Why you should care
Because history’s most powerful forces aren’t always visible.
The commissar’s body lay in the corridor of the government building, bleeding from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Facing false charges of treason — not to mention the wrath of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin himself — the ex-chief of the Soviet aviation industry had decided to kill himself rather than be arrested. The invading Nazi army was charging toward Moscow, and accused collaborators were being shown no mercy.
Years after the July 1941 suicide, the victim’s brother faced claims, which he denied, that he had failed to defend his older sibling. Lazar Kaganovich probably could have made a difference: After all, the influential Bolshevik was Stalin’s right-hand man for more than a decade. Whatever the truth, the event captured the deadly and often arbitrary absurdity of Soviet rule. It was a system Kaganovich himself had helped create.
I think [Kaganovich] was coming up with the ideas before Stalin was coming up with them.
E.A. Rees, author, Iron Lazar: A Political Biography of Lazar Kaganovich
Starting in the earliest days of the Soviet Union, the talented bureaucrat shot through the ranks of the ruling Communist Party to implement sweeping political, economic and social policies that helped form the foundation of Soviet power. History remembers Kaganovich in various ways, from effective administrator to murderous sycophant. But his loyalty to the authoritarian system he built with Stalin cements the savvy bureaucrat as one of the pivotal, if unseen, forces of 20th-century Russia.
Kaganovich’s rise to the top of the Soviet hierarchy was the result of adaptability and good timing. Born in 1893 to a Jewish family outside Kiev, Kaganovich was guaranteed few opportunities in czarist Russia. With almost no formal education, he found work in a shoe factory alongside his brother Mikhail. Luckily for him, a socialist revolution was brewing that would make use of what historian E.A. Rees, author of Iron Lazar: A Political Biography of Lazar Kaganovich, says was a set of extremely useful skills and personality traits. Energetic and creative, Kaganovich also had remarkable organizational chops, which the dedicated Communist first displayed by staging local labor strikes.
A devotee of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin, Kaganovich later threw his support behind Stalin in the early 1920s, just as the budding dictator began building his own power base. The former cobbler, who quickly expressed fealty to his new boss, oversaw the recruitment of hundreds of thousands of workers into the ruling Communist Party and whipped the organization into shape by installing capable officials. It was Kaganovich, writes British historian Simon Sebag Montefiore in Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, who “designed the machinery of what became known as ‘Stalinism.’” When sent to Kiev in 1925, Kaganovich helped establish his native Ukraine as the second most important Soviet republic, with its massive industrial and agricultural potential.
Yet his most prominent legacy is the devastation of the Soviet peasantry. A cornerstone of Stalin’s first five-year plan, collectivization was meant to build the command economy by pooling the country’s agricultural resources from private hands into collective farms. Kaganovich believed officials could stoke class conflict by turning peasants against their better-off counterparts, dubbed kulaks, to make grain seizures easier. Instead, they rebelled against the state’s heavy-handed policies, which only fueled further repression. In Ukraine alone, several million people were estimated to have died in 1932–33 during what is now widely considered a human-engineered famine. From an ideological perspective, says Rees, the plan failed — but it demonstrated Kaganovich’s influence. “I think he was coming up with the ideas before Stalin was coming up with them,” Rees says.
Only slightly less controversial was Kaganovich’s role back in Moscow during the 1930s. As the city’s party boss, he led the drive to transform the capital from an imperial backwater to a modern socialist metropolis of concrete and steel. Central to this effort was the construction of the city’s world-renowned metro system, an ornate testament to socialist engineering that bore his name for two decades. Yet developing the new Soviet capital meant destroying many of the city’s historic landmarks, including the celebrated Cathedral of Christ the Savior.
As the country moved toward Stalin’s Great Terror of the late 1930s, the already ruthless and demanding manager grew even harsher. In one of his last major roles, as commissar in charge of the country’s sprawling railway system, he led mass purges of his agency and party structures around the country. By the time his brother Mikhail was implicated in treason, Kaganovich was deeply ingrained in Soviet repression. Rees casts the Old Bolshevik as an ultimately tragic figure — a victim of the very system he helped create. “The result is that he loses the sense of himself as a moral being,” Rees says. “He becomes concerned essentially with questions of survival.”
In the end, Kaganovich’s dedication to the Stalinist system ended his career. When Nikita Khrushchev emerged the winner of the power struggle that followed Stalin’s death in 1953, he launched a campaign aimed at discrediting the bloody dictator, along with anyone who had abetted him. Kaganovich was effectively stripped of power and marginalized, living out the rest of his life in Moscow as an ordinary pensioner. “I was a communist, and I’ll always remain a communist,” he said in an interview shortly before his death, in 1991, according to an obituary in The New York Times. “I could not eat breakfast without having first looked at Pravda.”