Show Trials

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Staged trials of opponents of the Soviet regime held in Moscow between 1936 and 1938.

The most visible aspect of Josef Stalin's Great Purges was a series of three Moscow show trials staged in August 1936, January 1937, and March 1938. Former leading members of the Bolshevik Party were put on trial for treason and generally confessed, often after being physically tortured, to participation in elaborate terrorist conspiracies against the Soviet state, ranking officials of the Communist Party, and Stalin personally. The trials were carefully staged and scripted, covered in the national and international press, and intended to justify in public the purges of the Party and the state apparatus that Stalin was implementing in 1937 and 1938.

The sixteen defendants at the first trial, including Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev, described by the prosecutors as the "Trotskyity-Zinovievite Terrorist Center," were charged with plotting to kill Stalin and several of his top lieutenants, including Sergei Kirov, who had been assassinated in 1934, very likely on Stalin's orders. All sixteen were found guilty and shot within twenty-four hours of the verdict.

The defendants at the second trial, including Yuri Piatakov, Karl Radek, and fifteen other prominent Old Bolsheviks, termed the "Parallel Center" by the prosecutors, were charged with plotting terrorist acts and engaging in active espionage in the service of Japan and Nazi Germany. Thirteen of the defendants were shot.

The final and most important of the three trials included several of the most prominent members of the Bolshevik old guard: Nikolai Bukharin, Politburo member and chief theorist of the NEP; Alexei Rykov, chair of the Council of People's Commissars; and Genrikh Yagoda, head of the Secret Police (NKVD) until 1936. The twenty-two defendants in this trial, members of a putative Anti-Soviet Right-Trotskyite Bloc, confessed under extreme physical pressure to terrorism, conspiracy to kill Party leaders, espionage, the murder of Maxim Gorky, and the attempted murder of Vladimir Lenin in 1918, among other crimes. Bukharin, the most important defendant, accepted responsibility for all the crimes named in the indictment but refused to confess to specific criminal actions; nonetheless, he was sentenced to death along with eighteen of the other defendants. Stalin and his secret police tightly controlled all three trials from behind the scenes; the outcome was preordained.

The term show trials usually refers to the Moscow trials, but it can also denote the numerous other trials staged throughout the USSR in 1937 and 1938, under orders from Stalin and the Politburo. The Bolsheviks organized these provincial show trials, at least seventy of which were approved by the Politburo, to show the people that saboteurs, "wreckers," and traitors were a threat even at the local level.

Finally, the term can also describe any number of staged political trials held throughout the early Soviet period, especially between 1921 and 1924 and again from 1928 to 1933, such as the Industrial Party trial of 1930, in which eight prominent technical and engineering specialists were accused of sabotage and espionage and were sentenced to terms in prison.

See also: great purges, the; gulag; stalin, josef vis sarionovich


Conquest, Robert. (1990). The Great Terror: A Reassessment. New York: Oxford University Press.

Fitzpatrick, Sheila. (1993). "How the Mice Buried the Cat: Scenes from the Great Purges of 1937 in the Russian Provinces." Russian Review 52:299320.

Medvedev, Roy. (1989). Let History Judge: The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Paul M. Hagenloh