Behind The Moscow Trials

Joseph E. Davies, Mission to Moscow. February 1, 1937


No. 57 Moscow, February 17,1937
To The Honorable The Secretary Of State
The Radek Treason Trial (Jan. 23-30)

Strictly Confidential Sir;

I have the honor to report the following with respect to certain features of, and impressions made upon my mind in connection with, the recent so-called Trotsky-Radek treason trial.


This trial was the outgrowth of the Kirov murder of December 1, 1934. Kirov was one of the prominent party leaders of the Stalin government located in the Leningrad area, and his murder at that time created a sensation. The dispatches to the Department at that time indicated that it gave rise to great activity and concern on the part of the leaders of the government at Moscow, and that Stalin himself, Voroshilov, the People’s Commissar for Defense, and other beads of the government hastened personally to the scene of the crime, apparently apprehensive that there was a widespread conspiracy to overthrow the Stalin government. The Kamenev-Zinoviev trial held in Moscow from August 19 to August 24, 1936, when sixteen defendants were arraigned, found guilty, and subsequently shot, was the outgrowth of that incident. The present trial finds its origin in the same source and by reason of revelations made at the trial and upon alleged evidence subsequently discovered.

The defendants in the present trial were seventeen in number, consisting of five or six prominent political leaders. The others were of different type-engineers, adventurers, and the like, of no particular prominence-the tools alleged to have been employed for espionage, sabotage, terrorism, and the execution of the various criminal acts. The indictment was founded upon specific criminal statutes. It charged treason against the country, espionage, sabotage, and generally the execution of terrorist activities.


The statutory definitions, prohibitions, and definition of punishment are specific. These statutes have existed since January 1, 1927. An accessory is equally guilty with the executor of the crime. Even participation in any organized criminal political activity, looking to preparation of commission of any of these acts, entails the same punishment as attaches to the specific criminal act. The criminal code is predicated primarily upon the exaltation of the state. Punishments for crimes against the state are much more severe than crimes against civilian property or life. Their maximum penalty for ordinary civilian murder actuated by greed, avarice, and the like is ten years’ imprisonment; whereas the maximum penalty for an offense against the property of the state is death. Another feature of the criminal law, the effects of which were apparent in this trial, is the lack of gradations of punishment. Thus, for instance, Radek’s testimony indicates that when, in 1935, after drifting for four years into what developed into a conspiracy to destroy the government, and when he had considered making a clean breast of it” because conditions had so changed that his views were other than those which he held in 1931, be then found himself in a position where the maximum penalty had already been incurred.


To appraise this situation, it should be borne in mind that practically all of the principal defendants were bred from early youth in an atmosphere of conspiracy against established order. As intellectuals they had conspired against the Tsar in their youth, in their university days, and had daily faced death “on the doorstep” because of their activities up to the time of the success of the Revolution. Conspiracy was bred in the bone.

After the death of Lenin in 1924, a struggle developed among the leaders for the succession. The two outstanding contenders were Trotsky and Stalin. The former was of the brilliant, versatile, dynamic type; the latter, a Georgian, was simple, hard-working, with great capacity for work-a genius for organization and a man of great physical and mental power and an Oriental patience. As Secretary of the Communist Party, he slowly built up his party machine which resulted in the defeat of Trotsky and his final banishment in 1927. Apparently the struggle at that time was not so much a conflict of principles as a conflict of these two personalities; as is indicated by the fact that many of the things which Stalin is now projecting were a part of the Trotsky program. This should be somewhat qualified by the fact that Stalin apparently, even in those days, was disposed to a program of the development of the communistic idea in Russia as “the first thing to do first,” leaving the world revolution to take care of itself, whereas Trotsky was then and is now the ardent proponent of the idea that the world revolution was foremost. During this entire period Trotsky had drawn to himself a very large number of enthusiastic adherents among the leaders in the party. These men, upon his downfall, were sent into the interior and deprived of their places in government officialdom. Some few later recanted, were taken back into the party, and were again given official position. Always, however, the cloud of suspicion hung over them. None of them were entrusted with positions of first-class importance and it is generally recognized that they never would be so entrusted by the present authorities. Such men were the six principal defendants.


It should also be borne in mind that it was Stalin who projected the Five-Year Plan in 1929 after Trotsky’s banishment. This involved both the industrialization and agricultural collectivization programs. During 1931 and 1932, when it was alleged the conspiracy originated, these plans were imposing terrific hardships upon the population. Conditions then were definitely much worse than in 1935. The results of the plans only began to indicate their possible successful fulfillment in 1934 and 1935. It is admitted that the Stalin regime was very much stronger in 1935 than it was in 1931. This improvement in the situation is referred to many times in the course of the testimony of the principal defendants as justification for their change of heart and final reasons for repentance and confession.

Another factor making up the background of this extraordinary trial is that Communism amounts to a religion with these men. Devotion to it is fanatical.


I attended the trial, which lasted six days, assiduously. It was terrific in its human drama. The sessions were held in a long high-ceilinged room, which had formerly been part of a fashionable Moscow-club in the old regime. On both sides of the central aisle were rows of seats occupied entirely by different groups of “workers” at each session, with the exception of a few rows in the center of the hall reserved for correspondents, local and foreign, and for the Diplomatic Corps. The different groups of “workers,” I am advised, were charged with the duty of taking back reports of the trial to their various organizations.

Source: Joseph E. Davies, Mission to Moscow (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1941), pp. 32-53.

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