Moscow Trials

Moscow Trials

The Moscow Trials were a series of show trials conducted in the Soviet Union and orchestrated by Joseph Stalin during the Great Purge of the 1930s. The victims included most of the surviving Old Bolsheviks, as well as the leadership of the Soviet secret police. After Stalin's death and Nikita Khrushchev's revelations in the 1950s, the Moscow Trials are today universally acknowledged as show trials in which the verdicts were predetermined, and then publicly justified through the use of coerced confessions, obtained through torture and threats against the defendants' families.

The purpose of the trials was to eliminate any potential political challengers to Stalin's authority, especially Old Bolsheviks. Most defendants were charged under Article 58 of the RSFSR Penal Code with conspiring with the western powers to assassinate Stalin and other Soviet leaders, dismember the Soviet Union, and restore capitalism.



  • The first trial was of 16 members of the so-called "Trotskyite-Zinovievite Terrorist Centre," held in August 1936, at which the chief defendants were Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, two of the most prominent former party leaders. All were sentenced to death and executed.
  • The second trial in January 1937 involved 17 lesser figures including Karl Radek, Yuri Piatakov and Grigory Sokolnikov. Thirteen of the defendants were eventually shot. The rest received sentences in labor camps.[1][2]

Evaluation of the trials

At the time, many Western observers who attended the trials said that they were fair and that the guilt of the accused had been established. They based this assessment on the confessions of the accused, which were freely given in open court, without any apparent evidence that they had been extracted by torture or drugging. Joseph E. Davies, the U.S. ambassador, wrote in Mission to Moscow:

"In view of the character of the accused, their long terms of service, their recognized distinction in their profession, their long-continued loyalty to the Communist cause, it is scarcely credible that their brother officers...should have acquiesced in their execution, unless they were convinced that these men had been guilty of some offense.* It is generally accepted by members of the Diplomatic Corps that the accused must have been guilty of an offense which in the Soviet Union would merit the death penalty.

* The Bukharin trial six months later developed evidence which, if true, more than justified this action. Undoubtedly those facts were all full known to the military court at this time."[4]

Communist Party leaders in most Western countries echoed these views and denounced criticism of the trials as capitalist attempts to subvert Communism.

The British lawyer and Labour MP Denis Pritt, for example, wrote: "Once again the more faint-hearted socialists are beset with doubts and anxieties," but "once again we can feel confident that when the smoke has rolled away from the battlefield of controversy it will be realized that the charge was true, the confessions correct and the prosecution fairly conducted."

Communist Party leader Harry Pollitt, in the Daily Worker of March 12, 1936 told the world that 'the trials in Moscow represent a new triumph in the history of progress’. The article was ironically illustrated by a photograph of Stalin with Nikolai Yezhov, himself shortly to vanish and his photographs airbrushed from history by NKVD archivists.[5]

In the United States, left-wing advocates such as Corliss Lamont and Lillian Hellman also denounced criticism of the Moscow trials, signing An Open Letter To American Liberals in support of the trials for the March 1937 issue of Soviet Russia Today.[6] In the political atmosphere of the '30s the accusation that there was a conspiracy to destroy the Soviet Union was not incredible, and few outside observers were aware of the events inside the Communist Party that had led to the purge and the trials.

However, the Moscow trials were generally viewed negatively by most Western obsevers including many liberals. The New York Times noted the absurdity in an editorial on March 1, 1938: "It is as if twenty years after Yorktown somebody in power at Washington found it necessary for the safety of the State to send to the scaffold Thomas Jefferson, Madison, John Adams, Hamilton, Jay and most of their associates. The charge against them would be that they conspired to hand over the United States to George III."[7]

After the death of Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev repudiated the trials in a speech to the Twentieth Congress of the Russian Communist Party:

"The commission has become acquainted with a large quantity of materials in the NKVD archives and with other documents and has established many facts pertaining to the fabrication of cases against Communists, to glaring abuses of Socialist legality which resulted in the death of innocent people. It became apparent that many party, Government and economic activists who were branded in 1937-38 as ‘enemies,’ were actually never enemies, spies, wreckers, etc., but were always honest Communists.
They were only so stigmatized and often, no longer able to bear barbaric tortures, they charged themselves (at the order of the investigative judges – falsifiers) with all kinds of grave and unlikely crimes."[8]

It is now presumed that the confessions were given only after great psychological pressure and torture had been applied to the defendants. From the accounts of former GPU officer Alexander Orlov and others the methods used to extract the confessions are known: repeated beatings, torture, making prisoners stand or go without sleep for days on end, and threats to arrest and execute the prisoners' families. For example, Kamenev's teenage son was arrested and charged with terrorism. After months of such interrogation, the defendants were driven to despair and exhaustion.[9]

Dewey Commission

In May 1937 the Commission of Inquiry into the Charges Made against Leon Trotsky in the Moscow Trials, commonly known as the Dewey Commission, was set up in the United States by supporters of Trotsky, to establish the truth about the trials. The commission was headed by the noted American philosopher and educator John Dewey, who led a delegation to Coyoacan, Mexico, where Trotsky lived, to interview Trotsky and hold hearings from April 10 to April 17, 1937. Although the hearings were obviously conducted with a view to proving Trotsky's innocence, they brought to light evidence which established that some of the specific charges made at the trials could not be true.

For example, in Moscow Piatakov had testified that he had flown to Oslo in December 1935 to "receive terrorist instructions" from Trotsky. The Dewey Commission established that no such flight had taken place. Another defendant, Ivan Smirnov, had confessed to taking part in the assassination of Sergei Kirov in December 1934, at a time when he had already been in prison for a year.

The Dewey Commission published its findings in the form of a 422-page book titled Not Guilty. Its conclusions asserted the innocence of all those condemned in the Moscow Trials. In its summary the commission wrote: "Independent of extrinsic evidence, the Commission finds:

  • That the conduct of the Moscow Trials was such as to convince any unprejudiced person that no attempt was made to ascertain the truth.
  • That while confessions are necessarily entitled to the most serious consideration, the confessions themselves contain such inherent improbabilities as to convince the Commission that they do not represent the truth, irrespective of any means used to obtain them."
  • That Trotsky never instructed any of the accused or witnesses in the Moscow trials to enter into agreements with foreign powers against the Soviet Union [and] that Trotsky never recommended, plotted, or attempted the restoration of capitalism in the USSR.

The commission concluded: "We therefore find the Moscow Trials to be frame-ups."

Contemporary opinions in defense of the trials

A number of American communists and progressives outside of the Soviet Union signed a Statement of American Progressives on the Moscow Trials. These included Langston Hughes[10] and Stuart Davis,[11] who would later express regrets.

Some contemporary observers who thought the trials were inherently fair cite the statements of Molotov, who while conceding that some of the confessions contain unlikely statements, said there may have been several reasons or motives for this - one being that the handful who made doubtful confessions were trying to undermine the Soviet Union and its government by making dubious statements in their confessions to cast doubts on their trial. Molotov postulated that a defendant might invent a story that he collaborated with foreign agents and party members to undermine the government so that those members would falsely come under suspicion, while the false foreign collaboration charge would be believed as well. Thus, the Soviet government was in his view the victim of false confessions. Nonetheless, he said the evidence of mostly out-of-power Communist officials conspiring to make a power grab during a moment of weakness in the upcoming war truly existed.[citation needed] This defense collapsed after the release of Khrushchev's Secret Speech to the Twentieth Congress.


First Moscow Trial (Trial of the Sixteen)

The first trial was held from August 19 to August 24, 1936 in the House of Trade Unions; the principal defendants were Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev. Both Kamenev and Zinoviev had been secretly tried in 1935 but it appears that Stalin decided that, with suitable confessions, their fate could be used for propaganda purposes. Genrikh Yagoda oversaw the interrogation proceedings. The full list of defendants is as follows:

  1. Grigory Yevseyevich Zinoviev
  2. Lev Borisovich Kamenev
  3. Grigory Yevdokimov
  4. Ivan Bakayev
  5. Sergei Vitalyevich Mrachkovsky, a hero of the Russian Civil War in Siberia and the Russian Far East
  6. Vagarshak Arutyunovich Ter-Vaganyan, leader of the Armenian Communist Party
  7. Ivan Nikitich Smirnov, People's Commissar for communications
  8. Yefim Dreitzer
  9. Isak Reingold
  10. Richard Pickel
  11. Eduard Holtzman
  12. Fritz David
  13. Valentin Olberg
  14. Konon Berman-Yurin
  15. Moissei Lurye
  16. Nathan Lurye

All of them were charged under Articles 58.8, 19 and 58.11 of the Criminal Code of the RSFSR. The main charge was forming a terrorist organization with the purpose of killing Joseph Stalin and other members of the Soviet government. They were tried by the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court of the USSR, with Vasili Ulrikh presiding, and sentenced to death, the Prosecutor General being Andrei Vyshinsky.

At first, Zinoviev and Kamenev refused to confess, but after harsh interrogations and threats against their families, they agreed to confess on condition of a direct guarantee from the Politburo that their lives and those of their families and followers would be spared. This plea was accepted, but when they were taken to the supposed Politburo meeting, only Stalin, Kliment Voroshilov, and Yezhov were present. Stalin explained that they were the "commission" authorized by the Politburo and gave them the promised assurances. After the trial, however, Stalin not only broke his promise to spare the defendants, but also had most of their relatives arrested and shot.[12]

Trial of Radek and Piatakov (Trial of the Seventeen)

Prosecutor General Vyshinskiy (centre), reading the indictment, in 1937

In another trial in January 1937, the principal defendants were Karl Radek, Yuri Piatakov, Grigori Sokolnikov, Nikolai Muralov, Mikhail Boguslavsky and others (17 persons altogether). All but four of them were sentenced to death; the remainder were sentenced to imprisonment in labor camps. Radek was spared as he implicated others, including Nikolai Bukharin, Alexei Rykov, and Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky, setting the stage for the Trial of Military and Trial of the Twenty One.

Radek provided (or more accurately was forced to provide) the pretext for the purge on massive scale with his testimony that there was a "third organization separate from the cadres which had passed through [Trotsky's] school"[13] as well as "semi-Trotskyites, quarter-Trotskyites, one-eighth-Trotskyites, people who helped us, not knowing of the terrorist organization but sympathizing with us, people who from liberalism, from a Fronde against the Party, gave us this help."[14]

By the third organization, he meant the last remaining former opposition group called Rightists led by Bukharin, whom he implicated by saying: "I feel guilty of one thing more: even after admitting my guilt and exposing the organisation, I stubbornly refused to give evidence about Bukharin. I knew that Bukharin's situation was just as hopeless as my own, because our guilt, if not juridically, then in essence, was the same. But we are close friends, and intellectual friendship is stronger than other friendships. I knew that Bukharin was in the same state of upheaval as myself. That is why I did not want to deliver him bound hand and foot to the People's Commissariat of Home Affairs. Just as in relation to our other cadres, I wanted Bukharin himself to lay down his arms."[13]

Trials of the Military

The 1937 trial of high-up military commanders, also known as the "Tukhachevsky Affair", was a secret trial, unlike the Moscow show trials. However, it featured the same type of frame-up of the defendants and it is traditionally considered one of the key trials of the Great Purge. Mikhail Tukhachevsky and the senior military officers Iona Yakir, Ieronim Uborevich, Robert Eideman, Avgust Kork, Vitovt Putna, B.M. Feldman and Vitaly Primakov were accused of anti-Communist conspiracy and sentenced to death; they were executed on the night of June 11/June 12, immediately after the verdict delivered by a Special Session of the Supreme Court of the USSR. This trial triggered a massive purge of the Red Army.

Trial of the Twenty One

The third show trial, in March 1938, known as The Trial of the Twenty-One, is the most famous of Soviet show trials because of the people involved and the scope of charges, which tied together all the loose threads from earlier trials. It included 21 defendants alleged to belong to the so-called "Bloc of Rightists and Trotskyites":

  1. Nikolai Bukharin - Marxist theoretician, former head of Communist International and member of Politburo
  2. Alexei Rykov - former premier and member of Politburo
  3. Nikolai Krestinsky - former member of Politburo and ambassador to Germany
  4. Christian Rakovsky - former ambassador to Great Britain and France
  5. Genrikh Yagoda - former head of NKVD
  6. Arkady Rosengoltz - former People's Commissar for Foreign Trade
  7. Vladimir Ivanov - former People's Commissar for Timber Industry
  8. Mikhail Chernov - former People's Commissar for Agriculture
  9. Grigori Grinko - former People's Commissar for Finance
  10. Isaac Zelensky - former Secretary of Central Committee
  11. Sergei Bessonov
  12. Akmal Ikramov - Uzbek leader
  13. Faizulla Khodjayev - Uzbek leader
  14. Vasily Sharangovich - former first secretary in Byelorussia
  15. Prokopy Zubarev
  16. Pavel Bulanov - NKVD officer
  17. Lev Levin - Kremlin doctor
  18. Dmitry Pletnev - Kremlin doctor
  19. Ignaty Kazakov - Kremlin doctor
  20. Venyamin Maximov-Dikovsky
  21. Peotr Kryuchkov

The fact that Yagoda was one of the accused showed the speed at which the purges were consuming its own. Meant to be the culmination of previous trials, it now alleged that Bukharin and others sought to assassinate Lenin and Stalin from 1918, murder Maxim Gorky by poison, partition the Soviet Union and hand over territory to Germany, Japan, and Great Britain, among other preposterous charges.

Even sympathetic observers who had stomached the earlier trials found it hard to swallow the new charges as they became ever more absurd, and the purge had now expanded to include virtually every living Old Bolshevik leader except Stalin. For some prominent former communists such as Bertram Wolfe, Jay Lovestone, Arthur Koestler, and Heinrich Brandler, the Bukharin trial marked their final break with communism and even turned the first three into fervent anti-Communists.[15]

Bukharin's Confession

The preparation for this trial was delayed in its early stages due to the reluctance of some party members to denounce their comrades. It was at this time that Stalin personally intervened to speed up the process and replaced Yagoda with Nikolai Yezhov. Stalin also observed some of the trial in person from a hidden chamber in the courtroom. On the first day of the trial, Krestinsky caused a sensation when he repudiated his written confession and pleaded not guilty to all the charges. However, he changed his plea the next day after "special measures", which dislocated his left shoulder among other things.[16]

Anastas Mikoyan and Vyacheslav Molotov later claimed that Bukharin was never tortured, but it is now known that his interrogators were given order, "beating permitted,"[citation needed] and were under great pressure to extract confessions out of the "star" defendant. Bukharin held out for three months, but threats to his young wife and infant son, combined with "methods of physical influence" wore him down. But when he read his confession, amended and corrected personally by Stalin, he withdrew his whole confession. The examination started all over again, with a double team of interrogators.[17]

Bukharin's confession in particular became the subject of much debate among Western observers, inspiring Koestler's acclaimed novel Darkness at Noon and a philosophical essay by Maurice Merleau-Ponty in Humanism and Terror among others. His confessions were somewhat different from others in that, while he pleaded guilty to general charges, he denied knowledge of any specific crimes. Some astute observers noted that he would allow only what was in written confession and refuse to go any further. Also the fact that he was allowed to write in prison (he wrote four book-length manuscripts including an autobiographical novel, How It All Began, philosophical treatise, and collection of poems - all of which were found in Stalin's archive and published in 1990's) suggests that some kind of deal was reached as a condition for his confession. (He also wrote a series of very emotional letters to Stalin, tearfully protesting his innocence and professing his love for Stalin, which contrasts with his critical opinion of Stalin and his policies as expressed to others and with his conduct in the trial.)

There are several interpretations of Bukharin's motivation (beside being coerced) in the trial. Koestler and others viewed it as a true believer's last service to the Party (while preserving a modicum of personal honor), whereas Bukharin's biographers Stephen Cohen and Robert Tucker saw traces of Aesopian language, with which Bukharin sought to turn the table into a trial of Stalinism (while keeping his part of the bargain to save his family). Bukharin himself speaks of his "peculiar duality of mind" in his last plea, which led to "semi-paralysis of the will" and Hegelian "unhappy consciousness", which presumably stemmed from the reality of ruinous Stalinism (although he could not of course say so in the trial) and the threat of fascism (which required kowtowing to Stalin, who became the personification of the Party).

The result was a curious mix of fulsome confessions and subtle criticisms of the trial. After disproving several charges against him (One observer noted that he proceeded to demolish, or rather showed he could very easily demolish, the whole case [18]) and said that "the confession of accused is not essential. The confession of the accused is a medieval principle of jurisprudence" in the trial that was solely based on confessions. He finished his last plea with "the monstrousness of my crime is immeasurable, especially in the new stage of the struggle of the U.S.S.R. May this trial be the last severe lesson, and may the great might of the U.S.S.R become clear to all." [19]

Romain Rolland and others wrote to Stalin seeking clemency for Bukharin, but all the leading defendants were executed except Rakovsky and two others (they were killed in prison in 1941). Despite the promise to spare his family, Bukharin's wife, Anna Larina, was sent to a labor camp, but she survived.


All of the surviving members of the Lenin-era Politburo, except Stalin and Trotsky, were tried. By the end of the final trial Stalin had arrested and executed almost every important living Bolshevik from the Revolution. Of 1,966 delegates to the party congress in 1934, 1,108 were arrested. Of 139 members of the Central Committee, 98 were arrested. Three out of five Soviet marshals (Alexander Ilyich Yegorov, Vasily Blyukher, Tukhachevsky) and several thousands of the Red Army officers were arrested or shot. The key defendant, Leon Trotsky, was living in exile abroad, but he still did not survive Stalin's desire to have him dead and was assassinated by a Soviet agent in Mexico in 1940.


While Khrushchev's Secret Speech denounced Stalin's personality cult and purges as early as 1956, rehabilitation of Old Bolsheviks proceeded at a slow pace. Nikolai Bukharin and 19 other co-defendants were officially completely rehabilitated in February 1988. Yagoda, who was deeply involved in the great purge as the head of NKVD, was not included. In May 1988, rehabilitation of Zinoviev, Kamenev, Radek, and co-defendants was announced.

In January 1989, the official newspaper Pravda reported that 25,000 persons had been posthumously rehabilitated. The same year Khrushchev's secret speech was finally published in full (although its existence was public knowledge already in 1956).

See also


  1. ^ (Spanish) Bernard Michal. Los Grandes Procesos de la Historia. Los Procesos de Moscú. Tomo I. Ed Circulo de Amigos de la Historia. Editions de Crémille-Genéve. Printed in Barcelona, Spain. pg 217-219. Sentence signed by V. Ulrich, I Matulevich and H. Rychokv, sentencing to be shot: Yuri Piatakov, Leonid Serebriakov, Nicolai Muralov, Yakov Livchits, Mijail Boguslavski, Ivan Kniazev, Stanislas Rataichak, Boris Norkin, Alexei Chestov, Iossif Tutok, Gavriil Pushin and Ivan Hrasche. 10 years in prison: Grigori Sokolnikov, Karl Radek and Valentin Arnold. 8 years in prison: Mijail Etroilov.
  2. ^ Andrey Vyshinsky The Treason Case Summed Up April 1938 (in English)
  3. ^ Unlike most of his co-defendants who were immediately executed, Christian Rakovsky was sentenced to twenty years of hard labor. After the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa), Rakovsky was shot on Stalin's orders outside Oryol – along with Olga Kameneva, Maria Spiridonova and over 150 other political prisoners. This execution was one of the many massacres of prisoners committed by the NKVD in 1941. (Christian Rakovsky: Submission to Stalin and the Show Trial)
  4. ^ Davies, Joseph E. Mission to Moscow. Garden City: Garden City Press, 1941.
  5. ^ Redman, Joseph, The British Stalinists and the Moscow Trials, Labour Review Vol.3 No.2, March–April 1958, pp.44-53
  6. ^ Lamont, Corliss et al., An Open Letter to American Liberals, Soviet Russia Today (March 1937)
  7. ^
  8. ^ Khruschev, Nikita, Speech to the Twentieth Communist Party Congress (1956)
  9. ^ Orlov, Alexander, The Secret History of Stalin's Crimes, Random House, (1953)
  10. ^ Langston Hughes, Fight for Freedom and Other Writings, 2001, University of Missouri Press, ISBN 0826213715, p.9 (introduction)
  11. ^ Cecile M. Whiting, Antifascism in American Art, 1989, Yale University Press, ISBN 0300042590, p.90
  12. ^ Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: A Reassessment" Page 87
  13. ^ a b British Embassy Report: Viscount Chilston to Mr. Eden, February 6, 1937
  14. ^ Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: A Reassessment" Page 164
  15. ^ Bertram David Wolfe, "Breaking with communism", p. 10; Arthur Koestler, 'Darkness of Noon', p.258
  16. ^ Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: A Reassessment" Page 352
  17. ^ Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: A Reassessment" Pages 364-5
  18. ^ Report by Viscount Chilston (British ambassador) to Viscount Halifax, No.141, Moscow, March 21, 1938
  19. ^ Robert Tucker, "Report of Court Proceedings in the Case of the Anti-Soviet "Block of Rights and Trotskyites", Pg.667-8


  • Hungarian-born writer Arthur Koestler wrote a novel about a fictional victim of the Moscow trials, Darkness at Noon. The novel is based on the trial of Nicolai Bukharin.
  • Khruschev, Nikita, Speech to the Twentieth Communist Party Congress (1956)
  • Orlov, Alexander, The Secret History of Stalin's Crimes, Random House, (1953)
  • Redman, Joseph, The British Stalinists and the Moscow Trials, Labour Review Vol.3 No.2, March–April 1958

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