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Unlike Stalin's Show-Trial Victims, Russia's Political Defendants Don't Back Down

  • Robert Coalson

There are, of course, many differences between the infamous show trials of Josef Stalin's Great Terror and the politically convenient prosecutions of the political adversaries of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Stalin liked to try his victims in huge mass productions on blatantly political charges and then march them off for summary execution almost before the ink dried on the foreordained verdict. Putin often prefers apparently nonpolitical charges like tax evasion and is content with prison sentences upon conviction. He even sometimes grants early release to targeted individuals, whereas Stalin's victims had to wait decades for posthumous rehabilitation.

But another big difference is the tone and content of the defendants' closing speeches. The defiant, impassioned, and principled closing speech -- despite usually being impromptu -- has become a new literary genre in Putin's Russia.

Bolshevik leader Grigory Zinoviev was convicted and executed in August 1936, despite giving a closing speech that opened with:

"I want to say once again that I admit that I am fully and completely guilty. I am guilty of having been an organizer of the Trotskyite-Zinovievite bloc, second only to Trotsky, a bloc that set itself the aim of assassinating Stalin...and a number of other leaders of the party and the government.

"My defective Bolshevism became transformed into anti-Bolshevism, and through Trotskyism, I arrived at fascism."

"I did not shrink from terrorism or from agreement with the fascists," said Valentin Olberg, a defendant in the same trial.

Bolshevik Nikolai Krestinsky, who was convicted and executed in March 1938, was something of an exception. On the first day of his trial, he said: "I do not recognize that I am guilty. I am not a Trotskyite....Nor have I committed a single one of the crimes imputed to me."

The next day, following a night in the hands of Stalin's secret police, he made a stunning about-face:

"Yesterday, under the influence of a momentary keen feeling of false shame...I could not bring myself to tell the truth. I could not bring myself to say that I was guilty."

Bolshevik ideologist Nikolai Bukharin likewise confessed, saying that in prison he had realized that "everything positive that glistens in the Soviet Union acquires new dimensions in a man's mind. This in the end disarmed me completely and led me to bend my knees before the party and the country."

He was convicted on March 13, 1938, and executed two days later.

After Stalin, the fear of the Soviet government eased up and defendants in political trials were more forthright.

Writer Yury Daniel, who was convicted of "anti-Soviet activity" in a 1967 trial with fellow writer Andrei Sinyavsky, confessed to harming the Soviet Union by publishing his stories abroad but rejected the accusations that his books were "anti-Soviet." In concluding his final statement, he said:

"I want to say that no criminal charges, no accusations can prevent us -- Sinyavsky and myself -- from feeling that we are human beings who love our country and our people. That is all. I am ready to hear the verdict."

In Putin's era, the defendants in political trials have uniformly defied the courts and spoken openly about the manipulation of the legal system and the perversion of justice in Russia.

Here are excerpts from the closing speeches of the defendants in the most prominent political trials since Putin took office.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, April 11, 2005

Khodorkovsky is escorted by a security officer before an appeal hearing against his fraud conviction in Moscow City Court on September 20, 2005.

Khodorkovsky is escorted by a security officer before an appeal hearing against his fraud conviction in Moscow City Court on September 20, 2005.

"Everyone knows that I am not guilty of the crimes of which I am accused. That is why I have no intention of asking for clemency. It will be a shame for myself and for my country if the prosecutor's direct and unabashed deception of the judge is accepted as legal.

"I was in shock when the court and my lawyers explained it all to me. It will be unfortunate if the entire country comes to know that the court is acting under the influence of bureaucrats in the Kremlin and prosecutors.... I believe that my country, Russia, will be a country of justice and law. That is why this court must pronounce a verdict in accordance with justice and the law."

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, November 2, 2010

Khodorkovsky in a Moscow court on April 5, 2010

Khodorkovsky in a Moscow court on April 5, 2010

"I am not exaggerating, your honor, when I say that millions of people around the country and the world are following this trial. They are following it with hope that Russia will nonetheless become a country of freedom and law, where the law is above the bureaucracy. Where the support of opposition political parties will not be a cause for repression. Where the security services will defend the people and the law, instead of defending the bureaucracy from the people and from the law. Where human rights will no longer depend on the mood of the tsar, whether it is good or bad. And where, on the contrary, the government will genuinely depend on the citizenry and the court, only on the law and God or, if you prefer, call it your conscience. I personally believe this will come to pass.

"I am not an ideal person, but I am a man of ideas. And it is hard for me, as for anyone, to live in prison. And I do not want to die here. But if that is necessary, then I will not hesitate. My faith is worth my life. I think that I have proven that."

Pussy Riot defendant Maria Alyokhina, August 8, 2012

Alyokhina during a court hearing in Moscow on August 8, 2012

Alyokhina during a court hearing in Moscow on August 8, 2012

"The people of our country have ceased to feel that the territory of our country belongs to them -- the citizenry. People have ceased to feel that they are citizens. They simply feel like automated masses. They don't even think that they own the forest that grows near their homes. I even doubt that they recognize that they own their own homes.

"Someday a bulldozer could pull up to their door and someone could say: 'Excuse me, you need to evacuate; we are going to tear down your home now. Here is going to be the home of a bureaucrat.' These people would quietly gather their things, pack their bags, and go into the street. And they will sit there until the government tells them what to do next. They are completely amorphous, and this is very sad. Having spent almost half a year in jail, I have understood that prison is just Russia in miniature."

Pussy Riot defendant Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, August 8, 2012

Tolokonnikova in a Moscow court in 2012

Tolokonnikova in a Moscow court in 2012

"All of the witnesses for the defense testified as to the absence of any manifestations of hatred or enmity [in our performances]. Moreover, in addition to all the other assessments, I ask you to consider the results of the psychological evaluation I underwent at the request of the remand prison. The experts said that the values that I uphold in life are justice, mutual respect, humanism, equality, and freedom. This was said by an expert, a man who does not know me, and most likely the prosecutor would have wanted this expert to write something else. But apparently there are still people who love and value the truth. The Bible is right about this.

"And in conclusion, I would like to quote a song by Pussy Riot because, as strange as it would seem, all of them have turned out to be prophetic, including our prophecy that the head of the KGB and the main saint would lead the protesters under guard to prison -- that is about us. But the one I want to quote now is this: 'Open all the doors and take off your epaulets, and breathe with us the scent of freedom.' That's all."

Aleksei Navalny, December 12, 2014

Navalny at a court in Moscow on December 30, 2014

Navalny at a court in Moscow on December 30, 2014

"I want to call on everyone to stop living by lies. I want to say that I am absolutely certain that if they isolate me, if they imprison me, someone else will come and take my place. I didn't do anything unique or complicated. Everything that I have done, anyone can do. I am certain that the Fund Against Corruption will somehow find the people to continue exactly the same as before regardless of what this court decides."

Aleksei Gaskarov, August 4, 2014

Gaskarov in court in May 2014

Gaskarov in court in May 2014

"I do not want this trial to follow any political goals that were imposed on it from outside -- and in the case materials, there is plenty of that. Instead, I want us to be judged for what we really did. But if the path to freedom in this country passes through prison -- we are prepared to walk it."

Aleksander Byvshev, July 7, 2015

Poet Aleksandr Byvshev

Poet Aleksandr Byvshev

Byvshev is a poet convicted of extremism for his poem titled To Ukrainian Patriots and sentenced to six months of labor and a ban on working as a teacher. July 7, 2015:

"I say once again that I fulfilled my duty as a poet and a citizen and I am not ashamed of a single word that I have written. My conscience is clean and I have nothing to apologize for. I am an honest person and I can look people straight in the eye. Let history judge us."

Oleh Sentsov, August 19, 2015

"There is yet another part of the Russian population that knows perfectly well what is going on. That does not believe in the tales of your agitprop. That understands what is happening in the world -- what horrible crimes your leadership is committing. But these people are afraid of something. They think that nothing can be changed. That everything will continue as it is. That the system cannot be broken. That they are alone. That there are few of us. That we will all be thrown into prison. That they will kill us, destroy us. And they sit quietly as mice in their holes.

"We also had a criminal regime, but we came out against it. They didn't want to listen to us -- we beat on trash cans. They didn't want to see us -- we set tires on fire. In the end, we won. The same thing will happen with you, sooner or later. I don't know what form it will take and I don't wish to see anyone suffer. I simply wish for you to no longer be governed by criminals."

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    Robert Coalson

    Robert Coalson covers Russia, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe. Send story tips to