The Trials (1936-1938)
The Moscow Trials were a series of separate though connected trials. They were the following:
August 19-24, 1936 “The Case of the Trotskyite Zinovievite Terrorist Centre” known widely as the “Zinoviev-Kamenev Trial”. This trial mainly concerned the Trotskyist-Zinovievite underground and their connection with the Murder of Sergei Kirov.
January 23-30, 1937 “The Case of the Anti-Soviet Trotskyite Centre” or “The Piatakov-Radek Trial” which continued the NKVD investigation of the Trotskyite conspiratorial bloc.
May-June 1937 “Tukhachevsky Affair” concerning the military conspiracy and collaboration with foreign powers & fascists.
And finally, March 2-13, 1938 “The Case of the Anti-Soviet ‘Bloc of Rights and Trotskyites.’” or “the Bukharin Rykov Trial” which convicted the last major members of the conspiracy. At this point it had become clear that the main conspiracies were actually all connected. The military conspiracy, the underground political opposition bloc and the wrecking in industry, espionage for foreign powers etc.
The parties involved in each were not in agreement but they worked together towards the common enemy. Some members were Trotskyists who agreed to help Germany for their own reasons, others were bourgeois elements hostile to the USSR or Bukharinites. Many were ex-members of the Left Opposition, United Opposition or the Right-Opposition, but not all. Some were recruited by Trotskyists, some by Zinovievites or Bukharinites. Some were in contact with Sedov or even Trotsky but most were not. Others were recruited by German intelligence and had no direct connection to Trotskyism at all.
But how believable were the accusations? How fair were the Trials in reality?
Main counter arguments:
1) Allegation that the accusations were incredible.
These days one often hears the claim that such a conspiracy was incredible, unbelievable, couldn’t have happened or something else to that effect. Really the findings of the Moscow Trials were widely accepted in mainstream discussion until Khruschevs’ Secret Speech of 1956. We will return to this detail later. The evidence the Soviets had was strong and credible, in the end only few groupings chose to disbelieve it due to political convictions. These groups were hardcore anti-communists & Trotskyists.
Of course Trotsky would have known the Trial findings were accurate. Similarly the Anti-Communists might have believed them also. Still both parties accused the Soviets of wrongdoing or frame ups in their own propaganda for obvious propaganda reasons.
U.S. Embassador to the USSR Joseph E. Davies was present at the Moscow Trials and said he felt the trial was fair and not staged:
“With an interpreter at my side, I followed the testimony carefully. Naturally I must confess that I was predisposed against the credibility of the testimony of these defendants… Viewed objectively, however, and based upon my experience in the trial of cases and the application of the tests of credibility which past experience had afforded me, I arrived at the reluctant conclusion that the state had established its case, at least to the extent of proving the existence of a widespread
conspiracy and plot among the political leaders against the Soviet government, and which under their statutes established the crimes set forth in the indictment… I am still impressed with the many indications of credibility which obtained in the course of the testimony. To have assumed that this proceeding was invented and staged as a project of dramatic political fiction would be to presuppose the creative genius of a Shakespeare and the genius of a Belasco in stage production. The historical background and surrounding circumstances also lend credibility to the testimony. The reasoning which Sokolnikov and Radek applied in justification of their various activities and their hoped-for results were consistent with probability and entirely plausible. The circumstantial detail… brought out by the various accused, gave unintended corroboration to the gist of the charges.”
(Davies, Mission to Moscow)
Davies was not alone in his views. He wrote in his diary:
“DIARY Moscow February 11, 37
The Belgian Minister, De Tellier, has been here a long time. I had a most interesting discussion with him to-day. He is experienced, able, shrewd, and wise; and knows his Europe well. The defendants in the trial were guilty, in his opinion.
DIARY Moscow February 18, 1937
The Minister called. Re trial: There was no doubt but that a widespread conspiracy existed and that the defendants were guilty.
DIARY Moscow March 11, 1937
Another diplomat, Minister – , made a most illuminating statement to me yesterday. In discussing the trial he said that the defendants were undoubtedly guilty; that all of us who attended the trial had practically agreed on that; that the outside world, from the press reports, however, seemed to think that the trial was a put-up job (facade, as he called it); that while we knew it was not, it was probably just as well that the outside world should think so.” (ibid.)
Despite the fact that some bourgeois outlets wanted to portray the Trials as a hoax, many mainstream media outlets were eventually forced to admit the Trials were fair:
“The defendants admitted frankly that they resorted to individual terror as a last resort, fully knowing that disaffection in the country now is not sufficiently strong to bring them into power in any other way… It is futile to think the trial was staged and the charges trumped up. The Government’s case against the defendants is genuine.”
–The Observer, August 23
Other foreign visitors to the USSR voiced similar opinions:
“I studied the legal procedure in criminal cases in Soviet Russia somewhat carefully in 1932, and concluded … that the procedure gave the ordinal accused a very fair trial… The charge was a serious one. A group of men… under some measure of suspicion for counter-revolutionary or deviationist activities, and most of them having had such activities condoned in the past on assurances of the loyalty in the future, were now charged with long, cold-blooded, deliberate conspiracy to bring about the assassination of Kirov (who was actually murdered in December, 1934), of Stalin, of Voroshilov and other prominent leaders.
Their purpose, it seemed, was merely to seize power for themselves, without any pretence that they had any substantial following in the country… And at no stage was any suggestion made by any of them that any sort of improper treatment had been used to persuade them to confess. The first thing that struck me, as an English lawyer, was the almost free-and-easy dameanour of the prisoners. They all looked well…”
–D.N. Pritt (quoted in The Moscow Trial Was Fair)
“Why did sixteen accused men all confess guilty… if they had been maltreated in prison, surely some signs of this would have been visible to the public, or at least one of them would have made some sort of a statement on the matter… To plead innocent was impossible because the proofs were overwhelming, and all these people knew this.”
–Pat Sloan, ibid.
Even many members of the “American Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky” ended up changing their minds and being convinced of Trotsky’s guilt. Among these people were journalists Carleton Beals and Lewis Gannett, Nation magazine editor Freda Kirchwey and Nation contributor Mauritz A. Hallgren who wrote:
“…Since joining your committee I have given deep and earnest thought to the whole problem here involved. I have examined, so far as they have been made available in this country, all of the documents bearing upon the case. I have followed closely all of the news reports. I have consulted some of the reports made by non-Communists who attended the first trial. I have carefully studied the published arguments of the partisans on both sides. And I have just as carefully restudied the writings of Trotsky concerning his case against Stalinism…
It is said by some that they have been hypnotized into confessing… For example, the unamity with which the men have been confessing is taken as proof that the confessions are false and have been obtained by some mysterious means. Yet these assertions rest upon no tangible or logical proof whatever… The very unamity of the defendants, far from proving that this trial is also a “frame-up”, appears to me to prove directly the contrary. For if these men are innocent, then certainly at least one of the three dozen, knowing that he faced death in any case, would have blurted out the truth. It is inconceivable that out of this great number of defendants, all should lie when lies would not do one of them any good. But why look beyond the obvious for the truth, why seek in mysticism or in dark magic for facts that are before one’s very nose? Why not accept the plain fact that the men are guilty?”
–Mauritz A. Hallgren (Why I Resigned From the Trotsky Defense Committee)
2) The claim that the accused were Tortured or threatened.
While the USSR had a law which allowed the use of physical pressure by the NKVD there is no evidence the defendents in question were tortured.
The novelist and playwright Lion Feuchtwanger was visiting the Soviet Union at the time of the Pyatakov-Radek Trial. He wrote:
“The first and most reasonable supposition is, of course, that the confessions were extracted from the prisoners by torture and by the threat of still worse tortures. Yet this first conjecture was refuted by the obvious freshness and vitality of the prisoners, by their whole physical and mental aspect… There was no justification of any sort for imagining that there was anything manufactured, artificial, or even awe-inspiring or emotional about these proceedings.”
(Feuchtwanger, Lion. Moscow, 1937, p. 121-122)
Journalist John Gunther also wrote about the trial:
“It was said that the prisoners were tortured, hypnotized, drugged (in order to make them give false confessions) and–a choice detail– impersonated by actors of the Moscow Art theater! But the trials occurred soon after the preliminary investigations were concluded, and they took place before hundreds of witnesses, many of them experienced correspondents, in open court… Pressure there certainly was, in the manner of police investigation all over the world, but no evidence of torture.”
(John Gunther, Inside Europe)
The most common allegation is that Bukharin was tortured, however according to Bukharin biographer Steven Cohen claims he couldn’t have been:
“It seems that no physical tortures were used against him [Bukharin] in prison.”
(Cohen, Bukharin na Lubianke, Svobodnaia Mysl’ 21, No. 3 (2003), pp. 60-1.)
Historian Asen Ignatov agrees: “We may be confident that Bukharin did not undergo torture.”
(Asen Ignatov, Revoliutsiia pozhiraet svoikh vunderkindov. Sluchai Bukharina s psikhologicheski tochki zreniia. Forum 1 (2005))
Historian Edvard Radzinsky:
“There are many legends about the tortures which induced him to take part in this ignominious farce. It is a pity to debunk a good legend… No, there was no torture. And it seems unlikely that the delicate and hysterical Bukharin would have written so many literary works in the intervals of torture.”
(Edvard Radzinsky, Stalin)
Some have opted to say that instead Bukharin confessed falsely in order to help the party but this seems unlikely too. There is no evidence for his innocence but there is for his guilt. According to Bukharin’s testimony he chose to confess after learning the evidence the NKVD had against him, how many others had been caught, and who had implicated him. This seems logical. We will return to Bukharin’s statements a bit later.
The claims of torture are extremely common but baseless. If there was solid evidence, we would have seen it by now. Further more the fact someone was tortured doesn’t imply innocence or that their testimony is inaccurate. It casts doubt on the accuracy of their statements for sure, so that the testimony has to be re-evaluated in the light of other evidence. On top of that, it seems unlikely that when cross examined witnesses could give mutually corrobarative, detailed statements about facts they allegedly knew nothing about or didn’t participate in. It is far more likely they were able to give these statements because they were truthful.
In the two following sections we will deal with the Dewey Commission & the political “Rehabilitations” of Khruschev and Gorbachev and the arguments they made against the Moscow Trials.
Political “Rehabilitations” by Khruschev & Gorbachev
Aleksandr Shelepin gave a speech in favor of Khruschev. He quoted from Iakir’s letter to Stalin of June 9, 1937.
“A series of cynical resolutions by Stalin, Kaganovich, Molotov, Malenkov and Voroshilov on the letters and declarations made by those imprisoned testifies to the cruel treatment of people, of leading comrades, who found themselves under investigation. For example when it was his turn Iakir – the former commander of a military region – appealed to Stalin in a letter in which he swore his own complete innocence. Here is what he wrote:
I am a noble warrior, devoted to the Party, the state and the people, as I was for many years. My whole conscious life has been passed in selfless, honest work in the sight of the Party and of its leaders… Now I am honest in my every word…”
–Speech to the 22nd Party Congress of the CPSU, Pravda, October 27, 1961
The problem here is that Shelepin has taken this letter entirely out of context and lied about it’s contents. He claims Iakir was innocent and always proclaimed his innocence. In reality in this letter he actually admits guilt, but Shelepin has chosen to omit this part. The full text of the letter first came out in 1994. Here are some of parts left out by Shelepin:
“Dear, close comrade Stalin. I dare address you in this manner because I have said everything, given everything up, and it seems to me that I am a noble warrior, devoted to the Party… Then the fall into the nightmare, into the irreparable horror of betrayal. . . . The investigation is completed. I have been formally accused of treason to the state, I have admitted my guilt, I have fully repented. I have unlimited faith in the justice and propriety of the decision of the court and the state. . . . Now I am honest in my every word…”
–Iakir’s letter reprinted in [“Rehabilitation. How It Happened”] volume 2 (2003)
So Shelepin has taken a letter where a man admits his guilt and turned it into a claim of innocence! If Iakir was truly innocent would this kind of dishonestly really be needed?
We have already been over the Shvernik Reports attempt to blaim Stalin on the Kirov Murder & for framing Tukchavesky. No evidence was found and this time instead of trying to fabricate it the Khruschevites gave up and focused on other things.
The statement of the rehabilitation commission of the Politburo published in August 1989 reads:
“It has been established therefore that after 1927 the former Trotskyists and Zinovievists did not carry out any organized struggle against the party, did not unite with each other either on a terrorist or any other basis, and that the case of the “United Trotskyite-Zinovievite Terrorist Center” was fabricated by the organs of the NKVD upon the direct order and with the direct participation of J. V. Stalin.”
It is quite a strange situation when Gorbachevites, supposed Communists are more anti-communist in their statements then Western historians.
“Although Trotsky later denied that he had any communications with former followers in the USSR since his exile in 1929, it is clear that he did. In the first three months of 1932 he sent secret letters to former oppositionists Radek, Sokolnikov, Preobrazhenskii, and others. Although the contents of these letters are unknown, it seems reasonable to believe that they involved an attempt to persuade the addresees to return to opposition. Sometime in October of 1932, E.S. Gol’tsman (a Soviet official and former Trotskyist) met Sedov in Berlin and gave him an internal memorandum on Soviet economic output. This memorandum was published in the Bulletin’ the following month under the title “The Economic Situation of the Soviet Union.” It seems, though, that Gol’tsman brought Sedov something else: a proposal from Left Oppositionists in the USSR for the formation of a united opposition bloc. The proposed bloc was to include Trotskyists, Zinovievists, members of the Lominadze group, and others. The proposal came from “Kolokolnikov” – the code name of Ivan Smirnov.” (Getty, Origins)
Western historians admit this, while the Gorbachevite government denies it? Of course we know Gorbachev was in reality an anti-communist himself:
“My ambition was to liquidate communism… My ideal is the path of social democracy.”
The Gorbachevite “rehabilitation” committee also denied the Terrorist character of this Bloc which they claimed didn’t even exist, despite the fact that even non-Soviet sources testified to it.
Molotov also spoke about these phony “rehabilitations” in his interview with Feliks I. Chuev published in 1993:
“MOLOTOV: Take Tukhachevsky, for example. On what grounds was he rehabilitated? Did you read the records of the trial of the right-wing and Trotskyist bloc in 1938? Bukharin, Krestinsky, Rosengoltz, and others were on trial then. They stated flat out that in June 1937 Tukhachevsky pressed for a coup. People who have not read the record go on to say that the testimony was given under duress from the Chekists. But I say, had we not made those sweeping arrests in the 1930s, we would have suffered even greater losses in the war.” (Molotov Remembers p. 285)
It was not politically advantageous for Molotov to say these things. He supported Stalin and continued to defend his legacy against lies and slander even though the Khruschevite and Gorbachevite governments didn’t look kindly on it. He had nothing to gain for these statements except the knowledge he was speaking the truth.
The Dewey Commission
In 1937 the American Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky organized the so-called Dewey Comission, the goal of which was to prove the innocence of Leon Trotsky. The comission carried out interviews of Trotsky and sure enough stated that it had managed to prove his innocence.
In reality the Dewey Comission failed to provide any strong evidence of Trotsky’s innocence. Most of its conclusions are purely speculative but especially the important findings are all provably false and have been debunked. The comission voiced support to Trotsky’s baseless accusation that Stalin was behind the murder of Kirov, that Stalin unjustly framed all of his political opponents, glorifies Trotsky’s role in the world communist movement and in general acted as a popularizer of Trotskyist propaganda.
As the Dewey Commission failed to provide any meaningful evidence of its own they claimed to have found holes in the charges made at the Moscow Trial. Their case heavily rested on the so-called Hotel Bristol argument which also has since then been debunked. The argument goes as follows: one accused, Holtzman testified to having met Leon Sedov in Copenhagen in a hotel named Bristol. The Dewey Comission claimed that the hotel Bristol had burnt down, therefore this was an impossibility and a lie invented by the Stalinists.
Its since been proven that actually Holtzman met Sedov in the Grand hotel, the cafe-bakery adjatent to which was called Bristol. Holtzman mistakenly thought Bristol was the name of the hotel as the hotel had no other sign, other then the cafe sign that said “BRISTOL”. One wonders, does this sound like something the Soviet police would fabricate? No it doesn’t, its overly convoluted for no apparent reason. What it sounds like, is that Holtzman made an honest mistake and that his statement at least in that regard is accurate.
The Dewey comission presented as true Trotsky’s claims of innocence, even though we now know Trotsky was lying:
“GOLDMAN: Did you ever discuss with anyone the possibility of organizing a united center between your political followers and the followers of Zinoviev and Kamenev in the Soviet Union, after the break-up of your bloc with Zinoviev and Kamenev?
TROTSKY: Never. My articles show that it is absolutely impossible. My appreciation of them, my total contempt after the capitulation, my hostility to them and their hostility to me, excluded that absolutely.
GOLDMAN: Have you read the testimony of Zinoviev and Kamenev and the other defendants in the first Moscow trial?
GOLDMAN: Wherein these defendants claimed that you instructed several of them to establish a united center between your political followers and their political followers? Have you read such testimonies?
GOLDMAN: What have you to say about that?
TROTSKY: It is a falsehood organized by the GPU and supported by Stalin.”
(Dewey Comission proceedings, third session)
Despite the Dewey Comission’s best efforts even various members of the Trotsky defence committee (and the Dewey Comission itself) came to the conclusion that Trotsky was guilty and were compelled to leave it as a result.
On April 17 Carleton Beals, a member of the Dewey comission resigned from it. He described the work of the Dewey Commission in a public statement:
“… The hushed adoration of the other members of the committee for Mr. Trotsky throughout the hearings has defeated all spirit of honest investigation. . . . The very first day I was told my questions were improper. The final cross-examination was put in a mold that prevented any search for the truth…. The cross-examination consisted of allowing Trotsky to spout propaganda charges with eloquence and wild denunciations, with only rare efforts to make him prove his assertions. . . . The commission may pass its bad check on the public if it desires, but I will not lend my name to the possibility of further childishness similar to that already committed.” (New York Times, April 19, 1937 )
SOURCES & BIBLIOGRAPHY:
Joseph E. Davies, Mission To Moscow
Statements of D.N. Pritt & Pat Sloan in The Moscow Trial Was Fair
Mauritz A. Hallgren, Why I Resigned From the Trotsky Defense Committee
Feuchtwanger, Lion. Moscow, 1937, p. 121-122
Bukharin was not tortured:
Cohen, Bukharin na Lubianke, Svobodnaia Mysl’ 21, No. 3 (2003), pp. 60-1.)
Asen Ignatov, Revoliutsiia pozhiraet svoikh vunderkindov. Sluchai Bukharina s psikhologicheski tochki zreniia. Forum 1 (2005))
Reabilitatsia. Kak Eto Bylo [“Rehabilitation. How It Happened”] vol. 2 (2003)
Dewey comission proceedings:
The case of Leon Trotsky Report of Hearings on the Charges Made Against Him in the Moscow Trials, third session
New Evidence Concerning the “Hotel Bristol” Question in the First Moscow Trial of 1936
Gorbachev 1989 Rehabiliation document:
“O Tak Nazyvaemom ‘Antisovetskom Ob” edinennom Trotskistsko-Zinov’evskom Tsentre.”
Gorbachev about his anti-communism:
Edvard Radzinsky, Stalin
Carleton Beals’s statement available here: