Moscow Trials

(1936–1938)
   As part of his effort to acquire total power and stigmatize any real or suspected opposition, Joseph Stalin ordered the NKVD to prepare a series of major public trials of Old Bolsheviks. In these show trials in 1936, 1937, and 1938, former close associates of Vladimir Lenin who had led the Russian Revolution of November 1917 and won the civil war of 1918–1921 were tried for treason, sabotage, and murder committed on behalf of Nazi Germany. Leon Trotsky, living in foreign exile, was indicted as a coconspirator, the arch-fiend responsible for most of the crimes. With one exception, the defendants confessed in open court, and all were immediately shot or deported to the gulag (forced labor camps), where they perished.
   Stalin saw the trials as political theater, insisting that the NKVD wring confessions out of the accused by appealing to their sense of party loyalty, their concern for their families who faced death sentences, and promises of pardons and rehabilitation. Torture was also used; some men were beaten to a pulp, while others were kept awake for days as a conveyor belt of interrogators worked on them. (One Old Bolshevik was kept awake for 90 hours in a marathon interrogation session.) Stalin read the interrogation reports, and he even corresponded and met with a few of the defendants, promising some of them clemency for cooperating with the NKVD. All of these promises were broken, and every prisoner who met with Stalin went to the execution chambers. Nikolai Bukharin, whom Lenin had dubbed the “favorite of the party,” wrote to Stalin hours before his death: “Koba, why do I have to die?” Stalin, who used the name “Koba” as his party nom de guerre, undoubtedly believed that Bukharin’s death was a necessary part of the drama he was directing.
   The trials were public spectacles, more akin to medieval morality plays than modern judicial processes. The victims—with the exception of Bukharin—confessed to being murders, traitors, and saboteurs, and they demanded the death penalty for themselves and their co-defendants. The prosecutor, Andrei Vyshinsky, echoed this with demands that “these mad dogs be shot.” The judges agreed, sentencing the defendants to execution without the right of appeal. The shootings took place in the Lubyanka less than 48 hours after the sentences were passed. Foreign diplomats and journalists, as well as a select audience of Soviet citizens, witnessed the trials. According to a British diplomat who was an observer of the process, Stalin watched the trial from a secret room in the courthouse.
   The trials were also designed to convince the Soviet people that the rolling purges of the 1930s were a legitimate hunt for terrorists and saboteurs, and that political vigilance was necessary. Soviet public opinion was all but unanimous in demanding the defendants be executed. A secondary audience was foreign political opinion. While most liberal and left-wing journals accepted the verdicts, the American educator and philosopher John Dewey conducted an independent probe of the trials to show that much of the evidence was preposterously false. It was not until Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror was published in the 1960s that the liberal West realized the causes and consequences of the trials. Moreover, it was not until the late 1980s that the trials’ defendants were rehabilitated by the regime of Mikhail Gorbachev.
   See also Yagoda, Genrykh; Yezhovshchina.

Historical dictionary of Russian and Soviet Intelligence. . 2014.

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