In The Trial, a film branded by the director “a unique example of a documentary in which one sees ‘24 frames of lies’ per second,”1 Sergei Loznitsa remastered over two hours of footage he found in the Krasnogorsk film archives to bring to life one of the best preserved Stalinist “show trials” of the 1930s. Using one of the earliest sound recordings available on celluloid in Russia, the director carefully digests in his 127-minute film the condemnation and sentencing of eight prominent economic, academic and political figures of 1920s’ Soviet intelligentsia accused of plotting in favour of a foreign intervention allegedly meant to destabilise and eventually overthrow the Soviet government. Recorded in 1930, this trial represents – according to the film director – the first act leading to the famous purges known as the “Great Terror”, a period considered one of the bloodiest in Russia, and one which contributed greatly to the overall number of 15 million killings purportedly effected on the Soviet populace during the entire reign of Soviet rule.2 In the trial, accused of sabotage, counter-revolutionary activities, and preparation of a coup d’état, three of the defendants are given 10 year sentences; three are given death sentences commuted to 10 years of imprisonment; while two are given death sentences executed seven and eight years after the trial.
I talked to Sergei Loznitsa at the GoEast Film Festival in Wiesbaden, Germany, on 13 April, 2019, where his film played in the Bioskop section.
Your film (which represents an outstanding effort for both cinematic and historical purposes) supposes nonetheless not only a lot of context but also subtext: we have to be able to read between the lines of the defendants’ self-criticism in order to see the fabrications in action. But what if our imagination cannot reconstruct the historical context precisely enough?
In that case I can’t help the spectator. You know how well the Chinese language is organised? There are characters which describe the simple things (about three to five thousand) which you need to know in order to read a newspaper, and there are characters that describe the more complicated things. If you know these about seventy or eighty thousand characters you can move into areas which not everybody is in a position to understand. I am not sure that all Chinese people know these characters. When you come to this level, you will be able to read very complicated and deep things. And the only way to come to it is education. How would it be possible for me to explain everything that exists between the lines and make it understandable in two hours? It’s impossible.
Why did Soviet power choose the courts, in your opinion, to stage the culpability of these eight defendants, as your film argues?
What does this literature mean, for what we see in the trial is obviously literature?3 And what is the point of this performance? Why did the government choose this way to accuse the defendants? One can say it is in response to the strikes that the workers started to stage. Why? Because after 11 years of revolution nothing happened, and life was even worse than before. So the government had to find a simple explanation to sell to all the uneducated peasants. For it is peasants, not workers, that were majoritarian in the early Soviet state. In a country of 150 million people, 110 were peasants. They said the masses were made up of proletarians and peasants but it is not true: it was peasants only, and they were uneducated – they probably knew the alphabet and had basic knowledge of mathematics. Thus we can talk about communism as a religion (to appeal to the masses), a religion which also saw the defendants of the trial as necessary scapegoats for the future. But a simple answer to your question is impossible.
Let’s put ourselves in the historical moment for a second. What if we were to play devil’s advocate and make abstraction of what we now know about the gulags, the crimes and the outcome of early Communism? Thus, in 1930, from the point of view of the Soviet government in a situation in which the Civil War had only recently been won, and battles in Asian Russia between foreign powers and the Soviets raged until the mid-twenties, would it be an exaggeration to think of the government’s accusations as founded and the answers of the defendants as not a performance? Is it possible, taking this line of thought, that the trial therefore came from the government’s literal fear of being overthrown by foreign intervention?4 In short, can we take the trial at face value?
Short answer, no. The civil war finished in 1921. There were some gangs in Asia, and some gangs in the mountains in the Caucasus, but there were no serious troops involved in battles. The war was over in 1921 when the Battle of Warsaw was lost by Tukhachevsky, and Pilsudsky had won.5 You say “Soviet Government” but we always say that every single letter that made up the name of the country, USSR, is false: there was no Union, it was not Soviet, there were no Republics, and the government wasn’t Socialist. The Soviet government was a gang which took power following the street battles of the 1917 revolution. Do you know how many Bolsheviks existed at the beginning of the revolution? 26,000 out of 150 million. These 26,000 – part of whom many had previously been terrorists (Stalin was one of them) – took power and then started to fight: Either with each other or with their leader, Lenin, who had become increasingly unavailable to the others because Stalin controlled the exchange between him and the others.
After a while most of the people at the top started to die. One of the first was Kirov, who had won the elections for the general secretary of the Communist Party. We now know that Stalin killed Kirov in 1934. Throughout this time, the ten or so people at the top divided power between themselves, formed groups, and fought with each other: Trotskyists against anti-Trotskyists, Bukharinites against anti-Bukharinites, Communists against anti-Communists, until Stalin finally killed all of them. This was Stalin’s strategy for keeping power. In this way, creating divisions between people who were pro-Soviet and enemies of the Soviets was a strategy necessary to explain the killings: We are the proletarians, we hold the keys to paradise, and it is the others, whoever they are, that are to blame for destroying our movement and making a diversion. As such, France also became an easy target, hence the references in the trial to Poincaré. Why? Because Napoleon already made an intervention in the 18th century, and it failed. This intervention was easy to instrumentalise. Following this, the Soviets killed tens of thousands of engineers and tens of thousands of academics who were enemies of their regime, and who were unable to organise themselves into a military opposition in the way the Ukrainians or the Tajiks did against Russian colonial troops. These were intellectuals, of course, but they were the enemy.
I understand all this, but the truth of the matter remains that there were foreign governments helping the Whites in the Civil War and thereafter. As such, the mention of France is timely because foreign governments did send money, materiel, and even troops to fight against the Reds at various times.
Of course. It was the French government, but also the British and the German, this is true. Although, on a side note, the German government had an agreement with Ukraine, not the Whites, to keep Ukraine independent for one and a half years while they in fact stationed themselves there. Of course, when the (Tsarist) empire collapsed, everybody wanted to make a profit. It is understandable.
Precisely. Isn’t this why the Soviet government (or power) might have had a phobia of counter-revolution from abroad?
No. The government knew the real situation very well. They had spies everywhere. So they didn’t have grounds for this kind of action. However, what they did have were grounds for propaganda. They handled propaganda very effectively. In fact the government used this intervention to say: “Look, they already came to us (during the Civil War), and it’s very possible they will actually come again.” When in fact no foreign power ever had in mind to conquer such a large, wild country like Russia.
There was a question in the Q&A which I am not sure you answered. Unlike the other intertitles purely describing what is going on, there is an intertitle towards the end of the film which posits that the “Industrial Party” was a fabrication of Stalin’s.6 This seems to comment rather than describe. Did you put it there? Finally, if it is indeed as self-incriminating as you claim the overall trial is for the government, why do the Soviets go to such great lengths to nevertheless film it?
This is my intertitle. All intertitles are mine, and I included them because I wanted to identify who the characters were and what was going on. This intertitle represents what we know now. Of course, it was difficult to know at the time that this party did not exist. I assume some people knew the trial was a performance, but maybe not a whole lot of them. But this uncertainty may be exactly why the government staged this performance in public – made a public show of it – precisely because they wanted to show their version as truthful. In the beginning of Soviet repression, the government made it a point to advertise their activity. The idea was to transform people, to change mentality. As such, the Soviets argued that because of the unfavourable conditions prevalent during the tsar’s days, people became “bad” and it was the Soviets’ duty to transform them. This was the official rhetoric. They created stage plays in this direction, as well, plays such as “Aristocrats” or “Nobility” which takes place in the Solovki gulag (the first of the gulag “system” built in 1923) and in which the protagonist admits to his past mistakes and understands that he has to change. Interestingly, this play was very popular because nobody knew what happened inside there, and it also gave hope to relatives of the ones sent there seeing the play that their loved ones would return. Another example of this propaganda is a collective volume written by many of the writers active at the time who were taken to the work site of the Belomoro Canal (a canal that was to connect the Baltic and the White Seas) to describe the working conditions there. However, this strategy used up to this point by Stalin to legitimate his actions came to an end in 1934. After ’34 Stalin decided they didn’t need to advertise this direction anymore because the public understood by then with whom the Soviets were fighting, and proceeded to shoot, I think, almost all of these writers. Following this, the book was banned, as so was probably this film, and the same happened to the play.
Finally, they produced this as a sound film, even though in 1930 few (actually very few) cinemas were equipped to play a film with sound. Maybe a few theatres in Moscow and that was it. As such, it probably didn’t work very well. But fortunately the footage survived and due to it we can almost “touch” this time. Even if we don’t understand everything about this historical moment, due to this film we can at least have a feeling about it.
I certainly agree. And precisely because we don’t understand everything about it, don’t you think there is some room for ambivalence? One of the defendants in the film at one point says that his convictions changed; that he used to be a believer in the Soviet ideals, but that after a time he lost trust in the government. Considering such statements as truthful rather than performative, don’t you believe that the Soviet government held – at least in the beginning – a degree of hope for those ruled by it? Do you believe – as you seem to be saying with this film – that there was never any optimism and that everything was decided before it even got started?
The simple answer is yes, it was decided from the beginning. And a simple example is the Russian tsar. The tsar was shot with his children and the entire family despite the fact that he rejected the opportunity to lead the White movement, and he didn’t want blood to flow in the country. This happened in 1918. After that they killed millions of people. For all the time they were in power, the Soviets killed 15 to 16 million. They created hunger in cynical ways in the Volga area – and this accounts for two million dead; they further created famine in Ukraine and in Kazakhstan and this also accounts for 5-7 million. Many were killed from the nobility and from the army, as well, in all Russian territories. And this happened from the very beginning. Given these actions, I don’t think we should see any ambivalence.
I understand. I am sorry we don’t have any more time now, and I thank you for your film and this conversation.
Thank you very much.
- From the description of the film at the Venice International Film Festival where The Trial had its world premiere. ↩
- In his preface to The Great Terror: A Reassessment, Robert Conquest argued in 2008 that “the whole range of the Soviet regime’s terrors can hardly be lower than some fifteen million.” (p. xvi, italics in orig.) ↩
- In the sense of record but also fiction. ↩
- The main accusations brought by the tribunal presided over by Andrei Vyshinsky is that the defendants collaborated with foreign powers (particularly France’s government under Raymond Poincaré) to subvert the Soviet economy and militarily intervene in Russia, following, one infers, the interventions seen in the Civil War where Czech, Japanese, German, British, French and American troops all battled at some point or other the Bolshevik forces in armed conflicts in a Civil War, which according to Jonathan Smele lasted from 1916 until 1926. See Jonathan Smele, The ‘Russian’ Civil Wars, 1916-1926: Ten Years That Shook the World, London: Oxford University Press, 2015. ↩
- An action started by Lenin in response to the Polish attack on Kiev, which eventually led to the Peace of Riga in which Soviet Russia and Poland agreed to draw their first post-war borders, which were to remain intact until WWII. ↩
- The group of eight is accused throughout the trial for belonging to a certain “Industrial Party” or “Union of Engineering Organisations” which were allegedly created to overthrow the government. ↩