An enigmatic bolshevik
Liam Conway reviews The Trial of Bukharin, by George Katkov.
Nikolai Bukahrin remains one of the Soviet Union’s most intriguing figures over 70 years after his demise. An exceptionally gifted writer and intellect Bukharin’s life was both eventful and tragic at the same time. From his youthful days as a leading member of the left-wing current of the Bolshevik party and his staunch opposition to the Brest Litovsk treaty, to his later years as leader of the right-wing opposition to Stalin’s forced collectivisation which led to his execution. Bukharin makes up part of the old Bolshevik tradition and like so many of his former comrades has been forgotten and mistreated by historians who refer to him and Stalin as the same. Of course when one looks at the events it becomes clear that if Bukahrin and his old comrades where the same as Stalin then why did he have them executed? Common sense it seems is lost on many of our revisionist historians. To add to using common sense one could also read this excellent book by George Katkov. It details the horrors of Stalin’s Soviet courtrooms and the complete perversion of justice that took place in them.
The book is divided into two sections, the first one dealing with Bukharin’s road to the courtroom detailing his rise to prominence and his relationship with Lenin and other prominent Bolsheviks. The second section details the trial itself going through the evidence presented with an amazing amount of detail. While the first section is indeed interesting, you do get the impression that it is merely a stepping stone leading up to the core section of the book, the trial. With this in mind some key parts of Bukharin’s earlier political life do seem rushed most notably his part in the opposition to the signing of the Brest Litovsk treaty. Having said that the book itself does not claim to be a book about Bukharin’s life but about his trial and the first section does achieve the necessary amount of information to guide readers to this point in his life. For a more detailed account of Bukharin’s life I would recommend Stephen Cohen’s ‘Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution’.
So having led us to the courtroom Katkov presents us with the trial and its key components and players. The prosecutor General of the show trials Andrey Vyshinsky is covered in great depth with Katkov examining his seemingly relentless interrogation of the defendants and his ruthless treatment of their testimonies which included constantly interrupting them mid speech and his frequent clashes with Bukharin due to his linguistic presentation of his defense which confused Vyshinsky. Of the other prominent defendants Katkov notes how Rykov, Yagoda, Krestinsky and Rakovsky all seemingly succumb to turning on each other and decrying one another for instructing them to commit some act of counter-revolutionary activity with the buck usually ending up at Bukharin’s feet who willingly acknowledged certain charges. It is worth noting that other than Bukahrin all other defendants were under physical torture and when presented at trial looked visibly shaken and fragile. Although he had committed suicide before the trial Mikhail Tomsky is frequently mentioned for his part in the Bloc of rightist and Trotskyists counter-revolutionary movement. The book although extremely well detailed and written does at times leave you wondering and on some points when one is desperate for an answer Katkov offers a mere suggestion. The book is more concerned with the proceedings rather than the big political questions and seeks to criticise the trial from this viewpoint which it does extremely well. Of course the book was published in 1969 so one can forgive Katkov for not knowing the answers and indeed until the collapse of the Soviet Union and the opening of the Stalin archives many authors offered mere opinions rather than concrete proof answers. That for me would be the books only down point it is slightly dated, an update using information gained from the Stalin archives and from Bukharin’s prison manuscripts would help to bring this book up to date.
In summary Katkov’s examination is well written, he goes through each section of the trial with great precision and is extremely informative on numerous aspects of Soviet law at the time so as to explain parts that many readers may not understand. This coupled with his intriguing examination of Bukharin’s defense and how he maintained a certain amount of dignity knowing what awaited him make the book a very useful look at a dark period in human history.