Remarks on the Moscow Trials, on Evidence, and Objectivity

by Grover Furr

June 25 2006

I’d like to reply to some remarks made by ShineThePath (hereafter STP for brevity) about the Moscow trials. STP made them on the subject of my interview by Celticfire, on his fine blog..

STP makes many incorrect statements. In addition, he often states or implies that he has evidence to support statements that in fact he does NOT have evidence for.

But many people hold similar views and misconceptions. So I think a response to STP might be useful generally. And – I hope – it will encourage STP to be more objective in the future, not to state or imply that he knows things that, in reality, he does NOT know.

Objectivity requires that one gather and study all the evidence available, and then draw your conclusions in accordance with that evidence. This is the only way to arrive at the truth.

In my remarks below I’ve quoted STP’s statements word for word, in italics, and put an asterisk (*) in front of them, so the reader can see which remarks are STP’s, and which are mine.

* "The Court charged high ranking Bolsheviks, such as Buhkarin, Rykov, and others for a plot to kill Lenin in 1917! Of course this unproven and has no evidence except from the hearsay of the defendants and testimony."

Actually, the charge was against Bukharin, not Rykov, and was about 1918. During the 1938 Moscow Trial Bukharin vigorously denied involvement in a plot to kill Lenin.

However, Bukharin admitted – as he had done in 1926 – to having been involved with the Left Socialist Revolutionaries in a plot to have Lenin arrested. The S-R Party believed in, and practiced, assassination against political enemies.

The S-R Party had only recently split. Some Left S-Rs were still working with the Right S-Rs. The Right S-Rs did shoot Lenin, and killed a few other Bolsheviks. This is the connection that was explored by the Prosecutor in the 1938 Trial.

I never asserted that Bukharin was guilty of planning to assassinate Lenin (along with Stalin and Sverdlov, as he was accused). However, there was testimony from three former Left S-Rs – Iakovleva, Ossinsky, and Mantsev – that strongly implicated Bukharin.

Here’s another thing to consider. In the USA one is guilty of any crime committed by any member of a conspiracy one is involved in. A person involved with others in, say, a burglary is guilty of any crime committed by any of his co-conspirators.

For example, I have personally spoken with men imprisoned for over 20 years for "felony murder" – a murder committed by another member of a group involved in a burglary. Even though the murder was completely unplanned, and the persons I spoke with were not directly involved in it, they are still guilty of murder.

Another example is the recent case of Zacarias Moussaoui, who took no part at all in the 9/11 attacks but, because he was part of the conspiracy, was convicted of guilt in them.

Concerning "belief:" No objective researcher "believes" or "refused to believe" charges, testimony, or evidence. You must identify evidence; locate it; get access to it; study it; and draw your conclusions according to where the bulk of the evidence lies. Reliance on "belief" pollutes anti-communist "scholarship" of the Moscow Trials. Marxists need to avoid "belief", and decide truth or falsehood provisionally, according to the evidence -- that is, with objectivity.

Concerning evidence: The testimony of others, unsupported by physical evidence, is enough for conviction even in the United States. Often – as in the case of conspiracy – physical evidence is not to be expected. And physical evidence can be faked, forged, altered, etc., just as personal testimony can be.

As in the USA, the prosecution’s main weapon is to get co-conspirators to "rat out" each other, then to compare the confession statements of various defendants with each other.

Using the similarities and discrepancies among the different confessions, the investigators arrive at their reconstruction of what really happened. The fact that one or more of the accused does not confess is not at all fatal to the prosecution.

Additionally, many of the defendants in the Moscow Trials said they had misgivings about their parts in the conspiracy. They had been certain that the "Stalin" policies would fail, and so had decided that Stalin had to be removed. But by the mid-30s, as they believed, collectivization and industrialization were succeeding.

Finally, the defendants distrusted each other. There was no single conspiracy, but a network of them (the NKVD called this case the "klubok", or "tangle"). The Rights distrusted the Trotskyites; the NKVDists (Iagoda, Ezhov) distrusted everybody else and each other; they all distrusted Tukhachevsky & Co.; and nobody trusted the Germans or Japanese, either. So getting the various defendants to "rat out" each other did not prove very hard.

Of course, Bukharin’s failure to confess to plotting Lenin’s assassination does not mean that he didn’t do it. And we know that Bukharin lied on other occasions, so why not in this one?

To repeat, though: I did NOT conclude that Bukharin was guilty of this particular charge.

* "The very problem with all these trials was that all the conspirators were really never proven beyond a serious doubt, to have actually acted in attempts to destroy the Soviet Union and work for the Nazis…. Professor Furr also suspects us to believe that all these testimonies are genuine and real, and that we should just accept them…"

I’ve read this kind of thing many times. I think it’s basically wrong, lacking in objectivity.

First of all: I have never, ever asked anybody to "believe" or "just accept" the trial testimony! So why does STP say that I did? In effect, STP is setting up a "straw man", rather than confronting what I did say: the evidence that actually exists; and – maybe – his own ignorance of that evidence.

As for evidence:

a. The co-conspirators confessed and implicated each other (there was testimony from additional witnesses too) in great detail. This is enough to convict in the USA today. (I deal with the question of coercion below).

b. We do not know what evidence the Soviet Prosecution had! The Russian government has never permitted even their own trusted anti-communist researchers to see it.

c. There is a good deal of evidence outside the Trial that corroborates – is consistent with – some of the charges.

* "People's families were arrested and used as pieces to force a confession. Bukharin for one was threatened with the execution of his 12 year old son."

This is simply not true. There is no evidence of any such thing! Neither Bukharin nor his family were ever threatened. We know this, because we have (1) Bukharin’s last letter to his wife; (2) the memoirs of his wife, Anna Larina. None reflect any coercion, whether beatings, torture, threats, etc.; (3) the proceedings of the "Rehabilitation" commission that investigated Bukharin’s case in the late ‘80s. They were dismayed that they were unable to find any evidence that Bukharin was coerced, or that he was innocent.

Bukharin was "rehabilitated" – declared to have been innocent – on purely political grounds, despite the lack of any evidence. The Gorbachev regime wanted to accelerate the institution of capitalist, market-based economic "reforms", and to disguise them by saying "We are going back to Lenin’s NEP."

It’s easy to see where this all led in fact: back to the very right-wing, predatory capitalism that replaced the USSR.

* "Yezhov was held to blame for this (though it seems he was just a simple bureaucrat)…"

STP is evidently ignorant of a lot of the evidence now available concerning Ezhov.

Ezhov was himself a leader in a related Rightist plot to overthrow the Soviet government. A confession-statement by Ezhov, and a statement by his second-in-command Frinovsky, detailing their conspiracy, massive torture and murder of innocent people to cover up their own involvements, etc., were just published in February 2006. (See below for more detail)

* "Furr defends Beria who he speaks of as "similiar to Stalin" in regard to Marxism-Leninism. That seems to contradict the actualy policy of Beria and his known writings on Marxism."

About Beria: I do not "defend" him or Stalin, either. I’m not "defending" anybody. I just lay out the evidence we have, from Russian-language research, and draw the logical conclusions from that evidence.

It is true – as evidence the best contemporary Russian research – that Beria’s plans for democratizing the USSR, and other reforms he initiated, seem similar to those Stalin advocated. This research is listed in the bibliography of my two articles in Cultural Logic. As for Beria’s "Marxism", I did not even mention his writings.

* "This is an essay on this subject by Slavoj Zizek..."

In the essay cited by STP Zizek frequently cites Arch Getty and Vladimir Naumov’s book The Road to Terror. This book contains the only extensive summary of the February-March 1937 Central Committee Plenum during which, for example, Bukharin was sharply criticized and challenged to confess his guilt.

But Zizek follows Getty in tacitly accepting Bukharin’s claims of innocence at face value, and concocts a "psychological" explanation for Stalin’s, and the other CC members’, demanding a confession. Though Zizek references Lacan to justify this move, it seems to me like warmed-over Arthur Koestler a la Darkness At Noon.

In reality, the evidence that Bukharin was guilty is overwhelming. Bukharin was accused by dozens of people who claimed to have been his co-conspirators. We have the texts of "face to face confrontations" between Bukharin and five of these accusers. In the Feb.- Mar. 1937 Plenum Bukharin said he had received a great many more from the NKVD, up to 20 in a single day!

But Khrushchev (indirectly) and later Gorbachev had Bukharin declared "innocent" and "rehabilitated", so Zizek proceeds on that basis. Bukharin’s guilt undermines his whole bogus "psychological" theory.

The entire proceedings of the February-March 1937 Plenum have been published – naturally, or Getty / Naumov would not have been able to use them. I have them. Zizek too could have obtained, and studied, them.

So why didn’t he? Maybe Zizek was lazy! Studying a thousand pages or so of this transcript would be a lot of work. Far easier to "theorize" from Getty’s discussion.

* "…Furr is intellectually dishonest…"

All of STP’s comments imply I’ve been dishonest. It is at least forthright of him to accuse me explicitly of dishonesty.

So let me be equally forthright. STP is dishonest. He states things that are not true. In plain language this is called "lying." In this case, maybe it is just "bluffing."

Whatever we call it -- it’s something no Marxist should engage in.

* "For example, we know for a fact that months before the trial Bukharin had denied the charges. He would not admit guilt until his family was directly threatened."

This is – to put it politely – not a truthful statement.

There is no evidence that Bukharin’s family was threatened. As for Bukharin’s denials, so what? We know he finally began to confess on June 2, 1937. Getty / Naumov (pp. 446-7) suggest he may have done so when he found out that Tukhachevsky and the other top military men had been arrested, and so would not rescue him.

* "Tukachevsky was tortured before he confessed to a plot implicating Buhkarin."

There is no evidence that Tukhachevsky was tortured. Getty / Naumov say he was – but there’s no evidence of it. I discussed this in my Red Critique essay.

Incidentally, only parts of Tukhachevsky’s confessions have ever been published. They don’t even mention Bukharin. These documents are not hard to get – if you take the trouble to get them. Obviously, STP has not taken the trouble – but then why does he pretend that he has?

* "Yezhov was charged with … a plot to kill Stalin, which he utterly denied and there was no such evidence showing such."

Once again, this is not a true statement. Such evidence does exist. See the ferociously anti-communist and anti-Stalin Jansen & Petrov, Stalin’s Loyal Executioner (Hoover Institution, 2002), pp. 155-6; 183-4; 209.

J&P don’t "believe" this evidence – naturally, since they are wedded to a theory that Stalin planned it all; Ezhov was "loyal" to him; and so a plot by Ezhov to kill Stalin does not "fit" their preconceptions.

But the documents they cite confirms it – Ezhov’s, Frinovsky’s, Babulin’s (the Evdokimov confession they had access to, and used, does not seem to have been published). In particular, Ezhov confesses to meeting with General Ernst Koestring, German military attaché.

J&P used these documents – classified at the time they wrote their book – dishonestly, too. For Frinovsky states that Ezhov visited Bukharin in prison before the March 1938 Trial, and promised to see that Bukharin was not executed -- IF he (Bukharin) kept quiet about Ezhov’s participation in the Rightist conspiracy. Then, according to Frinovsky, Ezhov double-crossed Bukharin.

Yet J&P did not mention this fact in their book at all! It doesn't support their preconceived, highly anti-communist, and of course dishonest, position.

You don’t "believe" Frinovsky? Good! Evidence is not to be "believed" or "disbelieved." We have to collect all the evidence; analyze it; and reach our conclusions on the basis of that evidence even when those conclusions contradict our own preconceived ideas, or what we "want to believe."

Only that practice can be called "objective."

* "Many of these men confessed to something they had no part in."

How does STP know this? Let me say it: He does NOT know it. He is "bluffing" again.

I have never found any evidence to support this – and I have looked hard! By "evidence," I do not mean unsupported statements, but primary documents.

I challenge STP to produce any. If he cannot – why does he make such assertions?


* "And saying somehow, that Grover Furr is objective when it comes to the issue of Stalin is some what foolish"

I reject this statement. I try very hard to be objective. For example, I don’t make statements without evidence.

However, being "objective" does not mean one "has the truth." It means drawing one’s conclusions on the basis of the best evidence, objectively evaluated. . If and when more evidence becomes available, an objective researcher will be prepared to change his conclusions to fit the new evidence. This is the scientific method applied to the study of history, and an essential, important element of dialectical and historical materialism.

These are important issues. Could I be wrong? Of course!

But STP has to be wrong. He is not arguing from evidence, but from prejudice. His preconceived ideas did not drop from the sky. They come from anti-communist "scholarship" – in plain language, from anti-communist lies. Nobody can ever discover the truth in this fashion. It has nothing to do with Marxism.

All of us have been strongly influence by anti-communism. Of course! We’ve grown up swimming in a sea of anti-communist propaganda from the day we were born. It is hard to overcome it.

But we have to try.