27 DECEMBER 1969, Page 16

Cautionary tale


The Trial of Bukharin George Katkov (Batsford 50s) As a means of educating the Soviet popula- tion, the triumphant Bolsheviks made it their policy to trample ostentatiously on legal pro- cedures as followed in 'bourgeois' societies. An early example was the framing in 1922, on various far-fetched charges, of forty- seven non-Bolshevik socialists, who were prevented from defending themselves effec- tively in a courtroom invaded by screaming 'workers' demanding the death penalty for the accused.

Even before the trial began foreign socialist lawyers encountered hostile demonstrations as they arrived in the Soviet Union to defend certain of the accused. Among the hooting, jeering crowd at Moscow station they recognised one Nicholas Bukharin, most renowned of Marx- ist theoreticians and reputedly a humane and civilising influence—yet now in the vanguard of a howling mob determined to bring justice into contempt. Sixteen years later this same Bukharin was himself framed at a far more spectacular show trial, and one which was also rigged in advance, but with in- comparably greater expertise and ruth- lessness.

This was the third in the series of the three great Moscow trials which began with the degradation of Zinovyev and Kamenev in August 1936. Now, after months of pro- cessing by Stalin's secret police, Bukharin confessed himself leader of a 'Bloc of Rightists and Trotskyites'—a mythical organisation concocted for the occasion. Bukharin was duly shot, along with the former NKVD chief Yagoda and over a dozen others. Most had cooperated, in lesser or greater degree, with the techniques of political gangsterism pioneered by Lenin and perfected by Stalin. Under arrest all had been terrorised, blackmailed, deceived or persuaded into learning or pretending to learn their parts as actors in a prescripted pageant masquerading as a legal process—an episode in the acquisition of total power by Stalin. .

It was thus Bukharin's fate to perish by a terror machine which he himself had done much to consolidate. This allegedly 'shrewd' politician was an especially appropriate vie- tun, since he had spent much of the year before his arrest, idiotically, in helping to draft the Stalin Constitution. Published to December 1936, this sinister document guaranteed the Soviet population widespre3

civil rights, including freedom from arbitrary arrest—a characteristically Stalinist prelude to the mass terrorisation of millions of people by prison, concentration camp and execution.

Hoist or not hoist with his own petard, Bukharin was an important figure of his age, and it is appropriate that a historian of George Katkov's calibre should bring to bear on him that blend of subtle scholarship and controlled impetuosity which is just what the subject requires. I do not myself have the soft spot for Bukharin which Dr Katkov perhaps retains, and am always suspicious when any sponsor of political repression is, as it seems, half excused on grounds of his `sincerity'. Not that Bukharin had much of a killer instinct. Once the civil war was over he threw his weight, on the whole, against the drive towards ever greater inhumanity in Soviet life. He never sought or held a power base within the party and government machine, but operated either as an editor (of Pravda and 1zvestiya) or as head of the Comintern. In the great con- troversy over peasant collectivisation, he tried to cast his influence against the official Stalinist policy of massacring recalcitrant muzhiks.

When Bukharin was finally haled before a court of justice such as he had done much to pervert, he cooperated—or rather appeared to cooperate—with the trial-riggers, perhaps because the USSR was now confronted by militant Hitlerism, and this was no time to rock even a Stalinist boat. Yet while giving many of the required answers, Bukharin re- jected certain charges—notably the fatuous accusation of attempting Lenin's assassina- tion in 1918. He also introduced into his testimony many a cunningly disguised swerve which threw the whole court proceedings into doubt—or would have done, rather, had the courtroom been packed with observers as perceptive as Dr Katkov, and not with the pre-selected claque of pliant stooges drafted by the NKVD on these occasions.

This analysis of Bukharin's trial is a masterpiece of insight, providing an eloquent comment on the Stalinist age as a whole. It will serve as a fitting epitaph on a figure who combined intellectual brilliance with lack of

elementary sense—both in extreme degree —and thus helped to lay Russia pro- strate at the feet of a tyrannical dictator. The book is, accordingly, a valuable guide to a barbarous era still little understood.