Saturday, October 29, 2011

Stalin's Crew

It was years before I understood the degree to which deceit, exploitation and outright fraud were inherent in the whole Stalinist system.
                                                      Dmitri Volkogonov

The behavior of the political class of the Soviet Union throughout its seventy-four year history is a study of the close junction of ideologically-motivated lying and abuse of power. The character of the men who were so essential to the perpetuation of such a perverse order is relevant in this regard. They were not simply liars. Real liars are seldom free of other vices. Lying inevitably drags the liar deep into the corruption and even disintegration of character.  Stalin’s men were the very worst sorts of human beings.  They were vicious, treacherous and corrupt.  This was not a coincidence or an accident.  Lying destroys character, and a regime of liars would be composed of just the sort of men that ended up “governing” the Soviet Union. Lavrenty Beria was known to be a rapist and a sadist. He participated personally in the torture and murder carried out by those in his command. Lazar Kaganovich presided over the Ukraine famine.  Nikolai Yezhov was a drunkard and a sadist. These were some of the most notorious of Stalin’s liege men, men very close to him who carried out his wishes. 
One of Stalin’s most notorious abusers especially worthy of comment was known as “The Jackal,” his show trial prosecutor, Andrei Vyshinski.  Roy Medvedev speaks of what a thoroughly depraved character he was.  “It is easy to understand the degeneration of Vyshinski, the Menshevik turncoat: he had apparently always been an unprincipled, cowardly person, hungry for power and fame. (Thus, it is not surprising that he persecuted first his former Menshevik comrades and later his new comrades, the Bolsheviks).” [Roy Medvedev, Let History Judge: the Origins and Consequences of Stalinism, New York, 1989, 691]  Though Vyshinski’s official role in the rigged show trials of the mid-1930s was as the government’s lead prosecutor, his real responsibility was, under strict orders from the Kremlin chief, to savage the framed and physically abused defendants and make certain that they would quickly perish under a cloud of ignominy. Vyshinski’s infamous rant in the 1937 “the Anti-Soviet Trotsky Center” trial against Stalin’s old Bolshevik comrades in arms, Radek, Piatakov, Solkolnikov and Serebriakov was a masterpiece of Stalinist-era abuse.  In his prosecutorial summation in their trial, Vyshinski poured out the invective: “This is an abyss of degradation! This is the last boundary of moral and political decay! This is the diabolical infinitude of evil!” [Quoted from Robert Tucker, Stalin in Power: the Revolution from Above, New York, 1990, 403] The hideous irony is inescapable, and the denunciations would apply most appropriately to Stalin and his cohorts.  Stalin, the seminarian, no doubt, conceived this script. Its cadence and overtones are not what one would normally expect from the High Priest of dialectical materialism. One cannot help but think of this as a subliminal self-projection, perhaps, of his public characterization of innocent men (innocent of the charges, not politically or morally innocent), of his former friends and colleagues who had aroused his jealousy and paranoia.
The violence and brutality of Vyshinski’s language captures the abusive character of the Stalinist mentality.  Consider also his call for Bukharin’s execution in the 1937 show trial, “[T]he traitors and spies who sold our motherland to the enemy [should] be shot like vile dogs.  The people demand one thing: that the accursed vermin be squashed! Time will pass. The hated traitors’ graves will become overgrown with weeds and thistles, covered with the eternal contempt of the entire Soviet people…” [Norman Naimark, Stalin’s Genocides, New Jersey, 2010, 101-02]  Again, Bukharin one of the star young Bolsheviks, a darling of Lenin, had fallen afoul of Stalin who feared him as a rival.  He had allied himself with Stalin in 1924 in the early internecine party struggles and helped Stalin to marginalize his arch-competitor at that time, Leon Trotsky.  Bukharin’s own path to destruction followed a predictable escalating pattern of lies and abuse that Stalin used to take down most of his old colleagues: no longer of use to Stalin, Bukharin’s fall began with gossip and innuendos, then accusations of doctrinal deviations, then bad faith, and finally betrayal and treason. The conclusion after a long game of ‘cat and mouse’ play by the Boss was the ultimate form of Stalinist abuse – a bullet in the back of the neck.  In many cases the bullet came after a promise from Stalin of a spared life in exchange for confession and spared family members.  Promise keeping, however, was not in Stalin’s moral repertoire.  Bukharin’s young wife too was slain. His infant son was raised under a different name, not knowing who his real parents were. Stalinist abuse washed over the victims in waves – first his chosen victims then their families, friends and associates.   Stalin had developed an expansive concept of ideological contamination. Entire families were contaminated with the virus of counterrevolution and subversion.   In the late 1930s he had arranged for forced resettlement of “wives of Enemies of the People.”  [Anne Applebaum, review of Children of the Gulag, by Cathy Frierson and Semyon S. Vilensky in the New Republic, May 21, 2010, 4]   
For his good and faithful work Vyshinski was later appointed by Stalin as the Soviet deputy foreign minister during the Nuremberg trials. For all of his shortcomings, he delivered whatever Stalin ordered.  One would be hard pressed to imagine a more revolting scenario than to watch a moral cretin like Andrei Vyshinski presiding officially in an international tribunal for war criminals.   His charge from Stalin, flushed with victory over his former partner, was to suppress any public mention of the Soviet-Nazi pact of 1939-41, particularly the secret protocols. [Naimark, Stalin’s Genocides, 18]  Stalin, of course, might have been a bit embarrassed by this historic, world-altering collaboration.  None of the Soviet’s WWII allies, however, seemed to be up for making a serious issue of this at this juncture.  And so the lying, mass-murdering, Nazi-complicit Soviets sat side by side with the Americans and British at Nuremberg in judgment of the Germans. 
One of the most shameful aspects of this proceeding to be credited to the Western governments was the failure of the judges to challenge the Soviet claim that the Nazis had murdered the 20,000 Polish officers, the cream of the Polish professional class in the Katyn Wood in 1940. Even then they suspected that it was Stalin himself who planned and authorized the killings that the NKVD carried out. [Naimark, Stalin’s Genocides, 20]  The Americans and British had guessed the truth, but were unwilling to pursue the investigation, follow the facts and confront the Soviets.  Instead they gave Stalin a pass and helped him to perpetuate the outrageous lie. No justice for the slain Polish officers – double agony for their families who then had to live under the domination of the government that had ordered and carried out the murder of their sons, brothers and husbands and was permitted to shift the blame elsewhere. [The 2007 Polish movie, Katyn, is a heart-rendering masterpiece and captures the agony of the victims' families and the savagery of the Soviets.] Winston Churchill, sliding into a colluding passive voice, later made this depressing confession: “It was decided by the victorious governments concerned that the issue should be avoided and the crime of Katyn was never probed in detail.” [Quoted from Naimark, Stalin’s Genocides, 20]   

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