Yuliy Osipovich Martov

Down with the Death Penalty!

(June/July 1918)

Source: http://www.uea.ac.uk/his/webcours/russia/documents/.
First Published: Yu.O. Martov (eds. S.V. Tyutyukin, O.V. Volobuev, I.Kh. Urilov), Izbrannoe, Moscow, 2000, pp.373-383.
The endnotes are based on those supplied by D.B. Pavlov and V.L. Telitsyn on pp.525-526.
Translated: for marxists.org in 2004 by Francis King.
Marked up by Andy Blunden & Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Moscow, end of June – beginning of July 1918

With these words, comrade workers, you took to the streets on many occasions in the accursed days of Tsarism. These words were written on your glorious red flags. These words resounded during the great days of February 1917, when the yoke of age-old oppression was broken and the government of the revolution first pronounced: the death penalty is abolished.

In July 1917, when an attempt was made to restore the death penalty for the worst offenders against the people – for deserters from the battlefield, marauders and spies for foreign states – you protested against the restoration of the death penalty. You did so not out of sympathy for deserters or marauders, but because you realised the full extent of the danger to the people posed by the resurrection of the death penalty, even if only for the worst and proven criminals.

And when you protested in 1917 against the restitution of the death penalty, at your head stood those very people who are now ruling Russia. The Bolshevik party at that time called upon you not to allow the restoration of the death penalty even for spies, even for traitors, deserters and marauders. At that time that party told you that the death penalty, under all circumstances, for whatever crime, was savage barbarism which brought shame upon humanity. That Bolshevik party told you that socialists reject the death penalty, they reject the cold-blooded killing of unarmed criminals no longer capable of harm, they reject turning civilians into executioners, carrying out on court orders the foul business of depriving human beings, albeit criminal ones, of that greatest gift – life.

That Bolshevik party told you then: so the Christian church, professing a religion of love for thy neighbour, hypocritically justifies the murder of a person by the state authorities and the state courts when it suits it. Socialism will never stoop to such hypocrisy, and will never use its religion, the religion of fraternity of working people, to sanctify the cannibalistic principle of the death penalty.

Thus spake the present rulers of Russia. And, on taking power in October, at the Second Congress of Soviets they decreed:

The death penalty is abolished – even at the front!

These were their words, comrade workers, which you applauded, with which they bought your affection and your trust. You saw in them bold revolutionary fighters, ready to die for their ideas, and ready to kill their enemies in open battle for these ideas. But they could not be executioners, killing neutralised, already defeated, disarmed and defenceless criminals after a mock trial.

Such were their words, comrade workers. Now you can see their deeds.

* * *

As soon as they had taken power, on the very first day after they had announced the abolition of the death penalty, they started to kill.

They killed prisoners taken after battle in a civil war, just as all savages do.

They killed their enemies who had surrendered after battle on the promise that their lives would be spared. This is what happened during the October days, when the Bolshevik Smidovich gave a written promise to spare the lives of those Junkers who surrendered, and then allowed the prisoners to be beaten to death one by one. [1] Thus it was in Mogilev, where General Dukhonin surrendered to Krylenko, who in turn offered Dukhonin no protection as he was torn limb from limb before his very eyes. [2] The murderers remained unpunished. Thus it was in Kiev, in Rostov, and in many other towns as they were taken by Bolshevik troops. Thus it was in Sevastopol, in Simferopol, in Yalta, in Evpatoriya, in Feodisiya, where gangs of thugs massacred supposed counterrevolutionaries on the basis of lists, without any investigation or trial, not sparing even women or underage children.

After all these lynchings and reprisals, organised either at the instigation or with the connivance of the Bolsheviks, killings began to take place on the direct orders of the organs of Bolshevik power. The death pealty had been declared abolished, but in every town, in every province various “Extraordinary Commissions” [Chekas] and “Military-Revolutionary Committees” were ordering the shooting of hundreds upon hundreds of people. Some were killed as counterrevolutionaries, others as speculators, and yet others as robbers. No court established whether those sentenced were really guilty, nobody can tell whether the person executed was really guilty of conspiracy, speculation or robbery, or whether somebody ordered him killed in order to settle personal scores and satisfy a desire for revenge. How many innocent people have been killed like that all over Russia! With the silent approval of the Council of People’s Commissars, nameless individuals are sitting in Chekas passing death sentences. Among these individuals we sometimes discover criminals, bribe-takers, people themselves on the run from the law, and former tsarist provocateurs. Often, as in the case of the six Petrograd students executed by firing squad – we cannot even discover who precisely pronounced the death sentence.

Human life has become cheap. It is cheaper than the paper on which the executioner writes the order to destroy it. It is cheaper than the increased bread rations, for which a hired murderer is ready to send a person to the next world on the orders of the first villain who seizes power.

This bloody debauchery is being carried out in the name of socialism, in the name of that teaching which proclaimed the brotherhood of working people the highest goal of humanity.

This debauchery is being carried out in your name, Russian worker!

* * *

Having massacred tens of thousands of people without trial, the Bolsheviks have now resorted to passing death sentences in court.

They created a new Supreme Revolutionary Tribunal to try enemies of Soviet power.

At its very first session this new tribunal passed its first death sentence, which was carried out 10 hours later.

When they established this tribunal, the Bolsheviks did not declare that it would have the right to pronounce death sentences in spite of the decision of the Congress of Soviets to abolish the death penalty.

They hid their vile plan from the people. This plan was to create a court-martial, which, like Stolypin’s, was supposed to send those who displeased the Bolshevik party into the next world.

Like thieves in the night, they smuggled in the death penalty, abolished by the Second Congress of Soviets.

Sensing that shootings on Cheka orders and mob law were earning them the hatred of the entire people, they decided to precede executions by a pretence at a trial, supposedly to consider the guilt of the accused prior to execution.

But it is all a pretence, comrades! These courts do not exist.

Look at how they judged Captain Shchastny.[3]

He was accused of conspiring against Soviet power.

Captain Shchastny denied his guilt.

He asked to call witnesses, including those Bolshevik commissars who were supposed to be keeping an eye on him. Who could know better than they whether he was really intriguing against Soviet power?

The tribunal denied him the right to call witnesses. It denied him the very right that any court, apart from Stolypin’s courts-martial, grants to even the most serious criminal.

And this was a question of a man’s life or death.

It was a question of the life or death of a man who had earned the trust and love of those who served under him – the sailors of the Baltic Fleet, who protested against his arrest.

This man had rendered the people a great service by accomplishing a difficult feat: he withdrew all the ships of the Baltic Fleet from Helsinki, thereby saving them from the Finnish whiteguards.

But it was not the Finnish whiteguards, nor the German imperialists, who shot this man in anger: he was executed by Russian socialists, or by people who like to call themselves such: Messrs. Medvedev, Bruno, Karelin, Veselovsky, and Peterson – the judges of the Supreme Revolutionary Tribunal.

Shchastny was denied the right granted to any thief or murderer – the right to call witnesses to court. Not one of his witnesses was allowed to appear. But the court heard a witness for the prosecution.

And that witness was Trotsky.

It was that same Trotsky who, as Commissar for Army and Naval Affairs, had arrested Shchastny.

It was that same Trotsky who, as a member of the Council of People’s Commissars, had ordered that Shchastny be tried by this Supreme Tribunal, created for pronouncing death sentences.

And in court Trotsky behaved not as a witness, but as a prosecutor. As a prosecutor he declared: this man is guilty, condemn him! – having first gagged the man by forbidding him to call witnesses able to refute these accusations.

One does not need to be very brave to fight one’s enemies like that – already bound and gagged.

Nor does one need to be very honest or honourable.

No, that is not a court, it is a mockery of a court.

It is not a court, when sentence is passed by judge-bureaucrats who are dependent upon the authorities.

In the Supreme Revolutionary Tribunal there are no jurors from the general public, there are only state officials, drawing their salaries from the state treasury, which is in the hands of Trotsky and other People’s Commissars.

It is not a court, when the accused is not allowed to call witnesses in his defence.

It is not a court, when a representative of the highest authorities appears, masquerading as a witness, and orders the judges as a member of the government: crucify him!

And this non-court pronounced the death sentence, which was speedily carried out before people, revolted and shocked by this order to murder, could do anything to save the victim.

Under Nikolay Romanov it was sometimes possible, by pointing to the monstrous harshness of the sentence, to prevent it being carried out and rescue the victim from the executioner’s clutches.

Under Vladimir Ulyanov even that is impossible. The men and women at the head of the Bolshevik party were sleeping soundly, while somewhere, in the quiet of the night, the first person condemned by their court was being killed.

Nobody knew who was doing the killing or how. As under the Tsars, the names of the executioners are hidden from the people. Nobody knows whether Trotsky, having personally conducted this entire juridical comedy from beginning to end, turned up in person to observe and direct the execution.

Or maybe he too slept soundly, dreaming that the world proletariat was lauding him as the liberator of humanity, as the leader of the world socialist revolution?

Because it was in the name of socialism, in your name, proletarians, that these blind lunatics and vainglorious idiots carried out this blood-drenched comedy of cold-blooded murder!

* * *

The beast has tasted warm human blood. The murder machine has been started up. Messrs Medvedev, Bruno, Peterson, Veselovsky and Karelin have rolled up their sleeves and set to work as butchers.

We have already seen the first example, and now the Supreme Revolutionary Tribunal will be dispatching to the next world anyone that the Bolshevik party wishes to deprive of their life. It will turn as many people into corpses as conscientious bureaucrats working an eight-hour day can manage.

It has begun with an officer, who can be presented to the ignorant masses as an enemy of the people, as a counterrevolutionary. Soon it will be the turn of everyone who tries to open the masses’ eyes to the criminal and ruinous nature of the order the Bolsheviks have created.

There are already hundreds of workers and peasants, hundreds of socially-useful workers, numerous social-democrats and socialist-revolutionaries languishing in Bolshevik prisons and torture-chambers. For a word of criticism, for a word of protest, for openly expressing their convictions, for defending the interests of workers and peasants these people are locked up under guard. Sometimes, in a display of savage mob law, they have been killed without any cause. Now every one of them can pass through the courtroom of the Supreme Tribunal on their way to the next world.

For reprisals against all opponents of the Bolshevik party, to eliminate socialists and recalcitrant workers and peasants, the Stolypin courts-martial and the death penalty have been reintroduced.

But bloodshed gives rise to more bloodshed. The political terror the Bolsheviks introduced in October has saturated the air above the fields of Russia with bloody fumes. The civil war is becoming ever more cruel, people are becoming ever more savage and bestial, and the great precepts of genuine humanity, which socialism always taught, are being increasingly forgotten. In those places where Bolshevik power has been overthrown by the masses or by armed force, the same terror is beginning to be used against the Bolsheviks as they had been employing against their enemies. The followers of Dutov, Semenov and Alekseev, the Ukrainian haydamaki, the troops of Skoropadsky and Krasnov, and Drozdovsky’s detachments are all hanging and shooting. Peasants and landlords, having toppled their local Bolshevik soviets, treat their members with the greatest cruelty.

People are becoming more bestial on both sides – and the full weight of responsibility for this rests on that party, which in the name of socialism blasphemously sanctified the cold-blooded execution of unarmed prisoners, which hypocritically protests against whiteguard executions in Finland while Russian soil is being drenched in the blood of the victims of firing squads.

The increasing cruelty of the civil war can already be seen in covert killings. The Bolshevik commissar Volodarsky was murdered – the unfortunate victim of the mutual hatred sown by government terror. [4] And two days later a Red Army soldier killed an old worker – the social-democrat [Menshevik] Vasil’ev [5] who had given many years’ honest service to the workers’ cause. It is possible Vasil’ev was murdered by a man angered by the killing of Volodarsky, who wished to avenge it upon the first opponent he encountered.

The Social-Democratic Workers’ Party has always opposed political killings, whether carried out by state executioners or voluntary avengers. It spoke out against them even when revolutionaries killed Tsarist secret policemen. It taught the working class that it would not improve its lot by murdering people, even the worst enemies of the people, but by changing fundamentally the entire political structure, all the conditions which give rise to oppression and violence. And now the party warns workers and peasants driven to despair by the violence of the Bolshevik authorities: do not seek revenge against individual commissars and individual Bolsheviks, do not go down the road of killings, do not take the lives of your enemies, but content yourselves instead with removing power from them – the power you gave them in the first place!

We social-democrats are opposed to all terror, both from above and from below.

For this reason we are also against the death penalty – this extreme weapon of terror, to which all rulers resort to frighten people when they have lost their trust.

The struggle against the death penalty was inscribed on the banners of all those who struggled for the freedom and happiness of the Russian people, all those who struggled for socialism.

The history of the Russian people, so filled with suffering, sanctified the gallows and the scaffold, surrounding them with an aura of martyrdom. The best people in Russia climbed the steps of the scaffold or faced the rifles of the firing squads. Lev Tolstoy, Korolenko, Maksim Gorky and countless artists denounced the soulless business of killing a bound and unarmed man in the name of the law.

And now we have a party which calls itself revolutionary, workers’ and socialist, which has encroached upon the Russian people’s sacred loathing for the death penalty! It has the impudence to restore the executioner to his place among the highest officers of state power! It has inherited from Tsarism the bloody religion of judicial murder – in the name of state interests!

Shame on revolutionaries, whose executions justify those carried out by Nikolay and his ministers, and which were cursed by generations of the Russian people!

Shame on people, whose quick-firing courts erase the mark of shame from Stolypin’s vile, hateful courts-martial!

Shame on a party which uses the title “socialist” to sanctify the foul trade of the executioner!

The International Socialist Congress in Copenhagen in 1910 resolved to fight against the barbarous death penalty in all countries.

International socialism recognised that socialists should never, under any circumstances, reconcile themselves to that cold-blooded murder of unarmed people on state orders, known as the death penalty.

This resolution, comrades, was signed by all the current leaders of the Bolshevik party: Lenin, Zinoviev, Trotsky, Kamenev, Radek, Lunacharsky. I saw them there, in Copenhagen, raising their hands in favour of a resolution declaring war on the death penalty.

Later, in July last year, I saw them in Petrograd protesting against the application of the death penalty, even in wartime, even against traitors.

I see them now using the death penalty right and left, against bourgeois and workers, against peasants and officers. I see them demanding that their underlings do not stop to count the victims, but that they should use the death poenalty as widely as possible against the opponents of Bolshevik power.

I see how, like thieves in the night, they have crept in to set up a special court for pronouncing death senternces – a machine for murder.

And I say to these Bolshevik judges:

You are vile cheats and perjurors.

You deceived the Workers’ International. You supported the demand to abolish the death penalty everywhere, but you reintroduced it once power had fallen into your hands.

You are deceiving the workers of Russia when you bring in the death penalty, hiding from them the fact that it was condemned by the Workers’ International as savage barbarism and foul bestiality arising from the bourgeois order. You are deceiving those unfortunate Latvians and Red Army men when you send them to execute people tied hand and foot, concealing from them that the Workers’ International, in whose name you claim to rule, forbade such foul deeds.

You, Rakovsky and Radek, deceived the Western European workers when you told them that you were travelling to Russia to struggle for the socialist cause, a cause of the highest humanity. You deceived the Western European workers when you told them you were taking the lantern of socialism to backward Russia.

In reality you came here to cultivate that ancient barbarism fostered by the Tsars, to burn incense on the old Russian altar of human sacrifice, to increase contempt for other human lives to an extent unheard of even in our savage country, to organise executions all over Russia.

You, A. V. Lunacharsky, you who love to stand before the workers and extol in ringing terms the magnificence of the socialist ideal and the universal humanity of socialist teaching; you who roll your eyes to the heavens and sing the praises of the brotherhood of man in the socialist order, you, who denounce the hypocrisy of the Christian religion for sanctifying murder and who evangelise the new religion of proletarian socialism – you are thrice a liar, thrice a Pharisee when you take a rest from the intoxication of your vulgar phrases and join Lenin and Trotsky in organising judicial and extra-judicial murder!

All of you who signed up to the International’s agreement on the struggle against the death penalty, all of you who beat your path to power with promises to the working class to abolish the death penalty once and for ever – all of you are vile bankrupts, worthy of nothing but contempt!

* * *

“I cannot remain silent!” declared that grand old man Lev Tolstoy when he heard of the daily executions carried out on the orders of Stolypin’s courts.

Russian workers! Lev Nikolaevich [Tolstoy] did not call on you to remain silent at this time, when the executioner is once again a central figure of Russian life! Karl Marx, whose memory you recently honoured, did not call on you to remain silent. The great teacher of socialism was a sworn enemy of all that barbarism we had inherited from ages past. The executioner’s bloody work, carried out in the name of socialism, in the name of the proletariat, is a desecration of his memory.

We must not remain silent!

As you judge, so shall you be judged. Tomorrow the insanity of Bolshevism will have exhausted the democratic forces and will be replaced by that very counterrevolution it has been preparing. Tomorrow the same horrors may begin in Russia as have been happening in Finland, where any workers, any socialists can be slaughtered like wild animals. And woe to us if we protest about violence against workers and demand that the workers’ lives and honour be defended against tyranny, only to be told by the bourgeoisie: you, workers, approved the same sort of violence, the same sort of executions! You kept silent about them!

But we need not wait long for that moment. At this very moment counterrevolution, protected by German bayonets, rules the roost on the Don, in the Crimea, in the Ukraine, and in the Baltic provinces. And every volley from Bolshevik rifles, shooting the opponents of Bolshevik power here, will be echoed tenfold by other rifles executing local revolutionary workers and peasants. And both the local counterrevolutionaries, and the German commanders will say in reponse to workers’ protests: “We are doing it the Bolshevik way.”

The execution of one Captain Shchastny by the Bolsheviks will pave the way to the murder of tens of workers and peasants in the South and West of Russia. Because bloodshed breeds more bloodshed.

The working class must cry “stop!” to this river of blood.

The working class must declare loudly and as one to the whole world that this terror, this barbarism of execution after trial, and this cannibalism of execution without trial has nothing to do with the Russian proletariat.

To your rulers, who lost your trust long ago and rely now on naked force, you must say that they are perjurors, who have violated their own solemn promises, that the working class rejects as outcasts all those involved in the business of death sentences, all executioners, executioners’ assistants and those that inspire them.

To those workers who still belong to the Bolshevik Communist Party – a party of judicial and extra-judicial murder – you must say that they have no place in the workers’ ranks, as they all bear responsibility for the blood shed by the executioners. Say that to them and show it in practice by cutting off all comradely relations with them and treating them as plague-ridden outcasts, just as you always did to the pogromists from the Union of the Russian People.

The party of death sentences is as much an enemy of the working class as the party of pogroms.

Let all those ignorant, blinded, and debauched sons of the working class who have been bought see, that the family of the proletariat will never forgive them their participation in the business of execution!

Let all those who have not yet lost their socialist outlook make haste to distance themselves from the Medvedevs and Stuchkas, the Krylenkos and Trotskies, Dzerzhinskies and Sverdlovs, from all those who are in charge of wholesale and individual murder!

We must not remain silent! For the honour of the working class, for the honour of socialism and the revolution, for our duty to our motherland and the Workers’ International, for the principles of humanity, for our hatred of autocracy’s gallows, for the beloved memory of our martyred fighters for freedom – let the mighty call of the working class resound across all Russia:

Down with the death penalty!
Let the people judge the executioner-cannibals!

Yu. Martov




1. Martov is referring here to the suppression of the Junkers of the Aleksandrovsky Military Academy

2. Nikolay Nikolaevich Dukhonin (1876 – 1917) was appointed Supreme Commander in Chief on 3/16 November 1917. He refused to carry out the Council of People’s Commisars’ order to begin peace negotiations with the Austro-German military command. On 9/22 November he was removed from his post, replaced by N.V. Krylenko, and arrested. On 20 November/3 December he was killed with great cruelty by soldiers.

3. A. M. Shchastny was the Commander of the Baltic Fleet. In February 1918 he moved the 236 ships that were based at Helsinki to Kronstadt, as they were in danger of being taken by German troops. He was arrested by the Cheka on fabricated evidence and brought to court. He was sentenced to death by the Revolutionary Tribunal on 21 June 1918.

4. V. Volodarsky (M.M. Goldshtein) was a Bolshevik, the editor of Krasnaya gazeta, and Press Commissar for the Petrograd Commune. He was killed in Petrograd on 20 June 1918.

5. Vasil’ev was a worker, a Menshevik who had been in the party for 20 years. He was shot during the night of 21-22 June 1918 on the way to a Red Guard headquarters, ostensibly for trying to run away. He had been arrested on the pretext that he needed to be questioned about the murder of V. Volodarsky.


Translator’s notes

Yuliy Osipovich Martov (real surname – Tsederbaum) (1873-1923) was from 1903 the leading figure in the Menshevik faction of the Russian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party, which existed as a largely separate party from 1912. In 1917 he was eclipsed by more moderate leading Mensheviks such as Irakli Tsereteli and Nikolay Chkheidze, and became the leading figure of the minority left-wing Menshevik-Internationalist faction. Following the Bolshevik seizure of power, the Mensheviks regrouped around Martov, who maintained a courageous stand of principled socialist opposition to the Bolshevik regime. The article reproduced below provides a good example of this stand. Martov was allowed to travel to Germany in 1920 to attend a congress, where he remained until his death from tuberculosis in 1923.


Last updated on 30.6.2004