When does history become performance art?
In 1936, Joseph Stalin set out to eliminate any communist leader with sufficient prestige to threaten his monopoly on power. In what became known as the Great Terror, he instigated a series of show trials, with scripts written by his political police and entirely false charges, designed to cover up the mistakes of his forced industrialization and collectivization drives by blaming his rivals—especially his arch-rival, Leon Trotsky, by then in exile from the USSR.
The first trial succeeded in terms of Stalin’s larger goal: the political police convinced the defendants to confess to their “crimes” in open court. Convicted of plotting against Stalin, the leaders were promptly shot. The purges rippled out from the center, sweeping up hundreds of thousands of mid-level bureaucrats and intellectuals throughout the Soviet Union.
But the international community remained skeptical of trials that relied solely on confessions. So for the next show trial, held in 1937, Stalin’s police selected five witnesses to corroborate the faked charges against a new group of defendants. Julius Wachtel’s Stalin’s Witnesses (Knox Robinson Publishing, 2012) explores the identity, careers, and psychology of these five men—and especially of Vladimir Romm, a journalist, diplomat, and Soviet spy who served in Washington, DC, for two years before his recall and arrest in August 1936.
In Stalin’s Russia, fiction often seemed less fantastic than history. To understand the tragedy wreaked on individual lives by the state as performance artist, you can’t do better than to read Julius Wachtel’s Stalin’s Witnesses.