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Famous cases: The Moscow trials

Famous cases: The Moscow trialsWhen is a trial not a trial? When it’s staged and planned with only one possible verdict.

The Moscow trials were a series of three trials that took place in August 1936, January 1937 and March 1938 under Stalin’s regime. Former leading members of the Bolshevik Party were put on trial for treason and terrorist conspiracies against Stalin and the Soviet state.

Over the course of the three trials, more than fifty defendants were tried for crimes ranging from terrorism to espionage. Prominent members of the Bolshevik party were accused of plotting to kill Stalin and his lieutenants as well as spying for Japan and Nazi Germany. Almost all of the defendants were found guilty. Those found guilty were shot, in some cases within twenty-four hours of the verdict.

Torturing for the truth

At the time, most Western observers who attended the trials said that they were fair. They based this assessment on the confessions of the accused, which seemed to be freely given in open court.

However, from the accounts of former secret police officer Alexander Orlov and others it is now known that the confessions were given only after great psychological pressure and torture had been applied to the defendants. The prisoners were subject to repeated beatings, torture, having to stand or go without sleep for days on end, and threats to arrest and execute their families. After months of such interrogation, they were driven to despair and exhaustion.

The power of propaganda

The Moscow trials were in reality show trials. The authorities staged the actual trials meticulously; they not only pre-determined the guilt of the defendants, but also orchestrated the whole trial processes. Massive propaganda campaigns in newspapers and at numerous meetings shaped the opinion of the public towards the cases.

Eventually almost all of the Bolsheviks who had played prominent roles during the Russian Revolution of 1917, or in Lenin's government afterwards, were executed. Out of six members of the original Politburo during the 1917 October Revolution who lived until the Great Purge, Stalin himself was the only one who survived. The Moscow trials were orchestrated by Stalin to help him achieve absolute power in the Soviet Union.