The Guardian

The Guardian April 2, 2003

Culture and Life

by Rob Gowland

"Moscow Trials"

The "Moscow Trials" of the 1930s were a god-send to anti-Soviet 
propagandists. Stalin, they exclaimed, was eliminating the "old Bolsheviks" 
and "destroying the Soviet army". The hitherto fiercely anti-Communist 
Hearst Press in the US actually proclaimed that Stalin was "betraying the 
Revolution" (as if they would care!).

More sober-minded observers saw things differently: the Soviet Government 
was rooting out and destroying the Nazi and Japanese fifth column in the 

Joseph E Davies, the US Ambassador to the Soviet Union at the time, could 
best be described as a liberal democrat, whole-heartedly dedicated to the 
best features of bourgeois democracy and with an abhorrence of fascism.

A lawyer by profession, Davies attended all the trials.

As early as February 1937, even before the full extent of the interlinked 
conspiracies was known, Davies reported to US Secretary of State Cordell 
Hull that he had talked to "many, if not all, of the members of the 
Diplomatic Corps here and, with possibly one exception, they are all of the 
opinion that the proceedings established clearly the existence of a 
political plot and conspiracy to overthrow the government".

While the US Government no doubt welcomed an accurate assessment, it suited 
US capital (and capital everywhere) to depict the trials as "Stalin's 
vengeance on Trotsky" and the product of "Stalin's Oriental 

Anti-Soviet propagandists of every stripe, from the ultra-Left to avowed 
Nazis, engaged in a shrill campaign of misrepresentation around the trials 
that has continued virtually without let-up to this day. It surfaced again 
just recently with the 50th anniversary of Stalin's death.

But, in view of what took place in Europe a scant year or two later, can 
anyone seriously doubt that the Nazis would have been assiduously striving 
to develop a fifth column in the USSR?

The Soviet Union was always the main target of Nazi expansionist aims. It 
follows that the same program of subversion and conspiracy that Germany 
pursued in other European countries would have been pursued towards the 

Anti-Soviet emigri circles were fostered and supported, their contacts in 
the USSR developed and organised. Approaches were made to every member or 
potential member of any identifiable "political opposition", with financial 
and organisational aid and the prospect held out of being placed in power 
over at least part of the country by a victorious Germany.

Ambitious or malleable officers would be sought out, flattered, encouraged, 
subtly urged towards treason. Germany did it with the major power to the 
West (France). Is it conceivable that they did not try to do the same with 
the major power to the East?

Of course it is not. In fact, the Soviet authorities had to arrest, and 
later shoot, Marshall Tukhachevsky, Assistant Commissar of War, and seven 
other generals, for plotting a pro-German coup.

Davies was not misled. He informed Cordell Hull, "The danger of the 
Corsican for the present has been wiped out" (a reference to ambitious 
military officers who develop Napoleonic tendencies and stage Pinochet-
style coups to seize power).

Soviet Foreign Minister Litvinov told Davies that "We are doing the whole 
world a service in protecting ourselves against the menace of Hitler and 
Nazi world domination".

During the Cold War, Davies was traduced as, at best, a dupe and, at worst, 
an agent of the Kremlin. This would be the fate of many of the best people 
in Roosevelt's administration.

Claims that the trials of the 1930s were genuinely to do with a real 
conspiracy against the Soviet Government, that they did concern an anti-
Soviet and pro-Nazi plot to stage a coup, were  and are still  pooh-
poohed in the bourgeois media and dismissed by bourgeois politicians.

Such claims were then and are still today derided as "Communist 
propaganda". Our old friend Paul Monk, however, has an entirely different 
take on the whole affair.

In his article in The Australian Financial Review of February 21, 
2003, Monk not only admits there was a coup plot, he positively brags about 
it (on behalf of his favourite Soviet defectors Alexander Orlov and Walter 

In Monk's eyes, the coup conspirators are the good guys. They were anti-
Stalin, you see. The conspirators, including Tukhachevsky and other 
military figures, were going to "overthrow Stalin in a coup d'etat, 
denounce him and then execute him".

With stupefying understatement, Monk writes: "Had the coup succeeded, it 
would have had the most momentous consequences." These, in his view, 
include "possibly no World War II"!

I can think of a few consequences, too, but that is definitely not one of 

Significantly, Monk separates the military conspirators from the other more 
"political" conspirators (he simply dismisses the other trials as part of 
"Stalin's purges").

This allows him to rake up as motivation for his non-political military 
conspirators the alleged discovery in 1937 of an Okhrana [the Tsarist 
secret police] file proving that Stalin was in fact a secret Tsarist agent 
("an agent provocateur for the Okhrana within the Bolshevik Party before 
the Revolution"). Oh, give me strength!

A good lie never loses its currency, does it? I can remember this hoary old 
anti-Soviet claim being gleefully pedalled in the media here the day after 
Stalin died. It was just as laughable then as it had been when it first 
surfaced amongst the anti-Stalin inventions of the mid-'30s.

It was still laughable when it was repeated in Alexander Orlov's own book, 
The Secret History of Stalin's Crimes, as the motivation for the 
Tukhachevsky coup attempt (Orlov claims one of the GPU officers supposedly 
shown the file was his cousin).

Hilariously, Monk solemnly intones: "Whether he [Stalin] found and 
destroyed all copies of the incriminating Okhrana file has never been 

Back to index page