1936: Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, Old Bolsheviks

4 comments August 25th, 2011 Headsman

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.

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1941: Olga Kameneva, Christian Rakovsky, Maria Spiridonova and many others by the NKVD

1 comment September 11th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1941, as Nazi armies surged into the USSR, the Soviet NKVD summarily executed a reported 157 prisoners held in the soon-to-be-Nazi-occupied city of Oryol (Orel).



Kameneva (top), Rakovsky (middle) and Spiridonova.

Most prominent among them were:

  • Olga Kameneva, a pol in the 1920’s, she was the sister of recently-murdered Communist heretic/Stalin gadfly Leon Trotsky, and she was the widow of executed Old Bolshevik Lev Kamenev.

  • Christian Rakovsky, internationalist Bulgarian revolutionary turned Soviet diplomat. Rakovsky, Dmitry Pletnyov and Sergei Bessonov had been the only three to avoid execution at the Trial of the 21, one of Stalin’s red-letter purges. But all three were shot together this day.
  • Prominent Left SR Maria Spiridonova, a revolutionary who had taken four decades of beatings from tsarist and Bolshevik alike, and who Emma Goldman saluted as “one of the most sincere, well-poised, and convincing” opponents of the Soviet regime.

Many other political transgressors less memorable than these went along with them, leftover targets of opportunity from a generation’s internecine purges and counterpurges.

Why bother to spend the resources evacuating an enemy of the people? By this time, Operation Barbarossa was nearly three months old, and mass prisoner executions ahead of the advancing Germans were a practiced art. One difference this day: this hecatomb was not in the western Soviet Republics, but in Russia proper.

In the autumn of 1941, the Left SRs Spiridonov, Izmailovich, and Mayorov, the Maximalist Nestroyev, and the SR Timofeyev were among the 157 prisoners shot in the Medvedevsky woods. (A Century of Violence in Soviet Russia

As many of them might have been denounced as “fascist” in their time for not hewing the correct revolutionary line, one doubts they would have enjoyed any more comfortable treatment at the hands of the Wehrmacht, which overran Oryol on Oct. 3.

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