Soviet NKVD terror in western Ukraine – and elsewhere

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s public statements vindicating the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 are now widely known. The Russian leader has justified the notorious agreement dividing Poland between Nazi Germany and the USSR by pointing to the threat to Soviet security after Western appeasement of Hitler in 1938.

Joseph Stalin

Joseph Stalin

In fact, as part of his ‘push-back’ against the West for ostracizing and imposing sanctions on his country, Putin has drawn on 20th-century Russian history to reinforce a Soviet ‘siege mentality’ in the minds of his citizens, exalting one of the cruelest tyrannies in human history: the rule of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and President Vladimir Putin pay their respects at the Lenin Mausoleum (2015)

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and President Vladimir Putin pay their respects at the Lenin Mausoleum (2015)

To mark Stalin’s grave, a bust stands in a place of high honor in central Moscow, in the Kremlin Wall Necropolis behind the Lenin Mausoleum in Red Square. Putin and other Russian dignitaries often observe parades and other ceremonies from in front of the Necropolis, which features the busts of such repressive figures as Felix Dzerzhinsky, Andrei Zhdanov and Mikhail Suslov. There is no talk of dismantling or moving this morbid monument to Stalin’s contemporaries. Instead, the Necropolis and other features of Putin’s Russia have created a ‘hybrid’ polity, uniting two forces that should (theoretically) be diametrically ideologically opposed: Soviet nostalgia and Russian patriotic nationalism.

Kremlin Wall Necropolis

Kremlin Wall Necropolis

In truth, the Kremlin Wall Necropolis and the enduring image of Stalin in public places should be no more acceptable in Russia than the Confederate flag in taxpayer-funded areas of the United States. Sadly, Stalin’s legacy of unspeakable atrocity and sorrow over more than a quarter century is distorted today: many Russians entertain the confused notion that the tyrant is somehow historically reputable, in part because the West formed a military alliance with him in WWII to defeat a more immediate danger – Hitler.

Bust of Stalin in the Necropolis

Bust of Stalin in the Necropolis

The ‘Stalin myth’ should long ago have been fully deconstructed and destroyed throughout the ex-USSR. This has never been more pressing than now, when Russia is sowing war and subversion in a country that suffered more than any other from the excesses of Lenin and Stalin: Ukraine.

German-Soviet military parade in Brest, Poland (1939)

German-Soviet military parade in Brest, Poland (1939)

The period between the Hitler-Stalin Pact and the German invasion of the USSR represents a painful memory for Ukrainians. From 1939, when Stalin annexed western Ukraine, to 1941, when Hitler launched ‘Operation Barbarossa,’ Stalin implemented a new repression in areas that had once been part of Poland. Liquidating Ukrainian national consciousness again became a key objective, as it had been in the 1920s. In the early 1930s, Stalin’s police – the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD) – were the spearhead for this policy. While Polish-Ukrainian relations before Soviet annexation were problematic, they were a trifle compared to what awaited the inhabitants of western Ukraine under Stalin.

The image that some surviving first-hand accounts of NKVD actions in western Ukraine in 1941 convey is difficult for the average Westerner to imagine. The Livejournal blogger Larrigrimm has posted memoirs from western Ukrainians of the NKVD’s savagery in their districts (the blog post is entitled ‘Exploits’ of the NKVD in Western Ukraine). The atrocities described are from June 1941, when Soviet forces were retreating east ahead of advancing German troops.

Young NKVD agents (1940)

Young NKVD agents (1940)

Why did Stalin’s executioners go to such lengths to terrorize the local population before retreating? After all, this was likely to alienate western Ukrainians from Moscow’s rule even further. A reasonable explanation for Soviet actions was that Stalin was attempting the physical annihilation of those locals who stayed behind, to prevent them from siding with the Germans. Yet assuming it was impossible to exterminate the entire population, those who survived the NKVD bloodbath were bound to view the Wehrmacht and Waffen SS (the devil they did not yet know) as preferable to Stalin’s police functionaries. So it is mystifying that Stalin would weaken the USSR’s popular base in such a way. It was almost as if he felt a need to exceed the cruelty of both the Soviet Union’s founder, Lenin, and the dictator of Germany, Hitler, in launching wave on wave of state terror and murder. In doing this, Stalin deployed the NKVD’s most sadistic murderers and torturers, and the extreme resentment of western Ukrainians toward Moscow as a consequence of this has survived to the present day.

WARNING: Some of these accounts are not for the faint of heart. They are extremely gruesome eyewitness descriptions of mass murder and its immediate aftermath. The weak-nerved should probably avoid what follows.

Victims of the NKVD outside a prison in Lviv (1941)

Victims of the NKVD outside a prison in Lviv (1941)

Ivan Chaply, a village blacksmith from Nahuyevychy in Lviv Region – the place of origin of the 19th-century Ukrainian writer Ivan Franko – describes the entry of the Red Army to his region in 1939. The new Soviet regime was starting to organize collective farms in western Ukraine as it had in the east, and those who resisted registration were ‘beaten overnight in basements.’

‘After lunch on 22 June 1941, a group of NKVD functionaries arrived in Nahuyevychy from the Podbuzh District NKVD (there was a district center back then). They immediately picked up the former director of the seven-year country school, Korneliy Kamynsky, who was living on a pension.’

NKVD victims in Lviv, discovered by local residents after the Soviet withdrawal (1941)

NKVD victims in Lviv, discovered by local residents after the Soviet withdrawal (1941)

Several other provincial officials were arrested as well, and Chaply found himself among them. All were taken to Podbuzh, a village in Lviv Region, and found many inhabitants of surrounding villages already waiting there in detention, including the village council secretary Stepan Dumyak and the president of a school association named Ivan Dobryansky.

‘On June 26th at ten o’clock in the evening, the red prosecutor Strokov, eleven policemen and three unfamiliar people took twenty prisoners from the Podbuzh NKVD prison and transported them by truck in the direction of Drohobych. The red torturers were misleading us, telling us that we were being freed, but this was an obvious lie. On the road, one of the escorts – who described himself as the chief of the NKVD – said the prisoners were going to work.

‘The vehicle stopped a kilometer or so before Nahuyevychy, at the ‘Ostislavye’ memorial. The red executioners told us to get out: the truck was overloaded and wouldn’t be able to travel to the mountain. … We were ordered to stand in two rows of ten people, and to hold hands. … When the prosecutor gave the hand signal, they all began firing. …

‘The executioners beat people with boots, shovels and scraps of metal… Sixteen people were tortured in this way. … Thanks to the wanton shooting, the dark, and the haste of the policemen hurrying to fetch the next group of prisoners, four of us were able to remain alive. I don’t know how the prosecutor Strokov found out about this, because on June 27th he was coming to look for me in Nahuyevychy, and my relatives hid me well in my injured state. The executioners were probably afraid to leave any living witnesses behind, but they weren’t able to conceal their crimes.

‘When the Bolsheviks fled before the advancing German army, people went to the ‘Ostislavye,’ and found and took away the bodies of those who had been massacred. Korneliy Kaminsky’s body was all cut up. Stepan Dumyak’s stomach had been cut out. They had cut open Ivan Dobryansky’s chest, removed his heart, and plugged the hole with grass. These monsters were our ‘liberators.’’

The prison on Lontskoy Street, now preserved as a museum and memorial to its victims

The prison on Lonsky Street, now a museum and memorial to its victims

A doctor of medicine named Ivan Kindrat, born in 1923, was a medical student in western Ukraine at the outbreak of WWII but eventually settled in Rochester, New York. He tells of his experience immediately after most Soviet forces had evacuated the area as the German troops were advancing. A ‘special tasks unit’ of the NKVD remained behind. A neighbor who lived opposite the prison on Lonsky Street told Kindrat and some of his fellow students that, on the night of June 28th, he had heard ‘deafening gunshots and insane screams coming from inside.’ Four students, including Kindrat, went to investigate.

‘The gates […] had been blown open with a grenade. In front of the entrance we saw eight dead men and women, and another two women near the wall, still alive but covered with blood and unconscious. We realized that these were not prisoners but ordinary workers who had been killed last, as witnesses to the bloody crime. Both women soon died. All ten had been killed by bayonet thrusts, some with several wounds to the chest and abdomen.’

A woman reacts after recognizing a loved one among the NKVD's victims in the prison on Lontskoy Street (1941)

A woman reacts after recognizing a loved one among NKVD victims in Lonsky Street prison (1941)

From the courtyard, doors opened into a large area, ‘where a mountain of corpses almost reached the ceiling.’ Victims ranged in age from 15 to 65, and among them were several women. All the dead wore masks of horror on their faces. Three men, barely covered with clothes from their shoulders, were crucified on a wall, their genitals having been cut off. These and other victims had been killed with gun shots in their mouths or to the back of their heads, but ‘even more had been bayoneted in the stomach.’ In a poignant observation, Chaply notes that ‘One was wearing a tie, probably having only just been arrested.’

‘Leading out of the central hall, streaked with blood, were two corridors. I went to the right, in the hope of finding someone alive. In the first chamber a man in military uniform and boots was hanging on a hook suspended from a cord… On the wall was painted the inscription: ‘Long live free Russia.’ The victim was a Soviet air force major. […] In the next chamber, two very young and even posthumously beautiful women had been strangled with wires. Next to them were two infants with smashed skulls…’

Inside the prison on Lontskoy Street

Inside the prison on Lonsky Street

Chaply says he took a camera from a looted shop and returned to the mountain of corpses and other victims to photograph them.

‘For a week my pictures appeared in the Krakow News, but not all. Some were deemed obscene. They did not want to risk showing such savage criminality. Later, in 1943, I buried these photos in the garden of the house where I was born.’

Mikhail Mirus, a resident of Ternopil district born in 1929, gives an account of the inside of a prison that was opened by the Germans after they entered his town…

‘The spacious courtyard was empty… A man and a woman, both dead, were nailed to the wall with stakes to prevent them from falling down. The man’s genitals were bound with barbed wire, and the woman had a bundle of barbed wire stuffed into her vagina… Across the entire expanse of the first [room], a pit had been dug and was full of corpses. A thin layer of dirt had been thrown over them. It was obvious that the perpetrators hadn’t quite managed to finish the job.’

Soviet NKVD agents assault a woman on the street in Lviv (1941)

Soviet NKVD agents assault a woman on the street in Lviv (1941)

A woman named Yuliana Pavliva, born in 1930 and also from Ternopil Region, tells of her childhood nightmare in the spring of 1941. In the village of Narayiv, as in other localities, mass arrests of the local intelligentsia were taking place. Her Aunt Ivanna, a schoolteacher, was among them. Nineteen people were arrested from her village alone, of whom four received sentences, three of them to death. The condemned were held in the town of Berezhany. When the war broke out, Pavliva says everyone expected political prisoners to be returned to their homes. Instead, she says, ‘we heard rumors of terrible mutilations in the prisons.’ Families went to Berezhany Prison to find loved ones, and took their children (including Pavliva) along to make sure they were safe.

‘In the basement of the prison we found a mountain of mangled corpses. The cells and corridors were full of blood, and a bloody trail led to the courtyard. There, the bodies were already lying in rows, with hacked-off ears and noses, and charred faces. Because of the July heat there was a horrible stench. We could hear cries, desperate screaming and curses.’

Ruins of Berezhany Fortress (2005)

Ruins of Berezhany Fortress (2005)

Pavliva’s family found her Aunt Ivanna by the bank of the Zolota Lypa River, near a fortress that the NKVD had been using for torture. Two male bodies – both mutilated – were lying near her. Her aunt’s body was covered with deep gashes, and ‘her face was blackened.’ Her tongue had been cut out, and ‘above her wrist were criss-crossing knife wounds.’ She had been disemboweled, and a bottle had been shoved into her vagina. Other bodies featured no less terrible signs of abuse: plucked-out eyes, severed genitals, hacked-off fingers, smashed skulls. Local residents said that over the course of a week, the torturers had kept tractor engines running around the clock to drown out the screams from inside the prison, but that even this wasn’t enough.

‘For a long time they pulled bodies out of the Zolota Lypa River, into which the NKVD agents had thrown them. They sailed a few kilometers in the bloody water up to the dam in the village of Saranchuk, where peasants were burying the horribly mutilated corpses. Unidentified bodies were buried in common graves. Many today are buried in other surrounding villages… The residents of Narayev buried twelve murdered people. The bodies of another three, who had been sentenced to death, were uncovered later, in autumn, in a stone pit near Berezhany Forest. One of them, T. G. Pavliva, had had her legs cut off. Four were not found. Fifteen of the nineteen political prisoners killed in the village were under the age of twenty-three.’

NKVD victims in Lviv (1941)

NKVD victims in Lviv (1941)

A peasant named Myroslav Rozhiy, from the village of Romaniv in the Peremyshlyany District of Lviv Region, describes his would-be execution in June 1941. He was brought with all the other detainees from the villages of Biberechchyny to a large cell. A local police officer that everyone knew from the area was standing guard, and at about six o’clock he told the prisoners that ‘all the devils have gone off somewhere,’ referring to the NKVD agents running the prison. But when they asked the policeman for the keys, he told them the NKVD had taken them, and offered instead some kind of cudgel to use to save themselves. As they made plans to break out, a lawyer named Kulchytsky – sitting among them – warned them that if they tried to escape, the retribution of the NKVD forces would be even worse. He urged people to stay, assuring them that the NKVD would be ‘convinced we are innocent’ and let them go. He claimed that any punishment meted out by the Bolsheviks would violate the prevailing judicial code, which he knew well. So the prisoners waited, and when the NKVD agents had returned after about two hours, they began summoning the detainees from one of the cells to be taken to a beer hall to be shot.

‘After several executions, the troika of NKVD agents proceeded to the ‘guardroom,’ probably to drink vodka, because when they came for me, they stank of vodka. I was sure I was going to die when I was called. Two of them took me under the arms, and the third walked behind me with a revolver. They brought me to the beer hall. The two who had grabbed me under the arms were already beyond the threshold of the darkened beer hall, they let go, and at that moment the one behind me put his hand on my shoulder. In a second, I somehow felt that he was raising his right hand, and it seemed to me that he had even put the revolver against my neck. For a moment I turned my head to see what he was going to do. A shot rang out!

‘And, as I remember it now, that I fell on some warm human bodies and lost consciousness. How long I was out cold, I do not know. Then in the darkness I somehow became conscious again. It seemed to me that I was in another world, because I remembered that they had shot me.

‘My first sensation was that my feet and one hand were very numb. They began to hurt very much, and were already burned. My mouth was full of warm, salty blood. Something very heavy was lying on top of me, and I gradually moved this weight off of my body. It was the corpse of the lawyer Kulchytskyy, who had that evening persuaded us not to run away because he said he knew the Bolshevik codes. He had been shot. I’d been shot through both cheeks and was lying on corpses. Someone in this pile of corpses was still wheezing. […]’

These fragments represent only a handful of personal accounts, but the Stalinist cruelty had arrived late to western Ukraine. The state-imposed terror-famine of 1932-33 that claimed millions of lives in central and eastern Ukraine, and the purges and imprisonment of the Ukrainian intelligentsia had already happened by the time of the annexation of western Ukraine. But the NKVD terror and mass executions in Russia and other parts of the Soviet Union in the late 1930s had already given ordinary people a sense of what was to come. These executions are well documented, and many of the NKVD executioners have been precisely identified by name [See Stalinist Mass Murder and the Warping of Russian History]. These sadists and murderers remain largely faceless in world history, eclipsed in their atrocities by the functionaries of Nazi Germany, the losers of WWII. The Soviet Union emerged as a ‘winner,’ and as a consequence, evidence of wide-scale atrocity – in the form of mass graves and other horrors uncovered in Nazi-ruled territories – has been scarce. But the following historical article (published on the website in 2012) offers some insight into the kind of regime that ruled the Soviet Union during the period immediately prior to the annexation of western Ukraine, and into why the world should not allow the Putin regime to get away with legitimizing the Stalin era.

NKVD ‘Special’ File: The Beginning of the Great Terror

Operation to repress former kulaks, active anti-Soviet elements and criminals

Stalin and members of his inner circle surrounded by NKVD agents

Stalin and members of his inner circle surrounded by NKVD agents

5 August 1937

Order № 00447 of Commissar of Internal Affairs Nikolai Yezhov established ‘1st and 2nd Category’ limits for each locality. The 1st Category signified death by shooting; the 2nd – exile.

Without either a court order or investigation, the ‘lumpen’ carried out their duties by decision of extra-judicial bodies, the so-called ‘troikas,’ which consisted of a chairman of the regional or republican committee of the Communist Party, the head of the local NKVD, and the chief prosecutor. The conveyor of death worked in such a manner under the title of ‘Soviet power.’ It was the ‘culling’ of tsarist Russia’s indigenous population by a frenzied mob actively employing these methods.

People's Commissar of Internal Affairs Nikolai Yezhov

People’s Commissar of Internal Affairs Nikolai Yezhov

Stalin and company were among a circle of ‘Chekists’ [a colloquial name for agents of the political police of the USSR, eventually known as the KGB ~ Ed.]. These dregs of society, imagining themselves the supreme arbiters of justice, were at the source of the Great Terror.

Before you are photocopies of telegrams and answers ‘from the localities’ to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (bolshevik) – CPSU(b) – to Stalin on encryption № 863 from the Kremlin. By telegram, local Party leaders were given a directive to make quantitative lists of how many people they were ready to shoot and send into exile. In accordance with their answers, Decree № 00447, published a month later, set limits for the 1st and 2nd Categories, that is, for shootings and deportations to concentration and death camps.

People's Commissar of Heavy Industry Lazar Kaganovich

People’s Commissar of Heavy Industry Lazar Kaganovich

Each telegram has the signature of Stalin on it – in blue pencil ‘J. St. approves.’ Below, we put the names and surnames of all the rest of the criminals to whom the telegram was handed out for examination: [Lazar] Kaganovich, [Vyacheslav] Molotov, [Mikhail] Kalinin, [Anastas] Mikoyan, [Andrei] Zhdanov, [Stanislav] Kosior, [Andrey] Andreyev… The direct executor of the orders was the People’s Commissar of Internal Affairs [Nikolai] Yezhov, and his signature is on these documents.

Some of the top-secret papers refer to 1938. In these they talk about increasing the already-approved limits, and the red abomination toadied before the pockmarked godfather. These yellowed pages say more than any witness could about the history of the country of criminals who seized power, and who have held it to this day.

All the documents of the ‘Great Terror,’ despite their supposedly ‘open’ status in the archives, are still located behind seven locks. Today, they are protected by the children and grandchildren, who are pulling the trigger on their ancestors with hard muscles and strong skulls.

Death Warrant-01

Encryption from Irkutsk vh. № 472/Sh. Sent 15:54, 26 April 1938

Request of [Irkutsk District First Secretary Arkady] Filippov and [Irkutsk District NKVD Chief Boris] Malyshev for a limit of 4,000 shootings in the district

Signatures: Stalin, Molotov, [Kliment] Voroshilov, Kaganovich, Yezhov, Mikoyan, [Vlas] Chubar.


Death Warrant-02

Encryption from Omsk vh. № 2662/Sh.
Sent: 13:30, 19 November 1937
Request of [Omsk District 1st Secretary Fiodr] Naumov for additional limits on shootings in Omsk region (another 1,000 added to the 10,000 already shot) and deportations to concentration camps (another 1,000 added to the 1,500 already condemned)
Signatures: Stalin, Molotov, Kaganovich, Zhdanov, Yezhov.


Death Warrant-03

Resolution of the Central Committee of the CPSU(b) 1157/49 on 31 January 1938, to prolong operation for repression of national minorities in the USSR (Poles, Latvians, Germans, Estonians, Finns, Greeks, Iranians, Chinese, Rumanians and others)
Signatures: Stalin, Molotov, Kaganovich, Voroshilov, Mikoyan, Chubar.


Death Warrant-04

Encryption from Sverdlovsk vh. № 1179/sh.
Sent: 23:23, 8 July 1937
Request of [Sverdlovsk District 1st Secretary Abram] Stolyar for limits on executions, deportations and concentration camp internments in Sverdlovsk region
5,000 – to be shot;
7,000 – to be sent to exile and concentration camps
Signatures: Stalin, (Molotov?), Kaganovich, Voroshilov, Chubar, Mikoyan.


Death Warrant-05

Encryption from Novosibirsk vh. № 1157/Sh.
Sent: 11:56, 8 July 1937
Request of [West Siberian Territory 1st Secretary Robert] Eikhe to increase limit on executions to 11,000 in West Siberian Territory
Signatures: Stalin, (Molotov?), Kaganovich, Voroshilov, Chubar, Kalinin, Mikoyan.
Text of encryption expressly states that it is a response to Encryption № 863/Sh.


Death Warrant-06

[Moscow Regional Committee 1st Secretary Nikita] Khrushchev requests limits for executions and deportations to concentration camps for the residents of Moscow and Moscow District. 6,500 + 2,000 to be shot; 23,936 + 5,869 people to concentration camps
Signatures: Stalin, Yezhov, Kaganovich, Mikoyan, Chubar, Molotov, Voroshilov, Kalinin.


Death Warrant-07

Encryption from Chita vh. № 393/Sh – Sent: 17:15, 13 April 1938
Request of [Chita District 1st Secretary Ivan] Murugov for new limit on repression in district (without specifying category) – 3,000
Signatures: Stalin, Voroshilov, Kaganovich, (Molotov?), Kalinin, Kosior, Chubar, Mikoyan, Andreyev.

Death Warrant-08

Encryption from Almaty vh. № 2748/Sh
Sent: 18:30, 1 December 1937
The request for an expansion of the chosen area for executions in Kazakhstan (there were 8,000; they are asking for another 600 people to cover the area of settlements) and concentration camps (there were 8,000; they are asking for another 1,000 to cover the area of settlements).
Signatures: Stalin, Molotov, Kaganovich.


Death Warrant-09

Encryption from Grozny vh. № 1213/Sh – Sent: 23:20, 10 July 1937
Request of [Chechen-Igushetia 1st Secretary Vasily] Yegorov on limits for executions in the Chechen-Ingushetian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (1,417 people) and exile (1,256 persons)
Russian Cossacks are explicitly labeled ‘kulaks.’
Signatures: Stalin, Molotov, Kaganovich, Zhdanov, Voroshilov, Kalinin, Chubar, Mikoyan.


Death Warrant-10

Encryption from Tbilisi vh. № 1165/Sh – Sent: 14:55, 8 July 1937
Request of [Georgian SSR First Secretary Lavrenty] Beria for limits on executions by shooting in Georgia (1,419 people) and exile/concentration camp (1,562 + 2,000 people).
Signatures: Stalin, Molotov, Kaganovich, Voroshilov, Chubar, Mikoyan.
Direct indication in the text of the encryption of the fact that it is a response to encryption № 863/Sh


Death Warrant-11

Minsk, [Belorussian SSR 1st Secretary Vasily] Sharangovich (to Stalin – ‘In answer to your telegram…’) vh. № 1186/Sh
Sent: 7:15, 9 July 1937
Signatures: Stalin, Voroshilov, Kaganovich, Mikoyan, Chubar, Molotov, Kalinin (twice).


Death Warrant-12

Also preserved in the Russian archives are hit lists, endorsed by Stalin and his criminal company, in which they are not prescribing limits any more, but are directly decreeing who is to be shot and who is to be sent to prisons/concentration camps.

The simplified method of reviewing these lists started without Stalin (the leader of the proletariat was resting in Sochi on the 4th of October, 1936) and without registration of extracts from the minutes of Politburo meetings. They were directly making decisions on the measures of violence – on the shooting – according to the list using the simplified procedure of review, and not as before. Having shot the best part of the citizenry, the executioners were no longer hiding themselves.

The text of the note-resolution (above) says: ‘On the question of Comrade Yezhov. I agree with the proposal of Comrades Yezhov and [Andrei] Vishinsky on the measures for judicial punishment of the active participants in the Trotskyist-Zinovievite counterrevolutionary terrorist organization on the first list in the amount of 585 people. Approve. Kaganovich, Molotov, [Pavel] Postyshev, Andreyev, Voroshilov, Yezhov.’


Death Warrant-13

From February 1937 onwards, such decisions about the lists of those to be shot came ‘on stream,’ and Stalin took the most active role in their approval.

Leningrad CPSU 1st Secretary Andrei Zhdanov during WWII

Leningrad 1st Secretary Andrei Zhdanov during WWII

Only Molotov signed more death warrants. Among the signatures on these lists are those of future members of the Politburo, and even a candidate member of the Politburo – Zhdanov.

The most active signatories of the death lists of their own people were Stalin and Molotov, by which in frequency of signatures the latter led – endorsing 372 lists.

Stalin’s handwritten resolutions ‘in favor of’ and signatures were saved on 357 lists; L. Kaganovich signed 188; K.Voroshilov – 185; A. Zhdanov – 176; A. Mikoyan – 8; and the subsequently executed S. Kosior – 5 lists. The signature of Yezhov is on 8 lists.


Georgi Zhukov. Transcript of October (1957) Plenum of the Central Committee of the CPSU:


‘The lists of those arrested, which were sent to the Central Committee for approval of their condemnations, were compiled carelessly by the NKVD, with distorted surnames, names and patronymics, and some of the names in these lists were repeated two or three times. Yezhov compiled the transmittals to these lists on scraps of dirty paper. For example, in volume № 9, pp. 210, a letter is preserved from Yezhov to Stalin, written on a scrap of paper, reading: “Comrade Stalin. I am sending lists of detainees to be tried by the Military Collegium for the 1st Category. Yezhov.”

Resolution: “For the execution of all 138 persons. J. Stalin, V. Molotov.”

Among those condemned to death were [Red Air Force Commander Yakov] Alksnis, [People’s Commissar of Justice Vladimir] Antonov-Ovseyenko, [People’s Commissar for Enlightenment Andrei] Bubnov, [Leningrad Military District Commander Pavel] Dybenko, [Soviet State Planning Agency Chairman Valery] Mezhlauk, [USSR Deputy Prime Minister Janis] Rudzutaks, [People’s Commissar for Finance Vlas] Chubar, [USSR Central Executive Committee Union Council Secretary Jozef] Unszlicht and others.

The next note from Yezhov: Confidential. ‘I am sending for approval 4 lists of persons subject to the court: of 313, of 208, of 5 wives of enemies of the people, of military employees – 200 persons. Please sanction the condemnation of all of them to death. 20.VIII.38. Yezhov.’

Resolution of Stalin: ‘In favor. J. St., V. Molotov 20.VIII.’ On the same day, the 20th, the list arrived, and on the 20th they decided their fate: ‘“In favor” – and a bullet in the forehead.’

RGANI. F. 2. Op. 1. D. 225. pp. 29 ~ 55. Original. Typed; D. 259. pp. 5-7.

Typographical copy.

Published: Molotov, [Georgi] Malenkov, Kaganovich. 1957. Moscow, 1998, p. 33-41.

Death Warrant-14

In favor of the execution of 138 people. Stalin, Molotov.

138 AP RF, op. 24, case 417, sheet 211

Death Warrant-15

In this encryption Stalin personally increases the plan for executions from the requested 300 to 500 persons. What chump change!

“Особая” папка НКВД — Начало Большого террора


While it is no doubt meager consolation to the descendants of Stalin’s innocent victims, many of those who took an active role in the mass executions were themselves executed within a short time after fulfilling their violent assignments. Of those who requested an increase in the quotas for executions in their respective regions, or who actually signed the above death warrants, several were arrested and shot within one to four years of the murderous events in which they enthusiastically participated.

Executed I

Agents of the Terror who became its victims (and the year they were executed) – clockwise from top left: Abram Stolyar (1938), Boris Malyshev (1941), Nikolai Yezhov (1940), Pavel Postyshev (1939), Vlas Chubar (1939), Vasily Sharangovich (1938), Stanislav Kosior (1939), Robert Eikhe (1940)

All of the above except for NKVD Chief Nikolai Yezhov (nicknamed the ‘Poison Dwarf’ by some in the Party because he was only 5′ tall) were posthumously rehabilitated during the ‘de-Stalinization’ process of the mid- to late-1950s. Yet all had played a key role in the state-organized mass murder of innocent civilians. Under Stalin, life or death was essentially a matter of a throw of the dice, as the question of whether someone survived or perished hinged only on the whims of the mercurial tyrant or his personal favorites in the Politburo. But the excesses went even further than that. The encrypted telegrams from Soviet officials in different parts of the USSR appear at first to be unidirectional requests for permission to step up the killings. Yet a closer look reveals something different. Encrypted telegrams № 1157/Sh. (from Novosibirsk) and № 1165/Sh (from Tbilisi) expressly state that they are in response to Encryption № 863/Sh, implying at least that the initiative to increase executions in these regions came from Moscow center. Ambitious regional officials, ever eager to please the 5’4″ pockmarked tyrant in the Kremlin, stood ready to massacre thousands at a moment’s notice.

Disgraced Murderers: Stalin Politburo members (clockwise from top left) Beria, Kaganovich, Molotov, Malenkov

Disgraced agents of the Terror (clockwise from top left): Beria, Kaganovich, Molotov, Malenkov

Those who did survive were among the most guilty of all in terms of the sheer volume of execution orders they signed. Some – such as Beria, Molotov, Kaganovich and Malenkov – were condemned as reactionary allies of Stalin within a few years after the dictator’s death in 1953, expelled from the Soviet Communist Party, and never rehabilitated. Lavrenty Beria was arrested and executed by order of his fellow Politburo members about nine months after Stalin died. Being Nikolai Yezhov’s successor as chief of the NKVD, Beria was feared by his former colleagues as a threat to their lives and wellbeing. The other three lived into very old age, with Molotov – as an ancient Muscovite pensioner – eventually reacquiring his red CPSU membership card (something he had always cherished), though it came with no meaningful rank, responsibility or privilege. Malenkov never sought reentry to the Party, and is said not to have wanted it. He receded into obscurity as a family man, and was reportedly seen standing at the back of churches during services in his old age. Kaganovich, the last to die (in 1991), was bitter to the end at his expulsion from the Party, but lived as a blind old man unmolested by the authorities, occasionally spotted sitting on Moscow park benches.

Agents of the Terror who died of old age and were buried in a cemetery (L to R): Andrey Andreyev (1895-1971); Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971); Anastas Mikoyan (1898-1978)

Agents of the Terror who died of old age and were buried in a cemetery (L to R): Andrey Andreyev (Photo: Сергей Семёнов); Nikita Khrushchev; Anastas Mikoyan (Photo: Armineaghayan)

Some – such as Andreyev, Khrushchev and Mikoyan (see picture above) – are buried in Moscow’s prestigious, leafy Novodevichy Cemetery, where their relatives can come and place flowers on their ornate graves. Andreyev – a member of Stalin’s Politburo for twenty years and former deputy prime minister of the USSR – was identified by Khrushchev specifically as having ‘done a lot of bad during the repressions of 1937’, including signing death lists. But he lived almost as long as Khrushchev, and – like Khrushchev – was afforded a plot in Novodevichy. Khrushchev, who presided over the ‘de-Stalinization’ process in the Soviet Union in the 1950s, became the only Soviet leader excluded from the Kremlin Wall Necropolis. At the time of his death in 1971, the Soviet leadership did not view his political legacy very favorably. Many of the leaders in the top ranks of the Soviet hierarchy – including Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, Konstantin Chernenko and Mikhail Suslov – owed their careers to Stalin, and could reasonably be termed ‘neo-Stalinists’ in their approach to government. They did not appreciate their late patron’s consignment to historical disgrace. Yet Khrushchev’s exclusion from the Necropolis can be viewed as more blessing than curse. Even though he too had directed much of the Terror and taken an active role in purges and executions, he could at least claim (posthumously) a degree of humanity relative to those former members of Stalin’s Politburo buried in or around the Kremlin Wall. A person’s quality as a human being can often be measured by looking at the clubs that do not admit them. In that sense, Khrushchev’s political legacy smells slightly less rotten than those of his most prominent contemporaries. Mikoyan signed some of the NKVD death lists, but went on to become Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet (de jure head of state), dying peacefully in 1978. He had been instrumental in suppressing expressions of self-determination in his native Armenia.

Agents of the Terror honored as heroes in today's Russia (clockwise from top right): Andrei Zhdanov, Mikhail Kalinin, Kliment Voroshilov, Joseph Stalin

Agents of the Terror honored as heroes in today’s Russia (counter-clockwise from top right): Andrei Zhdanov, Mikhail Kalinin, Kliment Voroshilov, Joseph Stalin

But others – such as Voroshilov, Zhdanov, Kalinin, and indeed Stalin himself – are memorialized in a place of the highest honor, in the Kremlin Wall Necropolis behind the Lenin Mausoleum in Red Square. These are people who took part in Stalin’s late-night ‘death-warrant signing parties,’ consigning faceless civilians to death with the stroke of a red, blue or sometimes even a pink pencil. Voroshilov put his signature on no fewer than 185 death lists; Zhdanov on 176. Voroshilov was a military man without military talent, a mediocrity kept in office by Stalin from the early years. As Stalin’s meat grinder liquidated the most talented officers in the Soviet armed forces in the 1930s, Voroshilov was content to occupy the highest military office in the land while watching his fellow officers killed in large numbers, leaving a decimated military by the time of the German invasion of 1941. After Stalin’s death, he rose to become Soviet head of state. Zhdanov had the honor of having his name attached to a policy of cultural repression in the USSR – the ‘Zhdanovshchina’ – involving censorship and persecution of artists, writers, musicians and other creative figures. He succumbed to his alcoholism and died in a sanatorium in 1948 at the age of 52, but before that he had been Stalin’s heir apparent as Soviet leader. Kalinin was a complete non-entity and close Stalin ally from the time of Lenin. He eventually rose to become titular head of state, but in fact his entire political career consisted of titular positions. He put his signature on death lists Stalin put in front of him, just as he signed anything else Stalin put in front of him. In short, there was no rhyme or reason to who was executed and who was allowed to live in the Soviet Union of the 1930s. Those who survived appeared no better as a class than those murdered by the NKVD, and certainly none of the Stalin-era figures honored in the Kremlin Wall Necropolis resemble anything reasonably associated with decent human beings. The nostalgia of Putin’s Russia for the Soviet past is, in reality, a macabre, ugly absurdity. No wonder, then, that so many Ukrainians want to be free of Moscow’s insane political circus once and for all.

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