April 15, 1937: It is late night or early morning—the prisoner has little sense of time. He uses the night to work feverishly on his writing, following days filled with interrogations and negotiations. He repositions himself periodically to take advantage of the dim light from a single, naked bulb. His small cell is littered with books and papers that he has wheedled from his captors. Tonight he has put aside work on a semiautobiographical novel to compose a letter to the person who controls his fate. He addresses the man warmly, assuring him that “there are no bad feelings despite [your] removing me from my surroundings and sending me here.”

The prisoner, nearing his fiftieth birthday, is small in stature; a prominent mustache and goatee divert attention from a hairline that began receding in youth. His hair is gray, with wisps of the original red. Periodically he paces his cell, then returns to his task.

His letter, addressed “Dear Koba,” rambles, runs on at tedious length, and intersperses hysteria, anger, bitterness, and remorse with ambitious plans for the future. He describes his life in prison, writing as if to allay any concerns “Koba” might have that he is being mistreated. (He has ceased going outside for exercise because he feels ashamed when other prisoners look at him.) The prison regime is strict: no feeding the pigeons, no talking in the corridors, no noises in the cell, a light burning day and night. But it’s also fair: the food is good, and the young jailers treat him decently.

Parts of the letter appear bizarrely inappropriate: “In my lifetime, I have known intimately only four women.” At the end, the prisoner makes his plea: “Settle me in a hut somewhere outside of Moscow, give me a new name, let two NKVD officers live in my home, allow me to live with my family, let me work for the common good with books and translations under a pseudonym, let me till the soil.” The letter ends: “My heart is breaking that this is a Soviet prison and my grief and burden are without limit. Be healthy and happy.” The signature read “N. Bukharin.”

Nikolai Bukharin’s dear Koba was, of course, Josef Stalin, the uncontested master of the Russian house. Following his usual pretense of giving his deputies a voice, Stalin wrote on the border of a transmittal letter: “Circulate!” and listed seven Politburo members as recipients of Bukharin’s plea. Their predictable reactions came back in a torrent: “the letter of a criminal”; “a criminal farce”; and “a typical Bukharin lie.”

Stalin was thus again obliged to bend reluctantly to the will of the party. Bukharin could not be freed; he would have to stand trial and receive his punishment. As Stalin had told him at the time of his arrest, “Friendship is friendship, but duty is duty.” Old pal Koba was simply doing that duty.

Nikolai Bukharin was the most prominent political prisoner ever held in the Internal Prison of the NKVD. Dubbed the “golden boy” of the revolution by Lenin himself, Bukharin had nonetheless fallen by degrees from the apex of the party hierarchy. By odd and ironic coincidence, Lenin’s praise was uttered in the presence of a five-year-old girl named Anna Larina, who never forgot it. Fifteen years after hearing of the “golden boy,” she would become his third wife.

The homage was not surprising. Bukharin in his prime was widely regarded as a leading Marxist theorist, second only to Lenin. Among the best-educated of the Bolshevik founding fathers, he had organized student revolts at Moscow University at sixteen and became a member of the Moscow Soviet in 1908, at the age of twenty. Arrested several times, he was sent to internal exile in Onega in 1910 for incendiary speeches and organizing worker protests. From there, he fled abroad, attended courses in German universities, and became an associate of Lenin—also an exile living in Krakow and then Switzerland.

Bukharin traveled a rocky road: he was arrested and expelled from both Austria and Switzerland. In 1916, he entered the United States illegally and found work there as a correspondent for the Russian-language daily Novy Mir. In New York, he met Leon Trotsky, whose impression of Bukharin was not positive (a “medium through whom someone else’s thoughts could be channeled”).

The author of numerous books and articles, fluent in French and German and widely traveled, Bukharin served as editor of Pravda from the first days of the October Revolution. A man of great intellectual enthusiasm and curiosity, he attracted disciples to his “Bukharin school,” later belittled by Stalin as Bukharin’s shkolka (little school). He read and composed poetry avidly, and his caricatures of Old Bolsheviks, doodled during Politburo meetings, remain classics.

But Bukharin also had telling weaknesses. He was impulsive, sensitive, prone to hysteria under stress, incapable of political calculation, and a self-admitted terrible organizer. He cried over the loss of several hundred of his Moscow Bolshevik comrades during the October Revolution; he wept profusely at Lenin’s deathbed; he required sedation after witnessing at first hand the collectivization in Ukraine. These traits led to a reputation for weakness among other Bolshevik leaders. (In the words of a fellow Politburo member: “I fear Bukharin because he is a soft-hearted person.”)

In addition, Bukharin too often talked and wrote without thinking—unlike his nemesis, Stalin, who (as his former secretary remarked) “spoke little in a land that spoke too much.” Off-the-cuff remarks and chance meetings would come back to haunt him with terrible consequences. His sensitivity and volubility were later used to create the impression of a person not to be taken seriously. His colleagues used the phrase “little Bukharin” (Bukharchik) in private and public. Normally a term of endearment, it was used by Stalin to belittle him.

Bukharin was also known to change positions, the most prominent being his shift in the mid-1920s from radical “left communism” to advocacy of the “liberal” new economic policy. Lenin characterized him as “soft wax” on which “unprincipled persons can make an impression.”

During the civil war, Lenin kept the soft Bukharin in Moscow to manage Pravda and Bolshevik propaganda. He thus retained a “halo of innocence,” “spinning brilliant words and ideas in Moscow,” in one writer’s words, while other Bolshevik founders razed towns and villages and ordered executions and torture at the front. But he did not escape the violence of the civil war entirely: he was wounded in an anarchist bomb attack that claimed twelve lives in Moscow.

After Lenin’s death, Bukharin was fully ensconced in the inner sanctum of power. Popular with the party rank and file, he, unlike other top Bolsheviks, moved freely around Moscow without guards and was greeted enthusiastically by Muscovites, who recognized him on sight. Bukharin often seemed, as described by a noted British historian, a “gentle and lovable character of singular personal charm.”

Bukharin’s first marriage was to his slightly older first cousin, Nadezhda Lukina, before the revolution. The union proved childless and fell apart in the early 1920s, as her health deteriorated. Nadezhda took the breakup badly. In Bukharin’s words: “She almost lost her mind. Lenin had to order her to go abroad.” Nadezhda nonetheless remained devoted to her former husband.

He became acquainted with his future second wife, Esfir’ Gurvich, in 1921, during a game of gorodki on the lawn of Lenin’s suburban estate. Esfir’ was an economist who also had a degree in architecture. Throughout their marriage, she lived in a separate apartment, not in the Kremlin. Esfir’ and Stalin’s wife, Nadezhda Allilueva, were close friends, and their daughters—both named Svetlana—were constant companions at Stalin’s dacha. According to rumors, Stalin drove Esfir’ and Bukharin apart in 1928 because she knew too much about Stalin’s private life.

Anna Larina and Bukharin were married in 1934. As one of his friends declared to the bride shortly before their wedding, “A holy place does not stay empty long.”

Bukharin remained committed to the ideal of a socialist state throughout his life. He continued to write voluminously on socialist theory, unwittingly providing Stalin with ammunition to accuse him of socialist heresy. Even facing death, he would give his wife this last instruction: raise our infant son as a good Bolshevik “without fail.” He had great faith in the eventual victory of socialism.

The arrest came on February 27, 1937. Bukharin was accused of a labyrinthine conspiracy against Stalin and the Soviet state, and turned over to the NKVD to extract a credible confession. Bukharin had vehemently denied all the charges against him and was determined to fight for his “political honor.” He already knew that the defendants in the first two Moscow show trials (Lev Kamenev, Grigory Zinovyev, Georgy Pyatakov, and others) were “no longer among the living”—even though they had dutifully confessed to all charges. Bukharin also knew that he could not believe any promises about the safety of Anna and the rest of his family. His NKVD interrogators, therefore, appeared to have little leverage over him.

In prison, Bukharin kept himself occupied with what he did best—writing—while his interrogators worked on him to confess. He turned his attention to articles, essays, and his novel. These “prison writings” would be preserved and published after the fall of communism. Bukharin’s day was spent with interrogations, confrontations, and negotiations with both NKVD officers and the state prosecutor, Andrey Vyshinsky. At night, he wrote.

The stakes associated with a confession were high. The success of the Master’s planned third Moscow show trial hinged on a public confession from Bukharin in an open forum before an international audience. A confession of political opposition or general knowledge of the terrorist intentions of others would not be enough. Bukharin had to admit to plotting murder, espionage, and violent overthrow of the government. A growing number of former party leaders—Zinovyev, Kamenev, and the military high command—had been or were shortly to be executed for such crimes, so Bukharin had to admit to them as well. After all, they were supposed to have been in the plot together.

On June 2, slightly more than three months after his arrest, Bukharin signed a handwritten “Personal Confession of N. Bukharin.” It numbered fifteen typewritten pages, each initialed and, in some cases, edited by Bukharin himself. “This confession,” he wrote, “gives a general picture of the counterrevolutionary activity of the rightists and their allies.”

To what did he confess? Bukharin admitted that after political defeat in 1929, he and his allies chose a policy of “capitulation,” publicly agreeing to toe the party line while taking their resistance underground using “tactics of deception.” Stalin had unwittingly spread a cadre of purged rightists throughout the country, in this account, ready to recruit new sympathizers beyond the vigilant eye of Moscow.

Bukharin explained that the success of collectivization and the elimination of wealthy peasants stabilized Stalin’s hold on power. Therefore he and his allies had to overthrow Stalin by force. Bukharin’s confession proceeded to explain that this ragtag band of conspirators recruited powerful yet unlikely allies to carry out the planned palace coup and assassinations. Bukharin named forty-two fellow conspirators (not including emigres living abroad). Most had already been arrested. The best they could hope for now would be a long prison term. Most, however, would be executed.

Bukharin’s confession was far from perfect for Stalin’s purposes. It provided precious little detail to prove his guilt. Bukharin confessed only to being part of a vague plan to overthrow Stalin, but the alleged conspirators seem not to have met, had no operational plans, and included individuals most unlikely to betray Stalin. Bukharin, unlike Kamenev and Zinovyev, refused to admit to actual killings. He subtly downplayed his role throughout. If he really was a leader of the conspiracy, he was a remarkably detached one.

No one knows why Bukharin confessed and under what circumstances. Torture is the most likely explanation. Evidence from a 1988 hearing on his case suggests that Bukharin was tortured by a feared interrogator (one L. R. Sheinin of the Saratov NKVD) and then apparently succumbed quickly and signed his confession the next day. Interrogators surely offered assurances for family members, but, if anything, the treatment of Bukharin’s extended family became worse after his confession.

Stalin could not have been fully confident that Bukharin’s confession would stand up in an open show trial with foreign observers and press present. To put him on the stand was a risk. Foreigners might wonder how such a master plan could be put into action based on chance meetings and street-corner conversations. Clearly, Stalin needed a fully compliant and cooperative Bukharin at the trial. For once, therefore, Bukharin had an advantage over Stalin. He knew that death sentences were carried out almost immediately. There would not be time for torture. If he saved his “betrayal of the party” to the end, his time “among the living” would be mercifully short.

The courtroom was hushed as Bukharin began to read from his final statement on the evening of March 12, 1938, one day before his death sentence was to be pronounced. Last statements from the other defendants had dutifully and tamely confirmed their guilt and pleaded for mercy. Bukharin, however, set out to undermine his own confession.

To the shock of prosecutor Vyshinsky and judge Vasily Ul’rikh, he embedded his final statement with exaggerated language and double entendres. According to some witnesses, he used bizarre gestures to signal his utter disregard for the proceeding and especially for “citizen general prosecutor” Vyshinsky. Employing sarcasm and nuance, Bukharin denied virtually all the substantive charges against him and proceeded to show their lack of logic—indeed, their lunacy. He then thrust a sword through the heart of the trial: the “rightist-Trotsky bloc,” he declared, did not even exist, its members had never met, and charges of espionage were ridiculous!

At long last, Stalin appeared to have been outwitted by Bukharin.

But Stalin, ever resourceful, had ways to keep Bukharin’s most damaging statements from gaining wide circulation. (He was extremely lucky that Bukharin’s remarks were not picked up by the foreign press, which was also present.) Stalin immediately ordered the films of the trial buried deep in Politburo vaults—where they still languish.

Nor did Bukharin’s betrayal alter Stalin’s plan to publish a full transcript of the trial. The Master proceeded to publish the transcript with his own twists; although he could not leave out Bukharin’s final plea in its entirety, he could redact Bukharin’s most telling denials and evident sarcasm. He was a master editor and up to the job.

Indeed, the transcript published shortly after the trial was accepted by many as the true account—until the sensational publication in 1996 of the text of Bukharin’s final statement showing Stalin’s heavy pencil marks. We now know what Bukharin actually said during that frenzied courtroom scene and what Stalin suppressed.

Bukharin dutifully began his last words by “declaring myself politically responsible for the totality of crimes committed by the rightist-Trotskyite bloc.” Thereafter, he careened widely off script.

“I accept responsibility even for those crimes about which I did not know or about which I did not have the slightest idea.” (Stalin marked out that statement.) Also redacted was Bukharin’s most sarcastic and devastating blow to the prosecution: “I deny most of all the prosecutor’s charge that I belonged to the group sitting on the court bench with me, because such a group never existed!” If there had been no such thing as a “rightist-Trotsky bloc,” how could it be the subject of criminal prosecution?

Closing his discussion of espionage charges with extreme sarcasm, which Stalin probably hoped would be interpreted literally, the defendant said: “I, however, declare myself guilty of the evil plan to break apart the USSR, because Trotsky agreed on territorial concessions, and I was with Trotsky in a [non-existent] bloc. This I admit.”

By now, it was clear that Bukharin was making a travesty of the proceedings, and the court officials moved to shut him up. In the end, Stalin allowed Bukharin’s final words to stand despite their hyperbole:

Comrade Chairman, it is possible that I am speaking the last time in my life, and I ask you to let me finish my speech. I explain why I came to the necessity to capitulate. We acted against the joy of the new life using the most criminal methods of struggle. I deny the accusation that I tried to assassinate Lenin, but my counterrevolutionary co-conspirators, with me at their head, tried to kill the work of Lenin, continued by Stalin with gigantic successes. The logic of this struggle, step by step, sank us into a black swamp . . . but now the counterrevolutionary banditry has been destroyed, we are beaten, and we have repented our terrible crimes.

The most authoritative demonstration of the sham nature of the proceedings had to wait until Stephen Cohen’s 1971 biography of Bukharin. Cohen, using the official transcript and other evidence, was able to demonstrate how Bukharin “tore the case against him to bits” in what “may fairly be called his finest hour.”

Anna Larina did not know the gruesome circumstances of her husband’s execution. And we do not know whether Stalin would have imposed them if Bukharin had behaved better at his trial. We can be confident that Stalin personally orchestrated Bukharin’s execution, as he had his trial. The Master met regularly with secret-police chief N. I. Ezhov to plan the interrogations, and during breaks in the trial, he received reports from prosecutor Vyshinsky. Rumor had it that he sat concealed behind a curtain in the courtroom. Some said they could even see puffs of smoke from his pipe.

As the trial date approached, Bukharin understood that his execution was likely. In his final letter to Stalin from his cell, written in December 1937, Bukharin had made a last plea to the only person who could grant his request:

Very Secret–Personal
To: Stalin, Iosif Vissarionovich
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 mercy. Politically, it won’t really matter, and, besides, no one will know a thing about it. Have pity on me! Surely you’ll understand, knowing me as well as you do.

Stalin brushed aside the request. According to one account of the execution: “NKVD officer Litvin told me in 1938 in Leningrad that he was present at the execution of Bukharin and sixteen other co-defendants. From his account, I remember that Frinovskii [deputy head of the NKVD] ordered that Rykov [a known alcoholic] be given a bottle of whiskey, which he drank before his execution. But Bukharin suffered one last, cruel—and macabre—prank. He was given a chair so that he could watch as the others were shot.” Stalin saved his execution till the last, deliberately heightening, sixteen times over, the anguish of the condemned man who had pleaded not to be killed with a bullet to the back of his head.

On February 5, 1988, the Soviet Supreme Court announced Nikolai Bukharin’s full exoneration from criminal charges. The Politburo’s concurrent recognition of that decision fulfilled Bukharin’s last, desperate dream—fifty years after he gave his testament to Anna Larina—of rehabilitation by a “future generation” of party leaders. His widow, who had lived a quiet life since her own release from the Gulag, had privately petitioned each Soviet leader, from Nikita Khrushchev to Mikhail Gorbachev, to take up Bukharin’s cause. In later years, a petition calling for his posthumous rehabilitation helped lead to a “Bukharin boom,” just as Gorbachev was embarking on his program of reform in 1987.

The leaders who restored Bukharin’s political honor were cautious bureaucrats in their seventies, and they themselves would lose their positions within a few years as the Communist Party collapsed. They were acting only because their boss, Gorbachev, had ordered them to do so.

Thus, Bukharin’s “future generation of party leaders” rehabilitated him with a whimper. There were no trumpets or triumphal ringing of bells. They did not condemn the court procedures used to convict him or his execution on political grounds.

Anna Larina’s battle for her dead husband’s rehabilitation succeeded only when the party was on its last legs. Both she and Bukharin had believed firmly in socialism, believed that the Stalin years were a transitory time of troubles and that a new generation of enlightened party leaders would emerge. But the party leaders whom Gorbachev ordered to reinstate Bukharin were dull bureaucrats, uninterested in true justice and resentful of such a distasteful task.

Within three years, the party membership card of the reinstated Nikolai Bukharin disappeared into the vaults of a defunct organization. To add insult to the gravest of injuries, public opinion in contemporary Russia continues to rate Josef Stalin among the top figures in the nation’s history. Nowhere in such polls is the name Nikolai Bukharin mentioned. In death, Stalin has again outwitted—and outdistanced—Bukharin.

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