David Szalay’s book The Innocent is published next month by Jonathan Cape. Here’s his list of the Top 10 KBG operatives, as posted over on The Times’ Comment Central blog…
Vyacheslav Konstantinovich von Plehve
Vyacheslav Konstantinovich was head of the Okhrana, the Tsars’ state security outfit, from 1881 to 1904.
Solzhenitsyn ironically mocks his soft-heartedness, his squeamishness about ‘perlustration’ (the ungentlemanly practice of opening other people’s mail) and the pitifully small number of people he sent to Siberia.
Perhaps for these reasons, the institution he once led signally failed in 1917 – a lesson not lost on Lenin and his successors.
An intimate associate of Lenin, he was a Jesuitical ideologue who believed that their revolutionary ends had the historical, even the eschatological, importance to justify any means.
Though he died in 1926, the influence of Iron Feliks echoed on throughout the Soviet period.
Genrikh Grigorevich Yagoda
Head of the state security police from 1934 to 1936. Two years later, however, he was executed as a class enemy, perhaps because his first name-which translates as ‘Henry’-was suspiciously posh.
After his arrest his office was found to be full of sex toys and women’s underwear.
Nikolai Ivanovich Yezhov
Famously known as the ‘Toxic Dwarf’ and airbrushed out of a photo in which he was standing next to Stalin, Nikolai Ivanovich had ‘issues’; had he been born in New York he probably would have spent much of his time in therapy.
A fanatical Communist, and Yagoda’s successor as head of the NKVD, he thought Stalin was too soft-until he demoted him to commissar with responsibility for inland waterways, and then had him killed.
Jaume Ramón Mercader del Rio Hernandez
Not Russian, obviously, but Ramón has a place of honour in the KGB Museum in Moscow.
From an anti-Franco family, and recruited by the NKVD in his native Spain in the 1930s, the mission for which he is famous went as follows.
Travel to a city on the other side of the world-in this case Mexico City-and establish a new life there under the elaborate cover identity of Frank Jacson, a Canadian businessman.
In time, engineer a meeting with a famous Russian who lives in the city, Leon Trotsky. Patiently cultivate a friendship with him. Slowly, over many months, win his trust and affection. Then stab him forty times in the head with an ice-pick.
(See five more over on Comment Central)