Max Shachtman


The Moscow Trial

(October 1936)

Source: Socialist Appeal [Chicago], Volume 2, No. 9, October 1, 1936, pp.1-3.
Editorial Board: Ernest Erber, Albert Goldman, Rudolph C. Olson.
Transcribed & marked up: Sally Ryan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive, June 1999.

Unless we are the “gullible idiots” who Trotsky says would have to people the world if the charges made against the sixteen men just tried and shot in Moscow, were to be believed, we must conclude that the very indictment and execution of Zinoviev, Kamenev and the fourteen others constitute in actuality the most crushing indictment yet made of the Stalin regime itself. The real accused in the trial were not on the defendants’ bench before the Military Tribunal. They were and they remain the usurping masters of the Kremlin – concocters of a hideous frame-up.

The official indictment charges a widespread assassination conspiracy, carried on these five years or more, directed against the head of the Communist party and the government, organized with the direct connivance of the Hitler regime, and aimed at the establishment of a Fascist dictatorship in Russia. And who are included in these stupefying charges, either as direct participants or, what would be no less reprehensible, as persons with knowledge of the conspiracy who failed to disclose it?

Other heroes of the Civil War, like General Putna, military attache till yesterday of the Soviet Embassy in London; Gertik and Gaevsky; Shaposhnikov, director of the Academy of the General Staff; Klian Kliavin.

Heads of banking institutions; chiefs of industrial trusts; heads of educational and scientific institutions; party secretaries from one end of the land to the other; authors (Selivanovsky, Serebriakova, Katayev, Friedland, Tarassov-Rodiondv); editors of party papers; high government officials (Prof. Joseph Lieberberg, chairman of the Executive Committee of the Jewish Autonomous Republic of Biro-Bijan); etc., etc.

Accusation Constitutes Admission by Bureaucracy

Now to charge, as has been done, all these men and women, plus hundreds and perhaps thousands of others, with having engaged to one extent or another, in an assassination plot, is equivalent, at the very outset and on the face of the matter, to an involuntary admission by the accusing bureaucracy.

  1. That its much-vaunted popularity and the universality of its support among the population, is fantastically exaggerated.
  2. That it has created such a regime in the party and the country as a whole, that the very creators of the Bolshevik party and revolution, its most notable and valiant defenders in the crucial and decisive early years, could find no normal way of expressing their dissatisfaction or opposition to the ruling bureaucracy and found that the only way of fighting the latter was the way chosen, for example, by the Nihilists in their struggle against Czarist despotism, namely, conspiracy and individual terrorism.
  3. That the “classless socialist society irrevocably” established by Stalin is so inferior to Fascist barbarism on the political, economic and cultural fields, that hundreds of men whose whole lives were prominently devoted to the cause of the proletariat and its emancipation, decided to discard everything achieved by 19 years of the Russian Revolution in favor of a Nazi regime.
  4. And, not least of all, that the Russian Revolution was organized and led by an unscrupulous and perfidious hand of swindlers, liars, scoundrels, mad dogs and assassins. Or, more correctly, if these were not their characteristic in 1917 and the years immediately thereafter, then there was something about the gifted and beloved leadership of Stalinism that reduced erstwhile revolutionists and men of probity and integrity to the level of swindlers, liars, scoundrels, mad dogs and assassins.

These are the outstanding counts in the self-indictment of the bureaucracy. To them must be added the charge of a clumsy and cynical frame-up. Even a casual examination of the very carefully edited record of the trial that has thus far been made public, so thoroughly reveals its trumped-up, staged nature, as to deprive all the avidly made “confessions” of so much as an ounce of validity.

Contradictions in Testimony

Considerations of space prevent a detailed listing of the multiplicity of contradictions with which the published slabs of testimony fairly bristle. But the following facts and conclusions, briefly stated, are both inescapable and unassailable:

As is known by everyone who is at all acquainted with the inner-party fight in the Soviet Union, Trotsky broke off all political, organizational and personal relations with Zinoviev, Kamenev and their followers early in 1928, when the latter capitulated to Stalin, whereas Trotsky and his partisans were exiled or imprisoned. For the last eight years Trotsky’s dissociation from the Zinovievist capitulators, who were followed by such “Trotskyist” capitulators as Ter-Vaganian, Smirnov, Serebriakov, Mrachkovsky, etc., has been publicly and privately stated by him not once but a hundred times. Talk of a “Trotsky-Zinoviev bloc” is undiluted fantasy.

Unless Trotsky is an imbecile and a rank amateur to boot – about the only names the Stalinists have not yet called him! – it is ludicrous and inconceivable to believe that this “main organizer of the assassinations” would choose as his instruments and agents for so highly conspiratorial a job, men whom, it is officially stated, he saw just once or not at all, men whom nobody ever heard of until a month ago or who are, at most, chance or obscure figures – Olberg, Holtsman, Lurye, David, Yurin.

It would be a sheer affront to the intelligence to ask one to believe that after four to five years of intensive activity, men of the intellectual and organizational calibre of these old Bolsheviks, with their years of conspirative experience under Czarism, having at their command a widespread illegal apparatus that penetrated into the highest circles, composed of men having daily access to the “intended victims,” aided and abetted by the whole of Hitler’s machinery, disposing of the services of such men as Bakayev (described by Prosecutor Vishinsky “as a resolute man, persevering and persistent, with a very strong will, strong character and stamina, who would not stop at anything to achieve the aims which he had set himself”), could not succeed, with all this and in all this time, in accomplishing anything more than the assassination of one person, Kirov.

Equally preposterous is the assumption that would have to be made that the GPU, the most efficient police and espionage agency in history, required at least four years to unearth a conspiracy in which at least hundreds were involved, among them men who acted as freely, loosely and vocally during the years of the plot itself as they did during the trial, and whose directors appear to have been less careful in their choice of collaborators and agents than the average person is in his choice of toothpicks. Anyone who happened along was promptly told about the “plot” and invited to join in. Also, apparently, everyone who was told of this “plot” – its “Fascist connections” included! – did join in! Either the GPU is composed, from top to bottom, of the most incompetent muttonheads that ever disgraced the role of a Praetorian Guard, or else Stalin takes it for granted that the rest of the world is composed of persons no less muttonheaded, but ten times as credulous.

Reason for “Confession”

But why did they confess? We do not refer here to the all too obvious GPU agents like Olberg and his ilk, but to defendants like Zinoviev and Kamenev. There is, to our minds, only one logical explanation which, while it is not flattering to the moral stamina of the accused, is a thousand times more discreditable to the bureaucracy which framed the whole affair.

  1. Of the hundreds and perhaps thousands arrested for the purposes of the trial, it is significant that only a small handful were found who could be prevailed upon to make the “confessions” that fell in so neatly with every charge of the prosecution. Every single one of them (the GPU provocateurs excepted) was a capitulator, who had once, twice and three times in the past signed whatever statement was dictated to him by Stalin. Not one of the thousands of unbending, non-capitulating “Trotskyists” imprisoned in the Soviet Union was brought to the trial.
  2. They were all assured of having their lives spared if they “confessed” what they were told to confess and, above all, if they implicated Trotsky. This is as clear as day from the following: (a) although every defendant ended his closing remarks with the vociferous declaration – I deserve no mercy, I ask no mercy, I deserve to be shot as a mad Fascist dog – (as they agreed in the bargain to declare), they all nevertheless made a formal appeal for clemency the very night (August 24) that the trial ended (again as unmistakably agreed upon in the original bargain), an appeal which the Praesidium of the Central Executive Committee of the Soviet Union just as formally announced on August 25 that it had turned down. (b) not a single “outsider” was allowed to attend the execution itself, at which the frightful double-cross was consummated, out of obvious fear of the last-minute revelations that the disillusioned victims of the frame-up would shout out. (c) not even the legally customary 72 hours between sentence and execution were allowed the sixteen, out of the same fear, namely, that they might have time to get the truth of the affair to the outside world.

“Confessions” in Previous Trials

  1. Let us remember the “Menshevik trial” of 1931, where “confessions” were made just as freely and zealously, about “conspirative meetings” in the Soviet Union with Rafael Abramovich, who was able to prove to the hilt that he was 1,000 miles away at the time, and about the receipt of “counter-revolutionary funds” from a Russian emigré in Paris who – alas for the “confession”! – was proved to have died some years prior to his alleged contributions of money. Remember also the subsequent statement smuggled out of the Soviet prison by one of the ardent “confessors,” Sukhanov, who related how all the perfervid “avowals of guilt” had been framed and actually rehearsed in advance of the formal trial. Compare these facts with the “confession,” for example, of Holtsman, who said he had met Trotsky in 1932 in the Hotel Bristol in Copenhagen – a hotel which the Danish press subsequently proved to have been torn down in 1917 and rebuilt only in the middle of 1936! This bit of “Confession” alone gives the full measure of the trial.
  2. Within the confines of the secret bargain, some of the defendants nevertheless tried their best to convey to the world the fraudulent character of their “confessions” by such exaggeratedly abject humility and acquiescence in the most outrageous charges, as could only lead to the conclusion that they were burlesquing the whole affair. Here is a characteristic example:

Vishinsky: What appraisal should be given the articles and statements you wrote in 1933, in which you expressed loyalty to the party? Deception?

Kamenev: No, worse than deception.

Vishinsky: Perfidy?

Kamenev: Worse!

Vishinsky: Worse than deception; worse than perfidy – do you find the word to be Treason?

Kamenev: You have found the word.

Vishinsky: Accused Zinoviev, do you confirm this?

Zinoviev: Yes.

Unless the trial took place on some distant planet, peopled by unimaginable creature, such replies to a prosecutor can be construed only as an attempt, however inadequate from a revolutionary standpoint, to tell the world that none of the utterances of the defendants is to be taken seriously or at face value.

Reasons for Trial

Now, why did Stalin need this trial and its horrifying conclusion? Why did the “most stable” and “most popular” and “most democratic” government in the world, in the 19th year of the Revolution, execute sixteen men, when even capitalist Britain sentenced to only one year of imprisonment a man caught with revolver in hand, a few weeks ago, in an attempted assassination of King Edward? Why this hideous culmination of a whole series of crimes by the Stalin bureaucracy, which puts it on a par with the Borgia? Here are, we believe, the reasons, stated summarily and not necessarily in the order of importance:

  1. To distract the attention of the Soviet masses from the stirring events in Spain and from the catastrophic fiasco of the Stalinist “People’s Front” policy practiced there.
  2. To inform the world bourgeoisie or those among them with whom Stalin desperately seeks a military alliance, that Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev, who symbolize world revolution as contrasted with Stalin’s, nationalistic reactionism, are through for good and aye, that Stalin is worthy of the confidence of the bourgeoisie who need not be troubled with any fears of world revolution being tolerated by the Kremlin. A Boston paper gleefully and not incorrectly summarized the executions by writing that “the Third International has been stood up against the wall and shot.”
  3. To behead, by anticipation, “preventively” any possible experienced leadership for the growing movement against the stifling atmosphere of bureaucratic suppression and the growing caste divisions so sensationally manifested in the rise of a privileged bureaucracy and a “Stakhanovist” labor aristocracy.
  4. To warn anybody and everybody, in the ranks or in the bureaucracy, that the slightest murmur of criticism, dissatisfaction or opposition to the Stalin dynasty can and will be dealt with easily and summarily by the simple device of labelling it “Trotskyist-Zinovievist assassination conspiracy” and shooting it out of existence. The executions were Stalin’s way of prefacing the inauguration of the “democratic” constitution with the bullet punctuated warning: “Don’t think that this constitution means that you are free to open your mouth or to vote for anyone you please. Just one un-Stalinist word or act and, fatally labelled, you go before the Military Tribunal.”

CP Solicitude for SP

  1. To discredit Trotsky and “Trotskyism” or, more accurately, those ideas of consistent revolutionary Marxism which are making their way among the class conscious vanguard everywhere, despite the poisons of reformist socialism and Stalinism. The CP press has already taken the cue, and has launched a savage campaign. The Trotskyists, says the Daily Worker (September 9) to the Socialist Party, “are trying to demoralize your party and to destroy it in order to prevent the unity of the working class. We communists do not want your party destroyed ...” The affectionate tenderness the Stalinists feel for the SP and the lengths to which they have always been ready to go in their anguished concern for its welfare, ought to bring tears to the cheeks of the most hardened; in any case, their notorious maternal interest in the SP obviates, if it doesn’t defy, further comment. And when they urge, in the same breath, that the SP rid itself of the “alien forces in your midst” – they mean not merely the so-called Trotskyists, but every revolutionary and military socialist who refuses to take the current Stalinist policy of the “People’s Front,” of social-patriotism, of the “lesser evil,” of holding the stirrup cup for Roosevelt, as good Marxian or good socialist coin. For this and kindred reasons, the Stalinists denounce Norman Thomas, Devere Alien and Clarence Senior as the “protector of assassins,” with the same affectionate nonchalance that Browder and Co. use to denounce these comrades for being the “assistants of Hearst” because they think the S.P. ought to campaign for its own ticket instead of campaign in shamefaced whispers for Roosevelt.

It is not denunciation but congratulations that comrades Thomas, Alien and Senior merit for having done their elementary working class duty of sending cablegrams to protest the actions taken against Leon Trotsky. The demand for an objective, authoritative and trustworthy International Labor Commission before which Trotsky, as well as his traducers, may present evidence, should be pushed until it is a functioning reality. We have every reason to believe that its hearings would throw a glaring light upon the greatest frame-up and one of the greatest crimes ever committed.

Max Shachtman

Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 15.4.2005