Shakhty Case Debuts Show Trials in Moscow

In a prelude to the Great Terror, a group of engineers working in the Donbas area of Ukraine were accused of sabotage and publicly tried.

Summary of Event

During the First Five-Year Plan, First Five-Year Plan (Soviet Union)[First Five Year Plan] in which the Soviet Union’s entire economy was geared toward transforming itself into a modern industrial nation, the country encountered various difficulties. These ranged from small errors, such as mismatched gauges in pipes, to major catastrophes, such as the failures of boilers and furnaces, which killed thousands and put whole factories out of commission. All of these mistakes were likely caused by the huge rush toward industrialization and exacerbated by the central planning committees, and the result was that industrial growth occurred in fits and lurches rather than through an organic evolution. [kw]Shakhty Case Debuts Show Trials in Moscow (May 18, 1928)
[kw]Show Trials in Moscow, Shakhty Case Debuts (May 18, 1928)
[kw]Trials in Moscow, Shakhty Case Debuts Show (May 18, 1928)
[kw]Moscow, Shakhty Case Debuts Show Trials in (May 18, 1928)
Moscow show trials
Show trials, Soviet Union
Shakhty trials
[g]Russia;May 18, 1928: Shakhty Case Debuts Show Trials in Moscow[07040]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;May 18, 1928: Shakhty Case Debuts Show Trials in Moscow[07040]
[c]Government and politics;May 18, 1928: Shakhty Case Debuts Show Trials in Moscow[07040]
[c]Human rights;May 18, 1928: Shakhty Case Debuts Show Trials in Moscow[07040]
Stalin, Joseph
[p]Stalin, Joseph;show trials
Vyshinsky, Andrey Yanuaryevich
Krylenko, Nikolai Vasilyevich

Idealized painting shows Joseph Stalin (center) leading a Central Committee meeting.

(Library of Congress)

No one was allowed to admit, however, that Stalin’s plan could be at fault. Instead, fear of Stalin’s harsh tactics caused the Soviet government to argue that its difficulties were due to the nefarious work of saboteurs sent by the capitalist nations of the West to destroy the dream of building the perfect socialist society. An opportunity to convince the Soviet people of this scheme came from a region in the North Caucasus, near Rostov-na-Donu, where a secret police informer, Yevgeny Yevdokimov, reported a supposed conspiracy to commit sabotage in the town of Shakhty. The tip was soon spun into an elaborate scenario in which Soviet and foreign engineers were accused of taking orders from Paris and attempting to bomb and destroy mining equipment throughout the Donbass region. Fifty-three defendants—an unprecedented number—were named.

The sheer size of the planned trial led Stalin to revive the Special Judicial Presence, Special Judicial Presence a judicial body whose powers and jurisdictions were not specified by any legal document. To head it, Stalin chose the rector of Moscow University, Andrey Yanuaryevich Vyshinsky, a man of international stature whose reputation added further luster to both the trial and its verdict. The fact that Stalin had shared a cell in a czarist prison with Vyshinsky during their revolutionary days only helped solidify Stalin’s confidence in Vyshinsky’s willingness to follow Stalin’s orders. Stalin assigned the role of chief prosecutor to Nikolai Vasilyevich Krylenko, Vyshinsky’s old rival. In order to make sure that there would be plenty of room for observers, including foreign correspondents, the trial was held in the famous Hall of Columns in the Trade Union House, which had been the Moscow Club of the Nobility.

Even before the trial opened, Stalin had made a speech in which he publicly declared that the defendants were guilty of sabotage. The fact that not one of the members of the Central Committee spoke up behalf of the accused was a mark of how thoroughly Stalin had already cowed Communist Party’s most senior members. Even Bolshevik leader Nikolay Ivanovich Bukharin Bukharin, Nikolay Ivanovich loudly called for the execution of the Shakhty engineers, perhaps because Bukharin himself was now pleading for his own life in the face of Stalin’s increasing threats to have him destroyed.

The trial was noteworthy for its lack of interest in using evidence in arguments. Instead, Vyshinsky emphasized the power of wringing confessions from the accused, a theory of jurisprudence that he had been personally involved in developing. However, things did not always go smoothly. During the course of the trial, defendants repeatedly retracted their previous confessions, and several indicated that their confessions had been extracted by blackmail or by outright brutality. As a result, the confessions were often confusing and could change several times during the course of the trial.

As the trial progressed, the rivalry between Vyshinsky and Krylenko became increasingly obvious. While Krylenko taunted and ridiculed the defendants and often came across as ham-handed or boorish, Vyshinsky relied on relentless, logic-based arguments, which he delivered in a level, scholarly tone. As a result, Vyshinsky was remembered with respect, if not actual admiration, and this respect intensified when he used his authority as presiding judge to discipline Krylenko when the latter became carried away with his attacks on the defendants. It was fairly obvious, however, that Vyshinsky enjoyed the opportunity to embarrass a long-time rival at least as much as he cared about keeping the trial on track.

Over the trial’s six weeks, its various problems made it the target of a fair amount of mockery in the foreign press. There were simply too many signs that the trial was a sham and that the supposed confessions were actually meaningless products of state terror. Vyshinsky gradually realized that there was no way to carry out Stalin’s grand scheme without looking absurd, and so he gained permission to reduce the number of guilty verdicts and death sentences. Only eleven of the eighteen originally marked as guilty were actually sentenced to death. Of those, only five sentences actually were carried out, a reduction that occurred largely as the result of international outcry against the obvious injustice.


The show trials that Stalin held in 1928 were in some sense a dress rehearsal for the later, more famous Moscow show trials of 1935 and 1936, in which Stalin publicly discredited and destroyed the last of the Bolshevik leaders who had carried out the October Revolution and could have moved against him. All the major elements and themes of the later trials are evident in the Shakhty case, including the intimidation and ultimate destruction of the very people the Soviet Union most needed to lead its move toward progress and industrialization.

By 1935, Stalin’s government had perfected its methods and techniques to ensure that it would not again experience the embarrassment of having defendants who refused to confess or who repeatedly changed their pleas and retracted confessions (only to later offer further confessions). If it was clear that certain defendants were likely to cause trouble in court, they were tried in secret sessions, and the public saw nothing but newspaper reports. Most notably, this method was used in the destruction of Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky Tukhachevsky, Mikhail and other notable officers of the Red Army, men of great physical courage unlikely to be cowed into submission by torture.

However, Vyshinsky would not reprise his role as the presiding judge when it came time for the Moscow show trials. Instead, he would replace Krylenko, whose performance Stalin had found crude and unsatisfactory, at the prosecutor’s table. Vyshinsky’s oratory would become famous, and he was especially well known for the imaginative abuse he was able to heap on defendants. Even as prosecutor, Vyshinsky continued to have a major role in the operations of the Moscow show trials, as the military judge chosen to preside over them was a lackluster figure with no real legal training—the judge was useful primarily because he could be depended upon to hand down guilty verdicts and death sentences. Krylenko would ultimately vanish into an unmarked grave, but Vyshinsky would survive the Great Terror with his reputation intact and move into diplomacy. Moscow show trials
Show trials, Soviet Union
Shakhty trials

Further Reading

  • Conquest, Robert. The Great Terror: A Reassessment. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1990. A postglasnost reissue of the most authoritative volume on the era. Includes discussion of the Shakhty trials and other preludes to the actual terror.
  • Medvedev, Roy. Let History Judge: The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism. Translated by George Shriver. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989. A glasnost-era edition of the study of Stalinism by one of the former Soviet Union’s leading historians. Includes material on the Shakhty case and treats it as a prelude to the Moscow show trials.
  • Montefore, Simon Sebag. Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. Includes information on Stalin’s use of henchmen (including Vyshinsky) to prepare and run the terror while deflecting attention from himself.
  • Rayfield, Donald. Stalin and His Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him. New York: Random House, 2004. Study of the relationship between Stalin and his chief lieutenants reveals Stalin’s preference for staying in the background during repressions so that others could take the blame, a tactic that allowed him to preserve his image as fatherly leader.
  • Vaksberg, Arkady. Stalin’s Prosecutor: The Life of Andrei Vyshinsky. New York: Grove Weidenfield, 1990. One of the few biographies of Vyshinsky available. Includes extensive information on the Shakhty trials.

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