WW2 People

|   9 July 2010

Stalin – the watchful monster.

Joseph Stalin – the quiet tyrant.

I’ve just finished a long essay – more than 5,000 words – on Joseph Stalin for the Key Leaders section of the site. And writing it made me think once again of the people I’ve met who directly encountered Stalin, and of how their recollections were never quite what I expected.

I suppose, given that Stalin was responsible for the death of millions and had triumphed in the brutal stab-in-the-back (and stab-in-the-front) world of Soviet politics,  I had imagined he would be an obviously terrifying figure to meet. But, though he undoubtably did often strike terror into the hearts of people called into his presence, he didn’t use obvious methods to dominate people. Unlike Hitler or Mussolini, Stalin was not bombastic. Stalin rarely launched into lengthy monologues and he seldom screamed at people. Instead, he looked at them.

‘Stalin watched people’s eyes when he was speaking,’ says Stepan Mikoyan, who met Stalin a number of times. ‘And if you didn’t look him straight in the eye, he might well suspect that you were deceiving him. And he’d be capable of taking the most unpleasant steps… He was very suspicious. That was his main character trait… He was a very unprincipled man… He could betray and deceive if he thought it was necessary. And that’s why he expected the same behaviour from others… anyone could turn out to be a traitor.’


WW2 People

|   9 June 2010

The scary lady from SMERSH

Zinaida Pytkina – the scariest woman I ever met

I’ve just added the testimony of Zinaida Pytkina to the site – do listen to it if you can. Because she was one of the most extraordinary human beings I ever met – she was certainly the most terrifying woman, and bear in mind she was in her 70s when I encountered her in Volgograd about ten years ago.

This photo of her as a wartime SMERSH officer is remarkable, I think, because of her eyes. And she looked at me with exactly that same expression when I met her forty five years after the end of the war. She was one tough lady. Tough enough, for sure, to have no problems about executing a German officer at close quarters and in cold blood – as she told me she did in 1943. But, more than that, she confirmed that she would have been prepared to do pretty much anything to the Germans to get them to give up the fight against the Soviet Union. When she was asked to describe her mission during the war she replied: ‘My mission was to fulfil all the orders of my commanders’. And the implication was clear – whatever bloody deed her commanders asked of her – she’d have responded with alacrity.

And I was reminded of this hard, cyncial and uncompromising attitude on that same trip to Russia when I met a member of the FSB in Moscow. (The FSB, of course, is the successor to the KGB which was previously the wartime NKVD which had close links to SMERSH). This man – let’s call him Yuri – was a serving agent with the FSB. He was in his late twenties and immensely tough. Moreover he also had exactly the same look in his eyes as Ms Pytkina has in that photograph – maybe the Soviet secret police teach it in training.

I was meeting Yuri in an ‘unofficial’ capacity as we were inquiring about the possibility of gaining access to NKVD wartime archives. We met in a coffee shop near the Lubyanka, the infamous secret police headquarters in Moscow. In order to break the ice with Yuri (a big mistake since the ice turned out to be about three feet thick) I asked him to describe what he did all day. ‘What do I do all day?’ he said, glaring straight into my eyes: ‘what I do all day is to solve people’s problems for them.’

‘Useful chap to have around,’ I murmured before proceeding to business.

But then, six years after this encounter, in 2006, I saw that Alexander Litvinenko – the former FSB agent who was later murdered in London – revealed that he had worked in the ‘problem solving’ department of the FSB. And ‘problem solving’ meant committing murders.

Yuri and Zinaida Pytkina. Two peas from the same pod.