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The Court as Theatre

Larkin-Stuart Lecture, Trinity College

Historian Michael Marrus observes: There is a very substantial literature that links trials to theatre. This refers to the “show trial” where the law is being used for an improper purpose. The main example discussed in the lecture is Bukharin of communist Russia in the 1930s.

Signature elements of a Show Trial

The signature element, often, is a “confession.” This is trumped up, faked, or coerced. An inescapable element of the dramaturgy: the pretense that the accusations and guilt are a foregone conclusion. How do we interpret these trials? How should be understand them? One obvious way is this: the trial is a theatrical projection of the accuser’s own mental world. Specifically, it is a projection of:

  • the accuser’s paranoid fantasies
  • his lust for revenge against those whom he believes are plotting against him (or plotting his downfall; found especially in the political ‘kangaroo courts’ of totalitarian regimes)
  • his lust for complete, unopposed power and control

Robert Tucker (Specialist, Princeton University)

The proceedings of a show trial become literally a dramatic performance, in which not only the judge and the prosecutor, but also the defendant, play arranged parts or roles – just as actors do on the stage.

The crux of a show trial is the confession (or planted evidence). In other words: artifice.

The defendant plays the leading part (or is forced to). “Leading part” means confession in vivid detail to heinous crimes allegedly committed by himself and others.

A related view is that the Great Purge trials in the U.S.S.R. were an attempt to prepare the party and the U.S.S.R. for what was perceived as the coming war against fascism. This was 1938, the time of Hitler’s march into Austria. The Soviets were acutely aware of this and Stalin may well have been brooding about his own need for complete and absolute, unopposed power facing this great challenge.

Many of the theories offering explanations of the Soviet “show trials” are variants on the theme – very much studied in the 1950s – of totalitarianism. This is an attempt to strengthen the control and the privileges accorded to the ruling party.

The accuser has a driving need to induce fear.

Explanation of Novelist Koestler

One of the most famous interpretations of the Soviet show trials goes deeper in its analysis. It has become a commonly articulated view. It is the perspective of Hungarian Jewish novelist Arthur Koestler from his 1940 novel Darkness at Noon. His fictional character is meant to portray Bukharin.

Koestler's view is that the defendants are, in some way, complicit in the drama. They are willing actors in the play directed by the accuser and by justice officials. The key to this role is a faith in which they had been raised, an unshakeable faith, in the rectitude of the Soviet communist party.

In the U.S.S.R. the victims (defendants) had a view that the party (those in power) could do no wrong. It was so unshakeable that even the defendants still believed in it. You think it’s impossible? In Koestler’s novel, the victim speaks to his interrogator: “The party can never be mistaken. You and I can make a mistake; not the party. The party is more than you and I and a thousand others like you and I.

The party is the embodiment of the revolutionary idea in history. History knows no scruples and no hesitation, inert and unerring, she flows toward her goal. At every bend in her course, she leaves the mud which she carries and the corpses of the drowned. History knows her way. S he makes no mistakes. He who has not absolute faith in history does not belong in the party’s ranks.”

That was early in the novel, when the accused (Rubashov) was still considered a mainstream member of the Soviet party. Later, a harder interrogator tells Rubashov what he is supposed to do at the trial: “Your task is simple. You have to set it yourself. To gild the right, to blacken the wrong. Make the masses understand that opposition is contemptible, that opposition is a crime. That is the simply language which the masses understand.”

“If you begin to talk of your complicated motives, you will only create confusion amongst the masses. Your task is to avoid awakening sympathy and pity. Sympathy and pity for the opposition are a danger to the country.”

Deeper Explanation

Alternate explanation of Koestler’s novel: the defendant was trying to send a message beyond the court, that he was conducting a duel with his accusers and interrogators. After being beaten, bludgeoned, and his family menaced, nevertheless during the course of the trial, the defendant conducted a kind of oddly screened opposition to his tormentor through the use of Aesopian language.

Aesopian language is named after the ancient Greek storyteller Aesop who wrote moral animal fables. This is language designed to convey an innocent meaning to outsiders, but in which there is a key, a concealed meaning to informed members of a particular group. When facing the police apparatus, while formally acceding to the authorities, the accused would try to signal and send messages of resistance.

In the novel: the accused offered profuse confessions, which actually held concealed language. Messages hidden in his speech signaled his own resistance and opposition.

Biographer Steven Cohen

Cohen wrote a non-fiction account of Bukharin, saying: “ Bukharin’s tactic would be to make sweeping confessions that he was politically responsible for everything, thereby at once saving his family, and underlining his symbolic role that he was a criminal, while at the same time flatly denying or subtly disproving his complicity in actual crime.

Bukharin was going on trial to testify before another, higher court – the court of history and the future generation toward whom he addressed his last words. As Bukharin said in the courtroom: “World history is a world court of judgment, and the only one that mattered.” The result was a dazzling exhibition of code words, veiled allusions, exercises in logic, and stubborn denials. Bukharin was not speaking to a judge or a prosecutor, he was really speaking to us (the world).

Bukharin’s Famous Address to the Court

In his last speech, using Aesopian language, he conveyed underneath the confession and alongside the acknowledgement of his criminality, a hidden opposition to the situation in which he finds himself. At a night court session on March 12, 1938 Bukharin made his last plea. He had to work within the brutal constraints of the Stalinist show trial.

“I fully agree with the prosecutor regarding the significance of the trial at which were exposed our dastardly crimes – the crimes committed by the bloc of Rights and Trotskyites (opposers of the ruling party) – for all of the activities of which I bear responsibility.” Bukharin pleaded guilty to the sum total of the crimes committed by the bloc. He then went on to dispute every particular fact that the prosecutor had alleged.

Bukharin reminded the court that he had been isolated. He insisted that he was speaking freely. He said, “Repentance is often attributed to diverse and absurd things. But when confined during the past year I worked, studied, and retained my clarity of mind. This will serve to refute by fact all fables and absurd counter- revolutionary tales. Hypnotism is suggested. But I conducted my own defence in the court. From the legal standpoint too, I oriented myself on the spot, argued with the state prosecutor, and anybody, even a man with little experience in this branch of medicine must admit that hypnotism of this kind is altogether impossible.”

“I shall now speak myself of my reasons for my repentance. Of course, it must be admitted that incriminating evidence plays a very important part. For three months I refused to say anything. Then I began to testify. Why? Because while confined, I made a re-evaluation of my entire past. For when you ask yourself, if you must die, what are you dying for? An absolute black vacuity suddenly arises before you with startling vividness.”

“There was nothing to die for. For if one wanted to die unrepented – and on the contrary everything positive that glistens in the Soviet Union requires new dimension 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.”

“And when you ask yourself, very well, suppose you do not die? Suppose by some miracle you remain alive? Then what for? Isolated from everybody, an enemy of the people, in an inhuman position, completely isolated from everything that constitutes the essence of life. And at once the same reply arises. And at such moments, judges, everything personal, all personal encrustation, all the rancor, pride, and a number of other things fall away, disappear.”

“And in addition, when the reverberations of the broad international struggle (the effects of the opposition) reach your ear, all this in its entirety does it work. And the result is the complete internal moral victory of the U.S.S.R. over its kneeling opponents.”

“I’m about to finish. I am perhaps speaking for the last time in my life. I am explaining how I came to realize the necessity of capitulating to the investigating authorities and to you, citizen judges. We came out against the joy of the new life with the most criminal methods of struggle. I refute the accusation of having plotted against the life of Lenin, but my counter-revolutionary confederates and I at their head endeavored to murder Lenin’s cause which is being carried on with such tremendous success by Stalin.”

“The logic of this struggle led us step by step into the blackest quagmire, and it has once more proved that the departure from the position of Bolshevism means siding with political counter-revolutionary banditry. Counter-revolutionary banditry has now been smashed. We have been smashed. And we repent of our frightful crimes.”

“The point of course is not this repentance, or my personal repentance in particular. The court can pass its verdict without it. The confession of the accused is not essential. The confession of the accused is a medieval principal of jurisprudence. But here we also have the internal demolition of the forces of counter-revolution. And one must be a Trotsky not to lay down one’s arms.”

“I am kneeling before the country; before the party; before the whole people. The monstrousness of my crimes is immeasurable, especially in the new stage of the struggle of the U.S.S.R. May this trial be the last severe lesson, and may the might of the U.S.S.R. become clear to all. Let it be clear that all the counter- revolutionary thesis of the national limitedness of the U.S.S.R. has remained suspended in the air like a wretched rag.”

“Everybody perceives the wise leadership of the country that is ensured by Stalin. It is in the consciousness of this that I await the verdict. What matters is not the personal feelings of a repentant enemy, but the flourishing progress of the U.S.S.R. and its international importance.”

New York Times Report

The New York Times covered the Stalin show trials in two articles dated March 13, 1930.

NYT Article #1 – “Mr. Bukharin alone, who all too obviously in his last words fully expected to die, was manly, proud, and almost defiant. He is the first of the 54 men who have faced the court in the last three treason trials who has not abased himself in the last hours of the trial.”

NYT Article #2 – “In all of Mr. Bukharin’s speech, there was no trace of bombast, truculence, or cheap oratory. It was a brilliant composition delivered in a matter- of-fact manner, and it was tremendously convincing. He was making his last appearance and last utterance on the world stage, where at times he has played great parts, and he seemed simply and intensely an earnest man completely unafraid, but merely trying to get his story straight before the world.”

Georgena S. Sil
Saskatoon, Canada
Physicist & Technical Writer
Alumnus: University of British Columbia

Copyright © 2008-2016 Georgena Sil. All Rights Reserved.