Telman Gdljan: I'm convinced that the Cotton Scandal would have never been possible these days
A recent newspaper series has published stories about those people who played a key role in post-communist Russian history. Telman Gdljan, a major investigator with the Prosecutor General's Office of the USSR from 1983 to 1990, was the first of such people to be interviewed. Gdljan was the news in the late 1980s as the investigator of the notorious Cotton Scandal that resulted in arrests, trials, and convictions of countless leaders of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic.
Question: The Cotton Scandal was not exactly commonplace, even by the standards of the declining Communist era. Would you compare it with any recent investigation in scope or magnitude?
Telman Gdljan: As a matter of fact, it is due to General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev that, literally, millions are convinced, even now, that what we investigated was some sort of fraud involving cotton and nothing else. What Gorbachev said, then, was this, "Gdljan, Ivanov, and their men investigate a cotton affair..." I countered it by telling Gorbachev that we were then investigating corruption "reaching right into the highest echelons of the Soviet state and CPSU." It all happened during the I Congress of the People's Deputies of the Supreme Council. Needless to say, it fomented a scandal.
It was actually before the I Congress that Ivanov and, yours truly, had drafted a report to Gorbachev asking him to intervene on behalf of the Uzbek people and put an end to the terror.
Question: What terror?
Telman Gdljan: We urged the general secretary to concentrate on organizers and not on victims. We asked him for help in the exposure and prosecution of these masterminds behind the crimes. Our investigation team facilitated the release of thousands victims. Also, importantly, 62 crooks were convicted and imprisoned.
Question: Were they CPSU functionaries?
Telman Gdljan: Sure, the very pick of the crop. Twelve first secretaries of regional committees, six secretaries of the Central Committee of the Uzbek Communist Party, the chairman of the presidium of the Supreme Council, chairman of the government, their deputies, generals of the police, and so on. It was afterwards that the investigation led us to Churbanov, Leonid Brezhnev's former son-in-law and senior deputy interior minister. Also, some generals of the Soviet Interior Ministry were to be arrested and charged with corruption. What counted was that an official of the Central Committee of the CPSU had been bagged already... That was when they quit fooling around and used everything they had in their arsenals to compromise the investigation. Neither did the disintegration of the Soviet Union help, for that matter.
Question: And it was a bona fide corruption scandal, right?
Telman Gdljan: Yes, it was. A scandal going almost to the very pinnacle of state power. I was amazed by the wealth we were confiscating then. It literally defied comprehension. A search of a first secretary's apartment produced 6 million rubles worth of gold, the search of another's produced 5.4 million rubles worth of gold. And the ruble was better than the dollar then, the exchange rate was 0.62 rubles to the dollar! Moreover, we weighed gold as scrap metal, otherwise its cost would have been truly staggering. And do not forget, it was not a period of unbelievable social stratification then. It was like an A-bomb explosion because all these crimes had been committed by senior party functionaries and state officials.
All the same, all those millions do not hold a candle to the billions nowadays. Everything the Russian Empire and the Soviet regime had taken centuries to collect was pilfered overnight by a bunch of wise guys enjoying protection from the greedy powers-that-be.
Question: Would you say analogous investigations involving senior officials are possible these days?
Telman Gdljan: I'd say it is necessary to use the Uzbek technique all over again, i.e. arrest and prosecute masterminds and organizers. Corruption has penetrated all law enforcement agencies and branches of the government. Nobody is so foolish as to bite the hand that feeds him, right? Any such investigations, therefore, are impossible. On the other hand, leaders of Soviet Uzbekistan never expected this turn of events either.
Question: What did the arrested party functionaries say then?
Telman Gdljan: I remember a conversation with Karimov, erstwhile first secretary of the Bukhara Regional Committee of the CPSU. It was all over already, we were just drinking tea, smoking, and talking. "How could you steal on such a staggering scale for so many years on end without fear?" I asked him. "It's simple," he said. "I'll tell you because everything has been confiscated already, and there is nothing to fear anymore... After Stalin's repressions, Nikita Khruschev issued a directive that prohibited all and any investigations into the activities of senior officials of the Komsomol, CPSU, and Soviet state. I was the first secretary, and the regional KGB, Internal Affairs, and prosecutor's office reported to me on a daily basis on what investigations they were running and what they intended to do. It never even occurred to me or my colleagues that the day would come when we, first secretaries of regional committees and even of the Central Committee, would wear handcuffs too. We decided that we were untouchable. We got carried away."
Once they are handcuffed, they become ordinary people, just like the mortals they had been stealing from with such abandon. All of that applies to those guys today, by the way, and they'd better remember it. Everything may change overnight and they will discover, to their dismay, that they are nothing.
As for our investigation then, it was Gorbachev who prevented us from taking it to the end. He was afraid that we would unearth too much.
Question: Can we say that all-permeating corruption assisted in the downfall and disintegration of the USSR?
Telman Gdljan: It was one of the principal catalysts of disintegration. Social stratification was nothing compared to the moral degradation then. Society knew that real life around it had absolutely nothing in common with what the powers-that-be were talking about at congresses and on TV screens. By the way, I was firmly resolved, then, to defend the country from any external menace. But defending the regime whose clans were fighting each other for a place under the sun... No way!
Question: Did the arrestees know at once what was the matter?
Telman Gdljan: They all began with the question of whether their arrest had been authorized by the Central Committee. We had to explain that people like them were particularly dangerous precisely because they had millions to spend on the destruction of documents or bribes or whatever else. It was rather boring, you know. People were snatched without a warning whenever the investigation was 100% confident that it had everything to ensure a conviction. Any such attempt, otherwise, would have certainly backfired.
Question: What were these people sentenced to?
Telman Gdljan: At least three men deserved capital punishment. Being the senior investigator, I literally fought my own superiors and the Central Committee demanding it. Bucking the establishment is usually pointless, and it was pointless in this case, too. They got off with twenty years imprisonment each. This decision was made at the Central Committee of the CPSU that had permanent representatives on the Supreme Court.
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From our folders: Telman Khorenovich Gdljan was born in 1940. He finished the Saratov Law Institute, majoring as a lawyer, and was sent to a rural district in the Ulianovsk region. Gdljan was eventually transferred, first to Ulianovsk where he became a major investigator, and then to Moscow. Gdljan married in 1973. His wife is a doctor and his children are lawyers. These days, Gdljan is President of the Russian Foundation for Progress, Human Rights, and Mercy.
Gdljan and Ivanov headed the team that investigated the so-called Cotton Scandal and unearthed corruption in the upper echelons of Uzbek republican administration and involvement of Sharaf Rashidov, First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Uzbek Communist Party, who had passed away not long before the investigation. Criminal charges were pressed against dozens of functionaries of the CPSU and officials of the Soviet state. Hundreds were tried, convicted, and imprisoned. Authorities of sovereign Uzbekistan rehabilitated everyone from Rashidov down after 1991.
Versiya, No 21, June 9, 2008, p. 8. Photo Gordon.com.ua