“A Machine of Terror” is the term project of Criminal Justice 475-T, Russian Justice, an upper-division elective for criminal justice majors. The first half of the semester is spent reviewing early Soviet history. During the second half they rehearse the script, which was written by the instructor. Students are both cast members and stagehands. And most of the characters they portray are real.

By 1934 Stalin was defacto dictator of the Soviet Union. But he still had scores to settle. His despised enemy Trotsky, whom Stalin had exiled to Europe, was accusing the General Secretary of slaughtering his people in a mad quest for power.

Regrettably, Trotsky - himself no angel - was correct. Peasants who opposed collectivization were exiled to Siberian work brigades. Forced collectivization led to famine in the provinces. A frenzied industrialization campaign caused many lethal accidents. These became acts of “wrecking,” to be dealt with by exile or worse.

In December 1934 Leningrad party leader Sergey Kirov was murdered. Eager to rid himself of former opponents and install his own “team,” Stalin pointed to the crime as proof of a conspiracy to topple the USSR. To bring the imagined traitors to justice he ordered Prosecutor-General Andrei Vyshinsky and Military Judge Vasily Ulrich to stage the Moscow Show Trials of 1936, 1937 and 1938. Leading members of the Party were accused of plotting with Trotsky to murder Communist leaders, “wreck” Soviet industry and abandon the country to Germany and Japan.

Evidence at the first trial consisted nearly solely of confessions. Its predetermined end – the conviction and execution of all sixteen defendants – was greeted skeptically by some in the West.

To assure a better reaction at the 1937 trial prosecutors impressed five “witnesses” to corroborate the confessions of the principal defendants. This time the response was more positive. American Ambassador to the USSR Joseph Davies and New York Times Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter Walter Duranty said the accused were guilty. Davies later financed “Mission to Moscow,” a film that glorified Stalin.

A third and final trial took place in 1938. Again, all were convicted. In all, forty-seven defendants were shot soon after the verdicts, with no opportunity to appeal. “A Machine of Terror” collapses the 1936 and 1937 trials into one, using actual testimony from official transcripts to demonstrate how the great injustices were accomplished, for the whole world to see.


Jay’s novel, “Stalin’s Witnesses”



Class website and script

Stalin’s Witnesses website

Contact the instructor

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