A. Ciliga

From Inside Stalin’s Prisons

The Political Life of the Left Opposition


Written: 1936–37.
Published: 1938, in Paris, under the title Au Pays du Grand Mensonge.
Source: The New International, Vol. X No. 1, January 1944, p. 17–21.
Transcription/Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

This story first appeared in Au Pays du Grand Mensonge (In the Land of the Great Lie), by A. Ciliga, published in Paris in 1938. Anton Antonovich Ciliga was a leader of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia and a representative of its left wing. After a period of time spent in Moscow, he became one of the militants of the Trotskyist Opposition. The police persecution of the Opposition which began in 1928 did not spare the non-Russian Communists. Along with others from his native land, Ciliga was forced to share the fate of the Russian Trotskyists – exile, prison, torture and all manner of persecution. In 1935, he succeeded in obtaining a visa and the permission of the GPU to leave the country. Upon reaching France, he devoted himself to telling the truth about Stalinist despotism. His attachment to the Trotskyist Opposition continued to wane and he finally broke with revolutionary Marxism. We did not share all his political opinions then, nor do we now. We do not know Ciliga’s present whereabouts. But in his book, which recounts all his experiences and gives a vivid picture of the situation in Russia during his stay there – both voluntary and enforced – there are several pages which, to our knowledge, give the only detailed account of the internal political life and discussions of the Russian Trotskyists in prison and exile that is available to us. The fight of the Trotskyists against the Stalin regime is well known. The internal development of the Russian Trotskyist movement itself is not so well known. The reader cannot fail to be impressed by the graphic and highly informative picture of this development drawn by one of the active participants in it. This chapter begins with Ciliga’s arrival in November 1930, after previous prison experiences, in one of the most notorious centers of confinement of oppositionists, the Isolator – precious name! – of Verkhne-Uralsk. Other chapters from the book will appear in the coming issues. – The Editor

What interested me most in the Isolator was its political life and ideas. In the USSR, so long as you are “at large,” the political life of the country can be followed and discussed only in a small committee. It is an arduous task, where more problems can be posed than resolved, above all if you are a foreigner who came to Soviet Russia ten years after the revolution. But to find yourself among two hundred prisoners who represent all the political tendencies of vast Russia in their uninterrupted development – that is a precious privilege that enabled me to acquire a knowledge of Russian political life in all its aspects.

When I arrived in the Isolator, in November 1930, the era of the “capitulations” that demoralized and disorganized the Russian Opposition for eighteen months was drawing to a close. But the echoes of the tempest that swept away four-fifths of the Opposition could still be heard. “Capitulator” or “semi-capitulator” was still the worst insult that could be hurled at an opponent in a discussion. These echoes began to die out little by little, no new capitulations took place and six months later they even began to send back to the Isolator the former capitulators who had not proved to be firm enough partisans of the General Line.

The Divisions Among the Prisoners

The vast majority of the communist prisoners were Trotskyists: a hundred and twenty out of a total of a hundred and forty. There was also a Zinovievist who had not capitulated, sixteen or seventeen members of the “Democratic Centralism” group (extreme left), and two or three supporters of the “Workers’ Group” of Myaznikov. Among the non-communists there were essentially three groups, each about a dozen strong: the Russian Menshevik social-democrats, the Georgian social-democrats and the anarchists. In addition, there were five left Social Revolutionists, some right Social Revolutionists, some Armenian socialists of the “Dazhnak-Tsutiun” group, and one Maximalist. Finally, there were a few Zionists.

Such was the division into traditional parties, but in reality, each of these parties comprised sub-groups of various nuances or even factions produced by deep splits. The reader may exclaim: twenty groups or sub-groups among two hundred prisoners! But it must not be forgotten that these were not ordinary prisoners, but the representatives of all the left-wing tendencies of a vast society, a truly illegal “parliament” of Russia!

The burning problems posed by the revolution, and particularly by the Five-Year Plan at its current stage, produced the deepest stirrings in this milieu, creating a state of ideological crisis favorable to the extreme fragmentation of the political tendencies. It was only later, when the social and economic results of the Five-Year Plan had revealed themselves clearly, that a new political regrouping could take place in the Isolator.

Five years of prison and exile had bound me closely to the Opposition, be it communist, socialist or anarchist, and I would like to see this book serve not only as information, but to arouse the conscience of democracy and the western labor movement in behalf of the victims. But it is nevertheless my duty to give a sincere and objective picture of this Soviet opposition, of what is good in it as well as of what is bad.

* * *

The political groupings in prison represented not only ideological tendencies but also constituted genuine organizations, with their committees, their handwritten journals, their recognized leaders – who were either in prison, in exile or abroad. The prevailing system of repression, which included frequent transfers from one prison to another, from one exile to another, assured contact between the members of a grouping better than any clandestine correspondence could.

What interested me primarily was the Trotskyist Opposition, to which I belonged at the time and which is today still the most influential group in Russia. The Isolator of Verkhne-Uralsk sheltered almost all the most active members of the Trotskyist faction.

The Trotskyist Group

The organization of the Trotskyist prisoners called itself the “Collective of Bolshevik-Leninists of Verkhne-Uralsk.” It was divided into a left wing, a center, and a right wing. This division into three fractions existed for the three years of my sojourn, although the composition of the fractions and even their ideology underwent certain fluctuations.

Upon my arrival in Verkhne-Uralsk, I found three Trotskyist programs and two journals:

  1. The “Program of the Three,” set forth by three Red professors: E. Solntsev, G. Yakovin, G. Stopalov. It reflected the opinions of the right wing fraction, the strongest Trotskyist fraction of the time;
  2. The “Program of the Two,” written by Trotsky’s son-in-law, Man-Nevelson, and Aaron Papermeister, was the credo of the small center group;
  3. The “Theses of the Militant Bolsheviks” came from the left wing fraction (Pushas, Kamenetsky, Kvachadze, Byelenky).

These were documents of considerable proportions, embracing from five to eight different sections (international situation, industry, agriculture, the classes in the USSR, the party, the labor question, the tasks of the Opposition, etc.).

The program of the right wing dealt in a particularly elaborate manner with the economy, that of the left wing contained good chapters on the party and the labor question.

The right wing and the center jointly published the Prison Pravda (Truth in Prison), the left wing the Militant Bolshevik. These journals appeared once a month or once every two months. Each number contained from ten to twenty articles in the form of separate folios. The “number,” that is, the package containing the ten or twenty folios, passed from hall to hall and the prisoners read them in turn. The journals appeared in three copies, so as to provide one copy for each wing of the prison.

In 1930, the discussion among the Trotskyists dwelled above all upon the attitude toward “the party leaders,” that is, toward Stalin, as well as toward his new “left policy.”

The Three Fractions

The right wing fraction opined that the Five-Year Plan, in spite of all its deviations to the right or the extreme left, corresponded to the essential desiderata of the Opposition; hence it was necessary to support the official policy while criticizing the methods. The fraction hoped for “a reform from above”: the increasing difficulties would compel the party and even the leaders to change policy. The Opposition would be restored to its rights and once again participate in power. As for appealing to the action of the people, of the masses, the right wing fraction deemed that extremely dangerous: the peasants are opposed to the dictatorship of the proletariat, they are “against us”; the workers are wavering, the “Kronstadt spirit” is permeating the whole country, “the Thermidorian front may include the working class.” Wherein then consisted the reproaches that the right wing Trotskyists directed at Stalin?

First of all, like all the Trotskyists, they did not acknowledge the regime that Stalin had established inside the party. Then, they deemed that Stalin was exaggerating in the application of the Five-Year Plan, that its pace was much too rapid, that the country could not stand it. In sum, they wanted the same thing as Stalin, but only in a somewhat mitigated, a little more human, form. They feared but one thing: that Stalin, by his excessive policy, by his “ultra-leftist adventure,” might compromise completely the regime, the salvation of which was their primary preoccupation.

The “Militant Bolshevik” fraction made a great clamor by taking a position diametrically opposed to that of the right wingers. Its essential idea was that the reform would have to be carried out “from below,” that a split in the party must be anticipated, that we must base ourselves upon the working class. The hostility that the fraction manifested toward Stalin contrasted with the attitude of the Red professors on the right, and attracted to itself the sympathy of the workers and the youth. The weak point in its program was the summary character of the judgment it made of the economy of the Five-Year Plan. They clung to a phrase of Trotsky which had only a polemical value: “The Five-Year Plan is only an edifice of figures,” and declared that the whole Stalinist industrialization was nothing but a bluff. As to international politics, the left wing fraction not only denied the existence of a conjuncture favorable to the revolution but even – in order to denigrate Stalin – the existence of a world economic crisis. All this clearly denoted the bohemian spirit that reigned among the “Militant Bolsheviks” and especially in the young journalist Pushas. The most thoughtful members of the fraction began to understand that its program must be established on a more serious foundation.

The Center fraction opined that two possible reforms must be taken into consideration: from above and from below. The Center was soon reinforced by two Red Professors – F. Dingelstedt (who arrived from exile at the beginning of November) and Victor Eltsin (who had been located previously at the extreme right wing because of the support in principle that he gave to the bitter-end collectivization). Igor Poznansky, former secretary to Trotsky, shared the views of the center, without belonging to any fraction.

It is worth while noting that the five Red Professors mentioned above, Solntsev, Stopalov, Yakovin, Dingelstedt and Eltsin, had formerly collaborated with Trotsky in editing his Complete Works. Trotsky’s organ abroad called them the “young theoreticians of the Opposition” (Bulletin of the Opposition, No. 19, 1931).

Error of Oppositionists

The majority of the Opposition thus sought the road of conciliation; in criticizing the Five-Year Plan, they put the accent, not on the r61e of exploited class reserved for the proletariat, but on the technical mistakes of the government as “boss,” on the lack of harmony of the system, on the poor quality of production ... This criticism led to no appeal to the workers against the Central Committee and against the bureaucratic power; they seemed to confine themselves to proposing amendments to a program they approved. The “socialist” character of the state industry was taken for granted. The exploitation of the proletariat was denied, for “we are living under the regime of the dictatorship of the proletariat.” The very most that was admitted was that there were “deviations” in the system of distribution. I myself had thought so two years earlier; but how could one continue to believe this in 1930? I attribute this retardation to life in prison.

* * *

I made my début in the political life of the prison by writing two articles: Some Theoretical Premises of the Struggle of the Opposition, and The Theses of the Militant Bolsheviks. There I developed the following ideas: the moment has

come to give a more serious theoretical foundation to the struggle against Stalin; in the criticism of the Five-Year Plan the accent must be placed upon its anti-socialist and anti-proletarian character instead of speaking of “bluff” and of criticizing mere details.

We members of the Opposition – I continued – had seen in the Stalinist clique the clique of Robespierre and had predicted for Stalin the fate of his illustrious French predecessor. But we had been mistaken, for we had forgotten that the “communist” bureaucracy had in its hands a weapon that Robespierre did not have at his disposal: the whole economy of the country. Uncontested master of all the essential means of production, the communist bureaucracy is gradually becoming the kernel of a new ruling class, whose interests are just as much opposed to those of the proletariat as were the interests of the bourgeoisie. We must organize in Russia the economic struggle of the proletariat (demands, strikes) exactly as is done in the countries of private capitalism. It is even necessary to join with the socialists and the anarchists who may be found in the factories. We must put forward the slogan of a new revolutionary workers’ party. The moment has come to abandon the attempts at reform inside the party in favor of a revolutionary class struggle. This struggle of course demands a theoretical basis. “Without revolutionary theory, no revolutionary movement,” I said, by way of epigraph to my first article.

While I was still at liberty, I looked in vain for the “dictatorship of the proletariat” in the USSR; all I could see was the enslavement of the proletariat. But neither did “Thermidor” come, and Stalin remained in power. What did that mean? I learned what Trotsky’s judgment was of the situation: the, bureaucracy, “rushing past” Thermidor, was preparing its eighteenth Brumaire. “The preparation of Bonapartism inside the party has been completed,” wrote Trotsky in connection with the Sixteenth Congress of the party, in his letter from Constantinople of August 5, 1930. I perceived at last the beginning of the explanation I sought. Other more radical groups I met in prison – the “Decists,” the Myaznikov group – asserted that Bonapartism had already triumphed. That seemed to me to be still more correct. Didn’t Stalin represent a veritable oriental Bonaparte? Didn’t that explain the scope and the crimes of the Stalinist regime?

In my hall, there was a Trotskyist from Kharkov named Densov, a good economist, former head of the business-cycle department of the Ukrainian Gosplan (State Planning Commission). He was, so to speak, the only Trotskyist to consider the Soviet economy as state capitalism. On this score he quoted certain affirmations from Lenin, dating back to 1918-22, which Trotsky had made the mistake of neglecting. Densov had arrived in Verkhne-Uralsk a week before me; he took a stand at the left wing of the Trotskyists, without, however, joining the “Militant Bolshevik” group. He was the one who asked me to write the articles I spoke of, “in order to strengthen the position of the left wing.”

A Criticism of the Opposition Line

The nihilism of the Opposition, its pettiness toward the Five-Year Plan, disturbed Densov. “The Opposition risks finding itself high and dry,” he said, “for not having understood in time that the charge to level against the immense Stalinist effort is the charge of anti-socialism. Today, all that Solntsev and Pushas see in the Five-Year Plan are disproportions or bluff, but what will they say two or three years from now, when the disproportions of the plan will be eliminated, when production will be improved, when the bluff will become an undeniable economic reality? Rakovsky wrote this spring that nothing would be left of the bitter-end collectivization by fall. Fall has come, the collectivization continues and grows stronger – what will Rakovsky say now? To be sure, there are people who pass all their time in self-contradiction; but the others, the serious people, what internal crisis won’t they have to undergo if they don’t succeed in getting a coherent picture of events in time!”

Densov, while considering my conclusions a little hasty, shared my opinions. So we acted in concert; while I wrote articles on politics and sociology, he wrote economic reports that bore them out. The question – “Is the Five-Year Plan gaining successes or not?” – was thenceforth inscribed on the agenda of the prison.

My conclusions met with a fairly favorable reception in the left wing Trotskyist fraction. The right wing and the center, on the contrary, attacked them, declaring that they were premature and represented the mistakes of the “ultras” (”Decists,” “Workers’ Opposition” and Myaznikov group). One of my adversaries wrote:

“Richard [that was my pseudonym] has no need of discovering America, for Columbus has already discovered it.” “The light from the first floor North [where Densov and I lived] is not a beacon but a will-o’-the-wisp,” wrote another. Solntsev, the real leaders of the bloc between the right wing and the center, declared that “these ideas do not belong to our movement.” To which I retorted that “ a movement cannot remain on one spot, it must enrich itself by experience. Once the struggle against the bureaucracy has been started, we cannot stop half-way.”

The left wing extremists shared, at bottom, the judgment of Solntsev. They deemed the Trotskyist movement incapable of breaking completely with the bureaucracy, for it was nothing but “a left, more liberal, wing of this same bureaucracy.” Tyunov, a supporter of Myaznikov, wrote: “It is an opposition of high functionaries. Trotsky represents, in relation to the autocracy of the bureaucrats, an opposition just as rotten as was that of Milyukov at the time of the Czarist autocracy.” The Decists esteemed that Trotsky remained undecided between genuine revolutionary Bolshevism and its official and bourgeoisified caricature, just as he had remained undecided before 1917 between genuine Bolshevism and the Mensheviks. In the spring of 1930, the rumor of a capitulation of Trotsky spread in the Isolator. One of the Decist leaders – V.M. Smirnov [1] – who was there at the time and who incarnated the type of the old irreconcilable Bolshevik intellectual, wrote: “Trotsky has just capitulated. So much the better. This half-Menshevik will at last cease to trouble the authentic revolutionary movement with his presence ...”

It seemed to me that the Decists and the Myaznikovists were exaggerating. The Trotskyist Opposition – it seemed to me – was capable of evolving much more to the left than either the right wing Trotskyism or the extremists of Decism or of Myaznikov supposed. Moreover, Trotskyism was the only oppositional grouping that had any weight in Soviet society, the others being politically negligible. If Trotskyism is incapable of expressing the needs of the working class, Russia will be condemned to go through an epoch of “political void” until the day when the popular masses will have worked out a new movement, today unforeseeable ... It was therefore necessary, it seemed to me, to exhaust the experience of Trotskyism before coming to a conclusion.

* * *

Organizational Conflicts

To the struggle of ideas inside the Trotskyist “collective,” was now to be added an organizational conflict which was to relegate ideology to second place for several months. This conflict is characteristic of the psychology and morals of the Russian Opposition, so I shall speak of it briefly.

The right wing and the center presented the following ultimatum to the “Militant Bolsheviks”: either dissolve and suspend publication of their journal, or else find themselves expelled from the Trotskyist organization. In effect, the majority deemed that the Trotskyist faction ought not include any sub-grouping.

This principle of a “monolithic faction” was nothing, at bottom, but the principle that inspired Stalin for the whole of the party. But the principle also concealed a calculation of a practical kind: if they could rid themselves of the “irresponsible elements of the extreme left who doubt the socialist character of our state,” the high personalities of the Opposition could more easily come to an understanding with the leaders of the party and above all with the Stalin faction.

Most of the personalities of the Opposition believed that the coming difficulties would force the party to come to terms with the Opposition; to be ready for this eventuality, they sought to finish with their own fractional opponents by methods that can only be qualified as Stalinist. As to the “Militant Bolsheviks,” they refused to submit to the majority and believed it necessary to prove to Trotsky, by publishing their group journal, that a strong left wing minority existed inside the Isolator. They even sent Trotsky an article which he published abroad in his Bulletin of the Opposition.

A large number of the left wing Trotskyists – myself included – considered that the theories of the “Militant Bolsheviks” lacked solidity and in no way wished to solidarize themselves with them. But at the same time we protested vigorously against the ultimatum presented to them, for we deemed that each group had the right to publish a journal of its own. The arrival in prison of a renowned publicist, the elderly N.P. Gorlov, reinforced our group, which soon reached some thirty members, and hastened its rapprochement with the “Militant Bolsheviks,” who numbered some twenty.

The ultimatum was discussed for months in all the groups of the Isolator, in all the meetings, during the walks. Debates, votes, resolutions, followed in succession. Our “Group of Thirty” proposed a compromise: a single organ would be published for the whole communist section, but a new editorial board would be designated, composed of one representative from each of the existing fractions. In fact, up to then the editorial board was comprised of two members of the right wing and one of the center, while the “Militant Bolsheviks” were not represented at all. But the right wingers waved aside the compromise on the pretext that “the majority has the right to designate anyone it sees fit.” That was the favorite procedure of Stalin in his struggle against the Opposition: the dissolution of the “Militant Bolsheviks” and the suppression of their journal was demanded, while they were refused a representative in the central organ. Thus people who were in prison for anti-Stalinism found nothing better to do than to imitate Stalinism in prison ... An absurdity which is only apparent; it simply proves that between Trotskyism and Stalinism there are many points in common.

The Split in the Group

In reply to this maneuver, our “Group of Thirty” declared that if the majority decided to expel the “Militant Bolsheviks,” the Group of Thirty would break with this majority and would found a distinct left wing organization together with the expelled.

This caused the “center” (Dingelstedt) to hesitate. Poznansky (the former secretary of Trotsky) openly accused Solntsev of provoking a split with the criminal intention of conciliation with the party. But Solntsev would not be intimidated. The center yielded and the split was there.

It is thus that two distinct Trotskyist organizations were formed in the Isolator toward the summer of 1931: the “Bolshevik-Leninist Collective” (majorityites) and the “Bolshevik-Leninist Collective” of the left. At the moment of the split, the “majorityites” were seventy-five to seventy-eight strong, the “lefts” from fifty-one to fifty-two. Some comrades remained outside both organizations and formed a group that preached reconciliation between Trotskyism. For the rest, the two organizations subsequently underwent important modifications as to their membership and their ideology. The “lefts” began to publish a new journal, the Bolshevik-Leninist, edited by N.P. Gorlov, V. Densov, M. Kamenetsky, O. Pushas and A. Ciliga.

While we were disputing, the GPU was working. At first it promoted the split, then, once it had taken place, it sought to deepen it. The agents-provocateurs of the GPU who were among the prisoners sometimes acted with stupefying effrontery. Thus, one Savelich, a Moscow engineer, who had just made his appearance in our walking group, promptly joined the right wingers and began to argue flamingly that it was absolutely necessary to expel the “Militant Bolsheviks.” His rôle was so obvious that at the end of a couple of days I could state that he “was fulfilling the mission confided him” (by the GPU, it was understood). A month later, after the split had taken place, we succeeded in wresting confessions from him, and he was driven out of the hall, for the GPU agreed to remove its agents-provocateurs once they were unmasked. Another time, a member of the Opposition named Bagratian came to us from Tashkent. He became an ardent “leftist.” When a member of the center put out a funny sheet, Bagratian was so “sore” at certain caricatures that he tried to provoke a brawl between lefts and rights, which was entirely contrary to the morals of the prison. He was restrained with great difficulty, without too much importance being attached to the affair: “He’s hot-blooded, like all Caucasians.” Some time later we had proof that he was an agent-provocateur.

Surnov, an old member of the Opposition, well known, distinguished himself by his impetuous attacks upon the “Militant Bolsheviks.” He declared at a meeting that “if we were at liberty, they would all have to be shot,” That was something unheard of. The left wingers demanded that Surnov be expelled from the ranks of the Opposition. It must be said that the left wingers already suspected him of being an agent-provocateur. As for the right wingers, they called these suspicious “leftist exaggerations,” attributed the words uttered by Surnov to his over-active temperament, and refused to expel him. Soon Surnov succeeded, by flattering Solntsev, in having himself named a member of the right wing committee. The GPU then had him transferred to Solntsev’s cell, and was thus able to get information from a good source and to influence the most prominent prisoner in the Isolator. But Solntsev would not be taken in for long; Surnov, seeing that he would soon be unmasked, gave up the game, “capitulated,” and was transferred to Moscow, where he was placed at liberty.

One day, after the split had already occurred, two Trotskyist prisoners (one from the left, the other from the right) saw the door of their cell thrown open abruptly. An inspector enters, throws a sheaf of papers at them, and leaves the way he came. The prisoners examine the sheaf circumspectly: it contains old letters from Solntsev to Dingelstedt which speak of expelling the Militant Bolsheviks and of sowing discord in the camp of the left wingers. In view of the fact that the two correspondents lived in different wings of the prison and could communicate with each other only on rare occasions, Solntsev endeavored in his letters not to omit a single detail from his plan of campaign against the left wingers. He contemplated all that the left wingers accused him of. The GPU, having intercepted the letters, put them aside and used them after the split to widen the rift that had been created between the Trotskyist left and right.

(To be continued)


1. V.M. Smirnov must not be confused with the former Trotskyist, I.N. Smirnov, who was shot during the Zinoviev trial, nor with A.P. Smirnov, who was part of the right wing opposition with Rykov and Bukharin.


Last updated on: 12 August 2015