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Stalin and His Hangmen by Donald Rayfield

Stalin and His Hangmen

by Donald Rayfield

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excellent, but one of the most disturbing books I have ever read. ( )
  clarkland | Feb 9, 2014 |
An impressive grasp of narrative skillfully handled stops the continuity that runs through the various manifestations of the Cheka/KGB, up to the present day Russian security services & Putin, from becoming monotonous. The author has a literary background & there is some fascinating stuff on writers & intellectuals, esp Georgian thinkers. It is depressing to read that Stalin was no simple thug, but an intelligent & well read man.
The style occasionally reads quite strangely, with the odd misjudged simile & metaphor, but Rayfield brings more to the subject than just the cold eye of the archivist. ( )
  mareki | May 2, 2008 |
Despite my familiarity with reading about the horrors of Stalin's rule, I found this a more than usually deeply depressing read, though interesting in shedding light on the background of some of the less well known horrible personalities in the history of Cheka-OGPU-NKVD. Perhaps the most shocking aspect is the continuing high esteem in which some of these characters are held in Putin's Russia, witnessed by the issuing of Cheka anniversary postage stamps depicting Artuzov and Balitsky, not two of the highest leaders but nevertheless deeply horrible and murderous characters; and the continued existence of the Belomorkanal cigarette brand, equivalent to an Auschwitz cigarette brand subsisting in Germany. ( )
  john257hopper | Dec 21, 2007 |
Donald Rayfield, professor of Russian and Georgian at London University's Queen Mary College took a rare opportunity with the opening of the Soviet archives in the early 1990's to research this book.
He had access to both the Presidential and KGB archives (now largely reclassified)and used them to build a thoroughly documented picture of Stalin's repression against the Russian people, through his Cheka, NKVD and OGPU secret police agencies. Rayfield follows the histories of the heads of these organizations; Dzierzynski, Menzhinsky, Iagoda, Ezhov and Beria.
The inheritors of the OGPU are still in power (FSB) and as he says, "Stalin and his secret services are still lauded in print and in official speeches. The official myth, passively or actively believed by much of the population, is that Stalin's murders and terrorism were aberrations into which he was inveigled by Ezhov and Beria."
Nothing could be further from the truth. He personally ordered mass murders and deportations by professional group, race and region, fixing quotas, using every kind of fabrication and received detailed reports. If he was dissatisfied with progress, his security chiefs were characteristically told that he would "smash their face" (much humour among his associates), "go fuck your mother" or "you're next" to get things moving. It's estimated that 1 in 10 males in the Soviet Union died in one way or another from the activities of this criminally predatory paranoid. ( )
  Miro | Jun 10, 2006 |
Stalin and His Hangmen is a very detailed, clear analysis of the lives and times of Stalin's chiefs of secret police from Dzierzynski (founder of the Cheka), through Menzhinsky, Iagoda (NKVD), Ezhov, to Beria. The book ends in 1956 with the shooting of the last of Beria's men (Beria himself having been shot in 1953). It is a harrowing and chilling tale of systemic state-sanctioned (i.e Stalin-sanctioned) ethnic cleansing, murder and sadism.

There are those who argue that if Lenin had lived longer, the regime would not have evolved in the bloodthirsty way that it did. However, Lenin was no shrinking violet. Rayfield notes that before he was fired on in 1918, Lenin had argued for hangings, rather than shootings,"so that the public could better contemplate the corpses". Nor was Lenin very sympathetic to the intelligentsia: he sent lists of "active anti-Soviet intellectuals" who were to be tracked down and deported; he wanted several hundred political opponents (Mensheviks, Social Revolutionaries, etc) rounded up and summarily deported. In 1922, two boatloads of intellectuals left for Europe and America, and those who remained, "drew the obvious conclusions and withdrew into themselves". The war against the church and the confiscation of its property and valuables led to violence in some quarters and Lenin supported extreme measures. In 1922, he wrote to the Politburo about, "the only moment when we can smash the enemy's head with a 99 percent chance of success....we can (and therefore must) carry out the confiscation of Church valuables with the most furious and merciless energy, not stopping at the crushing of any resistance...".

Stalin developed politically in this maelstrom of violence, paranoia, and lawlessnes, and brought to the mix his personal qualities described as Rayfield as, "first, a sense, a conviction, of his mission to rule; second an acute sense of timing; and third, a deep insight into others' motivation and a hypnotist's skill in manipulating them". Added to this was a paranoia that deepened over time; a doctor who was rash enough to so diagnose Stalin in the early days died in a mysterious car crash a few days later.

The numbers are staggering and hard to contemplate. The forced collectivization of the peasantry is calculated to have cost between 7.2 and a "plausible" 10.8 million lives, not counting those lost over the years through the great terror and campaigns aimed at specific minority groups. No one was safe, and the system routinely devoured its own. Wives, children, siblings of many of Stalin's close political allies and colleagues were arrested, imprisoned, and many shot, and yet those colleagues, if one can use that word in this context, continued in their positions, continued working with, and supporting, Stalin. Only Stalin remained inviolable, though he continually feared assassination, poisoning, etc.

Comparisons are often made between Hitler and Stalin, and I think Rayfield has an interesting, and accurate view. He argues that, "Hitlerism was like a cancer on the body politic, letting the body apparently function normally until the cancer destroys it; Stalinism was more like the larva of a parasitic wasp–devouring and converting to itself the body politic that it has invaded".

It is difficult for those of us blessed to live in a society based on the rule of law and equality of individuals before the law to comprehend the Soviet Union where, Stalin and his hangmen knew no such strictures. The system gave full rein to the murderous, sadistic impulses of a very wide range of people from prison guards to torturers to rapists to the highest levels of the police and politics. And as in the analogy of the wasp, the system systematically devoured its own, crushing any initiative, any superiority. The secret police themselves (working through the alphabet soups of Cheka, GPU, OGPU, NKVD, Smersh) became the victims: torturers and guards often became the tortured and the prisoners. And in the Kafkaesque world that Stalin controlled and developed and maintained, torturers and murderers were often awarded public medals for services while their innocent victims either mouldered in unknown graves or perished in the wilds of the Gulag.

Rayfield does not attempt a full biography of Stalin, but he is insightful and informative on the factors and experiences that shaped Stalin as a person, from his formation as a Georgian in the Russian empire to the influence of his seminary training on his outlook to life. One aspect that I did not appreciate, as did not many according to Rayfield, is how exceptionally well read Stalin was. In his formative years, Stalin was reading up to 500 pages a day, making notes in the margins, and he favoured European history, literature, and linguistics.

Rayfield is also, rightly, critical of the host of Western intellectuals who refused to see with their own eyes the effects of the terror or the great famines that accompanied the march to collectivization, and who continued to sing Stalin's praises.

This is a good, and important book for understanding the nightmare world of the Soviet Union under Stalin. ( )
1 vote John | Nov 12, 2005 |
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Ein Genozid unvorstellbaren Ausmaßes nachdem vor einigen Jahren Archive des Politbüros, des KGB und anderer Institutionen des untergegangenen Sowjetreichs für Wissenschaftler geöffnet wurden, konnte Donald Rayfield neue Erkenntnisse über Stalin und seine Henker Dserschinski, Menschinski, Jagoda, Jeschow, Berija und ihre wichtigsten Komplizen gewinnen. So entstand das beklemmende Porträt einer Epoche vom Vorabend der Oktoberrevolution bis zur Exekution Berijas im Dezember 1953 , in der ein skrupelloses Regime gegen das eigene Volk wütete. Auf dem 20. Parteitag der KPdSU im Februar 1956 verblüffte Nikita Chruschtschow die Weltöffentlichkeit durch seine radikale Abrechnung mit Stalin und dem Stalinismus. Die Enthüllungen über grausame Willkürakte und die Massenmorde des sowjetischen Diktators waren damals noch lückenhaft. Das ganze Ausmaß der Gräuel wurde erst sichtbar, nachdem man Archive in Russland Historikern aus aller Welt zugänglich gemacht hatte. Einer von ihnen, der LondonerProfessor Donald Rayfield, porträtiert nun nach intensiven Studien eines der düstersten Kapitel in der Geschichte der Sowjetunion. Stalin und seine Henker werden mit kurzen, prägnanten Biographien vorgestellt eine Chronologie des Terrors. Der Autor aber beschreibt nicht nur das brutale wie banale, das ausschweifende wie zwielichtige Leben der Täter, sondern bringt immer wieder auch ausführliche Exkurse zur Geschichte der UdSSR. Dabei werden die Hungersnöte, die Zerschlagung des Bauernstandes, die Ermordung der alten Herrscherschicht, die Schauprozesse, die Enthauptung der Roten Armee (34000 Offiziere wurden erschossen), die Deportation von Dissidenten und die Ausrottung ethnischer Minderheiten mit einer Fülle konkreten Materials geschildert. Rayfield musste bei den Recherchen für dieses Buch bestürzt registrieren, dass der Terror dieser barbarischen Zeit in den Ländern der ehemaligen Sowjetunion verdrängt, häufig sogar geleugnet wird. ( [3400])
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0375757716, Paperback)

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

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

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

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

From the Hardcover edition.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:46:49 -0400)

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

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