Lev Mekhlis: Stalin’s Grand Inquisitor

A Review
Published: 2012-07-31

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Yuri Rubtsov, Alter Ego Stalina (Based on declassified archival documents), Svonnitsa-MG, Moscow, 1999, 302 pp.

Yuri Rubtsov, Iz-za spiny vozhdya: poli ticheskaya i voyennaya deyatel’nost L. Z. Mekhlisa (Behind the Leader’s Back; The Political and Military Activities of L. Z. Mekhlis), Kompaniya Ritm, Moscow, 2003, 253 pp.

Until the appearance of two recent Russian political biographies by Yuri Rubtsov,[1] too little was known about the specific criminal activities of individual Stalinist henchmen like Lev Zakharovich Mekhlis – one of those shadowy figures that helped eliminate Stalin’s political enemies before they could threaten the leader himself. The NKVD and its successor organizations of course controlled security matters in general. But in the Red Army itself, it was Mekhlis’ main responsibility, as assigned by Stalin himself, to search out – as a kind of grand inquisitor – potential political enemies within the Red Army. At the peak of his power in the period 1937-1945, Stalin appointed him Commissar of the Army 1st Rank, Head of the Political Directorate of the Workers and Peasants Red Army (PURKKA), and USSR Deputy Peoples Commissar of Defense, with the rank of Colonel General.

Theoretically the political commissars and the military commanders ran the Red Army jointly. In reality, however, the political commissars, who among their other duties (agitation and propaganda) evaluated the officer staff and reported their evaluations through channels and the PURKKA directly to Stalin, were the true bosses. In effect, the military commanders, including the generals, were at the mercy of the political commissars, the head of whom was Lev Zakharovich Mekhlis.

Mekhlis, born in Odessa in 1889, was a Jew of modest material means and little formal schooling. Although not of proletarian origins he was nevertheless endowed with an irrepressible revolutionary zeal to which he brought great stamina, boldness, a shrewd intellect, and a born disciple’s search for an infallible master whom he eventually found in Stalin. At a very early age he joined the Jewish Social Democratic Workers Party, a Zionist organization, where he was active until 1911 when he was called up to serve in the Tsarist Army. During World War I (1914-1917), he mostly served on the southwestern front against the Germans and Austrians.

With an abiding hatred of the old Tsarist regime and its institutions and a thirst for power, Mekhlis joined the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Communist Party in March 1918 where his “talents” were immediately recognized. He was quickly appointed a political commissar in the Revolutionary Military Council with the power to identify perceived enemies of the state, which is to say, Stalin’s enemies. Perhaps because of this hatred, Mekhlis soon became one of Stalin’s favorite executioners. Nicknamed “the shark” and the “gloomy demon” by the dictator’s inner circle, Mekhlis was one of those subhuman creatures among Stalin’s entourage who seemed not only blasé about killing, but actually enjoyed and boasted of his accomplishments. He started by murdering former Tsarist officers, then progressed to executing captured White Russian officers in the civil war, and culminated with the murder of countless Russian officers in World War II.

In the early 1920s Mekhlis had already proved his worth to Josef Stalin whom he early served as an assistant secretary in the Secretariat of the Central Committee. He remained unquestionably loyal and helpful to Stalin in the many internecine factional Communist feuds and wars (especially Trotskyites, but also left- and right-wing deviationists, etc.) the latter was engaged in before assuming absolute power.

By 1926-27, seeing in Mekhlis certain qualities valued by the Communist Party, namely, a fanatical belief in Marxism-Leninism, a total absence of any bourgeois ethical or moral code of behavior, and an innate ruthlessness guaranteed to pave the road ahead, the Central Committee agreed to send the “shark” to the Communist Academy and the Institute of Red Professors to hone and polish the skills he would need in his future propagandistic work. As in Catholicism, the word propaganda is used in the sense of spreading the true faith.

In May 1930 Stalin assigned Mekhlis to the editorial office of Pravda, which had been run by N. I. Bukharin until 1929. The “shark” was soon appointed main editor with the task of politically purging the paper of leftover Bukharinites and turning Pravda into a mouthpiece for Stalin. During the period of the Great Terror, Pravda served to expose and condemn the “heretical” views of Stalin’s opposition – L. B. Kamenev, G. Ye. Zinovyev, and N. I. Bukharin, and represent Stalin as the true heir of Lenin and sole interpreter of Marxism-Leninism.

In December 1937, with Stalin’s full trust and support, the Politburo appointed Mekhlis deputy peoples commissar of the USSR Defense Ministry, Army Commissar 2nd Rank and head of the PURKKA. The “shark” proved indispensable to Stalin in the purge of the Red Army where he undertook the role of the Grand Inquisitor. Working together with his NKVD colleagues, it is estimated that by the end of 1938 the Red Army had almost been decapitated.[2] In 1937-38 seven of the nine top military figures (Ya. B. Ga­mar­nik, I. E. Yakir, V. K. Blyukher, A. S. Bulin, A. I. Yegorov, M. N. Tukhachevskiy, and I. P. Ubor­evich) were declared enemies of the people and participants in a military conspiracy. K. Ye. Voroshilov and S. M. Budenniy were exonerated. Marshal Zhukov later wrote that Mekhlis and others had also tried to implicate him. Of 36 highly placed commanders and political officers, 30 were declared enemies of the people. Only 10 of 108 members of the Military Council under the USSR Ministry of Defense escaped punishment. Of the 408 leading military figures arrested in1937-38, the Military College of the USSR Supreme Court sentenced 401 to death by firing squad and seven to the Gulag. The exact number of lower ranks, estimated in the tens of thousands, also involved in the purge, is not known with certainty nor is the number of suicides among the accused. Mekhlis, the “gloomy demon” presided over this massive witch-hunt, intended primarily to eliminate politically undesirable elements (political opponents of Stalin) from the army.

When, owing to Mekhlis’ objectivity and impartiality in these matters, Jewish heads also rolled during the Great Terror and Red Army purge, some highly placed ethnic Russians publicly rejoiced. For example, General Viktor Filatov wrote years later:[3]

“Glorious 1937! In that year Stalin finally came to understand that it was Zionism, not Communism, which was being built in the USSR, and he destroyed it. After 1937, Suvorov and Kutuzov, Nakhimov and Ushakov, Bogdan Khemelnitskiy and the ‘Knight in the Tiger Skin’ became the national symbols. And the Russians, Ukrainians, Belorussians – all those whom the Zionists had wanted to destroy and left to rot in prisons, labeled ‘nationalist’ or ‘anti-Semite’ – returned.”

Despite, or perhaps because of, Mekhlis’ controversial “cleansing” activities during the period from January 1938 to May 1940, Rubtsov notes, the total number of Stalinist brand Communists increased by a factor of 3.5 to a total of half a million.

According to David I. Ortenberg (as cited by Rubtsov), a friend of Mekhlis and editor of Krasnaya zvezda, the newspaper of the Soviet Armed Forces, the “shark” did not hesitate to use his authority to protect some of his friends, including the deputy head of PURKKA F. F. Kuznetsov and Ortenberg himself. Both Mekhlis and Ortenberg, as editors of the major military newspapers were responsible for publishing much of the hate-filled wartime propaganda, characterized by incitement to murder and rape of Germans, supplied by Ilya Ehrenburg and others of his ilk.

Mekhlis had also at times to defend himself. As Rubtsov relates it, in autumn 1938 a letter addressed to Mekhlis, postmarked New York City, arrived in NKVD offices. It was signed “your brother Solomon” and referred to business friends and relatives of Mekhlis in NYC. The “shark” immediately went to Stalin and (apparently) convinced him that the letter had been sent by provocateurs to discredit him. Nothing more was heard of the matter.

Because Stalin trusted Mekhlis explicitly as his political commissar to the Army, Mikhlis’ services were called on in the various wars and military conflicts the Soviet Union was involved in commencing in the Far East in the later 1930s. Thus, the “demon’s” presence was felt at the battle of Lake Khasan in July/August 1938, at the Khalkin-Gol River (otherwise known as the “incident at Nomanhan”) a year later (May-August 1939), in the western areas of Ukraine and Belorussia in September 1939, in Bessarabia and the northern Bukovina in June 1940, and the invasion of Finland in 1939-1940. Mekhlis’ reports, evaluations, and recommendations sent to Stalin concerning the performance of the Soviet generals and the effectiveness of the political officers in Finland and the Far East resulted in many executions. For his services, Mekhlis was promoted to Army Commissar 1st Rank.

On the eve of the German invasion, on June 21, 1941, Stalin appointed Mekhlis head of the main directorate of political propaganda while retaining his position of deputy peoples commissar of USSR defense and member of the Military Council of the Western Front. When the war broke out the following day, Rubtsov maintains, Mekhlis was among the first of the dictator’s closest associates to meet for consultations with Stalin. As one after the other of the Soviet armies disintegrated before the German onslaught, Stalin authorized Mekhlis to use whatever force (terror) was needed to consolidate the front.

“Mekhlis was to show his courage, his indefatigable energy, and devotion to Stalin throughout the course of the war. He remained a member of the military council of the 6th Army until September 1942, after which he undertook analogous responsibilities on nine fronts: Voronezh (September-October 1942); Volkhov (October 1942-to April 1943; Bryansk (July-October 1943); Baltic (October –December 1943; Western (December-April 1944); Belorussian (April-July 1944) Ukrainian (August 1944-11 May 1945).”

Another reason for Mekhlis’ many transfers from front to front during the war was the fact that the “shark’s” presence was resented and unwanted by most military commanders who saw him as a threat to their own commands. He was considered by most of the military to be personally obnoxious, odious, extremely dangerous, drunk with power and destructive of unit morale. Mekhlis was feared and despised by the military.

From the Bryansk front, a Major Koroteyev wrote the Central Committee about Mekhlis:

“They (the troops) fear him, they do not like him, and in fact they hate him. This hatred originates from the news about the sharp punishments and executions meted out by Mekhlis in the south, on the Voronezh and Volkhov fronts, that has reached us.”

The writer Konstantin Simonov described Mekhlis:

“He was cold and merciless to the depths of soul … like a hatchet that falls on a neck because that is what a hatchet does. Even if the hatchet does not want to chop off a head, it cannot stop in mid-air because it is the nature of a hatchet to chop.”

Early in the war Mekhlis, owing to his arrogance and exaggerated self-confidence, had overstepped his authority and incurred the wrath (short lived however) of his patron Stalin. The “shark” had arrived in the Crimea on January 20, 1942 to stiffen Red Army resistance to the German assault on the peninsula. Mekhlis immediately issued his standard orders that panic mongers and deserters were to be shot on the spot, soldiers guilty of self-inflicted wounds were to be shot in front of the assembled military unit. When the “shark” took it upon himself to assume the role of military commander, disaster followed. General Manstein’s forces, with half the strength of the defending Russian forces, overran the entire Crimean area, taking the heavily defended Sevastopol as well. Stalin was so furious at the debacle that he chastised Mekhlis and ordered him not to interfere with strictly military concerns of the unit commanders.

In his memoirs after the war, the Peoples Commissar of the Navy, Admiral Kuznetsov, reported that in April 1942 on the Crimean Front:

“There was total confusion in the Crimea. The commander of the Crimean Front, D. T. Kozlov, was in Mekhlis’ pocket. Mekhlis was literally interfering in all operational plan s. The chief of staff, P. P. Verchnyy, didn’t know whose orders to carry out – the commander’s or Mekhlis.’ Even Marshal S. M. Budennyy couldn’t do anything about it. Mekhlis’ said that he was taking orders directly from Stalin. When the situation in Kerch became catastrophic, Mekhlis tried to switch the blame to A. S. Frolov. He demanded that I court martial Frolov; otherwise he would have him shot. I told him he couldn’t do that.”

At the end of the war, Mekhlis found himself near Prague. In a letter written home in April 1945, the “gloomy demon” wrote:

“I have seen and have already been in the accursed German land. Now the Germans understand what war is and what Russian hatred is. They are all ready to declare themselves communists or Poles. But it won’t help.”

Shortly after the war, in February 1946, Stalin again entrusted the “shark” with another important position that of USSR Minister of State Control in which he was empowered by Stalin to exercise his inquisitorial and inspectorate skills to search out corruption and irregularities in the Soviet economy. As Stalin’s master “control-freak,” Mekhlis was empowered to inspect the activities of all governmental and societal organizations. In accepting the position, Mekhlis made it clear to one and all in Pravda that Generalissimo Stalin had personally appointed him for the position of Minister of State Control:

“I shall handle with renewed vigor all questions, as promulgated by Comrade Stalin, dealing with the need to husband the peoples’ money for the further growth of the economy, to establish a tight econo­mic regime, and to eliminate all and every waste, theft or embezzlement of state financial and material assets.”

Mekhlis held this position until December1949 when he suffered a severe stroke followed by a heart attack, which for all intents and purposes put an end to his active political life. He died in February 1953 three weeks before Stalin’s own death. With Stalin’s authorization, Mekhlis was honored with full funerary honors and his remains interred in the Kremlin wall, as later were Stalin’s. The dictator’s esteem for Mekhlis during their final years was further evidenced after the “shark’s” crippling stroke when he was unable to attend the XIX Party Congress in 1950. Stalin insisted that the name Lev Zakharovich Mekhlis be kept on the list of members of the Central Committee even though Mekhlis was hopelessly incapacitated.

As a politician, Rubtsov maintains, Mekhlis was more of an opportunist and an eclectic than a Marxist, but as a Party functionary he was very effective, displaying initiative, persistence, and conviction. Morally, of course, the “shark” was totally unprincipled, dishonest, and incapable or unwilling to distinguish between the truth and lies. Mekhlis in his public life displayed no humane instincts, no conscience, no sentimentality, no feelings, and no regrets, nothing human. Rubtsov writes:

“L. Z. Mekhlis was often oblivious to moral categories, as though they were incompatible with Realpolitik, and reviewed the results of his activities exclusively from a utilitarian point of view: did they satisfy Stalin’s directives and did they serve the interests of the political elite, who for the first time were faced by a real threat from the outside? Under the extremely difficult wartime conditions everything revolved around punishments and executions administered without due process, with an already high state of tension in society increasing, and with some segments of the country no longer believing in the slogans promulgated from the Party and the Soviet state.”

Rubtsov, the author, refers to Mekhlis as a member of Stalin’s “shadow” sub elite, all of whom owed their positions and powers to the dictator. Besides his nicknames of “the shark” and the “gloomy demon” used by other members of the Stalinist sub elite. Mekhlis was also referred to as “Stalin’s hatchet man” and “Stalin’s club,” all names identifying him as the dictator’s agent of repression and doctrinal enforcer. Others of the sub elite who were also associated specifically with repressive measures and whom Stalin retained until his death were L. P. Beria, A. Ya. Vishinsky, V. V. Ulrikh, and M. F. Shiryatov.

In the 1920s and 1930s Mekhlis was but one of the many Jews who surrounded and ardently supported the dictator. But by 1953, after successive Stalinist purges of the government, the only Jews that still remained in the dictator’s esteem and high office, and whose loyalty to Stalin was still intact, were Mekhlis and Kaganovich. With the establishment of Israel and Stalin’s fear of the close ties between Jews living in the United States, Israel, and the Soviet Union, the dictator became increasing suspicious of Jewish loyalty to the USSR. When he launched the Doctors Plot, it was generally believed that the dictator was about to launch a major purge of many of the remaining highly placed Jews in the Soviet Union. According to Rubtsov, only by convincing Stalin that he, Mekhlis, was a Communist first and a Jew second (“I Am a Communist Not a Jew”), was the “shark” able to remain in the dictator’s favor until his death – in a sense he remained more Catholic than the Pope.

Rubtsov, the author, insists that Stalin had always been a crypto anti-Semite and that the Doctors Plot proves this. Stalin believed that certain doctors were systematically murdering his closest associates and planned to murder him. Few Kremlinologists today believe that Jewish physicians actually planned the murder of some of their Nomenklatura patients, although Stalin’s death does deserve closer scrutiny. It is true that more than a few Soviet notables died while under the care of leading Soviet physicians. But it is also true that the standards of Soviet medicine have always been quite low. Some of the treatments they prescribed would probably be considered counter-indicated by Western specialists. Some of the suspicious deaths may simply have resulted from malpractice. It is not surprising that to this day individuals like Gorbachev and Yeltsin prefer to be treated by Western doctors.

Rubtsov also subscribes to the theory that the purge of the Red Army in the 1930s decapitated the Red Army, resulting in its poor showing in World War II. Viktor Suvorov, among others, has ably refuted that contention.

While it is undoubtedly true that the leadership of the Stavka and Red Army officers’ staff during World War II was quite deficient and lacking professionalism, it remains problematical as to whether the terror aimed at their own forces by the army commissars contributed much to the final victory. Even when Stalin was forced by adverse circumstances to appeal to his armies to defend the Motherland or Matushka Rus,’ and pull back the horns of the commissars, most of the workers and peasants in the Red Army also knew their country under Communism had become the land of gulags, forced collectivization, alien Communist commissars, and endless hardships.


[1]Rubtsov cites D. A. Volkogonov’s political biography of Stalin as containing much useful information on Mekhlis.
[2]This evaluation of the effect of the purge on the effectiveness of the Red Army has been refuted by Viktor Suvorov in his Ochishcheniye: Zachem Stalin obezglavil svoyu armiyu? (The Purge: Why Did Stalin Decapitate his Army. Firma Publishing House, ACT, 1998
[3]Viktor Filatov. Glorious 1937!, Zavtra, September 9, 1997

Additional information about this document
Property Value
Author(s): Daniel W. Michaels
Title: Lev Mekhlis: Stalin’s Grand Inquisitor, A Review
Sources: The Revisionist 3(2) (2005), pp. 201-204
Published: 2012-07-31
First posted on CODOH: July 31, 2012, 7 p.m.
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