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


Chapter 42. The Last Show Trials

Freedom of the person lies largely in protection from questions. The strongest tyranny is the one that allows itself the strongest question.

Elias Canetti, Mass and Might

SHOCK WAVES from the show trials by which Stalin got rid of the last remnants of the old Bolsheviks swept away up to three successive administrations in all districts of the Soviet Union; tens of thousands of loyal Stalinists were devoured by the leviathan that they had engineered and lauded. The last show trials of 1937 and 1938 were the epicenter, but the greatest suffering was at the periphery, among workers with no political interests.

Ezhov had a secondary role in the two show trials that would get rid of the last traces of opposition. He could beat prisoners into submission, but had no gift for devising scenarios for foreign journalists to observe. Stalin therefore settled with Andrei Vyshinsky what the prosecution and the accused would say in court. Stalin left Ezhov, together with Kaganovich, to bark at Central Committee plenary meetings; Ezhov’s underdogs would bully the defendants into learning the scripts that Vyshinsky would devise.

Despite sleep deprivation and other torments, it took a month to break the defendants of the “Parallel anti-Soviet Trotskyist Center” to be tried from January 23 to 30, 1937. Karl Radek, the only victim for whom Stalin had any residual respect, agreed to plead guilty only if he could write his own part; Radek’s desire to have memorable lines was stronger than his will to live. According to Stalin, he said, “You can shoot me or not, as you like, but I’d like my honor not to be besmirched.” Others in this trial had already been broken by a previous trial of Trotskyists in Siberia. Piatakov was prepared not just to damn his own wife as a traitor, but to shoot with his own hand those convicted in the first show trial. Stalin politely declined, explaining that in the USSR executioners had to remain anonymous.

Despite 400 pages of documentation, this second show trial was even more shoddily fabricated than that of Kamenev and Zinoviev in 1936. Piatakov was alleged to have flown to Oslo but the Norwegian authorities stated that no foreign aircraft had landed there at the time. The crimes were more implausible than Zinoviev’s and Kamenev’s “assassinations,” Vyshinsky pathetically citing a signalwoman crippled in a train crash arranged by Trotsky’s agents. All but four of the accused were shot although the lucky four lived only a few years. Radek, who had teased Vyshinsky in court with the implausibility of the evidence and whom Stalin reprieved, was murdered in prison in 1939. Before the trial Radek read Vyshinsky his proposed last words. “Is that all?” Vyshinsky asked. “No good. Redo it, all of it. Try and admit this and that. . . . You are a journalist after all!” 22 Radek sent his wife a letter which the NKVD interpreted in one way and she, no doubt, in another: “I have admitted I was the member of a center, took part in its terrorist activity. . . . I don’t need to tell you that such admissions could not have been extracted from me by violent means nor by promises.”23

Vyshinsky was rewarded with the dacha of Leonid Serebriakov, former commissar for roads and one of those he had condemned to death.

Western reaction to this second trial was muted: the Spanish Civil War made it unseemly for the left to criticize Stalin, the Spanish republic’s last supporter. British MPs and journalists assured the public that the accused had confessed because the evidence was overwhelming. Japanese and German correspondents declared the trial an outrageous fabrication, but because they were fascists, they were not believed in Britain or America. Any improbabilities which Western observers had noticed in the confessions, explained the exiled German writer Lion Feuchtwanger, were due to faults in translation. In court Karl Radek denied that he had been coerced: “If the question is raised whether we were tortured during interrogation, then I have to say that it wasn’t me who was tortured, but the interrogators who were tortured by me, since I caused them unnecessary work.”

Why did the accused not retract their confessions in court? The guards would not have beaten them in public and they certainly could not have trusted Stalin’s promises to spare them or their families; they knew of the extermination of Kamenev, Zinoviev, and almost all their kin. Were they unsophisticated enough to believe that it was their duty to admit guilt as a sacrifice for the party? They didn’t appear to have been drugged. The full dossier covering their interrogation is not yet in the public domain, and in any case it may have been largely falsified. Either their torturers made threats which we can only guess at, or they had motives for complicity which surpass our understanding. Fear alone does not explain the defendants’ behavior, unless they had been threatened with tortures even more unspeakable than what they had endured.

The third great show trial of this series, in 1938, of Bukharin, Rykov, Iagoda, and their fellow defendants, took a whole year to organize. Was the delay due to Ezhov’s inability to devise scenarios, Iagoda’s recalcitrance, or Stalin’s sadism? Was Stalin loath to end an amusing game of cat and mouse with Bukharin, who remained editor of Izvestiia even while the newspaper called for his demise? His letters to Stalin in 1936 and 1937 have a psalmodic quality, perhaps a key to the martyr complex of the defendants. “If you could only really know my ‘soul’ as it is now!” he wrote in February 1936. “I still want to do something good. And now I must tell you straight: my only hope is you.”24

In spring 1936 Stalin had even let Bukharin go abroad to retrieve the archives of the now banned German Social Democratic Party. Bukharin spoke fatalistically to the émigré historian Boris Nikolaevsky, Rykov’s brother-in-law, and wrote saccharine letters to Stalin: “You keep swelling, so that anyone can see how needed you are now—perhaps more than ever, my dear!” In August Stalin let Bukharin go mountaineering for the last time in the Pamirs. In autumn 1936 the net closed and Radek was arrested. Bukharin stood up for Radek as someone “ready to give his last drop of blood for our country.” The more Bukharin’s name figured in indictments of others, the more he pleaded to Stalin:

I ardently beg you to allow me to come and see you. . . . There is no greater tragedy than when one is surrounded by hostile distrust and one is guilty of nothing, not a jot. . . . Only you can cure me. . . . I ask not for pity, not for any forgiveness, for I am not guilty of anything. But the atmosphere is such that only a super-authority (only you) can take on yourself to the end the boldness of saving an innocent man who because of the tactics of the enemy has got into an exceptional situation. . . . Interrogate me, turn my skin inside out. . . .

When Stalin told him to stay on at Izvestiia Bukharin sent him “A Poem About Stalin in Seven Cantos” that he had composed “in one of my sleepless nights.” In blank verse, it begins with the death of a genius—Lenin—and continues with Stalin’s Great Oath, his Path of Fire and Struggle, and Victory. Canto Five is The Leader:

Here he stands, in gray greatcoat, the leader Of innumerable creative millions . . . And powerfully Gives a mighty strength To the momentum of a new triumphant life.

The poem ends with Friendship of Nations and Trumpet Signals, at which Stalin leads armies to fight fascism: “And wisely he looks afar, staring with testing gaze / At the hosts of enemies, Great Stalin.”

Once Pravda was unleashed against him, Bukharin asserted his innocence “in word, deed, and thought.” When Kamenev and Zinoviev were executed, Bukharin groveled. He told Vyshinsky, “I am terribly glad the dogs have been shot.” Three chekisty came to evict him from his apartment in the Kremlin, but a phone call to Stalin got rid of the intruders. The year 1937, however, was all despair. The death of Sergo Orjonikidze in February 1937 deprived Bukharin of his last friend in power. He admitted to Stalin:

. . . I was embittered against you (that’s true): I didn’t understand your objective political rightness. . . . But I am not the person I was. I cannot even weep over the body of an old comrade. On the contrary, his death will serve as a pretext for certain people to dishonor me. . . . I know that you’re suspicious and often happen to be very wise in your suspiciousness . . . but I am a living person walled up alive and spat on from all sides. . . . I repeat to you my request that I shouldn’t be harassed and should be allowed to “live out the rest of my days” here.

The February–March 1937 plenum of the Central Committee was surely one of the most grotesque meetings in the history of humanity. 25 Two thirds of the 1,200 delegates would be dead within the next two years, yet, in a frenzy, they called for terror against more enemies. Bukharin and Rykov, fresh from confrontations with former associates beaten by the NKVD into incriminating them, were thrown into the ring. To this mindless throng, presided over by a taunting Politburo— Stalin, Molotov, Kaganovich, and Voroshilov—Bukharin pleaded for compassion: “Comrades, I beg you not to interrupt me, because I find it very hard, it’s simply physically hard to speak. . . . I haven’t eaten for four days . . . because it is impossible for me to live with such accusations. . . . Understand it’s hard for me to live.” To which Stalin interjected, “It’s easy for us, is it?” Bukharin dared not parry Stalin’s assertion that all previous defendants had freely confessed and provoked only laughter when he declared that everything in the trials of the Trotskyists was plausible except that which incriminated him. Stalin intervened more than anybody else—a hundred times—during this witch hunt. At times Stalin softened: “You must not, you have no right to slander yourself . . .” he said. “You must see it our way. Trotsky and his disciples Zinoviev and Kamenev used to work with Lenin and have now come to terms with Hitler.” Bukharin claimed he was mentally ill. “Excuse and forgive . . . So that’s it,” retorted Stalin. Rykov attempted a more spirited self-defense, but when he tried to defend Bukharin, Stalin interrupted: “Bukharin hasn’t told the truth even here.”

Ezhov had the last word: he accused Bukharin of keeping a file of anti-Soviet utterances hidden from the GPU, and promised to arrest him: “The plenum will allow Bukharin and Rykov to convince themselves in reality of the objectivity of the investigation and to see how investigations are conducted.” A commission of thirty-five would decide their fate: they agreed to expel and arrest the two. Ezhov proposed shooting them; a minority voted for ten years’ imprisonment. Stalin, wearing his arbiter’s mask, had the commission “direct the Bukharin–Rykov case to the NKVD”—which meant that he had instructed Ezhov to annihilate them. When the plenum voted on the commission’s remit only Bukharin and Rykov abstained.

Stalin and Ezhov allowed Bukharin a cell where he could smoke and write before standing trial with twenty others in March 1938.26 This trial strained even Vyshinsky’s imagination. He had to tie together Genrikh Iagoda, Bukharin’s right-wing opposition, three Kremlin doctors, three former Trotskyists, and Gorky’s and Kuibyshev’s secretaries on charges dating back to 1917 of serial murder, sabotage, induced famine, treason, and terrorism on behalf of the intelligence services of every major European and Asiatic state. When tried before the carefully screened audience, Bukharin adopted the same tactics as Iagoda: he pleaded guilty in general but cast doubt on every detail. Like Iagoda, he rebutted Vyshinsky’s efforts to blacken him as a foreign spy. Nevertheless, Bukharin ended his ordeal with utter self-abasement: the only reason for not shooting him, he said, was that “the former Bukharin has now died, he no longer exists on earth.” An observer of the show trials would have had to conclude that all Lenin’s party except for a tiny circle around Stalin had for some reason carried out a simulated Bolshevik revolution at the behest of world capitalism.

Bukharin had at least come to understand why he had to die:

Stalin has some big and bold political idea of a general purge a) in connection with the prewar period and b) with a transition to democracy. This purge takes in a) the guilty, b) the suspect, c) potential suspects. In this case I couldn’t be excluded. Some are made harmless one way, others another, others a third way . . . great plans, great ideas, and great interests outweigh everything and it would be petty to raise the question of my own person in the face of universal-historical tasks that weigh first of all on your [Stalin’s] shoulders.27

Nevertheless, Bukharin still hoped for mercy: “if I am given a death sentence . . . instead of shooting, let me have poison in my cell (give me morphine to go to sleep and not wake up) . . . Have pity! I beseech you for this.” In other letters he offered to go to the Arctic camps for twenty-five years and found universities and museums there, or to America for an indefinite time where he “would smash Trotsky’s face in.”

Bukharin’s final note to Stalin began, “Koba, why do you need my life?” This note Stalin did not put in his archive; all his life he kept it under a newspaper in a desk drawer at his dacha. On March 15, 1938, Bukharin’s decade of torment ended. Together with Iagoda and all but three of the other defendants at the third great show trial, he was shot. The three were shot in Oriol prison in 1941. Five days too late, Romain Rolland wrote to Stalin, “a mind like Bukharin’s is a precious resource for his country, he could and ought to be preserved for Soviet science and thought.” He invoked Gorky’s name and warned Stalin of the remorse which the French, even Jacobins, had felt after guillotining the chemist Lavoisier. Stalin did not reply.28 Instead, he screened a film, The Court’s Sentence Is the People’s Sentence, which starred Vyshinsky at his most rabid. Of Bukharin’s family, only his first wife was shot. His second and his third teenage wives went to the GULAG, his son went to an NKVD orphanage and grew up not even knowing who his father had been.

Other damned men including Abel Enukidze and Jan Rudzutak, despite torture, would not or could not give public testimony; they were tried in secret and shot separately.29 Elsewhere, the trials of others whom Stalin distrusted had already taken place. Beria had already exterminated Budu Mdivani, Orakhelashvili, and most of the older Georgian communists.

Fewer Western observers—with the spectacular exception of the American ambassador, Joseph Davies, who informed his government of “proof beyond reasonable doubt to justify the verdict of guilty”—were deceived this time. Romain Rolland was shaken. Stalin was wrecking the unity of the antifascist left with the internecine murders his NKVD carried out in Spain and with this trial. He could now resort only to accommodation with Hitler for his security. Mussolini’s organ Popolo d’Italia mused: “Has Stalin become a secret fascist?” Il duce was rubbing his hands because “nobody exterminated so many communists as Stalin.”