Crisis in Russia: The Human Equation


ON the tenth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution the Soviet Premier Rykov, in an exclusive interview to the Associated Press, told this writer: —

‘Trotsky is haunted by fears of Thermidor. He has warned us of the imminent danger of Bonapartism. Now I think Trotsky is wrong. History is not a perpetual recurrence of events. Our revolution does not exactly parallel the French, if for the simple reason that we were not content with mere political change. We had cast life in a new mould. The Soviet State is to-day in full command of its social and economic heights. Only alarmists can seriously entertain fears of a Bonapartist danger in our country.’

But as the twentieth anniversary approaches, Rykov is a prisoner, awaiting trial for counter-revolution, while most of his old colleagues have already faced a Red firing squad. As things have turned out, Trotsky had good cause to be alarmed.

The first alarmist to come my way on the day of that interview was none other than the Soviet censor. The Stalin-Trotsky fight was on. It was fast approaching a crisis. One glance at Rykov’s reference to Trotsky, and I was given the choice: ‘Have it bluepenciled or wait for approval by superiors.’ I took solace in the old adage of half a loaf being better than none at all, and watched the censor apply the blue with a generous hand. But when it was all over, Rykov’s entire negation of Trotsky’s theory of Thermidor vanished into thin air. What was left of the text I cabled to New York.

Within a few weeks following my talk with the Soviet Premier, I was to hear Trotsky speak at the open grave of his friend, the Soviet diplomat and scholar, Adolph Joffe, who had committed suicide. It was by far the most precarious moment in Stalin’s entire career. The air over Novy Devichy Monastir, the cemetery, was surcharged with anti-Stalinist defiance. It is the only time in all of my years in Moscow that I heard openly the protest, ‘Doloi Stalina! — Down with Stalin!’ The big cemetery was surrounded by heavily armed OGPU troops. One felt the tension in the air. But the resentment smouldered; it did not burst into flame.

Two months later Trotsky was an exile in Alma Ata, and his cohorts were scattered over the frozen Siberian wastes. Trotsky’s fall was followed shortly after by the eclipse of Kamenev, Zinoviev, Radek, Rakovsky, Sokolnikov, and all the other leaders of the Left opposition.

The liquidation of the Leftist heresy accomplished, Stalin turned to the Right. One by one he challenged every eminent member of the highest Bolshevik Sanctum — the Politbureau. First came Rykov, Lenin’s successor as head of the Soviet Government, then Tomsky, leader of Soviet labor, and finally Bukharin, the greatest Marxist scholar after Lenin.

The Kremlin, and with it all Russia, became the scene of a titanic struggle. It was more than a fight for one-man rule. Great principles were at stake.


The Stalin-Trotsky fight was in progress while Lenin still lay on his deathbed, but until the end of 1923 it went on behind the scenes. At the time of Lenin’s funeral in February 1924, three conflicting theories were contending within the party councils in the Kremlin. They were Trotsky’s aggressive internationalism aimed at promoting the world revolution; the Rykov-Bukharin-Tomsky philosophy of slow evolution with wide concessions to capitalism; and Stalin’s theory of building up socialism in Russia to the exclusion of all else.

Stalin won simply because, as Secretary-General of the Communist Party, he had made free use of a device familiar in our everyday politics, but unthinkable in the Russia of Lenin’s time. During the two years preceding Lenin’s death, Stalin had built a powerful political machine. The day of Lenin’s passing found Stalin’s men in key positions in the Communist Party, in Soviet industry, in the OGPU, and in Trotsky’s Red Army. And to top it all, the Soviet espionage system, at Stalin’s disposal, enjoyed a vested discretionary right to take human liberty and life — a right used so extensively as to keep the whole country in a mental state of perpetual and unmitigated fear.

But as the struggle for power developed, there appeared to be some evidence of the soundness of Rykov’s prophecy. Unlike the French, the Bolshevik upheaval did not, in those days at least, devour its children. While stark terror reigned below, it zealously spared life in the upper spheres. Between Stalin and his chief adversaries the fight was one of a political and theoretical nature. It went on for years, but always within the confines of discussion — dismissal from high rank, expulsion from the Party, exile of the more recalcitrant; then their recantations, which invariably resulted in pardons, restoration of civil rights, and in some cases even a return to positions of prestige. Radek, Sokolnikov, and, to a lesser degree, Kamenev and Zinoviev, had been beneficiaries of this order.

In certain Soviet circles there was a tendency to admire Stalin for magnanimity to his adversaries. It was freely rumored in those days that the dictator’s generosity was the result of a deathbed promise to Lenin under all circumstances to spare the lives of the founders of Bolshevism.

With the emasculation of all opposition, Stalin rose to heights of power never dreamed of by any Tsar. As undisputed master of the world’s potentially richest country, he embarked upon the five-year plans to transform Russia into a modern industrial state. The scope, the errors, and the achievements of that vast campaign need not concern us here. By the spring of 1934 he seemed to be approaching his objective. That year the Soviet industries had shown steady improvement and the collective farms had yielded sufficient grain to assure the populace a minimum supply of bread. Yet it was at this very moment, the first breathing spell in years, that the Red Army once again focused the country’s attention. There were reasons for this, as Mr. Wickham Steed has indicated. To the west, German Naziism had assumed the proportions of an imminent menace. Japan threatened in the Far East. From a bitter enemy of the League of Nations, the Kremlin was compelled to become its staunchest friend. Along with the slogan of a united front against war and Fascism came the signing of a military Franco-Soviet pact.

The process of mechanizing and modernizing the army began in 1930, simultaneously with the inauguration of the first five-year plan. But the militarization on a vast scale took place in the spring of 1933 — shortly after Hitler came into power. Thereafter it was a steady, unrelenting process. The second five-year plan aimed at strengthening Russia’s defensive and offensive weapons. By the end of 1934, the regular standing Red Army had reached a total of 940,000. A year later the figure had risen to 1,300,000, exclusive of Russia’s vast reserves. It was during this period of vast militarization that the Cossacks were restored to their ancient Tsaristic privileges. In 1935 the special army of the OGPU was suddenly placed under control of the War Office. Simultaneously the Soviet industries — heavy and light — concentrated chiefly on strengthening the striking power of the Red fighting force. The Soviet war budget for that year reached an all-time high of 5,000,000,000 rubles. Dominating this gigantic effort one saw a formidable figure, War Commissar Klementy Efremovich Voroshilov.


I first met Voroshilov in the most tragic hour of the Bolshevik Revolution. Lenin’s body lay on the wooden structure that was to give way years later to the red marble mausoleum. The troops had marched by with muffled drum and crape-hung, lowered banners. They were followed by the proletarian columns. It was thirty degrees below zero. I told one of Chicherin’s secretaries standing alongside that I was freezing fast. He led the way to a huge log fire built under the Kremlin wall. Red commanders came here to warm up. The secretary did the introducing. I heard the words ‘Commandarm Voroshilov’ and was thrilled. So many people had spoken to me of the brave officer. His was a reputation of a classic Chapaiev, of a daring Red warrior who had been equal to any emergency in the civil war. There he stood, handsome, with a cleft, frostcovered chin, with laughing eyes, an athletic wiry man, breathing energy and great strength.

Voroshilov did the talking. The rest listened. It was reasonable to assume that Lenin would at that moment be the topic of conversation, but the officers, particularly Voroshilov, talked shop. He had recently read some book on Napoleonic strategy and appeared altogether captivated by the subject. This talk went on until the very moment when the Kremlin batteries roared their parting salute.

Less than two years later Voroshilov was appointed Commissar of War. From that time on, two of the most trusted and influential aides flanking Stalin were the head of the Red Army and Yagoda, the chief of the OGPU. As between the two, Voroshilov eventually became the more powerful. In 1934 Muscovites in the ‘know’ had frequently referred to him as a likely successor to Stalin.

Voroshilov came to be regarded as the most outspoken champion of the Red nationalistic movement. To him popular rumor attributed the newly coined nationalist slogan, ‘Sotsialisticheskaya rodina,’meaning ‘Socialist Motherland.’ In Voroshilov many Soviet nationalists saw a stalwart adversary to Russian internationalists like Kamenev and Zinoviev and Radek. Behind the mystery of all the Trotskyist trials and executions many Russians suspected the directing hand of the Red war lord.


As a prelude to the astonishing trials, one must keep in mind certain dates and circumstances. The first, chronologically, was June 8, 1934. On that day the Soviet Government published a decree which for the first time gave official sanction to grave and widespread fears. It had been rumored that to make men confess the OGPU confronted its victims with the choice between personal exile or death, and similar punishment to near and dear ones. This was confirmed by the decree of June 8, 1934.

It reads: —

CENTRAL EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE of the U. S. S. R. decrees: To amend the law dealing with crimes against the state, as follows:

I. (1) Treason, that is, acts committed by Soviet citizens aimed at impairing the military might of the Soviet Union, its independence and inviolability of its territory, as espionage, revealing of a military or state secret, escape to the enemy, running or flight across the frontiers, are punishable by imposition of the supreme penalty shooting with confiscation of property, and under extenuating circumstances by ten years’ imprisonment with confiscation of property.

I. (2) The same crimes when committed by men in military service are punishable by extreme penalty — shooting with confiscation of property.

I. (3) In the event of one in the military service escaping abroad, the adult members of his family, if they by any means coöperated in the attempt or act of treason, or only knew about it and failed to report to the authorities, are punishable by imprisonment of from five to ten years, with confiscation of all of their property.

I. (4) All the rest of the adult members of the traitor’s family, who at the moment of the commission of the crime either lived with the miscreant or received his support, are punishable by loss of all citizenship rights and five yearsexile to the remote regions of Siberia.

I. (5) Failure to report by any other citizen {not in military service) is punishable under Article XII of this law.

(Signed) President of the Central Executive Committee U. S. S. R.


Acting Secretary of the Central Executive Committee


Moscow, Kremlin, June 8, 1934

Published, Pravda, June 9, 1934

Is it not reasonable to assume that the publication of this frightful law was due to some new and powerful influence in the Kremlin? If we bear in mind that the law deals with crimes of a military nature, is there any escape from the conclusion that its enactment followed a demand from the Commissary of War? And, most important of all, does not the document shed some light at least on the mystery of the confessions offered at the Trotskyist trials?

The second date to be remembered is July 10, 1934, for on that day the Central Executive Committee of the U. S. S. R. passed a law providing for the creation of a military collegium, vested with the sole and exclusive right to try men for counter-revolution. By a stroke of the pen the new law destroyed Yagoda’s power over life and death. It spelled the end of seventeen years of slaughter in the OGPU basement by decision of Yagoda’s own collegium, and it placed the dreaded weapon in new hands — those of the Commissary of War. For who else could dominate a military collegium, save the man in control of the Red Army?

The law of July 10, 1934, deprived the OGPU of a vast power. The decree took from the Soviet secret service the right inherited from its parent organization, the Cheka: the right to arrest, try, and execute in every case involving so-called grave counter-revolution. It was within the discretion of Yagoda and his hand-picked collegium to determine the nature and gravity of any given offense or misdemeanor and label it: ‘Grave.’ Thus in the fall of 1930, when the peasants reacted to intensive collectivization by slaughtering their own cattle, Yagoda had spread terror in rural and in urban Russia. By way of ’explaining the real cause of the meat shortage’ to the restive city proletariat, he had forty-eight officials of the Soviet meat trusts arrested, tried by his collegium, and shot — all in one day. This unfortunately was not an isolated case. In his day of unchallenged power, Yagoda had his spies everywhere, including the army, not barring the general staff and Voroshilov’s own headquarters. There was hardly a secretary, save Stalin’s, who could be considered immune from the obligation to report on his chief’s doings. Verily, throughout all those long years, Yagoda had been Stalin’s alert eye and his mighty fist.

The decree served not only to arm Voroshilov with the weapon essential to the maintenance of dictatorship; it virtually placed Russia in a state of court-martial, with military tribunals holding full sway over civilian life. The wave of military terror that followed Kirov’s assassination offered ample proof of this simple truth.

During the entire period of Yagoda’s supremacy there had not been in Russia a single assassination, or even an attempt on the life of any Soviet dignitary. Is there any unbiased observer of the Soviet scene who was not amazed by the ease and freedom with which Stalin and his chief aides went about Moscow throughout all the early years of the Trotskyist struggle, including the period when the defendants at the trials, according to their own confession, conspired to behead the Revolution? Yet, exactly four months and twenty days after Yagoda was deprived of his command, an assassin named Nikolaiev shot and killed Kirov, a member of the Politbureau, the sanctum of Bolshevik power. Was it mere coincidence? The motives that prompted Kirov’s killing remain mystifying. The only element of certainty in the case, and the factor which may have made Kirov the target of the opposition, was his appointment in 1926 to replace Zinoviev as head of the Leningrad branch of the Communist Party.

Kirov first attracted Stalin’s attention during the civil war, when, as military commissary in Caucasia and Astrakhan, he ruthlessly suppressed all opposition to the Soviets. In the years that followed, Kirov drifted from place to place, receiving an occasional organizing assignment from Stalin and performing it well. He had three assets that qualified him for striking organizational work: the gift of oratory, an instinct for picking reliable key men, and above all a ruthlessness in suppression of opposition. At a moment when Leningrad — the cradle of the revolution — seemed to have gone completely Zinovievist, Stalin thought of Kirov as the best man for an exceedingly difficult job. He guessed right. In one year Kirov managed to destroy the old Zinovievist party fortress. The task of bringing Leningrad into line was accomplished by means of sweeping repression. The work done in Leningrad assured Kirov’s political future. His rise was rapid. In four years the relatively unknown man had climbed the rungs of the Soviet ladder, and become one of Stalin’s closest collaborators.

Immediately following Kirov’s assassination, the OGPU arrested hundreds of suspects. The arrests took place simultaneously in Leningrad, Moscow, Kiev, and Minsk. Within a fortnight, 103 of the men held were tried by military tribunals and shot. The man hunt gained momentum from day to day. It went on throughout 1935 under the slogan, ‘Exterminate all Trotskyites!‘


The year 1935 was marked by the emergence of five new marshals in Russia. These new lords of war were Marshal Voroshilov, a former worker in one of the Tsar’s artillery plants; Marshal Yegorov, a colonel in the Tsar’s army; Marshal Blücher, officially a former sergeant in the Tsar’s army, but in reality a man with a mysterious past, whose birthplace remains unknown and who is said to be a descendant of the famous German General Blücher; Marshal Budenny, a corporal in the Tsar’s Cossack cavalry; and last, Marshal Tukhachevsky, a former lieutenant of the Imperial Guards, a great strategist, frequently referred to as the Red Napoleon, who, inspired by Leon Trotsky, had led the Soviet hosts to the gates of Warsaw with the cry, ‘Give us Europe!’

Tukhachevsky, admittedly the most brilliant of the five, is no longer alive. The young genius on whom Lenin pinned his hopes in the most precarious moments of the Revolution had suddenly and mysteriously been denounced as a ‘Fascist traitor’ and executed, together with seven other Generals. Thus died a soldier whom millions in Soviet Russia had been taught to revere as one of the heroes of the civil war, a man who at the age of twenty-six had led an army across the Urals and destroyed Admiral Kolchak’s White hosts. And the mystery of Tukhachevsky’s tragic end is intensified by the fact that the enemy or enemies who evidently planned his undoing struck their blow at the moment of the Marshal’s appointment as the Soviet delegate to King George’s coronation. Tukhachevsky was suddenly transferred to an obscure command in the provinces. Shortly after there followed the accusation of treason, and swift death.

Is it conceivable that Russia’s national hero, the man who proved his devotion throughout the civil war, would suddenly turn traitor? Is it not logical to assume that Tukhachevsky fell victim to the machinations of a Kremlin clique determined to destroy not only Leninism, but one who might defend its cause in a future war no less effectively than in the past?

But to return to 1935. The decree creating the five Marshals stirred up a feeling of resentment the country over. Things reached a point where the War Commissariat felt called upon to ‘explain’ the reason for the restoration of a military aristocracy in the eighteenth year of the Revolution. In a special booklet for the soldiery entitled On Guard of the Fatherland, the rank and file of the Red Army were advised:

‘The institution of military titles will help to determine the qualifications of commanders and chiefs of the Red Army, and make use of them in the best interests of the cause.’

But the explanation failed to explain. Far from quieting passions, it had the effect of carrying disappointment to the military camps, to barracks. Had not the Red Army marched to victory under the leadership of comrade commandarms? Was there anything more precious to the Soviet soldier than his privilege of addressing a commander as his social equal? Had not the Soviet commanding staff for years stressed this point above all others?

Soviet workers began to voice individual protests. As is usual in Soviet Russia, men had no means of organizing a mass movement. They were denied the rights of free speech, strike, and demonstration, but in factories, offices, in homes and on the street, even in camp and barrack, wherever people met they spoke in derision of the Kremlin’s latest escapade. At the official factory meetings workers showered the presiding officers with embarrassing questions. The widespread feeling of discontent prevailed throughout the winter, spring, and summer of 1936, and was in truth one of the causes behind the new epidemic of sabotage that worked havoc with the increased schedules of production.

Meanwhile the day of the promised Soviet constitution was fast approaching. In the fall of 1936 the Kremlin suddenly served notice of its decision to liquidate Trotskyism once for all. As an initial step in the new campaign of terror it determined to courtmarshal Kamenev, Zinoviev, and fourteen other ‘criminals’ — most of them prominent Bolsheviks.

What prompted the renewal of Trotsky warfare at that moment? Was it fear that the prevailing discontent might possibly find expression in an electoral victory of the old Leninists and Trotskyists, now that the government stood committed to the secret ballot? Or did the international situation, owing to developments in Spain, appear so grave at the time as to imbue the Soviet general staff with the belief that a powerful blow ought to be dealt Trotskyism, as a condition precedent to an impending major war? The timing of the trials remains a mystery. The only elements of certainty in the situation are, first, that the announcement of the Kamenev-Zinoviev trial preceded by about four months the scheduled adoption of the new constitution, and secondly, that one of the f undamentals in the Soviet war tactics is an appeal to the foreign laboring masses for support of the Red Army in the event of an international war. How could the Kremlin expect international support and sympathy in face of Trotsky’s repeated accusations of treason to Leninism and degeneration of the Revolution? How could Moscow meet charges so grave, unless it succeeded in destroying and discrediting the Trotsky movement both in and out of Russia ?


The first trial took place in Moscow on August 19, 1936. Sixteen defendants faced Voroshilov’s court-martial, two of them being Kamenev and Zinoviev, men who stood closest to Lenin during the years of his exile and who were with him in triumph until the day of his death.

The second Trotskyist trial began on January 23, 1937. Chief among the accused were Pyatakov, ViceCommissary of Heavy Industry, the accredited genius behind the two fiveyear plans; Radek, the brilliant journalist; Sokolnikov, former Ambassador to the Court of Saint James’s; Serebriakov, former Commissary of the Land Transportation Commissariat and Lenin’s close friend; Muralov, Commandant of the Moscow garrison under Lenin, and twelve others. Thirteen of the accused were condemned and shot, four were sentenced to ten years’ exile. Radek and Sokolnikov are among the survivors; it is probable that they were spared so that they may testify against their friends.

The feature common to both trials is that they rest on such a solid base of self-accusation. Without these admissions of guilt, both cases fall to earth. The very first thing to remember in this connection is the decree of June 8, 1934, officially sanctioning the punishment of relatives and friends for counter-revolutionary crimes committed by their kin. In face of such practice it is not at all difficult to imagine the tragedy of men compelled to choose between dire punishment to relatives or friends and their own personal destruction. This is third degree with a modern twist.

Yet, dreadful as it is in its implication, the decree extending penalty to near and dear ones can hardly be considered as a complete solution of the whole mystery of the confessions. At best, the law helps to reveal but a portion of the stage upon which the drama was enacted. Despite all the terror, it is indeed hard to conceive of a number of old Leninists turning cowards, without a single exception. How is it that no one among the accused dared to challenge the accuser, even if such act involved the sacrifice of relative or friend? Was it hope of pardon that made them confess? But how could the accused in the second trial entertain any such hopes in the knowledge that all sixteen in the first trial were shot despite their confessions?

A guilty conscience and anxiety genuinely to repent would be the simplest answer, but even if one is disposed to accept the Kremlin version at face value, he is confronted with the necessity of taking for granted confessions to some crimes which according to available evidence never took place.

Thus, the defendant Pyatakov had testified to a meeting with Trotsky in Oslo, Norway. Pyatakov stated that he flew to Oslo on December 12, 1935, and that he had met Trotsky on the same day. As it took him, according to his evidence, no more than half an hour to go from the airport to Oslo, it could have been no other airport than Kjelleve — the only landing place for airplanes near the Norwegian capital. There is now ample evidence to the effect that no airplane had landed at Kjelleve either on December 12, 1935, or on any other day of that month. During the winter months there is, as a rule, very little air travel to Norway.

Pyatakov’s confession to an evidently uncommitted crime was followed by similar testimony offered by Romm, former Izvestia correspondent in Washington. Romm testified to a meeting with Trotsky in Paris at a moment when it evidently could not have taken place, simply because Trotsky was not in Paris at the time. Romm confessed to a rendezvous with Trotsky in Bois de Boulogne, Paris, which allegedly took place in the latter part of July 1933. On this point, too, there seems to be a preponderance of evidence to the effect that Trotsky had been ill at the time and confined to bed hundreds of miles from the French capital. The official record of the court proceedings shows the marked contrast between the declarations of guilt offered at the first and the second trials. The confessions of Kamenev, Zinoviev, and all of their colleagues are confined strictly to terroristic plans and conspiracies. From beginning to end it was a conspiracy to behead the government.

Things seemed to have changed radically by the time the Kremlin was ready to try the second case. Only four and a half months had elapsed since the execution of the first sixteen, and although the second, so-called reservist centre was in point of personnel and politically inferior to the first, it nevertheless developed plans and energies on so fantastic a scale as to give the testimony a distinct touch of melodrama. May it not be that the first case was prepared under Yagoda’s eye when he was still chief of the secret service, while the second case was whipped into shape by Yagoda’s espionage machine after the removal of their chief and the appointment of Yoshov, a new and relatively inexperienced man?

The difficulties which Yagoda’s successor had to cope with can be readily imagined. The highly expert Soviet espionage machine is Yagoda’s creation. Every important OGPU man owes to Yagoda his career and his great privileges. Can there be much doubt that these men resented the removal of their chief and the intrusion of a newcomer who could know but little of their highly specialized, invariably secret and delicate work? What means had Yoshov of checking on these experts, once they undertook, at a hint from their former master, to compromise the second trial, and with it the dominating influence in the Kremlin?

Yagoda’s arrest seems to be a dim light in the darkness that enveloped the Kremlin since the first announcement of the latest anti-Trotsky campaign. The erstwhile dispenser of life and death was jailed shortly after the doubtful testimony in the second trial became generally known.

The fall of the once mighty Red satrap is likely to prove but a prelude to the desperate struggle which seems to have just begun. With all the advantage inherent in the control of the terrorist tribunals, the Commissar of War seems to enjoy little ease of mind. The most noteworthy among Voroshilov’s latest activities are the restoration of civil war military councils (through which medium he evidently aims to exercise rigid control over commanders), the recent shootings of Trotskyists in Siberia and elsewhere, and the amazing execution of Tukhachevsky and the seven Generals.

Indeed Voroshilov’s lot is not to be envied. The War Commissary had only two years of elementary schooling. The first contact with scholarly Marxists had the effect of dwarfing the man’s peasant essence to the zero point. The Stalin-Trotsky fight helped Voroshilov to regain his emotional balance. He began by despising the intellectuals, and the feeling soon developed into hatred. It grew in intensity, reaching full force at the moment when the Kremlin, fearful of war, determined to strengthen its military arm.

Voroshilov was first to raise the cry, ‘Defend the Socialist Fatherland!’ Never much of an internationalist, he saw the solution for Russia’s problems in a retreat to a position for which there can be but one name — Red Fascism, with all of its trimmings, not barring the secret ballot at the point of a bayonet.

Ex-Premier Rykov seems to have been right after all. Ten years ago the Soviet Union was in no danger of Bonapartism. The peril lay elsewhere. The approach of the twentieth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution finds Russia a more perilous country for old Communists to live in than even Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy. While the new wave of Red terror seems to have engulfed the whole country, its force is admittedly directed not only against the old and tried Leninists, but staunch Stalinists as well. And from this maze of facts and fiction, inference and speculation, there stand out two amazing paradoxes — one of Stalin shooting Stalinists, and the other of the Kremlin giving aid and comfort to international Fascism by destroying the Red Army’s best leadership.

Can it be that the latest Red purges bespeak Stalin’s cool head and steady hand, or is there a new influence at work in the Kremlin — a spirit more impetuous than that of the Man of Steel?