Home Books, Arts, StageBooks The XXth century. A century of blood and iron. Stalin. Political Trials (1/3)

The XXth century. A century of blood and iron. Stalin. Political Trials (1/3)

by Pierre-Alain Lévy

Ah, that beautiful evening !

December 18th, 1935


Stalin’s birthday. The evening was “loud and happy“, we had a great time in the Kremlin. Voroshilov shone in his new white Marshal’s uniform, he had dinner, then songs and dances. Zhdanov played the role of choirmaster, Abkhaz and Ukrainian songs were sung, and even bawdy songs. Amid the general hilarity, Postychev, one of Ukraine’s rulers, slowed down with Molotov, and even Stalin, who was taking care of the phonograph, agreed to dance a few steps. It was the good life.

But by the beginning of 1936, in the spring, some had less fun. The Trotskyists were arrested,
terrorists of course, and those guilty of “terror” crimes were executed. And we began to invent a new type of spectacle: the great trials.


Foremost among the accused: Zinoviev and Kamenev. They were accused of crimes committed with Trotsky on the basis of a nebula conspiracy, the “Trosko-Zinovievist Center“, a nebula totally imaginary otherwise. This conspiratorial group had supposedly already assassinated Kirov and repeatedly failed to do the same with Stalin and Molotov.

Grigori Evseïevitch Zinoviev and Lev Borissovitch Kamenev

Stalin had Zinoviev and Kamenev’s old friends arrested for accusation, and the NKVD was working to extract a confession. Stalin’s instructions were clear: “Get on your prisoners and do not let them go until they have confessed.” Zinoviev and Kamenev’s friends were promised their lives if they testified against them, while Zinoviev and Kamenev still refused to cooperate and confess. Stalin took the greatest interest in this affair, phoning every hour to find out where we were. But Zinoviev and Kamenev still did not admit …

Do you think Kamenev won’t confess?” Stalin once asked a certain Mironov, a Chekist, a man from Yagoda.
I don’t know,” Mironov replied.
You do not know? Do you know how much our state weighs with all its machines, factories, army, all its armaments, and its fleet? Think about it and answer me ”.
No one can know, these are astronomical numbers,” Mironov replied.
Well, can one man take the pressure of this astronomical weight?
No, of course“.
Well … don’t come back and report to me until you have Kamenev’s confession in your briefcase.

Promises binding only those who receive them…

Unlike many others, Zinoviev and Kamenev were not tortured to death. They were simply deprived of sleep, the heating was turned on in their cells in the middle of summer, Kamenev was threatened with shooting his son. In short …
But this mistreatment made them crack, they demanded to see the Politburo and be guaranteed that they would not be executed. Under these two conditions, they would confess. They were therefore transported from Lubyanka prison to the nearby Kremlin, but in the Politburo room there were only Stalin, Vorochilov and Yezhov. Where were the other members of the Politburo? Kamenev begged for a guarantee that they would not be shot. “Guarantee ? Stalin replied. What kind of guarantee, This is ridiculous! Perhaps you want an official treaty certified by the League of Nations? … If the assurances from the Politburo are not enough, I think all discussion should be cut short. ” Zinoviev and Kamenev confessed.

Attorney General Vychinsky just in the center. (1937).

The trial opened on August 19, 1936 in the October room of the The House of the Unions. In this room, in the center, the judges sat on armchairs that looked like thrones covered in red plush. Attorney General Vyshinsky sat on the left and the defendants, sixteen in all, with shabby figures and guarded by NKVD soldiers, were on the right. It is said that Stalin was in a nearby gallery listening to the debates.


The accused, overwhelmed, recited their text, Attorney General Vyshinsky officiated. The offspring of a rich and noble Polish family from Odessa, Vyshinsky, 53, once shared the same cell with Stalin, where Vyshinsky shared his parents’ parcels with him. Small, wearing tortoiseshell-rimmed glasses, red hair, a pointed nose, elegant with his well-cut suit, checkered tie, white collar, he looked like a prosperous provincial lawyer. Disagreeable with his subordinates, servile with his superiors, he practiced the following method: “You have to keep people on the grill“. And besides, he was conceited; presented to Princess Margaret in London in 1947, he said to the British diplomat who accompanied him: “add, please, my former title of Prosecutor during the illustrious Moscow trials“.

In the trial room, there were 350 spectators, Chekists in civilian clothes and foreign journalists; the latter entertained the most serious doubts about the veracity of the accusations. Indeed, by way of example, a witness claimed that Trotsky’s son had ordered assassinations during a meeting at the Bristol Hotel in Copenhagen, when this hotel had been destroyed in 1917. Stalin was angry: “ You should have mentioned the station. It hasn’t disappeared “.


In his indictment, Vyshinsky says that “these mad dogs of capitalism have attempted the lives of the best elements of our Soviet homeland … I demand that these mad dogs be shot, without exception.”
Kamenev, speaking his final words in court, had said that “Whatever the verdict, I consider it fair in advance. Don’t look back, he said to his sons, go ahead. Follow Stalin ”.


The judges deliberated for two and a half hours and delivered their verdict: death.
Returned to prison, trembling, the condemned recalled that Stalin had promised them life. At 8:48 p.m., Stalin, on vacation in sunny Sochi, received a telegram asking him what to do. Stalin hesitated. Executing two former comrades of Lenin paved the way for “Terror” against the Communist Party itself. Stalin hesitated for three hours, and a few minutes before midnight he simply replied, “Okay.” The fate of Zinoviev and Kamenev was sealed.

Lubyanka prison and KGB headquarters in Moscow.

On August 25, 1936, in the early hours of the morning, limousines entered the Lubyanka; they transported the dignitaries of the regime who would attend the executions. Stalin himself never witnessed the tortures and executions, which were called the “supreme degree of punishment“, or “VMN“. Stalin had his own word; he called the executions “the big work.”


Zinoviev and Kamenev were taken from their cells. They were shaking with fear, but while Kamenev was very dignified, Zinoviev was feverish. Zinoviev yelled that it was a fascist stunt, begging to go and get Stalin: “Please, Comrade, for heaven’s sake call Iossif Vissarionovich. He promised us life ”. He grabbed and licked the Chekist boots.

Zinoviev ’s ultimate letter to Stalin begging for mercy
Archives d’État de la Fédération de Russie. F. R-3316. Op. 64.D.1842


But Kamenev said, “We deserved this because of our unworthy attitude at the trial,” telling Zinoviev it was appropriate to die with dignity. As matters escalated, Zinoviev was taken to a nearby cell where he was executed with a bullet in the back of the neck. Same treatment moments later for Kamenev.

Yagoda collected the bullets and put labels on them, « Zinoviev’s” and « Kamenev’s“, keeping these relics in his house, next to his erotic objects.
Stalin, who enjoyed the attitude of convicts at the time of executions, was always told about how they died. “A man can combine physical bravery and political cowardice,” he liked to say.

Laughing

Pauker was an actor, plump and corseted, and particularly servile to boot. Shortly after the execution of Zinoviev and Kamenev, there was a dinner in honor of the founding of the Cheka. Stalin attended.
Pauker was dragged into the room by two actor-writers who played the role of guardians, and mimed Zinoviev begging the Chekists: “For heaven’s sake, call Stalin,” Pauker imitated. Stalin was laughing out loud, Pauker resumed his performance. Stalin was doubled over with laughter, suffocating, and had to signal Pauker to stop his act.

But of course, the trial of Zinoviev and Kamenev was just an appetizer. Bukharin, former editor of Izvestia newspaper (Известия), was escalating in the Pamirs when he learned he was implicated in the Zinoviev / Kamenev trial. Panicked, he hurried back to Moscow and shut himself up in distress in his Kremlin apartment. Stalin had decided to play cat and mouse with Bukharin.


On September 8, a “confrontation” took place in a hall of the Kremlin; besides Bukharin, there were Kaganovich, Ejov, Vyshinsky and a few others. On the menu, a “rightist-leftist center” plot to which Bukharin allegedly belonged.

He’s lying, you bastard, from start to finish,” Kaganovich said after the “showdown.” But two days later, Vyshinsky announced that the charges against Bukharin were dropped, and the latter could resume his functions. But it was only partly postponed (he will be executed in 1938) …


However, the pompom was won by a certain Yuri Piatakov, ex-Trotskyist and administrator. His wife had been arrested because of her ties to Trotsky, and Yuri was involved. Just before the trial of Zinoviev and Kamenev, he had been summoned by Yezhov, who had shown him “proof” of his involvement. Pyatakov then offered to prove his innocence by asking to be personally authorized to execute all those condemned to death in the trial, including his own wife.

Sources and bibliography
(*) «Stalin : The Court of the Red Tsar», Simon Sebag Montefiore. Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 2003.
En version française : «La Cour du Tsar rouge», Simon Sebag Montefiore. Editions des Syrtes, 2005. 
(**) Simon Sebag Montefiore est un historien britannique éduqué à Cambridge et spécialiste de le Russie. Son livre, traduit ,en 25 langues, a obtenu le British Book Award en 2004.

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Calendrier de publication

Season 1
Staline
1/1 Une sympathique petite équipe
mise en ligne à partir du vendredi 6 novembre 2020
1/2 Un dîner qui finit mal
mise en ligne à partir du vendredi 13 novembre
1/3 Le tribunal des flagrants délires
mise en ligne à partir du vendredi 20 novembre
1/4 Une improbable rencontre
mise en ligne à partir du vendredi 27 novembre
1/5 Un mélomane passionné
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Season 2
Hitler
2/1 Dans la tannière du diable
mise en ligne à partir du vendredi 11 décembre
2/2 Le style c’est l’homme
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2/3 Hitler chef de guerre
mise en ligne à partir du vendredi 25 décembre
2/4 Le commencement de la fin
mise en ligne à partir du vendredi 1er janvier 2021
2/5Vingt-quatre heures avant l’apocalypse
mise en ligne à partir du vendredi 8 janvier

Saison 3
Mao Zedong毛泽东
3/1 La momie de  Zhongnanhai
mise en ligne à partir du vendredi 15 janvier
3/2 Mao et Staline
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3/3 Dans la tannière de la louve
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3/4 Guerre et Paix
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3/5 Nous sommes informés de tout, nous ne savons rien
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