Tag Archives: grigory zinoviev

1936: Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, Old Bolsheviks

During the purges of the 1930s, Josef Stalin showed a particular relish for eliminating the Old Bolsheviks whose red credentials predated the revolution. (And potentially, outshone his own.)

Zinoviev

On this date in 1936, one of the oldest of them, Grigory Zinoviev, was shot with his longtime ally Lev Kamenev.

These guys had been major movers and shakers among the early Bolsheviki, adherents of Lenin during the first decade of the century when the aspiration for a Communist Russia seemed hopelessly far-fetched. Zinoviev rode with Lenin from Switzerland to Petrograd in the famous sealed train after the February Revolution toppled the tsar. (Not so Kamenev: he was serving time in Siberia, but was freed by the revolution.)

In the years that followed, both played leading roles in the Soviet government despite their impolitic opposition to the Bolshevik coup in October.

Kamenev was briefly head of state in 1917, and he married Leon Trotsky’s sister. Zinoviev was the longtime head of the Communist International, in which capacity he showed Moscow’s public face for communist movements in other countries. Bela Kun was another ally of Zinoviev’s.)

In this capacity, he’s known in British history for the “Zinoviev letter”, a purported summons to Anglo agitation that was actually a dirty trick dropped before an election to help the Tories sweep to power.*

Those were the good old days — when Lenin was fading away and Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Stalin were the “troika” running things. They should have checked with the Romans how triumvirates work out.

Because of their alliance, Zinoviev and Kamenev provided the decisive support that enabled Stalin to remain General Secretary of the party after the public airing of Lenin’s Testament warning against him. Without Zinoviev and Kamenev at this crucial moment, Stalin probably could not have survived politically; the name Koba might have gone into history books as little more than a terror to the paperwork of some forgotten bureau. (And the pre-revolutionary Caucasus!)

Talk about hoisted by your own petard.

Having been helpfully maintained in his position against Lenin’s dying wish, Stalin soon marginalized these formerly useful creatures. Their last decade was doomed to a spiral of failing power struggles, sinking rank, furtive dissension, and craven submission to party discipline.

Stalin at length destroyed them at the first great Moscow show trial, the Trial of the Sixteen — which hyped a “Trotskyite-Zinovievite” plot in a nicely Orwellian twist. (Despite Kamenev’s marital connection, Trotsky was actually a political rival.) The charge sheet must have reminded the defendants on every one of their dwindling days of the alliance with Trotsky they could have made back when they mattered.

The Trial of the 16 defendants would help to write the script for succeeding acts of this awful theater: after fighting the allegations, Zinoviev and Kamenev agreed to plead guilty on private assurances that their lives would be spared.

But once he had their “admissions” on the record, Stalin altered the deal.

Not only Zinoviev and Kamenev, but all 16 from the trial of the 16 were shot shortly after midnight this date.

From exile, their “conspirator” Trotsky called it the “end of an epoch”.

His obituary for Zinoviev and Kamenev minces no words about the men’s personal shortcomings (“they lacked sufficient character”), but still achieves a certain elegaic sympathy for these former fellow-travelers and their shared movement, now swallowed by Stalinism.

I have had the occasion to hear tranquil petty bourgeois tell me in the days between the beginnings of the trial and my internment: “It’s impossible to understand Zinoviev … He is so lacking in character!” And I would reply: “Have you yourselves experienced the full weight of the pressure to which he has been subjected for a number of years?” Unintelligent in the extreme are the comparisons, so widespread in intellectual circles, of the conduct in court of Danton, Robespierre and others. These were the instances of revolutionary tribunes who found the knife of justice suspended over them, directly in the midst of the arena of struggle; at a time when they were in the full flower of their strength, with their nervous system almost untouched and, at the same time, when they despaired of all hope of salvation.

[By contrast] For ten years they [Zinoviev and Kamenev] had been enveloped by clouds of slander paid for in heavy gold. For ten years they had swayed between life and death, first in a political sense, then in a moral sense, and lastly in a physical sense. Can one find in all past history examples of such systematic, refined and fiendish destruction of spines, nerves and all the fibers of the soul? Zinoviev or Kamenev would have had more than ample character for a tranquil period. But the epoch of grandiose social and political convulsions demanded an extraordinary firmness of these men, whose abilities secured them a leading place in the revolution. The disproportion between their abilities and their wills led to tragic results.

* There are numerous theories of the Zinoviev Letter’s origin; one has it that spy Sidney Reilly had a hand in it.

1938: Bela Kun, Hungarian Communist leader

On this date in 1938 — so the Soviet government finally announced in 1989, after decades of opacity — the Hungarian Communist leader Bela Kun was secretly shot by firing squad in the gulag.

The pudgy and pugnacious* onetime journalist whose capture by the Russians during World War I enabled him to get in on the ground floor with the Bolshevik Revolution became the de facto leader of the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic. For a few months in 1919, it was the world’s second Soviet state after Russia itself.

Bela Kun’s moment in the sun was particularly notorious for his advocacy late in the Soviet Republic’s brief life of a Red Terror against internal opposition. Several hundred people were killed over the last few weeks of the state’s existence, until a Romanian invasion toppled the reds and sent Bela Kun fleeing back to the Soviets. There, he’s supposed to have brought his gift for wholesale murder to surrendered White prisoners in the Crimea.

Still, Hungary was an insurrectionary success next to most everywhere else, and Bela Kun was detailed to Germany to revive the flagging fortunes of a revolution that the Bolsheviks thought would be critical to sustaining their own. Modeling on Lenin’s own coup d’etat in 1917, Kun pushed the Germans to go all-in on an aggressive 1921 “March Action” offensive to capture state power — which backfired catastrophically, essentially marking the end of the post-World War I revolutionary window. Vladimir Ilyich gave his Magyar counterpart a dressing-down for that gambit at that summer’s Comintern summit.

He’d become associated in this time with Zinoviev, an Old Bolshevik whose comradeship would blow an ill wind come the killing time of the 1930s. Kun himself was long past his sell-by date at this stage, knocking around Moscow feuding with other Hungarian exiles.

Stalin eventually had him arrested for “Trotskyism”, and he disappeared into the Gulag never to be seen again.

Like many purge victims, Bela Kun was rehabilitated under Khrushchev, which also made him fitting source material for statuary congenial to the post-World War II Hungary, situated (however unhappily) within Moscow’s sphere. Some of the detritus of this age can be found at Budapest’s Mememto Park outdoor fairgrounds of discarded Communist kitsch.


Bela Kun, marshaling the Magyar masses. The streetlamp behind him (a literary symbol of hanging) alludes to his martyrdom. Wider views of the entire monument: 1 | 2

* He had a rep in his youth for fighting duels.