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Special Tasks: The Memoirs of an Unwanted Witness - A Soviet Spymaster.

Among the boons of the collapse of communism to historians have been the appearance of a rash of books illuminating the inner workings of the Soviet secret police during the Stalinist and post-Stalinist periods (the works of Genrikh Borovik, Yuri Modin, and John Costello and Oleg Tsarev, to cite a few examples). Despite their obsession with the "Fabulous Five" of Kim Philby, Donald McLean, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt, and John Cairncross, such works are finally opening the doors to the mysterious world of Soviet intelligence and skulduggery. Pavel Sudoplatov's Special Tasks is the best of the genre thus far and the reviewer has no reservations in agreeing with Robert Conquest's assertion in the foreword to the book that this is "the most sensational, the most devastating, and in many ways the most informative autobiography ever to emerge from the Stalinist milieu." As Sudoplatov spent the greater part of his career under Lavrentii Beria, it is most appropriate that Amy Knight's fine biography, the first serious study of this longest-serving of all Stalin's secret police chiefs, also appeared at the same time as the Special Tasks.

Pavel Sudoplatov began his career in the N.K.V.D. (the Soviet security forces) under the stewardships of Genrikh Iagoda (1934-36) and Nikolai Ezhov (1936-38) before Beria placed him in charge of a section devoted to special operations, which included murders and espionage. In early 1944 Beria appointed him to head the liaison group between the intelligence service and the Soviet equivalent of the Manhattan Project to produce the atomic bomb under the gifted physicist Igor Kurchatov. It is unfortunate that most of the discussion of the Special Tasks so far has centred around the "atomic spies" issue, particularly in the United States. In 431 pages of text, about fifty pages are devoted to the atomic question; yet this single chapter, consisting of some 10 per cent of the book, has received most of the publicity, deflecting attention from its true merits. In the chapter on the "atomic spies," Sudoplatov implies that the great western scientists involved in the Manhattan project - Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, Leo Szilard, and Neils Bohr - were all Soviet spies during World War II. It has been known for a long time that Klaus Fuchs, the German-British scientist, and Bruno Pontecorvo, Fermi's former associate, were Soviet agents and that David Greenglass and Harry Gold, and perhaps even Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, were members of a spy network which passed on atomic secrets to the Kremlin. While a great deal of what the author says about the Soviet atomic establishment and Moscow's spying activities in the United States seems plausible, his charges against Oppenheimer and the other scientists are not supported by any serious evidence.

As a result of the excessive preoccupation with the "atomic spies," the new information that Sudoplatov produces on the assassinations of Yevhen Konovalets, Sergei Kirov, and Leon Trotsky, the circumstances of Leon Sedov's (Trotsky's son) death, the assassination plots against the Nazi leaders during the war, the Raoul Wallenberg affair and many others have received short shrift in the press and television. Konovalets, a disciple of Simon Petliura, was the leader of the so-called Ukrainian Nationalist Organization which had as its goal the liberation of the Ukraine from the Soviet Union. Sudoplatov had succeeded in infiltrating the organization in 1935 posing as a courier between western Europe and the Soviet Union, winning the trust of Konovalets. He supplied Konovalets with bogus intelligence at periodic meetings in Paris, Berlin, and other places. In late 1937, while at the centre in Moscow, Sudoplatov was summoned to Ezhov's office in the Lubianka and suddenly, without any advance notice, the N.K.V.D. chief took him to see Stalin in his Kremlin office. It was the first of Sudoplatov's three meetings with the dictator. At a second meeting soon after Stalin gave orders to murder Konovalets. In the spring of 1938 after lunching with Konovalets in a restaurant in the centre of Rotterdam, he gave his friend a box of chocolates. A few minutes after Sudoplatov's departure, Konovalets was blown to bits. The account is so graphic and chilling that it is impossible to convey the power of the author's description in a review. Only rarely do we get an opportunity to read about a political assassination by the assassin himself.

Although dismissed by Dmitrii Volkogonov and others, Sudoplatov's theory about the Kirov murder is as credible as any of the other versions in circulation at present. According to the author (and he does provide very sound circumstantial evidence), Milda Draule, an attractive Jewish girl and the wife of Leonid Nikolaev, Kirov's assassin, was having an affair with the Leningrad party boss. The jealous husband, a known neurotic and troublemaker, then sought revenge in murder. This crime passionnel was exploited by Stalin to fabricate the existence of secret conspiracies in the Soviet Union and to introduce the purges and the show trials. Later Khrushchev and Gorbachev could not let it be known to the Russian people that one of the party's icons "was a lecher involved in a string of marital infidelities" (p. 51). Sudoplatov also adds that Kirov kept several mistresses from the Bolshoi and Leningrad ballets (the latter to be rechristened the Kirov Ballet subsequently) and certain ballerinas in Leningrad considered Milda Draule one of their rivals. Hence, Stalin's successors tried to preserve the fiction that the dictator had been opposed by healthy elements in the leadership led by Kirov and that he would have been a sound replacement for Stalin. As Sudoplatov points out, this notion is an absurdity: Kirov was an essential feature of the Stalinist apparatus; he was a committed Stalinist and an active purger of the opposition on many occasions, and he was only marginally different from others in the dictator's inner circle.

The main outline of Trotsky's assassination had been already pieced together more than thirty years ago in the works of Isaac Don Levine, Isaac Deutscher, and others. However, in a riveting chapter entitled "The assassination of Trotsky" Sudoplatov provides the fullest and best account of the murder. In the reviewer's opinion this section of the book is of historic significance and with it now we have the complete story of the assassination: Stalin's personal role, the planning of the project and its execution. There is an incredible amount of new material on the shadowy figure of Leonid Eitingon, the stage manager of the operation against Trotsky under the overall supervision of Sudoplatov, and his partners in crime, Caridad Mercader and her son Ramon, who eventually crushed the former Red Army chiefs head with a mountain climber's pickaxe. Ramon Mercader told the author in 1969: "If we were to relive the 1940s I would do the same thing, but not in the present-day world" (p. 81). As the chief planner of Trotsky's assassination, this is how Sudoplatov justifies himself: "The order to eliminate Trotsky did not surprise us, because for ten years the OGPU and NKVD had been engaged in war with Trotsky and his organization. For us, enemies of the state were personal enemies" (p. 69).

Sudoplatov disputes the view current in the west for a long time that Trotsky's son, Leon Sedov, who died under mysterious circumstances after an appendix operation in February 1938 in Paris, was murdered by the N.K.V.D. Although he was under close surveillance by Soviet agents, according to the author, the N.K.V.D. played no part in his death. The author also provides some interesting information on Aleksandr Orlov's activities in Spain during the civil war and how his defection to the west caused problems in the arrangements for the Trotsky assassination.

Sudoplatov claims that by December 1941 a N.K.V.D. hit squad was in place in Berlin to assassinate Nazi leaders. When the agents reported from Berlin in 1942 that Goring could be taken out easily, Stalin let it be known that the Reichmarschall was not worth the trouble. While Stalin was interested in liquidating Hitler in 1941 at the outbreak of the war, he decided against it after the German defeat in Stalingrad in early 1943. Stalin feared that if Hitler was eliminated the rest of the Nazi leadership would be ousted by the German generals who would then sign a separate peace treaty with the Allies without Soviet participation. According to Sudoplatov, Stalin already suspected such a conspiracy in the 1942 meeting in Ankara between Cardinal Roncalli (the future Pope John XXIII) and Franz von Papen, the German ambassador to Turkey. He thought that the British and Americans were behind the meeting and ordered the assassination of Papen. The attempt was bungled with the Bulgarian assassin killing himself and only slightly wounding Papen.

In an engrossing section on Raoul Wallenberg, the courageous Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews, Sudoplatov says that Stalin and Molotov whisked him out of Budapest in January 1945 to blackmail him into becoming a Soviet agent in dealing with the west. Wallenberg refused and died on 17 July 1947, probably through a poisonous injection administered in the guise of medical treatment. For the next four decades the Soviet government denied any knowledge of his whereabouts.

Sudoplatov fell along with Beria in 1953, although he was not shot like his chief and the chiefs closest associates. He was tried and sentenced to fifteen years in jail which he served in full. Given his personal travails, Sudoplatov, naturally, paints Beria in better terms than we are used to seeing him portrayed and he is extremely critical of Khrushchev. Yet he grudgingly admits that a stint in Khrushchev's jail was preferable to incarceration in the balmier days of Stalin and Beria.

As Amy Knight says, it is indeed "one of Soviet History's great ironies that Stalin and Beria, two of its most notorious political villains, were both born and raised in Georgia, a country renowned for the beauty and charm of its people, as well as for its rich cultural history" (p. 11). Stalin's and Beria's early life had certain features in common. Stalin's mother, Ekaterina, and Beria's mother, Marta, were both extremely pious and had to bring up their children on their own. Also as with Stalin, there is very little on the early Beria. From an emigre source, some archival material and certain glasnost' revelations, Knight has put together an acceptable account of the early years and political formation of Beria: his Mingrelian background, his studies at the Baku Polytechnic School for Mechanical Construction and his stint as a Bolshevik spy in the Musavat party, which governed an independent Azerbaidzhan for an eighteen-month period between November 1918 and April 1920, before the territory was absorbed back into the Russian fold. Despite his exoneration by a commission in 1920, the spell as a spy was to haunt Beria for the rest of his life.

Beria was very fortunate in that he caught the eye of several leading members of the Azerbaidzhan Communist Party in the early 1920s who were to become part of Stalin's inner circle. Among them were the future politburo members Sergei Kirov and Sergo Ordzhonikidze. After joining the Cheka (Extraordinary Commission for Fighting Counterrevolution and Sabotage) in Azerbaidzhan at its formation in April 1920, Beria was transferred to Tbilisi in the wake of the Bolshevik ouster of the Georgian Menshevik government in early 1921. By the late 1920s, in spite of his reputation as an unsavoury character, Beria had built up a loyal following among Georgian chekists with whom he had worked in Azerbaidzhan. The cabal of young chekists - Vladimir Dekanozov, Avksentii Rapava, Lavrentii Tsanava, Aleksei Sadzhaia, Shota Tsereteli, Nikolai Rukhadze (all Georgians), Vsevolod Merkulov, Bogdan Kobulov (Armenians), and Solomon Mil'shtein (a Polish Jew) - later known derisively as the "Beria Gang," first rose to power in Georgia under Beria's patronage, subsequently followed him to Moscow and fell with him in 1953. To use a mafia analogy, Beria was a sort of capo di tutti capi surrounded by these subsidiary dons and consiglieri. In the last analysis, we have to agree, as Amy Knight does, with the Georgian writer Geronti Kikodze's depiction of the Georgian Cheka: "In the [Georgian] Cheka, the ranks of investigator, secret agent, commander and executioner were filled by men without kith or kin, who in most cases knew no trade, had no education and were skilled only in espionage and murder. Some were sadists by nature, some entered the service as insurance for themselves" (p. 31).

It is unclear when Stalin and Beria first met, but, by the late 1920s, the latter often visited Stalin during his annual summer vacations at Gagra, near Sochi, on the Black Sea. Beria also exploited his friendship at the time with Ordzhonikidze, Stalin's viceroy in the Caucasus, who moved to Moscow in 1926 to head several powerful party and government offices, by furnishing him with additional nasty tales about leading Georgian officials, knowing full well that the information would be passed on to the vozhd'. In an endless series of intrigues, superbly told by Knight, in less than a decade from 1926 to 1934 Beria had clawed his way to the top: Chairman of the Georgian G.P.U., Georgian Central Committee member, Georgian Party First Secretary, and Transcaucasian Party First Secretary. In his ascent to the pinnacle of power, Beria intrigued and conspired successfully to get rid of four Transcaucasion Party First Secretaries - Mamia Orakhelashvili, A.I. Krinitskii, V.V. Lominadze, and A.I. Kartvelishvili - and several Georgian Party First Secretaries, including Mikhail Kakhiani and Levan Geogoberidze. Despite a constant stream of complaints from the Caucasus and his legendary ignorance (it was said among the Transcaucasian party intelligentsia that Beria had not read a single book "since the time of Gutenberg"), Stalin would not move against him. There were a number of reasons for this. Unlike Orakhelashvili and other Transcaucasian leaders, Beria was a strong supporter of Stalin's accelerated pace of his antikulak and collectivization campaigns. When Stalin suddenly shifted his policy in March 1930, blaming local communists and calling a halt to rapid collectivization with his "Dizzy with Success" article, Beria, too, managed to shift the blame to others. As Amy Knight writes, Beria's political fortunes were certainly furthered by his ability to ingratiate himself with Stalin directly. They became even greater after the publication of his infamous ghost-written book entitled On the History of Bolshevik Organization in Transcaucasia, where Beria elevated Stalin to the position of First Bolshevik of Transcaucasia. In the process of embellishing Stalin's role as the single-handed founder of the Bolshevik movement in Transcaucasia, other eminent Transcaaucasian Bolsheviks, including Avel Enukidze, Filipp Makharadze, and Mamia Orakhelashvili, were reduced to "falsifiers of history," counterrevolutionaries or enemies of the people. A number of ghost-writers who worked on the book were shot.

While there is no evidence that Beria was directly involved in the Kirov murder, he was certainly Stalin's executioner in Georgia in its aftermath. Many outstanding Transcaucasian Bolsheviks - Budu Mdivani, Mikhail Okudzhava, A.G. Khandzhian, Nestor Lakoba, Enukidze, and Orakhelashvili, to mention some - perished. Some were shot after the usual show trials as in Moscow; others, like Lakoba, died mysteriously. The Georgian intelligentsia, consisting of writers, artists, orchestra conductors, scholars, and others, suffered particularly savage repressions.

When Beria was appointed deputy to the N.K.V.D. chief, Ezhov, in the summer of 1938, according to some sources, he had no idea that the new job was a promotion and that the vozhd' was grooming him for Ezhov's powerful position. Apparently, he was reluctant to leave his Georgian fiefdom. After the removal of Ezhov in late 1938, Beria held the post of N.K.V.D. chief until his own execution in 1953. As soon as he became the head of the N.K.V.D., Beria began to replace Ezhov's men at the centre in key positions with his own people brought from Georgia. Merkulov says that in 1939 "so many of us came [to Moscow] from Georgia that later Beria had to send some back, because Stalin had noticed it." As in Moscow, Beria placed his creatures to head the N.K.V.D. at the regional and republican levels: Sergei Goglidze in Leningrad, Grigorii Karanadze in the Crimea, Tsanava in Belorussia, Sadzhia in Uzbekistan, and Rapava in Georgia.

Amy Knight competently discusses issues like the N.K.V.D. penetration of the Commissariat of Foreign Affairs, the dismissal of Litvinov, the Katyn massacre of Polish officers in the summer of 1940, Beria's slave empire, and Stalin's refusal in the spring and early summer of 1941 to accept in the face of overwhelming evidence that Hitler was getting ready to attack. Although Beria was in possession of solid intelligence reports from various sources about the impending German invasion, he found it prudent to play along with Stalin's inexplicable rejection of the disclosures of his own intelligence services.

On the basis of Khrushchev's memoirs, and various earlier reports, it was generally thought in the west that the Nazi invasion had totally paralyzed Stalin into inaction for several weeks. From the recent publication of material from the Soviet archives, noted by both Sudoplatov and Knight, it is clear that on the evening of 21 June, and the next morning until noon, Stalin received a stream of visitors in his Kremlin office. He held eleven hours of meetings with party, state, and military leaders - Molotov, Voroshilov, Beria, Timoshenko, and Zhukov, to mention a few - on the day of the invasion. The tide of visitors to Stalin's office continued unabated for the next several days. In view of this, much of what Khrushchev says in his memoirs about Stalin during the war becomes suspect.

From Knight's discussion of the deportation of national minorities in 1943 and 1944 - Karachai, Kalmyks, Chechen, Ingush, Balkars, and the Crimean Tatars, as well as the earlier deportation of thousands of Volga Germans in August 1941 - it is obvious that Beria, far from being an Eichmann-like executor of the leader's will, was at times the initiator of some of these expulsions. While in Chechnia in February 1944 to oversee the deportation of Chechens and Ingush, Beria wrote to Stalin suggesting the inclusion of the Balkars in the scheme as well. Stalin required no persuasion.

Beria and the N.K.V.D. often kept information from Zhukov and the military. Zhukov, for instance, did not know that Hitler's body had been found. Beria also spread nasty rumours about the chief of the General Staff to arouse Stalin's suspicions. He successfully bugged Roosevelt's quarters during the Teheran conference and secretly taped the conversations between the American president and Winston Churchill. The tapes were translated by Beria's 19-year old son, Sergo, who had accompanied his father to Teheran, at Stalin's behest. Sergo Beria, fluent in English and German, divulged this information to the authors of a book about him, the excerpts of which appeared recently in the Kievskie Novosti.

Amy Knight's treatment of the postwar issues are also informative and interesting: the campaign against "rootless cosmopolitanism," the Mingrelian Affair, the doctor's plot, the death of Stalin, and the fall and execution of Beria. Although too involved for discussion here, her provocative contention that the doctor's plot was engineered by Khrushchev against Beria seems quite credible in view of the fact that at Stalin's death it was Beria who exposed the entire plot as hoax, thus ending the antisemitic violence in the country which bordered on mass hysteria.

Nasty as Beria was, the same cannot be said of his wife, Nino, and son. From all accounts, they emerge as decent people. Sergo Beria (named after Ordzhonikidze, who was his godfather), the holder of a doctoral degree in physical mathematics, is married to Marfa Peshkova, the granddaughter of Maxim Gorkii, and lives in Kiev. Nino Beria died in 1991 at the age of eighty-seven, a tragic old woman terribly homesick for her native Georgia where the authorities would not allow her to return after her husband's execution. Neither mother nor son believes the stories about Lavrentii's sexual debauchery: his raping of young girls, his habit of picking Georgian female athletes travelling to Moscow for sexual gratification, the fear of Moscow mothers of their daughters being kidnapped by his agents and so forth. In a 1990 interview, the only one she ever gave a journalist, Nino Beria said: "Lavrentii was busy working day and night. When did he have time for love with this legion of women?" (p. 97).

Knight's book is unnecessarily marred by a number of typos, misprints and awkward sentences (for example, see pp. 65, 113, 145, 150, 153, 162, 170, 171, 172, 173, 174 and 260, note 93). The editors of a prestigious press like the Princeton University Press should have caught these errors in proof. The minor blemishes mentioned here need not deter anyone from reading this otherwise first-rate book.

In conclusion, both Pavel Sudoplatov and Army Knight have made a substantial contribution to our understanding of High Stalinism.

T.R. Ravindranathan Wheelock College, Boston
COPYRIGHT 1995 Canadian Journal of History
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Author:Ravindranathan, T.R.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 1995
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