Henchman on the Sofa ‒ Vyacheslav Menzhinsky: Poet and Hangman

Henchman on the Sofa ‒ Vyacheslav Menzhinsky: Poet and Hangman

Bolsheviks and poetry are not the most likely combination. Lenin even quit playing the piano because he felt it distracted him too much from the revolutionary cause. When exiled in Siberia in 1897, it seems a poetic mood befell him nevertheless. He started with “In the village of Shushensk, beneath the mountains of Sayansk”, but never got beyond the first stanza.1 It was a brief stint, and the Bolsheviks mostly got notorious for locking poets up and worse. One of the most tragic examples is the fate of Osip Mandelstam: one of the greatest Russian poets of all time, he was last seen in December 1938, feeding off a garbage heap in a transit camp near Vladivostok.2

Irony has it that Joseph Stalin had also been a poet in youth. His work, according to its translator Donald Rayfield, revealing: “a tortured psyche, obsession by the moon, swinging between depression and euphoria, expecting ingratitude and even poison from his audience, terrified of old age.”3 Getting curious? So did I. Here is an excerpt from a poem called “To the Moon”:

But I shall undo my vest
And thrust out my chest to the moon,
With outstretched arms, I shall revere
The spreader of light upon the earth!4

I am getting some disturbing mental images, so let’s quickly return to the main subject of this article.

My decadent neurotic

I was meaning to talk to you about the man who interrogated his prisoners while laying down on a chaise longue, tucked into a travel blanket and smoking a pipe. His name: Vyacheslav Menzhinsky. His occupation: working for the secret service of the Soviet Union. His former ambition: becoming a poet. Lenin called him “my decadent neurotic”.5 Communist theory wasn’t too friendly towards decadence, so how did this decadent neurotic land a job at the forerunner of the KGB, and more important: how was his poetry?

Menzhinsky was born into the ruling class of Tsarist Russia in 1874. He was the son of a Russified Polish nobleman, his brother Alexander was a respected member of the Tsar’s finance ministry, and Vyacheslav himself studied law at Saint Petersburg University.6 His final thesis, titled “Communal Landownership in Populist and Marxist Literature”, was redeemed unsatisfactory by one professor, and as unlikely to be assessable by a civilian by a second, but seemingly he managed to graduate thanks to ‒ or in spite of ‒ that in 1898.7

Nadezhda Voytinskaya made a series of lithographs of poets and other artists in 1909 and portrayed Mikhail Kuzmin as well. - By seefilename (http://obtaz.com/akhmatova_museum_portraits.htm) Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Nadezhda Voytinskaya made a series of lithographs of poets and other artists in 1909 and portrayed Mikhail Kuzmin as well. – By seefilename (http://obtaz.com/akhmatova_museum_portraits.htm) Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Practising law in the early 1900’s, his literary ambitions drew him into the circle of the symbolist poet, composer, and translator Mikhail Kuzmin. In this circle, decadence was a way of life.8  Kuzmin’s 1906 novel Kryl’ia (“Wings”) was the first novel to appear in Russia that openly portrayed homosexuality.9

Menzhinsky seems to have had a weak spot for decadence, but his wife had not. While practising law in Saint Petersburg, he got married to Iulia Ivanovna, a former governess of the Imperial Family who was preoccupied with the theory and practice of bringing up children.10 The marriage ultimately crashed, his wife taking the children and leaving Menzhinsky with nothing but inspiration for a novel.

Reciting blasphemous and erotic writings

In 1905, Demidov’s Affair, which was inspired by his marital breakdown, was published. The hero is the handsome young lawyer Vasili Demidov, who is helping out female volunteers that are running evening classes for workers. There, Demidov shocks the women by reciting blasphemous and erotic writings at their gatherings. The headmistress Elena, an austere character and fourteen years older than the young lawyer, is equally shocked by the content of the writings, but falls in love with Demidov nevertheless and ultimately marries him. The marriage of this “repressed” woman and a hedonistic male is doomed to fail from the start.11 According to Donald Rayfield, who must have had a wonderful job translating this novel, it’s a mix of decadent immorality and the ruthlessness of the Cheka (the forerunner of the KGB).12 An excerpt from the final scene where Demidov falls in love with his secretary Anna, will be enough to illustrate:

It has come! I have seen another woman
With my burning tensed gaze
I tickle and kiss her
I have bent down, I embrace her, you are next to us
But we are so much in harmony.13

The work was published together with thirteen sonnets by Kuzmin and works by other authors in his circle. At the time of publication, Kuzmin was struggling with his faith. Until then he had always been fascinated by the Orthodox church, and the simple Russians religious life had exerted a strong pull on his imagination.14 He spent days on end kneeling before icons, to exalt a year later that he was filled with doubts about the “old junk that he had to drag after him.”15 Kuzmin started searching new ways, and so did Menzhinsky.

In 1907, in another joint publication with Kuzmin, he published pastiches of the Gospels in which Jesus Christ is portrayed as an “epileptic, tormented by an ignorant crowd”.16 In Barabbas, the main protagonist is the man of whom the Gospel of Mark states:

And there was one named Barabbas, which lay bound with them that had made insurrection with him, who had committed murder in the insurrection.17

In Menzhinsky’s story, Barabbas is the hero. The crowd sympathises with him and gets Pontius Pilate to release him, after which the Romans discreetly kill him and fifty who were faithful to him.

Barabbas fell with his sword in his hand, and Judaea wept for him, and Galilee tore its hair, groaning: Barabbas has died, Barabbas the terror of the dishonourable, the destroyer of Romans, the exterminator of tax collectors!18

In Barabbas, the revolutionary bandit supersedes the Christian hero.19 And this brings us closer to the hangman that Menzhinsky would become.

A street riot after the opening of machine gun fire on the Nevsky Prospekt, Saint Petersburg, during the political unrest that would culminate in the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks. Imagine someone playing Chopin's waltzes to this. - Viktor Bulla, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

A street riot after the opening of machine gun fire on the Nevsky Prospekt, Saint Petersburg, during the political unrest that would culminate in the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks. Imagine someone playing Chopin’s waltzes to this. – Viktor Bulla, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Serving a political Jesuit

It is popular to state that Marxism, in the end, is a form of religion, Marxists themselves will disagree with that and emphasise that it is a science. Karl Marx certainly meant his theory to be science and that is how Marxists in those days rigidly interpreted it. According to this science and the interpretation the Bolsheviks gave it, it was sheer necessity to liquidate the older order and its protagonists. Ironically it was because of this ambition to be a scientific theory that Das Kapital escaped the grasp of the Tsarist censors and could freely circulate.20 Soon the work was ardently scrutinised by many small study circles who wondered if society could be changed and how this could be done.

Menzhinsky got into contact with Lenin in 1905 and was imprisoned for political activity a year later. To escape further prosecution, he went abroad, roamed Europe and the USA for eleven years, and worked as a bank clerk, a watercolour painter, and as a teacher at the Bolshevik party School of Bologna.21 He got into a car accident in Paris and this added spondylosis to his many other health problems, making it impossible for him to stand or even sit for a longer time.22 He returned to Russia in the year of the revolution but remained a bystander in the heat of events. It is rumoured that he played Chopin waltzes on the piano while the chaos and mayhem of the October Revolution were all around him.23

A year earlier he had described Lenin as:

A political Jesuit who over the course of many years has moulded Marxism to his aims of the moment. He has now become completely confused (…). The Leninists are not even a faction, but a clan of party gypsies, who swing their whips so affectionately (…)24

Now Lenin and his gipsies were in power, one wouldn’t say that his career prospects in Bolshevik Russia would be prosperous. But it was Menzhinsky’s knowledge of languages and some actual experience in banking that made him outstanding enough to become an apparatschik. First, he was appointed Finance Commissar, later he showed his flair for intelligence gathering and analysis during a diplomatic mission to Berlin.25 And soon after, Felix Dzerzhinsky, fellow Pole and notorious head of the newly established secret police (then still called the GPU), would appoint him as the second man in his organisation. There, he would develop into one of Josef Stalin’s ruthless henchmen, sending many a poet and other “undesirables” to an untimely death while reposing on his sofa, right until his death in 1934. I wonder if he himself grasped the irony of it.

Lars Sanders

Lars Sanders

Lars Sanders studied history at the University of Groningen and specialised in the history of post-war Germany. Is addicted to fine prose and has a keen interest in representations of the devil and what Ian Kershaw once punningly classified as the lunatic fringe of politics.
Lars Sanders

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  1. David Shub, Lenin: A Biography (1948, Middlesex 1966)  

  2. Osip Mandelstam. Poems chosen and translated by James Greene (London 1977)  

  3. Donald Rayfield, “The exquisite Inquisitor: Viacheslav Menshinski as Poet and Hangman” in New Zealand Slavonic Journal, Slavonic Journeys across two hemispheres. Festschrift in honour of Arnold McMillin (2003) 91-109, there 93 

  4. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2007/may/19/featuresreviews.guardianreview34, last seen October 15th, 2016 

  5. Stephen Kotkin, Stalin. Paradoxes of Power. 1878-1928 (London 2014) 460 

  6. The exquisite Inquisitor, 91 

  7. Ibidem 

  8. Ibidem 

  9. Evgenii Berschtein, An Englishman in the Russian Bathhouse: Kuzhmins “Wings” and the Russian tradition of homoerotic writing  in The many facets of Mikhail Kuzmin: A miscellany (Inidana 2011) 75-87, there 75 

  10. Donald Rayfield, The exquisite Inquisitor, 91 

  11. Ibidem, 93 

  12. Ibidem 

  13. Ibidem, 94 

  14. John Earl Malmstad, Mikhail Kuzmin. A Life for Art. (Cambridge/London 1999)  63 

  15. Ibidem, 64 

  16. Donald Rayfield, The exquisite Inquisitor, 95 

  17. King James Bible Online, Mark 15:7, http://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/Mark-Chapter-15/, last seen October 28th 2016 

  18. Donald Rayfield, The exquisite Inquisitor, 95 

  19. Ibidem 

  20. Stephen Kotkin, Stalin. Paradoxes of Power, 43 

  21. Donald Rayfield, The exquisite Inquisitor, 92 

  22. Ibidem, 93 

  23. Ibidem, 92 

  24. David Shub, Lenin, 180/181 

  25. Donald Rayfield, The Exquisite Inquisitor, 92 

Lars Sanders

About Lars Sanders

Lars Sanders studied history at the University of Groningen and specialised in the history of post-war Germany. Is addicted to fine prose and has a keen interest in representations of the devil and what Ian Kershaw once punningly classified as the lunatic fringe of politics.
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