Monday, November 24, 2008

Report of Court Proceedings in the Case of the Anti-Soviet Trotskyite Centre”, Moscow 1937


By Robert Miller

Herald Tribune correspondent

A second great political trial has come and gone in Moscow within six months. Again we have heard one-time revolutionaries confess to counter-revolution and the most shocking career of murder, sabotage and anti-government conspiracy of modern times.

Now, instead of Zinoviev plotting to assassinate Stalin, we have Radek, renowned for twenty years as a Communist spokesman, planning with Nazi aid "the return of capitalism to Russia."

Yet to an eye-witness who attended the Zinoviev Trial and who has lived in the Soviet Union since 1934 this proved to be the converse of fantastic as the case unfolded hour by hour and day by day. Nor is the writer's opinion an isolated one. It was generally shared by the other foreign observers present.

Quite as significant and genuine as the trial itself was the torrent of mass resentment and anger it provoked. Probably nothing since Lenin's death has so universally stirred public emotion in Russia. The man-in-the-street felt himself personally menaced and injured by Radek and Pyatakov—and wanted corresponding vengeance. No one who knows Russians and talked to them, even casually, in that last week of January could doubt this. For days there was scarcely another topic of conversation; a home, cafe, hotel, waiting room, or tram car that did not clatter with the seventeen names on the indictment; a newspaper unopened to the report of the testimony.

Sentiment was all but excluded from the little court-room, however, and the conduct of the trial was exemplary. The proceedings lasted eight or nine gruelling hours each day. Yet Vyshinsky never lost his temper nor faltered in constructing his impressive case. Judge Ulrikh, with two co-judges, heard the evidence calmly and seldom interrupted. The prisoners appeared healthy, well-fed, well-dressed and unintimidated. They testified with assurance—Radek even impudently. Three defence counsel —for Knyazev, Pushin, and Arnold—and three technical experts, who verified several instances of wrecking, sat at tables between the Prosecutor and the dock.

Only when they briefly applauded Vyshinsky's demand for death sentences, or smiled at some passing sarcasm in the testimony, did the 150 Soviet spectators display any feeling. The presence of thirty or more foreign newspapermen and several Ambassadors offered the accused a perfect forum from which to cry for help or to assail Stalin. But only Radek, constantly attentive to the Press box, tried sometimes to heckle Vyshinsky or to make a subtle insinuation for foreign consumption.

"Why don't you ask me proper questions?" Radek snapped when the Prosecutor criticised his evasive replies. Again, Radek professed ignorance of the Soviet Criminal Code, prompting Vyshinsky to remark, "You'll know it well by the time this trial ends." "By the time this trial ends," chuckled Radek, "I won't know anything "—a sally apparently as sincere, at the time, as it was macabre.

As Vyshinsky examined defendant after defendant, the facts related, from the original motives of the opposition to the Stalin policy to the last bank robbery and railway disaster, grew into an organic fabric whose collective authenticity was difficult to challenge. All the world's cleverest detectives and most accomplished mystery writers could hardly have invented such a case. Mr, Dudley Collard, the English barrister, and a prominent international attorney, both of whom were present, considered it perfectly sound from the legal point of view. 

Important testimony was checked by documents or statements of witnesses, prisoners or experts. An example of the degree of verification demanded by Vyshinsky was the comparison of Stroilov's personal address book with the Dortmund, Germany, telephone directory, to prove Stroilov knew a certain German. Certain desirable documentation was inevitably lacking—chiefly the Radek-Trotsky correspondence. It is scarcely credible that a conspirator of Radek's thirty years' experience would have left such papers undestroyed. Radek, however, described these letters, and the " messengers" who carried them admitted doing so.

The defendants testified freely at all times, and were permitted to interrupt each other to corroborate or contradict testimony. Their manner was, without exception, that of men who were describing facts. The notion that they were acting out previously assigned parts is difficult, for anyone who saw them, to credit. They were speaking three-quarters of the time; Vyshinsky usually intervened only to clarify ambiguities and prevent omissions.

Every prisoner had his full say in the "last word," which follows the Prosecutor's summing-up and is legally unrestricted as to length or subject (state secrets and foreign governments excepted). Now would have been the time to appeal to world opinion, to champion a cause, to expose oppression; but none did. Calmly and briefly, and without the emotional display made by the Zinovievites, they admitted guilt and threw themselves on the mercy of the Court.

Nor until three in the morning of January 30 did Judge Ulrikh convene the last session to read the sentence. It was received in complete silence, without any stir in the audience. Of all the prisoners, only Radek betrayed a sign of emotion, as his grimly resigned face suddenly went blank at the news he was to be spared.  And the trial was over.

Though none of the accused invited the death penalty, as Trotsky stated, they did confess. Why ?

Were they dosed with a mysterious "talking drug " or tortured? To believe so is impossible. Nimble-witted Radek, surly Muralov, the jaunty gangster Shestov—these were certainly not narcotised or mutilated men.

Were they secretly promised clemency in return for confessing? No serious observer believes this either. Radek, for instance, was at liberty long enough after Zinoviev's execution to know his fate only too well. And even if some Machiavellian authority had actually promised such commercial mercy, it is hard to think that shrewd Sokolnikov or Pyatakov would have been trapped by so obvious a swindle. The confession obtained, why should the promise be kept?

They confessed because the State's collection of evidence forced them to. No other explanation fits the facts.

Radek said as much in his now famous phrase: "I tortured my examiners for ten weeks ; they didn't torture me." Not until he had been hopelessly betrayed by others did he tell his story. Undoubtedly the plot was first disclosed by the accumulating confessions of less important and less resolute accomplices—such as Arnold or the witness Berman, for example—whose successive admissions exposed those higher and higher up. Many of these minor figures must have been caught in the purge of Trotskyists which followed the Zinoviev Trial; and the probability is that still others became frightened and voluntarily turned State's Evidence.

An important feature of Russian criminal procedure also throws light on the problem of confessions—fullest examination of the accused is made before a case comes to trial. The most familiar and conspicuous feature of the British or American trial, cross-examination and taking of evidence, occurs here—as in most European countries—before any court proceedings take place. Cases are usually not tried unless or until the Prosecutor has obtained enough evidence to make a conviction reasonably certain. Hence those amazingly frank and complete " admissions " of guilt in court. Most of the court testimony is already in the dozens of volumes of preliminary evidence on the Prosecutor's desk. But whereas after a plea of guilty English Common Law requires only a brief statement from the prisoner before sentence is passed, in Russia the Prosecutor must prove his whole case in court.

How did men like Pyatakov, Sokolnikov, and Radek find themselves at last fighting tooth and nail a revolutionary government they had helped to create? Only the crowded history of the Communist movement, with its frequent, bitter disputes over all-important issues of theory and action, can finally answer this question. Pyatakov, Sokolnikov, and Radek, for instance, had at various times been oppositionists—and against Lenin—long before this struggle against the Stalin policy. What was exposed in the court room, therefore, had deep roots in the past, without which the story is essentially incomplete.

In this connection, a most important aspect of the trial was the gradual emergence of Trotsky's theory that "Socialism cannot be built in one country" as the real culprit and arch defendant. Under Vyshinsky's skilful hand, this conception grew to full stature side by side with the picture of wrecking and crime.

On the basis of agreement with Trotsky's thesis, the Pyatakovites believed that Stalin was galloping Russia, and Socialism, to ruin. Not unanimated as well by other more personal motives, they sought to stop him by any means at hand.

Was it strange that they also accepted any ally against the U.S.S.R.—even Hitler? Pilsudski was a socialist when he enlisted the help of Emperor Franz Josef against the Tsarist power in Poland; royal France aided revolutionary America against England. And, with the Spanish events before us, there is nothing new in a picture of Hitler joining forces, beyond his own borders, with whatever antisocialist or anti-government elements exist.

Such elements in the Soviet Union, however, were confined to a small, disgruntled minority. There is no indication that the high political intrigues of the Parallel Centre” had any relation to the popular will; all evidence is to the contrary.

The masses of people in Soviet Russia see their country primarily as one where:  (1) No one can profit privately by another's labour or by owning a source of wealth; (2) Future prosperity and absence of unemployment are guaranteed if the present expansion of production continues, which seems a reasonable expectation. Stalin's leadership and policy they identify with these achievements, with the factories of the Five-Year Plans and the 250,000 collective farms, all bought only by battle and hardship. To threaten the Stalin policy is to threaten this, their freedom, security and future. And the "Parallel Centre" threatened Stalin.

This was the interpretation of the overwhelming majority of common Soviet people, whose support, therefore, could hardly have given rise to or been attracted by the machinations of the Pyatakov group.

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