(Thanks to Dmitri Minaev of De Rebus Antiquis Et Novis for the guest post. Be sure to read his corollary piece on cameos by some of this day’s victims in Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita.)
On 15 March 1938, 17 former executives of the Communist Party were executed at the “special object” Kommunarka near Moscow.
As head of the NKVD, Yagoda had arranged show trials before. This time, the shoe was on the other foot.
The names of some of them are found in any history book’ others were totally unknown even in 1930s. Alexey Rykov and Nikolay Bukharin were the topmost (well, almost) leaders of the USSR. Nikolai Krestinsky was a member of the Central Committee Secretariat and the Soviet ambassador to Germany. Christian Rakovsky was a diplomat, the head of the government of the Ukrainian SSR. Genrikh Yagoda was the minister of internal affairs, head of NKVD (the late name of Cheka). P. Kryuchkov was an officer of OGPU (an NKVD department) and the secretary of Maxim Gorky, the “official writer” of the communist USSR.
The others were ex-finance minister of the USSR Grigory Grinko, the general secretary of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan Vladimir Ivanov, ex-prime-minister of the Uzbek SSR Faizullo Hojayev, ex-minister of foreign trade of the USSR Arkady Rozengoltz, ex-minister of agriculture Mikhail Chernov, Isaac Zelensky, S. Bessonov, Akmal Ikramov, Vasily Sharangovich, Prokopy Zubarev, Pavel Bulanov, Veniamin Maksimov-Dikovsky and the doctors Lev Levin, Ignaty Kazakov and Dmitri Pletnyov (one of the founders of the Soviet cardiology).
There were 21 of them under trial, but three (Pletnyov, Rakovsky and Bessonov) were sentenced to imprisonment* and the date of execution of Yagoda remains unknown. The others all died this day.
“The trial of the 21” was officially known as “the case of the anti-Soviet right-Trotskyite block”. They were accused of “treason, espionage, sabotage, terror, undermining Soviet military power and provoking foreign countries to attack the USSR”. The other accusations were: a conspiracy to restore capitalism and to separate the Soviet republics and the Far East from the USSR; ties with foreign intelligence (including that of Nazi Germany, via Trotsky or directly); preparation of military aggression against the USSR; organizing peasants’ revolts in the USSR; the murders of Kirov, Menzhinsky, Kuibyshev, Maxim Gorky and his son Maxim Peshkov; and attempts to assassinate Lenin, Stalin and N. Yezhov (note this name).
After having his memory jogged, Krestinsky remembered that he really was part of the right-Trotskyite conspiracy.
Only the three doctors were provided with a legal defense. The others “voluntarily” refused.
All of them confessed to committing most of the various supposed crimes, although several had unavailing caveats. Krestinsky denied the charges, but it took only one day to convince him of his “failing” memory. “I fully and completely admit that I am guilty of all the gravest charges brought against me personally, and I admit my complete responsibility for the treason and treachery I have committed,” he said on the next day. Bukharin denied some of the charges brought against him. The doctors insisted that they killed Menzhinsky because of fear of Yagoda. Yagoda himself confirmed that he participated in the murder of Gorky’s son Peshkov, but said that motives were personal and not anti-Soviet.
According to the documents found in the archives, Bukharin, Rykov and Krestinsky were sentenced to death on 2 March, on the first day of the process. It could be an error, but on the other hand, it could indicate that the sentence was determined before the trial.
The first draft of this article started like this: “This story began in …”
Then I stopped and scratched my head. The date when this story really began is not very clear. Some would argue that it began in 1922 when Stalin became the general secretary of VKP(b), others might say that it started in 1918, when the Bolsheviks dissolved the Constituent Assembly, and so on. What is clear is that 1937, when many of those twenty one were arrested, was not the beginning.
Then I decided to begin the other way round: “This story ended in…”
And once again I stopped. This trial had too many interesting corollaries and, of course, the story did not end in 1938. So, in the end the article became a mess of jumps in time to and fro. We are nearly as far removed today from Stalin’s purges as the purges were from the age of Russian serfdom — and those trials throw a shadow across the entire span of time.
Here’s a small extract from the series of events that preceded and followed the trial. In 1936 Bukharin and Rykov zealously supported the prosecutions of Zinoviev and Kamenev, two other old faithful Bolsheviks, accused by Stalin in opposing the policy of the party. The campaign ended with their trial and execution. Bukharin wrote letters to Stalin:
“I have always sincerely supported the line of the party and Stalin … These are the glorious milestones: industrialization, collectivization, elimination of kulaks, two great five-year plans, concern for the working man, new technologies and stakhanovism, wealthy life, the new constitution.”
“It’s great that the rascals [Zinoviev and Kamenev] were shot. The air became cleaner.”
In 1925-1926, when Stalin organized the first campaign against Zinoviev and Kamenev, Bukharin and Rykov also applauded him. “I hand the broom to comrade Stalin,” said Rykov, “to wipe our enemies away.” Yet earlier, Bukharin and Rykov together with these “enemies” Zinoviev and Kamenev helped Stalin to repel the attempts of Trotsky to become the leader of the Soviet state after the death of Lenin.
Bukharin was not an idiot. He understood that he was not any different from Zinoviev. He was the first candidate to replace Stalin if something happened to Stalin — which made him automatically suspect in the eyes of the boss.
Moreover, he was a Bolshevik and he knew the habits of Bolsheviks very well. Caricaturist Boris Yefimov recalled that on 1 December 1934, when Bukharin learned of the assassination of Kirov, he told the other people who were in the room: “Kirov was killed in Leningrad. Now Koba will shoot us all.” (Koba was Stalin’s nom de guerre) But, being a professional revolutionary and conspirator, he knew only one strategy for survival: hypocrisy.
In this 1927 photo at Lenin’s mausoleum, two of today’s victims — Rykov (on the far left) and Bukharin (by his side) — share the platform with Joseph Stalin (far right). Between them is Kalinin, the rare old Bolshevik who managed to survive the 1930’s. (Source)
This strategy did not guarantee success with Stalin. The proof for this may be found in what happened during and after the trial.
Let’s have a look at the newspapers of 1938.
From the resolution of the meeting of the workers of the institute of physiology of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences and the institute of experimental biology and pathology of the Ukrainian ministry of health care.
With the deepest resentment and indignation we hold up to shame the traitors of their motherland, the mercenaries of the fascist secret services, mean Trotskyite-Bukharin’s scoundrels. The history of humanity hardly knows other examples of similar crimes.
We proclaim that the fascist mercenaries will never succeed in dismembering the great Soviet Union and in handing the flourishing socialist Ukraine to the capitalists. We add our voices to the voice of the many million Soviet people demanding to exterminate all the mean traitors, spies and murderers.
From the resolution of the third conference on physiology of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR.
The traitors Bukharin, Rykov, Yagoda and others did not disdain any means in their vile job. These traitors never eschewed any mostrous crime.
The doctors Pletnyov, Kazakov, Vinogradov and Levin in this repellent union consciously used the trust of their patients to kill them. History never saw such crimes. Death to these murderers! Destroy all the gang of the “right-trotskyite” block!
From the article “We demand merciless retaliation against the vile traitors of our great Motherland”.
Having sold themselves to the fascists, plotting with the diplomats and the general staffs of some aggressive imperialist states, a despicable handful of human degenerates, servants of the fascist cannibals, led by a Gestapo agent, gangster Trotsky, sold our socialist motherland and its treasures to the most evil enemies of the human progress.
We demand from our Soviet court merciless retaliation against the vile traitors! We demand the extermination of the despicable degenerates!
The last article was signed by many outstanding scientists: the chairman of the Academy of sciences Komarov, professor Valeskalns, academics Keller, Bach, Vavilov, Gorbunov and others. N. Vavilov died in prison in 1943. N. Gorbunov was sentenced to death and executed in 1938. I am not certain about the others, but about 70% of the members of the Central Committee of the Communist party who supported Stalin’s proposal to arrest Bukharin and Rykov were later arrested themselves, and many of them died or were killed.
Here’s another quotation from a newspaper:
While accepting responsibility for the endless chain of dreadful bloody crimes which history never saw before, Bukharin attempts to give an abstract, ideological, sissy nature to his concrete criminal guilt. He fails to do so, the court and the prosecutor easily discern these attempts, but this trick is very typical for Bukharin’s nature of the right-Trotskyite political prostitute.
The pretensions of the garrulous, hypocritically vile murderer Bukharin to look as an “ideologist” lost in theoretical blunders are hopeless. He will not succeed in separating himself from the gang of his accomplices. He will not succeed in averting full responsibility for the chain of monstrous crimes. He will not wash his academic hands. These hands are stained with blood. These are the hands of a murderer.
I ask myself, “If you must die, what are you dying for?” With startling vividness a black void immediately rises before my eyes. “There is nothing to die for, if one wants to die unrepentant.
If, on the contrary, one repents, everything fine and good that shines in the Soviet Union acquires in one’s mind a new dimension.” In the end it was this thought that completely disarmed me. I went down on my knees before the Party.
This article was written by a gifted poet, journalist Mikhail Koltsov on 7 March 1938. He was shot by NKVD on 2 February 1940, less than two years later.
By the way, N. Yezhov (the “assassination” target of Bukharin’s party), who replaced Yagoda as the head of NKVD, was also arrested and executed in 1940 as a spy and conspirator.
Krestinsky, Ikramov, Hojayev and Zelensky were acquitted in 1963.
On 4 February 1988 the Supreme Court of the USSR ruled that confession cannot be interpreted as a proof of guilt and acquitted ten out of twenty one victims. (I could not find information on the cases of Grinko, Bessonov, Sharangovich, Zubarev and Pletnyov.) The sentence against Yagoda, to whose ruthless secret police history has been less generous, was left in force.
* Pletnyov, Rakovsky and Bessonov, the three to avoid death sentences at the Trial of the 21, were later summarily executed together with 154 other political prisoners when the Nazi armies approached the city Oryol in September 1941.