Caution, parts of this article are potentially distressing.
Averbakh's book touches on the show trials. On page 25 there is:
sure enough. in the late 1920s and early 1930s, there was a whole
series of show trials - the so-called Sakhtinsky Affair, involving
engineer saboteurs, and Mensheviks, who had infiltrated the state
apparatus, the Promparty Affair, involving scientist-saboteurs
Shakhtky should be preferred to Sakhtinsky and Industrial Party to Promparty. The term wreckers, rather than saboteurs, is usually employed when discussing these trials. The Russian source has:
Действительно в конце 20-х — начале 30-х годов в стране прошел ряд показательных процессов: так называемое «Шахтинское дело» об инженерах-вредителях, о меньшевиках, засевших в государственном аппарате, «Дело промпартии» — об ученых-вредителях и др.
The fictional Industrial Party allegedly
had two thousand members, according to Medvedev, mainly highly qualified technical
specialists. The accusation was that its purpose was to foster wrecking and
counter-revolutionary activities. The trial ran from 25th November 1930
to 7th December 1930. The chief prosecutor was Nikolay Krylenko, of whom more anon. Needless to say, the defendants were convicted.
Of more interest to chess players is the trial of the Union Bureau of
Mensheviks, which is also alluded to by Averbakh on page
197. Unfortunately, the translator's note at the bottom of that page is
completely accurate. Being a member pre-1917 of the Menshevik wing
the Russian Social Democratic Party was not a crime in Stalin's Soviet
Union! For instance, Andrzej Vyshinsky (1883 - 1954), who was to gain world-wide prominence due to his role in the Show Trials, was a Menshevik before the
Bolshevik coup. The accusation, rather, was that the defendants were wreckers. It's true,
though, that many of the defendants were ex-Mensheviks. Amongst them was the chess problemist Lazar Borisovich Zalkind (1886-1945). Incidentally, this was the last
trial in which Krylenko acted as the prosecutor. Much is known of what happened behind the scenes, for one of the defendants Nikolay Yakubovich lodged a deposition in 1967. An English translation of most of it can be found in Roy Medvedev's Let History Judge (ISBN 0 19 215362 5), it's on page 274.
Yakubovich relates of the charge:
there any wrecking in the Commissariat of Trade, in the planning for
the utilisation of industrial goods? That is what L.B. Zalkind and I
were charged with. Not only was there none; none was possible. The
plans for the “supply of industrial goods” throughout the economic
raiony were drawn up by me and the Board of Industrial Goods, which I
A raion (plural raiony) was an administrative district.
Some extracts are quite shocking:
... helper ... in making up the story of the wrecking Menshevik
organisation, was the defendant Petun, … he would receive a reward from
OGPU – that is the restoration of freedom and a job. If he didn't
cooperate, he would get a long term in prison or even die. It was Petun
who came up with the idea of creating the “Union Bureau” on the
principle of departmental representation: two people from the Supreme
Economic Council, two from the Commissariat of Trade, two from the
State Bank, one from the Central Trade Union Council, and one from
... Then came the extraction of “confessions” … others … were “made to see reason” by physical methods.
They were beaten – on the face and head, on the sexual organs, they
were thrown to the floor and kicked, choked until no blood flowed to
the face, and so on. …
… I was summoned from my cell and taken
to the office of N.V. Krylenko … I had known him for a long time, from
pre-revolutionary days. I knew him intimately. In 1920, when I was
Commissar of Supplies for Smolensk Province, he came to Smolensk as a
Plenipotentiary of the Party Central Committee and the Soviet Executive
Committee to observe and direct the collection of grain. He lived in my
apartment for some time, we slept in the same room. … In short Krylenko
and I knew each other quite well.
Offering me a seat, Krylenko
said: “I have no doubt that you personally are not guilty of anything.
We are both performing our duty to the Party – I have considered and
consider you a Communist. I will be the prosecutor at the trial; you
will confirm the testimony given during the investigation, This is our
duty to the Party, yours and mine. Unforeseen complications may arise
at the trial. I will count on you. If the need should arise, I will ask
the presiding judge to call on you. And you will find the right words.”
At the trial a complication did in fact arise, as Krylenko had
foreseen. The so-called “Foreign Delegation” of the Menshevik Party
sent the court a lengthy telegram that disproved the depositions before
the court. Krylenko read the telegram to the court, and, when he had
finished, asked N.M Shvernik, the presiding judge, to call on defendant
Yakubovich for a reply. … the “Foreign Delegation” itself made my job
easy. Though refuting the prosecutor's case, it also declared that the
defendants did not have and never had any relations with the Social
Democratic Menshevik Party, … On this point I could speak truthfully
and honestly, accusing the “Foreign Delegation” of lies and hypocrisy,
recalling the role and service of a number of the defendants in the
history of the Menshevik Party, … My promise to Krylenko had been kept.
his concluding speech, Krylenko demanded the supreme measure of social
defence against five defendants, including myself. He did not humiliate
me in his speech.... called me an “old revolutionary”, but
characterised me as a fanatic … and called my ideas
counter-revolutionary. … In my “defence” speech I said that the crimes
I had confessed to deserved the supreme penalty, …
But we were not condemned to death.
Among the techniques employed to extract the truth was imprisonment in a kartser, a
punishment cell, essentially a stone hole in which there was only room
for the half-dressed and barefoot prisoner to stand or sit, but
not move around; it would either be very cold, or windowless and
unbearably hot. Another technique was the konveier,
a prisoner would be kept awake indefinitely and interrogated by teams
of NKVD operatives. To give this account a contemporary flavour, it
doesn't astonish me that the defendants in the Pussy Riot trial are being deprived of sleep and are undernourished.
testimony, as provided by the defendant Isaac Ilyich Rubin (1886-1937)
via his sister, largely corroborates Yakubovich's account. This is also
given by Medvedev, noteworthy is:
that time Rubin was sharing a cell with Yakubovich and Sher. When he
came back from the kartser, his cell-mates received him with great
concern and attention … Telling about this, Rubin said that he was so
amazed; these same people told lies about him and at the same time
treated him so warmly …
went on until January 28, 1931. On the night of January 28-9, they took
him down to a cellar, where … someone named Vasilyevskii … to whom they
said … “We are going to shoot you now if Rubin does not confess”.
Vasilyevskii on his knees begged my brother: “Isaac Ilyich, what does
it cost you confess?” But my brother remained firm and calm, even when
they shot Vasilyevskii right there. … The next night, January 29, they
took my brother to the cellar again. 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 name of
the student was Dorodnov.
Rubin was in poor health, with a diseased heart, before his arrest. His courage was extraordinary.
So much for the Union Bureau of Mensheviks.
The Shakhty trial (1928) provided
a template for later trials. Nikolai Krylenko, who did much to promote
chess in the early years of the Soviet Union, was also the prosecutor
in that trial. Krylenko, an Old Bolshevik and an important figure in the codification of the
laws of the USSR, was an appalling, boorish thug
during this trial of fifty-three engineers. The defendants, both Soviet
and foreign, were charged with trying to blow up the Donbass mines. It
should be noted that the existing Soviet laws were flouted and the men
brought before a Special Judicial Presence,
chaired by Andrzej Vyshinsky (the same man who later gained
international notoriety during the show trials of the 1930s). Arkady
Vaksberg, a Russian journalist, wrote:
was at this trial that the seed was sown which was soon to germinate
and produce roots in profusion: all the court's attention was
concentrated not on analysing the evidence, which simply did not exist,
but on securing from the accused confirmation of their confessions of
guilt that were contained in the records of the preliminary
investigation. At the open trial, in front of a huge public, some of
the defendants withdrew their previous confessions. Others changed them
several times during the course of the trial, and anyone in the hall,
unless he was blind or a half-wit, could clearly see what had gone on
behind the scenes the night before: reduced to despair by blackmail,
threats and physical intimidation, the victims “confessed” again and
then, recovering their senses, denied the lies, and next day took the
oath and slandered themselves again.
Whereas Krylenko publicly
mocked the victims, Vyshinsky, on the contrary, wore them down with a
taunting logic delivered in a sophisticated and dignified manner.
Eye-witness accounts provide us with the most curious psychological
portraits of the two pillars of Soviet jurisprudence at the time: while
Krylenko emerges from their recollections as an insensitive bore,
almost a lout, Vyshinsky is remembered, if not with warmth, then at
least with respect – evidence of his displaying such qualities as
politeness and responsiveness.
… the prosecutor's political
rigidity, his inflexibility, his dreary straightforward method of
exposing the accused, his primitive generalisations. “The
intelligentsia,” asserted Krylenko, in his speech for the prosecution,
“was never a class or a stratum of the population which had its own
clearly defined, distinct political face. By its very essence as a
serving and non-producing social stratum, the intelligentsia was always
condemned to be stratified.”
Quoted from pages 44-45 of The Prosecutor and the Prey by Arkady Vaksberg, ISBN 0-297-81064-2.
I recall, it was Bukharin, a very important Old Bolshevik and briefly
co-ruler of the Soviet Union, who lamented, when on trial for his life
in 1938, that guilt by confession was a medieval practice.