The Moscow Trials: A lesson from history

The Moscow Trials, which lasted from 1936 to 1938 will go down as the greatest frame-up in history. Their aim was to liquidate the entire remaining Bolshevik old guard and act as the means by which Stalin could consolidate his power as head of the bureaucratic caste that ruled the Soviet Union. Seventy-five years on, Jim Brookshaw - a former member of the British Communist Party - looks back at what happened and asks: why?

“But who did protest at the time? Who rose up to voice his outrage? The Trotskyists can lay claim to this honour. Following the example of their leader, who was rewarded for his obstinacy with the end of an ice-pick, they fought Stalinism to the death and they were the only ones who did. By the time of the great purges, they could only shout their rebellion in the freezing wastelands where they had been dragged in order to be exterminated. In the camps, their conduct was admirable. But their voices were lost in the tundra.” - Leopold Trepper, ‘The Great Game.’

Rose Cohen was born in the East End of London in 1894. Rose became a founder member of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1920. She then became the wife of Max Petrovsky the Comintern representative in London. She subsequently carried out secret international work for the Comintern. After Stalin came to power she was a loyal Stalinist.

Despite this loyalty, she was arrested in Russia and on the 28th November 1937 was taken out of her Moscow cell and shot. Her husband, although high up in the Soviet party, had been shot a few months earlier.

They had become victims of the infamous Moscow Trials of 1936 to 1938, in which millions perished.

They were both ‘rehabilitated’ after 1956, when Khruschev blamed Stalin for all the crimes of the regime since the assassination of Kirov in 1934. But they remained shot! There are, according to historian Francis Beckett, some 1,500 British names in the Soviet files covering this nightmare period. What happened to these people? Who were they?


In the early 1930’s Henry Ford sold his old Model A car plant to Stalin for a reported $40,000,000 gold dollars. A number of American workers, mostly unemployed from the Depression, together with their families went with the plant to the Soviet Union. Many other workers and families followed them. They went either to escape the Depression or to help ‘build socialism’ in the USSR.

Among them was a young man called Victor Herman who went to Russia with his family. Victor was a great sportsman, runner and boxer. He became well known for his sporting activities and was sent by Marshall Tukhachevsky to train with his growing parachute infantry. Victor made a world record free fall jump from an aircraft and was offered a medal by Stalin, provided he took Soviet citizenship. But Herman refused and the award was withdrawn. Stalin regarded this as a personal insult and he was rounded up in the purges and spent many years in the gulag. He survived to tell his story and was allowed to return to the USA only in 1976. He was “lucky” as thousands of American workers disappeared in the camps.

Public enemy

In 1934, the leading Soviet journalist Michael Koltsov went to the Saar district of Germany to report on the referendum being held on the question whether to unify with Germany or remain a League of Nations mandated territory. While he was there, Koltsov adopted a small boy, the son of a poor miner. The boy, Hubert Lohse, on his arrival in the Soviet Union was feted by the authorities. He was taken to huge banquets; his picture was in all the papers. He became very famous. He lived in luxury with Koltsov. Hubert appeared in a book called Hubert in Wonderland where his marvellous times in the wonderful USSR were recorded.

Then Koltsov, his patron and protector was arrested as a “public enemy”. Then Hubert disappeared from the newspapers. He ended up in a children’s home for “victims of fascism”.

Later the children’s home was closed and its inmates dispersed. When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, the Germans living in Russia were sent to the east. The former East German leader Wolfgang Leonhard met Hubert, whose clothes were now in tatters, in Karaganda in 1942 looking after cow herds. He was never seen again. Many thousands of Austrian and German refugees from Nazi Germany were shot or simply disappeared in the gulags.


Wolfgang Leonhard went to the Soviet Union as a thirteen year old refugee from Nazi Germany. He went to the Karl Liebknecht School in Moscow for Austrian and German children. Their parents were Communists and Socialists who had escaped from the Nazis to the Soviet Union. Leonhard’s mother was arrested in the purges and he went to live in Children’s Home No.6. He tells in his book, Child of the Revolution, how from March 1937 a number of teachers were arrested. However, he has nothing to say about the so-called “Hitler Youth Conspiracy” that occurred while he was there. He says that the school was closed at the beginning of 1938 due to “the arrest of the teaching staff....” But he does not say what actually happened.

Between January and March of 1938, seventy or so students and teenagers from the school and Children’s Home No.6 were arrested. They were charged with being members of the Hitler Youth! A number were executed almost immediately. Those arrested were tortured in order to obtain confessions. Six of the arrested were released; twenty were sentenced to from five to ten years. Two were returned to - the Gestapo. Between March and May 1938, forty were shot.


In the 1950s, the sentences were overturned and a few survivors were released. One of the imprisoned who survived was Helmut Damerius. He was charged again with “suspicion of espionage” in October 1938 and sentenced to seven years hard labour. In 1945 they sentenced him again for five years for “counter-revolutionary agitation”. He refused to sign a confession because he believed the party did not know about the gulag. He wrote seventeen letters to Stalin to which he got no replies. They finally let him go to the GDR in 1956.

“Despite all my personal unhappiness, my trust in Soviet power and in the Party and in Stalin who embodied both could not be shaken…. I was so naïve… apparently there is nothing more difficult or horrible in life than to wake up from dreams that are imagined to be reality”. (‘Unter Falscher Anschuldigung’ Helmut Damerius 1905-1985.)

In the book ‘Our Street’ (published in 1938) the author Jan Petersen tells about the activities of Communists in Berlin at the time of Hitler’s seizure of power. The writer and activist Erich Muhsam was picked up by the Nazis and taken to prison. The Nazis hated him particularly because he had been a leader of the Munich Soviet of 1919 and because he was Jewish. They repeatedly beat him in his prison cell. He was eventually beaten to death in the Oranienburg concentration camp. Muhsam’s wife Zenzl managed to escape to Moscow. As Muhsam was being murdered by the Nazis, Stalin’s regime had sentenced his wife to hard labour for “counter revolutionary Trotskyist activities”! Zenzl was finally released to the GDR in 1954.

I have told these stories to try to show how widespread were the arrests and the purges of Stalin’s years of terror.

How could these things happen? How could it be that Socialists and Communists, who went full of hope and enthusiasm to the land of the Soviets, could suffer repression, forced labour, exile and death?


The Russian Revolution of October 1917 was the greatest event in human history. For the first time working men and women had taken power into their own hands. The Bolsheviks who led this socialist revolution had prepared for it over many years. However, they did not believe that socialism could be built in one country, least of all in a backward country like Russian. The Bolsheviks saw the Russian revolution as breaking the chain of world capitalism at its weakest link; that the workers would carry the revolution to the advanced capitalist countries and from there build a real socialist world.

Unfortunately, given the betrayals in different countries, the Russian revolution was left isolated. Not only was Russia an extremely backward country, but added to this was the devastation caused by the Civil War waged by the counter-revolutionary White Armies and the wars of intervention by 14 capitalist states. As a consequence, the Soviet state was wracked by widespread destruction, disease and famine. Thousands of the most devoted and class-conscious workers had died at the various military fronts defending the revolution.


Karl Marx explained how the capitalist system works and how production for profit will always leave the majority of people in poverty. He showed that capitalism had built up the productive forces, and would provide the material basis for a socialist, planned economy, where an abundance of goods could be produced. Generalised want could be eliminated forever.

Lenin explained that “socialism is Soviet power plus electrification.” In other words, workers’ democracy and the highest possible development of technique would be the basis of the new society. That required help from the workers of the west.

Lenin and Trotsky wrote that the problem for Soviet Russia was its economic backwardness. Trotsky once explained that if, for example, you can’t produce enough shoes, you will have to have a queue. The queue would then have to be administered by an official and kept in order by a security man. You can be sure, he said, that the official, the security man and their families would all get shoes. Scarcity would inevitably produce bureaucracy and privilege. As Marx said, if a socialist society was not able to build up the productive forces, “all the old crap would reappear.” This is what happened in Soviet Russia with the development of Stalinism. “All the old crap” was revived in the bureaucracy that came to control the USSR. This bureaucracy found its representative in Stalin.

Victor Serge in his book ‘From Lenin to Stalin’ writes: “Every thing has changed. The aims: from international social revolution to socialism in one country. “The political system: from the workers’ democracy of the soviets, the goal of the revolution, to the dictatorship of the general secretariat, the functionaries and the GPU.

“The party: from the organisation, free in its life and thought and freely submitting to discipline, of revolutionary Marxists to the hierarchy of bureaus, to the passive obedience of the careerists.”

And then further: “The leaders: the greatest leaders of October are in exile or in prison..”

The workers’ democracy under Lenin and Trotsky was replace by a bureaucratic dictatorship under Stalin. From the moment that Stalin took power, he put all his effort into to destroying the one man who could perhaps have stopped him: Leon Trotsky. The Soviet bureaucracy found Stalin. The Bolshevik – Leninist Opposition found Trotsky.


From at least 1926, Stalin was using expulsion from the party, deprivation of work, deprivation of housing and medical care, exile and imprisonment against the Left Opposition. He organised frame-ups, lying and deceit in an attempt to destroy the real defenders of the October revolution and the interests of the world revolution.

Initially, for their own personal motives, there were those like Kamenev, Zinoviev and Bukharin who sided with Stalin against Trotsky. They all thought they could control Stalin, but it was Stalin who was really controlling them. They chopped and changed their allegiances, with Zinoviev and Kamenev eventually creating a bloc with Trotsky. They soon capitulated to Stalin, but they failed to realise that Stalin would never forgive their treachery.

Stalin had Kirov, the Leningrad party chief, assassinated and used it as a pretext to arrest his opponents. The next step was to unleash a one-sided civil war against the revolutionary generation, which reached its peak in the years 1936, 1937 and 1938 with the staging of The Moscow Trials.

These “show trials”, however, were not the first. In 1931 the trial took place of the “All Union Bureau of Mensheviks”. At this trial, 14 old Russian socialists were put on trial for “economic sabotage” and they confessed to everything. They even admitted they had secretly met with the Austrian social democrat Rafial Abramovich somewhere in Russia.

In response to this frame-up, the Austrian Social-Democrats published a photograph of Abramovich together with delegates at the International Socialist Congress in Belgium – the same time he was supposedly in Russia. Such clumsy “mistakes” contained within the “evidence” occur frequently in these frame-ups.

Show trials

The first big infamous “Show trial” of the “Trotsky-Zinoviev Centre” took place in the summer of 1936. The list of the Sixteen, who were accused of intending to kill the leaders of the party and government, reads like a “Who’s who” of the 1917 October Revolution. They included: Leon Trotsky (who was being tried in his absence), Zinoviev, Kamenev, Smirnov, Piatakov and others. The only “evidence” produced was the confessions of the accused themselves. Revolutionary heroes stand there and confess to terrorism, wrecking and working for Hitler. “These mad dogs of capitalism”, stated Prosecutor Vyshinsky, the former Menshevik, “have tried to tear to pieces the very best of the best people of our Soviet land.”

In his final words to the court the accused Yevdokimov asks, “Who will believe a single word we say? Who will believe us, we who stand before the court as counter-revolutionary bandits, as allies of fascism, of the Gestapo? Indeed who could believe those confessions?”

There is a mountain of evidence that extreme methods of torture were used, which even Khruschev was forced to later admit. Most of the accused had already submitted to Stalin. Many of them, who had opposed Stalin in the past, had been expelled, exiled and imprisoned. They had then “repented” and been allowed back in to the Party by Stalin. Kamenev, Zinoviev and others came to this trial from prison, after confessing earlier of their “moral and political responsibility” for terrorist moods of their former suppoerters. Some of the accused were now offered freedom for a confession. They were all promised by Stalin that if they do this one last task for the party, they will not be shot!

But they were already beaten men. Some however still tried to resist in court. How are we to understand the evidence of Goltsman? His evidence was the only seemingly concrete thing that could implicate Trotsky. Trotsky and other Oppositionists had often quoted one of Lenin’s last letters in which he urged the Party to “remove Stalin”. The prosecutor, Vishinsky got Goltsman to say that Trotsky had told him that they must “remove Stalin” and that this meant to kill him! Goltsman claimed that Trotsky had said this in a meeting with him in the Hotel Bristol in Copenhagen.

After the publication of the transcripts the Danish social-democratic newspaper announced to the world that the Hotel Bristol had been demolished in 1917! Was this a “slip up” or did Goltsman know what he was doing, in effect discrediting the story? To those with their eyes open, that one “slip” showed up the whole farce of the trial. But a farce after which, all of those acting the part of the accused were subsequently shot.

From the 23rd to the 30th of January 1937 the second Show Trial was held, called the trial of the “Anti-Soviet Trotskyist Centre”.


The hero of the revolution in Moscow and of the Civil War, Muralov, was arrested in April 1936 but they only obtained a confession from him after nearly eight months of torture. Radek also took a long time to confess, after a conveyor belt of interrogators had worked on him. On his arrest, he told his daughter: “Whatever you learn and whatever you hear about me. Be assured that I am guilty of nothing.” Drobnis, Piatakov, Serebriakov and others also took a long time to break. The actors were well rehearsed and only when Stalin felt that all measures had been taken to prevent any “slip ups” could the performance begin!

According to Sokolnikov: “As soon as you demand that I give outlandish confessions, I will agree to give them. The greater the number of people who will be drawn into the spectacle you are staging, the sooner people will wake up in the CC and the sooner you will be sitting in my place.”

Stalin ordered Vyshinsky: “Don’t allow them to talk much about disasters. Shut them up. They caused so many disasters, don’t let them blab too much.” Once again the accused were men with years of struggle and sacrifice for socialism behind them. Men who were leaders of the October Revolution and in many cases members of Lenin’s October Central Committee. They were once again accused of terrorism and of working for the Gestapo. Piatakov, who denied almost everything, gave detailed “evidence” of one event. In December 1935 while in Berlin on a business trip he was supposedly sent to Oslo on a plane of the Gestapo. Here, he said that he met with Trotsky. However, the Norwegian paper Aftenposten stated that in December 1935 not one single foreign plane had landed in Oslo. The Norwegian Government said on the 29th January that not one plane had landed at the airport from 19th September 1935 until 1st May 1936! Was this another slip-up in the script or was Piatakov, knowing that he was a dead man, doing one last service for the revolution?

On the same day as the hearing, Trotsky released a new statement in which he said: “I greatly fear that the GPU will rush to shoot Piatakov in order to forestall any further uncomfortable questions and to prevent an international commission of inquiry from demanding precise explanations from Piatakov.”

Vyshinsky delivered his rant: “Trotsky and the Trotskyists had long been capitalist agents in the workers’ movement,” and asserted that Trotskyism, “the age-old enemy of socialism”, in accordance with “Comrade Stalin’s predictions,” “had actually turned into the main gathering point of all forces hostile to socialism, into a detachment of common bandits, spies and murderers,” into “a vanguard fascist detachment, into the storm-troop battalion of fascism,” into “one of the branches of the SS and the Gestapo.”

Within 24 hours of the guilty verdict being delivered, the defendants were all taken out and shot.

For every wellknown name murdered in these show trials, thousands of their family members, colleagues, friends and acquaintances were put to death or enslaved. Tens of thousands were ‘convicted’ at different types of “trials” or “boards” on trumped up charges. Tens of thousands were summarily executed or worked to death.The Stalin regime had created a river of blood between it and the regime of Lenin and Trotsky. To consolidate the power of the bureaucracy in the Soviet Union, Stalin had to destroy all the living links with the October Revolution, including its past leaders.

In 1936, in his brilliant book ‘The Revolution Betrayed,’ Trotsky analysed Stalinism as a form of Bonapartism, but based on nationalised property rights. Such a regime was a regime of crisis and would prepare its downfall, either by capitalist counter-revolution or political revolution to restore workers’ democracy. Stalinism lasted much longer than Trotsky had anticipated. However by the 1970s, the economy slowed down dramatically as all the internal contradictions came to the fore. By the 1980s, a section of the bureaucracy was looking towards capitalist restoration. By the mid 1990s, the old Stalinist regime ceased to exist as the bureaucrats under Yeltsin set about restoring capitalism and all the ills it produced. Trotsky’s prediction had come true.

The struggle continues to restore the genuine ideas of Lenin and Trotsky and to expose the crimes of Stalinism.