Stalin's years of tyranny wrought permanent legacy of fear

December 19, 2004|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Special to the Sun

Stalin and His Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him

By Donald Rayfield. Random House. 576 pages. $29.95.

Working and living in Russia for eight years, I found myself asking one question again and again. I never got a satisfying answer.

Watching as they suffered, patiently and endlessly, reporting as their government robbed them, falsely imprisoned them and sometimes even killed them, I wanted to know why Russians rarely fought back. Why weren't they storming the Kremlin, demanding jobs, justice and decent government?

People would usually sigh, polite but weary of American naivete. "We tried revolution," they would say, "It didn't work."

I returned home to Baltimore in 2001, full of admiration and affection for the people of Russia, but wishing I truly understood them.

Donald Rayfield's deeply unsettling and impressively detailed account of how Stalin rose to power and held it until felled by a stroke in March 1953 offers a blood-curdling reminder of the revolution's legacy. Instead of justice, Soviet citizens got a regime of psychopathic murderers who killed widely and randomly. Those who survived learned silence.

A professor of Russian and Georgian at the University of London, Rayfield took advantage of new access to Soviet-era archives to document the way Stalin selected and manipulated those who would kill for him, all the time on the lookout for new blood -- the kind that would not hesitate to mark a promotion by spilling the old blood.

The pages of this book -- and it is a very long one -- are full of blood and names. Much of it centers on the secret police, which was formed within six weeks of the October Revolution and directed the murder that would follow.

Civil war and Red Terror, Rayfield writes, made summary arrest and execution standard procedure. Death was the ultimate problem solver.

"What to do?" Lenin had said. "Who to blame?"

The Bolsheviks drew up lists of those to blame for conspiring against them. In 1919, the secret police ordered all of the Boy Scouts in Moscow shot; the next year, everyone in the lawn tennis club.

By 1929, workers were hungry; their factories badly run, producing low-quality goods at high cost. Someone would have to take responsibility, and it would be the peasants. Up to 10.8 million died, from starvation or execution, as Stalin terrorized them into handing over their grain and moving onto collective farms.

When it came to guilt, investigation was irrelevant. The best evidence was a confession. Blame was transformed from proof of responsibility to a means of staying in power.

Today's leaders, though hardly the madmen of the Stalin era, have inherited a system little changed. Confessions remain far more valuable than evidence. When 243 people were killed in apartment bombings in the fall of 1999, the rubble was bulldozed into oblivion within a few days and Chechen terrorists blamed for the attacks, justifying a new war against Chechnya.

Rayfield describes President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer, as in a direct line of succession to Stalin's secret police. Russian society has never confronted -- or repudiated -- the Stalin era.

Until Russians force the state to account for itself, Rayfield argues, the past will hover over them, ready to return.

When Russians say they tried a revolution, they are remembering how millions of their forebears suffered and died seeking justice -- 2 million soldiers died on the Bolshevik side alone during the revolution and civil war.

That was only the beginning.

The legacy of arbitrary state power, rooted not in justice but blame, survives. Nearly everyone assumes he can be found guilty of something, should the state require it. Better to suffer quietly.

Who would be so naive as to protest?

Kathy Lally, a former reporter and editor for The Sun, did two tours in the newspaper's Moscow Bureau.

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