1936 Moscow Trials - a river of blood

Pat Smyth, Militant Irish Monthly, October 1986

On the 15th of August 1936 the government of Stalin announced to the world that two of the great leaders of the Russian Revolution, Zinoviev and Kamenev, were to be tried with 14 others on charges of terrorism and treason. It was to the first savage part of a political purge that was without precedent in world history.

In reality, however, the chief defendant, Trotsky, was not present. From exile, with only a small group of supporters, in the face of ferocious hostility from Communist Parties all over the world, and indifference from the leaders of the social democratic parties and the bosses' press, Trotsky was only able to raise a small voice in opposition to the travesty of justice in Moscow. For his pains he too was to be murdered.

The actual defendants were accused of involvement in a plot against the Soviet Union in alliance with Trotsky and the Nazis, and, specifically, with the assassination of Stalin's aide, Kirov, two years before. No evidence was produced apart from their 'confessions'.

Their testimonies were riddled with contradictions. A hotel in Copenhagen, supposedly the rendezvous of conspirators, had been demolished in 1917. Some of the accused were in jail at the time of the alleged meetings, another swore that he few into an airport that had been closed by bad weather.

Moreover, the circumstances surrounding the assassination of Kirov pointed to the involvement of Stalin and not of the accused. Kirov's assassin, Nikolaev, had twice previously been arrested in the vicinity of his victim with a loaded gun and a map of Kirov's movements. Twice he had been released - an extraordinary sequence of events in what was a police state.

The almost certain involvement of the secret police in the killing is made still more certain by the murder afterwards by the NKVD of Kirov's chief bodyguard. He had been expressing concern over his boss's safety.

Under torture, and with Stalin's false promise that if they confessed their lives would be spared, a number of leading party members confessed and went before the court with grotesque confessions. Zinoviev praised Stalin to the skies, thanking him for making him see the light, and told the court that if he, Zinoviev, had been 'congenitally defective' he 'would not have fallen to such depths of degradation'. Others followed suit.

As Vyshisky, the state prosecutor, rounded on the accused in words that were to become a familiar refrain at the end of subsequent trials, 'Shoot the mad dogs!', their fates were sealed. They were shot two days later, the first of many.

Immediately after the execution Stalin ordered the killing of 5,000 oppositionists already in jail. More trials were to follow. Many more refused to confess and they died without trial in the cells of Stalin's secret police, before the firing squad or in the camps of Siberia.

The purge that followed eliminated all those still alive who had been on the Politbureau of the Bolsheviks in 1917. Among the victims were one ex-premier, several vice-premiers, two former leaders of the Comintern, the chief of the trade unions, the chief of the general staff, the supreme commanders of al the important military districts, nearly all the Soviet ambassadors to Europe and Asia, and even the chiefs of the secret police who had assisted Stalin so diligently.

In the party the purge affected 90% of the regional committees and every level of the state apparatus. By the middle of 1939 only 17 of the 136 district party secretaries in the Moscow region were still in their posts. The ranks of the Ukrainian party were reduced from 455,000 in 1934 to 285,000 in 1938 and every party suffered likewise. Science, the arts, education and every factory suffered. Even the ranks of the Comintern were decimated.

Perhaps most damaging of all, however, was the massacre of the Red Army. Tens of thousands of commanders perished on the eve of a war in which the Soviet Union lost 25 million citizens. All corps commanders were removed, almost all of the divisional and brigade commanders, and so on, down through the ranks. In the words of the dissident Soviet historian, Medvedev, 'the shocking truth can be stated quite simply: never did the officer staff of any army suffer such great losses in any war as the Soviet Army suffered in this time of peace.'

Of the 255 regimental commanders on active duty in 1940 not one had been educated in a military academy. Two hundred had only completed courses for junior lieutenants.

The cover up of these crimes is still going on. Communist Parties such as the pro-Moscow Irish CP, will say nothing about these events. At the time they too called for the 'mad dogs' to be shot.

Nor were the representatives of 'liberal' democracies any better at the time. The cynicism of the bourgeois press internationally can be seen in an editorial from the Irish Times, August 20th 1936:

Perhaps it will be just as well for the world outside Russia if the trial goes - as it must go - against the defendants. Communism by nature is a danger to everybody, but its most dangerous feature lies in its missionary activity among the so called capitalist nations. Trotsky, Zinoviev, Radek, Bukharin and a few others continue to preach the need for this missionary work, and to argue that communism that fails to cover the whole world is not communism at all.

…..Between the nationalistic Stalin and the propagandists Stalin is the less danger; for is communism can be confined to Russia it will cease to be an instant menace to the other nations….Soon the last exponents of missionary communism will be dead or powerless and the earth will be free of one terrible menace to its peace.

As Trotsky explained, Stalin had transformed the Communist International from an agency of world revolution into the frontier guards of the Soviet Union. To do so he drowned in blood the traditions of the October Revolution to destroy all possibility of resistance to his rule.

Yet still today, despite the formal repudiation of Stalin in 1956 by Khrushchev, the main defendants in the purges have still not been rehabilitated. Trotsky's works are banned, and his role as leader of the revolution is still expunged from the history books. Thousands languish in political detention.

The truth is that though Stalin has gone, Stalinism lives on. And Trotsky's ideas of genuine workers' control and an end to the privileges of the pampered bureaucrats still pose a deadly threat to Gorbachev and his like.

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