Sunday, March 16, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Soviet Chekists Stole from Those They Executed, New Study Shows

Paul Goble

Baku, March 17 – The Soviet secret police routinely stole from those the organs executed, with some of those who did the killing keeping clothes, watches and other valuables for their personal use and others selling what they had stolen for profit in special stores, according to a new study of the organization’s pre-war practices.
What makes this new research important is not only that it confirms many memoir accounts with carefully marshaled archival data but also that it eliminates one more distinction between the actions of Hitler’s SS and the Soviet secret police whose officers current Russian President Vladimir Putin has celebrated as true defenders of Russia.
Written by A.G. Teplyakov, the book, The Procedure: The Carrying Out of Death Sentences in the 1920s and 1930s (in Russian, Moscow, 2007), is reviewed in Siberskiye ogni ( Excerpts from the book itself are at
By adopting this narrow focus and by relying on archives, Teplyakov is able to offer fresh details on three aspects of the activity of the Soviet secret police, which during that period was variously known as the VChK or Cheka, the GPU, the OGPU, and finally the NKVD.
First, Teplyakov shows that a significant fraction of those who carried out the executions either were or became “genuine sadists” who did not simply shoot those who had been sentenced to die but used other methods designed to inflict the maximum amount of pain in their victims.
Second, the much-published historian provides additional information linking Stalin to the murders of Boris Savinkov, Karl Radek and others, murders whose specific authorship has remained a matter of dispute among many Russian and some Western writers.
And third, and this is his most important contribution, Teplyakov documents the system which allowed Chekist executioners to steal from their victims – often everything except their underwear, the archives suggest – turn their “loot” over to party leaders including Lenin, keep much of it for personal use, or even sell it in special stores.
In August 1919, Teplyakov reports, the Cheka issued a special order according to which all valuables found on those to be executed were to be handed over to A.Ya. Belen’skiy, Lenin’s chief bodyguard. And Teplyakov shows that the founder of the Soviet state got shoes, coats and other things that the Chekists had stole from the dead.
The amount of money taken from those executed was so large that in the city of Petrograd alone, the authorities had to set up a special bank account to handle it – apparently to ensure that it would go to “worthy” Soviet practices and programs, Teplyakov suggests.
But the practice of stealing from those executed, extremely widespread during the Russian Civil War, did not end with that conflict, Teplyakov says. Even as the Soviet state stabilized and bureaucratized, so too this practice became normalized and very much a part of the way the Soviet secret police did business at least before World War II.
Most of the time, it appears from Teplyakov’s account, the executioners just pocked whatever they wanted from their victims, confident that more senior officers in the Soviet secret police would not do anything about it. Indeed, Teplyakov recounts the testimony of several involved in the practice.
But perhaps the most morally unsavory aspect of this immoral practice, one that encouraged the Chekists to kill those from whom they could steal the most, was that in some places outside of Moscow and especially outside of European Russia, the Soviet secret police set up special stores to earn money from what they stole.
Income from these special stores was to go exclusively to the state, according to official rules promulgated by the NKVD leadership, but Teplyakov strongly implied that at least some of the money involved went back to those who had killed the former owners of these items.
Everyone is familiar with such actions by the Nazi secret police, but few, including Russian President Putin, are willing to face up to these Soviet parallels. Instead, he and an increasing number of Russians and others seek to play up the “positive” role of the Chekists and dismiss such “negative” aspects.
That makes Teplyakov’s book and the documentation it provides especially important now; and given the authoritarian direction things are moving in the Russian Federation at the present time, the appearance of this book makes its author a truly brave man.

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