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Faculty Book: 'Stalin's Witnesses'

Historical Novel Probes Moscow Show Trials

Dec. 5, 2012

During the 1960s, Julius (Jay) Wachtel’s parents, both Holocaust survivors, often worried about the “Evil Empire.” Yet, his mother, a Polish Jew, was liberated by the Soviet army, so for Wachtel, “it was odd to think of the Reds as enemies.”

Wachtel, a retired special agent in the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives turned Cal State Fullerton criminal justice lecturer, said that if it were not for the Soviets, he “would not be here today.” He and his parents moved to Argentina two weeks after he was born in Italy. When he was 10, the family moved to the U.S.

Curiosity led him to explore Russian history as a high school and college student, and research on the Great Moscow Show Trials of 1936-38, which the then-Soviet Union Premier Joseph Stalin used to dispose of his opponents, led to his first book, “Stalin’s Witnesses: A Novel of the Great Terror and the Moscow Show Trials” (Knox Robinson Publishing, 2012). The book is a work of historical fiction about five people who were forced to testify against fellow Communists, condemning the defendants and implicating themselves in farfetched crimes.

Author Dennis J. Dunn, history professor and director of the Center for International Studies at Texas State University, called “Stalin’s Witnesses” a “gripping story that sheds light on one of the most shocking and egregious travesties of justice in modern times.”

Wachtel “fills gaps in the historical record” by bringing the historical characters to life with “verve and brilliantly-constructed dialogue,” Dunn noted. “He shows what happens when ideology enslaves human beings, hollows out their dignity and changes their dreams into nightmares. ... Above all, he conjures up the spirit of Stalinism — a frightening reality that still impacts the Russian people.”

A Vietnam War veteran, Wachtel has a bachelor’s degree in police science and administration from Cal State Los Angeles, a master’s degree in criminal justice from Arizona University and a Ph.D., in criminal Justice from the State University of New York at Albany. He has presented papers on law enforcement issues at various conferences nationwide, and his research interests include police behavior, law enforcement ethics, guns and violence and international criminal justice, specializing in the Soviet era. He teaches courses in criminology, policing, research methods and Russian justice.

In this excerpt from the book’s forward, Wachtel explains why he wrote “Stalin’s Witnesses”:

During the murderous frenzy of the 1930s known as the Great Terror, hundreds of thousands of ordinary Soviet citizens were summarily convicted of “counterrevolutionary” crimes and either executed or dispatched to labor camps. But, perfunctory hearings wouldn’t do for getting rid of those whom Stalin didn’t trust. To justify their liquidation, the General Secretary and his right-hand man, Procurator-General Andrei Vyshinsky staged the Great Moscow Show Trials of 1936, 1937 and 1938. Diplomats and journalists from around the world watched as top Party members and heroes of the Russian Revolution and Civil War took the stand and falsely confessed to participating in a series of completely fictitious plots to wreck Soviet industry and abandon the country to Germany and Japan. All fifty-four accused were found guilty; forty-seven were shot, each within twenty-four hours of the verdicts and with no opportunity to appeal. Only Trotsky was missing. Exiled to Europe in 1929, Stalin’s arch-nemesis, who supposedly directed the intrigues from afar, would dodge the USSR’s assassins for another few years.
That these victims — for that’s what they were — cooperated so fully in their own destruction, to all appearances testifying willingly and with great sincerity, helps explain why the implausible tales were widely accepted. However, these capitulations also served to bring attention to what was missing. At the very first trial, which took place in August 1936, the evidence consisted nearly entirely of confessions. Its predetermined end — the conviction and execution of all sixteen accused — was greeted skeptically by some in the West.
To assure better reviews for the next trial, Vyshinsky impressed five “witnesses” to corroborate the confessions of the key accused. Among the witnesses were two veteran Soviet intelligence officers who were performing dual roles as journalist/spies: Vladimir Romm, the Soviet Union’s inaugural correspondent to Washington, and Dmitry Bukhartsev, his counterpart in Berlin. Rounding out the roster were Leonid Tamm, a high-ranking engineer whose brother Igor later won the Nobel Prize in physics, Vladimir Loginov, a mid-level Soviet apparatchik, and Alex Stein, an expatriate German engineer, one of the thousand of specialists whom the USSR had recruited to build up its industrial capacity. Each was arrested, imprisoned in the Lubyanka, the dreaded home of the secret police, and “prepared” by interrogators.

This time, world reaction was more positive. One key observer who applauded the verdicts was millionaire American Ambassador to Moscow Joseph Davies. With his assistance and President Roosevelt’s encouragement, Warner Brothers produced “Mission to Moscow.” A glowing account of Davies’ brief tenure as an envoy, the motion picture glorified the Soviet Union, disparaged Stalin’s detractors and praised the trial and its outcome.
Once all seventeen accused stood convicted, the five witnesses literally dropped from sight. “Stalin’s Witnesses” uses them as a looking-glass on the Soviet system. How did smart and, to all appearances, fundamentally decent men reconcile themselves to Stalin’s ruthless machine? Why after enjoying stellar careers did they become victims? In a greater sense, how did a transformative, ostensibly liberating ideology come to deliver a great land and its peoples into the arms of a pitiless, totalitarian regime?
I decided to address these questions with a novel, blending fact and fiction to create an informative and entertaining account that avoids doing mischief to key historical events. We follow along as Vladimir Romm and, to a lesser extent, the other witnesses navigate the minefields of Stalin’s Russia, giving each a voice to express their dreams, fears and justifications. Interspersed with the main narrative is Romm’s fictional prison diary, which suggests how the ruthless prosecutor Andrei Vyshinsky and this interrogator George Molchanov managed to create illusions so convincing that much of the world was fooled.

Excerpted from “Stalin’s Witnesses” by Julius (Jay) Wachtel, with permission from Knox Robinson Publishing © 2012. Learn more here:

By: Mimi Ko Cruz, 657-278-7586

Tags:  Academics & Research