A. Ciliga

In Stalin’s Prisons – VI

The Ideological Life of the Imprisoned Oppositionists


Written: 1936–37.
Published: 1938, in Paris, under the title Au Pays du Grand Mensonge.
Source: The New International, Vol. X No. 6, June 1944, pp. 186–90.
Transcription/Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

[Continued from last issue]

The most recent writings of our leader, in which he somewhat modified his position, had not come to hand. Thus, confusion was at its height when we finally received, in the Summer of 193!, the latest documents of Trotsky. The main piece of the lot, published abroad in April 1931, was entitled Problems of the Development of the USSR with the subtitle: Outline of a Program of the International Left Opposition on the Russian Question.

Trotsky’s Program of 1931

The purpose of this document, and its author, conferred a particular importance upon it. We decided to make it the subject of a discussion: Didn’t the Russian Opposition have to pronounce itself on its own program? However, the discussion lacked life. Nobody was satisfied, but everybody – except for the extreme left – evidenced respect for the document while evading an approach to it. Imbued with the – outlived – ideas of Trotsky on the adventurist character of the Stalinist achievements, our Trotskyists found it hard to swallow the dithyrambs this document contained. Trotsky, now, spoke of the “truly unparalleled present successes,” of the “unprecedented pace of industrialization ... which has proved once for all the power of the economic methods of socialism.” As to the famous one hundred per cent collectivization, Trotsky defined it as “a new epoch in human history, the beginning of the liquidation of village cretinism.” He even admitted that complete collectivization might be achieved in “two or three years from now.” After this blow, those of us who had spoken of a “mirage of figures” and of “Stalinist bluff” in connection with the Five-Year Plan, could only hold their tongues. Nevertheless, the new “program” of Trotsky evoked no sympathy. The Trotskyists of the right wing and the center found that their leader was exaggerating the success of the Plan, that such an attitude might be defensible abroad, where the Plan had to be protected from the attacks of the bourgeoisie, but that it did not suit Russia. As to the left wing, it was discontent at not finding in this program a social and political criticism of the regime.

It must be said that from the social and political point of view, the “program” of Trotsky destroyed all the hopes of the “lefts.” Since 1930, they had been waiting for their leader to take a position and declare that the present Soviet state was not a workers’ state. Yet, right in the first chapter of the “program,” Trotsky defined it plainly as a “proletarian state.” A still more serious defect in the field of the Five-Year Plan: its socialist character, the socialist character of the aims and even of the methods was insistently affirmed in the “program.” His whole polemic in the social domain was reduced to a bad quarrel: “The Soviet Union has not entered the stage of socialism, but only in the first stage of an evolution toward socialism.” Further on, the Five-Year Plan, founded on the extermination of the peasants and on the pitiless exploitation of the workers, was interpreted as “an attempt of the bureaucracy to adapt itself to the proletariat.” In brief, the USSR was developing “on the foundation of the proletarian dictatorship ...”

It was now vain to hope that Trotsky would ever draw the distinction between the bureaucracy and the proletariat, between state capitalism and socialism. Those of the left wing “deniers” who could not get themselves to find any socialism in what was being built in Russia had nothing left to do but break with Trotsky and leave the “Trotskyist collective.” There were a dozen of them – myself included – who so decided. As was the custom, we motivated our departure in a written declaration.

In it we said, in substance, that Trotsky’s positive attitude toward the social phenomena, along with his negative attitude toward the political superstructure, would lead logically to the conception of a purely political revolution. But such a revolution, with the best that it would accomplish, would change the personnel of the bureaucracy, introduce a bit of liberalism into it without altering the foundations of the regime. It would be a repetition off 1830 ...

What shocked me most in Trotsky’s program was that he could strengthen the illusions of the Western proletariat about Russia, rather than dissipate them. For if Stalin said: “We have already realized socialism,” Trotsky confined himself to stating concretely, “Pardon me, not socialism, but only its first stage ...”

A Break with Trotskyism

Thus, after having taken part in the ideological life and the struggles of the Russian Opposition, I came – like many others before and after me – to the following conclusion: Trotsky and his partisans are too intimately linked with the bureaucratic regime in the USSR to be able to conduct the struggle against this regime to its ultimate consequences. In his “program,” Trotsky even underlined that his criticism was not that of a hostile stranger and that he regarded the programs of the regime “from within, not from without.” For him, the task of the Opposition was to improve the bureaucratic system, not to destroy it, to struggle against the “exaggeration of privileges” and the “extreme inequality of living standards” – not against the privileges or against inequality in general. Let them be mitigated a little, and everything will be in order again, under the auspices of the authentic “dictatorship of the proletariat” Those whom this did not satisfy risked being dealt with as “ultra-leftist petty-bourgeois Utopians,” if not as counter-revolutionists.

The subsequent evolution of Trotsky was to confirm this prognostication. The Revolution Betrayed which Trotsky published in 1936 remains faithful to the broad lines of the “program” of 1930. While criticizing with vigor and severity certain aspects of Soviet society, Trotsky does not change his general views on the USSR as a “workers’ state”; he thus contributes to maintaining in the mind of the international proletariat the falsest and most dangerous of modern illusions.

The inhuman methods of bureaucratic exploitation to which the Five-Year Plan owes its success are called “socialist methods which have passed their test” by Trotsky. He is silent on the exploitation of the workers, he does not mention the exploitation of the peasants save to thunder against the “economic savants in the service of capital” who dare to speak of it. To be sure, it is a noble task to unmask the attorneys for private capitalism. Is that a reason for becoming the attorney for state capitalism?

Trotsky does not want to understand that the “deviations” and deformities against which he protests are only the logical and inevitable consequence of the whole system he fiercely defends. Trotsky is at bottom the theoretician of a regime of which Stalin is the accomplisher.

”Bureaucratic or proletarian opposition” – that is the title that I gave an article in which I expounded, in prison, my new attitude toward Trotskyism. I then passed over to the camp of the extreme left Russian Opposition: “Democratic Centralism,” “Workers’ Opposition,” “Workers’ Group.”

What separated this opposition from Trotskyism was not only the manner of judging the regime and understanding the current problems. It was above all the manner of understanding the role of the proletariat in the revolution. For the Trotskyists, it was the party; for the extreme left groups, it was the working class that was the motor of the revolution. The struggle between Stalin and Trotsky concerned the policy of the party, the leading personnel of the party; for both, the proletariat was only a passive object. The groups of the communist extreme left, on the contrary, were interested primarily in the situation and the role of the working class, in what it was in fact in Soviet society and in what it had to be in a society which devoted itself sincerely to the task of building socialism. The ideas and the political life of these groups opened up a new perspective for me and posed problems unknown to the Trotsky opposition: How must the proletariat act in order to conquer the means of production taken from the bourgeoisie, to control effectively the party and the government, to install workers’ democracy and to preserve the revolution from bureaucratic degeneration? ...

[At this point we omit two sections of Ciliga’s memoirs. The first deals with his further political reflections, as a result of which he came to the conclusion that he had to abandon Leninism itself, on the ground that if Stalin represented a reactionary edition of bureaucratism, Lenin represented the “liberal edition of one and the same” thing, the latter opening the road to the former. The second section deals with the notorious Moscow terror trials, dating from the assassination of Kirov. In neither section does the author recount anything especially new or valuable for our readers. In any case, the false and superficial political conclusions which Ciliga drew concerning Leninism do not in any way detract from the highly interesting account he gives of the internal life and development of our Trotskyist Opposition in prison and exile, which has hitherto been unavailable in such detailed form. This account continues in the final chapter of Ciliga’s story. – Editor]

Regroupings in 1933

After our excursion into the field of the Moscow trials, let us return to Verkhne-Uralsk. In the summer of 1933, the prison became deeply interested in the two great events of the time: the retreat just proclaimed by Stalin, and the taking of power by Hitler.

Noting the retreat of Stalin, the Trotskyist opposition could no longer discuss the “program of retreat.” Factions and splits had lost their point. Position had to be taken in face of the realities of the hour.

The right-wing Trotskyists understood that a “reform from above” could no longer be counted on. The former promoters of the split of 1931, Solntsev for the right and Kamenetsky, former “Militant Bolshevik,” for the left, became the champions of unification. After some resistance, the unity of the Trotskyist opposition was re-established in the Fall of 1931 on the following bases: freedom of opinion and of propaganda within the opposition; struggle against the Stalinist bureaucracy tinged with some timid democratic demands. The number of “deniers” continued to increase, denying to the Stalin regime the character of a proletarian dictatorship. It is odd that these “deniers” belonged at first in the old right-wing camp, whereas the little group of extreme right-wing Trotskyists, called “MPM” after the initals of its three members, Melnais, Barkin and Milman, demanded a “more loyal” criticism of the Stalinist policy, believing at the same time that the USSR was going through a “monarchical stage of the dictatorship of the proletariat,” after having known the stages of class, of party and of oligarchy.

The Trotskyists were obviously abandoning their bureaucratic haughtiness for a more democratic attitude. I rejoiced over it, perhaps mistakenly, for all that was scarcely more than opportunism. Just as the NEP tinged with democracy had once been demanded, a state capitalism tempered by democracy was called for today. The idea that democracy ought to be the very foundation of socialist evolution remained alien to Trotskyism. Was it the tradition – profoundly bureaucratic – of the Trotskyists that had to be impeached, their petty bourgeois origin?

The new situation likewise facilitated unification in the extreme left-wing camp. The Myaznikov group, the “Decists,” some former Trotskyists – twenty to twenty-five comrades in all – formed a “Federation of Left Communists.” This federation was constituted after my departure from the Isolator, but I was able to take part in the ideological discussion that preceded it.

There was no agreement on the definition of Soviet state capitalism: was it “relatively progressive” (according to me), “purely parasitical” (according to Tiunov), did it represent a “new epoch of civilization” (as V. Smirnov declared)?

Tiunov demanded complete socialism in industry and the restoration of the NEP in rural economy. He approved “integrally” historical Bolshevism and the program of the “Workers’ Opposition” and the “Workers’ Group” of 1920–23. I believed, on the other hand, that the new labor movement had to take into account the experience of all the left-wing groupings – of Russian Bolshevism, of the German tendency of Rosa Luxemburg, of French and American syndicalism, etc. Naturally, the transformations undergone by the Russian revolution and the victories of fascism over the old labor movement were likewise to be taken into account. V. Smirnov, on the contrary, wiped the slate clean of historical Bolshevism and ignored the communist movement abroad, for he did not see any workers in it. In the last analysis, this led to reasoning in an absolute void.

Echoes of the German Crisis

The German crisis, beginning with the Reichstag elections in September 1930, deeply interested the prisoners. At each election, at each stage of the rise of National Socialism, we wrote articles, drew up comparative tables, and organized discussions during the walking hour. The Rote Fahne [official Berlin organ of the German CP] was the only German paper we could receive, so we read it till the paper was worn out. In spite of all our differences, we were unanimous in foreseeing the vast international import of the German events. This led us to study the problem in its general aspect: what is fascism? What is its place in present-day society? We analyzed minutely the programs of the fascist parties and the Soviet and foreign works dealing with them (I do not know how, but we even succeeded in procuring the foreign works!).

The arrival of Hitler in power provoked a veritable panic among the Trotskyists. They expected the “inevitable” aggression of Hitler against the USSR, with complicity of England and France. “Hitler and Stalin will come to an understanding,” I objected to Trotsky’s son-in-law, Man Nevelson. “Not possible; Hitler will not want it. – Then Stalin will come to an agreement with France.” Nevelson and the other Trotskyists did not succeed in understanding that the laws ruling the foreign policy of the bourgeois states also rules that of Russia. It was these somewhat narrow patriots of “our Soviet state” whom Stalin was to accuse of collaborating with Hitler ...

After the collapse of the German Communist Party, a group of intransigent “Decks” spoke of forming a Fourth International. The Trotskyists of Verkhne-Uralsk were opposed to it because they still hoped for a reform of the USSR and of the Comintern. The left Trotskyist leaders, V. Yenukidze, Kamenetsky and Yak, published a manifesto which accused the “Decists” of launching a premature and demagogical slogan. Furthermore, not knowing Trotsky’s attitude on this score, his partisans of Verkhne-Uralsk preferred to stand on their positions. When they learned that their leader was for a Fourth International, they did not oppose it, but did not know how to interpret the fact that the French Trotskyists had entered the Socialist Party, section of the Second International.

Zankow and Tiunov, of the extreme left, were against a Fourth International for other reasons: they were afraid that it would be another edition of the Third. V. Smirnov made a half turn; judging that a new International and new workers’ organization would be, in view of the circumstances, a pure utopia, he saw no way out except in a fusion of social-democrats and communists. The former would guarantee the participation of the proletarian classes, the latter – revolutionary initiative. I had to reply to Smirnov that “the union of two corpses would not produce a living body.”

* * *

I took advantage of my last months in prison to assemble material on the non-communist groups.

Non-Communist Prisoners

The Russian social-democrats, some fifteen, published a paper in which I recall several articles. In one, they showed that the Bolsheviks had based themselves in 1917 and during the civil war on the lower strata of the working class, but at the time of the NEP – on the upper strata of the proletariat. In an article on The Results of the Five-Year Plan, a representative of the right wing of the social-democrats denied any substantial economic progress, whereas the author of another article, belonging to the left wing, found that the results of the collectivization were by and large satisfactory. Finally, I remember an article entitled Hitler in Power, also written by a left social-democrat, in which the absence of a united proletarian front was denounced as the essential cause of the victory of fascism.

The Georgian social-democrats, so far as I could gather in prison and in exile, are petty bourgeois democrats for the most part; there are only a few genuine social democrats among them. But this does not prevent telling the truth about the repression of the Georgian insurrection in 1924. The repression was conducted with unparalleled cruelty, together with provocations and mass execution, without trials of any kind; in addition, people in prison for a long time were shot, although they had nothing to do with the insurrection. This bloodbath was organized by Stalin, Ordjonikidze and Bela Kun. Numerous Georgian oppositional communists I knew at Verkhne-Uralsk told me the truth which they knew by having witnessed the repression or even by having taken part in it.

There were only five social-revolutionists at Verkhne-Uralsk, but I knew a few others in exile. Their opinions were close to those of the communist opposition. A part of them, led by M.A. Spiridonova, legendary heroine of the Russian revolutionary movement (she spent twenty-five years, half of her life, in exile), shared the views of the Trotskyists, more or less. Another group, led by Kamkov, former social-revolutionary People’s Commissar in 1918, supported the views of the extreme-left communists.

The right-wing social-revolutionists, very few in number, are very hostile to those of the left wing.

The Armenian socialist-revolutionists, who constitute the “Dazhnak-Tsutiun” Party, are concerned almost exclusively with national emancipation.

The Jewish Zionists belong to different shadings of socialism and concern themselves above all with the Jewish national problem in Palestine. But they are not entirely disinterested in the Russian and international labor movements.

There were not many anarchists at Verkhne-Uralsk, but I knew more of them in exile, including two celebrated ones: Jonas Varshavsky and Barmach. If the social-democrats represented the “humanist” principle in prison and the communists the revolutionary principle, it may be said the anarchists represented the ideal of chivalry. They were ever ready to support any group at all in fighting against the administration. If there was a hunger strike, it was among the anarchists that most of the mortal cases were to be found. What is more, there is a certain number of former communists and Comsomol members in the USSR who, at the end of the civil war and the beginning of the NEP, joined the anarchists.

Composition of the Prisoners

The toiling masses of Russia – the workers as well as the peasants – prefer, as I have already stated, passive resistance to open struggle. Gone is the epoch of the “Workers’ Opposition” of 1920–23, this potent social oppositional movement of the extreme left created by the Russian workers. This situation is reflected exactly in the social and national composition of contemporary Russia. There are no more than fifteen per cent workers among the prisoners. These workers, moreover, “capitulate” rapidly enough. I have heard some of them say: “What good does it do to rot in prison? When the people rise, the hour of the opposition will have struck, but not before.”

The social and national composition of the various political groupings was about as follows: the most numerous group, the Trotskyists, which could count on the sympathy of wide circles of the communist apparatus in the country, was composed in prison of a majority of young Jewish intellectuals and technicians, coming out of the petty bourgeoisie of the “Jewish zone” of the Ukraine and White Russia. There were also many Georgians and Armenians of peasant origin. There were among the Trotskyists a strong group of former military men and Chekists, in which the Russians were fairly numerous.

The Russian and worker element was more considerable in the “Democratic Centralism” group (the “Decists”); it predominated in the “Workers’ Group” of Myaznikov. By its composition, the right-wing opposition which began arriving in prison in 1933 may be called Russian. Thus, the two extreme wings of the communist opposition were Russian by nationality, with the peculiarity, which is symbolical in value, that the extreme right was much stronger than the extreme left wing.

In total, according to the statistics of our “Council of Elders,” the communist sector of the prison was composed of forty-three per cent Jews, twenty-seven per cent Caucasians, with the Russians and some members of other nationalities making up thirty per cent. It used to be said jokingly in Verkhne-Uralsk that the Russians were only a national minority. There is no doubt that this situation, all to the honor of the Jewish, Georgian and Armenian people, constitutes the weak point of the contemporary opposition in Russia.

The bulk of the social-democrats (Mensheviks) come from the “Bund” – the old Jewish Workers’ Party of pre-war times. It may be said that the right-wing Bundists moulted into social-democrats, the left-wing Bundists – into Trotskyists.

The bulk of the social-revolutionists and the anarchists is made up of Russians.

Another Hunger Strike

We were to be set free, Dedich, Dragich and I, on May 22, 1933. Two months earlier, we had sent the Central Executive Committee and the supreme instances of the GPU in Moscow a declaration in which we demanded that we be allowed to quit Russia freely after having served our sentence. In case of refusal – we wrote – it was our intention to fight by every means. All the prisoners supported our demand, the “elders” of the communist sector of the prison even sending an official telegram to Moscow. It was an act of solidarity on the part of our comrades, who wished, furthermore, that we should be able to inform the labor world abroad about the situation of the political prisoners in Russia.

When the GPU understood that an organized struggle was involved, it decided to remove us from Verkhne-Uralsk on some plausible pretext, which was done on May 18, 1933. We were told we were going to Moscow: “It is probably for the purpose of talking over your declaration,” the prison director told us. All the prisoners sent us on with their best wishes, while asking themselves if we were not simply being transferred to another prison. Two automobiles carried us off. Soon the one carrying my two comrades disappeared in the dust of the road. I was never to see them again. I travelled the whole day. In the evening we stopped before the political prison of Chelyabinsk. As soon as I was locked up, I declared that I had been deceived about my trip to Moscow, that I had been deliberately separated from by comrades, that I regarded this as the rejection of my request to leave, and that I was immediately beginning a hunger strike. The prison director, Dubnis, replied that in these conditions he could not take charge of my person and that he would have me returned to Verkhne-Uralsk. I was put back in an automobile and instead of bringing me hack to Verkhne-Uralsk, I was transferred to the cellar of the criminal prison of the Chelyabinsk police. My cell was cold, damp and dark. Even in the daytime it had to be lit by electricity. I had to spend two months in this cellar, without one minute for walking, one minute of sun or fresh air.

As soon as I arrived, I began a hunger strike. I knew that my comrades, wherever they were, were doing the same, as we had agreed. A special guard of GPU sbirri was sent to me, for even though I was in a prison for common criminals, it was the GPU that was in charge of me. I already had some experience with hunger. Half-dressed, rolled up in a cover, I remained abed for whole days on the bench. The days passed, long and monotonous.

On the tenth day, after midnight – the GPU likes to act at night – a group of Chekists burst into my cell. There were Dubnis and some local agents, and also old acquaintances: “the commission from Moscow,” Citizeness Andreyeva, Citizen Popov ... The third member of the commission, the prosecutor, had preferred to abstain. It was better, as a matter of fact, that the business was done “without his knowledge,” for it offended too strikingly all the principles of justice!

“Citizen Ciliga,” declared Andreyeva, “I have been charged with informing you that the College of the OGPU, as well as the Central Executive Committee of the USSR, reject your request for leaving the USSR, By decision of the same College, your detention is prolonged by two years. The GPU takes no note of the strike you have declared. Beginning tomorrow, you will be fed artificially. The order has already been given to the doctor.”
“The hunger strike and artificial feeding are now secondary questions,” I replied with calculated coolness. “You want to make me your prisoner and slave forever. Nothing more is left for me but a means of protest that I shall employ, suicide. Let them at least know in the West what you do with foreign revolutionists who do not want to become your valets. I shall communicate this decision to Moscow.”
“Really, when a man decides to commit suicide, he usually does not communicate it to high places.”
“My death would please you a lot provided you didn’t bear the responsibility for it. I am conducting a political struggle against you and you will be responsible for everything that will happen to me and my comrades. That’s just the point of my official declaration to Moscow: to make you responsible for my protest suicide.”
“We shall prevent you from killing yourself!” retorted Andreyeva. “Leave two agents in his cell and take away all his things!”

No sooner said than done; a few objects of prime necessity were left me; but it happened that I had hidden a brand new blade I had gotten in Verkhne-Uralsk. So I was able to reply triumphantly to Andreyeva: “A man who decides to do away with his life cannot be stopped.”

Andreyeva began immediately to use persuasion.

“The Political Bureau of the Yugoslavian Communist Party has accepted the prolongation of your sentence. I can show you the written decision of the Political Bureau.”
“Don’t bother yourself; your Mamelukes, Yugoslavian or others, have no power whatsoever over me. I do not recognize this Political Bureau and I am no longer a member of your Communist Parties.”

Thereupon the commission took its leave. The next day I sent a telegram to Moscow. No attempt was made to feed me by force.

I had nothing better to do than wait for the reply from Moscow. The prison doctor was upset: “I’m the one who is being held responsible for your life! Commit suicide or stop the strike, but decide!”

Finally, at the end of the fourth day – the fourteenth of the hunger strike – I saw the director, Dubnis, come in to announce that a telegram had just come from Moscow: my two supplementary years in prison had been “commuted” to three years of exile at Irkutsk. Dubnis thought himself a good diplomat by showing me the difference:

“Irkutsk is a big city, it isn’t Chelyabinsk, you will be better off there for settling the question of your departure.”
“Thanks,” I answered, “I want to go back to Europe directly, and not by making a tour of the world through Irkutsk. But inasmuch as they say nothing more about imprisoning me again, I want to withdraw my threat of suicide, although the strike continues.”

I fasted another nine days. The twenty-third day of the strike, Dubnis presented himself and cited a new telegram which called me to Moscow. I demanded written proofs. They were given to me. I halted the strike.

At the end of two weeks, I was on my feet. I must say that Dubnis fed me very well, no doubt out of “revolutionary and internationalist” conscience, but also in the hope of “winning me over.” But nothing was said any more about Moscow. I began to get nervous. At last the explanation arrived: the stenographer had made a mistake, I had not been called to Moscow, this eventuality had only been envisaged. Several days later I was told without subterfuges that I had to leave for Irkutsk.

I declared a hunger strike all over again. But one night a group of GPU agents burst into my cell. I was shown the order to transfer me forcibly to exile. My bags were packed, I was put in an automobile and taken to the Chelyabinsk station. That is how I left, on July 20, under good escort, for Irkutsk.

What to do? Useless to be obdurate. After regaining strength in exile, I would be able to find an opportunity for continuing the fight. So I stopped my fast and began looking about at my surroundings. It was the first time in three years that I saw “the world” again ...


Last updated on: 15 October 2015