The Bolshevik

The Bolshevik
A painting from 1920 by Russian artist Boris Mikhailovich Kustodiev (1878–1927) currently in the possession of The Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.

09 July 2012

Personal Misuse of Security Services

How the First Two Leaders of the Soviet Union Abused the Cheka/OGPU and the NKVD/MVD for Personal Gain

The obelisk monument in Volgograd to the Cheka. Volgograd was known during the Soviet Era as Stalingrad - the location of some of the greatest losses of human life during the Great Patriotic War (WWII) and the site of the first major military defeat of the Nazis at the hands of the Red Army. The monument is topped with a soldier holding a sword pointed at the sky and the lower section has a large, probably brass or bronze, sword and shield motif that became synonymous with both branches of the Soviet State Security organizations at the time - the NKVD and the NKGB which was the foreign intelligence component of the NKVD during the war. After the war's end, the NKGB was given its independence again as a foreign intelligence service soon known as the MGB or "Ministry of State Security" for a few years until the final and most well-known name was given as the Ministry was reduced to Committee status ("Komitet") in 1954 from fear on the part of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union that the seemingly omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent NKVD had become under Stalin and Beria (the latter was tried and executed not long after the former's death).

This section will serve as a brief refresher on the early security services (i.e. Cheka through MGB) which were the most directly controlled by the leaders of the Soviet Union at the time - in particular, Lenin and then Stalin. 

Below is a short, almost "note" with a deadly order scribbled on it by Lenin himself. It was displayed earlier in a prior chapter, but the significance bears showing it again. The handwritten letter very clearly establishes that the leadership in the Bolsheviks was not concerned with the rights of non-Russians together with a handful of adopted members of other regions that were either joining the USSR and becoming the first of the original 10 republics, as Lenin and his immediate successor Josef Stalin (See "The Spread of Chekist Ideas and Ideals at a High Moral Cost, Part I: The Fear of the 'Disappearing' Citizen" April of 2011). The letter is a hand-written example of an order to Chekist troops and possibly a few soldiers drawn in to aid them in a massacre. The following is an English translation of the text of the letter provided by Smithsonian translators:
Send to Penza to Comrades Kuraev, Minkin, and other Penza communists

     Comrades! The revolt by the five kulak* volosts** must be suppressed without mercy. The interests of the entire revolution demands this, because we have now before us our final decisive battle [with the kulaks]. We need to set an example.
1. You need to hang (hang without fail, so that the public sees) at least 100 notorious kulaks, the rich, and the bloodsuckers.
2. Publish their names.
3. Take away all of their grain.
4. Execute the hostages - in accordance with yesterday's telegram.
     This needs to be accomplished in such a way that people for hundreds of miles around will see, tremble, know and scream out: let's choke and strangle those bloodsucking kulaks.

     Telegraph us acknowledging receipt and execution of this.


P.S. Use your toughest people for this.”

[Note: *A "kulak" is Russian derogatory slang for a peasant who had accumulated some manner of modest wealth. **A “volost” was a territorial/administrative unit consisting of a few villages and surrounding land.]

This is a photostatic copy of a handwritten letter from Lenin in 1918 to authorities in the Penza Province about 600 miles southeast of Moscow and a grain farming region. Lenin's letter orders the hanging of 100 "Kulak farmers" to set an example for others who opposed his plans.

Above is a photostatic copy from the U.S. Smithsonian Institution's collection of declassified Soviet material that was part of a traveling exhibit in 1998.
The language used in this order is strikingly similar in its vulgar brutality to some of the ones jotted down in thick, sometimes colored pencil over typed intelligence reports by Stalin when he disagreed from paranoia, denial and or delusion with what the sources of the reports had observed.

Lenin issued the decree which officially created the Cheka (VCheka) on December 20, 1917 as an "emergency" (i.e. temporary) body to combat counter-revolutionary activities and saboteurs that might jeopardize the stability of the newly formed Bolshevik Communist government. Lenin chose Polish-born Bolshevik radical Felix Dzerzhinsky to head the Cheka and under his reign the suppressive activities of the Cheka grew to include a practically ever-widening set of people who might be in opposition to the government and included money or goods speculators and wealthy land-owners and merchants. To the Bolsheviks and later the Soviets, "wealthy" was defined as anyone owning more than 10,000 Rubles worth of property of any kind, which would include the aforementioned kulaks.

Others on the "potential" enemy of the state list created by the Cheka in 1918 included all members of the Russian Orthodox clergy, anyone in military or civil service that was suspected of secretly working for the former Imperial government (White Russians) or anyone in the worker-peasant category who showed any sign of not supporting the Soviet government. Obviously, this sort of loosely defined set of potential counter-revolutionaries left the door wide open for agents of the Cheka to operate with impunity in deciding who was a threat to the new government. Moreover, with the powers of arrest, trial and execution, Cheka agents were susceptible to all sorts of abuse of power and corruption. Most likely, there will never be an accurate count of the number of people wrongfully imprisoned and/or executed at the hands of the Cheka and the subsequent security agencies - especially the NKVD during Stalin's reign and his campaigns of terror.

An ailing Lenin sitting with Joseph Stalin in 1922.***
Lenin finally died on January 21, 1924 at the age of 54. He had survived two failed assassination attempts (the second resulting in a bullet wound to the neck) which only served to enhance his cult of personality status among his supporters. He subsequently suffered three strokes before succumbing to his poor health. However, when he could still speak, Lenin made it clear to those closest to him that Stalin, who had been the Communist Party General Secretary since 1922. In compiled papers dictated during his final years and published as Lenin's Testiment, "Lenin reported [of Stalin] that the 'unlimited authority' concentrated in him was unacceptable, and suggested that 'comrades think about a way of removing Stalin from that post.' His phrasing, 'Сталин слишком груб,' implies 'personal rudeness, unnecessary roughness, lack of finesse,' flaws 'intolerable in a Secretary-General.'"** Unfortunately, Stalin had other plans.

This is presumably the last photo taken of Vladimir I. Lenin before he died. At this point in his life, Lenin was struck mute by his third stroke in 1923 and was confined to bed.****

 1924: Pallbearers escort the body of Lenin with Felix Dzerzhinsky at the front of the procession.

NOTE: For video footage taken during the time Lenin's body was first "on viewing," please follow this YouTube link:

"Under the leadership of the great Stalin - forward towards Communism!" One of thousands of pro-Stalin propaganda posters drawn up to make Stalin seem more like a "man of the people."

Despite, or possibly because of his broken but compelling personality, Stalin began to trust only himself and his initial ideas and thoughts. People "close" to Stalin in the form of his favored people of the military and government were most certainly wondering even in the smallest recesses of their minds whether their dictator would get angry with them - meaning death or arrest, and given the conditions and life expectancy in a Siberian forced labor camp, death might have been welcome. It is difficult to tell how much of a "cult of personality" Stalin had or how much most people feared for their own lives and those of their friends' and families'. After the person most responsible for the Red Army's victory over Germany, Marshal Zhukov, was sent to a command post over 800 miles from Moscow, the Central Committee and the rest of the millions in the city who admired him as the "Hero who saved the Soviet Union" were left to look upon Stalin or look upon death.

Stalin was overly concerned about being the center of any praise and glory in his Moscow. In fact, he was so wrapped up in the notion that he was actually in control of the military as the Red Army and Navy's commander and chief only by accident of self-appointment, that he ignored intelligence from both the Red Army's GRU and agents of the OGPU that warned of the impending initial attack on the USSR by German soldiers massing at the western border in 1941. According to a BBC documentary, War of the Century, a declassified intelligence report from someone with the last name Merkloff was typed up and sent straight to Stalin saying that the Germans were "poised to attack at any moment." Stalin scribbled in colored crayon or what are often called "grease pencils" over the type: "Comrade Merkloff, you can send your source from the headquarters of the German Air Force to his fucking mother. He is not a source. He is a disinformant"  (BBC).

Stalin was known by his followers in the general public as an eloquent spokesman, behind closed doors, he was just as vulgar as any common man. 

The first page of a memo from the head of the NKVD, Lavrenti Beria, in March of 1940 to "Comrade Stalin" proposing the use of the armed military branch of the NKVD to execute Polish Army officers and members of the Polish national police department who are suspected (by Beria) of being sympathetic or even members of the Nazi Party, or simply being "anti-revolutionary" themselves. At the very beginning of the letter, Beria begins by saying that "In NKVD POW camps in the USSR and in particular in the "...prisons in the western regions of Ukraine and Belarus, there are a large number of former Polish Army officers and policemen..." - many of whom belong to "rebel organizations." The document bears the letterhead of the NKVD (top left corner), the Russian text for "Top Secret" (upper right corner) and the signatures of Stalin and possibly other high-ranking members of the Soviet regime over the original text to indicate they had read it. This is likely the starting point for what was later referred to as the Katyn Massacre of 1940 in which about 4000 Polish personnel were executed and buried in a mass grave in the Katyn Forest after being taken prisoner during the Soviet invasion of Poland in support of the Nazi attack on the same country. According to a comment posted below, "The signatures on the Katyn order from Beria are from top to bottom: Stalin, Voroshilov, Molotov, and Mikoyan." Kliment Voroshilov was a Marshal of the Soviet Union and one of Stalin's top advisors. Vyacheslav Molotov and Anastas Mikoyan were also in Stalin's "inner circle" (at least at the time of this memo). In addition, the two smaller signatures in the left margin of the document are those of Mikhail Kalinin and Lazar Kaganovich, two of the longest surviving original members of the Bolsheviks who had come to power after the October Revolution. Many of these early members did not survive Stalin's "purges." 

Stalin always stood in the shadow of Lenin and perhaps that is what fueled his paranoid insanity and homicidal nature. Whatever the cause, the result of shifting the security services around during the 1930s was that the line between the OGPU and the NKVD blurred. By the original decree (or Указ, pronounced "Ukaz"), the OGPU strictly handled foreign intelligence and the NKVD had control of internal affairs and counterintelligence (the meaning of the last two letters of the acronym which stood literally for People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs). 

For a short documentary excerpt from a Discovery Channel piece: Stalin's Secret Police with rare footage regarding the beginning of the Cheka and the eventual abuse of its successor, the NKVD by Stalin, see the following YouTube link:
"For the Motherland!, For Stalin!, For Peace! [trans.: or "For the World!"], For Communism!" Another propaganda poster linking a vote for Stalin as a vote for all the things good Soviet citizens were supposed to support and favor in their current lives. Considering the elections were a sham, this had a secondary effect of letting the people continue under the delusion that their individual votes mattered in such elections.

Regardless, Stalin used the NKVD as his private security service throughout the globe, ordering assassinations of Soviet expatriates and in the case of some like Leon Trotsky "enemies of the state." During the same time period, it is well known that the NKVD directly trained certain aspects of the Nazi Gestapo and was the model on which the German secret police was formed. During the 1930s as the Nazi military machine grew ominously in secret, many NKVD agents worked and collaborated with the fascist security service when seemingly innocuous tasks were requested such as arrest and extradition back to Germany of wanted persons, execution of deserters from the German Army crossing into Soviet territory and complicity in a myriad of other joint operations, some included the execution of Jews simply on the word of Gestapo agents.

The reality behind all the propaganda was that Soviet citizens were publicly hung at Stalin's orders (much as Lenin had ordered of the kulak classes) as "bandits" and any number of other names while avoiding calling them "counter-revolutionaries" directly for fear of additional anti-Soviet sentiment among the populace which might cause more rebellions and further problems for the security services of the Soviet Union.
Another photo similar to the previous one in which unfortunate, and possibly innocent souls were about to be hung for trumped-up crimes by officers of the Stalin-controlled state security services.

These two agencies had a strong link well into the actual war, and a significant number of neutral people claim the NKVD helped  thousands of Nazi war criminals disappear by giving them new identities and even forged visas (official ones were available to Argentina where many Nazis fled to the welcoming arms of Juan and Eva (Evita) Perón). Some of these former Nazis proved useful to the Central Committee and the Red Army as the leaders of the country sought the technology and know-how to make their own atomic bomb. Both the leaders of the United States and of the Soviet Union - and to a lesser degree the United Kingdom - sought out either defectors or in rarer cases abducted German scientists and put them to work immediately under new identities as the Cold War was unofficially underway. 

For original, color footage from the above parade - 1938 "Blooming Youth Sports Parade," click the following YouTube link: Take note of the people marching behind the image of Felix Dzerzhinsky and of the Chekist symbol of the shield and sword - the two items each of the marchers is equiped with to represent the Cheka-OGPU-NKVD. This is some very rare footage.
 Since the NKVD were omnipresent in all life and travel documentation within the Soviet Union and by extension through customs the issuing of international passports (with approval stamps of the NKVD), they were able to generate new birth certificates and/or death certificates for Nazis who needed to be "executed" and "reborn" depending on how infamous the original name was. Moreover, if someone needed a non-Russian identity, there were departments of the NKVD that specialized in foreign documents for any number of reasons and was especially busy from 1945 to about 1953 as demand tapered and post-war "de-Stalinization" after the dictator was officially announced dead from a stroke on March 5 of that year.

In 1945-46, most people fleeing Germany and the Eastern European countries which had been caught between the fascists from the West and the communists from the East. From drafted soldiers stuck in Berlin as the Red Army stormed it to high-ranking members of the Nazi party/military, both sought the "golden ticket" available to many of the aimless people wandering around attempting to separate their original identities from their newly assumed identities. This "golden ticket" was the Red Cross temporary passport. A birth certificate was all people really needed to quickly get a special post-war Red Cross Passport that listed them as refugees and was accepted by nearly every country.

The NKVD printed and maintained all birth and death certificates in addition to all other necessary travel documents for citizens of the Soviet Union. With the masses of people shifting around in all parts of Europe, including hundreds of thousands of Jews trying to get to the newly recreated Israel in the midst of Palestine and the millions of other people simply left homeless by one side or both, identity documents were more important to many than food. The irony is that falsified documents from a number of Eastern European countries under the temporary operation of the NKVD's border troops were typically fairly easy to come by. However, Stalin had to make a public example of fascists still on Soviet soil just as he was quietly doing to his own troops captured by the Germans and shipped back, very much against their will in most cases, to the USSR after fighting ceased in 1945. They had been told what awaited many of them upon returning to the Soviet Union where many would be tried as traitors, found guilty and imprisoned or executed simply because they had been captured. To Stalin these POWs were all potential "enemies of the state" who had been turned by their fascist captors.

This line of thinking is consistent with Stalin's irrational fear of Lenin's shadow and anyone who had exposure to Western culture without the proper training beforehand. When the Soviet Union officially claimed that there were no more prisoners of war remaining on Soviet soil, the fate of those kept behind was sealed - prison, death or service in the USSR for advancement in the battle with the new "Main Adversary" - the United States of America and its fledgling Central Intelligence Agency - the first non-military foreign intelligence agency in that country. By "service," the Soviets did as the United States had done in utilizing former German scientists (along with a great deal of successful espionage into the "Manhattan Project") to help them to create their own atomic/nuclear weapons.

Stalin in his death pose before burial; photographed by Dmitri Baltermants*****
"It has been suggested that Stalin was assassinated. His Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov claimed that Beria had boasted to him that he poisoned Stalin: 'I took him out.'" Khrushchev wrote in his memoirs that Beria had, immediately after the stroke, gone about "spewing hatred against [Stalin] and mocking him," and then, when Stalin showed signs of consciousness, dropped to his knees and kissed his hand. When Stalin fell unconscious again, Beria immediately stood and spat. Later autopsies found that Stalin ingested a flavorless and powerful rat poison. Indeed, Stalin's death arrived at a convenient time for many who feared an imminent purge."*****

Stalin died on March 1, 1953.

* Photo from:
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1 comment:

  1. The signatures on the Katyn order from Beria are from top to bottom: Stalin, Voroshilov, Molotov, and Mikoyan.