Stalin and His Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him - Donald Rayfield (2005)


Chapter 21. The First Show Trials

With him, pretence was so spontaneous that it seemed he himself became convinced of the truth and sincerity of what he was saying.

Milovan Djilas, Conversations with Stalin

IN 1926 Stalin asked Menzhinsky to stage a show trial that would swing public opinion at home and abroad. Not until 1930 did Menzhinsky do this, although in 1928, under Genrikh Iagoda’s less expert supervision, OGPU staged the Shakhty trial of mine engineers from the Don basin in southern Russia. Like the grain requisitions of 1928, the trial was counterproductive. If the country needed grain, why terrorize the producers? If the country needed engineers, why arrest hundreds and put fifty on trial? If foreign specialists were needed to pass on modern technology, why arrest thirty-two German engineers and try three of them? Stalin, accusing others of sabotage, was throwing wrenches in his own works.

Each repression was followed by token relenting: individuals in the judiciary and OGPU were reprimanded for overdoing the persecutions; engineers were praised as a caste whom the state would cherish. Foreigners, however, remained vulnerable: in 1930 British electrical engineers from Metro-Vickers stood trial for sabotage and corruption. The repercussions of such trials forced Stalin to guarantee the safety of foreign specialists and in 1932, when the great Dnepr dams were built, the American engineer Hugh L. Cooper was rewarded not with arrest but with the Red Banner of Labor.

The motives behind the Shakhty trial related to the disparity between promised prosperity and the actual penury of the country. This had to be blamed on someone and foreign saboteurs were an easy target. Moreover Stalin loathed foreign specialists and wanted Soviet citizens to shun them. In addition, the effects of a show trial on the judiciary and public needed to be tested again, and Stalin wanted to see if OGPU could make defendants repeat their confessions in open court before he used show trials on famous old Bolsheviks, not just obscure engineers.

Since Lenin’s death the Soviet judiciary and some of Tsarist Russia’s surviving defense lawyers had recovered a vestige of self-confidence—at least when OGPU did not express an interest in the outcome. Stalin needed judge and prosecutor able to give his kangaroo court credibility, but wanted to warn off any lawyers who might defend enemies of the state. He was fortunate that Andrei Vyshinsky and Nikolai Krylenko were at his disposal. After sharing a cell with Andrei Vyshinsky, Stalin was sure of his loyalty.

Nikolai Krylenko had conducted with deadly rhetoric prosecutions in the first years of the revolution: he had sent Roman Malinovsky to his death, and arranged trials of Social Revolutionaries and bourgeois intellectuals in the early 1920s. Krylenko, however, was suspect to Stalin: he was a formidable chess player, and organized international tournaments.11 Krylenko, like Bukharin, also conquered peaks in the Pamir mountains, and he had one named after him. All this implied individualism, cunning, and competitiveness. For all his cruelty and willingness to subvert justice for political expediency, Krylenko, like Bukharin, had a charisma which doomed him in Stalin’s eyes and, consequently, in Vyshinsky’s.

On any scale of odiousness Andrei Ianuarievich (sometimes called Iaguarovich for his feline predations) Vyshinsky ranks high among Stalin’s hangmen. Vyshinsky was of Polish origin. In private life, like Molotov, he was a loving husband and father, capable of kindness if it did not interfere with politics. Before the revolution he lived a comfortable privileged existence; he had no traumas to avenge and had been trained in one of the world’s most idealistic legal systems. He was, however, deeply cynical and sadistic and possessed no gratitude. He had no compunction about sending his former professor of law and many—in fact most—of his colleagues to their deaths. He developed a theory of law in which “confession is the queen of evidence”; he bullied into mute submission defendants whom he knew to be innocent of trumped-up charges. But Vyshinsky had a gift for legalistic phrasing as well as foul-mouthed oratory and proved himself a brilliant organizer in education, law, and eventually foreign affairs.

As a revolutionary in Baku, Vyshinsky had specialized in killing provocateurs and police agents. The chief blot on his copybook, which Stalin valued as a means of blackmailing him, was that, as a youthful prosecutor of the provisional government, he had issued a warrant for Lenin’s arrest. After the Bolshevik takeover, Stalin’s arrival in Petrograd saved Vyshinsky, who was given a post organizing food supplies. In the party purges, Vyshinsky, as a former Menshevik, was sometimes denied a party card, but by 1925 he was voted in—the sole candidate—as rector of Moscow University.

Vyshinsky’s first service to Stalin was in 1927 to arrange the funeral of the neuropathologist Professor Vladimir Bekhterev. The professor’s death by poisoning, two days after diagnosing paranoia in Stalin, was suspicious. A few years later Vyshinsky instructed a court to sentence Bekhterev’s son to death and his family to the camps. The Shakhty trial was Vyshinsky’s first public test, and as he was a prosecutor rather than a judge, the court had to be designated a “special session.” Vyshinsky’s job was not to decide a verdict or sentence—Stalin had already decided those—his task was to oversee the Shakhty defendants, to rehearse their confessions and court testimony.

Efim Evdokimov, a former convict and OGPU chief in the north Caucasus, had the physical work of wringing confessions from the fifty-three defendants and making them fit for public testimony in May 1928 in the marble Hall of Columns in Moscow, a venue whose theater equipment made it ideal for show trials.

Before the trial Stalin declared all the defendants guilty of sabotaging industry at the behest of French intelligence:

The facts tell us that the Shakhty case is economic counterrevolution, initiated by some of the bourgeois specialists who have already taken control of the coal industry. The facts also tell us that these specialists, organized in a secret group, received money for sabotage from the former owners of the mines who are now émigrés, and from counterrevolutionary organizations in the West.12

Nobody in the Central Committee stood up for the accused. Bukharin, now begging Stalin to rehabilitate him, demanded death for all of them.

Not everything went according to plan. Some of the defendants, especially the Germans, naively thought acquittal possible and pleaded not guilty; others pointed out the absurdity of the idea that French intelligence was commissioning sabotage to facilitate an invasion of Russia. The defense lawyers, notably Pavel Maliantovich, who was Vyshinsky’s superior and had been minister of justice in the provisional government before the revolution, tried too hard. The six-week trial attracted mockery from the foreign press. Krylenko, to Vyshinsky’s amusement, for he resented his rival’s flamboyant reputation, allowed his prosecution to flounder in arcane aspects of engineering and of the “class position” in Marxist jurisprudence. Nor was even the Soviet public yet ready to applaud such witnesses as the twelve-year-old boy who demanded that his accused father be shot. Eventually Vyshinsky overrode Stalin’s instructions: of the eighteen accused, he let seven walk free, and sentenced only eleven to death. Moreover, international pressure was such that Stalin could only have five actually executed. Three defendants who had refused to testify were shot without trial by Iagoda the following May. Stalin complained to the party that there were still “Shakhty men sitting in all branches of our industry.”

After this trial, if the accused became obstreperous in rehearsals, then the trial, if held at all, was behind closed doors, and the public saw only newspaper reports that saboteurs had been sentenced to death. Thus forty-eight officials in the food industry were shot, and the readers of Pravda were left to infer that food shortages were due to subversive state employees. An epidemic of anthrax and distemper among horses was likewise blamed on bacteriologists, who paid with their lives for fighting the epidemic.

Menzhinsky consistently met Stalin’s demands for reprisals for imaginary campaigns of sabotage. To every economic problem Stalin had a punitive response. The shortage of consumer goods and the excessive money supply of the second half of the 1920s, said Georgi Piatakov, then chairman of the State Bank, could be solved conventionally by increasing production, importing fewer consumer goods, and exporting agricultural produce. No, retorted Stalin, the money supply could be reduced by confiscating coins from “speculators” who kept small change because the silver content exceeded its nominal value. Stalin had another solution, as paranoiac as it was crass: “Without fail shoot two or three dozen wreckers from the Commissariat of Finance and the State Bank.” Five old bankers were sentenced to die. Just one member of the intelligentsia, the poet Osip Mandelstam, last keeper of the public conscience, protested at this judicial murder. To the amazement of all who knew of his protest, the old men were spared. Nobody, however, was inspired by Mandelstam’s courage to emulate him. Civic courage in the USSR was dead, and Mandelstam was regarded as mad.

Stalin was undeterred. He fired the chairman of the State Bank and instructed Menzhinsky: “Can you possibly send a memorandum on the results of the struggle (by GPU methods) with speculators in small change (how much silver has been removed, what institutions are most implicated, the role of foreign countries and their agents, how many people have been arrested, who they are, etc.).” Menzhinsky replied humbly: “Your view is correct. There is no doubt about that. But the trouble is that the results of the operation to take out small silver coins are almost deplorable. 280,000 rubles . . . clearly, we had a go at the cashiers and then relaxed, as often happens with us. That’s bad.”13

Under Stalin’s watchful eye, Menzhinsky staged at the end of 1930 a show trial in Moscow of eight leading metropolitan engineers and physicists, but first came a summer of arrests, interrogations, and the writing of an elaborate scenario. The first wave of arrests took out Russia’s best economists, notably Aleksandr Chaianov and Nikolai Kondratiev, the author of a controversial theory on the relationship of booms and depressions to sunspot cycles.14 He allegedly led a secret Labor Peasant Party, connected with an émigré Republican Democrat Union and with Mensheviks at home and abroad. Stalin first proposed to Molotov, “Kondratiev, Groman, and a couple or two of other bastards [sic] must definitely be shot.” He wanted Menzhinsky and Iagoda to link Kondratiev with Bukharin, Rykov, and Tomsky, and when Menzhinsky failed to find a link, Stalin asked OGPU, “Would the gentlemen accused consider confessing their mistakes and cover themselves properly with spit politically speaking by recognizing at the same time the solidity of Soviet power and the correctness of collectivization methods? That wouldn’t be bad. . . .”15

Kondratiev would not “cover himself in spit,” as Stalin saw from the regular statements that Iagoda brought him. Stalin told Menzhinsky, “Delay handing the Kondratiev case to the courts. It is not without its dangers. In the middle of October we’ll decide this question together. I have some considerations against.” Kondratiev and his fellow accused were dealt with behind closed doors and were finally shot in 1937. Menzhinsky meanwhile went on “checking up and smashing faces,” as Stalin phrased it.

“Evidence” from Kondratiev’s case fed the Industrial Party (Prompartiia) case at the end of 1930. In this fabrication a deal was struck with the defendants led by Professor Leonid Ramzin. Stalin liked Ramzin; his confessions implicated (and thus silenced) the Soviet head of state, Mikhail Kalinin, and Stalin circulated details to the Central Committee. Leonid Ramzin sang like a canary. In return he was promised his life and full reinstatement.16 Stalin needed Ramzin’s reprieve as an example to more important victims, to get confessions to any accusations, however absurd, in exchange for a reprieve, for the survival of kith and kin—promises that were later rarely kept.

Menzhinsky’s success with Ramzin left Stalin hungry for more compromising material for future use. He and Menzhinsky fed each other’s paranoia. A letter of October 1930 to Menzhinsky shows Stalin’s obsession with micromanaging OGPU’s work and an uncritical belief, simulated or not, in universal conspiracies. He writes as if a Franco-Polish-Romanian army, financed by the Nobel brothers, really proposed invading the USSR. Stalin’s cynicism about human behavior is matched by his autosuggestion that the fabrications OGPU had beaten or cajoled from prisoners reflected reality:

Ramzin’s statements are very interesting. I think the most interesting thing in his statements is the question of intervention in general, or, in particular, of the date of intervention. It turns out that intervention was planned for 1930, but was put off to 1931 or even 1932. This is very plausible and important. It’s all the more important that it comes from a primary source, i.e. from the group of Riabushinsky, Gukasov, Denisov, Nobel [émigré businessmen and alleged co-conspirators, some of whom were in fact dead], a group which is the most powerful social-economic group of all within the USSR, and the emigration, the strongest group in capital and in their links with the French and English governments. It might seem that the Labor Peasant Party or the Industrial Party or Miliukov’s party [Miliukov led the Russian Constitutional Democrats, the liberals of the Tsar’s Duma] are the main force. But this is not true. The main force is the Riabushinsky-Denisov-Nobel group, i.e. Trade and Industry, [the other parties] are just errand boys for Trade and Industry. . . .

Hence my suggestions:

a) make the question of intervention one of the most important key points for new future statements by the leaders [of the other parties] and especially by Ramzin: 1) why was the intervention in 1930 put back? 2) is it because Poland was not ready yet? 3) perhaps because Romania isn’t ready? 4) perhaps because the Baltic States and Romania haven’t yet united with Poland? 5) why has the intervention been put off to 1931? 6) why “might” they put it off to 1932? 7) etc., etc. [ . . . ]

d) Make Messrs Kondratiev, Iurovsky, Chaianov et al. run the gantlet, they have been deviously evading the “tendency to intervention,” but they are (indisputably!) interventionists and they must be interrogated very severely about dates. (Kondratiev, Iurovsky and Chaianov must know about this just as Miliukov, whom they visited for a “chat,” knows.)

If Ramzin’s statements are confirmed and fleshed out in statements by the other accused (Groman, Larichev, Kondratiev and Co., etc.) this will be a major success for OGPU, since material we get this way we shall make available to sections of the Comintern and workers of all countries, we shall start a very wide campaign against interventionists and we shall succeed in paralyzing and subverting attempts to intervene for the next year or two, which is very important for us.

Get it? Greetings! I. Stalin.17

Ramzin happily clowned at the trial of the Prompartiia: he helped the lame-duck prosecution over many stiles, affirming that he had met the capitalist Riabushinsky two years after the latter’s death and that he himself had been briefed by both Poincaré and Lawrence of Arabia. The trial was accounted a success. Five of the eight were sentenced to death but reprieved for performing well in court.18

Menzhinsky and Stalin now pressed on with a trial of the harmless remnants of prerevolutionary Russia’s law-abiding socialists. The accused had never been, or no longer were, Mensheviks but they had underground experience and OGPU had trouble breaking them. Iagoda threatened to arrest his victims’ sick wives and elderly parents—and did so, even after the accused caved in and signed dictated formulaic confessions, sixty volumes of them.

With the benefit of his now considerable experience Menzhinsky could see that only fourteen of the 122 accused would perform reliably in open court so the rest were dealt with behind closed doors. Even so, Nikolai Krylenko, prosecuting, was wrong-footed in court. One Menshevik who had escaped abroad, Rafail Abramovich, was said to have visited Russia to brief the conspirators but was able to prove that he was in western Europe all that time and successfully sued two German newspapers that printed reports of the trial. Even loyal Bolsheviks had trouble suspending their disbelief at the ludicrous testimony. One noted in his diary:

A hall flooded with lights, microphones, sound recorders, judges, stenographers. One impression only: a trial that had been over-rehearsed. Ramzin was examined when I was there. He was led across the hall. . . . A heap of correspondents filling the front rows fired their cameras at him for several minutes, sitting on top of each other. Ramzin was wearing a white collar, a jacket buttoned up to the neck, standing by the microphone and not waiting for questions from the prosecution, spent at least a whole hour giving his evidence. He said really shattering things . . . . 19