Lazar Kaganovich -Stalin’s Closest Confidant
Posted on March 23rd, 2015

Dr Ruwan M Jayatunge

 Lazar Moiseyevich Kaganovich  is one of the most prominent figures of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the Soviet state, a faithful disciple of Lenin, Stalin’s ally, a professional revolutionary. A member of the Presidium of the CPSU Central Committee, First Deputy Chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers. Member of the CPSU since 1911. Member of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR.”

(Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 1953)

Lazar Moiseyevich Kaganovich (1893 – 1991) was a doctrinaire Stalinist who joined the Bolshevik Party when he was 18 years old.  Although he was an illiterate person he demonstrated outstanding administrative as well as organizational skills and became Stalin’s Deputy. Kaganovich was a pragmatic man and he built the modern Moscow city with underground subways. He was a highly motivated energetic man. Kaganovich was seen as the archetypal manager of the Stalin era. Also he played a crucial sinister role in Stalin’s repression.

Lazar Kaganovich was born in Kubany, near Kiev, Ukraine, in 1893 into a poor Jewish family. His father Moses Hershkowitz Kaganovich was a cattle-dealer. Kaganovich had four brothers and one sister.

Having only primary education Kaganovich started his career as a shoemaker. But he was deeply involved in the Bolshevik wing of the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party In 1915; Kaganovich was arrested for revolutionary agitation. However he escaped from deportation and    illegally returned to Kiev and continued the revolutionary work. Unlike other Bolshevik leaders he never used pseudo- names or aliases. Lazar Kaganovich kept his own name throughout.

After the Bolshevik Revolution his status started to grow. In 1920 Kaganovich became the head of the Soviet government of Tashkent and he had the opportunity of working with Stalin. Kaganovich became Stalin’s closest confidant. He became a Stalin worshiper to such an extent even he denounced his own brother, Mikhail Kaganovich. Mikhail Kaganovich was charged with so called anti Soviet activities. Following Stalinist repression Mikhail Kaganovich committed suicide.

Who was Kaganovich and what role he played in the Soviet Union are appealing questions.  Lazar Kaganovich was described as an ambitious but cold person. He showed little devotion to his fellow compatriots but utmost loyalty to Stalin. He was a self-taught man. He shared Stalinist ideology. In addition his life and career was crucially shaped by his relationship with Stalin.

In 1935 the French writer Romain Rolland met Kaganovich and later Romain Rolland expressed his honest views about Kaganovich. Romain Rolland stated: He is cold, even when he smiles. Stalin’s wife Nadezhda Alliluyeva had a serious disgust towards Beria and Kaganovich. She saw them as evil creatures.

Dr Arfon Rees the author of Iron Lazar: A Political Biography of Lazar Kaganovich describes Kaganovich as thus.

Kaganovich was one of the proletarian, political activists who made his mark before 1917 as a trade unionist. In 1917 he was drawn into the Bolshevik Military Organization and was one of that legion of political leaders who made his career as a political commissar during the Civil War. He possessed great intellectual self-confidence. A formative stage in his career was his role in enforcing the Red Terror in Nizhnyi Novgorod and his role in establishing Soviet power in Voronezh and Tashkent (Rees,   2012).

Kaganovich helped Stalin to defeat his political rivals mainly Trotsky and he even opposed Nikolai Bukharin’s moderate policy that suggested peaceful integration of kulaks into socialism. Instead they (Stalin and Kaganovich) brought forced collectivization tormenting the land and terrorizing the peasants.

Kaganovich held numerous important positions in the Soviet government. From 1925 to 1928, Kaganovich was the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Ukrainian SSR.  But he became unpopular among the Ukrainian officials and transferred to Moscow. In 1930 Kaganovich became a full member of the Politburo From 1930 – 1935 he worked in the Moscow Party Organization. In 1933 he became the key administrator of the Agricultural Department of the Central Committee and in 1935 people’s commissar of transport.

Lazar Kaganovich was a great builder but he ordered the destruction of Christian monuments and churches, including the great Cathedral of Christ the Savior. He later claimed that he wanted to modernize the city of Moscow like Berlin. In fact he went to Berlin incognito (before the WW 2) to observe the Berlin architecture and city transport system. Having this international exposure he modernized the city of Moscow.

 In 1921 Russian revolutionary and prominent Soviet diplomat Maxim Litvinov publicly stated that Food is a Weapon”. Joseph Stalin used food as a weapon. Stalin used this unconventional weapon against the people of Ukraine.

Many Soviet and foreign experts believe that Kaganovich was responsible for 1932–33 famine (Holodomor) in Ukraine.  He implemented the plans for collectivization which caused a devastating famine in which millions of people died.   Kaganovich advocated harsh repression of the Ukrainian farmers. He headed the 1932 grain procurement campaign that led farmers and their families to starve. Men women and children perished in the Ukrainian famine.

According to Alain Besancon, Professor of History (Sorbonne, France) 1932–33 famine was the well-organized executions that made the terror by starvation in Ukraine a genocide. The artificial famine was imposed on the Ukraine people during 1932 – 1933 took 7 to 10 millions of innocent lives (58th UN General Assembly on 7 November 2003). Hunger also covered the Russian Volga region and northern Kazakhstan.  Stalin had two motives while causing a catastrophic situation in Ukraine. One is to stifle Ukrainian nationalism and other is to get peasants under the forced collectivization. Stalin succeeded with a great human cost. Kaganovich played a sinister role and he fully supported the policies of Stalin.

In his book The God that Failed, the famous writer Arthur Koestler (who visited Ukraine in late summer of 1932 and fall 1933 and spent about three months in the city of Kharkiv) wrote devastating events related to the Holodomor. In addition the attorney Rafael Lemkin in his work The Soviet Genocide in Ukraine tried to present the fact of Holodomor to the Nuremberg trials as genocide of a totalitarian regime (Lemkin, 2009).

Adding up Kaganovich was involved in Stalinist purges during 1937-1939 periods. The Great Purge of 1937-38 was an attempt to eliminate Stalin’s real and imaginary enemies. Kaganovich gave his fullest support to Stalin. During this great terror in all, about 20 % of all army officers were executed including the Red Army Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky. By 1939 about 3 million people were killed and 9 million were sent to Gulags. Nearly 2 million died in the camps. Kaganovich took the extreme position.  In 1937 Kaganovich was sent to carry out purges of local Party organizations in Chelyabinsk, Yaroslavl, Ivanovo, and Smolensk regions. Kaganovich personally gave execution orders to eliminate 36,000 people.

From 1942 to 1945, Kaganovich served as a member of the State Defense Committee. He headed the military transportation and evacuation and settlement of industrial complexes in new places.  During the World War 2 Kaganovich evacuated Jews from the frontier areas.  In his memoirs he wrote:  “… The defeat of the fascist hordes near Moscow ripped Hitler’s plans” lightning war “and debunked the myth of the invincibility of the fascist army. Enemy offensive was halted; the Red Army launched a counteroffensive. While working in the war front he sustained a gunshot injury to his hand. Kaganovich was the only senior politburo member injured during the World War Two.

In December 1944 he was appointed deputy prime minister of the Soviet Union. Along with Stalin Lazar Kaganovich, Zhdanov, Molotov, Voroshilov, Mikoyan, Malenkov and Beria became the most influential party leaders of the Soviet Union. During this time period Kaganovich was at the height of his power as Stalin’s deputy and a full member of the Politburo.

Aging Stalin became more ill-tempered and paranoid. He believed in numerous conspiracies and planned the final blow against the Jewish Intelligentsia. The Doctors’ Plot was Stalin’s own creation to repress the Jewish Doctors in the Soviet Union. Some historians point out that Kaganovich made an unsuccessful attempt to save some of the prominent doctors who were arrested by the NKVD.

Following Stalin’s death in 1953, Kaganovich opposed Nikita Khrushchev’s proposal to admit errors committed by the Party under Stalin’s leadership. He formed an anti party group in 1957 with Georgy Malenkov, Vyacheslav Molotov, and Dmitry Shepilov and tried to remove Nikita Khrushchev. The coup was failed and Kaganovich was removed from his position as deputy prime minister. Nikita Khruschev accused Kaganovich in 1957 at a Soviet Party Congress of murdering 20 million Russians with Stalin. In return Kaganovich accused Khruschev of being a murderer too. “Your hands are blood-stained too,” he replied.

After the arrest and execution of Beria and death of his wife Kaganovich became psychologically fragile. He had no strength to fight Nikita Khruschev. Fearing a prison sentence, Kaganovich sent a letter to Khrushchev begging him for mercy. However after the XXII Congress of the CPSU, held in 1961, Kaganovich was expelled from the Communist Party.

After the retirement Kaganovich led a secluded life. He started writing his memoirs about the Bolshevik party, about Stalin etc. He left of more than 10 000 handwritten pages. In his memoirs Kaganovich strongly defended Stalin and his policies. He declared that Stalin was the locomotive of the revolution and built the Soviet Union.

The Western historians knew little about Kaganovich and obviously there was a trend to investigate Kaganovich‘s role in building of the Soviet Empire. The American writer Stuart Kahan claimed that he went to Moscow in 1981 and met Kaganovich who was related to him and had a ten-hour interview with him. Stuart stated that he had long conversations with Kaganovich in Hebrew. After this visit Stuart Kahan wrote a book titled: The Wolf of the Kremlin: The First Biography of L.M. Kaganovich, the Soviet Union’s Architect of Fear.

After publishing the book The Wolf of the Kremlin” experts indicated some gray areas in Stuart Kahan’s narration. Some doubted the authenticity of the Wolf of the Kremlin. Totaling the family of Kaganovich including Maya L. Kaganovich (Kaganovich’s daughter), Rachel J. Kaganovich (Kaganovich’s niece) and Leonid M. Kaganovich (Kaganovich’s nephew) specified that Lazar Kaganovich never met an American named Stuart Kahan and also Kaganovich could not speak Hebrew or English.

For thirty years he was a “figure of silence” living   in his home at Frunzenskaya Embankment in   Moscow district.  Lazar Kaganovich lived up to the beginning of perestroika witnessing the disintegration of the Soviet Union. He was plagued by the detrimental effects of Perestroika and the Western interferences on the Soviet Union. On July 25, 1991, just a few months before the fall of the USSR Lazar Moiseyevich Kaganovich died. He was 97.

Kaganovich was an enigma. He helped Stalin to create a vast empire. He built the modern Moscow with its magnificent metro. He constructed colossal railway lines all over the union. Kaganovich introduced the old age state pension system that helped millions of workers. Compared to Stalin he worked with a more stable mind.  However Kaganovich caused the deaths of millions in the Ukrainian Holodomor and sent thousands to their death during the Stalinist purges.

Professor Richard Edgar Pipes describes violence initiated by the Bolsheviks thus.

Marxism and Bolshevism … were products of an era in European intellectual life that was obsessed with violence. No-one embraced this philosophy more enthusiastically than the Bolsheviks: merciless” violence, violence that strove for the destruction of every actual and potential opponent, was … the only way of dealing with problems.”

The history judged Lazar Moiseyevich Kaganovich based on his deeds. On January 13, 2010, Kiev Appellate Court posthumously found Kaganovich guilty of genocide against Ukrainians during the catastrophic Holodomor famine.

Personal Communications

  • Professor Richard Edgar Pipes- Doctor of Historical Sciences and Baird Professor Emeritus of History, Harvard University
  • E. Arfon Rees-Reader in Soviet and Russian History, Centre for Russian and E. Eur. Stud. University of Birmingham

References

Courtois, S , et al. (1999). The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Crankshaw, E.(1970). Khrushchev Remembers. Boston: Little, Brown.

Kahn, S. (1987). The Wolf of the Kremlin. New York: Morrow.

Koestler, A. (1950). The God That Failed.” New York: The Macmillan Company.

Lemkin, R (2009). “Soviet Genocide in the Ukraine (reprint of 1951 article)”. Holodomor: Reflections on the Great Famine of 1932-1933 in Soviet Ukraine. Kingston: Kashtan Press.

Rees, A.E. (2012). Iron Lazar A Political Biography of Lazar Kaganovich. Anthem Press.

Conquest, Robert. (1990). The Great Terror: A Reassessment. New York: Oxford University Press.

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