Mikhail Shreider was another NKVD officer who voiced his opposition to the mass arrests. In his memoirs, written in the 1970s, he describes himself as a 'pure Chekist', inspired by the Leninist ideals of Feliks Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Cheka in 1917. Shreider wrote his memoirs to justify his work in the Cheka and portray himself as a victim of the Great Terror. According to his version of events, he became disillusioned with the Stalinist regime as he observed the corruption of his fellow NKVD officers during the 1930s. Comrades he had known as decent and honest men were now prepared to use any form of torture against 'enemies of the people', if it meant advancing their careers. Shreider was also troubled by the scale of the arrests. He could not believe in the existence of so many 'enemies of the people'. But he was afraid to express his doubts in case he was denounced. He soon discovered that many of his colleagues shared his fear, but no one would break the conspiracy of silence. Even when a trusted colleague disappeared, the most that any of his comrades dared to say was that he might be an 'honest man'. Nobody suggested that he might be innocent, because this would expose them to the risk of denunciation for questioning the purge. 'No one understood why all these arrests were happening,' recalled Shreider, 'but people were afraid to speak out, because that might raise suspicion that they were aiding or communicating with the "enemies of the people".'
For several months, Shreider watched in silence as old friends and colleagues were arrested and sentenced to death. Unable to oppose the Terror, he became a sort of conscientious objector by not attending the executions of NKVD colleagues in the Lubianka yard. Then, in the spring of 1938, Shreider was transferred to Alma-Ata, where he became the second-in-command to Stanislav Redens, the NKVD chief of Kazakhstan (and the brother-in-law of Stalin). Shreider and Redens became close friends. They lived next door to each other, and their families were always in each other's homes. Shreider noticed Redens' growing disgust with the torture methods of his operatives. He thought that Redens was a man of humane sensibilities. Redens, for his part, had marked out Shreider as somebody who shared his doubts about the methods used in the Great Terror. Late one night he drove him out of town and stopped the car. The two men got out and began to walk. When they were out of earshot of the chauffeur, Redens said to Shreider. 'If Feliks Eduardovich [Dzerzhinsky] were still alive, he would have the lot of us shot for the way we're working now.' Shreider made out that he did not understand: to show complicity in such a thought was enough to warrant his immediate arrest, and he could not be sure that what his boss had said was not a provocation. Redens continued talking. It became clear to Shreider that he had meant what he had said. Shreider opened up his troubled soul as well. Once this trust had been established, the two men confided in each other. Redens regretted that all the decent Communists had been destroyed, while the likes of Yezhov remained untouched. Yet there were still subjects that were too dangerous for him to talk about. Looking back on these whispered conversations, Shreider thought that Redens knew far more about the Terror than he had let on: 'His situation and the circumstances of the times obliged him, like all of us, not to call things by their name, and not to talk about such things, even with his friends.'
Shreider was emboldened by his conversations with Redens. They made him feel remorseful and angry. He wrote to Yezhov to protest against the arrest of an old colleague in the NKVD, and against the arrest of his wife's cousin, a student in Moscow, vouchsafing the innocence of both these men. A few days later, in June 1938, Redens received a telegram from Yezhov ordering the arrest of Shreider. Presented with this news in Redens' office, Shreider begged Redens to appeal to Stalin: 'Stanislav Frantsevich, you know me well, and you, after all, are his brother-in-law. It must be a mistake.' Redens replied: 'Mikhail Pavlovich, I shall put in a word for you, but I fear it is hopeless. Today it is you, no doubt tomorrow it will be my turn.' Shreider was imprisoned in the Butyrki prison in Moscow. In July 1940, he was sentenced to ten years in a labour camp followed by three years in exile. Redens was arrested in November 1938. He was shot in January 1940.
27 March 2008
Perils of Trust Inside the NKVD
From The Whisperers: Private Lives in Stalin's Russia, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2007), pp. 283-285: