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Darkness and Noon

An official view of Stalin

Stalin as father figure

Among Communists Party members democracy remained an ideal. One Party member was Sergei Kirov, a member of the Politburo and also leader of the Communist Party in Leningrad (Petrograd). Kirov was outspoken in defending dissent within the Party. He held that people in the Party could disagree and then close ranks — a sort of constructive disagreement not uncommon within organizations. On 1 December 1934 Kirov was assassinated. That evening, Stalin ordered by telephone a decree that became the legal foundation for a new repression — a decree that speeded up and simplified procedures for handling "terrorist acts." It ordered courts to try cases involving people accused of terrorist acts without delay. Judicial authorities were not to allow appeals for clemency or other delays in which the sentence was death, and that the NKVD was to execute those sentenced to death immediately.

Such a decree was supposed to have Politburo approval. Politburo members were contacted individually and by December 3 they had given it their approval. On December 4 the new law was published by the news service that dominated the Soviet Union, the Party newspaper Pravda.

According to the state police, newly named as the NKVD, the assassin, Leonid Nikolayev, had been associating with a conspiratorial group of supporters of Zinoviev and that they had conspired to murder Kirov and to murder also Stalin, Molotov and Kaganovich. On December 27, 1934, the indictments were read in court, its details to be described as riddled with amateurish contradictions. The arrested Zinovievites confessed to belonging to a group but denied involvement in Kirov's murder, and they denied that Nikolayev had been a member of their group, but their denials were of no avail. They and Nikolayev were sentenced to die. A surprised Nikolayev struggled with his guards as he was dragged away, and he and his thirteen alleged accomplices were shot within hours.

There had been no independent journalist organizations publishing the results of their own investigations about the Kirov assassination. And there were no independent journalists analyzing the trial or asking about Nikolayev having been released twice by the NKVD or other details. Nor was there an investigation of the murder of the NKVD official, Borisov, who had been the head of the detail guarding Kirov. Borisov was murdered by other NKVD police with crowbars while being driven in a closed truck. Borisov's wife was sent to an insane asylum. And there were no journalists asking why Stalin had allowed the NKVD to beat Nikolayev unconscious while he, Stalin, was asking Nikolayev questions. Without an independent press, the Soviet Union's public was left with the impression that the executed had been among the dangerous people trying to wreck the state and the Revolution. To the common Soviet citizen, any suggestion that Stalin was behind Kirov's murder would have seemed wild slander.

With more talk about enemies of the Revolution, Communist Party expelled some members, including Zinoviev and Kamanev (again) and the two were put under arrest. In January 1935 they were called upon to be responsible and admit "moral complicity" in Kirov's assassination. Zinoviev was sentenced to 10 years in prison and Kamenev to five. In August 1936 they were removed from their cells and with fourteen other old Bolsheviks were put on trial again — show trials — with the additional charge of having formed a terrorist organization associated with Kirov's assassination and an attempt to kill Stalin and other leaders of the Soviet government. This was accompanied by the claim that Trotsky was conspiring with fascists in a counter-revolutionary plot against the Soviet Union.

Halfway through the trial, Stalin went to the home of an old friend and former Politburo member, Tomsky, with a bottle of wine, apparently wanting to explain and justify what he was doing. Tomsky, with Bukharin and Rykov, was facing a charge of treasonable complicity with Zinoviev. Tomsky ordered him out, and Stalin left, shaking with anger. Moments later a shot rang out. Tomsky had chosen to kill himself with his pistol rather than to kill Stalin.

Stalin's colleague, Andrey Vyshinsky, closed the argument for the prosecution saying, "I demand that these mad dogs be shot, every last one of them." On August 25, 1936, Zinoviev, Kamenev and the fourteen others were shot. And Trotsky was sentenced to death in absentia.

The trial caused a sensation through the Soviet Union and the world. Soviet newspapers applauded the executions and demanded more purges of counter-revolutionaries. The public in the Soviet Union accepted the confessions of the accused — easier to believe perhaps than that their government had been perpetrating a gigantic hoax.

In the United States, the Left was stunned. Most of those associated with the Socialist Party of Eugene Debs (who had died in 1926) denounced the trial. A US Communist Party had been founded back in 1919, and now (in the mid-1930s) and struggling in their interpretations of events, many of its members believed that bourgeois newspapers and radio stations in the US were distorting the news. In New York City a mass meeting of Stalin supporters adopted a resolution urging Stalin to move against followers of Trotsky. The Party leader, Earl Browder, denounced Trotsky. And the magazine New Masses described the trials as legitimate judicial procedures.

It was in 1936, after years of preparation, that the Soviet Union's Constitution was scheduled to take effect. The Soviet Constitution was a product of Bukharin and others expressing their ideals. The Constitution's adoption and publication in December 1936 was hailed publicly as the most democratic constitution imaginable. The government was to be divided into two legislative bodies: the Soviet of the Union, and the Soviet of Nationalities. It guaranteed freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press and freedom of religious worship (a provision opposed by some Party members). It guaranteed the inviolability of individuals, their home and the privacy of their correspondence. According to the Constitution, any of the republics could secede from the USSR if they so chose. According to the Constitution the exploiting classes had been defeated, the class war was at an end, the working class and those on the collective farms and the intelligencia and the vanguard of working people (the Communist Party) were all working together to build a new socialist society. Article 126 portrayed the Party as the "vanguard of the working people." Stalin made a show of supporting the Constitution. He presented it as a gift from the Communist Party to the people of the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union still lacked what was needed to defend the rule of law. There was no big and recent historical experience to draw from for those trying to make a new society. (Analogies with the French Revolution were not useful. Stalinists had spoked of Trotsky becoming another Bonaparte.) There was failure to understand, stress contagion and cronyism at the highest echelons of political power, too much adulation, paranoia, and gullibility. The history lesson that they did not have they were creating for people who would pay attention to recent experience or history (Nikita Khrushchev) among them.

In January 1937, more old discredited Bolsheviks were put on trial. They confessed and were executed for participating with anti-Soviet "Trotskyites" and for having spied for Germany and Japan. Early in 1937, the Germans created a fake piece of correspondence from a Soviet general, Tukhachevsky, to friends in Germany telling of plans his to overthrow Stalin's regime. The fake letter was passed on to Stalin, and he was among the gullible. The Soviet government put Tukhachevsky and other top army men on trial in June, and they were quickly executed. Then purges began among others in the Army officer corps and the Navy. Before it was over the Soviet Union had lost 3 army marshals, 14 of the Soviet Union's 16 army commanders, 65 of 67 corps commanders, 136 of 199 division commanders, 221 of 397 brigade commanders, and all eight of the Soviet Union's admirals. In all, about 35,000 military officers had been shot or imprisoned.

The last show trial opened to a packed house on March 2, 1938. Bukharin and Rykov were two of the defendants. The former head of the NKVD, Yagoda, was included among the defendants — getting a taste, it would be said, of his own medicine. Two Uzbek Communists were also included, charged with Bourgeois nationalism, reflecting a clamp down on nationalistic tendencies. Twenty-one Bolsheviks in all were tried, accused of belonging to a rightist Trotskyite bloc. They were accused of having killed Gorky (who would have opposed the trials and had conveniently died in 1936). They were accused of attempting to kill Lenin in 1918 and of trying to give away the Ukraine, Byelorussia, the Far East, Central Asia and Turkestan during the early days of the revolution. To historians today, the charges appear ridiculous. But people then in the Soviet Union accepted the charges as valid.

Of the seven Politburo members at the time of Lenin's death, only Stalin had survived past 1940. Like the French Revolution the Bolshevik Revolution had devoured many of its original activists. On a broader scale it was a matter of a majority letting a minority go under. Minorities in the Soviet Union were to continue to suffer, but when the big test that Stalin feared arrived in the form of a German military invasion, there would be enough people loyal to his regime for it to survive.

CONTINUE READING: German Revolutionaries and the Rise of Fascism

Copyright © 2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.