The evil that Stalin did

by George Walden


When asked who was the most evil figure of the 20th century, most people would say Hitler. Though Stalin killed even more millions of people, for years little detailed evidence of his crimes was available in the West, while we have all seen films of Hitler's concentration camps, and innumerable books documenting the Nazis' crimes. Today, however, a deluge of evidence about the bloody horrors of Stalin's rule is emerging from Russian archives, and a new book reveals some of the most dreadful documents from the Soviet purges of the Thirties. Here we reprint the death cell letter of one of Stalin's former acolytes, Nikolai Bukharin.


This is perhaps the last letter I shall write to you before my death. That's why, though I am a prisoner, I ask you to permit me to write this letter without resorting to officialese, since I am writing this letter to you alone: the very fact of its existence or nonexistence will remain entirely in your hands.

I've come to the last page of my drama and perhaps of my life. I agonised over whether I should pick up pen and paper - as I write this, I am shuddering all over from a thousand emotions stirring within me, and I can hardly control myself. I want to take my leave of you in advance, before it's too late, before my hand ceases to write, before my eyes close, while my brain somehow still functions.

In order to avoid any misunderstandings I will say to you from the outset that, as far as the world at large is concerned: a) I have no intention of recanting anything I've [confessed]; b) I have no intention of pleading with you. But ... I cannot leave this life without writing to you these last lines because I am in the grip of torments which you should know about.

1) Standing on the edge of a precipice, from which there is no return, I tell you on my word of honour, as I await my death, that I am innocent of those crimes to which I admitted.

2) Reviewing everything in my mind I can only add the following observations to what I have already said: a) I once heard someone say that someone had yelled out something. It seems to me that it was Party member Kuzmin, but I had never ascribed any real significance to it.

b) Party member Aikhenvald told me in passing as we walked on the street about the conference (he said, "The gang has met, and a report was read") - or something of the sort. And, yes, I concealed this fact, feeling pity for the gang.

c) I was also guilty of engaging in duplicity in 1932 in my relations with my followers, believing sincerely that I would thereby win them back wholly to the party. Otherwise, I'd have alienated them from the party. That was all there was to it.

In saying this, I am clearing my conscience totally. All the rest either never took place or, if it did, then I had no inkling of it whatsoever. So at the plenum I spoke the truth and nothing but the truth, but no one believed me. Here and now I speak the absolute truth: all these past years I have been honestly and sincerely carrying out the party line and have learned to cherish and love you wisely.

3) I had no way out other than that of confirming the accusations and testimonies of others and of elaborating on them.

4) I have formed, more or less, the following conception of what is going on in our country: there is something great and bold about the political idea of a general purge. It is a) connected with the prewar situation and b) connected with the transition to democracy. This purge encompasses 1) the guilty; 2) persons under suspicion and 3) persons potentially under suspicion.

This business could not have been managed without me. For God's sake, don't think that I am engaging here in reproaches, even in my inner thoughts. I know all too well that great plans, great ideas, and great interests take precedence over everything, and I know that it would be petty for me to place the question of my own person on a par with the universal/historical tasks resting, first and foremost, on your shoulders. But it is here that I feel my deepest agony and find myself facing my chief, agonising paradox.

5) My heart boils over when I think that you might believe that I am guilty of these crimes and that in your heart of hearts you think that I am really guilty of all of these horrors. My head is giddy with confusion, and I feel like yelling at the top of my voice. I feel like pounding my head against the wall. What am I to do? What am I to do?

6) I bear not one iota of malice toward anyone, nor am I bitter. I am not a Christian but I do have my quirks. And if you really want to know, more than anything else, I am oppressed by one fact which you have perhaps forgotten: once, most likely during the summer of 1928, I was at your place, and you said to me: "Do you know why I consider you my friend? After all, you are not capable of intrigues, are you?" And I said: "No, I am not."

At that time, I was hanging around with Kamenev [an alleged Trotskyist, later shot]. Oh, God, what a child I was! What a fool! And now I'm paying for this with my honour and with my life. For this forgive me, Koba [a nickname for Stalin]. I weep as I write. I no longer need anything, and you know that I am probably making my situation worse by allowing myself to write all this. But ... I must give you my final farewell. It is for this reason that I bear no malice toward anyone, not the [party] leadership nor the investigators, nor anyone in between. I ask your forgiveness, though I have already been punished to such an extent that everything has grown dim around me and darkness has descended upon me.

7) When I was hallucinating, I saw you several times. Once I saw Nadezhda Sergeevna [Stalin's late wife]. She would never believe that I had harboured any evil thoughts against you. [In the dream] we talked for hours, you and I ... Oh, Lord, if only there were some device which would have made it possible for you to see my soul flayed and ripped open! If only you could see how I am attached to you, body and soul.

8) Permit me, finally, to move on to my last, minor, requests: a) It would be a thousand times easier for me to die than to go through the coming trial; I simply don't know how I'll be able to control myself. I'd get on my knees, forgetting shame and pride, and plead with you not to make me go through with [the trial]. But this is probably already impossible. I'd ask you, if it were possible, to let me die before the trial. Of course, I know how harshly you look upon such matters.

b) If I'm to receive the death sentence, then I implore you beforehand, I entreat you, by all that you hold dear, not to have me shot. Let me drink poison in my cell instead. For me, this point is extremely important. I don't know what words I should summon up in order to entreat you to grant me this as an act of charity. Politically, it won't really matter, and, besides, no one will know a thing about it. Have pity on me! Surely you'll under-stand, knowing me as well as you do. Sometimes I look death openly in the face, just as I know very well that I am capable of brave deeds. At other times, I find myself in such disarray that I am drained of all strength. So if the verdict is death, let me have a cup of morphine. I implore you ...

c) I ask you to allow me to bid farewell to my wife and son. No need for me to say goodbye to my daughter. It will be too painful for her. It will also be too painful to Nadya [his first wife], and my father. Anyuta [his second wife], on the other hand, is young. She will survive ... I would like permission to meet her before the trial. If my family sees what I confessed to, they might commit suicide. I must somehow prepare them for it.

d) If my life is to be spared, I would like to request (though I would first have to discuss it with my wife) the following: That I be exiled to America. I would wage a mortal war against Trotsky, I would win over large segments of the wavering intelligentsia. You could send an expert security officer with me and, as added insurance, you could detain my wife here for six months until I have proven that I am really punching Trotsky and company on the nose.

But if there is the slightest doubt in your mind, then exile me to a camp in Pechora or Kolyma, even for 25 years. Settling there with my family to the end of my days, I would carry out pioneering, enterprising, cultural work. I would work like a dynamo wherever I am sent. However, to tell the truth, I do not place much hope in this. And so these, it seems, are my last requests.

Josif Vissarionovich! In me you have lost one of your most capable generals, one who is genuinely devoted to you. But that is all past. It is bitter to reflect on all this. But I am preparing myself mentally to depart from this vale of tears, and there is nothing in me toward all of you, toward the party and the cause, but a great and boundless love. I am doing everything that is humanly possible and impossible.

I have crossed all the t's and dotted all the i's, in spite of a headache and with tears in my eyes. My conscience is clear before you now, Koba. I ask you one final time for your forgiveness (only in your heart, not otherwise). For that reason I embrace you in my mind.

Farewell forever and remember kindly your wretched Nikolai Bukharin.
10 December 1937

Three months after writing this letter, Bukharin was found guilty of counter-revolutionary activities and espionage. He was shot on 14 March 1938, along with 17 other "traitors". Stalin had assured Bukharin that the decision to execute him was "nothing against you personally".

This is an edited extract from The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932-1939, by J Arch Getty and Oleg V Naumov.

The warped ideology that caught the propagandist

The Bukharin letter must rank as one of the most sombre historical documents of the 20th century. In it the entire bloody adventure of Soviet communism and the intellectual perversion that underlay it stand revealed. Bukharin was a Bolshevik theoretician and a "Rightist" - a highly relative term.

Above all he was a professional revolutionary. In another document he jokes about exterminating peasants, and as editor of Pravda, much of his career had been spent dispensing lies and propaganda for the cause. He describes the purge that was to swallow him up as "great and bold", eagerly agreeing that even "persons potentially under suspicion" should be its victims. Only intellectuals can talk like that.

In the late Twenties Nikolai Bukharin had been Stalin's closest comrade, which is why he at one point calls him "Koba" and addresses his future executioner by the familiar ty (like tu in French). To the Western mind his attitude to Stalin is inexplicable. He retracts his confession but does not blame his former comrade, and when he denies that he is reproaching Stalin or the Party "even in my inner thoughts", the man who will shortly be shot like a dog for crimes he did not commit is almost certainly speaking the truth.

It is not only Bukharin's plea for a cup of morphine rather than an NKVD (KGB) bullet that gives the letter its power and its pathos. His words are the most direct expression of the corrupt ideals, warped logic and the slave mentality towards leaders inherent in Russian thinking that went on to make Soviet communism an international scourge. Compared with what Bukharin calls the "universal/historical tasks" of building socialism, the truth ceases to matter and individual human life is nothing.

But this time it is Bukharin who is forced to confess to imaginary crimes, and it is his own life that will be taken. Hence his "agonising paradox" as the revolutionary is brought face to face with the lie at the heart of the creed he has believed in all his life. Hence too his tortured logic.

He claims he would be content to die providing Stalin knows that he is innocent, since the "great idea" demands its victims. What horrifies him is the thought of Stalin actually believing his confession. For Bukharin it is all right for the world/historical leader to execute an innocent man, knowing him to be innocent; not all right to execute his former friend while believing in his guilt. But of course Bukharin, who cries as he writes, does not want to die at all.

As in the finest fiction our sympathies for him are divided. On one level he is a man about to suffer a degrading trial and death for non-existent crimes. On the other his is a case of poetic justice on a monumental scale. The man who has preached the historical necessity of killing trembles before death. His letter is at once abject and noble, because at last he is confronting the truth.

Nothing, not even Arthur Koestler's brilliant Darkness At Noon, has exposed the cankered soul of communism more starkly. After reading it no one can ever again say that "communism was a good idea in theory, it just didn't work in practice". The letter from Bukharin's death cell combines theory and practice in one.

Associated Newspapers Ltd., 22 October 1999