The Moscow Trials

Part One: The Moscow Frame-Up Trials: 'Shoot the mad dogs!'

The ideas of Trotsky - which represent the continuation of Marxist thought since Lenin's death - are without question the most slandered set of ideas in history.

Together with Marx and Lenin, Trotsky has been subjected to a continual onslaught from capitalist commentators and academics, including the Russian 'democrats' of the Volkogonov type, for his alleged totalitarianism and subversive ideas. In reality, it is the revolutionary message of Marxism which poses a threat to their system - and they must attempt to discredit these ideas at every opportunity.

Added to this orchestrated bourgeois campaign of vilification has been the vitriolic attacks of the Stalinists on Trotsky. Before his death, Lenin formed a block with Trotsky to remove Stalin from office. Unfortunately, a series of strokes removed Lenin from political life until his death in 1924. From then on Trotsky led the struggle against Stalin and the emerging bureaucracy within the USSR. With the failure of revolution abroad, Stalin used his support within the apparatus to isolate and expel Trotsky from the Soviet Union.

Once Stalin had defeated Trotsky's Left Opposition, he turned on all his opponents, including his allies on the Right. The victory of the apparatus was to culminate in the infamous Moscow Trials of 1936-38 where the 'Old Bolsheviks', including Trotsky, who led the October Revolution, were accused of counter-revolutionary activity, sabotage, murder, and collaboration with fascism.

Most of the accused were subsequently broken by the secret police, the NKVD, forced to give to give false confessions about themselves and others, and then shot. By 1940, out of the members of Lenin's Central Committee of 1917, only Stalin remained. Trotsky himself was assassinated by a Stalinist agent in August 1940.

In the course of these Show Trials, Stalin attempted to mobilise world opinion against the accused. An international campaign was organised through the Communist Parties and their press to discredit and slander Trotsky and the other leaders of the Revolution. Trotsky was officially accused of being connected with the German Intelligence Service since 1921, and with British intelligence since 1926!

In the Indictment of the trial of the Old Bolsheviks Pyatakov, Radek, Sokolnikov, Serebriakov, Muralov and others, it states:

'The investigation has established that LD Trotsky entered into negotiations with one of the leaders of the German National Socialist Party with a view to waging a joint struggle against the Soviet Union...

The principles of this agreement, as Trotsky related, were finally elaborated and adopted during Trotsky's meeting with Hitler's deputy, Hess...'

(International Press Correspondence, p. 128, no 6, February 1937)

While the Moscow Frame up Trials unfolded, very few were to openly question their authenticity. While the charges appeared fantastic, the confessions seemed so clear and emphatic. In the West, a handful of Trotskyists fought bravely to mobilise opposition to the Stalinist machine. In 1937, an impartial Commission of Enquiry was established, made up of liberal-democratic people, under Prof. John Dewey to examine the charges made against Trotsky and his son Leon Sedov - the two principal defendants of the Moscow Trials. After a thorough investigation the Commission returned a verdict of not guilty and that the trials were a frame-up.

It was only in 1956, at the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU, did Khrushchev finally reveal that the Trials were in fact fame-ups. This was done to place the blame for the crimes of Stalinism on Stalin himself. It was all down to him! The fact that Khrushchev and the others directly participated in the frame-ups while Stalin was alive was not mentioned. Neither Trotsky nor his son were rehabilitated. Despite the so-called de-Stalinisation, research into the Great Terror was taboo right up until the end of the 1980s.

With the collapse of Stalinism, and the opening up of the archives of the CPSU, new evidence has emerged about the Moscow Trials. One of the latest books to appear which analyses the new archive material from a Marxist perspective is '1937: Stalin's Year of Terror' by the Russian historian Vadim Z. Rogovin. This excellent book provides a graphic picture of the horrific preparation of the Trials.

The Great Purge and Terror were launched by Stalin not because he was insane. On the contrary, it was a conscious, well-prepared course of action to safe-guard the rule of the bureaucracy. Stalin arrived at the decision to destroy the 'Old Bolsheviks' not later than the summer of 1934, and then began to prepare his operation - beginning with the murder of Kirov in December of that year.

Trotsky explained Stalin's actions:

'It is time, my listeners, it is high time, to recognise, finally, that a new aristocracy has been formed in the Soviet Union. The October Revolution proceeded under the banner of equality. The bureaucracy is the embodiment of monstrous inequality. The revolution destroyed the nobility. The bureaucracy creates a new gentry. The revolution destroyed titles and decorations. The new aristocracy produces marshals and generals. The new aristocracy absorbs an enormous part of the national income. Its position before the people is deceitful and false. Its leaders are forced to hide the reality, to deceive the masses, to cloak themselves, calling black white. The whole policy of the new aristocracy is a frame-up.'

The situation by 1934 was giving rise for alarm amongst the Stalinist bureaucracy. There was profound discontent throughout the country after the debacle of forced collectivisation and the adventure of the first Five Year Plan. Opposition moods were wide-spread. Stalin feared that the Old Bolsheviks - although forced to repeatedly capitulate to Stalin - would become a focal point for opposition. Some had in fact made contact with Trotsky in exile.

Stalin used the assassination of Kirov to launch his plans. Originally the perpetrators of the murder were declared to be a group of 13 'Zinovievists', shot in December 1934. The former oppositionists Zinoviev and Kamenev - who had had earlier broken with Trotsky and capitulated - were then convicted in January 1935 with 'objectively' inflaming terrorist moods amongst their supporters. But this was only the beginning.

Stalin now realised his mistake in exiling Trotsky in 1928, which allowed him to freely criticise the Stalinist regime from abroad. Trotsky was the most important focal point of opposition to Stalin. He was a revolutionary leader that would not be broken. From then on Stalin prepared his assassination. Consequently, Stalin set about the fame-up of Trotsky and his supporters on charges of terrorism.

This job was given to the NKVD under Yagoda and then Yezhov, both Stalinist hangmen. They had to 'prove' the existence of an underground terrorist Zinoviev organisation which collaborated with secret Trotskyist network. In early 1935 a directive was given to the NKVD which demanded the 'total liquidation of the entire Trotsky-Zinoviev underground'. Arrests took place of suspected oppositionists and former-oppositionists. Then followed the interrogations and first 'confessions' - receiving terrorist orders from Trotsky.

After a year and a half in prison, Zinoviev and Kamenev were brought to Moscow for their interrogation. They had been repeatedly broken - morally crushed - by this time. As was Stalin's method, he had managed to sow mutual discord between the two men. Zinoviev wrote Stalin grovelling letters from his cell: 'My soul burns with one desire: to prove to you that I am no longer an enemy. There is no demand which I would not fullfil in order to prove this... ' (Rogovin, p. 5)

Kamenev bore himself with particular courage. He told his interrogator: 'You are now observing Thermidor in a pure form. The French Revolution taught us a good lesson, but we weren't able to put it to use. We don't know how to protect our revolution from Thermidor. That is our greatest mistake, and history will condemn us for it.'

Yezhov was ordered to prepare them for a public trial, and that they should slander themselves and Trotsky - for the sake of the revolution! Threats were made against their families, a number of whom were held by the NKVD. They were incarcerated and subjected to humiliating procedures. Zinoviev was the first to break, who then persuaded Kamenev to follow suite in return for their lives and those of their families and supporters. They were then brought before Stalin and Voroshilov. Zinoviev pleaded with them: 'You want to depict members of Lenin's Politburo and Lenin's personal friends to be unprincipled bandits, and present the party as a snake's nest of intrigue, treachery and murderers.' To this Stalin replied that the Trial was not aimed at them, but against Trotsky, 'the sworn enemy of the Party.'

Their pleas for their lives were met with Stalin's vow that all this 'goes without saying.' Stalin betrayed them, as he would betray the rest. It was in reality a betrayal of the Revolution in the interests of the ruling bureaucracy at whose head was Stalin.

Smirnov and Mrachkovsky both stubbornly refused to give confessions to the interrogators. According to the chief prosecutor, Vyshinsky, Smirnov's entire interrogation on 20 May consisted of his words: 'I deny this. I deny it once again. I deny it.' Mrachkovsky was taken before Stalin personally, but rejected his advances. He was then handed over to Slutsky, head of the NKVD's foreign department. According to him, he interrogated Mrachkovsky non-stop for almost four days. Mrachkovsky told Slutsky: 'You can tell Stalin that I hate him. He is a traitor. They took me to Molotov, who also wanted to buy me off. I pit in his face.' During the interrogation every two hours the phone rang from Stalin's secretary to ask whether he had managed to 'break' Mrachkovsky. After a lengthy interrogation he finally broke down in tears 'concluding everything was lost.' For a long time he refused to smear Trotsky with terrorist activity.

The first show Trial - the Trial of the Sixteen - sought to destroy the mythical Trotsky-Zinoviev Centre. Vyshinsky did not provide a shred of evidence against the accused - not one document, not a scrap of paper - only the confessions of the accused. The weakness of the prosecutor's case was demonstrated by the inconsistencies and falsehoods in the testimonies given at the trial. Goltsmam, for instance, testified he met Trotsky and Sedov in Copenhagen at the Hotel Bristol. Unbeknown to the prosecutors, the Hotel Bristol had been demolished in 1917! The Stalinist investigators had not done their homework.

At the conclusion of the Trial, Vyshinsky for the prosecution declared: 'I demand that we shoot the mad dogs - every single one of them!' Despite the pleas for mercy submitted by the Sixteen - which they were led to believe would be honoured - within a matter of hours they were taken out and shot.

Those who grovelled before the Stalinist dictatorship - throwing all kinds of slanders against their former comrades - could never satisfy Stalin. They would be eliminated after their allotted role was complete. New amalgams were being prepared. New Witch Trials would take place. As Leon Sedov explained: 'Stalin needs Trotsky's head - this is his main goal. To achieve it he will launch the most extreme and even more insidious cases.'

With the collapse of Hitler Germany in 1945 and the Nuremberg Trials, which laid bare the Nazi regime and their collaborators, not one word or document was found to prove the slightest connection between Trotsky and the Gestapo. It was not Trotsky who had an agreement with Hitler. It was Stalin who signed a Pact with Hitler in August 1939.

It is fitting to end this article by a quote from Leopold Trepper, the leader of the famous anti-Nazi spy network in Western Europe:

'But who did protest at the time? Who rose up to voice his outrage? The Trotskyites can lay claim to this honour. Following the example of their leader, who was rewarded for his obstinacy with the end of an ice-axe, they fought Stalinism to the death, and they were the only ones who did.

'Today, the Trotskyites have a right to accuse those who once howled along with the wolves. Let them not forget, however, that they had the enormous advantage over us of having a coherent political system capable of replacing Stalinism. They had something to cling to in the midst of their profound distress at seeing the revolution betrayed. They did not 'confess', for they knew that their confession would serve neither the party nor socialism.'

Part Two: The Moscow Trials - the greatest frame-up in history

"Why does Moscow so fear the voice of a single man? Only because I know the truth, the whole truth. Only because I have nothing to hide. Only because I am ready to appear before a public and impartial commission of inquiry with documents, facts, and testimonies in my hands, and to disclose the truth to the very end. I declare: if this commission decides that I am guilty in the slightest degree of the crimes which Stalin imputes to me, I pledge in advance to place myself voluntarily in the hands of the executioners of the G.P.U. That, I hope, is clear. Have you all heard? I make this declaration before the entire world. I ask the press to publish my words in the farthest corners of the planet. But if the commission establishes - do you hear me? - that the Moscow Trials are a conscious and premeditated frame-up, constructed with the bones and nerves of human beings, I will not ask my accusers to place themselves voluntarily before a firing squad. No, the eternal disgrace in the memory of human generations will be sufficient for them! Do the accusers of the Kremlin hear me? I throw my defiance in their faces. And I await their reply!"

From Trotsky's summary speech before the Dewey Commission, April 1937.

In August 1936, the Old Bolsheviks Kamenev, Zinoviev, Smirnov, Mrachkovsky and twelve others were framed by Stalin, forced to confess to crimes they had not committed, and shot. In January 1937, other leading Bolsheviks, including Piatakov, Radek, Sokolnikov and Muralov, were also framed and either shot or murdered. In June 1937, Marshal Tukhachevsky and a group of the highest-ranking Red Army generals were executed. Finally, in March 1938, Bukharin, Rykov, Krestinsky, and others were also convicted of counter-revolution and shot. The men in the dock were all members of Lenin's Political Bureau, except for Stalin. Trotsky, though absent, was the chief defendant. They were all accused for plotting to assassinate Stalin and the other Soviet leaders, to wreck the country, and conspiring with the espionage services of Britain, France, Japan and Germany. They were also accused of entering into secret pacts with Hitler and the Mikado to annex vast slices of Soviet territory.

The frame-up trials were accompanied by a prolonged purge running into millions. Many victims were executed without trial because they refused to bear false witness. The forced confessions of the defendants in the public trials were the only basis for the proceedings and verdicts. Trotsky alone was beyond Stalin's reach and could not be silenced. At every turn, he denounced the monstrous actions of the Stalinist regime.

At the same time, the Communist Parties everywhere churned out propaganda against Trotsky and in favour of the trials. It was especially taken up with zeal by the British Stalinists. R. Page Arnot wrote in Labour Monthly: "Trotskyism is now revealed as an ancillary of fascism." Walter Holmes in the Daily Worker (4/9/36) wrote: "What are you worrying about? Everybody in our party has got enough sense to know they ought to be shot." John Gollan wrote a pamphlet entitled The Development of Trotskyism from Menshevism to Alliance with Fascism and Counter-revolution. The pro-Stalinist D. N. Pritt, KC 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 battle-field of controversy it will be realised that the charge was true, the confessions correct, and the prosecution fairly conducted."

Meanwhile in Russia, the Stalinist regime was trampling over the corpses of the Old Bolsheviks. On 10 August 1936, Yezhov, a leading figure in the secret police, showed Piatakov the testimony given against him, pushing him to a nervous breakdown. Attempting to defend himself, Piatakov blamed the 'Trotskyists' for spreading slanders about him. Calling himself guilty of "not paying attention to counter-revolutionary work of his former wife, and of being indifferent to meetings with her acquaintances", Piatakov said he should be punished more severely, and asked "that he be granted any form of rehabilitation." With this in mind, he asked the CC "allow him personally to shoot all those sentenced to be shot in the (forthcoming) trial, including his former wife." He requested that a statement about this be published in the press.

"In reporting these events at the December Plenum of the Central Committee in 1936", writes Vadim Rogovin in his excellent book, 1937 - Stain's Year of Terror, "Stalin stated that Piatakov had prepared 'with pleasure' to play the role of prosecutor. 'But when we thought things over and decided that this wouldn't work. What would it mean to present him as public prosecutor? He would say one thing, and the accused would object by saying: "Look where you've managed to crawl, into the prosecutor's chair. But didn't you used to work with us?!" And what would that lead to? It would turn the trial into a comedy and disrupt the trial.'" (Rogovin, p. 69)

On the one hand, this showed how broken Piatakov had become, desperate to escape his inevitable end. He prostrated himself before Stalin. His plea to be allowed to become prosecutor was even cynically considered by Stalin but then rejected, fearing it would bring the trial into disrepute.

Stalin then coolly considered Piatakov's request to personally shoot the defendants, including his former wife, but then thought it unwise: "If we announce it, no one would believe that we hadn't forced him to do it. We said that this wouldn't work, no one would believe that you voluntarily decided to do this, without being coerced. Yes, and besides, we never have announced the names of the people who carry out sentences." (Quoted in Rogovin, p. 70).

When Tomsky's name was mentioned in Pravda, connected to the "Trotsky-Zinoviev Gang", he shot himself. He left a note to Stalin: "I never joined any conspiracy against the party." The interrogation of Radek, Skolnikov and Piatakov served to blacken their names. They admitted to the existence of the mythical 'centre' that Trotsky was supposed to have used to organise terrorism inside the USSR. At their trial they were found guilty. Piatakov was shot, and Radek and Skolnikov were imprisoned - and finally murdered in 1939 by other prisoners, apparently on the orders from the security organs.

At the beginning of 1935, Trotsky's son Sergei Sedov was arrested and sent into exile to the Vorkuta camps. New charges were brought against him for allegedly poisoning workers. He was sentenced to be shot on 29 October 1937. All of Trotsky's family - at least those the authorities could discover - were subsequently arrested. "The very sound of his name - Trotsky! - aroused a mystical horror in the hearts of the contemporaries of the Great Purge," notes Runin, the brother-in-law of Sergei. "And the fact that my sister had some kind of relation to that name automatically turned not only her, but our entire family, into state criminals, 'collaborators', 'spies', 'accomplices', in short, into 'agents of the greatest villain of modern times, into the most vicious opponent of Soviet power.'" (Quoted by Rogovin, pp. 152-53).

While there were those who confessed to crimes they did not commit under lengthy interrogation, there were many who did not. Most were shot. Some survived, such as D. B. Dobrushkin, an engineer in Moscow. He passed through a two-year investigation, during which he lost the sight in one eye. He was finally released in Beria's 'reverse flood'.

The witch-hunt atmosphere affected everyone, even the most fervent Stalinists. Ordzhonikidze, for example, committed suicide in early 1937, after constant harrassment from Beria of the G.P.U. In February-March, at the Plenum of the CC, a case was constructed again Bukharin and Rykov. They were forced to grovel before their tormentors. When Bukharin apologised for his political short-sightedness, Stalin interrupted "That's not enough, that's not enough!" He then begged the "CC once again to forgive me." After four days of interrogation, both Bukharin and Rykov were in a state of extreme exhaustion and despair. In the course of their speeches they were constantly interrupted and barracked. After Bukharin had spoken, there were shouts from the audience: "He should have been put in prison long ago!" Stalin urged them to "cleanse themselves" by testifying against themselves and others.

Stalin's agents were also busy internationally exposing Trotskyist "counter-revolutionaries." In Spain the G.P.U. under Alexander Orlov carried out reprisals and assassinations of Trotskyists and the anti-Stalinlists of the POUM. This included Trotsky's secretary in Norway, Erwin Wolf, and the POUM leader Nin, who was mercilessly tortured and his body secretly disposed of. In 1937, Ignace Reiss, a G.P.U. agent, publically broke from the Stalin and came over to Trotsky. He was hunted down and murdered. In 1938, Trotsky's son, Leon Sedov, was also murdered in Paris. In the same year, the decapitated body of Rudolf Klement - the movement's international secretary - was found in the river Seine. The net was closing in.

Trotsky knew his life was in constant danger. Trotsky would tell Natalia, "We have been spared another day." It was Trotsky's hope to be granted sufficient time to allow him to develop and educate a new cadre for the revolutionary events that would unfold during and after the war. Trotsky embodied the genuine traditions of revolutionary Marxism. For this reason, he was a deadly threat to Stalin. The discontent within the USSR, together with the revolutionary events in Spain, threatened to revive opposition within the country. That is why he launched the Purge trials. All potential opposition had to be eliminated.

Trotsky himself was assassinated by a Stalinist agent on 20th August 1940. But to kill a man, is not to kill his ideas. Stalinism has collapsed in the ex-Soviet Union. The Stalinist bureaucracy has gone over - as Trotsky had predicted - to the capitalist counter-revolution. The ranks of the Communist Parties internationally are in ferment. They have never been so open to Trotsky's ideas. The development of powerful Marxist currents world-wide now falls on the new generation of workers and youth. Trotsky has bequeathed a treasure house of ideas, which can help us in our task. A new period opens up before us of revolution and counter-revolution. On the basis of events, the traditional organisations of the working class will be transformed and re-transformed and open the way for the creation of mass Marxist tendencies internationally.

Trotsky was to defend his honour and faith in the socialist future of humankind to the bitter end. It was essential to maintain the spotless banner of revolutionary socialism.

"We will not hand this banner to the masters of falsification", stated Trotsky. "If our generation has proven to be too weak to establish socialism on this earth, we will give its unstained banner to our children. The struggle which looms ahead by far supersedes the significance of individual people, factions and parties. It is a struggle for the future of all humanity. It will be severe. It will be long. Whoever seeks physical repose and spiritual comfort - let him step aside. During times of reaction it is easier to lean on the bureaucracy than on the truth. But for all those for whom socialism is not an empty phrase but the content of their moral life - forward! Neither threats, nor persecution, nor violence will stop us. Perhaps it will be on our bones, but the truth will triumph. We are paving the way for it, and the truth will be victorious. Under the terrible blows of fate I will feel as happy as during the best days of my youth if I can join you in facilitating its victory. For, my friends, the highest human happiness lies not in the exploitation of the present, but in the preparation of the future."

Rob Sewell
London March 2000
(this two-part article appeared first in Socialist Appeal)

Together with this brief article we recommend a few short works by Trotsky that outline the theory:


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