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Mekhlis, Lev Zakharovich

(1889–1953), Communist Party activist and Soviet government official. Born in Odessa to the family of a minor official, from 1904 to 1911 Lev Mekhlis worked as a clerk and earned extra income by tutoring. From 1907 to 1910, he was a member of Po‘ale Tsiyon. Drafted in 1911, Mekhlis served as an artilleryman during World War I. In 1918 he joined the Bolshevik Party and was appointed to be a political officer in the Red Army with the rank of brigade commissar. He was later promoted to division commissar, eventually becoming corps commissar.

From 1921 to 1927, Mekhlis worked for the Worker–Peasant Inspectorate and in the apparatus of the Central Committee. Simultaneously, from 1922 to 1926 he headed the technical office of the Central Committee Secretariat and enjoyed Stalin’s confidence. After graduating from the Institute of Red Professors in 1930, he became head of the publication department of the Central Committee Press Department and editor in chief of Pravda (1930–1937). From 1937 to 1940, he headed the Red Army Main Administration of Political Propaganda and was deputy people’s commissar of defense. He personally represented Stalin during the Lake Khasan Operation (1938) and at Khalkhin Gol (1939) in the Far East, and during the Finnish War (1939–1940). From 1940 he was people’s commissar of state control. The same year, he became vice chairman of the council of people’s commissars.

From the beginning of the war with Germany, Mekhlis headed the Red Army Main Political Administration and was deputy people’s commissar of defense in 1941 and 1942. He was one of the proponents of the idea of vymorazhivanie—“freezing out” the Germans on the outskirts of Moscow in the winter of 1941–1942. In accordance with this plan, the Russians burned down villages and forests in the path of the German onslaught. Mekhlis represented general headquarters on the Crimean front, but in 1942 he was blamed for the failure of the Kherson Operation, removed from all his positions, and demoted in military rank. Subsequently, he became a member of the military councils of various armies, fronts, and military districts. He served as minister of state control from 1946 until his retirement due to ill health in 1950.

On a number of occasions, Mekhlis participated in so-called purges and repressions in the party apparatus and the army. As Stalin’s confidante, Mekhlis collected and regularly provided him with information about other party leaders. Mekhlis’s power did not emanate from any official but from the fact that Stalin confided in him and entrusted him with the most sensitive assignments. Mekhlis was able to find “enemies” everywhere and played a special role in the political repressions of that period. He did not personally identify in any way with the Jewish community.

A member of the Central Committee from 1937 to 1953, Mekhlis also served on the Organization Bureau (Orgburo) from 1938 to 1952 and was twice elected a deputy of the USSR Supreme Soviet. He was awarded four Orders of Lenin, two Orders of the Red Banner, and numerous other honors and medals. During the last years of his life, he was bedridden due to illness. Mekhlis is buried in Red Square in Moscow.

Suggested Reading

Anatolii Chernev, 229 kremlevskikh vozhdei: Politbiuro, Orgbiuro, Sekretariat Tsentral’nogo Komiteta Kommunisticheskoi partii v litsakh i tsifrakh (Moscow, 1996).



Translated from Russian by Chaim Chernikov