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On March 19, 1937, Pravda carried this brief news item: "Comrade P. P. Postyshev has been elected acting secretary of the Kuibyshev Provincial Committee of the All‑Union CP(b)."
On the following day Pravda offered additional information on the dictator of the Ukraine:
Kiev, March 19. A plenum of the CC, CP(b)U was held on March 17. The plenum of the CC, CP(b)U listened to a report by Comrade Kosior on the plain of the CC, All‑Union CP(b) and considered several matters. In connection with the departure of Comrade Postyshev to a new post, the plenum of the CC, CP(b)U relieved him of his duties as second secretary of the Central Committee. Comrade M. M. Khataevich was elected second secretary of the CC, CP(b)U.
That was all. The disappearance from the Ukrainian political arena of its dominant personality cried for a more detailed explanation. Its absence would in itself suggest that the removal of Postyshev had a deeper significance.
Two months after the departure of Postyshev, the Thirteenth Congress of the CP(b)U severely censured the man who, at the last Congress of the CP(b)U, had been offered the deepest adulation and hero-worship.1 The charges were made, curiously enough, by a rank-and‑file member of the Party, Nikolenko,2 who said that
the situation, which had nothing in common with Bolshevism, reached its apogee when the Kiev Party organization was under the leadership of Comrade Postyshev. "Postyshev's instructions," "Postyshev's appeals," "Postyshev's kindergartens, "Postyshev's presents," etc. Everything began and ended with Postyshev.3
According to other charges, Postyshev was guilty of "lack of Party vigilance," and of "supporting the Trotskyites, the nationalists and the Bukharinites in the Kiev Party organization."
p115 The chief speaker at the Congress, S. Kosior, who a year later was destined to follow in the footsteps of Postyshev, reminded the audience of the "dangers of nationalism." He stated that the CP(b)U had relaxed its vigilance, and allowed itself to be infiltrated by nationalists and Trotskyites. The Party organization in Kiev was particularly affected. "Here, the Trotskyites especially have dug themselves in," said Kosior. "They have seized control of important posts. The former secretary of the Kiev Committee, Comrade Postyshev, must bear the greatest blame."4
Having accused Postyshev of nationalism and of Trotskyism, the Kremlin decided to give him an opportunity to "correct his errors." We learn this from the January Plenum of the CC All‑Union CP(b), held in 1938, which discussed "errors of Party organizations while excluding the Communists from the Party, the formal-bureaucratic attitude to the appeals of those excluded from All‑Union CP(b), and the means of overcoming these drawbacks."5
In the course of the discussion A. A. Andreev devoted much attention to the Ukraine. In order to illustrate the wrongdoings inside the CP(b)U, he quoted several cases which had occurred during Postyshev's period. This was not sufficient to expose the former dictator of the Ukraine. Therefore, Andreev cited some recent examples of the latter's misbehaviour. In his function as acting secretary of the Kuibyshev Party Committee, Postyshev, he alleged, had displayed gross egotism, "anti-Party twists," and "repressions of members of the Party."
The resolution of the plenum declared, among other things, that "the time has come to unmask and expose as careerists those Communists who are trying to gain advantage by the exclusion of others from the Party."6
It is not known if Postyshev was given an opportunity to defend himself. None of his speeches were printed after the plenum. Soon afterward he was deprived of his membership in the Central Executive Committee and of his candidate membership in the Politburo of the CC All‑Union CP(b).7 After his return to Kuibyshev he received a final blow: he was expelled from the Party. Following this, all track of Postyshev was lost.
There are several versions of Postyshev's end; Avtorkhanov maintains that he was executed.8 This is also accepted by A. Svetlanin.9 However, one of the readers of Sotsialistichesky vestnik, writing under the initials B. N. O., reports that: "Postyshev fell into disgrace, was expelled from the Party, but was not officially arrested. He died of tuberculosis in the Kremlin Sanatorium."10 Yet p116 another version of Postyshev's death, based on rumors which circulated in the Kiev prisons during the Yezhov period and an account by an inmate of the concentration camps, states that Postyshev was put in prison, where he died of tuberculosis.11 Another story of Postyshev's end comes from A. Gaev, in a study of Postyshev.12 Gaev, who had an opportunity to meet Postyshev personally, writes that "his death was reported by only one newspaper. Only Vechernaya Moskva (The Evening Moscow), buried on the last page with reports of fires, criminal offences and street brawls, printed the fact that P. P. Postyshev, former member of the CC All‑Union CP(b), has died after a long illness in the Kremlin hospital." Unfortunately, the author indicates neither the date of Postyshev's death nor the issue of the Moscow paper. On the basis of other evidence, which will be discussed later, it is probable that this last version of Postyshev's death is the most accurate. His death must have occurred some time in the autumn of 1939.
It is impossible to establish the real reason for the eclipse of Postyshev's star; all at the can be offered is an analysis of the various hypotheses advanced to explain it. There are three of these: the official version given by the Party; one by Gaev; and one by Avtorkhanov.
Let us first examine the official Party version. From the previous pages of this study it is clear that Postyshev was the most devoted liquidator of Trotskyites, Bukharinites and the Ukrainian national opposition within the CP(b)U. He was the faithful executor of Stalin's orders, Stalin's most trusted man in the Ukraine. He was the creator and enforcer of the new imperialist, centralist and Russifying policy in the Ukraine. In view of this, the official charges of liberalism and lack of vigilance had no relation to the truth. For the crimes which Postyshev did commit in the Ukraine he could not, of course, be tried by the Party, since he had committed them on its orders. It would be equally false to assume that Postyshev could, as was charged, have elevated himself too high in the Party hierarchy, and been blinded by self-conceit. A faithful apparatchik, he reflected only some of the glitter which shone from his master. The list of Postyshev's wrongdoings in Kuibyshev is also unconvincing. In any case, his fall dates from his transfer from the Ukraine. His work in Kuibyshev was already a kind of punishment. The official version of Postyshev's fall may, therefore, be rejected.
According to Gaev, the reason for Postyshev's decline lay in his popularity, in the rise of his prestige, and in "his simplicity and open-heartedness." This seems a somewhat subjective judgment. However, Gaev's opinion that a year before his fall Postyshev had begun to show a certain hostility toward the Party bureaucracy and to develop a critical sense, deserves further attention. This new p117 characteristic was, as we shall see, in line with Postyshev's policy in the Ukraine in 1936.
The third explanation of Postyshev's fall comes from Avtorkhanov. It is the most convincing of all. According to Avtorkhanov, Postyshev fell because of the political situation in which he found himself in the Ukraine and because of conflicts within the top strata of the All‑Union CP(b) which came to a head in the fall of 1936. But having pointed out these very important reasons, Avtorkhanov neglected to provide all the possible arguments in their favor. This gap we will try to fill.
Avtorkhanov thinks13 that in the fall of 1937 Postyshev had shown sympathy for the Ukrainians when, at the time of the final liquidation of the CC CP(b)U, he had sided with Kosior, Lyubchenko, Zatonsky, Petrovsky and Demchenko against Molotov, Khrushchev and Yezhov. This was true, with one important correction. Postyshev had already fallen; he had already been expelled from the Central Committee and was doing penance in Kuibyshev.
The rest of the "Ukrainian trouble" which contributed to Postyshev's fall lies elsewhere. It must be sought first of all in the specific atmosphere of the Ukraine to which Postyshev, in spite of rigorous Party training and orders from Moscow, must have succumbed. Postyshev, having sent to their doom hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians who had lived for this new Ukrainian society, and having paralyzed the Ukrainian trends in the CP(b)U, failed to destroy the idea of a Ukrainian state with its historical, cultural, social and economic peculiarities. Gradually and unconsciously Postyshev had become a captive of the Ukraine. This is why, in 1936, he began to show a lively interest in Ukrainian history and culture, and in the preservation of Ukrainian cadres in the CP(b)U.14 Postyshev began to ridicule those Party chiefs who thought that "Ukrainianization is limited to mastering the Ukrainian language." He expressed the daring opinion that "it is imperative that a member of the Party have a thorough knowledge of the history, the economics, the culture of the Ukraine, and the history of the CP(b)U, so that all the members of the Party should be able to understand the processes of the construction of Soviet Ukrainian culture now being accomplished."15 This, obviously, did not please the Kremlin. Postyshev had not been sent to the Ukraine to deliver speeches in defense of Ukrainian culture and history, or to use his authority to compel new cadres of the CP(b)U to study them. It is also possible that, as Gaev contends, Postyshev became aware of the alien and critical mood of the Ukraine, which could not be dispelled by terror. And, after all, his mailed fist, which destroyed thousands, had failed to destroy the CEC or the CC of the CP(b)U. This alone was enough to incur Stalin's displeasure.
p118 The second reason for Postyshev's downfall was, according to Avtorkhanov, the purge of all secretaries of Party organizations and heads of governments of the republics in the USSR which began in the fall of 1937. This purge, in turn, was the result of widespread opposition to Stalin which appeared openly during a plenum of the CC All‑Union CP(b)U in November 1936, when the fate of Bukharin and his group was also decided. "After a three‑day discussion," writes Avtorkhanov, "the question of Bukharin and Rykov was put to a secret vote. The results of the voting were: less than a third of the members of the Central Committee voted for the resolution of Yezhov [and Stalin, condemning Bukharin and Rykov]; the majority voted against the resolution or turned in blank votes. The resolution, which was basically approved by the Politburo, was, most astonishingly, defeated. The highest executive organ of the Party thus expressed a vote of non‑confidence in Stalin and his lieutenant in the NKVD, Yezhov.16 Avtorkhanov lists Postyshev as one of those who voted against Stalin. Following the unexpected vote, Stalin, according to Avtorkhanov, accepted the decision of the majority of the Central Committee and published, in Pravda and Izvestiya a few days later, an announcement from the Procurator's office that it had suspended its investigation of Bukharin and Rykov because of lack of evidence.17
A year later, contends Avtorkhanov, in the fall of 1937, out of 140 members and candidate members of the CC All‑Union CP(b), only 15 men remained free, eight of whom were in 1946‑47 members of the Politburo. This was how Stalin had implemented the decision of the Central Committee.
Does this interpretation by Avtorkhanov comrade with the truth? As a general picture of developments in 1936‑37 it is correct, but it is highly inaccurate in detail. It is not surprising, of course, that Avtorkhanov's memory, which had retained so many facts, had become somewhat hazy in matters of dates and chronology. While there is little doubt that Postyshev's fate was affected by the conflict within the All‑Union CP(b) which resulted in the prosecution of Rykov and Bukharin, the account of this conflict contains serious errors and inaccuracies.
The plenum of the CC All‑Union CP(b) to which Avtorkhanov referred as having taken place in 1936 was actually held early in 1937, probably February 25 to March 5.
In view of the scarcity of official sources, I feel justified in presenting here another version of the plenum.
This version is based on several accounts by people whom the present author met in 1940 in the camp at Vorkuta,18 most of them under sentences of from 10 p119 to 25 years. Isolated from the rest of the world and without newspapers, we attempted to unravel the mysterious changes in the Soviet government on the basis of radio reports and the rumors which circulated in the camp. It was difficult for us to understand how such military leaders of the USSR as Tukhachevsky, Yakir and others, or a faithful apparatchik of Stalin's like Postyshev, could so suddenly have fallen into disfavor. From the accounts of several men who knew the inner world of the Party in the thirties, the following picture of the events of 1936‑38 finally emerged and were preserved in my memory.
After the trial of Zinoviev and Kamenev, and after the announcement by Vyshinsky, on August 21, 1936, of the implication of Tomsky, Bukharin, Rykov, Uglanov, Radek, Pystakov, Serebryakov and Sokolnikov in an anti-state plot, there followed widespread arrests of the associates and subordinates of these men. The new investigations, started by the Special Security Commission of the CC All‑Union CP(b); the replacement of the NKVD chief, Yagoda, by Yezhov;19 the dismissal of Rykov;20 and a series of instructions from the Special Security Commission to the Army to root out "enemies of the state," all were portents of a new and broad purge. It became clear to the lowest Party chiefs of the District Committees that the purge was directed against the former theoreticians and oppositionists in the Party. Taking advantage of the confusion caused by the execution of the Zinoviev-Kamenev group, and hiding behind the slogans of the new liberal Soviet constitution, Stalin was preparing another slaughter of unprecedented magnitude. Many high officials of the Party and members of the CC All‑Union CP(b) (Rudzutak, Chubar, Postyshev, Kosior, Eikhe, Petrovsky) saw in it a personal threat, since in the past they had on several occasions supported Bukharin and Rykov.
Previous attempts to indict Rykov and Bukharin had been rejected by the majority of the members of the CC All‑Union CP(b) as inadequately supported by evidence. However, in spite of this, in January 1937, just before the trial of Radek and Pyatakov, who were accused of participating in a "Trotskyite center," Bukharin was dismissed from the editorship of Izvestia, his last prominent post. At the plenum of the CC All‑Union CP(b) in February, the members of the Central Committee were asked to approve a recommendation that Rykov and Bukharin should be expelled from the Party. These moves by Stalin created an atmosphere of tension and insecurity among the top officials of the Party. Many members of the Central Committee, commanders of the Army, chiefs of industrial p120 enterprises, leaders of republican governments had, therefore, spontaneously agreed to defend Rykov and Bukharin at the February Plenum. Most of them were faithful followers of Stalin and could not be accused of any opposition. They objected to the methods which Stalin used in liquidating Bukharin and other deviationists. They wanted some protection against the indiscriminate charges and accusations which were being flung at leading Communists and against the brutal methods used in disposing of these men.
This agreement between various prominent Party men must not be regarded as a plot against Stalin. The members of the group were merely anxious to provide safeguards in Stalin's dictatorial system, to improve relations within the Party, and finally to remind Stalin that not he alone but the Central Committee ruled the Soviet state.
The agreement to oppose Stalin at the plenum was secret. The plan was in the course of the discussion of a keynote address outlining the main objections to bring into the open the disagreement with Stalin. Postyshev was chosen to deliver this address, for the obvious reason that Stalin was thought to have complete confidence in him. After his speech, demanding justice for Bukharin and Rykov, other members of the Central Committee were to join Postyshev, thus creating a majority demanding a re‑examination of the case of the two accused leaders. This was the plan to stop Stalin. Perhaps it would have succeeded, had it remained a secret. However, Stalin learned about it in advance, and this gave him the opportunity to prepare his defense.
To a man like Stalin this opposition meant a serious threat, a conspiracy, high treason. Should it succeed, his dictatorial power would be severely curtailed, his prestige would be badly damaged. He, therefore, prepared himself thoroughly to counteract Postyshev's speech. Having mobilized all his native resources of craft and diplomacy, he composed a speech which he delivered before Postyshev's. In his speech, Stalin, very subtly, without being obvious, contradicted all the charges which Postyshev was later to make.21 Stalin's argumentation was irrefutable, his appeal for unity and to the high responsibility of Communist leadership was overwhelming. The assembled members of the CC All‑Union CP(b) were deeply impressed by the logic of their leader, by the acute mind which seemed to read their thoughts. Did they falter in their plan to oppose Stalin?
There might have been some who were already wavering when Postyshev went up to the rostrum to deliver his speech. In a dry, hoarse and unpleasant voice he began reading his prepared text. Tension was at the breaking point. At the critical moment, when Postyshev, after a careful preamble, was about to come to grips with Stalin's accusations against Rykov and Bukharin, Stalin, who was listening without apparent emotion, uttered a loud interjection, thus revealing to Postyshev that Stalin was aware of the opposition's plan, and knew what Postyshev was about to say. Postyshev faltered, and for a few moments the audience could feel p121 the struggle within the speaker's mind. Then he suddenly departed from the prepared text of his speech and in the meek, humble voice of one who has been found out by the teacher, attempted to explain the doubts which he and his associates had of Stalin's tactics. He declared that after listening to Stalin's masterly analysis of the situation he was withdrawing the charges which he was about to make and he hoped that his associates would also see their errors.
This was a great anti-climax. The opposition was shattered. Like sheep, one by one, the men who only an hour before had been determined to check Stalin, now filed to the rostrum, humble and penitent. They had been beaten by Stalin, and they felt that all they could do was to save their own skins. But not all of them lost heart; some said that they saw no reason for admitting their errors or vacillations. Among these were Rudzutak, Chubar, Eikhe, and some military commanders. They argued that their doubts as to Stalin's policy were not signs of treason or weakness, but were the result of their deep concerns for the welfare of the Soviet state. The most brilliant speech in defense of the opposition was reportedly delivered by Chubar.
Stalin watched this tragicomedy with an assumed indifference, smoking his pipe and taking notes. After the discussion, which lasted three days, he was called upon to deliver the final report. The audience was extremely apprehensive. They expected sharp words and criticism from their leader after such a display of "self-criticism."
Once more Stalin took everyone by surprise. His tone was mild; he scarcely mentioned the debates, but concentrated on describing the foreign threat to the USSR, the Trotskyite plots, the fascist schemes, and the conspiracies of such former fellow-travellers as Ruth Fisher, Maslov, Max Eastman and others. He also pointed out the shortcomings in Party work and organization, and made particular mention of the unsatisfactory conditions within the Kiev Party organization for which, quite unjustifiably, a good rank-and‑file Communist, Nikolenko, was about to be expelled. Not until the very end did he refer to the critical discussion, thanking all the participants for their concern for the state. He concluded his report by saying that in spite of the difference of opinion the plenum had come to unanimous decisions and the Party had emerged stronger than before.
The plenum, it seemed, was to have a happy ending. The expulsion of Bukharin and Rykov from the Party, the "inner Party democracy," secret balloting, and the re‑organization of Party work in accordance with the new Constitution had all been agreed upon. The delegates went home. We do not know whether they were convinced that the expulsion of Rykov and Bukharin was an act of great wisdom, or whether they believed Stalin's words acknowledging the contribution they had made by criticizing the Party. We do know, however, that soon after the plenum all the members of the Central Committee who had opposed Stalin were liquidated.22
p122 The Vorkuta version of the February Plenum cannot claim to be entirely authentic, but it offers a plausible explanation of the downfall of Postyshev.
In conclusion, it may be said that Postyshev's career was ended because he failed to live up to his task in the Ukraine and because he became involved with the anti-Stalin opposition in the spring of 1937.
Although Stalin came to despise his former protégé, he also showed him an unusual degree of mercy. Eleven days after the plenum Postyshev was relieved of his duties as secretary of the CC CP(b)U and expelled from the CC of the All‑Union CP(b). A year later, accused of abetting Trotskyism and nationalism, he was expelled from the Party. And, according to one version, he, unlike all the other members of the Central Committee who had opposed Stalin at the plenum, was not arrested and executed, but was allowed to die a natural death in the Kremlin hospital.
1 Visti, June 3, 1937.
2 Nikolenko was a Kiev party member who was a notorious squabbler and denouncer. In 1936 Postyshev recommended that she be excluded from the Party. Her expulsion was confirmed by the CC CP(b)U, but she appealed against it to the CC All-Union CP(b). During the February-March plenum of the All-Union CP(b) Stalin pardoned her, reinstated her in the Party, and later used her in denouncing Postyshev.
3 "XIII sezd KP(b)U. Preniya po dokladu S. Kosiora" (The Thirteenth Congress of the CP(b)U: Discussion of the Report by S. Kosior), Pravda, May 30, 1937.
4 "KP(b)U v borbe za sotsialisticheskuyu Ukrainu" (The CP(b)U in the Struggle for a Socialist Ukraine), Pravda, May 29, 1937.
5 Pravda, January 19, 1938.
8 Avtorkhanov, op. cit., Posev, December, 1950, p14.
9 Sotsialistichesky vestnik, No. 3, 1949, 48.
10 Sotsialistichesky vestnik, No. 8‑9, 1949, p164.
11 "O sudbe P. Postysheva" (The Fate of Postyshev), Vestnik instituta po izucheniyu istorii i kultury SSSR," Munich, I, 1951, p145.
12 [A. Gaev], Soviet Political Personalities: Seven Profiles, New York, Research Program on the USSR, 1952.
13 Avtorkhanov, op. cit., Posev, December 1950, pp14‑15.
14 Cf. Postyshev, "Pidsumky . . ." Bilshovyk Ukrainy, No. 3, 1936; also Postyshev's speech, Pravda, December 9, 1936.
15 Postyshev, "Pidsumky . . ." Bilshovyk Ukrainy, No. 3, 1936.
16 Avtorkhanov, op. cit., Posev, November 1950, pp14‑16.
17 Ibid., p14.
18 Among them were O. Butsenko, the former secretary of the Ukrainian Central Executive Committee, chairman of the Far Eastern Executive Committee, and chief of a section in the People's Commissariat for Heavy Industry, (sentenced to 25 years for participation in the National Fascist Organization of the Ukraine); Ivan Mikhailovich Makeev, an aeronautical engineer, first deputy to the chief of the Airplane Construction Board of the USSR (sentenced to 25 years for Bukharinism); Safarov, one of the leaders of the Leningrad opposition; Grigorii Abramovich Vinokurny, director of the Moscow Trading Company; two top NKVD officials whose names I have forgotten; the chief of the NKVD in Grozny, and the Commissar of Internal Affairs in the Mari Autonomous Republic, and several professors from Moscow State University, among them Stadnik and Nekrasov.
19 Pravda, September 27, 1936.
21 Stalin's speech, as printed in Pravda (March 29, 1937), and his concluding report (Pravda, April 1937) bore no relation to the speech he actually delivered at the plenum.
22 This has been confirmed by Khrushchev in his secret speech to the Twentieth Party Congress (New York Times, June 5, 1956, p14).
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