This year marks the 80th anniversary of Roszarubezhsentr, which is a successor to the All-Union Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries, or VOKS, between 1925 and 1958, then the Union of Soviet Societies for Friendship and Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries, or SSOD, between 1958 and 1992. This study discusses the period of early existence of this organization that helped the Soviet Union obtain important support in foreign countries. Needless to say, Soviet reality often was different from the one that VOKS presented to foreign audiences.
Problems of Soviet Power and Exposed Culprits
Soviet Union, 1930. The country lives hurried times of building a new social system. In spite of countless official odes, Stalin government’s problems are much visible. None-the-less, the Communist leadership does not intend to change the official line. Instead, it makes several attempts to blame its mistakes on the so called public enemies obeying orders from abroad.
On September 25, 1930, a list of 48 executed persons formerly charged with sabotage of the supply system was published in the Soviet press. Influenced by daily communist propaganda, citizens of the Soviet Union might have believed that the executed indeed were guilty. However, impartial observers – much less those who did not have to fear consequences of their opinion – clearly recognized reality.
The archives of the Czech Foreign Ministry include a telegram by J. Girsa, Chief of Czechoslovak Diplomatic Mission to the USSR: „As we have reported repeatedly, the Soviets tend to use terror every time they find themselves in a situation of crisis. They use terror as a solution. The supply crisis in the USSR is reaching horrible dimensions. Rising numbers of people do not hide their dissatisfaction with the government. Factory workers, the pillar of the regime, are complaining aloud and demand remedy. Bombastic slogans about building socialism no longer help contain public dissatisfaction. The government has reached an impasse. Panic and fear among the rulers begins to appear. Therefore, it was necessary to label somebody as responsible for general misery, and in doing so to distort anger from the real culprits. We are witnessing the same situation as during the Shakhty trial2 , and, later, during the trial with railroad saboteurs. The only difference is that the number of the executed is rising. The situation is caused by worsening problems of economy and public dissatisfaction. A large number of victims were needed to contain this dissatisfaction.“ 3
Without much effort, the Czechoslovak diplomat recognized the true reason for the executions. Shortly after, he reported to Prague about preparations of another public act that was being prepared: „The Soviets are preparing a new trial of the members of the anti-Soviet organization «Promyshlennaya partiya» (Industrial Party). According to official news releases, the party has reportedly conspired to prepare intervention against the USSR. Two thousand people, mostly engineers, were arrested and imprisoned in connection with the trial… The press has published an extensive indictment file based on preliminary investigations and alleged depositions by the accused. According to the file, the organization sought to lead the USSR toward an economic crisis by acting against the objectives of the five-year plan and acts of sabotage, particularly in industry and institutions of the plan…. The trial shall be held in public. The press is united in sharp attacks against the saboteurs. Resolutions calling for the death penalty are being published.“ 4
From the propagandist point of view, two thousand arrested people from the key parts of industry constituted an essential explanation of difficulties that Soviet citizens encountered daily. The objective of the trial was to point at the guilty and to bring the nervous society to a state of calm and new mobilization. The lessons learned in previous show trials, in particular in the Shakhty trial in which several of the accused refused the accusations brought against them, led the organizers of the upcoming trial to duly prepare appearances of individual accused persons.
Compared to the Shakhty trial, in which 53 stood accused, the number of people in the courtroom was significantly lower, which allowed for a better control of the show. Only eight people were to represent the seditious conspiracy to audiences in the USSR and abroad. Quantity was changed with “quality.” All eight accused pleaded guilty, fully cooperated with the court, and confessed even more guilt when state prosecutors forgot to mention some of their „crimes.“
The „wrongdoers“ who had been brainwashed by the secret police played their role so well that it cast doubts about the whole trial – not only to diplomats in Moscow, but also within parts of Soviet society. Again, J. Girsa reports to Prague: „The accused did not seek defense at all. Quite on the contrary, they were voluntarily adding information against themselves to state prosecutors. They just were beseeching the court not to be shot so that they get a chance to atone for their crimes by work for the USSR. Events in the court and behavior of the accused created general impression that the show had been set up and that the Soviets had other objectives than to punish wrongdoers. … The whole trial and its end – mercy accorded to CIK of the USSR – prove that it was set up. Indeed, that is the conviction not only of the local intelligence, but also of many people close to the Soviet government“5
Foreign press also noted strange behavior of the accused. Reports about the trial corresponded to political beliefs of individual periodicals. In the case of Czechoslovakia, we can mention two opposite positions. On the one hand, rightist Vecern? Ceske slovo notes that „in the Moscow trial with professors, we see such self-indictments of all the accused that not even the state prosecutor would not execute them more easily.“ 6
On the other hand, the communist press does not have any problem with that. Julius Fucik, a tireless defender of the USSR7 , notes in the Tvorba weekly: „Ramzin is not saying what prosecutors are saying, but the prosecution is saying what Ramzin said (what he had to say under the pressure of the facts) during the investigation… Did not you notice that a voice sounds from Moscow, the voice of the public prosecutor who represents the Soviet proletariat. The iron clear voice carries across the borders of the Soviet Union the message to all workers: „Your bourgeoisie was plotting war against you! Your bourgeoisie wants us to fight against Soviet workers!“ 8 Discussions over the Industrial Party trial moved the dispute over the Soviet Union, one of the constants of political fight in Europe of the first half of the 1930’s, into a new stage.
Preparing the Campaign
Domestic and foreign policy issues were being „dealt with“ in most public trials organized by the Stalin leadership against their real or alleged enemies. 9 It also was the case of representatives of the so-called Industrial Party. According to Stalin’s intentions, they were increasingly forced to admit to have prepared a foreign intervention against the Soviet Union. Stalin intended to use their „admission“ to launch a propaganda campaign at home and abroad. In a letter to V. Menzinsky, Chairman of the OGPU10 , Stalin writes: „If RAMZIN’s depositions are confirmed and detailed by the other accused (GROMAN, LARICHEV, KONDRATIEV and Ke [one of the two alleged French agents whose names were never mentioned in the trial] and others), it will be a major success of OGPU, for the use of collected information shall be made known to communist parties and workers around the world. We shall lead the largest campaign against interventionists. We will paralyze and destroy in an early stage all attempts of intervention for the next one or two years, which is not unimportant to us. Is it clear? With comrade regards, J. Stalin. “11
It was beyond any doubt that Ramzin’s depositions would be confirmed, particularly because that was what Stalin himself wanted. Propaganda was given green light. Firstly, it was necessary to stimulate domestic response so that foreign communist press, in particular, could write about massive public support of the Soviet leadership and workers‘ hatred of the traitors caught.
On November 15, ten days before the beginning of the trial, Pravda published Maxim Gorky’s philippic "If the enemy does not surrender, he shall be destroyed." While the text did not mention the trial as such, it clearly indicated who the enemies of the people were – Ramzin and other engineers that would shortly after be brought to court. „From the inside of our country, our most cunning enemies are organizing famine, kulaks are terrorizing agricultural collectivists with murders, arson and other mean acts. Everything we face is obsolete and at the end of its time that history gave it. It gives us the right to consider the civil war unfinished. Only one conclusion can be made: If the enemy does not surrender, he will be exterminated.“ 12
Gorky, who enjoyed very high popularity in Soviet society as well as a strong credit abroad, only contributed to preparations of a massive propaganda operation. Proposals by the Commission for Industrial Party Affairs, an institution created promptly to deal with the issue, were much more concrete: „In connection with the beginning of the trial (set for November 25) of saboteurs and agents of foreign intervention, the Central Committee of the Communist Party (b) proposes to launch an explanation campaign within the working population and in the Red Army. The objective is to show the intervention plans of the imperialists, in particular of France, and their sabotage agents in the USSR. The Central Committee of the Communist Party (b) has made the following decisions:
a) To report extensively on the trial and the role of the party and workers in the fight against saboteurs and interventionists and in strengthening national defense.
1) To organize on the first day of trial large protests in all cities and industrial hubs, if possible with the participation of members of the Kolkhoz.“ 13
The actions went on as prepared, indeed. Streets were full of crowds of people who called for the most severe punishments of the traitors. Resolutions demanding death penalty for the accused flooded the Central Committee. The show had the desired effects even on the target audience. Foreign, mostly leftist press did not have any doubts and launched attacks against those who did express theirs. The argument was clear: the people has shown its will: „He who had an opportunity to see on the third day of the trial hundreds of thousands of workers in Moscow, members of the Konsomol and pioneers, walk around the courthouse in a splendid fighting mood, he who heard their fighting gestures sharp like steel, felt that those people will defend the Victory October until the last drop of blood.... All workers of the world are awaiting the results of this trial. The trial will shake new millions. It will show them elevating danger of a new war and convince them that it is vitally important to join forces to complete the five-year plan in a much shorter delay. To watch and not to let go: that is the duty of the day.“ 14
Articles published by reporters in Moscow and actions prepared by the All-Union Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries and the Communist Internationale aimed to formulate opinions of the world proletariat awaiting the results of the trial. Both institutions discussed even before the trial possible alternatives and agreed on action plans. The plans would use many means, including news articles, distribution of brochures related to the trial, brainwashing of foreign delegations coming to the USSR, and organizing demonstration to defend the USSR.
VOKS used undoubtedly more cautious methods than the Communist Internationale. They mostly worked with intellectuals who might have sympathized with the USSR while being cautious and critical, with the exception of few. Therefore, it was necessary to proceed carefully and meld propagandist intentions with other topics that would make the general message more acceptable.
The situation was much easier for the Comintern because it operated in a communist friendly and activist environment. It was therefore possible to use methods that one could confuse with the ones of Soviet intelligence agencies that also used them very often. 15
VOKS Enters the Stage
VOKS prepared a confidential file entitled VOKS Action Plan to Execute Campaign Related to the Industrial Party Trial. 16
The campaign had five main objectives: „1. To show to foreign audiences that the threat of intervention has changed into an immediate threat to development and existence of the USSR. 2. To show that Industrial Party organizers of the intervention are isolated and have no support by Soviet working masses, including scientists, engineers and artists. This isolation could explain that members of the Industrial Party had to plot intervention to reach their objectives. 3. To show that attempts to organize intervention have led to motion and the strongest resistance of working masses in the USSR, including scientists and artists who have linked their fate with proletariat and industry workers. 4. No matter what defense of saboteurs and organizers of the intervention appears, it must be made clear that it is defense of a useless tiny number of enemies of the workers, which means that that such defense is aimed against the will and interests of millions of builders of a new life in one sixth of the world. 5. To explain that an intervention against the country of socialism building new life threatens the existence not only of the USSR but of human kind as such. The existence of man is conditioned by the very existence of the USSR and its peaceful socialist development, including cultural development.“ 17
The VOKS leadership divided the objectives into two key categories: „Within the campaign, VOKS shall mobilize public support abroad with the use of calls for active support to defend the USSR under the above mentioned headlines. Then, it will mobilize scientific and cultural communities in the USSR. The objective is twofold: to demonstrate the position of this public on sabotage and intervention, and to unite systematically Soviet scientists, writers, artists and others in active resistance to intervention and have them call on the right circles abroad.“ 18
The described intention of VOKS had desired effects. Western press, particularly communist periodicals, did start covering meetings of Soviet intelligence. Rude pravo daily published on the cover page of its November 26, 1930 issue the article The Word of Soviet Scientists. It reports in great detail about a resolution by Soviet scientists who „declare that they do not have anything in common with the ones who played the role of hired mercenaries and spies under the cover of science and technology, and demand the most severe punishment for them.“ 19 Such reports created fresh arguments for the defenders of the trial and cast doubts in the minds of its opponents who mostly did not know much about the Soviet reality. Such people might be susceptible to change their opinion by the importance of names appearing under resolutions calling for death penalty for the „horde of traitors.“
Other parts of the quoted document show that VOKS nevertheless primarily focused on activities abroad:
„I. To execute following actions through our contact associations [set abroad in cooperation with local supporters of the USSR]:
a) To organize member meetings to clear their position on the trial,
b) To collect signatures of foreign officials against the prepared intervention,
c) To find new members from working intelligence circles under the motto „To defend building of peace in the USSR.“ Throughout the execution of these measures, organizations should keep in mind reconstruction of their member bases.
d) To use at maximum local newspapers to publish documents related to the trial with the saboteurs. If possible, to use press offices of individual parties to run special issues oriented to the campaign objectives.
e) To expose special Soviet organizations, such as the Union for Defense of Western Culture etc.
II. To provide foreign countries with sufficient and systematic supply of documents related to the trial by sending information to various affiliate organizations, contact associations, news desks, important representatives of science and arts, foreigners visiting the USSR with whom VOKS is in contact.
III. To monitor and clip systematically all reactions on the trial appearing in the foreign press and quote them in the Soviet press.
IV. To distribute declarative letters by the Chairman of VOKS to chairmen of foreign contact associations and important officials of each country in order to make them step out to defend peaceful development of the USSR.
V. To send to important representatives of foreign public a well-structured questionnaire to let them express their position on the prepared intervention.
VI. In connection with the upcoming trial, to supply contact associations with film, radio, literary and animation pieces illustrating our successes and providing insight about the past intervention. To organize exhibitions about our cultural achievements.“ 20
It would be possible to take one point after another and identify articles in periodicals in many Western countries that matched the plan prepared by VOKS. Such a quantitative list would prove how effective Soviet propaganda was in the 1930’s to fill the European information environment.
This list is not as instructive as the editor’s column that appeared in Tvorba, the weekly of Czechoslovak communists, on December 4, 1940. The topic of the column is the Moscow trial. VOKS arguments are visible one after another, including the argument I.d) on the orientation of the special issue: „This issue of Tvorba is quite specific. It deals almost exclusively with the issue of the Soviet Union from the perspective of the trial of bourgeoisie and its saboteurs in Moscow. The campaign against the Soviet Union, the campaign to defend members of the intervention, the campaign against the positive true of the Soviet Union, those are the questions that need in-depth answers. We have attempted on these few pages to sum up the most important facts related to these answers. They include quotations from bourgeois and social-fascist press that document well its true nature. They include works by counterrevolutionaries conspiring with foreign capitalists. They include data that prove that death rates are decreasing in the Soviet Union, in that country of famine, and health condition of workers is rapidly improving while condition of workers in capitalist countries is worsening. They include an example of how the Soviet Union educates a million and a half of new workers that it needs next year; can we compare with that the half million of unemployed in Czechoslovakia?.. Last but not least, they include a portrait of international bourgeoisie, a portrait of its economic decomposition that will help us understand its hopeless courage that leads it in a new war that it must not win.But maybe because international bourgeoisie showed too much of that hopelessness over the past week, because its last campaign is too much clear, we are publishing this almost special issue. Even we have duties when gunpowder fills the air. 21
Critical Minds and Empty Stomachs
The Industrial Party trial shows what tools communist propaganda could use in the 1930’s to support foreign policy objectives of the USSR. More to the point, we have only discussed activities by VOKS, one of the several organizations promoting foreign policy objectives of the communist leadership abroad. While many actions were carried out in an effective and low cost manner, the main questions remain: to what extent were these actions successful and how did they influence conventional wisdom?
Critical minds resisting the massive propaganda – in particular those who did not succumb to political ideology in exchange for better future and who had direct or indirect experience with the Bolshevik movement – more or less understood the situation. Diplomatic cables by the Czechoslovak diplomatic representative to Moscow or opinion pieces published in non-Communist periodicals are examples of that, even though they often reacted to the Communist propaganda in the same style, albeit from the opposite perspective.
The question is how such brainwashing influenced regular Soviet citizens. We still remember from not so distant past that thousands of people marching on May 1st did not necessarily mean a support to the Communist Party and the government. It was the same at the time period covered by this study. Resolution were signed, soles of shoes bought for difficult work were marching in the streets of Soviet and foreign cities, but those are only partial signs of positive reactions to ongoing propaganda. What the protesters were really thinking about, particularly in the USSR, remains an unanswered question.
As we lack resources or documents to determine more precisely the state of mind of Soviet citizens, our analysis can only take into account extant pieces of information. They indicate that doubts fueled by daily reality in the USSR – the reality that people had to live, unlike foreign delegations guided in well predetermined circuits – did exist and had very simple reasons: „One thing is certain: the stomach is responsible for current events. And the stomach is hungry. It is possible to divide its demands into several pieces, it is possible to fill it partially, but it is not possible to satisfy it... I would sum up my reflections in the following manner: you cannot return to the past, you cannot set things right, you cannot uncover and destroy all enemies at a time. It is vitally important that all plans focus on providing enough food and shoes to the people and make sure that heating fuels are not only available to those who have an officially-examined sick child (which is another thing to be changed soon). Only then will the people idealize the regime. But when there is no certainty that one will have enough barley to cook porridge or that he gets shoes for the money he makes, then he is not ready to think about some five-year plan or listen to fighting speeches..“ 22
The Stalin leadership was aware that propaganda alone was not enough to suppress such arguments and decided to use another round of argumentation. However, minds and hearts were no longer at stake: it had become the question of life. Hundreds of thousands of protesters early after replaced hundreds of “saboteurs” that had been put in trial in the late 1920’s and the early 1930’s. However, that is the story of another stage of building of communist society in the USSR.
1 Vsesoyuznoye obshestvo kulturnoy svyazi s zagranicey - All-Union Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries. VOKS was formed in 1925 as a successor to the All-Union Information Bureau within the Foreign Assistance Commission of the Presidium of the Central Executive Committee of the USSR (OBI) for the purpose of the promotion of Soviet culture and science abroad.“ Gosudarstvennyi archiv Rossiyskoy federaci (GARF), fond 5283, opis (op.) 8, yedinica khraneniya (y.kh.) 3, p. 50.
2 In the Shakhty trial which lasted from May 18 until July 15, 1928, coal engineers were charged with wrong use of mine shafts, willful destruction of machinery and selection of wrong locations for new mining. Eleven of the accused were sentenced to death, and five actually executed. Later, the death sentence of the six other engineers was commuted to long-term imprisonment.
3 Item, p.2.
4 „Promyshlennaya partija“ Trial in Moscow. November 14, 1930, No. 782/art-30. Report by J. Girsa, Chief of the Czechoslovak Diplomatic Mission. Archives of the Foreign Ministry of the Czech Republic, Moscow 1930, carton 2, nr. 254, p. 1.
5 The „Industrial Party“ Organization Trial. The Ruling. December 9, 1930, issue. 836/No.30. Report by J. Girsa, Chief of the Czechoslovak Diplomatic Mission. Archives of the Foreign Ministry of the Czech Republic, Moscow 1930, carton 2, nr. 282, pp. 2-3.
6 Soviet Confession Machine, Vecerni Ceske slovo, November 28, 1930, p. 3.
7 A special study will focus on Fucik’s role in the creation of a propaganda image of the Soviet Union. Based on his slips of the tongue in his reports and on interviews on him with his contemporaries, the undoubtedly talented journalist (who even enjoyed free movement across the USSR) must have been aware of true Soviet reality. He nevertheless belonged to the soundest defenders of the regime. In his case, ideological reasons outweighed professional ethics and conventional wisdom. In some cases, Fucik’s failure led even to tragic consequences.
8 Tvorba 1930, pp. 738-739. Not only had the communist press had certain problems with the trial. For example, even New York Times brought convincing and well-reported depositions: „Professor L. K. Ramzin's speech... was full proof of the baselessness of the assertion that he spoke under pressure... No man could speak words like these under pressure of the 'third degree' alone, and they rang so true that eyes were wet among the spectators". 'New York Times', December , 1930, p. 20.
9 L. Trotsky wrote about the connection between foreign policy aspects of the trial and current foreign policy of the Soviet Union in Diplomaticeskije plany Moskvy v zerkale processa, Bjulleten oppozicii (bolsevikov-lenincev), issue 65/1938. Among other things, he shows with some irony on the example of himself how inventions of Soviet judges sent him prepare actions against the USSR from one country to another based on what country was when considered the most important enemy. http://www.pseudology.org
10 Obyedinoye gosudarstvennoye politicheskoye upravlenie (Joint State Political Directorate) was a stage in the development of the secret state police, later best known as KGB.
11 Lubyanka, Stalin i VTCHK-GPU-OGPU-NKVD. Yanvar 1922-dekabr 1936, Moscow 2003, pp.256-7.
12 Gorky, M., Jesli vrag nesdayetsya, - jego unichtozhyat, Pravda, November 15, 1930. Under the influence of the trial, Gorky even started to write a theater play about saboteurs „Somov and the others.“ However, as he admits in a letter to Stalin (December 2, 1930), his work did go well even after he had received from Stalin confidential insider information about the process. The play was never finished. Several pieces were only published in 1941. http://magazines.russ.ru
13 Postanovlenije Politbjuro CK VKP(b) O prinjatii predlozenija komisii po delu Prompartiji, November 25, 1930, Lubyanka, Stalin i VTCHK-GPU-OGPU-NKVD. Janvar 1922-dekabr 1936, Moscow 2003, p. 258.
14 H?lz, M., Trial by the Proletariat. Impressions from the Moscow Trial with Counterrevolutionaries (translated by jk), Tvorba 1930, p.. 756.
15 „The most common form of cooperation between foreign intelligence service and the Komintern consisted in using communist parties to engage people in becoming agents of the Soviet intelligence services. Tens of thousands of communists around the world considered it their international duty to provide assistance to the first proletariat country in the world.“ V. Chaustov, Nekotoryje problemy deyatelnosti organov gosbezopasnosti v 1920-1930-e gody. Istoritcheskiye tchteniya na Lubyanke 1999. http://fsb.ru
16 GARF, fond 5283, op. 8, j. ch. 100, pp. 31-36.
17 Item, pp. 31-32.
18 GARF, fond 5283, op. 8, j. ch. 100, p. 32.
19 The Word of Soviet Scientists, Rude pravo, November 26, 1930.
20 GARF, fond 5283, op. 8, j. ch. 100, pp. 32-34.
21 Tvorba, 1930, p. 738.
22 Otkrytoje pismo Taranovitchaa V.M. Molotovu of December 30, 1930. Pisma vo vlast. 1928-1939. Zayavleniya, zhaloby, donosy, pisma v gosudarstvennyye struktury i sovetskim vozhdam. Moscow 2002, p. 148.
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