XI. Stalin wasn’t surprised by the international reaction to the “show trials,” which he gauged perfectly with the help of the press his diplomats bought for him. As the executions continued unabated, and the Trial of the Sixteen gave way to the Trial of the Seventeen, a steady stream of condemnation poured forth from the centrist press, and a wronged, mystified chorus of complaint filled the pages of the “progressive” press where most fellow travelers and closet communists wrote.
They had never had anything to say against the meat-grinder that was the Gulag system, and had always been enormously receptive to the argument that all the previous kangaroo trials – of priests, monarchists, conservatives, centrists, democrats, acrats, flute-players – were necessary, if unpleasant, steps towards the proletarian paradise. Their Moscow-based correspondents belonged to the least cynic brand of journalist known to mankind; their most reputed intellectuals were herded in make-believe tours of the Soviet countryside, where they were shown patent falsifications of reality that they forced themselves to swallow. When they asked about the scarcity of sausages in some store they had seen – due to the mistake of any of their numerous handlers – they inevitably accepted the logical explanation that Moscow citizens weren’t really that much into meat, since vegetables were obviously better for your health. And yet, when faced with the wholesale murder of strict Communists, of the men who had helped to destroy millions without a second thought, the international progressives were discovering their spine: they hinted at criticism. Trotsky himself, the man who couldn’t write a page without calling for somebody’s execution, went as far as demanding a re-appraisal of the Soviet system of justice, even if he was ambiguous about the faults he observed: perhaps there were too many victims; perhaps too few.
Stalin was satisfied by such a state of affairs, and willing to keep probing the wound. Soon after the Trial of the Seventeen ended with death sentences all around, the Soviet spy network in Germany – whom he rightly assumed to be entirely poisoned by the Nazi counter-intelligence – got hold of documents proving that the revered marshal Tukhachevsky, highest ranking soldier of the Soviet Union, Lenin’s close confident, a true hero of the Revolution, was a Nazi informer – and some of his closest generals were too. Stalin quickly found out the documents had been falsified, and planted as a black operation to spread trouble in the Soviet Union: the Nazis had only been in power for four years, and were not particularly smart either; even the Soviet counter-intelligence, led by a particularly obtuse boot-licker named Sudoplatov, was of the opinion that the documents were false, and had to be disregarded.
Stalin ruled that the documents were authentic, and used them to nab Tukhachevsky: the true hero went down kicking and screaming, but the Lubianka thugs were not to be impressed by long lines of medals. After Tukhachevsky came his generals and then, for good measure, many of their associates. Beria warned with utmost subtlety that the army would be seriously compromised if the purge was not limited. So Stalin ordered that there would be no limits.
The Trial of the Twenty One was the big event of the winter of 1938. By then, Hitler was already bullying the United Kingdom and France, as he expanded his amputated Reich into central Europe, but Stalin needed one fell swoop to get rid of Bukharin and all his people. Bukharin proved to be a good sport. Just before his appointment with the executioner, he wrote a letter in which he protested his innocence and his absolute loyalty to Stalin and the Soviet Union. He added that he couldn’t help but finding the Soviet system, the system that was about to devour him, admirable:
“There is something great and bold about the political idea of a general purge… which encompasses 1) the guilty; 2) persons under suspicion; and 3) persons potentially under suspicion,” he wrote.
Bukharin had that knack for neutral, dispassionate judgement. He was executed anyway.
In 1938, Beria was recalled permanently to Moscow, and given the second (of course) most important post in the NKVD, just behind a nervous revolution veteran named Yezhov, who was starting to have nightmares and second thoughts about his role in the “great and bold” purge. Yezhov did valuable work for about a year, and was eventually purged himself and executed in 1940, at Beria’s behest. However, by that time Stalin’s attention had been distracted away from laughable trials and random punishments.
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