Dictatorship and Democracy: Case Study 1: Stalin's Show Trials

Leaving Cert > Dictatorship and Democracy in EuropeCase Study 1: Stalin's Show Trials

Andrey Vyshinsky, prosecutor at each
of the show trials.
One of the most terrifying ways through which Stalin established a totalitarian dictatorship in the Soviet Union was through his purges and his show trials. Anyone who Stalin believed was opposed to him would face one or the other. Millions of people would die from the purges, from ordinary people to leading members of the Communist Party.

The so-called Great Purge began in 1936 with the arrest of Kamenev and Zinoviev, Stalin's former allies in his power struggle against Trotsky. They, and others, were put on show trials in Moscow. For this case study, you'll take a close look at Stalin's show trials, so you can assess the impact that they had on Stalin's Russia and how Stalin used them for his own gain.

  • The First Show Trial, 1936
    • Accused: Kamenev, Zinoviev, 14 others.
    • Charges: murdering Kirov, plotting to murder Stalin, working with Trotskyites.
    • Trial: Forced confessions, Vyshinsky prosecuting, Learning off lines, Confessions as evidence, K. and Z. plead guilty, executed.
  • The Second Show Trial, 1937
    • Accused: Radek, Pyatakov, 15 others.
    • Charges: conspiring with Germany and Japan against the USSR, sabotage of the Five Year Plans.
    • Trial: Vyshinsky prosecuting, They confess and are found guilty. 13 executed, 4 sent to labour camps. 
  • The Third Show Trial, 1938
    • Accused: Bukharin, Rykov, Yagoda, 18 others.
    • Charges: membership of the "Anti-Soviet Block of Rightists and Trotskyites", economic sabotage, plotting to murder Stalin.
    • Trial: Vyshinsky prosecuting, All plead guilty and are executed. Bukharin pleads guilty to save wife and children.
  • Reaction: Many inside and outside the Soviet Union believed the trials were legal. Soviet citizens believed there was a conspiracy against the Soviet Union.
  • Stalin's Role: Directed by Stalin in secret, Show trials used as propaganda, denounced by Khrushchev after Stalin's death.

Higher Level (100 marks each)

2012: What were the main characteristics of Stalin's rule in Russia?

2010: How effective were the internal and external policies of Josef Stalin?

2009: How did dictators use propaganda and/or terror to maintain their power?

Ordinary Level

2011, Dictatorship and Democracy, Part C:
2009, Dictatorship and Democracy, Part C:
Why did Stalin set up show trials and to what extent did they achieve his desired result? (40)

2008, Dictatorship and Democracy, Part C:
What was the purpose of Stalin's show trials in the 1930s? (40)

2007, Dictatorship and Democracy, Part C:
What impact did Stalin's show trials have on the Soviet Union? (40)

2006, Dictatorship and Democracy, Part C:
What was the importance of Stalin's show trials in Soviet Russia? (40) 

The Case of the Trotskyite-Zinovievite Terrorist Centre (the First Show Trial)
Read the full transcript of the first show trial here. You can see that the trial was made up on just three parts: examinations of each of the accused, Vyshinsky's speech for the prosecution, and the last pleas of the accused.

Article on the Trial of the 21 (The Third Show Trial)
An article from New International (a Marxist paper) on the third show trial and its legacy. It's written through opinion, be aware of bias and propaganda.

Footage of the Third Show Trial (YouTube)
Narrated as a documentary. You can watch Vyshinsky speaking.

Russia remembers Stalin's purges (YouTube)
Russia Today news channel reports on the 70th anniversary of the show trials.

"And they all confessed..."
An overview of the show trials, with images showing just how thoroughly Stalin would remove certain people from Soviet history.