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Labor Action, 14 February 1949


Max Shachtman

Recalling the Moscow Trials

Confessions vs. Evidence



From Labor Action, Vol. 13 No. 7, 14 February 1949, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The technique of “trial by confession,” which has been most recently used by the Stalinists in the Cardinal Mindszenty case, was perfected during the great purge trials of 1935–1937. A different type of defendant was then on trial. The defendants then were, all of them, socialists, representing the various wings of the revolutionary movement in Russia, Trotskyist and so forth. Their extermination was sought precisely because they were revolutionists and because the Stalinists regime had broken every last connection it may have had with socialism.

No one knows the numbers who went to their death in the trials, or in the general purges which accompanied them. Great names were among them – the great figures who had led a nation to socialist victory and whose existence was intolerable to a regime that had crushed their achievement, the Russian Revolution. Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bucharin, Radek – these were the, men who had led the revolution of 1917 with Lenin and Trotsky. Nameless and numberless others, who had also been part of the revolutionary generation, went to their doom. The principal defendant Leon Trotsky – the great revolutionary whose mere existence was a thorn in the side of the Stalinist dictatorship – was beyond reach of the court; he was reached instead several years later by a Stalinist assassin in Mexico.

The trial and conviction of the revolutionists did not of course provoke the same kind of reaction as has been accorded the Cardinal. Liberals, workers, millions of people everywhere in the world denounced the trials. But no mayors led protests on City Hall steps, as did Mayor O’Dwyer of New York City for Mindszenty. Governments did not use pressure, and we don’t remember them being urged to by the powerful press. That of course is in the nature of things.

There were, however, many people who were interested in ferreting out the truth about the trials. The most thorough investigation was held by a Commission, chaired by the noted philosopher, John dewey, which held hearings in Mexico and elsewhere, interrogated all the witnesses they could (notably Trotsky), and examined the trial in minutest detail. The Commission published its findings in two volumes, The Case of Leon Trotsky, and ... NOT GUILTY. Readers who are not familiar with these reports ought to do their best to acquaint themselves with them.

The Moscow Trials have never been forgotten, either by the Stalinists or by their opponents. The Mindszenty trial, which employed the vicious methods of “trial by confession,” should serve as a refresher, a reminder, an occasion to broadcast the truth about the Moscow trials.

Among the many books and documents written in connection with the Moscow trials, one of the best is Max Shachtman’s Behind the Moscow Trial. It concerns itself only with the trial of Zinoviev, Kamenev, Smirnov and thirteen others in 1936. They were charged with conspiring with the German fascists to murder the most prominent Russian leaders, and of having murdered S.M. Kirov a year and a half before. In his book, Shachtman tears the “evidence” against the defendants apart, and shows as well how fraudulent were their confessions. We print below a few excerpts from Shachtman’s book (pp. 47–53), regrettably brief ones. (We call our reader’s attention to the reference to the 1922 trial of Social Revolutionaries. The democratic, revolutionary government of that period, before it was destroyed by Stalin, did not hesitate to allow the defendants to conduct their defense freely. Their lawyer was Emile Vandervelde, Belgian social-democrat, and an outstanding opponent of the Soviet regime.) – Ed.


How Confessions Are Obtained

The argument most frequently and triumphantly made by the Stalinists in order to make credible an otherwise incredible story is that the evidence was voluntarily presented by the accused themselves, that they refused attorneys, that they admitted their guilt. The defendants confessed! The completely contradictory character of most of the “confessions,” we have already established; in what is still to be written, we shall establish that the other “confessions” have the same value, that is, no value at all. But the indisputable fact remains that the accused at least appeared to volunteer their self-indicting testimony.

Upon examination, the “confessions” so proudly referred to by the Stalinists prove to be another relentless condemnation of the regime which caused a spectacle to be enacted. We have enough material at our disposal to enable us to form an exact picture of how the confessions were obtained.

First of all, the prosecution studiously avoids any reference to the manner in which the plot was discovered, or why it took the G.P.U. – the most efficient and ruthless police service in the entire world – so long to make its disclosure. Like so many other aspects of the trial, this one too is unprecedented. Who told the authorities of the existence of the Center and its plot, that is, who was the first to tell? Who was the man, or the men, who first gave the authorities the clue that led to uncovering the whole conspiracy? Of this, not a syllable anywhere. Yet it is the most elementary, and the customary thing in any trial at all similar to this one.

The unofficial answer to this question, already asked by others, is given in the organ of the Comintern: “It would have been the gravest mistake to make this known and thereby to aid the enemies of the Soviet Union to refine their methods and to guard themselves against being apprehended in the future.” (Rundschau, Vol. V No. 42, p. 1779.) This is sheer nonsense. If there was a plot, there are, it would seem, only three possible ways in which the authorities could have discovered it: by accident or some involuntary imprudence of a plotter, which is the same thing; by one or more of the plotters being overtaken by remorse and volunteering the information to the police; by a police agent, working under cover among the plotters, and rendering a report to his real superiors. In any one of these three – the only possible – cases, the explanation of Rundschau, however mysterious and impressive it is supposed to sound, is so much poppycock. If any of these three was the case, there is absolutely no reason why the prosecution would not make it known. If it does not – and it doesn’t – then it is only because the first news of the conspiracy was not conveyed from the ranks of the accused to the ranks of the prosecution, but the other way around. In other words, the prosecution invented the plot and compelled the accused to enact it at the trial for the first time of their lives.

In Contrast: the 1922 Trial

Let us see how this explanation fits in with the actualities of the “confessions.”

Take the trial of the S.R. leaders in 1922. They were accused of having organized a fight, with arms in hand and in alliance with the Allies, to overthrow the Soviet government, and of having directed the assassination of the Bolshevik leader Volodarsky and the attempt on Lenin’s life by Dora Kaplan. The twelve men and women on trial were never partisans of the dictatorship of the proletariat or of the Soviet government. They had organized the armed struggle against the Soviets and for the so-called Constituent Assembly and had done it with the support of the Allied imperialists because, they said, the “Russian Democracy” was still in alliance with England, France, Belgium, Italy and the United States. These facts were not brought out at the trial by means of those abject and suspicious “confessions” that marked the August 1936 trial; no witnesses were needed to prove them; nobody, anywhere, sought to deny them. In fact, summarizing the charges, Emil Vandervelde, the Belgian socialist attorney for the defendants, stated:

“The Social Revolutionaries admit this fact and are proud of it ... The Social Revolutionaries admit this fact and are only sorry that they did not succeed in carrying this [the armed defense of the Constituent Assembly] to a successful conclusion ... The Social Revolutionaries admit this [the waging of an armed struggle against the Soviet government] as an undeniable, historic fact.” (The Twelve Who Are to Die, Berlin 1922, p. 62)

The defendants did, however, deny responsibility for the assassinations. But in this case, the accusations were, at the very least, historically and politically plausible, whatever one’s opinion might be of the conclusiveness of the concrete evidence adduced against the defendants. Every one of the twelve was not only an avowed and bitter opponent of the Soviet regime but also a long-standing defender of the theory and practise of individual terrorism against all despotisms, among which they included the Czarist regime and the Bolshevik regime as well.

But in the 1936 trial of the old Bolsheviks? Never have genuine terrorists, not even the most repentant, made such statements in court as came from the lips of every one of the accused! They reviled themselves and each other; they cursed each other as “mad Fascist dogs”; they vied successfully with the Prosecutor in vilifying themselves, outdoing him – not an easy thing to do when one reads the lexicon of vituperation drawn on by Vishinsky; they cringed, they humiliated and flogged themselves in public in a positively inhuman manner; they even added charges that the prosecutor hadn’t mentioned, volunteered information that was not requested! Not one of them, for years so permeated with an uncontrollable hostility to the Stalinist regime, so filled with a fierce hatred of the party leadership, had a syllable of criticism to offer of Stalin or his domination or his policies. On the contrary, they outdid each other in eulogy of his grandeur and the marvelous achievements made by the Soviet Union under his gifted and inspired leadership.

Made-to-Order Confessions

What person in his right senses can read the testimony of the defendants and conclude that it was normally given and represents even an approximation of the truth? A few examples: ...

“Vishinsky: Accused Zinoviev, you too were an organizer of the murder of comrade Kirov?

“Zinoviev: In my opinion, Bakayev is right when he said that those really and mainly guilty of the scoundrelly murder of Kirov were primarily myself – Zinoviev – Trotsky and Kamenev, who organized the united terrorist Center. Bakayev played a big role in it, but by no means a decisive one.

“Vishinsky: The decisive role was played by you, Trotsky and Kamenev. Accused Kamenev, do you join in the declaration of Zinoviev that you, Trotsky and Zinoviev were the main organizers and Bakayev played the role of the practical organizer?

“Kamenev: Yes.”

And this:

“Vishinsky: How are your articles and declarations to be evaluated, which you wrote in 1933 and in which you expressed your devotion to the party? As deception?

“Kamenev: No, worse than deception.

“Vishinsky: Perfidy?

“Kamenev: Worse.

“Vishinsky: Worse than deception, worse than perfidy; do you find this the word – treachery?

“Kamenev: You have found it.

“Vishinsky: Accused Zinoviev, do you confirm this?

“Zinoveiv: Yes.

“Vishinsky: Treachery, perfidy, two-tongued- ness?

“Zinoviev: Yes.”

One cannot come to any other conclusion except that the “confessions” were made to order. The defendants must have felt themselves under some moral, mental or physical compulsion to make the kind of confessions they did. If they really made them of their own accord, they should have been turned over, not to the executioner, but to an institution for the treatment of mental aberrations.

How were the confessions obtained? We know by now how similar confessions were obtained in other trials, where the same kind of stupefying testimony was given with the same unanimity and zeal as in the August 1936 trial. All held in public, have been monotonously identical under the reign of Stalin: No demands, no material evidence, nothing written adduced, all the evidence confined to the “spontaneous” and “voluntary” confessions of the invariably penitent accused. This has been the case from the days of the Shakhty trial to the Zinoviev trial.

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