The Moscow Trials of the 1930s

Moscow Trials

Book Review by Brendan Clifford.

The author of this biography of Vyshinsky is a lawyer and journalist working in Russia.[1] The book was presumably first published in Russia, but this is not made clear in the publishing details. The omission is surprising, because the value of the book depends on Russian publication no less than on its inherent intellectual quality.

Medvedev’s books were published in the West with the connivance of the KGB while he contrived to live in safety in Moscow. And that fact would have devalued them even if their intellectual quality had been greater. Solzhenitsyn’s best books were published in the West in defiance of the KGB, and that added to their quality. If Medvedev’s books had been published in Russia that would have been the most important thing about them, and it would have overshadowed their intellectual deficiencies. As KGB exports produced in rivalry with Solzhenitsyn, their intellectual deficiencies were all that mattered.

Solzhenitsyn’s powerful intellectual assault on Russian imagination won the day. It must be assumed that he subverted the sense of purpose and destiny in the oligarchy which tried to suppress him, and caused that oligarchy to disintegrate.

I find it strange that those who are exulting in the disintegration of the Bolshevik state all give an economic determinant explanation of it Marxism has wrought such havoc with the bourgeois mind that the bourgeois mind can only conceive of an economic determinist explanation for the disintegration of the Marxist state.

But economic determinism is least of all adequate to an understanding of the state of which it was the official ideology. And in fact Lenin took a lot of trouble to explain that it wasn’t, and that he had constructed an arbitrary state.

An arbitrary state is a state capable of acting on the basis of an idea. It is the opposite of a representative state. It is, by the standards of the representative state, capricious. The distinctive thing about it is not that it is oppressive but that it is freely acting, unconstrained by law, custom or civil society.

The soviet state remained arbitrary, despite periods of bureaucratic routine under Bukharin in the 1920s and Brezhnev in the 1970s. It is now dissolving itself arbitrarily. It is doing something which no Great Power ever did before. The only semblance of a precedent I know of is the abdication of the Hapsburg ruler Charles V in 1556 and his division of the European super-state which he had governed.

Two years ago the world was structured by the divisions between the Soviet empire and NATO. Last year the Bolshevik state dissolved its empire. This year it is dissolving itself. The world is consequently disorientated, and we have the delusion of the New World Order, the harmonious whole happy to be directed by the White House.

Vaksberg’s biography of Vyshinsky has the novelty of being written from Bolshevik state archives, in a Western journalistic style. And it is clearly post-Solzhenitsyn since there is no nonsense about deviations from ‘Leninist norms of democracy’, which was Medvedev’s line. But since I don’t know that it was published in Russia I cannot attempt to estimate its value.

To anybody with an inexhaustible interest in the detail of the Bolshevik revolution it is interesting. But its core is defective.

Pashukanis, the creator of Soviet legal theory who in 1937 was tried for terrorism and confessed, is dealt with in Chapter 5. Since the book is essentially about the Moscow Trials it ought to give an account of Soviet legal theory, but it doesn’t The reader could not possibly gather from this book that Pashukanis developed the view that law was a phenomenon of commodity production, and that political expediency should be the guiding principle of the judicial process of socialism. (I published a pamphlet called Socialism And Law on this subject about ten years ago, when some absurd English Marxists tried to make Pashukanis a hero of socialist democracy.)

When I first began to deal with the Moscow Trials about 20 years ago, it seemed to me that the prevailing interpretation of them necessarily implied that Bukharin, Radek etc, the great leaders of Bolshevism, were human rubbish devoid of either political principle or individual integrity. If, as was being suggested, they believed in some kind of ‘Leninist democracy’ and saw Stalin as developing the revolution into a crime, why did they not try to get rid of Stalin? If they did try to get rid of him why did they not use their trials to denounce him? If they did not, why did they confess?

They all had their day in court And as Vaksberg says: “All the accused had to do was to refuse to confess and the show would be a complete fiasco” (p 73). An apparent possibility is that the accused had been subjected to a number of fake trials which they supposed to be real and had refused to play along, and that this went on until they performed in court as they had agreed to. Then they were put on trial in public. I considered this possibility 20 years ago, but I rejected it because even if fake trials had preceded the real trial, the defendants would have known through observing who was in court when they had the ear of the world.

Vaksberg says that the idea of a series of fake trials preceding the real trial was “quite widely circulated in recent years” (p 18). But he does not think the thing through. He repeats the old idea that Bukharin used his trial “to send a highly coded but easily readable message to his contemporaries and descendants. This message was decoded long ago, and then examined with the greatest thoroughness by American historian Stephen F. Cohen” (p 113). Why then did he not give the message straight, if he actually had a message? The usual answer, not given by Vaksberg, is that he had married a young wife and had been promised immunity for her if he played along. But if his views were as they have been ‘decoded’, why would he have believed that such a promise would be kept? And if the man who exulted in the justification of extreme dictatorship, and who was happy to suppress people in their thousands with a joke, had now nothing but family considerations in mind, why would he, supposing he believed such a promise would be kept, have jeopardised it by a breach of faith, even a ‘coded’ one.

In another place Vaksberg says that “these people had no principles for which they were prepared to die” and “survival was the only motive force they had left” (p 76). They had been prepared to sacrifice others by the thousand, but in the moment of truth they were themselves moved by the pettiest motives – because personal survival must be regarded as a paltry motive in people who had done to others what these people had done.

But whatever the particular truth of the matter, Vaksberg makes one observation with which I cannot disagree:

“Smirnov’s comment (according to well-informed sources) as the condemned men were being led out to be executed – We deserved this’ – is possibly the most accurate appraisal of these events” (p 84).


This article appeared in November 1990, in Issue 20 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at

[1] The Prosecutor and the Prey: Vyshinsky and the 1930s Moscow Show Trials. By Arkady Vaksberg. Weidenfeld and Nicolson. 374 pp. £25 (Hardback).