The Stalin-Kaganovich Correspondence 1931-36

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2003 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-09367-4

Chapter One

Lazar Kaganovich: The Career of a Stalinist Commissar

Lazar Moiseyevich Kaganovich was one of the most important and colorful figures in the ruling Stalinist group which dominated the life of the Soviet Union from Lenin's death in 1924 until the defeat of the "Antiparty" group in 1957. For most of this time he was a member of the Politburo, and for a critical but relatively short period, which coincides with the period covered by the letters published in this work, he was widely seen as Stalin's heir apparent. Despite his immense importance, Kaganovich's role inside the Stalinist leadership has been relatively neglected by historians. As the last survivor of that leadership, Kaganovich was one of the few who left his own, albeit highly selective, account of these fateful years. The Stalin-Kaganovich correspondence sheds important new light on the inner working of the ruling group of which he was a major player.

Kaganovich was born in 1893 into a poor Jewish family in the village of Kabana, Chernobyl county, Ukraine. At the age of thirteen he completed his formal education and went to work in Kiev, where after spells of unemployment and a series of unskilled jobs he became a shoemaker in a factory. In 1911 he joined the Bolshevik party, following the lead of his older brother, Mikhail. He was active in the union of leather workers, which was renowned for its militancy. In 1915 he and his wife Maria left Kiev and went to work in Yekaterinoslav, Melitopol, and finally Yuzovka, where he became deputy chairman of the local soviet following the overthrow of the tsar.

Largely self-educated, but widely read, Kaganovich was a model of the Bolshevik worker-intellectual. His hopes of higher education had been dashed at an early stage. He was intelligent, lively, quick-witted, energetic, and ambitious. He had enormous self-confidence and possessed a will of iron. He spoke Russian, Ukrainian, and Yiddish. Until 1917 he had no experience of life outside Ukraine, and he was practically unknown outside the confined circles of Bolshevik and trade union activists in these centers. Kaganovich came from a warm, secure family background, which was blighted by poverty. His personal life remained remarkably stable. He embraced Bolshevism, the most militant wing of Russian Social Democracy, out of conviction.

Following the February revolution in 1917, Kaganovich returned to Kiev, where he was inducted into the army. In his memoirs he glosses over this event, which was clearly a source of embarrassment. He implies that he was sent by the party into the army to undertake propaganda work. In the army in Saratov he actively involved himself in agitation. He attended the all-Russian conference of Bolshevik military organizations in St. Petersburg in June 1917 and was elected to the All-Russian Bureau of Military Party Organizations attached to the Central Committee. On his return to Saratov he was arrested and dispatched to the front, but was released at Gomel as a result of protests by local Social Democrats. In the following months he was active in the party organization in Gomel and Mogilyov and played a key role in the Bolshevik seizure of power in these centers.

From January 1918 he was a member of the All-Russian Collegium for Organizing the Workers' and Peasants' Red Army and was responsible for propaganda and recruitment. He had by this stage established close links with leading Bolsheviks involved in matters of military organization. In May 1918 he was sent by the Central Committee to Nizhny Novgorod, where he quickly established himself as head of the Bolshevik party organization. Nizhny was a frontline town, threatened directly by the advance of the Czechoslovak Legion, which in August 1918 overran Kazan. In 1918-19 the province experienced dozens of peasant risings, while, at the nearby giant Sormovo engineering complex, Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries led a number of major strikes against the Bolshevik authorities.

In August 1918 Lenin ordered the authorities in Nizhny Novgorod to immediately institute a "mass terror" to extinguish the threat of counterrevolution. Kaganovich as party boss, then just twenty-four years of age, oversaw this policy, which included the execution of bourgeois "hostages." In this campaign he was assisted by the leadership of the Eastern Military Front, headed by Trotsky. Drawing on this experience, Kaganovich elaborated organizational proposals to dramatically tighten up political control in Nizhny and to galvanize the local party organization to ensure its survival. With Machiavellian guile he stressed the need for the party to conceal its role in these terrible events, assigning the public role to the forerunner of the OGPU, the Cheka, and the Revolutionary Tribunal. He also staunchly defended the Cheka against its critics.

In 1919 Kaganovich advanced sweeping measures for the militarization of the Bolshevik party at the national level. At the same time he voiced his full support for the employment of former tsarist officers in the Red Army, albeit under strict political control. This position was remarkably close to that expounded by Trotsky. Lenin remained reluctant to embrace this policy, while Stalin and the leadership of the Southern Front were adamantly opposed. Nevertheless, the VIII party congress in March 1919 adopted the two basic principles-militarization of the party and the employment of tsarist officers-as official policy.

Kaganovich's experiences in Nizhny helped to shape his political development. He emerged as an extremely effective organizer, a man of great energy and implacable willpower. In carrying through the "red terror" he had willingly accepted the demands made to secure the survival of the Bolshevik regime. In 1919 Kaganovich became the most vocal and articulate advocate of centralization in party and state management. In challenging the views of senior party figures on organizational matters he demonstrated that he was a man to be reckoned with. The ideas which he advocated in 1918-19 were to become the prevailing orthodoxy of the Bolshevik party after Lenin's death.

In September 1919 Kaganovich volunteered for service on the Southern Front for the defense of Voronezh. In September 1920 the Central Committee sent him to work in Turkestan. The full story of Kaganovich's role in Voronezh and Turkestan remains to be told. Both were centers where the very survival of the revolution was in the balance and where counterrevolution was ruthlessly suppressed. As effective leader of Turkestan in 1920-21, during the illness of Sokolnikov, Kaganovich had oversight of the bloody military campaign to suppress the Basmachi rebellion, although Lenin also charged him with developing a policy aimed at winning the support of the Moslem population for Soviet power.

At the X party congress in March 1921 Kaganovich voted in favor of Lenin's proposals on the trade unions and for the resolution outlawing the "Anarcho-Syndicalist deviation." In Turkestan, prior to the congress, he waged a furious campaign against Trotsky's plans to merge the trade unions into the state apparatus and against the Workers' opposition plans to transfer the management of industry to the trade unions. By 1921, despite his close association with Trotsky in 1918-19, he had resolutely broken with him. Following the congress he was briefly assigned to the All-Russian Central Council of Trade Unions to assist in purging the unions of supporters of the Workers' opposition.

Kaganovich's career received a dramatic boost in 1922, when he was appointed to work in the party Secretariat in Moscow as head of the Organizational and Instruction Department (Orgotdel), and again in 1924, when he became head of the Organizational and Assignment Department (Orgraspred). He was brought into the Secretariat, he recalls in his memoirs, through the influence of Valerian Kuibyshev, with whom he had worked in Central Asia. In the Secretariat he was responsible for the appointment of cadres and for organizing party instructors and inspectors. He worked alongside Molotov, but was directly responsible to Kuibyshev and then to Stalin, with whom he began to forge a close relationship. He played a key role in developing the nomenklatura system for the central appointment of state and party officials, which was to provide Stalin with his power base in his struggles with Trotsky and Bukharin.

Kaganovich's career was based on his expertise in party organizational and personnel matters. But he was much more than simply a backroom administrator. In 1923 he spearheaded the successful campaign to discredit Trotsky within the Moscow party organization during the last relatively free discussion within the party.

In 1924 Kaganovich took charge of the "Lenin enrollment," which brought an influx of 200,000 industrial workers into the Communist Party. He was responsible for the admission and political education of the new members. In 1924 he published his pamphlet Kak postroena RKP(b) (How the Russian Communist Party Is Organized). This work, which was widely published in the following years, outlined the basic principles of party organization which all new members should know. It took as its basis Lenin's pamphlet Chto Delat? (What Is to Be Done?) of 1903, with its uncompromising defense of party centralization, activism, and discipline. It made no reference to internal party democracy, except to cite with warm approval Stalin's comment to the party conference: "our party is distinguished by the fact that it does not fetishize the question of democracy: it does not consider it as 'something absolute, beyond time and space.' On the contrary, democracy is not something given for all times and conditions, for there are moments when it is not possible or wise to implement it."

In 1924 and 1925 Kaganovich also took a major part in the campaign to revitalize the local soviets. Widespread peasant abstentions in soviet elections underlined the Soviet regime's weakness and the alienation of the rural population from its government. This was dramatized by the Georgian peasants rising against Soviet rule in August 1924. In the years following Lenin's death, Kaganovich emphasized the importance of Lenin's final writings, particularly his stress on conciliating the peasants, in providing the guidelines for government policies.

The Secretariat in these years was the forge in which the future Stalinist leadership was shaped. The Secretariat come to dominate the life of the party, and the officials whom Stalin gathered around him came to exert enormous influence. In the 1920s the Secretariat posted officials to the republics and regions to implement central policies: A. A. Andreev to the North Caucasus, Sulimov to the Urals, Bauman to Moscow, Vareikis to the Central Black-Earth Region, Sheboldaev to the Lower Volga, and Khataevich to the Central Volga.

In April 1925 Kaganovich was appointed general secretary of the Ukrainian Communist Party. He was nominated by the Politburo in Moscow, and the Ukrainian Central Committee confirmed it, although other, more senior Ukrainian leaders, such as Petrovsky and Chubar, had asked that Molotov be given the post and strongly resented Kaganovich's appointment. This was his first major position. His task was to secure the loyalty of the Ukrainian party to Stalin. He replaced Emmanuil Kviring, who sympathized with Zinoviev. The appointment was a bold one. As a Jew, Kaganovich was the target of anti-Semitic attack, even though he had roots in Ukraine and spoke the language.

As leader of the Ukrainian party Kaganovich initially supported the New Economic Policy and, despite criticism from the left, introduced further concessions to the peasantry as part of the policy of "face to the countryside." However, in 1926 he emerged increasingly as an advocate of industrialization. He supported the plan to build the giant Dnieper hydroelectric station, at a time when Stalin was unenthusiastic, and he pressed for a central role to be assigned to Ukraine in the plan for the industrial transformation of the USSR.

Kaganovich from 1925 onward promoted the policy of Ukrainization, which involved the advancement of Ukrainian cadres and the recruitment of Ukrainians into the party. Ukrainian was made the official language of the party, the state, trade unions, and the army in the republic, and its use was promoted in the schools and in the mass media. This developed the nationalities policy which Stalin had expounded at the XIII party congress. The aim behind this strategy was to create a base of support for the Communist Party among the predominantly peasant population of the republic. It was also intended to be part of a strategy to turn Ukraine into a model socialist republic, which would serve as a beacon for revolutionary movements in eastern Europe.

Ukrainization encountered bitter opposition from the Russian-dominated party and trade union movement in Ukraine and was also opposed by the left wing of the Communist Party. At this time the great majority of the urban population of Ukraine were Russian speakers. Kaganovich also clashed with those in the Ukrainian Communist Party, led by the people's commissar of education, A. Ya. Shumsky, who wanted the policy of Ukrainization to be implemented with still more determination. In this struggle, in 1926, Stalin adopted a neutral stance, even censuring Kaganovich for his conduct. In the end, Shumsky was defeated and disgraced.

In June 1926 Kaganovich was elected a candidate member of the Politburo of the USSR Communist Party. In 1926-28 he waged an implacable campaign against the United opposition, employing ruthless tactics to ensure that the opposition were not accorded a hearing in Ukraine. Like other supporters of Stalin, however, he embraced many of the policies of the left.

At the end of 1927 Kaganovich further shifted his position. He became a convinced advocate of rapid industrialization. During the grain procurement crisis of 1927-28 Kaganovich and the Ukrainian leadership adopted a hard line, enforcing a ruthless policy of requisitioning, and arguing against a policy of grain imports. With the war scare of 1927 the Ukrainian leadership was put on alert, with Kaganovich conducting a tour of the frontier zone. In the spring of 1928, following the Shakhty trial of mining engineers, a rigorous investigation into the loyalty of the engineers in the Donets Basin was carried out by the Ukrainian GPU with Kaganovich's blessing.

In Ukraine his abrasive and highly authoritarian style of leadership brought his relations with Petrovsky and Chubar to breaking point. In June 1928 Stalin resolved to recall him from Ukraine. This appears to have been part of the price which Stalin had to pay to secure the support of the Ukrainian leadership.

Kaganovich's recall from Ukraine did not signal any decline in his influence. He returned to work in the party Secretariat, where he again assumed responsibility for the party instructors and for cadres policy. This was of critical importance in the developing struggle with the Right opposition. In 1928 he played an active part in the defeat of Uglanov in the Moscow party organization, and in December 1928 he was appointed to the presidium of the All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions (AUCCTU) to lead the campaign to discredit Tomsky and to reorient the trade unions under the slogan "Face to production." To the charge that this was a violation of proletarian democracy, Kaganovich responded with his stock reply that for Bolsheviks democracy was not a fetish.

The area in which Kaganovich made a decisive impact in these years, however, was agricultural policy. In 1928 he won the enmity of the Right for his uncompromising defense of the "extraordinary measures" for obtaining grain by coercion. Then in 1929 he played a major role in the institutionalization of the "Urals-Siberian method" for obtaining grain, which was approved by the Politburo in March 1929, following Kaganovich's tour of Siberia and his consultation with the Siberian leaders. It involved mobilizing the poor and middle peasants against the kulaks through peasant meetings at which grain procurement targets were allocated to individual households. The peasant meetings were also induced to adopt "self-imposed obligations" for the remainder of the peasants-a measure intended to confer a degree of popular legitimacy on these policies.


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