Soviets Restore Stalin’s Victims

<i> Roy Medvedev, a Soviet citizen living in Moscow, is a historian whose books and articles have been published in the West. </i>

A historic announcement from the Supreme Court of the Soviet Union has rehabilitated a group of politicians and statesmen. These men, widely known in their time, had been slanderously accused in 1938 of entering a conspiracy against Soviet power and socialism. They were sentenced to death by the military collegium of the Supreme Court of the Soviet Union and shot in the same year.

Each name in this list demands attention. But two names have generated the most interest: Nikolai I. Bukharin and Alexei I. Rykov, two members of the Politburo in the ‘20s who voiced criticism of Stalin’s policies in 1928-29 and found themselves at the head of the political group that Stalin labeled “the right-wing deviation” in the party.

Many people ask why rehabilitation came so late. Why weren’t Bukharin and Rykov rehabilitated after the 20th Party Congress, when Nikita S. Khrushchev delivered his sensational report on Josef Stalin’s crimes, on extermination of Lenin’s guards in the party, on tortures and falsifications during investigation? Some people ask why Bukharin and Rykov were so important and why their rehabilitation is such a big issue today.


Both men were among Lenin’s closest comrades-in-arms and they joined the relatively small Central Committee before the Revolution. After the Revolution, Rykov was included in the first Soviet government as the people’s commissar for internal affairs. From 1921 he was Lenin’s deputy; after Lenin’s death he became chairman of the People’s Commissars Council of the Soviet Union, the most important office within the system during those years.

Bukharin became the chief editor of Pravda as early as 1918, in addition to being one of the party’s most prominent theoreticians and, later, one of the Comintern’s leaders. In 1921-23 he was the one whom Lenin mentioned in his “Testament” as “the party’s pet by rights.” Earlier, Lenin spoke of Bukharin as “the golden child of the Revolution.”

During the ‘20s, Bukharin and Rykov developed both theoretically and practically the New Economic Policy (NEP) proposed by Lenin. Therefore in the late ‘20s they quite naturally opposed the premature rolling back of that policy. Stalin wanted to restore the methods used during the so-called “wartime communism” period, including the forced and hasty collectivization and dispossession of the kulaks--well-to-do farmers who profited from peasant labor. Bukharin and Rykov also opposed the adventuristic plans of “super-industrialization,” which even then inflicted serious damage on our economy and led to millions of deaths among peasants. Stalin won the struggle. But even after their defeat, both Bukharin and Rykov continued their work at high posts and were members of the Central Committee of the party.

Stalin’s usurpation of power in the ‘30s was followed by physical elimination of the bulk of Lenin’s cadres in the party. Different methods were employed for murdering the old Bolsheviks: secret terror, shootings without trial, exile and forced labor in camps. A particularly cynical method was chosen by Stalin for those Bolsheviks who were the closest to Lenin.

He staged “open and exemplary” court cases before the eyes of the entire world; Soviet and foreign journalists, diplomats, members of the intelligentsia were invited. Novelist Lion Feuchtwanger was present at one of them; Joseph E. Davies, U.S. ambassador to Moscow from 1936-38, was sent by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to witness another. Both later wrote books testifying for Stalin and against his victims. Broken by tortures and blackmail, the defendants at the “Moscow processes” did “admit” monstrous crimes--espionage, subversion, acts of sabotage, preparations for dismemberment of the Soviet Union and annihilation of socialism, arranging for Stalin’s--and before that of Lenin’s--murder, creation of a deeply concealed terrorist organization, allegedly headed by Bukharin and Leon Trotsky and run by the German Gestapo, the British, Japanese and French intelligence services. Not everyone believed this testimony but the majority did; the thought of such an open and cynical provocation did not occur to the public.

It is known that Khrushchev did intend to rehabilitate Bukharin, Rykov and all other of Lenin’s closest comrades-in-arms. But this never happened. Khrushchev stopped halfway, failing to complete the unmasking of Stalin’s crimes. Leonid I. Brezhnev took bigger pains to rehabilitate Stalin than his victims. The right conditions for the new criticism of Stalinism have arisen only now. Other circumstances now compel Gorbachev and his men to review many issues in the party’s history. After Stalin’s death all new party leaders were talking about restoration of the “Leninist norms in the party life.” But only today this “return to Lenin” constitutes a real foundation for the perestroika --rebuilding--now under way in ideology, politics and economics. Such restructuring isn’t possible without reconsideration of the political fate and significance of the people who were in Lenin’s closest circle.


The concept adopted by the 20th Party Congress perceived all Stalin’s major crimes as having been committed only after 1934. This concept is now being subjected to ever more convincing criticism. In 1987-88 our literature and journalism began to pay special attention to collectivization and the New Economic Policy. In the latest novels by Boris Mozhayev, Vasili Belov and Sergei Antonov, we can see a picture of the natural and rapid development of the Russian village, based on the healthy foundation of the NEP and cooperation of all kinds.

Resolving rural problems does not require violence, or any “second revolution.” The colossal potential of the Russian village, be it in the north, south, east or west, only now begins to manifest itself, promising unheard-of agricultural abundance for the country. But instead of this abundance, in Stalin’s time we witnessed crude and violent interference with the natural course of rural development, destruction of the village’s productive forces, annihilation of the most productive units and cruel violence against those peasant families, classed as kulaks, often on malicious and senseless grounds.

And all this led to more than poverty; it caused starvation and death of many millions of peasants. Not only writers and journalists, but experts on agriculture as well today reject the legitimacy of the definition kulak , used in 1929-1932 to justify the mass deportations of wealthy peasants. The kulaks of the late 19th and the early 20th centuries, about whom Lenin wrote with vehemence (not always giving them full justice), had essentially been destroyed during the Civil War. In the late ‘20s this definition was mainly applied to hard-working, middle-level farmers who attained relative prosperity through ceaseless labors in the several years of the New Economic Policy.

This resolute revision of the previous perceptions of the NEP is reflected in the policies of the current Communist Party leadership, too. Every assistance to development of forms of cooperation, individual labor, cultivation of private plots, gardening, independent contracts, family farming, even creation of mixed, Soviet-Western firms--all this represents partial restoration, in new conditions, of many methods and principles of the NEP.

The 1987 rehabilitation of a large group of economists and agricultural experts should also be seen in the light of political changes. The experts had criticized Stalinist methods of forced collectivization and this led to their death, on fabricated charges of organizing a mythical “rural labor party.” The number of those rehabilitated last year exceeded 1,000.

Of course, this rehabilitation, even if late by many years, can only be welcomed. This is an important step forward in exposing Stalin’s crimes. But it also shows us many shortcomings of the current political and state system. For the majority of people, the innocence of Bukharin and Rykov was evident after the 20th Party Congress.


Ten years ago the campaign on behalf of Bukharin assumed an international character but neither the Soviet state prosecutor’s office nor the Supreme Court of the Soviet Union dared inquire into this affair without direct orders from the party hierarchy. The writing of history proved to be just as dependent on the political hierarchy. Much is being said now on the need to eliminate the “blank spots.” But what prevented historians from eliminating these “spots” before? It turns out they had to obtain permission from the political authorities to do that.

On Feb. 4, the Supreme Court overruled its own verdict on the “right-wing Trotskyist center.” But the 1938 process was not the first of its kind. Similar “open processes” were held in 1928-32, 1935 and 1936. When will it be the turn of those falsified court productions? A precise and balanced political and legal evaluation of the activities of Grigory Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev and even Trotsky is needed.

It is known that at different times Trotsky acted both as a fiery opponent and as a devoted follower of Lenin. His relations with Stalin also had ups and downs. But Trotsky was never a “Gestapo agent” or a “mercenary of American imperialism.” The death sentence for these crimes did not stay only on paper; it was carried out in 1940 in Mexico by the KGB’s predecessor, the NKVD, through one of its “special operations” units. One can only hope that the resolution of all these affairs will not again be postponed by several decades.