The Show Trials
In the period from 1936 to 1938, as part of Stalin's Great Purge politics, three infamous Show Trials have been conducted. Twenty years later, in 1956, party leader Nikita Sergeevich Khrushchev (1894-1971) would admit that the trials were put in scene. Many of the Bolsheviks of the first hour, most of them confidants of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (1870-1924), were accused. Between the second and the third trial, some generals have been tried as an intermezzo.
The Trial of the Sixteen (1936)
The first Show Trial, also known as the Trial of the Sixteen, took place from August 19 to 24, 1936 in the October Hall of the House of the Unions in Moscow. The main defendants were Grigory Yevseevich Zinoviev (1883-1936) and Lev Borisovich Kamenev (1883-1936), old comrades of Lenin and party leaders of the first hour, but also supporters of Leon Trotsky (1879-1940) in his struggle with Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) in the twenties. The main charge was their membership of the so-called Trotsky-Zinoviev Center, a completely fictitious terrorist organisation. Zinoviev and Kamenev initially refused to confess, but Stalin gave them the assurance that they would not be executed if they did.
The Trial of the Sixteen was formally lead by the head of the NKVD and People's Commissar for Internal Affairs Genrikh Grigoryevich Yagoda (1891-1938), but behind the scenes it was directed by Nikolay Ivanovich Yezhov (1895-1940), who would succeed Yagoda soon after the trial.
The audience consisted almost exclusively of NKVD agents, together with some journalists. The press made sure, on orders from Stalin, and partly by the poet Demyan Bedny (1883-1945), that public anger got focused on the accused. Eventually all the defendants made full confessions. Despite the earlier promise of Stalin, they were executed within 24 hours after the verdict in the NKVD headquarters at Lubyanka Square.
The Trial of the Seventeen (1937)
In January 1937, the second trial was staged. This time, Georgy Leonidovich Pyatakov (1890-1937), the Deputy People's Commissar of Heavy Industries, Karl Berngardovich Radek (1885-1939), one of the co-authors of the Soviet Constitution, and Grigory Yakovlovich Sokolnikov (1888-1939), Deputy People's Commissar of Industry, were tried on charges of industrial sabotage and espionage, together with fourteen other former supporters of Trotsky.
Nikolay Yezhov had now become head of the NKVD and he was again, together with Stalin, the mastermind behind the spectacle. The script was not always accurately drawn though. Pyakatov, for example, would have flown to Oslo in 1935 to meet Trotsky there, but the flight was never to have occurred, and the Hotel Bristol, where the encounter allegedly took place, had been demolished many years before. However, all defendants were found guilty. Thirteen of them were sentenced to death. Four others, including Karl Radek and Grigory Sokolnikov, were sentenced to labour camps after they had signed incriminating statements on Nikolay Ivanovich Bukharin (1888-1938), the editor of the newspaper Izvestia, on Alexey Ivanovich Rykov (1881-1938), the former President of the Council of People's Commissars, and on Mikhail Nikolaevich Tukhachevsky (1893-1937), the Deputy People's Commissar of Defense, who would be victimized shortly afterwards.
Both Radek and Sokolnikov died in 1939 in a labour camp. According to the initial reading both had been implied in a fight with a fellow prisoner, but later, during the political thaw under Khrushchev, was proven that both had been murdered by the NKVD under direct orders of Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria (1899 - 1953).
The Trial of the Generals
After the second Moscow show trial, Stalin turned his sights on a number of senior military of the Soviet Union, in particular his rival from the Civil War, MarshalMikhail Nikolaevich Tukhachevsky (1893-1937). Tukhachevsky was not the only one, though: nearly all commanders of the Red Army got arrested. The accusations were based on documents that would have demonstrated a compromising correspondence between Tukhachevsky and the Nazi Supreme Command. Nikolay Yezhov supervised the interrogations, which were often conducted under torture. The written confession of Tukhachevsky was covered with blood spatter. Because most members of the Politburo found it hard to believe that all these military representatives were guilty of the alleged conspiracy or espionage for Germany, Stalin asked them to be tried by a tribunal of other prominent military. The trial took place on June 11, 1937 and was run extremely fast: the verdict was delivered before lunch and all the defendants have been executed the same day.
The judges themselves would not long survive the trial. Ouf of the nine military who convicted the defendants, six have been arrested and executed within one year after the trial. Eventually, the commanders of all military districts have been shot.
The Trial of the Twenty-One (1938)
The third Show Trial, also known as the Case of the Bloc of Rightists and Trotskyites, took place in March 1938. Togheter with Nikolay Bukharin and Alexey Rykov, who had already been accused by Karl Radek and Grigory Sokolnikov during the second show trial, the former People's Commissar of Internal Affairs Genrikh Grigoryevich Yagoda (1891-1938), who had formally been in charge of organising the first Show Trial, was accused. A huge complex of coherent accusations had been fabricated, including the murder of Sergey Mironovich Kirov (1886-1934), which was most likely planned by Stalin himself, and the murder of writer Maksim Gorky (1868-1936). Furthermore, they were accused of planning to murder Lenin and Stalin, and of numerous other assassination, espionage and sabotage plots.
The German writer Lion Feuchtwanger (1884-1958), who was allowed to attend the trial, wrote that «if a professional director had been assigned to put this trial on stage, he would probably have needed long rehearsals to achieve such smooth combination of the defendants.» All 21 defendants were found guilty. Eightteen of them were sentenced to death and got executed immediately after the trial.
The third Show Trial, and especially the execution of Genrikh Yagoda, was the beginning of the decline of «director» Nikolay Yezhov. His star had reached its peak on December 20, 1937, when the 20th anniversary of the NKVD was celebrated at the Bolshoy Theatre, where Yezhov's picture was placed on stage next to Stalin's.
But shortly after the third Show Trial, in August 1938, Yezhov was suddenly assigned a deputy in the person ofLavrentiy Pavlovich Beria (1899 - 1953). From September on, all NKVD resolutions had to be co-signed by the latter. In November 1938, after having been heavily criticised by Stalin and Molotov, Yezhov got dismissed as the People's Commissar of Internal Affairs «at his own request». On March 3, 1939, he was dismissed of all his public functions, except for his function as People's Commissar of Water transport. The Commissariat, however, was abolished on April 9, 1939, and the day after Yezhov was arrested. On February 3, 1940, his trial was conducted in a strictly private circle, and the day after he was executed.
Show trials in the Russian Federation
There are no mass executions anymore, but since the first term of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin (°1952) as a president, the Russian Federation has got again the phenomenon of Show Trials. Before becoming president, Putin had made a career at the secret police of the Soviet Union. From 1985 to 1990, he has been working in Dresden in the former German Democratic Republic, as a KGB officer in charge of the interrogation and internment of dissidents and «Western spies who wanted to invade the Soviet Union». Just before he became a minister in the government of Boris Nikolaevich Yeltsin (1931-2007) in 1999, he was the head of the Федеральная служба безопасности Российской Федерации (ФСБ) [Federalnaya sluzhba bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsii] (FSB) or Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation, the successor of the KGB. .
We collected some of the modern Show Trials in the Russian Federation on the next page.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev
As a president, Putin would soon show that he had not forgotten about the working methods of the good old KGB. The most notable examples are the lawsuits against Mikhail Borisovich Khodorkovsky (°1963) and Platon Leonidovich Lebedev (°1956), the former owners of the oil company Yukos. Khodorkovsky was a successful business man and known by his criticism of corruption in the Russian politics, and also by his commitment to openness with his movement Открытая Россия [Otkrytaya Rossiya] or Open Russia, and by his support to opposition parties.
In February 2003, at a televised meeting at the Kremlin, Khodorkovsky argued with Putin about corruption. He implied that major government officials were accepting millions in bribes and displayed a PowerPoint presentation illustrating the costs of corruption to the Russian economy. On October 25, Khodorkovsky and Lebedev were arrested on suspicion of tax evasion, fraud and embezzlement. Yukos got completely dismantled, and the most profitable parts were given to Rosneft, an oil company run by Igor Ivanovich Sechin (°1960). Sechin is a former KGB spy and one of the most conservative advisors of Putin. He was Deputy Prime Minister in the cabinet of Putin and leader of the Комманда Силовиков [Kommanda Silovikov] or The Men of Power, a lobby of former KGB agents, and thus friends of Putin, in the Kremlin.
In an attempt to reduce the public interest for the trial, it was held in the less significant Meshchansky district court in Moscow. Behind the scenes, however, the Kremlin and the Moscow City Court, the supreme court of the city of Moscow, played a guiding role. On May 31, 2005, Khodorkovsky and Lebedev were convicted for tax evasion and fraud to 9 years of imprisonment. On September 22, 2005, in a session of one day, the verdict was upheld on appeal, the sentence was reduced to 8 years.
Since there was a reasonable chance that Khodorkovsky and Lebedev would be released on parole before the presidential elections of 2012, and thus possibly could disrupt Putin's second presidential election, new «allegations» emerged, and a second trial against them was staged. This time they were accused of the theft of 350 million tons of oil. Besides the fact that this is physically rather impossible, it appeared that judge Viktor Nikolaevich Danilkin (°1957) was regularly «adjusted» by the Kremlin during the trial. Danilkin struggled with the sometimes absurd accusations and had to be regularly «updated».
Natalya Vasilyeva, the assistant of judge Danilkin, testified on February 14, 2011, that the judge had prepared his verdict to be delivered on December 16, 2010. On December 15, however, the deliverance was postponed for unknown reasons to December 27. On December 16, it became clear why. That day, Putin delivered a controversial speech in which he said that Khodorkovsky was a thief and therefore should be stay in prison. Vasilyeva testified that the original judgment of Danilkin had been changed and that he had delivered the new verdict against his will. As a result of this adjusted verdict, Khodorkovsky and Lebedev could not be released before August 2014.
In 2011, the then Russian President Dmitry Anatolyevich Medvedev (°1965) asked the Kremlin Human Rights Council to investigate the Khodorkovsky case further. The Council concluded that Khodorkovsky and Lebedev were innocent. It did not lead to a release, though. On the contrary, the nine members of the Council were accused of being bribed. Five of them were the subject of interrogations and prosecutions. Some lost their jobs or had to move abroad. In addition, a third case against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev was being prepared.
In the run up to the Olympic Winter Games of 2014 in Sochi, a project in which Putin wanted to shine in the eyes of the world, many world leaders had announced that they would not attend the ceremonies. Real reasons were not given, but it was clear that the way in which human rights were violated in Russia was at the basis of it. Especially the arrest of 30 Greenpeace activists a few months earlier, the Khodorkovsky case and the Russian anti gay law were an eyesore. On December 17, 2013, U.S. President Barack Obama said he would not come himself to Sochi. As members of the delegation which would represent him, he appointed two notorious gay people: tennis legend Billie Jean King (°1943) and hockey player Caitlin Cahow (°1985). According to the American-Russian journalist Masha Gessen, Putin loomed for the specter to see himself accompanied by «only the Ukrainian president and two American gays» at the opening of his personal prestige project. On December 19, 2013, Putin unexpectedly announced that Mikhail Khodorkovsky could be released, which happened the next day. On December 20, 2013, Khodorkovsky arrived as a free man in Berlin. According to Putin, he can freely return to Russia, but whether that will ever happen is doubtful, as the investigations for a possible third trial have not been put on hold.
On July 28, 2014 Russia was condemned by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague for the way Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Platon Lebedev and Yukos were treated. Besides the fact that Russia was sentenced to a very severe damages of 50 billion USD, the Court was also very hard in its motivation. The dismantling of Yukos was politically motivated, with the aim to push the company towards bankruptcy to take its assets and transfer them to state owned enterprises and to silence politically the CEO of the company, Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
It is the largest ever compensation awarded by the Court in The Hague: it is 20 times larger than the second largest, and does not even take into account complaints from minority shareholders whose files have yet to be examined.
The consequences for Russia are huge: the sum is 11 % of the country's national currency reserves and 10 % of the government budget. Also, there will be consequences for Rosneft, the energy giant which got most of Yukos' assets, and of which the British company BP became a minority shareholder. The Russians had to show the money before January 2, 2015. Since they didn't, interests started running. Although Russia can not appeal against the verdict, the Kremlin said they will try to use «all means to undo it». According to the 1958 Arbitration Convention, Russia is now risking the seizure of all Russian assets in 150 countries to execute the sentence.
In Putin's entourage, no one is in the least concerned. One of the people from his inner circle told the Financial Times that the verdict was unimportant in the light of the geopolitical issues with Ukraine: «There will be war in Europe. Do you really think that this case is of any importance?»
On September 20, 2014, Mikhail Khodorkovsky relaunched Open Russia during an online conference. The organisation aims to bring together citizens living both inside and outside of Russia, who share the European values of a strong, dynamic, and forward-looking state founded upon effective democratic institutions and the rule of law.
Another opponent of Vladimir Putin, the famous blogger Alexey Anatolievich Navalny (°1976), was also skillfully eliminated. Navalny, who was named Person of the Year by the Russian business newspaper Vedomosti in 2009, was known for his blogs and some initiatives of civil emancipation. One of his strategies, for example, existed in becoming minority shareholder in several major Russian state-owned enterprises. As a shareholder, he hoped to get information which would enable him to make the financial assets and the financial structure of these companies more transparent. Navalny was arrested and sentenced several times to a couple of weeks in prison for participating in demonstrations.
On July 10, 2013, when he was going to register as a candidate for mayor of the city of Moscow, Navalny was arrested under the eyes of many spectators and the press. On July 17, his candidacy was formally accepted. The next day however, on July 18, 2013, he was sentenced to five years of prison camp on a trial in the city of Krilov. The indictment was even absuder than in the case of Khodorkovsky and Lebedev. According to the judge, Navalny would have sold 10.000 cubic meters of wood of the state owned company KirovLes far under its value when he was an adviser to Nikita Yurevich Belych (°1975), the governor of the Kirov oblast in 2009. By doing so, he would have pinched 400,000 euros. The verdict of the court corresponded word for word to the accusation of the prosecutor, except for the punishment. The prosecutor had demanded six years in a labour camp.
On the evening of the verdict, thousands of people gathered in the streets of Moscow and other large cities in Russia, despite the formal ban on demonstrations. Due to those meetings, and also perhaps as a result of international pressure, a surprising news came out of the blue the next day, on July 19, 2013: on the initiative of the prosecutor, Navalny was released on bail. He was free again to await the appeal decision .
It is suggested that, with the release, the Russian government wanted to offer Navalny a last opportunity to escape. Journalist and human rights activist Alexandr Pinkhosovich Podrabinek (°1953), co-signatory of the so-called Prague Declaration, suggested on the website of the Institute of Modern Russia that the authorities have missed the moment that Navalny could be murdered without publicity. The Kremlin would like to see him emigrate. They would therefore like that he tried to escape from the court by seeking political asylum somewhere, in which case he could not return to Russia unpunished.
In February 2014, Alexey Navalny and his brother Oleg Anatolievich (°1984) were prosecuted on embezzlement and money laundering charges following a complaint by Bruno Leproux, general director of the Russian subsidiary of the French cosmetics and beauty brand Yves Rocher. The prosecution claimed they had embezzled over 26,7 million rubles or 540,000 USD from the Russian subsidiary Yves Rocher Vostok between 2008 and 2012. Despite the fact that Yves Rocher France denied that they had any losses, Navalny was placed under house arrest on February 28, 2014, and prohibited from communicating with anyone other than his family, after allegedly violating travel restrictions.
Then followed two surprising events. First, the sentence was scheduled originally to be read on January 15, 2015. Sympathisers had planned demonstrations in many cities on that day. Not only in Russia, but in many cities in Europe and the United States, Navalny supporters had planned actions at the doors of shops and offices of Yves Rocher, but on December 29, 2014, the judge suddenly announced that she was to read the sentence the next day, on December 30, 2014. The second surprise was that Alexei Navalny got only 3,5 years of suspended sentence, whereas his brother Oleg was sentenced to 3,5 years in prison and was arrested after the sentence was read. It looks like, by punishing Alexey's brother harder, the Russian authorities wanted to put additional psychological pressure on the Navalny family in another attempt to silence them.
If you thought this was the most absurd example, then you are wrong. On July 11, 2013, the District Court of Tver sentenced Sergey Leonidovich Magnitsky (1972-2009) for embezzling 230 million USD. Macabre detail: Magnitsky was already dead since three and a half years. On November 16, 2009, he died in a cell of the Butyrka prison in Moscow. He was already eleven months in prison without trial, and should therefore have been released eight days later, according to the Russian law.
Sergey Magnitsky was a lawyer who worked on behalf of Bill Browder (°1964), the American owner of Hermitage Capital Management, an investment fund in London, specialised in the Russian market. Magnitsky had discovered that, under the care of the Russian Interior Minister and some senior tax officials, a system was set up by which 230 million USD had been stolen from the company.
On June 4, 2007, 20 tax officials searched the Moscow office of Browder, and the documents they took were used to change the company ownership and turn it into a heavily loss-making business. The«new owner» turned out to be Viktor Aleksandrovich Markelov (°1967), a convicted murderer who had been released two years earlier. Shortly after this raid, the company had made so many losses that it was entitled to a tax refund of 230 million USD. On December 24, 2007, this amount was repaid... to the «new owner».
Browder contacted the Russian government with the findings of Magnitsky, and demanded that the money would be returned, not to Hermitage, but to the Russian people, and that the guilty ones would be prosecuted. The Russian government started a prosecution, albeit not against the police officers and officials who were involved in the theft. Instead, Magnitsky was accused of embezzling 17 million USD, and Browder could no longer access the Russian Federation.
Sergey Magnitsky was transferred to the Butyrka prison, one of the most notorious detention centers in Russia. He was regularly denied medical care.
An official inquiry committee, which was commissioned by president Dmitry Medvedev, would show in July 2011 that the indictment of the prosecutor against Magnitsky was a fabrication. The committee also revealed that his death was due to the denial of medical care, and they even found evidence of torture.
Bill Browder then began to lobby in the United States, and with success. On December 14, 2012, President Barack Obama signed the Magnitsky Act This law forbade all those responsible for the death of Magnitsky access to the United States and the use of the U.S. banking system.
The Russian government responded in turn. On December 28, 2012, the Tver District Court ruled that the doctors involved at the Butyrka prison could not be imputed, and the dead Magnitsky was taken to court. He was found guilty. When Magnitsky's lawyers said that they would appeal, the Russian government responded with the laconic statement that «dead people can not appeal».
Some are allowed to embezzle money
On March 29, 2001 at 22:00, the police arrested a man and a woman who had tried to cross the border with Switzerland at the customs post of Bietingen near Gottmadingen, Germany. They carried a handbag and a briefcase with documents and computer disks. The woman was Tamara Rudich (°1959), a molecular biologist. The man was Oleg Lototsky (°1962), a friend and business associate of Miss Rudich. They said they were on a business trip to Zurich. The customs post of Bietingen is not on the normal routes to Switzerland, there are rarely individuals coming along.
The documents they were carrying showed transactions worth 5 billion USD on account of six banks, including Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, ABN AMRO Bank and the Bank of Cyprus. The report submitted by customs to the Central Office against financial crime in Baden-Württemberg, stated that the authorised signatory was Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, President of the Russian Federation.
As far as we know, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin was not questioned about this incident and is still a free man.
Come back, Mikhail Bulgakov
The Navalny and Magnitsky cases caused reactions, not only in Russia but also worldwide. On July 20, 2013, Denis MacShane, the former Minister of European Affairs of the United Kingdom, wrote: «Where are you Mikhail Bulgakov when we need you?»
Not only trials
Quite some opponents of the regime of Vladimir Putin were not brought to court, but immediately killed. Especially journalists who wrote articles critical of the regime, were often brutally murdered. Not less than 144 journalist were killed between 1999, the year in which Putin started his first presidency, and 2014. One of them was Anna Politkovskaya, about whom you can read more here.
Another opponent of the regime who’s life was violently ended was Boris Yefimovich Nemtsov (1959-2015).
Nemtsov entered politics during the failed coup against former Soviet leader Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev (°1931) in August 1991. He organised the protest of citizens against insurgent soldiers in the defense of the parliament building. The coup failed and Nemtsov was noticed and included in the staff of former Russian President Boris Nikolaevich Yeltsin (1931-2007). As a governor of his home city of Nizhny Novgorod, and from 1997 as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Energy, he played a major role in the privatisation of former communist state enterprises
In 1998, he had to resign and he founded the liberal party Union of Right Forces. He was a leader of the liberal opposition to President Vladimir Putin. In 2004, he supported the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and he was economic adviser to the former Ukrainian President Viktor Andriyovych Yushchenko (°1953), whose face got severely disfigured as a result of a dioxin poisoning during the election campaign.
Boris Nemtsov was shot in central Moscow on Friday, February 27, 2015. He was 55 years old. An unidentified gunman shot him four times in the back when he was walking across the Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Most, a bridge at less than 100 meters from the Kremlin. He died a few hours after he had made a call to protest against the war in Ukraine in a mass demonstration on the next Sunday. A few days before the murder he had said in an interview that he feared that the president wanted him dead for his opposition to the war. The place where the murder was committed, and where your webmaster passed daily when he was living in Moscow, is infested with CCTV cameras. Therefore, there must be images of what happened. It was striking that the Russian Interior Minister Vladimir Alexandrovich Kolokoltsev (°1961), arrived immediately after the events at the crime scene to «supervise the investigation personally».
In 2013, Mentsov published Winter Olympics in the Sub-Tropics, a report on the corruption and abuse involved in the organisation of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. The former President of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, (°1967) told CNN that Nemtsov was now working on a report about the Russian involvement in the conflict with Ukraine. «He prepared an announcement on Ukraine,» Saakashvili said. «He wanted to tell the Russian public what is going on there.» This may have been fatal to Nemtsov. Journalist and Human Rights activist Aleksandr Ryklin, a friend of his said: «Anyone who stands up for Ukraine these days s seen as a traitor by the Russian media. An atmosphere is created in which everyone who disagrees with Putin is a traitor. This is certainly true when it comes to Ukraine. »
Russia officially denies that its soldiers are fighting in Ukraine. In reality, Russian soldiers are killed every day in this «undeclared war». Their bodies are returned to Russia in trucks as Груз 200 [Gruz 200] or Cargo 200, the code name used in Russia for dead bodies as they are transported from the battlefield. Nemtsov was shot down in Moscow shortly after he had announced that he would publish a detailed report about the Russian involvement in Ukraine under the title Путин. Война. [Putin. Voyna] or Putin. War. After Nemtsov's death, some of his colleagues completed his report and published it on the Internet.
Voroshilov, Molotov, Stalin and Yezhov...
... who was executed in 1940
Lavrentiy Beria, Stalin's last knight (book cover)
The KGB officer Vladimir Putin
Judge Viktor Danilkin reads the verdict
at the Khodorkovsky trial
The body of Boris Nemtsov
on Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Most
A Gruz 200 convoy repatriating dead
soldiers from Ukraine in June 2014