Victor Serge

The End of Henry Yagoda

Stalin Imprisons the Head of the G.P.U.
Because He Knew the Inside Story

(August 1938)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. 1 No. 3, 28 August 1937, p. 9.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The vast police coup d’etat begun by Stalin last July in order to liquidate Bolshevism and to stabilize his personal regime continues, and each day brings its new surprise. It will soon be clear that the importance of this period of eighteen months is not inferior to that of a Thermidor combined with an Eighteenth Brumaire. The arrest of Yagoda is the sensation of the last few days. It even casts into the shade the arrest, which has firmly been confirmed, of Christian Rakowsky, and the rumors that Leon Sosnovsky, like General Putna, has been shot in prison without trial. (Sosnovsky, the brilliant Bolshevik journalist, was so greatly appreciated by Lenin that he made him his mouthpiece at the first pan-Russian Executive of the Soviets. But nothing definite is known about this, and perhaps nothing ever will be known.

A Government communiqué, signed by Kalinin, announced the accusation of Henry Grigorievitch Yagoda: Malfeasance in office, crimes committed in the course of the fulfilment of his functions ... What functions? Yagoda is an old Bolshevik from before October, member of the Cheka; in 1928 he sympathized with the Right Opposition (Bukharin, Rykov), but not for long.

... As head of the G.P.U. For many years he organized the repression against the technicians, against every opposition, in every sphere. Thousands of death warrants received his signature. He ruled the vastest concentration camps in the world – a position which gained him a decoration for the construction of the White Sea Baltic Canal, by convict labour.

He watched over Stalin, whom he was seen to follow step by step on ceremonial occasions.

Chief Commissar of the Criminal Police, People’s Commissar for the Interior, member of the Central Committee of the Party, commander of the special troops of the G.P.U., he was in truth the most dreaded man in the U.S.S.R., the one whose conscience carried – by order – the heaviest burdens: Chief of Police to the “genial Leader.” In this capacity he presided over the secret examinations (what horrible concoctions!) for the Zinoviev trial and over the execution of the sentences against the Sixteen. Immediately after the Zinoviev-Kamenev-Smirnov trial his disgrace became known.

A scapegoat was required to shoulder the responsibility of of this badly managed judicial comedy. Above all was it necessary to suppress Yagoda because he had become, in his turn, an intolerably disturbing witness. He is accused. Everything can be blamed on him: he committed – by order – all the crimes that are required, and he could commit no worse or more unpardonable crime than to defend himself – for this could only be done by accusing others. He is irretrievably lost.

I picture him to myself in one of those cells in the Moscow prison of the G.P.U., which he himself had built, reading again the regulation which he signed, awaiting an examination, a judgment, an execution, the rites of which he knows by heart – understanding at last what he has done, what he has become, what those like him have made of the Revolution!

And I think also of Romain Rolland, who met him at Moscow and devoted to him such a handsome article. The great chief of the concentration camps and of those silent executioners in all the dungeons of the U.S.S.R. conquered at a stroke the heart of the author of Jean Christophe.

Is this not the occasion for Rolland to write a new article on Yagoda to try to save even this life – for is it not enough blood and too much cynicism on the part of the Master to attempt thus in broad daylight to suppress his servitors?

Already last September I wrote:

“The whole generation of October is condemned. Finished. Lost. Every one strangled in a trap. The few last survivors of the old Bolshevik cadres – the Litvinovs, Krestinskys, Bubnovs, Antonov-Ovseenkos – are also condemned, in the same way or by others means. Their existence has become incompatible with that of the regime.”

Last updated on 27 July 2018