The Moscow Trials were a series of show trials held in the Soviet Union at the instigation of Joseph Stalin between 1936 and 1938. The Moscow Trials included the Case of the Trotskyite-Zinovievite Terrorist Center (Zinoviev–Kamenev Trial, or "Trial of the Sixteen," 1936), the Case of the Anti-Soviet Trotskyist Center (Pyatakov-Radek Trial, 1937), and the Case of the Anti-Soviet "Bloc of Rights and Trotskyites" (Bukharin-Rykov Trial, or "Trial of the Twenty-One," 1938).
The defendants of these were Old Bolshevik party leaders and top officials of the Soviet secret police. Most defendants were charged under Article 58 of the RSFSR Penal Code with conspiring with the western powers to assassinate Stalin and other Soviet leaders, dismember the Soviet Union, and restore capitalism.
The Moscow Trials led to the execution of many of the defendants. They are generally seen as part of Stalin's Great Purge, an attempt to rid the party of current or prior oppositionists, especially but not exclusively Trotskyists, and any leading Bolshevik cadre from the time of the Russian Revolution or earlier, who might even potentially become a figurehead for the growing discontent in the Soviet populace resulting from Stalin's mismanagement of the economy. Stalin's hasty industrialisation during the period of the First Five Year Plan and the brutality of the forced collectivisation of agriculture had led to an acute economic and political crisis in 1928–33 and to enormous suffering on the part of the Soviet workers and peasants. Stalin was acutely conscious of this fact and took steps to prevent it taking the form of an opposition inside the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to his increasingly autocratic rule.
- 1 Background
- 2 Early Show Trials
- 3 Shakhty Trial
- 4 Industrial Party Trial
- 5 Background to the Moscow Trials of 1937–1938
- 6 Trial of the Sixteen
- 7 Trial of the Anti-Soviet Trotskyist Center
- 8 Trial of the Generals and the Tukhachevsky Affair
- 9 Trial of the Twenty-One
- 10 Aftermath
- 11 Legacy
- 12 The trials in literature
- 13 References
- 14 Bibliography
- 15 Further reading
Early Show Trials
Before the major Soviet show trials in Moscow during 1937 and 1938 as a result of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union purges, other trials served to keep the industrial sphere in control and to perfect the Show trial process. Some of the major early show trials are the 1922 Moscow Trial of Socialist Revolutionaries just a week after the criminal code was adopted, the Shakhty Trial of 1928, the Industrial Party Trial (Promparty) in 1930, the 1931 Menshevik Trial, and the Metro-Vickers Trial in 1933. As the first major trial of innocent non-politicals, the Shakhty Trial was particularly important in shaping the way show trials would function when guilt was not genuine.
On May 18, 1928, the Shakhty Trial began in Moscow. It involved German and Russian coal mining engineers from the small town of Shakhty in the Donbass near the Ukrainian border. The presiding judge was Andrey Vyshinsky and the prosecutor was Nikolai Krylenko, both of whom came to epitomize the show trial process. However, the Shakhty Trial did not work entirely smoothly. Out of 53 defendants, twenty pleaded guilty, eleven wavered back and forth or partially confessed, and the rest did not admit guilt at all. Those who did not confess did not hide their distaste for the regime, but argued that they could do their jobs conscientiously without letting their political opinions influence their work. The trial was delayed for some months as the government attempted to find someone to be a cooperative chief defendant, because prospective leaders kept backing out. Although minor defendants could simply sign a false confession and perhaps make a short statement, a lot more was required of a chief defendant. They would be the main person confessing on stand and would face the brunt of the cross-interrogation. Their performance had to be very convincing to the crowds the show was intended for or else the show trial would be nearly pointless. Therefore, a chief defendant had to either have strong incentives or be loyal to the regime and willing to play his part. In the Shakhty Trial, the first major non-political trial, the secret police was not yet adept at motivating defendants into cooperating so it took them a long time and several false starts before they finally found their chief defendants. Show trials depended upon confessions extracted based on incentives, threats, and torture, so if some did not admit guilt the trial would be exposed for the sham it was.
Most Soviet citizens and even many Communist leaders and foreign observers assumed at this point in the legal history of the Soviet Union that no one would confess if they were not guilty. They knew that although torture would be applied, no one could be forced to confess, and many of those accused came from suspect social backgrounds or had personal histories of opposition to the state, so they did not doubt the confessions and impassioned statements made. In addition, the concept of the show trial was in its infancy, so few people were hardened enough to see past the lies and understand the reasons why someone might falsely confess. Even though the Shakhty Trial led to more and better orchestrated show trials, the tendency of defendants to suddenly and bravely retract their confessions in the middle of the trial showed to the world that the trial was false.
A major reason why these industrial trials occurred was the state of the industrial sector at the time. Since the state was still so new and education levels had been so low before the revolution, there were not many proletarian engineers so industry and mining had to rely on bourgeois tsarist-era specialists and German engineers. Stalin could not trust these people so by means of this trial and others he sought to make them fear the might of the Soviet state. The country was industrializing so quickly and many new workers were so inexperienced that they frequently made mistakes. In the eyes of the Communist leaders, it was hard to tell apart Sabotage and mistakes so in order to discourage both, everything that went wrong was labeled sabotage or wrecking and made a serious offense. Show trials were considered a major aspect of Soviet strategy for discouraging oppositionist behaviors. The Shakhty Trial was the first major attempt at forestalling attempts at industrial sabotage by making an example of a few engineers.
Nearly 100 carefully chosen foreign and Soviet journalists reported on the proceedings. More than 30,000 (the party claimed 100,000) Soviets were chosen to watch portions of the trial. The principal Soviet delegations to watch were made up of workers, Komsomol activists, and groups from other parts of the Soviet Union. The trial was also filmed for newsreels and a documentary film. Fifty Russian mining engineers were accused, along with three German specialists prominently accused. Two Germans were released before trial. Since there were only eleven hundred mining engineers in the USSR at the time, this trial was a serious loss. Among the Soviets charged was L.G. Rabinovitch, a former engineer who Lenin put in charge of revitalizing the coal industry. Some of the Germans did not even understand Russian well enough to know what they were confessing to. However, Rabinovitch and a few others fought back against the accusations and succeeded in referring a few technical questions to an outside commission. The only evidence produced were confessions and statements by subordinates. Fabricated letters, which had originally been mentioned, were not ultimately produced at the trial.
At 1:30 am on July 7, Andrey Vyshinsky read out the verdicts. Four of the fifty-three defendants were acquitted, including the two Germans Ernst Otto and Max Maier. Four more were judged guilty but given suspended sentences, including Wilhelm Badstieber. Krylenko had demanded twenty-two death sentences but in the end, only eleven were sentenced to death, and six of those eleven were commuted to prison terms. Thirty-eight went to prison, most with terms of four to ten years, including Rabinovitch who received a six-year term, but some received lesser terms of one to three years.
Defendants’ tendency to proclaim innocence in the middle of the trial demonstrated and ensured that the trial was not as tightly scripted as the party would have liked, or as trials would become later. In addition, the high number of defendants who never confessed, and the disparity between the sentences Krylenko desired and those that Vyshinsky proclaimed, demonstrate that not every aspect of the trial was predetermined. Some aspects of the unpredictability of the trial eroded its legitimacy for careful observers, but other aspects actually made the confessions seem more genuine, as if it appeared that people had not been forced to confess. When some spontaneously retracted their confessions, many logically assumed that those who did not retract their confessions were guilty. The Shakhty Trial was the first major attempt at a Moscow show trial. It paved the way for further political show trials but also in its flaws shows that the concept of a show trial was still a work in progress at this stage.
Industrial Party Trial
The successor of the Shakhty Trial in preparing for the show trials of 1937 and 1938 was the Promparty (Industrial Party Trial). It was orchestrated and presided over by Andrey Vyshinsky and Nikolai Krylenko, just as the Shakhty Trial had been. It took place from November 25- December 7, 1930 in Moscow. It was better organized with less chance of spontaneous reversals of confessions or the declamations against the regime than those that occurred during the Shakhty Trial, allowing a full stenographic report to be produced and dispersed across the country for mass consumption.
There were only eight carefully selected defendants, avoiding the mistakes of the Shakhty Trial wherein a large number of defendants led to a lack of control over their testimony. These defendants were Leonid Ramzin, director of the Thermal Technical Institute in Moscow and professor at the Moscow Higher Technical School; N.F. Charkovsky, professor of metallurgy at the Moscow Higher Technical School and chairman of the Metallurgical Advisory Council of the Supreme Soviet of the National Economy (Vesenkha); I.A. Kalinnikov, vice-chairman of the production center of the State Planning Commission (Gosplan) and a professor at the Military Aviation Academy; V.A. Larichev, chairman of the fuel section of Gosplan; A.A. Fedotov, head of the Textile Research Institute and an engineering professor; S.V. Kuprianov, a technical director in the textile industry; K.V. Sitnin, an engineer of the All-Union Textile Syndicate; and V.I. Ochkin, a member of the scientific-research section of Vesenkha and scientific secretary of the Thermal Technical Institute under Ramzin.
There was little to no written evidence so the trial relied almost entirely upon confessions. The prosecutor accused the defendants of attempting to form a political party to agitate for their industrial interests and therefore conspiring with approximately two thousand fellow engineers to take over the government of the Soviet Union. The prosecutor claimed that they were aided by Western and dissident interests. The true reason for their prosecution appears to have been their support for capitalistic policies and opposition to changes in the education system.
The problem was that even though the strategy of relying on willing and improvised confessions gave an air of authenticity to the confessions, it also made them more unpredictable. Some even claimed to have met with émigré Russian industrialists who were known to be dead. The star of the trial was Leonid Ramzin, who had a history of opposition to the Bolsheviks in the early days of the revolution but who was notable for cooperating enthusiastically in the trial.
The result was that five people were sentenced to death, a sentence that was committed to long prison terms, while the others were sentenced to other differing terms in prison. Ramzin, who unlike the others had not cooperated out of fear but rather out of zeal, was allowed to continue working during his imprisonment and was amnestied in 1932. He eventually received the 1943 Stalin Prize for his invention of a new technique in thermal technology and the Order of Lenin, some of the highest awards available in the Soviet Union. The point to this trial was not the sentences but rather to make a political point. The Shakhty and Promparty (Industrial Party) trials were organized to intimidate industrial specialists, many of whom had no love for the Communist party, and to draw them into line. They could not easily tell mistakes and sabotage apart so they sought to prevent both through a massive display. In the process, Vyshinsky, Krylenko, and others refined the show trial process, which would reach its apogee in 1937–1938 with the political trials of some of the highest Communist Party officials.
Background to the Moscow Trials of 1937–1938
Stalin, Grigory Zinoviev, and Lev Kamenev formed a ruling 'troika' in early 1923 after Vladimir Lenin had become incapacitated from a stroke. In the context of the series of defeats of communist revolutions abroad (crucially the German revolutions of 1919 and 1923 but also later the Chinese Revolution of 1927) which left the Russian Revolution increasingly isolated in a backward country, enabled the troika to effect the marginalization of Leon Trotsky in an internal party political conflict over the issue of Stalin's theory of Socialism in One Country. It was Trotsky who most clearly represented the wing of the CPSU leadership which claimed that the survival of the revolution depended on the spread of communism to the advanced European economies especially Germany. This was expressed in his theory of Permanent Revolution.
A few years later, Zinoviev and Kamenev joined the United Front in an alliance with Trotsky which favored Trotskyism and opposed Stalin specifically. Consequently, Stalin allied with Nikolai Bukharin and defeated Trotsky in a power struggle. Trotsky was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1929 and Kamenev and Zinoviev temporarily lost their membership in the Communist Party. Zinoviev and Kamenev, in 1932, were found to be complicit in the Ryutin Affair and again were temporarily expelled from the Communist Party. In December 1934, Sergei Kirov was assassinated and, subsequently 15 defendants were found guilty of direct, or indirect, involvement in the crime and were executed. Zinoviev and Kamenev were found to be morally complicit in Kirov's murder and were sentenced to prison terms of ten and five years, respectively.
Both Kamenev and Zinoviev had been secretly tried in 1935 but it appears that Stalin decided that, with suitable confessions, their fate could be used for propaganda purposes. Genrikh Yagoda oversaw the interrogation proceedings.
The trial was held from August 19 to August 24, 1936 in the small October Hall of the House of the Unions (chosen instead of the larger Hall of Columns, used for earlier trials) and there were 16 defendants.
The main charge was forming a terror organization with the purpose of killing Joseph Stalin and other members of the Soviet government. They were tried by the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court of the USSR, with Vasili Ulrikh presiding. The Prosecutor General was Andrei Vyshinsky, a former member of the Mensheviks who in 1917 had signed an order to arrest Lenin.
Defendant Ivan Nikitich Smirnov was blamed by his co-defendants for being the leader of the Center which planned Kirov's assassination. He, however, had been in prison since January 1933 and refused to confess.
Another defendant, the Old Bolshevik E.S. Goltsman, was accused at the Trial of the 16 of conspiring with Trotsky in Copenhagen at the Hotel Bristol in 1932, where Trotsky was giving a public lecture. A week after the trial it was revealed by a Danish Social Democratic newspaper that the hotel had been demolished in 1917.
Trial of the Sixteen
In December 1935, the original case surrounding Zinoviev began to widen into what was called the Trotsky-Zinoviev Center. Stalin allegedly received reports that correspondences from Trotsky were found among the possessions of one of those arrested in the widened probe. Consequently, Stalin stressed the importance of the investigation and ordered Nikolai Yezhov to take over the case and ascertain if Trotsky was involved. In June 1936, Yagoda reiterated his belief to Stalin that there was no link between Trotsky and Zinoviev, but Stalin promptly rebuked him.
In July 1936, Zinoviev and Kamenev were brought to Moscow from an unspecified prison. They were interrogated and denied being part of any Trotsky-led conspiracy. Yezhov appealed to Zinoviev's and Kamenev's devotion to the Soviet Union as old Bolsheviks and advised them that Trotsky was fomenting anti-Soviet sentiment amongst the proletariat in the world. Furthermore, this loss of support, in the event of a war with Germany or Japan, could have disastrous ramifications for the Soviet Union. To Kamenev specifically, Yezhov showed him evidence that his son was subject to an investigation that could result in his son's execution.
Kamenev and Zinoviev agreed to confess on condition that they receive a direct guarantee from the entire Politburo that their lives and those of their families and followers would be spared. When they were taken to the supposed Politburo meeting, they were met by only Stalin and Kliment Voroshilov. Stalin explained that they were the "commission" authorized by the Politburo, and Stalin agreed to their conditions in order to gain their desired confessions.
Trial of the Anti-Soviet Trotskyist Center
The second trial occurred between January 23 and January 30, 1937.
This second trial involved 17 lesser figures including Karl Radek, Yuri Piatakov and Grigory Sokolnikov. Thirteen of the defendants were eventually executed by shooting. The rest received sentences in labour camps. Radek was spared as he implicated others, including Nikolai Bukharin, Alexei Rykov, and Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky, setting the stage for the Trial of Military and Trial of the Twenty One.
Radek provided the pretext for the purge on a massive scale with his testimony that there was a "third organization separate from the cadres which had passed through [Trotsky's] school" as well as "semi-Trotskyites, quarter-Trotskyites, one-eighth-Trotskyites, people who helped us, not knowing of the terrorist organization but sympathizing with us, people who from liberalism, from a Fronde against the Party, gave us this help."
By the third organization, he meant the last remaining former opposition group called Rightists led by Bukharin, whom he implicated by saying: "I feel guilty of one thing more: even after admitting my guilt and exposing the organisation, I stubbornly refused to give evidence about Bukharin. I knew that Bukharin's situation was just as hopeless as my own, because our guilt, if not juridically, then in essence, was the same. But we are close friends, and intellectual friendship is stronger than other friendships. I knew that Bukharin was in the same state of upheaval as myself. That is why I did not want to deliver him bound hand and foot to the People's Commissariat of Home Affairs. Just as in relation to our other cadres, I wanted Bukharin himself to lay down his arms."
At the time, many Western observers who attended the trials said that they were fair and that the guilt of the accused had been established. They based this assessment on the confessions of the accused, which were freely given in open court, without any apparent evidence that they had been extracted by torture or drugging. Joseph E. Davies, the U.S. ambassador, wrote in Mission to Moscow:
- "In view of the character of the accused, their long terms of service, their recognized distinction in their profession, their long-continued loyalty to the Communist cause, it is scarcely credible that their brother officers ... should have acquiesced in their execution, unless they were convinced that these men had been guilty of some offense.* 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.
* The Bukharin trial six months later developed evidence which, if true, more than justified this action. Undoubtedly those facts were all full known to the military court at this time."
Trial of the Generals and the Tukhachevsky Affair
It featured the same type of frame-up of the defendants and it is traditionally considered one of the key trials of the Great Purge. Mikhail Tukhachevsky and the senior military officers Iona Yakir, Ieronim Uborevich, Robert Eideman, August Kork, Vitovt Putna, Boris Feldman, and Vitaly Primakov were accused of anti-Communist conspiracy and sentenced to death; they were executed on the night of June 11/June 12, immediately after the verdict delivered by a Special Session of the Supreme Court of the USSR. This trial triggered a massive purge of the Red Army.
Trial of the Twenty-One
The third trial, in March 1938, included 21 defendants alleged to belong to the so-called "Bloc of Rightists and Trotskyites", led by Nikolai Bukharin, former head of the Communist International, former Prime Minister Alexei Rykov, Genrikh Yagoda, Christian Rakovsky and Nikolai Krestinsky. All the leading defendants were executed.
The third show trial, in March 1938, known as The Trial of the Twenty-One, is the most famous of Soviet show trials because of the people involved and the scope of charges, which tied together all the loose threads from earlier trials. It included 21 defendants alleged to belong to the so-called "Bloc of Rightists and Trotskyites":
- Nikolai Bukharin – Marxist theoretician, former head of Communist International and member of Politburo
- Alexei Rykov – former premier and member of Politburo
- Nikolai Krestinsky – former member of Politburo and ambassador to Germany
- Christian Rakovsky – former ambassador to Great Britain and France
- Genrikh Yagoda – former head of NKVD
- Arkady Rosengolts – former People's Commissar for Foreign Trade
- Vladimir Ivanov – former People's Commissar for Timber Industry
- Mikhail Alexandrovich Chernov – former People's Commissar for Agriculture
- Grigori Grinko – former People's Commissar for Finance
- Isaac Zelensky – former Secretary of Central Committee
- Sergei Bessonov
- Akmal Ikramov – Uzbek leader
- Fayzulla Khodzhayev – Uzbek leader
- Vasily Sharangovich – former first secretary in Belorussia
- Prokopy Zubarev
- Pavel Bulanov – NKVD officer
- Lev Levin – Kremlin doctor
- Dmitry Pletnev – Kremlin doctor
- Ignaty Kazakov – Kremlin doctor
- Venyamin Maximov-Dikovsky
- Pyotr Kryuchkov - secretary of Maxim Gorky
The fact that Yagoda was one of the accused showed the speed at which the purges were consuming its own. Meant to be the culmination of previous trials, it now alleged that Bukharin and others had conspired to assassinate Lenin and Stalin numerous times after 1918 and had successfully murdered the noted Soviet writer Maxim Gorky by poison in 1936. The group also stood accused of espionage. Bukharin and others were claimed to have plotted the overthrow and territorial partition of the Soviet Union in collusion with agents of the German and Japanese governments, among other preposterous charges.
Even sympathetic observers who had stomached the earlier trials found it hard to swallow the new charges as they became ever more absurd, and the purge had now expanded to include virtually every living Old Bolshevik leader except Stalin.
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 Yezhov. Stalin also observed some of the trial in person from a hidden chamber in the courtroom. On the first day of the trial, Krestinsky caused a sensation when he repudiated his written confession and pleaded not guilty to all the charges. However, he changed his plea the next day after "special measures", which dislocated his left shoulder among other things.
Anastas Mikoyan and Vyacheslav Molotov later claimed that Bukharin was never tortured, but it is now known that his interrogators were given order, "beating permitted," and were under great pressure to extract confessions out of the "star" defendant. Bukharin held out for three months, but threats to his young wife and infant son, combined with "methods of physical influence" wore him down. But when he read his confession, amended and corrected personally by Stalin, he withdrew his whole confession. The examination started all over again, with a double team of interrogators.
Bukharin's confession in particular became the subject of much debate among Western observers, inspiring Koestler's novel Darkness at Noon and a philosophical essay by Maurice Merleau-Ponty in Humanism and Terror among others. His confessions were somewhat different from others in that, while he pleaded guilty to general charges, he denied knowledge of any specific crimes. Some astute observers noted that he would allow only what was in his written confession and refused to go any further. The fact that he was allowed to write in prison (he wrote 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) suggests that some kind of deal was reached as a condition for his confession. (He also wrote a series of very emotional letters to Stalin, tearfully protesting his innocence and professing his love for Stalin, which contrasts with his critical opinion of Stalin and his policies as expressed to others and with his conduct in the trial.)
There are several possible interpretations of Bukharin's motivation (besides coercion) in the trial. Koestler and others viewed it as a true believer's last service to the Party (while preserving a modicum of personal honor), whereas Bukharin's biographers Stephen Cohen and Robert Tucker saw traces of Aesopian language, with which Bukharin sought to turn the table into a trial of Stalinism (while keeping his part of the 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 reality of ruinous Stalinism (although he could not of course say so in the trial) and the threat of fascism (which required kowtowing to Stalin, who became the personification of the Party).
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 ), Bukharin said that "the confession of accused is not essential. The confession of the accused is a medieval principle of jurisprudence" (his point being that the trial was solely based on [coerced] confessions). He finished his last plea with "the monotonousness of my crime is immeasurable, especially in the new stage of the 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." 
Romain Rolland and others wrote to Stalin seeking clemency for Bukharin, but all the leading defendants were executed except Rakovsky and two others (they were killed in prison in 1941). Despite the promise to spare his family, Bukharin's wife, Anna Larina, was sent to a labor camp, but she survived.
Communist Party leaders in most Western countries denounced criticism of the trials as capitalist attempts to subvert Communism.
A number of American communists and progressive "fellow travellers" outside of the Soviet Union signed a Statement of American Progressives on the Moscow Trials. These included Langston Hughes and Stuart Davis, who would later express regrets.
Some contemporary observers who thought the trials were inherently fair cite the statements of Molotov, who while conceding that some of the confessions contain unlikely statements, said there may have been several reasons or motives for this – one being that the handful who made doubtful confessions were trying to undermine the Soviet Union and its government by making dubious statements in their confessions to cast doubts on their trial. Molotov postulated that a defendant might invent a story that he collaborated with foreign agents and party members to undermine the government so that those members would falsely come under suspicion, while the false foreign collaboration charge would be believed as well. Thus, the Soviet government was in his view the victim of false confessions. Nonetheless, he said the evidence of mostly out-of-power Communist officials conspiring to make a power grab during a moment of weakness in the upcoming war truly existed. This defense collapsed after the release of Khrushchev's Secret Speech to the Twentieth Congress.
In Britain, the lawyer and Labour MP Denis Nowell Pritt, for example, wrote: "Once again the more faint-hearted socialists are beset with doubts and anxieties," but "once again we can feel confident that when the smoke has rolled away from the battlefield of controversy it will be realized that the charge was true, the confessions correct and the prosecution fairly conducted", while socialist thinker Beatrice Webb "was pleased that Stalin had 'cut out the dead wood'". Communist Party leader Harry Pollitt, in the Daily Worker of March 12, 1936, told the world that "the trials in Moscow represent a new triumph in the history of progress". The article was ironically illustrated by a photograph of Stalin with Yezhov, himself shortly to vanish and his photographs airbrushed from history by NKVD archivists.
In the United States, left-wing advocates such as Corliss Lamont and Lillian Hellman also denounced criticism of the Moscow trials, signing An Open Letter To American Liberals in support of the trials for the March 1937 issue of Soviet Russia Today. In the political atmosphere of the 1930s, the accusation that there was a conspiracy to destroy the Soviet Union was not incredible, and few outside observers were aware of the events inside the Communist Party that had led to the purge and the trials.
However, the Moscow trials were generally viewed negatively by most Western observers including many liberals. The New York Times noted the absurdity in an editorial on March 1, 1938: "It is as if twenty years after Yorktown somebody in power at Washington found it necessary for the safety of the State to send to the scaffold Thomas Jefferson, Madison, John Adams, Hamilton, Jay and most of their associates. The charge against them would be that they conspired to hand over the United States to George III."
In May 1937, the Commission of Inquiry into the Charges Made against Leon Trotsky in the Moscow Trials, commonly known as the Dewey Commission, was set up in the United States by supporters of Trotsky, to establish the truth about the trials. The commission was headed by the noted American philosopher and educator John Dewey, who led a delegation to Mexico, where Trotsky lived, to interview him and hold hearings from April 10 to April 17, 1937. The hearings were conducted to investigate the allegations against Trotsky who publicly stated in advance of them that if the commission found him guilty as charged he would hand himself over to the Soviet authorities. They brought to light evidence which established that some of the specific charges made at the trials could not be true.
The Dewey Commission published its findings in the form of a 422-page book titled Not Guilty. Its conclusions asserted the innocence of all those condemned in the Moscow Trials. In its summary the commission wrote: "Independent of extrinsic evidence, the Commission finds:
- That the conduct of the Moscow Trials was such as to convince any unprejudiced person that no attempt was made to ascertain the truth.
- That while confessions are necessarily entitled to the most serious consideration, the confessions themselves contain such inherent improbabilities as to convince the Commission that they do not represent the truth, irrespective of any means used to obtain them."
- That Trotsky never instructed any of the accused or witnesses in the Moscow trials to enter into agreements with foreign powers against the Soviet Union [and] that Trotsky never recommended, plotted, or attempted the restoration of capitalism in the USSR.
The commission concluded: "We therefore find the Moscow Trials to be frame-ups."
For example, in Moscow, Pyatakov had testified that he had flown to Oslo in December 1935 to "receive terrorist instructions" from Trotsky. The Dewey Commission established that no such flight had taken place.
In Britain, the trials were also subject to criticism. A group called the British Provisional Committee for the Defence of Leon Trotsky was set up. In 1936, the Committee published an open letter in the Manchester Guardian calling for an international inquiry into the Trials. The letter was signed by several notable figures, including H. N. Brailsford, Harry Wicks, Conrad Noel, Frank Horrabin and Eleanor Rathbone. The Committee also supported the Dewey Commission. Emrys Hughes, the British MP, also attacked the Moscow Trials as unjust in his newspaper Forward.
All of the surviving members of the Lenin-era, except Stalin and Trotsky, were tried. By the end of the final trial Stalin had arrested and executed almost every important living Bolshevik from the Revolution. Of 1,966 delegates to the party congress in 1934, 1,108 were arrested. Of 139 members of the Central Committee, 98 were arrested. Three out of five Soviet marshals (Alexander Ilyich Yegorov, Vasily Blyukher, Tukhachevsky) and several thousands of the Red Army officers were arrested or shot. The key defendant, Leon Trotsky, was living in exile abroad, but he still did not survive Stalin's desire to have him dead and was assassinated by a Soviet agent in Mexico in 1940.
While Khrushchev's Secret Speech denounced Stalin's personality cult and purges as early as 1956, rehabilitation of Old Bolsheviks proceeded at a slow pace. Nikolai Bukharin and 19 other co-defendants were officially completely rehabilitated in February 1988. Yagoda, who was deeply involved in the great purge as the head of NKVD, was not included. In May 1988, rehabilitation of Zinoviev, Kamenev, Radek, and co-defendants was announced.
After the death of Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev repudiated the trials in a speech to the Twentieth Congress of the Russian Communist Party:
- "The commission has become acquainted with a large quantity of materials in the NKVD archives and with other documents and has established many facts pertaining to the fabrication of cases against Communists, to glaring abuses of Socialist legality which resulted in the death of innocent people. It became apparent that many party, Government and economic activists who were branded in 1937–38 as 'enemies,' were actually never enemies, spies, wreckers, etc., but were always honest Communists ... They were only so stigmatized and often, no longer able to bear barbaric tortures, they charged themselves (at the order of the investigative judges – falsifiers) with all kinds of grave and unlikely crimes."
It is now known that the confessions were given only after great psychological pressure and torture had been applied to the defendants. From the accounts of former GPU officer Alexander Orlov and others the methods used to extract the confessions are known: repeated beatings, torture, making prisoners stand or go without sleep for days on end, and threats to arrest and execute the prisoners' families. For example, Kamenev's teenage son was arrested and charged with terrorism. After months of such interrogation, the defendants were driven to despair and exhaustion.
In January 1989, the official newspaper Pravda reported that 25,000 persons had been posthumously rehabilitated.
The trials in literature
- Koestler, Arthur (1980). Darkness at Noon. London: The Folio Society.
- Orwell, George. Animal Farm
- Serge, Victor. The Case of Comrade Tulayev
- Grieg, Nordahl – Ung må verden endnu være / The world must still be young
- Vadim Z Rogovin, 1937: Stalin's Year of Terror (Mehring books 1998; ISBN 0-929087-77-1): xvii.
- Davies, Sarah (2005). Stalin: A New History. Cambridge University Press.
- Kotkin, Stephen (2014). Stalin Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928. Penguin Press.
- Ellman, Michael (2003). "The Soviet 1937-1938 Provincial Show Trials Revisited". Europe-Asia Studies.
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- Delap Sean, Dictatorship and Democracy.
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- Rogovin: 23
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