Review: “From Tsardom to the Stalin Constitution” – W. P. Coates and Zelda K. Coates

Published in the UK in 1938, “From Tsardom to the Stalin Constitution” by W. P. and Zelda K. Coates is an excellent history of the Soviet Union and the impressive achievements of the Soviet working-class under the leadership of Joseph Stalin.

Considering the year this book was published it is difficult to imagine this book causing anything less than a violent uproar by bourgeois scholars and politicians in the U.S. and Western Europe. The Coates challenged all bourgeois lies and distortions of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin, and socialism. Since these same bourgeois lies and distortions continue to be propagated today, most of what the Coates wrote is still relevant more than 80 years after the book was published. In other words, this book has stood the test of time.

This book offers an excellent introduction to the Soviet Union and to socialism for anyone unfamiliar with either. That being said, for a seasoned and well-read scholar of the Soviet Union (like me!), the book mostly contains dry and repetitive economic and social statistics that have also been documented by other socialist scholars, including much more recent (ex. 1970s-90s) ones.

Except for the last chapter.

It is the final chapter of this book that makes it one of the most exceptional books I have ever read on the Soviet Union. The final chapter addresses the so-called “Show Trials” of Bukharin, Zinoviev, Rykov, and other Bolsheviks in 1930s, for which I happen to own the first edition English translations of the court minutes and testimonies. In this chapter the Coates offer a detailed and superb historical analysis of the trials.

The Coates first address the role of Stalin in these trials: “Those who regard these trials as a measure of personal revenge on the part of Stalin against Trotsky and the other accused will be surprised to learn that it was precisely Stalin who in the early days of the opposition whilst fighting them with arguments for all he was worth, nevertheless stood out strongly against any idea of their expulsion from the Party” (p. 286) In 1924, when the ‘Leningrad Faction’ led by Zinoviev demanded the expulsion of Trotsky, Stalin and the Central Committee rejected Trotsky’s expulsion. As Stalin said: “We could not agree with Zinoviev and Kamenev because we realized that the policy of expulsion was a peril to the Party, that this method of chopping, of blood-letting — and they were out for blood — was dangerous, infectious. To-day one may be expelled, to-morrow another, the day after it will be a third — and what will be the result?” (P. 287). Later, when Bukharin in the course of a speech told the kulaks to “get rich,” once more the Leningrad faction of Zinoviev, Kamenev, etc. wanted blood; and once more, Stalin and the Central Committee refused. “You demand Bukharin’s blood,” Stalin told Zinoviev, “we shall not give you his blood” (p. 287) In December 1925, Stalin again came out in favour of unity of the Party: “We are against scissions in the Party” (p. 287). As the Coates write, “Throughout this period and up to the end of 1934, the only repressive measures brought to bear on the opposition was the dismissal of its leaders from important positions in the Government and expulsion form the Party” (p. 289). Some, such as Trotsky, were expelled from the USSR, and others, such as Zinoviev, Kamenev, etc., were expelled from certain cities, but none of them were tortured, tried, or killed.

All this changed only after the assassination of Kirov on December 1, 1934. Only then was legal action taken against members of the Right and Left Opposition. Zinoviev and Kamenev were charged, tried, and sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment. Further investigation revealed far more nefarious activities by members of the Right and Left Opposition, including secret alliances with Nazi Germany and Japan.

The Coates make an interesting observation of the so-called “Show Trials” in 1937-38: that the defendants “didn’t confess the whole of their guilt…Oh, no! they only pleaded guilty or confessed so much as they saw they could no longer deny. In each successive trial they suppressed everything they possibly could suppress about the activities of the various opposition groups and organizations; they did not give away their fellow conspirators so long as they had reason to believe that the authorities did not yet know about their activities. Anybody who reads the verbatim reports of the successive trials cannot but be convinced of this. They pleaded guilty for exactly the same reason as accused in a British, French, or other court plead guilty, even though they may have at first denied their guilt, when they see that the evidence against them in the hand of the authorities is too strong” (p. 293).

It would be easy to dismiss the Coates’ analysis of the 1930s trials as “communist propaganda,” but that is exactly what makes this chapter so unique and invaluable. The Coates don’t just argue that the defendants were not tortured, that it wasn’t revenge killing on the part of Stalin, etc., they cite the testimonies of U.S. and Western ambassadors, journalists, and scholars that attended the trials!

Mr. Ward Price, writing for the Daily Mail (March 8, 1938), hardly sympathetic to the Soviets, wrote: “What conceivable explanation is there for such abnormally stoical insensibility? The confessed traitors know that they cannot escape the death penalty. They have nothing to gain by their abject self-reproaches, nothing to lose by defying to the last the regime for whose ruin they declare they have been working for many years. Why should the fact of being found out have changed their attitude towards Bolshevism? Torture? Men whose spirits had been broken by torment would show some outward signs of their sufferings, and would not have the liveliness of wit to exchange smart repartee with their judges. Terror? It is possible that the Ogpu — the Russian secret police — have seized their relatives as hostages, but what would Yagoda [head of the OGPU and on trial], himself till lately the head of that diabolically cruel gang, have faith in any promises of immunity for them that might be made? Moreover, the evidence at this trial is being given into the microphone and broadcast, so that anyone who knows Russian can tune in and listen. If torture or terrorism had brought about the prisoners’ submission surely one of them would blurt out the truth to the unseen listening world outside” (p. 307).

Sir Bernard Pares, Professor of Slavonic Studies at the London University, in an article for the Spectator, September 18, 1936, wrote: “As to the trial generally, I was in Moscow while it was in progress and followed the daily reports in the Press. Since then I have made a careful study of the verbatim report. Having done that, I must give it as my considered judgement that if the report had been issued in a country X (that is other than the U.S.S.R.) without any of the antecedents I have referred to, the trial would be regarded as one which could not fail to carry conviction. The examination of the sixteen accused by the State Prosecutor is a close work of dispassionate reasoning, in which, in spite of some denials and more evasions, the guilt of the accused is completely brought home. The act of indictment, which is very full and covers thirty pages, frequently cites the admissions of the accused in the preliminary examination, but does not in itself present any difference from what procedure might have been elsewhere. It is only the final speech of the State Prosecutor that he rises to heights of passion, and even here, in view of the admissions made by the accused, he hardly says more than might have been expected from many prosecuting barristers in this country. In the light of this record the only possible repudiation of the results of the investigation would have to be based on an assumption that the whole procedure was from start to finish a gigantic ‘frame-up’. For this the record itself presents no kind of justification” (pp. 312-13).

The Observer reported on August 23, 1936: “It is futile to think the trial was staged and the charges trumped up. The Government’s case against the defendants is genuine” (p. 308).

The Daily Herald correspondent reported: “A second great political trial has come and gone in Moscow within six months. Again we have heard one-time revolutionaries confess to counter-revolution and the most shocking career of murder, sabotage, and anti-government conspiracy in modern times. Now, instead of Zinoviev plotting to assassinate Stalin, we have Radek, renowned for twenty years as a Communist spokesman, planning with Nazi aid ‘the return of capitalism to Russia’. Yet to an eye-witness who attended the Zinoviev trial and who has lived in the Soviet Union since 1934 this proved to be the converse of fantastic as the case unfolded hour by hour and day by day. Nor is the writer’s opinion an isolated one. It was generally shared by the other foreign observers” (p. 308).  

Mr. Dudley Collard, an English barrister and member of the Executive of the National Council for Civil Liberties and the Howard League for Penal Reform, stated (in the Daily Herald, January 28, 1937): “I have never heard of such a tale of treachery, murders, spying, sabotage, and terror as the prisoners have told, with complete callousness and effrontery. In my opinion, there can be no question of a ‘faked’ trial, either with or without the connivance of the accused. It is obvious to anybody that the prisoners who do most of the talking, while Prosecutor Vyshinsky confines himself to an occasional question, are behaving spontaneously. No set of seventeen men could act their parts so brilliantly nor sustain their activity in this way without a slip for four long days. They are clearly in full possession of their faculties, do not appear to be terrorized, and look well. There is nothing to prevent any of them from alleging that the charges were framed” (pp. 309-10).

The News Chronicle reported, January 26, 1937: “All assertions abroad of broken spirits of the defendants and the administration of narcotics upon them by the State to force proper replies is sheer nonsense. The accused are well dressed, appear to be well fed, and in the best of health. They speak their mind with rare interruption from the prosecutor, often asking for the floor, and being given it in the course of fellow-defendants’ testimony” (p. 310).

The New York Times reported, January 24, 1937: “One of the most experienced foreign diplomats told the writer to-night: ‘If this is lying, then I have never heard the truth’” (p. 310)

The News Chronicle reported, March 5, 1938: “All the accused are giving testimony damning themselves with an air of complete sincerity” (p. 311)

The Sunday Times reported, January 31, 1937: “But it is hard to remain wholly skeptical of confessions so circumstantial and penitential. Radek told the Court that he confessed only when he was confronted with the confession of others. He may whittle away the particulars, but it is a hard irreducible core which says ‘I was wrong, I was wicked to do what I did. I deserve to die.’ The strong probability is that he was a traitor, and did many of the things of which he is accused” (p. 313).

An absolutely superb book!