Remembering the Moscow Trials

Amid today's craze for anniversaries, there's one episode in history that nobody – especially on the left – wants to talk about.

James Woudhuysen

Topics World

In August 1936, radios all over the world broadcast the sound of fallen Bolshevik Party leaders confessing, at a packed, dingy Moscow court, to crimes against the Soviet Union that they had never committed. By 1937 the Moscow Trials gained further momentum, as 17 more leading Bolsheviks were given a second public humiliation, while hundreds of leaders of the Red Army were tried and executed in secret. In March 1938, a third and final showtrial concluded with a further 21 confessions, and nearly as many executions. Around the world, the court proceedings initiated by Communist Party leader Joseph Stalin against those who had led the October 1917 Revolution caused heated debate. Yet today they are almost forgotten.

Despite the fact that we are currently living through an anniversary frenzy – where any event from the past judged to have ‘meaning’ for the present is pored over – nobody seems to want to talk about the Moscow Trials. Indeed, there has been silence on these events, especially among the Western left, for decades. The Trials tend to be revisited by historians only as a confirmation of Stalin’s rotten nature and personality, or as easy ‘proof’ that any attempt to create a progressive alternative society is doomed; rarely are they properly interrogated or fully explained.

That is a pity. The Moscow Trials were and remain important. They coincided with the final climax of Stalin’s Great Purges, and were a public symbol of these. Between 1936 and 1938, millions of Russians were arrested and more than a million executed. Up to 1950, Soviet forced labour camps never held fewer than eight million prisoners, and ran death rates of perhaps 10 per cent (1).

Bourgeois critics of the Trials insist that blind loyalty to the old Bolshevik Party of Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924) led veteran revolutionaries to believe that their confessions, however far-fetched, were politically justified (2). But what really happened in those dark days in the Soviet Union?

‘Terrorist acts’

The origins of the first trial lay in the December 1934 assassination of Sergei Kirov, governor of Leningrad (now St Petersburg), and a moderate and popular member of the Stalinist Politburo. Stalin arranged for Kirov to be shot in the back of the head on the way to work and, on the same day, issued a decree hastening the trial and execution of those accused of ‘terrorist acts’.

Tens of thousands of people alleged by Stalin to be supporters of Leon Trotsky, the former commander of the Red Army and exiled leader of the Left Opposition within Stalin’s Communist Party, were blamed for Kirov’s murder and deported to Siberia. Gregory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, also key Bolshevik leaders in the revolution of October 1917, were arrested. The works of Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev and the brilliant left-wing economist Yevgeni Preobrazhensky were removed from libraries. The prestigious Society of Old Bolsheviks was disbanded, the Communist youth organisation purged, and the death penalty lowered to include 12-year-olds.

In August 1936, Zinoviev and Kamenev and 14 others were brought to dock. They were charged with helping Trotsky murder Kirov, attempts on the lives of Stalin’s henchmen on the Politburo, and plotting to shoot Stalin. No evidence apart from the false confessions was produced, nor were those implicated in the fictitious conspiracy brought to the witness stand. After five days in court, all the defendants were sentenced to death. Executions followed swiftly.

Creative confessions

From then on, the Purges began in earnest. While Stalin sought an alliance with Hitler’s Germany, Soviet Jews were shot for being in league with the Nazis. Some officials received the Order of Lenin on the day they were arrested. Others, dismissed from their posts, had to wait weeks before the police picked them up. Prisons were more diseased, overcrowded and full of informers than in Tsarist times. Confessions were left to the creative powers of those accused. It was essential to denounce relatives and friends, while wives of convicted ‘terrorists’ were automatically shot, too. Trials took place in minutes, and many top-level political meetings took place at which only those listening knew that those speaking were already destined for execution.

In January 1937, Georgy Pyatakov, the driving force behind Soviet industrialisation in the 1930s, was publicly tried along with former Left Oppositionist Karl Radek and a collection of top industrial bureaucrats. The charges: plotting with Trotsky to sabotage trains, chemical plants and mines; repudiating industrialisation and the collectivisation of agriculture; conspiring to surrender the Ukraine to the Nazis at a meeting between Trotsky and Rudolf Hess; spying for the Axis powers under an agreement reached between Trotsky, Hitler and Japan’s Emperor Hirohito; and trying to kill Stalin and his senior aides.

Within a week, one of Trotsky’s former colleagues, Christian Rakovsky, was implicated in the plot, together with Marshall Tukhachevsky, the formidable head of the Soviet army. Twenty years later, Nikita Khrushchev, in his famous secret speech to a closed session of the 20th Party Congress on 25 February 1956, was the Soviet leader who first condemned the excesses of Stalin’s era; in 1937, he was the new secretary of the Moscow party. He mobilised a demonstration of 200,000 in Red Square, in temperatures of -27°C, demanding that Rakovsky and Tukhachevsky’s sentences be carried out immediately.

They were. Following the execution of Tukhachevsky, eight admirals and thousands of officers were also shot.

In September 1936, Nikolai Yezhov had been appointed head of the secret police. Stalin had chosen that moment to call on every party official to name two replacements in case of emergencies. Now in the notorious ‘Yezhov years’ (1937-8), four or five such substitutes became necessary.

Failure to have denounced those who had been arrested became, itself, grounds for arrest. Police interrogators unable to extract enough confessions were shot. National minorities, foreign communists in exile, Leningraders, historians, linguists and writers were singled out for arrest, torture and execution. In the mines and forests of the Soviet far north, GULAG – the organisation that administered the camps – presided over regimes in which rape, murder and death by disease, starvation or hypothermia were commonplace. Soviet citizens were led to believe that Yezhov was to blame; by contrast, Stalin appeared innocent.

Now nobody was safe. Nikolai Bukharin and Alexei Rykov, who had supported Stalin in his struggles against the Left Opposition, were arrested in the middle of a central committee meeting and put on trial with 19 others in March 1938 (3). To the familiar list of charges were added: responsibility for the famine which followed collectivisation; faulty design of power stations; poisoning pigs and horses; sabotaging butter with nails and glass; causing production delays, poor harvests and shortages of paper, eggs and sugar; raising prices and weakening the ruble; trying to kill Lenin in 1918; receiving money from the Nazis – and working for the Mensheviks, the Tsarists, the Polish secret service and British intelligence.

Even after the trial reached its inevitable conclusion, the purges continued. Soviet diplomats, scientists, engineers, police and military men, in their thousands, were forced to build their own labour camps. Most of the Stalinist leaders appointed in the 1930s were removed by the 1940s. Scarcely a section of Soviet society escaped the purges.

How can we explain the Stalinist terror? Its origins lay not in Stalin’s evil character, as many claim today, but in the vacuum created by the defeat of the revolution and the crisis in the system (4).

After October 1917, war and famine ravaged the Soviet Union and prevented the Bolshevik revolution from realising its aims. Limited freedom was given to capitalists in the early 1920s in an attempt to revive the economy, a policy that was extended by Stalin when he took over. The free rein that Stalin gave to private commerce at the height of the New Economic Policy in the late 1920s led to a crisis, in which all-out collectivisation of agriculture and headlong industrial growth was enforced by the state as the alternative to a full revival of capitalism.

Through forced collectivisation and industrialisation, the Soviet economy of the 1930s succeeded in destroying all the mechanisms of the capitalist market, but at a terrible cost. Economic chaos ruled – in fact, from about 1929 to the collapse of the USSR in 1989-91. The only way a wholly degenerate Communist Party could try to overcome economic chaos was by imposing violence everywhere. Stalin’s terror was the outcome of neither ingenious planning nor personal whim. Rather, it was the result of a completely rudderless economy. Indeed, terror itself was conducted in the same chaotic way as was life and politics in the rest of the Soviet Union.

Nor was terror alone enough to stabilise the Soviet system. While enforcing relentless discipline in farms and factories, the Stalinist bureaucracy also launched a programme of education and training to try to incorporate a new generation of hacks into the state machine. Through the classroom, the Kremlin tried to foster a section of society that owed its privileges and its future prospects to the regime. The link between Stalinist terror and this social engineering was apparent as early as 1928 in the Shakhty case – the forerunner of the Moscow Trials.

Purging for industry

On the eve of the launch of Stalin’s first Five Year Plan (1928-32), the Soviet Communist Party had just 138 engineer members to oversee industrialisation. Hence the bureaucracy was heavily dependent on surviving experts from the Tsarist era, most of whom had little sympathy with the new order. The trial of technicians, on charges of sabotaging coal mines in the key Shakhty region of the Donbass heavy industrial zone, revealed the dangers of relying on experts with no loyalty to the regime.

The Shakhty Trial was held in public, as a warning to bourgeois experts and party officials alike. It was also significant in that the presiding judge was Andrei Vyshinsky. A former Menshevik and, eight years later, the notorious prosecutor at all three Moscow Trials, Vyshinsky’s career has pretty much vanished from the world’s history today. But after his success at the Shakhty Trial, he was subsequently put in charge of all Soviet technical education.

In the early 1930s, hundreds of thousands of manual workers were rushed through technical courses and trained for white-collar jobs. The role of the secret police expanded – it now not only had to conduct repression, but also to play a part in organising the economy. However, the hectic industrialisation drive produced crises everywhere, and the crash education programme moved painfully slowly. By 1934 and the 17th Communist Party congress, little had been achieved. Only about 200 of the 2,000 delegates had ever got beyond secondary school. By 1939, most of those delegates attending in 1934 had perished in the purges, yet still only a quarter of the new Stalinist cadres had higher education.

Given the dislocation of the Soviet economy, Stalin sought to maintain the momentum of his industrialisation drive by purging layer after layer of senior administrators. In 1935, he complained that industrialisation was proceeding too slowly. He sponsored the Stakhanovite movement, a corps of ‘shockworkers’ dedicated to exceeding production norms and terrifying factory chiefs deemed ‘over-cautious’. With the population atomised, each individual converted into a real or imagined informer, and both market mechanisms and workers’ power long gone, Stalin could only try to exhort or bash the Soviet economy into any kind of coherence.

For Stalin, the trials were also a means of shifting the blame for the unpopularity of his regime on to scapegoats who might otherwise have supplanted him. By accusing his opponents not just of dissent, but also of terror, espionage and all the ills of his economic policy, Stalin made the lie big enough to stick. It is also true that the trials showed the West that Stalin was in control, and so eased capitalist fears about the Russian Revolution spreading to the rest of the world. These fears had been real enough in the decade after 1917.

But the Trials and Purges cannot be put down, in the modern manner, to the diseased mind of a malevolent madman (5). They were the work of the whole of the Soviet bureaucracy.

Out of control

Tensions within the Soviet bureaucracy ensured that Stalinist terror was as makeshift as Stalinist industrialisation. The rewriting of history books, the retouching of photographs, the arbitrary selection of victims and the iffy ways in which they were made to rehearse their court confessions beforehand – all these devices were so hurried and so crude in their implementation that the collapse of the whole edifice of judicial terror was always a possibility. Terror, like the economy, was out of control. Only a few months before Zinoviev’s public crucifixion, the left-wing writer and critic of Stalinism, Victor Serge, was allowed to leave Russia. ‘I am conscious’, he wrote later, ‘of being the living proof of the unplanned character of the first trial’. (6)

At all three trials, defendants qualified their confessions and Vyshinsky made potentially disastrous mistakes. The poverty of evidence and witnesses was an error of Stalin’s; so, too, was the fact that many people with both the position and the desire to unmask Stalin – Lenin’s widow Nadezhda Krupskaya, foreign commissioner Maxim Litvinoff, writer Boris Pasternak, physicist Pyotr Kapitsa – were never brought to book. Finally, the terror system was just as irrational as the rest of the Stalinist economy. By turning millions of Russians into unproductive interrogators, guards, prisoners and corpses, it was just one more factor exposing the Soviet economy to Hitler’s Panzer tanks in 1941, and delaying its full consolidation until the 1950s.

The degrading confessions of the Moscow Trials had nothing to do with revolutionary politics, and everything to do with its disappearance in the late 1920s. To the extent that people confessed because they thought it correct to do so, this was the result of 12 years of Stalinism. A brutish economy produced a brute; a devious society produced a deviant leader. What is striking about Stalin’s still-debated personality traits – his suspiciousness, his inscrutability, his petty viciousness – is how much they corresponded to the backward, disorganised nature of the Soviet system. No wonder that, when asked back in 1925 what Stalin represented, Trotsky had first thought for a minute, then replied with a one-liner that was not only famous for years, but which retains its precision today. ‘Stalin’, Trotsky observed, ‘is the outstanding mediocrity in the party’. (7)

Previous anniversaries of the Moscow Trials have proved gifts for right-wing ideologues. But in the twenty-first century, things seem rather different. Obsessive portraits of Joe the totalitarian are still published, and Western commentators regularly bemoan the growth of nostalgia for Stalin in Russia today. However, the worldwide collapse of genuine historical thinking ensures that few now point to the Trials as the awful warning they once were.

Yet there is something else. In their youth, people like the British Labour Party’s John Reid, Jack Straw and Peter Mandelson joined the post-war organisations of the Communist Party of Great Britain. They should have known all about the Trials. Did they?

In 2007, we have as much reason to remember the Moscow Trials as some have to forget them. Seventy years ago, many of those hauled in to appear before Stalin’s judges refused to confess, and never made it to the courtroom. Rakovsky withstood interrogation for eight months, while Preobrazhensky died rather than confess. History should avenge these men, give its own harsh verdict on their tormentors, and on all those who would pass over these tragic events.

James Woudhuysen is professor of forecasting and innovation at De Montfort University, Leicester. Visit his website here. This is an edited version of the author’s article ‘Stalin’s Trials’ in the next step, 22 August 1986.

Previously on spiked

Dave Hallsworth described the day he stopped being a Stalinist. Frank Furedi remembered his Hungarian Revolution. James Heartfield criticised Martin Amis for reviving Cold war controversies. Philip Cunliffe noted how containing the Soviet Union was George Kennan’s big idea.

(1) The figures here followed Robert Conquest, The great terror: Stalin’s purge of the thirties [1968], Penguin, 1971. Conquest was a right-wing historian vilified for many years by the Stalinophile left. For a more recent, more balanced set of estimates, by another right-winger, see ‘Appendix: how many?’, in Anne Applebaum, GULAG: a history of the Soviet camps [2003], Penguin, 2004.

(2) The classic anti-communist work here is Arthur Koestler’s novel, Darkness at Noon, Jonathan Cape, 1940.

(3) A popular intellectual who had joined the Bolsheviks after the revolution of 1905, Bukharin rose to become the chief organiser of the Soviet Union’s New Economic Policy after Lenin’s death. Bukharin favoured the growth of private enterprise, and especially encouraged capitalist farmers to enrich themselves, believing that prosperity on the land would lead to a boom in the towns. When, in 1928-9, Stalin turned from the New Economic Policy to a bloody collectivisation of agriculture and an all-out programme of industrialisation based on terror, Bukharin opposed him, only to meet his fate in the Trials.

(4) The analysis that follows is based on Frank Furedi’s pioneering work, The Soviet Union Demystified, Junius, 1986.

(5) A recent example of this school is Simon Sebag-Montefiore, Stalin: the court of the Red Tsar, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2003.

(6) Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, Oxford University Press, 1963, p330.

(7) See Leon Trotsky, My Life, 1930

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