Editorial from the April 1938 issue of the Socialist Standard
It had been assumed by many newspaper correspondents in Russia that the series of trials of Stalin’s opponents and potential rivals had ended, and Stalin himself had talked of stopping the judicial persecution at least of the more obscure victims. But the trial of the twenty-one Old Bolshevists is barely ended before there are reports of further public trials involving highly placed generals and others.
The trial of the twenty-one in March followed the general course of the earlier trials, but with some differences. There were the same confessions, but this time one or two of the defendants, notably Bukharin, stoutly repudiated some charges while admitting others. Another prisoner, Krestinsky, who signed a confession in jail, repudiated it in its entirety in open court; only to confess again after a short interval. During the interval, or so it is reported, his wife was arrested, and he was confronted with her. When he repudiated his repudiation he gave the curious explanation that he had pleaded “not guilty” in court because of a momentary weakness, and because he "had not strength to face world public opinion.” The explanation hardly makes sense. It is more reasonable to suppose that the pressure that could be brought to bear on him by his jailers (who also had power over his wife) would be much more powerful and immediate than the kind of “world public opinion ” he would meet in a Moscow court room.
It is worth noticing that the apologists for the Stalin Government are no longer in a position to ridicule the theory that confessions may be induced by threats against the prisoner's relatives. One of the prisoners, Dr. L. G. Levin, when asked why he helped to kill Maxim Gorky, explained that he was made to do it by Yagoda, chief of the Ogpu, who threatened otherwise ”to annihilate” Levin’s family. If a threat against a doctor’s family could make him commit murder it could also make a prisoner confess to whatever the authorities put before him.
This particular confession also throws an interesting sidelight on the working of the Russian bureaucracy. Levin said that Yagoda sent him “French wines and splendid flowers,” presented him “with a home in the country,” and enabled him to travel abroad and return to Russia “bringing in goods without paying any duty.” It looks as if power and corruption work on the same lines in "Socialist ” Russia as in the frankly capitalist countries.
As in previous trials, prisoners confessed to things that did not or could not have happened. Bessonoff stated that he sent Trotsky a letter from Krestinsky, and received a reply two days later. This was alleged to have happened "in December, 1936, or perhaps the very beginning of January, 1937.” Trotsky was in Norway until December 19th, 1936, when he sailed, under police supervision, to Mexico. The Norwegian authorities assert (Daily Telegraph, March 8th, 1938) that Trotsky's correspondence was censored from September, 1936, till he sailed for Mexico, and that no such letters as those mentioned by Bessonoff exist. Also, according to The Times (March 5th, 1938) the Norwegian police, who controlled Trotsky on the boat, prevented him from using the wireless or disembarking en route.
Again, while Rakovsky accused the late Michael Farbman of being a British Secret Service agent, and said that he met Farbman first in 1925, in London, Farbman's daughter denies the charge, and asserts that her father made Rakovsky's acquaintance many years earlier, in Moscow, where he was correspondent for the Manchester Guardian (Manchester Guardian, March 7th, 1938). It may be as well to recall that Farbman was one of a handful of correspondents who ceaselessly defended Lenin and his associates and helped to make their case known in England.
Regarding the abjectness of the Russian confessions one interesting parallel has been brought out by The Times (March 14th, 1938) in an article which points out that in Elizabethan England such abject confessions were common. The words of the Earl of Essex—"I must confess to you that I am the greatest, the most vilest and most unthankful traitor that has ever been in the land ”—have a ring made familiar to us by the series of trials of broken Bolshevists.
Alongside many incredible stories of murders, spying and so on there was much in the prisoners’ stories that sounds plausible enough. Apparently there were many of Stalin's associates who disagreed with his policy and wanted to see a different one adopted. But under a dictatorship, since every form of legal opposition is forbidden, opposition becomes treachery, propaganda becomes rebellion, the writing of letters becomes spying. So some of the less abject prisoners, while confessing that they opposed Stalin and sought to remove him, firmly repudiated the construction put on their activities.
Just as this political opposition to the dictatorship was bound to exist, so it is also quite understandable to Socialists that ambitious military men may have conspired to seize power. That is precisely what Socialists expect to happen under dictatorship, sooner or later.
Was Lenin a German Agent?
The usual confessions were made by these Old Bolshevists that they had been the agents of Japan, Germany, Great Britain, and so on, but with the difference that the dates of the treachery were placed much farther back. Rakovsky “confesses" that he was in the pay of the British Secret Service in 1924. Sharangovitch was spying for the Poles in 1921. Rosenholtz began his espionage for Germany in 1923. Trotsky (but he isn’t in Moscow, so someone else had to confess for him) worked for Britain from 1926 and for Germany from 1921. Bukharin confessed that he was plotting against Lenin in 1918.
All of this leads to an interesting speculation. Either the confessions are false or they are genuine. If the latter, then we have to believe that right back in the early days, during and after the Bolshevist seizure of power, the leaders were secretly conspiring against each other. It will be recalled that Lenin and other exiled leaders reached Russia in 1917 in a train which crossed Germany and was placed at their disposal by the German military authorities. The charge was made that Lenin and his friends were nothing but German agents paid by Germany to disorganise the Russian army. The charge was denied by Lenin and the denial was accepted by the working-class organisations generally. But if, as the Communists say, these Moscow confessions are genuine, then many of the men concerned were at the very beginning hopelessly corrupt. If the rest of them, why not Lenin? If these things were going on how could Lenin and others in the Bolshevist movement have had no inkling of them? If the confessions stand then it would seem that the whole gang would be under suspicion of being, as they were charged at the time, a crowd of murderous adventurers. “Adventurers" is actually the word applied to himself and his fellow-prisoners by Rakovsky.
"Stalin Secretly a Fascist"
One of the prisoners in the present trial is Bukharin. He it was who years ago informed some foreign democrats that in Russia there was room for any number of political parties so long as one was in power and the others in prison. Now time has had its revenge and he is dead, as a conspirator, after he had actually stated in court that he was in favour of legal rights for opposition parties! Bukharin is also reported by Barmine (who recently fled from his post as Russian Chargé d’Affaires at Athens) to have made the following prophetic remark to Kamenev just before the latter was arrested: —
We are all lost. This monster, this sinister Genghis Khan, will strangle us. If we resist, he will crush us. If we submit, he will pick us off one after another.
This is the calamitous outcome of 20 years of Communist dictatorship. One of the men who created this thing discovers just before he falls victim to its rapacious lust for killing that instead of helping to advance the cause of Socialism he had helped to place in a position of unrestricted power a being whom he describes as a sinister monster, a 20th-century Genghis Khan.
How great is the harm done to the working-class movement by the whole sordid disintegration of the Bolshevist party can be seen from Mussolini's declaration (Times, March 7th, 1938) that Stalin is not only rendering “a praiseworthy service to Fascism,” but is himself "secretly a Fascist.” For who can contemplate the Bolshevist regime to-day without having to admit that it becomes every year more and more like Fascism and Nazism?
Herzen's remark that the Russian Czarist government was ”despotism tempered by assassination” becomes more and more applicable to Soviet Russia, especially if the confessions be accepted as even substantially true.