The show trials that took place in Stalin’s USSR had a very specific purpose for Stalin. The show trials were not held in secret but were, as their title suggests, in the open with foreign journalists invited and were there to prove to those in the USSR who were interested that ‘enemies of the state’ still existed despite the ‘Red Terror’ and that state leaders such as Stalin were at risk. There is little doubt that those who faced a show trial were going to be found guilty and they served the main purpose of Stalin – to get rid of anyone who might be a potential rival to him as leader.
The excuse, if one was needed, that sparked off the purges and the show trials was the murder of Seigei Kirov. He was the Bolshevik Party’s leader in Leningrad and many believed that he would succeed Stalin on his death. However, Kirov faced several huge problems – he was popular with the people (more popular than Stalin?), good looking and very good at his job. Such a man brought Stalin’s paranoia or jealousy to the surface. It could be the case that Stalin felt threatened by the young man in Leningrad but they always went on summer holiday together which indicates the opposite. However, Kirov was someone who was willing to stand up to Stalin and argue against what he wanted even in public. He may have been, in the mind of Stalin, a party functionary but he was his own independent thinker and not someone who agreed with Stalin simply because it was Stalin. Kirov was also a man who was not scared to voice his beliefs in public.
However, Leon Trotsky was another case. Few would have questioned the intellectual qualities of Trotsky and as a member of the Bolshevik Old Guard, he did represent a threat to ‘the Boss’ as did anyone, Stalin believed, who was associated with Trotsky. To be labelled a ‘Trotskyite’ at the time of Stalin’s tenure in charge of the USSR invariably brought with it imprisonment and death. However, Stalin did not feel in sufficient control of the USSR to simply allow the NKVD to round up ‘enemies of the state’ and have a second version of the ‘Red Terror’. He needed an excuse to justify what was to happen. Kirov played a vital part in this – he was murdered on December 1st 1934 by Leonid Nikolayev. Historians are divided as to the extent Stalin played in this. Some believe that he effectively organised it while others believe that supporters of Trotsky made up the ‘evidence’ to discredit Stalin. Whatever the case, Stalin asked the Politburo for a purge of the party to rid it of those who were, in Stalin’s mind, betraying the November 1917 Revolution. The Politburo agreed with Stalin.
The NKVD was handed a list of those who were now labelled ‘enemies of the state’ – effectively the Bolshevik Party’s Old Guard – for example, Kamenev, Zinoviev and Bukharin. Anyone associated with these men was also under suspicion. They were put on trial at heavily manipulated show trials where the verdict was never in doubt. The show trials had to prove their guilt preferably with a very public admission of betraying the revolution and therefore the people.
The first people arrested were known supporters of Trotsky who at this time was living on an island off the coast of Turkey. While he was safe for the time being, his supporters were not. Very few survived long enough in a NKVD prison to make a public admission of guilt. However, signed confessions were considered useful tools as well. Why should men sign a confession knowing that it was probably nonsense and knowing that such a signing was almost like signing their own execution warrant. Those who survived the NKVD prisons – and very few did – later wrote about the brutal regime they faced. Cells would be windowless and a very strong electric light bulb – which prisoners could not turn on or off – was left permanently on. NKVD guards ensured prisoners were sleep deprived and exhausted when it came to their interrogation. A promise of better treatment was made to ensure the swift signature of a confession. However, the NKVD also wanted the names of anyone else associated with the ‘crimes’ of the man who had just signed his own death warrant. In his book ‘Darkness at Noon’ the author Arthur Koestler states his belief that prisoners actually signed confessions knowing that it would lead to their deaths but that death was better than the life they were leading while in a cell. If psychological torture did not work on a prisoner, then the NKVD turned to his family. In June 1934, Stalin signed a decree that held the family of a prisoner as guilty as he was and that the family (directed of course against the Old Guard) was guilty in its own right. This law stated that children over the age of 12 could be executed for the crimes of their father. Others faced the prospect of a sentence in the brutal gulags that were being built across the USSR.
There were some prisoners who would not play along with the dangerous game played by the NKVD. A different approach was needed. The one the NKVD adopted was to get a prisoner to confess to crimes and to sign the required confession in return for a document that guaranteed their lives. If all else failed then the victim was simply told that he would be executed without the formality of a trial.
The show trials became just that – a show. Some of the ‘biggest’ names in the Bolshevik Party were made to stand trial in public – men like Kamenev, Bukharin and Zinoviev. For whatever reason, Stalin viewed these men as potential rivals and as such they had to go. Both these men were charged with plotting to kill Stalin. Their guilt was never in doubt as the court had been provided with much ‘evidence’ obtained from other prisoners and they were executed in 1936 and 1938 in Bukharin’s case
At his trial Zinoviev said in public:
“I would like to repeat that I am fully and utterly guilty. I am guilty of having been the organiser, second only to Trotsky, of that block whose chosen task was the killing of Stalin. I was the principal organiser of Kirov’s assassination. The party saw where we were going, and warned us. Stalin warned us scores of times but we did not heed his warnings. We entered into an alliance with Trotsky.”
Kamenev said at his trial:
“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.”
Nikolai Bukharin was charged with treason and admitted his crimes in court just as Stalin wished. Bukharin called his crimes “monstrous” and he was executed in 1938.
However, Stalin believed that he could not even trust the senior officers in the Red Army. They along with anyone else Stalin believed he could no longer trust also became victims of the purges.