Lazar Kaganovich had the ideal biography for a Bolshevik: he came from the very bottom of society and achieved everything himself. He was born into a Jewish family in a village not far from Kiev. The family had many children, and they lived in abject poverty. From the age of 14, Lazar worked in factories, as a loader and shoemaker.
Lazar KaganovichGetty Images
Jews in the Russian Empire faced many restrictions: they faced severe limits to be accepted into state schools, as well as universities; they were for the most part only allowed to live in western Russia where their ancestors had lived for centuries, and were unable to freely move around the empire; and some professions were off-limits. Driven by these injustices, Lazar became friends with revolutionaries, took part in rallies (for which he was kicked out of his job) and in 1911 joined the Bolshevik Party. In 1916, he set up an underground Shoemakers' Union.
In 1917, Kaganovich was 23 and was heavily involved in revolutionary activity, setting up Bolshevik cells in Ukraine and Belarus. He had such an influence on Party work in the provinces that he was soon put on the list of delegates for the Congress of Soviets in Petrograd.
There he met Lenin. Kaganovich recalled that when he was addressing a congress of army organizations, he voiced a firm position on the issue of land nationalization, thus winning the soldiers' support for the Bolsheviks. Lenin noted it and entrusted Kaganovich with a very important post - head of the agitation department in the new Red Army that was formed at the time.
Joseph Stalin's birthday. Pictured L-R: Sergo Ordzhonikidze, Kliment Voroshilpv, Valerian Kuybyshev, Joseph Stalin, Mikhail Kalinin, Lazar Kaganovich, Sergei KirovArkady Shishkin/MAMM/MDF
Kaganovich continued to engage in agitation throughout the Civil War. After Bolshevik power was firmly established, he was entrusted with another responsible position - head of the organization and distribution department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party; thus, effectively becoming the party's "supply manager". He came up with the idea of compiling lists of party positions, thus creating the famous Soviet nomenklatura.
In 1925, Lazar's career reached a new high. After Lenin's death, gathering his allies around him, Stalin nominated him for the post of general secretary of the party's Central Committee in Ukraine. Kaganovich's task was to develop the industrial sector, and he acted decisively. One of the priorities for the young Soviet state was coal mining, but the industry was plagued by accidents, and, overall, was unable to cope with the new tasks of industrialization. In 1928, Kaganovich initiated the Shakhty Trial, in which heads of several Donbass mines were accused of sabotage and sentenced to death, and several dozen managers were imprisoned.
That same year (1928), Stalin put Kaganovich in charge of another important task, that of strengthening collective and state farms, and putting an end to kulaks, wealthy peasants who had unearned income and themselves employed hired labor.
A poor peasant and a rich oneArkady Shishkin/MAMM/MDF
In 1932, a campaign was launched to increase the amount of grain collected for the state stockpile. Peasants were obliged to hand over most of their grain to the state so that it could provide the entire country with bread at the same price. The amount of harvested grain was greatly exaggerated, and given the poor harvest and grain exports, many villages were unable to meet the targets imposed on them. Kaganovich introduced the practice of "black boards", essentially "black lists", of villages that failed to meet the target for the amount of grain collected. These villages were deprived of the right to trade, were not granted loans, and were deprived of basic consumer goods. In addition, they became the target of particularly zealous searches for “hostile elements” and their residents were arrested for their alleged guilt in the village's failure to fulfil the plan.
In effect, these villages were left to starve. This policy is believed to have led to severe famine in many regions of the USSR, including Ukraine, and Ukrainian historians refer to these events as the Holodomor. In present-day Ukraine, the Soviet Communist Party's actions in the country are qualified as genocide. In 2009, Ukraine launched a criminal case against Kaganovich and other Party leaders.
In 1934, Stalin appointed Kaganovich as People's Commissar (i.e. minister) of Railways. Now his task was to sort out the transport sector, which was in a state of chaos, with frequent railway accidents. Kaganovich was once again true to his tough reputation, introducing personal responsibility – and reprisals - for each accident. But he managed to bring order to railway operations: trains stopped being late and began to run on schedule. During World War II, Kaganovich organized an effective evacuation of entire cities and factories by railway.
Children's railway in Kratovo, 1945-49Mikhail Grachev/MAMM/MDF
He also came up with the idea of creating a children's railway to train future railway staff. A small railway line fully operated by children still exists in Kratovo outside Moscow.
In addition to working in the People's Commissariat of Railways, Kaganovich also headed the Party's Moscow branch. In 1935, Stalin approved a general plan for the reconstruction of Moscow and appointed Kaganovich in charge of its implementation.
With the number of residents and cars steadily on the rise, Moscow needed to have its roads widened and new houses built. Muscovites particularly resented Kaganovich for pulling down the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, in whose place a huge Palace of Soviets was supposed to be built.
The explosion of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, 1931Public domain
In the book Thus Spoke Kaganovich by Felix Chuyev, based on interviews with the man recorded over the course of five years, Kaganovich said that the proposal to demolish the cathedral had come from the Union of Architects, that it were the architects, including the famous Alexei Shchusev, who said that the cathedral did not present any artistic value.
“They say that I destroyed valuable buildings in Moscow. It is a lie. I will not try to justify myself, because it never happened. We walked around the city together, selecting buildings that hindered traffic,” Kaganovich recalled. The Cathedral of Christ the Savior was rebuilt in its original place in the 1990s.
Among other things, the general plan for the reconstruction of Moscow envisaged the construction of the metro. A reporter for the newspaper, Vechernyaya Moskva [Evening Moscow], A. V. Khrabrovitsky, said that Kaganovich had visited Berlin to see how the metro had been built there, and upon his return, he allegedly told Stalin: “In Berlin, entrances to the metro stations are just holes in the ground, whereas we should have beautiful pavilions.”
Kaganovich personally went underground to inspect the process of construction, supervised the entire project and approved station designs. According to some eyewitness accounts, workers building the metro were very fond of the efficient and business-like Kaganovich, and he, in turn, remembered all the foremen by name.
Lazar Kaganovich (center, with big mustache) and Nikita Khrushchev in a metro's shaft, 1930sMAMM/MDF
On May 15, 1935, the first metro line was opened: it ran from Sokolniki station to Okhotny Ryad station with a branch line to Park Kultury and Smolenskaya. Until 1955, the metro was even named after Kaganovich, although later it was renamed after Vladimir Lenin.
Incidentally, Kaganovich also launched the first Soviet trolleybus line in Moscow.
Kaganovich was a diehard communist and Stalinist, and sincerely believed that repression was necessary for maintaining order and achieving results. At a senior Party meeting in 1937, Kaganovich delivered an extensive speech in which he spoke about the importance of combating "saboteurs". According to him, "Japanese-German-Trotskyist agents" and spies were active in many industrial sectors and in the construction and operation of railways.
Lazar Kaganovich taking speech at the Party's congress in 1938Alexander Ustinov/Ninel Ustinova's archive
As a key measure to deal with the problem, Kaganovich proposed arresting all "saboteurs". "Of course, we must first of all eradicate them, exposing all of them to the last, and there should be no tears over arrests of innocent people - so far, there have been very few of them, almost none."
That year the Great Terror began. Extrajudicially, “lists” of people to be subjected to reprisals were compiled with the personal sanction of the party leadership. According to Memorial, an organization that documents the crimes of the Soviet regime, Kaganovich's signature was on 188 such lists, under which 19,000 people were executed.
Maxim Gorky, Lazar Kaganovich, Kliment Voroshilov, Joseph Stalin on top of Lenin's mausoleumState museum of political history of Russia
In 1941, a case was opened against Kaganovich's brother, Mikhail, who was the people's commissar of the aviation industry and was suspected of "an association with enemies of the people". Rumors were circulating that Lazar had not interceded for his brother and had sided with Stalin. Lazar himself denied this in several interviews, insisting that he had told Stalin directly that it was a lie and had asked that his brother be given an opportunity to confront his accusers. Without waiting for his arrest, Mikhail Kaganovich shot himself.
“We were guilty of going over the top, we thought there were more enemies than there actually were,” Lazar said in an interview. “If we had not destroyed this fifth column, we would not have won the war. We would have been smashed to smithereens by the Germans."
Without a formal education, Kaganovich became one of the country's most senior officials. Contemporaries said that he was quite well-read but at the same time he made many grammar and spelling mistakes in writing. But Stalin valued his other qualities: diligence, thrift and loyalty.
“Having reread my letter, I see that I did not fulfil your instruction to master punctuation. I started, but failed to continue, yet despite all my workload it can be done. I will try to make sure that my subsequent letters have commas and full stops in them," Kaganovich wrote to Stalin in 1931. Indeed, he fulfilled this instruction, as he unquestioningly fulfilled Stalin's other orders.
Lazar Kaganovich and Joseph StalinLegion Media
Kaganovich considered Stalin to be a great man, and he first started calling him the Leader (as well as the Master, the Great Friend, and Parent). In many speeches, he spoke of the people's love for Stalin.
In 1987, the book, The Wolf of the Kremlin, was published in America. Its author, Stuart Kahan, presented himself as Lazar Kaganovich's nephew. He said he had visited Kaganovich at his home and talked with him, after which he wrote the book that was also based on family archives. In the book, among other things, he claimed that one of the reasons why Kaganovich and Stalin were so close was that Kaganovich's sister was allegedly Stalin's mistress after the death of his wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva. Kaganovich denied it, and after his death his relatives said Stuart Kahan was not his nephew and had never visited them.
In the final years of Stalin's life, Kaganovich no longer counted among his favorites. That eminent place was instead occupied by the Khrushchev-Malenkov-Beria troika. Yet, it was thanks to Kaganovich and his patronage that Khrushchev owed his career. Lazar orignally recruited him, a simple worker from Ukraine, to supervise the construction of the Moscow Metro and the restructuring of Moscow.
Lazar Kaganovich and Nikita Khrushchev in 1935. From the collection of State Museum of Revolution, MoscowGetty Images
“I had a weakness for the promotion of workers because at the time there were very few capable ones. He was a capable worker, no doubt about that,” Kaganovich said. He believed that Khrushchev's head was turned when he was appointed Secretary of the Party's Central Committee.
Kaganovich supported Beria's arrest and execution, but he was against Khrushchev's speech denouncing Stalin's crimes and personality cult. In 1957, Khrushchev strengthened his position in power, declaring that Kaganovich, together with Malenkov and Molotov, had formed an “anti-party group”, removed him from all posts and “exiled” him to the Urals to head a mining and processing plant.
In 1961, Kaganovich suffered two serious blows: he was expelled from the Party, and his wife died. During the Thaw, when Stalin's crimes became public knowledge, everyone turned their backs on Kaganovich. There were even rumors that when he was lying in hospital medical staff refused to give him proper care.
A former people's commissar and a close associate of Stalin, Kaganovich lived on a paltry pension in a modest Moscow apartment. He did not have a government car or a dacha, or any serious savings to leave to his children. But for him it was a cause for pride, since he believed that this was how a communist should live one's life.
Lazar KaganovichArchive photo
Kaganovich lived long enough to witness Perestroika and Glasnost, wrote letters asking to reinstate him in the Party, and to the very end continued to believe in Stalin. He died in 1991, aged 97, just a couple months before the collapse of the USSR.
If using any of Russia Beyond's content, partly or in full, always provide an active hyperlink to the original material.
to our newsletter!
Get the week's best stories straight to your inbox