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4.0 out of 5 stars Stalin's Willing Executioners, 9 Feb 2005
This review is from: Stalin and His Hangmen: An Authoritative Portrait of a Tyrant and Those Who Served Him (Hardcover)
Baudelaire once wrote: "I am the wound and the knife! I am the blow and the cheek! I am the limbs and the wheel - The victim and the executioner!" In many respects that sums up the lives of Stalin's (and Lenin's) henchmen that ran the USSR's security apparatus from the Russian (October) Revolution through the death of Stalin. Donald Rayfield's "Stalin and His Hangmen" provides an excruciatingly morbid examination of the men and the organization that facilitated Stalin's rise to total power and the means they used to achieve that end.
Rayfield, a professor of Russian and Georgian at the University of London, has provided a scholarly, yet compelling history of the men who built and maintained the Soviet security regime. As stated in his preface, Rayfield's purpose in writing this book was not to add yet another biography of Stalin but, rather, to examine the means by which Stalin gradually assumed total power in the USSR. He does so by focusing on the men who facilitated that rise to power by creating a brutally efficient killing machine exceeded in the 20th century only (perhaps) by Hitler's Holocaust.
Rayfield focuses on the lives and bloody career of five leaders of those security organs (commonly known by a succession of acronyms or initials, the Cheka, GPU, NKVD, MVD, MGB, and KGB): F. Dzerzhinsky, V. Menshinksy, G. Iagoda, N. Ezhov, and L. Beria. Along the way we see the machinations that caused the ousting of Trotsky from power and his eventual murder. Rayfield explores the role the security organs played in Stalin's cat-and-mouse games with Bukharin, Kamenev, and Zinoviev and his suppression, imprisonment, and/or murder of the Russian Orthodox Church, ethnic nationalities, kulaks, and millions of enemies, real or imagined None of this is particularly new ground for anyone with an interest in the subject matter. However, Rayfield, by examining these events with an eye towards the symbiotic relationship between Stalin and his hangmen, manages to cast a fresh eye on old horrors.
Hannah Arendt coined the phrase banality of evil. Although it has a certain ring of truth to it Rayfield's look into the lives of these leading `Chekists' shows that some, if not all of them, were far from banal. Some considered themselves poets and tried to develop relations with the Soviet intelligentsia (before sending them to the Gulag). They each managed to kill hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens, including many lives taken by their own hands. They each, with the possible exception of the rather puritanical Dzerzhinsky, were perverse (their sexual depravity was legion and is well chronicled here) and brutal psychopaths. Yet some, particularly Beria had exceptional managerial skills and a broad range of intellectual interests. Ultimately, they all knew that the fires of death they fueled would ultimately consume them yet, like moths to the flame they stayed on until the bitter end of their own lives, as Baudelaire put it, both victims and executioners.
Rayfield does not attempt to explain why these Chekists played out their horrible roles with such gusto. I'm not sure an explanation is possible and I think it was a wise choice to avoid exploring the myriad motivations behind such collective complicity in horrible acts. I think it sufficient simply to set out the lives of these men and their separate and collective relationships with Stalin and let the facts speak for themselves.
Although a scholarly work, Rayfield's prose is accessible to anyone with an interest in Soviet history. Highly recommended.
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