A. Ciliga

In Stalin’s Prisons – II

The First Big Frame-Up Trials


Written: 1936–37.
Published: 1938, in Paris, under the title Au Pays du Grand Mensonge.
Source: The New International, Vol. X No. 2, February 1944, pp. 54–58.
Transcription/Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

[Continued from last issue]

It was the rule among the prisoners that each new arrival write a detailed report on what he had seen while at liberty that might be of interest to his prison comrades. We Yugoslavs did like all the others; we too were therefore able to get the latest information from new arrivals.

Fate of the Peasants

The news of the fate of the deported peasants was a revelation to us of a world of horror and of death. I had heard speak, when I was at liberty, of peasant revolts, of deportations, but I had never been able to imagine the vastness and ferocity of the repression. A comrade who came from the Narym region told us that 100,000 peasants had been seen arriving their in the fall [of 1929 [1]]. Every building was filled with them, the churches included; the women and young girls gave themselves to the first comer for a piece of bread. Then they were distributed for the winter in the most remote and deserted districts. It was certain death for them. I was now able to complete the picture I had drawn for myself of the collectivization ... 100,000 deported in the Narym region alone in a single season! How many must there have been in the whole of the USSR during the four years of the “de-kulakization”?

Other prisoners told of the misery of the peasants during their voyage into exile. The peasants from the Ukraine were deported to Siberia in trainloads. The trip lasted some forty days; they were jammed into the cars like cattle, prohibited from getting off during train stops. They were given no food, they even lacked water at time. The provisions they were able to bring away with them did not suffice for such a long trip. People died in masses, suffering horribly; the living and the dead, the food and the excrement, were all piled together. Desperate fathers were seen seizing their famished children and smashing their heads against telegraph poles as they rushed past them.

There were also many evidences of the excesses of the authorities in the villages. I will cite one from Siberia. A group of peasants is being shot. The GPU delegate forces them to dig their own grave. They do as ordered, bid each other farewell, the shots are fired and they are covered with earth. Suddenly, to the superstitious horror of the attendants, a hand rises and waves above the earth: in the haste of the execution, one of these unfortunates had not been killed ...

But as we learned later on, all these horrors did not yet reach the point of those to come in 1932.

* * *

It was during the first months of my detention at Verkhne-Uralsk that two famous political trials were held in Moscow, one against the “industrial party” of the engineers (beginning of December 1930) and the other against the Bureau of the Menshevik Socialists (beginning of March 1931). The two trials had their echo in our prison and what is more those convicted in the second trial were not long in coming to us.

Today almost the entire world has been convinced of the fraudulent character of the accusations. But the real meaning of these two trials has remained a mystery. Moreover, it is not understood abroad how it is possible to stage such shows as those of the 1930–31 and the 1936–37 trials, bloody and humiliating outrages to human dignity.

Foreigners who try to resolve the enigma by means of personal psychology get nowhere. Those who resort to collective psychology in general, or to collective psychology of European or American society, get no further. The explanation can be found only in the very singular conditions of Soviet society. It is not my task to give a complete analysis of these trials in this book. I will confine myself to narrating what I heard on the subject in the milieu where I found myself.

The “Industrial Party” Trial

The first trial indicted a group of eminent Soviet specialists, headed by Professor Ramzin. They were accused of having organized a vast network of sabotage and espionage for the benefit of the French general staff, which was preparing the military intervention of France against the USSR. The accused confessed everything, down to the smallest detail. According to Ramzin, they calculated on replacing the Soviet government with a “government of engineers.”

The accused were sentenced to death. But the government, “taking into account the candor of their confessions and testimony,” commuted the capital punishment to various terms of incarceration. Thousands of people were shot in Russia for infinitely minor crimes; and their unexpected clemency did not fail to create a feeling of suspicion.

Our Trotskyist prison comrades seemed greatly disoriented by this trial of the “Industrial Party”. Most of them preferred to remain silent. A good deal was written in prison, yet, unless I am mistaken, not a single article was devoted to the trial. The boldest comrades, who did speak of it, expressed utterly disparate opinions. Some said that the trial confirmed all the revelations made in the past by the Opposition on the growing influence of the bourgeois technicians: Stalin’s clemency proved once more his attachment to them. Others said, on the contrary, that this war of Stalin against the specialists was only a new manifestation of the “extreme left Stalinist adventure,” that, as in the case of the collectivization, it was necessary to urge a retreat. Rakovsky, in a letter from exile, adhered to this view. As to Trotsky, who was abroad, he rather inclined to the first view, but we in prison were still unaware of his attitude.

There was, finally, a third group, to which I belonged, which believed that the recent trials in no wise represented the struggle of the proletariat against the bourgeois specialists, but only the competition between two bureaucratic groups. What was true in the affair was the discontentment of the specialists, their secret wish to see the communists break their necks by failing in the Five-Year Plan, which would have opened the road to the engineers, who would then quite naturally be summoned to power. All the rest of the indictment was only a fraud and a show put on by the GPU. Stalin, or rather the communist bureaucracy, needs a scapegoat toward whom to direct the anger of the famished masses; it wants to discredit its competitors, the technicians, and to frighten the masses: “If you do not support us, the Stalinists, it will be still worse for you; it will be war all over again, the private proprietors, the Cossack detachments in punitive expeditions.” One of the accused, Ramzin himself if I am not mistaken, “confessed” in effect that the “engineers” had decided to massacre the Russian proletariat, if need be.

Members of the Opposition from Moscow, arrested after the Ramzin trial, furnished us with additional information. Ramzin had not even been put in prison after the trial. Action against him had been limited to placing him “under house arrest,” a pretty fictitious arrest. After an interruption of six months, necessitated by the examination, or rather by the staging of the trial, Ramzin, the minute the trial was over, had resumed his courses at the Institute of Thermodynamics, pronouncing the ritualistic professorial phrase: “We left off at ...”

The Workers and the Trial

What was much more interesting was the attitude of the Moscow workers during the trial. The Stalinist government had succeeded in provoking among the masses, who were unnerved from hunger, the harshest indignation against the “engineers.” The demonstrations of workers in Moscow that the government was able to organize on a grand scale were not lacking in a certain sincerity: the demonstrators demanded the death of the “traitors,” of the “saboteurs” and the “spies.” But after the “confounded” guilty had gotten off with relatively light sentences, the masses, according to the observations of our informants, did not conceal their bitterness: “They’re making a joke out of us, they are playing a comedy with us,” was the sentiment of the people.

Little by little, the whole prison began to feel the conviction that the trial was essentially cooked up. A significant passage in the evidence of Ramzin strengthens the feeling that it was simply a matter of the struggle between two competing groups. Ramzin had said that his group did not intend to abolish nationalized industry and restore private industry, but that it would have permitted private capitalists – foreigners or Russians, including the former proprietors – to participate in state industry to a certain extent. One year earlier, one of the main defendants in the trial of the Ukrainian nationalists (the “League for Ukrainian Emancipation”) had made analogous declarations without hiding his sympathy toward the fascist regime. It seemed to me perfectly logical, from the standpoint of the technicians, to want to preserve the state character of industry: their social importance in such a system would have been much more considerable than in the system of private economy. It followed that the struggle between communists and technicians was not due either to a class antagonism or the antagonism between two different economic conceptions; it was nothing but a dispute over one and the same pie. That one part of the “engineers” sympathized with the fascist system, said a good deal about the true character of the struggle that sets present-day communists and fascists against each other.

But it was easy to understand the rôle that the workers’ demonstrations played. The communist bureaucracy required them, in order to frighten the technicians, to prove to them that in spite of all their knowledge they were impotent, inasmuch as the masses could be unleashed against them at any moment. Wasn’t it wiser to submit to the communist bureaucracy and receive in exchange the privileges that it accorded technicians at the expense of the masses?

The subsequent fate of Ramzin is significant. According to the general opinion in Russa, Ramzin had deliberately played the rôle of provocateur during the trial. So, at the end of a few years, he was reinstated into all his rights and decorated with the Order of Lenin, on the pretext of scientific merits. The Stalinist power “takes no vengeance against the guilty, it re-educates them”!

I want to refer here to a much less known trial that took place in Tashkent; it enables you to get an idea of the way in which this sort of trial is “prepared.” Two Soviet engineers who worked in Central Asia had fled to Persia. At the end of some time they returned to the USSR of their own accord. They were tried. They recounted the history of their flight, due to their cowardice in the face of the “difficulties that must be overcome during the building of socialism.” Refugees in the capitalist world, they were able to record its mortal stagnation and its horrors. They understood that Soviet life came out of the joy of creation, of triumphing over obstacles. So they had come back to the USSR of their own free will to make up for their mistake by working honestly.

This whole touching story was told in public sessions, then printed in the press. But several political exiles who were in the same prison in Tashkent knew the other side of the coin. As soon as the engineers fled to Persia, the GPU arrested their families, including their very young children. The escaped were given to learn that if they did not return to the USSR, the most pitiless reprisals would be taken against their families. The families were immediately placed under the “special regime”; one of their members died, another was driven mad. It was then the escaped decided to return “of their own free will” to the USSR and to confess “sincerely” anything that was wanted.

The Frame-up Against the Mensheviks

Three months after the trial of the “Industrial Party” the trial of the “Bureau of the Menshevik Socialists” took place. The accused were known politicians, former Mensheviks who had become reconciled to the Soviet regime in the days of the NEP and had obtained important posts in the economy and the scientific institutes. It was hard to believe that these men would behave as humiliatingly, as dishonestly, as the technicians who at least had the excuse of having no political past to renounce. But that meant not knowing the profound decomposition of Soviet society. The Mensheviks admitted having adopted, along with the “Industrial Party,” a whole program of sabotage and armed intervention against the USSR. Even more: they admitted that this was also the program of the Russian social democracy as a whole and even of all the other socialist parties of the Second International.

The lie was flagrant. Today, when there are Popular Fronts formed by the parties of the Second and the Third Internationals, such confessions, such trials, appear absurd. But at the time, Stalin was still working with anti-socialist slogans: “The Social Democracy is the main enemy,” “Social Democracy and Fascism are twins.” Stalin needed to demonstrate that the objections of the Mensheviks to the Five-Year Plan had degenerated into common crimes, into acts of treason against the country. The trial had no other purpose than to furnish this demonstration.

The staging and the success of these trials are the characteristic feature of the Stalinist era. Characteristic of the society and characteristic of the governors. These trials are possible only because the reign of an immoral government coincides with a phase of profound indifference of society, tired of disinterested inspirations, tired of the revolution, having eyes only for the vast economic development of the country. “The revolution has become materialistic,” wrote Michelet to characterize a similar stage of the French Revolution.

Contrary to what happened during the trial of the “Industrial Party,” that of the Mensheviks was judged unanimously in our prison: we held it to be a GPU frame-up. We knew also that the GPU had not dared to bring to trial two men who were nevertheless implicated in the affair: the social democrat, Braunstein, and the Old Bolshevik, Bazarov, the Russian translator of Kapital, who had not belonged to any party since 1917. The GPU did not dare do it for the single reason that the two men had refused categorically to play the comedy. So their account was settled administratively, without any trial. No group in our prison shared the view of Trotsky, who, falling into the snare, had taken the confessions of the so-called guilty seriously.

A few months later, the main defendants in the Menshevik trial – Groman, Sukhanov, Rubin, Ikov, Scher, Ginzburg, etc. – arrived in Verkhne-Uralsk. The GPU carefully isolated them, forbidding the members of this group any contact among themselves as well as with the other inmates. What could the GPU fear if not the revealing of the methods employed in staging the trial? But that was just the point that interested us most of all and in spite of all the vigilance of the GPU we succeeded in establishing contact with the sorry heroes of the trial. Once I asked them how they were able to give such monstrous testimony. The reply was eloquent: “We ourselves don’t understand what happened; it was like a frightful nightmare.”

Several years later, Sukhanov (he was, parenthetically, the well known historian of the revolution) circulated in the prison a copy of his appeal to the Soviet government, wherein he demanded that the promise be kept “to set free those who agree to make fraudulent confessions.” Following this incident, the GPU removed Sukhanov; but of course he was not set free. Nobody knows what has happened to him since.

Syrtsov and Lominadze in Opposition

In the interval between the two trials there was a scandal inside the party: the opposition of Syrtsov and Lominadze was unmasked. Syrtsov was chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars of the RSFSR (Russian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic). Lominadze was one of the outstanding young leaders of the Communist Party. This opposition was noteworthy for two undisclosed features. It cultivated “hypocrisy” systematically, defending Stalin in public and conducting a campaign against him in the corridors; it realized for the first time a bloc between the Left and Right Oppositions. In fact, Syrtsov, while not a member of the Right Wing Opposition, shared its views; as to Lominadze, he was one of the left-Stalinists who dreamed of a Stalin-Trotsky-Zinoviev bloc. The Syrtsov-Lominadze alliance was born out of the economic crisis which kept growing and which was due to the frenzied pace of the Five-Year Plan and the increasing distress of the workers. Syrtsov expressed himself in measured terms: “The country has entered thoughtlessly into a dangerous economic zone; everybody talks about it with uneasiness. The initiative of the workers has been stifled. The wage problem is becoming increasingly acute.” Lominadze dotted the I’s: “The party administration treats the interests of the workers and peasants like the ancient feudal barons.”

But Stalin lost no time. Summoned to explain themselves, the leaders of the Right-Left bloc capitulated and were demoted to an inferior post in the hierarchy. Stalin used the incident to strengthen his position. Rykov was removed from the chairmanship of the Council of People’s Commissars of the USSR and replaced by Molotov, while the management of industry was confided to Ordjonikidke, intimate friend of Stalin. As to the close collaborators of Syrtsov and Lominadze, they were sent to prison or exile. One of them, Riutin, former secretary of the Communist Party committee in Krasnaya-Presnya [a district of Moscow] and one of the pillars of the Right Wing faction, arrived in our Isolator.

Riutin in Prison

The same Riutin who in 1925–27, at the time of the Stalin-Bukharin bloc against Zinoviev and Trotsky, was the fiercest executioner of Trotskyism, was now in prison, alone among his victims, delivered to their mercy. It was a great temptation. But since 1927, much water had flown under the bridge, there was no longer a question of extending the NEP but rather of “discussing the ultra-left adventure” of Stalin. So the prison gave Riutin a cold but calm reception. This could mean that the tension between the Right Wing and the Trotskyists was diminishing. You could even speak of a coming-together on certain points. However, Riutin was soon transferred elsewhere.

In this period I fell ill with rheumatism and was thus able to make the acquaintance of a very important institution in the life of the inmates: the prison infirmary. This infirmary, as well as the doctor’s office, were situated in a former church. The inmates were often sick. The communists generally had behind them years of civil war and privation, the anarchists and the socialists ten years of prison, concentration camp and exile. Moreover, the GPU had developed to an art the breaking down of the nervous systems of its victims. It is not hard to imagine the state of nervous malady in which the inmates found themselves.

The infirmary was not the only refuge of the worn inmates. They rested also by turning to literature when they had had enough of politics. The most popular book of the time was the memoirs of an Old Bolshevik conspirator – a Trotskyist since the NEP – A.K. Voronsky, entitled Fresh Waters and Swamps. He described artistically and with melancholy the epic of the Bolshevik conspirators in the days of the revolutionary movement from 1903 to 1917. “Never shall we see again our beloved band, united and audacious.” It was a whole generation that lamented the Paradise Lost in these memoirs.

Questions of Literature

Upon the arrival of Gorlov, who had defended Mayakovsky against Trotsky in 1923, I took up interest again in the discussions on the poet and in literature in general. These discussions went beyond the limits of literature. I dug up Mayakovsky’s review, The Left Front, as well as the minutes of the literary discussions that the Central Committee of the party used to hold in the days of the NEP, and finally the works of Trotsky and Lenin.

The Left Front breathed the ardor of the struggle in the deleterious atmosphere of the NEP. The manifesto of literary opposition that Mayakovsky published in it was part of the history of the Russian Revolution, in the same way that the manifesto of political opposition of Trotsky in 1923, or the social declarations of the workers’ opposition in 1920–22. The Left Front fought literary conservatism and the smugness of the communists who had “arrived”; it recalled that literature is not only a mirror but also a fighting weapon – all this at a time when compromise was the style.

It would seem that Trotsky should have seen in this literary opposition an ally of his political opposition. He might have been able to transform the criticism of Mayakovsky into something solider. But Trotsky, unfortunately, discerned nothing in it and combatted Mayakovsky. As far as I was able to convince myself in prison, from the printed documents and the discussions, Trotsky was the most brilliant representative of the right-center bloc of Bukharin and Stalin in affairs of literature, in spite of the fierce political struggle he conducted against this bloc. He defended in literature the conciliation of the classes which he denied in politics; in this field he was only an intellectual tainted with liberalism. Ryazanov, in the sessions of the Central Committee devoted to communist literature, did not hesitate to deride Trotsky and Bukharin and to accuse them of forgetting historical materialism in favor of a “reactionary idealism.”

The Five-Year Plan bewildered Mayakovsky. His extreme-left slogans seemed to triumph in literature as well as in politics. But at the same time he felt he was being paid off in words, that the development remained reactionary, as in the past. He sought salvation in death.

The tragic destiny of the great writers of old Russia was repeated in the fate of Mayakovsky. Our prison companion, Pushas, explained this analogy in an article dedicated to the poet. But the sacrilegious comparison stirred a tempest in the penitentiary. “How can you forget the essential difference between the USSR and the Russia of the Czars?” exclaimed the Red professors of the Opposition with one voice. Poor Pushas, perfectly ignorant in the field of theory, good-naturedly recognized the “essential difference” and withdrew his article from circulation. So the members of the Opposition no longer ran the risk of having to meditate on “the tragic fate of Russian poets, from Pushkin to Mayakovsky.”

Opposition Attitude to Party

I cite the episode because it is typical. The oppositional milieu in our prison, in spite of the violence of the language that could be heard directed against Stalin, was fundamentally conservative. As soon as it was a question of criticizing the regime, the people were struck by, to say the least, an unexpected timidity. They preferred to cling to words devoid of meaning and to the crudest fables rather than to have to seek for the new. It was decidedly difficult to discern a psychological difference between the Russian Communist Party and its opposition ...

“What, you claim that we are no longer members of the party? But you are arguing like Stalin!” exclaimed the congenial oldster, Gorlov.

“Look here,” I replied, “how can we think of ourselves as members of a party which expels us and has us put into prison by the GPU!”

But Gorlov continued to claim that the All-Russian Communist Party remained no less “our party,” and that Stalin was only a usurper, a common swindler! ...

This attitude included a less inoffensive aspect. One day when I was rejoicing over a decline in the extraction of coal in the Donbas, announced in Pravda, two Georgian members of the Opposition, Tsivtsivadze and Kiknadze, attacked me violently:

“It is our duty to be alarmed at every sign of weakness of the Soviet power. We must of course convince the party that Stalin’s policy is harmful, but not carry on the work of defeatists toward our own Soviet government!”

I tried to calm them by explaining that there was no question of defeatism, that I was joyful only at the resistance that the Donbas workers were at last offering to bureaucratic despotism. But this argument did not reach them. Every attack upon the power, even if made by the workers, seemed to them an advance of the counter-revolution.

In addition, I recorded uneasily that there was a hiatus in the letters and other writings of Trotsky that reached us in prison: Trotsky never spoke of organizing strikes, of inciting the workers to the struggle against the bureaucracy, of mobilizing the working class in favor of the Trotskyist economic program. His criticism, his argumentation, his advice seemed to be addressed to the Central Committee, to the party apparatus. Referring to the vertical drop in the living standards of the workers, Trotsky concluded like a good employer who gives advice to his administration: “What are you doing? You are wasting the most precious capital – labor power.” The active subject always remained for Trotsky the “party,” with its Politbureau or its Central Committee; the proletariat was only the “object.”

It is worth noting in this connection that Trotsky’s memoirs – My Life – flatly displeased the Opposition workers of Moscow. They complained – according to our prison comrades who had recently arrived from the capital – that Trotsky passed over in silence the rôle of the working class, especially in the struggle conducted by the Opposition. One of the outstanding worker-leaders in the ranks of the Opposition, former member of the Moscow Soviet, is even supposed to have been disgusted to the point of breaking off the reading of the book right in the middle. I can recall only one favorable estimation expressed – at liberty – by a Trotskyist from Kiev. As for the inmates who came from exile, they had not read My Life, which was a prohibited work.

Let us note in passing that all of Trotsky’s works, as well as those of the socialists and anarchists that appeared legally in the USSR before the prohibition of the corresponding groups, were not subjected to any interdiction and the GPU did not confiscate them from the inmates. We were able legally to read in prison the old works of Trotsky, Plekhanov, Martov, Kropotkin, Bakunin. But beginning with 1934, they began to confiscate even all those works which had appeared in complete legality. The works of Bakunin, which appeared at that time under the editorship of Steklov, were not published for sale, but only for a restricted circle of the initiated.

Trotsky’s Letters

The letters of Trotsky and Rakovsky, devoted to questions of the day, succeeded in filtering into prison and provided the subject of ample commentary. You could not help being struck by the spirit of hierarchy, of submission to the leader, with which the Russian Opposition was imbued. A quotation from Trotsky had the value of proof. Moreover, the right wing Trotskyists, like those of the left wing, endowed these quotations, each in his own manner, with an obviously tendentious meaning. The complete submission to Lenin and Stalin that prevailed in the party was repeated in the Opposition, but in favor of Lenin and Trotsky: everything else was inspired by the Evil One.

I recall very well the letter of March 1930, in which Trotsky considered the “dizziness of success” and the retreat ordered by Stalin, and expounded his own, Trotsky’s, plan of retreat. In his letter of August 1930 he considered the Sixteenth Party Congress which had just closed. One of his phrases: “the preparation of Bonapartism inside the party has been completed,” became the basis of all the arguments and the theses of the left. As to the right wingers, they attributed only a rhetorical value to it, without importance for the attitude adopted by Trotsky on the whole. The left wingers would hear of nothing but the negative judgment expressed by Trotsky on the political superstructure of the regime; the right wingers, nothing but his positive judgment on the social basis: dictatorship of the proletariat and socialist character of the economy.

The real incoherence of Trotsky’s attitude gave birth in the Isolator to two antagonistic groups, each of which clung to one of the two aspects of the contradictory attitude of the leader. In February 1931 Trotsky mentioned rapidly the economic successes of the Five-Year Plan, then there was an interruption of almost a year, during which we were deprived of Trotsky’s writings.

I have already spoken of Rakovsky’s writings. He did not play an independent rôle in the Opposition, which recognized only Trotsky as its chief. Rakovsky was listened to only in the capacity of representative of Trotsky.

(To be continued)

Footnote by MIA

1. In text “1939”, but from the context this cannot be correct since the book was published in 1938.


Last updated on: 12 August 2015