Authors: David Aaronovitch
Tags: #Historiography, #Conspiracies - History, #Social Science, #Popular Culture, #Conspiracy Theories, #General, #Civilization, #World, #Conspiracies, #.verified, #History
Stalin’s inevitable revenge came a year later. Strengthened by the outraged reaction of many party members to Trotsky’s displays of out-and-out factionalism, the Stalinists and their allies voted to send the recalcitrant prophet into internal exile. In January 1928, Trotsky took the train to Alma-Ata in Kazakhstan, where he was to languish for the next eleven months.
Back in Moscow, some of his erstwhile friends made their peace with the majority. Pyatakov was one of these, now emerging in public to describe Trotsky’s views as “self-contradictory.” The sound of harrumphing came all the way from central Asia. “All contradictions,” snorted Trotsky, “disappear in a man who like Pyatakov makes a suicide jump into a river.” Supporters of Trotsky who had accompanied him into exile were just as indignant, treating news of Pyatakov’s desertion with “the contempt and derision reserved for renegades.” Trotsky excommunicated Pyatakov and the other stay-at-homes from the opposition: “They have denied their own convictions and have lied to the working class,” he wrote.
In January 1929, Trotsky was banished from the Soviet Union altogether and put on a boat, arriving in Constantinople on February 13, 1930.
One reason why Pyatakov may have found it possible to reach an accommodation with Stalin was that the general secretary had begun a great shift from what, in Soviet terms, was the pragmatic right to the radical left. Severe economic problems had led to a slowdown in industrialization. Falling out with Bukharin, Stalin blamed the peasantry and in particular the kulaks, the wealthier peasants. Moving the Bukharinites out of positions of influence, Stalin commenced what has been called the Second Russian Revolution, a combination of China’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. Private property was abolished; peasants’ land-holdings were appropriated in the process of collectivizing agriculture; there was an almost reckless drive to create heavy industry. A great army of rapidly trained engineers was commanded into being. As one writer put it, “Scientific industrial ‘norms’ and rational calculations were cast aside in favor of impassioned mobilization.”
One consequence of this was the almost incredible success of the first five-year plan, whose quotas were famously achieved a year early.
Another was a resulting period of chaos, hunger, and disease. Inevitably, someone had to be blamed for the suffering, and equally inevitably, the authors of the plan were not going to blame themselves. The good—the products of the Soviet economic miracle—was their doing. The bad was the fault of the enemies of the revolution—the kulaks, the backsliders, the saboteurs, and the oppositionists.
Back to the Plot
In February 1931, a few months before the meeting with Pyatakov that was to become so notorious at the 1937 trial, Leon Sedov, working as an outrider for his exiled father, arrived in Germany and rented an apartment in Berlin. His role in the city was described later by Trotsky: “Leon was always on the look-out, avidly searching for connecting threads with Russia, hunting up returning tourists, Soviet students assigned abroad, or sympathetic functionaries in the foreign representations.”
Sedov’s task was complicated by the presence of Soviet security agents, whose surveillance followed him as he chased “for hours through the streets of Berlin . . . to avoid compromising his informant.”
This must have made his discussions with Pyatakov somewhat risky, since the red-haired, whiskery old Bolshevik was notable for his appearance. Even so, as Pyatakov testified at the trial, the two men agreed to meet again just a few days later, and in the same restaurant. This second conversation was very brief, lasting no more than ten or fifteen minutes. The subject under discussion was funding the conspiracy. “Sedov said, ‘You realize, [Yuri] Leonidovich, that inasmuch as the fight has been resumed, money is needed. You can provide the necessary funds for waging the fight.’ ”
The funding mechanism Sedov specified was for Pyatakov to place as many Soviet government orders as possible at favorable prices with two German companies, Borsig and Demag. Sedov had presumably arranged to get a kickback from the Germans.
Now fully part of the great plot to bring down Stalin, Pyatakov went back to Russia.
A few months later, in December 1931, while Pyatakov was in his office at the Supreme Council of National Economy in Moscow, he received an unusual letter. It was brought by a coconspirator, A. A. Shestov, who had fabricated a pretext to come to the capital to discuss “the organization of Trotskyite work in the Kuznetsk basin.”
As Shestov told the judges at the same trial, he had been given the letter in Berlin by Sedov, who carried it concealed in a pair of shoes. The transcript of the 1937 proceedings contains the following
exchange between Shestov and the state prosecutor Vyshinsky:
In which shoe were the letters—in the right or the left?
A letter was secreted in each shoe. He said that there were marks on the envelopes of the letters. On one there was the letter P—that was meant for Pyatakov. And on the other was the letter M—that meant it was for Muralov.
You gave a letter to Pyatakov?
I gave him the letter marked P.
From which shoe, from the right or the left?
I cannot say exactly.
The letter marked P was from Trotsky himself, written for some reason in German and signed LT. It thanked Pyatakov for his efforts so far, and reminded him of the three major tasks of the conspiracy: to use “every means” to remove Stalin and his “immediate assistants,” to unite all anti-Stalin forces and to engage in economic sabotage.
It seems, however, that Pyatakov’s efforts were not considered sufficient. In the autumn of 1932, there was yet another meeting with Sedov in Berlin, where the young man now showed impatience. “You are engaged all the time in organizational preparations and conversations,” he chided Pyatakov, “but you have nothing concrete to show. You know the sort of man Lev Davidovich [Trotsky] is, he is roaring and raving, burning with impatience to have his instructions carried out as quickly as possible, and nothing concrete is visible from your report.”
Sedov’s exhortations were effective. Over the next two years, according to confessions from various accused, Pyatakov and his associates assiduously went about the business of sabotaging Soviet industry. In 1933 in Ukraine, for example, Pyatakov’s protégé Loginov did his subtle bit by operating coke ovens deliberately inefficiently, “without utilizing valuable by-products.”
The railways were damaged in the same year by Comrade Serebryakov, who, following a discussion with the energetic Pyatakov, disrupted freight traffic by “increasing the runs of empty cars, by refraining from making full use of the traction power and capacity of engines and so forth.”
A visit to the Central Urals Copper Works in 1935 worried Pyatakov. “I saw that the wrecking work was being carried out so unscrupulously crudely that even the most superficial observer could see that all was not right on the job.” The sabotage clearly had to be conducted more cleverly, so that no one would notice. Pyatakov “was obliged to tell the chief of construction to be more cautious, to show at least some energy on the construction job.”
On another occasion, Pyatakov made the decision to build a workers’ housing settlement two kilometers closer to a major industrial plant than was recommended, in order to compromise the health and safety of the workforce. He delayed the building of new soda plants. He was the fiendish Fabian of industrial destruction, a gradualist deindustrializer.
But there was an ongoing problem with the Pyatakov approach—it was still too slow. Months were passing, Trotsky was still in exile and Stalin remained in power. Trotsky insisted something more daring had to be done.
The Oslo Accords
At 4:27 p.m. on December 1, 1934, the party boss of Leningrad, Sergei Kirov, was shot and killed in the Smolny Institute, where he had his office. His assassin, one Nikolayev, was captured immediately. Though scurrilous gossip had it that the priapic Kirov had been murdered for conducting one extramarital affair too many, official suspicion soon fell on various anti-Stalin politicians, and in particular his erstwhile allies Zinoviev and Kamenev. A month later, both men were tried for complicity in the assassination. Although found not guilty of the main charge, the two old Bolsheviks were convicted of anti-Soviet activities. Zinoviev was sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment, Kamenev to five. All over Russia, followers of the two men were denounced and interrogated. Meetings called for punishment for those who were not wholly loyal to Stalin and the party line.
It was in this dangerous atmosphere that the Pyatakov conspirators decided that Trotsky’s demands upon them were too exacting. As one of the codefendants at the trial, Karl Radek, testified, the exiled leader “had lost all sense of reality and was setting us tasks which we were unable to carry out.” In December 1935, it was resolved that Pyatakov should take the risk of meeting, face to face, the great man himself, and putting him straight.
At his trial, Pyatakov described how the meeting was arranged. He went to Berlin, where “Trotsky sent me a messenger whom I met in the Tiergarten, in one of the lanes, literally for a couple of minutes. He showed me a brief note from Trotsky, which contained a few words, ‘Y. L., the bearer of this note can be fully trusted.’ The word ‘fully’ was underlined.” The messenger, whose name was “either Heinrich or Gustav, asked me if I would be prepared to travel by airplane.” It was risky, but the situation was acute, so Pyatakov agreed. They arranged to meet next day at Berlin’s Tempelhof airport. Early next morning, Pyatakov found Gustav or Heinrich at the entrance to the airport, with a false German passport for him. He boarded the airplane and took off into the winter skies. As he recalled at the trial, he was taken to Oslo, where a car drove him to a small house in a country suburb. “There I saw Trotsky, whom I had not seen since.”
The old comrades spoke for two hours. Trotsky was apparently very animated, constantly interrupting Pyatakov with recriminations. “You are living in the same old way,” he told his associate. “You can’t break away from Stalin’s umbilical cord: you take Stalin’s construction for socialist construction.” Trotsky treated Pyatakov to a thorough recapitulation of his analysis and strategy. Socialism couldn’t be built in one country alone, so the collapse of Stalin’s state was inevitable. Capitalism was recovering and wouldn’t tolerate the Soviet Union much longer. There’d be a war, probably sometime in 1937, and if the Russian opposition was passive, then it would be consumed in the wreckage of the Stalinist state. Cadres had to be trained, saboteurs primed, the coup d’état prepared. But there was something else. The thing couldn’t be done by Russians acting alone; allies were needed. “The real forces in the international situation,” Trotsky explained, “are the fascists, and with these forces we must establish contact.”
Trotsky already had. In Pyatakov’s words, “Trotsky told me that he had come to an absolutely definite agreement with the fascist German government and with the Japanese government . . . He then told me that he had conducted rather lengthy negotiations with the vice chairman of the German National Socialist Party—Hess.” The arrangement was that, following a war in which the Germans used military force and the Trotskyites mobilized sabotage and assassination, the opposition would be helped to come to power, and in return a Trotsky-run Soviet Union would give Ukraine to the Germans. Naturally, the Germans had wanted, and got, an agreement that Trotskyite operations would be coordinated with the German general staff.
“In essence,” Pyatakov told the court, “the Trotskyite organization was being transformed into an appendage of fascism.”
His instructions received, Pyatakov now returned to Russia to get on with betraying the state, except this time in the knowledge that he was in alliance with communism’s most mortal enemy. The next month, he met a man named Loginov, a co-conspirator. Loginov told the court that in January 1936 “the impression I got was that Pyatakov was no less stunned than I was, but he nevertheless transmitted it as a clear directive which had to be carried out. To retreat now was impossible because that would mean annihilation.”
In addition to acts of sabotage, such as deliberately overheating the coking ovens at a plant in Krivoy Rog and planning to set fire to the Kemerevo Combined Chemical Works, a list was now prepared of public figures to be assassinated. Kossior and Postyshev were to be murdered in Ukraine, while a group was set up in Moscow to see to Stalin, Molotov, Kaganovich, Voroshilov, Ordzhonikidze, and Yezhov. But before this could happen, Pyatakov was unmasked. On September 11, 1936, he was expelled from the Communist Party, and the next day he was arrested.