Duranty Confesses

(February 1942)

From New International, Vol. VIII No. 1, February 1942, pp. 30–31.
transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan (December 2012).

The Kremlin and the People
by Walter Duranty
216 pp. Reynal & Hitchcock. New York. $2.00.

Mr. Duranty’s reputation as an authority on Russian has been gained among a section of the reading public by a shrewd combination of factors. He is an Englishman, and there are always enough American snobs to drool with delight at anything scratched on paper by one of their superior cousins. Secondly, he carefully affects an amused and detached cynicism toward the dumb ants he writes about, the ant-heaps they erect, the sufferings they endure. This attitude is calculated to make the snob feel fine: he is given a funny inferior to smile at, a tragi-comic one to pity. This feeling is enhanced in turn by Duranty’s literary posturings as an English sahib in Russia: However dreadful this or that may seem, remember, it is happening to the Russian; and for him, being what he is, it is good enough; we Englishmen, of course – really now, it would never do for us, old man! Thirdly, he is full of unauthenticated or unauthenticable anecdotes written with the sly air accompanying every “I-got-this-from-the-front-office” – or back bedroom – story, and very often conveying the hint he “got this straight from my old chum Stalin himself but of course you don’t expect me to say so in quite so many words, do you?”

These devices, together with an infinite capacity for living up to the motto on the coat of arms of the Prince of Wales, have made him an invaluable front man for the Kremlin mob in those circles where he can do the most good. To do the most good, he must needs permit himself an occasional “criticism” or “revealing story” to show that he’s not a simple phonograph record. It’s another shrewd device aimed not at objectivity but merely at mellowing the blatancy of the apologies for Stalin’s crimes which are Mr. Duranty’s long suit and rôle in the scheme of things. Not an easy game to play, for sometime or other you are bound to slip. In this latest volume of apologetics for his Borgian patrons, dashed off in the hope that it will take the taste of the trials and purges off the palate of the American public, Duranty makes what we are happy to catch as a real slip. The book as a whole is so much unboiled tripe, but a few pages from it are priceless. They deal with an episode during the Bukharin trial hitherto totally unknown, at least to us. The few words let drop by Yagoda while he was being harried by Vishinsky are so telling in their support of the argument that the trials and the “confessions” were framed, that Duranty’s whole description is worth reprinting. Here it is:

Kazakof was accused of murdering Yagoda’s predecessor at the head of the OGPU, Minjinsky. To me this was somewhat surprising, because I happen to know that Minjinsky, who had been badly crippled by an automobile accident in Poland in 1920, and had grave maladies in addition, had always ascribed his continuance in life to Professor Kasakof and the “Lysati.” Like most chronic invalids, Minjinsky had his pet doctor and pet remedy, namely Kazakof and the “Lysati,” and told Stalin so and all his friends. You can see the way he said it, the way we now talk about vitamins. You can hear him talking to Stalin and saying: “Comrade Stalin, I hear you’ve been having some heart trouble. What you really need is these ‘Lysati’ that Kazakofs been giving me. I mean, my friend, that they’re wonderful, and in fact I don’t mind telling you they’re keeping me alive.” That was what Minjinsky said; but one day Minjinsky died and Yagoda, his right-hand man, ruled the OGPU in his stead. Time passed and Yagoda fell and himself was brought to trial. And with him, as a make-weight, was the unhappy Professor Kazakof.

The prosecutor, Vishinsky, brought Kazakof to admit that he had deliberately contrived the death of Minjinsky, at Yagoda’s bidding, because Yagoda wanted the job, by giving him wrong does, or hyper-doses, or anything you like of “Lysati.” It sounded like bunkum to me, but anyway that’s what Kazakof said and admitted.

Then Vishinsky turned to Yagoda and asked him: “Is it true that you gave Kazakof instructions to murder your chief, Minjinsky, in order that you might take his place and use it for conspiratorial purposes?”

Yagoda said quietly: “I never saw Professor Kazakof until this day.”

Vishinsky went back to Kazakof and drew from him the statement that on the sixth of November 1933 an OGPU car had called for him at his home by Yagoda’s orders, and taken him to the first entrance of the OGPU headquarters in Moscowr and there he’d been led upstairs to Yagoda’s office. Where Yagoda had told him, said Kazakof: “Minjinsky’s a living corpse. Why don’t yon finish him off? I want his job for myself. So finish him off, or else ...”

“You mean, then,” said the prosecutor, “that Yagoda frightened you into committing the shocking crime of the murder of Minjinsky?”

“That is what I mean,” said Kazakof, “because Yagoda was so powerful and ...”

At this point the audience shuddered. I felt them shudder and shuddered myself, because I knew and they knew what power Yagoda had wielded as head of the OGPU, Lord of the High Justice and the Low, the most dreaded and terrible man since Torquemada of Spain. Except, of course, Yezhof, who slew Yagoda the Slayer and later himself was slain. Then Vishinsky turned to Yagoda and said:

“Accused Yagoda, do you deny or confirm the statement of Professor Kazakof?”

Yagoda said: “I deny.”

Vishinsky persisted: “So Kazakof is lying?”

“Yes, lying,” said Yagoda.

“And Levin,” Vishinsky continued, “did he lie too when he said that you had ordered him to kill Maxim Gorky, Stalin’s friend?”

“He is lying,” said Yagoda.

Vishinsky pointed a finger at him. I still can see this scene, so vivid it lives in my mind. The audience hushed and tense, and Ulrich, the bloodhound with dewlaps, watching coldly, and the podgy Vishinsky pointing his finger at Yagoda, a pallid man with dark hair and harsh eyes.

Vishinsky said: “Did you not lie too, Yagoda?”

At this point Yagoda bit. You might say that he bit off the finger; you might say that he bit off the hand; that he bit off Vishinsky’s arm. In a voice that was menace of death, he said:

“Don’t dare to ask me that question! That question I shall not answer.”

He spoke with such concentrated venom and fury and threat of hell and damnation, that Vishinsky jumped in the air. I don’t mean he really jumped, but somehow we felt that he’d jumped. And didn’t the audience jump! Good Lord, how all of us jumped!

My friends often ask me why I don’t go to theaters and movies and so forth. And here is my answer now: that I have seen something bigger and better. I told Noel Coward that once, when he was grumbling at me because I didn’t know enough to satisfy his interest about some show at the Russian Art Theater. I said: “Yes, of course, and I’m sorry: I ought to have seen it and didn’t. But you know, I saw the Trials, and they were so much better theater and so much more exciting, that even Moskvin or Kachalof were dull to me by comparison.”

Yagoda’s tone of fury and venom – far, far more his tone than his words – knocked Vishinsky off his feet, and knocked the audience, too. Myself, I was sitting close to the “stage,” in the second row of benches, and thus received the full impact. But I’m a reporter, and philosopher as well, and have seen and heard horror and flames. And known pain to its uttermost limit.

But the people behind me were hit, and there came through them the sort of thing you don’t often hear, a gasp of dismay and terror. No, not just terror and dismay, perhaps it was simply distress, as when the bullet hits a strong young soldier charging with fixed bayonet.

The President, General Ulrich, hard old bloodhound, rang his bell and said to Yagoda: “You don’t have to talk like that, I won’t let you talk like that.”

Up to now I have been quoting from the official stenographic record of this trial, but the lines which follow were not included therein, I heard them, though, and remember.

Yagoda looked at Ulrich, the rat that looked at the judge. And said:

“That goes for you, too – you can drive me, but not too far! I’ll say what I want to say ... but ... do not drive me too far!”

Talk about cold shivers!

I’ve seen the redoubtable Ulrich in more than one of these trials, but this time he met his match. He knew that Yagoda was done, like a rocket whose flare was out. Oh yes, General Ulrich knew that, and so did his audience, and so did I, and so did the prosecutor, Vishinsky. Oh yes, we all of us knew it, and some of us were soft and some of us were tough, and some like me were philosophers and reporters, and some were just folks. But I assure you that this sentence from Yagoda was the most thrilling thing I have ever met in a wide and exciting life. It hit Ulrich himself in his big high President’s chair, socked him hard like a crack on the chin.

I tell you that it is not without reason that men like Yagoda or Hitler rise to great heights of power. They must have an inner strength. They must have something we haven’t. So here was this cornered rat, who knew he was doomed and we knew it. The judge knew it, the prosecutor knew it, everyone knew it. And yet from the strength within him he could use a few simple words like a sword of lambent fire, and honestly, for a second, make all of them shake in their boots. Especially the plump Vishinsky, who took no more cracks at Yagoda. Even Ulrich was careful after that. When Yagoda flung his thunderbolt, Ulrich blinked a bit, as we all did, but he is tough Bolshevik timber, like the boys who are holding the Germans. He blinked and then rang his bell and said “Silence! the prosecutor will continue the examination of Kazakof.”

So quietly ended one of the highest moments of interest in my life, which has been diligently passed in search of moments of interest. Yagoda, I say and maintain, was in that moment terrific. Yet the next day he confessed to something which seemed to me purely ridiculous. This demon who had startled the court with his sudden blaze of wrath, now came before it to tell the most childish of stories. About “flitting” Yezhof to death.

Are we not right in thinking that the housemaid has blabbed once too often, and said too much?

Max Shachtman
Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 23 December 2014