Trial of the Twenty-One
The Trial of the Twenty-One was the last of the Moscow Trials, show trials of prominent Bolsheviks, including Old Bolsheviks. The Trial of the Twenty-One took place in Moscow in March 1938, towards the end of Stalin's Great Purge.
The third show trial, in March 1938, known as The Trial of the Twenty-One, is the most famous of the Soviet Union show trials because of persons involved and the scope of charges, which tied together all loose threads from earlier show trials. It included 21 defendants alleged to belong to the so-called "Bloc of Rightists and Trotskyites":
- Nikolai Bukharin - Marxist theoretician, former head of the Communist International and member of the Politburo
- Alexei Rykov - former premier and member of the Politburo
- Nikolai Krestinsky - former member of the Politburo and ambassador to Germany
- Christian Rakovsky - former ambassador to Great Britain and France
- Genrikh Yagoda - former head of the NKVD
- Arkady Rosengoltz - former People's Commissar for Foreign Trade
- Vladimir Ivanov - former People's Commissar for the Timber Industry
- Mikhail Chernov - former People's Commissar for Agriculture
- Grigori Grinko - former People's Commissar for Finance
- Isaac Zelensky - former Secretary of the Central Committee
- Sergei Bessonov
- Akmal Ikramov - Uzbek leader
- Faizulla Khodjayev - Uzbek leader
- Vasily Sharangovich - former first secretary in Byelorussia
- Prokopy Zubarev
- Pavel Bulanov - NKVD officer
- Lev Levin – Kremlin doctor
- Dmitry Pletnev - Kremlin doctor
- Ignaty Kazakov - Kremlin doctor
- Venyamin Maximov-Dikovsky
- Pyotr Kryuchkov
Meant to be the culmination of previous trials, it now alleged that Bukharin and others committed the following crimes:
- murdering Sergey Kirov, Valerian Kuybyshev, State Political Directorate (OGPU) chair Vyacheslav Menzhinsky, and writer Maxim Gorky and his son
- unsuccessfully trying to assassinate Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin and Yakov Sverdlov in 1918
- plotting to assassinate Yakov Sverdlov, Vyacheslav Molotov, Lazar Kaganovich, Kliment Voroshilov and Stalin
- conspiring to wreck the economy (by sabotaging mines, derailing trains, killing cattle, putting nails and glasses in butter) and the country's military power
- Spying for British, French, Japanese, and German intelligence agencies
- making secret agreements with Germany and Japan, promising to surrender Belarus, Ukraine, Central Asia and the Russian Far East to foreign powers
All of the defendants confessed to these charges during the show trial with a few notable, but limited, exceptions.
The preparation for this trial was delayed in its early stages due to the reluctance of some party members to denounce their comrades. It was at this time that Stalin personally intervened to speed up the process and replaced Yagoda with Nikolai Yezhov. Stalin also observed some of the trial in person from a hidden chamber in the courtroom.
Only one defendant, Nikolai Krestinsky, initially refused to admit his guilt. He changed his position within a day, however, telling Public Prosecutor Andrei Vyshinsky: "I fully and completely admit that I am guilty of all the gravest charges brought against me personally, and that I admit my complete responsibility for the treason and treachery I have committed."
Bukharin's confession was limited in a different fashion. Observers have speculated that Bukharin had reached some sort of agreement with the prosecution: while he admitted guilt to general charges, he undercut that by denying any knowledge when it came to specific crimes. Bukharin typically would admit only what was in his written confessions and refused to go any further; at one point in the trial, when Vyshinsky asked him about a conspiracy to weaken Soviet military power, Bukharin responded "it was not discussed, at least in my presence," at which point Vyshinsky dropped the question and moved to another topic.
There is other evidence that Bukharin had reached an agreement to trade his confession for personal concessions of some sort. Anastas Mikoyan and Vyacheslav Molotov claim that Bukharin was never tortured. Bukharin had been allowed to write four book-length manuscripts, including an autobiographical novel, How It All Began, a philosophical treatise, and a collection of poems – all of which were found in Stalin's archive and published in the 1990s – while in prison. Bukharin also wrote series of very emotional letters to Stalin protesting his innocence and professing his love for Stalin, which contrasts with his critical opinion of Stalin and his policies expressed to others and his conduct in the trial.
Yet Bukharin appears to have strayed from that agreement at trial. While he had accepted responsibility "even for those crimes about which I did not know or about which I did not have the slightest idea" on the theory that he was the head of the "Bloc of Rightists and Trotskyites", he testified that the Bloc did not exist and its members had never met.
The result was a curious mix of fulsome confessions and subtle criticisms of the trial. After disproving several charges against him (one observer noted that he proceeded to demolish or rather showed he could very easily demolish the whole case) and saying that "the confession of accused is not essential. The confession of the accused is a medieval principle of jurisprudence" in the trial that was solely based on confessions, he finished his last plea with "the monstrousness of my crime is immeasurable especially in the new stage of struggle of the U.S.S.R. May this trial be the last severe lesson, and may the great might of the U.S.S.R become clear to all."
Other defendants apparently still hoped for clemency. Yagoda, who had overseen the interrogations that led to the previous show trials, made a plea for mercy directly to Stalin, who may, according to Solzhenitsyn, have been observing the proceedings:
Just as though Stalin had been sitting right there in the hall, Yagoda confidently and insistently begged him directly for mercy: "I appeal to you! For you I built two great canals!" And a witness reports that at just that moment a match flared in the shadows behind a window on the second floor of the hall, apparently behind a muslin curtain, and, while it lasted, the outline of a pipe could be seen.
All but three were found guilty "of having committed extremely grave state offenses covered by...the Criminal Code...sentenced to the supreme penalty—to be shot." Pletnev was sentenced to 25 years in prison, Rakovsky to 20 years, and Bessonov to 15 years. By one account, Bukharin – who had asked to be poisoned, rather than shot – was forced to watch the execution of sixteen other defendants before being shot himself.
Reactions to the Trial
Even sympathetic observers who had stomached the earlier trials found it hard to swallow new charges as they became ever more absurd and the purge by now expanded to include virtually every living Old Bolshevik leader except Stalin. For some prominent former communists, such as Bertram Wolfe, Jay Lovestone, Arthur Koestler, and Heinrich Brandler, the Bukharin trial marked their final break with communism and turned the first three into fervent anti-communists.
Bukharin's testimony became the subject of much debate among Western observers, inspiring Koestler's acclaimed novel Darkness at Noon and a philosophical essay by Maurice Merleau-Ponty in Humanism and Terror, among others. Koestler and others viewed Bukharin's testimony as a true believer's last service to the Party (while preserving a small amount of personal honor) whereas Bukharin biographer Stephen Cohen and Robert Tucker saw traces of Aesopian language, with which Bukharin sought to turn the table into trial of Stalinism, while keeping his part of bargain to save his family. Bukharin himself speaks of his "peculiar duality of mind" in his last plea, which led to "semi-paralysis of the will" and Hegelian "unhappy consciousness", which presumably stemmed from the conflict between his knowledge of the reality of Stalinist rule and the threat of fascism, which led Bukharin and others to follow Stalin, who had become the personification of the Party.
Others were not so critical of the trial. Ambassador Joseph Davies, author of Mission to Moscow, wrote that "It is generally accepted by members of the Diplomatic Corps that the accused must have been guilty of an offense which in the Soviet Union would merit the death penalty". Beatrice Webb, the British Fabian, stated that she was happy that Stalin had "cut out the dead wood". Bertolt Brecht, whose lover Clara Neher had disappeared after her return to the Soviet Union, reportedly said "The more innocent they are, the more they deserve to die".
References in Literature
Darkness at Noon
Arthur Koestler's novel Darkness at Noon (1944) gives a haunting, if at least partly fictitious, portrayal of the atmosphere surrounding this trial. It tells of an old Bolshevik's last weeks trying to come to terms with the unintended results of the revolution he helped create. As a former member of the Communist party, Koestler rises above the dichotomy of much of the Cold War, showing a deep understanding for the origins of the Soviet Revolution, while at the same time severely criticizing its results.
Fitzroy Maclean's autobiography Eastern Approaches has a chapter devoted to this trial, which he witnessed while working in Moscow for the British Foreign Office. He goes into great detail describing a number of the exchanges between the accused and the prosecutor. He also gives the history behind several of the people on trial, their service to the party and their positions before being tried.
A Russian Adventure
Halldór Laxness, the Icelandic author, was present at the trial and described it in detail in his travelogue from USSR in 1937–8, Gerska aefintyrid (A Russian Adventure), published in Iceland in 1938 and in a Danish translation in 1939. He seems to have believed in the guilt of the accused, but adds that it did not matter anyway: sacrifices have to be made to the cause of the revolution. In his 1963 memoirs, Skaldatimi (A Poet’s Time), Laxness returned to the trial, giving a totally different description of it, now much more sympathetic to Bukharin and his fellow defendants.
- Gudrun Person, And They All Confessed" http://art-bin.com/art/amosc_preeng.html
- Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: A Reassessment" Page 352
- New Internationalist, The Trial of the 21" http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/document/swp-us/trialof21.htm
- Paul R. Gregory, Martyred for Communism" http://www.hoover.org/publications/hoover-digest/article/36036l
- Report by Viscount Chilston (British ambassador) to Viscount Halifax, No.141, Moscow, March 21, 1938
- Robert Tucker, "Report of Court Proceedings in the Case of the Anti-Soviet "Block of Rights and Trotskyites", Pg.667-8
- See Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn. The Gulag Archipelago Vol I-II, Harper & Row, 1973, ISBN 0-06-013914-5
- Bertram David Wolfe, "Breaking with communism", p. 10; Arthur Koestler, 'Darkness of Noon', p.258
- Davies, Joseph E. Mission to Moscow. Garden City: Garden City Press, 1941.
- Snyder (2010). Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. p. 74.
- The Case of Bucharin Transcript of Bukharin's testimonies and last plea from the trial; “The Case of the Anti-Soviet Block of Rights and Trotskyites”, Red Star Press, 1973, page 369-439, 767-779
- The Trial of the 21 Editors, New International, April 1938; analysis of the trial of Bukharin, Rykov et al. Analysis of the trials from perspective of the Socialist Workers Party (US).
- Starobin, Joseph. The Moscow Trial: Its Meaning and Importance. Published in Young Communist Review. New York. v. 3, no. 2 (April 1938), pp. 16–19. Analysis of the trial from the perspective of the Communist Party USA.
- Actual footage from Trial of Twenty-one