Moscow Trials

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The Moscow Trials were a series of trials of political opponents of Joseph Stalin during the Great Purge. They are widely considered to have been show trials in which the verdicts were predetermined. The defendants were accused of conspiring with the western powers to assassinate Stalin and other Soviet leaders, dismember the Soviet Union and restore capitalism, according to Article 58 (RSFSR Penal Code).


  • The first trial was of 16 members of the so-called "Trotskyite-Zinovievite Terrorist Centre," held in August 1936, at which the chief defendants were Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, two of the most prominent former party leaders. All were sentenced to death and executed.
  • The second trial in January 1937 involved 17 lesser figures including Karl Radek, Yuri Piatakov and Grigory Sokolnikov. Thirteen defendants were shot, the remainder received terms of imprisonment in labor camps where they soon died.

Evaluation of trials

Most Western observers who attended the trials said that they were fair and that the guilt of the accused had been established. They based this assessment on the confessions of the accused, which were freely given in open court, without any apparent evidence that they had been extracted by torture or drugging.

The British lawyer and MP Denis Pritt, for example, wrote: "Once again the more faint-hearted socialists are beset with doubts and anxieties," but "once again we can feel confident that when the smoke has rolled away from the battlefield of controversy it will be realized that the charge was true, the confessions correct and the prosecution fairly conducted."

In the political atmosphere of the '30s the accusation that there was a conspiracy to destroy the Soviet Union was not incredible, and few outside observers were aware of the events inside the Communist Party that had led to the purge and the trials.

It is now known that the confessions were given only after great psychological pressure had been applied to the defendants. From the accounts of former GPU officer Alexander Orlov and others the methods used to extract the confessions are known: repeated beatings, torture, making prisoners stand or go without sleep for days on end, and threats to arrest and execute the prisoners' families. For example, Kamenev's teenage son was arrested and charged with terrorism. After months of such interrogation, the defendants were driven to despair and exhaustion.

Zinoviev and Kamenev demanded as a condition for "confessing" a direct guarantee from the Politburo that their lives and that of their families would be spared. Instead they had to settle for a meeting with only Stalin, Kliment Voroshilov and Yezhov, at which assurances were given. After the trial Stalin not only broke his promise to spare the defendants, he had most of their relatives arrested and shot. Bukharin also agreed to "confess" on condition that his family was spared. In this case the promise was partly kept. His wife Anna Larina was sent to a labour camp but survived.

Dewey Commission

In May 1937 the Commission of Inquiry into the Charges Made against Leon Trotsky in the Moscow Trials, commonly known as the Dewey Commission, was set up in the United States by supporters of Trotsky, to establish the truth about the trials. The commission was headed by the noted American philosopher and educator John Dewey. Although the hearings were obviously conducted with a view to proving Trotsky's innocence, they brought to light evidence which established that some of the specific charges made at the trials could not be true.

For example, Piatakov testified that he had flown to Oslo in December 1935 to "receive terrorist instructions" from Trotsky. The Dewey Commission established that no such flight had taken place. Another defendant, Ivan Smirnov, confessed to taking part in the assassination of Sergei Kirov in December 1934, at a time when he had already been in prison for a year.

The Dewey Commission published its findings in the form of a 422-page book titled Not Guilty. Its conclusions asserted the innocence of all those condemned in the Moscow Trials. In its summary the commission wrote: "Independent of extrinsic evidence, the Commission finds:

  • That the conduct of the Moscow Trials was such as to convince any unprejudiced person that no attempt was made to ascertain the truth.
  • That while confessions are necessarily entitled to the most serious consideration, the confessions themselves contain such inherent improbabilities as to convince the Commission that they do not represent the truth, irrespective of any means used to obtain them."
  • That Trotsky never instructed any of the accused or witnesses in the Moscow trials to enter into agreements with foreign powers against the Soviet Union [and] that Trotsky never recommended, plotted, or attempted the restoration of capitalism in the USSR.

The commission concluded: "We therefore find the Moscow Trials to be frame-ups."

Opinions in defense of trials

Some contemporary observers who think the trials were inherently fair cite the statements of Molotov who while conceding that some of the confessions contain unlikely statements, said there may have been several reasons or motives that this can be attributed to - one being if the handful who made doubtful confessions were trying to undermine the Soviet Union and its government, then making dubious statements within the confession would cast doubts on their trial. Molotov postulated a defendant could invent a story that he collaborated with foreign agents and party members to undermine the government, and then those members would come under suspicion despite doing nothing, while the false foreign collaboration charge would be believed as well. Thus, the Soviet government was in his view the victim of false confessions. Nonetheless, he said the evidence of mostly out-of-power Communist officials conspiring to make a power grab during a moment of weakness in the upcoming war was there.


First Moscow Trial (Trial of the Sixteen)

The first trial was held from August 19 to August 24, 1936; the principal defendants were Gregory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev.

The full list of defendants is as follows:

  1. Grigory Yevseyevich Zinoviev
  2. Lev Borisovich Kamenev
  3. Grigory Yevdokimov
  4. Ivan Bakayev
  5. Sergei Vitalyevich Mrachkovsky, a hero of the Russian Civil War in Siberia and the Russian Far East
  6. Vagarshak Arutyunovich Ter-Vaganyan, leader of the Armenian Communist Party
  7. Ivan Nikitich Smirnov, People's Commissar for communications
  8. Yefim Dreitzer
  9. Isak Reingold
  10. Richard Pickel
  11. Eduard Holtzman
  12. Fritz David (Ilya-David Israilevich Kruglyansky)
  13. Valentin Olberg
  14. Konon Berman-Yurin
  15. Moissei Lurye (Alexander Emel)
  16. Nathan Lurye

All of them were charged under Articles 58.8, 19 and 58.11 of the Criminal Code of the RSFSR. The main charge was forming a terrorist organization with the purpose of killing Joseph Stalin and other members of the Soviet government. They were tried by the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court of the USSR, with Vasili Ulrikh presiding, and sentenced to death, the prosecutor being Andrei Vyshinsky.

Trial of Radek and Piatakov (Trial of the Seventeen)

In another trial in January 1937, the principal defendants were Karl Radek, Yuri Piatakov, Grigori Sokolnikov, Nikolai Muralov, Mikhail Boguslavsky and others (17 persons altogether). All but four of them were sentenced to death; the remainder were sentenced to imprisonment in labor camps.

Trial of Military

Main article: Case of Trotskyist Anti-Soviet Military Organization

The 1937 trial of high military commanders, also known as "Tukhachevsky Affair", was a secret trial, unlike the Moscow show trials. However, it featured the same level of frame-up of the defendants and it is traditionally considered one of the key trials of the Great Purge. Marshal Tukhachevsky and the senior military officers Iona Yakir, Ieronim Uborevich, Robert Eideman, Avgust Kork, Vitovt Putna, B.M. Feldman and Vitali Primakov were accused of anti-Communist conspiracy and sentenced to death; they were executed on the night of June 11/June 12, immediately after the verdict delivered by a Special Session of the Supreme Court of the USSR. This trial triggered a massive purge of the Red Army, with the total number of executed estimated by 42,000.

Trial of the Twenty One

Main article: Trial of the Twenty One.

The Trial of the Twenty-One was held in March 1938. The chief accused were Alexei Rykov, Nikolai Bukharin, Nikolai Krestinsky, Christian Rakovsky, and Genrikh Yagoda.


All of the surviving members of the Lenin-era Politburo, except Stalin, Mikhail Kalinin and Vyacheslav Molotov, were tried. By the end of the final trial Stalin had arrested and executed almost every important living Bolshevik from the Revolution. Of 1,966 delegates to the party congress in 1934, 1,108 were arrested. Of 139 members of the Central Committee, 98 were arrested. Three out of five Soviet marshals and one-third of the Red Army officers were arrested or shot. Outside of politics, many millions of others died in the purges. The key defendant, Leon Trotsky, was living in exile abroad, but he still did not survive Stalin's desire to have him dead and was assassinated by a Soviet agent in 1940.


While Khrushchev's Secret Speech denounced Stalin's personality cult and purges as early as in 1956, rehabilitation of Old Bolsheviks proceeded at a slow pace. Nikolai Bukharin and 19 other co-defendants were officially completely rehabilitated in February 1988. In May 1988, rehabilitation of Zinoviev, Kamenev, Radek, and co-defendants was announced.

In January 1989, the official newspaper Pravda reported that 25,000 persons had been posthumously rehabilitated. The same year Khrushchev's secret speech was finally published in full (although it was reported to public already in 1956).


External links

de:Moskauer Prozesse fr:Procès de Moscou