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Hugo Dewar

The Moscow Trials

(March 1962)

This article was first published in Survey, No. 41, April 1962, pp. 87–95.
Prepared for the MIA by Paul Flewers.

AT the twenty-second congress of the CPSU, N.S. Khrushchev once again raised the question of the “great purge”, this time in open session and with more detailed references to individual instances of Stalin’s persecution of his opponents. Khrushchev did not directly mention the three great Moscow trials, but the whole tenor of his reply to the discussion on the party programme made it clear that these trials were frame-ups. His remarks on the Kirov assassination alone were sufficient to demonstrate this, since the Kirov affair was the king-pin of the entire structure of these trials.

The assassination, 25 years ago, of Sergei Mironovich Kirov – Secretary of the Leningrad party organisation and member of the Politbureau – was the signal for the merciless repression of all Stalin’s known, suspected or potential opponents in the party. The range and thoroughness of this action was matched by the domestic and international propaganda campaign that accompanied it: for the Stalinist objective was not merely the physical destruction of all those who might conceivably constitute a rallying point for opposition within the party; not merely the creation in the USSR of an atmosphere of terror in which self-preservation should become the overriding consideration for each individual; it was also the complete moral annihilation of the leading figures of the Russian Revolution. Only Lenin would remain untouched, a great messianic figure; and by his side would rise the figure of Stalin, his sole true disciple. Consciousness of the past history of the Russian Revolution was to be erased from the mind of man and a new history was to take its place, the Stalin legend.

The campaign launched for this purpose – which may truly be termed a brain-washing campaign – was on a colossal scale. Its highlights were the three great Moscow trials in August 1936, January 1937 and March 1938, when almost the entire Bolshevik “old guard” was found guilty of organising the murder of Kirov, of wrecking, sabotage, treason, plotting the restoration of capitalism, etc. And it was precisely the defendants at these trials who, with their self-accusations, their abject penitence, their acceptance and praise of Stalin’s policies, showed themselves as eager as the Stalinists to support this campaign. Never before in history had there been a conspiracy of such dimensions, conspirators of such former eminence, and at the same time conspirators so uniformly anxious to attest the unrighteousness of their cause and the utter criminality of their actions.

At once sordid and deeply tragic, combining the grim reality of apparently normal juridical procedure with the lack of any evidence against the accused other than their own nightmarishly unreal confessions, these trials shocked the liberal conscience of the entire world. Yet it was, strangely enough, in Great Britain, a country proud of its tradition of liberal thought and action, that the most influential voices were raised in their defence.

Thus A.J. Cummings, then a political columnist of considerable standing, although admitting to some difficulty in accepting the guilt of all the accused, wrote of the first trial that “the evidence and the confessions are so circumstantial that to reject both as hocus-pocus would be to reduce the trial almost to complete unintelligibility”. (News Chronicle, 25 August 1936) The Moscow correspondent of the Observer also wrote (23 August 1936) that: “It is futile to think that the trial was staged and the charges trumped up. The government’s case against the defendants is genuine.” Sir Bernard Pares (Spectator, 18 September 1936) likewise expressed the view that:

As to the trial generally, I was in Moscow while it was in progress and followed the daily reports in the press. Since then I have made a careful study of the verbatim report. Having done that I must give it as my considered judgement that if the report had been issued in a country (that is, other than the USSR) without any of the antecedents I have referred to, the trial would be regarded as one which could not fail to carry conviction ... The examination of the 16 accused by the State Prosecutor is a close work of dispassionate reasoning, in which, in spite of some denials and more evasions, the guilt of the accused is completely brought home.

These statements were made use of by the Anglo-Russian Parliamentary Committee in presenting to the public its summarised version of the official report (itself not verbatim) of the first Moscow trial. Its account of the second trial (compiled by W.P. and Zelda K. Coates) was introduced by Neil Maclean, MP, with a preface by the Moscow correspondent of the Daily Herald, R.T. Miller, and contained two speeches by Stalin, “in that simple and clear style of which Mr Stalin is such a master”, as Maclean put it. Maclean in his introductory foreword asserted that:

... practically every foreign correspondent present at the trial with the exception, of course, of the Japanese and German – have expressed themselves as very much impressed by the weight of evidence presented by the prosecution and the sincerity of the confessions of the accused.

In the course of his preface Miller wrote that “the prisoners appeared healthy, well-fed, well-dressed and unintimidated”; that “Mr Dudley Collard, the English barrister ... considered it perfectly sound from the legal point of view”; and that the accused “confessed because the state’s collection of evidence forced them to. No other explanation fits the facts.” [1]

Leaving aside Mr Collard, whose well-known political sympathies might explain his easy acceptance of surface appearances, it is clear that none of these commentators had the slightest understanding of the political struggle raging in the Soviet Union; a struggle of which these trials and those that had preceded them from 1928 onwards (which these gentlemen had apparently totally forgotten) were a reflection. Nor could any of them have really made a serious study of the official report. The circumstances of the time made many politically conscious people desire above all to think the best of the Soviet Government, and the views quoted above, deriving in part from this very desire, in part from sheer ignorance, were very welcome to the Stalinists. If they did not wholly convince, they at least helped to lull suspicion.

*  *  *

The most outstanding and the most influential supporter of the Stalinist campaign in the country was D.N. Pritt, an MP, a KC, and formerly president of the enquiry set up to investigate the proceedings of the Reichstag fire trial. Pritt entered the campaign with an article in the News Chronicle (27 August 1936), later reprinted in pamphlet form, The Moscow Trial was Fair (with additional material by Pat Sloan). He then expanded his analysis and argument in a booklet of 39 pages entitled The Zinoviev Trial (Gollancz, 1936). In this he first of all suggests that the bulk of the criticism of the trial emanated from the extreme right-wing opponents of the Soviet government. Still, he admits that much of it was made in good faith and came from “newspapers and individuals of very high reputation for fairness”. However, he goes on to imply that these critics had not, as he had, really studied the whole of the available evidence, but had relied upon incomplete reports. Moreover, they had not his advantage of being an eyewitness of the trial and a lawyer into the bargain. Having established in the reader’s mind that all criticism coming from sources hostile to the Soviet regime is ipso facto baseless, and having made plain his own geographical and professional superiority to the “fair-minded” critics, he argues that:

It should be realised at the outset, of course, that the critics who refuse to believe that Zinoviev and Kamenev could possibly have conspired to murder Kirov, Stalin, Voroshilov and others, even when they say themselves that they did, are in a grave logical difficulty. For if they thus dismiss the whole case for the prosecution as a “frame-up”, it follows inescapably that Stalin and a substantial number of other high officials, including presumably the judges and the prosecutor, were themselves guilty of a foul conspiracy to procure the judicial murder of Zinoviev, Kamenev and a fair number of other persons. (pp. 3–4)

The most general and important criticism of the trial, Pritt says, is that it was impossible to believe that “men should confess openly and fully to crimes of the gravity of those in question here”. (p. 5) In fact, of course, the critics” difficulty was not to believe that “men” should confess to “grave crimes”, but that these particular men should confess in that particular manner to crimes so contrary to everything known of their very public political pasts, so contrary to their known political philosophy, and so manifestly incapable of achieving their alleged objectives. For among those 16 accused there were, as Khrushchev has now obliquely reminded us, “prominent representatives of the old guard who, together with Lenin, founded “the world’s first proletarian state”. (Report on the Programme of the CPSU, Soviet Booklet No. 81, 1961, p. 108) These were now transformed, in the words of the indictment, into “unprincipled political adventurers and assassins striving at only one thing, namely, to make their way to power even through terrorism”. (Report of Court Proceedings: The Case of the Trotskyite-Zinovievite Terrorist Centre, People’s Commissariat of Justice of the USSR, Moscow 1936, p. 18)

Pritt himself, however, does not appear to be wholly at ease about the lack of evidence adduced other than the confessions, for he suggests that the Soviet government would have preferred all or most of the accused to have pleaded not guilty, for then the “full strength of the case” would have been apparent. As it was, “all the available proof did not require to be brought forward”. (p. 9) He assumes the existence of this proof; he writes that we cannot possibly know “what further facts there were in the record that were not adduced at all”. Not, that is, whether further facts were available, but what facts.

Although there is constant mention of facts, Pritt never gets down to a consideration of verifiable factual evidence adduced in alleged corroboration of the confessions. The closest he gets to giving an example of this is when he refers to an alleged conversation between two of the accused in which “a highly incriminating phrase was used”. Each of the accused denied using it, but each said that the other had. Pritt found this highly significant. He does not explain why the accused should have shied at admitting the use of “incriminating phrases” when they had already confessed to capital crimes.

Pritt claims to have reached his conclusion on the basis of a careful study of the official report of the trial. Surely, then, he must have been aware that, when it was not simply a question of “incriminating phrases”, conversations about conversations, but of concrete facts, some very glaring discrepancies were exposed, such as, for example, the flatly contradictory evidence of two of the accused, Olberg and Holtzmann, and the alleged meeting at a non-existent hotel.

It hardly seems possible that a man of Pritt’s professional training could have failed to see that the whole structure of the confessions simply did not hang together. He did not even notice anything strange in the tale of those two desperadoes Fritz David and Bermin-Yurin, who, after spending two and a half years preparing a plan to kill Stalin at the Congress of the Communist International, decided, when it came to the point, that they could not shoot “because there were too many people”!

For Pritt “anything in the nature of forced confessions is intrinsically impossible”; it was “obvious to anyone who watched the proceedings in court that the confessions as made orally in court could not possibly have been concocted or rehearsed”; and not even the keenest critic had been able to find a false note (pp. 12–14). The picture he gives of himself is that of an utterly credulous bumpkin. Any reasonably objective student of Soviet politics must have been aware at the time that this trial and those that followed were frame-ups. It did not require Khrushchev to admit that “thousands of absolutely innocent people perished ... Many party leaders, statesmen and military leaders lost their lives”; that “they were ‘persuaded’, persuaded in certain ways, that they were German, British or some other spies. And some of them ‘confessed’.”

For the Moscow trials were all of a piece with those that had preceded them: the Shakhty trial in 1928; the Industrial Party trial in 1930; the Menshevik trial in 1931; and the Metro-Vickers trial in 1933. [2] No student of these trials would fail to see that they served a definite political purpose and that justice had been perverted to this end. The very occurrence, previous to the Moscow trials, of exactly similar confession trials – with all their “technical” failures (attempted retraction of confessions; an accused going insane; long dead men named as conspirators, etc) – should have been enough to raise doubts in the mind of the most prejudiced. But the supporters of Stalin clearly did not want to see the truth. [3]

*  *  *

Here, as elsewhere, it was the paramount task of the Communist Party to “sell” the trials. For this purpose, in addition to public meetings throughout the country and articles in the Daily Worker and other periodicals, a stream of pamphlets was published. The Moscow correspondent of the Daily Worker, W.D. Shepherd, wrote two pamphlets in 1936: The Truth About the Murder of Kirov (31 pages) and The Moscow Trial (15 pages). In 1937, two leading English communists, Harry Pollitt and R. Palme Dutt, wrote The Truth about Trotskyism: The Moscow Trial (36 pages), and in 1938 R. Page Arnot and Tim Buck dealt with the third trial in Fascist Agents Exposed (22 pages). Supplementing all this there were the so-called verbatim Reports of the Court Proceedings (published in English by the People’s Commissariat of Justice of the USSR), and the abridged version of the official report of the August 1936 trial, published by the Anglo-Russian Parliamentary Committee. This does not, of course, exhaust the list of published matter issued directly or indirectly by the Communist Party in defence at the trials. Party contributors to the Left Book Club publications naturally also supported the campaign. In this respect JR Campbell’s Soviet Policy and its Critics (Gollancz, 1938, 374 pages) and Soviet Democracy (Gollancz, 1937, 288 pages) by Pat Sloan, are notable.

The bulk of this material eschews any attempt at reasoning and concentrates on invective in the verbal knuckleduster style typical of the Stalinist school. Campbell’s book is a much more ambitious effort in that he admits knowledge of the Dewey Commission [4], quotes from its proceedings, and also uses quotations from Trotsky’s writings, albeit within strict limits. Thus he quotes Trotsky’s words:

Why, then, did the accused, after 25, 30 or more years of revolutionary work, agree to take upon themselves such monstrous and degrading accusations? How did the GPU achieve this? Why did not a single one of the accused cry out openly before the court against the frame-up? Etc, etc. In the nature of the case I am not obliged to answer these questions.

Here Campbell stops and comments: “But if there is no answer then a most important element in the case of the Soviet government is upheld.” (p. 252) He does not follow the quotation further, which runs:

We could not here question Yagoda (he is now being questioned himself by Yezhov), or Yezhov, or Vyshinsky, or Stalin, or, above all, their victims, the majority of whom, indeed, have already been shot. That is why the Commission cannot fully uncover the inquisitorial technique of the Moscow trials. But the mainsprings are already apparent. (The Case of Leon Trotsky, pp. 482–83)

A very striking illustration of the Stalinist technique – low cunning, contempt for the truth, contempt for the reader’s intelligence – is to be seen on page 213 of Campbell’s book in his quotation from Trotsky’s The Soviet Union and the Fourth International. He begins in the middle of a paragraph:

The first social shock, external or internal, may throw the atomised Soviet society into civil war. The workers, having lost control over the state and economy, may resort to mass strikes as weapons of self-defence. The discipline of the dictatorship would be broken down [5] under the onslaught of the workers and because of the pressure of economic difficulties the trusts would be forced to disrupt the planned beginnings and enter into competition with one another. The dissolution of the regime would naturally be thrown over into the army. The socialist state would collapse, giving place to the capitalist regime, or, more correctly, to capitalist chaos.

And on this, Campbell writes: “This was more than a prophecy. It was the objective of the conspirators.” The very next paragraph in Trotsky’s essay begins: “The Stalinist press, of course, will reprint our warning analysis as a counter-revolutionary prophecy, or even as the expressed ‘desire’ of the Trotskyites.”

Campbell’s book is a long diatribe against “Trotskyism” and of its 374 pages there is hardly one on which the name Trotsky does not appear. Since this was written after the third Moscow trial, he has caught up with the Soviet scenario, successively developed with each trial. The crimes of the accused are now “only a culminating point in the struggle which Trotsky and his followers have been waging against the Bolshevik party since 1903”.

One of the curiosities of this period is the book written by Maurice Edelman from the notes of a Peter Kleist, entitled GPU Justice (1938). [6] According to Edelman, Kleist was “by no means a communist”. Efforts to convey an impression of objectivity are evident. The book dispenses with the usual Stalinist bludgeoning invective and affects a dispassionate, disengaged attitude, but its phraseology and tone are unmistakably pro-Stalinist. The Soviet Union is a classless society; the GPU is simply a police force like any other (only superior, of course); it is a misconception to consider it a secret police; if you are innocent no one can make you guilty; talk of GPU torture is Polish fascist slander; he, Kleist, is treated considerately, without brutality, and, therefore, so is every other suspect. There are many little touches designed to bring out the humanity of Kleist’s captors. The Lubyanka and Butyrki prisons are depicted as rest-homes, where lengthy discussions (reproduced apparently verbatim) permit Stalinists to defend Stalin and Trotskyites to expose themselves as avowed wreckers and saboteurs in collaboration with the White Guards. The book could obviously only have been written by someone with a very clear idea of the party line, and at the same time someone anxious to appear non-partisan. The cloak of non-partisanship is worn pretty thin, however, by the author’s efforts to defend and extol, not merely “GPU justice”, but almost every aspect of Soviet life, including the forced labour camps. Finally, in an appendix, Kleist on the Moscow Trials, all pretence of impartiality is dropped. There one reads: “Why do they confess? was the typical journalistic question, and no one, except the communist papers, supplied the obvious answer: ‘Because they were guilty.’” (p. 211) In this section the stock Stalinist arguments are put forward by Kleist himself and not, as in the main narrative, through the mouths of others.

To these arguments he adds one of his very own. It gives the appearance of having been inserted to show that in spite of his total agreement with the party line, he is nevertheless by no means a communist. For he says that, the GPU having established the guilt of the accused, they were “at this point quite conceivably offered remission of the death sentence”. This, he argues, “would account for the fluency of the confession and for the calm with which the majority of the prisoners heard the sentence of death” (p. 217). Apparently, Kleist regards this kind of double-crossing as a mark of the humanity of GPU justice.

His final sentence is worth noting:

In the years which have passed since this my release, the bursting into flames of the Spanish-Fascist rebellion, the risings and intervention of the Nazis in Austria and the promise of intervention in Czechoslovakia, have convinced me that whatever bewilderment is felt outside the Soviet Union at the unearthing of these Fascist conspirators, Fascist conspiracy in conjunction with Trotskyist conspiracy does exist and that its extirpation, so far from endangering the USSR, marks another peril avoided. (p. 218)

Leaving aside the peculiar logic of this passage, attention is drawn to the words emphasised. The book was published in 1938. Kleist was released in April 1937. Thus, no “years” could have passed since his release. The reader may work out for himself the chronology of the events to which he refers, all of which he says took place after his release.

*  *  *

The verdict of the British press was in general unfavourable to the Moscow trials. Among the dailies the Manchester Guardian stood out as their sharpest critic. In addition to its own editorial comment, it published cables from Trotsky rebutting the evidence and attacking Stalin’s policy, earning what is probably the rarest praise ever bestowed by a revolutionary on a “bourgeois” newspaper. “I know full well”, Trotsky telegraphed from Mexico (25 January 1937), “that the Manchester Guardian will be one of the first to serve the truth and humanity.” Typical of the Manchester Guardian’s attitude was its statement of 28 August 1936: “He [Stalin] surrounds himself with men of his own making [7] and devotes all the power of the state to removing those who, however remotely, might become rival centres of authority.”

Nothing as bluntly condemnatory as this came, however, from The Times. Indeed, in 1936 and 1937, its attitude might justly be construed as favourable to Stalin. The trials, it thought, reflected the triumph of Stalin’s “nationalist” policy over that of the revolutionary die-hards. The conservative forces, with the overwhelming support of the nation, had now demonstrably gained the day. On this single point it was curiously at one with Trotsky himself, who wrote in an article in the Sunday Express (6 March 1938) that: “From beginning to end his [Stalin’s] programme was that of the formation of a bourgeois republic.” It was only with the 1938 trial that The Times expressed doubts as to the general trend of affairs in the Soviet Union. On balance one cannot say that The Times saw very clearly in this matter. [8]

The labour press was naturally in agreement with the views expressed by the Socialist International and the International Federation of Trade Unions (Louis de Brouckère and F. Adler on behalf of the LSI, and Sir W. Citrine and Walter Schevenels on behalf of the IFTU sent telegrams of protest on the occasion of each of the trials). Writing on the second trial in Reynolds News (7 February 1937), H.N. Brailsford said that it left him “bewildered, doubtful, miserable”; pointed however to the confessions – “If they had been coerced, surely some of them ... would have blurted out the truth”; referred then to the conflict of the evidence with known facts, and concluded: “In one Judas among 12 apostles it is easy to believe. But when there are 11 Judases and only one loyal apostle, the Church is unlikely to thrive.” In the Scottish Forward, Emrys Hughes” witty, ironic articles bluntly exposed the trials as “frame-ups”.

On the other hand, however, it was the communists alone who maintained a campaign consonant with their objectives. There can be little doubt that they did finally succeed in diverting the attention of left-wing opinion and those others whom they courted from the essential issues raised by the trials, and in persuading a very large body of public opinion that Stalin’s policy was right.

In this task they received powerful support from the New Statesman and Nation, which reached an audience not in general susceptible to direct communist approach. This journal gave an exhibition of dithering evasiveness and moral obtuseness rarely displayed by a reputedly responsible publication. The 1936 trial, “if one may trust the available reports, was wholly unconvincing” (28 August 1936). At the same time:

We do not deny ... that the confessions may have contained a substance of truth. We complain because, in the absence of independent witnesses, there is no way of knowing ... When we hear that so close and trusted a friend of Stalin as Radek, is suspected ... we are compelled to wonder that there may not be more serious discontent in the Soviet Union than was generally believed.” (5 September 1936)

An article on the second trial, Will Stalin Explain? (30 January 1937), stated that “the various parts of the plot do not seem to hang together”; but the confessions could not be doubted because that would mean doubting Soviet justice; on the other hand, “to accept them as they stand is to draw a picture of a regime divided against itself”. If there was an escape from this dilemma, would Stalin please tell them what it was?

In the absence of any answer from Stalin to this complaint, the journal had to be, and apparently was, satisfied with matters as they stood. For after the verdict it asserted that: “Few would now maintain that all or any of them were completely innocent.” (6 February 1937) Reference is made to a letter from Mr Dudley Collard (the letter noted earlier in this article) and the comment made: “If he is right, we may hope that the present round-up and the forthcoming trial will mean the final liquidation of ‘Trotskyism’ in the USSR, or at least of the infamous projects to which that word is now applied.”

The third trial again demonstrated the New Statesman and Nation’s remoteness from reality and indifference to the moral issues raised: “The Soviet trial is undoubtedly very popular in the USSR. The exposure of Yagoda ... pleases everyone and seems to explain a great deal of treachery and inefficiency in the past.” But: “the confessions remain baffling whether we regard them as true or false, and the prisoners as innocent or guilty. There has undoubtedly been much plotting in the USSR.” (12 March 1938)

True or false; innocent or guilty: one could take one’s choice – what was important was that the confessions were baffling. Even more baffling were the mental processes by which an otherwise humane and intelligent man could write in a manner at once so callous and so superficial.

This type of confusion and refusal to face facts dominated the thinking of many left-wing intellectuals and the left wing of the labour movement during the 1930s. The experience of the great Russian purge destroyed no illusions, taught them nothing. And even today it is doubtful if there is a full appreciation of the profound effect those events had on Russian society and the men who lead it.


1. A member of the Fabian Society, Mr Collard performed the same service for the second Moscow trial as Pritt had done for the first (see D. Collard, Soviet Justice and the Trial of Radek, 1937). In 1936 he sent from Moscow a long telegram of protest against the appeal for mercy addressed to the court by Adler and Citrine. Yet in the New Statesman of 6 February 1937 he stated that “English reports of previous trials induced in me certain misgivings as to the genuineness of the charges”.

2. There were 53 accused at the 1928 trial – far too many for its proper staging. Right at the beginning it was announced that one, Nekrasov, had gone mad. Two other accused tried to withdraw their confessions during the course of the trial, giving a sickening glimpse of the preliminary investigation’s “rehearsal” horrors. At the next trial, in 1930, one Osadchy was brought into court under guard to give evidence as a member of the “conspiracy”. Osadchy had been one of the state prosecutors in the 1928 trial. With each trial the staging “improved”, but in the very nature of such trials perfection was impossible. Even at their “best” they could only deceive those suffering from what Ignazio Silone called the disease of juridical cretinism. It is worth noting that at the third Moscow trial the State Prosecutor, Vyshinsky, himself called attention to the connection between all these trials. (Report of the Court Proceedings in the Case of the Anti-Soviet Bloc of Rights and Trotskyists, Moscow 1938, pp. 636–37)

3. It is worth recording that Moscow University recently conferred on D.N. Pritt the honorary degree of Doctor of Law. During the ceremony Academician Ivan Petrovsky, Rector of the University, praised Pritt as an “outstanding lawyer and selfless defender of the common people”.

4. See The Case of Leon Trotsky and Not Guilty (Secker and Warburg, 1937 and 1938).

5. The original reads: “The discipline of the dictatorship would be broken. Under the ...”, etc.

6. Recommended in Philip Grierson’s Books on Soviet Russia, 1917–1942 (1943) as “sober and matter-of-fact narrative; an admirable corrective to more sensational writings” (p. 125).

7. Among them, of course, N. Khrushchev, who, speaking from the roof of Lenin’s tomb to a parade of 200,000 workers after the 1937 trial, said: “By lifting their hands against Comrade Stalin they lifted them against everything that is best in humanity, because Stalin is the hope, Stalin is the expectation, Stalin is the lighthouse of all progressive humanity. Stalin, our banner! Stalin, our will! Stalin, our victory!” (Daily Telegraph, 1 February 1937)

8. “Stalin’s policy of nationalism has been amply vindicated. Russia has made much industrial progress, social conditions are improving.” (The Times, 20 August 1936) “Today the Russian dictatorship stages what is evidently meant to be the most impressive and terrifying of its many exhibitions of despotic power ... The customary overture has already been played by the Soviet press ... howling for the blood of those whom it denounces, in the grimly proleptic phrase, as “this Trotskyist carrion”.” (The Times, 2 March 1938).

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