshevik—and not for me alone.”442 In newspaper photographs of turbines and tractors, in live glimpses of freight cars loaded with steel, Kopelev saw the new world coming into being. When a peasant tried to burn down a collectivized barn, Kopelev was confirmed in his conviction that sabotage existed. Capitalist encirclement was a fact. In 1933, he was awarded a coveted place at Kharkov University.443 “I believed,” Kopelev wrote, “because I wanted to believe.”444


Hay carts were going round to gather the corpses, as during the medieval plagues.445 “I saw things that are impossible to forget until one’s death,” the Cossack novelist Mikhail Sholokhov wrote to Stalin (April 4, 1933) of his native Don River valley. Stalin responded (May 6) that he had directed that the area be provided food aid and that the information in Sholokhov’s letter should be investigated, but he stood his ground. “Your letters create a somewhat one-sided impression,” Stalin wrote. “The esteemed grain growers of your region (and not only your region) carried out a ‘sit-down strike’ (sabotage!) and would not have minded leaving the workers and the Red Army without grain.” He deemed their actions “a ‘quiet’ war with Soviet power. A war of attrition, dear comrade Sholokhov.”446

Stalin was indeed at war—with the peasantry, and with his own Communist party for supposedly going soft at this perilous hour. On May 4, he had received a report from Yagoda on how newly arrived emaciated conscripts were eager for the promised bread toasts and a lump of sugar, while relatives trailed them, looking for handouts. One was overheard to say, “When there were no collective farms, peasants lived a lot better. Now, with collective farms, everyone is starving. If war breaks out, no one will defend Soviet power; everyone will go against it.”447

Japan’s Kwantung Army attempted to seize Jehol, in Inner Mongolia, a springboard for attacking both Peking (Beijing) and Outer Mongolia, the Soviet satellite.448 Chiang Kai-shek’s earlier appeal to the League of Nations had merely resulted in Japan quitting that body, which Tokyo had come to see as a racist Anglo-American conspiracy to emasculate it.449 On the last day of May 1933, Kwantung generals signed a truce with “local” officials in the port of Tientsin (Tianjin), in northern China, that extended Manchukuo’s borders to the Great Wall, gave Japan control of the strategic mountain pass, and created a demilitarized zone extending sixty miles south of the wall and just north of the Peking-Tientsin district.450 Stalin suspected that Chiang, whose signature was not on the truce, was secretly negotiating an end to the war, which would free up Japan to attack him. Presumed Japanese saboteurs were crossing into Soviet territory.451 The dictator received intercepted communications between the British ambassador in Tokyo and the foreign office in London, asserting that Japan’s military buildup went beyond its aims in China and that Japanese army observers viewed war with the Soviet Union as inevitable.452 Stalin had Soviet newspapers publish intelligence excerpts, in disguised form, to expose Tokyo’s aggressive desires.453

The party journal Bolshevik tried to rebut a sense of “the capitulation of the Soviet Union in the face of world imperialism in general and Japanese imperialism in particular.”454 But whether the USSR could even fight a war had become doubtful. On May 7, 1933, the politburo had prohibited the OGPU from imposing the death penalty—the Soviet Far East was granted an exception—and the next day Stalin and Molotov had issued a secret directive to party organizations and OGPU branches suspending mass peasant deportations and ordering release of Gulag inmates guilty of lesser infractions, in light of “the three-year struggle that has destroyed our class enemies in the village.”455 “The moment has arrived when we no longer need mass repressions,” the decree explained, conceding that further “severe forms of repression” could “bring the influence of our party in the village to zero.”456 But then, when Kosior and others in Ukraine had reported on severe repression being undertaken against peasants there, Stalin responded (May 31), “Finally you are beginning to apply yourself in Bolshevik fashion.”457

Early June brought a small measure of relief: berries, green onions, young potatoes, carrots, and beets became ready for consumption, for those who maintained household gardens (and guarded them round the clock).458 Hungry children who were discovered rooting around in the plots were sometimes killed, then and there, by farmers protecting their families’ food.459 The regime was purchasing livestock from western China and again reducing grain exports. For 1933, it would end up at 1.68 million tons, when the original plan had been for 6.2 million. Exports in 1933 would bring in a mere 31.2 million gold rubles, a fivefold revenue plunge since 1930.460 The general crisis forced a halt to the generous increases in military expenditures, which would decrease in 1933 to 2 billion rubles (from 2.2 billion).461

On June 1, 1933, the announced party purge commenced. The procedures specified ferreting out self-seekers, the politically passive, and the morally depraved, but also—in a conspicuous indication of Stalin’s hand—“open and hidden violators of party discipline, who do not fulfill party and state decisions, subjecting to doubt and discrediting the plans by the party with nonsense about their ‘unreality’ and ‘unattainability.’” The party journal explained that the enemy, unable to proceed openly and frontally (like the class-alien targets of the previous general purges), deceitfully penetrated the party and hid behind a party card to sabotage socialism from within (“double-dealers”).462

During the Five-Year Plan, membership had ballooned by more than 2 million, to 3.55 million (2.2 million full members, 1.35 million candidates). Each party organization established its own purge commission, and every Communist—this now included Central Committee members—had to place their party cards on the table, recite their autobiographies, and submit to interrogation. The commissions usually had records of previous autobiographies and any denunciations; the proceedings were open to non-party workmates to chime in. The previous purge, in 1929–30, had expelled around one in ten. Now, nearly one in five would be expelled, and nearly as many would quit rather than submit to the procedure, bringing the total number who did not keep party cards to more than 800,000.463 Expulsion was not cause for arrest, which required accusations of a crime, but Stalin’s commentary implied guilt until proven innocent.464


Before 1917, to import machinery, Russia had been exporting more than would have seemed permissible, given domestic consumption needs. (“We will not eat our fill, but we will export,” Alexander III’s finance minister had remarked.)465 A famine had broken out in 1891–92. In the four years prior, Russia had exported about 10 million tons of grain, but then a dry autumn, which delayed fall planting, severely cold winter temperatures without the usual snowfalls, a windy spring that blew away topsoil, and a long and dry summer damaged the harvest. The tsarist state had contributed to the vulnerability by reducing the rural workforce (conscripting young males), enforcing peasant redemption payments for former gentry land in connection with the serf emancipation, and having tax collectors seize vital livestock if payments fell short. Even after crop failure and hunger were evident, grain exports continued for a time. And the finance minister had opposed even this belated stoppage. The tsarist government refused to use the word “famine” (golod), admitting to only a “failed harvest” (neurozhai); censors prevented newspapers from reporting about it. Around 500,000 people died, primarily from cholera epidemics triggered by starvation.466

Stalin’s famine, involving extirpation of capitalism and denomadization, was incomparably worse. In 1931–33, famine and related epidemics probably killed between 5 and 7 million people. Perhaps 10 million more starved nearly to death.467 “I don’t know how they stood it!” Molotov would say later in his long life. In the Kazakh autonomous republic, starvation and disease probably claimed between 1.2 and 1.4 million people, the vast majority of them ethnic Kazakhs, from a population of roughly 6.5 million (of whom perhaps 4.12 million were ethnic Kazakhs). This was the highest death ratio in the Soviet Union.468 In Ukraine, the death toll was around 3.5 million, out of a population of 33 million. Statistics on livestock were not published in the Soviet press in 1932 or 1933, but the country likely lost half of its cattle and pigs and two thirds of its sheep. The horse population declined from 32.6 million to around 16 million; by 1933, tractors supplied only 3.6 million to 5.4 million horsepower equivalents. Kazakh livestock losses were beyond staggering: camels from 1.06 million to 73,000, sheep from 21.9 million to 1.7 million, cattle herds from 7.5 million to 1.6 million.469 By 1933, a Kazakh family owned, on average, just 3.7 cattle, compared with 22.6 in 1929. And Kazakhs ended up only nominally collectivized: the regime reinstituted private control of animals, and the majority of Kazakhs worked household plots and failed to work the requisite number of days for the collectives. But the damage to the USSR’s meat supply was done, and enduring.470

Many contemporaries, such as the Italian ambassador, who traveled through Ukraine in summer 1933, deemed the famine deliberate.471 Monstrously, Stalin himself made the same accusation—accusing peasants of not wanting to work.472 Regime propaganda castigated the starving refugees besieging towns for “passing themselves off as ruined collective farmers.”473 Nonetheless, the famine was not intentional.474 It resulted from Stalin’s policies of forced collectivization-dekulakization, as well as the pitiless and incompetent management of the sowing and procurement campaigns, all of which put the country on a knife-edge, highly susceptible to drought and sudden torrential rains.475 Stalin appears to have genuinely imagined that increasing the scale of farms, mechanization, and collective efficiency would boost agricultural output. He dismissed the loss of better-off peasants from villages, only belatedly recognized the crucial role of incentives, and wildly overestimated the influx of machines. He twice deluded himself—partly from false reporting by frightened statisticians, partly from his own magical thinking—that the country was on the verge of a recovery harvest.

Always grudgingly, Stalin approved, and in some cases initiated, reductions in grain exports, beginning already in September 1931; in 1932 and 1933 he signed reduced grain collection quotas for Ukraine, the North Caucasus, the Volga valley, Crimea, the Urals, the Central Black Earth region, the Kazakh autonomous republic, and Eastern Siberia on nine occasions.476 The 1933 grain procurement target fell from 24.3 to 19.6 million tons; the actual amount collected would be around 18.5 million tons.477, 478 Altogether, the regime returned about 5.7 million tons of grain back to agriculture, including 2 million tons from reserves and 3.5 million from procurements. Stalin also approved clandestine purchase of grain and livestock abroad using scarce hard currency.479 Just between February and July 1933, he signed or countenanced nearly three dozen small allocations of food aid to the countryside, primarily to the North Caucasus and Ukraine, as well as the Kazakh lands (which necessitated sharp reductions in the bread rations for city dwellers, many of whom were put on the brink of starvation). All of these actions were woefully insufficient for avoiding the mass starvation in the countryside caused by his policies, in the face of challenging natural conditions. Still, these actions do not indicate that he was trying to exterminate peasants or ethnic Ukrainians.480 In the Kazakh autonomous republic, probably between 35 and 40 percent of the titular nation—as compared with 8 to 9 percent of Slavs there—perished from starvation or disease, not because the regime targeted Kazakhs by ethnicity, but because regime policy there consisted of forced denomadization. Similarly, there was no “Ukrainian” famine; the famine was Soviet.481

In the spring of 1933, officials gave the famine a self-justifying pedagogical gloss. Ukrainian party leader Kosior wrote that “the unsatisfactory preparation for sowing in the worst affected regions shows that the hunger has not yet taught many collective farmers good sense.”482 In the same vein, an official report to Stalin and Molotov from Dnepropetrovsk claimed that collective farmer attitudes had improved as a result of “the understanding that . . . bad work in the collective farm leads to hunger.”483 Such reports followed Stalin’s lead. He admitted privately to Colonel Raymond Robins of the American Red Cross (May 13, 1933)—who had met with Lenin during the acknowledged Soviet famine of 1921–23—that “a certain part of the peasantry is starving now.” Stalin claimed that hardworking peasants were incensed at the indolent ones who caused the famine. “The collective farmers roundly curse us. It is not right to help the lazy—let them perish. Such are the morals.” It was ventriloquism.484

Once Stalin had caused the horror, even complete termination of exports would not have been enough to prevent famine. The regime had no strategic grain reserves left, having released them.485 Only more aggressive purchases of food abroad and open appeals for international assistance could have averted many (and perhaps most) of the deaths. The world had plenty of food in 1933—indeed, the glut was depressing global prices for grain—but Stalin refused to reveal vulnerability, which, in his mind, would incite enemies. Admission also would have been a global propaganda debacle, undermining the boasts about the Five-Year Plan and the collective farms.

•   •   •

STALIN HAD CAUSED A DOMESTIC CALAMITY and rendered the Soviet Union vulnerable in the face of Japan’s expansionism, while contributing significantly to the ascent in Germany of Hitler, who threatened expansionism, and provoking blistering internal critiques.486 But his faction felt compelled to rally around him. “Loyalty to Stalin,” wrote a military official who later defected, “was based principally on the conviction that there was no one to take his place, that any change in the leadership would be extremely dangerous, and that the country must continue in its present course, since to stop now or attempt a retreat would mean the loss of everything.”487 A correspondent wrote to Trotsky on Prinkipo, in early spring 1933, that “they all speak about Stalin’s isolation and the general hatred of him, but they often add: ‘If it were not for that (we omit the strong epithet), everything would have fallen to pieces by now. It is he who keeps everything together.’”488

Resolute in extremis, Stalin ordered the forced return of peasant escapees, the blacklisting of entire counties (they would suffer the highest mortality), and the banning of fishing in state waters or even private charity—anything that would have made it possible to avoid the collectives.489 The OGPU arrested 505,000 people in 1933, as compared with 410,000 the year before.490 Some farmers were still refusing to sow crops, since the regime would only take the harvested grain away.491 But most weeded the fields, sowed, and brought in the harvest. “All the collective farm workers now say: ‘We understand our mistakes and we are ready to work,’” one local report noted. “‘We will do everything expected of us.’”492 Officials concluded that they had broken the peasants’ will, indirectly suggesting the regime had partnered with famine to achieve subjugation.493 Indeed, it was the famished peasants who would lift the regime and the country out of starvation, producing between 70 and 77 million tons of grain in 1933, a bumper crop comparable to the miracle of 1930.494 The peasants, in their land hunger and separate revolution, had made possible the advent of a Bolshevik regime in 1917–18; now enslaved, the peasants saved Stalin’s rule.495

Through it all, he had revealed escalating rage and pathological suspicion, to the point that not only bourgeois specialists or former tsarist officers were considered as enemies, but many workers and party loyalists. At once self-righteous and self-pitying, the aggressor who somehow was always the victim, full of rage, Stalin could display affection as well. He wrote (June 25, 1933) to Avel Yenukidze, the overseer of Kremlin affairs, who had gone to Germany for treatment of a heart condition, recommending he avoid fats. “Try to observe a diet, move about more, and get fully healthy,” Stalin wrote. “We extended the length of your holiday by a month, and now it’s up to you.” The dictator exhibited his own good spirits. “We have ramped up agriculture and coal,” he added. “Now we’re going to ramp up rail transport. Harvest gathering in the south has already begun. In Ukraine and the North Caucasus, the harvest is taken care of. This is the main thing. In other regions, the outlook so far is good. I’m healthy. Greetings! Your Stalin.”496


Imagine that a house is being built, and when it is finished it will be a magnificent palace. But it is still not finished, and you draw it in this condition and say, “There’s your socialism”—and there’s no roof. You will be a realist, of course—you will be telling the truth. But it is immediately apparent that this truth is in actual fact an untruth. Only the person who understands what kind of house is being built, how it is being built, and who understands that it will have a roof can utter socialist truth.

ANATOLY LUNACHARSKY, former commissar of enlightenment, 1933 1

MARXIST IMPERATIVES OF transcending capitalism—combined with inordinate willpower—brought apocalypse. During the first Five-Year Plan, the volume of investment quadrupled, to 44 percent of GDP by 1932 (measured in 1928 prices), but none of the massive net increase in investment came from higher agricultural surpluses.2 Grain exports did not end up paying for imports of machinery.3 Soviet agriculture made no net contribution to industrialization; on the contrary, it was a net recipient of resources during the plan. True, a key driver of the industrial spurt was new labor power from villages, but the statist system used those workers grossly inefficiently. Another key driver of the spurt was brutally suppressed consumption (reinforced by that thief called inflation).4 Should we view peasant starvation as a source of “investment”? Even if we did, collectivization and dekulakization lowered agricultural output dramatically.5 Stalin’s policies did expand state procurement of grain, potatoes, and vegetables, but at breathtaking economic, to say nothing of human, cost. Collectivization involved the arrest, execution, internal deportation, or incarceration of 4 to 5 million peasants; the effective enslavement of another 100 million; and the loss of tens of millions of head of livestock. The industrialization and accompanying militarization began to revive the Soviet Union as a great power, a necessity for survival in the international system, but collectivization was not “necessary” to “modernize” a peasant economy or industrialize.6

Collectivization was necessary from the point of view of Marxism-Leninism, which asserted that only a noncapitalist “mode of production” could undergird a Communist regime.7 Once the fall 1933 harvest proved to be good, and the unbalanced investments of the first Five-Year Plan finally produced results in the second plan, even skeptics gave Stalin his due: his lunatic gamble had panned out. Socialism (anticapitalism) was victorious in the countryside as well as the city. But culture, too, for Marxists, was an integral aspect of any system of class relations, and in culture Stalin was still groping his way. Letters from cultural figures got to his desk quickly—his aides understood his interest—and, as in foreign policy, he made just about every significant decision (unlike in the economy, for want of time or interest).8 But the challenges proved different, not amenable to blunt class warfare. Culture did not offer the equivalent of capitalist private property or “bourgeois” parliaments to eradicate as the path to socialism. Certainly for Stalin, the party had the right to determine the disposition of all writers and artists, but not in a clumsy way.

This chapter examines the period from summer 1933 to early fall 1934, although at times it will track back in time to illuminate the trajectory of Stalin’s engagement with the artistic intelligentsia, while weaving in the workings of the Union and continuing developments in foreign affairs. Trotsky, early on, had argued that the literary sphere had its own relatively autonomous dynamic and therefore should not be administered the same way as the economy or politics (“Art must make its own way and by its own means”).9 He had objected to a drive for an exclusively “proletarian” culture, championed the works of “fellow travelers,” a term he coined for those who did not join the party but sympathized with the cause, and defined the party’s task in culture as ensuring that influential fellow travelers did not go over to the side of “the bourgeoisie.”10 Stalin had taken exactly the same position. A politburo decree had denied a monopoly to the early movement for proletarian culture, and supported a “society for the development of Russian culture,” to be headed by a non-party “Soviet-minded” writer of stature.11 Stalin approved a proposal for a non-party writers’ periodical, Literary Newspaper.12 The militant culture movement endured under the name Russian Association of Proletarian Writers.13 Factions for and against an exclusively proletarian culture, with the former tending to be Russocentric and the latter tending to see themselves as internationalist, dragged Stalin into their political-aesthetic and personal vendettas.14 But in culture, he blocked intransigent enforcement of Communist ideology, groping his way to a socialist aesthetic.


Solovki, the regime’s original prison labor camp, which provided timber and fish, got displaced in the early 1930s by giant new forced labor complexes, such as one in northern Kazakhstan for ore mining and metals.15 Most ambitiously, in the harsh Chukotka territory, the Far Northern Construction Trust, or Dalstroi, was formed to extract gold.16 Prisoners traveled in cattle cars across the length of the USSR, then, from the railway terminus at Vladivostok, by ship more than 1,700 miles across the Sea of Okhotsk to Nagayevo Bay and the settlement of Magadan. The first slave labor ships had arrived there in June 1932, mostly with thieves, bandits, and murderers, almost half of whom failed to survive the journey.17 To reach the gold-digging areas, Dalstroi used tank crews to clear a path northward up the Okhotsk coast and in along the Kolyma River, then had prisoners lay roadbeds of logs over frozen earth, shortening what had been multiweek trips by reindeer. Thanks partly to a relatively rational treatment of slave laborers, more than 100 million rubles’ worth of gold would be mined each year.18 Beyond Dalstroi, though, the expected savings on cheap prison labor were often undone by low productivity and high administrative costs.19 Still, the Gulag was crucial for developing remote areas. The Union was not only an ethnoterritorial but also an economic structure.

Stalin did not visit the slave labor complexes, with one notable exception: the White Sea–Baltic Canal. Declared finished on June 20, 1933, after just twenty-one months, it extended for 155 miles, longer than the Panama and Suez canals, through difficult terrain.20 Under Yagoda’s chaperoning, from July 18 to 25, Stalin, Voroshilov, Kirov, and Yenukidze sailed the entire canal, also touring the Kola Peninsula, the Northern Fleet, and the polar port of Murmansk. Kirov had driven to Moscow and chauffeured his guests to Leningrad.21 Stalin’s fellow Georgian Orjonikidze was the dictator’s oldest close friend in the regime, but Kirov—a Russian who had spent the underground years in the Caucasus—had become even closer.22 Stalin called him Mironych, an affectionate diminutive of his patronymic, and sometimes Kirych.23 As a new general secretary, Stalin had given him a copy of his On Lenin and Leninism, inscribed TO MY FRIEND AND MY BELOVED BROTHER.24 Stalin had transferred Kirov from Baku to replace Zinoviev as head of the Leningrad party organization, the most important after Moscow, a posting Kirov had resisted, yielding only after Stalin agreed it would be temporary (allowing him to return to the Caucasus). Kirov stayed on to rout the entrenched Zinoviev machine.25 It was partly the chance to spend time with Kirov that drew Stalin to visit the canal.

Kirov’s personal qualities—straightforward, amiable—endeared him to more conniving Bolsheviks. “Stalin loved and respected Kirov above all others,” a longtime bodyguard would recall. “He loved him with a kind of touching, tender love. Kirov’s trips to Moscow and the south were for Stalin a genuine holiday. Sergei Mironovich would come for a week, two. In Moscow he would stay at Stalin’s apartment, and Stalin would literally not separate from him.”26 “Stalin loved him,” Molotov recalled. “He was Stalin’s favorite.”27 Kirov stood a mere five feet five inches (1.64 meters), shorter than the dictator.28 He sent game he hunted to Stalin and, following Nadya’s death, stayed with him when in the capital (Kirov had earlier bunked with Orjonikidze). “Kirov had the ability to dissipate misunderstandings, to convert them into jokes, to break the ice,” recalled Artyom (whose deceased father had also been friendly with Kirov). “He was astonishingly bright-natured, a person like a beam of light, and at home they loved him very much, the members of [Stalin’s] family and the service personnel. They always waited upon his appearances . . . and called him Uncle Kirov.” Kirov jestingly called Stalin “the Great Leader of All Peoples of All Times,” according to Artyom, and Stalin “would retort that Kirov was the ‘Most Loved Leader of the Leningrad Proletariat.’”29

The canal held strategic promise for developing mineral-rich Soviet Karelia and opening a reliable pathway from Leningrad to the north, but it ran a mere sixty feet deep and eighty feet wide, limiting its use. Stalin was said to have been disappointed, finding it “shallow and narrow.”30 Nonetheless, the pharaonic visit was recorded on Soviet newsreels. Kremlinologists noted Yagoda’s prominence in the footage, even though Mężyński remained OGPU chairman. Overseeing such construction was Yagoda’s forte, and he would receive the Order of Lenin for the canal. More than 126,000 forced laborers did the work, almost entirely without machines, and probably at least 12,000 died doing so, while orchestras played in the background. Some of the surviving builders were “amnestied” with fanfare; others were transferred to construction of a Moscow–Volga Canal.31


Nine-year-old Svetlana had gone ahead to Sochi with her nanny. “Hello, my Dear Daddy,” she wrote on August 5, 1933. “I received your letter and I am happy that you allowed me to stay here and wait for you. . . . When you come, you will not recognize me. I got really tanned. Every night I hear the howling of the coyotes. I wait for you in Sochi. I kiss you. Your Setanka.”32 On August 18, the dictator boarded a train with his son Vasily, Artyom, and Voroshilov for Nizhny Novgorod, whence they embarked with local party boss Andrei Zhdanov on the steamship Clara Zetkin down the Volga for four days. From Stalingrad, the group traversed the steppes by automobile to Sochi, reaching the resort on August 25, after a 2,000-mile journey. “Yet again,” Voroshilov wrote to Yenukidze, “I sensed the whole limitlessness of our expanses, the whole greatness of the proletariat’s conquests.”33, 34 No more than an hour after having arrived in Sochi, Stalin set out in his car with Voroshilov on a drive to Green Grove, near Matsesta. At the Riviera Bridge, in Sochi’s center, they collided with a truck. It was dark, and the road unlit. Stalin’s guard detail, in the trailing car, immediately opened fire. The truck driver, who appears to have been drunk, fled in the darkness. It is unclear how severe the collision was, but Stalin was unharmed.

Stalin was remarkably hardy, all things considered. (A medical report covering family history listed incidences of “tuberculosis, syphilis, alcoholism, drug abuse, epilepsy, mental difficulties, suicide, metabolic disorders, malignant tumors, diseases of the endocrine glands.”) This was his first southern sojourn following Nadya’s death, but third consecutive one during the famine. He and his entourage had passed through settlements emptied by an absence of food and an abundance of typhus, but whether they took note remains uncertain. “Koba and I visited one (of the ten) of our horse state farms near the cities of Salsk and Proletarskaya,” Voroshilov continued in the letter to Yenukidze about Rostov province. “There we saw the most splendid horses—mothers and foals, foals and working horses. We saw magnificent merino sheep, livestock of good Kalmyk (red) lineage, geese, chickens, pigs. All this is well cared for, and the steppes are fully assimilated.” Voroshilov took up residence at Sochi’s second-best dacha, Blinovka (where his wife awaited him), but complained of dubious types being accommodated at neighboring facilities, as well as bacteria in the water, and the medical staff, especially Degtyarev (“He’s a doctor in the way that you and I are astronomers!”). Yenukidze answered (August 30, 1933) that officials all went south at the same time and things got overrun. “Koba has been feeling wonderfully the whole time, but the fourth day now he’s complaining of his teeth,” Voroshilov wrote back (September 7).35 A dentist (Shapiro) had arrived to attend to Stalin’s mouth.36

Stalin finally had secure high-frequency phone lines in Sochi, though he still used telegrams and field couriers, too.37 In Moscow, officials were convening in his Old Square office, usually with Kaganovich presiding.38 Of the 1,038 politburo decisions taken that summer, Stalin would intervene in 119, the vast majority at prompts from Kaganovich, whose correspondence was filled with plaintive requests for more guidance. “I cannot and should not have to decide any and all questions that concern the politburo,” Stalin replied (September 5, 1933). “You yourselves can consider matters and work them out.”39 This instruction came immediately upon the heels of a scolding. Orjonikidze, along with land commissar Yakovlev, had objected to criminal prosecutions for managers who had shipped agricultural combines without the full complement of parts. They had the politburo formally rebuke the USSR deputy procurator general, Vyshinsky. Stalin exploded. “Sergo’s behavior can only be characterized as antiparty,” he wrote, “because its goal is to protect reactionary elements of the party against the Central Committee.” They reversed their decision.40

On September 22, Stalin left the Puzanovka dacha to inspect a new one being built for him near Gagra, a small resort on Abkhazia’s northern Black Sea coast.41 He fell in love with this land, close by the site, according to ancient Greek legend, of the ram with a golden fleece, a symbol of authority and kingship.42 Entirely mountainous, with passes up to 10,000 feet above sea level and deep valleys cut by crystal-clear rivers, this seaside haven enjoyed ample moisture, and, because the mountains came almost up to the coast, Sukhum, its gracious capital, was shielded from cold northern air masses. Abkhazia had the warmest winters in the USSR. Its mountains teemed with wild boars for hunting, and its rivers and plentiful lakes with fish. Its naturally carbonated sulfur springs added to its allure. Local Bolsheviks had nationalized the neglected, malaria-infested prerevolutionary resorts, but officials in Moscow sought to claim them as well. The revived spas, as well as the citrus groves, grapevines, and tobacco fields, would forge a link to the far-off Eurasian capital. The man who would build that link was a native son, Nestor Lakoba.43


Short and deaf, with refined features and a cropped mustache, Lakoba carried himself with elegance. He did not pound a fist on the table or shout profanities, like his hotheaded friend Orjonikidze. Whereas Bolshevik rule in ethnic Georgian regions had, for a time, been dicey—a mass uprising had broken out in the 1920s—in Abkhazia it looked firm. Lakoba won wide popularity through the customary patronage (apartments, dachas, scarce goods), but also by attentiveness to ordinary people. He cultivated social harmony, downplaying the peasantry’s supposed social stratification, and managed to delay collectivization of the citrus groves and tobacco fields and even avoid dekulakization, otherwise unheard of. Almost uniquely among local bosses, his power base was not in the party. The Abkhaz Communist party was merely a provincial organization of the Georgian party, but the Soviet state was federal, and Lakoba served as chairman of the Abkhaz government (Council of People’s Commissars) in the 1920s, and after 1930 as chairman of the Abkhaz soviet’s central executive committee.44 Often, he skipped meetings of the party organization.45

Wits dubbed Abkhazia “Lakobistan.” A traveling commission had complained that such “a personalized regime is always a bad thing, always kills social life and weakens organizations, demoralizes cadres and encourages a slavish passivity among them.”46 But Orjonikidze sent Lakoba regular telegrams about taking care of high-level Moscow visitors at the spas.47 Trotsky (who had recuperated often in Sukhum) admired Lakoba, though he noted that, “despite the special sound amplifier he carried in his pocket, conversing with him was not easy.”48 (The regime soon acquired a new, bulky Phonophor hearing device for him from Siemens.) Stalin called him the Deaf One, and loved that Lakoba could whip top Soviet military men at billiards and shoot like a sniper. “When Lakoba came to Moscow, you would always see him at Stalin’s place, either at the apartment or at the dacha,” Khrushchev would recall, adding, “Stalin trusted him completely.”49 Artyom recalled that visits by Lakoba brightened up the house, noting: Stalin “loved Lakoba very much.”50 The dictator was said to joke, “I am Koba, and you are Lakoba.”

The two men shared a great deal. Lakoba (b. 1893) did not remember his father, who had died of a bullet wound. Two stepfathers had died as well. His mother, after many tries, got him into a religious school and then the Tiflis seminary—where Stalin had studied more than a decade earlier—and whence Lakoba, too, was expelled. Lakoba had helped lead the Red Army’s civil war reconquest and Bolshevization of Abkhazia, while Stalin had egged on Orjonikidze to do the same in Georgia.51 The Abkhaz had become a minority in Georgia-controlled Abkhazia, but Lakoba and other Abkhaz Bolsheviks were determined to redress this by remaining independent.52 Stalin had ended up caught between the Abkhaz, who proclaimed their own republic, and the Georgians, who tried to force the territory back into Georgia.53 He had approved a fudge recognizing Abkhazia as a “treaty republic.” Such decisions among competing claims had to be made across the Union, given the more than one hundred languages and the threescore recognized “nations.”54

The USSR consisted of three levels: (1) Union republics, initially reserved for Russia, Ukraine, Belorussia, and the South Caucasus Federation (Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan), then Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan; (2) autonomous republics inside Union republics for concentrated populations such as the Tatars, Bashkirs, and Yakuts in the RSFSR; the Moldavians in Ukraine; and (3) autonomous provinces, many of them in the RSFSR and the South Caucasus Federation.55 In former tsarist Turkestan, the inhabitants, who were often multilingual, had been compelled to choose one national identity, then fought over territory. The prize cities of Bukhara and Samarkand, despite populations categorized as predominantly Tajik (Persian), had gone to Uzbekistan (Turkic), thanks to Uzbek leaders’ dynamism and Tajik leaders’ fumbling.56 But then Stalin had acceded to Tajik demands for equal status, upgrading their autonomous republic in Uzbekistan to a self-standing Union republic.57 Uzbeks seized the opportunity to become a national elite and aligned their future with the central regime, coercing their cereal-growing republic toward intensive cotton production. Mosques were forcibly shuttered.58 Power was centralized in Moscow, but there were internal ethnoterritorial borders, local state institutions, vernacular official languages, and growing ranks of indigenous Communists.59 The regime fostered not nationalism per se but Soviet nations, with Communist institutions and ways of thinking.

With the “treaty republic” status, Stalin had allowed the Abkhaz to perceive themselves as akin to a Union republic but not join the USSR as a fourth constituent of the South Caucasus Federation. His dispensation stemmed from his wariness of Georgian nationalism, his admiration for Lakoba, and Abkhazia’s uniqueness as the Soviet Union’s only subtropical region. But belated collectivization in the region’s Gudauta district had provoked a mass peasant uprising.60 Lakoba negotiated a settlement without bloodshed, but Stalin terminated the “treaty republic” designation, specifying it as an “autonomous republic” in Georgia.61 This spurred further protests, including in Lakoba’s home village of Lykhny; the local party boss blamed Lakoba’s indulgence of “kulaks.”62 Lakoba managed to disperse the crowds peacefully again, promising to travel to Moscow on their behalf.63 The OGPU arrested putative ringleaders, but Lakoba did manage to see Stalin and extract an accommodation: collectivization would resume, yet exclude horses.64 Still, Stalin’s upheaval affected governing structures, too, and empowered a man who emerged as Lakoba’s cunning rival: Lavrenti Beria.65


Beria’s Mingrelian family was descended from a feudal prince, but he was born, in 1899, to modest circumstances in a hillside village in Abkhazia. He attended Sukhum’s city school, whose subjects included Russian, Orthodox theology, arithmetic, and science. His mother, Marta, like Keke Geladze, worked as a seamstress to pay for school; Beria, also like Stalin, might have been helped by a rich patron (a textile merchant who employed Marta as a domestic). Beria joined the party after the tsar’s abdication, served in the army, and graduated from high school with honors.66 He missed the revolution, and spent part of the civil war on the wrong side: the Musavat (“Equality”) party of Azerbaijani nationalists had established an independent republic through the meddling of Ottoman and then British occupation forces, and after the British left, Beria joined Musavat counterintelligence.67 Following the Bolshevik reconquest, he was arrested. A meeting was called and Orjonikidze and others ruled that the party had likely assigned Beria to infiltrate the “bourgeois nationalists.”68 Beria enrolled at the newly established Polytechnic University, on the premises of his old high school, with a state stipend, to fulfill his dream of becoming an engineer, but Mircafar Bagirov (b. 1896), the twenty-four-year-old head of the Azerbaijan Cheka, recruited Beria and, after a few weeks, named him deputy secret police chief, at age twenty-one.69

Beria’s Soviet secret police dirty work provoked numerous investigations for abuses.70 “I feel that everyone dislikes me,” he wrote to Orjonikidze (May 1930). “In the minds of many comrades, I am the prime cause of all the unpleasantries that befell comrades over the recent period, and I figure almost like a stool pigeon.”71 Underhandedly, Beria attacked everyone else, but he felt perpetually put upon—just like Stalin.

In fact, Beria had become a legend. His early top boss, Solomon Mogilevsky, chairman of the South Caucasus OGPU, had died in a mysterious plane crash whose cause could not be established by three separate commissions of inquiry.72 His next boss, Ivan Pavlunovsky, pleaded at staff meetings for his deputy Beria to cease the intrigues against him.73 Stalin replaced Pavlunovsky with Redens, an ethnic Pole, who knew none of the Caucasus languages or personnel. In the wee hours on March 29, 1931, after a sloshy birthday gathering for Beria at a private apartment, a drunk Redens departed—with no bodyguard detail. He made his way to the building of a young female OGPU operative who had previously rebuffed his advances; Redens tried to break down her door, and neighbors called the regular police, who arrested the disorderly drunk. His identity was established only at the station house. Word of the humiliation spread inordinately quickly. Beria immediately phoned Stalin, who transferred Redens to Belorussia (and shortly thereafter to Ukraine). Stalin was said to have delighted in Beria’s artfulness at compromising the dictator’s hapless brother-in-law.74 Beria was promoted to chief of the South Caucasus OGPU, overseeing Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia, including Abkhazia.75 Mężyński noted, on the tenth anniversary of the Georgian branch of the OGPU, that “comrade Beria always finds his bearings precisely, even in the most complex circumstances.”76

Lakoba, six years Beria’s senior, had everything the young secret police operative did not: heroic prerevolutionary and civil war exploits, colossal popularity among the masses, and intimate ties to Stalin.77 But Stalin’s southern holidays were beset by epic local infighting: Georgians against Armenians, Georgians against Georgians. Stalin blamed locals’ ability to appeal to Orjonikidze, and wrote to Kaganovich that “if we don’t intervene, these people by their stupidity may ruin things.”78 Orjonikidze was pushing for the restoration as party boss of Mamiya Orakhelashvili, a protégé (who had the university diploma Beria coveted), while Lakoba pushed for Beria (and sent him a transcript of a three-way conversation he’d had with Stalin and Orjonikidze).79 Lakoba midwifed a three-day Beria visit to Abkhazia to see Stalin.80 Beria soon got appointed first secretary of Georgia and concurrently second secretary of the South Caucasus Federation (under Orakhelashvili).81 He could now see Stalin during the dictator’s holidays without special intercession.82 In summer 1932, Beria poured poison in the dictator’s ear about Orakhelashvili.83 The latter begged Stalin, and especially Orjonikidze, to be relieved of his post as Beria’s nominal superior.84

Nothing rankled Stalin more than the suspicion that provincial officials sabotaged central directives, but in his homeland he had found someone who fulfilled orders to the letter. “Beria makes a good impression,” Stalin wrote to Kaganovich (August 12, 1932). “He’s a good organizer, a businesslike, capable functionary.” Stalin also prized Beria’s antagonism to Orjonikidze and the Georgian old guard. “In looking over South Caucasus affairs, I have become all the more convinced that in personnel selection, Sergo is an irredeemable bungler,” Stalin’s note concluded. Kaganovich wrote back (August 16): “Beria came to see me. He does indeed make a good impression as a top-level functionary.”85 On October 9, Orakhelashvili was relieved of his post, and Beria promoted to first secretary of the South Caucasus Federation, while remaining party boss of Georgia.86 Beria was recorded as being in Stalin’s office for the first time on November 9, just after the holiday celebrations.87 On December 21, Beria had the Georgian party issue a formal reprimand to Lakoba.88


The three-story dacha under construction in Gagra that Stalin visited with Lakoba on September 23, 1933, stood only twenty-five miles from Sochi. It had been carved right into the steep cliff, 700 feet above sea level, and was well concealed by tree cover, blending in with its green paint.89 The rooms had parquet flooring, wooden ceilings in patterns, wooden furniture, and a wood-paneled cinema. Handwoven Caucasus rugs graced the floors, and nets wrapped the chandeliers to protect from possible falling glass. Each room had an emergency button. The smallish bedrooms had mattresses filled with seaweed and medicinal herbs. Salt water was piped into the bath. An auxiliary structure housed a billiard room, kitchen, and pantry. The menu consisted largely of freshly slaughtered animals, especially lambs, held live on the grounds. Lemon trees, guard booths, and a rocky hillside of fragrant eucalyptus, cypress, and cherry trees surrounded the villa; tobacco was planted as well. Guards also circled the property with truncheons, on the lookout for snakes. During the day, donkeys could be seen, and at night, jackals. Down below lay a stone beach. A small, rapid stream at the dacha gave it its name: Cold Spring. Here, Lakoba would organize a hunting party. First, however, on the day of his arrival, Stalin and entourage went for a boat ride on the Black Sea.

Yagoda had had a launch sent in, the Red Star, used on the Neva River in Leningrad. Small and unseaworthy, it had only some glass over the cabin, through which everyone was visible. At around 1:30 p.m., the group pushed off southward—Stalin, Voroshilov, and Beria, along with Vlasik and L. T. Bogdanov (bodyguards) and S. F. Chechulin (cipher specialist). “We headed for the Pitsunda Cape,” Vlasik would recall. “Entering the pier, we disembarked on the shore, relaxed, drank and snacked, walked about, spending a few hours on the shore.” Their picnic, beginning around 4:00 p.m., included Abkhaz wine. “Then we embarked again and headed back,” Vlasik continued. “At the Pitsunda Cape, there is a lighthouse and, nearby on the shore, a border post. When we exited the pier and turned in the direction of Gagra, there were rifle shots from the shore.” The boat was some 600 to 700 yards out. Vlasik claimed that he and Bogdanov covered Stalin and returned fire; Beria would claim that he covered Stalin’s body with his own. The bullets from the shore (three in total) landed in the water. The boat pulled farther from the coast. High waves rose up—a storm was in the offing—and it took the launch three harrowing hours to make it back to the Old Gagra pier.90

Stalin, according to Chechulin, had initially joked that the Abkhaz were accustomed to greeting guests with gunshots, but after returning to Cold Spring, he sent Bogdanov back to Pitsunda to investigate. A few days later, Chechulin handed Stalin a letter from a local border guard who asked to be forgiven for shooting at the unregistered launch, which he had taken to be a foreign vessel. Sergeant N. I. Lavrov, commander of the border post, further explained that the boat had entered the restricted zone, so, as per regulations, they signaled it to stop, and when it kept going they fired warning shots in the air. Stalin did not label the incident an attempted assassination.91 Beria had Sergo Goglidze, the head of border guards for the South Caucasus, “investigate,” and he brought forward “witnesses” who testified that the shots were fired at the launch itself, blame for which, in Abkhazia, could be laid on Lakoba.92 But Yagoda evidently instructed Beria to portray it as a misunderstanding (in line with Stalin’s preference). The Georgian secret police sacked the Abkhaz OGPU chief and punished six Abkhaz border guards with two to three years in the Gulag; Lavrov got five.93 Goglidze was soon named OGPU chief for Georgia. Legends circulated that Beria had organized hoodlums to stage the incident to discredit Lakoba, after which Beria’s henchmen had executed the perpetrators.94, 95


While Stalin was in remote Gagra, a trial for the Reichstag fire was taking place in Leipzig. It had opened on September 21, 1933, and among the accused were the German Communist party leader Ernst Thälmann and Georgi Dimitrov, a Bulgarian and undercover head of the Comintern’s Western European Bureau in Berlin. One of eight children from a workers’ family, Dimitrov had been sentenced to death for his political activities in his native country after he escaped to Yugoslavia. In Germany he operated in obscurity, but in the Leipzig courtroom he outdueled the state witnesses, Goebbels and Hermann Göring, and made the three-month trial an international antifascist sensation. (The Nazis did not have prearranged scripts for defendants who were broken to confess publicly.) “I am defending myself, an accused Communist,” Dimitrov said from the dock. “I am defending my political honor, my honor as a revolutionary. I am defending my Communist ideology, my ideals.” Germany’s high court would convict only the Dutch Communist apprehended at the scene, who would be guillotined just shy of his twenty-fifth birthday. Dimitrov would be acquitted for lack of evidence. Journalists from the world over were admitted to the proceedings, but two Soviet reporters seeking access were arrested, leading to a diplomatic row. Mikhail Koltsov, however, reported out of Paris for Pravda (September, 25, 26, 28, 29, 30), transforming Dimitrov into a household name in the USSR and fostering the legend of Communists as courageous opponents rather than facilitators of the rise of Nazism.96

At the Reich Chancellery on September 26, at a meeting of department heads, the state secretary (the number two) at the foreign ministry insisted that Germany had little to gain from a breach with the USSR, given the countries’ economic compatibility. Hitler concurred on avoiding handing Moscow a pretext to sever relations, but he warned officials not to indulge in delusions (“The Russians were always lying”) and predicted that the Soviet government would never forgive the smashing of German Communism and that the new order in Germany had crushed every hope of world revolution.97 Hitler was furtively accelerating a military buildup set in motion by his predecessors, in violation of Versailles restrictions, and told every Briton he could reach that German expansionism would be at Soviet expense and that Germany’s purely continental interests did not conflict with Britain’s global empire. He disavowed wanting to annex Austria (a wish that pre-1933 German governments had not disguised).98 He would also insist to an interviewer for Le Matin that he wanted to live in peace with France.99 Stalin followed the least hints of Franco-German as well as Anglo-German rapprochement, and of supposed British instigation of Poland and Japan and Polish-Japanese collusion.100 He saw danger not in “superstructure” ideologies in any single capitalist country, such as Nazi Germany, but in the underlying “class interests” of all capitalist powers, led by Britain and France, which, axiomatically, strove to catalyze an anti-Soviet bloc.

On September 28, amid Soviet negotiations to sell the Chinese Eastern Railway to Manchukuo, the Japanese had Manchukuo authorities arrest six Soviet employees. The Japanese were evidently trying to force a sale at a rock-bottom price. The Soviets had requested 250 million rubles; the Japanese offered the equivalent of one tenth that sum: 50 million paper yen. Stalin terminated the negotiations. He also ordered up a propaganda offensive against Japanese “militarism”—not something he did vis-à-vis Nazi Germany.101

Yenukidze, a Germanophile and Stalin confidant, concocted a scheme with German ambassador Herbert von Dirksen to find a modus vivendi by sending someone with stature to Hitler, even without formal invitation. They decided that the Jewish Nikolai Krestinsky, a former Soviet ambassador to Germany who was fluent in the language and was taking a rest cure at Kissingen, was to stop over in Berlin on the way home. Litvinov advised against such a move, but Molotov and Kaganovich favored it. Stalin agreed. Hitler reluctantly acceded to his foreign ministry’s urgings to receive the “Judeo-Bolshevik” envoy.102 Right then (October 14, 1933), however, the Führer declared on the radio that Germany would pull out of the League of Nations.103 France erupted with loose talk of launching a preventive war.104 Molotov and Kaganovich wrote to Stalin (October 16), reversing their support for Krestinsky’s Berlin stopover. “It is incomprehensible why Krestinsky’s trip should be called off,” the dictator fired back that same day. “What do we care about the League, and why should we conduct a demonstration in honor of an insult to the League and against its insult of Germany?”105 But the foreign affairs commissariat had already backed out of the gambit.106


Stalin had traveled again, a few miles south of the Pitsunda Cape, arriving on October 9, 1933, at Mysra (Myussera in Russian), site of a secluded seaside Romano-Greek estate recently owned by an Armenian oil magnate.107 Nearby, Lakoba had instigated construction of yet another luxury dacha for Stalin. (Only the urinals were of domestic make.)108 The next day, in New York, Henry Morgenthau Jr., acting treasury secretary, had brought a Philadelphia millionaire and Franklin Roosevelt confidant, William Bullitt, to a meeting with an unofficial Soviet representative. Roosevelt was eager to find common cause in containing Japanese expansionism, concerned about Hitler, and being lobbied by U.S. business for continued access to the Soviet market, after orders from that country had shrunk. Bullitt delivered a draft letter from the president, addressed to Kalinin (formal head of state), containing an invitation to Washington for a chosen representative. Stalin, who had hurried back to Gagra, instructed Molotov to accept and recommended sending Litvinov. The latter begged off in a cipher, but Stalin and Kalinin wrote to Molotov and Kaganovich (October 17) insisting on Litvinov and urging them to “act more boldly and without delay, since now the situation is favorable.”109

On November 2, 1933, Stalin finally left Sochi for Moscow.110 Yagoda soon reported to Voroshilov that, in connection with a “counterrevolutionary terrorist monarchist plot” to assassinate Stalin, twenty-six arrests had been made, almost all former gentry and a lot of them women. One was said to have “connections” through children to people living in the Kremlin.111 (During 1933, there would be at least ten serious attempts on Hitler’s life.)112

In mid-November Litvinov managed what he himself had doubted: U.S. recognition, after sixteen years of no relations. He had conceded nothing on repudiated tsarist and Provisional Government debts, other than a willingness to discuss them, and made an empty pledge that the Soviets would not interfere in U.S. domestic affairs by supporting American Communists.113 Molotov took to publicly praising Litvinov.114 Stalin awarded him a state dacha and a bodyguard detail, a mark of Litvinov’s rising value—and the need to keep him under 24/7 surveillance. Anxieties in Tokyo about U.S.-Soviet collusion in the Far East intensified.115 Japan, without allies and in violation of international covenants, pursued hegemony in its region, which entailed formidable simultaneous military burdens: defeat of the Red Army in a possible war; subjugation of mainland China; and attainment of home-island security against the U.S. Navy.116 But for now, the depth of any U.S.-Soviet cooperation remained uncertain.117

The Americans promptly dispatched their own Marx to the USSR, Harpo, on a pantomime goodwill tour. His act brought the house down. (After he convinced a Soviet family that he had not pilfered their silver, they shook hands, and 300 table knives cascaded to the floor from his sleeves.)118 Bullitt had arrived as ambassador on December 11, 1933, and Litvinov immediately dropped the bombshell that the USSR, in anticipation of war with Japan, wished to join the League of Nations.119 On December 20, at a banquet in Bullitt’s honor at Voroshilov’s apartment, Bullitt was taken by the charm of the “cherub” host; the pair danced a medley of Caucasus moves and American foxtrot.120 Stalin attended and asked Bullitt for 250,000 tons of steel rails to complete strategic double-tracking of the Trans-Siberian. “If you want to see me at any time, day or night, you have only to let me know and I will see you at once,” the dictator volunteered. “President Roosevelt is today, in spite of being a leader of a capitalist country, one of the most popular men in the Soviet Union.” Then Stalin planted a wet kiss on Bullitt’s cheek.121

At this very moment, the Comintern executive committee approved theses for the American Communist party’s upcoming convention in Cleveland (to be held in the spring). “The ‘New Deal’ of Roosevelt is the aggressive effort of the bankers and trusts to find a way out of the crisis at the expense of the millions of toilers,” the theses stated. “Under cover of the most shameless demagogy, Roosevelt and the capitalists carry through drastic attacks upon the living standards of the masses, increased terrorism against the Negro masses. . . . The ‘New Deal’ is a program of fascistization and the most intense preparations for imperialist war.”122

Granting an interview to the reliably pro-Soviet Walter Duranty (December 25, 1933), Stalin spoke publicly about his diplomatic coup with the United States. Sitting between portraits of Marx and Lenin, with a drawing of a projected 1,312-foot Palace of the Soviets that was supposed to eclipse the Empire State Building, the dictator lauded Roosevelt as “by all appearances . . . a courageous statesman.” He assured American business that the Soviets paid their debts (“Confidence, as everyone knows, is the basis of credit”). He put Japan on notice as well. Then, when Duranty, on cue, inquired of the Soviet stance vis-à-vis the League of Nations, Stalin responded, “We do not always and in all conditions take a negative attitude toward the League,” adding that “the League may well become a break upon or an obstacle to war.”123

The United States was not a member of the League. Any Soviet bid would have to be shepherded by France, and three days later the Soviet envoy in Paris communicated Moscow’s terms for joining the League as well as a regional alliance.124 Franco-Soviet talks would proceed glacially. Distrust ran deep.125 Édouard Herriot, who had signed the Franco-Soviet nonaggression pact and now wanted to counter Hitler, had demonstrated the price of rapprochement when, in summer-fall 1933, he had visited the USSR during the famine, disembarking at Odessa. Just before he reached Kiev, streets were washed, corpses removed, shops with windows stocked with goods (the populace was not allowed in), and a “festive crowd” assembled from OGPU and Communist Youth League personnel. In Kharkov, he was shown a “model” children’s facility, the tractor factory, and a museum devoted to the Ukrainian writer Taras Shevchenko. He asked to see the countryside and was taken to a collective farm where he again encountered activists and operatives, this time disguised as farmers. Everywhere, he ate his fill. Soviet Ukraine was “like a garden in full bloom,” Herriot observed in Pravda. “When one believes that the Ukraine is devastated by famine, allow me to shrug my shoulders.”126


Duranty had been followed into Stalin’s office by the co-chairs of the politburo’s Mongolia commission, Voroshilov and Sokolnikov, and two Mongolian officials, a deputy prime minister for finance and a leftist party scourge of the lamas. Mongolia served as a Soviet showcase and experimental laboratory for the colonial world and, even more important, a territory that supplied defense in depth for the southern Siberian border, meat and raw materials for the Soviet economy (paralleling Kazakhstan), and a link with China, should war with Japan break out.127 Since imposing the “New Course” retreat stabilization, Stalin had worried that Mongolia’s NEP equivalent had allowed a revival of traders (NEPmen) and better-off nomads (kulaks), and persistent sway of the lama “class.” Voroshilov told the Mongols that, against a population of just 700,000, there were still 120,000 lamas with undue influence (“Beyond that, the lamas engage in homosexualism, corrupting the youth who return to them”). Stalin asked how the lamas supported themselves. The Mongols answered that lamas drew substantial income from the lamaseries and served as spiritual leaders, physicians, traders, and advisers to the arats (common people). “It’s a state within a state,” Stalin interjected. “Chinggis Khan would not have permitted that. He would have cut them all down.”

Soviet proconsuls were instigating a terror against fabricated Japanese spies, which destroyed the head of the Mongolian People’s Party and brought perhaps 2,000 arrests.128 Stalin asked about the budget, and the Mongols replied that their GDP totaled just 82 million tugriks, while the state budget was 33 million; the Soviets extended a loan of 10 million, but the army alone cost 13 million. “A large part of your budget is being swallowed up by white-collar employees,” Stalin admonished. “Can it be impossible to get away with fewer?”129

Sometime either before or after Stalin received these two Mongols, he met with Mongolian prime minister Peljidiin Genden, but in Molotov’s office. The dictator would write Genden in a courtesy follow-up note, “I am very glad that your Republic has, finally, taken the correct path, that your internal affairs are succeeding, that you are strengthening your international might and strengthening your independence.” He advised that Mongolia needed “full unity” in the leadership, full support of the arats, and an army on the highest level, and promised continued fraternal assistance. “In that, you should have no doubts,” he concluded. “Voroshilov, Molotov, and I together thank you for the gifts you sent.” The Soviet Union was reciprocating with new automatic rifles. “They will come in handy in a battle against wolves of all types, two-legged and four-legged.”130


In the field of culture—unlike foreign affairs and nationalities—Stalin had long hesitated to make his instructions public. “What kind of a critic am I, the devil take me!” he had written in response to Gorky’s urgings in 1930.131 When Konstantin Stanislavsky sought approval for staging The Suicide, by Nikolai Erdman (b. 1900), Stalin had replied, “I am a dilettante in these matters.”132 The dictator began to work out how he would manage the artistic intelligentsia with the Kiev-born writer Mikhail Bulgakov (b. 1891), who in the 1920s serialized a novel depicting a family of Kiev White Guardists, the Turbins, during the civil war, which muddied the red-white, good-evil picture.133 Only two thirds of the work appeared before it helped prompt the journal’s closing, but it proved a sensation.134 Bulgakov turned it into a play titled The Days of the Turbins. Directed by Stanislavsky and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, it revived the fortunes of the Moscow Art Theater, which the pair had founded in 1898, premiering Chekhov’s The Seagull. Muscovites queued day and night for Bulgakov’s portrayal of the tragedy that befell those who had joined the counterrevolution in Ukraine.135

Bulgakov’s daring work had no Reds at all, and his portrayal of the Whites as human beings provoked slander that he was a White Guardist enabling “former people” who had lost loved ones and possessions to mourn. Party militants likened him to the “rightists.”136 Stalin acquiesced to the outcries to ban Bulgakov’s play Flight, another civil war story, about a family that opted to emigrate rather than live under Bolshevism.137 But the dictator went to see Turbins, privately approved it, and publicly defended it.138 At a meeting with irate pro-regime Ukrainian writers, Stalin pointed out that “it won’t do to write only about Communism. We have a population of 140 million, and there are only one and a half million Communists.” Bulgakov, Stalin allowed, was “alien,” “not ours,” for failing to depict exploitation properly, but he insisted that The Days of the Turbins remained “useful” to the cause, whatever the author’s intent.139 The furious polemics would not cease, however, and Stalin finally let the play be shuttered. Censors now prohibited even publication of Bulgakov’s works, and he wrote the first of several despairing letters to the authorities asking to be deported abroad with his wife, to no avail.140

Bulgakov wrote again “to the government” on March 28, 1930, pointing out that he had unearthed 301 reviews of his work over a decade, three of which had been positive, and pleading again to be allowed to emigrate with his wife or, failing that, to be appointed as an assistant director at the Moscow Art Theater; failing that, as a supernumerary there or, failing that, as a stagehand.141 On April 18, one of Stalin’s top aides phoned the poet at his Moscow apartment, asking his wife, who answered, to summon him. Bulgakov thought the call a prank. (This happened to be Good Friday, a significant day for Bulgakov, son of a theologian.) Stalin came on the line. “We received your letter,” he stated. “And read it with the comrades. You will get a favorable answer to it. . . . Perhaps we really should permit you to travel abroad? What, have we irritated you so much?” Bulgakov: “I have thought a great deal recently about whether a Russian writer can live outside his homeland, and it seems to me he cannot.” Stalin: “You are correct.”142 What motivated Stalin to make his first phone call to a major non-party writer remains uncertain. But four days earlier, the greatest poet in the revolution, Vladimir Mayakovsky, who was mercilessly heckled at his public recitations, fatally shot himself in the heart. (“Seriously, there is nothing to be done,” he wrote in a suicide note, as if echoing Chernyshevsky. “Goodbye.”)143

Bulgakov got appointed as a stage director’s assistant. One writer sent him a fake summons to the Central Committee, a poor joke about his desperate petitioning. Bulgakov developed neurasthenia.144 Bereft of a public, he was said to be narrating stories at his apartment over tea. One such story, according to a fellow writer, involved Bulgakov sending long letters nearly every day to Stalin, signed “Tarzan” to disguise himself. Stalin, frightened, ordered that the letter writer be identified. Bulgakov was found out, brought to the Kremlin, and confessed. Stalin noticed his shabby trousers and shoes and summoned the commissar of supply. “Your people can steal, all right,” Stalin yelled at the minion, “but when it comes to clothing a writer, they’re not up to it!” Bulgakov, in the story, took to visiting Stalin in the Kremlin regularly and noticed he was depressed. “You see, they all keep screaming: Genius, genius! And yet there’s no one I could have a glass of brandy with, even!” When Stalin phoned the Moscow Art Theater on Bulgakov’s behalf, he was told the theater director had died—that very minute. “People are so nervous these days!” Stalin was depicted as saying. “No sense of humor.”145

Like Bulgakov, Yefim Pridvorov (b. 1883), known as Demyan Bedny (bedny meaning “the poor one,” though many called him Bedny [Poor] Demyan), had been born in Ukraine and made his mark in Moscow, but while Bulgakov sought no more than a modus vivendi, Bedny tirelessly served the regime. He traveled the sites of the Five-Year Plan, declaiming verse to workers, and acquired a personal Ford and a sumptuous apartment in the Grand Kremlin Palace (his wife, children, mother-in-law, and nanny lived with him).146 Bedny knew Stalin before the revolution and, like him, had published his first verse as a teenager (and was dogged by rumors of uncertain parentage). He flaunted his access to the dictator.147 But two of Bedny’s poem-feuilletons irked the dictator deeply, one for mocking Russian national traditions (peasants sleeping on their warm stoves, which Stalin also did), and the dictator promulgated a resolution criticizing him. Bedny wrote to him melodramatically (“The hour of my catastrophe has come”).148 Stalin exploded. “Dozens of poets and writers have been rebuked by the Central Committee when they made mistakes,” he answered. “All this you considered normal and understandable. But when the Central Committee found itself compelled to criticize your mistakes, you suddenly started to fume and shout about a ‘noose.’ . . . Is your poetry perhaps above criticism?”149

Voroshilov protected his Grand Kremlin Palace neighbor Bedny, whose sloshy charm and erudition played well with the defense commissar.150 But on September 1, 1932, the politburo heard a report on the poet’s debauched life, and Stalin had him evicted from the Kremlin. Bedny apologized to the dictator for his “life befouled with egotistic, greedy, evil, false, cunning, vengeful philistinism,” but begged for an equivalent-sized apartment for his private library, the largest in the regime, perhaps 30,000 volumes; Stalin promised space for it. (Yenukidze allocated Bedny an apartment in a small building at Rozhdestvensky Boulevard, 15, which the poet, in a sarcastic note to him, called “a rat’s barn.”)151 Bedny had worsened his predicament by indiscretion: one regular at his Kremlin apartment had recorded (and distorted) the often inebriated poet’s table talks, including a complaint that when he loaned books to Stalin, they came back stained with greasy finger marks.152 Stalin allowed Bedny to receive the Order of Lenin in connection with the poet’s fiftieth birthday, accompanied by a citation recognizing him as an “outstanding proletarian poet.”153 Bedny had just written to Stalin, “I am afraid of nothing more than my letters. Especially my letters to you.”154


As Bedny sank, Gorky rose. (“Previously,” the gifted children’s writer Nikolai Korneychukov, known as Korney Chukovsky, punned slyly in his diary, “literature was impoverished [o-bed-nena]; now it is embittered [o-gor-chena].”)155 Stalin, with OGPU assistance, had finally coaxed Gorky, already a literary giant before the revolution, permanently back from fascist Italy. Preparing the ground, on April 23, 1932, the dictator, without warning, had disbanded the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers.156 The zeal of the self-styled proletarians—such as Bedny—with each striving to expose the tiniest ideological deviation in rivals, was outweighed by their lack of creative achievement. At the same time, the deep political suspicion about the non-party writers—such as Bulgakov—was balanced by their usually superior abilities. The abolition decree also established a committee to organize a founding congress for a new Union of Soviet Writers, open to non-party members. (Other arts were supposed to be organized in similar fashion.) Stalin wanted Gorky, whom the Association of Proletarian Writers had denounced as “a man without class consciousness,” to be its head.

Alexander Fadeyev, one of the chairmen of the dissolved Association of Proletarian Writers, wrote in indignation to Kaganovich (May 10).157 The next day, Stalin sat in his office with Fadeyev, two other leaders of the proletarian writers’ association, two culture apparatchiks, and Kaganovich, for more than five hours. On May 29, the dictator met with some of them again for thirty minutes, just before departing for his long summer holiday.158 Ivan Gronsky, one of the attendees, would later explain that Stalin had no intention of revisiting the dissolution of the proletarians, but had asked what creative method to propose. Gronsky claimed he had answered that prerevolutionary realism had been “progressive” in its “bourgeois-democratic” day, producing many great works, but now they required a literature to advance the “proletarian socialist” stage, and he suggested “proletarian socialist realism” or “Communist realism.” Stalin countered that they needed an artistic method to unite all cultural figures, and supposedly suggested “socialist realism” for its brevity, intelligibility, and inclusiveness. Whether or not it was actually the dictator who came up with this formulation, he made the decision to adopt it.159

Stalin named Gorky honorary chairman of the organizing committee for the proposed new writers’ union.160 On September 17, 1932, the regime awarded Gorky the Order of Lenin, renamed Moscow’s central Tverskaya Street, the Volga city of Nizhny Novgorod (Gorky’s birthplace), and the Moscow Art Theater for him. It also launched a weeklong celebration of forty years of his artistic production, culminating on September 25 in the Bolshoi. Gronsky would later claim he had objected to such excessive adulation, to which Stalin supposedly replied, “He is an ambitious man. It is necessary to bind him to the party.”161

Not long thereafter, Stalin attended two meetings with writers—not at Central Committee headquarters on Old Square, but at the luxurious mansion granted to Gorky in central Moscow (Malaya Nikitskaya, 6), an art moderne masterpiece expropriated from the prerevolutionary industrialist and art patron Stepan Ryabushinsky. At the first session (October 20, 1932), Stalin and entourage met with writers who belonged to the party, and he explained the party decision to disband the Association of Proletarian Writers. He praised the superior power of live theater, citing Alexander Afinogenov’s Fear, which was seen by millions and dramatizes waverers among intellectuals, but has a party organizer saying, “We are fearless in the class struggle—and merciless with the class enemy,” while an angel child asks, “Papa, which is the greater menace—a left deviation or a right deviation? I think the greatest menace is double-dealers.”162 But Stalin was trying to urge the gathered party loyalists toward tutelage. “The sea of non-party writers is multiplying, but no one leads them, no one helps them; they are orphans,” he stated. “At one time, I was also non-party and did not understand many things. But senior comrades did not push me away; they taught me how to master the dialectic.”163

Six days later, non-party writers were included in a second gathering with the dictator and his entourage. Invitations had gone out only over the phone, with the proviso not to divulge the information, perhaps in order to enhance the sense of being chosen. (Neither Bedny nor Bulgakov was invited.) Few of the fifty assembled literary figures had ever met Stalin, let alone spent an intimate evening with him. Emotions ran high. At the first break, they surrounded Stalin, and one asked about state dachas. “From under his bushy eyebrows, his eyes quickly and carefully survey the rows of those present,” the literary critic Koreli Zelinsky wrote in a private account the next day. “When Stalin laughs—and he does so often and quickly—he squints and bends over the table, his eyebrows and mustache run apart, and his visage becomes sly. . . . What the portraits do not at all convey is that Stalin is very mobile. . . . He is very sensitive to the objections and in general strangely attentive to everything said around him. It seems he does not listen or forget. But, no, it turns out he caught everything at all wavelengths in the radio station of his mind. The answer is ready at once, in the forehead, straightforward, yes or no. Then you understand that he is always ready for combat. And, at the same time, watch out if he wants to please. There is a vast gamut of hypnotic tools at his disposal.”164

Stalin wanted to conjure into being a coterie of writers of stature whose utterances would carry weight and yet who could be more or less controlled. “I forgot to talk about what you are ‘producing,’” he remarked, after allowing many writers to speak. “There are various forms of production: artillery, locomotives, automobiles, trucks. You also produce ‘commodities,’ ‘works,’ ‘products.’ . . . You are engineers of human souls. . . . As some here rightly said, the writer cannot sit still; he must get to know the life of the country. Rightly said. People are transforming life. That is why I propose a toast: ‘To Engineers of Human Souls.’”165 Voroshilov interjected, “Not really.” Everyone applauded. Stalin turned his whole body to the defense commissar: “Your tanks would be worth little if the souls inside them were rotten. No, the production of souls is more important than the production of tanks.”

During a second break, the tables were laid with food and drink (this was still during the famine time), and Fadeyev importuned Stalin to repeat what he had told the Communist writers at the earlier gathering: intimate details of Lenin’s last days. Stalin stood, raised his glass, and said, “To a great man, to a great man,” then repeated it again, as if a little drunk. “Lenin knew he was dying,” Stalin said, and “asked me once when we were alone together to bring him a cyanide capsule. ‘You are the most severe person in the party,’ Lenin said. ‘You are able to do it.’ At first I promised him, but then I could not do it. How could I give Ilich poison? I felt bad. And then, you never know how the illness will progress. So I didn’t give it to him.” There were further toasts, and the atmosphere became ever more visionary (an entire writers’ city; no more paper shortages). “I still remember how Gorky bid farewell to Stalin, kissing like a man on the mustaches,” Zelinsky wrote. “Gorky, tall, stooped to Stalin, who stood straight like a soldier. Gorky’s eyes shone and, ashamedly, unnoticeably, he wiped away a small tear.”166

Fadeyev followed the meeting with a diatribe in Literary Newspaper against his former comrades in the Association of Proletarian Writers and preserved his position of influence with the regime. Gorky faced opportunities and dilemmas he had not encountered back in Sorrento.167 One of the first major services he performed, on August 17, 1933, was to lead a “brigade” of 120 writers who followed Stalin’s tour to the White Sea–Baltic Canal with their own OGPU-supervised visit and glorified slave labor, in the name of a supposedly higher humanism. “I saw grandiose structures—dams, sluices, and a new waterway,” the satirist Mikhail Zoshchenko wrote in one of the many thank-you notes to Yagoda (August 22). “But I was taken more by the people, who worked there and who organized the work. I saw thieves and bandits (now shock workers), who gave speeches in a human tongue, summoning their comrades at work to follow their example. Previously I had not seen the OGPU in the role of educator, and what I saw was for me extraordinarily joyful.”168


Distribution of Stalin’s writings inside the USSR reached an estimated 16.5 million copies as of early 1934.169 His Questions of Leninism alone had been issued, in 17 languages, in more than 8 million copies by then. But the problem of Stalin’s biography remained acute: the only Russian-language text, written by his aide Tovstukha, dated back to the 1920s and was the length of a newspaper essay.170 Although Mikhail Koltsov had written a lively Life of Stalin for serialization in the Village Newspaper, it remained unpublished, evidently because Stalin had rejected it.171

Foreign publications, meanwhile, were making the leader of the world proletariat into a bandit/bank robber, and recounting his alleged betrayals of comrades as an undercover agent for the tsarist secret police.172 A psychoanalytic memoir by a Gori and Tiflis classmate (who had emigrated) alleged that Stalin’s father, Beso, had beaten him, so that, “from childhood on, the realization of his thoughts of revenge became the aim to which everything was subordinated.”173 A Comintern official in Germany wrote alarmingly to Moscow about the sullying of Stalin’s image by enemies, singling out in particular Essad Bey.174 A Baku-born Jew (1905) whose birth name was Lev Nussimbaum, Bey had gone to a Russian gymnasium in Berlin, taken classes in Turkish and Arabic at Friedrich Wilhelm University, begun wearing a turban, reinvented himself as a Muslim prince, and become a bestselling author who frequented the Café Megalomania. His colorful Stalin, published in Berlin in 1931, portrayed an outlaw in vivid orientalist strokes and embellished or invented evidence so that the dubious became possible, the possible probable, and the probable certain. “The difference between poetry and truth,” he wrote, “is not yet recognized in the mountains.”175

Bey’s competition proved to be another orientalist-fabulist: Beria. No sooner had the regional party organization fallen under his control than it established a Stalin Institute to collect materials pertinent to “Stalin’s biography and his role as theoretician and organizer” of the party in the South Caucasus.176 But Stalin’s aide Tovstukha, deputy director of the Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute in Moscow, started trying to transfer all original Stalin-related materials from Georgia.177 Regime officials, meanwhile, had sounded out Gorky to write the biography, but he demurred.178 Instead, the apparatus accepted a proposal by the French writer Henri Barbusse to write a book about Stalin, with oversight by Tovstukha (to ensure the desired depiction of the struggle against Trotsky).179 Anyone taking on Stalin’s life had to confront his constant discouragement. When the latest History of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks) referred to him in standard parlance as “the wise leader of all the toilers,” Stalin wrote, “An apotheosis of individuals? What happened to Marxism?”180 He rejected the Society of Old Bolsheviks’ plan to mount an exhibit about his life as “strengthening a ‘cult of the personality,’ which is harmful and incompatible with the spirit of our party.”181


The year 1934 dawned. Soviet industry was booming. The capitalist world remained mired in the Great Depression. The United States had recognized the Soviet Union. The famine was mostly over. It was time to gloat. In “The Architect of Socialist Society” (Pravda, January 1, 1934), sycophant supreme Karl Radek depicted a future historian giving lectures in the revolution’s fiftieth year at the School of Interplanetary Communications. The lecturer, looking back from 1967, would emphasize the surprise among the world bourgeoisie that a new leader had succeeded Lenin and built socialism, at a necessarily furious pace, against the fierce resistance of capitalist elements and their facilitators. Stalin was called “the great pupil of great teachers who himself had now become the teacher, . . . the exemplar of the Leninist Party, bone of its bone, blood of its blood.” His success was attributed to his “creative Marxism,” his proximity to cadres, his resolve, and his fealty to Lenin. “He knew that he had fulfilled the oath taken ten years earlier over Lenin’s casket,” the essay observed. “And all the working people of the world and the world revolutionary proletariat knew it, too.”182

Ten years to the day after Stalin had been sworn that oath, January 26, the 17th Party Congress opened in the Grand Kremlin Palace, bringing together 1,225 voting and 739 nonvoting delegates, representing 2.8 million members and candidates. Party statutes had specified an annual congress, but three and a half years had elapsed, the longest interval yet.183 Pravda headlined it as the “Congress of Victors.” Magnanimously, the dictator had allowed high-profile opposition figures back into the party after they had again publicly admitted their errors. From the rostrum they issued self-flagellating calls for “unity,” with Kamenev defending Stalin’s personal dictatorship (in contrast to his bold denunciation of it back at the 14th Party Congress).184 Bukharin, whom Stalin would appoint editor of Izvestiya, told the congress regarding the right deviation: “Our grouping was unavoidably becoming the focus for all the forces fighting against the socialist offensive, and primarily for the strata most threatened by the socialist offensive—the kulaks and their urban intellectual ideologists,” which had heightened the danger of “an untimely foreign intervention.” He praised the plan and quipped, “Hitler wants to drive us into Siberia, and the Japanese imperialists want to drive us from Siberia, so the entire 160 million population of our country would have to be located on one of the blast furnaces of Magnitogorsk.”185

Stalin delivered a five-hour keynote on opening night. “He spoke unhurriedly, as if conversing,” one witness wrote in his diary. “He was witty. The more he spoke, the closer he became to the audience. Ovations. Explosions of laughter. Full-blooded. But a practical, working speech.”186 The dictator issued a call to accountability, speaking of “difficulties of our organizational work, difficulties of our organizational leadership. They are concentrated in us ourselves, in our leading functionaries, in our organizations. . . . The responsibility for our failures and shortcomings rests, in nine out of ten cases, not on ‘objective conditions’ but on ourselves and only on ourselves.” He denounced chancellery methods of management (“resolutions and decrees”) and called for criticism from below, worker competitions, getting bosses into the factories and farms, getting skilled workers out of offices and into production, and refusing to tolerate people who failed to implement directives. “We must not hesitate to remove them from their leading posts, regardless of their services in the past.”187

After the applause died down, Stalin offered an example of empty-words leadership:

STALIN: How goes the sowing?

FUNCTIONARY: The sowing, comrade Stalin? We have mobilized. (Laughter.)


FUNCTIONARY: We posed the question squarely. (Laughter.)

STALIN: And then?

FUNCTIONARY: We have a breakthrough, comrade Stalin, soon there’ll be a breakthrough.


STALIN: And in fact?

FUNCTIONARY: There is movement. (Laughter.)

STALIN: But in fact, how goes the sowing?

FUNCTIONARY: So far, the sowing is not happening, comrade Stalin. (General guffaws.)188

Stalin pointedly added that provincial officials, “like feudal princes, think the laws were written not for them but for fools.”

Against capitalism’s “raging waves of economic shocks and military-political catastrophes,” Stalin contrasted how “the USSR stands apart, like an anchor, continuing its socialist construction and struggle for keeping the peace.” He accused the capitalists, without irony, of “deepening their exploitation via strengthening the intensity of their labor, and at the expense of farmers, by further reduction in the prices of products of their labor.” Fascism, and especially National Socialism, he averred, “contained not an atom of socialism,” and “should be seen as a sign of the bourgeoisie’s weakness, of its lack of power to rule by the old parliamentary methods, forcing it to turn internally to terrorist methods of rule” and externally to a “policy of war.” Without naming the likely aggressor, he foresaw a “new imperialist war” that “will certainly unleash revolution and place the very existence of capitalism in question in a number of countries, as happened during the first imperialist war.”189

Stalin observed that fascism in Italy had not prohibited good bilateral relations with the USSR, and dismissed as “imaginary” German complaints that the Soviet Union’s many nonaggression pacts signified a “reorientation” toward Western Europe. “We never had any orientation toward Germany, nor have we [now] any orientation toward Poland and France,” he insisted. “We were oriented in the past and are oriented in the present only on the USSR. (Stormy applause.)” He also warned Japan: “Those who desire good peace and relations would always meet a positive response, but those who try to attack our country will receive a crushing rebuff to teach them in future not to poke their pig snouts into our Soviet garden. (Thunderous applause.)”190


As Stalin basked in the Grand Kremlin Palace spectacle, Hitler intruded, announcing a ten-year nonaggression “declaration” with Poland. The text contained no recognition of existing borders, but, sensationally, each side vowed not to “resort to force in the settlement of such disputes” as might arise between them.191 Hitler’s foreign policy adviser, Alfred Rosenberg, had vowed to annihilate Poland. Poland’s participation was no less head spinning: it had a military alliance with France as well as a defensive alliance with Romania (both dating to 1921). But Poland had only a poorly equipped army to defend long borders facing two dynamic dictatorships, both of whose predecessors had made the country disappear from the map. Adding to that sense of vulnerability, the Versailles Treaty had made the predominantly ethnic German city of Danzig an autonomous “free city” under the League of Nations, leaving Poland without a Baltic port, and placed a so-called Corridor of Polish territory between German East Prussia and the rest of Germany, a recipe for instability.192

Even though the declaration did not legally invalidate the Franco-Polish alliance, Hitler had effectively broken the encirclement ring. Poland’s political class, meanwhile, dreamed of playing an independent role in European affairs. “It was,” one interwar observer noted, “a tragedy for Poland to have been reborn too weak to be a power, and strong enough to aspire to more than the status of a small state.”193 French officials privately called Poland a bigamist.194 But of course, Paris was in talks with Berlin as well. Piłsudski received the French ambassador after the signing (January 29, 1934), explaining that “he had hesitated, had dragged things on, but the Franco-German negotiations had made him decide to expedite them, because if the [French] proposals were accepted by Germany, France would openly abandon the [Versailles] peace treaty.”195 The nonaggression declaration with Germany promised Poland reduced economic tensions as well (an end to trade and tariff wars). Moreover, even though France based its security on relations with Britain, not its eastern alliances, French foreign ministers now finally began to visit Warsaw.196

Stalin was caught out worse than the French. Seeking to keep Poland out of any anti-Soviet alliance, he had allowed the Galicia-born Radek to meet secretly with Polish officials. Radek insisted that Poland’s private gestures toward Moscow constituted “an about-face and not a maneuver.”197 Artur Artuzov, the intelligence official, tried to puncture this wishful thinking, arguing that the Poles were flirting with the USSR solely to raise Germany’s interest in a bilateral deal, but Stalin accused Artuzov of “misinforming the politburo.”198 Voroshilov, too, had gotten into the act, requesting a meeting with the sympathetic German ambassador, Rudolf Nadolny, and dwelling “a particularly long time on Hitler’s Mein Kampf, in which connection he finally said that two words of the chancellor’s in public would be enough [to dispel] the impression that the anti-Soviet tendency of the book still had validity today.”199

Hitler’s intelligence reports had warned of a pending Polish-Soviet alliance—Radek’s back-channel flattery and calculated leaks had done the work for Piłsudski.200 Stalin, ready to betray Germany to Poland and Poland to Germany, had been one-upped by both.201

Piłsudski had made plain to a German interlocutor that “Poland would never under any circumstances respond to any German attempts to turn Polish efforts toward Russian Ukraine.”202 But in Moscow, suspicions were rife that the anodyne German-Polish declaration contained secret military and territorial clauses.203 Colonel Józef Beck—who had helped Piłsudski carry out his 1926 military coup—made the first visit to the Soviet Union by a Polish foreign minister since their state’s reestablishment. He had little love for Poland’s ally France (having once been ejected from that country as persona non grata) and prided himself on being able to handle Germany, but he wanted to avoid appearing to tilt between Poland’s two big neighbors. He was hosted at a luncheon by Voroshilov, and engaged thrice by Litvinov (February 13, 14, and 15, 1934), who noted that his Polish counterpart “does not see danger on the part of Germany or general danger of war in Europe at this time.” The Polish-born Litvinov gloated that when he reminded Beck that Poland had signed nonaggression pacts with the USSR for three years, and with Germany for ten, “Beck became manifestly embarrassed (the one time during our entire conversation).” But the minister vowed this could be fixed, and indeed their bilateral pact would soon be extended to ten years (and their legations upgraded to embassies). Beck returned from Moscow with pleurisy.204


The party congress had continued through February 10. Stalin belatedly acknowledged the livestock losses (his report carried a table), which he attributed to kulak sabotage, yet he urged that “1934 must and can be a breakthrough year to growth of the whole livestock economy.” The dearth of meat was widely felt.205 Orjonikidze proposed that industrial production plans be cut, rather than increased, and the congress approved a resolution for the rest of the second plan, stipulating 18.5 percent growth in consumer goods, versus 14.5 for producer goods. Many speakers underscored the imperative to ramp up retail trade and living standards.206 But Kaganovich affirmed that Stalin’s “revolution from above was the greatest revolution human history has known, a revolution that smashed the old economic structure and created a new collective farm system.”207 Even Yevgeny Preobrazhensky, the erstwhile ardent Trotsky supporter, marveled from the rostrum, “Collectivization—that is the heart of the matter! Did I predict collectivization? I did not.”208

Kirov, afforded the honor of closing out discussion of Stalin’s report, celebrated all that had been achieved, assuring delegates that “the chief difficulties are behind us,” while reminding them to keep shoulders to the wheel. His oratory elicited repeated clapping, especially when he proposed that every word of Stalin’s political report be approved as marching orders. “Comrades, ten years ago, we buried the man who founded our party, who founded our proletarian state,” Kirov concluded. “We, comrades, can say with pride before Lenin’s memory: we fulfilled that vow; we in future, too, shall fulfill that vow, because that vow was made by the grand strategist of the liberation of the toilers of our country and the whole world, comrade Stalin. (Stormy, prolonged applause, a warm ovation by the entire hall, all stand.)”209

Stalin declined to give the heretofore customary reply to the discussion, citing “no disagreements at all.”210 He dictated the composition of the new Central Committee: seventy-one members and sixty-eight candidates. The number of candidates he permitted to stand equaled the number of slots, although, by party tradition, delegates could cross out anyone they opposed. In the voting on February 9, 1934, only 1,059 of 1,225 ballots ended up in the record. (At the previous congress, 134 voting delegates had not returned ballots.)211 Only Kalinin and Ivan Kodatsky (Leningrad province soviet chairman) were elected unanimously in the official accounting. Three votes went against Stalin, though apparatchiks might have tossed out a few negatives. Kirov received four against. (Back at the 16th Congress, Stalin, like Kirov, had officially received nine votes against.)212

Rumors circulated in Moscow and then abroad about some provincial party bosses having sought to have the aw-shucks Kirov replace Stalin.213 Lev Shaumyan (b. 1904), a newspaper editor (and the unofficially adopted son of Mikoyan), would later assert that “the thought ripened in the minds of certain congress delegates, primarily those who remembered Lenin’s Testament well, that it was time to transfer Stalin from the post of general secretary to other work.”214 But the idea that Kirov was widely viewed as worthy of replacing Stalin, or that he led a “moderate faction” opposed to Stalin, is contradicted by the evidence.215 Kirov seemed a provincial by comparison with his predecessor in the second capital, Zinoviev, who had worked closely with Lenin and headed the Comintern. At the same time, Kirov had turned out a lot like Zinoviev: a talker, a bon vivant. Still, there was a difference. “At meetings, he never once said anything about any question,” Mikoyan told Khrushchev of Kirov. “He sat silent, and that was it.”216 Selecting the general secretary, moreover, fell not to the congress but to the one-day plenum of the newly elected Central Committee afterward. Another gloss on the whispering was provided by the Leningrad delegate Mikhail Rosliakov. “Generally,” he would recall, “the talk was that the party had matured, grown stronger, that there were even people capable of replacing Stalin if the necessity arose.”217

A congress report by the apparatchik Yezhov revealed that 10 percent of the party membership had joined during the civil war or before 1917, but that this profile applied to 80 percent of the congress delegates. In other words, 1,646 of the 1,966 delegates had become Communists when Lenin was the leader.218 But Lenin-era Communists showed loyalty to Stalin. One was Veniamin Furer (b. 1904), a talented organizer in a mining town of Ukraine who had been given the floor at the congress during the February 7 session. “At the 16th Party Congress, comrade Stalin spoke of those reserves that lurk in the depths of our Soviet system,” Furer said in his remarks at the 17th. “If one breaks the bureaucratic knot, if one advances organizational work, these reserves would surface. . . . These reserves are the creative energy, the creative initiative of the mass.” He hit all the Stalin notes: “Thousands of new people have grown in the Donbass and constitute the proletarians of the Stalinist epoch. . . . They present to us, to our organizational work, to our leadership, more demands, demands that are more complex. . . . Our new worker judges us, in localities, on concrete questions: apartment repair, club organization, development of shops and canteens. . . . This party congress, opening a new plane of battle for socialism, should task the entire party and each Communist with the fighting task of studying and fully mastering the Stalinist style of work. (Applause.)”219


A military-industrial parade on Red Square punctuated the victors’ congress. On February 10, 1934, Stalin and his inner circle met, apparently before the Central Committee plenum that evening, and he proposed that Kirov relocate to Moscow as a Central Committee secretary. “What are you talking about?!” Molotov later recalled of Kirov’s response. “I’ll be no good here. In Leningrad I can do as well as you, but what can I do here?” Some evidence suggests that Orjonikidze supported Kirov’s refusal, Stalin stalked out, and Kirov went to mollify him.220 A compromise ensued: Kirov would become a Central Committee secretary but remain party boss in Leningrad.221

This provoked the hasty transfer of Andrei Zhdanov from Gorky (Nizhny Novgorod) to Moscow as Central Committee secretary.222 Born in Mariupol (1896), Zhdanov was the grandson of a priest and the son of a school inspector (who had died when the boy was just three) and a classical pianist (who had health issues after giving birth to him).223 He affected the trappings of an intellectual, had an easy demeanor in Stalin’s presence, and was a Russian nationalist. Khrushchev recalled him as a charming fellow who would carry out any assignment.224 Zhdanov was not even a politburo candidate member, but, in the absence of the dictator or Kaganovich, he would sign politburo meeting protocols.225

Working sessions of the politburo were giving way to “commissions” (an invention of Kaganovich), while the use of telephone polls for approving politburo decisions had grown to between 1,000 and 3,000 times a year. Even so, Stalin was often just dictating “politburo” decrees to Poskryobyshev or his other top aide Boris Dvinsky. (Ever the functionaries, they would note, “No telephone polling of politburo members taken.”)226

Further reflecting the changes wrought by collectivization-dekulakization, Stalin elevated several secret police officials to full membership in the Central Committee without prior candidate status: Yagoda (43 years old), Yevdokimov (43), Balytsky (42), and Beria (35). Yezhov (39) and Khrushchev (39) also became full members without having been candidates. Zhdanov (38) was promoted from candidate to full member; Poskryobyshev and Mekhlis became candidate members, even though they had not even been congress delegates.227 The post-congress Central Committee returned all members of the politburo from the previous congress, in 1930, except for Rykov.228 Stalin’s name came first on the list of members of the politburo, the orgburo, and the secretariat (after the 16th Congress, his name had appeared alphabetically). His portrait in the gallery of politburo members was rendered far larger, and his khakis lightened to make him stand out. Tellingly, however, Stalin decided that he should be formally listed as merely a “secretary,” in what looks like yet another indication of the long shadow of Lenin’s Testament about removing him as “general secretary.”229


Inside the triangular Kremlin, the Imperial Senate formed its own triangular fortress, and Stalin’s wing was a fortress within the fortress. Even the regime personnel given regular Kremlin passes for state business needed a special pass for Stalin’s wing. Located one floor below where Lenin’s had been and on the building’s opposite side, it came to be known to regime insiders as “the Little Corner.”230 Stalin had marked his permanent shift to the Kremlin by having the interiors redone. The walls in the offices were lined with shoulder-height wood paneling, under the theory that wood vapors enhanced air quality, and the elevators were paneled with mahogany. The tiled stove in Stalin’s office yielded to central heating. Behind his working desk hung a portrait of Lenin. In a corner, on a small table, stood a display case with Lenin’s death mask. Another small table held several telephones (“Stalin,” he would answer). Next to the desk was a stand with a vase holding fresh fruit. In the rear was a door that led to a room for relaxation, rarely used, with oversized hanging maps and a giant globe. In the main office, between two of the three large windows that let in afternoon sun, sat a black leather couch where, in his better moods, Stalin and guests sipped tea with lemon. In the country’s darkest moments he could exude optimism, but when, to others, matters seemed brightest, he could become gloomy, withdrawn.

Ten miles away, in Volynskoe village, near the town of Kuntsevo on the right bank of the Moscow River, the OGPU completed construction on a new dacha for him in 1934—within just a year, using fiberboard panels (not long-lasting, but easy to put up).231 In contrast to the neo-Gothic style of Zubalovo, Meran Merzhanyants, known as Miron Merzhanov, an ethnic Armenian and the head architect for the central executive committee, adopted a simpler neoclassicism for the one-story, seven-room villa with sundeck and veranda.232 The Near Dacha, as it became known, sat on thirty acres in a deep wood and was encircled by a solid wall made of plywood, four to five meters high, which was painted green, like the residence, to blend in. The site proved easy to secure but at first noisy (to one side lay the village of Davydkovo, which filled with drunken men at night, and to another, the Kiev Station freight depot).233 For a time, Stalin continued to sleep at his new Kremlin apartment and use the Zubalovo dacha, but Nadya’s absence weighed on him at places they had shared. Soon he decided on the Near Dacha as his permanent residence.234

Hitler lived at the eighteenth-century Palais Schulenburg, at 77 Wilhelmstrasse, the chancellor’s residence since 1871, which during the Weimar Republic had acquired a modernist addition, where Hitler had his formal office. The Führer had the palace part remodeled, recovering the original grandeur but with an elegant simplicity. He would also have his Munich apartment (16 Prinzregentenplatz) refurbished in rectilinear forms, opening up larger light-filled, strikingly modern and spare spaces. These interiors were photographed for the German public. Additionally, Hitler vastly expanded the chalet-style farmhouse in the alpine border town of Berchtesgaden, in the Obersalzberg, where he had stayed on holiday. It had been rechristened the Berghof (“mountain farm”) and now had more than thirty rooms.235 An ample dining room, study, and great hall were built with Swiss stone and pinewood paneling, and the Teutonic furniture, too, was deliberately oversized. Picture windows and an open-air terrace afforded panoramic views of the snowcapped Bavarian Alps and Austria in the distance. Over time, the entire mountain area would be closed in a wide security perimeter with a high fence, but the loss of physical accessibility was compensated for by images of Hitler’s domestic life published in periodicals. Commercially available photo albums also depicted him hiking in the pure mountain air with his dog or entertaining blond children at his mountain retreat. Postcards for sale showed him feeding deer on the terrace—a private, softer Führer.236

No public mention was made of the existence, let alone location, of Stalin’s private Moscow residence, even as the entire regime became organized around it. A team of chauffeurs remained on twenty-four-hour call at the special Kremlin garage, which was jammed with foreign makes. Stalin had acquired a 1929 Rolls-Royce but was usually driven in a Packard, a premier luxury brand he had come to love since the Tsaritsyn days (when he rode in a Packard Twin Six “touring car”).237 In 1933, the regime had purchased the new Packard Twelve in the United States (Stalin would travel with the top down, from Sochi to Abkhazia and back, just for the ride). He preferred the jump seat, facing forward, which he pulled down himself. One guard sat on the backseat, and another next to the driver. Stalin’s Packard drove right up to his entrance of the Imperial Senate; exiting the Kremlin, at the Borovitskaya Gates, he traveled west along Znamenka, then the Arbat, Smolensk Square, Borodino Bridge, Great Dorogomilov Street, and onto the old Mozhaisk Highway to a hidden sharp left turnoff at Volynskoe. Service personnel nicknamed the route “the Georgian Military Highway,” in reference to the actual road in the Caucasus.

Inside the dacha, Stalin and his guests, by custom, wore slippers (he tucked his trousers into his socks). An intercom connected all the rooms. The hot water heater was imported. A separate building, some 200 yards from the principal residence, housed a kitchen, which had a traditional Russian-style stove, which beckoned when his rheumatism acted up. The auxiliary structure contained a Russian-style bathhouse and billiard room, too. Master artisans from around the country fabricated much of the furniture, doors, and wall paneling at Moscow’s Lux Factory. A wooden bed that workmen had used became Stalin’s. Contrary to legend, he slept in the bedroom (some 200 square feet). The floors were also made of wood. The dining room, off to the right of the entrance, had a long table, an upright piano, and a gramophone. Stalin collected records, favoring the danceable light romances of Pyotr Leshchenko and especially the émigré Alexander Vertinsky.238 During and after meals, he convened regime meetings. According to Mikoyan, the dictator ate slowly but had a healthy appetite. “Stalin loved a variety of fish dishes,” he wrote. “Danube herring he loved very much. . . . He loved poultry: guinea fowl, duck, flattened young chicken. He loved thin rack of lamb cooked on a spit. . . . Thin bones, a little meat, dry-broiled.”239 Lakoba would bring racks of lamb from Abkhazia.

The Near Dacha was built with children’s bedrooms, but Vasily (age thirteen) and Svetlana (eight) continued to live in the Kremlin apartment below their father’s office and to spend weekends and summers at Zubalovo.240 (Yakov Jughashvili, age twenty-six, lived at Granovsky, 3.) Full-time care of the children fell to Til as well as Pauker, who had been born in Habsburg Lemberg (Lwów, Lviv, Lvov), of Jewish extraction, the son of a barber, from whom he had learned the trade.241 Vasily, red haired like his mother, with a pimply face, initially was sent to School No. 20; Svetlana began at No. 25, a model school known for “very tough, strict discipline,” as Pauker reported to Stalin. (Vasily was transferred there.)242 Their father’s portrait hung in the school, which offered radio and electrotechnology, airplane and automobile modeling, ballroom dancing, theater, a rifle team, parachute jumping, volleyball, hockey, excursions to the State Tretyakov Gallery, summer camps in Crimea. Perhaps 85 percent of the teaching staff did not belong to the party. Vasily’s closest friend was nicknamed “Collective Farm Boy” (his mother, from a village, scrubbed the school’s floors). But his friends could not visit him at home. Stalin would sometimes read aloud to Vasily and Artyom. “Once he almost laughed to the point of tears,” Artyom recalled of a reading of the satirist Mikhail Zoshchenko, “and then he said, ‘And here comrade Zoshchenko remembered about the GPU and changed the ending!’”243

Stalin’s own son was a rambunctious type, signing his letters “Red Vaska.” Perhaps he misbehaved, at least in part, to get his father’s attention. “With a reluctant heart,” the bodyguard Vlasik would recall, “we had to report his behavior to his father, ruining his mood.”244 Vasily observed how his father doted on his younger sister, with constant reminders that Svetlana was a good example.245 Svetlana studied hard under the guidance of her nanny, Bychkova.246 “Stalin, someone who absolutely lacked sentimentalism, expressed such untypical gentleness toward his daughter,” recalled Candide Charkviani, a Georgian official. “‘My Little Hostess,’ Stalin would say, and seat Svetlana on his lap and give her kisses. ‘Since she lost her mother, I have kept telling her that she is the mistress of the house,’ Stalin told us.”247 Stalin instructed her to issue orders, and she would address written commands to “Secretary No. 1,” and he would answer, “I submit.” She also recalled, however, that he was absent. “Once in a while,” she wrote, “he enjoyed the sounds of children playing.” Stalin would overnight at the Near Dacha. “Sometimes before he left, he’d come to my room in his overcoat to kiss me good night as I lay sleeping,” Svetlana added. “He liked kissing me while I was little, and I’ll never forget how tender he was to me.”248 She was heard to utter, “Let the whole world hate me, as long as Papa loves me. If Papa tells me to go to the moon, I’ll go.”249, 250

Into the public vacuum about Stalin’s personal life stepped Kyrill Kakabadze, a Soviet trade representative in Berlin for Georgia’s manganese mines, who had defected and published a defamatory essay in the British Sunday Express (April 8, 1934) that purported to describe Stalin’s “orgies” at a “personal estate” in Zubalovo of 300,000 acres. “Stalin lives like a tsar,” he wrote, supposedly costing the state ₤300,000 a year and 1,000 lives a day. “Stalin took for himself huge apartments that had once been inhabited by Ivan the Terrible.” Soviet representatives in London begged for compromising material on Kakabadze for release to the British press (the OGPU went to work, discovering that he was from a merchant family), then the German press republished the Kakabadze articles.251 Stalin took it out on Beria, his minion for all things Georgian, writing (April 14) that, “besides the Georgian carousers and scamps arrested in Moscow hotels, there is another large group in Leningrad. The dissoluteness of so-called representatives of Georgian economic organizations has placed shame on the South Caucasus organizations. We oblige you to take immediate measures to liquidate the unseemliness, if you do not want the South Caucasus to end up in the court of the Central Committee.”252


Stalin had fixed a covetous eye on Chinese Turkestan, or Xinjiang (“New Territory”). From January through April 1934, he fought a small war there. Renewal of a mass Muslim rebellion had spurred Comintern operatives to contemplate pushing for a socialist revolution, but Soviet military intelligence had pointed out that, even though the rebels commanded the loyalty of almost the entire Muslim population (90 percent), a successful Muslim independence struggle in Chinese Turkestan could inspire the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz in Soviet Turkestan or even the Mongols. Stalin had decided to send about 7,000 OGPU and Red Army soldiers, as well as airplanes, artillery, mustard gas, and Soviet Uzbek Communists, to defend the Chinese warlord. Remarkably, he allowed Soviet forces to combine with former White Army soldiers abroad, who were promised amnesty and Soviet citizenship. A possible Muslim rebel victory turned into a defeat. Unlike the Japanese in Manchuria, Stalin did not set up an independent state, but he solidified his informal hold on Xinjiang, setting up military bases, sending advisers, and gaining coal, oil, tungsten, and tin concessions. Some 85 percent of Xinjiang’s trade was with the USSR.253 British and Japanese observers and Chinese newspapers railed against Soviet “imperialism.”254 Chiang Kai-shek became dependent on Soviet goodwill to communicate with Xinjiang’s capital, Ürümqi.255

Ambassador Bullitt, who had returned to the United States after his brief December whirlwind in Moscow, came back. “The honeymoon atmosphere had evaporated completely before I arrived,” he wrote to Roosevelt (April 13, 1934).256 That very day, the U.S. Congress passed the Johnson Act, which prohibited foreign nations in default from marketing bonds in the United States, effectively preempting Roosevelt’s government from underwriting loans to the Soviet Union as negotiations proceeded for belated repayment of tsarist and Provisional Government debt.257

For Stalin, in any case, the threat of an immediate Japanese attack had receded.258 Hitler’s Germany was the greater puzzle.259 On April 19, Stalin’s spies delivered a copy of a secret document sent by the British ambassador in Berlin, Eric Phipps, to London, quoting Hitler to the effect that “it’s better to be respected and unloved than weak and loved.” Phipps asserted that “in relation to Russia, however, Hitler is ready to leave personal feelings aside and conduct a policy of realism.”260 A follow-up intercepted assessment from Phipps stated, in Russian translation, “The [Nazi] regime is solid, and the storm troopers are so disciplined that [Hitler] can be endangered only as a result of a serious uprising or a slow process of internal decay.” Stalin underlined this passage.261 Balytsky, OGPU chief in Soviet Ukraine, sent Stalin a report on the German consulates in Kharkov, Kiev, and Odessa, which were now run by Nazi party members who were said to be recruiting Nazi youth and storm troopers on Soviet territory among the half million ethnic Germans in Soviet Ukraine. Balytsky initiated arrests of Soviet “fascists.”262

On May 5, 1934, Polish foreign minister Beck, as promised, signed an early renewal of the nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union.263 But Stalin took talk of Poland trying to maintain neutrality vis-à-vis both its giant neighbors as disinformation, and behind Poland—indeed, behind every Soviet foe—he saw Britain. Stalin could not or would not grasp that “imperialist” Britain had the same enemies as the USSR: Nazi Germany in Europe and militaristic Japan in Asia.264 British-Soviet relations were poor.265 The British embassy official Sir William Strang had reported from Moscow that Pravda was calling the Nazi ideologue Rosenberg “a lackey of British imperialism.”266 Officials in London were also incredulous at Soviet assertions that the British were “the real force behind German and Japanese fascism,” as the Comintern’s Dmytro Manuilsky had put it at the 17th Party Congress. The son of an Orthodox priest from Ukraine, he had charged, in typical contradictions-of-capitalism fashion, that Britain was instigating these two powers against the Soviet Union to avoid a new intra-imperialist war over colonies.267 Even the tsarist-era military men Alexander Svechin and Boris Shaposhnikov wrote that Poland, Romania, and other limitrophe states were ultimately subordinated to the will of London and Paris.268

Internally, Tukhachevsky urged that, since Poland or Romania was sure to attack at some point, the Red Army ought to take advantage of the poor state of these implacable enemies’ railways to deliver a knockout blow before they could fully mobilize. The appeal of such preemptive war had been enhanced by a perceived shift toward military attacks without formal war declarations.269 But for all the talk about the inevitability of war, Stalin was not looking to fight one.270

Neither was Britain. Although Japan eyed British-controlled parts of Southeast and South Asia, it was preoccupied with China, but Germany under Hitler looked less contained—and British credibility was on the line.271 British society, however, was overwhelmingly desirous of avoiding another catastrophic war and mostly sympathetic to Germany’s grievances against the Versailles Treaty. Added to this was the political-ideological challenge of the Comintern and, behind it, the Soviet Union, whose industrialization—contrary to British expectations—had seemed to succeed. For London, no less than for Stalin, some sort of accommodation with Nazi Germany seemed the path to security.


The poet Osip Mandelstam, outraged over the famine, had composed sixteen lines that blamed Stalin. The verses, which he read to a handful of intimates, did not mention the dictator by name, but mocked a “Kremlin highlander” with oily fingers, a criminal underworld past, and part Ossetian descent. In April 1934, Mandelstam saw fellow poet Boris Pasternak on the street—the two had known each other since 1922—and he recited the rhymed invective to him. Hearsay has Pasternak deeming the lines an act of suicide, responding, “I didn’t hear this; you didn’t recite it to me.”272 On the night of May 16–17, Mandelstam was arrested at his apartment, where the police confiscated manuscripts, letters, and his address book. The poet was allowed to take a few personal items and books. He was said to have selected Dante’s Inferno.273

The admission process to the new union of writers had commenced, and on May 15, Fadeyev, Bedny, Pasternak, and others were inducted.274 A devastated Pasternak now learned of Mandelstam’s arrest from Anna Gorenko (b. 1889), known as Akhmatova, who had arrived from Leningrad that evening. He went to see Mandelstam’s wife, Nadezhda, and they evidently tried to call Bedny, who had once promised to defend Mandelstam if necessary, but had ceased to have contact with Stalin and deemed intervention useless.275 Nadezhda managed to get into the Kremlin to see Yenukidze, but also with no results. It seems Pasternak went to Izvestiya and implored Bukharin to intercede. (Pasternak was doing literary translations for the newspaper as a source of income.)276 According to the woman who later would become Pasternak’s lover, he “raced frantically all over town, telling everybody that he was not to blame and denying responsibility for Mandelstam’s disappearance.” In fact, Pasternak did not know but Mandelstam, under interrogation, had not named all the people to whom he had recited the poem—only those already known to the interrogator—and omitted Pasternak.277 At the other extreme, the short-story writer Pyotr Pavlenko boasted to acquaintances that he’d been allowed to listen secretly to Mandelstam’s interrogation at Lubyanka, evidently from behind a door in an adjacent room.278

In a surprise, Mandelstam was sentenced not to death or even a Gulag camp, but exile in Cherdyn (northern Urals), and allowed to take his wife. In early June 1934, he attempted suicide, jumping out a window. Bukharin wrote to Stalin about the poet’s frail psychology, noting that “Boris Pasternak is utterly at a loss over Mandelstam’s arrest and no one knows anything.”279 Then, on June 13, Pasternak was summoned to the phone at his communal apartment on Volkhonka Street. The caller said Stalin would be getting on the line, but Pasternak, like Bulgakov some years earlier, thought it a prank and hung up. The phone rang again, the same voice stating the call was from Stalin’s office and, to eliminate disbelief, dictated a special number to call. Pasternak dialed it and soon heard, “Stalin speaking.”

Stalin told Pasternak that Mandelstam’s case had been reexamined and the result would be favorable. (The sentence was commuted to mere banishment from the largest cities; he and his wife moved to Voronezh.) Stalin asked if Mandelstam was Pasternak’s friend—a tricky question. If Pasternak said yes, he could be implicated; if he said no, he was betraying Mandelstam. “Poets rarely make friends,” he answered. “They envy each other.” Stalin told him that if something terrible had befallen one of his friends, he would go to the wall to aid him. Then Stalin asked if Mandelstam was genuinely a “master.” Again, tricky: this could have referred to the verses about the “Kremlin highlander.” What Pasternak answered remains a matter of dispute. He seems to have suggested that they meet face-to-face. Stalin hung up. Pasternak dialed the number again, asking Poskryobyshev to reconnect him, but Stalin’s aide said the dictator was busy. Pasternak asked whether he could tell others of the call; Poskryobyshev said he would leave it to him.280 That very day, Pasternak told Ilya Ehrenburg (who was living in Paris with a Soviet passport but had just arrived in Moscow with André Malraux). Ehrenburg spread the sensational news to select other writers.281 For Pasternak, the call had happened extremely quickly, but it would reverberate in his head for a lifetime.


Georgi Dimitrov, the acquitted but still imprisoned Bulgarian Comintern operative, had finally been deported from Germany. He arrived in Moscow by plane (February 27, 1934), and Stalin afforded him a hero’s welcome and Soviet citizenship.282 “It is difficult to imagine,” Dimitrov recorded in his diary, “a more grandiose reception or more sympathy and love.”283 He had become the best-known Communist internationally after Stalin.284 Dimitrov was given an apartment at the Comintern’s Hotel Lux, which also housed a young Yugoslav named Josip Broz Tito and a Vietnamese named Nguyen Ai Cuoc, later known as Ho Chi Minh.285 (Dimitrov would soon obtain one of the 550 grand apartments in the new Government House, an elite complex colloquially known as the House on the Embankment, designed by Boris Yofan and built by Yagoda, on the site of wine warehouses along the Moscow River, a stone’s throw from the Kremlin walls.)286 Stalin took to phoning him. Convalescing outside Moscow at a dacha in Arkhangelskoe, on the former estates of Princes Golitsyn and Yusupov, Dimitrov requested an audience. On April 6, Stalin had him named to the Comintern executive committee, and the next day he received him in the Little Corner, one on one.287

Some Communists, including Germans who had managed to escape into exile from Nazi terror, were lobbying for a shift toward cooperation with other parties on the left.288 But Stalin stressed the need to win over European workers from parliamentarism, whose absence had allowed Russian workers to be revolutionary in 1917. “In all countries, the bourgeoisie will proceed to fascism,” he told Dimitrov, which he presented as an opportunity for Communists to win workers’ allegiance, provided the latter were made to understand that the era of parliamentarism was ending, meaning Social Democrats could be outmaneuvered. Still, he concluded that “we cannot immediately and easily win millions of workers in Europe.” In the meantime, he encouraged Dimitrov to seize leadership inside the Comintern: “Kuusinen is good, but an academic; Manuilsky—agitator; [Wilhelm] Knorin—propagandist! [Osip] Pyatnitsky—narrow . . . Who says that this ‘foursome’ must remain [in charge]?” Molotov chimed in: “You have looked the enemy in the face. And after prison, you now take the work into your hands.”289

At the 1934 May Day parade, Stalin motioned Dimitrov to come up to the dictator’s side on the Mausoleum, a Kremlinological sign for all. Dimitrov seized the moment, asking to be received again privately when convenient; Stalin agreed to an audience the next day. “Select yourself where and how to appear and what to write,” he instructed him in the Little Corner. “Don’t let yourself be talked into anything.”290 Dimitrov drew inspiration from recent events in France, where workers, in response to antiparliamentary riots by far right, monarchist, and fascist leagues, had ignored party divisions on the left and united in a general strike to prevent France from following Germany’s path.291 “The wall between Communist workers and Social Democrats should be demolished,” Dimitrov told the visiting Maurice Thorez, the French Communist party leader, on May 11. But this was a call not to cooperate with Social Democrat party leaders but to redouble efforts to reclaim their rank and file.292 Additional urgency arrived on May 19, when a fascist-inflected coup succeeded in Dimitrov’s native Bulgaria. And yet, not only Stalin but also Pyatnitsky (real surname Tarshis), Béla Kun, Wilhelm Knorin, Solomon Lozovsky (Dridzo), and Jenő Varga detested Social Democrats and opposed a broad leftist front to combat fascism.


Stalin summoned Artuzov, who had predicted Poland’s behavior, to a series of discussions in the Little Corner. (Litvinov exited when the intelligence officials entered.)293 Soviet military intelligence in Europe had suffered a string of catastrophic exposures several years running, as a result of violating elementary tradecraft: recruiting agents among local Communist party members (who were under police surveillance).294 A list compiled by Yagoda for Stalin and Voroshilov of every agent exposure with names, dates, and causes, covered ten pages and highlighted “infestation by traitors,” “recruitment of foreign cadres among dubious elements,” and “non-observance of the rules of conspiracy,” all of which had resulted in the USSR being fed “a mass of disinformation.”295 On May 26, 1934, Stalin appointed Artuzov deputy chief of military intelligence, concurrent with his post as head of OGPU foreign intelligence, an unprecedented combination.296

Within a month, Artuzov had written a detailed analysis—one copy to Stalin, one to Voroshilov, and none to Jan Berzin, the nominal military intelligence chief—detailing that the Soviets now had essentially no military intelligence operations in Romania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, France, or Italy. His solution was to prohibit, once again, recruitment of foreign Communists as spies and to improve the pay and housing of operatives abroad. Fatefully, Stalin also accepted Artuzov’s recommendation to liquidate military intelligence’s department for analysis, the one central clearinghouse for assessing the mass of all incoming information. Artuzov pointed out that there was no such all-knowing and therefore risky department of analysis in the OGPU foreign directorate (which was one of its weaknesses).297 Military intelligence was subordinated directly to the defense commissar, who emerged with enhanced powers.298

In terms of counterintelligence, the secret police claimed that a Soviet spy in Chinese Harbin was a double agent who had helped Japan roll up part of the Soviet espionage network in the Far East.299 Stalin demanded to know from Yagoda which Soviet operative had recruited the spy.300 A far more important case remains confounding. The OGPU had put the head of Red Army external relations, Colonel Vasily Smagin, under observation on the basis of intercepted deciphered telegrams from the Japanese military attaché Torashirō Kawabe. “We have precisely established that Smagin in January 1934, using the possibilities in his position, took from a rank-and-file operative in the Fourth Department [military intelligence] fifty-seven file cards of secret agent material about Japan and twenty-nine about China to his home for three days,” Yagoda wrote. “This had nothing in common with his official duties.” Stalin underlined this passage, and another about Smagin’s closeness to Kawabe. Smagin, however, was only sacked and left unemployed—and eventually given a teaching position.301


Hitler’s renunciation of the League of Nations had begun to lift the postwar taboo in France on the idea of any “alliance.”302 Since Hitler’s takeover, Litvinov had been urging a regional pact against him, borrowing the phrase “collective security” from the League and arguing that “peace is indivisible” (i.e., either every country had peace or none had it). Lenin had sized up Litvinov as “the most crocodile-like of our diplomats,” who tore into and held on to people.303 Stalin, however, was not keen on a regional pact that, without Germany, would come across as anti-German while not even guaranteeing Soviet border security on the Baltic Sea. He also wanted to avoid giving a pretext for a Polish-German bloc on his immediate border.304 Still, he viewed talks with Paris as a useful instrument for his talks with Berlin, exactly as the French did.305

The USSR won diplomatic recognition on June 9, 1934, from Czechoslovakia and Romania, members of the Little Entente, and by the 27th the draft of a comprehensive Eastern Pact—France, the Soviet Union, the Little Entente, the Baltic states, Germany, Poland, Finland—was being circulated alongside a separate Franco-Soviet agreement.306 On June 29, Stalin received an OGPU intelligence report (“from a serious Polish source”) asserting that, by having invited Goebbels to Warsaw, Piłsudski was showing Paris he had options to discourage the latter’s bruited alliance with Moscow.307

The counterpart to a Soviet security deal centered on France was a Comintern shift toward a united front with Social Democrats against fascism. Dimitrov wrote cryptically in his diary (June 29), “Stalin: I never answered you. I had no time. On this question, there is still nothing in my head. Something must be prepared!” (Dimitrov also wrote to himself, “So lonely and personally unhappy! It’s almost more difficult for me now than last year in prison.” But then Dimitrov, despite being married to the cause, addressed his personal loneliness, resuming correspondence with Rosa Fleischmann, a Jewish Communist from Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland whom he had met in Vienna years earlier, and who would soon become his second wife and companion, something Stalin did not have.)308

The Central Committee was holding a plenum, the first such full meeting since the party congress, devoted to meat supply and livestock.309 Early on the morning of June 30, 1934, Hitler arrested Captain Ernst Röhm, chief of staff of the street-fighting SA (Sturmabteilung), in a Bavarian resort town; as many as 2,000 more arrests ensued. Surly and overweight, with a prominent scar on his left cheek, and openly homosexual, Röhm was one of the few who used the familiar du (“thou”) with Hitler. He led some 3 million SA members, poorly armed and disorganized, but more than were in the Nazi party, and nearly thirty times the size of the Reichswehr (limited by the Versailles Treaty).310 His Brownshirt militia sought a permanent place in the Nazi order as a reward for helping bring Hitler to power and targeting Nazi enemies (leftists, Jews), but he had toned down his rhetoric of a continuing revolution and accepted Hitler’s request to go on medical leave and send the Brownshirts on leave as well (most were due to return in August). But Reichswehr generals—who reported to Hindenburg, not the chancellor Hitler—were adamant that the paramilitary SA be neutered. The Nazi Schutzstaffel, or SS (Heinrich Himmler), Sicherheitsdienst, or SD (Reinhard Heydrich), and Gestapo (also Heydrich) had no love for their SA rivals, either. Rumors of a pending crackdown against the SA had spurred the latter to yet another drunken rampage in Munich on the evening of June 29.311 At the same time, Hitler had been told that President Hindenburg was ready to declare martial law and receive the former conservative prime minister Franz von Papen on June 30. In the end, after much stalling, the Führer felt compelled to move against both the SA and the traditional conservatives.

The army brass put its resources in SS hands, and left the latter to fabricate the damning evidence of a supposed SA “putsch” with the aid of an unnamed foreign country.312 Still, it was awkward: the SA had been just as crucial (and just as dispensable) to the Nazi revolution as the Kronstadt sailors had been to the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. In a two-hour, radio-broadcast speech to the Reichstag (twelve of whose members would be among those to be executed), Hitler highlighted storm trooper moral laxity and Röhm’s homosexuality and declared that he had acted patriotically to preempt a planned SA “Night of the Long Knives.”313 Stalin was said to have badgered his newly arrived envoy in Berlin for details of the “bloodbath.”314 Izvestiya dedicated four columns on its front page to Hitler’s Reichstag speech about the Night of the Long Knives.315 “What a guy [molodets],” Stalin exclaimed to his inner circle, according to Mikoyan’s later recollections. “Well done. Knows how to act!”316 A Comintern instant analysis, clueless about the dynamics of the Nazi regime, wrote that the “monopolist big bourgeoisie” had crushed the “petit-bourgeois strata.”317 Pravda (July 2, 1934) editorialized that “German fascism once again revealed itself as the agent of finance capital.” British intelligence did little better, misperceiving a triumph of the Reichswehr over the party and a “return of the Rapallo line” of closeness to the Soviet Union.318 In fact, the episode solidified a Nazi accord with the army and large-scale industry on Hitler’s terms, while clearing the way for him to merge the chancellorship with the presidency upon Hindenburg’s passing. The SS would be even more radical, ideologically, than the SA.

If the hearsay about Stalin’s enthusiastic reaction is correct, he was also wrong. This was the first (and would be the sole) violent regime purge of Hitler’s rule. The Führer had agreed to dispatch Röhm only under pressure from Göring, Himmler, and Heydrich, yet he still hoped Röhm could be persuaded to do the deed himself. (The Brownshirt fighter did not touch the pistol left for him in his prison cell and had to be executed.)319 For all the sensation, a mere eighty-five known people were summarily executed without legal proceedings, and just fifty of them even belonged to the SA. Some individual scores were settled.320 What Stalin and British intelligence most failed to grasp was the consolidation of the Nazi regime’s anti-Bolshevism.321

Stalin, however, was not ready to surrender on winning over Nazi Germany. On July 1, 1934, following the conclusion of the Central Committee plenum, Dimitrov sent him a draft of his political report for a proposed 7th Comintern Congress (scheduled for the fall). Dimitrov could defy Hitler, Göring, and Goebbels, but he remained inordinately deferential toward the Soviet dictator. Stalin, in turn, asked that Dimitrov “consider” his suggestions, and his marginal comments indicate that he was far from letting go of his thesis on Social Democracy as the left wing of fascism. Dimitrov’s text asked “whether it is correct to refer to Social Democracy indiscriminately as social fascism,” and “Are Social Democrats always and everywhere the main social bulwark of the bourgeoisie?” Stalin wrote in the margins, “As to the leadership—yes, but not ‘indiscriminate.’” Beyond this tiny concession, where Dimitrov gently tried to rehabilitate some Social Democrats as a basis for cooperation in the struggle against fascism, Stalin pointedly inserted, “Against whom is this thesis?”322 On July 5, the politburo was informed that Germany, still suffering the effects of the Depression, had raised the prospect of a 200-million-mark credit for the purchase of German machinery.323 Dimitrov, suffering from latent malaria, chronic gastritis, and other illnesses, departed for two months to Georgia on medical leave.


On July 10, 1934, after six months of internal back-and-forth, the regime announced the replacement of the OGPU by the NKVD (the people’s commissariat of internal affairs).324 Mężyński had appealed to Stalin yet again in early 1934 to be allowed to resign. (“No activities. Only lying down 24 hours a day,” he had written in his notebook in Kislovodsk. “This is death. You lie all day in the hammock, and death sits across from you.”)325 Stalin proposed that Kaganovich confer with him and possibly accept his request. Then, on May 10, Mężyński’s heart had stopped. Four days later, his ashes were interred in the Kremlin Wall, with an artillery salute.326 Rumors had Stalin set to appoint Mikoyan, which frightened Yagoda’s gang and brightened other Chekists who appreciated Mikoyan’s sly humor and lectures at their club.327 But Stalin named Yagoda commissar and Yankel Sorenson, known as Yakov Agranov, his first deputy.328 The regime had just expanded Article 58 of the RSFSR criminal code (regarding counterrevolutionary activities) with new subarticles (2–13) to cover attempts to seize power, espionage, anti-Soviet propaganda and agitation, and Trotskyism.329 As Stalin had proposed, military desertion was now punished as treason, with sentences of execution or, in extenuating circumstances, ten years in confinement.330 Nonetheless, the formation of the NKVD was conceived as a genuine legal reform.331 The politburo would soon decree a parallel expansion in the number of judges and procuracy personnel, with pay raises.332 Kaganovich explained that “the reorganization of the OGPU means that, as we are in more normal times, we can punish through the court and not resort to extrajudicial repression, as we have until now.”333

This new mandate had to be explained to police operatives.334 “In capitalist countries, instead of the ‘celebrated’ bourgeois order, there is chaos, a sea of blood, extrajudicial executions, gas, machine guns and armored cars on the streets,” Yagoda told them in a speech at the NKVD’s founding. “If now, in the village, we do not have expansive kulak formations that we had previously, if in the city the counterrevolution does not have the character it had before, the question arises: What guises, what forms are possible for the activities of counterrevolutionary agents?” He answered that former parties (SRs, Mensheviks, bourgeois nationalists) could reanimate and link up with Communist oppositionist elements (Trotskyites, rightists) for espionage and sabotage, requiring the NKVD to abjure mass arrests in favor of “subtle, painstaking, and probing investigations.”335 Investigations had to be conducted with greater observance of procedural rules.336 Ultimately, the reform was aimed at better coherence of the state, under the slogan “strengthening revolutionary legality.”337 But none of this meant imposing limits on Stalin’s power, whose extralegal operation caused many of the very problems of arbitrariness about which he complained.338


Technically, the Union of Soviet Writers was a civic organization, but it was blatantly an arm of the state.339 It was spending almost no time on aesthetics.340 Its main activity, in the run-up to the anticipated founding congress, consisted of endless meetings of its governing board and manifold committees, and entertainment. The union’s headquarters occupied a nineteenth-century mansion on Vorovsky (formerly Cooks’) Street, in what had been Moscow’s most aristocratic neighborhood, part of the ancient Dolgorukov estate. (This figured in Tolstoy’s War and Peace as the Rostov estate.) Known as the “Central House of the Writers,” the HQ had a library with newspapers and journals, a restaurant, a competitive billiards team, sport groups for tennis, chess, and horseback riding, and study sections for thematic subjects and foreign languages. It also took over a fledgling dacha colony, at Peredelkino, which, like the Moscow HQ, would afford a certain degree of self-organized intellectual life (circles, house visits), although this was shadowed by willing and blackmailed informants.341

Two years after the politburo decree announcing it, the writers’ union’s founding congress had still not met, having been postponed several times. Gorky had been set to deliver the keynote, but on May 11, 1934, his son Maxim Peshkov passed away, at age thirty-eight. He had taken part in a drinking binge with some secret police operatives at a May Day picnic, been left to sleep it off outside on a bench, and been diagnosed with influenza. He was buried at Novodevichy Cemetery on May 12 (the day before Mężyński’s body was placed on view at the House of Trade Unions). Gorky was shattered. “He no longer belonged to himself, and seemed that he was not a person but an institution,” obliged to carry on, noted one close friend.342 Gossips speculated that the regime had killed Gorky’s son to intimidate him.343 But as the congress’s new opening date approached, Gorky would write a forceful letter to Stalin, asking to be relieved of his role as chairman, and would submit a heated article for Pravda lashing out at party hacks trying to control literature (which Kaganovich authorized Mekhlis to hold back). “Literary affairs are sharpening,” Kaganovich would write to Stalin, who, preoccupied with other matters on which Kaganovich sought guidance (Japan, grain procurements), would answer, three days later, “It must be explained to all Communist writers that the Master in literature, as in all other areas, is only the Central Committee, and that they are obliged to subordinate themselves unconditionally to the latter.”344

A Literary Fund was established on July 28, 1934, with the aim of subsidizing cultural figures in need, including up-and-coming writers, formalizing an ad hoc practice whereby they were granted shoes or winter coats. The money came from 10 percent deductions in the honoraria paid by publishing houses, as well as 0.5 to 2 percent of the fees for live performances. Additionally, the state budget contributed 25 percent of the Literary Fund’s resources. Soon, about 100,000 requests for aid accumulated (many writers submitted multiple petitions).345 Behind closed doors, writers disagreed vehemently on whether such subsidies enhanced productivity or blocked it by removing hunger.346 The Literary Fund obtained permission to build more dachas at Peredelkino as well. Of the three dozen writers’ families initially granted residency, few were Communist party members. Most writers failed to pay the nominal rent.347


On July 23, 1934, Stalin received the British writer H. G. Wells—who had interviewed Lenin—and they argued the world.348 (Radek would send Stalin a translation of passages about the dictator in Wells’s autobiography, published the same year, noting, “We didn’t manage to seduce the girl.”)349 Stalin’s last meeting in Moscow was July 29. Vlasik arranged for their special train to stop at Sochi’s remote freight yard for security reasons, but Stalin—for all his security anxieties—detested having to hide and insisted on detraining at the regular passenger station. His black Rolls-Royce awaited him, but he enjoyed walking a bit on foot, startling onlookers.350 That summer, he planned to work on a new history textbook. A few years back, in a letter to the journal Proletarian Revolution, he had exploded in fury at one historian’s criticisms of Lenin for supposedly having insufficiently criticized the danger of centrism in German Social Democracy before the Great War. Stalin, right on the facts, had tendentiously exaggerated the author’s argument, and called the article “anti-party and semi-Trotskyite.” Stalin also rejected the author’s claim that more documents remained to be uncovered. “Who besides hopeless bureaucrats would rely only on paper documents?” he wrote. “Who besides archival rats do not understand that the party and its leaders need to be assessed above all by their actions, and not only by their declarations?”351

Not long thereafter, the politburo had formed a commission to write a new history of the party. But even the textbook drafted by the lapdog Yaroslavsky had been rejected, for lacking vivid individual heroes.352 Stalin had his minions force the issue.353 Functionaries assembled a large group of historians. “We went into the hall like geese,” Sergei Piontkovsky recorded in his diary. “In all, there were about 100 people in the room. . . . Stalin stood up frequently, puffed on his pipe, and wandered between the tables.” He interrupted the main speaker and finally just took the floor. “Stalin spoke very quietly. He held the secondary school textbooks in his hand and spoke with a slight accent, striking the textbooks with his hand, proclaiming, ‘These textbooks are good for nothing. What the heck is the “feudal epoch,” “the epoch of industrial capitalism,” “the epoch of formations”—it’s all epochs and no facts, no events, no people, no concrete information, no names, no titles, no content.’” Piontkovsky’s diary continued: “Stalin said what we need are textbooks with facts, events, names. History should be history.”354

Of course, behind closed doors, Stalin was using just such a schematic vocabulary: feudal epoch, capitalist mode of production, bourgeois democracy.355

In Sochi, the dictator summoned Kirov, who arrived in early August and stayed at the Zenzinovka dacha (where Rykov used to stay). Writing history was not exactly Kirov’s forte. But Stalin also summoned Zhdanov, the dictator’s youngest favorite. Speaking to Alexandra Kollontai, Soviet envoy to Sweden, before departing Moscow, Stalin had playfully posed as a “right deviationist,” contrasting himself with Zhdanov, a “left deviationist,” a statement less about Stalin’s politics than Zhdanov’s extremism.356 Vasily and Artyom were also in Sochi all July and August, and Stalin gave them the draft history to test it. Zhdanov’s fifteen-year-old son, Yuri, invited to join the group for lunch, recalls that Stalin, to general laughter, observed that historians divided history into three successive schemata: matriarchate, patriarchate, and secretariat.357

After work, Stalin and Kirov grilled kebabs, sang old songs (“There’s a Cliff on the Volga”), and worked the garden with shovels, while Kirov chased the ducks and guinea fowl. Stalin did not like to swim (he was from the mountains), but Kirov did, and Stalin would wait for him at the shore. Stalin even permitted Kirov to go with him to the Russian steam bath, where they pounded each other with birch leaves.358 The dictator permitted no mistresses or prostitutes. Kirov got bored. “I am devilishly sick of this place,” he wrote to his wife back in Leningrad, complaining that they could not even play skittles. “We had intense heat, then six days and nights of intense rain. . . . Now, again, tedious heat has struck.”359 Stalin could not be torn from his beloved Sochi, but Kirov was back in Leningrad already by August 30, 1934, having departed in a train with Andrei Andreyev’s family. “He had a strong suntan,” recalled Natalya Andreyeva, the functionary’s daughter. “His teeth were white; he smiled often.”360

Grain procurements were severely lagging, despite the comparatively good harvest, and Kaganovich and Molotov wrote to Stalin about easing the burden on transport by purchasing 100,000 tons of Argentine and Australian wheat for the Soviet Far East. “Wheat imports now, when abroad they are shouting about the lack of wheat in the USSR, can only be a political minus,” he objected.361 Instead he proposed they apply “maximum pressure.” Molotov was deployed to Siberia, Kaganovich to Ukraine, Mikoyan to Kursk and Voronezh, Chubar to the Middle Volga, and Zhdanov to Stalingrad province. Voroshilov, on fall maneuvers, was instructed to look into harvest gathering in Belorussia and the western province.362 Kirov was sent to Kazakhstan to ensure harvest collection under his former protégé, local party boss Levon Mirzoyan. Stalin was now taking a restrained approach to the Kazakhs. Kirov got the head procurator for East Kazakhstan fired for abuses and asked Yagoda to remove police operatives for mistreating collective farmers.363 But when Kaganovich wrote to Stalin requesting a reduced procurement quota for Ukraine, Stalin warned him and the inner circle of a slippery slope.364


Finally, the founding congress of the Union of Soviet Writers had opened on August 17, 1934, with 597 delegates (377 with voting rights) and 40 foreign guests.365 The union had admitted around 1,500 members and 1,000 candidate members, of whom 1,535 lived in the Russian republic, including slightly more than 500 in Moscow, 206 in Ukraine, around 100 in Belorussia, 90 in Armenia, 79 in Azerbaijan, and 26 in Turkmenistan. About one third of the total membership and one half of the congress attendees belonged to the party.366 “Literally all writers submitted applications to join the writers’ union,” the newly appointed deputy head of the Central Committee culture department stated at a pre-congress gathering of the union’s party members. “Not a single writer did not submit an application, except Anna Akhmatova.”367 An exaggeration, but not by much. “On the threshold of its opening, the question unexpectedly arose of how to decorate the Columned Hall of the House of Trade Unions,” recalled one playwright of the venue. “Several of the projects were completely fantastic and unacceptable. At the last meeting, which took place in [culture and propaganda chief Alexei] Stetsky’s office, . . . I suggested we hang portraits of the classic writers. Stetsky stood, shook my hand, and said the question was decided.”368

A grandiose affair, broadcast over the radio and shown on newsreels, the congress lasted sixteen days. Crowds massed outside the hall to catch glimpses of the famous writers. Inside, an ovation greeted Gorky’s appearance to launch the proceedings. His report, “On Soviet Literature,” offered a potted history of literature from the dawn of writing that did not take up a single Soviet writer and, vaguely, called for a “folklore of the toiling people.”369 Samuil Marshak gave a report on children’s literature (August 19), Radek on the literature of dying capitalism (August 24), Aleksei Tolstoy on dramaturgy (August 27).370 “Everyone is consumed by the congress; the West through government glasses,” the literary critic Mikhail Kuzmin laconically wrote of the long speeches.371 Zhdanov informed Sochi (August 28) that “everyone praises the congress right up to the incorrigible skeptics and ironists, who are not few in the writers’ milieu.”372 By contrast, Chekists reported from informants that Mikhail Prishvin and Pantaleymon Romanov had ridiculed the “outstanding boredom and bureaucratism,” while the romanticist P. Rozhkov called the congress “a sleepy kingdom.” Isaac Babel labeled it “a literary wake.”373

One revelation emerged from the report (August 20) on literature in the Georgian republic, delivered by the university rector Malakia Toroshelidze, who at Stalin’s insistence began with the Middle Ages. It attracted the most attention of all the reports on national literatures in the USSR, and sparked discussion about ignored achievements, given the obsession with Europe.374 The Frenchman Malraux, the most prestigious foreigner in attendance, in prepared remarks read by an interpreter, noted that “if writers are really engineers of human souls, do not forget that an engineer’s highest calling is to invent. Art is not submission; art is conquest. (Applause.)” He added, “You should know that only really new works can sustain the cultural prestige of the Soviet Union abroad, the way Mayakovsky sustained it, the way Pasternak does. (Applause.)”375 This was the nub of the dilemma Stalin faced.

When novelist Fyodor Gladkov invited Ivan Kirilenko (b. 1902), an infamous hard-liner, and other Ukrainian writers to “tea,” they declined, fearing it would be seen as “a grouping.”376 An NKVD analysis of the delegates turned up several former SRs, anarchists, nationalists, and members of anti-Soviet “organizations.” Someone distributed an unauthorized leaflet to the foreign delegates; nine copies were found, written in pencil, and the NKVD tried handwriting analysis to identify the anonymous author. “You organize various committees to aid the victims of fascism, you gather the antiwar congresses, you establish libraries of books burned by Hitler, all that is wonderful,” the leaflet stated. “But why do we not see your activity in connection with aiding the victims of our Soviet fascism, carried out by Stalin. . . . Why do you not establish libraries to rescue Russian literature. . . . Personally we worry that in a year or two Iosif Jughashvili (Stalin), who did not finish seminary, will not be satisfied with the title of world philosopher and demand, on the example of Nebuchadnezzar, that he be considered, at least, a ‘sacred cow.’”

Stalin, from Sochi, intervened with his whip hand so that the politburo decreed coverage by more than just Evening Moscow and Literary Newspaper.377 “It is necessary for Pravda or Izvestiya to print the speeches of the representatives of Ukraine, Belorussia, the Tatar autonomous republic, Georgia, and other republics,” he had written to Kaganovich and Zhdanov (August 21, 1934). “They need to be printed fully or at a minimum two thirds of each speech. The speeches of the nationals are no less important than others. Without their publication, the congress of writers would be colorless and uninteresting. If this requires that we supplement the number of newspaper pages, then it should be done, without regard for paper.”378 The dictator also expressed outrage at the party organizations of Buryat-Mongolia, Yakutia, the Volga Germans, and Bashkiria for not taking the gathering seriously. “The writers’ congress is a very important matter, for it unites and strengthens the intelligentsia of the peoples of the USSR under the flag of the Soviets, under the flag of socialism. This is very important for us, very important for socialism. The above-named republics turned out to be in the tail of events, they turned out cut off from the living cause and disgraced themselves. We cannot overlook such a failure.”379

The congress would cost 1.2 million rubles, significantly over budget, with breakfasts, lunches, and dinners amounting to about 40 rubles per day per attendee. The average cost of a canteen lunch for a worker was 84 kopecks, for a white-collar employee 1.75 rubles; lunch in a commercial restaurant cost 5.84 rubles.380 (In 1934, worker salaries averaged 125 rubles per month, schoolteacher salaries around 100.)

Delegates could avail themselves of a tour of Moscow’s Museum of Western Painting, an excursion to the planetarium, a trip to the cinema for The Way of the Enthusiasts or Dziga Vertov’s Three Songs About Lenin. A Moscow theater was staging The Miraculous Alloy, Vladimir Kirshon’s comedy of optimistic youth. Pasternak and his company tried Moscow’s recently opened Georgian restaurant, Aragvi, where a meal cost a small fortune. The vast majority of delegates took part in Aviation Day festivities (August 18). Gorky hosted soirées at his dacha for foreign guests and intimates.381 Delegates were also afforded a special showing of the documentary Chelyuskin, about 104 people on an Arctic research mission whose icebreaker of that name had sunk, stranding them on an ice floe for months, until their rescue (on the twenty-eighth landing) by daring Soviet aviators, who were then given a ticker tape parade in Moscow.382 Stalin had gone to greet the returning Chelyuskin expedition scientists and sailors at Moscow’s Belorussia train station. Soviet radio had focused world attention on the expedition’s plight, but the dictator evidently had declined an American offer of assistance.383


Zhdanov, in his speech at the congress, had called for literary depictions of “reality in its revolutionary development,” geared toward “the ideological remolding and education of the toilers in the spirit of socialism.” He demanded “a combination of the most austere, sober, practical work, with supreme heroism and the most grandiose prospects.”384 Some speakers urged multiple ways to achieve this. “We should tell our artists, ‘Everything is permitted,’” urged the thirty-four-year-old screenwriter Natan Zarkhi. “Everything that serves the defense of the motherland, its strengthening, the victory of Communism, Bolshevik ideas, everything that leads to the development of Soviet culture and the flourishing of the creative individuality of the people, growing not in spite of the collective but because of it.”385

Socialist realism’s precise forms, in other words, remained to be adjudicated even just in literature.386 Any definition for music was deferred without end. Musicians effectively lost the ability to experiment at the composition level but could pursue refinement of instrumental and vocal techniques. Many “class enemies” (sons of former tsarist generals, nephews of tsarist interior ministers, daughters of former nobles, former ladies-in-waiting) were allowed to remain at positions in music and conduct training, a tolerance perhaps reflecting Stalin’s intense interest in quality traditional music.387 Painting had its own specificities. Standard realism had already triumphed by the 1920s, but many painters had little experience in narrative forms and had trouble finding a place in the new order.388 Stalin, who in the underground days had collected postcards of famous paintings, in power chose not to live surrounded by oil paintings on the walls. (On the contrary, he had allowed the sale abroad of “bourgeois” artworks accumulated in tsarist Russia, altogether some four thousand paintings, including forty-four of the highest order—Rembrandt, Rubens, Raphael, Titian, van Eyck—until meager receipts and international scandal prompted an end to the fire sales.)389, 390

Pasternak had harbored illusions about the likely philosophical level of the congress. “I am murderously downtrodden,” he was said to have repeated in intimate company. “You understand: murderously.”391 Many writers who disagreed vehemently about aesthetics agreed on the need for top-down imposition of a single approach for everyone. They were also zealous about getting state recognition, as opposed to public favor, and not a few lobbied for or welcomed repressive measures against rivals. Socialist realism served as an administration system as much as an aesthetic: party directives, censorship, prizes, apartments, dachas, travel—or their denial—as well as myriad personnel employed as cultural apparatchiks, editors, and censors, what Bulgakov called “people with ideological eyes.”392

On August 29, 1934, with the congress set to draw to a close in three days and “elections” imminent for the position of writers’ union secretary (or party controller), Zhdanov and Kaganovich wrote to Sochi proposing candidates.393 Stalin narrowed their list to two, and they selected the bespectacled Alexander Shcherbakov (b. 1901), whose education at the Communist Academy and the Institute of Red Professors had been interrupted (on official documents he wrote: “according to my education, a teacher of the history of the party”).394 Summoned out of the blue by Kaganovich, Shcherbakov arrived to find Zhdanov with him. “Here’s the thing,” they told him. “We want to assign you work that is extremely important and difficult; you probably will be stunned when I tell you what kind of work it is.” He was contemplating northeastern Kazakhstan. “I was genuinely stunned,” Shcherbakov recorded in his diary. They dispatched him directly from Old Square to the writers’ milieu. “I spent a half hour at the congress. I left. Nauseating.”395

Aleksei Tolstoy, author of science fiction, historical novels, and children’s books, would call Shcherbakov “a rabbit who swallowed a boa constrictor.”396 Tolstoy (b. 1883), a distant relative of Leo Tolstoy and Ivan Turgenev, embodied many of the paradoxes Stalin faced with writers. He had emigrated to Paris with the Whites but returned in 1923 to a hero’s welcome, supporting the revolution. He took up residence in a villa with servants in Tsarskoye Selo, where Nicholas and Alexandra had lived, earning the nickname “the workers-and-peasants’ count.” (Stalin first met him in 1932 at Gorky’s.) After the success of the first two installments of Tolstoy’s novel Peter the First (1934), which celebrated the founding of the Russian empire and compared Peter to Stalin, he was told to relocate to Moscow, where he got a state apartment and a dacha in elite Barvikha. (“He collected mahogany and birch pieces made during Paul I’s reign” to furnish his residences, one Soviet musician wrote.)397 The count wore a fur-lined coat with beaver collar, caroused in Moscow’s restaurants with a rat pack, married his young secretary (his fourth wife), and enjoyed permission to travel to Europe at state expense. “The great trait of the personality of Aleksei Tolstoy,” the contemporary literary historian Dmitry Svyatopolk-Mirsky observed, “was the astonishing combination of enormous natural gifts with a complete lack of brains.”398 But he toed the line.

Writing to Zhdanov from Sochi, Stalin, based on newspaper accounts, deemed Gorky’s congress speech “a bit pale from the point of view of Soviet literature,” and complained that Bukharin’s speech had introduced “an element of hysteria,” but concluded that “in general the congress went well.”399 The congress concluded on September 1, 1934, by “electing” thirty-seven preapproved members of the union’s governing body chaired by Gorky, which that same day “elected” Shcherbakov as head of its secretariat.400 The NKVD secretly reported that the writers were busying themselves with personal matters: purchase of cars, construction of dachas, departures on writing trips or holidays, some doing so even before the final day of the congress. “What is striking, above all,” the operative noted, “is that after the congress the writers talk very little about it. It is as if everyone conspired to keep silent.”401 In fact, the writers expended considerable energy parsing the power of this or that person on the governing board, who was up, who down, what it would mean for their careers and the course of literature. Many viewed Gorky as a guarantee of literary values, and a balance of power among egos and tendencies.

•   •   •

TSARIST CENSORS HAD SUPPRESSED parts of the work of the bravura satirist Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, and in the early 1930s, Leningrad writers had issued Unpublished Shchedrin, a compilation Stalin acquired and assiduously marked up in red and blue pencil, indicating multiple readings of its vivid passages about bureaucrats, scoundrels, debauches. “Write your denunciations, wretches,” Stalin underlined. “Grief goes to that city whose boss showers it with decrees without thinking, but still greater grief occurs when the boss is unable to apply any decrees at all.”402 In a gesture calculated to win intelligentsia favor, he allocated state funds to the son of Saltykov-Shchedrin, and the OGPU compiled a report on conversations among Leningrad writers about it. The critic V. Medvedev was quoted to the effect that Stalin was “a most decisive and severe politician,” but also “a great liberal and patron in the best sense of that word. Every day we hear about a conversation between Stalin and some writers, or about some assistance rendered at his initiative to one of the mass of writers. In Stalin, literature and writers have a great friend.”403 That was precisely how the dictator wanted to be seen.

Stalin’s success in getting the creative intelligentsia in line had been uncanny. Every major cultural figure in the USSR in the 1930s had his or her own love affair with him. They exaggerated their own significance, and the attention he paid to them. The best ones, however, were correct: he did oversee them personally. Stalin tended not to imprison or execute those he considered the highest talents (Bulgakov, Akhmatova, Pasternak, even Andrei Platonov), and would accept a lightening of the sentences of those on whom punishment seemed unavoidable, such as with Mandelstam’s exile. Many cultural figures were lied to and coerced to conjure up a socialist paradise of joy and plenty.404 But blandishments and the prospect of a mass audience proved effective in recruitment as well. The prestigious names, like Tolstoy, who were neither Communist nor anti-Communist but cynics, were precisely whom Stalin had in mind when he insisted that art could best be categorized as loyal (or disloyal), that is, as Soviet (or anti-Soviet). The problem, however, was artistic quality. Blast furnaces and even collective farms turned out to be a lot easier than novels, poems, or plays, let alone symphonies or canvases.405 That said, much of the mass Soviet public—who wanted to believe in a brighter future—embraced socialist realism.406 As the opening line had it in a hit song, “Everything Higher: Aviation March,” by Pavel German and Ilya “Yuli” Khait, which would prove popular only in the 1930s: “We were born to turn fairy tale into reality.”

Yenukidze sent Stalin a long, upbeat account of Moscow affairs (September 5, 1934), beginning with the writers’ congress, which he predicted would have “gigantic consequences for the writers of all our republics and not less for the foreign proletarian and in general advanced writers.” He congratulated Stalin on his wisdom for having the speeches published and his advice to Toroshelidze concerning the report on Georgian literature, which Yenukidze, a fellow Georgian writing to Stalin in Russian, singled out for special praise. He touched on the removal of the ancient Kitaigorod walls in front of Old Square, where Stalin had kept his party office, and on reconstruction work inside the Kremlin, where Stalin had his now predominant office. Yenukidze was having the Kremlin walls repainted, the roofs fixed, and interior lawns replaced. He lauded construction of the metro, the liveliness of Moscow streets, the opening of the theater season, and the good weather, lamenting only the pending departure of his close friend Voroshilov for a holiday in Sochi. “The children arrived fine,” Yenukidze concluded in reference to Vasily and Svetlana. “I saw them three times. They are going to school. I’m ending, otherwise you will curse me for these prolix trivialities. Be healthy.”407


Yesterday I was at the NKVD. . . . I understood that, in order to demonstrate my loyalty, I need to work harder for the NKVD. He said that if I work well, everything will remain a secret, but otherwise I could be deported from Moscow. I was given three main tasks in my work . . . the October Revolution celebrations and conversations. Is an assassination attempt against Stalin not being prepared . . . By the way, in front of him lay a file two fingers high all about me.

Informant’s notes, November 19341

STALIN’S UNDERSTANDING OF WORLD markets remained amateurish, but he had a keen appreciation for technology. As of 1934, the Soviets possessed 3,500 tanks (T-26s, BTs, T-28s), as well as another 4,000 armored vehicles (T-27s). Fighter planes of Soviet make and mobile artillery were also coming off assembly lines in numbers. Even radios were beginning to spread widely in the armed forces (in 1930, there had been zero among the field units). Overall troop strength had grown from 586,000 in 1927 to nearly a million. The command staff was more educated, having completed courses at the many military academies.2 From August 30 to September 4, 1934, the Red Army conducted its annual fall maneuvers in Ukraine, which the Polish consul in Kiev interpreted as “a demonstration against foreign countries, particularly Japan.” The exercises went badly, though. Mechanization presented underappreciated organizational and logistical challenges, raising the stakes for Soviet diplomacy.3

Much of Stalin’s holiday back-and-forth with Moscow, from Gagra and Sochi, in September 1934 concerned his customary pressure on the harvest collection but also foreign affairs.4 Over the summer, Czechoslovakia, Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania had conveyed their readiness to sign on to the Franco-Soviet proposal for a broad Eastern Pact, but Estonia and Latvia made their membership conditional on Germany’s and Poland’s. So did Britain, which also made its support for a parallel Franco-Soviet alliance conditional on Germany’s inclusion in that.5 On September 11, 1934, Hitler definitively rejected any Eastern Pact. Poland’s rejection would soon follow. Stalin was urged to grasp the French option without Germany, embracing an antifascist coalition.6 Negotiations for the large state credit from the German government, initiated at Berlin’s request, had bogged down. But Stalin reassured Kuibyshev (September 14), in a telegram, which, as usual, became a politburo decree, that “the Germans will not walk away from us, because they need a [trade] agreement with us more than we need one from them.”7 Nonetheless, on September 18, the Soviet Union formally joined the League of Nations, after intensive diplomacy to line up other countries’ votes.8 Many Communist party and Youth League members cringed at joining the Versailles imperialist order.9 Stalin himself had once denounced the League as “an anti-working-class comedy.”10

Soviet newspapers explained that some imperialist powers, although ill-disposed toward socialism, did not want to see an anti-Soviet military intervention, for fear it would spark a world war directed at themselves.11 Joining the League was also a prerequisite to alliance with France or a broader regional security structure. Nonetheless, at Stalin’s urging, the politburo resolved (September 23), “Do not hurry with the initiative of an [Eastern] Pact without Germany and Poland.” France slowed for its own reasons.12 It was courting Mussolini in a common front to guarantee Austria’s sovereignty against Nazi pressure, part of which involved France’s help in normalizing Italo-Yugoslav relations. On October 9, Yugoslavia’s King Alexander I landed on a state visit at the Marseilles harbor, where he was promptly assassinated. French foreign minister Louis Barthou was killed in the police cross fire. The assassin, beaten to death on the spot, was Macedonian and a member of the Croatian terrorist ring, the Ustaše, led by Ante Pavelić and protected by Mussolini.13 Soviet intelligence suspected the Nazi secret police of aiming to destabilize Yugoslavia and to liquidate a bulwark of friendly Franco-Soviet relations. Stalin wrote to Kaganovich and Molotov, “In my opinion, the murder of Barthou and Alexander is the work of the hand of German-Polish intelligence.”14

Inside the Comintern, Dimitrov, supported by Manuilsky, Kuusinen, Thorez, and Wilhelm Pieck, continued pushing for a shift to a popular front, while Pyatnitsky, Knorin, Kun, and others held to the anti–Social Democrat line. Dimitrov implored Stalin for assistance in changing the structure and personnel of the Comintern’s “leading organs.” Eventually Stalin got around to sending a handwritten note. “As you can see, I am late in replying, and I apologize for that,” he wrote. “Here on holiday, I do not sit in one place, but move from one location to another. . . . I entirely agree with you regarding the review of the methods of work of the Comintern organs, their reorganization and the changes in their composition. I have already mentioned this to you during our meeting at the Central Committee. . . . I hope to see you soon and to discuss all in detail. I have no doubt that the politburo will support you. Greetings!”15 The planned 7th Comintern Congress was postponed yet again.16

The zigs and zags were seen domestically, too. A group at the Stalin metallurgical factory in Novokuznetsk, Siberia, had been arrested, and Stalin instructed Kaganovich that “all those drawn into spying on behalf of Japan be shot.” Local party head Eihe was empowered to approve executions on his own from September through November.17 The same power was soon granted to party bosses in Chelyabinsk and in Central Asia, in connection with alleged sabotage of the cotton campaign.18 At the same time, petitions reached Stalin from people in the Gulag convicted in fabricated cases of wrecking and espionage on behalf of Japan, and the dictator (September 11, 1934) redirected the claims of confessions extracted under torture to Kuibyshev and Zhdanov, noting that “it is possible the content of both documents corresponds to reality,” and called for a commission to “cleanse the ranks of the secret police of bearers of certain ‘interrogation devices’ and punish the latter regardless of who it might be.” The commission upheld the two petitions and brought additional cases, detailing, in an October 1934 report, how NKVD operatives were detaining those accused in freezing cells for days on end, holding them in suffocating positions, and threatening to shoot them until they “confessed.” Stalin approved a suggestion to send plenipotentiaries to Azerbaijan for a “thorough investigation” of efforts to advance careers through sheer quantity of confessions extracted.19

A need for recovery and reconciliation following the famine had been evident, and in that regard the conciliatory “Congress of Victors” had been a success. But now a vague sense of a bigger shift—League of Nations membership, a less hectic second Five-Year Plan, a stress on legality—gained momentum. To be sure, reconciliation hardly suited Stalin’s character or his theory of rule: the sharpening of the class struggle as socialism became successful; the special danger of enemies with party cards.20 Nonetheless, secret police arrests started declining precipitously.21 A relative relaxation was visible in culture as well, even beyond Stalin’s indulgence of non-party writers. “Not long ago a music critic, seeing in his dream a saxophone or [Leonid] Utyosov, would have awoken in a cold sweat and run to Soviet Art to confess his errors,” wrote the militant Komsomol Pravda (October 27, 1934) about the Soviet Union’s newly famous jazz band. “Now? Now there is no refuge from ‘My Masha.’ Wherever you go, she sits ‘At the Samovar.’”22

Stalin finally returned to Moscow on October 29, 1934.23 While he was away, 1,038 of that year’s 3,945 politburo agenda items had been decided, most with his approval; sixteen of the year’s forty-six politburo meetings had taken place in his absence.24 Litvinov again wrote to Stalin and Molotov (November 1) insisting that Germany’s rebuilt military power would assuredly be used against the USSR, with the support of Poland, Finland, and Japan. The next day, Stalin relented: the politburo authorized negotiations for an Eastern Pact with just France and Czechoslovakia, or even France alone, an apparent concession to “collective security.”25 Stalin remained attentive to his own security as well. Inside his suite at Old Square, in his wing in the Kremlin’s Imperial Senate, and at his Moscow and southern dachas, only NKVD personnel were permitted to carry weapons. Those whom Stalin received were supposed to check any weapons they had upon entering the premises. (Some were searched.)26 Propaganda notwithstanding, the prospect of an assassination—akin to what had happened to the Yugoslav king in Marseilles—seemed utterly remote.


Stalin’s return from southern holidays was still being marked by informal gatherings initiated by members of his extended family, who showed up at his apartment in the Imperial Senate at suppertime and played with the children, waiting, hoping to catch him. “Yesterday, after a three-month interval, I saw Iosif,” Maria Svanidze, his first wife’s sister-in-law, wrote in her diary (November 4, 1934). “He looked well, tanned, but he had lost weight. He suffered from flu there. . . . I[osif] joked with Zhenya, that she had again filled out, and he was very tender with her,” Svanidze added. “Now, when I know everything, I observed them.” Yevgeniya “Zhenya” Alliluyeva, an actress, was married to Pavel Alliluyev (the brother of Stalin’s second wife, Nadya), and a jealous Svanidze suspected an affair. Stalin had deeper interests. “After the meal Iosif was in a very good-natured mood,” she continued. “He took the Intercity vertushka and called Kirov, joking with him about the end of rationing and the price rise for bread. He advised Kirov to come to Moscow immediately, in order to defend the interests of Leningrad province against an even higher price rise than in other provinces. Evidently Kirov demurred, and Iosif gave the phone to Kaganovich, who urged Kirov to come for a day. Iosif loves Kirov and after returning from Sochi really wanted to see him, steam in a Russian bath together.”27

The revolution’s seventeenth anniversary approached. At the Bolshoi on the evening before the November 7 parade, the ballerina Marina Semyonova (b. 1908) performed a Caucasus dance. “She danced in a light gray Circassian vest and light gray Astrakhan ‘Kubanka,’ and when, with the last gesture, she held back her Kubanka on her head, her blond hair sprayed down her shoulders,” Artyom recalled. “This made a colossal impression on the audience; everyone shouted ‘Bravo, encore.’” Semyonova went to curtsy at the left loge, where Stalin sat, over the orchestra, practically on the stage. He bent down to the ballerina and said something. “She nodded, gave the orchestra a signal, and repeated the dance.” After the concert, Stalin said to his entourage, “Semyonova is the best of all.”28 She was the common-law wife of Karakhan, the former first deputy foreign affairs commissar, demoted by Stalin to ambassador to Turkey; rumors spread of her affair with Stalin.29

Stalin’s bachelor life was not all rumors. Kirov did come, after the November holiday. In the evenings, now that Nadya was gone, Stalin had taken to watching films with his entourage.30 On November 10 (and into the morning of the 11th), Boris Shumyatsky, head of the motion picture industry, screened the new film Chapayev for the dictator, Kirov, and Molotov.31 Shumyatsky had been born in Ulan Ude (1886) near Lake Baikal, was a former Soviet envoy to Iran and former rector of the Communist University of the Toilers of the East, and had replaced Martemyan Ryutin as head of the film industry back when it was considered a backwater, but had built it up. At the Kremlin cinema soft chairs with ample armrests and high backs, concealing who was in them, were placed three across, in several rows. The floor was covered in a drab gray cloth, over which was placed a runner, muffling noise from movement. Stalin issued comments during the screenings, in the dark, and afterward when the lights were back on. Tables for Georgian mineral water and wines sat alongside each chair.32 “We used to go after dinner, about nine in the evening,” Svetlana recalled. “It was late for me, of course, but I begged so hard that my father couldn’t refuse. He’d push me to the front with a laugh: ‘You show us how to get there, House Mistress. Without you to guide us, we’d never find it!’” Stalin often watched more than one film, and Svetlana would go to bed sometimes after midnight, even on school nights. “I’d get out of the movie late and go racing home through the empty, quiet Kremlin. The next day at school, I could think of nothing but the heroes I’d seen on film the night before.”33

Chapayev portrayed the civil war hero of that name as a real human being, warts and all, and the Whites as worthy foes. Stalin had already seen it twice and fallen in love with its down-home details. “You should be congratulated,” he had said to the always anxious Shumyatsky. “It’s done very well, cleverly and tactfully. Chapayev, Furmanov, and Petka are good. The film will have great educational significance. It’s a nice gift for the holiday.” Chapayev induced Stalin to push for construction of sound cinemas all across the Union (there were just 400 to 500 of them, out of some 30,000 film-showing installations).34 “I will be taking a greater interest in this than previously,” he had told Shumyatsky on November 9–10.35 At the November 10–11 screening, Stalin turned to Kirov and accused him of never visiting the film studio in Leningrad (Chapayev was their production). “You know, here people are speaking about your Leningrad films, and you don’t even know them. You don’t know the riches lurking there, probably you never even watch films.” Kirov, Stalin joked, had “bureaucratized.”36

Stalin invited Shumyatsky to stay for supper. The film boss seized the moment to point out that the state planning commission was being tight with funding, allocating 50 million rubles for the next year instead of the “minimal” 92 million requested. “You hear that, Molotov? That’s not the way,” Stalin said. “Look into it.” Shumyatsky also mentioned that initial reviews of Chapayev were favorable but had stressed the wrong themes.37 “Akh, those critics,” Stalin responded. “They disorient people.” The dictator phoned Mekhlis and ordered something more glowing, which Pravda published the next day (November 12). Stalin—now also joined by Kalinin and Molotov’s wife, Zhemchuzhina—decided to view Chapayev for a second time that night. “The more you watch it,” he said, “the better it seems, the more you find new aspects in it.” The evening lasted until 2:00 a.m.38 On November 13, after work, Kirov accompanied Stalin to the Zubalovo dacha, where they played billiards and watched a puppet show put on by Svetlana and other children, before repairing to Stalin’s new Near Dacha for supper. At Zubalovo, the Stalin family dined on the smelt and whitefish Kirov had brought. “With Kirov,” Svanidze noted, Svetlana “has a great friendship, because I[osif] is especially close and good with him.”39


Filipp Medved’s nerves were on edge. An ethnic Belorussian (b. 1889), he had joined the party in 1907 (one of his recommenders was Felix Dzierżyński) and had recently helped organize the White Sea–Baltic Canal construction. Now he headed the secret police in Leningrad, an international port and frontier city swimming with foreign consulates and military factories. Known to relish banquets, Medved had put on weight and taken to drink (Armenian brandy), while his wife, Raisa Kopylovskaya, came on to other men in public. (Rumors had Medved imprisoning the Leningrad torgsin shop manager after Raisa flirted with him; she might have been involved in self-enrichment schemes, too.) Whisperings about Medved’s supposed homosexuality (he had kissed the openly gay jazzman Utyosov on the mouth in public) further undermined his authority.40 His first deputy, Ivan Zaporozhets, was widely seen as Yagoda’s “spy.”41 And those were the least of Medved’s worries.

Stalin had no confidence in him. The dictator continued to be frustrated over a perceived NKVD mishmash of promiscuous arrests and indolence against enemies.42 Yagoda (“in accordance with your instructions”) had sent a team of operatives to investigate the Leningrad and Siberian NKVD branches. “The facts that were uncovered,” he had reported to Stalin (September 1934), “convinced me that [Nikolai] Alekseyev (Western Siberian NKVD) and Medved are absolutely incapable of leading our work in the new conditions and providing that sharp turnabout in state security management methods now necessary.” Yagoda proposed sacking the two branch chiefs, to set examples, and recommended a chessboard of transfers, which would bring Henriks Štubis (b. 1894), an ethnic Latvian known as Leonid Zakovsky (“unquestionably a strong and capable operative”), from Belorussia to Leningrad, with Medved recalled to Moscow to determine “if he is still fit for work in the NKVD or utterly burned out.”43

This was the second time Medved’s transfer had been bruited; the first, in 1931, Kirov had blocked. The Leningrad party boss socialized with him (the childless Kirov was especially fond of Medved’s boy Misha).44 Kirov was also an infamous womanizer, whose carousing was a matter of citywide gossip. Kirov’s wife, Maria Markus (b. early 1880s), was Jewish (like the wives of Molotov, Voroshilov, Andreyev, Kuibyshev, and Poskryobyshev). They had met in Vladikavkaz in 1909, at the offices of the newspaper Terek, where she worked as a bookkeeper. She suffered from headaches, insomnia, and a hormonal disorder, frequently screamed, and threatened to kill herself; her windows had been barred. She’d had a few small strokes and was effectively confined to a state rest home in suburban Tolmachevo.45 To what extent she knew of her husband’s extramarital affairs—ballerinas, young women in the apparatus—remains unclear, but they were certainly Medved’s worry: he had to help conceal them, even as he was under severe pressure from Pauker in Moscow to strengthen Kirov’s protection.46 Kirov’s personal guard had ballooned from three to as many as fifteen men after Stalin’s visit to Leningrad in summer 1933, and Kirov’s office had been relocated to a less accessible location.47


On November 15, 1934, Stalin received a delegation led by Mongolian prime minister Genden, the latter’s third annual audience with Stalin, an unusual number for any foreign leader, but impoverished, landlocked Mongolia was the Soviet Union’s sole “ally.” As a result of purges and mass quitting, the Mongolian People’s Party, already severely outnumbered by lamas, had dropped to half its peak strength of 40,000.48 Stalin, over the course of three hours, pressed Genden on the lamas: How numerous and powerful were the monks? Did the people follow them or the Communists? How did the monks finance their activities? These issues, Genden tried to answer, were “complex,” “subtle.” “In a war in which you cannot defeat the enemy by a frontal assault, you should use roundabout maneuvering,” Stalin advised. “Your first action should be to put your own teachers in the schools to battle the monks for influence among the youth. Teachers and activists must be the direct conduits of your policy. . . . The government must build more water wells to show the people that they, not the monks, are more concerned about their economic needs.” He also advised producing films and promoting theater in the Mongolian language and building a strong army of functionally and politically literate conscripts.

Stalin divulged his theory of rule. “In connection with the big lamas who commit this or that political crime, you need to punish them, bringing them to court for treason against the motherland, and not for general indictment of counterrevolutionary work,” he explained. “In such cases, you need open trials so that the commoners, the arats, understand that the lamas are linked to foreign enemies; they betrayed the motherland. But you can do this only from time to time at this point.” He added: “Foreign powers will not recognize you as long as it is unclear who is stronger, you or the monks. After you strengthen your government and army and raise the economic and cultural level of your people, the imperialist powers will acknowledge you. If they do not, now being strong, you can spit in their faces.”49

This was how Stalin was ruling the Soviet Union.

Genden, the offspring of a poor nomad family who had learned to read and write, was a gifted politician with a feel for the masses, and full of guile. Trying to ingratiate himself, he announced that the illiterate Choibalsan (b. 1895), minister of livestock and agriculture, who had spent considerable time in Moscow being groomed by Voroshilov, would become first deputy prime minister. Choibalsan was already serving as a Soviet agent in the Mongolian leadership.50

Agranov forwarded to Stalin a decrypted intercept of a telegram (November 17, 1934) from ambassador Joseph Grew, in Tokyo, to the U.S. State Department, concerning a conversation with Japanese foreign minister Kōki Hirota, who had stated that, given the various agreements among European powers, Japan could not remain isolated and would have to follow suit. “A decision was taken such that the foreign ministry would search for an ally,” Hirota was quoted as saying of the cabinet. “The chosen country should above all have no specific interests in Asia. In this category could be included Russia or England.” Stalin underlined that passage. “But the USSR is completely excluded as a potential ally because of its aggressive position toward Japan and its interests.” By contrast, Hirota thought a deal could be reached with Britain over weapons sales and trade, provided Japanese interests were recognized in China. The United States was also on Hirota’s potential ally list, and he concluded what Grew deemed an “unusual conversation” with a desire for friendly relations. Stalin wrote on the document, “And so it happens, it’s become tough for Hirota. Interesting.”51

On November 27, Stalin received the Mongols again, this time with Kirov in tow, even though he was not a member of the politburo’s Mongolia commission.Stalin began by noting that he was forgiving all of Mongolia’s debt as of January 1, 1934—30 million tugriks, the equivalent of almost 10 million gold rubles (at the official exchange rate)—and half the debt accumulated in the coming year: another 33 million tugriks, with the other half to be paid starting in 1941. “If you do not have a good army, the imperialists, Japan, will swallow you,” he said, pointing out that the Mongolian army numbered only 10,000. He said their army budget was 14 million tugriks but offered to pay 6 million a year for five years for expansion, and advised the Mongols to pay their portion with state monopolies on tobacco, salt, and matches, alongside alcohol. He also informed them that they needed to sign bilateral pacts of nonaggression and of mutual assistance, but that the second, for now, would not be published, a message for Japan, but not an overly provocative one.52 The nonpublic pact would allow the Red Army to defend the USSR by reassuming advance positions on Mongolian territory. “There should be a difference between Soviet assistance in wartime and in peacetime,” Demid, a graduate of the prestigious Officers’ Cavalry School in Tver, urged.53 Resistance proved futile, however.54 Soon, some 2,000 Red Army troops would reenter Mongolia.

Kirov had returned to Moscow because of a Central Committee plenum, the third and final of the year, from November 25 to 28, 1934. It dealt with the end of bread rationing, which involved some 50 million people, a costly subsidy and administrative expense amid financial challenges. Rye bread, which cost 50 kopecks per kilo in a state store with a ration coupon (and 1 ruble 50 kopecks at commercial shops), would now cost 1 ruble, a significant increase for workers.55 “What is the idea of the policy of abolition of the rationing system?” Stalin remarked at the plenum. “The cash economy is one of the few bourgeois economic mechanisms that we socialists must make full use of. . . . It is very flexible, and we need it.”56 Kirov said little, as usual. Afterward, Stalin took a small group, including Kirov, to the Kremlin cinema, where Shumyatsky showed Chapayev, which Stalin said he was seeing for the eleventh time. Orjonikidze, meanwhile, was suffering from heart palpitations and stomach pains. He had been the only member of the inner circle left out of that fall’s harvest mobilization, and had had his holiday extended. Stalin had compelled him to stay away from the capital until November 29. By the time Orjonikidze returned to Moscow, his friend Kirov had left.57 Stalin saw Kirov off at the station.58


Leonid Nikolayev (b. 1904) was a misfit. He had been born in Leningrad, the son of an alcoholic (who died when the boy was three or four), suffered from rickets as a toddler, and developed bowed legs. He left school around age twelve, when his mother, a night cleaning woman at a tram depot, apprenticed him to a watch repairman. But 1917 had revolutionized Nikolayev’s fortunes: he served as a village soviet chairman in 1919–20, while barely a teenager; became a candidate and, within a month, a full member of the party in 1924 (during the “levy” following Lenin’s death); and got appointed as a Communist Youth League functionary in Zinoviev’s Leningrad machine.59 Nikolayev was sent to the nearby town of Luga, where he met and, in 1925, married Milda Draule (b. 1901), an ethnic Latvian and gymnasium graduate, petite, round-faced, with brown hair, who worked as a bookkeeper in the county party apparatus and was a zealot, too. She and Leonid moved in with his mother, grandmother, unmarried sister, married sister, and brother-in-law in Leningrad, and in 1927 the couple had their first child, whom they named Karl Marx (“Marx” for short). Milda quit working for a time. The Five-Year Plan had opened further horizons for working-class offspring such as Nikolayev, but matters went sour. He had a quarrelsome nature. In 1929, he was fired from his latest job (as a clerk at the Red Arsenal Factory), and then from another factory, and in spring 1930 he was mobilized by the party to Eastern Siberia for the sowing and harvest campaigns.

Milda got hired as a bookkeeper in the Leningrad provincial party apparatus, now under Kirov, and was soon promoted to the department for light industry personnel. Nikolayev returned from Siberia in 1931, and in April he got a position as an assessor in the provincial party apparatus. In November 1931, the couple had a second child, Leonid. They were able to obtain a three-room apartment in a fee-based cooperative. Her elderly, infirm parents lived with them.60 But in the meantime he had been shifted to the Youth League’s Down with Illiteracy Society, his thirteenth place of work (as recorded in his official labor book).61 Acquaintances got him a post in the workers’ and peasants’ inspectorate, but he was fired in October 1932. Draule had lost her provincial party sinecure, being transferred in August 1933 to the provincial heavy-industry bookkeeping squad, at first as a temporary worker, though she obtained regular status in January 1934 and was awarded prizes. Nikolayev signed on as an itinerant lecturer for the Institute of Party History, in the provincial party organization, but on March 31, 1934, he was summoned before a party commission for refusing “mobilization” to transport (to give lectures to railroad workers). A party meeting deemed him “rude, extremely unrestrained, hysterical.” After he spoke, one of the members asked, “Is Nikolayev’s psychological condition normal?”62

Nikolayev was expelled from the party and fired, losing his ration coupons. On appeal, his expulsion was reversed in May 1934, and replaced by a severe reprimand—still a black mark in his file. Out of work, angry at perceived party slights, and reduced to living off his wife’s earnings, he petitioned like a demon to overturn his reprimand and secure what he regarded as suitable employment for a working-class Communist—as an apparatchik. In July 1934, he wrote to Kirov, and on August 25 to Stalin, only to have his letters rerouted to the perceived source of his troubles: the Leningrad party machine.63 On October 9, with his family facing eviction from their cooperative apartment, a despairing Nikolayev wrote to the politburo, “I request that I be given in the first instance, in the shortest possible time, treatment at a sanatorium-resort, but if such a possibility does not exist, then I must give up belief and hope in a rescue.” This letter, too, was rerouted to the Leningrad party.64 Nikolayev began stalking Kirov. On October 15, he trailed him on the long walk from the Uritsky (Tauride) Palace to the Trinity Bridge and on toward his residence, in the elite building at Red Dawn Street, 26–28. (Chekhov had lived there before the revolution.) The guard detained Nikolayev and took him to NKVD headquarters (“the House of Tears,” as he called it).

Nikolayev’s torn attaché case was found to contain newspapers and books. He had a party card and his old pass from when he had worked at party HQ. “He was a member of the party, had earlier worked in Smolny, and (only) tried to approach Kirov with a request for help in getting a job,” surmised the responsible operative Alexander Gubin, who, after a subordinate’s oral report, ordered Nikolayev’s release.65 Like many civil war veterans, Nikolayev owned a Nagant revolver—1895 model, 1912 issue—which he had obtained in 1918 and reregistered in 1924 and 1930 (both times allowing the registration to lapse). But whether he was carrying the gun that day remains uncertain.66 On October 19, 1934, Nikolayev was in Smolny but failed once more to obtain an audience with Kirov. He was increasingly incensed at the discrepancy between the workers’ state and the state of workers, as reflected in his own life.

Nikolayev had been keeping a notebook/diary about himself and Milda, devout Communists living through world-historical times, which originally was intended for their children’s edification but now became a place to ponder his options. His text contained grammatical errors, but Nikolayev read Aleksei Tolstoy and Gorky, imagining he could impart a literary quality to his writings.67 He wrote of Milda as “my only true companion” but began to reproach her, too, recording, on October 26, “M., you could have prevented much, but you did not wish to,” evidently disappointed she had not used her connections to land him a position. “Wrote to everyone, no one left, wrote to Kirov, Stalin, politburo, party Control Commission, but no one pays attention,” he recorded, portraying himself as one of the few brave people ready to sacrifice himself “for the sake of (all of) humanity.”68

Three days later, an entry averred that “the time for action has arrived” and evoked the organizer of Alexander II’s assassination, Andrei Zhelyabov of the People’s Will, who had been executed (Lenin had compared him to Robespierre). “As a soldier of the revolution, no death frightens me. I am ready for anything now, and no one has the power to preempt that.” Nikolayev appeared to be using his diary writing to steel his resolve, and contemplated going over the heads of the party bureaucracy to the working masses, to teach the party a lesson.69

Nikolayev diagrammed Kirov’s routes, some possible shot angles and methods of assassination: “After first shot, run to his car: a) smash window and fire; b) open door.” He also continued to write plaintive letters seeking recourse, while underscoring the plight of workers stuck in queues versus the good life of speculators. On November 5, 1934, he glimpsed Kirov’s passing car but did not shoot through the glass.70 On November 14, Nikolayev went to Leningrad’s Moscow Station yet again, looking for Kirov to arrive on the overnight train; this time Kirov did disembark, but Nikolayev could not get close. On November 21 he wrote another farewell to Milda (“My days are numbered, no one is coming to our aid. . . . Forgive me for everything”).71 After Kirov departed for the plenum in Moscow, Nikolayev stalked the station once more, but on November 29, when Kirov returned, he again could not get close. As it happened, however, Nikolayev read in that day’s Leningrad Pravda that at 6:00 p.m. on December 1, in the old Tauride Palace, Kirov would be reporting on the recent plenum in Moscow to the Leningrad “party active.”


On the morning of Kirov’s speech, Nikolayev called Milda at work, twice, for assistance in getting a ticket. By 1:00 p.m. he had learned that she could not or would not deliver. He went to the ward party committee around 1:30 p.m. One official suggested he could get him a ticket by the end of the day. For insurance, Nikolayev went to Smolny to try his luck with former co-workers. Smolny was an entire complex of buildings where 1,829 people worked and thousands more came and went. Besides the province and city party machines, more than fifteen organizations had offices there, including a department for the disfranchised and the workers’ and peasants’ inspectorate (on the second floor), where Nikolayev had worked. The inner courtyard connected to a residential building that housed 160 families, and there was a pigsty for supplying the cafeteria. The door to the building’s north wing, where top officials had offices on the third floor, required a special key, but it was given out freely: there was a hairdresser on the first floor, through the same entryway.72 Access to the third floor was governed by mere possession of a party card (for non-party members, a special pass). Nikolayev showed his party card and for an hour traipsed from office to office. His acquaintances rebuffed his pleadings for a ticket, but one promised to come through at the end of the day. Nikolayev exited and walked around. Close to 4:30 p.m., he returned and climbed to the third floor. He stopped off at the toilet, to relieve himself or hide (or both). He claimed that when he came out, he unexpectedly saw Kirov in the long corridor, coming toward him, fifteen to twenty paces away, unaccompanied.73

Whether Kirov was expected at Smolny that day—a Saturday—before his speech remains uncertain. His purpose in stopping by also remains unclear. One story has it that he wanted to inquire about the preparations for the end of rationing, which was generating social anxiety. Mikhail Chudov, the second secretary, was chairing a meeting of some twenty apparatchiks at 3:00 p.m. to draft resolutions for a Leningrad party plenum on rationing that was scheduled for the day after Kirov’s ticketed speech. Or maybe Kirov wanted to touch up his speech one last time with his deputy.74 Be that as it may, at 4:00 p.m. Kirov had exited his apartment building, walked toward the Trinity Bridge, and gotten into his chauffeured car. He was trailed by the usual escort car with two guards, but at what distance remains unclear: Kirov would hound Medved after he had spotted a trailing vehicle. The traveling guard was supposed to deliver Kirov to other members of the detail once at Smolny. Inside, Kirov’s head bodyguard, Mikhail Borisov—who had started in Kirov’s detail in the 1920s—was to accompany him everywhere and, when Kirov entered his office, to remain in the reception room with Kirov’s top aide, Nikolai Sveshnikov. But the guard detail had been complaining to superiors that Kirov interfered with their duties (their latest complaint had been on November 16, 1934, to Pauker).

Kirov—a politburo member—insisted that the guards stay back and not cross his vision.75 On December 1, the fifty-three-year-old Borisov, who was not in good physical form, was maintaining a fair distance, as many as thirty paces. The corridor was L-shaped, and, after Kirov turned left onto the shorter part, where his office had been relocated for safety, Borisov could not see him.76

Kirov’s two-room suite at the far end of the short corridor was near a special stairwell and elevator protected by a lockable glass door (many people had keys), but he refused to use this special side entrance established for him. His back room, accessible only from his front one, was used not just by him but also as a private lunch space by leaders of the provincial and city party committees and provincial and city soviets. Directly across the hall was a canteen that attracted traffic, too. Workmen were coming and going on the third floor that day. As Kirov approached Nikolayev in the long part of the L-corridor, Nikolayev turned his back. Kirov passed. The corridor was dim. (Kirov was farsighted yet refused to wear glasses in public, wary of resembling a member of the intelligentsia.)77 Nikolayev looked around and, he claimed, saw no one else. “When he turned left toward his office, whose disposition I knew well, the entire half of the [short] corridor was empty—I rushed forward five steps, pulled the Nagant revolver out of my pocket on the run, brought the muzzle to Kirov’s head, and fired one shot into his forehead,” Nikolayev would testify. “Kirov immediately fell face first.” Nikolayev then tried to shoot himself but either was foiled by an electrician who had heard the first gunshot or lost consciousness and slid down the wall next to Kirov’s body, now in a pool of blood.78

Medved was two miles from Smolny, at NKVD headquarters (Volodarsky, formerly Liteiny, Boulevard, no. 4), when the call came in. He threw down the receiver and exclaimed, “Kirov’s been shot.”79 First deputy Zaporozhets was away (he had broken his leg by falling from a horse during an equestrian competition and, after his cast was removed, had been given a holiday on November 13 at an NKVD resort in Sochi).80 Medved and second deputy Fyodor Fomin (an old Yevdokimov protégé) dashed over to Smolny. Kirov had been shot between 4:30 and 4:37 and found to have no pulse seconds later. Testimony suggests that he was carried into his office around seven or eight minutes later and laid on the conference table, where doctors vainly attempted to resuscitate him.81 Local security personnel, having heard the shot, claimed that they had secured Smolny’s third floor and that very soon the general alarm had been activated, a signal to seal the entire building. About twenty minutes after Medved had hastened out of the NKVD building, he ordered a contingent of thirty NKVD operatives dispatched to Smolny to detain and question everyone inside. But already, in Chudov’s office, adjacent to Kirov’s, the first interrogation was recorded as having commenced at 4:45, just minutes after the shooting—it was the questioning of Milda Draule. If this was accurate, she had to have been on-site when the shooting occurred.82

Ten or so witnesses on the third floor that day—bodyguards, an electrician attending to circuit breakers after some lights went out, a stockman, the director of the circus awaiting a meeting, various functionaries, Nikolayev himself—all placed the shooting in the corridor outside Chudov’s office. Kirov was said to have been found on the floor facedown, head toward the back stairwell, Nikolayev on the floor faceup, head the other way.83 But a special forensic analysis performed by a Russian defense ministry team in 2004 on the bullet hole in the rear of Kirov’s cap concluded, from the angle of entry, that either Nikolayev was lying on the floor when he fired the gun or Kirov was lying down. The forensic analysis also turned up large stains from dried semen on the underpants that Kirov had been wearing (on the front top, inside). In theory, NKVD interrogators could have arranged the testimony of even multiple witnesses to disguise the morally damaging circumstance that an esteemed leader had not been carried to the conference table in his office but was already on it, in flagrante delicto.84, 85 Crucially, however, there was no way to prove the exact position of the cap while it was on Kirov’s head.

Two shots had been fired. (All seven bullets in the gun were accounted for: five were still inside the revolver.) Kirov was hit by only one bullet (later extracted from his head), which was confirmed to have been fired from the Nagant registered to Nikolayev.86 The second bullet was recovered from the floor (a ricochet mark was found on a cornice where wall and ceiling met). The upward angle of the bullet entry, fired from behind at close range, can likely be explained by the fact that although Kirov was short, Nikolayev was even shorter.87

As for the semen, already on the night of December 1 rumors were circulating—tracked by the NKVD—of a liaison with Draule having caused Kirov’s demise. Despite arrests, this gossip persisted. At one enterprise, the non-party Khasanov was overheard to say, “Nikolayev killed comrade Kirov because he lived with his wife.” A candidate member of the party, Gubler, when asked why Nikolayev had killed Kirov, responded, “Because of tarts.” At the Leningrad timber company: “Rumors are circulating that Kirov was killed because of personal score-settling, since he lived with Nikolayev’s wife.” An employee of the Southern Water Station: “I know why they killed Kirov—I spoke with Kirov’s cook and she told me that it was because of a woman, because of jealousy.”88 The pants semen does seem to indicate some sort of tryst the day of the assassination, but that would have been far easier to arrange and hide at Kirov’s residence, where he spent most of the day, with his wife away at Tolmachevo. (Kirov answered the door when a courier delivered documents.)89 As we saw, Draule was in Smolny. The rumors seem to reflect a timeworn trope of the jealous husband and Kirov’s general reputation rather than specifics.90 Of course, even if nothing happened that afternoon between Kirov and Draule, the pair could have been lovers. Draule, under interrogation, denied an affair with Kirov.91 But if she was lying, it is still striking that neither Nikolayev’s handwritten notebook/diary nor his testimony alluded to being cuckolded by Kirov.92

Nikolayev had been bundled into a side office on the third floor, whence he was whisked to NKVD headquarters, where he alternated between wailing uncontrollably and falling silent while staring at a single point. He was carried on a stretcher to the NKVD’s internal clinic for examination at around 6:40 p.m.93 Only around 10:00 or 11:00 p.m. could the NKVD interrogate him. Besides the gun, Nikolayev had been carrying his attaché case and was found to be in possession of a party card, a pass to the Smolny cafeteria (from his workers’ and peasants’ inspectorate days), which was how his identity was quickly established, and an address book, which is how his relatives were quickly found. At searches of his and his mother’s apartments, operatives found copies of his various letters to the authorities, the numerous notebooks comprising a diary, the sketch of Kirov’s routes, a fragmentary plan of assassination, secret letters to his wife about his plotting and willingness to die, and instructions on where to find these letters—the kind of treasure trove of documentary evidence never adduced at any of the countless fabricated trials.

“I prepared the whole thing myself,” Nikolayev was recorded as having told Medved, Fomin, and other Leningrad operatives the night of the assassination, “and I never let anyone know of my intentions.” He added: “There was a single reason—estrangement from the party, from which the events in the Leningrad Institute of Party History pushed me away, my unemployment, and the lack of material and, above all, moral assistance from the party organizations. My whole situation reverberated from the moment I was expelled from the party (eight months ago), which discredited me in the eyes of party organizations.” Nikolayev enumerated all his fruitless letters for redress, adding, “There was a single aim of the assassination: for it to become a political signal to the party that over the past eight to ten years on my path of life and work, there has accumulated the baggage of unjust treatment of a living person on the part of certain state persons. . . . This historic mission has been accomplished by me. I had to show the whole party where they had brought Nikolayev.”94


Medved had the unenviable task of informing Yagoda, his superior. In the office of the second secretary of the Leningrad city party committee, he composed a telegram: “On December 1, 16:30 in Smolny, third floor, twenty paces from comrade Kirov’s office, Kirov was shot in the head by an unknown assailant who approached him and who, according to party documents, is Leonid Nikolayev, b. 1904, party member since 1924. Kirov is in his office. With him are professors of surgery . . . and other doctors.” The message mentioned that “several functionaries at Smolny recognized Nikolayev . . . as someone who had earlier worked” there, and that an arrest warrant had been issued for his wife, misnamed as Graule. Medved lied that Borisov “had accompanied Kirov to the point of the incident,” concealing NKVD negligence. Inexplicably, the message was stamped as sent at 6:20 p.m. and received and decoded in Moscow by 7:15 p.m.95 Already just after 5:00 p.m., Chudov had called Stalin’s office number; Poskryobyshev picked up.96

As Kirov lay dead, shot by an assassin at party headquarters in Leningrad, Stalin was in his office at party headquarters in Moscow. Members of the inner circle—Molotov, Voroshilov, Kaganovich, Zhdanov—had entered the dictator’s suite on Old Square at 3:05 p.m. When the news from Leningrad arrived, according to Kaganovich, Stalin “was shocked at first.”97 Yagoda appeared at 5:50 p.m. and called the Leningrad NKVD twice, likely from Stalin’s office, to inquire whether Nikolayev was wearing foreign clothing (he was not).98 Molotov, later in life, recalled that Stalin had rebuked Medved over the phone (“Incompetents!”).99 At 6:15, Pauker arrived with his deputy and the Kremlin commandant Rudolf Peterson; ten minutes later, they were dismissed to prepare a special train for that evening. Others began arriving: Kalinin, Mikoyan, and Orjonikidze at 6:20, Andreyev at 6:25, Chubar at 6:30, Yenukidze at 6:45. They all cleared out except for Yagoda, who stayed until 8:10, when Mekhlis (editor of Pravda), Bukharin (Izvestiya), Stetsky (culture and propaganda department), and Mikhail Suslov (a Control Commission functionary) entered, staying ten minutes. Stalin edited the text of a bulletin that would run in central newspapers under the names of all politburo members. “You were dear to us all, comrade Kirov, as a true friend, a true comrade, a dependable comrade-in-arms,” it stated, using the familiar ty (“thou”) inserted by Stalin. “You were always with us in the years of our hard struggles for the triumph of socialism in our country, you were always with us in the years of wavering and trouble inside our party, you lived through all the difficulties of the last years with us. . . . Farewell, our dear friend and comrade, Sergei!”100

Stalin then held back Yagoda, alone, for twenty minutes, until 8:30 p.m.101 At some point the dictator had drafted a short, vaguely worded law stipulating expedited handling of terrorist cases, with immediate implementation of the death penalty and no right of appeal, which Yenukidze signed as secretary of the Soviet’s central executive committee (and which, subsequently, Kalinin signed as chairman of that body).102 Leningrad party officials, convening their own meeting in Smolny at 6:00 p.m., drafted their own announcement, formed their own funeral commission, and instructed lower-level party committees to call meetings at factories that very night.103

Soviet radio announced Kirov’s murder at 11:30 p.m.; workers heard over factory loudspeakers. Newspaper editors around the country were called. Meanwhile, another coded telegram had arrived from Medved at 10:30 p.m., with a short record of Draule’s interrogation, which had only basic information about her, as if just her role as Nikolayev’s wife was of interest. She was quoted as stressing his sense of grievance. (“From the moment of his party expulsion, he descended into a down mood, waiting the whole time for rectification of his status and reprimand and not wanting to work anywhere.”) A third Medved telegram, forty minutes after midnight, indicating that the NKVD had started analysis of the materials seized in searches, quoted Nikolayev’s “political testament” (letter to the politburo) about his efforts to assassinate Kirov, and reported that his address book contained entries for the German consulate (Herzen Street, 43; telephone, 1-69-82) and the Latvian consulate (telephone, 5-50-63).104 Yagoda was already on the train with Stalin.

Kaganovich had summoned Khrushchev to lead a Moscow delegation of some sixty party officials and workers. The grandson of a serf and the son of a coal miner, Khrushchev (b. 1894) had attended a village school for four years and become a skilled metalworker in the Donbass town of Yuzovka (the name was changed in 1924 to Stalino), where he had hankered after further study while rising in the apparatus, catching the eye of Kaganovich (then Ukraine party boss), who promoted him to the Ukrainian capital. At the 14th Party Congress, in Moscow in 1925, Khrushchev would later recall, he had encountered Stalin for the first time and was surprised to meet a general secretary with a modest demeanor, proletarian plainness, even abrasiveness—a stirring role model for working-class Communists such as the ambitious Khrushchev. “He dreamed of being a factory director,” one contemporary recalled of Khrushchev. “I’ll go to Moscow, I’ll try to get in the Industrial Academy, and if I do I’ll make a good factory manager.” Thanks to Kaganovich, he had been able to enroll, despite meager academic qualifications. In a mere year and a half, Khrushchev had leapt from the Donbass coal region to Kharkov to Kiev to Moscow. Now he was leading a train, in parallel to Stalin’s train, to Leningrad. Stalin made Kaganovich stay behind in Moscow. Khrushchev recalled tears in Kaganovich’s eyes.105 Stalin also refused to allow Orjonikidze to go on the train (ostensibly over worries for his weak heart).

Around 10:00 or so that morning of December 2, Stalin and entourage—Molotov, Voroshilov, Zhdanov, Yezhov, Alexander Kosaryov, a large contingent of NKVD operatives, and at least 200 armed men (the Dzierżyński regiment)—alighted at Leningrad’s Moscow Station. Enveloped by the massive security force, the group proceeded to the Sverdlov Hospital morgue, then to Smolny, where they took over Kirov’s office. “I saw a group approaching,” one Communist Youth League functionary recalled. “I saw Stalin in the middle; in front of him was Genrikh Yagoda with a revolver in his raised hand. The latter gave an order: ‘Everyone, faces to the wall! Hands on your trouser seams!’”106

Agranov ordered Fomin to accompany him to Leningrad NKVD HQ, where he commandeered Medved’s office and all the case materials.107 A shattered Borisov, the bodyguard—who had been interrogated the previous night but proved nearly unable to speak (his service revolver had been discovered still unloaded in its holster)—was summoned in the opposite direction, to Smolny.108 As he was being driven, his head smashed into the wall of a building at around 10:50 a.m. and he died almost instantly. Neither the driver nor the three NKVD operatives accompanying him were hurt. The NKVD had used a one-and-a-half-ton Ford truck to transport Borisov, who was placed in the truck bed. Apparently, no other vehicles were available at the garage because of the cavalcade that had descended from Moscow. A spring on the truck’s front suspension was known to be defective and jerry-rigged, although deemed safe to drive at slow speeds. The driver might have been speeding—the summons was urgent—when he crossed tram tracks in the road. The truck swerved rightward violently. The driver tried to compensate by steering left. A tire blew. The truck ran a sidewalk and struck a building on the side where Borisov happened to be. A piece of his overcoat was caught by a metal clamp holding a drainpipe.109 It is conceivable that he smashed his own head against the wall once the vehicle swung. It is also possible, though even less likely, that the Leningrad NKVD killed Borisov to hide evidence of incompetence—which was what Stalin suspected.110

Nikolayev was brought before Stalin.111 The dictator had a hard time accepting that anyone ever acted alone.112 But it was especially difficult to believe the pathetic Nikolayev could have carried out such a momentous assassination by himself. He stood a hair over five feet (1.53 meters), with “simian arms” down to his knees and very short legs, and, though he was only thirty years old, was a physical and emotional wreck. By then he was also severely sleep deprived. “An unprepossessing appearance. A clerk. Not tall. Scraggly,” recalled Molotov. “I think he was, it seems, angry with something, expelled from the party, aggrieved.”113 What Stalin managed to extract from the petulant, megalomanical, delirious Nikolayev remains unclear. (A rumor in Smolny suggested that Nikolayev had failed to recognize Stalin until he was shown an official portrait alongside the person before him.) Taken to a waiting vehicle on the street, where people were going about their business, Nikolayev was said to have shouted, “Remember me—I am the assassin. Let the people know who killed Kirov!”114


Kirov’s open casket was placed for public viewing in the vestibule of the former Tauride Palace on December 2 for two days. His widow, Leningrad and Moscow officials, and delegations of workers from the two capitals paid their respects, many through tears. Initially, Pravda (December 2) accused “enemies of the working class and Soviet power, White Guards.” The next day, the newspaper identified the assassin as Nikolayev, labeling him a former employee of the workers’ and peasants’ inspectorate, omitting his employment in the party committee and his party membership.115 The NKVD was investigating foreign involvement: Nikolayev had visited the German consulate a few times and the Latvian once. He testified that he had found their numbers in the phone book and hoped to be introduced to foreign journalists, but had been brushed off by the German consul while trying to sell anti-Soviet documents (his writings) for money.116 Nikolayev might have sought a visa to Latvia for escape. Also on December 3, at a detached house in Leningrad’s Stone Island neighborhood that Stalin and his entourage were using, the dictator dressed down Medved and Fomin. (Yagoda that day issued an indictment of them and six other Leningrad NKVD operatives.) “The murder of Kirov is the hand of an organization,” Stalin told Medved and Fomin, “but which organization is difficult to say right now.”117

Around 10:00 p.m. on December 3, Stalin claimed Kirov’s casket and led a processional to the station, where his special train departed after midnight. It was met in Moscow by an air force squadron overhead. On December 4 and 5, Kirov’s casket was placed for viewing in Moscow’s Columned Hall of the House of Trade Unions. That afternoon and evening, Stalin received a large number of officials in his office and, among other business, appointed a new trade representative to Hitler’s Berlin, David Kandelaki. Normally, Soviet trade representatives never met with Stalin, but Kandelaki, who was Georgia born and Germany educated, would be received an inordinate number of times in the Little Corner starting in late 1934.118 “Kandelaki,” noted the Soviet press officer at the Berlin embassy, “clearly gave us the impression that he had confidential instructions from Stalin personally, and the power to go beyond economic subjects in talks with the Germans.”119

Departing his office that night of December 5 at 10:00, Stalin arrived at the House of Trade Unions for a final farewell as the Bolshoi Orchestra played Chopin’s funeral march. He evidently kissed the dead Kirov on the lips and stated, “Farewell, dear friend.”120 The body was taken to be cremated. Back at the Kremlin, Shumyatsky showed Stalin, Voroshilov, Molotov, Orjonikidze, Mikoyan, Kaganovich, and Zhdanov clips from a documentary by Yakov Bliokh of Kirov’s life and death. “Koba especially tensely watched those parts depicting the deceased Kirov in motion,” Shumyatsky noted, using Stalin’s nickname. “When they showed the episodes of the population reading the sad news, everyone noted that the reaction to the event was depicted powerfully and clearly. . . . Koba and the others watched especially tensely the parts in Leningrad—in the Tauride Palace, at the casket, and the accompanying of the casket with the body to the train station.” It was silent footage, but Shumyatsky had also brought film of two of Kirov’s speeches. Stalin liked Kirov’s speech at the last Leningrad provincial party conference, where he had spoken about Marxist-Leninist education.121

On Red Square the next day, a full military funeral took place. A devastated Orjonikidze was afforded the honor of interring the urn in the Kremlin Wall. Stalin also allowed Orjonikidze’s signature to be placed second under Kirov’s obituary in Pravda, after the dictator’s, out of the usual hierarchy.122 Molotov delivered a eulogy (Stalin complimented him on it). Stalin had the orchestra play a Kirov favorite, Shatrov’s “On the Hills of Manchuria,” which dated to the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5: “The crosses for magnificent bygone heroes show their whiteness, and the shades of the past circle about, hardening us about those who fell in vain. . . . But believe me, we will avenge you and celebrate a bloody funeral feast.”123 Pravda that morning (December 6) had already announced that seventy persons were being tried in other cases on charges of “preparing terrorist actions against Soviet authorities.” The inner circle repaired to Stalin’s apartment in the Imperial Senate for a luncheon. The dictator, full of grief, according to Artyom, said Kirov had been an optimist, a lover of life, so if anyone was to cry, to “let out snot,” they would be dishonoring his memory. He played songs on the gramophone Kirov loved. “Everyone there was in a crushed mood.” Stalin requested that they watch the Kirov documentary footage again and invited Vasily and Svetlana, calling her the Mistress of the House and asking her to direct the viewing. Stalin again reminded Shumyatsky to insert footage of the liveliness of the streets and squares as Kirov’s casket was brought to the capital. Postyshev said Shumyatsky needed to include a speech by Stalin, whose voice had not yet appeared in sound footage. “Film is a powerful instrument for propaganda and agitation,” Stalin intoned. Then they watched Chapayev until 1:00 a.m.124

Unlike the pioneer Mussolini, the Soviet dictator chose not to speak directly on radio. The twenty-year-old Yuri Levitan had become Stalin’s voice from around the time of the 17th Party Congress, when he had read the five-hour congress speech over the radio. On December 6, 1934, Levitan was on the air when Kirov’s ashes were interred in the Kremlin Wall: “Farewell, pupil of Lenin and friend of Stalin, leader of the Leningrad proletariat, farewell!”125 That night, after the film screening, Pavel Alliluyev stayed at the Near Dacha to keep an eye on his brother-in-law. “I’m an utter orphan,” the dictator supposedly told him, putting his head in his hands. Stalin also said Kirov had looked after him as one does for a child.126


At Stalin’s suggestion, to get Nikolayev to admit complicity in a “group,” he was plied with food, cigarettes, and the usual promises to spare his own and his family members’ lives. Interrogators lied that Milda had not (yet) been arrested. Agranov and his team were making suggestions to him about “ties,” and Nikolayev began to go along, admitting that he did belong to a “group.” He also tried to jump out the window. The interrogators were now interested in his acquaintances Ivan Kotolynov and Nikolai Shatsky, both at one time expelled from the party and figures in Nikolayev’s notebook/diary. Kotolynov was being called a Trotskyite, but, as it happened, he and others had been Communist Youth League functionaries when Zinoviev was party boss.127 Voilà. The names of Zinoviev as well as Kamenev started to crop up in the interrogation protocols, which Agranov was forwarding to Stalin.128 (In the Kirov case, the dictator would receive at least 260 interrogation protocols, a new genre of belles lettres.)129

The NKVD drafted a scenario, which Stalin edited, of parallel terrorist organizations, a “Leningrad Center” and a “Moscow Center.” None of this had been part of the interrogations before December 4, 1934, when Stalin had summoned a large group to his office, including prosecutors, court officials, secret police operatives, and Agranov, who came from Leningrad.130 During discussions over the next several days, Stalin shifted Zinoviev and Kamenev from the Leningrad to the guiding Moscow Center. The Leningrad Center was now said to be led by Nikolayev, Kotolynov, and their associates.131

Amid a mood for bloodthirsty revenge, the ethnic Pole party boss of Ukraine, Kosior, wanted to respond to the assassination with directives for mass relocations of Soviet ethnic Poles from the frontier. But a calculating Stalin softened a secret circular sent by party channels (December 7, 1934) to both Ukraine and Belorussia regarding their ethnic Polish border populations, evidently to avoid complications in Soviet-Polish and Soviet-German relations. By contrast, in response to a plan to deport 5,000 “socially alien” families from the Karelian autonomous republic and Leningrad province—both near the Finnish border, where geopolitical complications were largely absent—Stalin wrote, “Why not more?”132

On December 9, after meetings in his office with the prosecutors, judges, and NKVD officials, among many others, until 7:30 p.m., Stalin suppered one floor below at his Kremlin apartment with Kaganovich, Zhdanov, Orjonikidze, and Molotov, a practice that was becoming increasingly routine. The relatives had come over on the pretext of giving Svetlana, said to be distraught over Kirov’s death, some gifts to cheer her up. “It broke my heart to look at him,” Maria Svanidze wrote in her diary of Stalin at the table. “He is suffering greatly.”133

In Leningrad, fourteen people—all save Shatsky—testified that they had participated in an underground Zinovievite “group,” but all denied complicity in the assassination except Nikolayev. Interrogators had tried to get him to admit that his working-class father had hired laborers, making him the offspring of a class alien, but he refused. Nonetheless, Nikolayev, a working-class Communist of conviction—precisely why he had killed Kirov—somehow had to be turned into a “class enemy.” Over time, the wily Agranov seems to have persuaded him that he could realize one more great deed: the destruction of the Zinovievites. Nikolayev apparently would not fully realize until later that this task on behalf of the cause required retrospectively making him a member of the 1920s Zinoviev opposition.

Accused Zinovievites were arrested in waves, and one turned out to be hiding the archives of the Zinoviev opposition. (All told, 843 “former Zinovievites” would be arrested by the NKVD in the ten weeks after the murder; thousands would be exiled administratively.) The few core genuine supporters of Zinoviev did not hide their critical feelings toward Stalin and his policies: they believed, for example, that Hitler’s rise in Germany had resulted from Comintern passivity.134 They also freely admitted that they occasionally met and discussed these views. And so it was “an organization” and “anti-party.” They were also found to have copies of Lenin’s Testament and the Ryutin appeal calling for Stalin’s removal, and almost every one of them turned out to have a gun at home, sometimes more than one, usually acquired and held legally since civil war days. And so it was “terrorism,” too.

Was it not plausible that these former party oppositionists—armed and, by their own admission, meeting to criticize Stalin—would in shadowy ways have taken part in the killing of Kirov, who, after all, had displaced their patron Zinoviev?135 Kotolynov, according to one interrogation protocol (December 12), would admit only that “our organization bears the political and moral responsibility for the murder of Kirov by Nikolayev, having reared Nikolayev in an atmosphere of embittered relations to the leaders of the Soviet Communist Party.” Here was one formula.136 On December 16, Zinoviev and Kamenev were arrested.137 Zinoviev confessed to a host of fictitious crimes, and agreed to name “all those I can and will remember as former participants in the anti-party struggle.”138 Pravda and Leningrad Pravda (December 17) ran the same front-page editorial asserting that Nikolayev had been directed by the former Leningrad opposition “Zinovievites” to kill Kirov. Here was a different formula.


Stalin sent Zhdanov to replace Kirov as first secretary. With the regime and much of the country in mourning, the dictator ordered that his official birthday, on December 21, 1934—his fifty-fifth—not be celebrated publicly. Nonetheless, the apparatchiks gathered the obligatory well-wishes.139 On the day itself, Agranov, Vyshinsky, and Akulov arrived from Leningrad and, along with Yagoda and Ulrich, were in Stalin’s office for an hour, until 8:30 p.m., evidently to go over the pending trial.140 Then a private celebration took place at the Near Dacha, in the company of the in-laws from both deceased wives and the inner circle. They had to add a second table. Stalin, Artyom would recall, “read the birthday congratulations in the newspapers, and commented on them humorously.” 141

Orjonikidze pronounced a toast for Kirov, which, according to Maria Svanidze’s diary, elicited tears and a moment of silence. Someone mentioned that Dora Khazan-Andreyeva had attended the Industrial Academy with Nadya. Stalin stood. “Since the Academy was mentioned,” he said, “permit me to drink to Nadya.” “All stood and silently approached Iosif to clink their glasses,” Svanidze wrote. Around 1:00 a.m., they got up from the table and Stalin put on the gramophone and people danced—the Caucasus lezginka or Cossack hopak—though there was not much room. Budyonny played the accordion, Zhdanov the piano. “The Caucasus people,” Svanidze recorded, “sang sad songs, polyphonic—the Master sang in a high tenor.”142

Newspapers announced the next morning that the NKVD had turned over the investigatory results for trial. But on December 23, Pravda, shockingly, announced that “the NKVD has established a lack of sufficient evidence to turn Zinoviev and Kamenev over to the courts.” Stalin also decided against a public trial of the remaining “Zinovievites,” perhaps because the extracted confessions were of anti-Stalin conversations, not plotting terrorism. The indictments published in Pravda and Leningrad Pravda of fourteen people headed by Nikolayev mentioned a connection to a foreign consulate but stopped short of naming it, as if afraid to have to prove it, or wary of involving Nazi Germany in discussions of Kirov’s murder.143

In Leningrad, Ulrich opened the closed trial on December 28 at 2:20 p.m., and read the guilty verdicts before dawn the next morning: death penalty. Not a single Smolny witness had been summoned to the trial. (Nearly fourscore of them—every witness to the events that day and many others—would soon be transferred to other work, expelled from the party, or exiled.) “Nikolayev shouted, ‘Severe,’” according to one of Agranov’s soft-pedaling telegrams to Stalin, which failed to report that Nikolayev and others recanted their testimony.144 The executions were carried out within an hour; the head executioner was said to have broken down in tears at memories of the fallen Kirov.145 Kotolynov was shot last. “This whole trial is rubbish,” he had told Agranov and Vyshinsky. “People have been executed. Now I’ll be executed, too. But all of us, with the exception of Nikolayev, are not guilty of anything.”146

Hundreds more would be shot, none of whom had any link to the murder. (Union-wide, as many as 6,500 people might have been arrested and charged under the December 1 antiterror law in the first month alone.)147 “It’s hard to believe that in the twentieth century there is a corner of Europe where medieval barbarians have taken up residence, where savage concepts are accompanied so strangely by science, art, and culture,” Nina Lugovskaya, an atypical fifteen-year-old student in Moscow, the daughter of a persecuted “bourgeois” economist, recorded in her diary (December 30). “To call Nikolayev a coward! He went willingly to his death for what he believed in, he was better than all those so-called leaders of the working class put together!”148


Beria had been pressing his minions in Tiflis to produce a Stalin hagiography. He had ordered systematic gathering of “recollections” of Stalin in the underground years and appointed Toroshelidze, chairman of the Writers’ Union of Georgia, Tiflis University rector, and director of the Stalin Institute, to galvanize the work. The “reminiscences” were assembled, but the “scholarly” biography did not materialize.149 Lakoba, meanwhile, had been active, too. Hashim Smyrba, an old brigand, had once hidden Stalin in his hut a few miles outside Batum, in the Muslim region of Ajaristan, in 1901–2, when Stalin and his accomplices, disguised with veils to look like Muslim women, transported illegal leaflets to Batum in fruit baskets. Hashim had died in 1922, at age eighty-one. Lakoba had an ethnographer collect material and forwarded to Stalin a pamphlet, Stalin and Hashim, the Years 1901–1902: Episodes from the Batum Underground. “Comrade Lakoba!” he wrote back. “Your Caucasus essay makes a good impression. And Hashim, as in life, is simple, naïve, but honest and devoted. Such helpmates were not few in the revolution; with their hearts they felt the truth.”150 Lakoba published the pamphlet in Abkhazia, in a print run of 20,000. (Kaganovich sent the paper.) It called Stalin “a person such as history gives to humanity just once in a hundred or two hundred years.”

Playfully, the pamphlet noted that Hashim and other villagers had surmised that “Soso” was counterfeiting money and asked for some, but the business turned out to be revolutionary leaflets. Hashim: “You’re a good man, Soso. Only it’s a pity that you are not a Muslim.” Stalin: “And what would happen if I were a Muslim?” Hashim: “If you converted to Islam, I would give you in marriage seven beauties the likes of which you probably never, ever saw. Do you want to be a Muslim?” “Comrade Stalin answered with a smile, ‘OK!’ and shook Hashim’s hand.” (Stalin ended up being imprisoned.)151

Lakoba wrote the preface to the Hashim pamphlet, emphasizing that Stalin, too, was simple, close to the masses—a winning formula.152 By contrast, Beria had a far more ambitious and difficult aim—not two years in Batum, but the entire Caucasus before 1917, and falsification of a past that many people knew firsthand.153 One of those people was Yenukidze, who was the godfather of the deceased Nadya by virtue of his acquaintance with her father, the worker-revolutionary Sergei Alliluyev. Yenukidze was also a founding member of the Baku group of the party (spring 1901) and had established the illegal printing press in the Caucasus—code-named “Nino” (Nina in Russian), with his cousin Trifon—that had reprinted the exiled Lenin’s illegal Iskra newspaper. Known in the underground as the Little Golden Fish, Yenukidze had serialized his autobiographical Our Underground Printing Presses in the Caucasus in a journal in 1923 and had not artificially magnified Stalin’s role.154 As business manager of regime affairs from early on, he had served Stalin faithfully.155 But Mekhlis, writing to Stalin (January 4, 1935), listed a number of “mistakes” in a Yenukidze Pravda article (December 29, 1934) on the thirtieth anniversary of the 1904 Baku strike, and criticized his book on the illegal printing press, whose third edition had just been published. Stalin had Mekhlis’s denunciation of Yenukidze circulated to the politburo, and marked up the text himself: When was the Baku party committee established? Who created the printing press? Yenukidze seemed to be placing himself above the martyr Lado Ketskhoveli, the youth who had introduced Stalin to Marxism.156


Long focused on the impact of live theater, Stalin had not grasped the full power of film immediately.157 But Shumyatsky had persisted, and goaded the party to issue a directive to film all major events in the USSR, design handheld cameras to be put into wide production, and have regional officials treat newsreels the way they treated the press. Stalin began to review the newsreels at the Kremlin cinema sessions.158 But it had really been Chapayev that transformed him—a person accustomed to working with written texts—from someone who occasionally viewed films for diversion to their executive producer, from the backgrounds of scenes to the dialogue and score. The dictator played a decisive role in supporting not just subjects of political import but also farce. In that regard, an enormous breakthrough was wrought by a young assistant to the virtuoso Sergei Eisenstein, after the latter’s scandalous failure to finish a film in Mexico.159 Shumyatsky had suggested that Eisenstein next make a Soviet comedy, but the director showed little interest. But his assistant, Grigory Alexandrov, using every Hollywood trick he had learned in their travels, cowrote and directed Jolly Fellows, which became a smash hit.160

Stalin’s inner circle had divided over the appropriateness of comedy. When Shumyatsky was set to premiere Jolly Fellows in the Kremlin, Voroshilov, who had seen it, stated, “It’s an interesting, jolly, thoroughly musical film featuring Utyosov and his jazz.” Kaganovich objected that Utyosov had no voice; Zhdanov complained that Utyosov was a master only of criminal underworld songs. “You’ll see,” Voroshilov countered, “he’s a very gifted actor, an extraordinary humorist, and sings delightfully in the film.” He was right. “Brilliantly conceived,” Stalin said to Voroshilov after viewing one scene with a jazz orchestra rehearsal that devolves into a hilarious fight, and another with collective farm livestock run amok. “The film allows you to relax in an interesting, entertaining fashion. We experienced the exact feeling one has after a day off. It’s the first time I have experienced such a feeling from viewing our films, among which have been very good ones.” After watching another film, Stalin returned to discussion of Jolly Fellows, lauding the bold acting of the female lead, Lyubov Orlova, and male lead, Utyosov, as well as the excellent jazz. “He talked about the songs,” Shumyatsky wrote. “Turning to comrade Voroshilov, he pointed out that the march would go to the masses, and began to recall the melody and ask about the words.”161

A new genre, the Soviet musical comedy, was born.162 Shumyatsky’s determination had paid off.163 He had witnessed a live performance of Utyosov’s band—whose musicians sang, danced, and acted—and had suggested they team up with the director Alexandrov. Utyosov, for his part, had insisted on music by Isaac Dunayevsky (b. 1900), a graduate of the Kharkov Conservatory who had made a name for himself at the Moscow Satire Theater and more recently the Leningrad Music Hall. Vasily Lebedev-Kumach (b. 1898), the son of a Moscow cobbler and himself a writer at the satirical periodical Crocodile, composed the lyrics. When ideologues attacked the resulting work, Shumyatsky galvanized Stalin’s support.164 Jolly Fellows had gone into final editing, following the dictator’s suggestions, but its public opening was delayed by Kirov’s assassination. It premiered publicly on December 25, at Moscow’s Shock Worker cinema, where Orlova, Utyosov, and Alexandrov were in the audience. A banquet followed at the Metropole. General release took place in January 1935, and soon an astonishing 6,000 copies of the film were in circulation Union-wide. The publicity campaign, unprecedented for the Soviet Union, borrowed American techniques, with postcards of scenes from the film and phonographic records of the songs. Shumyatsky even had sheet music of the score published with an attractive cover, and there were tie-in cookies from the baking trust and cigarettes from the tobacco trust. The film’s stars featured in radio appearances.

Many cultural figures collaborated with the Soviet party-state precisely for its wherewithal to deliver mass audiences.165 To be sure, whereas listeners in Britain or Germany could tune in to several stations, including some that originated from abroad, the Soviets invested in cable (wire) radio, which was inexpensive and durable, enabling mass production, and imposed far stricter state control over content, since the wires delivered just the two official stations.166 Only the privileged had hard-to-procure wireless receivers with tuners. Wire radios were installed in outdoor public spaces, factories, meeting halls, clubs, and dormitories.The Soviet Union had 2.5 million radio reception points already by 1934.167 Radio Moscow and Radio Comintern were broadcasting approximately eighteen hours per day, creating an ambient Sovietness.168

“Boring agitation is counter-agitation,” one Soviet film critic argued.169 Surveys of radio listeners’ letters showed that they wanted fewer symphonies and more humor, information about the outside world, advice on childrearing, medical issues, and other daily life concerns, and entertainment, such as folk music, Gypsy romances, jazz, operettas (not operas), and songs from the latest films.170 While Germany had Marlene Dietrich, and America Greta Garbo, the Soviets had Orlova, promoted in the press, books, and fan postcards.171 (She and Alexandrov would begin a love affair and later marry.) The songs proved to be easily and widely memorized. From streets to shop, almost the entire USSR was singing “Such a Lot of Nice Girls” (or the tango version, “Heart,” released by Pyotr Leshchenko) and the march (“A happy song lightens your heart”). Even in profoundly anti-Soviet Poland Jolly Fellows would find popularity. The comic master Chaplin would praise the film as better propaganda for the Soviet cause than executions.172

Stalin authorized an all-Union Creative Conference of Workers in Soviet Cinema (January 8–13, 1935), albeit without formation of a formal union such as the writers had. Eisenstein was awarded the task of delivering the keynote. “When I heard Eisenstein’s report, I was afraid that he knows so much, and his head is so clear that, it is obvious, he’ll never make another film,” director Oleksandr Dovzhenko said in his follow-up speech. “If I knew as much as he does, I would literally die. (Laughter, applause.)”173 Pravda (January 11) published a congratulatory note from Stalin to Shumyatsky. “Greetings and best wishes to the workers of Soviet cinema on the day of its glorious fifteenth anniversary,” the note stated. “Soviet power expects from you new successes—new films that, like Chapayev, proclaim the greatness of the historic cause of the struggle for power of the workers and peasants of the Soviet Union, mobilize for the attainment of new tasks, and remind us of both the achievements and difficulties of socialist construction.”174

That same day, Stalin attended the ceremony at the Bolshoi where, for the first time, state awards were handed out to film workers. He had edited the proposed awards list: Orders of Lenin were given to the Leningrad Film Studio, Shumyatsky, Pavel Tager (who had helped introduce sound to Soviet films), and numerous directors. Eisenstein had been proposed for the lesser Order of the Red Banner, which Stalin crossed out, substituting something lesser still: “honored artist.”175 After this humiliation, Eisenstein had to offer the closing remarks. “No one here has had to listen to so many compliments about highbrow wisdom as I,” he stated. “The crux—and this you know—is that I have not been engaged in film production for several years, and I consider the [awards] decision a signal from the party and government that I must enter production.”176 The gathering concluded with a performance of the third act of Swan Lake.177

Shumyatsky did not speak at the ceremony or at the conference, but Pravda (January 11) published an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Cinema for the Millions. “The victorious class wants to laugh with joy,” he wrote. “That is its right, and Soviet cinema must provide its audiences with this joyful Soviet laughter.” He admitted, however, that “we have no common view on such fundamental and decisive problems of our art as the interrelationship between form and content, as plot, as the pace and rhythm of a film, the role of the script, the techniques of cinema.”178 In fact, all he and other film people had to go on was Stalin’s utterances or their own intuition about what might please him.


On January 13, 1935, a plebiscite took place in a small region on the western side of the Rhine known as the Saar, which the Versailles Treaty had taken from Germany and put under the League of Nations, stipulating such a vote after fifteen years. Some 445,000 Saarlanders, 90.35 percent, freely voted to join Germany under Nazi dictatorship rather than France or remain under the League. The French and British expected this removal of a German grievance to be followed by German compliance. Hitler perceived only a removal of restraint, and would exult that “blood is stronger than any document or mere paper. What ink has written will one day be blotted out in blood.” Large ethnic German populations resided in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, Romania, and even the Soviet Union.179

The Kirov documentary opened publicly on January 14.180 The NKVD had been planning a second public trial of eight “Zinovievites” willing to incriminate themselves, with Draule testifying about their links to Nikolayev. In the event, she would be tried in camera, while several high-profile Zinovievites were added to the eight unknowns for a public trial, which took place January 15–16. The nineteen defendants, now headlined by Zinoviev himself, Kamenev, and Grigory Yevdokimov, were charged with fostering a “moral atmosphere” conducive to the terrorism that had resulted in Kirov’s death. They had been promised their lives if they fulfilled their party duty and publicly confessed. Zinoviev admitted that he’d had conversations with people whom the NKVD called the Leningrad Center, for example with Vladimir Levin back in 1932, during his work in livestock requisitions. Kamenev at first refused to go along with the canard that his private conversations signified participation in a so-called Moscow Center or had somehow inspired acts of terrorism.181 Yevdokimov confessed to having suggested that collectivization was a mad adventure, that the tempos of industrialization would turn the working class against the party, and that there was no party anymore, since Stalin had usurped its role.182 Zinoviev was sentenced to ten years, Yevdokimov to eight, Kamenev to five.183

Pravda’s trial report (January 18, 1935) acknowledged that incitement of the Kirov murder by the Moscow Center had not been proven, but insisted that the Moscow Center had known about the “terrorist sentiments” of Nikolayev and his Leningrad Center. That same day, Stalin sent an explanatory letter to all party organizations, which accused the former Zinoviev opposition of “two-facedness,” equated them with “White Guard wreckers, spies, and provocateurs,” and deemed expulsion from the party insufficient: they needed to be imprisoned so they could no longer pursue sabotage. The circular excoriated the Zinoviev opposition’s concealment of its views in professions of loyalty, and blamed the NKVD for complacency. (“Is it that difficult for a Chekist to understand that a party card can be forged or stolen from its owner?”) The circular called for better teaching of party history, especially the foul deeds of the various oppositions, and instructed local party organizations to seek enemies among any party members who had ever expressed criticism of Stalin and his ruling group.184 The NKVD distributed its own secret circular to branches explaining that Nikolayev’s long-existing “center” for terrorism had eluded the Leningrad NKVD because of the latter’s failure to heed Yagoda’s instructions to strengthen Kirov’s guard.185

Three days later, regime favorites assembled for the anniversary of Lenin’s death.186 Shumyatsky showed a new documentary about Lenin, to which was added the speaking footage from the Kirov documentary—the first time a recorded speech had been heard at the Bolshoi. “The whole hall at first went silent,” the cinema boss wrote, “then people could not contain themselves, and stormy applause, from the heart, eclipsed the inspiring speech of Mironych about the significance of Marxist-Leninist rearing.” When the sound parts ended and the silent parts resumed, the orchestra started playing but could not be heard. “The end of the film, with the appearance of I. V. Stalin, was drowned out in a stormy ovation.” Stalin had Shumyatsky summoned to the imperial box and “again reiterated the exceptional power of film.”187

The regime held a closed trial of the Leningrad NKVD on January 23, 1935. Borisov’s death was ruled an accident, and four operatives were released. Twelve others were convicted, including Medved and Zaporozhets (three years each), as well as Gubin and Fomin (two years). Almost all ended up serving their time as commandants at the Dalstroi gold camps in the far northeast.188 Three days later, 663 former Zinovievites in Leningrad were exiled to Siberia, and 325 others transferred to jobs in other regions. In the meantime, on January 25, Valerian Kuibyshev died of heart failure, at age forty-six. The autopsy would find arteriosclerosis and blood clots. His heavy drinking had resulted in unpredictable work absences, a constant refrain in Stalin’s correspondence.189 He was cremated, and the urn with his ashes interred in the Kremlin Wall, adjacent to Kirov’s.190


Soviet military intelligence, for all its blowups and failures, amassed a breathtaking network in Warsaw—thanks to Hitler. Rudolf Herrnstadt, born in the Silesian town of Gleiwitz (1903), a correspondent for the left-wing Berliner Tageblatt and a Jew, had joined the German Communist party as Rudolf Arbin, began working for Soviet intelligence around 1931, and fled the Nazis to Warsaw in 1933 with his lover, also a Soviet agent. He maintained journalist cover and recruited Gerhard Kegel (“X”), a junior banker and journalist (b. 1907) also from Upper Silesia, who had joined the German Socialist Party and then the Communists and now worked in the trade department of Germany’s embassy in Warsaw. Herrnstadt’s lover, the angular-faced Ilse Stöbe (b. 1911), code-named “Alta,” the daughter of working-class parents in Berlin, had worked for the same newspaper as Herrnstadt. She had been directed to join the Nazi party and, in mid-1934, was named a cultural attaché of the Nazi party’s foreign office in Poland. Stöbe would recruit the Silesia-born (1897) Rudolf von Scheliha (“Aryan”), the son of a Prussian squire, who joined the Nazi party at the suggestion of Soviet intelligence and in late 1934 had gotten himself named as the top aide in Warsaw to German ambassador Hans-Adolf von Moltke. Other recruits included the radioman Kurt Schulze (“Berg,” b. 1894), Kurt Welkisch (“ABC,” b. 1910), a German journalist and diplomat, and his wife, Margarita Welkisch (“LCL,” b. 1913).191 They were linked in their anti-Nazism.

Inside Nazi Germany, Wilhelm “Willy” Lehmann (b. 1884), code-named “Breitenbach,” a long-serving Berlin policeman, had been secretly recruited even before the Nazis came to power, then moved into the Gestapo, where he was assigned to nothing less than counterintelligence against the Soviet Union. (He had been tasked with summary executions during the Night of the Long Knives, which helped solidify his bona fides.) Lehmann passed to Moscow details of German intelligence’s organizational structure and forthcoming operations and, in 1935, of early German rocket tests. That same year, Harro Schulze-Boysen (b. 1909), a Prussian aristocrat officer at Göring’s Luftwaffe, contacted the Soviet embassy offering his services; he was given the code name “Elder.” Not long thereafter, Arvid Harnack (b. 1901), a senior official in the Nazi economics ministry and onetime leftist youth organizer, also made contact with the Soviet embassy; he was advised to join the Nazi party and given the code name “Corsican.” No other country would field such an undercover network in the halls of the Third Reich.

Another remarkable anti-Nazi Soviet spy was in Tokyo, Richard Sorge, the offspring of a Russian mother and a German father, who, in preparation for assignment to Japan, had traveled to Germany and happened to meet the publisher of the Journal of Geopolitics, a zealous Nazi who gave him a contract as a stringer and a letter of introduction to the German embassy in Tokyo. Sorge, code-named “Ramsay,” joined the Nazi party, took with him a radio operator, and charmed the ambassador in Japan, Herbert von Dirksen. Other contacts gave Sorge entrée to Colonel Eugen Ott, who became the German military attaché (and would one day replace Dirksen). Sorge also had spectacular success penetrating Japanese officialdom, partly thanks to the esteem in which the Germans held him. German diplomats discovered that the journalist stringer Sorge had better information about Japan than they did, and they let him help compile embassy reports to Berlin, copies of which surreptitiously went to Moscow.192

Soviet intelligence enjoyed gobsmacking success in the UK, too. Harold Philby, nicknamed “Kim” after the Rudyard Kipling character, had been born in British India (1912); his father was an adviser to the Saudi king, and the son aimed to join the foreign office. As a student at Cambridge University, Philby had been helped by Maurice Dobb, an economics lecturer and an early British Communist party member, to go abroad and work for the World Committee for the Relief of the Victims of German Fascism. Aiding refugees from Nazism in Austria, Philby married a Hungarian-Jewish divorcée who belonged to the Austrian Communist party and came to the attention of Tivadar (Theodore) Maly, a Hungary-born Soviet intelligence operative who secretly recommended him for recruitment. Back in London, a friend of Philby’s wife set up a meeting in Regent’s Park with the Artuzov protégé Arnold Deutsch, a chemical engineer born in Habsburg Slovakia, of Jewish extraction, who had joined the Austrian Communist party and relocated to the Soviet Union, before being posted as station chief to the UK.193 Deutsch transformed Philby, a budding journalist, into a playacting right-winger and reliable courier with a valuable British passport. Through Philby, Soviet intelligence recruited Guy Burgess (b. 1911), another Cambridge University student; Anthony Blunt, a Cambridge student and then tutor in art history; and the invaluable Donald Maclean, a fourth Cambridge University graduate who entered the British foreign office in 1935. Artuzov’s team would even penetrate MI6.194

All the while, Soviet counterintelligence was spending as much or more time on its own diplomats and military officers as on foreign governments. NKVD special department operatives for watching the Red Army had ballooned to an all-time record of 3,769 by January 1935.195 Mark Stokland, known as Gai, the head of the special department, received yet another phantasmagorical secret “report” from the informant Tatyana Zaionchkovskaya, who socialized with Tukhachevsky, among others, and asserted that the “counterrevolution” inside the USSR was counting on former officers to shoot Stalin. “This is complete rubbish of a stupid old woman who has lost her mind,” Gai wrote. But such “reports” kept coming.196

What use Stalin and the Soviet regime would make of the intelligence windfall inadvertently delivered by Hitler and Nazism, meanwhile, remained to be seen. Hermann Göring, under the pretext of a hunting trip, was invited to undertake a diplomatic trip to Poland from January 26 to 31, 1935. He had just spent several days with Hitler in the Obersalzberg, and now, on the anniversary of the nonaggression declaration with Poland, he told Beck that Germany would not sign a broad Eastern Pact or any treaty with the Soviet Union, and that “the chancellor has decided to continue the policy of developing good neighborly relations with Poland.” Göring told Józef Lipski, the Polish envoy to Berlin, who was back in Warsaw for the occasion, that Germany would have to expand, but not at Polish expense, and that Poland might acquire more Lithuanian territory in any deal over the Polish Corridor. At a reception in his honor, Göring tried to prove a lack of aggression toward Poland by pointing out that, for Germany, creating a common border with the USSR would be “highly dangerous.” At the former tsarist family hunting grounds in the Białowieza (Belovezh) Forest, in the presence of two Polish generals, Göring “almost proposed an anti-Soviet alliance, and a joint march on Moscow,” according to the Polish record. “Ukraine would be a Polish sphere of influence, while northwestern Russia would go to Germany.” Göring conveyed something similar in his audience with President Piłsudski, even offering that the marshal could command a joint Polish-German attack on the USSR. The elderly president answered that Poland, having a 600-mile border with the Soviet Union, needed peace.197

Public knowledge of Göring’s visit, combined with the secretiveness of its substance, sparked all manner of speculation.198 On January 30, Stalin had Tukhachevsky—who had a sky-high profile abroad—deliver a policy speech to the 2,000 delegates of the 7th USSR Congress of Soviets. He declared that the Red Army was concentrating soldiers in the Far East and, in general, was a force not to be underestimated, revealing for the first time that the military budget had risen to more than 5 billion rubles—10 percent of total expenditures—and was projected to reach 6.5 billion in 1935. In fact, 1934 outlays had amounted to a gargantuan 5.8 billion (as compared with 417 million a decade before), and internal projections for 1935 were 7.5 billion.199 But even the deliberately lowball figures were impressive. Tukhachevsky added, accurately, that troop strength had increased to 940,000. “We are working for the development of mobility and daring, for the development of initiative, independence, persistence—to put it crudely, ‘nerve,’” he explained of the new military doctrine, adding that commanders accustomed since the civil war to cavalry had had to “adjust to a new level, to be able to utilize the mobility of aviation and our mechanized troops and tanks. [It] is not so simple.” Both when he had first appeared on the dais and after he finished, the entire hall stood in applause for a good long time. “The ovation was marked out from others by its force and sincerity,” one attendee recalled. “Tukhachevsky was a good orator, and his speech stirred the audience to its depths.”200 The rousing account of Red Army might was published in Pravda (January 31) along with a photograph of Stalin, Voroshilov, and other politburo members listening to Tukhachevsky.201


Nikolai Yezhov, along with Agranov, was the point man on the Kirov assassination fallout. Stalin convened a one-day Central Committee plenum on February 1, 1935, to formalize Yezhov’s appointment as a Central Committee secretary. Officially, he had been born (1895) to a working-class family in industrial St. Petersburg, but he hailed from Mariampol, in tsarist Lithuania, and his father was a musician, then a forest warden, brothel (“tearoom”) owner, and housepainter. His mother was the maid of the musical ensemble’s conductor and either an ethnic Lithuanian or a Russian who grew up in Lithuania. (Yezhov spoke Lithuanian and Polish, which he hid.) Having completed only first grade, he went to the imperial Russian capital at age eleven to apprentice to a tailor, before signing on to the Putilov Works and then being conscripted. He joined the Bolshevik party in 1917 (before October) and served as a military commissar during the civil war, after which his star rose as a regional party functionary in Tatarstan, then in Mari-El (east-central Russia), where he provoked anger for running roughshod over the local ethnics, and then in the Kazakh steppe (Semipalatinsk).202 Yezhov enjoyed playing guitar, composing verse, reading—he had been dubbed Kolya the Book Lover—and building model ships.203 He was nervous and shy, and developed a reputation as mild-mannered, but he stood out for his uncommon energy.204 In 1927, Ivan Moskvin, the head of the Central Committee’s assignments and records department, had brought Yezhov into the central apparatus (they had met in the hotel at the 14th Party Congress). “I don’t know a more ideal worker, or rather executive,” Moskvin wrote to his son-in-law. “If you entrust him with anything, you need not check up: you can be sure, he will do it. Yezhov has only one fault, admittedly a fundamental one: he doesn’t know where to stop. . . . And sometimes one has to keep an eye on him in order to stop him in time.”205

Yezhov displaced his mentor Moskvin as head of assignments and records.The dictator had taken a shine to him, nicknaming him the Little Blackberry (Yezhevichka), and allowed him to attend politburo sessions, oversee personnel in the economy, and help run the orgburo.206 In late 1933, the émigré Socialist Herald had published a revealing essay on “the dictator’s inner circle” that ridiculed Yezhov. “Short in stature, nearly a dwarf, with thin curved legs, an asymmetric face, bearing the marks of his birth (his father was a hereditary alcoholic), with evil eyes, a thin squeaky voice, and a severely sarcastic tongue,” read the profile, calling him “a typical representative of the Petersburg lower-foreman type, whose determining character trait was rage against those born in better circumstances . . . enormous rage against the intelligentsia, including the party intelligentsia.”207 The ridicule confirmed Yezhov’s meteoric rise. Now a Central Committee secretary, he enjoyed a grand office on Old Square, on the top floor near the dictator’s, and use of a three-story villa with a private cinema, tennis court, nanny, and staff, in Meshcherino, the prerevolutionary artists’ and writers’ colony on the Pra River just outside Moscow. (Yezhov had divorced his first wife and married Yevgeniya Feigenberg Khayutina Gladun, a social climber whom he met at a government resort in Sochi—it was her third marriage—and she began to convene literary salons.)208

Stalin also promoted Chubar and Mikoyan, longtime candidate members of the politburo, to full membership, giving them the voting slots of Kirov and Kuibyshev. Zhdanov and Eihe became candidate politburo members.209 On February 27, 1935, Kaganovich replaced Andreyev as transport commissar, who became a Central Committee secretary. The railways had long been a bottleneck, and others posted there had not fared well (including Andreyev). On February 28, Stalin convened another one-day Central Committee plenum to formalize Andreyev’s promotion. Khrushchev got Kaganovich’s post as head of the Moscow party. Yezhov was put in charge of party personnel and local party organizations and freed from overseeing industry and managing the orgburo (responsibilities transferred to Andreyev). Yezhov also took over chairmanship of the party Control Commission from his mentor Kaganovich.210 In a word, Kaganovich’s protégés in the apparatus became Stalin’s, and instead of the powerful post of de facto second secretary, held first by Molotov and then Kaganovich, Stalin now had a troika of three younger apparatchik deputies: Yezhov, Zhdanov, and Andreyev, of whom only Andreyev had met him before 1917.211 The most frequent visitors to Stalin’s Kremlin apartment for meals were now Molotov, Voroshilov, Kaganovich, Mikoyan, and Andreyev.212 But the Little Blackberry spent more and more time in Stalin’s office.


Henri Barbusse’s Stalin: A New World Seen Through One Man came out in French in February 1935. The Frenchman was the sole foreign intellectual who had met Stalin both recently and in the past (1927, 1932, 1933, 1934), and at both his office and his apartment.213 His draft manuscript had been submitted for review to the Soviet functionary Stetsky, who faced a dilemma: the book not only mentioned Trotsky, but also portrayed him as a thinker, while not portraying Stalin as such.214 In a delicate dance to avoid alienating Barbusse, Stetsky managed to obtain changes. “Stalin is the Lenin of our day,” the final text felicitously stated. “Stalin is a person with a scholar’s mind, a worker’s figure, and a simple soldier’s dress.” Barbusse portrayed the cult, much maligned in Western Europe, as a natural phenomenon arising from the depths (“If Stalin believes in the masses, the masses believe in him”), and humanized the dictator. “It is not so much that his expression is a little wild as that there seems to be a perpetual twinkle in his eye,” Barbusse wrote. “He laughs like a child,” and “people who laugh like children love children.”215

Barbusse made his motivations plain, writing that “every state except one is moving through fascism towards ruin.” But his knowledge of Soviet realities was dim.

Collective farms had stabilized, and the size of the harvests improved, in part from belated mechanization, in part from fortunate weather, but also from regime concessions to the farmers, who had been allowed to maintain “household plots” and personal cows, pigs, sheep, and chickens (though not horses, a sore point). In the Grand Kremlin Palace from February 11 to 17, 1935, the regime convened a Second all-Union Congress of Collective Farm Shock Workers, attended by 1,433 delegates, the majority of whom were not party members. Crop growers, herders, and tractor drivers were given the floor.216 Maria Demchenko, of the Comintern Collective Farm in Kiev province, pledged to harvest 500 centners of sugar beets per hectare (“We must bombard the country with sugar”), which the regime made into a “movement” of 500ers (the average at her farm was 245). Stalin did not deliver a formal speech, but came and went all seven days. “Iosif Vissarionovich,” Demchenko told the delegates, “laughs with us, converses with us, shares his thoughts with us on how to work on the collective farm and how we can live better.”217 One Kazakh tractor driver, Beken Tankin, a former nomad whose Russian was shaky, had been put in the position of chairing one of the nine sessions and became bewildered when delegates started shouting “Hurrah!” The ovation persisted. Finally, someone came up from behind and turned Tankin around: Stalin had reentered the congress presidium. Smiling, the dictator pointed to a button on the table for Tankin to press for quiet. “I’ll go home to my collective farm,” he said to himself, “with something to talk about.”218

Delegates “elected” a commission of 170 members to consider a new charter for collective farms drafted by the Central Committee agriculture department.219 At the commission, on February 16, Stalin went through the text point by point, grandly asserting that members were not taking into account the interests of collective farmers. Instead of the 0.10–0.12 hectare for household plots some people were recommending, he proposed 0.25 to 0.5, and even up to 1 hectare in some regions, depending on conditions, as well as up to one cow and two calves, one sow and its progeny, up to ten sheep and goats, unlimited poultry, and twenty bee-hives. “Comrade Stalin,” Kalinin objected, “we do not have enough land.” Voroshilov interjected that those getting 0.5 hectare would in any case be “a minority.” Stalin disagreed: “Our country is big, the conditions are very various.”220 He also recommended maternity leave of two months (at half average pay), a nod to the outsized role that ambitious women such as Demchenko played.221 The final charter, approved on February 17, granted the leave, personal livestock, and household plots of the size Stalin suggested, and the press let the rural laborers know who was responsible for the ostensible largesse.222 In fact, Stalin despised the household plots, and his regime strove to contain them.223

One contemporary émigré analyst deemed the 1935 household-plot-size concessions a “collective farm NEP,” but still likened the collective farms to the Gulag system, only larger.224 The state dominated the grain trade, imposing very heavy quotas and very low state prices, paying collective farmers subsistence wages, predominantly in kind, and forcing them to work in brigades—a demotion from peasant to laborer, which encouraged dependency and sloth.225 The regime also imposed unpaid obligations for roadwork, timber felling, and hauling, and required rural laborers (unlike urban workers) to deliver quotas of meat, milk, and eggs from their household plots, even if they did not own a cow or livestock. But after all the blood and tears of dekulakization, the new charter belatedly conceded legal entry into collective farms to former kulaks, albeit supposedly only “after a strict check to ensure that wolves in sheep’s clothing were not getting in on the pretext of being reformed characters.”226 The Soviet village ended up stratified, with rich and poor, based on bureaucratic position.227


Three women in their early twenties who worked as cleaning personnel in the Kremlin had sat down to “tea” and gossiped. One supposedly said, “Stalin has people do the work for him—that’s why he’s so fat. He has servants and luxuries.” The second: “Stalin killed his wife. He’s not Russian but Armenian, very evil, and never looks at anyone with a nice glance.” The third: “Comrade Stalin gets a lot of money and he misleads us, saying that he only makes 200 rubles [per month].” Rudolf Peterson, the Kremlin commandant—who had been one of the first to see Nadya’s body after she shot herself and was said to have given her vanished suicide note to Stalin—passed a report of these conversations to Yenukidze, who did nothing.228 But another denunciation came forward, and on January 20, 1935, the NKVD’s Pauker, Georgy Molchanov, and Genrikh Lyushkov, all of whom were involved in the investigation of Kirov’s murder on the NKVD’s watch, conducted interrogations. Yagoda sent Stalin a report that day about cleaning personnel who were said to belong to “a counterrevolutionary group” in the Kremlin.229

Yezhov, meanwhile, had invited the dictator to join him at a closed-door operational gathering of all NKVD central and provincial bosses on February 3; Stalin accepted, and delivered a speech on vigilance.230 At the gathering, Agranov contradicted the official line on the Kirov murder, stating, accurately, that “Nikolayev was gripped by ecstasy over fulfilling an historical mission, comparing himself to Zhelyabov and [Alexander] Radishchev.” Agranov went on to issue a mea culpa: “We did not succeed in proving that the ‘Moscow Center’ knew and prepared a terrorist act against comrade Kirov.”231

In the testimony of Kremlin employees, each person mentioned other names, leading to new arrests, and on February 5, Yagoda sent Stalin a report with interrogation protocols containing confessions of private complaints about daily life and a lack of democracy, as well as “Trotskyite interpretations of Lenin’s so-called Testament” and speculation about how Stalin’s wife had really died.232 While interrogating Kremlin janitors, the NKVD heard about some daughters of former nobles who worked as librarians in the Kremlin, transporting books back and forth from the private residences. Yagoda’s power ended at the Kremlin walls—inside, Yenukidze’s central executive committee apparatus and Voroshilov’s defense commissariat ruled—and the NKVD chief evidently made professions that he could not be responsible for the safety of the leadership with such women going about using special passes. Testimony was spun into the existence of an “aristocratic nest” around Nina Rozenfeld, an ethnic Armenian, educated at gymnasium, who was said to have boasted of her descent from an ancient Muscovy clan. (One arrested colleague defended her as “a Soviet-inclined person.”)233 Stalin read, numbered, and marked up the voluminous interrogation protocols with queries or comments. On one, where it was noted that the accused had initially been a cleaning lady before becoming a Kremlin librarian, he underlined the sentence and wrote, “Ha-ha, cleaner-librarian?”234

These were indeed small fry.235 Nonetheless, on February 14, the politburo substituted the NKVD for the central executive committee as the defense commissariat’s partner for oversight of the Kremlin.236 The NKVD took over the reconstruction of the Grand Kremlin Palace’s Andreyev and Alexandrov halls and of the Sverdlov Hall in the Imperial Senate. This looked like a triumph for Yagoda, but on February 22, the politburo directed Yezhov, not Yagoda, to conduct a verification of the central executive committee apparatus. NKVD interrogation protocols in the “Kremlin Affair” had to be sent to him.237 Zinoviev, meanwhile, had been hauled out of prison and re-interrogated in Moscow on February 19 in connection with the Kirov murder. “To Kamenev belongs the winged formulation on how ‘Marxism is now whatever is convenient for Stalin,’” he testified. “Kamenev and I did discuss Stalin’s removal, but we thought only in terms of his being replaced in the post of general secretary. . . . I did not hear declarations by Kamenev about a terrorist act in the struggle with the party leadership.”238 Yezhov had work to do. Soon the politburo would formally task him with reviewing the statutes governing the NKVD: further pressure on Yagoda.239

Yezhov praised Zakovsky, whose Leningrad Chekists were poring over prerevolutionary archives, address lists, and phone books, stringing together people like beads to form counterrevolutionary “organizations” of former nobles, merchants, factory owners, rentiers, old regime functionaries, priests, and family members.240 Zakovsky had been a Red Guard protecting Smolny during the October Revolution, and his Cheka service dated from its founding, in December 1917 (he was said to have been invited to join by Dzierżyński). He had completed just two years of schooling, yet he was credited with compiling the internal NKVD training textbook. He had reported to Yagoda on the more than 11,000 “former people” employed in the city’s party and government institutions.241 Yagoda, in a note to Stalin (February 26), objected to indiscriminate roundups of “formers,” unless they were proven counterrevolutionaries, because of the potential for a negative press campaign abroad, but Stalin brushed the memo aside (“to the archive”).242 Beginning on February 28, Zakovsky and his minions began “cleansing” the former people, the universities, and the border zones, requesting authorization for ever more arrests in “unmasked” conspiracies and boasting of preventing terrorist acts against the new Leningrad party boss, Zhdanov.243


Bulgakov’s The Days of the Turbins had been returned to theaters, partly as a result of Gorky’s determination and political weight.244 By some accounts, Stalin saw it fifteen times.245 In 1935, he sent the fourteen-year-olds Vasily and Artyom to see it. Artyom recalled not comprehending the play, because it showed no Reds, only Whites, and the latter fought among themselves. Stalin explained that “between the Reds and the Whites there was a spectrum from almost Red to almost White, so that the people who fight in the play, some are very White, others a bit pink, but not Red. They could not get along, so they fought. Never think that you can divide people between purely Red and purely White. That is only leaders, the more literate, conscious people. The masses follow these or those, frequently confusing them, and do not go where they are supposed to go.”246

Stalin approved an International Film Festival in Moscow (February 21–March 2, 1935) and allowed the world-renowned Eisenstein to chair the jury. Captions under photographs of the Soviet participants read “director,” while Eisenstein’s read “Extraordinary World-Class Director,” but speakers pointedly asked why he had not made a film in six years, accusing him of silence about Soviet achievements.247 Walt Disney animations—Three Little Pigs, Peculiar Penguins—were featured (and, before the year was out, shown to the Soviet public).248 An American film about Mexico called Viva, Villa! was also screened, prompting the poet Alexander Bezymensky to accuse Jolly Fellows of having plagiarized its music from this film. This spurred renewed ideological attacks against mere laughter. “Jolly Fellows creates the impression that some bourgeois directors sneaked into the studios at night and secretly shot the film using a Soviet stage set,” a French critic remarked, as quoted in the Soviet press.249 Stalin ordered Mekhlis at Pravda to defend Shumyatsky, and the attack dog editorialized, without irony, that “both editors [of Izvestiya and Literary Newspaper] have apparently forgotten the elementary rules of decency essential to Soviet newspapers.”250

At the concluding ceremony in the Columned Hall of the House of Trade Unions, Leningrad Film took first prize, primarily for Chapayev; The Last Billionaire by the French-born René-Lucien Chomette, known as René Clair, took second; and Disney third.251 Clair’s film, a commercial flop in France, portrays a nearly bankrupt fictional European kingdom (“Casinaria”) that begs for help from the earth’s richest man (“Monsieur Banco”), who, upon arrival, is accidentally hit in the head and awakens a babbling imbecile. Casinaria soon becomes a dictatorship.252

Certain types of foreign literature were being translated, and, once in Russian (or another Soviet language), they could be incorporated, alongside Lev Tolstoy, into the Soviet canon as “classics of world literature.” This included Cervantes, Molière, Balzac, Goethe, and especially Shakespeare, all of whom were often translated freely, rather than literally.253 “Shakespearize More!” (an exhortation credited to Marx) had been revived, with propagandists characterizing him as a “people’s bard.”254 For a March 1935 international theater festival in Moscow—Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Eisler, and Edward Gordon Craig participated—the featured Soviet entrant was Shakespeare’s King Lear, which had premiered at the Moscow State Jewish Theater in Yiddish, with Solomon Mikhoels playing Lear.255 Of course, Lear had lost all his territory and descended into insanity.256


Local officials all around the Union were reporting to Stalin on steel, chemicals, military hardware. Beria was reporting on Baku oil and Georgian rare metals, the boost in manganese output at Chiatura, the performance of the Tiflis railway shops now named for Stalin, and the output of new plants: the Tiflis machine-tool factory, now named for Kirov; Zestafoni Ferroalloy Plant; Inguri Pulp and Paper.257 Lakoba’s reports concerned tea, citrus, tobacco, and geraniums. He sent crates of tangerines and lemons to Stalin and Orjonikidze in Moscow. But Abkhazia’s resorts left a lot to be desired. “Authority, comrades, does not arise by itself; it needs to be won. It arises where living people get things done, not from books, not from formulas,” he had told the 7th Congress of Soviets of the Abkhaz autonomous republic in March 1935. “You know, comrades, in resort construction we still look very weak.. . . . We have not managed to reestablish our old resorts fully.”258 Nonetheless, the Abkhaz autonomous republic was awarded the Order of Lenin, partly for tobacco production (which was largely the work of family farms, not collectives).259

As the NKVD interrogated ever more Kremlin personnel, Yenukidze’s name inevitably came up.260 Well liked, he ran a regime of favors, doling out unique state resources and using his status as Stalin’s intimate to take care of old friends and solve sticky matters involving elite households.261 The fifty-eight-year-old had never married and had not himself moved into the Kremlin, continuing to live in the Metropole, where the central executive committee had had its original offices, but if he was trying to keep his bedding of underage females out of sight, he failed. During testimony, some arrested Kremlin employees mentioned Yenukidze’s “girls.” Irina Gogua, another Kremlin employee who fell into the NKVD’s net, was the daughter of an old Menshevik who had gone to school with Yenukidze in Tiflis. “He was a fantastic guy, very charming, a flaming redhead who, thanks to graying, had become such a soft blond,” she would recall of Yenukidze. “True, his face was pockmarked, even more so than Iosif Vissarionovich’s. . . . You see, it was a paradox. He was accused of debauchery, devil knows what. But he was a very warm person. He had one quality: he hated to say no, he helped people, independent of who they were. He had one weakness: girls who married his closest friends with whom he would fall in love.”262

What really got Yenukidze into trouble was his quiet disbursal of state funds to help the often destitute families of non-Bolshevik revolutionaries from the underground years, former Communist party oppositionists (Kamenev’s relatives), even former nobles (like himself) for whom he found jobs in the sprawling central executive committee. Kirov’s assassination had made such actions especially sinister but, protected by Voroshilov, Yenukidze was merely demoted on March 3, 1935, to a position in the central executive committee of the South Caucasus.263 Ivan Akulov, USSR procurator general, became secretary of the central executive committee; Andrei Vyshinsky took over as USSR procurator general.

The Kirov and Kremlin Affair investigations were now running in parallel. In Leningrad on March 10, Draule was tried and executed, along with her sister and brother-in-law; there was no public announcement.264 The next day, a secret NKVD circular observed that enemies had been smashed mercilessly but as a result had “gone deep underground,” so operatives had to dig deeper to find them.265 In Moscow, in further testimony (March 11), Nina Rozenfeld was said to have attributed Nadya Alliluyeva’s death to differences over party policy, while complaining about the removal of Zinoviev and Kamenev and a lack of democracy. Rozenfeld happened to be the former wife of Lev Kamenev’s brother Nikolai, and their son, Boris N. Rozenfeld, was labeled a Trotskyite.266 Nikolai Kamenev had been arrested, and found to have painted watercolors of Stalin. Finally, Lev Kamenev was interrogated (March 21) and asked about his brother, who Lev was told had confessed to planning to kill Stalin. Lev Kamenev said that after the arrests of the Zinoviev followers Ivan Bakayev and Grigory Yevdokimov in the wake of the Kirov murder, an agitated Zinoviev had come to him expressing fears of an action like Germany’s Night of the Long Knives against him and others. Stalin circulated the document to Molotov, Kaganovich, Voroshilov, and Yezhov, writing, “Idiotic interrogation of Kamenev.”267

Stalin had the politburo approve by telephone poll a secret party circular absolving Yenukidze of knowing of plans to assassinate the dictator, but deeming him to have been used by the class enemy. His demotion to the South Caucasus was judged too light a punishment.268 Gorky was following press accounts of the Kremlin Affair. “What is striking is not so much the behavior of Yenukidze, but the shameful indifference to this behavior of the party-ites,” he wrote ingratiatingly to Stalin (March 23, 1935). “Even the non-party people long ago knew and spoke about how the old man was surrounded by nobles, Mensheviks, and, in general, shitty flies.” Gorky asserted that the strangely well-informed émigré Socialist Herald got its inside information from Yenukidze’s staff. “The closer we get to war, the stronger will be the efforts of these jokers of all suits to try to assassinate you, in order to decapitate the Union,” Gorky stated in his letter, which Stalin circulated to the politburo. “This is natural, for the enemies see well: there is no one who could take your place. With your colossal and wise work, you have inculcated in millions of people trust and love to you—that’s a fact. . . . Take care of yourself.”269

Also on March 23, after protracted negotiations, the Soviets sold the Chinese Eastern Railway to Manchukuo for the convertible currency equivalent of 140 million yen, a fraction of its market (let alone strategic) value.270 (Stalin’s regime left behind a network of undercover agents.) On the same day, the politburo decreed that the payment would be used for more equipment purchases in the United States, Britain, and Germany for Moscow’s ZIS Factory, which manufactured heavy trucks and, soon, luxury sedans.271 Chinese patriots said the railroad was not the Soviets’ to sell, and the Nationalist government in Nanking lodged an official protest. Chiang Kai-shek had opened semiofficial negotiations for a friendship treaty with Japan’s representative, who proposed a Sino-Japanese alliance. As a dedicated anti-Communist, Chiang would have been a natural ally of Japan (as well as Germany) against the Soviet Union.272 But “Chiang Kai-shek did not go for this,” the Soviet chargé d’affaires in China had reported of the alliance proposal. Chiang did raise the Japanese legation to the status of an embassy, and the two countries announced an exchange of ambassadors. This provoked anti-Japanese protests in Tientsin and Peking. Japan, leaping on the “insult” of the protests, had its garrison in Tientsin expel the Chinese Nationalist authorities and soldiers from Hebei province, and then from the Chahar province of Inner Mongolia, as it spread its control over northern China. Japan would also ramp up pressure on the Soviet satellite Outer Mongolia.273 The Soviet chargé d’affaires, in the same report about Chiang, warned that another faction in the Nanking government “favors an alliance” with Japan.274


On April 22, 1935, after concluding meetings in the Little Corner at 7:00 p.m., Stalin went downstairs to his apartment for supper. It was the birthday of Svetlana’s governess, and the relatives had come by. Stalin was said to be in a good mood. During the toasts, Svetlana said she wanted to ride on the new Moscow metro. Her governess, Maria Svanidze, and others were to accompany her and Vasily; Kaganovich sent the party with his deputy. Suddenly Stalin said he wanted to go, too. Molotov was phoned to join. “Everybody was terribly concerned,” Svanidze wrote in her diary. “There was a lot of whispering about the danger of such an outing without proper preparation.”

A now pale Kaganovich suggested that they wait until midnight, when the metro shut down. Stalin insisted they go immediately. They drove in three cars to Moscow’s Crimea Square and descended into the station, waiting for what turned out to be twenty minutes; a train arrived already packed. Workers decoupled the car with the motor and Stalin’s group was off, to Hunters’ Row, the station closest to the Kremlin, where he inspected the station and the escalator; onlookers erupted. Stalin ended up surrounded by well-wishers. Bodyguards and police had arrived and tried to bring order. The crowd smashed an enormous metal lamp. Svanidze was nearly smothered against a column. Vasily was scared for his life. Svetlana was so frightened, she stayed in the train car. We “were intimidated by the uninhibited ecstasy of the crowd,” Svanidze wrote. “Iosif was merry.”

This was an unstaged moment catalyzed by his daughter. Stalin reboarded, traveling to the end of the line, Sokolniki, where he was supposed to get into a waiting automobile, but he decided to stay on board and return to Smolensk Square, where no vehicles were waiting (the train beat them). He and his entourage went on foot toward the Arbat as rain descended and puddles formed. A car finally arrived. Svetlana and Vasily were taken to the Kremlin apartment, where Vasily “threw himself on the bed and cried hysterically.” Stalin headed to the Near Dacha. Evidently, his obsession with possible assassination was in abeyance that evening: regular passengers had been allowed to ride in the train carriage with him from Hunters’ Row.275 “Iosif smiled affectionately the whole time,” Svanidze wrote in her diary. “I think that, despite all his sobriety, he was touched by the people’s love and attention to their Supreme Leader. . . . He once said about the ovations offered to him that people need a tsar, that is, someone to revere and in whose name to live and labor.”276

•   •   •

COULD STALIN HAVE MURDERED HIS CLOSEST FRIEND? He was capable of anything.277 But who, precisely, would have carried out that mission for him? Medved, who was incompetent, and would himself go to his grave suspecting that Yagoda had organized the murder on Stalin’s behalf?278 Zaporozhets, who broke his leg, took no part in any operational matters after September 1934, and had left town on an extended holiday in the weeks leading up to the critical deed? Borisov, a near invalid who had gotten his bodyguard job only because he was of working-class origin and, for a time, had been a night watchman and was a faithful dog to Kirov? A mystery second gunman in the corridor, who eluded every single witness, as well as the lockdown imposed after the shots were heard? There is no evidence whatsoever that Stalin killed Kirov (despite the work of several commissions under Khrushchev aimed at discrediting the dictator). And there is copious evidence, recorded right before and after the assassination, that Nikolayev did it, and managed to pull it off because of his determination and shoddy NKVD security practices that were, ultimately, traceable to Kirov himself.279 Nikolayev had motive, and opportunity.280 He roiled with grievance and summoned resolve from revolutionary terrorist history and Soviet ideals of a workers’ state and social justice. He plotted out numerous attempts, all of which failed, until finally a combination of planning and luck gave him the chance to fulfill a wish to exact revenge and make history.

While Nikolayev reclaimed a sense of higher purpose from his despair, Stalin’s regime made the Kirov assassination into an epoch-defining event. Most people in Leningrad and elsewhere, living in communal apartments, barracks, and mud huts, were preoccupied with material hardship. Apparatchiks complained that the discussions they were ordered to oversee of Kirov’s murder were overtaken by the pending end of bread rationing and threatened price increases.281 The end of rationing had generated significant anxiety and resentment.282 All the while, conspiracy theories flourished: Medved had slipped Nikolayev a pass to Smolny; Chudov had ordered a hit to take Kirov’s place; foreign agents had penetrated the building; it was Stalin’s doing (a rumor that grew over time). Police informants hastened to capture or invent such gossip. In Leningrad: “I like brave men like Nikolayev who must have gone to a certain death.” “It’s clear not all the Zhelyabovs have disappeared in Rus; the struggle for freedom goes on.” “The murderer wanted good for the people, that’s why he killed Kirov.” In the miners’ region of Donetsk: “Kirov was killed; it’s not enough; Stalin should have also been killed.”283

Speculation that the affable provincial party leader constituted a threatening political rival to Stalin is without foundation.284 Similarly, the regime folklore that Yagoda’s NKVD had “resisted” the direction of the investigation was largely invented. Yagoda had no issues with framing Zinoviev and “Zinovievites,” a scenario that Stalin, in any case, did not come to immediately. The dictator drove an overkill response to the murder, relying not just on the hyper-ingratiating Yezhov, Agranov, and Zakovsky, but also on Yagoda. Yagoda had suggested the foreign angle—textbook Stalinist practice—calling from Stalin’s office the first night.285 It was Stalin who had chosen not to investigate Nikolayev’s visits and telephone calls to the German and Latvian consulates. The fabrications, moreover, exacerbated the professional degradation of the secret police, which enraged Stalin, and for which he had recently abolished the OGPU in favor of the NKVD. The fabrications also hurt the USSR’s reputation internationally, to which Stalin had become more sensitive. At the same time, it is wrong to assert that Stalin “took advantage” of the Kirov assassination. He needed no such pretext to act as he chose. He pushed for fierce revenge against “enemies” and prevention of recurrences out of anger, and loss.

One of Stalin’s prime fixations was confirmed: the NKVD was asleep on the job. In a city teeming with foreigners and presumed foreign agents, with innumerable “former people” and other presumed class enemies, with even much of the lower orders disaffected by the sacrifices of building socialism, Leningrad’s secret-operative department had only a short, pathetic list of potential terrorists—and did not even share that list with the bodyguard department.286 A parallel obsession of Stalin’s was also confirmed: an enemy terrorist in possession of a party card, taking advantage of ties to party members, had penetrated security with ease and assassinated a top leader.287 In fact, Nikolayev had been purged, for a time, but the episode had only rendered him more dangerous, just as Stalin was warning (the “class struggle” sharpened). But Stalin chose not to make this the object of the investigation and trials. Nikolayev’s individual terrorism—which had grown from his violated sense of worker empowerment and Communist justice—was altered, at Stalin’s behest, into the mythology that Zinoviev and Kamenev, both powerless, were somehow behind the assassination. Then Stalin remained bothered by their sentencing for creating a “moral atmosphere” conducive to terrorism, because it had fallen short of convictions for direct preparation in terrorist acts by his old critics or direct links to his arch-nemesis Trotsky, who remained out of reach in foreign exile.288

Stalin increasingly was alone. Not only had both of his wives died, but now his closest friend was gone. Henceforth he went to the steam bath alone. Relations with Orjonikidze had become strained, and Stalin’s ardor for Lakoba was cooling, partly as a result of Beria’s intrigues. Stalin’s newer associates, Andreyev, Yezhov, and Zhdanov, were minions, not social peers, and he was not socially close to the unlettered Kaganovich or the stiff Molotov. But Stalin had the Soviet state, which he had helped build into a major military power.289 Still, despite joining the League of Nations, the Soviet state was also to a considerable extent alone. And, more and more, the militarized state and its ruler were being stalked from afar by a nemesis the likes of which, inside the party, Stalin had never faced: Adolf Hitler.


They talk about it in Soviet institutions, factory smoking rooms, student dormitories, and commuter trains. The most widespread sentiment is the feeling of national pride. Russia has again become a Great Power whose friendship even such powerful states as France desire. . . . In Soviet institutions the philistine functionaries, silent for years, now speak confidently about national patriotism, about the historical mission of Russia, about the revival of the Franco-Russian alliance.

Émigré Socialist Herald, May 1935 1

FRANCE AND BRITAIN, to the west, and the Soviet Union, to the east, had a Hitler problem. All the powers were slowly coming to grips with the Nazi leader, whose turgid masterpiece, Mein Kampf (a crisp title suggested by his publisher), had been reissued after he became chancellor.2 The prison-dictated autobiography, first published in 1925–26, had been issued in English translation only in 1933, and in abridged form, cleansed of “offensive” paragraphs; Britain’s foreign office possessed a single copy of an unexpurgated edition (which it misplaced for a time). A French translation had finally appeared only in 1934 (few French politicians read German).3 A Russian translation would be published only in 1935, and only in the Shanghai emigration.4 Soviet foreign affairs commissariat personnel, many of whom were Jewish, could read the original German with all the “Drang nach Osten” and “Judeo-Bolshevism” riffs.5 Still, people were unsure what to make of the book’s ravings in policy terms. Hitler’s calls for rearmament could be misread as standard German nationalism. His radical anti-Semitism could be misconstrued as in line with remarks by Kaiser Wilhelm II, who had blamed the Jews for the Great War.6 Even the Führer’s expansionist Lebensraum could be stretched to resemble a defensible, if emotional, reaction to the circumstance that so many German speakers had been left out of Bismarck’s “unified” Germany.

While Hitler exploited a national politics of salvation and an international politics of national self-determination, Stalin was conjuring up a domestic politics of siege and anticapitalist mobilization and an international politics of anti-imperialism. But he did no better than his British and French counterparts in taking the measure of the Nazi regime. Between January and March 1935, the newspaper Red Star published a series of articles about supposed tensions between Hitler and his Nazi entourage, on one side, and the German military on the other. The German army supposedly “sought to reestablish the old relations with Russia,” and German generals “foresee a military clash with France in the first instance.”7 Alongside this provocation—or was it a fantasy?—the Soviet war plan for the western theater still identified Poland as the main enemy, anticipating that Romania would join Poland’s side, but assuming that Germany, because it coveted Polish territory, would at least indirectly support Soviet defense by threatening Poland’s rear. Soviet intelligence, however, forwarded a report of intensified rumors of a Franco-German rapprochement, possibly leading to a larger bloc with Poland—supposedly Piłsudski’s dream—and maybe drawing in Finland, Hungary, Romania, even Italy.8 In fact, Poland had no intention of sacrificing its precious independence to the victor of a German-Soviet clash, continuing its neutrality toward both of its giant neighbors, along with separate alliances with France and Romania—in short, bilateralism, not multilateralism.9 This was a truth the British understood, the French regretted, Hitler relished, and Stalin never accepted.

Finally, during two unusually long sessions with the military men in the Little Corner (February 28, March 8), Stalin acknowledged reality.10 The regime resolved to be more forceful in standing up to Japan, and admitted that Germany might start a war against the Soviet Union not opportunistically, waiting for Japan to act, but on its own initiative.11 Above all, the PR (Poland-Romania) war plan was displaced by a new GP (Germany-Poland) plan, in which Poland as well as Romania remained enemies, but only as auxiliaries: Nazi Germany eclipsed them.12 Soviet diplomacy, predicated upon disruption of European solidarity and avoidance of commitments, was even slower to turn. Membership in the League of Nations had brought little, and negotiations for the regional security system known as the Eastern Pact were effectively dead, but time and again the politburo instructed the Soviet envoy Vladimir Potyomkin in Paris, “Do not rush ahead and thereby foster the misconception that we need the [Franco-Soviet bilateral alliance] more than the French. We are not as weak as some suggest.”13 By spring 1935, however, Soviet foreign policy more seriously contemplated securing the country against Nazi Germany.14 Stalin both countenanced and exerted a break on that shift, refusing to abandon pursuit of closer economic, and ultimately political, ties with Berlin. At the same time, he wanted the world to recognize that the country he led was a revived great power.


British officials feared that an arms race would derail its fragile economic recovery, and that another war would no better solve the German problem than had the Great War. Hitler had invited foreign secretary Sir John Simon as well as Lord Privy Seal Anthony Eden to Berlin. On March 7, 1935, three days before the scheduled visit, London published a policy paper urging a sheepishly modest ₤11 million increase in military spending, citing German rearmament and bellicosity. Hitler developed a “cold,” and the visit was put off (“Those ruling England must get used to dealing with us on an equal footing”).15 On March 9, Göring assembled foreign military attachés to announce the existence of a German air force, which was prohibited by Versailles. On March 15, the French National Assembly debated a doubling of army service, from one to two years. Using this as a pretext, the next day, in a further flouting of Versailles, Hitler declared reintroduction of conscription for the Reichswehr—renamed the Wehrmacht—tripling its size to 300,000, which was to rise at some unspecified date to 550,000 (pundits predicted 3 million). Pravda prominently reported Nazi Germany’s actions.16 On March 17, representatives of France, Britain, Italy, and the Soviet Union discussed “protesting” Hitler’s actions at the League, but Britain and France demurred.17 That same day, Heroes’ Memorial Day in Germany, Hitler celebrated the rebirth of the German army in the State Opera House, and afterward staged a review of the Wehrmacht, effectively a military parade, to jubilant crowds.18 Belatedly, the Führer now deigned to receive Simon and Eden after all. The pair, rather than cancel in protest, paid the first visit by British high officials to Hitler as chancellor.

Hitler met them in the morning and the afternoon on both March 25 and 26, wearing a brown tunic with a red swastika armband, and launched with a monologue on the menace of Bolshevism and Soviet expansionism, insisting that he merely wanted to improve the welfare of the German people, who had been through a bitter fifteen years. He further declaimed that Germany’s exit from the League of Nations had been approved by 94 percent of the people, and that no one in Germany imagined annexing Austria, given the principles of state sovereignty and noninterference. He raised hopes for a bilateral naval pact by accepting that his fleet be limited to no more than 35 percent the size of Britain’s—three times the size of the Versailles restrictions—provided the Soviet Union did not expand its own military even more than it had. He also boasted that he had already achieved air parity with Britain, a falsehood that, when leaked, would set off a storm in London. “He emphasized his words with jerky, energetic gestures of the right hand, sometimes clenching his fist,” Hitler’s interpreter wrote. “He impressed me as a man who advanced his arguments intelligently and skillfully.”19

Hitler parried the Britons’ efforts to draw Germany into any multilateral agreement, such as a pact covering Austria or German readmission to the League of Nations. He noted that he “could give the British ministers the assurance that Germany would never declare war on Russia,” but added that Bolshevik doctrine, political aims, and military capabilities meant that “from Russia there was greater probability of war than from other countries. Moreover, the risks for Russia in a possible war were smaller than those for other powers. Russia could with impunity allow the occupation of great tracts of her territory as large as Germany; she could permit bombardment of great regions; she could therefore wage war without risking destruction.” It was a shrewd lament, and revealed Hitler’s deepest preoccupations.

A skeptical Eden voiced doubts that the Soviet Union would initiate a war. Hitler pronounced himself “firmly convinced that one day cooperation and solidarity would be urgently necessary to defend Europe against the Asiatic and Bolshevik menace.” The Führer thanked his guests and voiced hope that they had understood his efforts to raise his country to equal status with other nations. “The British ministers,” according to their record, avowed that they “would take away very pleasant memories of the kindness and hospitality shown them.”20 In the evening, Hitler, in tails, hosted a banquet and concert at the Chancellery. Press accounts made it hard to discern what, if anything, had transpired. But the mere fact of the visit conveyed British readiness to renegotiate already imposed treaty obligations.

Stalin’s spies in London (the Irish John King, a cipher clerk at the foreign office, recruited in mid-February 1935) and in Rome (Francesco Constantini, an Italian employee at the British embassy) each delivered copies of the British foreign office record of the conversation, which ran to 23,000 words. But NKVD intelligence forwarded a severely condensed Russian translation of just 4,000 words, selecting only certain statements, which they removed from context, to form a new single stream. Their editing made it seem that the British had given Hitler carte blanche to annex Austria and schemed to instigate a Nazi-Soviet clash.21 “Mister Hitler,” the NKVD version of the British record had the Nazi stating, “would not sign an agreement he could not accept, but if he did take on obligations, he would never violate them.”22

Being fed what he craved, Stalin’s suspicions were further incited by the fact that Eden, on the way to Berlin, had stopped over in Paris to sound out the French about readmitting Germany into the League and a possible arms limitation agreement. French foreign minister Pierre Laval, Stalin knew, had been noncommittal. “Laval told Eden France could renounce aid from the Little Entente and the USSR only if England signed a military alliance, a Franco-English military alliance,” according to an intelligence report about the conversation from a Soviet agent in the French foreign ministry, on which Stalin wrote, “Important. (Truthful.) My archive.”23

Laval waved the Soviet card to break through British hesitation, but the British establishment was cool even to the “entente” it had signed with France in 1932, let alone to a real bilateral alliance.24 British secret services, starved of resources, a bit old-fashioned, and uncoordinated, contributed to government ignorance, sometimes willful, of the capabilities, let alone the intentions, of Hitler’s regime.25 Never mind that Hitler’s boasting that Germany would be a “world power” or nothing uncannily echoed British declarations about their own empire: many British officials believed or wanted to believe that German rearmament was, or would be, limited, gradual.26 The fright over Hitler’s assertion of air parity did consolidate moves to some British rearmament.27 But even those Brits who took a dark view of Nazi Germany remained eager to nip the developing arms race in the bud with some sort of accommodation.


Simon did not bother to travel to Moscow, instead returning home to report on Hitler to the cabinet; Eden was transported from the German border in a Soviet-supplied luxury rail coach equipped with a phonograph that played English jazz. From his car window he found Moscow drab, the people poorly dressed. On the day of his arrival, March 28, Litvinov and Soviet envoy to Britain Ivan Maisky received him, along with British ambassador Lord Chilston and Strang of the foreign office, who had been with Eden in Berlin. Eden conveyed that Hitler had harped on the Soviet threat and how Germany was the bulwark of “European civilization” and needed to be permitted to rearm. “We do not have the slightest doubt about German aggression,” Litvinov answered, according to the Soviet notetaker. “German foreign policy is inspired by two main ideas—revanche and domination in Europe.” Litvinov elucidated that the Soviets wanted “mutual assistance” against Germany and possibly Poland, according to the British notetaker. When the British offered congratulations on the Soviet sale of the Chinese Eastern Railway, Litvinov remarked, “In Japan, even in military circles, a tendency to maintain peaceful relations with the USSR is growing rapidly.”28

That evening, Litvinov hosted a banquet in Eden’s honor at the Neo-Gothic Spiridonovka, an expropriated merchant’s mansion, and made a speech in English about the ominous state of the world.29 The next day, the group returned to the German theme, with Eden again stressing that people in Britain were less convinced than those in the USSR of Nazism’s aggressiveness. Litvinov answered: “The original German plan had been to attack France and then to attack in the East. . . . The plan now apparently is to leave France alone, but to attack in the East only.”30 Eden raised the perennial complaint about Comintern propaganda abroad. Litvinov, in the Soviet account, responded, “What in reality is ‘propaganda’? Is what the British press publishes about the USSR propaganda?”31 Eden and entourage were taken to view the collections of priceless jewels, silver sent from Queen Elizabeth to Ivan the Terrible, and the wedding dress of Catherine the Great in the Kremlin, which Eden called “Aladdin’s cave glittering with history.” They walked over to Catherine’s former Imperial Senate, where, in Molotov’s office, Eden became the first high Western official to be received by Stalin.

Eden opened with a statement about the integrity of Soviet state borders and said that the same should apply to the British empire, then asked for Stalin’s views on the current situation; Stalin replied by asking for Eden’s. He volunteered that matters were “anxious but not alarming,” and commended the League of Nations, which the world had lacked before the Great War. “I think the situation now is worse than in 1913,” Stalin answered, “because in 1913 there was only one center of military danger—Germany—and now there are two: Germany and Japan.” Contradicting the previous day’s remarks by Litvinov (present now), Stalin stated that “the situation in the Far East is extremely alarming,” and any recent “improvement temporary.”

The main topic was the Hitler problem. “We are not trying to isolate Germany,” Stalin explained. “On the contrary, we want to live with Germany in friendly relations. The Germans are a great and valiant people. We will never forget that. It was impossible to hold that people down for long in the chains of the Versailles Treaty. Sooner or later the German people had to liberate themselves from the Versailles chains.” He added that the Soviet Union would not defend Versailles but stressed that the way Germany overcame its pariah status mattered. He inquired of Eden’s impressions from his Berlin visit and, after a short, evasive answer, stated, “Strange people sit there in Berlin. For example, about a year ago the German government proposed a 200-million mark loan to us. We agreed and began negotiations, and after that the German government suddenly started spreading rumors that Tukhachevsky and Göring were secretly meeting to work out a joint plan to attack France. Is that really a state policy? That is trivial policy.”32 When Stalin asked whether, as Litvinov reported of his own conversations with Eden, Hitler had raved about a Soviet threat, Eden answered affirmatively. Stalin: “Well, you know, at the same time the German government has agreed, in connection with the loan, to sell us products about which it is awkward to talk openly—arms, chemicals, and so on.” Eden claimed to be incredulous. “Completely true,” Stalin replied. “Really, is this a state policy? Is this serious policy? No; trifling, clumsy people sit there in Berlin.”33

Molotov invited everyone to the long table for tea. Eden, taking in the USSR map on the wall, remarked (according to the Soviet notetaker), “What a wonderful map and such a huge country.” Then Eden “looked at the place on the map occupied by Great Britain and added, ‘England is such a small island.’ Comrade Stalin looked at Great Britain and said, ‘Yes, a small island, but a lot depends on it. If this small island tells Germany, “We will not give you money, raw materials, metal,” peace in Europe would be guaranteed.’ Eden did not reply to this.”34


The Red Army’s new GP war plan entailed significant advances, based on covert mobilization, surprise, and preemption. Rigorous internal debate had reaffirmed the value of the offensive and what were known as deep operations—that is, efforts that combined armor, motorized infantry, and close air support to smash through fixed enemy defenses, exploiting gaps to strike deep in the enemy’s rear and cause disarray, so as to preempt regrouping and counterattacking and to radically shorten the length of engagement.35 Covert troop buildups for quick strikes and penetration, to disrupt enemy mobilization, made irrelevant traditional mobilization or declarations of war: attacking armies that had achieved tactical surprise could complete deployments of mobilized reserves on enemy territory. Preemptive seizure of Poland, to deny its use to Germany, now loomed large in the Soviet ability to disrupt the latter’s mobilization and counterattacking strength.36

A shift to recognition of Germany as the enemy surfaced publicly on March 31, 1935, when Pravda published a sensational essay under Tukhachevsky’s byline: “The Military Plans of Today’s Germany.” Stalin had softened the title from the even more provocative “The Military Plans of Hitler.” Still, the article, quoting extensively from Mein Kampf, presenting figures on German rearmament, and spelling out new German war doctrines, exploded like a bomb.37

Tukhachevsky believed mid-1930s Europe to be in a state similar to that on the eve of the Great War, with Poland playing the role of Austria-Hungary, but whereas Germany in that war had made the mistake of attacking France before Russia, this time around it would strike the USSR first, believing it needed to go after the stronger force, then take on a weak France. Stalin twisted this around: Germany’s first strike would be against France and Czechoslovakia, and only after an Anschluss with ethnic German regions would Hitler attack the USSR. Thus, Tukhachevsky’s article, in a new ending the dictator had inserted, stated that behind the “convenient screen” of anti-Soviet fulminations, Germany was really plotting to attack in the west (France and Belgium, for ore and ports) and in the center (the Polish Corridor, Czechoslovakia, Austria). Stalin further inserted that “in order to realize its plans of revanche and conquest, Germany by this summer will have an army of 849,000, that is, 40 percent larger than that of France, and almost as large as that of the USSR. (The USSR has 940,000, considering all types of forces.) And that will be despite the fact that the USSR has 2.5 times the population and ten times the territory.”38 German diplomats indignantly protested to Moscow.39

Eden’s Moscow visit came to a close. Pravda (April 1, 1935) and The Times of London (April 1) published a joint communiqué: “Mr. Eden and MM. Stalin, Molotov, and Litvinov were of the opinion that in the present international situation it was more than ever necessary to pursue the endeavor to promote the building up of a system of collective security in Europe . . . in conformity with the principle of the League of Nations.” Eden’s telegrams to London reported that Stalin showed “a remarkable knowledge and understanding of international affairs,” that Stalin’s “sympathies seemed broader than those of M. Litvinov,” and that “he displayed no emotion whatever except for an occasional chuckle or flash of wit.” The dictator had struck Eden as “a man of strong oriental traits of character with unshakeable assurance and control whose courtesy in no way hid from us an implacable ruthlessness.”40 Later, in his memoirs, Eden amplified these impressions: “Stalin’s personality made itself felt without effort or exaggeration. He had natural good manners, perhaps a Georgian inheritance. Though I knew him to be a man without mercy, I respected the quality of his mind and even felt a sympathy which I have never been able entirely to analyze.” Eden concluded, “I have never known a man handle himself better in conference. Seldom raising his voice, a good listener, prone to doodling.”41

In Berlin on April 9, the Soviet trade representative, Kandelaki, and the Reichsbank president, Hjalmar Schacht, finally concluded the proposed loan agreement, which extended a 200-million-mark credit for five years, at 2 percent interest. Stalin had been right: the Germans, needing to supply the rearming Wehrmacht, had made the concessions. The USSR pledged to place new orders with German industrial firms, as well as to complete within eighteen months current orders for German industrial goods and contracts for German shipping. Soviet payments would take the form of 100 million marks in gold and foreign currency and 100 million marks’ worth of raw materials: naphtha, timber, furs, manganese ores.42 So much for Stalin’s warning to Eden not to supply Hitler. Sergei Bessonov, a counselor with a trade profile at the USSR’s Berlin embassy, who wore a Hitler mustache, reported to Moscow that “Schacht reiterated to both me and comrade Kandelaki that his course of rapprochement with the USSR was being carried out with the consent and approval of Hitler.”43 Only now did the French cabinet approve going forward with a treaty with the Soviets; Laval informed Potyomkin and issued a public statement.44


On Red Square on May 1, 1935, upward of 30,000 tank drivers, artillerymen, cavalry, and infantry marched past the Mausoleum as 800 warplanes flew in a choreographed formation.45 The next day, Voroshilov presided over the annual banquet for select participants in the Grand Kremlin Palace.46 The palace had been built under Nicholas I and dedicated in 1849 as the residence of the tsars when they visited the old capital. Its construction had folded in parts of nine churches, including Moscow’s oldest extant structure, the Church of the Resurrection of Lazarus (1393), and the Palace of Facets (1491), which had been used by Ivan the Terrible. The 150-foot-high building had two stories, despite appearing to have a third (the upper floor contained two sets of windows). Its main entranceway opened to a stunning sixty-six-step staircase and a gigantic mural by Ilya Repin, “Alexander III Receiving Rural District Elders in the Courtyard of Petrovsky Palace” (1886), which depicted the strapping sovereign in full-dress uniform. The ground floor, facing the front façade, was taken up by the royal apartments (where Voroshilov lived). One floor up were five dazzling halls named for the High Orders of the empire: the St. George, the Vladimir, the Alexander, the Andreyev, and the Catherine. The Soviets had combined the St. Andrew and St. Alexander, creating a larger, plainer space for party congresses. A raised stage was added to the St. George’s Hall, the main venue for banquets, which boasted dazzling white marble, fifty-foot ceilings, eighteen columns bearing allegories of imperial Russian military victories, and hundreds of marble plaques with the names of military heroes.47

Inside, no more than one in fifteen parade participants could be accommodated for an experience that would reverberate over a lifetime. Around 800 places could be set at tables in the St. George’s Hall, with spillover accommodated in the adjacent Facets (which could hold around 400) and the rose-marbled St. Vladimir Octagon, linking the two. Seats were preassigned, the most prestigious being those closest to Stalin’s table, known as the Presidium, where Molotov occupied seat number 2 and Voroshilov 3. Each table, holding twenty to thirty people, was piled with caviar, fish, game, fresh vegetables, and fruit, although the food could seem incidental to the finest-flavored vodkas, brandies, wines, and Crimean champagne. One or two NKVD officers in civilian dress sat at each table (identifiable by the glaring circumstance that they did not drink) and listened attentively to the conversations, but enough actresses and other eye candy were distributed about to counteract some of the intimidation. The well-lubricated affairs had been publicly, albeit laconically, reported in Pravda.48 The imperial splendor—giant fireplaces and mirrors, chandeliers, antique furniture, parquet floors polished to a brilliant shine—stirred embarrassment in the worker and peasant state.49 Stalin exhibited no such qualms.

N.B. (a thinly disguised Nikolai Bukharin) reported in Izvestiya that upon Stalin’s entrance “suddenly the applause, which grew like a snowstorm, covered everything, and became a blizzard, thunder, blustery spontaneous joy and ecstasy.” During the endless toasts, Stalin sipped red wine, a glass of mineral water nearby.50 (Voroshilov preferred vodka; after each shot he would cut off a slice of butter from a mound and swallow it.)51 The dictator customarily delivered a speech in the form of his own toast, and now proposed that glasses be raised to the health of the Red Army rank and file (“Bolsheviks in the party and non-party”). Then, trailed by his entourage, he made the rounds, personally greeting attendees. Suddenly, a few exuberant types lifted him up and carried him about the hall, putting him down at each table for a toast. Ubiquitous NKVD guards in full-dress uniform had proved powerless in the face of the hall’s fervor and Stalin’s desire to soak it up.52

At events like these, after the dictator and his retinue departed, the tables would be removed and functionaries and military officers in uniform approached the actresses and ballerinas to ask them for a dance.53 Before exiting, Stalin might duck into the kitchen to congratulate the chefs, after which they—like his bodyguards, drivers, or film projectionists—would walk through fire for him.54 But it was the artists at these events, often non-party members, whom he worked most to bend to his will. Stalin addressed them with the formal vy (“you”), paid attention to their performances amid the din, and invited some to drink at his table, inquiring whether they might have requests of him for themselves or their organizations. Relaxed, convivial, he engaged in freewheeling conversation.55

Earlier that same day of May 2, the Soviet envoy to Paris had signed a mutual assistance pact with France—the Soviet Union’s first formal alliance. Pravda hailed it as a triumph.56 It had taken nearly eight months of negotiations since the Soviet Union had been voted into the League of Nations. Article 2 stipulated “immediate aid and assistance” if either country became the victim of unprovoked attack and the Council of the League of Nations failed to reach a unanimous decision, but the “immediate” was diluted in an accompanying protocol that, at French insistence, left out any time limit to act while the council deliberated.57 The treaty dumbfounded many Soviet Communist party members.58 The Soviet press reported that Stalin approved of French imperialism’s military buildup “at the level consonant with its security.”59 French domestic audiences were better prepared, thanks to a drawn-out public discussion. France’s ally Poland was angry, even though it shared responsibility for catalyzing the treaty.60 In Hitler’s Chancellery, the reaction was incandescent rage. The Führer now obsessed over the “Bolshevization of France” and “Judeo-Bolshevik encirclement” of Germany the way Stalin obsessed over an “anti-Soviet imperialist bloc” and “capitalist encirclement.”


On May 4, 1935, Voroshilov, with Stalin in attendance, was back presiding in the Grand Kremlin Palace amid a sea of dress uniforms, this time over the annual graduation of military academies. The defense commissar issued “an order” for everyone to fill their glasses, then toasted Stalin at length, stirring the standing hall to frenzy. The orchestra played a flourish. Molotov was next. “You already know, comrades, about our new success in the struggle for peace,” he said. “You already know from newspapers about the agreement on mutual assistance, which the Soviet Union has signed with one of the most visible powers of Europe—France. . . . The signing of the Soviet-French Agreement became possible because of the growth and strengthening of the power of our country and the force of our Red Army under the genius leadership of our party, comrade Stalin. Our enormous growth has become plain to our friends and to those whom it is impossible to call friends.” Molotov, along with Stalin, went up to Voroshilov and exchanged kisses.61 Stalin sounded his now habitual populism.

“Comrades, now, when our achievements are great in all branches of industry and governance—now it has become typical to speak a lot about leaders, bosses of the upper echelon, to credit the successes to them,” he stated. “This is incorrect.” The Soviet people had triumphed over backwardness, he continued, which had required “great sacrifices, great efforts, . . . and patience, patience.” Some had lacked stamina. “There is a saying, ‘Let bygones be bygones,’ but all the same, a person’s memory retains things.” Stalin rebuked those who, he remembered, had wanted to expend scarce resources on consumer goods and “all kinds of trifles,” instead of “tractors, automobiles, airplanes, tanks. . . . You will recall the declarations, from leaders of the Central Committee, that ‘you are embarking on adventurism’; you heard such speeches, indeed it was not only speeches. . . . Others threatened to kill some of us, they wanted to break apart the leadership. It’s plain as day we are people forged in fire, unbreakable, and did not retreat. (Stormy applause.)”

Stalin opened himself up: “It’s plain as day that, back then, we did not retreat; we are Bolsheviks, people, so to speak, of a special cut. Lenin forged us, and Lenin was a man who did not know and did not acknowledge fear; this man was our teacher, our educator, our father—this was a person who, the more enemies raged and the more opponents inside the party fell into hysterics, the more he gathered force and the more resolutely he went forward. We learned a bit from him, this person. . . . We did not retreat; we went forward to attack and smashed some people. I must admit, I also had a hand in that.”62

He could not let the thought go: the fork in the road, supposedly either a more comfortable life, with small-scale, backward agriculture and no security, or large-scale mechanized farms and a socialist great power. “There were victims—it is true—some of us fell by the wayside, others from a bullet.” The country overcame its “famine of technology,” he said, using a resonant word. “But now we have a new famine: a famine of people. . . . If, earlier, technology decided everything, now people decide everything, because now we have the technology. . . . Cadres are the most valuable capital. Not everyone in our country understands this, unfortunately.” He told a story about his exile days in Turukhansk, how at the time of the spring flood, when a group went out to pilfer some of the giant pine logs being floated down the Yenisei, one man went missing, but no one bothered to look for him. “If a cow had disappeared, they would have gone searching, but a person perished, a trifle. . . . We do not value people. People can always be produced, but a mare, go try. (Stormy applause.)” 63

Stalin, an avid gardener, had already been instructing officials to “cultivate people with care and attention, the way a gardener cultivates a beloved fruit tree,” a skill he had shown since his youth.64 As the hall quieted again, he continued: “I drink to you, to the higher cadres of our Red Army, and wish you every success in the organization of the defense of our country, in the practical leadership of this defense, because you will lead it. We, here, will lead the speechifying, but you will lead the practical work. (Stormy applause.)” His toast concluded: “Only those good cadres who are not afraid and do not hide from difficulties, but overcome them. Only in the struggle with difficulties can one grow genuine cadres who are not afraid of difficulties. Then our army will be invincible. (Stormy applause of the entire hall. Everyone stands and addresses comrade Stalin with loud shouts of Hurrah and applause.)”65

Stalin edited the above raw transcript with his stenographer on May 5, producing the version published in Pravda the next day, sharpening the key point, a shift in slogans from “Technology decides everything” to “Cadres decide everything.” 66 The newspaper version enjoined officials to “show the greatest concern for our functionaries, ‘great’ and ‘small,’ . . . help them when they need support, encourage them when they show their first success, move them forward,” and warned, “We have a whole series of instances of soulless, bureaucratic and outright scandalous attitudes toward workers.”67 On May 9, Stalin’s in-laws received permission to pay him a late-night visit at the Near Dacha. The dictator recalled his elder son Yakov’s attempted suicide and groused, “How could Nadya, condemning Yakov’s act, shoot herself. She did a very bad thing, she maimed me for life. Let’s drink to Nadya!” Those gathered got to reminiscing about the recent spontaneous metro ride, “the ecstasy of the crowd, the enthusiasm. Iosif again expressed his thought on the fetishism of the people’s psyche, on the striving to have a tsar,” Maria Svanidze noted. “Iosif was in a down mood; more accurately, he was preoccupied, something was occupying him to the depths, for which he had not yet found the answer.”68


Stalin’s tête-à-tête with Eden had yielded nothing. French foreign minister Laval, who, in signing the nominal alliance with Moscow, still hoped to goad London into a real one, belatedly traveled to Moscow, but conspicuously stopped in Warsaw, where he informed Beck that France’s new alliance was neither anti-German nor even pro-Soviet. In the Soviet capital for three days, beginning May 13, 1935, Laval met with Litvinov, Molotov, and Stalin.69 The politburo had just decreed a Red Army expansion to 1.094 million troops by the end of 1936, and before the summer was out, Stalin would accept Voroshilov’s proposal to lower the conscription age by six months each year (dropping it from twenty-one to nineteen by 1939).70 Laval was brought to a military airfield for a demonstration. When he appeared at the Bolshoi on May 15, he drew an ovation.71 But barely a week after the treaty with France had been signed, Litvinov informed the new German ambassador, Werner von der Schulenburg, that a bilateral nonaggression pact was urgently needed and would “lessen the significance of the Franco-Soviet alliance.”72

Maisky, in London, was brought into the loop, and he recorded in his diary that Stalin had asked Laval about his recent trip to Poland and, when Laval proceeded to predict a shift in Warsaw away from pro-German attitudes, had cut him off: “You are friends of the Poles, so try to persuade them that they are playing a dangerous game that will bring disaster on themselves. The Germans will trick them and sell them short. They will involve Poland in some adventure, and when she weakens, they will either seize her or share her with another power.”73

Stalin had something the tsar never had—control over a political party in France’s parliament—and he acceded to Laval’s request to stop the French Communists from opposing France’s military budget and its new two-year service law. French Communists turned on a dime.74 Stalin, in return, told Laval that he thought it prudent to prepare for the worst and wanted to add concrete military obligations to their treaty. Reluctantly, Laval agreed to open talks after the Soviets reached an accord with France’s ally Czechoslovakia.75 That very day in Prague, May 16, foreign minister Beneš and Soviet envoy Sergei Alexandrovsky signed a mutual assistance pact. Beneš had drafted the text. He, understandably, did not want to dilute France’s obligations and was anxious not to allow the Soviets to invoke the pact on their own and possibly draw Czechoslovakia into a Soviet-Polish conflict. The Soviets, predictably, were keen to have France retain the main burden and themselves avoid being drawn into a possible German-Czechoslovak conflict over Austria. And so, even though the Czechoslovak-Soviet treaty carried the same obligation of mutual assistance in the event of a third-party attack as did the Franco-Soviet pact, a special clause stated that the Soviets were obliged to act only if the French fulfilled their obligations first.76

Laval, again, stopped in Poland, where Piłsudski had died of liver cancer on May 12, 1935. “Stalin,” Laval told one Polish confidant, “is wise, cold, detached, and ruthless.” To another he said, “Oh, oh! Very strong. He is a grand figure, but an Asiatic conqueror type, a species of Tamerlane.”77 At Piłsudski’s funeral, in Kraków (May 18), Laval assured Göring, who was representing Hitler, of France’s good intentions. Göring, for his part, renewed his wooing of the Poles with tall tales of Soviet air bases about to appear in Czechoslovakia.78 In Berlin, at St. Hedwig’s Cathedral, in a sensational gesture, Hitler attended a holy mass, with a symbolic coffin draped in a Polish flag in honor of the deceased Polish president. On May 21, in another long speech to the Reichstag, the Führer held out the prospect of nonaggression pacts with all of Germany’s neighbors except Lithuania (“What else could I wish for other than calm and peace?”). He criticized the Franco-Soviet treaty, while stating in a moderate tone that, in the matter of rearmament, Germany expected to be treated equally by Britain.79

Soviet military intelligence, meanwhile, had suffered another self-inflicted disaster by violating tradecraft yet again, recruiting agents among Communists under police surveillance—this time in Denmark, which ran the Soviet agents in Nazi Germany. Danish police had gone looking for a suspected spy on charges of raping a chambermaid (possibly an invented pretext) and netted the current and former station chiefs for Germany, as well as cash, fake passports, and codes. In early May, over several sessions in the Little Corner with Voroshilov, among others, Stalin promoted Semyon Uritsky from deputy head of the tank armor directorate to chief of military intelligence, retaining Artuzov as deputy head. (Artuzov would be replaced on May 21 as concurrent head of NKVD espionage by his deputy, Abram Slutsky.) Stalin told the Jewish Uritsky to recruit operatives and agents among ethnic Russians, Ukrainians, Belorussians, Latvians, and Jews, but to avoid Poles, Finns, Estonians, Hungarians, and Austrians. As spies in the field risked their lives to combat fascism, Uritsky went to war to force out Artuzov, seething that he “would be the idiot with the genius deputy.”80


All this while, Stalin was reading interrogation protocols about elaborate terrorist “centers” of cleaning ladies and librarians plotting his assassination. By now, only nine persons hired by Yenukidze remained on the Kremlin staff.81 On May 12, 1935, Yagoda had sent Stalin proposals for punishment of the 112 people who had been arrested in the Kremlin Affair. Yagoda left blank Lev Kamenev’s sentence; Stalin wrote in ten years for him, and execution instead of ten years for Nina Rozenfeld.82 The next day, Yenukidze was named central executive committee plenipotentiary for the resorts group in the North Caucasus, which included elite Kislovodsk, second after Sochi.83 Stalin also dispatched a secret circular to all party organizations announcing a party card verification campaign to “introduce Bolshevik order in our house.”84 Over the years, 200,000 duplicate cards had been issued for those reported lost or stolen. Nearly 15,000 party cards in the Donbass and 13,000 in Central Asia were still unaccounted for. (Several months later, the verification campaign would miss its completion deadline, inciting Stalin to irate charges of “family-ness,” or self-protection, by colluding local elites.)85

Yezhov had drafted the circular and was overseeing the verification. In parallel, he was demanding stronger oversight of foreigners in the USSR, calling them spies.86 He also asked Stalin to read his ambitious theoretical manuscript, “From Factional Activity to Open Counterrevolution (On the Zinovievite Counterrevolutionary Organization).” It set out how the Zinovievites, right deviationists, and Trotskyites were working together for a coup.87 Stalin received the draft on May 17 and underlined various passages (“The Zinovievite counterrevolutionary band definitively chooses terror as its weapon in this battle against the party and working class”). Whether he had instigated the work remains unknown; Yezhov had pretensions and had absorbed Stalin’s worldview. “There is no doubt that the Trotskyites were also informed about the terrorist side of the activity conducted by the Zinoviev organization,” Yezhov’s text asserted, concluding that “from testimony . . . we have established that [the Trotskyites] had also embarked on the path of terrorist groups.”88

Trotsky had predicted, almost immediately after his expulsion from the territory of the Soviet Union, that “there remains only one thing for Stalin: to try to draw a line of blood between the official party and the opposition. He absolutely must connect the opposition with assassination attempts, and preparations for armed insurrections.”89

Stalin had decided to devote a Central Committee plenum (June 5 and 7, 1935)—one of only two during the year that lasted more than a day—to the Kremlin Affair. He assigned the main report not to Yagoda but to Yezhov, who began not with Yenukidze but with Kirov, explaining that the “embittered” Zinovievite-Kamenevite-Trotskyite “group” had been driven “to the most extreme forms of struggle—namely, terror,” and charged the rightists with complicity, citing attempts to link up with the Zinovievites in 1932. Yezhov deemed Yenukidze “a corrupt and self-complacent Communist” who had unwittingly allowed White Guards to infiltrate the citadel of power. Yenukidze, given the floor on the second day, averred that all hiring in the Kremlin “was carried out with the participation of the NKVD,” prompting Yagoda to interject from the floor, “That’s not true.” Yenukidze insisted on the point, denied cohabiting with the arrested women, and seemed incredulous that helping former Menshevik families could be treason. Yagoda charged him with creating “his own parallel ‘GPU’” in the Kremlin and called for his expulsion from the party, going beyond Yezhov’s call for expulsion from the Central Committee.90

Stalin had kept strangely silent, but he finally professed himself unable to abandon a good friend with whom he had spent many a holiday, so he suggested that Yenukidze be expelled from the Central Committee and the party but not handed over to the NKVD.91 Attendees voted unanimously for expulsion from the Central Committee and voted—with some hands raised in objection—for expulsion from the party for “political and personal dissoluteness.” The minutes for internal circulation and Pravda’s public report were falsified to conceal the objections.92 Yenukidze became the first Bolshevik who had joined the party before the revolution and who had never joined an opposition afterward to be expelled.93


Hitler was zealously driving a revision of the Versailles order; Stalin did not oppose revision, provided it did not come at Soviet expense. As the sequential visits in spring 1935 of Eden and Simon to Berlin and Eden to Moscow had shown, each dictator was central to the other’s grand strategy, but in differing ways. For Hitler, the Soviet Union was the principal evil, and Britain his principal wedge. For Stalin, Britain was the principal evil, and Germany his principal wedge. For France, the courting of the Soviet Union, a step that Britain disliked, was a way to woo a hard-to-get Britain. For Britain, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were both evil, but avoiding the costs of direct confrontation with Germany was paramount. Britain signed the proposed naval pact with Germany on June 18, 1935, which happened to be the anniversary of Waterloo.

Britain possessed the largest maritime force in world history, but it faced shipyard capacity limits and treasury austerity. The pact formally limited Germany’s fleet to 35 percent of Britain’s, while ostensibly locking Germany into a quality standstill. (Eden in Moscow had assured Stalin that Germany’s 35 percent demand was out of the question.) But Hitler’s special envoy, Joachim von Ribbentrop, had negotiated for Germany to have 45 percent as many submarines as the British did at that time, and to eventually reach parity, a giveaway of true intentions.94 Hitler gave the go-ahead for two already planned super-battleships, the Bismarck and the Tirpitz, both exceeding the treaty’s quality limits.95 Ribbentrop had been invited to lunch the day before the signing by an influential journalist at The Times and told him he was keen for prime minister Stanley Baldwin (who had just assumed that office for the third time) to meet the Führer, because he wanted “Baldwin to hear Hitler’s ideas about Western solidarity against Bolshevism.”96


In reply to Nazism, a group of French intellectuals who had attended the Soviet writers’ congress—André Malraux, André Gide, Louis Aragon—decided to mount an International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture, which was scheduled to open at the 3,000-seat Maison de Mutualité, in the Latin Quarter, on June 21, 1935, and run for five days. Around 250 invitations went out to writers in thirty-eight countries, including many political émigrés.97 Koltsov arrived early to assist in the organizing and deliver the secret financing (20,000 gold rubles). Thanks to Ehrenburg, Gide, and Malraux, Isaac Babel (who had once lived in Paris) and Boris Pasternak (whose poems were untranslated, but whose name was well known) got added as late as June 19. (They arrived late, in new suits specially sewn for them.) Gorky declined Stalin’s urgings to attend, citing poor health.98 About a week before the opening, outside a Paris café, André Breton encountered Ehrenburg—who was infamous for having denounced surrealism as “onanism, pederasty, exhibitionism, and even bestiality”—and smashed him in the face. Ehrenburg cut Breton from the speaker list.99

From the podium, Malraux declared that “the humanism we want to create . . . finds its expression in the line of thought running from Voltaire to Marx,” while Gide averred that “one can be profoundly internationalist while remaining profoundly French.” Aldous Huxley deplored the “endless Communist demagogy,” while E. M. Forster would write that he’d had “to hear the name of Karl Marx detonate again and again like a well-placed charge, and draw after it the falling masonry of applause.”100

During the congress, the leftist French writer, dramatist, and musicologist Romain Rolland traveled the other way—to the USSR, at Gorky’s invitation. After rounds of theater, cinema, and banquets, on June 28, he enjoyed a long audience in the Little Corner.101 Wispy, compulsive, puritanical, Rolland (b. 1866) had won the Nobel Prize in Literature “as a tribute to the lofty idealism of his literary production and to the sympathy and love of truth with which he has described different types of human beings.” His masterwork, a ten-volume novel cycle, Jean-Christophe, depicts a German-French friendship. He also harbored a long-standing fascination with the Russian Revolution and once observed that “this order is all bloody and soiled like a human baby just wrested from his mother’s womb,” but, “in spite of disgust, in spite of the horror of ferocious crimes, I go up to the child, I embrace the newly-born: he is hope, the miserable hope of the human future. He is yours in spite of you!”102

Rolland told Stalin that he saw him as the embodiment of the “new humanism.”103 He observed that Westerners shared the idealism inside the USSR but had trouble comprehending, for example, the news in the Soviet press that, as of April 7, 1935, criminal law was being applied to children twelve and up, and that minors could be executed. After letting Rolland speak for twenty minutes, Stalin requested permission to respond. “We had to pass this repressive law threatening the death penalty for child criminals, especially their instigators,” he answered. “In fact, we will not enforce this law. I hope that it will not be enforced. Naturally, publicly, we cannot admit this; the desired effect would be lost, the effect of intimidation.”104 The dictator deployed his customary flattery (“I am happy to chat with the greatest writer in the world”), but came across as genuinely enamored of the grand écrivain even while throwing dust in Rolland’s eyes.105 Stalin called in the “Kremlin photographer” to record the event for propaganda purposes. But he would refuse all of Rolland’s entreaties to publish the transcript.106

On June 30, Rolland, a guest on the Mausoleum at a physical culture parade involving 127,000 participants, was taken aback by the idolatry of the “emperor”—including the airplanes writing Stalin’s name in the sky—but also by the dynamism of the young people of the revolutionary epoch. His surprise reflected reading about Soviet failures before his arrival. “The economic situation, it seems, is good,” he wrote in a letter from Moscow to a literary critic friend in France. “During the last year, the conditions of life have improved significantly. This gargantuan city, which now numbers four million inhabitants, is a waterfall of life, healthy, warm, well-ordered. Among this crowd of strong, mobile, well-nourished people, you and I would look like strangers from a famine land.”107

At a soirée at Gorky’s mansion, Rolland supped with the inner circle. Here, Stalin came across as “a jester, a bit rude and peasant in his jokes, relentlessly showering this or that person with pleasantries, laughing heartily.” This was a coarser side to the decorous dictator encountered in the Little Corner, yet still self-disciplined. “Stalin eats and drinks thoroughly, but he knows well when to stop,” Rolland added. “After a reasonable number of full glasses”—toasts to all and sundry—“Stalin unexpectedly stops, refusing refills and further helpings. . . . He sucks his small wooden pipe with pleasure.”108


Poland’s foreign minister Beck paid a visit to Berlin (July 3–4, 1935), where he was received one-on-one by Hitler, who complimented the genius of Piłsudski, averred that Poland should never be pushed from the Baltic, and enlarged upon the Soviet menace.109 On July 5, Stalin received Kandelaki, back from Berlin, where Schacht had proposed a whopping new ten-year, 1-billion-mark loan, reasoning that Soviet counter-deliveries of raw materials could solve Germany’s shortages without overly taxing precious hard currency reserves.110 Internal jostling had begun among the Soviets over their own economic plan for the next year, and the total amount of investment was the key state decision.111 For three years running, capital investment had been allowed only modest increases, and when the commissariats fought back, the hard-nosed Molotov—backed by the finance commissariat, the state bank, and Stalin—had held the line, warning against higher inflation and imbalances. On July 19, the chairman of the state planning commission, Valērijs Mežlauks, the son of a Latvian nobleman and a German mother, proposed that 1936 capital investment be slashed by 25 percent, to 17.7 billion rubles.112 He explained that the reduction would facilitate a budget surplus and the goals of “increasing real wages and gradually reducing [retail] prices.”

Stalin’s involvement in the nitty-gritty of economic policy had tapered as he allowed Molotov and others to carry the burden. Molotov happened to be on holiday, and two days after Mežlauks’s opening gambit, Stalin convened a meeting in his Old Square office. By now, Mežlauks’s investment plan had already been forced up to 19 billion. He was present for just an hour and twenty minutes, and fifty minutes of that overlapped with the military men (Voroshilov, Yegorov, Tukhachevsky).113 That evening, Stalin reported to Molotov that he had decided on 22 billion. “We shall see,” Stalin observed. “There are some things which we must not cut: the defense commissariat; repair of rail track and rolling stock, plus the payment for new wagons and locomotives (railroad commissariat); the building of schools (enlightenment commissariat); re-equipment (light industry); paper and cellulose factories (timber); and certain very necessary enterprises: coal, oil, open-hearth furnaces, rolling mills, viscose factories, power stations, chemistry (heavy industry commissariat). This makes it more difficult.”114

Molotov replied (July 25) by trying to hold the line at 22 billion rubles (“It’s possible and necessary”). Mežlauks wrote to Stalin and Chubar (Molotov’s deputy), acknowledging the difficulties that 22 billion would present for the industrial commissariats but insisting that this had to be the ceiling “for financial reasons.” On July 28, Stalin convened a politburo meeting, summoning some seventy-five people.115 The group voted a 1936 investment plan of 27.3 billion, while stipulating that the commissariats reduce their construction costs (somehow) so that the actual number would turn out to be 25.1 billion. Stalin wrote to Molotov that “22 billion was not enough and, as can be seen, could not be enough.” None of the economic officials had resisted Stalin, and Molotov, too, bit the bullet (“I would have preferred a smaller amount of capital construction”).116 The decree was published and, as usual, the tenacious lobbying persisted. Stalin continued to indulge it. The final 1936 investment plan would be 32.635 billion, not a 25 percent decrease from 1935 but a nearly 40 percent increase.117 It appears that Stalin had gained confidence in the economic system, which was having its second-straight good year, and, despite the risks of inflation, yearned to have more of both guns and butter.118


Stalin, sensing his leverage, had sent Kandelaki back to Berlin, and on July 15, 1935, according to Schacht, Kandelaki told him he had just spoken with Stalin, Molotov, and foreign trade commissar Rosenholz, and that German obstruction and price gouging had prevented the USSR from fully utilizing the existing 200-million-mark credit, but Kandelaki “expressed the hope that it might also be possible to improve German-Russian political relations. I replied that we had indeed already previously agreed that a brisk exchange of goods would be a good starting point for the improvement of general relations, but that I was not able to enter into political negotiation.”119

The much-delayed 7th Comintern Congress, the first in seven years, opened on July 25 in the House of Trade Unions with 513 delegates (371 with the right to vote), representing sixty-five Communist parties. The last party member at liberty in Japan had just been arrested. German Communists had dwindled to a tiny group.120 Wilhelm Pieck, a German in Soviet exile, delivered the opening report, but Dimitrov made the key speech, formally announcing a policy shift to “a broad people’s antifascist front.” Dimitrov explained that an alliance with non-Communist leftists was a temporary expedient in response to a special threat. “Fascism in power, comrades, . . . is the openly terrorist dictatorship of the more reactionary, more chauvinist, more imperialist elements of finance capital,” he observed. “The most reactionary variant of fascism is fascism of the German type.” He called Nazism impudent for claiming to be socialist when “it has nothing in common with socialism. . . . It is a government system of political banditry, a system of provocations and torture of the working class and the revolutionary elements of the peasantry, petit bourgeoisie, and intelligentsia. It is medieval barbarism and atrocity. It is unbridled aggression against other nations and countries.”

Dimitrov cautioned that “Soviet power and only Soviet power can bring salvation!” but exhorted the delegates to learn “the parliamentary game.”121 A photograph of Stalin with the Comintern delegates was published in Pravda, but he did not deign to deliver a speech.122 Yezhov was soliciting reports on hidden spies among resident foreign Communists and other political émigrés. (There were 4,600 Germanophone expatriates alone, thanks to Nazism.)123 While the congress continued, on July 27, the USSR military collegium passed sentences in the Kremlin Affair on thirty people: two got the death penalty, and the rest between two and eight years in camps. The NKVD special board had sentenced eighty others in the case. Lev Kamenev, already serving a five-year term for the Kirov case, got another ten.124

Beria delivered a sensation. He had sacked Toroshelidze as head of his Stalin project, in favor of Yermolai “Erik” Bedia, Georgia’s enlightenment commissar, who set to work on “The Rise and Development of Bolshevik Organizations in the South Caucasus.” Documents of the conspiratorial underground years were few, so people were invited to reminisce, sometimes writing their own texts, often allowing Beria’s apparatchiks to write or type them up. Those who participated were usually given envelopes of cash (“Comrade Stalin remembers you and asked me to convey this”). Vsevolod Merkulov, Beria’s top aide, shaped the final text, and on July 21–22, 1935, in a special meeting of the South Caucasus party active, with some 2,000 attendees, Beria read it aloud. The audience spent much of the five hours standing and applauding each mention of “the Great Stalin.” Dawn of the East published the full text, under Beria’s byline, in two issues (July 24–25).125 Pravda reprinted it over the course of eight days, making Beria famous in the party outside the Caucasus.126 The text was also issued as a stand-alone pamphlet in a print run that would reach 35 million.127 The central apparatus instructed all party organizations to organize study groups on Beria’s report, which “offered the richest material on the role of Stalin as a Supreme Leader and theorist of our party.”128

Also during the Comintern Congress, on July 30, following a five-day conference of 400 railroad industry personnel, Stalin hosted a banquet in the St. George’s Hall. He rose to speak “under the thunder of applause, and an ovation that long did not let up,” according to the account he edited for Pravda. “He said that the existence and development of our state, which exceeds in its size any other state in the world, including England and its colonies (excluding its dominions), is unthinkable without well-laid-down rail transport connecting the gigantic provinces of our country into a single state whole. . . . England, as a state, would be unthinkable without its first-class sea transport, which connects its myriad territories into a single whole. Exactly the same way the USSR, as a state, would be unthinkable without first-class rail transport, connecting its myriad provinces and territories into a single whole.”129 Left unsaid was that precisely the underdeveloped rail network posed the gravest impediment to Soviet war planning. In the western theater, the most glaring rail vulnerability lay at one of the most strategic points, south of the Pripet Marshes, along the Kiev military district frontier, while in the Far Eastern theater, throughput deficiency was still worse: a mere twelve pairs of trains per day, a level not much improved since the Russo-Japanese War defeat in 1904–5.130

Stalin inserted a remarkable political paragraph when editing the transcript. “In capitalist countries there are several parties—for example, England: Liberals, Conservatives, Labourites,” he wrote. “There’s not much difference between them—all of them stand for the continuation of exploitation—but one party criticizes the other. When the party in power missteps and the masses begin to get disaffected, that party is replaced by another. . . . We do not need such a lightning rod. We have a one-party system, but this system has its darker side—there’s no one to criticize us, even gently—so we have to criticize ourselves, check, not be afraid of our shortcomings, difficulties, confront them. We all should teach the masses, but also learn from the ‘little people,’ listen to them. . . . Self-criticism, that’s the key to our successes. The bourgeoisie put forward their smartest and most skillful people to govern the state: Roosevelt, Baldwin, Hitler—he’s a talented person—Mussolini, Laval, but nothing comes of it. We have victories, and these victories come not from the genius of someone; that’s stupidity. We do not have geniuses. We had one genius: Lenin. We are all people of middling capabilities, but we Bolsheviks take correct stances and implement them—that’s why we gain victories.”131

The Comintern Congress rolled on, celebrating the fortieth anniversary of Engels’s death at the session on August 5.132 Four days later, Ivan Tovstukha, deputy director of the Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute, died from tuberculosis, at age forty-six. His obituary provided what might have been the first public information on Stalin’s group of top aides who actually ran the country.133 Internally, Tovstukha had sabotaged the efforts of Yaroslavsky to write a comprehensive Stalin biography. Now Yaroslavsky appealed directly to the dictator, but Stalin wrote across his letter: “I am against the idea of a biography about me. Maxim Gorky had a plan like yours, and he asked me, too, but I have backed away from this matter. I don’t think the time has come for a Stalin biography.”134

That very summer, a foreign author struck again: Boris Lifshitz, who had been born in Kiev (1895), moved with his family to Paris at age two, helped found the French Communist party, went by the name Souvarine, and had been expelled from the Comintern for voicing his and his comrades’ anger at the persecution of Trotsky (with whom Souvarine eventually fell out). Souvarine exacted revenge by publishing Stalin: A Critical Study of Bolshevism in French, which portrayed Stalin as both devoted to the cause and painstaking in intrigue, a doer rather than a thinker like Lenin or Trotsky, a man who struggled long and hard for recognition amid supposed insignificance in the revolutionary movement and overcame seemingly insuperable obstacles, such as Lenin’s Testament calling for his removal. Souvarine demonstrated the moral bankruptcy of Stalin’s successful political ruthlessness.135

The Comintern Congress ratified the new line of Communist–Social Democrat cooperation in Europe. In Asia, Stalin had long been forcing Communist-“bourgeois” cooperation against Japanese imperialists in a “united front.” But Chiang Kai-shek had launched the fifth in a series of encirclement campaigns against the Chinese Communists, most of whom had found refuge at a mountain redoubt far southwest of Shanghai, adapting the precepts of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War (“The enemy attacks, we retreat; the enemy halts, we harass; the enemy retreats, we pursue”). With Nationalist troops pressing the final annihilation, about 130,000 rank-and-file Communist troops and civilians had managed to break out, fleeing on a horrendous “Long March” into the deep interior. (Survivors of the rout-retreats would straggle first into Sichuan province, then Yan’an, in Shaanxi province, covering 3,700 miles over 370 days.) With the Long March still under way, a Chinese Communist delegation had set out for the Comintern Congress, but would arrive only after it had concluded. Meanwhile, the congress ordered the Chinese Communists to link up with “cooperative” Nationalists, whom they were to somehow cleave off from Chiang.136

Stalin was satisfied. “The Comintern Congress turned out not so bad,” he had written to the holidaying Molotov. “The delegates made a good impression. The resolutions came out not bad.” Stalin also divulged (“I think it’s time”) that he was going to hand the organization over to Dimitrov. “I really am a bit tired. I’ve had to spend time with the Comintern-ites, the investment plan for ’36, all sorts of issues—you get tired, willy-nilly. No big deal. Fatigue passes quickly, if you relax for a day or even a few hours.”137 On August 10, the politburo approved creation of a Comintern secretariat, with Dimitrov as general secretary.138 That same day, Stalin departed for his southern holiday. Although he had eliminated the de facto second secretary post in favor of multiple deputies, he left Kaganovich in charge again. The inner circle had solidified over several years: Molotov at the government, Kaganovich at the party, Voroshilov at the military, Orjonikidze at heavy industry, Mikoyan at trade. Kaganovich and Molotov had inevitably become rivals for his favor, and officials below them divided between the “Lazariches” (sons of Lazar) and the “Vyacheslaviches” (sons of Vyacheslav). Both men were indispensable—Molotov as the principal confidant, Kaganovich as the ultimate troubleshooter—and both shouldered immense burdens, following the example Stalin set.139

Before the congress adjourned (on August 21, 1935), it formally “elected” Dimitrov to the new Comintern executive committee, which in turn “elected” him as Comintern general secretary.140 An American delegation led by Earl Browder had attended, even though the U.S. secretary of state had warned the Soviet ambassador that any American participation would be taken as yet another violation of their diplomatic recognition agreement.141 After Browder boasted at the congress of the revolutionary movement’s progress in the United States under his guidance, Bullitt recommended closing Soviet consulates in San Francisco, curtailing visas, and having President Roosevelt lay the case of Soviet violations before the American people.142 The president opted to protest in writing, and on August 25 Bullitt handed a strongly worded note to Krestinsky, who rejected it out of hand but informed Stalin, Molotov, Voroshilov, and Kaganovich that the note threatened a break in relations.143

Soviet officials blamed domestic American politics; one surmised that Bullitt had been trying to make his career on improved relations but, failing that, had turned to anti-Soviet careerism.144 Stalin did not overreact.145 He had already given up on any kind of pact with the United States against Japan. Negotiations over repayment of tsarist and Provisional Government debts had failed, with no long-term credits extended to Moscow to purchase American goods.146 Predictably, the Soviets denied any control over Comintern affairs (even though the congress met in Moscow in a government facility, and its official bulletins were issued by TASS). An irate Bullitt soon left for a holiday back home.147


The dictator would be away from Moscow for nearly three months.148 From Sochi, he telegrammed Kaganovich that “Svetlana, Mistress of the House, will be in Moscow August 27. She demands permission to leave for Moscow soon, in order to supervise her secretaries.”149 About Vasily he said nothing. In Moscow on August 30, Henri Barbusse, who had contracted pneumonia, passed away.150 Soviet officials had waffled on whether to publish a Russian translation of his Stalin, but finally would do so posthumously, in a print run of 100,000.151 Both the spring sowing and the fall gathering had been organized in a timelier, more efficient manner than in years past, and the 1935 harvest would be good: 79 million tons. The state would procure 23.9 million tons, up from 19.7 million the previous year.152 Stalin finally would be able to build a substantial strategic grain reserve (9.4 million tons). “What is happening with grain procurements this year is our completely unprecedented stunning victory,” Kaganovich exulted to the holidaying Orjonikidze (September 4), “a victory of Stalinism.” Of Stalin he wrote, “He’s holidaying now, it seems, none too badly. Klim [Voroshilov] is with him now. He went to settle some military matters.”153

On September 5, 1935, Kaganovich reported to Sochi that Kandelaki had returned to Moscow and conveyed that only 25 million of the 200-million-mark credit had been spent, because of the complexity of Soviet orders. “It seems affairs in Germany are not going very badly,” Stalin wrote back. “Give Comrade Kandelaki my regards and tell him to insist on getting from the Germans everything we need with regard to the military and dyes.”154

Stalin sent a ciphered telegram (September 7) directing that Yenukidze be posted elsewhere (“to Kharkov, Rostov, Novosibirsk or another place, but not Moscow or Leningrad”), after learning that he had been visiting with Orjonikidze and Orakhelashvili when they were on holiday and “talked politics with them day and night.”155 The next day Stalin wrote again, to Kaganovich, that Agranov had sent him a note about “a Yenukidze group of ‘old Bolsheviks’ (‘old farts’ in Lenin’s expression). Yenukidze is a person alien to us. It is strange that Sergo and Orakhelashvili continue to be friends with him.” A politburo decree ordered Yenukidze immediately transferred to Kharkov road transportation.156 Yezhov, meanwhile, wrote to boast to the dictator, regarding his investigation of terrorism plots against the leadership, that “only in the past months have I succeeded in dragging the NKVD into this work, and it is beginning to yield results.”157 But Yezhov’s conspiracy to uncover conspiracies would have to wait: he was ill. “You should leave on holiday as soon as possible—for a resort in the USSR or abroad, whichever you prefer, or whatever the doctors say,” Stalin ordered (September 10). “Go on holiday as soon as possible, unless you want me to raise a big ruckus.”158, 159

A medical report (September 1935) by the Kremlin’s Dr. Levin noted Stalin’s completion of a course of medicinal baths at Matsesta, and his being advised to curtail his smoking. Stalin seems to have felt vulnerable during his own medical exams. He asked one of the physicians who attended him, Miron Shneiderovich, if he read newspapers, to which the doctor replied that he read Pravda and Izvestiya. Stalin supposedly told him, “Doctor, you’re a smart man, and you should understand, there’s not a word of truth in them.” Typical Stalin mischief: the dictator laughed, but then asked, “Doctor, tell me, but the truth, do you sometimes have the desire to poison me?” Shneiderovich went silent. Stalin: “I know, doctor, that you are a timid person, weak, that you would never do that, but I have enemies who are capable of doing it.”160

The same ostensible paranoiac took a drive and then a stroll in Sochi. “Why are you leaving, comrades?” he said to a group of Soviet holidaymakers shocked to encounter him, according to one’s recollections. “Why are you so proud that you shun our company? Come here. Where are you from?” They approached. “Well, let’s get acquainted,” Stalin said. “This is comrade Kalinin, this is the wife of comrade Molotov . . . and this is I, Stalin.” He shook hands. Stalin called over his bodyguard-photographers, mocking them as “mortal enemies,” and instructed them to photograph not just himself but “all the people.” He invited over a woman at a kiosk selling apples and a salesclerk from a food stand. The latter hesitated to leave her post, but finally did so. When an empty public bus happened to pull up, Stalin invited the driver and the ticket taker to have their photos taken, too.161


Red Army maneuvers were held (September 12–15, 1935) in the Kiev military district, commanded by Iona Yakir.162 The exercises entailed a lightning counteroffensive supported by tanks, fighter aircraft, and artillery, directed both frontally and at the enemy’s rear, in a variant on “deep operations,” to employ speed and mobility to punch through enemy lines. The scale and armor were staggering: 65,000 troops, 10,000 tanks, 600 aircraft, and 300 artillery pieces, covering an area of nearly 150 by 120 miles on the western border.163 Tanks were organized in mechanized corps for slashing attacks, while for the first time 1,188 parachutists were dropped from TB-3 bombers. Just 10 of the 4,000-plus motorized machines that saw action suffered any kind of breakage. “The French, Czechs, and Italians who attended the maneuvers felt our power, definitely, to the fullest,” Voroshilov boasted to Sochi (September 16). “Our commanders who have returned from French, Czech, and Italian maneuvers report that the difference in our favor is definitely very substantial.”164

General Lucien Loizeau, deputy chief of the French general staff and head of their delegation, was quoted in Red Star (September 18) offering high praise. “I saw a mighty, serious army, of very high quality in terms of both technology and morale,” he stated. “I think it would be right to consider the Red Army first in the world in terms of tanks. The paratrooper drops of large units that I observed in Kiev I consider a fact that has no precedent in the world.”165 In his secret summary for the French staff, Loizeau concluded, “This army appeared to me therefore capable of a great initial effort, which would permit it to retain on the eastern front important countervailing forces during the period so critical as the beginning of a conflict.”166

Loizeau’s eyewitness assessment would be rejected at French staff headquarters by skeptics opposed to a binding military convention in the Franco-Soviet alliance. The proud Soviets would send films of the maneuvers to their embassies to be shown to foreign governments. The immediate official internal report praised the mechanized corps and three tank battalions, which had averaged a speed of 15 miles an hour and in some cases covered 400 miles. But later, in his final summary, Voroshilov would criticize the separate armored forces and praise the role of the unmotorized infantry.167 This quiet reversal reflected the defense commissar’s threat perception—from his forward-looking subordinates, Uborevičius and Tukhachevsky, whose stature was rising even higher.

Nazi Germany was not invited to send a delegation to the Soviet maneuvers, but the consulate in Kiev sent Berlin a report, evidently based on informants, which highlighted the Red Army’s maneuverability.168 Almost simultaneously, from September 10 through 16, 1935, the Nazis staged a party congress at Nuremberg. Hundreds of thousands celebrated the reintroduction of compulsory military service and emancipation from Versailles diktat. Leni Riefenstahl delivered her third annual documentary, Day of Freedom: Our Wehrmacht, which culminated in a montage of Nazi flags and German fighter planes flying in a swastika formation to the national anthem, with its refrain “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles.” Hitler delivered seventeen separate speeches.169 On September 15, the Reichstag unanimously passed hastily composed laws forbidding marriages and extramarital intercourse between Jews and Germans, and establishing that only those of German or related blood could be citizens.170 Hitler gave his first remarks expressly on the “Jewish Question” since becoming chancellor and called what became known as the Nuremberg laws defensive, congratulated himself for using legal means, and warned that if “Jewish elements” persisted in their agitation and provocations, the issue would have “to be transferred to the final solution of the National Socialist party.”171 Goebbels cited Bolshevism as motive and justification.172

Also on September 15, Kaganovich and Molotov wrote to Stalin of rumors among Berlin journalists that Germany would sever diplomatic relations. “Do not allow hysterical noise in our press, and do not succumb to the hysteria of our journalists,” Stalin advised. “Nuremberg is the answer to our Comintern congress. The Hitlerites could not not curse us if one takes into account that the Comintern congress poured latrine filth over them. Let Pravda criticize them on principle and politically, without street vulgarity. Pravda could say that Nuremberg confirms the Comintern assessment of National Socialism as the most primitive form of chauvinism, that anti-Semitism is the animal form of chauvinism and hatred of humans, that anti-Semitism from the point of view of the history of culture is a return to cannibalism, that National Socialism in that light is not even original, for it slavishly repeats the Russian pogromists of the tsarist period of Tsar Nicholas II and Rasputin.”173


Fourteen-year-old Vasily Stalin was having a crisis. He had taken to smoking. Although he had enough wits not to touch his father’s cigarette box, his primitive efforts to hide the odor on his breath by sucking candy failed. His grades had sunk even lower. One day at school, several boys teamed up to thrash him. Stalin called the teacher and asked if Vasily had provoked his assailants; she reported that he had made them angry. “So be it,” he said. “I won’t bother you any longer.”174 Vasily played soccer after school, which became an excuse for him to skip homework (too tired), according to a note from the Zubalovo dacha commandant to Vlasik (September 22, 1935). “Vasily thinks he is an adult,” the commandant wrote, “and insistently demands we fulfill his wishes, which are often stupid.”175 Stalin gave his son two months to get his act together, threatening to replace him at home with other boys of exemplary behavior.176

A letter from seventy-year-old Fekla Korshunova, who lived on her husband’s pension from the “Leader of the Proletariat” peat plant, was forwarded to Stalin in Sochi. She wanted to give him one of her cows as a gift but was unsure that it was a good idea (“That will be clearer to you”). She signed off by noting that she used to receive 15 rubles 64 kopecks per month in pension, but now got 24 rubles. Stalin wrote back (September 30), “Thank you, mama, for your kind letter. I do not need a cow, because I do not have any farmland—I’m just a white-collar employee, I serve the people the best that I can, and white-collar types rarely do their own farming. I advise you, mama, to keep the cow yourself and maintain it in my memory. Respecting You, I. Stalin.”177

More than 10 million women were employed outside the home—in retail, local soviets, schools, traditional textiles—but they had also barged into industrial employment, a consequence, one trade union official said, of “massive desire.”178 On October 1, the regime abolished rationing for meat, fish, sugar, fats, and potatoes, portending price rises, but lowered the retail price of bread. The party mobilized agitators at workplaces to impart the “correct” understanding.179 One typical couple in Leningrad, he a hauler and she a teacher, lived in a room of 150 square feet, the husband and wife sleeping on the bed, the elder son on a cot, two younger daughters sharing another cot (foot to head), and the youngest girl on an ottoman. “That’s how we lived for ten years,” the son, who did homework in the magnificent prerevolutionary Saltykov-Shchedrin Library until midnight, would recall. “And we were happy in our way. The main thing: everyone was studying—even Mama at forty-five years old finished the pedagogical night school.”180

Amid the endemic shortages, the regime manipulated consumer goods as reward or punishment.181 Elites enjoyed privileged access to staples and luxuries such as restaurant meals or fashionable winter coats.182 Purchase of desirable goods usually required a special coupon as well as money, and a leather jacket bought for 300 rubles in a subsidized state store by those awarded coupons could be resold at the market for three times that or more—which technically was a crime, but also a way of life. Midlevel NKVD operatives were paid just 150–350 rubles per month (an overcoat cost 700 rubles in 1935), and they, too, had to buy “voluntary” government bonds, usually at a cost of a month’s salary. True, operatives received subsidized meals at work, but higher-ups made at least five times as much in salary and received nearly a thousand rubles extra per month in cash “bonuses.” Bosses’ high living was a constant refrain in secret reports. “That’s enough laughing at the workers, enough starving, enough teasing them like dogs” read an anonymous letter to Zhdanov in 1935. “Our enemies are our aristocrats who harm the working people.”


Stalin exposed his grasp of world affairs to Kaganovich and Molotov in connection with a crisis developing over East Africa, where, on October 3, 1935, after prolonged tensions and border clashes, a large Italian army stationed in Eritrea invaded Abyssinia (Ethiopia) without a declaration of war. This was the Second Italo-Abyssinian War: Italy had lost the African territory in 1896 in a humiliating military defeat at Adwa. Italian forces, meeting fierce resistance, used aerial bombardment of villages and mustard gas against tribesmen.183 On October 7, the League of Nations pronounced Italy the aggressor and began the process of imposing sanctions, but the League’s failure to punish Italy would soon be manifest. During the League debate, a Czechoslovak spectator shot himself.

Stalin was taking it in stride. “Kalinin reports that the foreign affairs commissariat doubts the possibility of grain exports and other products from the USSR to Italy in view of the dispute in Abyssinia,” he wrote from Sochi during the buildup to the invasion. “I think that these doubts of the foreign affairs commissariat derive from their non-understanding of the international situation. The conflict is not so much between Italy and Abyssinia as between Italy and France, on one side, and England on the other. The old Entente is no more. In its place, two ententes are forming: the entente of Italy and France on one side and the entente between England and Germany on the other. The worse the brawl between them, the better for the USSR. We can sell grain to one and the other, so they can fight. It is not at all advantageous for us now if one side smashes the other. For us it is advantageous for their brawl to be as long as possible, without a quick victory by one over the other.”184

In reality, Britain and France were on one side, and, increasingly, Italy and Germany on the other.

When Litvinov had requested permission to walk demonstratively out of the Assembly of the League of Nations to protest its failure to elect the USSR representative (himself) as one of the six vice presidents, Stalin had agreed (“Let the Assembly eat the Abyssinian kasha”). But when Litvinov’s walkout induced the British and French to scramble to include him in the League’s presidium, Stalin erupted to Kaganovich and Molotov over the easy acceptance of the face-saving gesture. “Litvinov was frightened by his own proposal and hurried to extinguish the incident,” he fumed. “Litvinov wants to follow the British line, but we have our own line.” Stalin called the League’s leadership “thieves” who “did not treat the USSR with the proper respect,” and charged Litvinov with being guided “not so much by the interests of the USSR as by his own overwhelming pride.”185

On October 26, Tukhachevsky—not seen at the German embassy since Hitler’s ascent—appeared at the farewell reception for departing counselor Fritz von Twardowski. “Tukhachevsky was unusually frank and cordial,” Twardowski reported. “His remarks were full of the greatest respect for the German army, its officer corps, and its organizational capacity, which led him to express the view that the new German Reich army would be fully prepared for war already this year, or at latest next year.” Twardowski pushed back against such an idea, but the deputy defense commissar persisted: “If it should come to war between Germany and the Soviet Union, which would be an appalling misfortune for both nations, Germany would no longer be confronted with the old Russia; the Red Army had learned a great deal and done a great deal of work.” Twardowski noted that Tukhachevsky had volunteered that “if Germany and the Soviet Union still had the same friendly political relations they used to have, they would be in a position to dictate peace to the world.”186


On holiday, Stalin again suffered from stomach pains and caught influenza.187 Very unusually, he stopped in to see his septuagenarian mother.188 Since he had become a widower for the second time, his letters to Keke had changed. “Greetings, Mother Dear, I got the jam, the ginger, and the churchkhela [Georgian candle-shaped candy],” he had written in 1934. “The children are very pleased and send you their thanks. I am well, so don’t worry about me. I can bear my burden. I do not know whether or not you need money. I am sending you 500 rubles just in case. . . . Keep well, dear mother, and keep your spirits up. A kiss. Your son, Soso. P.S. The children genuflect to you. After Nadya’s death, my private life has been very hard, but a strong man must always be manly.”189

Stalin was in the company of Beria, who had erected a grandiose marble pavilion over the dictator’s wooden birth hovel in Gori and opened it to the public.190 Beria also instigated approval for construction of a Stalin museum in Gori, next to which were supposed to be a cinema, drama theater, library, hotel, and House of the Collective Farmer. The low estimate for the total cost nearly equaled Gori’s annual budget (900,000 rubles).191 Keke was still living under Beria’s care, in the single room on the ground floor of the former tsarist viceroy’s palace, where Georgia’s Council of People’s Commissars had its offices. She ventured to the market dressed in black, a widow for more than a quarter century now, and shadowed by secret police. Beria’s wife, Nino, visited her regularly. In June 1935, Svetlana and Vasily had paid a visit. The children were staying with “Uncle Lavrenti” for a week and, according to Svetlana, saw their grandma for half an hour. Neither Svetlana nor Vasily understood Georgian; they communicated through their half brother, Yakov. Svetlana would recall being shocked at the sight of Keke’s spartan metal bed. Keke was ill (she received them while in bed, as demonstrated by photographs, which Stalin permitted to be published).192 Stalin’s own visit—a further indication that she was ill—took place on October 17. There is plausible hearsay from her attending physician that Stalin asked, “Mother, why did you beat me so hard?” and that she responded, “That’s why you turned out so well.”193

Stalin’s Georgian origins had been muted over time, with his features softened in photographs (his long pointed nose was reduced, his arched left eyebrow lowered, his chin moved forward, his face made oval).194 Three days after the visit, Pravda’s correspondent interviewed Keke, and on October 21 Poskryobyshev passed a draft of his article to the dictator with a request to publish it. “I won’t undertake to approve or reject,” Stalin answered. “It’s not my business.”195 The article appeared in Pravda (October 23). “The 75-year-old Keke is affable, cheerful. . . . ‘He came unexpectedly, without warning. The door opens and he walks in. He kissed me a long time, and I reciprocated. How do you like our Tiflis? I asked him.’” The newspaper further quoted her as saying, “‘I worked each day and raised a son. It was hard. . . . We ate poorly. . . . An exemplary son! . . . I wish everyone such a son!’”196

Pravda followed up (October 27) with additional details from Keke: “‘Our Lavrenti came and announced that Soso had arrived and that he was already here and coming in. . . . The door opened, and there he stood on the threshold: it’s him, my own. . . . I look and I can’t believe my eyes.’” She notices that he has gray hair. “‘What’s that, son, have you gone gray?’” Stalin answers: “‘It’s nothing, Mother, a little gray. It’s not important. I feel terrific, and you should not doubt it.’”197 (The account omitted the part where she said, “What a shame that you didn’t become a priest,” which Stalin, according to Svetlana, liked to repeat.) Keke was quoted as revealing that Stalin’s father had removed him from school to apprentice him to a shoemaker, against her strenuous objections. On October 29, Stalin exploded. “I ask that you prohibit the vulgar rubbish that infiltrated our central and local press, publishing an ‘interview’ with my mother and sundry other promotional nonsense right up to portraits,” he wrote from Sochi to Molotov, Kaganovich, Andreyev, Zhdanov, and Boris Tal (head of publishing in the apparatus). “I ask that you spare me from the promotional hoopla of these scum.”198


Stalin’s first order of business back in Moscow, on November 2, 1935, was to receive Kandelaki, just returned from a meeting in Berlin with Schacht, who had revisited the proposal for a large new credit, now half a billion marks, while Kandelaki had again raised the need for political rapprochement and reemphasized Soviet interest in state-of-the-art military technology (automatic piloting of aircraft, remote control of vessels). France’s Laval, who had concurrently become prime minister, was also working all channels to secure rapprochement with Germany while delaying formal ratification of the Soviet alliance. Hitler perceived weakness.199 Schulenburg, Germany’s ambassador, reported that at the dinner for the diplomatic corps on Revolution Day, Litvinov had raised his glass and loudly proclaimed, “I drink to the rebirth of our friendship!” Schulenburg added, “The British ambassador, who was sitting opposite, said: ‘Well, that’s a fine toast.’”200

The capital was having its usual chilly, white winter, but at the November 7, 1935, parade, for the first time, Voroshilov, Tukhachevsky, and others appeared with gold shoulder boards. Not long thereafter, Stalin allowed the reintroduction of the snapped-hand salute and formal ranks.201 The dictator named five “marshals”: Voroshilov, Yegorov, Tukhachevsky, Blyukher, and Budyonny.202 In the process of awarding ranks for thousands of others, some officers were effectively demoted because it was remembered that they happened to be the sons of priests or gentry or had once run afoul of a bigwig.203 The NKVD also got ranks. Zakovsky, conductor of the post-Kirov meat grinder in Leningrad, became commissar of state security first rank, equivalent to general in the army; Stalin had raised this from the proposal in the draft. Yagoda became general commissar of state security, the sole person in that rank.204 Grasping for rank, uniforms, and medals, as well as grand apartments, dachas, and cash bonuses, the new elite was becoming ever more conspicuous.205

On November 8, the extended family of the Alliluyevs and Svanidzes gathered for the third consecutive year in memory of Nadya. The night before Stalin had spent with the cronies until 3:00 a.m. Now, concerned about the dictator’s mood on the occasion, Molotov called to suggest watching a film together, but Stalin begged off.206 His elder son, Yakov, had found a new woman, Judith Meltzer (b. 1911), a ballerina from Odessa who went by Yulia. Yakov had been cohabiting with and gotten engaged to Olga Golysheva (b. 1909), a fellow student at the Moscow Aviation School from Stalingrad province, but they broke up and she went home.207 Meltzer had evidently come to Yakov’s attention at a Moscow restaurant, where he had an altercation with her second husband, Nikolai Bessarab, an NKVD officer who served as an aide to Redens, Stalin’s brother-in-law and now head of the Moscow province NKVD. “She is a fine woman, 30–32 years old, coquettish, speaks stupidities with aplomb, reads novels, gave herself the goal of leaving her husband and making a ‘career,’ and succeeded,” Maria Svanidze acidly wrote of Meltzer at the holiday dinner. “She already lives with Yasha, but her belongings are with her husband.”208

Between November 14 and 17, 1935, the regime held the First All-Union Conference of Stakhanovites in the Grand Kremlin Palace. Pressure for labor intensification had been high even before Stalin’s approval of capital investment increases—but an apparent solution fell into the regime’s lap. At the Central-Irmino mine in Kadievka (Donbass), Alexei Stakhanov (b. 1906), a jackhammer operator, hewed 102 tons of coal in a single overnight shift, more than fourteen times his quota of seven. At 6:00 a.m., the mine’s party cell voted to award Stakhanov bonus pay of 220 rubles (a month’s salary) and give him permanent passes to the workers’ club. Pravda carried a report of Stakhanov’s feat (September 2); the next day he had a new apartment. Stakhanov’s innovation was to ask that hewers like himself be freed from periodically setting down their jackhammers in order to prop the coal face. Additionally, a local party organizer had hauled in extra equipment and workers, whose names went unmentioned in the shower of publicity he arranged. Orjonikidze, in Kislovodsk, read the Pravda account and telephoned aides in Moscow and the coal trust in Kadievka. Pravda (September 11) launched a “movement” across industrial sectors and into the Gulag.209

Record chasing often left follow-on shifts bereft of supplies and labor to meet, let alone exceed, norms, provoked breakdowns and injuries, and exacerbated tensions among workers. But managers who tried to contain Stakhanovism’s deleterious consequences risked accusations of sabotaging worker initiative.210 (The mine director at Central-Irmino would be arrested for “wrecking”; his place would be taken by the party organizer.)211 Stakhanovism became a truncheon against both managers and workers, forcing norms upward. At the Stakhanovite conference, Orjonikidze, as always, stressed the need to raise quality, not just quantity.212 On the closing day, as Voroshilov regaled the Stakhanovites with the paratrooper exploits at the recent army maneuvers, Stalin walked in, inciting delirium.

The dictator soon took the podium, attributing the “profoundly revolutionary” movement to initiative from below, in the country’s new conditions. “Life has become better, comrades,” he observed. “Life has become more joyous. And whenever life is joyful, work goes better.” (Earlier in the proceedings, the 3,000 attendees had spontaneously broken out into the catchy march from Jolly Fellows.) “If there had been a crisis in our country, if there had been unemployment—that scourge of the working class—if people in our country lived badly, drably, joylessly, there would have been nothing like the Stakhanovite movement. (Applause.) . . . If there is a shortage of bread, a shortage of butter and fats, a shortage of textiles, and if housing conditions are bad, freedom will not carry you very far. It is very difficult, comrades, to live on freedom alone. (Shouts of approval. Applause.)”213

Stalin closed by asking for approval to reward the country’s best workers with the highest state honor, again inciting delirium. Stakhanov would be awarded the Order of Lenin, admitted to the party, promoted into mine management, and made the author of texts extolling Stalin for originating his movement.214 He would take to drinking, lose his Order of Lenin and party card in a drunken brawl, smash the mirrored walls at the Metropole Hotel restaurant, and wed a fourteen-year-old. Stalin would lose interest in Stakhanovism, but he now paid still more attention to the cultivation of public heroes.


The Soviet envoy to Bulgaria, Fyodor Ilin, the son of a priest and himself a storied Bolshevik, who adopted the surname Raskolnikov (from Dostoevsky’s character), was in Moscow in late November 1935. He and his wife decided to see Oleksandr Korniychuk’s play Platon Krechet, about the new Soviet intelligentsia’s quest for genuine humanism and social justice, at the affiliate of the Moscow Art Theater on Theological Lane. Unexpectedly, Raskolnikov encountered Stalin and Molotov. (The pair had first gone to the Moscow Art Theater, but the show they went to see had been switched out.) During intermission, Stalin engaged Raskolnikov in a discussion of Soviet policy in Bulgaria. Molotov took note of Stalin’s respect for Raskolnikov, and the next morning Zhemchuzhina, Molotov’s wife, phoned to invite Raskolnikov and his wife to their dacha. During billiards, drinking, and dancing, the men discussed the threat of fascism, and Molotov exclaimed, “Our main enemy is England!”215

At the theater, Stalin had asked Raskolnikov to visit him in his office, but when the envoy phoned from the foreign affairs commissariat, a disbelieving Poskryobyshev gave him the runaround. Once, when Raskolnikov dialed Stalin’s number, the dictator himself picked up—and invited him over right then. It was December 9, 1935. Raskolnikov got twenty minutes one-on-one, his first (and sole) visit to the Little Corner. “Stalin’s working office in the recently refurbished Kremlin building was furnished, point for point, the same way as his office on the top floor of the immense building of the Central Committee on Old Square,” Raskolnikov noted. The dictator came out from behind the desk, placed Raskolnikov at the large felt table, took a seat, and, after pinching some tobacco, lit his pipe. Raskolnikov relayed that his superiors had declined Sofia’s request to buy Soviet weapons. “A mistake!” Stalin interjected, adding that the Bulgarians would just buy them from the Germans. Raskolnikov received authorization to report Stalin’s view at the commissariat. The conversation widened. “‘England now stands for peace!’ Stalin stated ironically, opening his palms wide, animatedly approaching me,” Raskolnikov recalled. “‘England now will be plucked. Its colonies are spread around the whole world. Defending them is unthinkable: they would need 100 navies to do that. It’s not like us, where everything is gathered in a single space. Therefore, England, of course, stands for peace.’”216

Behind the scenes, Litvinov persisted in his anti-Nazism, writing to Stalin to confirm a TASS report that Schacht had confided to a French banker that Germany intended to partition Soviet Ukraine with Poland. Litvinov urged that the dictator issue “a directive about opening a systematic counter-campaign against German fascism and fascists,” whose attacks on Bolshevism had reached “Homeric proportions.” But other foreign affairs personnel pushed in Stalin’s preferred direction. Twardowski, back in the German foreign ministry, phoned Yakov Surits, the Soviet envoy to Berlin, to arrange a courtesy appointment—and suddenly Sergei Bessonov, the embassy counselor for trade, called asking to be received before Surits. Twardowski arranged to see them separately on December 10. Bessonov, given the first meeting, bluntly opened: “How could German-Soviet relations be improved?” Surits posed the same question in the guise of seeking advice. Bessonov wrote to the foreign affairs commissariat that his conversations confirmed “the existence of strata and groups in Germany interested, for various reasons, in normalizing relations,” singling out big business and the old-line military, and said they were looking for concrete steps from the USSR to help them in domestic policy battles.217

Hitler had his own idées fixes. On December 13, he received UK ambassador Sir Eric Phipps at the latter’s request to discuss stalled air force limitations talks. Germany’s decision to build a fleet and the ensuing naval arms race had helped precipitate the Great War, but British officialdom feared an air arms race even more.218 Phipps had been telling himself that the feral Führer was more reasonable than the lunatic entourage surrounding him. But Hitler launched a tirade, condemning the Franco-Soviet pact as a “military alliance unmistakably directed against Germany” (according to the German notetaker) and observing (according to the British notetaker) “that Berlin might easily in a few hours be reduced to [a] heap of ashes by a Russian air attack.” He lashed out at British diplomatic engagement with Moscow, asserting that Whitehall was cozying up to the Soviet Union only because it wanted a counterweight to Japan. Phipps denied this, and insisted that “we are living in the same house” with the Soviet Union and could not ignore it. Hitler countered that the Soviets were “a foul and unclean inhabitant of the house with whom the other dwellers should have no political truck whatsoever.”

Hitler, ever more darkly and loudly, raged on that Communist pledges in bilateral pacts not to interfere in the affairs of other countries were belied by Moscow’s “most aggressive and insolent underground interference in the affairs of all civilized states, not excluding the British empire.” He shouted that he had resisted internal demands to request a fleet half the size of the British navy, taking only one third, yet Britain still tolerated the French alliance with Bolshevism and was contemplating one of its own. “At one moment Herr Hitler referred savagely to Lithuania, declaring that neither that country nor the Baltic states in general would present any obstacle to a Russian attack on Germany,” Phipps noted in his summary, adding that “even when pretending to fear a Russian attack, he spoke of Russia with supreme contempt, and declared his conviction that Germany was vastly superior to her both militarily and technically. At times he ground the floor with his heel.”219


Moscow’s Triumphal Square was renamed for Mayakovsky.220 Lily Brik, who lived in Leningrad caring for Mayakovsky’s archive, had written to Stalin in despair that the dead poet’s books were nearly impossible to obtain, a special room at the Communist Academy promised for his literary heritage had never been provided, and a request to turn his last residence in a small wooden house into a library had never been supported. “I alone cannot overcome this bureaucratic indifference and resistance—and after six years of work I am turning to you, since I see no other means to realize the enormous revolutionary bequest of Mayakovsky,” she wrote. Stalin instructed Yezhov that “Mayakovsky was and remains the best, most talented poet of our Soviet epoch. The indifference to his memory or his works is a crime. Brik’s complaints are correct.”221 Suddenly, Pravda (December 5, 1935) published a laudatory essay on the poet, citing Stalin calling him “talented” (an intentional toning down, which would be corrected).222 Pasternak wrote privately to the dictator expressing gratitude for the recognition of his fellow poet (“warmly loving you and loyal to you”).223

Japan was busy confirming Stalin’s prescience about its vaulting ambitions.224 In Manchukuo, it had gone on to create a vast autonomous province for ethnic Mongols and fostered preservation of traditional lifestyles, the opposite of Soviet social engineering in its Mongolian satellite.225 Chiang Kai-shek had conceded territory to the Japanese occupiers, planning to take them on decisively after he had annihilated the Communists, but the Communist escape to the interior had put off that reckoning. Surviving Communists had united in a new sanctuary in impoverished Shaanxi province, where Mao, carried on a palanquin during the Long March, emerged as the paramount leader.226 Chiang approached the Soviet envoy Dimitri Bogomolov asking for weapons, as if the Nationalists were finally going to launch a war to evict the Japanese. “From all my conversations, I am left with the impression that they would like to precipitate a possible conflict between ourselves and Japan,” Bogomolov informed Moscow (December 9, 1935).Stalin agreed to ship the arms (via Xinjiang), worried that Chiang might otherwise cut a side deal with Japan. On December 9, the Comintern’s “united front” policy was stretched to include cooperation with Chiang—unbeknownst to Mao in the remote interior, who would erupt when apprised.227

A Soviet official “close to the Kremlin” told U.S. embassy personnel that any moves by Japan against Mongolia would be regarded as a threat to Soviet territorial integrity, but a week later Japanese-Manchukuo forces burned down a Mongolian frontier post, killing or kidnapping several Mongolian border guards, and this drew only a protest.228 In the meantime, on December 12, a Mongolian delegation arrived in Moscow, again led by Prime Minister Genden, who was dragging his feet over Stalin’s orders to extirpate lama influence and enlarge the penurious country’s military budget.229 Genden was quick-tempered, and known to indulge in wine, women, and indiscreet song. Before his departure from Ulan Bator, he had supposedly boasted, “I’ll deal with that Georgian with the knife-tipped nose. . . . I’ll enjoy a quarrel with him.”230

The Mongols in Moscow had to cool their heels. On Stalin’s official fifty-sixth birthday (December 21, 1935) at the Near Dacha, the Alliluyevs and Svanidzes discovered that they were now outnumbered by politburo officials. “Zhdanov played the accordion beautifully, but it broke down on him a few times,” Maria Svanidze recorded in her diary. “They sang graceful Abkhaz and Ukrainian songs, old student songs, and some plain silly ones. Postyshev was in high spirits. He was jokingly dancing the Russian national dance with Molotov, spoke to him in Kazakh, and this pair entertained I[osif] and all the guests. After supper, everyone went through to the study (the large room). I[osif] wound up the gramophone and people danced the Russian dance, Anastas Ivanovich [Mikoyan] danced the lezginka, wildly, and sometimes lost the rhythm. As usual, we danced the foxtrot. . . . We asked I[osif] to join in, but he said that since the death of Nadya he no longer danced.”231

The regime held a Central Committee plenum from December 21 to 25, and on the final day Yezhov reported on the ongoing party card verification campaign: of the 2.34 million members and candidate members, 1.915 million had gone through the process, and of those, 175,166 had been expelled. Two thirds of the expulsions were for “passivity,” that is, failing to attend meetings, pay dues, or study. Some 20 percent were dropped as White Guards or kulaks, 8.5 percent as swindlers and scoundrels, and some 1 percent as foreign spies. Around 3 percent, 5,500 party members, were expelled as “Trotskyites and Zinovievites.”232 About 15,000 of those expelled would also be arrested. The process, still not complete, was now to be followed by a physical exchange of party cards, old for new. Yezhov congratulated himself.233 On the plenum’s eve, resistance to Stakhanovism had been designated as terrorism.234 At a heavy industry conference the day after the plenum, Orjonikidze conspicuously mentioned nothing of sabotage.235

Stalin had decided to allow, for the first time, the genuine number for projected Soviet military spending for the coming year to be released—a staggering, meant-to-impress 14.8 billion rubles, 16 percent of the state budget.236

Late on December 30, he and his inner circle received the delegation from Mongolia in Molotov’s office, and took an aggressive posture. Molotov: “You, Genden, when drunk, all the time speak anti-Soviet provocations. We know that before your departure to come here, you said that we would recommend a long stay in the Kremlin hospital or holiday in Crimea, ‘in connection with your health.’” Stalin reprimanded Genden for spending only 25 percent of the state budget on the military, asserting that the USSR would spend 70–80 percent when necessary, and demanding that Mongolia spend 50–60 percent. “If you, Genden, are not concerned with the defense of your country, and you think that Mongolia suffers from its ties to the USSR, which you think cheats and takes advantage of Mongolia, and you want to get friendly with Japan, then go ahead!” Stalin declared disingenuously. “We do not compel you to have relations with us if you do not want to.” He added: “You do nothing about the lamas. . . . They can undermine a good army and the rear.”237

Molotov declared a break and invited them to “tea” (often code for spirits). Demid, the defense minister, understood that his country could not manage against possible Japanese aggression without Soviet assistance, while Genden preferred to rely on the country’s own army, with more Soviet weapons, even as he feared excessive debt to, and therefore dependence on, Moscow.238 Whether at this Kremlin session or a New Year’s reception at the Mongolian embassy, Genden, in a drunken state, did something no one else ever had or would—he snatched Stalin’s pipe and smashed it.239


Stalin welcomed the year 1936 with a larger crowd than usual at the Near Dacha: the inner circle and nearly all the people’s commissars as well as his relatives.240 “The country has never lived so full-blooded a life as at present,” Pravda announced in an editorial (January 1, 1936). “Vivacity, confidence, and optimism are universally dominant. The people are, as it were, taking to wing. The country is in the process of becoming not only the richest but also the most cultured in the entire world. The advance of the working class to the level of professional engineers and technicians is on the agenda.” The editorial, “The Stakhanovite Year,” was accompanied by an oversized portrait of Stalin smiling and smoking a pipe.

Molotov boasted to the central executive committee, as reported by the Soviet press, that “representatives of the German government had raised the question of a new and larger credit facility covering a ten-year period.”241 In Berlin, Kandelaki presented a list of desiderata that included submarines, IG Farben chemical patents, and Zeiss optical technology.242 The British embassy in Berlin warned the foreign office about a grand deal in the offing.243 Schacht, who had originally deflected Kandelaki’s attempts to shift their conversations to political matters, now remarked to him, “If a meeting between Stalin and Hitler could take place, it would change many things.” Stalin wrote on his copy of the secret report: “Interesting.”244

“Trotskyites” had also seized attention. Valentin Olberg, a provincial teacher who happened to have just returned from Germany, was arrested by the NKVD (January 5, 1936), which extracted “testimony” from him that he had come back with a special task assigned to him by none other than Trotsky: a “terrorist act” against Stalin. Olberg named other “terrorists” he had “recruited”; arrests followed.245 By spring the NKVD would arrest 508 “Trotskyites,” one of whom was found in possession of Trotsky’s personal archive for 1927. Stalin ordered the NKVD to furnish Yezhov with copies of all documents pertaining to Trotskyites and freed him from overseeing party organs, a task passed to Yezhov’s deputy, Georgy Malenkov (b. 1902). Yezhov now oversaw the NKVD full time.246

In Ulan Bator on January 20, Choibalsan, minister of livestock and agriculture, made an impassioned speech in favor of accepting Soviet “proposals.” Many of the top Mongolian party officials present were reluctant to submit to Stalin’s diktat; some perhaps even favored negotiations with Japan, but they knew someone would immediately inform Moscow. They approved a formal invitation to the USSR for two army brigades, and resolved to increase their own army to 17,000 and their national guard to 2,500.247

Also on January 20, King George V died near midnight, at age eighty-three, after being administered a lethal dose of morphine and cocaine to put him out of his suffering and, according to his physician, to allow his death to feature in the morning rather than the afternoon papers.248 Stalin named Tukhachevsky, alongside Litvinov, to the Soviet delegation for the funeral, in Windsor Castle on January 28. Tukhachevsky traveled by train via Berlin, where he stopped off for a few hours, setting off a speculative frenzy about meetings with the German general staff. The Soviet press was silent about the stopover; Germany denied the rumors.249 Stalin does seem to have tried to contrive a meeting.250

Tukhachevsky had visited Germany nine times, but despite his respect for German military achievements, he distrusted that country.251 In Britain, where he spent not hours but thirteen days, he met French general Maurice Gamelin, also in London for the funeral, who hosted him at an embassy reception, where the Soviet commander met officers who had been interned with him in the German POW camp. Gamelin invited him to stop in Paris, where Tukhachevsky was afforded a lavish program of meetings and military inspections. In long hours with Gamelin, Tukhachevsky made plain his concern over the threat of German aggression.252 Maisky and Litvinov were urging Eden, newly named foreign secretary, to use the League of Nations and other instruments to halt the German danger before it came to war. Eden wrote in an internal memo that he told them he was “unable to imagine what else could be done,” and to Litvinov’s suggestion for a Soviet-British-French bloc against Germany, he responded, “I cannot imagine how that could be done.”253


On January 27, 1936, Stalin and his entourage received a sixty-seven-person delegation of milkmaids, artists, and functionaries from Buryat-Mongolia in the Russian republic. A report sent by the region’s leaders in advance noted that the autonomous republic had 82 percent collectivization and stood first in the Union among national republics in livestock per capita, with 3.36 cows, 3.91 sheep, 0.9 goat, and 0.23 pig held collectively per household. (The numbers for Kazakhstan were 0.84, 1.47, 6.9, and 0.09.)254 Pravda’s coverage of the Kremlin reception included a photograph of Stalin in Buryat robes, with a dagger in his sash. These receptions for national groups in traditional dress constituted a recent invention.255 Pravda had hit upon the slogan, enunciated at one such reception, of the “Friendship of Peoples.”256

In the Buryat-Mongolia coverage, there was also a photo of Stalin with Engelsina “Gelya” Markizova, a seven-year-old Buryat girl wearing a brand-new sailor’s outfit and beaming in his arms.257 Named for Engels (her brother was named Vladlen, after Vladimir Lenin), she was the daughter of a Buryat-Mongolia official and lived on Stalin Street in Ulan Ude. She had presented him with two bouquets that her mother, a student at the Moscow Institute of Medicine, had thought to purchase (one was supposed to be for Voroshilov). Stalin had picked her up, and she had wrapped her arms around his shoulders, creating an indelible image.258 Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana, had recently appeared with him in a photograph in Pravda (he was shown looking down, cupping her head with his good arm, her bright face smiling).259 Stalin also permitted a photograph of Vasily and Svetlana together in Pioneer Pravda (which he instructed Svetlana to “treasure”).260 Thereafter, his two younger children faded from public view. But the images with children persisted, creating a sense of a paternal leader. The depictions of traditional dances and rural females—which had once conveyed the backwardness to be overcome—now signified supposed harmony in diversity, embodied by a happy father figure.261

Russians, too, constituted a nation, but their folklore was presented as imperial culture.262 Even as workers remained the vanguard class, Russians became the vanguard nation.263 “All the peoples, participants in the great socialist construction, can take pride in the results of their work,” Pravda editorialized (February 1, 1936). “But first among equals are the Russian people, the Russian workers, the Russian toilers, whose role throughout the whole Great Proletarian Socialist Revolution has been exceptionally large, from the first victories to the present day’s brilliant period of development.” Celebration of the expansion of the state from Muscovy allowed restoration of even Ivan the Terrible to a pedestal. Stalin’s leftist critics decried what they perceived as his abandonment of pure Marxism, a perception of retreat that Stalin’s rightist critics shared but welcomed.264 In fact, Stalin’s embrace of the imperial Russian inheritance was selective, showing little concern for churches, large numbers of which had been destroyed. (Kaganovich had dynamited Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the world’s largest Orthodox church, built in the nineteenth century to commemorate the victory over Napoleon.)265 The absence of private property, the leading role of the party, and the red flag with hammer and sickle amply reinforced the fact that this was a Communist regime. But Stalin’s willingness—and ability—to blend imperial Russian étatisme with Marxist-Leninist class approaches strengthened the socialist state.266


Stalin revealed his theory of cultural oversight in a letter to Shcherbakov’s deputy, Vladimir Kirpichnikov, known as Stavsky. “Take a look at comrade Sobolev,” the dictator instructed. “He is, unquestionably, a major talent (judging by his book Capital Repairs). He is, as you see from his letter, capricious and uneven. . . . But these traits, in my view, could be found in any giant literary talent (perhaps with a few exceptions). It is not necessary to oblige him to write a second Capital Repairs. Such an obligation would lead to nothing. It is not necessary to oblige him to write about collective farms or Magnitostroi. It is impossible to write about such matters under obligation. Let him write what and when he wants. In a word, let him. And take care of him.”267 But apparatchiks capable of nurturing talent as well as loyalty were rare. Stories of poorly educated censors forbidding the music of someone named Schubert over the radio because he might be a “Trotskyite” were the least of it.268 The censor (glavlit) had obtained power over plays, films, ballets, broadcasts, and even circus acts, as well as literature, but it was often overwhelmed and had the NKVD and party commissions looking over its shoulder. Taking chances (saying yes) carried no upside; prohibition was the safest recourse, leading to round after round of supplication, paperwork, and foot dragging, unless someone with sufficient authority and confidence put an end to the runaround and said yes.269

Shcherbakov admitted to Stalin that, after fifteen months as secretary of the writers’ union, he was being criticized for not being sufficiently on top of things.270 But Stalin was besieged, and trying to preserve himself to oversee only the most outstanding cultural figures. Finally, on his initiative, the politburo approved the creation of an all-Union Committee for Artistic Affairs, placed not in the party apparatus but in the Council of People’s Commissars, with Platon Lebedev, known as Kerzhentsev (b. 1881), as chairman. The son of a physician–cum–tsarist Duma deputy, he had been educated at gymnasium and then Moscow University, was a prolific writer on topics ranging from the new science of time management to the Paris Commune, and an experienced functionary, whose most recent appointment had been as head of Soviet radio.271

Kerzhentsev arrived just when a storm broke in music. During the entire previous year, only three long-playing records with Soviet music had been issued, and only one was symphonic: the score of Dmitry Shostakovich (b. 1906) for Hamlet.As for opera, Shcherbakov had written to Stalin, Andreyev, and Zhdanov (January 11, 1936) that Leningrad’s Maly Opera Theater was, “in essence, the sole theater that vigorously and systematically is working out the extremely important problem of the Soviet theater—namely, the creation of a contemporary musical spectacle.” He cited Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, by Shostakovich; Quiet Flows the Don, by Ivan Dzerzhinsky (b. 1909); and two works by Valery Zhelobinsky (b. 1913). Shcherbakov proposed that the Leningrad theater be renamed the State New Academy Opera Theater, and that its personnel receive state awards and pay raises to the level of the Kirov Ballet. Stalin redirected Shcherbakov’s letter to Kerzhentsev.272 The Leningrad theater was not renamed, but its ambitious conductor, Samuil Samosud, was anointed a “people’s artist” of the RSFSR and got approval to showcase his theater at a festival in Moscow. On opening night, much of Moscow’s creative intelligentsia showed for Quiet Flows the Don, based on the novel by Sholokhov. The opera—a patriotic glorification of the Don Cossacks’ immutable spirit and readiness to defend the motherland—proved a crowd-pleaser, with its lyrical and accessible music. After the final act, Stalin edged forward in the imperial box, making himself visible, and applauded demonstratively.

Stalin summoned Samosud to his box, and the discussion ended up lasting two hours; TASS distributed an account, heralding the advent of a Soviet opera repertoire. On January 17, 1936, Stalin ordered the director of the Bolshoi to stage its own production of Quiet Flows the Don, and the director decided to stage all the Samosud works, engaging Fyodor Lopukhov as principal dancer (he had danced the operas in Leningrad). The Bolshoi opened with Lady Macbeth, which was easier to mount than the other two. On January 26, Stalin and entourage attended. Unlike Quiet Flows the Don, Shostakovich’s music was subversive of operatic convention, with discord and hyper‐naturalistic portrayals of rape and murder. Stalin exited before the final curtain. This afforded Kerzhentsev a chance to establish his authority as the head of the new committee, at the expense of the existing culture power brokers, above all Shcherbakov. An unsigned denunciation, “A Muddle Instead of Music,” appeared in Pravda (January 28). (Kerzhentsev was the likely author, not Stalin, as rumored.)273 Only a short while before, Pravda had been over the top in praising the same opera. Even though Samosud had originated the production of the Shostakovich opera, the dictator had seen the Bolshoi version. He named him artistic director of the Bolshoi effective immediately.274

Shumyatsky, who remained head of Soviet cinema (and became Kerzhentsev’s second deputy), learned that Stalin viewed the Pravda article as “programmatic,” a demand “not for rebuses and riddles,” but music accessible to the masses, citing the “realistic music” of great Soviet films, especially Jolly Fellows, in which “all the songs are good, simple, melodic.”275 The “signal” got across. (“Don’t you read the papers?” a voice from the audience shouted at a speaker during a meeting of the Moscow Artists’ Union, referring to the denunciation of Shostakovich.)276 Shostakovich inveigled an audience with Kerzhentsev (February 7), and accepted “the majority” of the criticisms. Kerzhentsev advised the composer to travel around villages and acquaint himself with the folk music of Russia, Ukraine, Belorussia, and Georgia, as Rimsky-Korsakov had once done. Shostakovich promised to do so, while noting that composers would appreciate a meeting with Stalin.277 The press launched a vicious campaign against “formalists,” which targeted not only Shostakovich but also Eisenstein and theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold, leaders of the 1920s avant-garde. Kerzhentsev soon took the initiative to purge avant-garde works in museums.278

Bulgakov had two plays about to run: Molière (originally titled The Cabal of Hypocrites), at the Moscow Art Theater, which was to premiere on February 15, 1936, and Ivan Vasilevich, which was in final revisions for the Theater of Satire. Molière opened to a packed hall and wild applause.279 Behind the scenes, Kerzhentsev pointed out to Stalin and Molotov that Bulgakov had written Molière back when most of his works were banned and that, in the travails of a writer under the Sun King (Louis XIV), he intended to evoke what it was like when a playwright’s ideas “went against the political system and plays were prohibited.” He conceded the brilliance of the play, which “skillfully, in the lush netherbloom, carries poisonous drops,” and recommended killing it with damning reviews.280 Pravda ran just such a damning article (“external brilliance and false content”).281 Molière closed after seven successful performances. Ivan Vasilevich—a comedy mocking Ivan the Terrible—never opened, a blow to the writer but also, given Stalin’s views, a blessing.282 On February 19, after a month in his new post, Kerzhentsev wrote to Stalin and Molotov proposing a competition for a play and screenplay on 1917, promising to “show the role of Lenin and Stalin in the preparation and implementation of the October Revolution.” Stalin took a pencil and crossed out his own name.283


Being a great power meant looking into the American mirror. Shumyatsky had launched the idea of a Soviet Hollywood. A severe lack of factory capacity meant that Soviet film prints were in short supply—usually fewer than forty copies per film for the entire country—and he wanted a film industry capable of producing its own quality film stock, cameras, projectors, sound-recording machines, and lighting, all of which were expensive to import.284 He had headed an eight-person commission to Paris, London, Rochester (Eastman Kodak), and Los Angeles, whence he published stories about his film viewings and meetings, returning determined to found a Soviet Cinema City in the mild, sunlit climate on the Black Sea, permitting year-round work.285 At a Kremlin screening, he had gotten Stalin to approve the Hollywood idea. “Opponents cannot see farther than their own noses,” the dictator had intoned. “We need not only good pictures but also more of them, in quantity and in distribution. It becomes obnoxious when the same films remain in all the theaters for months on end.”286 At a follow-up screening, when Stalin saw Chapayev for the thirty-eighth time, the dictator said he had heard that Mussolini would build his Cinecittà outside Rome in just two years. But despite Stalin’s verbal support, the expensive Hollywood on the Black Sea never materialized.287

Opposition came not just from industrial and budget officials. Yechi’el-Leyb Faynzilberg, known as Ilya Ilf, and Yevgeny Katayev, known as Petrov, wrote a letter to Stalin opposing the Soviet Hollywood idea (February 26, 1936).288 Already household names for their satirical novels The Twelve Chairs and The Little Golden Calf, featuring the con man Ostap Bender, Ilf and Petrov had just returned from several months in the United States and would write One-Story America, which was about not only the “girls who are half naked, three-quarters naked, and nine-tenths naked [who] dance, or act,” but the real America—that of working people, a country of democracy if not of socialism. Their book related details of traveling in a Ford through twenty-five states with set pieces about skyscrapers, well-paved roads, vending machines, Mark Twain’s hometown, hunters, cowboys, boxers, farmers, Negroes, Indians—an unimaginable world for a Soviet audience.289

America surfaced in Yagoda’s reports, too. Gulag camps and colonies together held around 1.2 million forced laborers, while exiled “kulaks” in “special settlements” numbered around 900,000.290 Camps were releasing invalids, which burnished mortality statistics, and Yagoda pressed for financial accountability and better sanitation.291 Gold output in the Kolyma camps would jump to 36.77 tons in 1936 (from 15.94 the year before), which, an internal report stressed, beat California.292 Mass arrests by the NKVD in 1936 would decline to 131,168, as compared with 505,256 in 1933 (and with 205,173 in 1934 and 193,093 in 1935). In March 1936 Yagoda bragged at the Council of People’s Commissars that, because of increased professionalism, reorganization, and new methods, criminality had been sharply reduced, and the problem of mass social unrest (such as during collectivization) resolved. He conceded that organized hooliganism, robbery, and theft of socialist property persisted, and that ordinary police did not feel safe patrolling working-class districts in mushrooming industrial cities. He also admitted that crime rates were not diminishing as noticeably in rural settlements, where police were almost absent. Still, in the previous year, he gloated, there had been fewer reported murders across the Soviet Union than in the city of Chicago.293


Hitler continued his manipulative mastery. On February 21, 1936, he granted an interview to Bertrand de Jouvenel for Paris-Midi, stressing his policy of peace, the unifying threat of Bolshevism, and the folly of Franco-German enmity. “Let us be friends,” the Führer pleaded, calling his Mein Kampf outdated and promising “correction of certain pages.”294 (Unlike Stalin, with his useful idiots, Hitler did not get to edit the transcripts.) A few days later, the Führer sought out Arnold Toynbee, a philosopher of history who was in Berlin to address the Nazi Law Society. “I want England’s friendship, and if you English will make friends with us, you may name your conditions—including, if you like, conditions about Eastern Europe,” he told the professor, who predicted to the foreign office that “any response from the British side . . . would produce an enormous counter-response from Hitler.”295 Göring, hunting in Poland again (February 19–24), proclaimed at a luncheon hosted by Beck, “in the name of the Führer and chancellor, that any rumors that Germany intended to enter into closer relations with the Soviet Union were unfounded.”296

In Mongolia on February 26, Choibalsan was named head of a new interior ministry (the NKVD equivalent) and, along with Demid, promoted to marshal. (Soviet personnel accounted for one quarter of Mongolian interior ministry personnel.) That same day, in Tokyo, young officers of the Imperial Japanese Army staged a putsch, intending to submit demands to the emperor for the dismissal of their rivals and the appointment of a new prime minister and military-dominated cabinet. They occupied central Tokyo and assassinated two former prime ministers and other high officials, but failed to capture the sitting prime minister or the Imperial Palace. The emperor opposed the action; on February 29 the rebels surrendered.297

On March 1, 1936, Stalin granted an interview to Roy Howard, president of Scripps-Howard News, which, unlike his earlier exchanges with foreigners, he allowed to be published in mass-circulation newspapers. Stalin observed that the situation in Japan after the recent putsch remained unclear, but that “for the time being, the Far Eastern hotbed of danger shows the greatest activity,” and issued an unequivocal public warning: “If Japan should venture to attack the Mongolian People’s Republic and encroach upon its independence, we will have to help.” Howard suggested that the Italian fascists and the German Nazis characterized their systems as state-centric, and the Soviets had built “state socialism.” Stalin rejected the term (“inexact”) and any comparison: “Primarily, this is because the private ownership of the factories and works—of the land, the banks, transport, and so on—has remained intact, and therefore capitalism remains in full force in Germany and in Italy.” Howard pressed Stalin about world revolution. Stalin: “We never had such plans and intentions.” Howard countered with examples. Stalin: “This is all the result of a misunderstanding.” Howard: “A tragic misunderstanding?” Stalin: “No, a comic, or, perhaps, a tragicomic one.”298

Stalin gestured toward Rome, telling Howard that fascist Italy’s much-condemned invasion of Abyssinia was a mere “episode,” but he noted that, even as Hitler spoke about peace, the Führer could not “avoid issuing threats”—Stalin’s first unequivocal public rebuke of Nazism. He added that Germany might join with Poland or the Baltic states against the USSR, just as it had in the Great War against Russia.299

Hitler excelled at the bold gesture. On March 7, 1936, which happened to be two days after Pravda and Izvestiya published Stalin’s interview, the Führer sent troops into a zone on the left bank of the Rhine River that bordered France and had been demilitarized for an indefinite period by the Versailles Treaty. His wooing of Britain had partially succeeded, getting him the Anglo-German naval pact, which fell short of the total acquiescence he sought but put some distance between Britain and France. His scheming to drive a wedge between Italy and France had failed—until Mussolini moved to realize long-standing designs by invading Abyssinia, opening a rift between Rome and the Western powers. True, Hitler’s maneuvering with Poland had helped provoke the Franco-Soviet pact, but that agreement seemed only to have spurred more Soviet approaches to him. In the Rhineland occupation, Hitler had overcome his foreign ministry’s opposition and his own usual last-minute attack of nerves.300 “Fortune favors the brave!” Goebbels had written in his diary the day Hitler informed him of the decision for the Rhineland action. “He who dares nothing wins nothing.”301

British officials were exasperated: they had been about to offer Germany remilitarization, but, as Eden told the cabinet (March 9), “Hitler has deprived us of the possibility of making to him a concession which might otherwise have been a useful bargaining counter in our hands in the general negotiations with Germany which we had it in contemplation to initiate.”302 London appealed pro forma to the League of Nations (March 12) and strenuously worked to restrain any French response.303 French ruling circles lacked the confidence to stand up to Germany alone.304 Only a small contingent of the fledgling Wehrmacht had entered the demilitarized zone, ostensibly so as not to give the impression of a Western invasion. One or two French divisions would have sufficed to drive them out.305 Instead, German industry could now be organized for war without concern for the security of the Rhine and the Ruhr. France was humiliated. “In these three years,” Hitler exulted at a hastily summoned session of the neutered Reichstag in the Kroll Opera House, “Germany has regained its honor, found belief again, overcome its greatest economic distress, and finally ushered in a new cultural ascent.” He cited the recently ratified Franco-Soviet alliance as justification for his remilitarization. “The revolution may take place in France tomorrow,” he added. “In that case, Paris would be nothing more than a branch office of the Communist International.”306

France managed to get Britain to sign a diplomatic note specifying that in the event of a German attack on France, the two Western powers would enter into general staff talks, which fell short of automatic military assistance but was a step.307 Stalin locked down his Mongolian vassals in a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation, signed in Ulan Bator (March 12), which formalized the already imposed military alliance for a ten-year period.308 Some observers also expected Hitler’s action to deepen Franco-Soviet ties, but French officials complained that Stalin was more interested in provoking war between France and Germany than in cooperating with France to fight.309

Stalin just did not view the French as offering anything remotely comparable to Germany economically. (Thanks to a well-placed spy, Karl Behrens, the Soviets were receiving technical blueprints from AEG, Germany’s preeminent heavy electrical engineering firm.) Also, the Rhineland’s remilitarization indicated that the USSR might not be the principal target of German aggrandizement.310, 311 Molotov gave an extended interview in Moscow to the editor of the influential French newspaper Le Temps (March 19, 1936) stating that Germany might start a war—in the west. He did reaffirm the Franco-Soviet pact and admit that “a certain part of the Soviet people” felt implacable hostility toward Germany’s current rulers, but he volunteered, unartfully, that the “chief tendency, determining the policy of Soviet power, thinks an improvement in Soviet-German relations possible . . . yes, even Hitler’s Germany.”312


A Georgian delegation was received in the Kremlin, also on March 19, and Molotov greeted them in Georgian: “Amkhanagebo! (Stormy applause, turning into an ovation.)” When he noted that they had given the country Stalin, there was “an eruption of applause” that would not cease.313 In the Grand Kremlin Palace between April 11 and 21, the Communist Youth League 10th Congress took place. “Stalin had yet to make an appearance,” the writer Konstantin Paustovsky wrote of the final day. “We want comrade Stalin, Stalin, Stalin,” the delegates shouted, stamping their feet. “And then it happened! Stalin emerged suddenly and silently out of the wall behind the Presidium table. . . . Everyone jumped. There was frenzied applause. . . . Unhurriedly, Stalin came up to the table, stopped, and, with hands linked on his stomach, gazed at the hall. . . . The first thing that struck me was that he did not resemble the thousands of portraits and official photographs, which set out to flatter him. The man who stood before me was stumpy and stocky, with a heavy face, reddish hair, low forehead, and a thick mustache. . . . The hall rocked with all the shouting. People applauded, holding their hands high over their heads. At any moment, one felt, the ceiling would come crashing down. Stalin raised a hand. Immediately there was a deathly hush. In that hush, Stalin shouted abruptly and in a rather hoarse voice, with a strong Georgian accent, ‘Long Live Soviet youth!’”314

The children’s writer Chukovsky was close to the front (sixth or seventh row). “What took place in the hall! HE stood, a bit fatigued, engrossed in thought, titanic,” Chukovsky noted in his diary. “One sensed the immense habituation to power, the force, and at the same time something female, soft. I looked around: everyone had loving faces, kind, inspirational, and smiling faces. Just to see—simply see—was happiness for us all.” Chukovsky, too, had sensed the power. “Never,” he concluded, “did I think I was capable of such feelings.”315

On May 1, 1936, the regime staged the massive military display on Red Square, and the next day the emotive Voroshilov once again served as a deft master of ceremonies. “Comrades, by the ancient Soviet custom, it is proposed that we fill our glasses,” he told a boisterous hall in the Grand Kremlin Palace, proceeding with toast after toast (for Stalin, Molotov, Kalinin, Orjonikidze, Kaganovich). Before each pronouncement, Voroshilov employed Soviet jargon, tongue in cheek: “Comrades, I do not doubt your vigilance in general, but in this case a check is needed. How’s the situation with glasses?” (Refills, quickly.) And on it went, until Stalin rose to toast Voroshilov, and Molotov rose to toast “the Great Stalin,” whereupon the entire room of cadets and officers stood as one.316

The Red Army, across 1935 and 1936, acquired a staggering 7,800 tanks, 4,200 airplanes, 9,600 artillery systems, and 6.7 million rounds of ammunition, and soon reached 1.423 million men, on a par with the tsarist army in peacetime. The USSR’s spring 1936 war games again had Nazi Germany as the main enemy, but the exercises revealed that pre-positioning of massive forces on the frontier would not be enough: without a prior Soviet occupation of the independent Baltic states to seize the strategic initiative from Germany, victory could be elusive.317 But Stalin would not countenance such aggressive preemptive moves. It was, in any case, doubtful whether the Red Army could even launch a preemptive war, even as its massive size and disposition made it seem poised to do so.318 Such combat would have put to a severe test the Soviet rail network, known both at home and abroad to be a weak point.319 Also, the military expansion, overly rapid and incoherent, had led to a critical dearth of well-trained junior officers.320 Stalin, who received Tukhachevsky nine times in the Little Corner in 1936, including on April 3 and May 28, with a slew of military brass and intelligence officials, had moved him from running armaments to a reorganized directorate for military training.321


In Berlin on May 4, the Soviet embassy hosted a banquet to celebrate a recently signed modest new bilateral trade protocol, without new credits—the existing 200-million-mark loan remained to be drawn down—but with procedures to fix short-term clearing of accounts (inhibited by currency regulations).322 Bessonov told a German foreign ministry official of Soviet readiness to do what was necessary to create the “preconditions of (Soviet-German) détente.”323 Hitler had appointed Herbert Göring head of a new office for raw material and foreign exchange, crucial for the rearmament economy.324 The indefatigable Kandelaki managed to obtain an audience with him (May 13) through a cousin of the Luftwaffe head, during which an amiable Göring promised to make inquiries about Kandelaki’s request for assistance in obtaining the military technology he sought, and professed delight at the recent trade protocol. Göring also pledged that “all his efforts were directed toward making closer contacts with Russia again, politically, too, and he thought the best way would be through intensifying and expanding mutual trade relations.” He added, “If the Russian gentlemen encountered difficulties in Germany or were faced with questions with which they were making no headway, he most cordially invited them to turn to him at any time. He was always ready to receive them and assist them by word and deed.”325 Schacht, the next day, tried to downplay Göring’s remarks, but Kandelaki departed immediately to report in Moscow.326 A few days later, Göring would agree with a group of German industrialists that business with the Soviet Union was important and promised at some point to bring the issue up with Hitler, “whose attitude to it, admittedly, was not very sympathetic.”327

Göring wanted no more from the Soviets than raw materials in a strictly nonpolitical trade relationship, and he played a complex game. The day after meeting Kandelaki, he received Polish foreign minister Beck and informed him that the Soviet representative had been insisting on a meeting and, finally, had been granted one, during which Kandelaki had made “a concrete proposal for the purchase of several warships and armaments in Germany. The Soviet delegation gave us to understand that Stalin, in contrast to Litvinov, is positively inclined to Germany.” Göring claimed he had presented the Soviet enticements to “the chancellor,” who “energetically spoke against such suggestions.” That was what the Poles wanted to hear. Still, Beck had to understand that Soviet-German rapprochement was at least under discussion. Thus did Göring put pressure on Warsaw to improve Polish-German relations—on Berlin’s terms—while continuing to sabotage any possible Polish-Soviet rapprochement by dangling the possibility of German-Polish joint military action, should the Red Army attack.328

Inside the Soviet regime, the British remained the fixation. “Fascism’s strength is not in Berlin, fascism’s strength is not in Rome,” Kalinin, head of the Soviet state, said in May 1936, echoing comments by Molotov. “Fascism’s strength is in London, and not even in London per se but in five London banks.”329 Mussolini—infuriated by League of Nations sanctions over his Abyssinian invasion—had threatened to quit that body, but it hardly mattered. He publicly drew closer to Nazi Germany.330 On the battlefield, Italy had snatched victory from what briefly looked like possible defeat, and in early May 1936, Emperor Haile Selassie, although refusing to vacate the throne, fled into exile. Italy would merge Abyssinia with Eritrea and Somaliland, forming Italian East Africa; King Victor Emmanuel III would be proclaimed emperor. Mussolini was denounced as the worst of the dictators, a “mad dog act,” or, in the words of Britain’s Anthony Eden, a “gangster”—language that was not heard publicly from Whitehall about Hitler.331 A smiling Hitler told British ambassador Phipps, in regard to Mussolini’s aggression in Abyssinia (May 14), “With dictators, nothing succeeds like success.”332 Four days later, Germany’s foreign minister, Konstantin von Neurath, confidently told William Bullitt, now the U.S. ambassador in Berlin, that Germany would annex Austria at some point, and no one would stop it.333


Sergei Prokofyev’s Little Peter and the Wolf, commissioned by the Central Children’s Theater run by Natalya Sats, had premiered at the Moscow Philharmonic on May 2, 1936, before moving to the children’s venue.334 Although Soviet functionaries had failed to cajole the self-exiles Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Rachmaninov to return, they had succeeded in retrieving Prokofyev, who lived among the constellation of émigré luminaries in Paris with his Spanish wife, Lina Codina, and their Paris-born children. He would receive a four-room apartment in an elite neo-constructivist building (Zemlyanoy Val, 14) and immediately set to work on a plethora of commissions. He had never gravitated to vaudeville or the Hollywood musical, and he took Shostakovich’s public humiliation as promising that there would be ample space for his own diatonic melodies, determined, as he was, to become a central player in what was a serious musical culture. Prokofyev underestimated the bureaucratic deadweight (approval committees made up of third- and fourth-rate musical talent would rewrite his works), but in the meantime the orchestral storytelling of his Little Peter and the Wolf enchanted young audiences.335

Alexandrov, Eisenstein’s former assistant, had done it again: his film Circus premiered on May 23, 1936. Alexandrov, who had once been a circus performer himself, based the film on the Ilf and Petrov play Under the Big Top, from the Moscow Music Hall. Circus lacked the disorganized zaniness of Jolly Fellows: the cameraman had been to Hollywood with Shumyatsky and introduced American storyboarding and Disney’s matching of sound and image. Circus followed the winning Hollywood formula of the transformation of a spunky underdog into a smash success. The female lead, Marion Dixon (played by Lyubov Orlova), a name evocative of Marlene Dietrich, is a performer in an American circus that comes to the USSR on tour. She had given birth to a son with a black lover and suffered racism in the United States; in the USSR, she falls for a Russian performer named Ivan and defects, which spurs the circus director to threaten to expose her illegitimate black child, but the Moscow audience embraces him, and Marion remains in Moscow with her Ivan. The film climaxes with a lullaby sung, in turn, by representatives of the various Soviet nationalities. (The final kiss cliché, characteristic of American comedies, between the little black boy, Jimmy, and a little white girl was cut.) Dunayevsky supplied six catchy songs, performed by Yakov Skomorovsky’s jazz band, including the colossally popular, easily memorized “Song of the Motherland,” with lyrics by Lebedev-Kumach (“I know of no other country where a person breathes this freely!”). The film’s final production number has Orlova dancing at the pinnacle of a multilayered cake structure. One million people saw Circus during just its first two weeks in Moscow. Orlova crisscrossed the country. In Chelyabinsk, she was awarded a piston ring from the factory foundry engraved with lyrics from the Jolly Fellows march: “Song helps us build and live.”336

Party Card, directed by Ivan Pyryev, had premiered in Moscow on April 7, 1936. In the film, the year is 1932 and Pavel Kurganov, from Siberia, the son of a kulak, signs on at a Moscow factory. Becoming a shock worker there, he seduces and marries a young woman, Anna Kulikova, an outstanding assembly-line worker and loyal party member. Unbeknownst to Anna (played brilliantly by Ada Voitsik), Pavel (Andrei Abrikosov) has murdered a Communist Youth League activist, to take over his identity, while secretly working for foreign intelligence, which assigned him the task of obtaining a party member’s card to commit sabotage. Despite her initial lack of vigilance, which Anna’s party colleagues at work denounce, she teams up with her former sweetheart to expose her husband as an embittered kulak enemy. The lesson: Pavel, a peasant lad, had looked trustworthy, but no one can be trusted. The most dangerous enemy is the one with a party card.337 In the initial draft of the screenplay (by Yekaterina Vinogradskaya), titled Little Anna, Pavel had not been a spy. Stalin helped recast it.338 Party cards, long a sign of status in the Soviet Union, allowing holders to attend secret meetings, receive secret information, and shoulder extra responsibilities, now endangered those who held them.

Yagoda had written to Stalin recommending that the multitude of “Trotskyites” in custody be executed, in accordance with the Kirov assassination anti-terror law.339 Some were said to have “ties” to the Gestapo. He reported that two arrested Trotskyites had been found to have thirteen issues of the Bulletin of the Opposition in a suitcase hidden in the wall—Stalin kept his in a cupboard—as well as a copy of the defector Grigory Besedovsky’s book On the Road to Thermidor. The NKVD had also found an address book—more “Trotskyites” to arrest.340 On May 20, 1936, pointing to “the unceasing counterrevolutionary activity of Trotskyites in internal exile, and of those expelled from the party,” the politburo stipulated that more than 600 “Trotskyites” should be sent to remote concentration camps, while those found to have engaged in terrorism were to be executed.341 Yagoda furnished Stalin with additional testimony about “Trotskyite-Zinovievite organizations” on June 1.342

From June 1 to 4, 1936, the Central Committee held its first plenum of the year. It was devoted to agriculture, the pending adoption of a new constitution, and the appeals/reinstatement process for party members expelled during the recent verification campaign (more than 200,000 total). With the regime under severe financial pressure, Stalin had reduced the interest paid on government bonds subscribed to by ordinary people from 8–10 percent to 4 percent, with maturity extended from 10 to 20 years, which he now felt compelled to mention. Some 50 million Soviet inhabitants were affected, most of whom had “subscribed” only under severe pressure from trade unions and party organizers. “As you are well aware, we spend an alarming amount of money on things that cannot be postponed,” he told the plenum attendees (June 3), who would have to face the people’s resentment back in their locales. “Much money has been spent, and is being spent, on such matters as building schools, teachers’ pay, urban improvement, irrigation, afforestation of a number of parts of the country, . . . and constructing canals. Money is being spent on defense and even more will be spent in the future. . . . We do not yet have a navy, and a new one must be established. . . . This is the situation, comrades.”343

These remarks were not reported in the press. Pravda, however, did castigate provincial-level party bosses for “mistakes” made in party expulsions.344 Yezhov in his report had admitted that far from everyone expelled was an enemy, but he ominously stated that “we ought not to think that the enemy, who yesterday was still in the party, will rest content with being expelled from the party and quietly wait for ‘better times.’” Stalin made some rambling interjections about clearer procedures for appeals, and allowed Yenukidze to be reinstated in the party. Several matters were not recorded even in the rough draft materials of the plenum, including an exchange between Yagoda and Stalin on the “Trotskyite-Zinovievite bloc.”345

Gorky had taken gravely ill during the plenum, four days after visiting his son Maxim’s grave in Novodevichy Cemetery. “We came to see you at 2:00 a.m.,” Stalin, Molotov, and Voroshilov wrote in a short note (June 10). “They said your pulse was excellent (82, more or less). The doctors forbade us from seeing you. We had to comply. Greetings from all of us, a big greeting.”346 On the morning of June 18, he died at his dacha. Levitan, on Soviet radio, called him “a great Russian writer, brilliant artist of the word, friend of workers, and fighter for the victory of Communism.” Gorky’s brain was removed and taken in a bucket, by his secretary, to Moscow’s Brain Research Institute, which housed the brains of Lenin and Mayakovsky. That day and the next, the brainless body lay in state as half a million people paid their respects. (When Stalin entered for the solemn farewell, applause broke out, which was shown on newsreels.)347 On June 20, at the state funeral, Gide, on the Mausoleum, delivered one of the eulogies, along with Aleksei Tolstoy and Molotov. Rolland sent a letter from Switzerland, published in Pravda (June 20): “I recall his youthful ardor, his sparkling enthusiasm when he spoke of the new world in whose building he took part. I recall his goodness and the sorrow hidden in its depth.”

Gorky’s ashes were interred in the Kremlin Wall. Stalin afforded Andreyev, his apparatchik for culture, the honor of placing the urn. The regime seized the writer’s archive (Yagoda especially was in for infuriating surprises).348 Rumors circulated of poisoning. One of those accused was Gorky’s former mistress Baroness Moura Budberg, who got her surname through marriage to an Estonian aristocrat, started an affair with H. G. Wells, and was thought to be a double British and Soviet agent. But the main suspect in the whisperings was Stalin.349 In fact, Gorky, who was sixty-eight, had been extremely sick, and was properly diagnosed and treated by a battery of top physicians.350 His autopsy revealed bronchitis, tuberculosis, and a damaged left lung. The writer had smoked nearly three packs of cigarettes a day, and needed an oxygen tank. Pravda gave the cause of death as “a cardiac arrest and paralysis of the lungs.” Gorky had never spiritually recovered from his son Maxim’s untimely death.351 “What has brought you to the Bolsheviks?” Yekaterina Kuskova, Gorky’s lifelong friend, recalled asking him once, in an obituary published in the emigration (June 26). “Do you remember how I began to read Marx with you in Nizhny Novgorod, and you proposed to throw the ‘German philistine’ into the fire?”352

•   •   •

THE MARXIST-LENINIST REGIME that emerged in the blood and fever dreams of the years 1929–36 was buffeted by global structural forces, from fluctuations in commodity prices to innovations in tank designs, and by the deepening of a new historical conjuncture, the mass age. The most powerful countries achieved and maintained their great-power status by mastery of a set of modern attributes: mass production, mass consumption, mass culture, mass politics. Great Britain had not only powerful ships and airplanes, engineers and trained military officers, but also a broad-based political system, an integrated national culture, and a deep degree of societal cohesion. Every other aspiring great power had to achieve its own mass-based version of modernity, which imparted new impetus and form to their geopolitical rivalries. That competition took place not just across the liberal-illiberal divide but among the democratizing parliamentary countries Britain, France, and the United States, and among avowedly authoritarian regimes: fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and the Soviet Union. All of them either had to match the others in some way or risk becoming, like the rest of the world, colonies. Modernity was not a sociological but a geopolitical process.353

Stalin forced into being a socialist modernity, presiding over the creation of a mass-production economy, a Soviet mass culture, an integrated society, and a mass politics without private property.354, 355

This upheaval, in addition to geopolitics and ideology, reflected Russia’s long-standing sense of world-historical destiny combined with profound insecurity and relative weakness vis-à-vis the European powers. This gap had long goaded Russia into catch-up acquisition of Western technology to protect the country’s non-Western identity, borrowing not ideas and institutions of liberty but technology for industry and techniques for administration of resources and population—the social-engineering part of the Enlightenment. But even as Russia advanced, the West did not stand still and remained richer, more advanced, more powerful. Still, under Stalin the Soviets had imported and copied Western technology and skills, enforced deprivation on the populace, and created a massive land army and air force that would be the envy of other powers—just as imperial Russia had done.356 Stalin’s use of the state to force-modernize the country was far more radical and violent than that of his tsarist predecessors because of the Great War conjuncture, which accelerated the use of violence for political ends, and the anticapitalism, which coercion alone could achieve. Thanks to the Great Depression, Stalin was also able to secure technology transfer with greater independence from foreign desiderata.357

In imperial Russia, only a strong personality—a Sergei Witte, a Pyotr Stolypin—had been able to impose something of a unified will on the ministries, while toiling to implant loyalists across the entire bureaucracy, but the tsar and his agents deliberately undermined strong central government, because that threatened the prerogatives of the autocrat. Stolypin, arguably Russia’s greatest statesman, had occupied the position of prime minister, but Stalin occupied the position of supreme ruler, like the tsar, and he favored unified government.358 Through Molotov and others, he achieved coordination, and over a much larger apparatus. And while Stolypin had had to contend with a quasiparliament to legalize his policies, the Congress of Soviets possessed none of the powers even of the tsarist Duma. To be sure, Stalin had to obtain politburo approval. But he either manipulated the members or just acted unilaterally. He possessed instruments Stolypin could not have dreamed of: a single-party machine that enveloped the whole country, a Soviet secret police that vastly exceeded the tsarist okhranka in personnel and acceptable practice, a galvanizing ideology that morally justified any and all means, and housebroken nationalisms as well as a supranational Soviet identity that bound the peoples of the former Russian empire to the regime.359

Perhaps the biggest difference was that the Soviet regime mobilized the masses on its behalf. Machiavelli had suggested that princes aim to restrict or eliminate access to public spaces—amphitheaters and squares, town halls and auditoriums, streets and even parks—but Stalin flooded them. His state’s power was magnified by a host of mass organizations: the party and Youth League, the army and civil defense associations, trade unions that dispensed social welfare, a kind of mass conscription society.360 The dictator coerced and cajoled the artistic intelligentsia into state service as well. His regime actively engaged the new Soviet society at every level, in identities and practices of everyday life, through which people became part of the system.361 The populace absorbed the regime’s language, ways of thinking, and modes of behavior. Aspirations, in turn, emerged from the new Soviet society, and Stalin became attentive to quality of life, consumer goods, entertainment, and pride. By the mid-1930s the revolution and Stalin’s leadership were seen as having enabled a great country to take its rightful place among the powers, with a supposedly morally and economically superior system.362 “In Germany bayonets do not terrorize a people,” Hitler had boasted in spring 1936. “Here a government is supported by the confidence of the entire people. . . . I have not been imposed by anyone upon this people. From the people I have grown up, in the people I have remained, to the people I return. My pride is that I know no statesman in the world who with greater right than I can say that he is representative of his people.”363 Similarly, Stalin had boasted to Roy Howard that same spring of 1936 that the USSR was “a truly popular system, which grew up from within the people.”364

Stalin had improvised his way toward attainment of the modern authoritarian dream: incorporating the masses without empowering them. Europe’s democratic great powers were put on the defensive by the dynamic mass politics and stated aspirations of the authoritarian regimes. France’s dilemma was particularly stark. Fearful of revived German power, it had turned to a pact with the Communist USSR, but its willingness to do so was based precisely upon the pact’s absence of a military convention, alongside a desperately desired deepening of cooperation with Britain, as well as mollification of Italy and the marginalization of the French Communists.365 In the event, Britain had shown itself ready to surrender the continental guarantees that France viewed as bedrock, France’s precarious placation of a prickly Mussolini was failing, and France’s Communist party was growing significantly in strength, winning more than 15 percent of the vote and seventy-two seats in spring 1936 (versus 8 percent and ten seats four years earlier). All of this damaged Paris’s already weak commitment to alliance with Moscow.

Stalin’s dilemma was no less stark. Suspicious that the imperialists Britain and France would galvanize an anti-Soviet front and goad countries on his border into attacking, he had worked to neutralize Poland and recruit Germany, keeping them out of the feared anti-Soviet coalition. On his eastern flank, Japan had seized the Soviet sphere of influence in Manchuria and taken other parts of northern China, directly threatening Soviet territory. All of this had spurred his turn toward outright militarization, membership in the League of Nations, an antifascist front in the Comintern, and mutual assistance pacts with France and its ally Czechoslovakia. But Stalin, like the tsarist conservative and Germanophile Pyotr Durnovó, questioned the wisdom of such an orientation. He held to his quest for rapprochement with Nazi Germany, to acquire advanced technology while preventing a broad anti-Soviet coalition. Hitler, however, increasingly named the Soviet Union as his principal target. Stalin’s options were to deter or deflect the penetration in his direction of Germany and Japan, via an alliance with binding military obligations; secure some form of accommodation (nonaggression pacts); or fight Germany and Japan on his own, perhaps simultaneously, a two-front nightmare the tsars had not faced.366

Russia’s perennial quest to build a strong state, to match an ever-superior West, had culminated, yet again, in personal rule. That person was extraordinary, a man of deep Marxist-Leninist convictions and iron will, but dogged by Lenin’s purported Testament calling for his removal and internal opposition over the searing episode of forced collectivization-dekulakization. At least 5,000 “Trotskyites” and “Zinovievites” were arrested in the first half of 1936 (as compared with 631 in all of 1934). Before the year was out, the total would reach 23,279.367 And that would be the beginning. A fixation on former oppositionists, above all Trotsky, would begin to consume the country. None of that was caused by the foreign policy dilemmas, but it would exacerbate them. Could Bolshevism’s avatar Stalin solve the deep challenges of Russian history that, along with anticapitalism and the mass age, had produced him and his epigones?

Stalin, Volume 2


Will future generations understand it all? Will they understand what is happening? It is terrifying living through it.

ALEXANDRA KOLLONTAI, Soviet envoy to Sweden, notes written at a European spa on hotel stationery, March 25, 19381

IN HIS HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES, Joseph Campbell would indirectly explain the archetype in world mythologies that Soviet regime propagandists much earlier had applied to Stalin: humble origins (a man of the people), a call to greatness on the people’s behalf, a demonstration of separation (slaying of dragons, i.e., of the party opposition), a crushing setback and near defeat (peasant and party resistance to collectivization), a mythic rebound of resilience and fortitude, culminating in triumph (Congress of Victors; a socialist great power).2 With Soviet hagiographers competing to portray Stalin as just such a humble man of the people and their instrument of destiny, Beria, in particular, intuited the dividends from depicting him as the Lenin of the Caucasus. This portrait, for all its blatant falsehoods, captured Stalin’s obsession with menace, something Campbell’s archetype could not do, but also Stalin’s archetypal commitment to a transcendent mission for the supposed greater good. Realizing the dream of socialism had seemed improbable for decades. But after the abdication of the tsar, in 1917, the decision by Russia’s Provisional Government to continue the war—like imperial Germany’s decision to launch the U-boat campaign that provoked U.S. entry and tipped the war’s balance—had changed the course of humanity. Socialism was no longer just libraries full of pamphlets, songs, marches, meetings, and schisms, but a country.

In power, socialism swelled the state and destroyed not just the “bourgeoisie” but the small-business owner, the family farmer, the artisan.3 All of this shocked non-Leninist socialists who hoped to end exploitation and alienation and break through to social democracy while still insisting on their class approach. These Marxists repudiated the Soviet Union as not socialism but a deformation, because of Russia, or Lenin, or Stalin. After all, Marx had never advocated mass murder, but freedom. Nowhere did he say there should be collective farms formed by secret police coercion, mass deportations to frozen wastes, terrible famine.4 Of course, Marx had insisted that wage labor was “wage slavery,” private capital “exploitation” and “alienation,” the market “chaos,” and therefore that, to achieve lasting abundance and freedom, capitalism had to be “transcended.” The tragedy began unfolding with the very invention of “capitalism.”5 Once markets and private property were named and blamed as the source of evil, statization would be the consequence. A few socialists began, painfully, to recognize that there could be no freedom without markets and private property, but they were denounced as apostates. Compounding the tragedy of the left, traditional conservatives committed the gross error of inviting the fascists and Nazis to power in no small part because of the leftist threat and the hard-nosed view that differences between anticapitalist democratic socialists and Leninists were delusion. To top it all off, Social Democrats and Communists fought a bitter civil war over workers’ allegiance.

When Hegel famously referred to history as a “slaughter bench,” he had no idea what he was talking about, and yet he was right. Partly that was because of the influence of Hegel’s hazardous ideas on the Marxists: the sophistry known as the dialectic, the idolatry of the state, the supposed historical “progress” through the “necessary” actions of great men.6

It was no accident, as Hegelian-inspired Marxists might say (and as Trotsky had predicted already in 1904), that a single leader had emerged atop a single-party system that, on the basis of class analysis, denied legitimacy to political opposition.7 It was also no accident that this single leader was Stalin, at once a militant Communist and an unprincipled intriguer, an ideologue and an opportunist—the Leninist fusion—who, like his mentor, possessed extreme willpower, which was the prerequisite for attaining what only unspeakable bloodshed could: the elimination of capitalism.8 Stalin could not boast the effortless success of those to the manor born. He had to be, and was, a relentless striver. He also happened to carry a gargantuan chip on his shoulder, for although he had benefited immeasurably from Lenin’s patronage, he then suffered the unending humiliation of Lenin’s supposed call for his removal, which was thrown at him by his rivals and whispered across the entire party. Stalin emerged as a leader of acute political intelligence and bottomless personal resentment. The collectivization that he forced through to the end, famine notwithstanding, provoked criticism in the party—Syrtsov on the fiction of the politburo; Ryutin on his amoral dictatorship—magnifying Stalin’s righteousness and resentment. To an extent, power reveals who a person is. But the effects on Stalin of accruing and exercising power unconstrained by law or constitutional limits—the power of life and death over hundreds of millions—were immense. Alongside the nature of Bolshevism, the setting of his regime—Russia, with its fraught history and geopolitics, its sense of historic mission and grievance, which were given new impetus and form by socialism’s fixation on capitalist encirclement—also indelibly shaped who he became.

Without Stalin there would have been no socialism, and without socialism, no Stalin.9 That said, his demonic disposition, which the experience of this kind of rule in this place heightened, never overwhelmed his ability to function at the highest level. Physically, he continued to suffer from frequent bouts of flu and fever, stomach ailments, dental problems, and severe pain in his joints, but he proved hearty enough to be a hands-on ruler of one sixth of the earth’s surface. His capacity for work was prodigious, his zeal for detail unquenchable.10 He received 100 or even 200 documents a day, some of substantial length, and he read many of them, often to the end, scribbling comments or instructions on them.11 He initiated or approved untold personnel appointments, goaded minions in relentless campaigns, attended myriad congresses and ceremonies bearing the burden of instruction, assiduously followed the public and private statements of cultural figures, edited novels and plays, and prescreened films. He pored over a voluminous flow of intelligence reports and lengthy interrogation protocols of accused spies, wreckers, counterrevolutionaries, traitors. He wrote and rewrote the texts of decrees, newspaper editorials, and his own speeches, confident in his abilities. Very occasionally he made grammatical mistakes in Russian, his second language, but he wrote accessibly, using rhetorical questions, catchphrases, enumeration.12 The fools were the ones who took him for a fool.

Pravda taught Soviet inhabitants indebtedness to the state and to Stalin personally, depicting everything they had—food, clothing, education, joy—as gifts (“Thank you, comrade Stalin!”).13 In newsreels he came across as the epitome of wise leadership, photogenic in his signature tunic. “In his speeches Stalin was categorical, but simple,” recalled the loyalist writer Konstantin Simonov (b. 1915). “With people—this we sometimes saw in the newsreels—he conducted himself simply. He dressed simply, identically. There was nothing showy about him, no external pretensions to greatness or a sense of being chosen. This corresponded to our impressions of how a person standing at the head of the party should be. Altogether this was Stalin: all these feelings, all these positive traits, real and drawn by us, of the leader of the party and state.”14 Stalin’s leader cult was manufactured—acquiring the character of an arms race, as proponents strove to outdo one another—but not artificial.15 If Hitler, despite the forelock that fell into his face, the near ridiculous mustache, and the constant chewing of his fingernails, could hold his country in thrall, the reason lay at least as much in the German people as in the Führer’s gifts. Stalin, too, possessed a weird magnetism, derived from his ability to personify socialist modernity and Soviet might, to inspire and validate people’s aspirations. The cult’s power was that it was not just about Stalin; it was about them.16

•   •   •

LOOKED AT SOBERLY, Stalin’s anticapitalist experiment resembled a vast camp of deliberately deprived workers, indentured farmers, and slave laborers toiling for the benefit of an unacknowledged elite.17 But the Soviet Union was a fairy tale. Unrelenting optimism spread alongside famine, arrests, deportations, executions, camps, censorship, sealed borders.18 Newsreels that showed Stalin also featured belching smokestacks—Soviet inhabitants came to know factories by name and sight—tanks and bombers, giant icebreakers, fecund farms, the friendship of peoples, and vigorous, marching, smiling masses, a tableau of modernity, progress, socialism. Many Soviet inhabitants—especially, but not only, the young—craved a transcendent purpose, and in the swirl of ambition, fanaticism, and opportunism they willingly endured hardships, finding personal fulfillment, even liberation, in submission to the state-led struggle in the name of social justice, abundance, and peace. The relentless demands for public professions of loyalty risked eliciting playacting and sullen obedience. But the cause offered the possibility of belonging. Many embraced violence and cruelty as unavoidable in bringing about a new world, and they keenly soaked up the propaganda. To manage contradictions and conscience, they had the transcendent truth of Marxism-Leninism, and the personal example of “comrade Stalin.” People of this era who were looking for a brighter future, a chance to be part of something larger than themselves, found it.19 “The tiniest little fish,” one woman would enthuse in her diary, “can stir the depths of the ocean.”20

In the USSR, an entire generation was coming of age in what seemed like the most heroic epoch in history, acquiring skills, education, apartments—building and living socialism. New or wholly reconstructed factories abounded, their production celebrated daily. The famine had been left behind, and rationing was abolished. In the economy, the years 1934–36 turned out to be relatively good, as the country consolidated its investments.21 Waste was colossal, of course, but most of the rest of the world was still mired in the effects of the Great Depression. The regime had also eased up on the state of emergency, the extrajudicial and judicial executions. And yet, the land of Soviets remained deeply insecure. When the Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov fed a dog, it salivated, and the scientist rang a bell. After many repetitions, Pavlov stopped the feeding but continued the ringing—and the animal salivated anyway. Pavlov had conditioned the dog to respond to the bell as if the sound were the smell and taste of food. The Soviet populace, too, had been conditioned: the “bell” sounded by the regime was “capitalist encirclement,” and the people’s reflexive response was fear of foreign invasion and war.22

Nonetheless, the Soviet population was unprepared for what struck the country during its hour of triumph beginning in 1936. Even by Stalinist standards, the carnage would be breathtaking.23 The peak year for Soviet executions—20,201 of them—had been 1930, during dekulakization. In the three years from 1934 to 1936, a time that included mass reprisals for the Kirov murder, the NKVD reported arresting 529,434 people, including 290,479 for counterrevolutionary crimes, and executing 4,402 of them. But for the two years 1937 and 1938, the NKVD would report 1,575,259 arrests, 87 percent of them for political offenses, and 681,692 executions. (The country’s working-age population was around 100 million.) Because an untold number of people sentenced to incarceration were actually executed, and many others died during interrogation or transit and fell outside of execution tabulations, the total who perished directly at the hands of the Soviet secret police in 1937–38 was likely closer to 830,000.24

No such numbers were publicly divulged, and as a result almost no one could fathom the full scale of what was transpiring. Nor could people comprehend the reasons. In many industrial sectors, output plans were not being met, and queues for bread would appear as a result of a poor harvest in 1936, but a sense of the world-beating success of industrialization and stabilization of the collective farm system remained pervasive. (Even privately, the regime evinced no special anxiety about the economic situation.)25 Substantial popular discontent persisted, as under all authoritarian regimes, but it was not increasing, and it certainly did not threaten the regime.26 Soviet society had astonishingly little overt political opposition of any kind. No possibility existed of establishing any genuine organization independent of the regime, let alone of overthrowing it—that would be possible only via military defeat and occupation. The threat of such a war, and on two fronts—west (Germany) and east (Japan)—did continue to loom large in 1937–38, but it already had for several years without provoking any remotely comparable domestic bloodshed. Indeed, the years 1937 and 1938 would bring the long-feared bloodbath—but it did not come on account of war. No foreign power attacked.27 There was no immediate threat—social, economic, political—to the country or to the regime’s legitimacy or stability, no crisis. But then, suddenly, there was total crisis.

•   •   •

SCHOLARS HAVE APPROACHED the enigma of the Great Terror in a variety of ways. Robert Conquest, who gave the episode its proper name (1968, 1990), remains the point of departure, having definitively shown Stalin’s central role decades before archives were declassified. Conquest, though, did not really attempt an explanation (he wrote more or less under the assumption that a Communist regime, and Stalin personally, would inevitably get around to inflicting mass terror in pursuit of ever-greater power).28 Alexander Gerschenkron, in a review of Conquest’s The Great Terror, quoted his argument that “the nature of the whole purge depends in the last analysis on the personal and political drives of Stalin,” then observed that all dictators exhibit a drive to increase their power, and that any modern dictatorship “which is supported neither by an ancient tradition (or close alliance with an ancient power, such as the Church) nor by the active consent of the governed must at all times justify its continuation in power.” Stalin’s dictatorship, too, would be expected to foster “a permanent condition of stress by creating enemies at home and abroad and/or by imposing upon the population gigantic tasks that would be unlikely to be carried out in the absence of the dictatorship,” as well as “a charismatic image of the dictator,” “a utopian goal, carefully kept in a remote future,” and “proscription of any deviating values, supported by threats and acts of repression.”29

Stalin instigated an epic version of the time-honored authoritarian device of trumped-up conspiracies linking internal with external “enemies,” but the Soviet case differed in more than just scale.30 Roy Medvedev, author of the other monumental work on the terror (1971, 1989), endeavored to separate Stalin from the sacred Lenin and depicted him as a traditional tyrant, but he similarly asserted that Stalin was motivated by “lust for power, boundless ambition,” as if all tyrants murdered their own elites not just on such a scale but also with forced confessions to fantastical crimes they had not committed.31 Trotsky imagined Stalin’s motivations as jealousy and pettiness, while the biographer Robert C. Tucker saw a pursuit of fame and glory. Moshe Lewin surmised that a paranoid “Stalin actually became the system and his personality acquired therefore a ‘systemic’ dimension,” an apt description, though not an analysis.32 Hiroaki Kuromiya incisively dissected Stalin’s cold-blooded logic regarding opponents and enemies, while Erik van Ree revealed Stalin as a Marxist-Leninist true believer, and Arfon Rees showed him to be a combination revolutionary and Machiavellian.33 These insights were not offered as explanations for the murderous episode of 1937–38. “There is in Stalin’s Terror an element of sheer preposterousness which defies explanation,” Adam Ulam conceded, after trying.34

A few analysts have stressed not intentions but the chronic dysfunctionality of the political system, as if all authoritarian regimes—which are all dysfunctional to a great degree—do what Stalin’s did.35 In Nazi Germany, Hitler went after the Jews (less than 1 percent of the population), Communists, and Social Democrats, but in the USSR Stalin savaged his own loyal elites across the board. To be sure, the greater number of victims were ordinary Soviet people, but what regime liquidates colossal numbers of loyal officials? Could Hitler—had he been so inclined—have compelled the imprisonment or execution of huge swaths of Nazi factory and farm bosses, as well as almost all Nazi provincial Gauleiters and their staffs, several times over? Could he have executed the personnel of Nazi central ministries, thousands of his Wehrmacht officers—including almost his entire high command—as well as the Reich’s diplomatic corps and its espionage agents, its celebrated cultural figures, and the leadership of Nazi parties throughout the world (had such parties existed)? Could Hitler also have decimated the Gestapo even while it was carrying out a mass bloodletting? And could the German people have been told, and would the German people have found plausible, that almost everyone who had come to power with the Nazi revolution turned out to be a foreign agent and saboteur?36 Even among ideological dictatorships, Communism stands out.

Special features inherent in the Soviet system made a mass and participatory terror between 1936 and 1938 possible. The existence of an extensive police apparatus equipped to arrest and sentence in assembly-line fashion was necessary but not sufficient. Still more important was the existence of the shadowy Communist party, which had cells in all of the country’s institutions, making heresy hunting possible, and an ideology, a class-war practice, and a conspiratorial modus operandi that proved readily conducive to mass murder in the name of reasserting the party’s special mission and purity. All of this was buttressed by the adversarial nature of Soviet noncapitalist industrialization and collectivization, which was linked to an increase in the ranks of enemies; the regime’s censorship (strict control over information and assiduous promotion of certain ways of thinking); widespread resentment of the new elite, which under socialism was not supposed to exist; and widespread belief in a grand crusade, building socialism, in whose name the terror was conducted.37 The masses became complicit as a result of party cell, factory, and farm meetings, and especially their written denunciations, informing, and extracted confessions. That said, the slaughter was neither self-generating nor self-sustaining. Soviet state power was enacted by millions of people—not just those within the formal administrative machinery—but guided by a single individual.

Did Stalin have reason to fear for his power? He had built socialism, a feat even his loyalists had thought unlikely. His personal authority was so secure that, as we shall see, in August 1936 he could once again abandon the capital for more than two months, going on holiday to Sochi. There was no repetition of the blistering Ryutin condemnation in a text circulated hand to hand. No one in his inner circle pretended to be on the same level. Nonetheless, it was clear to him that his “unbounded power” remained oddly contingent. He was the supreme leader by virtue of his position as head of the party, reinforced by his acclamation as the “Lenin of our day.”38 But voting politburo members held the right to nominate someone else as the top secretary of the party, a recommendation that would be forwarded for formal ratification to the first plenum of the Central Committee newly chosen by a party congress. Stalin was thus a dictator on conditional contract. His faction had stood by him through thick and thin. But would the voting nine—Molotov, Kaganovich, Voroshilov, Orjonikidze, Kalinin, Andreyev, Kosior, Mikoyan, and Chubar—continue to do so? Even if Stalin remained certain of their obeisance, he was eager, like all dictators, to convert his dictatorship into despotism.39 For the men in his own loyal faction, in which Stalin had long taken evident pride, this meant breaking their will. Herein lay a key motivation for the fantastic terror of 1936–38.

And yet, considerations of personal power alone do not explain Stalin or the terror. Certainly he pursued power with a vengeance—on behalf of the cause, which in his mind was the same thing as his personal rule—but he had taken gambles with his power, also on behalf of the cause, and was sometimes defiant when it would have been more power enhancing to be prudent. At times he could not be sure what would enhance his power. For him, the terror constituted a form of rule, a matter of statecraft.

Stalin was a liar, a chameleon, who talked out of both sides of his mouth and often said what interlocutors wanted to hear. But more than any other secretive dictator, except perhaps Hitler, he repeatedly explained himself. Everything Stalin did during the years 1936–38 he had been talking about for years. Some things he said only privately, such as his instructions to a Mongolia delegation to stage trials of lamas not merely as counterrevolutionaries but as spies for Mongolia’s foreign enemy Japan, because the lamas could become traitors in the rear in the event of war. Publicly, however, Stalin had stated that he was building socialism against all manner of implacable class enemies; that the class struggle sharpened as the country got closer to the full victory of socialism; that enemies with party cards were the most dangerous because they could secretly burrow into the heart of the system; that those who opposed collectivization wanted to restore capitalism; that all foreigners were spies; that the Zinovievites, Trotskyites, and the right deviation were interlinked and tied to the military; that the rightists wanted to remove him in a putsch, establish a puppet government, hand over Soviet territories, and make a rump USSR into a colony of Germany or Japan (or was it Poland or Romania?); that enemies had become desperate and resorted to all-out terror; that the big bosses were not as valuable as the lower levels; that legions of new people (a “Soviet intelligentsia”) needed to be promoted and nurtured in Marxism-Leninism; that a new imperialist war was inevitable; that the Soviet Union had to avoid becoming the target of an anti-Soviet bloc; that the country needed to become a great power with a military to match the imperialists; that a new imperialist war could enable socialism to expand the same way the previous imperialist war had enabled the Russian Revolution; that the British stood behind the entire imperialist order; that Hitler was an intelligent leader; and that Trotsky and his supposed followers were the most diabolical threat to socialism and the Soviet state.40 These various enunciations fit into a grisly logical whole, and Stalin had the untrammeled power to act on them.


The cause of Spain is not solely the cause of the Spaniards, but the cause of all progressive and advanced humanity.

STALIN, open telegram to José Díaz, published in Pravda, October 16, 1936, republished in Mundo Obrero, October 17

Stalin conducts a struggle on a totally different plane. He seeks to strike not at the ideas of an opponent, but at his skull.

TROTSKY, journal entry en route to Mexico on a Norwegian oil tanker, December 30, 1936 1

STALIN DEPARTED FOR SOCHI ON AUGUST 14, 1936, and would remain down south through October 25. His absences from Moscow since 1930 (this holiday included) averaged seventy-eight days per annum. His Sochi dacha was not in the town proper, but on a zigzagging road about a mile up and in from the Black Sea. North led to Sochi, south to the sulfur baths of Matsesta (farther on were Gagra and Sukhum, in Abkhazia). The pristine setting offered the smell of pine trees and salty air, while the compound contained guest villas, tennis courts (where Nadya used to play), and a detached billiards hall, all surrounded by NKVD troops. The main dacha was an unpretentious wooden structure with an open-air veranda that Stalin prized. Matsesta’s curative sulfur waters were now being pumped in, obviating the trip. The staff and guards equipped the residence with the usual pianolas and phonographs, but holidays were not downtime. While away from the capital in 1930, Stalin had remade the Soviet government structure, and the next year he reorganized management of foreign affairs. The 1936 southern holiday would prove to be his most momentous yet as he further radicalized his pursuit of Trotskyites with his most frenzied public trial to date and upended international politics with a military intervention on the Iberian Peninsula.

Spain had been Europe’s only major country to avoid the Great War, and the Second Spanish Republic, born in April 1931, bucked the authoritarian trend engulfing the continent. That year, amid a resounding Radical Republican Party victory in municipal elections, King Alfonso XIII, who had reigned since his birth, in 1886, fled abroad (without formal abdication), inspiring hopes among the country’s peasants and workers and fears among the propertied and the Church establishment. But the Republic had managed only timid land reform, while Spain’s few pockets of industry remained gripped by the Depression. A third of the population could neither read nor write, and more than half of its children had no access to education. The Cortes, Spain’s parliament, was roiled by raw, irreconcilable emotions—for and against the Church and the army, for and against socialism. A military coup in August 1932 had been foiled by a general strike, but it confirmed the army’s lack of loyalty to the Republic. Spain experienced wild electoral swings from left (1931) to right (1933) and back on February 18, 1936, when a leftist coalition known as the Popular Front defeated the ruling coalition of rightist parties (the National Front). A quirk in the election law magnified the Popular Front’s narrow victory and gave them a solid majority of 264 representatives—162 Left Republicans and independents, 88 Socialists, 14 Communists—versus 156 for the right and 54 for the center (including many Catalans and the Basques).2 The Popular Front’s majority, moreover, stemmed from working-class parties, but the Socialists, Communists, and anarchists did not take government portfolios. At the same time, the Basques in the north and the Catalans in the northeast strove for autonomy, while the central government possessed no reliable provincial officialdom and was hard pressed to live up to soaring expectations for social reform. Some electoral fraud on behalf of the Popular Front also contributed to the instability. More vivid were sensational fables of “Red massacres” of clergy and landowners, mob actions, and rural unrest. The upshot was a cauldron of antigovernment conspiracies.3

Spain would be torn apart by a civil war during which the country of 25 million people would see 1.7 million fighters conscripted by the Republic and 1.2 million by the Nationalists, and up to 200,000 battlefield deaths, over the course of nearly three years of combat over class, religion, region, and governance. Perhaps as many as 49,000 civilians would perish in the Republic’s zone, where the leftists would perpetrate or indulge mob killings of “reactionaries” and “fascists.” How many civilians died in the Nationalists’ bombing of Republic-controlled cities remains unknown (perhaps 10,000), but the Nationalists would end up summarily executing some 130,000 people in a deliberate strategy of anticivilian terror.4 During the same period, Stalin would execute or cause the death of up to 1 million people, from a total population of close to 170 million. But the conspiracies in the Soviet Union were invented.

Some scholars have argued that events in Spain helped precipitate or at least radicalize Stalin’s domestic terror of 1936–38, which they portray as a sincere, if wildly excessive, attempt to eradicate suspected real and potential saboteurs lying in wait to assist externally launched aggression.5 But Stalin had decided in 1935 to reopen the Kirov murder case and instigate a new wave of arrests of “Trotskyites” around the country. On June 29, 1936—before any hint of Spain—Yagoda had reported to Stalin, Molotov, and Yezhov on “very important” interrogation testimony obtained from arrested “Trotskyites”: Yefim Dreitser, Trotsky’s former bodyguard; Richard Pikel, former head of Zinoviev’s secretariat; and Isaac Esterman. Stalin circulated the report to the politburo.6 Furious preparations were under way for a showcase trial (pokazatelnyi protess) involving these and other “Trotskyites” in Moscow. Spain would turn out to be important for Stalin’s mass bloodletting less as cause than as added rationalization.7

In the summer and early fall of 1936, the Soviet leader made no speeches; indeed, he did not even appear in public. He sat on his Sochi veranda, reading stacks of well-ordered secret documents, then dictated some telegrams to aides with him on the Black Sea coast, which technicians coded and relayed to Kaganovich in Moscow. Kaganovich, who had never finished elementary school and could not write grammatical Russian, in turn formulated Stalin’s instructions as politburo decrees, which he had coded and dispatched to the tens of thousands of party committees that existed in every single Soviet locality and factory, and a majority of collective and state farms. Comintern secretary general Dimitrov did the same for every Communist party in the world. This produced orchestrated mass meetings all across Eurasia and beyond, at which preselected speakers issued demands for execution, even before convictions had been pronounced, while others in attendance raised their hands in agreement. The Soviet press, in ideological lockstep, delivered saturation coverage to thousands of towns and tens of thousands of villages, whipping up intense hysteria. The power of Stalin’s regime—resting upon the telegraph, a tiny handful of aides, the Communist party machine, the secret police, the military, and the dream of a better world—was breathtaking.

While atop his bluff overlooking the Black Sea, 850 miles from Moscow, Stalin would also decide after much hesitation to intervene in the Spanish civil war.8 He ordered no strategic analyses of the pros and cons or formal policy-making discussions.9 He seems to have consulted next to no one. Molotov, head of the government, was himself on holiday (July 27–September 1, 1936). Mikoyan was in the United States (August–September) to study the food industry, with more than $600,000 in hard currency to acquire model machinery.10 When the intervention details were finalized, Orjonikidze, head of heavy industry, was on holiday (September 5–November 5).11 To be sure, Kaganovich was in Moscow, and in frequent contact with Sochi (referring to Stalin as “our parent”). Voroshilov was also in the capital and communicated with Stalin on the high-frequency phone and by ciphered telegram. But the decision to take action in Spain, like the earlier reopening of the Kirov case and preparations for a grand trial of Trotskyites, was Stalin’s alone. We shall puzzle it out, including limits he imposed.12 Soviet military hardware sent to Spain would be voluminous and state of the art, but Soviet personnel would never exceed 700 or so at any time, two thirds of them in lower-level positions: pilots, tank drivers, technicians. It was not Spain but Trotsky that riveted Stalin’s attention, including much of the attention he paid to Spain.

Never an optimist about revolution abroad, Stalin had nonetheless said that the critical ingredient was war, which Spain would have, making it a test of his own theory of geopolitics. The question of revolution in Spain also intensified his rivalry with his long-standing nemesis. Not long after King Alfonso’s flight, Trotsky had written an unsolicited letter (April 27, 1931) to the Soviet politburo advising that the fate of “the revolution” in Spain depended on whether a combat-capable and authoritative Communist party was formed there. He had also warned that worker-peasant defeat “would lead almost automatically to the establishment in Spain of a genuine fascism in the style of Mussolini.” Stalin had distributed the letter to the inner circle, writing on it, “I think this impudent and Menshevik charlatan citizen Trotsky should get a blow to the head from the Comintern executive committee. Let him know his place.”13


Britain had acceded to French ambitions in Morocco in 1904, provided that weaker Spain retained control over the Moroccan territory directly opposite British-controlled Gibraltar, which was crucial to Britain’s dominant position in the Mediterranean. Francisco Franco y Bahamonde had arrived in Spanish Morocco in 1912 and cofounded a Spanish Legion there. (His counterpart, the French commander in North Africa, was Philippe Pétain.) A provincial like Stalin and Hitler, Franco had grown up in Spanish Galicia, where he was marinated in peasant pragmatism and bullied by his father. He was short in stature at five feet five inches (1.64 meters)—two inches shorter than Stalin and three than Hitler—and very slight, earning the nickname Cerillito (“Little Matchstick”). At age fourteen, unable to enroll at the Naval Academy, Franco had entered an infantry academy, where, in 1910, he graduated 251st in a class of 312. In quick succession, however, he would become Spain’s youngest captain, major, colonel, and general (the first in his graduating class), thanks to his exploits in colonial Morocco. In 1916, Franco took a bullet to the lower abdomen—a fraction of an inch in any direction and, like most soldiers with stomach wounds in Africa, he would have died. But after ten years of ruthless counterinsurgency, he secured the Moroccan ruler’s surrender, the deed that earned him a general’s rank at thirty-three, which made him the youngest general ever in the Spanish army and at the time the youngest in Europe. “My years in Africa live within me with indescribable force,” he would later tell a newspaper editor. “There was born the possibility of rescuing a Great Spain.”14

The man who would make Spain great again was a poor public speaker, with a high-pitched voice. In Morocco, he had come to detest the leftists back in Spain who, in his mind, failed to appreciate the grand colonial enterprise.15 In 1935, Franco was promoted to chief of staff in Madrid, and in February 1936, when elections brought to power the Popular Front, the general told a confidant it was a Trojan horse to smuggle Communism into Spain and offered his assistance to the defeated rightist prime minister, should the latter want to annul the vote.16 The Republic’s civilian president smelled a rat and reassigned Franco to the Canary Islands, off the Atlantic coast. In fact, Spain’s military was engaged in a plot. But Franco’s participation was not confirmed until the very eve of their putsch, and even then he voiced uncertainty. The prime mover in the coup was the Cuban-born general Emilio Mola. (Cuba had been a province of Spain.) The forty-eight-year-old Mola had recently been reassigned to a backwater with a small garrison to counteract his suspected plotting. His main accomplice was the sixty-four-year-old general José Sanjurjo, who, along with some 15,000 Spaniards (mostly monarchists and conservatives), was living under asylum in Portugal, courtesy of António de Oliveira Salazar’s dictatorship. Salazar ignored the Spanish Republic’s pleas to prevent Sanjurjo’s return, but on July 20, the latter’s small plane crashed en route: it seems the general’s clothes trunk was too heavy.17 Sanjurjo’s unexpected death elevated the forty-three-year-old Franco as Mola’s main partner and rival. “Franco,” Sanjurjo had warned, still bitter that during his 1932 coup the younger man had stood on the sidelines, “will do nothing to commit himself; he will always be in the shadows, because he is crafty [cuco].”18

Franco had flown from the Grand Canary—on a chartered British plane—to Morocco, where he rallied Spain’s best fighting force, the ruthless Army of Africa (5,000 men of the Spanish Foreign Legion, 17,000 Moorish troops, and 17,000 Spanish conscripts).19 On July 17, they rose up in the coordinated coup. But on the mainland, the Nationalists gained the support of only about half of the Territorial Army, some 60,000 soldiers. Garrisons in key industrial cities—Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Bilbao—refused to join the rebellion. But the military plotters would not accept defeat. Mola became the rebel Nationalist commander in the north, Franco in the south. Colonial experience could cut in very different ways: Gandhi had gone to South Africa and returned to British India with the idea of a Congress Party and peaceful protest; Franco, from Spanish Morocco, brought back brutal counterinsurgency. He and Mola enacted the savage political cleansing (limpieza) of Franco’s Moroccan colonial war—only this time against fellow Spaniards.20 To induce Republic-held territory to surrender, Nationalist troops engaged in gang rapes of women, marching with panties flying from their bayonets. Women in the tens of thousands had their hair shaved off and their mouths force-fed castor oil, a laxative, so that, when paraded through the streets, they would soil themselves. Men were just shot, especially if found in possession of a trade union card. All the while, Franco obsessed over supposed international conspiracies of Freemasons, Jews, Communists.

Spain had last experienced major armed conflict when resisting Napoleon Bonaparte. Now, Catalonia used the military’s putsch to carry out its own regional coup d’état against rule by Madrid, splitting the resistance. In Barcelona, in what was christened the Catalan Generalitat, a newly formed Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia competed with anarchists to arm workers in resistance, while the Republic government in Madrid reluctantly armed workers. These new militias radicalized domestic politics—the very outcome that the military putsch was supposed to forestall. Worker syndicates seized factories, and farmers formed collectives or redistributed land to individuals.21 In the greatest twist, despite the weakness of Spain’s right-wing party, inspired by fascism, the Falange (Phalanx), and its Communist party—each possessed fewer than 30,000 members in July 1936—Spain became a battleground in the international struggle between fascism and Communism.22


Spain and the Soviet Union were remote from each other (the USSR accounted for 0.9 percent of Spain’s trade in the first half of 1936).23 The Spanish Republic maintained normal diplomatic relations with just about every country in the world except the Soviet Union, and the putsch had looked unlikely to alter any of that.24 France ought to have been Spain’s natural partner, especially after the June 1936 formation of a Popular Front government in Paris, which included Communists as well as Socialists under Prime Minister Léon Blum. Spain’s Popular Front government had already appealed to France’s Popular Front for military aid by July 18, and got a positive initial response from Blum, but pro-Franco personnel in Spain’s embassy in Paris leaked the request to France’s right-wing press, which launched a vicious campaign against Blum (a Jew as well as a Socialist). On a visit to London, moreover, Blum discovered that Britain opposed helping Spain’s elected government.25 Britain had a great deal at stake: it accounted for 40 percent of total foreign investment in Spain, including the Rio Tinto mining conglomerate. But Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin sought to avoid new government commitments, given the costs of maintaining the empire, or unwittingly facilitating a Communist takeover in Spain.26 His stance was shared by even most of the Labour party and the trade union bosses.27 Many British Catholics, meanwhile, admired General Franco’s stated program; much of British business sided with him as well. And so, on July 25, Blum reversed himself and agreed to join Britain’s policy of “non-intervention.” The hope was that the gambit would also take in Germany and Italy.28

The Spanish putschists, however, themselves had appealed to Hitler and Mussolini. Franco, bereft of an air force, was cut off from the mainland, but his appeal to the German government failed. He had recourse to a second channel: German expatriates in Spanish Morocco. A nondescript German sales director at a trading firm (kitchen equipment) who was a member of the Nazi Party Abroad wanted to demonstrate his own importance and that of the fledgling organization, and he flew Franco’s emissaries to Berlin, using Nazi party channels to reach Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess on holiday at his country estate. On July 25, Hess, one of the few people to address Hitler with the familiar du, received the emissaries and phoned Hitler, who was at the summer Wagner Festival. Hess dispatched the Spaniards and Morocco-based Nazis by car to Bayreuth, and, following the conclusion of Siegfried, the group hand-delivered Franco’s request for military aid at the Wagner family residence. Hitler had shown no interest in supporting the coup before the generals had acted, and now seemed unsure—his own rearmament had a ways to go—but he launched a monologue and worked himself into a lather. (“If Spain really goes Communist, France in her present situation will also be Bolshevized in due course, and then Germany is finished.”) That very day, support for Franco against the “international Jewish revolutionary headquarters in Moscow” was assured.29 Hitler consulted only the minions in his company and made the decision against their objections.30 “We’re taking part a bit in Spain,” Goebbels noted in his diary. “Not clear. Who knows what it’s good for.”31

Hitler appears to have been in a fine mood that evening: the aid to Spain would be dubbed Operation Magic Fire. (“Magic fire” music accompanies Siegfried’s passage through the flames to liberate Brünnhilde.) The Führer even sent twice as many Junkers Ju 52 transport planes as Franco requested. Franco would have eventually gotten his troops over the Spanish Republic’s naval blockade to the mainland, but Nazi assistance accelerated that movement, struck at the Republic’s morale, and buttressed Franco’s standing vis-à-vis Mola. Franco had also approached Italy for support, on July 22, 1936, and the new Italian foreign minister, Count Galeazzo Ciano (Mussolini’s son-in-law), was gung-ho. The duce had mocked the Spanish Republic as “not a revolution but a plagiarism,” and had been paying a small retainer to a leader of Spain’s fascist equivalents while vaguely promising support to any would-be putschists.32 Now, emboldened by reports of British acquiescence and French paralysis, he decided to provide substantial military assistance, without consulting his own military men. In parallel to his expansionism in Abyssinia, the duce dreamed of a still larger Italian Mediterranean empire at French expense, via a friendly government in Spain. He also derided Léon Blum as “one Jew who did not enjoy the gift of prophecy.”33 Spain would push Italy still closer to Germany.

Spain would also push France and the Soviet Union further apart. The French brass feared that any military support for the Spanish Popular Front could ignite a pan-European war, which, overestimating the German military, they felt France was in no position to fight successfully.34 More broadly, French ruling circles viewed reliance on the Soviets to stand up to Nazi Germany as a provocation toward Berlin and an invitation to ideological contagion. “If defeated,” the French foreign minister would note privately, France “would be Nazified. If victorious, it must, owing to the destruction of German power, submit, with the rest of Europe, to the overwhelming weight of the Slavic world, armed with the Communist flamethrower.”35


Yagoda’s NKVD was rounding up “Trotskyites,” including in faraway Gulag camps. On June 19, 1936—again, well before the putsch in Spain—he and Vyshinsky had sent Stalin a list of eighty-two people accused of terrorism “links,” recommending that they be tried by the military collegium and executed. Zinoviev and Kamenev were included. Stalin instructed Yezhov to have the NKVD prepare a trial against a united Trotskyite-Zinovievite “center.”36 On July 15, Yagoda sent a secret NKVD circular to every operative, severely criticizing the NKVD bosses in certain regions for “opportunistic kindheartedness, self-assurance, forgetfulness of old Chekist traditions, and inactivity” (i.e., failure to expose “Trotskyites”).37 Stalin was insisting on a high-profile public trial, broadcast live, and Yezhov applied pressure so that people under arrest began to be re-interrogated to build a story line of a “united center.” Zinoviev, naïvely, had been writing groveling prison letters to Stalin asking for forgiveness; Kamenev had been trying to dissociate himself from Zinoviev.38 In mid-July, the two were brought from prisons in the Urals to Moscow. Yezhov took part in their interrogations and appealed to their revolutionary patriotism, arguing that an international Trotskyite conspiracy in cahoots with Germany and Japan threatened the Soviet Union, and thus their confessions were necessary for the cause.

Zinoviev offered to comply if Stalin personally promised to spare him. Kamenev resisted (“You are observing Thermidor in pure form,” he said during interrogation). The two were taken to see “the politburo,” which turned out to be a meeting with Stalin and Voroshilov.39 Stalin evidently flattered them, calling them comrades, followers of Lenin, whose cooperation was necessary to combat Trotsky.40 No less germane was the fact that Kamenev had been informed that his son was under investigation. Kamenev and Zinoviev did begin to testify about their improbable plotting with Trotsky.41 On July 23, 1936, Yakov Agranov, who, together with Yezhov, had handled the original Kirov investigation case against the “Zinovievites,” personally re-interrogated the already imprisoned Dreitser (said to be the “head” of an underground “Trotskyite” organization) and Pikel, extracting the necessary “testimony” concerning a “united center.”42 On July 26, Stalin had the NKVD haul in Sokolnikov, who had once joined Zinoviev and Kamenev in questioning Stalin’s absolute power in the role of general secretary. On the night of July 27–28, the NKVD arrested the ex-wife of Yuri Pyatakov, Orjonikidze’s first deputy at heavy industry. Stalin’s anti-Trotsky drive had its own dynamic prior to events in Spain.


Bereft of an ambassador in Madrid, Stalin had next to no information about what was going on, beyond reports via Comintern channels.43 On July 23, 1936, at a Comintern executive committee meeting, Dimitrov emphasized the value of the Spanish conflict for rallying international forces to a global popular front, and begged Stalin for comments on draft theses.44 Stalin wrote “correct” on Dimitrov’s instructions to the Spanish Communist party for restraint; on July 24, the secret orders went to Madrid for Spanish Communists “not to run ahead,” that is, to contain their struggle to supporting the “bourgeois democratic republic” rather than pushing for a dictatorship of the proletariat. Dimitrov did allow that “when our positions have strengthened, we can go further.”45 By July 25 the Nazis and Italian fascists were already wielding the bogeyman of “Bolshevism” in Spain to justify supporting the putschists. That day, with Blum backing off his pledge to support Spain’s Republic, the Spanish prime minister, in a letter to the Soviet envoy in Paris, conveyed his government’s desire to purchase Soviet arms in quantity.46 The Soviets did not reply. An Italian assessment out of Moscow on July 27 noted Soviet “embarrassment” over Spain and a likely pursuit of “prudent neutrality.”47

Dimitrov was not received by Stalin during these days. Litvinov, who had recently celebrated his sixtieth birthday and received the Order of Lenin, was urging Stalin to maintain Soviet-French-Anglo “solidarity” by avoiding military aid to Spain’s besieged Republic. The foreign affairs commissar finally got in to see the dictator on July 28 (Molotov and Voroshilov were absent). (Not until August 7 would Stalin again summon anyone to the Kremlin office.)48 The antifascist popular front strategy (Dimitrov) and “collective security” (Litvinov), once seen as in sync, were deeply at odds, given France’s position.

The Comintern executive committee was also discussing China—it aimed to rein in the Chinese Communists, who were not following the Comintern policy of cooperation with Chiang against the Japanese.49 At the end of the Long March, Mao had arrived in Yan’an, in China’s northwest, where the Communists set up a ministate. Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist (Guomindang) government, based in Nanking, wanted to isolate the Reds, a task he assigned to Zhang Xueliang, whom the Japanese had chased from Manchuria. Zhang had his headquarters in Xi’an, 200 miles north of Mao, and commanded a sprawling force of perhaps 300,000.Only in late June or early July 1936, after an almost two-year hiatus, was a radio link reestablished between Moscow and the Chinese Communists in the remote interior, and the Chinese comrades asked the Comintern to provide $3 million monthly to cover military expenses, help organize contributions from the Chinese diaspora, and send Soviet aircraft, artillery, antiaircraft artillery, infantry rifles, machine guns, and pontoons, through either Xinjiang or Mongolia.50 But at the July 23 Comintern meeting, Dimitrov insisted that “the task in China right now consists not in expanding the regions under soviets and the Chinese Red Army, but . . . unification of the vast majority of the Chinese people against the Japanese invaders.” The goal was to “complete the bourgeois-democratic revolution,” although eventually, “in the process of this struggle, the moment will come for the mass organization of the struggle for Soviet power.”51

Four days later, Dimitrov submitted draft directives for the Chinese Communists to Stalin, who would take some time to return them. In the meantime, the Comintern directives to Spain’s Communists to avoid revolution arrived just as the Spanish Republic state began to melt away. Jails were being cracked open, court records ransacked, village rents pronounced null and void, and businesses collectivized. Spain’s moderate Socialists, together with Spain’s Communists, could not contain the workers, peasants, and anarchists in the Republic’s zone, especially in Catalonia, where 70 percent of industry would be collectivized in three heady months. “The first impression: armed workers, rifles on their shoulders, but wearing their civilian clothes,” Franz Borkenau, an Austrian writer who had quit the German Communist party in protest over Stalin’s rule and traveled to Spain, would observe. “And no ‘bourgeoisie’ whatever!”52

To stand by while the leftist Popular Front and popular revolution in Spain went down to “fascist” armed aggression would threaten Moscow’s prestige. Sometime between July 27 and 29, 1936, the head of the Spanish Communist party sent a cipher responding in detail to Comintern questions about “the correlation of forces,” which Dimitrov forwarded immediately to Stalin. “The adversary has the advantage that he has many spies in the government camp,” the Spanish report concluded. “Despite that, if France will deliver the requested aid in the form of airplanes and ammunition, the adversary will be destroyed.”53 Would Stalin step into the breach? A genuine leftist revolution was unfolding in Spain against his instructions, and the Chinese Communists were pressing revolution against orders as well. Rendering this situation still more maddening was the circumstance that he was being visibly outflanked on the left by Trotsky.


Stalin hated Trotsky with a deep, emotional, blind, wild hate; he also feared him, in a way he feared no one else. Trotsky had long been under nearly total NKVD surveillance, first on an island in Turkey and then in France. The NKVD knew of or had inspired a plan by the anti-Soviet émigré Russian All-Military Union to assassinate him in 1934, but operational amateurism produced nothing beyond recriminations.54 In 1935, Trotsky had accepted an offer of asylum from the new Norwegian Labor Party government, taking up residence with his wife as guests of the journalist, painter, and parliamentarian Konrad Knudsen in Oslo, where the NKVD had few resources.55 But Trotsky’s elder son, Lev Sedov, the nerve center of international Trotskyism (such as it was), had remained in Paris, where the Soviet secret police enjoyed a robust presence. Boris Atanasov, known as Afanasyev (b. 1902), an ethnic Bulgarian assassin and kidnapper who oversaw infiltration of émigré circles in Paris, had been tasked with penetration of Trotsky’s Paris operation.

Afanasyev stumbled upon an unbelievably valuable agent: Mordka “Mark” Zborowski (b. 1908), who had been born in a Jewish family in imperial Russia and, after the revolution, resettled in Poland, where he eventually joined the Polish Communists. After an arrest and short prison sentence, Zborowski fled to Berlin, then to Grenoble, where he attended university, and was recruited into the NKVD in Paris around 1933.56 Zborowski befriended Sedov’s wife, who recommended him for the position of her husband’s secretary. “At present the source meets with the son nearly every day,” Zborowski’s secret police handler reported to Moscow, which responded that “we caution that you do not go too far and thereby destroy all our plans in this machination.”57 The NKVD was able to install listening devices on the telephones in the apartments of Sedov and his collaborators. Zborowski also gained access to secret lists of, and correspondence with, trusted Trotsky loyalists worldwide, on the basis of which the NKVD compiled a card catalog. Zborowski, known to Sedov as Étienne, a fluent Russian speaker in an otherwise French-only milieu, took charge of Sedov’s correspondence and helped edit Trotsky’s Russian-language Bulletin of the Opposition. Stalin, therefore, could read not only Trotsky’s mail but also drafts of his essays, sometimes before they were published.58

Knowing what Trotsky would publish did not help counter it, however. Events in Spain afforded him a grand new platform from which to bash Stalin still more—as a counterrevolutionary who failed to support not a theoretical but an actual revolution under direct attack by “fascism.” On July 30, Trotsky, in high dudgeon, wrote that in “curbing the social revolution,” Spain’s Popular Front leaders “compel the workers and peasants to spill ten times as much of their own blood in a civil war. And to crown everything, these gentlemen expect to disarm the workers again after the victory and to force them to respect the sacred laws of private property.”59 By that date, Nazi German planes had not only airlifted Franco’s africanistas to the Spanish mainland, but also begun strafing Madrid. Also on July 30, two of the initial Italian squadron of twelve Savoia-Marchetti medium bombers sent from Sardinia to Morocco to assist the Spanish insurgency had crash-landed in French Algeria, revealing Italian involvement.60 The “fascists” had stolen the initiative. More than that even, with the Spanish Republic state dissolving, someone else could fill the vacuum. Stalin seemed to be facing a possibly victorious Trotskyism in Spain, where Trotsky was popular. The specter of Trotskyites capturing a physical redoubt in a real country would seize Stalin like the proverbial red cape in front of a bull.61


Members of Stalin’s inner circle strove to circumscribe the expanding effects of his reopening of the Kirov murder case. Pravda, back on June 2, 1936, had published a speech by Pavel Postyshev, a candidate member of the politburo and party boss of Kiev province, upbraiding Ukrainian officials for unwarranted repressions; five days later, the newspaper editorialized (“Lessons of the Donbass”) that the coal plan fulfillment failures in Ukraine had resulted not from wrecking but from showy record-breaking labor stunts as well as the wrongful persecution of engineers.62 This was a prominent theme of Orjonikidze’s as well. “What kind of saboteurs?” he defiantly exclaimed at a multiday meeting of the guiding council of the heavy industry commissariat on June 25. “During the 19-year existence of Soviet power, we . . . have graduated more than 100,000 engineers and a similar number of technicians. If all of them, and the old-regime engineers as well, whom we have reeducated, turned out to be saboteurs in 1936, then congratulate yourself with such success. What kind of saboteurs! They are not saboteurs, but good people, our sons, our brothers, our comrades. . . . They will die on the front of Soviet power, if this is required. . . . It is not sabotage—this is nonsense—but incompetence.” Orjonikidze’s spirited defense elicited “rousing and prolonged applause.”63

Orjonikidze worked long hours under phenomenal strain, which strained his weak heart. (One time when he suffered from heart palpitations he lost consciousness in his office, inducing his assistants to summon a doctor from the Kremlin hospital.) He also had just one kidney. Gossips said his wife, Zinaida, had a difficult personality, compounding his problems.64 On June 29, the culmination of the heavy industry gathering, the commissar’s poor health had become visible for all to see. A foreign doctor was brought in to examine him.65 Be that as it may, the key factor in exacerbating his health was his old friend and fellow Georgian, who was mercilessly, relentlessly driving the “saboteur” line. Kaganovich also did not see why manifestly loyal people needed to be arrested and executed. He had been defending top Ukrainian officials from Stalin’s wrath since famine days. But he knew Stalin all too well. In early July 1936, the dictator had sent Kaganovich—then vacationing in Kislovodsk—protocols of the Dreitser and Pikel “interrogations”; he took the unsubtle hint. “Although this was clear even earlier, they have now revealed the true bandit face of those murderers and provocateurs Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev,” he had responded to Stalin on July 6. “The main instigator of this gang is that venal scum Trotsky. It is time to declare him an outlaw and to execute the rest of the lowlifes we have in jail. Regards as ever, Yours, L. Kaganovich.”66

Stalin pressed for wider arrests, using the unique instruments only he commanded: he dispatched a secret circular (July 29, 1936)—drafted by Yezhov and edited by the dictator—to party organizations, which was to be read aloud to all party members and which quoted the “testimony” of the various accused “Trotskyites.” “Confronted with the completely irrefutable successes of socialist construction, they initially hoped our party could not cope with the difficulties,” the circular stated. “But seeing that the party was successfully overcoming difficulties, they wagered on the defeat of Soviet power in a forthcoming war, as a result of which they dreamed of seizing power.” Then, “not seeing any prospects, in despair, they resorted to the last means of struggle—terror.” The circular explained that the “Trotskyites” had colluded in terror with Zinoviev and Kamenev and that, after the imprisonment of the latter, “Trotsky had taken upon himself all direction of terrorist activity in the USSR.” The document exhorted that “the essential mark of every Bolshevik in the current situation should be the ability to recognize and identify enemies of the party no matter how well they are able to disguise themselves.” But who were these hidden enemies?67 How did the circular jibe with other signals conveyed by Postyshev and Orjonikidze in the authoritative Pravda?

NKVD operatives would “unmask” enemies to win raises, medals, and promotions; informants, queried about a “Trotskyite” underground, would become eager to please. Regional party officials, in order to protect themselves and their closest people, targeted as “Trotskyites” lower-level types as well as economic managers—precisely the people Orjonikidze sought to protect.68 But Kaganovich, responsible for rail transport—which had been suffering an inordinate number of accidents, driven by underinvestment and overexploitation—expressly rejected assertions of Trotskyites in his bailiwick. On July 30, 1936, the day after the secret party circular on hidden enemies, he presided over the country’s inaugural all-Union Day of Transport, where, before 25,000 railway employees assembled at the outdoor Green Theater, in Gorky Park, as well as a Union-wide audience listening on radio, he delivered a two-hour oration on the daily loading of 81,214 freight cars, exceeding Stalin’s directive to reach 80,000. “Here the way is not purging and repression,” Kaganovich stated, noting the multitudes of railway workers who had received state awards. “No, for 99 percent of railway employees are honest people, who are committed to their work, who love their motherland.”69 Soviet newspapers prominently published photographs of Kaganovich and Orjonikidze together that summer of 1936.70

Multiple incentives impel dictators to try to convert their rule into despotism. Some lack the necessary means or personal traits to crush close allies. Stalin, of course, possessed both the wherewithal and the personality. But would he break Orjonikidze, Kaganovich, and other members of his innermost circle? Kaganovich was indispensable, still running the linchpin party apparatus in his absence, while Orjonikidze, no less vital, ran the critical heavy industry portfolio. Both of them removed a great burden from the far too burdened Stalin. At the same time, Orjonikidze’s Union-wide fiefdom afforded him a political base second only to the dictator’s. Izvestiya (still edited by Bukharin) did not shy from calling Orjonikidze “the people’s favorite,” the expression in Lenin’s purported Testament for Bukharin.71 In fact, Orjonikidze was more accessible, and in many quarters more genuinely popular, than Stalin. And he enjoyed extremely warm relations with other core members of the ruling group, including defense commissar Voroshilov, as well as Kaganovich.


Stalin maintained his nonresponse to Madrid’s request for arms, but in the meantime the pressure to do something did not abate. On August 1, 1936—the opening day of the Summer Olympics in Nazi Berlin, not to mention the anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War—Izvestiya published an essay by Radek, which Stalin had approved, characterizing the civil war in Spain as part of a “meticulously” planned global aggression by “European fascists.”72 That same day, Pravda published Spanish reportage under the headline “Fascism Means War; Socialism Means Peace.” August 2 in Moscow brought a temperature of 99 degrees Fahrenheit (37.2 Celsius), the highest in fifty-seven years.73 That day, Boris Pasternak met André Gide at his dacha in the writers’ colony of Peredelkino (where he had just moved in) and helped open the Frenchman’s eyes to Soviet realities; Pasternak also warned his NKVD minder that Gide was preparing a critical work on the USSR.74 The next day, which was not a Soviet holiday, a reported throng of more than 100,000 demonstrators assembled on Red Square. Adorned in summer whites in the suffocating heat, the dense crowd listened to songs and speeches calling for defense of the Spanish Republic. Six tanned sportswomen, holding hands, led chants of “Down with Franco! Down with Franco!” “Our hearts are with those who at this moment are giving up their lives in the mountains and streets of Spain, defending the liberty of their people,” a female worker from the Red Dawn factory declared from the dais. “We say, ‘Remember, you are not alone. We are with you.’”75

Soviet newspapers and radio placed Spain center stage, depicting Republic heroism against fascist aggression, and tying the Soviet Union to this cause.76 Pravda—“Hands off the Spanish people!” . . . “Down with the fascist rebels and their German and Italian inspirers!”—reported that workers had been massed in front of the Winter Palace in Leningrad (100,000) and in Tashkent (100,000), Gorky (60,000), Rostov-on-Don (35,000), Minsk (30,000), Sverdlovsk (20,000), and Tiflis (10,000).77 The Comintern resolved to “immediately undertake a wide campaign of solidarity for the fighters defending the Republic in Spain,” including “collections of medicines, foodstuffs, gold,” and enlistment of medical volunteers and purchases of ambulances.78 The regime also announced “voluntary” deductions from workers’ paychecks for humanitarian assistance to Spain.79 “We see how quickly fascists from different states will unite when the task is the asphyxiation of the working class,” one Soviet autoworker was quoted as stating in Pravda. “Through our relief aid . . . we will show the fascists that no country will be cut off from the workers of the rest of the world. The cause of Spain is our own cause.”80

Would Stalin risk getting embroiled in foreign war? “A number of Soviet officials charged with the conduct of Soviet foreign relations were opposed to sending funds to Spain, since they felt that such action would be used by Italy and Germany to justify the aid given by themselves,” one Soviet official told the U.S. chargé d’affaires in Moscow on August 3, 1936. “These objections were overruled, however, by the Soviet leaders who take the view that if the Soviet Union is to continue to maintain hegemony over the international revolutionary movement, it must not hesitate in periods of crisis to assume the leadership of that movement.”81 Tellingly, however, neither Stalin nor any of the members of the Soviet leadership attended the August 3 Moscow demonstration. Not even Comintern leaders were allowed to appear. The main speech was delivered by the head of the trade unions (Nikolai Shvernik), as if the process of gathering humanitarian aid were a spontaneous expression of worker solidarity.82

All the while, the geopolitical maneuvering was fast and furious. In early August, France approached Germany, Italy, the Soviet Union, and other countries about a formal collective “Non-Intervention Agreement” for Spain.83 Britain had treated a formal agreement guardedly, but now it decided it could drive a wedge between France and Spain. On August 3, the Italian government promised to study the matter. On August 5, the French chargé d’affaires in Moscow approached the foreign affairs commissariat, reporting that Britain had signed on and that Germany had agreed to do so if the Soviets would. Litvinov was on holiday, and one of his deputies, Krestinsky, advised Stalin, “We cannot either not give an affirmative response or give an evasive response, because then this will be used by the Germans and Italians, who will justify their further support for the insurgents by our refusal.” That evening, Krestinsky was able to reply that the USSR, too, would sign on, provided that not only Italy and Germany but Portugal’s dictatorship did so as well.84 The next day, Italy confirmed its support in principle.

Also on August 5, Trotsky, from Norway, sent his French and American publishers a manuscript that he had completed with only a little more than half a year’s work: The Revolution Betrayed: What Is the Soviet Union and Where Is It Going? He sent a copy to his son Sedov in Paris for excerpting in the Bulletin. Thus did Soviet intelligence obtain a copy, while reporting that the text was to be translated into multiple foreign languages, which meant worldwide impact.85 When Stalin saw the text remains uncertain, but it was likely not long after it had come into NKVD hands.86 There is no known record of his reaction. Still, Trotsky’s spirited wielding of Marxist analysis against the purported leader of world Marxists struck at the foundations of Stalin’s legitimacy and self-identity. He portrayed Stalin’s rule as a full-blown counterrevolution, or Thermidor, a consequence of an evil social compact between the new bureaucratic elite and the old bourgeoisie, a deformation of Leninism pejoratively labeled “Stalinism.” Notwithstanding the building of socialism, therefore, the revolution had been betrayed.87 Trotsky’s analysis appeared with impeccable timing: Spain could be taken as proof of Stalin’s betrayal of the entire world revolution. The book reinforced the convergence of the Trotsky problem and the Spanish problem.


Preparations proceeded for a public trial in Moscow of “Trotskyites.” On August 7, 1936, USSR procurator general Vyshinsky sent Stalin a draft indictment charging twelve people with establishing a terror organization aiming to assassinate the dictator and other members of the leadership. Stalin raised the number of defendants to sixteen, five of whom were Germans—members of the German Communist party who had fled to the USSR—thereby reinforcing his beloved foreign espionage story line. He also sharpened the “testimony” he received of the fabricated plot. “It is not enough to cut down the oak,” he inserted in the testimony of one alleged would-be assassin. “You must cut down all the young that grow around the oak.”88

The French Communist party had sent a reconnaissance delegation to Spain and, also on August 7, reported that “the situation is very critical because of non-availability of armaments,” a conclusion confirmed by Soviet military intelligence. Comintern HQ in Moscow telegrammed Maurice Thorez, head of the French Communists, to pressure the French government to rescue the Spanish Republic and thereby the French Popular Front (and, perhaps, the USSR from having to intervene in Spain).89 That same day, Krestinsky explained in a telegram to the Soviet envoy in Rome that “we understood Italy and Germany would continue arming the putschists” in Spain, but the USSR had to remove any justification for them to do so.90 On August 10, the expression “malevolent neutrality,” coined by Labour peer Lord Strabolgi in reference to British policy on Spain, appeared in the Daily Herald, the world’s bestselling newspaper.

Stalin had little desire to follow in Britain’s ignominious wake while being shown up by Mussolini and Hitler, cold-shouldered by the French Socialist Léon Blum, and squeezed between a whining Litvinov and a lacerating Trotsky. But if he rejected the Non-Intervention Agreement, Britain and France might unite with fascist Italy and Nazi Germany against the USSR in a four-power deal over Spain, and perhaps more broadly. (The British cabinet secretary had privately stated on July 20, 1936, “In the present state of Europe, with France and Spain menaced by Bolshevism, it is not inconceivable that before long it might pay us to throw in our lot with Germany and Italy.”)91 There was also, as ever, the commercial aspect. On August 19, Litvinov would write to the Soviet envoy Surits that Kandelaki, the Soviet trade representative in Berlin, would “inform the Germans about our demurral on the [credit] agreement so far. At the same time, he was authorized to ask if the Germans were agreed to selling us certain items that specially interest us and, if so, raise the question of a credit agreement anew.”92

Nazi Germany, as Berlin’s authoritative Institute for Business Cycle Research had recently noted in a report, faced depleted stocks of raw materials, which would seem to have argued for rapprochement with both the USSR and the Western powers.93 But the Führer had other ideas, finalizing a Four-Year Plan in August 1936—one of the very few documents in Hitler’s own hand—which began with a statement about history being a struggle among nations for existence. It insisted that Germany had to be ready for war within four years; otherwise, “those strata of mankind which have hitherto provided the leadership” would suffer “replacement by worldwide Jewry.” Hitler added that “a victory of Bolshevism over Germany would lead . . . to the final destruction, indeed to the annihilation of the German people. . . . In the face of the necessity of defense against this danger, all other considerations must recede into the background as being completely irrelevant.”94 Soviet intelligence had obtained information that Germany would not be ready to launch a massive-scale war before 1939.95 Still, as Hitler revealed in his Four-Year Plan, Germany’s destiny would be realized through conquest, not trade.96

Soaring revolutionary sentiments, full of bluster but also raw emotion, were erupting in the press of the high-profile French Communist party and the reports out of Spain by Communists and pro-Comintern leftists. China was radicalizing as well. On August 13, Stalin finally returned Dimitrov’s request for approval of the draft instructions for the Chinese Communists (he merely wrote “in favor”). Two days later, the instructions were radioed to Yan’an, concretizing the actions required under the united front policy, and warning, “It is incorrect to place Chiang Kai-shek on the same plane as the Japanese invaders.”97 Mao formally complied, writing to the Nationalists to request an end to their civil war and negotiations.98 But Dimitrov would have his hands full trying to enforce Mao’s compliance.

In Spain, the Soviet regime kept to the impression of providing only humanitarian aid voluntarily contributed by workers through trade unions (some 264 million rubles would be collected overall).99 But on August 21, 1936, the thirty-year-old Soviet filmmaker Roman Karmen and his cinematographer Boris Makaseyev, who had been hastily dispatched to Spain by the politburo, managed to film a Canadian hunter (who had volunteered to fight for the Republic) shooting down an Italian bomber that had been raining destruction on the Republic’s side. A few days later, the world saw Karmen’s documentary footage, which conclusively proved “fascist” support for the Spanish putschists working to overthrow the elected Republic.100 On August 23, Italy cynically signed the Non-Intervention Agreement. The Soviets did so the same day. Germany would formally sign the next day. From this point, any violation of nonintervention by Moscow could serve as a pretext justifying Italian and German supply of arms to the insurgents.101


Yezhov was furiously driving extraction of “testimony” for the trial of a “Trotskyite-Zinovievite Terrorist Center” in Moscow. On August 10, he confronted Pyatakov with documents from his opposition days that had been seized at the apartment of his arrested ex-wife. Pyatakov demanded a chance to prove his loyalty, requesting, as Yezhov wrote to Stalin, that “they allow him personally to shoot all those sentenced to be shot at the upcoming trial, including his former wife,” an assignment Pyatakov wanted broadcast. Stalin was only interested that Pyatakov smear himself and others.102 It was a few days later, late on the night of August 13, that the dictator, after holding a Kremlin banquet for Soviet aviators who had completed the first nonstop flight from Moscow to the Soviet Far East, departed for his annual southern holiday. That day, TASS issued a venomous press release about a trial for treason to commence in a few days with sixteen defendants, including Zinoviev and Kamenev and, in absentia, Trotsky (then fishing in a small Norwegian village). Stalin tasked Kaganovich with implementing the trial’s final push. Before the trial, Vasily Ulrich, chairman of the military collegium of the USSR Supreme Court, presented drafts of the sentences, which Stalin approved, and the Soviet press demanded “no leniency for enemies of the people who have tried to deprive the people of their leaders.”103

Also on August 14, the NKVD arrested Vitali Primakov, commander of the Leningrad military district and a hero of the civil war. Six days later, the same fate befell Vitovt Putna, Soviet military attaché to Great Britain (and before that to Japan, Germany, and Finland). Primakov and Putna were charged with “Trotskyism” and participation in a military “plot.” Many Red Army officers had had interactions with them.

The five-day trial of the Trotskyite-Zinovievite center commenced on August 19, in the October Hall of white Corinthian columns in the House of Trade Unions.104 The spectacle followed an extended period of behind-the-scenes torture, scripting, and rehearsing, and this time it would result not in mere exile or imprisonment. The defendants, besides the five German Communists who “confessed” to Gestapo ties, were eleven prominent Bolsheviks of the 1926–27 opposition.105 Ten of the sixteen happened to be Jewish (this received no special attention). Invited audience members numbered some 150 people, including 30 handpicked foreign journalists and diplomats, as well as many plainclothes NKVD operatives, but not the relatives of the accused. Despite slipups that betrayed the fabrication, the defendants, all Communists, publicly confessed to being wreckers, spies, terrorists.106 (Kaganovich made sure to add himself and Orjonikidze to the list of targets.)107 “I, Kamenev, together with Zinoviev and Trotsky, organized and guided this conspiracy,” Stalin’s former close associate stated. “I had become convinced that the party’s—Stalin’s—policy was successful and victorious. We, the opposition, had banked on a split in the party, but this hope proved groundless. We could no longer count on any serious domestic difficulties to allow us to overthrow Stalin’s leadership.”

Some of the “testimony” had implicated rightists (Rykov, Bukharin, Tomsky), and Kaganovich and Yezhov (August 20) had jointly telegrammed Stalin in Sochi asking for instructions on that score. The next day, the dictator permitted mention at the trial of the rightists, as well as a yet-to-be-unveiled “parallel center” (Pyatakov, Sokolnikov, Radek). On that day, Izvestiya published an essay by Radek, who, as a former Trotsky supporter, lent his credibility to the wild charges against Trotsky, Kamenev, and Zinoviev, calling the attempts to assassinate the Soviet leader and the links to the Gestapo “a plot to restore capitalism in the USSR.”108 Stalin had also been prompted to remember the out-of-favor poet Demyan Bedny, who published “No Mercy!” in Pravda (August 21): “Here are the ones who murdered Kirov! . . . They were going for Stalin!”109

Testifying to these fixations, Stalin’s holiday correspondence changed. It remained laconic and often ill-humored, sometimes downright scolding, with almost no personal information—just directives and responses to initiatives by Kaganovich (or Molotov). But content-wise, of the more than 140 letters and ciphered telegrams he exchanged during this holiday, a mere half dozen concerned the industrial economy, and most of those involved the dictator approving others’ proposals, without comment.110 Now the mailbag also included the transcript of a Tomsky speech, interrogation “protocols” of Kamenev, draft protocols of Sokolnikov’s interrogation. (Stalin: “Did he not inform [the British journalist] of the plans for the assassination of Soviet leaders? Of course he did.”) Such documents were pointing to a vast, phantasmagoric conspiracy, from party officials to military men. Bukharin, hiking the Pamirs in Central Asia, had hurried back to Moscow to find Stalin away on holiday, and would write the dictator a letter, which also found its way into the holiday mailbag, rabidly endorsing all the fabricated charges of the trial, except those about himself (“I embrace you, for I’m clean”).111 Trotsky, who hurriedly returned to Oslo from his fishing holiday, told the New York Times that the trial was fraudulent and “puts the Dreyfus scandal and the Reichstag fire trial in the shadow.”112

As for Tomsky, when his driver arrived at his dacha outside Moscow to pick him up for his job as head of the state publishing house—bearing a copy of that morning’s Pravda (August 22), which reported an investigation into Tomsky for counterrevolution—he shot himself. Tomsky prepared a suicide note (“Dear Comrade Stalin”), expressing his despair while protesting his innocence, and beseeching the dictator, whom he called his “old fighting comrade,” not to believe Zinoviev’s slander against him. Tomsky apologized, yet again, for his comment one evening in 1928 that someone would shoot Stalin. “Do not take seriously what I blurted out then—I have deeply regretted this always.”113 Pravda reported the suicide the next day as an admission of guilt.114 In an act of attempted posthumous revenge that played on Stalin’s conspiratorial bent, Tomsky cleverly implicated NKVD chief Yagoda as a rightist coconspirator, having his wife convey orally the “secret” that Yagoda was the person who had “recruited” Tomsky.115

Kamenev and Stalin had known each other for more than three decades. “Greetings, friend! I kiss you on the nose, Eskimo-style,” Stalin had written to him in December 1912, evoking their Siberian exile. “For hell’s sake! I miss you devilishly. I miss you—I swear by my dog. I have no one, no one to chat with, heart to heart, may the devil run you over.”116 On the eve of Kamenev’s execution, Stalin wrote to Kaganovich that Kamenev, through his wife, had sounded out the French ambassador about supporting a possible Trotskyite-Zinovievite government. “I believe Kamenev also sounded out the English, German, and American ambassadors,” Stalin added. “This means Kamenev was supposed to reveal to these foreigners the plans for the conspiracy and the murder of the leaders of the party. This also means Kamenev had already revealed the plans to them, for otherwise the foreigners would not have begun talking about the future Trotskyite-Zinovievite ‘government’ with him.”117 Did Stalin believe this? Was he straining to justify his political murders to Kaganovich? These questions remain unanswerable.

Stalin supervised the trial from afar, sternly instructing Kaganovich that the sentences had to mention Trotsky and Sedov. (“This carries enormous significance for Europe, both for the bourgeoisie and for the workers.”)118 A few hours after the court had adjourned on August 24, Ulrich, at 2:30 a.m., pronounced the defendants guilty and condemned all but one to death. Later that day, the regime staged a grand aviation display at Moscow’s Tushinsky Aerodrome (“Glory to Stalinist aviation and the Stalinist falcons”). Planes flew difficult maneuvers. Parachutists dropped from the sky. “The enemies’ schemes,” a teacher in the Institute of World Economy and International Relations recorded in his diary, “cannot stop our enormous successes.”119 Kamenev and the others wrote appeals for mercy in the predawn hours. (Only one defendant expressly refused to do so.) Perhaps, as would be rumored, Stalin had promised them their lives in exchange for public “confessions” to crimes they had not committed.120 But well before the end of the seventy-two-hour period for appeals specified in Soviet law, Kamenev, Zinoviev, and the rest were executed in the cellars.121 Yezhov retrieved the bullet casings as souvenirs.


The day after the August 13, 1936, discussion of Spain in the Little Corner, Stalin received a résumé of Soviet-Spanish diplomatic relations from Krestinsky, which accelerated a belated exchange of ambassadors. The choice fell to a twenty-year veteran of the Soviet diplomatic corps, Marcel Rosenberg, who was summoned from Karlsbad.122 Litvinov had written to Kaganovich urging that people appointed as ambassadors in major countries should know the local language, while lamenting that the foreign affairs commissariat had only a single fluent Spanish speaker: Leonid Gaikis, a Lithuanian who had grown up in Argentina and was serving as consul general in Istanbul. Litvinov felt constrained to inform Kaganovich, with a copy to Stalin, that in 1923 Gaikis had voted for the Trotskyite platform. Stalin did not prevent Gaikis’s appointment as an “adviser” in the embassy in Madrid, effectively Rosenberg’s deputy.123 A bit later, Stalin would consent to the establishment of a consulate in Catalonia and the appointment there of Vladimir Antonov-Ovseyenko, the hero of the 1917 storming of the Winter Palace—also a repentant former Trotsky sympathizer. The consul would tell Ilya Ehrenburg, who would go to Spain as an Izvestiya correspondent, that his key task would consist of making the Spanish anarchists “see reason.”124

Before Stalin had gone on holiday, the politburo had first approved a Pravda request to send a special correspondent to Spain, Mikhail Koltsov, the Soviet Union’s best-known journalist-propagandist.125 During the 1920s and ’30s, he had published more than a thousand stylistically free-flowing essays, including on collectivization (“Fortress in the Steppe”), driving a taxi in Moscow, and flying in the first Soviet-made airplane. Koltsov could do what almost no one else could: toe the Stalinist line while delivering enduring portraits of Soviet life. He had a sense of humor, too, founding Crocodile, the Soviet humor magazine, and had even been to Spain, following the fall of its monarchy, and published Spanish Spring (1933).126 By August 8, 1936, he’d arrived in Madrid, and over the next several weeks he managed to compose twenty reports for Pravda, relayed by telephone to Moscow. “A stocky little Jew with a huge head and one of the most expressive faces of any man I ever met,” Claud Cockburn, a British journalist who encountered Koltsov in Spain, would recall. “He unquestionably and positively enjoyed the sense of danger and sometimes—by his political indiscretions, for instance, or still more wildly indiscreet love affairs—deliberately created dangers which need not have existed.”127 Koltsov’s engaging reportage for Soviet readers would render Spain’s civil war immediate and in Stalin’s preferred light: as a struggle not just against fascism per se but against Trotskyism—indeed, against a supposed linkup between Trotskyism and fascism.128

Was there Trotskyism in Spain? Spain’s Popular Front government consisted of representatives of its Republican parties, which received support from the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, the Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia (only nominally united), the Syndicalist Party and various anarchist formations (at least initially), Basque separatists, the Spanish Communist party, and the Workers Party of Marxist Unification (POUM). The latter, formed in 1935, consisted of breakaway left Communists and dissident Marxist-Leninists who demanded an immediate transition to a dictatorship of the proletariat in Spain, precisely Trotsky’s position. The leading theorist of the POUM, Andreu Nin, had spent nine years in Moscow as secretary general of the Red International of Labor Unions (Profintern) and had sided with Trotsky’s left opposition. Nin broke with Moscow and had a falling-out with the exiled Trotsky as well. In spring 1936, Trotsky had set his followers the task of exposing “the full wretchedness of the leadership of the ‘Workers Party of Marxist Unification’ and especially of the former ‘Left Communists’ . . . before the eyes of all the advanced workers.”129 On August 10, 1936, Victor Serge—an intellectual Stalin had released into foreign exile, who was now busy translating Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed into French—begged Trotsky to take back his harsh words about the POUM, “to deny the bureaucracy any possibility whatsoever of turning the revolution into a prison for workers in the Stalinist manner.” But Trotsky continued to lacerate the POUM for supposedly vacillating between support of the “bourgeois” democratic phase of Spain’s revolution and of Trotsky’s Fourth International (full-bore anticapitalist revolution).130

Koltsov’s crafty reportage conveying a Trotsky-centric interpretation of events in Spain perfectly complemented the saturation coverage and orchestrated meetings all across the USSR over the Trotskyite showcase trial, together whipping up anti-Trotsky hysteria. In Stalin’s worldview, Nin’s hoary link to Trotsky alone rendered the POUM “Trotskyite.” There was also the POUM’s independence, criticizing the Stalinist line while claiming the mantle of Marxism. Some members of the POUM, moreover, openly admired Trotsky, and some of its officials discussed inviting him to take up residence in Barcelona. Sometimes fabricated nightmares have a way of coming true. The Trotsky bogey had long been one of Stalin’s prime instruments for enforcing dictatorial rule; now, all of a sudden, he had to worry about a victory of the anti-Stalinist left— Trotskyism to him—in a real country. “Trotsky, and all that Trotsky represented, was Stalin’s real fear,” American diplomat George Kennan would surmise.131 Kennan was speaking broadly, not in connection with Spain per se, but Spain had become the place.


Public confessions by Lenin’s former comrades to monstrous state crimes and the rabid saturation propaganda about hidden enemies had revolutionized the political atmosphere. The White émigré press rejoiced at the executions: “Sixteen is not enough! Give us forty more, give us hundreds, give us thousands.” Alexander Kerensky, in exile in the United States, saw nothing surprising in accusations that Trotsky had collaborated with the Gestapo: after all, had not Lenin and Trotsky been German agents in 1917?132 Lev Sedov, in a detailed exposé of the trial, called Lenin the “first terrorist”: after all, his Testament had instructed, “Remove Stalin.” Stalin, for his part, fumed at Kaganovich and Molotov (September 6) that Pravda’s trial coverage had “failed to produce a single article that provided a Marxist explanation,” because “the newspaper wrapped everything in personal terms, that there are evil people who want to seize power and good people who are in power. . . . The articles should say that the struggle against Stalin, Voroshilov, Molotov, . . . and others is a struggle against the Soviets, against collectivization, against industrialization, a struggle, consequently, for the restoration of capitalism. . . . They should have said, finally, that the degradation of these scum to the level of White Guards and fascists is a logical outgrowth of their moral decline as [Communist] opposition leaders in the past.”133

Pravda (September 4, 1936) had crowed that the number of “Trotskyites” was “microscopic,” and that the “opposition” had been dealt a crushing blow. But Yezhov, in a letter (September 9) to Sochi with details of Tomsky’s suicide, wrote that “without doubt the Trotskyites in the army have some unmasked cadres,” adding that Trotskyite “ties” inside the secret police had yet to be investigated properly.134

Bukharin had written to Voroshilov, “I’m terribly glad the dogs were shot.”135 On September 10, 1936, Pravda suddenly announced that the procuracy had cleared Bukharin, as well as Rykov, of connections to terrorism.136 But four days later, Kaganovich reported to Sochi the results of the “interrogations” of Bukharin, Rykov, and Sokolnikov, commenting that the latter—Kaganovich’s once-close comrade back in Nizhny Novgorod and Turkestan—had been “in contact” with the “Trotskyite-Zinovievite Terrorist Center” and adding that it was good the USSR was exterminating “all these rats.”137 Bukharin wrote to Stalin again, claiming to be “mentally ill,” under too much strain to “go on living,” because his life had “become meaningless. . . . This is surely a paradox: the more I devote myself to serving the party with all my heart, the worse my unfortunate predicament becomes, and now I no longer have the strength to fight against the attacks anymore. . . . I urgently beg of you to allow me to come and see you. . . . Only you can cure me. If my fate is of any concern to you . . . then meet with me.”138 Stalin ignored this plea.

Orjonikidze, in early September 1936, had gone on his annual holiday to Kislovodsk. He wrote to Stalin (September 7) that he had listened to parts of the trial on the radio in Kaganovich’s office. “Shooting them was not enough,” he noted. “If it had been possible, they should have been shot at least ten times. . . . They caused tremendous harm to the party. Now, knowing what they’re made of, you don’t know who’s telling the truth and who’s lying, who’s a friend and who’s a double-dealer. This is the poison they injected into the party. . . . People don’t know whether they can trust this or that former Trotskyite or Zinovievite.” After condemning people who were already dead, he added pointedly: “I am very worried about the army. . . . A skillful enemy could deal us an irreparable blow here: they will start to spread rumors about people and instill distrust in the army. Here we need to be very careful.” Orjonikidze also tried to shield his deputy Pyatakov: “If we do not arrest him, let us send him somewhere, or leave him in the Urals, as at present.”139 Stalin had Pyatakov expelled from the Central Committee and the party (September 9) without a meeting. In the NKVD inventory of his confiscated property were his Order of Lenin and his party card, no. 0000059—a low number, indicating very long membership (Pyatakov was one of only six figures mentioned in Lenin’s Testament).140 On September 11, Stalin answered Orjonikidze from Sochi: “1) Pyatakov is already under arrest. 2) It’s possible Radek will be arrested. Toroshelidze and Budu [Mdivani] are thoroughly stained. They too could be arrested. . . . Greetings to Zina. I. Stalin.”141


Policy on Spain took a sudden turn. On August 29, 1936, the politburo had prohibited sending arms, ammunition, or planes to Spain, in accord with the Non-Intervention Agreement, a prohibition Pravda had announced (August 30). On September 2, in a telegram to the Soviet embassy in London, Litvinov had written that “guiding our relationship to the Spanish events is a striving in every possible way to impede the delivery of weapons to the Spanish insurgents and the necessity of strictly curtailing the activities of countries such as Germany, Italy, and Portugal.”142 But Spanish events were moving rapidly. On September 4, the first Soviet-produced newsreels from Spain were shown in Moscow, and soon they were distributed to other large cities.143 That same day, Francisco Largo Caballero, a trade unionist, head of the Socialist Workers’ Party, and Spain’s most prominent civilian politician, became prime minister. The Spanish Communist party accepted an invitation to join the new cabinet in the Popular Front coalition (the anarchists declined).144 For Moscow, the stakes had been raised. Already, prior to this in early September, the politburo had begun approving, by voice vote, plans for shipments of Soviet industrial goods to Spain. But now Stalin sent a telegram to Kaganovich (September 6, 1936) about how “it would be good” to sell Mexico fifty Soviet bombers, and possibly 20,000 rifles and 20 million cartridges, which could then get to Spain.145 This short cipher—sent the same day Stalin dressed down the Soviet press summaries of the recent Moscow trial of Trotskyites—effectively set in motion a Soviet military intervention.

Stalin, with Voroshilov (communicating by high-frequency phone), had decided against committing regular Soviet troops.146 But the politburo had already resolved to form volunteer “international brigades,” to be organized in Paris under the leadership of André Marty, assisted by the Italian Communist party in exile, and funded by Moscow. Many of the volunteers—from the United States, the British Isles, Latin America, and the whole of the European continent, including Nazi Germany and fascist Italy—were not Communists but idealists or adventurers.147 (The volunteers’ passports would be taken for “safekeeping,” a windfall for the NKVD.)148 These Comintern brigades remained within the letter of the Non-Intervention Agreement. No Soviet nationals were allowed to join, although many volunteered to.

Now Stalin also approved the dispatch not just of propagandists and diplomats but military advisers.149 The commander of a Soviet naval cruiser, Nikolai Kuznetsov, who was at sea, received a telegram summons to Moscow and, at the defense commissariat, discovered that he was being posted to Spain as naval attaché. (“What do you know about Spain?” he was asked.)150 The top military adviser appointed to Spain was the Latvian Berzin, who had headed Soviet military intelligence until 1935. The Soviet military attaché to the Madrid front was Vladimir Gorev (b. 1900), a blond Belorussian peasant who had become a veteran undercover military intelligence operative with experience in China and the United States, spoke excellent English, and had exemplary manners.151 The position of commercial attaché was soon filled by Artur Stashevsky [Hirschfeld], a Jew born in tsarist Latvia, who had been a driving force in the accumulation of Soviet gold reserves and who, in Spain, would serve as the top Soviet political operative.152 Already by early fall, there would be more than 550 Soviet personnel in-country, the highest ranking of whom took up residence in Madrid’s Palace Hotel.153

Additionally, the NKVD sent Leiba Feldbein, who used the name Alexander Orlov, to gather intelligence and organize guerrilla warfare in Spain.154 Orlov had been born (1895) in Belorussia and raised in an Orthodox Jewish family, joining Trotsky’s group of leftist internationalists in 1917, fighting for the Reds in the Russian civil war, and in 1920, at age twenty-five, joining the party and the Cheka in Arkhangelsk, going on to work in the economic and transport sections of the secret police and undercover in Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Geneva, Copenhagen, and London. “He spoke English well, dressed dapperly, was good-looking and very intelligent,” Louis Fischer would write.155 Abram Slutsky, head of NKVD foreign intelligence, had evidently alighted upon his friend Orlov for posting to Spain partly to protect him: a young assistant in the NKVD with whom Orlov had been having an affair shot herself in front of Lubyanka HQ after he refused to leave his wife.156 Orlov, his wife, and their daughter would cross the Soviet-Polish border en route to Spain on September 10, 1936.157

Ilya Ehrenburg, the Izvestiya correspondent, who arrived in Spain a few weeks after his rival Pravda correspondent Koltsov, wrote in a letter to Stalin (also on September 10), after having traveled more than 1,500 miles of Spanish territory, that “POUM (the Trotskyites) in Catalonia are weak. At the front, their column of 3,500 men is the most undisciplined. They have tense relations with the Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia (our party) and with the anarchists.”158 Stalin held the opposite view on the POUM’s threat.


In London on September 9, 1936, the Non-Intervention Committee held its first meeting, with twenty-seven European states represented. The session devolved into insults. Especially acrimonious exchanges took place between the Soviet ambassador (Ivan Maisky) and the German embassy counselor (Prince Otto von Bismarck, grandson of the chancellor).159 But the deeper problem was the conveners’ cynicism. “A piece of humbug,” one senior British foreign office official observed of the committee. “Where humbug is the alternative to war, it is impossible to place too high a value upon it.”160 But given that the public heard every day about how Italy and Germany were intervening forcefully, British credibility suffered a blow.

Contemporaneously with the sorry spectacle in London, military attachés and specialists from France and Czechoslovakia, as well as Britain, had been invited to Red Army maneuvers (September 7–10)—a show to impress. This was the first time a British delegation had been invited. Held in the Belorussian military district, commanded by the capable Iona Yakir, the Bessarabian-born (1896) son of a Jewish pharmacist, the exercises assumed a German-Polish aggression against the Soviet Union.161 All told, an astonishing 85,000 troops and auxiliaries and 1,136 tanks and armored vehicles took part. The “enemy” (blues) attacked with almost 37,000 men, 211 airplanes, and 453 combined-arms tanks, mostly T-28s but also T-27s (the Soviet variant of the Carden Loyd tankette), while the “friendly” forces (reds) possessed more than 42,000 men and 240 airplanes, as well as three mechanized brigades and several rifle and cavalry-tank units. The terrain was circumscribed in relation to the size of forces engaged and, without rivers or marshes, artificially ideal for tank warfare. After aviation created a smoke fog, the large mechanized units forged the Berezina River. One mechanized tank brigade completed a 125-mile march. The culmination entailed a parachute drop and reassembly, in battle formation, of some 1,800 men armed with machine guns and light artillery.162 The scale, complexity, and coordination of the exercises, according to Pravda (September 10), duly impressed the onlookers. In fact, Britain’s Lieutenant Colonel Giffard Martel, a well-known tank theorist at the war office, was put in mind of the tsarist army: great physical brutality with manifest “tactical clumsiness.” Privately dismissing the exercise as “more like a tattoo than maneuvers,” he deemed the training of junior officers weak, found radio communication not widely used, and saw little skill in the use of mechanized formations. Martel surmised that a well-equipped and well-commanded enemy could dodge the blow and inflict tremendous counterdamage.163

General Victor-Henri Schweisguth, who led the French delegation, told Voroshilov that Hitler saw the Soviet Union as the source of evil and was menacingly accusing Czechoslovakia of complicity in that evil. Voroshilov retorted that Hitler’s anti-Soviet ravings masked his real intention of attacking France, and once again urged bilateral staff talks.164 Schweisguth made a mental note that his Soviet counterparts claimed to want closer military cooperation with France yet seemed eager for Hitler to attack France first. In his confidential report upon return to Paris, he deemed the Red Army “insufficiently prepared for a war against a Great European Power,” adding: “The circumstances of its employment against Germany remain very problematical.” He warned that the Soviets hoped that “the storm burst first upon France,” and that, because of the absence of a common frontier with Germany, the Soviet Union could stand aside, like the United States in 1918, “to arbitrate the situation in the face of a Europe exhausted by battle.”165 Schweisguth saw value in talks with the Soviets only as prevention against a Soviet-German military alliance.166 The feelings were mutual: Yakir, who had just traveled to France, came back with a low regard for French military doctrine, technical level, operational-strategic thinking, and its army as a whole.167

Captain František Moravec, of Czechoslovak military intelligence, had arrived in Moscow before the maneuvers to cooperate with his Soviet counterparts in connection with their alliance treaty. Quartered at the Metropole and enveloped by Soviet counterintelligence, his six-man Czechoslovak team was received by Uritsky, head of military intelligence, becoming the first group of foreigners admitted to the “Chocolate House,” the three-story mansion that served as HQ, and then by Tukhachevsky, chief of the general staff. There were banquets at Spiridonovka on gold plates with the tsar’s monogram, stay-overs at the former Yusupov Palace in Arkhangelskoe, and a visit to the Moscow–Volga Canal Gulag site. He perceived his Soviet partners as ignorant of the Wehrmacht, noting that Soviet military intelligence “had not even organized proper supporting activities, such as the study of the German news media.” Whether Moravec, who spoke Russian, was shown the breadth of Soviet capabilities remains uncertain (the Czechoslovaks were technically “White Guards”). Still, he was correct about the dearth of foreign-language expertise in a system that valued proletarian origins and sycophancy over expertise. “The unexpected inefficiency in the military intelligence service of a regime which had been nourished on clandestine undertakings,” he concluded, “was surprising.”168 The men from Prague felt an urgency vis-à-vis their neighbor Nazi Germany that was not felt in Moscow.169

Most damaging of all the private reports on the maneuvers was Voroshilov’s. At the banquet, in front of foreigners, he lauded the exercises. But while Tukhachevsky, acknowledging the shortcomings of tank performance in the rifle divisions, whose commanders still did not know how to use them to the fullest, deemed their efforts superior to what the Red Army had previously managed, Voroshilov internally denounced the tank formations and urged a doubling down on infantry.170 Part of his motivation appears to have been long-standing envy at the superior abilities and reputations of Tukhachevsky, Yakir, and Uborevičius (commander of the Ukrainian military district), all modernizers, and more knowledgeable about Germany.171


On September 13, 1936, the city of San Sebastián fell to Spain’s putschists. The next day, Molotov, having just returned from holiday, followed up on Stalin’s telegram to Kaganovich the week before and chaired a meeting devoted to, among other matters, Spain. Attendees included Yagoda, Slutsky (NKVD foreign intelligence), Uritsky (military intelligence), Meyer Trilisser (Comintern intelligence), and Dimitrov, who recorded an agenda item as “organization of aid to the Spanish (via a smuggling scheme).”172 Later that day at Lubyanka, Yagoda presided over a meeting with Slutsky, Uritsky, Mikhail Frinovsky (head of NKVD border guards), and others to plan foreign military deliveries, including purchases abroad, for Spain. Before September 14 was out, Slutsky and Uritsky had presented Kaganovich with corrections to an operational plan, code-named Operation X.173

Also on September 14, the annual Nazi Nuremberg party rally concluded as Hitler announced further rearmament steps and unleashed his most rabid denunciation yet of the international Jewish conspiracy and the “infernal plague” of Bolshevism, which was “letting loose these wild beasts on the terrified and helpless world.” He mentioned German designs on Ukraine. In response to this drumbeat, the Soviet state publishing house issued a collection of translated original German documents from the period of the Great War, The Crash of the German Occupation in Ukraine, underscoring the high costs then of Germany’s attempted colonial enslavement of Ukraine and warning, “Let German fascists now try to poke their snouts onto Soviet land!”174 The Führer still hoped to catalyze a broad anti-Bolshevik coalition, which would support, or at least not block, German expansionism eastward and continental domination. He portrayed the Soviet Union as intent on imminent attack, but his ravings made it seem as if Germany would march then and there.175 The U.S. ambassador in Berlin thought the rally speeches might “make it difficult for the Soviet embassy to remain in Berlin.”176 Hitler mused that Stalin would be moved to break off diplomatic relations.177 Litvinov urged a Soviet diplomatic protest to deter further invective.178 Stalin, on the contrary, was soon renewing feelers to the Nazi regime.

Voroshilov sent detailed lists of all materials to be supplied in the Spanish operation to Stalin for approval.179 Because of the Non-Intervention Agreement, the Soviets had initially aimed to provide only third-party and “surplus” weapons, but, given the urgency, Operation X specified also providing Soviet weapons—just as the Spanish government had been requesting. Soviet intelligence was estimating that the Republic possessed one rifle for every three soldiers.180 On September 18, the first small-arms shipment, labeled CANNED MEAT, left a Soviet port. So did humanitarian cargo (flour, sugar, butter, canned goods, clothing, medicine).181 Secret Soviet documents stipulated that for the weapons “the customer should pay their full price.” Back on September 13, the Spanish Republic had secretly decided to evacuate the better part of the country’s gold reserves from Madrid by train. Spain had the world’s fourth-largest reserves, amounting to more than 2.3 trillion pesetas, or $783 million at prevailing exchange rates, a cache amassed by the crown over centuries: bullion bars, gold louis d’or, British sovereigns, rare Portuguese coins, Inca and Aztec treasure from the conquistador period. The crates began arriving at the port of Cartagena in the early hours of September 17, and for the next five and a half weeks remained in a hillside cave above the harbor. Prime Minister Largo Caballero had shipped the gold to the port at which Spain had agreed to receive Soviet cargo.


In Moscow, comic relief arrived on September 19, 1936, when regional party boss Kuzma Ryndin, after whom twenty collective farms and mines had been named, petitioned the dictator to rename Chelyabinsk—which roughly connoted “a pit”—into “Kaganovichgrad.” Stalin wrote on the request: “Against.”182 The next day, the politburo formally rejected a proposal from Litvinov for an expanded Soviet-led bloc against Nazi Germany, but it reaffirmed the pursuit of “collective security.”183 Franco was busy establishing a regime. On the battlefield he took his time, transferring operations from urgent military objectives to political ones, perplexing the other generals. On September 21, in a hut on an airfield in Salamanca, citing the need for unified command in the war effort, Franco managed to get himself elevated to generalissimo of insurgent armies, even though he was junior to Mola. A week later, Franco manipulated matters further to get himself named chief of state with “absolute powers.” Several of the colluding commanders envisioned his elevation as temporary, anticipating a return of the monarchy, but Franco remarked of the moment, “You have placed Spain in my hands.” He did not even control Madrid.

Throughout Europe, significant doubts reverberated among leftist intellectuals about the alleged treason of the executed Bolshevik revolutionaries, but in Republic Spain, the POUM’s La Batalla was almost the only newspaper to detail, let alone condemn, the Moscow showcase trial, labeling the Soviet Union a “bureaucratic regime of poisonous dictatorship.” Tit for tat, the lead editorial in the September 1936 issue of The Communist International, issued in multiple European languages, condemned the POUM as fascist agents masquerading as leftists, with ties to Trotsky, Kamenev, Zinoviev, Franco, Mussolini, Hitler.184

Yezhov was bombarding Stalin with reports of secret police deficiencies and forwarded a denunciation of Yagoda by a provincial NKVD chief.185 Stalin summoned Yezhov to the Black Sea.186 Yagoda evidently knew, eavesdropping on Stalin’s calls to Yezhov in Moscow.187 Yefim Yevdokimov, whose bailiwick included Sochi, was also likely pouring poison into Stalin’s ear about the detested Yagoda.188 Suddenly, on the evening of September 25, 1936, Stalin sent a bombshell phonegram from Sochi to Kaganovich and Molotov, in Moscow, urging Yagoda’s removal. The message was cosigned by Andrei Zhdanov, the dictator’s new favorite, ten years younger than Kirov (and eighteen younger than Stalin), who was with him at the dacha. “Yagoda clearly turned out to be not up to the task of unmasking the Trotskyite-Zinovievite bloc,” the secret message read. “The OGPU was four years late in this process.”189 “Four years” harked back to the meetings among a few party opposition members damning Stalin’s rule, as a result of the catastrophe of collectivization and famine. Among the potential candidates to head the NKVD were the experienced Chekists Yevdokimov and Balytsky, who at one time had risen to number three in the secret police, before Yagoda squeezed him out of Moscow and sent him back to Ukraine. Yet another option was Lavrenti Beria, the (nominally) former Chekist running the South Caucasus party machine.190 But Stalin picked his party-apparatus protégé Yezhov.

On the afternoon of September 26, Stalin and Voroshilov spoke on the phone to discuss military shipments to Spain; they noted that no Soviet trademarks should be discernible on the tanks.191 Stalin also directed Voroshilov to read out the Sochi phonegram about Yagoda’s dismissal to Yagoda at a Council of People’s Commissars meeting. The commander of the Moscow military district and other officers accompanied Yagoda to Lubyanka to turn over his portfolio.192 That day, Stalin dictated a second note for Yagoda, which the bodyguard Vlasik read to him over the phone, informing him of his transfer to the commissariat of communications: “It is a defense-oriented commissariat. I have no doubt you will be able to put this commissariat back on its feet. I urge you to agree”—as if Yagoda could decline.193 The symbolism was ominous: Yagoda would be replacing Rykov, the disgraced rightist with whom his own name had been linked. Yagoda evidently hurtled to Sochi, where Pauker, the NKVD bodyguard directorate head, blocked his suddenly former boss from Stalin’s compound.194 Meanwhile, on September 27, Yagoda’s photograph as the new people’s commissar for communications appeared alongside Yezhov’s in all the newspapers.

Yagoda would spend the next two months on sick leave; he did not make a run for it or try to organize an “accident” to eliminate Yezhov (let alone Stalin).

This was the first removal of an NKVD chief (Dzierżyński and Mężyński had died in office). “This wonderful, wise decision of our parent was ripe,” Kaganovich wrote to Orjonikidze of the appointment of his former party underling. “Things will likely go well with Yezhov at the helm.”195 The middle and lower NKVD ranks also saluted the changeover, and not only from a careerist perspective: many perceived that Yezhov would restore Chekist professionalism (which speaks to their illusions). “The majority of old Chekists were convinced that with the coming to the NKVD of Yezhov we would at last return to the traditions of Dzierżyński, overcome the unhealthy atmosphere and the careerist, degenerating, and fabricating tendencies introduced in the organs during the last years of Yagoda,” one operative recalled. “We thought that now the firm and reliable hand of the Central Committee would rein in the organs.”196 Yezhov moved into his new office at Lubyanka, 2, on September 29, 1936, and that very day Stalin approved a politburo resolution, drafted by his new NKVD chief, “On the Attitude Toward Counter-Revolutionary Trotskyite-Zinovievite Elements,” which designated the latter as “foreign agents, spies, subversives, and wreckers on behalf of the foreign bourgeoisie in Europe.”197


Soviet cargo traveled to Spain via the Black Sea, Bosporus, and Mediterranean, or, in a few instances, the Baltic and North seas, in disguised ships, with sailors wearing the tropical clothing of South Asia or the leisure wear of British cruise lines.198 Spanish ports were blockaded, and ships were being attacked by the Nationalists; the undersized Soviet navy would be challenged.199 Still, not a single ship with Soviet arms for Spain would be lost. On October 4, 1936, the first Soviet-supplied but not Soviet-manufactured war matériel secretly arrived at Cartagena: 150 light machine guns, 240 grenade throwers, 100,000 grenades, 20,000 rifles, 16.5 million bullets. Some of these arms turned out to be Great War relics. The rifles were from at least eight different countries of origin (Canada to Japan), of ten different types with six different calibers, making maintenance with spare parts difficult. Some of the best weaponry arrived in insufficient quantities (a mere six excellent Vickers light howitzers, with 6,000 shells). Still, overall the value for the weapons-starved Republic was substantial.200 Three days later, the Soviet Union formally demanded an end to German, Italian, and Portuguese violations of the Non-Intervention Agreement or else the USSR would consider itself not bound by it.201

On October 11, Kaganovich sent Stalin a phonegram reminding him that “we have not communicated anything to Largo Caballero about our [weapons] shipments. We think we should have Gorev inform Largo Caballero officially, but conspiratorially, about the aid . . . that has already arrived, in detail, and when ships arrive in future.” Stalin agreed.202

The next day, 50 Soviet-made light tanks and 51 “volunteer” tank specialists arrived at Cartagena—and the Spaniards raised their fists and shouted hurrah.203 “It erupted to the point of mass hysteria from joy,” wrote Gorev, the Soviet military attaché, in a report that reached Stalin via Voroshilov. “You needed to see it to feel it. Despite the fact that we were ready and are generally calm people, this affected even my subordinates. The euphoria was just exceptional.”204 The T-26B1 tanks, a heavier copy of the British Vickers six-ton model, updated with a Soviet turret and 45-millimeter dual-purpose gun, as well as the Polikarpov I-15 and I-16 aircraft, were of the highest international standards.205 Three days later, fast Soviet Tupolev SB-2 bombers, which had only just gone into full production in early 1936 and were among the most powerful in their class in the world, arrived.206 In the face of such hardware, it was easy to forget that the Soviet Union was in many ways still a poor country: as of October 1936, more than 33,000 young commanders beyond their tours of duty lacked apartments.207

The Soviets were keen to observe German and Italian weaponry in action, and to test their own in battle conditions. Nonetheless, Voroshilov would write privately to Stalin about the “pain” of parting with up-to-date Soviet aircraft, even at world market prices.208

The Spanish Republic had essentially no armaments industry, and even with Soviet production assistance it would need quite some time to produce its own tanks, armored vehicles, or planes.209 Soviet advisers were especially aghast that anarchist-controlled factories produced not the most necessary military items but the most profitable.210 A lack of Spanish government unity frustrated Soviets in-country. “There is no unified security service, since the [Republic] government does not consider this to be very moral,” the NKVD liaison bureau in Spain reported (October 15, 1936). “Each [political] party has therefore created its own security apparatus. In the present government, there are many former policemen with pro-fascist sentiments. Our help is accepted politely, but the vital work that is necessary for the country’s security is sabotaged.”211 Dimitrov and the Italian Communist Palmiro Togliatti were pushing for “an antifascist state” and a “new kind of democracy,” which implied a pathway for transition to socialism in the Soviet sense.212 But Stalin opposed even backdoor Sovietization.

In an open letter to Largo Caballero (also October 15) published in Soviet and Spanish newspapers, Stalin boasted of Soviet aid that “the workers of the USSR are doing no more than their duty in giving the help they are able to give to the Spanish revolutionary masses.”213 But he paid close attention to the economic costs. The Soviets had recently been informed about the Spanish gold. The Republic’s finance minister, Juan Negrín, negotiated with Ambassador Rosenberg to hand off a large part of the gold reserves stashed in Cartagena for current and future payments. Rosenberg reported (October 15) that the matter had been agreed upon in principle.214 In strictest secrecy, with Negrín on-site, the NKVD’s English-speaking Orlov, posing as a representative of the U.S. Federal Reserve, oversaw the transfer from the caves, evidently enlisting the Soviet tankists who had arrived a few days earlier. On October 25, the same day Stalin was back in Moscow, they loaded 510 metric tons—around 7,800 crates, each weighing 145 pounds—collectively valued at $518 million, onto four ships bound for Odessa.215

Litvinov, for his part, lamented to Rosenberg that “the Spanish question has ruined our relations with England and France and sowed doubts in Bucharest and even Prague.”216 But Stalin would not be cowed: on October 23, the Soviet Union—without relinquishing membership in the Non-Intervention Committee—announced that because of others’ violations, it was not bound by the Non-Intervention Agreement.217 The French were incredulous. “Stalin has no ideals,” complained the secretary general of the French foreign ministry to the British.218 For Stalin, of course, everything was the other way around: the inactions of France and Britain, in the face of blatant Italian fascist and Nazi German violations, had soured him on the Western powers.219

That October of 1936, the German ambassador, Schulenburg, returned from summer leave—and encountered extraordinary warmth, from the Soviet border to the capital, “as if nothing whatsoever had happened.” He informed Berlin that Krestinsky was “extremely friendly and did not refer to events at Nuremberg at all.”220 Stalin’s shopping list for Germany included armored plating, aircraft catapults, underwater listening devices, and warships (costing 200 million reichsmarks), for which the Soviets were offering to pay largely in manganese and chromium ores on the basis of world prices, according to a German memo (October 19).221 On October 20, Hitler bestowed plenipotentiary powers on Hermann Göring to implement the Four-Year Plan by prioritizing weapons production, tightening state controls on exports, and achieving self-sufficiency in essential raw materials, all to reduce imports (costing scarce hard currency) and the impact of a possible blockade. Soviet trade officials were hopeful, as Göring appeared poised to assume a direct role in bilateral trade.222


Orjonikidze’s poor health was deteriorating further, and his autumn rest away from Moscow was proving relentlessly stressful, thanks to Stalin. Whereas a mere 11 of the 823 highest officials of the heavy industry commissariat who belonged to the nomenklatura (those officials who could not be removed without Central Committtee approval) had been fired during the party card verification campaign of spring–summer 1936—with just 9 of them suffering arrest—during the last four months of 1936, 44 senior officials would be fired, 37 of whom would lose their party cards and, with three exceptions, be arrested.223 In October 1936, Stalin had Orjonikidze’s elder brother Papuliya arrested, a first for a relative of a sitting politburo member. Orjonikidze demanded to see his brother, but Lavrenti Beria, the policeman turned party boss in Georgia, where Papuliya worked, said he could allow that only after concluding the investigation.224 Orjonikidze understood that it was not Beria but Stalin who was behind the incarceration.225 On October 8, Stalin had Kaganovich’s deputy Yakov Livshits removed as deputy commissar of railways and, six days later, arrested.226

On October 24, the country effusively celebrated “Comrade Sergo’s” fiftieth birthday in a Union-wide extravaganza. But the industry commissar did not attend the gala, staged near his holiday dacha in Kislovodsk. (His wife went on his behalf.)227 Stalin ordered the arrests of Orjonikidze’s former Caucasus associates Stepan Vardanyan, now party boss in Taganrog and the former leader of reconquered Bolshevik Georgia, and Levan Gogoberidze, party secretary at a factory in the Azov–Black Sea territory and a former party boss of Georgia.228 Happy birthday, Sergo.

How far Stalin would go remained to be seen. On October 25—after two and a half months away—he returned to Moscow to discover an inquiry from the Associated Press in Moscow about rumors that he was ill or perhaps dead. Normally very touchy about discussions of his health, that very day he responded playfully. “As far as I know from the foreign press, I long ago left this sinful world and moved on to the next,” Stalin wrote to the correspondent. “As it is impossible not to trust the foreign press, if one does not want to be crossed out of the list of civilized people, I ask you to believe this report and not to disturb my peace in the silence of that other world.” The delighted AP man dispatched a telegram to the United States on October 26, to the effect that “Stalin refused to deny the rumors of his death.”229

The bulk of Spain’s gold, reaching Odessa by November 2, went by train to Moscow, accompanied by Orlov’s cousin, Ukraine NKVD operative Zinovy Katznelson. Another $155 million (some 2,000 crates) was shipped to Marseilles, as an advance for weapons the Spaniards hoped to purchase from France. A small remainder was taken to a cave in southern Spain. Some of the lot that arrived in the USSR was evidently deposited in the finance commissariat’s precious metal vaults on Nastasinsky Lane on November 6, 1936, in time for Revolution Day.230 Orlov, having accompanied the shipment to Soviet shores, was back in Spain already and, on November 7, celebrated the Bolshevik anniversary in the company of, among others, Koltsov and Gorev, in the latter’s suite at Madrid’s Palace Hotel.231 In parallel, Trotsky had ordered his son in Paris to transfer his archives to the International Institute of Social History, on Rue Michelet in Amsterdam, headed by the Menshevik émigré Boris Nicolaevsky, but Zborowski tipped off the Soviets, and a few days later, on the night of November 6–7, the papers were stolen (cash was left untouched)—another Revolution Day gift for Stalin.

On November 6, Stalin took in the customary Revolution Day performance at the Bolshoi in the imperial box, and the next day he presided over the parade atop the Mausoleum. Bukharin, with his lover, the twenty-three-year-old Anna Larina, was living in Stalin’s old Kremlin apartment, where Nadya had killed herself. He possessed a gun—given to him by Voroshilov, with the ironic inscription TO THE LEADER OF THE GREAT PROLETARIAN REVOLUTION—but did not attempt suicide. He was still listed on the masthead of Izvestiya as editor, so he received a pass to the Revolution Day celebration, in his case for the lowest level of the reviewing stand. Stalin caught sight of him and sent a guard to invite him and Larina up to the Mausoleum, a gesture for all to see—and misread as reconciliation. Not long thereafter, another story has it, Bukharin was being served with an eviction notice for the Kremlin apartment when, suddenly, the apartment’s special Kremlin line rang: it was Stalin, just inquiring how things were going. Bukharin informed him of the eviction, and Stalin appeared to react angrily; the eviction was halted. Stalin was torturing him psychologically.232

Orjonikidze had returned to Moscow for Revolution Day, but on November 9 he would suffer a heart attack and lose consciousness for a time. Stalin responded by intensifying the pressure, driving a public trial of “Trotskyite” saboteurs for a mine explosion in Siberia, which would be afforded expansive press coverage and directly contravene Orjonikidze’s stance on the causes behind industrial mishaps. Treason was made to appear ubiquitous. On November 5, Malenkov had reported to Stalin that 62 former “Trotskyites” had been found to be working in the central army apparatus and military academies. Ten days later, Gamarnik, head of the army’s political administration, and deputy defense commissar, received a list of 92 “Trotskyites” in the Red Army. Altogether, 212 “Trotskyites” were arrested in the military between August and December 1936, but that included just 32 officers, very few of whom were ranked as a major or higher. Despite party pressure and the flow of denunciations, the command staff, concerned with destabilization, exhibited caution.233


Molotov and other speakers on Revolution Day had blustered about standing up to bullies and how, when confronted, the fascists would desist from further expansionism. But Hitler, after having decided, on emotional grounds, to assist Franco, had quickly imposed limits on his own. He had supplied some 100 planes (fighters, bombers) and nearly 6,500 well-equipped military personnel, the so-called Condor Legion, but he refused the massive troop commitments that Mussolini had made, instead allowing the Nazi intervention to become utterly subordinated to the German war economy. Germany found a place to sell its products and, thanks to monopoly positions with the putschists, obtained desperately needed raw materials and goods (iron ore, pyrites, copper, wolfram, foodstuffs) without having to sacrifice dwindling foreign exchange.234

On November 8, 1936, Franco’s troops began their assault on Madrid from the south. He had put off the offensive, while working to make himself caudillo, a kind of Spanish equivalent of Führer or duce. The delay had allowed the Soviet military adviser Gorev to organize defenses. That day, the first troops of the International Brigades arrived in Madrid. But German and Italian planes had been bombing Spain for a hundred days and, with the Madrid front close to breaking, the Republic government had hastily fled for safety to Valencia. The capital, however, was to be defended. Banners were hung: NO PASARÁN (“They shall not pass”), a Spanish translation of the French slogan of Pétain at Verdun in 1916. Mola’s army, meanwhile, had begun to converge on Madrid from the northwest. Back in October 1936, when asked on the radio which of his four columns would take the capital, he had replied, “The fifth column.” Mola meant that sympathizers to the Nationalists would subvert the Republic from within.235

Fear of such subversion had occurred naturally to Soviet personnel.236 Koltsov had recorded in his diary (November 4–6, 1936) worries about “8,000 fascists who are locked up in several prisons around Madrid,” although the Spanish Republic’s interior minister seemed unconcerned and evacuated himself.237 The logistics of evacuating several thousand prisoners were daunting. Inmates were tied together without their possessions and loaded onto transport—but then, down the road, forced off the buses, verbally abused, and executed by squads of Communists, anarchists, and regular-army men; villagers were press-ganged to dig mass-grave ditches. The executions, in fits and starts over several weeks, killed more than 2,000 prisoners from Madrid jails, without trial, in the worst of the many massacres in the Republic’s zone perpetrated by leading Spanish Communists and their Soviet advisers, Gorev, Orlov, and Koltsov.238 How many of these prisoners were Nationalist sympathizers prepared to take up arms if somehow given them will never be known. In the event, no fifth column materialized, but Mola’s attempted witticism became immortal.239

Madrid came under withering assault for ten days as shrapnel and incendiary shells exploded in its plazas. But Soviet planes had broken the Nationalists’ monopoly of the skies: there was no more bombing of Madrid from low altitude with impunity.240 The Italian Fiat CR-32 and the German Heinkel He-51 proved no match for the more maneuverable I-15 and I-16, while the Soviet SB bomber outperformed the famed Junkers Ju 52. Soviet pilots demonstrated stamina and courage (while gaining invaluable experience: they had had little flight time in training back home). No less crucially, Soviet-led mechanized units, using the T-26, rendered any attempted advance by the Nationalists costly. Soviet tank men would suffer high casualties in Spain: thirty-four killed and nineteen missing in action, casualties of one in seven.241 On November 18, Germany and Italy formally recognized Franco’s Nationalist government, but five days later Franco called off his direct assault on Madrid.242 Morale shifted. “We are finished,” a Nationalist officer told a German military observer. “We cannot stand at any point if the Reds are capable of undertaking counterattacks.”243 In fact, the Republic’s side was too depleted to mount what might have been the decisive counteroffensive.

However much he was motivated by his Trotsky fixation, the high-quality Soviet hardware Stalin sold to Spain showed a desire to strut his stuff.244 In preventing Franco’s seizure of Madrid, the Red Army had indeed demonstrated its mettle for all the world’s skeptics. The French took notice of Soviet aircraft performance in Madrid’s defense; the British, of the overall Soviet effort. “The Soviet government has saved the government in Madrid which everyone expected to collapse,” concluded the undersecretary of state at the foreign office. “The Soviet intervention has indeed completely changed the situation.”245 The Soviet mood was ebullient. “And today,” crowed Koltsov on November 25, 1936, “Franco did not enter the capital.”


That same day, an Eighth Extraordinary Congress of Soviets, attended by 2,016 voting delegates (409 female), opened in the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow. Stalin’s lengthy oration—broadcast live on Soviet radio for the first time, revealing his soft Georgian accent to millions—concerned a draft text of a new constitution, motivated, he argued, by changes in social structure.246 He had started thinking about a new constitution no later than summer 1934. (On holiday then, he had requested a copy of the current 1924 constitution.)247 He had had a commission approved, which he chaired and which studied foreign constitutions.248 “Behind the Kremlin walls, work is going on to replace the Soviet constitution with a new one, which, according to the declarations of Stalin, Molotov, and others, will be the ‘most democratic in the world,’” Trotsky had written in May 1936, adding that “no one is acquainted with the draft of the constitution as yet.”249 But in June 1936, Stalin had had the draft published for months of public commentary. Soviet propaganda delivered saturation coverage, and claimed that by fall 1936 half a million meetings had been held, encompassing 51 million people.

The new constitution ended legal discrimination against “former people” (kulaks, priests), to considerable complaint from the party rank and file.250 It altered the electoral system for soviets from indirect to direct, from restricted to universal suffrage (returning the vote to former kulaks), and from open to secret balloting.251 Most remarkable, it enumerated a plethora of individual and social rights (pensions, free medical care, education).252 The Menshevik émigré press acknowledged that the terroristic Communist dictatorship was not going to self-liquidate, but nonetheless speculated that the constitution might unleash new political forces.253

Soviet officials worked to orchestrate the public discussions, but some people seized the moment. Collective farmers expressed hatred of the in-kind system of remuneration according to days worked and demanded to be paid in cash, like urban workers. One proposed that instead of the slogan “He who does not work does not eat,” they substitute “He who works should eat.”254 A student at a medical school in Zaporozhie (Ukraine) was reported to have said, “In the USSR we have no democracy and will not have it; everything is done and will be done as Stalin dictates. We will be given neither freedom of the press nor freedom of speech.” After his arrest, some fellow students tried to pass a letter to him in prison praising his courage.255 The constitution’s article on freedom of religion sparked petitions from Orthodox believers to reopen churches. Wishful misunderstandings abounded: that the constitution was reintroducing private property, that kulaks would be allowed to return to their villages, that farmers would “live as before,” that Stalin might abolish the party, because he could not trust it, and institute presidential rule, which would provoke even more political terror (along the lines of Kirov’s murder).256

The draft text omitted the category “the proletariat” in favor of “the people,” which Trotsky disparaged as additional evidence of a retreat from socialism and consolidation of a new ruling class of functionaries (concealed in the term “intelligentsia”).257 “In a private conversation Stalin admitted that we did not have a dictatorship of the proletariat,” Molotov would later recall. “He told me that personally, but not firmly.” 258 Stalin’s Eighth Congress speech was categorical, however. “In 1917, the peoples of the USSR overthrew the bourgeoisie and established a dictatorship of the proletariat, established Soviet power,” he explained. “That is a fact, not a promise. Then the Soviet government eliminated the landlord class and transferred more than 150 million hectares of former landlord, state, and monastery lands to the peasants, and that was in addition to those lands already in peasant hands. That is a fact, not a promise. Then the Soviet government expropriated the capitalist class, took away their banks, factories, railroads, and other means of production, declared them socialist property, and put at the head of these enterprises the best members of the working class. That is a fact, not a promise.” He added that industrialization and collectivization further transformed the social structure, giving the USSR two nonantagonistic classes (workers and peasants) and one stratum (the intelligentsia). This was the first fully authoritative analysis of Soviet society in class terms.

The constitution aspired to reinforce socialist legality—rule by law—a triumph for USSR procurator general Vyshinsky. It also further centralized the state machinery (this was largely omitted in public discussions). Successive drafts had stipulated that the USSR government would exercise jurisdiction over land, water, and natural resources, while decisions of the USSR Council of People’s Commissars would be binding on the republics. The constitution replaced the periodic Congress of Soviets with a permanent USSR Supreme Soviet, to which all republic laws were to be subordinated. (Criminal codes remained the prerogative of republics.) Physically, the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic was significantly shrunk as two of its autonomous ethnic republics became full-fledged Union republics—Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan—while a third (Karakalpak) was transferred to the Uzbek republic. This brought the number of Central Asian Union republics to five. Also, the South Caucasus Federation was dissolved in favor of the self-standing republics of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, bringing the total number of Union republics to eleven. For the first time, a Soviet constitution also enshrined the Communist party as “the vanguard of the working people in their struggle to strengthen and develop the socialist system,” and as “the leading core of all organizations of the working people, both public and state.” This appeared not in the section on the state but the one on “public organizations.”

In his speech, Stalin aimed to rebut criticisms in the “bourgeois” press, broadcasting damning views otherwise unavailable to the Soviet populace. Fascist critics, he revealed, dismissed the Soviet constitution as “an empty promise, calculated to pull off a well-known maneuver and deceive people.” Stalin further revealed that “bourgeois” critics on the left were asserting a Soviet shift to the right, away from a dictatorship of the proletariat and toward the same camp as bourgeois countries. He countered that there had been not a shift but a “transformation . . . into a more flexible, . . . more powerful system of leadership of the state by society.” Above all, Stalin said, “bourgeois” critics “talk about democracy. But what is democracy? Democracy in capitalist countries, where there are antagonistic classes, is, in the final analysis, democracy for the strong, democracy for the propertied minority. Democracy in the USSR, by contrast, is democracy for the toilers, that is, democracy for all.” Thus, he concluded, “the USSR constitution is the only thoroughly democratic constitution in the world.”259


On the morning of the Congress’s launch, Pravda had proclaimed Stalin the “genius of the new world, the wisest man of the epoch, the great leader of Communism,” and then deemed his constitution speech a breakthrough for all humanity. While Stalin’s report to the 16th Party Congress (1930) had been published in 11 million copies (twenty-four languages) and the one to the 17th Congress (1934) in 14 million copies (fifty languages), his Congress of Soviets speech was printed in 20 million copies. “No book in the world,” Pravda added, “has ever been published in that kind of print run.”260

In Berlin, on the very same day Stalin delivered his spirited constitution speech, Joachim von Ribbentrop, German ambassador to the UK but also minister plenipotentiary, formally signed an Anti-Comintern Pact with Japanese ambassador Kintomo Mushanokōji. The signing took place not in the foreign ministry but in the Büro Ribbentrop, to stress the pact’s ideological salience.261 Ribbentrop read a statement to the press (the eyewitness William Shirer called it a “harangue”) declaring Germany and Japan “unwilling to tolerate any longer the machinations of the Communist agitators,” and their pact “a turning point in the struggle of all law-abiding and civilized nations against the forces of disintegration.”262

For Japan, keen to contain the Soviet Union while obtaining a free hand in China, this was its first major accord with a European power since abrogation of the Anglo-Japanese alliance, in 1920. Indeed, given the infighting, poor communications, deception, and jurisdictional ambiguity inside the Japanese government, the agreement constituted a mini miracle. Japanese newspapers conveyed a lack of enthusiasism (“making lukewarm friends at the expense of red-hot enemies,” wrote Nichi Nichi).263 Above all, Japan’s army had zealously sought firm military commitments against the USSR, but had gotten only “consultations.” Still, it did forge an intelligence liaison with the German staff, focused on the Red Army.264

Hitler relished the propaganda breakthrough, and hoped it would bring along Britain. According to Count Ciano, who had gone on his first official visit to Germany in October 1936, Hitler told him, “If England sees the gradual formation of a group of Powers which are willing to make common front with Germany and Italy under the banner of anti-Bolshevism, if England has the feeling that we have a common organized force in the Far East . . . , not only will she refrain from fighting against us, but she will seek means of agreement and common ground with this new political system.”265 For Stalin, the irony of such a pact was extreme, given how he had bridled the Comintern in both Spain and China.266

Stalin knew beforehand. Colonel Eugen Ott, the German military attaché in Tokyo, had learned in spring 1936, from his Japanese army contacts, of the secret negotiations under way in Berlin. Ott confided in Richard Sorge, the Soviet military intelligence spy in the German embassy in Tokyo, who had informed Moscow. The published text consisted of two short articles.267 But Sorge had been reporting that it contained a secret article. Wrongly, he initially thought this pertained to a military alliance. But he would manage to photograph the full text and get it to Shanghai, whence it was picked up by a Soviet courier.268 The secret section specified that, should either Germany or Japan “become the object of an unprovoked attack by the USSR,” each “obliges itself to take no measures that would tend to ease the situation in the USSR.” Most significantly, the secret clause also enjoined the two powers “to conclude no political treaties with the USSR contrary to the spirit of this agreement without mutual consent.”269

Soviet-German relations sank to a nadir. Stalin had ordered arrest sweeps of German nationals in the USSR in November and seems to have contemplated a separate Moscow trial of some of them. Molotov, on November 29, told the delegates to the Congress of Soviets, “We have no feelings for the great German people other than friendship and genuine respect, but the gentlemen fascists would best be included in that nation, or ‘nation,’ or ‘higher order,’ which is called the ‘nation’ of modern cannibals.”270

Goebbels, the day before Molotov’s address, had crowed to a secret gathering of the Nazi press that Nazism and Bolshevism could never coexist: one must perish.271 “There is no going back,” he confided in his diary (December 1), apropos of Hitler’s thinking. “He outlines the tactics of the Reds. Spain is elevated to a global question. France the next victim. Blum a convinced agent of the Soviets. Zionist and world destroyer. Whoever is victorious in Spain secures the prestige for himself. . . . The authoritarian states (Poland, Austria, Yugoslavia, Hungary) are not secure. The only committed anti-Bolshevik states are Germany, Italy, Japan. Therefore, agreements with them. England will come over when the crisis breaks out in France. Not a love match with Poland but a reasonable relationship.”272

The British foreign office produced an internal memorandum in late November on the expropriation and collectivization of British firms in the Spanish Republic, concluding that it “shows quite clearly that the alternative to Franco is Communism tempered by anarchy; and . . . [it is] further believed that if this last regime is triumphant in Spain it will spread to other countries, notably France.”273 Blum’s Popular Front government, for its part, was engaged in heated internal debate about the future of the Franco-Soviet alliance, and Potyomkin, the Soviet envoy, cautioned patience to the foreign affairs commissariat. But Stalin’s spies had supplied him with General Schweisguth’s memorandum denigrating the Red Army. “On the basis of very reliable information in our possession, I have to inform you for your guidance that the French military authorities are vehemently opposed to a Franco-Soviet [military] pact and speak openly about it,” Litvinov had written to Potyomkin. “We in no way want to speed up negotiations, nor do we wish them to suspect that we are backing away.”274 An unsigned editorial—written by Molotov—in Izvestiya condemned the Anti-Comintern Pact and defiantly noted, “We must believe exclusively in our own strength.”275


In the face of the German-Japanese Anti-Comintern Pact, as well as the British and French efforts at accommodating Hitler, Mussolini, and now possibly Franco, on December 4, Stalin convoked a Central Committee plenum. It was, however, devoted not to the deepening challenges of foreign policy—something he almost never allowed to be discussed by the country’s nominal policy-making body—but to virulent charges of treason. The day before, Yezhov had delivered a lengthy address to a conference of NKVD operatives in the capital, itself a telling assembly, and noted ominously, “I think we have not investigated the military Trotskyite line to the fullest. . . . You well know the efforts of imperialist intelligence HQ to create agent networks in our army. . . . We are uncovering diversionary-wrecking organizations in industry. What grounds are there to believe that it is impossible to carry out diversionary acts in the army? There are more opportunities, not fewer, here than in industry.”276

Stalin assigned the main plenum report (“On Trotskyite and Rightist Anti-Soviet Organizations”) to Yezhov, and during his excoriation of the Zinovievites and Trotskyites, someone interjected, “What about Bukharin?” Yezhov took up the prompt, which in turn almost immediately provoked Stalin to interrupt, “We need to talk about them [the rightists].” Beria interjected, “There’s a scoundrel for you!” Stalin, in the July 29, 1936, secret circular, had denied any positive political program to the Trotskyites, but now he asserted that the leftist Trotskyites shared the rightists’ “program” of capitalist restoration.277 Bukharin plaintively asked how he could defend himself against such slanderers. “Do you really believe I could have anything in common with these subversives, with these saboteurs, with these scum, after thirty years in the party?” he exclaimed at Stalin. “This is nothing but madness.” When Bukharin pointed out that he physically could not have been at the alleged meetings with the Zinovievites and Trotskyites, Molotov countered, “You are acting like a lawyer.”278

When Yezhov referred to a transport official as “an enemy,” Stalin interrupted to specify that the accused was “a German spy—he in fact got money for information from German intelligence—he was a spy.” Addressing Bukharin, Stalin ridiculed suicide as opposition blackmail. “Here is one of the easiest means by which, right before death, leaving this world, one can spit in the face of the party, deceive the people, one last time,” Stalin stated, mentioning Tomsky.279 Another was the thirty-two-year-old apparatchik Veniamin Furer, who had committed suicide at a dacha in Osinki, outside Moscow, in fall 1936 after his friend Yakov Livshits—Kaganovich’s top deputy at the railroad commissariat—had been arrested as a “Trotskyite.” Furer, the rising star who had delivered a stirring ode to the Stalinist leadership style at the 17th Party Congress, left behind a long letter praising the Soviet leader while defending Livshits, who, like Furer, had briefly sided with Trotsky in 1923. Because Stalin was on holiday in Sochi, the letter had been brought to Kaganovich. “He walked up and down and then began to sob” out loud, Nikita Khrushchev, another Kaganovich protégé, would recall. “He was unable to collect himself for a long time after he read it.” Kaganovich ordered the letter circulated to all politburo members. Now, at the plenum, Stalin cruelly mocked Kaganovich. “What a letter he left behind,” he noted of Furer. “You read it and tears well up in your eyes.”280

Also on December 4, 1936, in a memo circulated to all politburo members, Stalin dressed down Orjonikidze for having hidden long-ago correspondence with Beso Lominadze, who had been pronounced a posthumous enemy after committing suicide, while party boss, in Magnitogorsk the year before. The accusation of having concealed information from “the Central Committee” was one of Stalin’s most threatening. What also rankled was that Lominadze’s suicide note had been read over the telephone to Orjonikidze by Lominadze’s deputy in Magnitogorsk, and that Orjonikidze was providing a pension to Lominadze’s widow and money to their son (named Sergo, in Orjonikidze’s honor). Stalin had reports that Orjonikidze was bad-mouthing him behind his back to his cronies Mamiya Orakhelashvili and Shalva Eliava.281 At the plenum, Orjonikidze joined in the vicious attacks against Bukharin.

On the evening of December 5, the Congress of Soviets concluded by adopting the new constitution unanimously. The next day was devoted to a mass celebration of the adoption on Red Square. On December 7, the plenum resumed. Despite the venom, it ended without expulsions, let alone arrests. Stalin proposed “considering the matter of Bukharin and Rykov unfinished” and postponing a decision until the next plenum.282 Adding to the mystery, this plenum, uniquely for the 1930s, went unmentioned in the press. That same press took to slandering Bukharin and Rykov still more ferociously. Especially noteworthy was that much of the bile flowed in Izvestiya, where Bukharin remained listed as editor. “My morale,” Bukharin wrote in a letter (December 15), “is in such a state that I am half-alive.”283


Stalin judged that a Communist takeover in China would never produce a regime strong enough to hold off the Japanese military. After the Chinese comrades formed revolutionary soviets, against Moscow’s advice, he had Dimitrov insist on “soviets—only in the cities, but not as organs of power, rather of organization of the masses. Without confiscations.”284 But the “united front” resembled a sandcastle on the beach. The Nationalists were not interested, either.285 A Japanese envoy arrived on a warship at Nanking, the Nationalist capital, and demanded that China grant Japan the right to place troops anywhere in China to fight Communists. Chiang Kai-shek refused to conduct negotiations himself over the request, and the envoy’s talks with Chiang’s foreign minister went nowhere. (Chiang insisted that Japan respect China’s administrative integrity in northern China, which Japan continued to violate.) But rumors of a possible Chinese entry into the Anti-Comintern Pact had alarmed Stalin. Chiang was also pressing his campaign to eradicate the Chinese Communist base in Shaanxi, while demanding, in negotiations with them in Shanghai, that they bring their Red Army strictly under his Nanking government.286

Events on the ground, however, had their own dynamic—and their import potentially exceeded that of Spain, for Stalin and for the world.

The warlord Zhang Xueliang, known as the Young Marshal, had traveled to Italy, then Germany, courting Mussolini, then Hitler and Göring, for help against Japan. In France he had met Litvinov, asking to be received by Stalin in Moscow; Stalin declined, concerned about not complicating his relations with Japan.287 Zhang had returned to China and eventually entered into negotiations with the Chinese Communists; one of his interlocutors was Zhou Enlai, who got the Young Marshal not only to cease operations against the Chinese Communists but to supply them with weapons. The Communists contemplated trying to secretly admit Zhang to the party.288 In November 1936, Zhang wrote to Chiang Kai-shek, imploring him to pursue a united front with the Communists against Japan in earnest. In December, Zhang traveled to Nanking in person to report about the mutinous moods of his troops in Shaanxi, who were supposed to pursue the Communists, and renewed his pleading. Chiang told him, according to Zhang, that if the government pulled back from fighting the Chinese Communists to take on Japan, the Communists would eventually win hold of the nation.289

Chiang ordered Zhang to intensify the “bandit suppression” campaign to finish off the Communists.290 But Zhang urged Chiang to go to Xi’an and talk to the Shaanxi and Manchurian soldiers. Chiang’s entourage warned against such a trip, but exposure to danger had typically enhanced Chiang’s stature, and he agreed to go. Back in Xi’an, Zhang reported on the conversation, in general terms, by radiogram to Mao, whose “party center” was holed up in dank caves (one bodyguard was stung by a scorpion).291 Chiang flew off to Xi’an with an extra guard detail and contingent of officers, moving into a hot-springs resort, a small walled enclave ten miles outside the district town of Lintong. In an ancient one-story pavilion once used by the Tang emperor Xuanzong, Chiang received delegations of the Shaanxi and Northeast (Manchurian) armies.292 At dawn on December 12, his scheduled day of departure, a 200-man contingent of Zhang’s personal guard stormed the walled compound. A gun battle killed many of Chiang’s bodyguards. He heard the shots, was told the attackers wore fur caps (the headgear of the Manchurian troops), crawled out a window, scaled the compound’s high wall, and ran along a dry moat up a barren hill, accompanied by one bodyguard and one aide. He slipped and fell, losing his false teeth and injuring his back, and sought refuge in a cave on the snow-covered mountain. The next morning, the leader of China—shivering, toothless, barefoot, a robe over his nightshirt—was captured.

Whether Zhang acted on his own or in a conspiracy with the Communists remains uncertain. He was an opium-addled playboy—one mistress was Mussolini’s daughter—but also an anti-Japanese patriot. Perhaps in his earnestness for a united front he had gotten caught up in the intrigues of Zhou and Mao. The wily Chiang, for his part, had been negotiating in bad faith with Zhou Enlai (Chiang’s former political commissar at the Soviet-financed 1920s Whampoa Military Academy).293 News of Chiang’s pending arrest—or admonishment—in Xi’an had reached Mao’s makeshift headquarters via the dilapidated village of Bao’an in the early-morning hours of December 12. His secretary passed him the radiogram. “After reading it, [he] joyfully exclaimed, ‘How about that! Time for bed. Tomorrow there will be good news!’”294

Chiang, upon being taken into custody, was speechless. (He has himself telling his captors, “I am the Generalissimo. Kill me, but do not subject me to indignities.”)295 Zhang’s head bodyguard carried Chiang to a car and set off for a government office in Xi’an. Zhang, standing at attention, addressed him as commander in chief. “I wish to lay my views before your excellency, the generalissimo,” Zhang said to his captive, pleading with him to work with the Communists in a patriotic coalition. Zhang had aides draft formal proposals for a united “National Salvation” government, an immediate end to the civil war, and a release and pardon of all political prisoners. He also requested that the Chinese Communists receive an invitation to send a delegation to Xi’an.296 Chiang repeatedly denounced him as a rebel. “Your bad temper,” Zhang replied, “is always the cause of trouble.”297

Chiang’s surprise capture would seem to have offered Moscow a chance to discredit him as incompetent in the anti-Japanese crusade and to exact revenge. After all, this was the same Chiang who had humiliated Stalin with a massacre of Chinese Communists in 1927 and, subsequently, had nearly destroyed the Chinese Red Army in a series of ruthless encirclement campaigns. Word reached Moscow that same day of December 13. “Optimistic, favorable assessment regarding Zhang Xueliang,” crowed the normally restrained Dimitrov, in his diary.298 Dimitrov’s Chinese assistant in the Comintern recalled that “you could not find anyone” who did not feel “Chiang must be finished off.” Manuilsky, he added, “rubbed his hands, embraced me, and exclaimed, ‘Our dear friend has been caught, aha!’”299 That same day, Mao was even more gleeful. “Chiang has owed us a blood debt as high as a mountain,” he was quoted as exclaiming at a meeting in his cave. “Now it is time to liquidate the blood debt. Chiang must be brought to Bao’an for a public trial.”300 Mao sent congratulations to Zhang, whom he called China’s “national leader in resisting Japan.”301

Stalin, to a considerable extent, held the fate of China and, indeed, Asia in his hands.


Dimitrov, on December 14, 1936, held a meeting of Comintern hierarchs, after which he wrote to Stalin that the Chinese Communists had become close to Zhang, despite Comintern warnings about his unreliability, and that “it was hard to