Thursday, July 8, 2021


 In the 1930s, Nadezhda Mandelstam tells us, the verb to write assumed a new meaning.

When you said he writes or does she write? or (referring to a whole classroom of students) they write, you meant that he or she or they wrote reports to the organs. (Similarly, the Cheka’s rigged cases were called “novels.”) To “write” meant to inform, to denounce. Solzhenitsyn calls it “murder by slander.”

Denunciation in Russia has a long history, going back at least as far as the sixteenth century and the testingly protracted reign of Ivan the Terrible (1533–1584). “Spy or die” was, more or less, the oath you swore. This practice, increasingly institutionalized under the old regime, was a tsarist barbarity that Lenin might have been expected to question. And he did waver, to the extent that he unsuccessfully proposed (in December 1918) that false denouncers should be shot. More moderate voices prevailed, and the punishment arrived at was one or two years depending on the gravity of the case. Solzhenitsyn is scandalized by this laxity. In the gulag a five-year term, compared to the far more usual tenner or quarter (twenty-five years), was colloquially known as “nothing.”

It was during the Collectivization period that denunciation made its great leap forward. In the villages, as we have seen, the poorer peasants were incited to denounce the richer. “It was so easy to do a man in,” explains Grossman: “you wrote a denunciation; you did not even have to sign it.” By the mid-1930s, when terror turned toward the towns and cities, denunciation was being praised in the press as “the sacred duty of every Bolshevik, party and nonparty.” Quickly and predictably, denunciation now went through the roof. The process was quintessentially Stalinist in that a) it cultivated all that is most reptilian in human nature, and b) it selected downward (those that were last would now be first).

And it was also, again, surreal. You might denounce someone for fear of their denouncing you; you could be denounced for not doing enough denouncing; the only disincentive to denunciation was the possibility of being denounced for not denouncing sooner; and so on. There were cases of denunciation for state bounty.
From The Great Terror:

“In one Byelorussian village depicted in a recent Soviet article, fifteen rubles a head was paid, and a group of regular denouncers used to carouse on the proceeds, even singing a song they had composed to celebrate their deeds.”

A single Communist denounced 230 people; another denounced over a hundred in four months. “Stalin required,” as Conquest says, “not only submission, but also complicity.” After his release from the gulag, just as he was finding himself as a writer, Solzhenitsyn came under extremely menacing pressure to become a writer in Nadezhda Mandelstam’s sense. It has been estimated that in an average office every fifth employee reported to the Cheka. As Dmitri Volkogonov writes: “Who could have imagined how many ‘spies and wreckers and terrorists’ would be discovered. It was almost as if they were not living among us, but we among them!”

Tribute must now be paid to the most prodigious denouncer of all, the great Nikolaenko, scourge of Kiev. This unbelievable termagant was singled out for special praise by Stalin himself: “a simple person from down below,” she was nonetheless a “heroine.” In Kiev, pavements emptied when Nikolaenko stepped out; her presence in a room spread mortal fear. Eventually Pavel Postyshev (First Secretary in the Ukraine, candidate member of the Politburo) expelled Nikolaenko from the Party. Stalin reinstated her “with honor.” In a speech of 1937 he said, marvelously (for this episode is another example of the epiphanic, multifaceted negative perfection of Stalinism):

“[In Kiev, Nikolaenko] was shunned like a bothersome fly. At last, in order to get rid of her, they expelled her from the Party. Neither the Kiev organization nor the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Ukraine helped her to obtain justice. It was only the intervention of the Central Committee of the Party which helped to disentangle that twisted knot. And what was revealed by an examination of the case? It was revealed that Nikolaenko was right, while the Kiev organization was wrong.”

Assuming that this translation is a sensitive one (and I think it is): “justice” is rich, and so is “obtain” justice; “bothersome fly” and “that twisted knot” are rich; the rhetorical question near the end is rich; that closing “while” is rich.

A vindicated Nikolaenko went back to her denunciations
, and Kiev was in any case most viciously purged. Postyshev, chastened, demoted, transferred, now developed a reputation for exceptional ferocity in his function of purging his new fief, Kuibyshev. Later, as the Terror turned, he was attacked by Moscow for (of all things) exceptional ferocity: “by cries of ‘vigilance’ hiding his brutality in connection with the Party.” He was arrested in February 1938, and later shot.

Meanwhile, a twice-vindicated Nikolaenko was still hard at work— on her denunciations. There is much talk of the “little Stalins” all over the USSR, but Nikolaenko was a true Stalinette: accession to power dismantled her sense of reality. When the new, post-purge bosses, headed by Khrushchev, had established themselves in Kiev, Nikolaenko denounced Khrushchev’s deputy, Korotchenko. Khrushchev defended his man, a posture Stalin adjudged to be “incorrect”: “Ten percent truth—that’s already truth, and requires decisive measures on our part, and we will pay for it if we don’t so act.” But then Nikolaenko denounced Khrushchev, a first-echelon toady and placeman, for “bourgeois nationalism,” and Stalin finally conceded that she was nuts. She helped destroy about 8,000 people.

Anyone who has ever received a poison-pen letter will have been struck by a sense of the author’s desperate impotence. In the USSR, under Stalin, the poison worked: it had power. That was how it was: the writer and the poison pen.

I have not read any account of the fate of Nikolaenko. Either she was reexpelled, or her subsequent denunciations were for the most part tactfully ignored. She might of course have been shot—though Stalin showed a slight but detectable squeamishness about killing Old Bolshevik women.

As for the impressionable Postyshev, condemned by Moscow for his lack of moderation and restraint.…This is The Great Terror:

“Postyshev’s oldest son, Valentin, was shot, and his other children were sent to labour camps. His wife, Tamara, was viciously tortured night after night in the Lefortovo, often being returned to her cell bleeding all over her back and unable to walk. She is reported shot.”

[Martin Amis (2014-09-17). Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million
(Vintage International) (Kindle Locations 2032-2086). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.]

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