You Are There: Season 2, Episode 4

The First Moscow Purge Trials (August 24, 1936) (20 Sep. 1953)

TV Episode  -   -  Drama | History
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Episode credited cast:
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Himself - Host - Narrator
Rest of cast listed alphabetically:
Robert Cornthwaite ...
Andrei Vishinsky
Peter Mamakos ...
Yagoda
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Drama | History

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20 September 1953 (USA)  »

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1.33 : 1
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The Full Force of Stalinism Hits Russia
1 January 2007 | by (United States) – See all my reviews

I actually did see this particular episode of the series. For a change the format did not seem out of place, probably because the interview of modern political leaders would fit into the 1930s. Except for one point: Joseph Stalin would have never agreed to that kind of journalism unless it was done by one of his henchmen in the press like Walter Duranty.

Stalin's rise to control of the Soviet Union is less well known in this country than Hitler's in Germany or even Mussolini's in Italy. Stalin had been a minor Bolshevik leader, but gradually got into the inner circle of Lenin in the early 1920s. Lenin never trusted Stalin, for the Georgian was not much of a political theorist as Lenin and his ally Trotsky were. But Stalin was gifted in moving people he could use into important positions of power. This slowly pushed him into being head of the Communist Party, just as Lenin died. Lenin's health had declined between 1919 and 1924 due to a serious wounding in an assassination attempt. He always planned to dump Stalin, but he never got the chance.

Stalin made alliances with Zinoviev and Bulkarin and several others. Like his Austrian-German counterpart these alliances were all of convenience and temporary until he could throw them aside. His intention was to build a fence around the Party leadership and the government and force out Trotsky, whose achievements had been mostly under the early years of the regime (he had rebuilt the Russian Army with Alexei Brusilov), and was able to use it to put down the White Russian Armies in the Civil Wars of 1919 - 21. But in the maneuvering following Lenin's death Stalin was a better tactician. For one thing, Stalin made it appear that Lenin was breaking with Trotsky over policy differences (the two men actually respected each other's ideas). This included excluding Trotsky from the pall bearers at Lenin's burial. Trotsky also made the foolish mistake of refusing to attend the funeral to show his anger. The others (at Stalin's prodding) thought it showed Trotsky was not a team player.

By 1928 Trotsky had been stripped of all his appointments. He saw the handwriting on the wall, and left Russia. He proceeded to France, where he would live into the middle 1930s, when French politics forced him out. He ended up in Mexico, until his assassination in 1940. But his last decade made him Stalin's worst enemy (hence the need to kill him), as he took his literary talents to analyze Stalin's blunders and crimes.

Stalin tried to turn the Soviet Union into a revolution that was concentrating on only Russia. Lenin and Trotsky wanted to export the revolution around the globe (and Soviet foreign policy up to 1928 did just that under Gregory Zinoviev). Stalin ended that, leaving Zinoviev's Comintern rather useless. As I said, he dropped his one time allies when no longer useful as quickly as Hitler did.

The various economic schemes (the five year plans) were not as successful for the immediate time - though it turned out in World War II some of them proved very helpful in putting industry out of the way of the German Army. There was talk of replacing Stalin with the head of the Soviet Party in Leningrad (the former and future St. Petersburg) Kirov. Kirov was assassinated (we now know that Stalin ordered it) in 1934. In 1936 he announced a massive anti-Soviet conspiracy that he claimed was linked to the murder of Kirov. This was the start of the purge trials. Mostly they were the military leaders like Marshal Tuckhachevski, but gradually hundreds and then thousands were dragged in like Zinoviev and Bulkharin and Karl Radek.

The show shows the thoroughness of what one writer called "The Great Terror". We see Bukharin pleading with his family not to try to do anything to stop his inevitable execution. We see Yagoda, the then head of the KGB, realizing that Yedzhov (his successor) was the willing tool of the trials with their "court arranged" confessions gained by tortures. The situation used in 1984 in describing the nightmare world of Winston Smith was created by Stalin in 1936, as much if not more than by Hitler in the same period. Finally Trotsky and his son rip apart the so-called conspiracy of the victims of the purges, Trotsky and Hitler. "I'm a Jew.", says Trotsky, "Why would Hitler make a plan with me against anyone?"

The number of victims of the purge trials (that lasted until 1941) was close to 10,000. Others who were not shot after they confessed were sent to the gulags as slave laborers. The purges did destroy the effective leadership of the military which was one of the reasons the Wehrmacht was able to do so well for the opening year of the war. It has only been in the last fifteen years that the victims have slowly been rehabilitated by the Russian government.


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