On 23rd December 1930, Isaak Illich Rubin was arrested by the secret police and charged with participation in a plot to establish an underground organization called the "Union Bureau of Mensheviks." Rubin's sister later reported: "They put Rubin for days in the kartser, the punishment cell. My brother at forty-five was a man with a diseased heart and diseased joints. The kartser was a stone hole the size of a man; you couldn't move in it, you could only stand or sit on the stone floor. But my brother endured this torture too, and left the kartser with a feeling of inner confidence in himself, in his moral strength."
The OGPU now decided to change their tactics. On 28th January, 1931, he was taken to the cell of a prisoner named Vasil'evskii. The interrogator told the prisoner: "We are going to shoot you now, if Rubin does not confess." Vasil'evskii went on his knees and begged Rubin: "Isaac Il'ich, what does it cost you to confess?" According to his sister, "my brother remained firm and calm, even when they shot Vasil'evskii right there". The next night they took him to the cell of a prisoner called Dorodnov: "This time a young man who looked like a student was there. My brother didn't know him. When they turned to the student with the words, 'You will be shot because Rubin will not confess,' the student tore open his shirt at the breast and said, 'Fascists, gendarmes, shoot!' They shot him right there."
The killing of Dorodnov persuaded Rubin to confess to being a member of "Union Bureau of Mensheviks" and to implicate his friend and mentor, David Riazanov. Rubin's sister continued the story: "Rubin's position was tragic. He had to confess to what had never existed, and nothing had: neither his former views; nor his connections with the other defendants, most of whom he didn't even know, while others he knew only by chance; nor any documents that had supposedly been entrusted to his safekeeping; nor that sealed package of documents which he was supposed to have handed over to Riazanov. In the course of the interrogation and negotiations with the investigator, it became clear to Rubin that the name of Riazanov would figure in the whole affair, if not in Rubin's testimony, then in the testimony of someone else. And Rubin agreed to tell the whole story about the mythical package. My brother told me that speaking against Riazanov was just like speaking against his own father. That was the hardest part for him."
V. V. Sher was another witness who gave evidence against Riazanov. One of his friends, Victor Serge, argued in his book, Memoirs of a Revolutionary (1951): "Of course his heretical colleagues were often arrested, and he defended them, with all due discretion. He had access to all quarters and the leaders were a little afraid of his frank way of talking. His reputation had just been officially recognized in a celebration of his sixtieth birthday and his life's work when the arrest of the Menshevik sympathizer Sher, a neurotic intellectual who promptly made all the confessions that anyone pleased to dictate to him, put Riazanov beside himself with rage. Having learnt that a trial of old Socialists was being set in hand, with monstrously ridiculous confessions foisted on them, Riazanov flared up and told member after member of the Politburo that it was a dishonor to the regime, that all this organized frenzy simply did not stand up and that Sher was half-mad anyway."
Roy A. Medvedev, who has carried out a detailed investigation of the case, argued in Let History Judge: The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism (1971) that the Union Bureau of Mensheviks did not exist. "The political trials of the late twenties and early thirties produced a chain reaction of repression, directed primarily against the old technical intelligentsia, against Cadets who had not emigrated when they could have, and against former members of the Social Revolutionary, Menshevik, and nationalist parties."
Isaak Illich Rubin was sentenced to a 5-year term of imprisonment. This testimony of Rubin was used in building a case against Riazanov, Nikolai Sukhanov and other colleagues at the Marx-Engels Institute. Riazanov was dismissed as director of the institute in February 1931, and expelled from the Communist Party. Riazanov was arrested by the OGPU but as he refused to confess he did not appear in court and instead was sent into exile to the the city of Saratov.
In the summer of 1932 Joseph Stalin became aware that opposition to his policies were growing. Some party members were publicly criticizing Stalin and calling for the readmission of Leon Trotsky to the party. When the issue was discussed at the Politburo, Stalin demanded that the critics should be arrested and executed. Sergey Kirov, who up to this time had been a staunch Stalinist, argued against this policy. When the vote was taken, the majority of the Politburo supported Kirov against Stalin.
In the spring of 1934 Kirov put forward a policy of reconciliation. He argued that people should be released from prison who had opposed the government's policy on collective farms and industrialization. Once again, Stalin found himself in a minority in the Politburo. After years of arranging for the removal of his opponents from the party, Stalin realized he still could not rely on the total support of the people whom he had replaced them with. Stalin no doubt began to wonder if Kirov was willing to wait for his mentor to die before becoming leader of the party. Stalin was particularly concerned by Kirov's willingness to argue with him in public. He feared that this would undermine his authority in the party.
As usual, that summer Kirov and Stalin went on holiday together. Stalin, who treated Kirov like a son, used this opportunity to try to persuade him to remain loyal to his leadership. Stalin asked him to leave Leningrad to join him in Moscow. Stalin wanted Kirov in a place where he could keep a close eye on him. When Kirov refused, Stalin knew he had lost control over his protégé.
Sergey Kirov was assassinated by a young party member, Leonid Nikolayev, on 1st December, 1934. Victor Kravchenko, pointed out: "Hundreds of suspects in Leningrad were rounded up and shot summarily, without trial. Hundreds of others, dragged from prison cells where they had been confined for years, were executed in a gesture of official vengeance against the Party's enemies. The first accounts of Kirov's death said that the assassin had acted as a tool of dastardly foreigners - Estonian, Polish, German and finally British. Then came a series of official reports vaguely linking Nikolayev with present and past followers of Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev and other dissident old Bolsheviks."
Walter Duranty, the New York Times correspondent based in Moscow argued that Nikolayev was part of a larger plot: "The details of Kirov's assassination at first pointed to a personal motive, which may indeed have existed, but investigation showed that, as commonly happens in such cases, the assassin Nikolaiev had been made the instrument of forces whose aims were treasonable and political. A widespread plot against the Kremlin was discovered, whose ramifications included not merely former oppositionists but agents of the Nazi Gestapo. As the investigation continued, the Kremlin's conviction deepened that Trotsky and his friends abroad had built up an anti-Stalinist organisation in close collaboration with their associates in Russia, who formed a nucleus or centre around which gradually rallied divers elements of discontent and disloyalty. The actual conspirators were comparatively few in number, but as the plot thickened they did not hesitate to seek the aid of foreign enemies in order to compensate for the lack of popular support at home."
Robin Page Arnot, a member of the British Communist Party, argued that the conspiracy was led by Leon Trotsky. This resulted in the arrest of Genrikh Yagoda, Lev Kamenev, Gregory Zinoviev, Nikolay Bukharin, Mikhail Tomsky and Alexei Rykov and eleven other party members who had been critical of Stalin. "In December 1934 one of the groups carried through the assassination of Sergei Mironovich Kirov, a member of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Subsequent investigations revealed that behind the first group of assassins was a second group, an Organisation of Trotskyists headed by Zinoviev and Kamenev. Further investigations brought to light definite counter-revolutionary activities of the Rights (Bukharin-Rykov organisations) and their joint working with the Trotskyists."
However, according to Alexander Orlov, a NKVD officer, "Stalin decided to arrange for the assassination of Kirov and to lay the crime at the door of the former leaders of the opposition and thus with one blow do away with Lenin's former comrades. Stalin came to the conclusion that, if he could prove that Zinoviev and Kamenev and other leaders of the opposition had shed the blood of Kirov".
The first ever show show trial took place in August, 1936, of Lev Kamenev, Gregory Zinoviev, Ivan Smirnov and thirteen other party members who had been critical of Stalin. Yuri Piatakov accepted the post of chief witness "with all my heart." Max Shachtman pointed out: "The official indictment charges a widespread assassination conspiracy, carried on these five years or more, directed against the head of the Communist party and the government, organized with the direct connivance of the Hitler regime, and aimed at the establishment of a Fascist dictatorship in Russia. And who are included in these stupefying charges, either as direct participants or, what would be no less reprehensible, as persons with knowledge of the conspiracy who failed to disclose it?"
The men made confessions of their guilt. Lev Kamenev said: "I Kamenev, together with Zinoviev and Trotsky, organised and guided this conspiracy. My motives? I had become convinced that the party's - Stalin's policy - was successful and victorious. We, the opposition, had banked on a split in the party; but this hope proved groundless. We could no longer count on any serious domestic difficulties to allow us to overthrow. Stalin's leadership we were actuated by boundless hatred and by lust of power."
Gregory Zinoviev also confessed: "I would like to repeat that I am fully and utterly guilty. I am guilty of having been the organizer, second only to Trotsky, of that block whose chosen task was the killing of Stalin. I was the principal organizer of Kirov's assassination. The party saw where we were going, and warned us; Stalin warned as scores of times; but we did not heed these warnings. We entered into an alliance with Trotsky."
Most journalists covering the trial were convinced that the confessions were statements of truth. The Observer reported: "It is futile to think the trial was staged and the charges trumped up. The government's case against the defendants (Zinoviev and Kamenev) is genuine." The The New Statesman commented: "Very likely there was a plot. We complain because, in the absence of independent witnesses, there is no way of knowing. It is their (Zinoviev and Kamenev) confession and decision to demand the death sentence for themselves that constitutes the mystery. If they had a hope of acquittal, why confess? If they were guilty of trying to murder Stalin and knew they would be shot in any case, why cringe and crawl instead of defiantly justifying their plot on revolutionary grounds? We would be glad to hear the explanation."
Anna Louise Strong, of the Moscow Daily News, defended the Great Purge: "The key to the terror, most probably, in actual, extensive penetration of the GPU by a Nazi fifth column, in many actual plots and in the impact of these on a highly suspicious man who saw his own assassination plotted and believed he was saving the Revolution by drastic purge... Stalin engineered the country's modernization ruthlessly, for he was born in a ruthless land and endured ruthlessness from childhood. He engineered suspiciously, for he had been five times exiled and must have been often betrayed. He condoned, and even authorized outrageous acts of the political police against innocent people, but so far no evidence is produced that he consciously framed them."
Walter Duranty was the New York Times journalist based in Moscow. He wrote in the The New Republic that while watching the trial he came to the conclusion "that the confessions are true". Based on these comments the editor of the journal argued: "Some commentators, writing at a long distance from the scene, profess doubt that the executed men (Zinoviev and Kamenev) were guilty. It is suggested that they may have participated in a piece of stage play for the sake of friends or members of their families, held by the Soviet government as hostages and to be set free in exchange for this sacrifice. We see no reason to accept any of these laboured hypotheses, or to take the trial in other than its face value. Foreign correspondents present at the trial pointed out that the stories of these sixteen defendants, covering a series of complicated happenings over nearly five years, corroborated each other to an extent that would be quite impossible if they were not substantially true. The defendants gave no evidence of having been coached, parroting confessions painfully memorized in advance, or of being under any sort of duress."
Leon Trotsky, who was living in exile in Mexico City, was furious with Duranty and described him as a "hypocritical psychologist" who tried to explain away the terrors of the regime with "glib and facile phrases." Trotsky condemned Joseph Stalin "for betraying socialism and dishonoring the revolution" and describing the leadership as being "dominated by a clique which holds the people in subjection by oppression and terror." The trial, Trotsky claimed was a "frame-up" that lacked "objectivity and impartiality" and volunteered to go before an international commission to prove his innocence."
In September, 1936, Stalin appointed Nikolai Yezhov as head of the NKVD, the Communist Secret Police. Yezhov quickly arranged the arrest of all the leading political figures in the Soviet Union who were critical of Stalin. The Secret Police broke prisoners down by intense interrogation. This included the threat to arrest and execute members of the prisoner's family if they did not confess. The interrogation went on for several days and nights and eventually they became so exhausted and disoriented that they signed confessions agreeing that they had been attempting to overthrow the government.
In January, 1937, Yuri Piatakov, Karl Radek, Grigori Sokolnikov, and fifteen other leading members of the Communist Party were put on trial. They were accused of working with Leon Trotsky in an attempt to overthrow the Soviet government with the objective of restoring capitalism. Robin Page Arnot, a leading figure in the British Communist Party, wrote: "A second Moscow trial, held in January 1937, revealed the wider ramifications of the conspiracy. This was the trial of the Parallel Centre, headed by Piatakov, Radek, Sokolnikov, Serebriakov. The volume of evidence brought forward at this trial was sufficient to convince the most sceptical that these men, in conjunction with Trotsky and with the Fascist Powers, had carried through a series of abominable crimes involving loss of life and wreckage on a very considerable scale."
Edvard Radzinsky, the author of Stalin (1996) has pointed out: "After they saw that Piatakov was ready to collaborate in any way required, they gave him a more complicated role. In the 1937 trials he joined the defendants, those whom he had meant to blacken. He was arrested, but was at first recalcitrant. Ordzhonikidze in person urged him to accept the role assigned to him in exchange for his life. No one was so well qualified as Piatakov to destroy Trotsky, his former god and now the Party's worst enemy, in the eyes of the country and the whole world. He finally agreed I to do it as a matter of 'the highest expediency,' and began rehearsals with the interrogators."
One of the journalists covering the trial, Lion Feuchtwanger, commented: "Those who faced the court could not possibly be thought of as tormented and desperate beings. In appearance the accused were well-groomed and well-dressed men with relaxed and unconstrained manners. They drank tea, and there were newspapers sticking out of their pockets... Altogether, it looked more like a debate... conducted in conversational tones by educated people. The impression created was that the accused, the prosecutor, and the judges were all inspired by the same single - I almost said sporting - objective, to explain all that had happened with the maximum precision. If a theatrical producer had been called on to stage such a trial he would probably have needed several rehearsals to achieve that sort of teamwork among the accused."
Yuri Piatakov and twelve of the accused were found guilty and sentenced to death. Karl Radek and Grigori Sokolnikov were sentenced to ten years. Feuchtwanger commented that Radek "gave the condemned men a guilty smile, as though embarrassed by his luck." Maria Svanidze, who was later herself to be purged by Joseph Stalin wrote in her diary: "They arrested Radek and others whom I knew, people I used to talk to, and always trusted.... But what transpired surpassed all my expectations of human baseness. It was all there, terrorism, intervention, the Gestapo, theft, sabotage, subversion.... All out of careerism, greed, and the love of pleasure, the desire to have mistresses, to travel abroad, together with some sort of nebulous prospect of seizing power by a palace revolution. Where was their elementary feeling of patriotism, of love for their motherland? These moral freaks deserved their fate.... My soul is ablaze with anger and hatred. Their execution will not satisfy me. I should like to torture them, break them on the wheel, burn them alive for all the vile things they have done."
On 14th July 1937, Walter Duranty wrote another article on the show-trials, The Riddle of Russia, for The New Republic. He argued that since November 1934, that agents working for Nazi Germany had infiltrated the ranks of the Soviet leadership, while Trotsky, like an exiled monarch, was the leader of the conspiracy to overthrow Stalin. Duranty went on to claim that this conspiracy had involved many men in the highest echelons of government. But now "their Trojan horse was broken, and its occupants destroyed."
James William Crowl, the author of Angels in Stalin's Paradise (1982 has argued: "Although Louis Fischer reserved judgment on the trials, Duranty vigorously defended them. According to him, Trotsky had created a spy network at the very time that Germany and Japan were spreading their own spy organizations in Russia. He explained that the two groups shared a hatred for Stalin, and fascist agents had cooperated with the Trotskyites in Kirov's assassination. The show-trials, Duranty insisted, had revealed the Trotskyite-fascist link beyond question. The trials showed just as clearly, he argued (on 14th July, 1937), that Stalin's arrest of thousands of these agents had spared the country from a wave of assassinations. Duranty charged that those who worried about the rights of the defendants or claimed that their confessions had been gained by drugs or torture, only served the interests of Germany and Japan."
The next show trials took place in March, 1938, and involved twenty-one leading members of the party. This included Nickolai Bukharin, Alexei Rykov, Genrikh Yagoda, Nikolai Krestinsky and Christian Rakovsky. They were accused of being involved with Leon Trotsky in a plot against Joseph Stalin and with spying for foreign powers. They were all found guilty and were either executed or died in labour camps.
Stalin now decided to purge the Red Army. Some historians believe that Stalin was telling the truth when he claimed that he had evidence that the army was planning a military coup at this time. Leopold Trepper, head of the Soviet spy ring in Germany, believed that the evidence was planted by a double agent who worked for both Stalin and Hitler. Trepper's theory is that the "chiefs of Nazi counter-espionage" led by Reinhard Heydrich, took "advantage of the paranoia raging in the Soviet Union," by supplying information that led to Stalin executing his top military leaders.
In June, 1937, Mikhail Tukhachevsky and seven other top Red Army commanders were charged with conspiracy with Germany. All eight were convicted and executed. All told, 30,000 members of the armed forces were executed. This included fifty per cent of all army officers.
The last stage of the terror was the purging of the NKVD. Stalin wanted to make sure that those who knew too much about the purges would also be killed. Stalin announced to the country that "fascist elements" had taken over the security forces which had resulted in innocent people being executed. He appointed Lavrenti Beria as the new head of the Secret Police and he was instructed to find out who was responsible. After his investigations, Beria arranged the executions of all the senior figures in the organization.
Walter Duranty always underestimated the number killed during the Great Purge. As Sally J. Taylor, the author of Stalin's Apologist: Walter Duranty (1990) has pointed out: "As for the number of resulting casualties from the Great Purge, Duranty's estimates, which encompassed the years from 1936 to 1939, fell considerably short of other sources, a fact he himself admitted. Whereas the number of Party members arrested is usually put at just above one million, Duranty's own estimate was half this figure, and he neglected to mention that of those exiled into the forced labor camps of the GULAG, only a small percentage ever regained their freedom, as few as 50,000 by some estimates. As to those actually executed, reliable sources range from some 600,000 to one million, while Duranty maintained that only about 30,000 to 40,000 had been killed."