Stephan Clark

Yagoda's Bullets

Before his arrest and execution, Genrikh Yagoda, the leader of the Soviet secret police, was an avid collector of historical memorabilia. Whenever one of the more famous old revolutionaries fell from Stalin's favor and consequently required the attention of a pistol's puff of smoke, Yagoda asked that the historic bullet be extricated from either bone or flesh and transferred to a candy dish he kept upon his desk. From there, Yagoda would move the bullet to a glass display case that hung on the wall, in which each of his snub-nosed mementos were arranged in the fashion of a prized collection of butterflies. “This one,” he would say, “Zinoviev. Here, Kamenev. And the green felt against which they are pinned? Torn from a snooker table belonging to Tsar Nicholas II himself.”

Many times, owing to the relative independence of his position, Yagoda could personally fire the pistol, extract the bullet, and place the specimen within its frame. Once, however, when he was shot and killed by his successor, such pleasures were not his own. Following his death, Yagoda's bullets remained with his executioner, Nikolai Yezhov, who in turn was shot and killed by his successor, Lavrenti Beria. Beria did not possess the poetic sensibilities of his predecessors. He ordered the bullets transferred to the State Archive of the October Revolution, where they were filed alongside an inventory of Yezhov's life: “revolver bullets, blunted, wrapped in paper, inscribed Zinoviev, Kamenev, Yagoda…”

This occurred when black cars moved through the streets late at night, stopping only to deliver one's terror. Anything could result in your arrest: a careless word at a café, the wrong acquaintance in your youth. No one was safe, not even Stalin's father. Rumor had it he had been reduced to begging after abandoning his family so many years before. At least, he had been so reduced until he disappeared entirely, this for bellowing drunk once too often, “You refuse me? You refuse to give money to me? I made Stalin! With these hips, I made The Man of Steel!”

They were uncertain times, that is for certain. And so when not informing on the informers, people praised Stalin in their diaries, if only so their testimony might later be introduced in court and used in their defense. But then the purge expanded with all the logic of a lottery and fear became its only apparent goal. People no longer even answered the door. At a certain hour, there could be no escape from what was on the other side. You would be hauled away, presented with the confession required of you, and led against the wall. So people stood in their front room, hearing the thump of a foot thrown into their door or the groan of a hinge straining beneath the weight of a shoulder, before acting with mad desperation. One year, jumping was at the height of fashion. People threw themselves from the windows of their offices and communal apartment buildings, often shouting party slogans as they fell: “Land, peace and bread!” “All power to the soviets!” Even those souls assigned to live on the ground floor were not necessarily denied. If a black car appeared outside their window, they could race up the stairs to a window of a more desirable height, where they'd wait to see if they needed to resign themselves to gravity.

A person walking by below could only consider himself the inheritor of a great misfortune. When he saw the body land—with a rude splatter in summer, or a polite and muffled thud against the snows of winter—he would need the presence of mind not to call out to God, in either prayer or recrimination, because He too had been vanquished alongside the tsar.