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Sergo Ordzhonikidze

In the early 1930s, one man ran most of Soviet industry: Grigoriy (Sergo) Konstantinovich Ordzhonikidze. Historians believe that Ordzhonikidze sacrificed too much raw material and too many lives in order reach his goals. He pushed too hard and demanded quick results. After just a few years many recently constructed factories were already in need of repair works. Sergo Ordzhonikidze had always supported Stalin’s ideas and taken his side in the struggle for power against the leader’s political opponents. However, Ordzhonikidze wasn’t an adherent of repressions. He admitted them only as an extremity.

Ordzhonikidze was born in a small village in western Georgia into a noble family. In 1903, while studying medicine in Tiflis (now Tbilisi), he became obsessed with revolutionary ideals and joined the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party. After graduating from medical school, Ordzhonikidze worked as a paramedic and began propagandizing revolutionary ideas in the Caucasus. For his anti-government activity Ordzhonikidze was arrested and imprisoned. In February 1909 he was exiled to Siberia, but managed to escape abroad.

In 1909-1910 Ordzhonikidze participated in the revolution in Persia, then moved to France where he studied in the Party school founded by Vladimir Lenin. In 1911 Ordzhonikidze returned to Russia. Several times he visited Josef Stalin who had been exiled and was living in the small city of Vologda in northwestern Russia. In 1912 Ordzhonikidze was arrested again: the revolutionary activist was sentenced to three years of hard labor before being exiled to Yakutia in Russia’s far north.

After the February Revolution of 1917 and the collapse of Imperial Russia Ordzhonikidze was set free. After the October Revolution of 1917, Grigory became known to his comrades as “Sergo.” Almost all revolution leaders were given nicknames as a conspiracy measure. In Russian history Grigory is known as Sergo Ordzhonikidze.

During the Russian Civil War of 1917-1923 Ordzhonikidze fought against the anti-Bolshevik White Army in the Caucasus. He personally participated in overthrowing anti-communist governments in Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Sergo Ordzhonikidze was responsible for establishing the so-called Transcaucasian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic. It was not easy to present the new Soviet power to countries that were attempting to form their own federal states. But Ordzhonikidze often used reprisals against the locals and in March 1922 the area became part of the union.

In 1926 Sergo Ordzhonikidze was appointed to the Politburo, the central policymaking and governing body of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. A close collaborator of Josef Stalin, Ordzhonikidze held high offices within the Communist Party and in 1930 he took the position of Commissar of Soviet Heavy Industry. The one-time paramedic became the main organizer of the grandiose construction works of the 1930s. In a short period of time numerous armament industry plants and factories were built.

Conquest states that he was entirely dependent on the technical skills and knowledge of his deputy, Georgy Pyatakov. Conquest also reports that he knew the allegations against Pyatakov were false and had Stalin’s assurance that he (Pyatakov) would not be executed.

G.K. Ordzhonikidze [Orjonikidze] was the People's Commissar of Heavy Industry of the USSR from 1932 to 1937. A close associate of Stalin's, Ordzhonikidze came out from the Caucasus, in 1930 he took over the Supreme Council of the Economy (the main heavy-industry oversight organ) and in 1932 he became People's Commissar of Heavy Industry. As Commissar for Heavy Industry, Grigoriy Konstantinovich Ordzhonikidze was called "The World's Biggest Businessman." He was reportedly one of Stalin's two or three closest friends in the 1930s.

Ordzhonikidze added "Stakhanovism" the Soviet vocabulary when he made national heroes of one Comrade Stakhanov, age 22, and five other young Donetz Basin coal miners. Accustomed to getting out five tons of coal in each six-hour shift with a Soviet automatic cutting machine, Stakhanov worked out a teamwork system which increased production to 310 tons per six-hour shift. Progressive piece-work was introduced in the spring of 1934, and while real wages fell for most workers a significant number of udarniki (shock workers) and stakhanovtsy participated in the more ‘joyous’ life that Stalin had promised.

As industry grew, so did his influence. Increasing the number of chief administrations under him simply added to the layers of middle-ranking officials who owed their positions and allegiance directly to Ordzhonikidze. In contrast, increasing the number of other ministers diluted Ordzhonikidze’s influence, widened the circle of those who owed their loyalty to Stalin himself, and reduced the chances that another Ordzhonikidze would ever emerge.

The depth of Ordzhonikidze’s devotion to Stalin is disputed. In 1932, with other Politburo members, he reportedly opposed the persecution of those involved in publishing the “Ryutin Platform”, bringing him into conflict with Stalin who was anxious to destroy “rightists” in the Party. Sent to the provinces during the Great Famine he reported correctly that it was a disaster.

The Second Moscow Old Bolsheviks Trial in January 1937 shifted any blame for the lagging of Soviet Heavy Industry from G.K.Ordzhonikidze to the "Trotskyism" of his Vice-Commissar, Grigoriy Piatakov, who was sentenced to death.

According to historian Roy Medvedev, Ordzhonikidze opposed the purges by Stalin of Lazar Kaganovich and Nikolai Yezhov and the arrest of his deputy Pyatakov. However historian Oleg Khlevniuk reported finding no evidence in Soviet archives that Ordzhonikidze disagreed with the Moscow Trials, including that of Pyatakov. According to the archives, Ordzhonikidze questioned Pyatakov personally, and was convinced of his guilt.

Ordzhonikidze often tried to protect former comrades who got in the wrong with Stalin. On occasion, he personally asked Stalin to reduce or abolish terms of imprisonment. But Stalin soon tired of Ordzhonikidze’s intercessions and the relationship between the former friends and comrades turned sour. Ordzhonikidze then discovered that his elder brother Papuliya had been arrested under false accusations in Georgia. Papuliya died after being tortured. It was a hard blow to Ordzhonikidze. Furthermore, Stalin had a new associate, Lavrenty Beriya, a promoted worker whom Ordzhonikidze considered an impostor and dangerous intriguer.

In the mid-1930s he opposed eements of Joseph Stalin's industrial policy. It took more than this to solve the problem of Ordzhonikidze himself, however: Stalin not only broke up his empire and destroyed those loyal to him, but may also have driven Ordzhonikidze to suicide.

Ordzhonikidze had several heated discussions with Stalin. At the plenary session of the Communist Party Central Committee in 1937 Stalin criticized Ordzhonikidze’s report on the condition of the Soviet heavy industry. It was obvious that Stalin no longer supported Ordzhonikidze.

On 18 February 1937 Ordzhonikidze was found dead in his apartment. The "biggest funeral since Lenin's" was promptly got under way for "Sergo". The official cause of death was heart attack. His sudden death was ascribed to natural causes, but Nikita Khrushchev later charged (1956) that Stalin had driven him to suicide. Twenty years later it was revealed that Ordzhonikidze had committed suicide – he had shot himself. It was said that in the circumstances of mass repression, not wishing to share the responsibility for I.V.Stalin and his adherents' crimes, G.K. Ordzhonikidze committed suicide.

Still, some historians believe Ordzhonikidze was murdered on Stalin’s order. In the voluminous secret history of the 1930s, one episode that still puzzles researchers is the death in 1937 of one of Stalin's key allies - his fellow Georgian, G.K. Ordzhonikidze. Whether he took his own life or, like Kirov, was murdered, the case of Ordzhonikidze intersects several long-debated problems in Soviet political history. What role did Politburo members play in decision making during the Stalin era? What formed the basis of Stalin's alliances? Were there conflicts between Stalin and his comrades and, if so, how far did they go? Was there in fact opposition to Stalin?

Sergo Ordzhonikidze was married to Zinaida Pavlutskaya. In 1938 she was sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment and then executed by shooting. The couple had only one daughter, Eteri.

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Page last modified: 21-02-2016 20:06:10 ZULU