What is Wrong with Russia? The Mystery of the Trials
Although the trials and executions of midsummer, 1936, and January, 1937, have had exceptional publicity they are only two of a long series. Others occurred in 1928, 1930, 1931 and 1933, and according to the latest reports from Russia more are to come. But whereas the earlier trials were of avowed political opponents of the Bolsheviks, the last two have been trials of Communists, many of whom, in spite of belated attempts to prove otherwise, were Lenin’s close and trusted associates up to the time of his death. If latter-day British Communists do not know of this close association that is only because of the systematic revision and falsification by the Bolsheviks of what were once histories of their movement.
Broadly speaking, there can only be one explanation of the trials, i.e., discontent with the policy or composition of Stalin’s Government and the trend of events in Russia. How extensive that discontent may be is another matter. It is likely to range all the way from the personal ambitions of a narrow circle of leaders to the resentment of sincere Communist Party members at what they regard as an anti-Socialist policy, and to the vague discontent of non-Socialist workers and peasants with conditions that are admittedly hard in many respects. How much there is of each of these it is impossible to know: impossible because of the dictatorship, the prohibition of opposition parties, and the rigid censorship clamped down over all the things the Russian Government wants to keep secret.
Socialists are far from being surprised at these developments. On the contrary, it was obvious from the outset that the dictatorship of a small party over a largely apathetic or hostile population was bound eventually to degenerate in just the way that it has. The terrorism glorified as an instrument of policy by Lenin and Trotsky has been turned by Stalin against most of his former associates and potential rivals. Short of abandoning the party-dictatorship what else could have happened?
A Dilemma for the Communists
But the Communists will not have this. If anything has gone wrong in Russia it is not, they assert, because the party-dictatorship was foredoomed to failure. They are satisfied with the version given in court by the prosecutor, that all would have been well but for the wanton treachery of so many of the old stalwarts of Bolshevism who betrayed their own cause in order to gain personal power, or out of hatred of Stalin, or for love of capitalism.
What the Communists do not see is that they are on the horns of a dilemma either way. If the Stalin Government staged a colossal frame-up on distorted or non-existent evidence of plots and sabotage for the purpose of destroying the Bolshevik movement, and thus removing rivals from the scene, then the dictatorship system plainly stands exposed and condemned. If, on the other hand, the plots and terroristic acts by the convicted men really did take place, as charged, then the dictatorship equally stands condemned, for we are left to believe that out of any ten prominent Communists at any given time some eight or nine will turn out within a few years to be the agents of the Nazis, or of the rulers of Japan, or some group of foreign capitalists.
What Price “Confessions”?
The Communists have an answer to all criticisms, the “confessions.” As the prisoners confessed in open court to all sorts of crimes what more need be said? Unfortunately for this apparently clinching argument time after time prisoners in Russian courts have confessed to things which could not have happened. So that either the prisoners invented imaginary happenings themselves or else the authorities did so for them. This, of course, is tantamount to charging the Russian authorities with deliberate lying if they invented the confessions; and with proceeding with charges on what they knew to be false confessions if the prisoners invented the confessions themselves. The British Communists are highly indignant that anyone should suggest the possibility that Bolsheviks can be guilty of such conduct. They have short memories. Have they forgotten that Lenin and his associates and apologists – including Trotsky – used to advocate lying and double-dealing as a normal part of Communist activity? – and that, not merely against the capitalist class but inside the organised working-class movement, as a means, for example, of gaining control of the trade unions? Why then the indignation?
However, the important point is that essential parts of past confessions are known to have been false, so that the whole of them, along with the methods by which they are obtained, are under suspicion.
In the last trial, Piatakoff confessed that he travelled from Berlin to Oslo by aeroplane in December, 1935, in order to meet Trotsky there, and landed in an aerodrome near Oslo. Trotsky denies that the meeting ever took place, as also does the family with whom and in whose house it is alleged to have occurred. What is more, the Director of the aerodrome informed the Norwegian Labour Party journal, Arbeiderblatt (January 29th, 1937), that no foreign aeroplane whatever landed there between September, 1935, and May, 1936. In December, 1935, one Norwegian aeroplane landed there, but not from Germany, and it had no passengers at all. The Director says:
“It is out of the question that any aeroplane could have landed unobserved. Throughout the night the aerodrome is guarded by a military patrol.”
(The full story is told in a letter to the Manchester Guardian, February 17th, 1937.)
Again prisoners confessed to meeting Trotsky in Paris in July, 1933. It is claimed by Trotsky’s son in a letter to the Manchester Guardian (February 12th, 1937), that it can be proved beyond question that Trotsky, who landed in France on July 24th, 1933, was never at any time within 300 miles of Paris until October, 1933.
These and several other material points confessed to by prisoners are challenged by persons who are in a position to know what happened. Perhaps they are lying? But why in that event will not the Russian Government and its apologists accept the challenge to have an independent inquiry to ascertain the truth? Mr. Pritt and others held such an inquiry after the German Reichstag fire trial but are silent concerning the weighty challenge to the Russian trials.
Some of the confessions in previous trials have been farcical in respect of important facts. F. Adler, Leon Blum and others whom the Communists now support, describe some of these events in a pamphlet called The Moscow Trial, published by the British Labour Party in 1931 (price 6d., post free). There a prisoner confessed that he had meetings with Abramovitch in Moscow at the very time when Abramovitch was attending a Conference of the Labour and Socialist International at Brussels. Not only was this sworn to by numerous eye-witnesses, but was demonstrated by a group-photograph of delegates taken at the Conference. Abramovitch states on oath, and has the statement confirmed on oath by numerous witnesses, that he never set foot in Russia at all after 1920.
In that trial, instead of a Trotsky plot to divide up Russia with Germany and Japan, the charge was that the prisoners were plotting the invasion and partition of Russia on behalf of French imperialism. One of the men supposed to be acting in the plot as an agent of French imperialism was Leon Blum, now Premier of France, in which position he receives the active support and votes of Communist members of the French Parliament. If the “confessions” proved Blum’s guilt, why are the Communists now supporting him? If it was all imaginary, what is the value of “confessions”?
At a still earlier trial, in 1930, Professor Ramzin “confessed” that he had negotiated in Paris in 1928 with Riabushinsky. It turned out however, that the latter had in fact been dead for several years.
Mr. Pritt Confesses
So much for confessions. What of the method of getting them and the method of conducting political trials in Russia? Mr. Pritt, K.C., who has constituted himself chief apologist for the acts of the Russian dictatorship, gave away his whole case in a letter to the Manchester Guardian on February 12th, 1937. He wrote:
“Mr. Clifford Haworth . . . raises first the point as to how the confessions were obtained and the amount of latitude allowed to police when examining suspected persons. This is a point which interests all of us, and no one can throw very much light on it in any country.”
Now why cannot Mr. Pritt or anyone else throw very much light on the way the confessions, some of which are demonstrably false, are obtained? The answer is that the investigation is conducted in secrecy. Outsiders are not allowed to know what is going on during the weeks or months before the public appearance of the prisoners in court, while they are being examined in the isolation of a prison. Why cannot the prisoner’s friends and independent lawyers on his behalf be present, hear the investigation and see the documents on which it is based? The Russian authorities say always that the prisoners confess owing to the weight of evidence. Why cannot outsiders be allowed to watch the proceedings and know what this evidence is at the time? Mr. Pritt replies that this Russian method, though unlike the English court proceedings, is the same as in virtually every European country. This is denied by many legal authorities, but what if it were true? Since when have those who claim to be Socialists had to copy the worst methods of the capitalist courts?
It is striking, too, that although Mr. Pritt demanded foreign lawyers, access to the prisoners in prison and other safeguards in the case of the prisoners in the German fire trial, these safeguards were expressly denied by the Russian Government without any protest from Mr. Pritt.
In short, notwithstanding the confessions, and although there is no reason to doubt that the dictatorship provokes underground opposition because it will not allow legal opposition parties, the only attitude that can be adopted towards the trials is to challenge the bona fides of the prosecution because a genuine trial is impossible under dictatorship conditions. The fact that, while the Russian Press reports Mr. Pritt’s statements it completely withholds from its readers the criticisms of his statements (see letter to Manchester Guardian, February 17th, 1937), is an indication of the very unhealthy conditions under which Russian trials and political controversies are carried on.
In conclusion, we can only repeat what we have always urged, that party-dictatorship cannot impose Socialism, nor can it produce the atmosphere of free discussion and independent criticism necessary for the growth of the Socialist movement.