A History of Show Trials

The following is exclusive English translation Yevgeni Zhirnov, “The Most Staged Court in the World”, Kommersant VLAST, No. 14 [768], 14 April 2008, pp. 64-69. With the assistance of the VAGRIUS publishing house «Vlast» presents a series of historical materials in the rubric ARCHIVE vlast050508.jpgThe Most Staged Court in the World The agitational process Among the multitude of riddles left to us as an inheritance by the Soviet power, one of the most intriguing consists of in what manner the Bolsheviks managed to change the attitude of tens of millions of people towards the repressions being conducted by them. Right after the revolution, many members of the party, not to mention representatives of the former governing and propertied strata, the ancien-regime intelligentsia, the peasantry and unconscientious proletarians, were sincerely and vociferously outraged by the lawlessness going on in the chekist torture chambers. As well as by the verdicts of the tribunals, based not on laws, but on revolutionary legal consciousness.

And suddenly, just a few short years later, the outrage at the arbitrariness of the Soviet power began to fade to naught. On top of that, already in the second half of the 1920s, no small part of the population of the country began to ardently approve of the hard line of the OGPU, the procuracy and the court towards eradicating the opponents of the new order. And during the time of the “great purge”, participants in mass rallies all over the country completely sincerely demanded death sentences for the accused in political cases.The answer to [the riddle of] this phenomenon, it would seem, is simple. Fear forced the ideological opponents of Bolshevik power to hold their tongue. And with the help of the Soviet propaganda of endless brainwashing being conducted, any thoughts other than those that coincided with party slogans disappeared from them [the brains]. After all, Stalin did say that “print – is the sharpest, strongest weapon of our party”.However, in actuality everything looked far from so linear and unambiguous. The Soviet propaganda apparatus at the beginning of its existence was not distinguished by particular might and numbers, while its output did not have a decisive influence on sentiments in the country. Moreover, even having higher-level skills, party agitators would not have achieved an improvement in results. Outstanding orators in the RCP(b) numbered no more than fingers on a hand. So CC Agitprop had to state that the principal kinds of ideological work – rallies, meetings and lectures – do not give the desired effect.In addition to this, in the 1920s because of difficulties with paper, printing ink and printing presses, the print runs of agitational publications did not exceed 3-5 thousand copies. And the central and gubernia newspapers found their way into the backwoods in single copies and with huge delay. True, not many readers were found outside the boundaries of the large cities either; after all, the struggle with universal illiteracy was only just being deployed, while public wired-radio outlets and loudspeakers appeared in every more or less large village much later, already at the tail end of the 1930s.A necessary instrument of influence on the minds of the masses was found where it was not expected – in a bourgeois custom of the recent past. It derives from the practice of jurist-students of previous centuries. Into the course of their study entered improvised court sessions, during the course of which every student tested his strength in the capacity of prosecutor, defender, judge and, naturally, accused. And the professors during the course of the staged trials graded the knowledge of these or the other areas of law and the oratorical abilities of their students.In Russia, such a practice appeared in the first half of the XIX century, and soon, following the jurists, the wordsmiths were dragged into the competitions of a judicial type, and in student circles started to perform trials of literary heroes. During the time of these sessions, true, no judicial rules were observed, and most often they were transformed into exercises of the prosecuting and defending side in eloquence, which, unconditionally, helped to become a good man of letters, teacher of the language arts or critic.Together with the graduates of universities, the predilection for organizing trials of the characters of stories and novels ended up in gymnasiums [high schools] and specialized schools, where they tried Onegin and Dubrovsky, Pechorin and Bazarov. As it turned out, to lose taste for a behavior that helps well to dispel the boredom of Russian life, especially the provincial, is decidedly impossible. And therefore trials of the heroes of Lev Tolstoy invariably entered into the programs of family evenings and perfectly respectable merchant and other clubs.There are no doubts that all the more or less educated leaders of the Bolsheviks participated in staged trials of literary characters. Therefore, the decision to fill the old form with new revolutionary content arose with the beginning of the Civil War simultaneously in different parts of the country and with different people. The first to undertake the organization of improvised trials were military commissars, attempting in intelligible form to clarify to the Red Armymen the necessity for a struggle with lice or the malignity of desertion. However, due to primitiveness and a boring text, the staged tribunals did not have particular success and, correspondingly, did not receive broad dissemination.Things picked up after real professionals tackled improvised trials, putting the matter on a commercial basis.“Of all the kinds of mass work, trials are one of the most valuable”At the beginning of the 1920s in conditions of post-war breakdown and constant epidemics, the People’s Commissariat of Health Care of the RSFSR was engaged in propaganda in scales fully comparable with CC Agitprop. But the main thing is, it received highly significant funds for it, which immediately gave rise to a flow of proposals from those desiring to spend them. Among the claimants clearly present were strong pre-revolutionary entrepreneurs, who did propose raising the primitive improvised trials to the level of high theatrical art.They did not think up anything out of the ordinary. In the capacity of the basis for one of the first such stagings was taken a real trial of a prostitute, who had infected a Red Armyman with syphilis.“The plot of the trial of the prostitute is given by comr. A. Shimanko”, wrote in the year 1922 the manager of the sanitenlightdepartment of the Main Military-Sanitary Administration A. Edelstein. “The trial is worked through and prepared for printing by Dr. A.I. Akkerman. Closest participation in the working through was undertaken by Dr. V.M. Bronier.”As a result, there turned out a quality text that captured the attention of viewers and wrung out a tear. As an example, the prostitute Zaborova only after lengthy deceptions and denials, only after the testimony of witnesses confessed that she traded in the body. And the prosecutor denounced not so much the defendant as the bourgeois order, that had forced a woman to hit the pavement. But it was the speech of the defender that was distinguished by especial profundity:“Citizeness Zaborova – is a prostitute. This we know well, of this the accused herself confesses. But is she guilty of this? Retrace the life of Zaborova, and all will become clear and understandable to you. And to understand – means to forgive. The personal drama of Zaborova is so much like the life of hundreds and thousands of women, who have ended up on the street, that it is necessary for us to speak of her, to feel her experience, to retrace all the details and only then to reach conclusions, adopt decisions, important not only for Zaborova, but also for a thousand like her. How vividly and simply to the point of cynicism did the fall of Zaborova take place, how cruelly and maliciously did life trample Zaborova in the mud and the vortex, from which she was unable to get out…“A woman-workeress should not be a mother – after all, a child needs to be fed, only the rich have the right to a family and children. At 17 years Zaborova had to solve an unsolvable task. At 17 years she, helpless, discarded by all, stopped at the junction of two roads: to go along one – to bring oneself to ruin, but to save the child, along the other – to save oneself, to bring the child to ruin. And she, a mother, did not think long, did not choose, of course, to save her child, to save at any price whatsoever, even if it will be necessary to bring herself to ruin… She gave the child away into the village and herself went to earn bread. For the money earned with her body, she fed the child.“Zaborova was a real mother – Zaborova heroically fulfilled her higher duty and higher purpose. And she, the one whom we are judging, she is a vivid example of the selfless fulfillment of the obligations of a mother. Zaborova is not a match to those mothers who abandon their children, who are incapable of sufferings even in the name of those whom they themselves gave life. So say, citizens judges, is she at fault for at 17 years going on the street and stepping on a path from which it is hard to leave? You, feeling and knowing the heart of the people, you, say together with me – no, not guilty! The old life needs to be judged, those who threw her on the street, those who turned her into a prostitute. What happened next? Life laughed at Zaborova – the child died. And she… treading along the trodden road, wronged by life, offended by enemies, cast aside by friends, she was admitted into a public house.”Also corresponding to the time and the hopes of future viewers was the finale of the staged trial. They direct Zaborova for medical treatment to a hospital, while against the Red Armyman infected by her, Krestyaninov, they initiate a case “on the charge of making use of prostitution and creating demand for it”.The success of the first staging turned out to be phenomenal.“Indisputably”, wrote Edelstein, “it needs to be admitted that of all the kinds of mass work, trials are one of the most valuable. Involving in active creative work multitudinous members of the club, they in a living, vivid and truly dramatic form give the necessary conceptualization and popular presentation of scientific truths, sweeping the listener, forcing him together with the dramatis personae of t he trial to experience everything that they are experiencing. Not once our trials, conducted with a maximum of realness, until the last moment maintained for the listener the illusion of the reality of the trial. Not in vain did the next day after the first presentation of the trial of the prostitute, which took place with exceptional success in the Polytechnical Museum in Moscow in the summer of the year 1921, there appear in «Pravda» a note in the section of current judicial news like about a real trial, and a clarification had to be given to the newspaper. They may say to us that the significance of trials is limited, that, having once seen a trial, nobody is going to go see it a second time, while the number is therefore not great, and thereby this kind of work is doomed to a quick death. Of course, this is not so. For Moscow alone, so that all working people would look it over, is needed minimally 1000 stagings, while over this year there took place throughout Moscow a mere 150 of them (the number is highly venerable). And where is the rest of the Republic, where is the village, that has not yet heard about this? Every worker on the field of enlightenment excellently imagines to himself, what significance such a trial will have in our village. Of course, for the village we will need to introduce a series of correctives, bringing the milieu and the types closer, but this is details.”However, the fears turned out to be completely groundless. The people came in droves to the staged trials, and the actors employed in them could count not only on material support from the People’s Commissariat of Health Care, but also on a percentage of the box office take. There immediately appeared mini-troupes made up of professional actors, performing roles in sanitenlighttrials in a single breath. Good thing their quantity grew like yeasty dough. There appeared play-trials about a husband, who had infected a wife with gonorrhea, an old woman-sorceress, a negligent doctor and bootlegger-peasants, poisoning neighbors with their swill. About the staged trial “The Trial of a Medprecinct Doctor” people’s commissar of health care Nikolai Semashko wrote:“This idea couldn’t be more timely: specifically now, when we are trying to implement a link with the village in the realm of the protection of health of the peasant as well, when the raising of village medicine we place as a shock-task – it is especially valuable to raise the question about the role of the village sector. Medicine in the village we will be able to place only with the help the peasants themselves. Staging, i.e. live, vivid reproduction of reality, will serve as a mighty propagandistic-agitational medium.”From the year 1923 began mass stagings of agittrials throughout the country. Following in the footsteps of the health care professionals, other organizations and agencies as well joined in the process of creating a simulation of trials. For example, staged trials of railroad switchmen and engineers, who supposedly had allowed train crashes to take place, were arranged by the People’s Commissariat of Routes of Communication. Nor did the trade unions lag behind; they, as an example, charged primary organizations with conducting staged trials of putative non-payers of membership dues, in order to scare real ones.“The proftrial”, wrote the trade-union official and author of staged trials M. Leyzerov, “unconditionally, [is] one of the better methods of mass profpropaganda. Popularization of the current work and practical achievements of the trade unions, propaganda of the ultimate and immediate tasks of the professional movement – all this finds in the proftrial a live, effectual formalization that is interesting for the broad working mass, accessible to it, at times even seizing it.Naturally, the growth in the quantity of play-trials unavoidably led to an expansion of the circle of authors and the appearance of decidedly third-rate creations. In the “Polittrial of the Perpetrators of the Imperialistic War”, as an example, was present such a dialogue between the judge and the Germanic Kaiser:

“Chairman: Your name?Wilhelm: Wilhelm II.Chairman: Surname?Wilhelm: Hohenzollern.Chairman: Your profession?Wilhelm: Professional king.”

Pearls such as this were contained also in other simulation-judicial creations. However, this did not in any way impede the growth of the popularity of staged trials. And the party soon assessed such a valuable instrument of ideological work.“The space itself must recall a courtroom”From the year 1925, they began to regiment the process of preparing and showing agittrials from above, sending instructions and indications out to the locales with respect to their correct staging. First and foremost, the party prohibited the use for their staging of professional actors. The trials were supposed to be staged by theatrical circles of working people from that plant or from that village, where the imaginary trial was intended to be shown. Besides the principal participants in the trial, there had to be present at the performance 20-25 persons, called “instigators”, who sat together with the viewers in the hall and in the necessary places in the action provoked the assigned reaction – they provided the right cues, applauded or stamped their feet, whistled and shouted.The most serious attention was devoted to imparting to the staged trial full similitude with a real one. In one of the instructions was said:“The space where the staged trial is put on must itself recall the general appearance of a courtroom. On a dais – the stage in the auditorium or on a specially cobbled-together platform is placed a table, covered with red cloth. At the table are three chairs: for the chairman and the two members of the court. At the left side – a rostrum for the defender, at the right – the same kind of rostrum for the prosecutor. Somewhat deeper – a table for the secretary and the stenographrix. At the sides two doors – one, leading to the “Deliberations room”, the other – to the “Witness [room]”. Somewhat below the level of the stage – a special dais for the defendant.From this same dais appear the witnesses as well. The stage is decorated with portraits of Lenin, people’s commissar of justice Kursky, depprocurator of the republic Krylenko and so forth. On the walls halls posters with slogans: “The proletarian court defends the conquests of the October revolution”, “The proletarian court defends the interests of working people”, pictures of an old and a new courts, photos from our correctional houses, diagrams giving a general impression about the work of our proletarian courts, excerpts from our constitution concerning the proletarian court, codes of laws and so forth printed in large letters.”It was stipulated very strictly that the trial must not last longer than 4-4.5 hours, otherwise the viewers may tire and lose interest in what is going on. In an appendix to certain plays was appended a time sheet for every stage and every appearance. Moreover, it was especially underscored that the reading of the accusatory conclusion [bill of indictment] for the avoidance of that same loss of interest and attention must not extend for more than 20 minutes. They began to make special demands also of the quality of the accusatory conclusion. It was recommended that it be written by some kind of worker of the procuracy. And about the course of the subsequent “judicial examination” were given the most detailed and concrete indications:“In order that some kind of bickering begin between the chairman and the defendant (this enlivens the general testimony of the defendant, interrupting his monologue with dialogue), they arrange in advance with the defendant about how he will intentionally drag out his word. The chairman interrupts him with the retort:“‘I ask you, citizen N, to speak more briefly and closer to the matter at hand!’“The defendant seeks support from the people’s assessors and complains that they are not letting him speak, that he can not calmly tell everything in order, that they are terrorizing him.“It is good if at this time someone from the instigators would shout from his seat: ‘You, comrade chairman, don’t muzzle the defendant, we’ve got us a proletarian court here, and everyone can say all he knows’, while another instigator would interrupt him: ‘But if he’s spewing all sorts of garbage and completely, it can be said, not on the matter at hand, then what, the proletarian court is obligated to listen to him and waste time plain and simple.’“Such sparring between the two instigators will evoke a certain noise in the hall, squirming on the chairs of the defender and prosecutor, the ring [Russian equivalent of “gavel”] of the chairman, while all this will enliven the session.”Literally everything was regimented – from the character of the testimonies of witnesses and experts to the speeches of the prosecutor, defender and defendant. In essence, in political cases the defense lawyer was supposed to not defend the defendant, but together with the procurator recognize his guilt and ask for leniency due to mitigating circumstances. Thus did they slowly and quietly habituate the population to [the idea] that they do not put the guiltless on trial in the USSR.Other gimmicks existed as well. As an example, in rayons where they didn’t love Soviet power all the way, it was proposed to try a woman who had joined the party. And in the process of the examination unobtrusively, with the help of the “instigators”, it ought to be proven that both membership in the party, and the party itself – this is a good thing.Likewise furtively into the consciousness of people was introduced the thought about how children could give testimony against parents – serving this aim were the special plays “A Judicial Case About Children” and “A Judicial Case About a Mother, Who Had Stuck Her Children Among Childinstitutions”. What is more, into the minds of viewers was introduced the thought that children not only can, but even must, inform on parents, and [that] this is approved of by society.For the most experienced organizers of staged trials, the height of aerial daredevilry was proposed – a variant of a trial, during the time of which all those present in the hall served as people’s assessors. Preceding the verdict was a discussion managed with the help of an experienced and tested chairman of the court and the “instigators”. And in the end, the viewers, nudged towards the adoption of a previously prepared decision, continued to sacredly believe that they had determined the outcome of the session themselves, by their own volition. After all, [surely you will] agree, it is always pleasant for a toiler who has been screwed by everybody, to, even if not for long, even if make-believe, become the arbiter of strangers’ fates. One just has to habituate the masses to this feeling, and they will be ready to approve any verdict. Whether the court be the fairest or the most staged in the world.