How likely is this headline to be true to life? On a scale of zero to minus ten?
Correct. Even if a German were a crypto-Nazi, he’d never advertise that so blatantly. Otherwise, it’s hard to tell whether he’d be thrown out first, or the portrait.
If, on the other hand, both the cop and his take on interior decoration remained intact, wouldn’t we be justified to draw some far-reaching conclusions not only about him and his immediate superiors, but also about today’s Germany?
This brings me to Alexei Navalny, who was arrested on his arrival in Moscow. The dissident flew in from Germany, where he had undergone extensive treatment after being poisoned with a toxin produced by the FSB poison lab.
That Putin’s junta arrests, murders, maims and in general harasses dissidents isn’t news to anyone who has the minutest of interests in Russia. My interest in it is more than minute, and one would think nothing about that place could still surprise me. Yet something did.
Everybody knew Navalny would be arrested on arrival. No surprises there. It was also predictable that his plane would at the last moment be rerouted from Vnukovo airport, where a crowd of his supporters had gathered, to Sheremetyevo, where he was greeted only by cops and FSB.
Reading about that, I almost had to stifle a yawn. But then I came across a telling detail, of the kind where the devil lives: the wall of the nearby police station where Navalny was taken prominently exhibited a portrait of Genrikh Yagoda, head of the OGPU/NKVD in the 20s and 30s.
It’s hard to compare this ghoulish mass murderer with Himmler on any moral criteria. Six of one, half a dozen of the other. But Genrikh (the Russian version of Heinrich) probably outscored his near namesake in the sheer number of victims.
Yagoda became OGPU’s deputy head In 1926, but his boss, Menzhinsky, was permanently incapacitated. Hence it fell upon Yagoda to build that sinister organisation, later known as the KGB and now as the FSB, to its worldwide prominence.
His achievements in that post were numerous, but one of them ties him symbolically to Navalny. For Yagoda supervised the OGPU poison laboratory, which by the looks of it keeps his legacy alive.
Yagoda himself liberally used its products in his daily work. Thus in 1934, on Stalin’s orders, he dispatched Menzhinsky who, though ill, was stubbornly hanging on to life. Yagoda is also widely credited (if this is the right word) with the poisoning of the writer Gorky and his son Max, whose wife was Yagoda’s mistress.
It was then that OGPU became NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs), with Yagoda as its head. So in fact he was in charge of the Soviet secret police for about 10 years until his dismissal in 1936. And, compared to his overall achievements, a few poisonings here or there aren’t even worth mentioning.
During the 1945 Potsdam Conference, Churchill commiserated with Stalin about the millions of Soviet casualties during the war. Stalin waved the condolences away: “We lost more during the Collectivisation”.
He was referring to the effective enslavement of the Russian peasants, whose land was nationalised and who were all attached to collective farms. In the good Russian tradition, the dispossessed and enslaved peasants resorted to jacquerie, with dozens of revolts dotting the country’s map.
It was under Yagoda’s leadership that these were suppressed with inhuman brutality. How many died? No one knows – the Russians aren’t big on actuarial practices. But if Stalin said that the number was greater than the 20-odd million killed in the war, he ought to have known.
As part of this campaign, Yagoda engineered Holodomor, the 1932-1933 artificial famine that didactically killed at least 5,000,000 peasants in the Ukraine and Kazakhstan. The survivors learned their lesson on the benefits of collectivised agriculture.
It was Yagoda who turned a few scattered concentration camps into what Solzhenitsyn called the Gulag Archipelago, whose islands densely covered the country. How many millions died there? No one really knows, and in any case I wouldn’t be able to count that high.
Yagoda was the first who spotted the vast economic potential of Gulag as an endless supplier of slave labour, the mainstay of the Soviet economy. One of his most spectacular, but perhaps least significant, coups was the construction of the White Sea-Baltic Canal built on the bones of the tens of thousands of GULAG inmates.
Add to this massive purges complete with the first show trials, organised and supervised by Yagoda, and the full scale of his toil begins to emerge. But he wasn’t all work and no play.
Unlike the ascetic Himmler, Yagoda was no stranger to the fine things in life. He and his comrades staged regular drunken orgies, where, on top of the usual orgiastic activities, they used priceless icons for target practice. When Yagoda himself was arrested, found in his possession were hundreds of pornographic films, piles of similar literature and a small collection of dildos.
By the time Himmler made his first tentative steps, Yagoda had already established himself as one of the most evil personages in world history. Yet it’s wrong to ascribe all those crimes to his own villainy. For Yagoda wasn’t a free agent – he was an agent to Stalin, a blunt instrument in the tyrant’s hands.
Again, those who follow Russian affairs know that Stalin’s reputation is being gradually rebuilt in Putin’s Russia. His portraits and busts are popping up like mushrooms after the rain, and he’s widely extolled as an empire builder and victor in the war.
Putin’s propaganda portrays Stalin as a harsh but fair leader, who sometimes had to resort to tough measures out of dire necessity. Though it’s impossible to conceal Stalin’s crimes altogether, they tend to be dissociated from him and externalised in his hangmen, such as Yezhov, Beria – and Yagoda.
That’s a variation on the old Russian theme of good-tsar-bad-ministers: the executors of Stalin’s orders are vilified, while he himself is glorified. This is all par for the course.
But the prominent display of a Yagoda portrait at a Moscow police station signals a new development: it’s not just the Butcher-In-Chief but also his junior butchers who are now being put on the pedestal.
That gets me back to my original question. If we’d be hypothetically worried about seeing a Himmler portrait in Berlin, shouldn’t we be worried for real about seeing an actual Yagoda one in Moscow? And shouldn’t those of us who still harbour illusions about Putin’s Russia wake up and smell the novichok?