W. G. Shepherd

The Moscow Trial

August, 1936

Publisher: Communist Party of Great Britain, 1936
Printer: Marston Printing. (T. U. throughout), Nelson Place, Cayton Street, London, E.C.1
Transcription\HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2008). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

On August 24th, 1936, a trial concluded in Moscow. A Soviet Court, acting in conformity with the established Criminal Code of the country, gave its verdict. Zinoviev, Kamenev and fourteen others, charged with plotting the murder of Stalin, Voroshilov and other leaders of the Communist Party and the Government of the Soviet Union, were found guilty. The death sentence was pronounced. It was carried out thirty hours later.

The Court also pronounced that the main instigator of the intended murders was Leo Trotsky, now interned in Norway.

No one will gainsay the importance of this trial. It has aroused much controversy. Sensational reports are of daily occurrence in the British Press. They tell of a “new Stalin purge,” “the end of Bolshevism,” of “risings by the Red Army,” of new arrests, of Russian trade representatives such as M. Ozersky being recalled to Moscow and his wife being kidnapped by Ogpu agents. In short, an anti-Soviet campaign is in full swing.

These sensational reports are coupled with attacks on the trial of Kamenev, Zinoviev and their associates, in the hope of discrediting the Soviet Union and its responsible leaders. It is hardly necessary to say that the reports of “a new wave of terror” in the Soviet Union are completely untrue, and that the main source of these reports is the German Nazi propaganda machine.

But there are many good friends of the Soviet Union who, while fully recognising the nature and aim of the press attacks, have nevertheless unconsciously been troubled by these attacks, and feel that there are many questions on the trial which require an answer.

My aim in writing this pamphlet is to provide that answer.


Like all trials, the trial of Zinoviev and his associates has a background. It hasn’t just happened that the Soviet Government has suddenly discovered the existence of plots against the lives of several of its leaders. The recent trial of Zinoviev and his associates was intimately connected with an event which took place in the Smolny Institute in Leningrad, on the afternoon of December 1st, 1934: the actual murder of Sergei Kirov, secretary of the Central and Leningrad Committees of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and member of the Central Executive Committee of the U.S.S.R.

The assassin, L. V. Nickolaev, an employee in the former Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection, was immediately arrested. Along with his arrest took place that of thirteen others who composed what was known by them as the “Leningrad Centre” of terrorists. On December 27th, 1934, the indictment against Nikolaev and his thirteen associates was published in full in all newspapers in the Soviet Union. This indictment shows:

1. That Nikolaev and his associates were members of an illegal counter-revolutionary group in Leningrad, and that they were all former members of the Zinoviev opposition.

2. That, according to Nikolaev’s own words, “the members of the group accepted the platform of the Trotsky-Zinoviev bloc. They considered it necessary to replace the existing Party leadership by all possible means. . . .”

3. That this group had as its chief work to disorganise the Soviet Government by assassination of the leaders.

4. That Nikolaev frequently visited a certain consulate in Leningrad where he conducted negotiations for help for the group. The consulate was afterwards proved to be the Latvian consulate.

“We could not wait for a change in the Party leadership by the methods of inner-Party democracy,” Nikolaev stated in explaining the aims of the “Leningrad Centre.”

“We realised that this course was completely precluded. This left one road, the road of terrorist acts. When I fired at Kirov, I reasoned as follows: Our shot must serve as a signal for an explosion, for an uprising within the country against the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and Soviet Power. . . .”

The examination of Nikolaev and his confederates set in motion further investigations. On December 23rd Zinoviev, Kamenev, and nineteen others were arrested. On January 16th, 1935, the Public Prosecutor published the indictment against them.

In this indictment evidence was brought forward to show that these leaders and members of the former opposition within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had connections with, and were the inspirers of, the “Leningrad Centre” and a group known as the “Moscow Centre.” Speaking of his responsibility for the crime committed on December 1st, 1934, the accused Zinoviev deposed:

“. . . . The objective march of events was such that, with bowed head, I must say: the anti-Party struggle which assumed particularly sharp forms in the past year in Leningrad, could not but help in the degeneration of these scoundrels. This dastardly assassination threw such a sinister light on the past anti-Party struggle that I recognise that the Party is quite right in what it says on the question of political responsibility of the former anti-Party ‘Zinoviev’ group for the assassination that took place. . . .”

Kamenev made a similar deposition. Thus in January, 1935, they admitted their moral guilt for the murder, but covered up their actual guilt as the organisers of it.

The Military Collegium of the Supreme Court of the U.S.S.R., which tried the case at the time, sentenced Zinoviev and three others to ten years’ imprisonment, Kamenev to five years, and the other accused to sentences varying from eight to five years.

Being in the Soviet Union at this time, I well recall the hundreds of resolutions, passed at meetings of the Soviet people, that appeared in the Soviet press, demanding the utmost vigilance on the part of the Soviet Government and Communist Party to stamp out all the elements aiming to injure the country from within.

That these elements existed, that they were receiving help from outside the Soviet Union, was known. But it was only eighteen months later that certain discoveries by the Soviet authorities led to arrests and investigations, culminating in the trial of August, 1936.


On August 19th, 1936, Zinoviev, Kamenev and their fourteen fellow-conspirators appeared before the Moscow Court in the full blaze of publicity, with representatives present from every important newspaper in the world and, in addition, D. N. Pritt, K.C., M.P., eminent British barrister.

This latter fact is of very great significance in view of the slanderous assertions that have been made against the conduct of the trial by enemies of the Soviet Union. None can challenge either Mr. Pritt’s integrity nor his competence to understand the significance of court procedure and the value of evidence. And Mr. Pritt has unequivocally stated that the men in the dock had a fair trial.

Soviet legal procedure is not the same as British. By the time the case comes to court, all the preliminary evidence has been heard and sifted, and the court hears the results of this sifting. In many ways the procedure is similar to that adopted in France, U.S.A. and other countries.

The sixteen accused men had all confessed their guilt, and the Prosecution was in possession of signed confessions when the hearing was commenced. It has been stated, without a tittle of evidence, that these confessions had been obtained by methods of terror, or alternatively by a promise that sentence of death would not be carried out if they confessed. But anyone who reads the detailed report of the trial will see that the confessions arose from the weight of evidence, and that even to the last several of the accused were trying to evade full responsibility. Smirnov, for example, repeatedly denied that he had personally conveyed Trotsky’s instructions to murder Stalin and other Soviet leaders to the “Moscow Centre.” It was only after evidence had been given by other accused that Smirnov was at last compelled to admit that he had been personally responsible for transmitting Trotsky’s instructions.

Many people in Britain have found it difficult to understand the humiliating exhibition given by the prisoners in court. It is true that such behaviour is not normal, but neither is a resort to assassination by people who have professed Marxism. And it must be remembered that Kamenev and Zinoviev had more than once in the past, when in conflict with the Central Committee of the Communist Party, “confessed their errors” and by this means succeeded in maintaining themselves in positions from which they could carry on their factional fight against the Party.

The evidence in August, 1936, trial concerning these two revealed that after the murder of Kirov in December, 1934, they had each submitted glowing obituaries of Kirov to Pravda, the official paper of the Communist Party, with the idea of covering up their tracks. Further evidence dealt with a meeting of the conspirators after one of their numerous recantations. Kamenev was congratulated on the way he had put over his hypocritical conversion, but chuckling, he replied that it was nothing to that of Zinoviev, who had even been able to produce tears in his eyes.

The evidence showed that for a long while there existed in the Soviet Union the two groups of Oppositionists, that led by Trotsky from abroad, and the Zinoviev-Kamenev group. They had hated each other almost as much as they had hated Stalin and the other leaders of the Soviet Government. With the success of Socialistic construction, however, both groups began to realise that what little mass support they might have had in the beginning had completely fallen away from them. In desperation emissaries from Zinoviev and Kamenev went abroad to meet Trotsky’s agents and Trotsky himself. They hoped by joining forces to make up some of the ground they had lost.

But Trotsky had no such illusions. He knew that mass support could never be won again in the face of the triumphant success recorded by the Soviet Government. Therefore he suggested, and insisted, that only the murder of the present leaders could pave the way to the return of the Trotsky-Zinoviev group to influence in the Soviet Union. If they could within a short time assassinate successively Stalin, Voroshilov, and other leaders, confusion of such a character could be created that they would then be able to seize the reins for themselves.

And then—this was a truly fascist touch—all those tools that they had used in the various Commissariats to help them carry through their plans were to be assassinated too, so that none would be left alive who could tell the world of their crimes. How low this group had sunk was shown by overwhelming evidence that these former revolutionaries had not scrupled to make contact with the “Gestapo” (Nazi Secret Police) and get assistance from them to carry through their plans. Some of the group, it turned out, had been directly sent to the Soviet Union from abroad by Trotsky, for the purpose of organising assassinations; some had entered the Soviet Union on passports obligingly forged for them by the German “Gestapo.”

On one point all the accused men spoke with one voice: Every communication received from Trotsky harped on the theme: Kill Stalin.

One of the defendants described a meeting in Kamenev’s flat, with both Zinoviev and Kamenev present. This defendant, Lurie, had expressed his qualms at working with the “Gestapo.” Zinoviev had brushed the objection aside. “The ends justify the means,” he declared. Another of the prisoners, Fritz Olberg, told of his admission to the Soviet Union, specially for the organisation of murder groups, by means of a forged Honduras passport obtained for him through his brother from the “Gestapo.” The “Gestapo” agents had assured him that if any of the terrorists had to flee the country after carrying through the assassinations they could rest assured of a haven of refuge in Germany. He, and another of the prisoners, Fritz David, had intended to murder Stalin at the recent World Congress of the Communist International. But Olberg had been unable to secure admission, while David’s place in the hall was too far away for him to be able to carry through the job.

David told of his meeting with Trotsky’s son, who had handed him 12,000 Czechish Crowns to finance the working of the group, with instructions from Trotsky senior that the job must be done at some big public function.

Berman Yurin was another of the accused who confessed to having entered the U.S.S.R. expressly for the purpose of murdering Stalin.

“‘Stalin must be physically destroyed’ was the point emphasized to me over and over again by Trotsky in personal conversation,” said Yurin, narrating his conversations in Copenhagen with Trotsky.

Having failed to assassinate Stalin at the World Congress the group planned their next attempt on May Day this year, but again the effort miscarried.

Similar evidence was given by Lurie of his attempt to assassinate Zhdanov, the Leningrad leader, at the May Day demonstration in that city. He told how he had been smuggled into the U.S.S.R. from abroad, like David and Olberg, in 1932, and told of meeting a Nazi agent who had entered Russia as an engineer. This man was acting on the direct instructions of Himmler, now chief of the “Gestapo.” He was shocked at first by the thought of working with declared fascists, but then reconciled himself to the idea that “since the purpose of our group was to be achieved by terror we must work in conjunction with all possible allies.”

The evidence of Kamenev and Zinoviev was no less sensational than that of the others. They told how other members of their group were to be found in all sorts of leading positions. Kamenev declared:

“Killing Stalin and the others was the sole means for myself and my colleagues to attain power as the developments in the country were not sliding to catastrophe as we had predicted, but were on the up-grade, and all expectations of an automatic collapse of the regime due to such difficulties were shattered.”

Mrachkovski, one of Trotsky’s closest confidents since 1923, told the court how Trotsky had made terrorism and assassination the basic condition on which he would agree to the merging of the groups.

By the time the hearing had ended there was no doubt of the guilt of the men in the dock, and that they richly deserved the death penalty that awaited them.

Within 30 hours of sentence of death being passed upon them, it was carried out. Thus ended the career of men who, as we shall see, had abused the repeated leniency that had been shown them by the Soviet people whom they had so thoroughly and so often betrayed. The sentence, however, must not be regarded merely in relation to these individuals. The death sentence was necessary as an unmistakable warning to any others who might be led to intrigue with the agents of Trotsky and Hitler.

It is true that the internal position in the Soviet Union is secure, and that the overwhelming majority of the people are working loyally and proudly to complete the building of Socialism. But at the same time the aggressive designs of Hitler Germany are becoming daily more obvious: it is once again trying to mobilise all the capitalist States against the Soviet Union. The National Council of Labour’s statement on Spain (Aug. 28) refers to the “vast system of espionage, corruption and intrigue” established in Spain by Nazi Germany. The evidence at the Moscow trial showed that Nazi Germany had been trying to establish a similar system of espionage, corruption and intrigue in the Soviet Union; and that for this purpose it was working with Trotsky and his followers. The trial and the sentence have put an end to one group which was working with the Nazi secret police to cause confusion in the Soviet Union; and the trial and sentence have also served as a reminder to the people of the Soviet Union to be on their guard, to stand as a barrier against fascism and its allies.


Looking back over the years it is indeed surprising, to say the least of it, to find the British Press taking to its bosom Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev. Gone are the days of the Zinoviev letter; gone are the horror stories of Trotsky which appeared in the early days of the Russian Revolution. These people have now become the “Old Guard,” “friends of Lenin.” Lenin himself is even made to appear a kindly old gentleman.

The villain of the piece is now Stalin. He is pictured as the ruthless dictator getting rid of all those who fought alongside Lenin. If the millionaire press wasn’t read by millions of people in this country such charges against Stalin could be laughed at. I can assure whoever reads this pamphlet that if they care to turn up the back files of the British newspapers they will find that what they are saying against Stalin to-day is exactly the same as was said about Lenin in the years between 1917 and 1924.

One cannot expect the millionaire press, or the Daily Herald of to-day, to present to their readers the real facts about this “Old Guard.” But here they are:

Zinoviev and Kamenev were not the leaders and inspirers of the Russian Revolution which began in Petrograd in 1917. In point of fact, as members of the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party at the time, they opposed and voted against the uprising. What is more, they took the step of making public the plans of the Bolsheviks by publishing them in the newspaper Novaya Zhizn (“New Life”) in Petrograd. There and then Lenin denounced these two, demanding their expulsion from the Party, classing them as “strike-breakers” of the Revolution. But Zinoviev and Kamenev recanted and were allowed to remain members.

The spring of 1925 came. Lenin had been dead more than a year. The all-important question before the people of the Soviet Union was that put by Lenin ten years before: Was it possible or impossible to build Socialism in one country, particularly Russia?

Stalin answered this question by declaring: “Yes, it is possible. And it is not only possible, but necessary and inevitable.”

Zinoviev and Kamenev disputed this answer, and by July of 1926 had openly joined Trotsky in one united opposition bloc against the policy of Stalin and the Central Committee of the Communist Party.

When this opposition to the Central Committee’s policy had been rebuffed and rejected by the overwhelming majority of the Communist Party, Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev resorted to secret factional activities on a large scale. For this Zinoviev and others were brought to book by the Party. Following the 1926 July meeting of the Central Committee, Zinoviev was expelled from the Party.

Zinoviev and his associates continued their plotting. They failed. The members of the Party rallied to the side of the Central Committee, and so the opposition resorted to the most unprincipled manœuvres. On October 4, 1926, the leaders of the opposition submitted a statement to the Political Bureau of the Party, declaring their willingness to drop the factional struggle; but it was only a cover for them in order to continue their anti-Party activities.

It was logical that sooner or later the factional activities of the opposition which in themselves endangered the revolution by attempting to undermine the Party’s authority—would lead to open counter-revolutionary acts. This was the case on November 7, 1927, on the occasion of the Tenth Anniversary of the Revolution.

On this day the leaders of the opposition attempted to organise a demonstration against the Central Committee of the Party and the Soviet Government. After such an act the question of their expulsion was unavoidable.

On December 18, 1927, seventy-five leading members of the opposition were expelled from the Party. Later Zinoviev and Kamenev again “recanted,” and were re-admitted to the Party, only to be again expelled in 1932 for duplicity and deceiving the Party.

Once more, in 1933, Zinoviev and Kamenev publicly renounced their views, and just prior to the 17th Party Congress, in 1934, were re-admitted to the Party—at a time when, as subsequent events showed, they were organising the murder of Kirov and plotting the murder of Stalin and others. Such, briefly, is their history, a record of vacillations, deceit, doubts, and lack of faith in the Party and the working-class.

All their “recantations” and “pledges” turned out to be double-faced dealing. Events proved that they never gave up their struggle. Their thirst for power took them along the path to terrorism.


The period of Trotsky’s career which established the “Lenin and Trotsky” tradition was the period of the Russian revolution and the Civil war. Trotsky had been chairman—he was a Menshevik at the time—of the Petersburg Soviet in the 1905 revolution. He had become well-known as a politician, a clever writer and brilliant orator. He took an active part in the rising and the preparations for it in 1917, though the organisation leadership was not, as is sometimes supposed, in his hands; this was specially delegated by the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party to five members; Sverdlov, Stalin, Dzerzhinsky, Bubnov and Uritsky.

As the first Commissar for Foreign Affairs, and later as chairman of the Revolutionary Military Council, he became well-known throughout the world, so well-known in fact, that to-day he is sometimes represented as really the man who was responsible for the Russian revolution. He is spoken of in some quarters as the “last of the Bolsheviks.”

It is not generally known, however; that Trotsky, when for the first time he joined the Bolshevik Party in July, 1917, had been for fifteen years its opponent, and specially the most bitter adversary of Lenin, who had thus described his politics:

“Trotsky was in 1903 a Menshevik; gave up Menshevism in 1904, returned to the Mensheviks in 1905, but showing off his ultra-revolutionary phrases. In 1906 again drew away; at the end of 1906 supported electoral agreements with the Cadets” (Liberal manufacturers’ party) “and in 1907 declared himself more or less in agreement with Rosa Luxemburg and the Bolsheviks. Trotsky plagiarises the ideological baggage, and therefore proclaims himself to be above both factions.” (May 12, 1911.)

A fitting description, as events have shown. For all Trotsky’s brilliance as a writer and orator and the popular prestige which this gave him, he was a bad organiser. During the Civil War the military delegates to the Bolshevik Party congresses complained of him; and Lenin complained of his bureaucratic methods, having constantly to intervene and added Stalin and Gusev to the Military Council to improve the political and organisational direction.

In 1918, Trotsky opposed the signing of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty which won a valuable breathing space for the Russian Revolution, and prophesied “the doom of the Revolution.”

By the autumn of 1920 the war of intervention was over, but now yet harder tasks lay before the workers. With “pitiless insistence,” as Lenin said, the dilemma was posed to Russia:

“Either perish, or overtake and surpass the most advanced countries also economically. . . . Either perish or press forward at full speed. That is the way History puts the question.”

It was in this period that the faint-hearted lost courage before the colossal tasks facing them after several years of war and devastation, and surrounded by a bitterly hostile world. The low degree of industrialisation, the lack of experienced administrators and technicians, the high prices of manufactured goods compared with the low agricultural prices—these were desperate problems; they were surmounted by tens of thousands of heroes, following heroic leadership through another fifteen years of struggle to the victory of Socialism. But before the epoch of the first five-year plan, itself made possible through Lenin’s NEW ECONOMIC POLICY and Stalin’s resolute carrying forward of Lenin’s policy, Trotsky had gone over to the enemy.

Obsessed with his personal vanity and his deep-seated lack of faith in the creative power of the masses, Trotsky bitterly fought against the idea and the policy of building Socialism in the Soviet Union: he always thought it impossible for Russia to accomplish the job without the most advanced countries of the West taking the path of revolution.

From 1923 (just prior to the death of Lenin), until his expulsion from the Party in 1927, Trotsky’s struggle against the policy and leadership of the Communist Party and Soviet government was continuous. He not only refused to accept the decisions of the majority of the Party, but worked actively against them.

Trotsky’s consistent opposition to the Party eventually led to his expulsion from the country and, as the evidence at the August, 1936, trial showed, in his personal struggle against Stalin and other leaders of the Soviet Government he has sunk so low as to organise murder gangs in cooperation with the Nazi secret police. This seems incredible to those not acquainted with his whole record of opposition to the Bolshevik Party until 1917; his constant political errors at critical periods in the Russian revolution; his “leftist” errors both in internal and foreign policy after Lenin’s death; his secret organisation against the Communist Party when he had lost all support within it; his unscrupulous articles in the foreign press, after his expulsion from the Soviet Union, which served as ammunition for all the enemies of the Soviet Union; his secret organisation of dissident groups within the Communist Parties of other countries—groups within which police agents found fertile soil for their activities—and finally his articles in the “Trotskyist” journals of various countries, actually putting forward the idea that Russia’s military defeat by the capitalist powers was historically necessary in order to “rid” the people of the Soviet Union from “Stalin’s dictatorship.”


How was it possible for persons who had played an important part in the earlier stages of the revolution, who had filled high positions in the Communist Party and the Soviet Government, to degenerate from revolution to counter-revolution?

There is only one answer to this question: because, in spite of their Marxist associations and their undoubted service to the revolutionary cause at certain stages, they lacked that fundamental faith in the working class which is characteristic of a Marxist.

In the earlier stages of the revolution Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev—in spite of very serious political errors at critical points—were able to fulfil tasks which persons of lesser intellectual ability could not have fulfilled, and the very stress of the battle quickly corrected their errors. But at the same time, they never really understood that revolutionary achievements are the achievements of the masses, and not of individuals, however brilliant these might be. Nor did they ever really understand the basic principles on which the Communist Party is built (for fifteen years Trotsky had openly opposed them)—inner democracy and centralised leadership, which safeguards the working class against adventurers and political weaklings.

It was because of their lack of faith in the masses that Trotsky and his supporters could not believe that the working class of Russia would go through all the privations and sufferings which were necessary in order to bring the Soviet Union into the front rank of industrial countries and thus make the victory of Socialism possible. It was this lack of faith in the masses that made Trotsky both oppose the Five Year Plan and imagine that without him the whole revolution was doomed. He saw in the policy carried out in the Soviet Union not the achievements of 170 million people led by a mass Communist Party, but the “diabolical machinations” of one man, Stalin.

The people of Russia, however, had confidence in themselves, and pride in their achievements. It was they who had made the revolution, they who had made sacrifices for a new society, they who had seen that new society taking shape under their own hands. And they had confidence in their Communist Party and its leadership, which had voiced their aspirations and shown the way to their attainment.