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Albert Gates

Verdict on the Moscow Trials

Accused Indicts Accusers Before Dewey Commission

(September 1950)

From New International, Vol. XVI No. 5, September–October 1950, pp. 278–287.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).


If the series of infamous Moscow Trials organized by Stalin and his secret police, which took the lives of the outstanding leaders of the Russian Revolution, has receded from the thoughts of men, it is understandable. The pages of modern history turn swiftly. Social upheaval follows upon social upheaval with such unusual rapidity that historical occurrences of tremendous political import are seemingly buried under the weight of the new. This is especially true when the events of the day are a world war, an armed peace and the opening phase of an impending atomic war.

Yet the events of the present have their deep roots in the decade of the Thirties. It was not the triumph of Hitler alone (for which Stalin bore heavy responsibility) that influenced so drastically the course of recent history. The Moscow Trials, beginning with the Kirov assassination and ending with the legalized murder of Bukharin and his comrades in 1938 exercised similar influence on this history.

The Trials sealed the victory of the Stalinist counter-revolution, enhanced the power of the new ruling class, helped to defeat the Spanish Revolution, laid the groundwork for the Hitler-Stalin pact as the prelude to the Second World War and guaranteed the subsequent rise of the new Russian imperialism. Moreover, they set a precedent, which is repeated in all the Stalinized lands; frame-up trials are part of the system of Stalinism.

The Stalinist counter-revolution which began with the defeat of the Left Opposition in Russia in 1927 required ten years for its completion. Organizational and political victory over the various opposition groups, through a reign of terror in the party and the state institutions, was not enough for this modern Genghis Khan. He had to destroy the living representatives of the Russian Revolution, that great host of Lenin’s collaborators whose very existence, even as broken men, he could not abide. With cruel cunning and diabolic purpose Stalin organized a series of frame-up trials to vanquish these men morally and physically.

A reign of terror accompanying the Kirov assassination in 1934 preceded the trial of sixteen in August of 1936 in which Zinoviev, Kamenev and Smirnov were the leading defendants. In January 1937 Piatakov and Radek were the leading defendants in another trial involving seventeen. Between these two trials Stalin beheaded the leading staff of the army, executing the brilliant Tukachevsky, Gamarkin and other generals and officers as agents of the Gestapo! The big trials closed in March 1938 with the conviction and execution of Bukharin, Rykov and nineteen other defendants.

These trials were only the public manifestations of the terror imposed from above which gripped the country. Actually, tens of thousands of worker-militants who were dissatisfied with the regime, and genuine Trotskyists who would not and did not confess lost their lives as “enemies of the state.”

Although not named as a defendant and never indicted by the state, the real defendant in all the trials was Leon Trotsky. He was charged with being the spiritual and practical organizer of the various plots and fanciful incidents cited by the GPU prosecutors and narrated in the bizarre confessions of the defendants. It was Trotsky, exiled to Turkey in 1929, living in France in 1933–34, in Norway in 1936 and in Mexico in 1937, whom Stalin wanted most of all to destroy.

How could he do this, if Trotsky was abroad? The cunning Stalin, his horizon limited by his insularity, possibly believed that the world would so revile Trotsky for the inhuman crimes for which he was charged that he would be turned over voluntarily to his Russian executioners.

His very cunning was Stalin’s undoing. The principal defendant became the relentless accuser. From the moment the first Moscow Trial began, Trotsky challenged its authenticity, declared the endless confessions false and extorted, and insisted that the GPU had staged them for the purpose of murdering Lenin’s comrades and himself. He demanded his own extradition from Norway as a means of forcing a public trial of the charges. But this Stalin dared not accept.

Let us recall for a moment what the defendants were allegedly guilty of. They were accused of conspiring to assassinate Stalin and his aides, wrecking trains, poisoning children, sabotaging industry, plotting war against Russia, acting as the agents of Great Britain, France and the United States at one time, and then of Germany, Italy and Japan at another (depending on the diplomatic orientation of the Russian Foreign Office) and of working for the restoration of capitalism in Russia.

Trotsky met these accusations with an array of facts from the lives of the defendants and arguments from the long political history of Bolshevism, all of it documented to prove that the trials were political in origin and purpose and that the indictments were the product of clumsy preparations by the secret police. He called for the creation of a world commission of inquiry on the ground that the trial affected the international labor movement. And he alone, by vigorous and indefatigable activity, rallied honest, democratic world opinion to an organized effort to seek the truth.

Trotsky knew that it was not enough merely to ridicule the Moscow Trials; it was necessary to prove the charges false and thereby to clear the names of the accused and to safeguard the integrity of socialism. The bourgeoisie was making sport of the trials: this was the inevitable consequence of socialism, the “revolution devouring its own children.” To Trotsky, the mobilization of world opinion along concrete lines through a world commission of inquiry was the only avenue toward establishing the truth. He was prepared to testify freely, to give all the evidence he had, to open his archives and to demonstrate by all manner of documentary evidence that the trials were political in purpose, that the indictments were false, that the defendants could not be guilty and that he and his family were likewise innocent of the charges made.


The establishment of the Commission of Inquiry into the charges made against Leon Trotsky in the Moscow Trials was initiated in March, 1937, by the American Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky. The Commission received mandates from the French Comité pour l’Enquête sur le Procès de Moscou, the English Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky and the Czechoslovak Internationales Komitee fur Recht und Wahrheit.

The creation of these committees was not easily accomplished. Every forward step in this direction produced the fiercest counter-struggle from the Stalinists, directed by the experienced hand of the GPU and the Russian embassies. Committee members were promised unusual benefits if they broke with the commission or refused to serve its high purpose. They were threatened in a variety of ways if they persisted in their mission. Commissioners would be awakened at night by mysterious phone calls and others not so mysterious, demanding that they withdraw. The Stalinist press denounced the commission and its aims. In the United States, the Russian ambassador, the former Menshevik Troyanovsky, asserted that the aims of the commission and the planned hearing of Trotsky in Mexico were a farce.

Behind the Stalinist phalanx stood an assortment of confused liberals led by The Nation and The New Republic. With its characteristic ambivalence, The Nation would raise grave doubts about the justice of the Trials at the same time that it conjured up the enormous dangers to progress if one really believed the great “Soviet leaders” to be frame-up artists and common gangsters. Truth was a secondary consideration in the wisdom of its editors, who earnestly believed that the interest of “collective security” of the Allies against Hitler outweighed the rights, reputations and lives of the defendants in the trials. In their minds it was a danger to world peace to prove that the Moscow Trials were a frame-up, thereby discrediting the Russian leaders who were fighting so sincerely for peace.

The role of The New Republic was even more ignominious than that of The Nation. Its editors found it quite easy to swallow the trials, incredible though they seemed. For they, who fought for years against the power of the American state, who defended Sacco and Vanzetti, and Debs and Tom Mooney, could not believe that a man like Stalin would resort to gangsterism against political opponents.

The trials were genuine! That is what the King’s Counsellor, D.N. Pritt, had said. And the American Ambassador to Moscow, Joseph Davies, was there and he thought that the Stalin government had done only what any other government would have done under similar circumstances. He even wrote a book called Mission to Moscow to add weight to the charges of the Moscow Trials! And the facts? These were unimportant. What was important was the acquisition of an ally in a threatened war with Germany. Ah, the morality of Bolshevism, the dirtiness of politics! What a lesson these liberals taught us about morality and politics! No wonder that Dr. John Dewey, the eminent chairman of the Preliminary Commission of Inquiry which heard Trotsky in Mexico, was led to say of these liberals:

The Commission of Inquiry, I repeat, is not trying to discover who is right and who is wrong in their political ideas and policies, the “Trotskyites” or their opponents. It is engaged in trying to get at the truth as to the specific charges upon which he was convicted in the Moscow Trials. This work is one of evidence and objective fact, not of weighing theories against each other. Either Leon Trotsky is guilty of plotting wholesale assassination, systematic wreckage with destruction of life and property; of treason of the basest sort in conspiring with political and economic enemies of the U.S.S.R. in order to destroy Socialism; or he is innocent. If he is guilty, no condemnation can be too severe. If he is innocent, there is no way in which the existing regime in Soviet Russia can be acquitted of deliberate, systematic persecution and falsification. These are unpleasant alternatives for those to face who are sympathetic with the efforts to build a Socialist State in Russia. The easier and lazier course is to avoid facing the alternatives. But unwillingness to face the unpleasant is the standing weakness of liberals. They are only too likely to be brave when affairs are going smoothly and then to shirk when unpleasant conditions demand decision and action. I cannot believe that a single genuine liberal would, if he once faced the alternatives, hold that persecution and falsification are a sound basis upon which to build an enduring Socialist society.

Despite harassment and sabotage by the Stalinists, the Commission of Inquiry was set up. It was composed of such well known persons as John R. Chamberlain, Alfred Rosmer, E.A. Ross, Wendelin Thomas and Carlo Tresca. In addition to these, the Preliminary Commission, acting as a subcommittee of the above body which was to take the testimony of Trotsky, consisted of John Dewey, Chairman, Carleton Beals, Otto Ruehle, Benjamin Stolberg and Suzanne LaFollette, Secretary.

One can only imagine the atmosphere of the Kremlin in the knowledge that they had failed to stop the formation of the Commission or its determination to take Trotsky’s testimony. It tried another tack. The Mexican Stalinist movement, with Lombardo Toledano in the van, threatened strikes and demonstrations if the hearings were actually to occur. The campaign against Trotsky reached new levels of viciousness. The Stalinists demanded that Trotsky’s right of asylum be ended. They charged him with interfering with Mexican affairs (we will soon see how this charge was introduced into the hearings in another form). But the Mexican government under Cardenas, to its everlasting honor, refused to be stampeded by the Stalinists and made certain that the hearings would take place with no interference.


The Preliminary Commission gathered in Mexico City before the scheduled opening of the hearings to prepare for them. They rode out to the lovely suburb of Coyoacan to open the hearings on April 10th, 1937, which were held in a large room off the patio of Diego Rivera’s home at 127 Avenida Londres. Given the size of the home, not more than fifty people could be accommodated. These included Trotsky, his wife and comrade Natalia Sedova, his secretaries and guards; the Commission and its counsel, the prominent liberal lawyer, John F. Finerty; Trotsky’s attorney, Albert Goldman; the court stenographer, members of the press and observers and visitors. This small body, meeting in a private home but observed by the entire world, was to make history; for out of its session came the indictment of Stalin and his regime as political gangsters guilty of the murder of the founders of the Russian Revolution.

The Stalinists, having failed to stop the hearings, turned to ridicule as a means of discrediting the Dewey Commission. How was this tiny gathering to alter in any way the verdict of the Moscow Trials attended by great personages, accompanied by endless press releases, played up by drummers the world over, featuring one abject confession after another? But they did not reckon with the real defendant in the Moscow Trials, for when Trotsky finished his testimony, one could conclude that Stalin had concocted a stupid frame-up and, with all the power at his command, failed in his essential purpose. (For those who doubt this, bear in mind that if it was merely a matter of taking the lives of Zinoviev, Kamenev, Piatakov, Bucharin and Rykov, Stalin did not need the trials; he could have accomplished his purpose in the same way that he caused thousands of others to disappear.)

The Sub-Commission came neither as a prosecutor or judge. It did not regard Trotsky as a defendant, not merely because Trotsky did not regard himself as one, but because, as we have already written, he was never indicted in the trials. The sub-commission came to Mexico City as an investigating body, to take testimony, to examine and accept documents submitted as evidence, and to determine whether Trotsky “had a case warranting further investigation.” It was then to report its findings to the Commission of Inquiry.

The scope of the sub-commission’s work was already determined by Mr. Vyshinsky in the trials. The latter declared that there would be two types of testimony: “First there is the historical connection which confirms the theses of the indictment on the basis of the Trotskyites’ past activity. We have also in mind the testimony of the accused which in itself represents enormous importance as proof.” Moreover, Vyshinsky in his closing plea in the trials, falsified the whole history of the Russian Revolution and Trotsky’s part in it, and distorted and misquoted Trotsky’s writings. The sub-commission therefore divided its tasks into three parts:

  1. The biography of Mr. Trotsky, with special reference to his relations with the defendants in the Moscow Trials.
  2. Factual material relating to the decisive accusations against him.
  3. His theoretical and historical writings as they bear upon the credibility of the accusations, the testimony, the confessions, and the summations in the two Moscow Trials.

The hearings lasted from April 10 to April 17, 1937 and took 41 hours, divided into twelve sessions of three hours each, and a final session of five hours.

Thus developed a “trial” unique in history. The prosecution was absent; it would not avail itself of the invitation of the Commission to be present and to examine Trotsky. An impartial investigating body sat in hearing to listen to a man who was convicted but never indicted in the bloodiest trials in all history, by the strongest totalitarian regime known to man. The Commission was under continuous attack and even sabotaged from within.

The opening statement of Dr. Dewey drew immediate attention to the uniqueness of the hearings being held in Mexico, so many thousands of miles away from Russia and other powerful nations of the world.

“The fact that hearings are being held in which a foreigner will defend himself before foreigners on Mexican soil,” said Dewey, “is an honor to Mexico, and a reproach to those countries whose political system or current policy bars the holding of our meetings on their soil. It is fitting, indeed, that representatives of several continents meet on this soil, which has granted asylum to many of the Old World who are prosecuted for political views. This Commission, like many millions of workers of city and country, of hand and brain, believes that no man should be condemned without a chance to defend himself. It desires at the outset, therefore, to congratulate the Mexican Government on its broad interpretation of the meaning of political democracy, which makes our meeting possible.”

There followed a preliminary statement by Trotsky made in English, the language of the hearings. For Trotsky, who begged the indulgence of Commission for his English, declaring it to be “the weakest point of my position,” this was indeed a difficulty. He was compelled to think and speak in a language which he had seldom used in any form and to answer questions swiftly. This made it impossible for the answers to be premeditated, for no one could foretell the ramifications that might be produced by any given question. The interrogation of Trotsky was undertaken by Albert Goldman in presenting Trotsky’s case. The Commission’s turn came after the presentation of Trotsky’s case, although throughout the hearings any commissioner could and did interject questions which in his mind were made necessary by Trotsky’s answers.

The first part of Trotsky’s testimony concerned his political biography and makes absorbing reading for anyone interested in the history of the Russian Social-Democratic movement (Menshevik and Bolshevik), the defendant’s participation in the international socialist movement and his relations with the defendants in the trials. Thereafter, Goldman led Trotsky through the maze of charges made by the Russian prosecutors which were refuted one by one. And finally came the portion of Trotsky’s testimony which dealt with his theoretical and political positions as they evolved over a period of forty years. The Commission on its part continued with a minute examination of the material produced by the confessors and the prosecution.

The hearings produced sufficient evidence, if not to refute the findings of the Moscow Trials, then to create a thousand and one doubts even to the most credulous persons. However, despite the fact that they had no official court status, we will find that their results in the court of public opinion did more than anything else to convict Stalin of being guilty of a frame-up.

How would Trotsky meet the “evidence” produced in the Moscow Trials which was based entirely upon confessions? There were no corroborating witnesses produced. There were no written documents introduced. There were few factual occurrences capable of being checked by cross examination. In fact there was no cross examination. The judges made no effort to check the confessions to determine whether they were true or false and thus to protect the defendants against themselves. After all, civilization has known more than one case of false confessions.

Everything was pre-arranged: the particular defendants, their confessions, the verdicts.

Professor Charles A. Beard, for example, after a “careful study of many documents in the case, including the official report of the last Moscow trial” decided not to participate in the work of the American Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky, because he felt from his knowledge of history that “confessions, even when voluntarily made, are not positive proof.” He took the position that the accused must be considered innocent if no objective proofs are produced to prove guilt. And he added:

“... it is almost, if not entirely, impossible to prove a negative in such a case; namely, that Mr. Trotsky did not enter into the relations of a conspiracy charged against him ... In my opinion it is not incumbent upon Mr. Trotsky to do the impossible – that is, prove a negative by positive evidence. It is incumbent upon his accusers to produce more than confessions, to produce corroborating evidence to specific and overt acts.”

Trotsky’s reply to Professor Beard was cogent.

“Indeed, public opinion,” he said, “seeks above all to resolve the enigma: is the charge proved or not? ... Professor Beard declares that he personally has already arrived at the conclusion that the charge has not been established, and that is why he does not join the Commission. It seems to me that a correct decision would be the following: ‘I enter the Commission in order to test the accuracy of my conclusion.’ ... Professor Beard’s conclusions, with all their importance, are incomplete, however, even in their material essence ... dozens of people have been shot ... dozens of others await execution ... the fundamental question, consequently should be formulated in this manner: Who organizes these inquisitorial trials, these crusades of calumny, why, and for what purpose? .. . However, I also have more direct and, moreover, quite positive proofs of the ‘negative’ fact! That is not very unusual in jurisprudence ...”


After the assassination of Kirov, his assassin and friends were executed. Zinoviev and Kamenev were arrested and imprisoned following a long investigation by the G.P.U. on the grounds that as critics of the regime they were morally responsible for the murder. But immediately after the murder and the quick apprehension of Nikolayev (the assassin), the regime linked him not with the Opposition but with White Guards from Poland, Roumania and other border states. According to the government, 104 “White Guards” were shot. This White Guard version was abandoned only after the sixteenth day. Nikolayev and thirteen others were tried and executed, and yet they apparently had nothing to say about Zinoviev, Kamenev and Bakayev or any other “Trotskyite.” The trials were held in secret; the G.P.U. could have invented any story. Yet it did not occur to them, who knew beforehand of Nikolayev’s adventure and could have stopped it, to implicate any of Stalin’s political opponents. That was an afterthought.

In the trial of Zinoviev and Kamenev in 1936, they were charged with being the “Trotskyist Center” in charge of oppositional work in Russia. At that time, in their trial, no mention was made of Radek-Piatakov or the existence of a “parallel center.” Yet in the Radek-Piatakov trial a year later, the prosecutor, with great dramatic flair and cynical regard for the truth, obtained the confession from the chief defendants that they were the heads of the “parallel center,” which would begin operations in the event that anything happened to the center of Zinoviev-Kamenev, and these were organized at the instructions of Trotsky for the purpose of directing “criminal, anti-Soviet, espionage, diversive and terrorist activities ...” The men who figure in this drama are not the same in the two trials but are intermixed to the point where the whole affair begins to look like a Marx brothers’ picture. Not a single “fact” produced by the leading actor on the stage, Vyshinsky, could stand any light thrown upon it.

What facts, then, were produced? E.S. Holtzman, one of the accused, said he acted as a liaison man between Smirnov and Sedov. He testified that at Sedov’s suggestion he arranged to meet him in Copenhagen during Trotsky’s stay there in autumn of 1932. The testimony:

Sedov said to me: “As you are going to the U.S.S.R. it would be a good thing if you came with me to Copenhagen where my father is ...” I agreed but I told him that we could not go together for reasons of secrecy. I arranged with Sedov to be in Copenhagen within two or three days, to put up at the Hotel Bristol and meet him there. I went to the hotel straight from the station and in the lounge met Sedov. About 10 a.m. we went to see Trotsky.

Trotsky then gave him terrorist instructions and was to prepare a letter he was to give Smirnov, one of the defendants. But as Holtzman was leaving that day and no letter was written, “... I accepted it in verbal form and communicated the exact sense of it on my arrival in Moscow.” During his interview with Trotsky, “very often Trotsky’s son came in and out of the room.” Again, “at that moment Sedov came in and began hurrying us to finish the conversation ...” Now, then, much of the “evidence” in the trial rested upon this testimony by Holtzman. How much was it worth?

There was no Hotel Bristol in Copenhagen in 1932. A hotel by that name was destroyed in 1917. Sedov was not in Copenhagen in 1932. He had never in his life been to Copenhagen. You might ask, did the G.P.U. concoct such a foolish tale? First, it assumed that Sedov, who was then living in Berlin, would undoubtedly go to Copenhagen to meet his parents.

They never checked to ascertain it as a fact. The fact was, however, that Sedov could not get a visa to Denmark because there was no certainty that he could return to Germany. How could proof be established that he was not there? Did he get there by illegal means? Fortunately, documents did exist. Since Sedov could not get to Copenhagen, Natalia Sedova- Trotsky wired the French Premier Herriot, to grant him a visa to visit France for five days in order to see his parents. A reply telegram from the French Foreign Office giving authorization was received. These telegrams are now a matter of public record. And what about the Hotel Bristol business? Trotsky concluded that the G.P.U. must have used an old Baedeker!

A second “fact” produced in the Moscow Trials was that Piatakov went to see Trotsky while the latter resided in Norway. The testimony was that Piatakov took a plane from Berlin to Oslo in the middle of December 1935 and there received instructions from Trotsky. Trotsky addressed thirteen questions to the Moscow tribunal pertaining to the visit while Piatakov was still alive, for the purpose of obtaining from Piatakov details of the visit in order to establish the veracity of his testimony. Did Piatakov stay at Trotsky’s residence? What was the exact date of his arrival? What kind of passport did he have? Was Trotsky’s wife at home the day he met Trotsky? Was anyone else present? Was he served food? How was the house furnished? From what airdrome did he leave Berlin? What kind of plane? How long did it take him? These questions were not answered.

But Trotsky did not need to rely on the G.P.U. or Vyshinsky’s interest in the truth. Depositions by the people in the household where he stayed were introduced by him at the hearings, asserting that Trotsky had no visitors at this time; that no visitors could have come without their knowledge; that any visitor arriving then and desiring to return to Oslo would have to stay over night at a hotel.

Why didn’t Prosecutor Vyshinsky examine Piatakov about his trip along the lines demanded by Trotsky? Because he knew the whole story was a fabrication invented by the G.P.U.! The conservative Norwegian newspaper, Aftenposten, made an investigation of its own, the day after Piatakov’s testimony, on January 25, 1937 and declared that in December 1935 not a single foreign airplane landed in Oslo! Director Gulliksen of the Kjeller deposed that only one plane, Norwegian, without any passengers, landed during the month of December in this ice-and-snowbound airport. The last plane to land there prior to December 1935 was on September 19th, and the first one after that was on May 1, 1936.

Konrad Knutsen, at whose home Trotsky lived, and a member of the Norwegian parliament, sent the following telegram to Vyshinsky in the midst of the trial:

I inform you that today it was officially confirmed that in December 1935 no foreign or private airplane landed at the Oslo airdrome. As Leon Trotsky’s host, I also confirm that in December 1935 no conversation could have taken place in Norway between Trotsky and Piatakov.

– Konrad Knutsen, Member of Storting.

It may be said that Knutsen was a “friend” of Trotsky’s and self-interest dictated his telegram. But what about Arbeiderbladet, which printed an article on Piatakov’s alleged fight to to show that the whole incident could not possibly have taken place? Arbeiderbladet, organ of the government party, approved Trotsky’s internment by the Norwegian Government and continually published articles hostile to Trotsky.

Director of the Kjeller airport, Gulliksen, in response to a request from Trotsky’s Norwegian attorney, Andreas Stoeylen, wrote the following letter:

Sir: In reply to your letter of the 10th instant, I beg to inform you that my statement in Arbeiderbladet (to the effect that no plane landed there in December of 1935) was published accurately ...

Yours very truly
Gulliksen, Director,
Kjeller Airport

What can be deduced from this “fact” about Piatakov’s alleged visit to Trotsky? The whole thing was a fabrication.

(Concluded in next issue)

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