[This is a short version of a book ‘Terror and the Police State; Punishment as a Measure of Despair’, published in 2015. The book focussed on France after 1789, Russia after 1917, and Germany after 1933. The instalments will follow the 21 chapter headings that are as follows: 1 Terms of Engagement; 2 Enduring emergency; 3 Righteousness; 4 Good bye to the law; 5 Instruments of terror; 6 Civil war; 7 Waves of terror; 8 Degradation; 9 Secret police; 10 Surveillance; 11 Denunciation; 12 Fear; 13 Popular courts and show trials; 14 Scapegoats, suspicion and proof; 15 Gulags; 16 Propaganda, religion, and cults; 17 Surrealism and banality; 19 The horror; 20 The meaning?; 21 Justification. The short version is about one quarter the length of the original. Each instalment is about 1200 words.]
After Osip Pianitsky was arrested on the night of 7 July 1937, his wife Julia would in desperation ask what she really knew of him, although both of them had been active and senior in the Party. She was not of course told where he was or why he had been arrested, or even if he was alive. He was nearly twenty years older than her. At the age of sixteen, she ran away from home to enrol as a nurse in the Russian army. She married a general who was lost in action in 1917. In the Civil War, she joined the Bolsheviks, and worked as a spy in the Red Army. Her cover was lost, and she was lucky not to be shot. She just made it to Moscow, and then she had a nervous breakdown. She was in hospital when she met Osip.
Osip was something of a professional revolutionary. When he married Julia, he was the Secretary of the Central Committee at Moscow. He then went to Comintern, the international office of the party. He was so tied up with his work that he did not see much of their sons Igor (born in 1921) and Vladimir (born in 1925). This caused stress with Julia. She thought that the party was getting too bourgeois and that it was under a dictator. Sometimes Osip would be moved to say ‘Keep your voice down, Julia’. In the 1930’s, Osip did not like the direction that the party was taking outside Russia – he, like Trotsky, believed in a world revolution, and he thought that Russia had withdrawn into itself. This was not the view of Stalin who had become very suspicious of Comintern.
In June 1937, Osip Pianitsky made a speech to the Plenum of the Central Committee. He accused the NKVD of fabricating evidence. Depending on your point of view, this was either heroic or suicidal. When Osip finished, the hall was dead silent. On instructions from Stalin, Molotov and others asked Osip to withdraw the statement and to save his life. Osip said that he knew the consequences, but he said that he had to stand firm for his ‘conscience as a Communist’, and for the purity of the party. The next day Yezhov, the NKVD chief, said that Osip Pianitsky was a Tsarist spy sent by capitalists to infiltrate the Comintern. A censure motion was passed with three abstentions.
The NKVD arrived before midnight a few days later. Yezhov was there personally to make the arrest. Julia started to swear and scream at them, and Osip apologised to them for her. When they left, Julia fainted. While she was at work the next day, they broke into her apartment, and seized just about everything. His office was sealed with wax.
Julia did not know where her husband was being held until his trial. He was moved to Lefortovo prison in April 1938 until he was tried in July. He was systematically tortured every night. One hundred and thirty-eight prisoners were tried in one day by the Military Tribunal on charges of leading a Fascist spy-ring of Trotskyists and being Rightists in the Comintern. Yezhov sent Stalin a list of those convicted. According to Orlando Figes, from whose work this story is drawn, that list is preserved in the Kremlin Presidential Archives. It has a handwritten annotation: ‘Shoot all 138. I. St[alin]. V. Molotov.’ Osip Pianitsky therefore died well before Stalin and Molotov completed their pact with Adolf Hitler.
When Osip was arrested, Julia and her sons were evicted from their home and ostracized by friends and party members. She sought out old friends in the party, and a friend of Osip for thirty years. No one wanted to know them – it was too dangerous to be seen with anyone who had been even near to someone who had been arrested. The housekeeper of the old friend rejected her: ‘He is afraid. He will throw me out if he sees you here. He told me to tell you that he does not know you’. Her sons, Igor and Vladimir, were abandoned by their friends. Vladimir was taunted and bullied at school.
Julia did not know what to believe when Osip was arrested. What had made him do it? The boys were angry. The sixteen year old Igor was isolated from his mates in Komsomol. The twelve year old Vladimir blamed his father for ruining his dreams of the Red Army. A teacher told him his father was an enemy of the people and that it is ‘now your duty to decide your relation toward him.’ Vladimir fought with his mother. When she declined to write to Yezhov about a toy gun the NKVD had taken, he said: ‘It is a shame they have not shot Papa, since he is an enemy of the people.’ When they had an argument about his marks at school, Julia said that it showed that he was the son of an enemy of the people.’ Vladimir said he did not want her as his mother anymore and would go to an orphanage.
Igor was arrested on 9 February 1938. Two soldiers took him from school and put him in Butykri jail. This was too much for Julia who had another breakdown. She longed for suicide, but wanted to keep on for her sons. ‘It would be best to die. ‘But that would leave my Vovka (Vladimir) and Igor without a human being in the world. I am all that they have, and that means that I must fight to stay alive.’
When Igor was put in Butykri jail, neither he nor his mother knew that his father Osip was there. Osip’s cell was crowded – it had been built for twenty-five but it held sixty-seven. Osip had on his face the marks left by the belt of an interrogator. A colleague found him a ‘thin and crooked old man’ (of fifty-six) whose eyes ‘betrayed an immense spiritual suffering.’
Julia did not know that he was in that jail when she joined the queues outside the gates to hand in a parcel for her son Igor. The longer Osip was away, the harder it was for Julia to believe in him. She of course did not know that he was transferred to Lefortovo prison.
Julia decided that it was too late to do anything for Osip, but not for Igor. She decided to renounce her husband to try to save her son. She spoke to a prosecutor. He said that Osip had committed a serious crime against the state. ‘If so, he means nothing to me.’ She said she wanted to work for the NKVD. He encouraged her to make a formal application, and said that he would support it.
In May, Igor was charged with organizing a counter-revolutionary student group. This was too outrageous even for that ‘court’, but they gave him five years in a soviet labour camp on the lesser charge of anti-Soviet agitation. (In 1941, he got another five years, and when he got out in Leningrad in 1948, he was arrested again, and got another five years of which he served eight.) Julia was told of the conviction of Igor on 27 May 1938. She was beside herself. She demanded that the prosecutor arrest her as well. ‘If he is guilty, so am I.’ That was, perhaps, the truth.
Julia was arrested on 27 October 1938. She was thirty-nine. Her diary was of course seized. The NKVD used it to convict her of conspiring with her husband. She was sent to Kandalaksha in the far north of Murmansk. Vladimir – then aged about thirteen – was sent with her. He was ill, and was getting over surgery. He was taken from his bed. He was kept in the barracks and fed twice a day by an NKVD guard while she worked on the Niva-GES hydro-electric station near the camp. We shall come back later to the story of Julia and Vladimir Pianitsky.