Sunday, 12 August 2012

Averbakh 4: The Shakhty Affair and the Union Bureau of Mensheviks.

Caution, parts of this article are potentially distressing.

Averbakh's book touches on the show trials. On page 25 there is:

And 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 etc.

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 not completely accurate. Being a member pre-1917 of the Menshevik wing of 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:

Was 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 directed.

A raion (plural raiony) was an administrative district.

Some extracts are quite shocking:

His ... 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 Gosplan. …

... 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.


In 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.

Other 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:

At 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 …

This 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:

It 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.

As 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.


Alan OBrien said...

It's pretty shocking stuff. This s the reason I stopped reading the Gulag Archipelago - slightly too distrubing for real life...

Austin Elliott said...

The real-life stories above remind me of Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon. In particular, the speech Yakubovich reports Krylenko making about their 'duty to the party' is very similar to one of the passages in Darkness at Noon where the interrogator tells the condemned old Bolshevik Rubashov that his public confession at the show trial will be his 'last service to the party', or something similar.