NERO OF THE CAUCASUS

In the 1920s and 1930s Joseph Stalin was usually cordial and obliging with his foreign visitors. But with the passing of time, he dropped this pretence of affability in the presence of guests from abroad with increasing frequency. On such occasions “Uncle Joe”, as he was referred to by Roosevelt and Churchill in their correspondence, who usually was attentive to the smallest detail, turned into an unctuous Georgian “kinto”, or “peddler”, a kind of cynical lout.

“He was visibly fond of me”, Polish head of state Bolesław Bierut recounted to his secretary after Stalin’s death. “But at our last meetings he sometimes did not so much as bid me farewell. His disdain for foreigners became increasingly apparent in his face. On the occasion of his seventieth birthday he simply stood up at the end of the celebration and left the ceremony organized in his honour in the Grand Theatre of Moscow without saying a word. He did not say goodbye to the guests – perhaps with the exception of Mao Tse-Tung or Palmiro Togliatti. We Poles drank in our hotel room until dawn. We discussed with one another how such a thing was possible, and what it meant. Each of us at some point commented that it was not by accident that lately the ‘Master’ had been speaking in riddles. We tried to interpret these oddities.”1

Yet the answer is not terribly complicated. As sources that have recently become available make clear, ever since his childhood Stalin had espoused the inhumanly monstrous conviction of Raskolnikov, the hero of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment, namely that he could allow himself anything (“vse dozvoleno”). This also offers some explanation for why he began to lose his self-control towards the end of his life.2

The changing behaviour of the Soviet dictator increasingly preoccupied Sergey Kavtaradze, a Georgian politician and friend from Stalin’s youth. In his notes Kavtaradze mentioned that on one occasion in the mid-1940s Stalin asked him to accompany him to the Kremlin Movie Theatre, where he had to act as host to a man and his wife who were influential in American public life and who happened to be in the Soviet capital. The couple arrived punctually, but the host barely seemed to notice them. He behaved as if his meeting with the Georgian politician were far more important to him.

It is worth mentioning that in the first years of the 20th century Kavtaradze had been almost a member of the family in the home of the Jughashvili couple. As a man of some means he had supported his slothful friend, known in his childhood by the nickname Soso. In late autumn 1907 Stalin’s first wife, Ekaterina Svanidze, died of typhus. Following the funeral, Stalin, who even in the midst of his grief had to take care to avoid the Czar’s gendarmes, gratefully thanked Kavtaradze for his concern and solicitude, and solemnly assured him that he could always count on him. With the passing of time, however, the bonds of their friendship slackened, in part because of the geographical distance between them. Following the Bolshevik rise to power in October 1917, Stalin, a Georgian who had increasingly come to think of himself as Russian, settled in Moscow, while his friend remained in Tiflis, binding his fate to the fate of the city (which in 1936 was renamed Tbilisi).

Later, during the struggles for power within the Bolshevik party, the two one-time pupils of the Tiflis Theological Seminary came to hate each other. In the mid-1920s many of the Georgian political élite supported Stalin’s principal rival, Leon Trotsky. Kavtaradze, who in the meantime had advanced to the position of head of government in the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic, emerged as one of the leading ideologues of the group, and a kind of vendetta began between the two, reminiscent of ancient blood feuds of the Caucasus.3

It is not hard to guess how this feud ended. Stalin gradually broke Kavtaradze, as a politician and a person. In 1924 he made the leadership of the party issue a ruling that called for “Comrade Sergo” to leave his native land. In exchange, Kavtaradze, characterized as a politician with “national inclinations”, was offered a high position in the Soviet capital, and as he was an excellent jurist (during the First World War he had studied at the Sorbonne), he was named deputy President of the High Court.

Kavtaradze knew perfectly well why he had been severed from his familiar surroundings. Informants followed him everywhere in the streets of Moscow, but in spite of the increasing pressure to which he was submitted he continued to take part in the activities of Trotsky’s followers. According to his one-time Trotskyite friends, Ivan Vratchev and Victor Dalin, with whom I had the chance to speak a great deal about Kavtaradze, for a time he was the “Caucasian head” of the secret society, members of which referred to themselves as “Leninist Bolsheviks”.

This could not be kept secret for long. In December 1927, following a long disciplinary inquiry, Kavtaradze was expelled from the Bolshevik party, stripped of his position, and sent into internal exile. In early 1929 he and many of his associates were arrested.4 In his case imprisonment under remand does not seem to have been too unbearable. “At least I was able to rest, and I perused Leon Tolstoy’s correspondence with his family”, he recalled in the later years of his life.

Following his release, in the early 1930s Kavtaradze promised his family to keep his distance from politics. Yet at the first opportunity that arose he became part of a small ill-fated oppositional circle comprised for the most part of members of the old Bolshevik party, the so-called Ryutin group, named after its equally ill-fated leader, Martemyan Ryutin (who was executed in 1937 as part of the Great Purge).

Stalin gradually “isolated” every member of the Ryutin circle. They were subjected to tortures many of them were unable to bear. According to Kavtaradze’s one-time Trotskyite acquaintances, in the end the physical and psychological torments broke the Georgian politician’s will. In this waning phase of his era of dissent he gave in to the pressures put on him by his inquisitors and recounted to them the substance of the conversations he had had with his associates during walks in the courtyard of the prison.5

The story of the Ryutin affair weighed heavily on Kavtaradze’s mind and conscience for the rest of his life. In his old age he spoke bitterly of how humiliating it had been to listen to the insolent reprimands and scoldings of the torturers charged with the task of beating him. In time he was ready to confess to anything, sign anything in order to escape the cycle of torture. “I attested to them in writing that I had surrendered once and for all to the party”, he recounted to an old acquaintance from the Caucasus in a long monologue comparable to a confession, “and I was prepared to cooperate with the adherents of the official party line”.6

Yet for Stalin this too proved insufficient. He continued to play with his old friend like a cat plays with a mouse. In 1936 or 1937 (his recollections conflict) Kavtaradze, who people had been avoiding like a leper, was arrested for the third time. The agents of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs threw him into a tiny cell resembling a mouldy recess in the wall to wait for the “special court” to issue its death sentence. Emaciated and withered, his hair turned grey, for months Kavtaradze lived certain in his conviction that he would soon be executed.7

The tragic tale then took an unexpected twist. The leader of the Kremlin had the death sentence postponed for “better times”, and thus Kavtaradze won time. Following the outbreak of the Second World War, however, towards the end of 1939 Stalin’s autocracy began to show fissures. Terror, the instrument that had been used to hold the system in place, proved insufficient, and it had been used with such a degree of excess that it could no longer be made any more extreme. The dictator, seeking to salvage what remained of his power, made concessions, including the release of his fellow Georgian, who enjoyed national esteem. At Stalin’s command, Lavrenti Beria, head of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, issued the order for Kavtaradze’s return with his wife to Moscow.7 Stalin welcomed Kavtaradze, who returned as if from the brink of the grave, with the following greeting:

“Hello Sergey! (…) Where have you been these many years?”

“Sitting”, came the response, implying that he had been sitting in prison.

“So you found time to relax?”

At the end of the conversation Stalin asked, “so you did want to kill me after all?”8

After a bit of time had passed, quite late one evening, around ten o’clock, Stalin paid a visit on Kavtaradze and his wife in their new home, a shared apartment typical of housing arrangements in the Soviet Union. One of the neighbours opened the door, a cantankerous woman who was a daily annoyance to the ex-convict. “You are Stalin’s double, no?” she said with surprise on seeing the unexpected guest. “But what are you doing here, among the rabble?”

Kavtaradze was also surprised, and he began to make apologies, explaining that while he would prefer to follow the customs of his homeland and treat his guest to a fine meal, there was simply not a bite to eat at home. At this Nikolai Vlasik, the head of Stalin’s bodyguards, sent someone to the Aragvi Restaurant (named after the Aragvi river in Georgia) on the other side of the street to get Georgian specialities. The mood was good, but Kavtaradze’s daughter Maya was a bit sulky. According to her recollections she was angry with Stalin for having “hurt her parents”. “Go immediately to be with our guest”, her mother ordered her, almost certainly with feigned conviction, “for he is a great man, a figure of history”. Stalin sat the pudgy little girl in his lap and tenderly coddled her. “He kissed my face, and I looked into his gleaming eyes. His skin looked honey-yellow. He captivated me, yet I was very afraid of him”, Maya said of the occasion, speaking in her home in Tbilisi on the threshold of the 21st century.9

The disinformation department of the Commissariat for Internal Affairs circulated the news of the meeting, and a few days later half of Moscow pondered what the “Master’s” decision to stray “among the people” might have meant. Stories spread about how Stalin had sung Georgian songs until dawn with Beria, who had joined him for the visit to his childhood friend’s home. He was even alleged to have played the part of the master of ceremonies and shown his affection for Kavtaradze by pouring glasses of vintage Kartvelian wine “for his dear friend Sergey”, who again had found a place in his life.10

At this news, friends and family members of people who had been imprisoned or executed breathed a momentary sigh of relief. I have heard from many of Kavtaradze’s contemporaries, including my own parents, how at the time when acquaintances happened to run into one another in the street they no longer turned and looked the other way. On the contrary, they eagerly shared the news with one another: “Imagine, perhaps better times lie ahead for us too, if this Georgian Trotskyite was pardoned… He was even given a good position… Someone saw him in an elegant suit at a reception… Perhaps his [Stalin’s] heart will soften with regards to others as well…”.11

Time passed, and the visible slackening of the reins continued with the release of several thousand middle level civil servants and officers from prisons and internment camps, including Konstantin Rokossovsky and Alexander Gorbatov, noted generals who were going to play prominent roles in the Second World War. Many were reinstated and sent to sanatoriums in order to help them recover their health.

There was another group among those released consisting of the “simple”, innocent people who earlier had failed to awaken the interest of the authorities and therefore largely had been ignored, left to languish, imprisoned on remand, for far longer periods of time. In contrast with the officers and civil servants, however, they were granted clemency, but not amnesty. Among them were several thousand orthodox priests and churchgoers, all released as part of the temporary show of liberalization of state policy regarding the Church.

Stalin entrusted this public relations scheme to Beria. It is therefore hardly surprising that it soon turned out to be little more than a ruse that changed nothing in the essence of the system. While it is true that the number of innocent people arrested between the summer of 1939 and the spring of 1941 shrank considerably in comparison with the latter half of the 1930s, nonetheless millions continued to suffer behind bars and in camps for so-called internal exiles under inhumanly brutal conditions.12

Moreover, with the passing of time other national groups and social strata were subjected to the cruel measures of the regime. Workers were condemned for arriving at their posts late or hung over, or were accused of sabotage for producing waste. Without exception, officers and soldiers of the Red Army who had been captured by the enemy during the Soviet–Finnish war of 1939–40 were sent to the concentration camps. Others, including Catholics, Greek Catholics, and Lutherans living in the territories annexed by the Soviet Union following the Molotov–Ribbentrop pact, were imprisoned or interned in camps because of their religious convictions. Between the fall of 1938 and the summer of 1941 several hundreds of thousands of Poles, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Jews, and Romanians living in Eastern Poland, the Baltics, and Bessarabia were deported. Holding individuals to account for the alleged crimes of a group (the principle of “collective responsibility”), the state had members of nationalities that had been classified as “enemies of the people” taken – often without provisions and wearing little more than their summer clothes – to the enormous work camps on the fringes of new construction projects in Siberia and Inner Asia, where many of them soon perished.13

The transitional – and also relative – easing that Kavtaradze’s case exemplified ended almost as soon as it had begun. A few months before the outbreak of war between Germany and Russia, the authorities of the Ministry of Interior, acting on Stalin’s order, again “tightened the screws”. The majority of those who in the preceding months had been released were again subjects of suspicion. Many of them became so-called “povtornik”, in other words people condemned who again found themselves behind bars.

Fate was kind, however, to Sergey Kavtaradze. “I was an exception, whose example strengthened the merciless practice”, the veteran politician explained in his old age. After his release from prison, following his meeting with his one-time friend he managed to retain his grasp on the rungs of the ladder of power for several years. Much to the satisfaction of Russian writers, who saw him as a learned intellectual, the “almost rehabilitated” Georgian became the head of the state publishing house. Given his command of foreign languages and the breadth of his knowledge, he was soon given a position in foreign policy. He was named head and then vice commissar of the department for the Near East.14 A few years after the war he became Soviet ambassador to Romania, vested with considerable procuratorial authority.15

The Georgian statesman, who had escaped the purges thanks essentially to the whims of chance, knew well that he had Stalin to thank for his good fortune. But he also knew that his old friend held him quite firmly in the palm of his hand, and could at any time cast him to the lowest circles of Soviet hell. According to his account, every time they met a disdainful smirk spread across the pock-marked face of the calculating dictator. “Yet nonetheless, he kept me around until he grew bored of me”, he explained, a few months before his death, nervously wringing his hands while he spoke. “Then he sent me to Romania to be his ‘eyes and ears’, since he knew that as one of his oldest living acquaintances I knew his meaning from a half muttered word. With smug contentment he observed how I stood in fear of him, and with my head buried in my shoulders suffered without a word of protest while this diseased soul lost control of himself in front of me.”16

There was a unique choreography to their rare meetings. Stalin always began by playing the role of the unfortunate man: he bitterly lamented that so many people wanted to assassinate him. This was followed by a long monologue about everyday things. And all the while, in the presence of the well-mannered Kavtaradze, the leader of the vast empire flashed his yellow teeth and deliberately behaved like a foul-mouthed gamin. When the time came to part, he would point his index finger sternly at his guest and, instead of bidding farewell, would intimate – and sometimes explicitly say – that he did not trust them. Once Stalin even embraced his childhood friend and whispered into his ear, “I know even now you are scheming to stab me in the back”.

NOTES:

1 According to the account of Lolia Zayonczkowska.

2 Moszkva, 2002, pp. 188–190, 420–427.

3 Many of the leaders of the Georgian Bolsheviks demanded more autonomy for their homeland within the borders of the Soviet Union. Lenin, who by that time was seriously ill, and Trotsky both supported them. Stalin, however, characterized their efforts as evidence of “nationalist inclinations”.

4 ”We learned from the newspapers that several thousand people had been arrested, including 150 members of the so-called ‘Trotskyite centre’. Kavtaradze, one-time president of the Georgian people’s soviet, was one of the names on the list”, Trotsky noted in his diary. In his later writings Trotsky, who always claimed that he had been unjustly expelled from the Soviet Union, often mentioned Kavtaradze. Lev Trockij: Életem. Önéletrajzi vázlat. Budapest, 1989, p. 479.

5 According to the account of renowned historian Victor Dalin and Ivan Vratchev, one of the most prominent figures of the struggles of the Bolshevik faction in the 1920s. Dalin wrote of Kavtaradze’s capitulation with compassion, while Vratchev wrote with disdain. However, as later research revealed, Vratchev himself also capitulated to Stalin, even going so far as to hand over the hidden archives of Trotsky and his followers to the authorities.

6 According to the account of Levon Saumjan.

7 Kavtaradze’s ten-year-old daughter wrote a letter to Stalin asking him to release her parents. She signed it, “Maya Kavtaradze, pioneer” (an organization designed to indoctrinate children into the ideology of the party). To this day she believes that the dictator heeded her request. Simon Sebag Montefiore: Stalin. The Court of the Red Tzar. London, 2003, p. 418. This is of course hardly likely, for Stalin received letters from family members and loved ones of people who had been imprisoned by the dozens, but only rarely responded, and only if prompted by political considerations.

8 This is one of the versions of the conversation. Towards the end of his life Kavtaradze gave a slightly different account to the writer Alexander Bek, who spent days listening to and committing his comments to paper.

9 Simon, Sebag Montefiore: Stalin. The Court of the Red Tzar, pp. 418-419.

10 One comes across any number of variations of the story of their meeting in the literature on Stalin. Saint Petersburg, 2000, p. 277. Simon Sebag Montefiore: Young Stalin. London, 2007, p. 320.

11 According to the account of Boris Yefimov.

12 This is all revealed in the drastically expurgated table of figures compiled by the archivists of the Soviet political police for the leadership of the party following Stalin’s death. While in 1937 almost one million people were arrested for alleged counter-revolutionary activities and in 1938 more than six hundred thousand, in 1940 this number dropped to seventy thousand and in 1941 to seventy-five thousand. Peaáčëčňŕöč˙: ęaę ýňo áűëo. Moscow, 2000, pp. 76–77. These statistics, however, do not include the several hundreds of thousands of people who were interned or deported from the Western territories swallowed by the Soviet Union in the early years of the war.

13 Moscow, 1999, pp. 14–38.

14 The fact that earlier Kavtaradze had been at the head of the Soviet delegation to Iran for a time unquestionably played a role in the decision.

15 For a wealth of information on this period in Kavtaradze’s life see: Âocňo÷ía˙ Ĺâđoďa â äoęóěeíňŕő đoccčécęčő ađőčâoâ. 1944–1953. Moscow–Novosibirsk, 1997–1998, I-II. According to contemporaries, Kavtaradze, acting as Stalin’s proconsul, consistently represented the official stance of the Kremlin during his time as a diplomat in Romania, though he later indicated that he had only played a role as a “transmitter”, and had had no desire to encourage the leadership of the Romanian communist party to “tighten the screws”. During the bitter struggle for power among the communist élite in Bucharest he had given cautious support to Ana Pauker (who at the beginning of the 1950s had been accused of having Zionist sympathies) against Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej. Indeed some sources suggest he had fallen in love with her. This influenced Stalin’s decision to recall Kavtaradze from Bucharest in 1952. Based on Savva Dangulov’s account.

16 According to the account of Lev Saumjan.

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