In the wake of Ukraine’s enactment of a law in 2015 banning totalitarian propaganda – both Nazi and Soviet – overt glorification of Stalinism has appeared in Russian-occupied Crimea, and is now becoming widespread in Russia itself.
However one rationalizes the Soviet experience historically, it is important to acknowledge that manifestations of Stalinist revanchism or recidivism endanger decent societies everywhere. The Russian political figures now attempting to resurrect the ‘glory’ of the Soviet Union are distorting history – whether intentionally or unwittingly – and feeding a warped mass mentality. Russian President Vladimir Putin himself is fostering nostalgia for the Soviet era as a time when Russia was a global superpower both feared and (by many countries) respected. It is understandable, given the catastrophe of poverty, crime and corruption the ex-Soviet people have endured since the USSR’s collapse, that the leaders and citizens of post-Soviet Russia should mythologize the past as a panacea for present-day pain. But what should not be accepted is the glorification of Soviet police functionaries as principled heroes of a great cause. The reality was very far from this image, and the West should entertain no illusions about it.
The Soviet state security organs went through several iterations, often combining regular police with counter-espionage, then splitting and again reuniting, depending on the political imperatives of the Soviet Communist Party hierarchy of the time. But in each case, these institutions were characterized by sadism and murderousness as qualities demanded of ambitious climbers within them. As the new ‘meritocracy’ rewarded destructive and homicidal excess, the Soviet political police became a new ‘privilegentsia’ in Soviet society, living in relative luxury compared with the vast majority of the citizenry.
When the Soviet state was born, the main organ of police terror and repression was the ‘Extraordinary Commission’ – in full, the ‘All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage.’ It came to be known by its nickname – ‘Cheka’ – a pronunciation of the first letters of ‘Extraordinary’ and ‘Commission’ in Russian (‘Ch’ and ‘K’). The Cheka later became the OGPU (Joint State Political Directorate), and in the mid-1930s was incorporated into the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD), which also governed the Soviet regular police.
By the time the USSR collapsed, the original ‘Cheka’ had morphed into the Ministry of State Security (MGB) and finally the Committee for State Security (KGB), in which Putin became a mid-level officer. Today, domestic counter-intelligence is formally the purview of the FSB (Federal Security Service), while foreign intelligence is the responsibility of another institution, and Russia’s domestic police are governed by the MVD (Ministry of Internal Affairs). Yet the term ‘Chekist’ is still used in Russia today to refer to former and current officials of the security services, and not as a pejorative. The pride Putin exhibits in his Chekist past reflects a warped conception of social virtue.
While it is true, for example, that the current Russian regime has admitted (quietly and reluctantly) to the culpability of the Soviet NKVD in the murder of tens of thousands of Polish officers in the Katyn Forest in 1940, it is also apparently true that many of the main culprits in this crime are not treated as villains in today’s Russian propaganda and official history. Indeed, while many of the perpetrators of Stalinist atrocities were rehabilitated by the Soviet regime after Stalin died, they have not subsequently been ‘re-condemned,’ as they should be. There can be little hope of a full reckoning with the horrors of the Soviet past under these circumstances, and the territory of the ex-USSR remains littered with unmarked mass graves that will never be exhumed. The victims will never be properly quantified or identified. Apart from the millions dead from war and famine, the mass shootings of the Stalinist terror resulted in hundreds of thousands being dumped into pits and bulldozed over. Official Russian complaints about the West often cite Western ‘double standards’ in foreign policy and human rights, but whatever ring of truth such complaints may sound, the simultaneous admission of Stalinist crimes and glorification of these crimes’ perpetrators feels far worse. In fact, it reveals a disturbingly deformed sense of national self-consciousness.
This situation parallels the phenomenon of confused Russian citizens showing their Russian patriotic pride by displaying portraits of the last Russian tsar, Nicholas II, alongside his murderer, Lenin, as if both could be representative of the best of Russia. Under Putin, we have a similar state of affairs: justification of Stalinist mass murder alongside propagation of Russian national glory. Celebration of Russian patriotic pride is in any case anathema to everything the Soviet Union stood for, first and foremost: the annihilation of national patriotism.
No republic of the Soviet Union suffered more at the hands of the Cheka than Ukraine. The Chekists implemented the terror-famine in 1932-33 that claimed upwards of 6 million lives in Ukraine alone but is still officially described by the Kremlin as a ‘myth.’ The Cheka/OGPU/NKVD ran the vast network of concentration camps – the Gulag – with extreme brutality. And perhaps worst of all, the Chekists carried out executions on a scale that defies the human imagination, even today. There were individual NKVD trigger men who personally shot over ten thousand people, and one infamous toad took pride in having shot 20,000, single-handed, with bullets to the backs of their heads. Following is a story about the NKVD’s executioners – how they operated, the number of their victims, and their ultimate fates. The image conveyed in this history contrasts starkly with the official, Cheka-friendly hagiography of the Putin regime. It is translated from the online Russian-language publication ‘Tolkovatel’ (Commentator), and appeared in February 2013.
Stalinists and Soviet patriots are unjustly silent about another type of ‘Stakhanovite’ – NKVD executioners. [Alexey Stakhanov was a Soviet miner who, the Stalin regime claimed, single-handedly mined 227 tons of coal in a single shift. Stalinist propaganda made him a celebrity, and the ‘Stakhanovite’ movement was promoted as a way to increase productivity in Soviet industry. – Ed.] Real champions can be found among these men: General Vasily Blokhin personally shot 20,000 people; Piotr Maggo – somewhat fewer: 10,000.
Most of the executioners died a natural death, were buried with honors, and are still honored by the security forces today. When speaking of Stalin’s repression, it is often only the Gulag [the Main Directorate of Camps, a vast network of concentration camps around the Soviet Union – Ed.] that is mentioned. But this was only part of the repressive machine. Hundreds of thousands of people did not even survive long enough to get to the Gulag, ending their journey in execution chambers or landfills. The NKVD managed to get all the bugs out of the system for shootings, ultimately making it work like a well-oiled machine. The scale of this system is astounding. At the height of repression in 1937, 353,074 people were executed – nearly 1,000 people a day. In 1938, the number was 328,618. The number of executions thereafter decreased dramatically (1939 – 2,552; 1940 – 1,649; 1950 – 1,609. The number of people sentenced to capital punishment every year then remained at about the same level until Stalin’s death). Nevertheless, in these years there was still enough work for these shooting master-craftsmen – for tens of thousands of Polish officers had to be executed, for example: Katyn, Kalinin, World War II deserters.
The majority of executions – up to 60% – were carried out in Moscow, after brief interrogation, release at the Lubyanka, and quick extrajudicial sentencing by the ‘troika.’ [The term ‘troika’ refers to a ‘triumvirate’ of officials who acted as a local summary tribunal judging those accused of crimes against the Soviet state. – Ed.] For this reason, the ‘Stakhanovite’ NKVD worked mainly in the capital as well. Their circle was limited: in all of Moscow, there were only 10-15 people. Such a small number of executioners is not explained by the fact that it was difficult to find people to perform such duties. Rather, the real executioner had to be a master of his craft: with stable psyche (how the psyche of even the most experienced Stakhanovites was broken will be described below), skills, stealth (even the executioners’ closest relatives did not know what their job was in the NKVD), and dedication to the job.
One of these masters – a real champion – was Vasily Blokhin. During his long working career, Major General Blokhin personally shot about 20,000 people. Two other medalists, Piotr Maggo and S. N. Nadaraya, were left with a significant margin: a total of approximately 10,000 each. Vasily was born in 1895 to a family of poor peasants in the Vladimir region of Russia. At the age of 15, he began working as a bricklayer in Moscow, and in the First World War he rose to the rank of non-commissioned officer. From 1921 onwards, he was in the Cheka. From 1926, he held the rank of commandant of the OGPU-NKVD-MGB, and from 1926 onward he was the permanent commander of executions until his retirement in 1953. On the job in 1933, he graduated from the Moscow Institute of Architecture and Civil Engineering, becoming an executioner-intellectual. The work Blokhin did was heavy: in fact, he was the only member of a team of about 15 executioners who lived in good health until his retirement. Maybe this was because he always observed the rules of safety at work and didn’t drink on the job. One of the executioners, Yemelyanov, recalled:
Vodka, of course, we drank until we lost consciousness. Say what you like, but the work wasn’t easy. We were so exhausted that sometimes we could barely stay on our feet. We washed with eau de cologne – to our waists. Otherwise, you couldn’t get rid of the smell of blood and gunpowder. Even dogs shied away from us, and if they barked at us, it was from far away.
Unsurprisingly, executioners died early or lost their sanity. Thus, Yusis died of natural causes in 1931; Maggo – in 1942; Vasily Shigalev and his brother, Ivan Shigalev – in 1944. Many retired on a pension, receiving disability due to schizophrenia, such as Yemelyanov, or neuro-psychiatric illness, such as Maggo. The discharge order for Yemelyanov stated as follows: ‘Comrade Yemelyanov is retiring for reasons of illness (schizophrenia) associated exclusively with long-term operational work in the [state security] organs.’ And Piotr Ivanovich Maggo, once having shot about 20 people, went into such a rage that he yelled at Special Department Chief Popov, who was standing next to him, confusing him with yet another victim: ‘Why are you standing there? Undress! Immediately! And I’ll shoot you on the spot!’ The terrified NKVD functionary barely managed to convince this fanatic not to do it.
Once, Maggo got an order from his immediate superior, [Isai Davidovich] Berg. Referring to Maggo, Berg ordered in a written statement that many of the condemned were to die uttering the words: ‘Long live Stalin!’ The resolution of the leadership was as follows: ‘You have an opportunity to educate those sentenced to be shot, so that they do not soil the name of the leader at just the wrong moment!’ Piotr Ivanovich even had to read someone a lecture before they were shot.
How is it possible not to become ill from such work? Yet here we have Vasily Mikhailovich [Blokhin], who, before an execution, would put on his matching leather uniform – with an apron below the knee, a cap and leggings. Before and after a shooting he liked to have a leisurely cup of tea. He had also loved horses since childhood (as a child of 10, he had worked part-time as a shepherd), and in the breaks between his jobs he would look at illustrated books about horses. After his death, he left behind a library of about 700 books on horse breeding. He was a man who knew how to relax.
Incidentally, Blokhin led the Katyn massacre, and personally shot about 700 Poles there. In 1991, during a deposition in the General Military Prosecutor’s Office of the USSR, one of the members of the firing squad and the former head of NKVD in Kalinin region, whose name was [Dmitry] Tokarev, said as follows:
Yablokov (investigator): ‘If I understand correctly, the Polish prisoners of war were shot from ‘Walthers.’ Yes?’
Tokarev: ‘From ‘Walthers.’ This I know well, because they brought a suitcase. Blokhin supervised this personally. He gave out the pistols, and when the work had ended – the guns were taken back. Blokhin collected them himself.’
Vasily Blokhin was buried in 1955 in Novodevichy Cemetery. There, in places of honor, other Stalinist executioners are buried as well, including the medalist Maggo. However, after the arrest of Beria, Blokhin was deprived of the rank of Major General and 8 medals, as well as a pension of 3,150 rubles (the average salary in the country was 700 rubles). Blokhin could not resist such ‘repression’ and died of a heart attack. In the late 1960s, his titles and medals were posthumously returned to him, and he was in fact rehabilitated.
The shooting really turned out to be a kind of art. Piotr Maggo taught inexperienced executioners as follows:
The one you’re taking to be shot must have his hands tied behind him with wire. You make him walk in front, and you walk behind him with a revolver in your hand. Where necessary, command ‘right’ or ‘left’ until you’ve got him to the place where sawdust or sand has been prepared. There, you put the gun to his head and cr-r-rack! At the same time, you give him a strong kick in the ass. That way the blood won’t splatter on your shirt, and you won’t have to give it to your wife to wash again.
And here, the above-mentioned Tokarev describes the massacre of Polish officers near Kalinin on April 5th, 1940:
Blokhin gave a signal, saying, ‘OK, let’s go. Let’s begin.’ Blokhin put on his special clothes: brown leather hat, long leather coat, brown leather gloves with sleeves above the elbow. It made a great impression on me: I’d seen the executioner.
Blokhin and Rubanov brought people one by one down the corridor and turned to the left, where there was a red room. They had hung various propaganda posters about, and there was a plaster statue of Lenin. The ‘Red Room’ or ‘Lenin Room’ was a room of five by five meters. Here, they verified the identity of the prisoner for the last time, asking about his name and date of birth. Then they noted on the list that there was no error.
Finally, they put handcuffs on the Polish officer or policeman and took him to the ‘execution chamber.’ Here, the life of the prisoner ended with a shot in the back of the head. Experienced executioners shot in the neck, holding the barrel obliquely upward. Then there was certainty that the bullet would come through the eye or mouth. There would be just a little bit of blood, whereas a bullet to the head caused profuse bleeding (more than a liter of blood would leak out). At least 250 were killed per day.
The corpses were thrown out of the chamber in which the murder had taken place, through the emergency doors into the courtyard, where a truck was waiting. Every day, fragments of bone and blood were washed off the car bodies. The corpses – 25-30 per car – were covered with a tarpaulin, which Blokhin ordered burned at the end of the ‘operation.’ The bodies, thrown into vehicles, were transported to common trenches, in the woods near Mednoye [a town in the Tver region of Russia – Ed.].
An NKVD functionary named Antonov – an excavator operator – dug these trenches with his assistant.
When all the prisoners of Ostashkov [prisoner of war camp in the Katyn Forest – Ed.] had already been liquidated, Blokhin organized a farewell drink for those individuals who had killed more than 6,300 people. Blokhin received a reward in the amount of one month’s salary. Others were given a revolver, a bicycle or a gramophone as a bonus award.
As mentioned above, after the death of Stalin, the repressions hardly touched the executioners. Nadaraya is considered to have suffered the most. He was promoted to chief bodyguard of Lavrenty P. Beria. A universal specialist – he personally led the investigation, and personally did the shooting. He distinguished himself by his high productivity – up to 500 ‘performed’ in a night. In 1955, he received 10 years imprisonment. He was released in 1965, after which he lived quietly in Georgia as a pensioner.
But as to the executions of lower-ranking functionaries – those who had personally only shot a few hundred people – as it happened, they too ended up being shot. Illustrative is the fate of the NKVD agents involved in the mass shooting of the so-called ‘Solovetsky Phase’ in the Karelian town of Sandarmokh, where about 2,000 people were killed in a few days in October 1937.
The shootings began on October 27th, and then there was a break for four days because the chief executioner, [Mikhail] Matveyev, had got drunk, frustrated by the escape of a prisoner who was soon caught and shot. In November, the executions resumed and continued until November 4th. At the end of the operation, some executioners were rewarded, and others arrested. For example, by an order of the Leningrad District NKVD of December 20th, 1937, ‘For selfless work in combating counterrevolution’ the chief killer in the Solovetsky Phase – Matveyev – was awarded a valuable gift in the form of a radiogramophone and vinyl records, while other members of the operational brigade working with Matveyev were awarded Korovin pistols and watches.
The majority of the functionaries involved in or concerned with the shootings of the Solovetsky Phase were arrested and sent to Moscow. These were: Chief of the 10th Prison Department of the GUGB [Main Directorate of State Security – Ed.] of the NKVD, Muscovite Nikolai (Luka) Antonov-Grisiuk; and another Muscovite, Senior KGB Major and Deputy People’s Commissar of Water Transport Yakov Markovich Weinstock. Chief of the 2nd Department of the Karaganda Correctional-Labor Camp [KarLag] Vsevolod Mikhailovich Krukovsky, who had been specially summoned from KarLag for the operation, was arrested; troika member and Leningrad District Prosecutor Boris P. Pozern was arrested and taken to Moscow.
All were convicted in Moscow, shot, and taken for cremation in a crematorium in Donskoy as spies and saboteurs. Interestingly, the one who shot them was once their former colleague, the very same Vasily Blokhin. All these shot NKVD agents, themselves being executioners, were rehabilitated in various years.
The chief perpetrator of the Solovetsky Phase shootings in Sandarmokh, Matveyev, was arrested with the approval of Beria after a year and a half, in March 1939 (in the so-called ‘Beria Purge of Units’).
The fate of Matveyev, unlike many other Solovetsky executioners, turned out to be all right. The Military Tribunal of the NKVD LVO [NKVD of the Leningrad Military District – Ed.] convicted him under Article 193-17 ‘a’ of the Criminal Code of the RSFSR and sentenced him to 10 years in a correctional-labor camp. But retrial by the Military Collegium of the USSR Supreme Court reduced his term to 3 years. He was not deprived of his awards. He was serving a sentence at Volgolag [Volzhsky Corrective-Labor Camp – Ed.], and besides, he was released early.
During the war, he served as chief of the internal prison of the UNKGB; adding the Order of Lenin to his previous honors. Sometimes he returned to his tradecraft – and shot prisoners. He died of natural causes during the Brezhnev era. Another Solovetsky executioner, [Vladimir] Garin, who only personally shot about 400 people in the spring of 1938 and was transferred to camp commandant in Karelia in 1940, died of a heart attack. But he was buried with military honors in Moscow at Novodevichy Cemetery.
Executioner [Alexander] Rayevsky, who shot about 300 people, was arrested with the approval of Beria as ‘one of the leaders of a counterrevolutionary rebel organization that existed among the prisoners on the island of Solovki,’ and served his sentence in Unzhlag [Unzhensky Corrective-Labor Camp – Ed.], where he was in charge of the solitary confinement chambers.
Following Khrushchev’s rehabilitation policy, he was restored to the rank of lieutenant-colonel. The executioner Kollegov, who had a hand in the affair as well and was also ultimately shot, was rehabilitated in 1959. All these butchers are now considered ‘victims of Stalinist repression.’ Some have been inducted into the FSB Hall of Fame.