Joseph Stalin’s show trials were common during his political repressions, such as the Moscow Trials of the Great Purge period (1937–38). The Soviet authorities staged the actual trials meticulously.
The trials were held against Stalin’s political enemies, such as the Trotskyists and those involved with the Right Opposition of the Communist Party. The trials were shams that led to the execution of most defendants. Every surviving member of the Lenin-era part was tried, and almost every important Bolshevik from the Revolution was executed. Over 1,100 delegates to the party congress in 1934 were arrested. The killings were part of Stalin’s Great Purge, in which opportunists and Bolshevik cadres from the time of the Russian Revolution who could rally opposition to Joseph Stalin were killed. He did so at a time of growing discontent in the 1930s for his mismanagement of the Soviet economy, leading to mass famines during periods of rapid and poorly executed industrialization and farm collectivization.
Prominent Americans could even be found to defend Stalin show trials, a spectacle of political theater so transparent that it would have taken genuine effort not to see through it. In order to terrorize Communist Party members into absolute submission and at the same time eliminate potential rivals, Stalin put on a series of high-profile trials in which prominent Communists confessed to treachery against the Soviet Union. In some cases, people were coaxed into making these confessions by threats against their families if they refused. One by one some of the most loyal Communists, dating back to the days of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, solemnly admitted to counterrevolutionary activity. George Orwell could hardly have improved on this eerie and macabre spectacle.
Yet there were those on the American Left who supported Stalin and vouched for the authenticity of the trials. In 1938, some 150 Americans prominent in the entertainment industry signed a statement in support of the verdicts reached in “the recent Moscow trials.” According to the expert opinion of these Broadway stars and assorted glitterati, the trials had “by sheer weight of evidence established a clear presumption of the guilt of the defendants.” As if this weren’t bad enough, people who knew better said the same thing. The U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, Joseph Davies, insisted to the American government that the trials were genuine, a claim he stood by in his 1941 book Mission to Moscow. He told the New Republic, “We see no reason to take the trial at other than its face value.” The proceedings, he said, had uncovered the “virus of a conspiracy to overthrow the [Soviet] government.” Duranty, for his part, described it as “unthinkable” that Stalin could have sentenced his friends to death “unless the proofs of guilt were overwhelming,” and wrote of his conviction that “the confessions are true.”A
After Stalin’s death, Soviet premier Nikita Khruschev repudiated the trials in a speech to the Twentieth Congress of the Russian Communist Party:
The commission has become acquainted with a large quantity of materials in the NKVD archives and with other documents and has established many facts pertaining to the fabrication of cases against Communists, to glaring abuses of Socialist legality which resulted in the death of innocent people. It became apparent that many party, Government and economic activists who were branded in 1937–38 as ‘enemies,’ were actually never enemies, spies, wreckers, etc., but were always honest Communists … They were only so stigmatized and often, no longer able to bear barbaric tortures, they charged themselves (at the order of the investigative judges – falsifiers) with all kinds of grave and unlikely crimes.
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