Trial of the Twenty One

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The Trial of the Twenty One was the last of the Moscow TrialsStalinist show trials of prominent Bolsheviks.

It took place in March 1938. The chief accused at the final trial were Alexei Rykov, Nikolai Ivanovich Bukharin, Nikolai Krestinsky, Christian Rakovsky, and Genrikh Yagoda. Other accused were Arkady Rosengoltz, Vladimir Ivanov, Mikhail Chernov, Grigori Grinko, Isaac Zelensky, Akmal Ikramov, Faizulla Khodjayev, Vasili Sharangovich, Prokopy Zubarev, Pavel Bulanov, Lev Levin, Ignaty Kazakov, Veyamin Maximov-Dikovsky, Pyotr Kryuchkov, Pletnev and Bessonov. They were all proclaimed members of the "right trotskist bloc" that intended to overthrow communism and restore capitalism in Russia, among other things.

In a similar vein to the earlier trials the defendants were accused of murdering Kirov and Kuibyshev; head of OGPU Vyacheslav Menzhinsky; writer Maxim Gorky and his son; unsuccessfully trying to assassinate Lenin two decades before; plotting to assassinate Sverdlov, Molotov, Kaganovich, Voroshilov (and of course Stalin himself); of conspiring to wreck the economy (by sabotaging the mines, derailing the trains, killing the cattle) and the country's military power; of working for the espionage services of Britain, France, Japan, and Germany; and of making secret agreements with Germany and Japan, promising to surrender Belarus, Ukraine, Middle Asia and Far East to foreign powers.

All confessed immediately, except Krestinsky who initially denied the charges before confessing the following day - "I fully and completely admit that I am guilty of all the gravest charges brought against me personally, and that I admit my complete responsibility for the treason and treachery I have committed". All but three were found guilty "of having committed extremely grave state offences covered by... the Criminal Code... sentenced to the supreme penalty - to be shot". Pletnev was sentenced to 25 years in prison, Rakovsky to 20 years and Bessonov to 15 years.

The sentencing of Yagoda, the head of the NKVD, was supposed to show that the period of the terror ended, which in fact was not nearly so.

Arthur Koestler's novel Darkness at Noon (1944) gives a haunting, if at least partly ficticious portrayal of the atmosphere surrounding this trial. It portrays the last weeks of an old Bolshevik trying to come to terms with the unintended results of the revolution he helped create. As a former member of the communist party, Koestler rises above the dichotomy of much of the cold war, showing a deep understanding for the origins of the Soviet Revolution, while at the same time severely criticizing its results.

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