(PURGES and HYSTERIA in the SOVIET UNION – continued)

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Show Trials and Purges, 1936-38

In the place of questions from an independent press and comments from liberal editors and journalists, there were pronouncements about the enemies of revolution having been encouraged. Party members supporting Stalin now moved against two prominent old comrades: Zinoviev and his old partner in opposition to Stalin, Kamenev. Zinoviev was sentenced to ten years in prison, and Kamenev to five. Meanwhile, alongside the new drive against enemies of the revolution, the supposedly liberating Soviet Constitution that had been planned before the Kirov assassination went forward.

The new constitution was written largely by the 48-year-old Bolshevik Nikolai Bukharin and was to take effect in 1936. The government was to be divided into two legislative bodies: the Soviet of the Union and the Soviet of Nationalities. The Constitution guaranteed freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press and freedom of religious worship. The Constitution guaranteed the inviolability of individuals, their home and the privacy of their correspondence. According to the Constitution, any of the republics could choose to secede from the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics (USSR). According to the Constitution the exploiting classes had been defeated, the class war was at an end, the working class and those on the collective farms and the intelligencia and the vanguard of working people (the Communist Party) were all working together to build a new socialist society. Stalin made a show of supporting the new constitution. He presented it as a gift from the Communist Party to the people of the Soviet Union.

Through 1935 to mid-1936 hundreds of arrests were made of people considered hostile to the revolution. A law was passed that lowered the age of criminal responsibility. A new article was added to the Criminal Code – Article 58 – which defined new offenses that were counter-revolutionary and stated that persons who fled abroad could be executed and families of defectors imprisoned or exiled.

With Stalin's hardline against class enemies that were supposed to have already been defeated, Stalin continued to fear dissidence from within the Party, and a law was passed that denied Party members the right to carry guns. Party members did not react to the law as Stalin began his move against an opposition within the Party that existed among Leningrad Party members since Zinoviev's split with Stalin some years before. To eliminate a breeding ground for what he saw as mistaken ideas and weaknesses, Stalin would order thousands of Bolsheviks and their families deported to northern Siberia.

Trotsky as Arch-Villain and "Darkness at Noon"

Stalin's most famous critic, Leon Trotsky, was in Norway, and he was telling the world that political prisoners in the Soviet Union were being harshly treated. The Bolshevik press, which had once claimed Trotsky as their hero, was now demonizing him. Trotsky was now to be portrayed not as a Left Deviationist as before. He was portrayed as having surrendered all his scruples. In August 1936 the Soviet regime accused Trotsky of conspiring with fascists in a counter-revolutionary plot against the Soviet Union, and Pravda announced that German secret police were involved in the plot.

That same month, the first of the big show trials in the Soviet Union took place. Sixteen were to be tried. The two leading defendants were the already imprisoned Zinoviev and Kamenev. Before the trial they had been worked on by the NKVD, and Stalin was kept informed. When an official told Stalin that Kamenev could not be broken, Stalin became enraged and told the official not to come back with a report until he had a confession from Kamenev.

The court charged the defendants with complicity in the murder of Kirov and of plotting to kill Stalin. The trial lasted five days. No material evidence was presented, and the Soviet Union's Supreme Court asked for none. The defendants confessed their guilt, Zinoviev saying that because of his having been seduced by Trotskyism he had gone all the way to fascism. Decades later, some people were to believe that the defendants may have confessed to save their families, or that they may have confessed believing that this would spare their lives. Some others were to believe that the defendants had been convinced that the charade was for the good of the Party – as described in Arthur Koestler's novel, Darkness at Noon.

Half way through the trial, Stalin went to the home of an old friend and former politburo member, Tomsky, with a bottle of wine. Tomsky, with Bukharin and Rykov, was facing a charge of treasonable complicity with Zinoviev. Tomsky ordered him out, and Stalin left, shaking with anger. Moments later a shot rang out. Tomsky had chosen to kill himself with his pistol rather than to kill Stalin.

The prosecutor, Vishinsky, closed his speech for the prosecution saying, "I demand that these mad dogs be shot, every last one of them." On August 25, 1936, Zinoviev, Kamenev and the fourteen others were shot. And Trotsky was sentenced to death in absentia.

The trial caused a sensation through the Soviet Union and the world. Soviet newspapers applauded the executions and demanded more purges of counter-revolutionaries. The public in the Soviet Union accepted the confessions of the accused – easier to believe perhaps than that their government had been perpetrating a gigantic hoax. In Norway, Communists demonstrated against Trotsky. In the United States, the Left was stunned. Most of those associated with the Socialist Party denounced the trial, while many if not most Communists believed that bourgeois newspapers and radio stations were distorting the news. In New York City a mass meeting of Stalinists adopted a resolution urging Stalin to expel all Trotskyists, and the US Communist Party leader Earl Browder denounced Trotsky. The popular Leftist magazine the New Masses began its description of the purge trials as legitimate judicial procedures. From Germany came Dr. Goebbels' analysis of the trial: the Bolshevik government, he explained, was a Jewish business.


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