The Moscow Trials and the "Great Terror" of 1937-1938: What the Evidence Shows

Grover Furr
July 31 2010

[To be added at the end of Part One of "Stalin and the Struggle for Democratic Reform"]

Since my two-part essay "Stalin and the Struggle for Democratic Reform" was written in 2004-5, a great deal more evidence has been published concerning the Opposition, the Moscow Trials of 1936, 1937, and 1938, the Military Purges or "Tukhachevsky Affair", and the subsequent "Ezhovshchina", often called "the Great Terror" after the title of the extremely dishonest book by Robert Conquest first published in 1968.

The newly-available evidence confirms the following conclusions:

* The defendants at the Moscow Trials of August 1936, January 1937, and March 1938, were guilty of at least those crimes to which they confessed. A "bloc of Rights and Trotskyites" did indeed exist. It planned to assassinate Stalin, Kaganovich, Molotov, and others in a coup d’état , what they called a "palace coup" (dvortsovyi perevorot). The bloc did assassinate Kirov.

* Both Rights and Trotskyites were conspiring with the Germans and Japanese, as were the Military conspirators. If the "palace coup" did not work they hoped to come to power by showing loyalty to Germany or Japan in the event of an invasion.

* Trotsky too was directly conspiring with the Germans and Japanese, as were a number of his supporters.

* Nikolai Ezhov, head of the NKVD from 1936 to late 1938, was also conspiring with the Germans.


We now have much more evidence about the role of NKVD chief Nikolai Ezhov than we had in 2005. Ezhov, head of the NKVD (People’s Commissar for Internal Affairs), had his own conspiracy against the Soviet government and Party leadership. Ezhov had also been recruited by German intelligence.

Like the Rights and Trotskyites, Ezhov and his top NKVD men were counting on an invasion by Germany, Japan, or other major capitalist country. They tortured a great many innocent people into confessing to capital crimes so they would be shot. They executed a great many more on falsified grounds or no grounds at all.

Ezhov hoped that this mass murder of innocent people would turn large parts of the Soviet population against the government. That would create the basis for internal rebellions against the Soviet government when Germany or Japan attacked.

Ezhov lied to Stalin, the Party and government leaders about all this. The truly horrific mass executions of 1937-1938 of almost 680,000 people were in large part unjustifiable executions of innocent people carried out deliberately by Ezhov and his top men in order to sow discontent among the Soviet population.

Although Ezhov executed a very large number of innocent people, it is clear from the evidence now available that there were also real conspiracies. The Russian government continues to keep all but a tiny amount of the investigative materials top-secret. We can’t know for sure exactly the dimensions of the real conspiracies without that evidence. Therefore, we don’t know how many of these 680,000 people were actual conspirators and how many were innocent victims.

As I wrote in 2005, Stalin and the Party leadership began to suspect as early as October 1937 that some of the repression was done illegally. From early in 1938, when Pavel Postyshev was sharply criticized, then removed from the Central Committee, then expelled from the Party, tried and executed for mass unjustified repression, these suspicions grew.

When Lavrentii Beria was appointed as Ezhov’s second-in-command Ezhov and his men understood that Stalin and the Party leadership no longer trusted them. They made one last plot to assassinate Stalin at the November 7, 1938 celebration of the 21st anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. But Ezhov’s men were arrested in time.

Ezhov was persuaded to resign. An intensive investigation was begun and a huge number of NKVD abuses were uncovered. A great many cases of those tried or punished under Ezhov were reviewed. Over 100,000 people were released from prison and camps. Many NKVD men were arrested, confessed to torturing innocent people, tried and executed. Many more NKVD men were sentenced to prison or dismissed.

Under Beria the number of executions in 1938 and 1940 dropped to less than 1% of the number under Ezhov in 1937 and 1938, and many of those executed were NKVD men, including Ezhov himself, who were found guilty of massive unjustified repression and executions of innocent people.

Some of the most dramatic evidence published since 2005 are confessions of Ezhov and Mikhail Frinovsky, Ezhov’s second-in-command. I have put some of these on the Internet in both the original Russian and in English translation. We also have a great many more confessions and interrogations, mostly partial, of Ezhov, in which he makes many more confessions. These were published in 2007 in a semi-official account by Aleksei Pavliukov.

Anticommunist Scholars Hide the Truth

All "mainstream" – that is, anticommunist – and Trotskyist researchers falsely claim that there were no conspiracies. According to them, all the Moscow Trial defendants, all the military defendants, and all those tried and sentenced for espionage, conspiracy, sabotage, and other crimes, were innocent victims. Some claim that Stalin had planned to kill all these people because they might constitute a "Fifth Column" if the USSR were attacked. Other anticommunists prefer the explanation that Stalin just tried to terrorize the population into obedience.

This is an ideological, anticommunist stance masquerading as an historical conclusion. It is not based upon the historical evidence and is inconsistent with that evidence. Anticommunist historians ignore the primary source evidence available. They even ignore evidence in collections of documents that they themselves cite in their own works.

Why do the anticommunist "scholars", both in Russia and the West, ignore all this evidence? Why do they continue to promote the false notions that no conspiracies existed and that Stalin, not Ezhov, decided to execute hundreds of thousands of innocent people? The only possible explanation is that they do this for ideological reasons alone. The truth, as established by an examination of the primary source evidence, would make Stalin and the Bolsheviks "look good" to most people.

Collectivization of Agriculture Saved The World from Nazis and Japanese…

We have an example of this ideological bias in the way anticommunist scholars and writers treat the Bolshevik collectivization of agriculture. Anticommunists have long attacked it as immoral and unjustified. Yet collectivization provided the capital for the crash industrialization of the USSR. And only industrialization made a modern Red army possible.

Without a technologically-advanced modern army the Nazis would have conquered the USSR. Then, with the resources and manpower of the USSR and the rest of Europe behind them, the Nazis could have invaded the British Isles. Nazi armies would have been a far more formidable foe against all Allied powers. Meanwhile the Japanese, strengthened by the petroleum of the Soviet Far East, would have been a far more formidable enemy for the USA in the Pacific war.

Millions more Slavs and Jews – "Untermenschen" to the Nazis – and millions more Europeans and American soldiers – would have been killed. That this did not occur can be attributed, in large part, to the Soviet collectivization of agriculture. This is an obvious conclusion. There was simply no other way than by collectivizing agriculture that the USSR could have industrialized, and thus stood up to the Nazis and Japanese.

The only alternative was the one promoted by the Right and Trotskyite conspirators: to make peace with the Germans and Japanese, even if that meant granting them huge trade and territorial concessions. That would have greatly strengthened the Axis powers in their war against the U.K. and the USA.

For purely ideological reasons anticommunists cannot admit that collectivization made it possible for the Axis to be defeated.

… And So Did The Defeat of the Conspirators in 1936-1938

Whether they were able to seize political power through a "palace coup", or whether they would have to rely on a German and/or Japanese attack as they only way they might be able to overthrow the Stalin government, the Opposition conspirators were planning some kind of alliance with the Axis.

In fact they would have had no choice, as they realized themselves. A USSR weakened by internal revolt, with or without an invasion from abroad, would have had to make trade, territorial, and ideological concessions to its major potential adversaries simply in order to avoid invasion and inevitable conquest.

At a minimum, a USSR led by some combination of conspirators would have made treaties with Germany and Japan that would have provided the Axis powers with huge natural resources, possibly with manufactured goods as well. The military conspirators were contemplating going much farther than mere trade with the Axis. They were contemplating an outright military alliance with Germany. That would have meant millions more soldiers to fight alongside the German Wehrmacht.

Therefore, in foiling the machinations of the Rights, Trotsky and his supporters, and the Military conspirators, Stalin saved Europe from Naziism – again!

No doubt this is why anticommunist "scholars" insist, in the face of all the evidence, that there were no conspiracies in the USSR and no collaboration with the Germans and Japanese. Once again they refuse to admit these truths on purely ideological grounds because doing so would seem to justify Stalin’s actions.

Bukharin, Not Stalin, To Blame for the Massive Repressions

One interesting aspect of this is that Nikolai Bukharin, leading name among the Rightists and one of its leaders, knew about the "Ezhovshchina" as it was happening, and praised it in a letter to Stalin that he wrote from prison.

It gets even better. Bukharin knew that Ezhov was a member of the Rightist conspiracy, as he himself was. No doubt that is why he welcomed Ezhov's appointment as head of the NKVD -- a view recorded by his widow in her memoirs.

In his first confession, in his now-famous letter to Stalin of December 10, 1937, and at his trial in March 1938 Bukharin claimed he had completely "disarmed" and had told everything he knew. But now we can prove that this was a lie. Bukharin knew that Ezhov was a leading member of the Rightist conspiracy -- but did not inform on him. According to Mikhail Frinovsky, Ezhov's right-hand man, Ezhov probably promised to see that he would not be executed if he did not mention his own, Ezhov's, participation (see Frinovsky's confession of April 11, 1939).

If Bukharin had told the truth -- if he had, in fact, informed on Ezhov -- Ezhov's mass murders could have been stopped in their tracks. The lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent people could have been saved.

But Bukharin remained true to his fellow conspirators. He went to execution -- an execution he swore he deserved "ten times over"* -- without revealing Ezhov's participation in the conspiracy.

This point cannot be stressed too much: the blood of the hundreds of thousands of innocent persons slaughtered by Ezhov and his men during 1937-1938, are on Bukharin's hands.

Objectivity and Evidence

I agree with historian Geoffrey Roberts when he says:

In the last 15 years or so an enormous amount of new material on Stalin … has become available from Russian archives. I should make clear that as a historian I have a strong orientation to telling the truth about the past, no matter how uncomfortable or unpalatable the conclusions may be. … I don’t think there is a dilemma: you just tell the truth as you see it.

("Stalin’s Wars", February 12, 2007. At )

The conclusions I have reached about the "Ezhovshchina" will be unacceptable to ideologically-motivated people. I have not reached these conclusions out of any desire to "apologize" for the policies of Stalin or the Soviet government. I believe these to be the only objective conclusions possible based on the available evidence.

I make no claim that the Soviet leadership was free from error. Stalin’s vision of a socialism leading to communism was obviously faulty in that it did not come to pass. During Stalin’s time, as during the short period of Lenin’s leadership, the Soviets made a great many errors. Error is, of course, inevitable in all human endeavor. And since the Bolsheviks were the first communists to conquer and hold state power, they were in unknown waters. It was inevitable, therefore, that they would make a great many mistakes – and they did.

However, any objective study of the evidence and the historical record shows that there was simply no alternative to forced collectivization and industrialization – except defeat at the hands of some combination of capitalist powers. Likewise, the fact that the Right, Trotskyite, and Military conspiracies really did exist but were snuffed out by the Soviet leadership, which managed to out-maneuver Ezhov and foil his conspiracy as well, proves that once again the USSR – "Stalin" – saved Europe from Naziism and all the Allies from an immense number of additional casualties at the hands of the Axis powers.

* Bukharin's two appeals for clemency, both dated March 13, 1938, were reprinted in Izvestiia September 2, 1992, p. 3. They were rejected, and Bukharin was executed on March 15, 1938. I have put them online in English here.

Additional Bibliography


Ezhov’s interrogations: I have translated all of Ezhov’s interrogations available to me as of July 2010 and put them online here:

Lubianka. Stalin I NKVD – NKGB – GUKR "SMERSH". 1939 – mart 1946. Moscow, 2006.

Petrov, Nikita, Mark Jansen. "Stalinskii pitomets" – Nikolai Ezhov. Moscow: ROSSPEN, 2008, pp. 367-379.


Furr, Grover and Vladimir L. Bobrov, "Bukharin's Last Plea: Yet Another Anti-Stalin Falsification." - translation of Russian original published in Aktual’naia Istoriia for February 2009 at

Furr, Grover and Vladimir L. Bobrov, "Nikolai Bukharin's First Statement of Confession in the Lubianka" in English translation, Cultural Logic 2007 -

Furr, Grover and Vladimir L. Bobrov, "Pervye priznatel'nye pokazaniia N.I. Bukharina na Lubianke." Klio No. 1 (2007).

Furr, Grover and Vladimir L. Bobrov, eds. "Lichnye pokazaniia N. Bukharina." Klio (St. Petersburg), No. 1 (2007).

Furr, Grover. "Evidence of Leon Trotsky's Collaboration with Germany and Japan." In Cultural Logic for 2009.

Holmström, Sven-Eric. "New Evidence Concerning the 'Hotel Bristol' Question in the First Moscow Trial of 1936". Cultural Logic 2008. At


Furr, Grover.Khrushchev Lied: The Evidence That Every "Revelation" of Stalin's (and Beria's) Crimes in Nikita Khrushchev's Infamous "Secret Speech" to the 20th Party Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union on February 25, 1956, is Provably False. Kettering, OH: Erythros Press & Media LLC, 2011. At; at Erythros Press & Media: at; at (United Kingdom)

Furr (‘Ferr’), Grover Antistalinskaia podlost’ ("Anti-Stalin Villanies"). Moscow: Algoritm, 2007. Home page: Brief summary in this interview: "The Sixty-One Untruths of Nikita Khrushchev" (Interview with Grover Furr). (original here: )

Pavliukov, Aleksei. Ezhov. Moscow: Zakharov, 2007.