The archival footage from a court action against leading scientists in the Soviet Union of 1930 has been reconfigured into a narrative drama, which leads today‘s audience to believe the opposite of contemporary spectators.
If you google the trial against the Industrial Party in 1930, you will basically find two kind of results: those that explain how innocent scientists were made the scapegoats of a failed economic policy in Stalin’s Soviet Union, and those that explain how a treason against the Soviet State was uncovered, and how those colliding with foreign interests in bringing down the socialist project were punished for their crimes.
Now, the archival footage from the 11-day-long trial (later grouped under the category of Stalinist ’show trials’), has been edited and compiled into a two-hour-long narrative, with the film description kindly navigating our perspective from the outset: « The drama is real, the story is fake ». One can wonder what the point is, and what the difference between a so-called ‘show trial’ and archival disaster tourism really is.
The audience in the 1930 court room was brought there to receive ideological training, and contribute in the Soviet State’s righteous anger towards the accused. As a contemporary spectator to Sergei Loznitsa’s film The Trial, one can get a similar feeling: Now that history has established its verdict, not so much by inquiry or analysis, as by the course of events – capitalism’s victory over state socialism – we are invited to take part in the thrill of past injustices committed by a system no-one in their right mind defends any longer.
The Chairman of the USSR Supreme Court that cross-examined the group of scientists accused of economic sabotage was Andrei Vyshinsky; a skinny, long-faced man with a self-satisfied expression. He later became known not only for his role in the Moscow Trials, but also for his role as Soviet Foreign Minister until 1953. Not everyone who led the prosecution escaped it themselves in the end, but Vyshinsky did.
The defendants were leading scientists: Ramzin, Kallinikov, Larichev, Charnovsky, Fedotov, Kupriyanov, Ochkin, and Sitnin, who had been holding key positions in research and political planning institutions. They were accused of having misused their roles to deliberately sabotage the economic development of the Soviet Union; to have purposefully hampered public transport operations in military, textile, and shipbuilding industries (along with agriculture and other sectors of economy), all with the encouragement and financial support from Russian capitalist emigrants and foreign governments, not least the French.
The film offers no background about why these particular scientists were targeted. It offers no background of anything in fact, as it solely consists of archival footage from the actual trial, and from demonstrations in the streets, where masses of people demand a conviction: «Death to the saboteurs», «Death to the enemies of the proletarian revolution», «Long live the Bolsheviks».
«While the film consists solely of archival footage from the trial, an apparent agenda emerges in the subtext.»
These clips are inserted as intermissions between the various acts of the court case. It is not clear whether the demonstrations were happening every day throughout the trial, or if clips from the same demonstration have been re-used for dramaturgic effect.
It might seem an insignificant detail to dwell upon, but the many long intermissions of the masses walking monotonously in the streets, shouting the same slogans in the Soviet winter darkness, prolong the film to an unreasonable extent, and adds to the film’s apparent agenda of showcasing ideological ignorance and totalitarianism.
Playing the game
One-by-one, the scientists plead guilty of the charges, and make lengthy statements about why they let themselves be recruited into the Industrial Party and its sabotage schemes. Presumably they have waived their right to legal representation. Instead, they seek to redeem themselves by repenting and give evidence of their treason, for the Soviet State to better understand the crimes committed against it – and in effect, against the proletarian masses.
The court room is filled to its maximum capacity, and a thunder roars during the breaks, as the audience stand up from their heavy wooden chairs placed in tight rows on the concrete floor. Everyone seems to pay full attention throughout the hours and hours of statements, proceedings, and questioning.
Ramzin, who is supposedly one of the main leaders of the conspiracy, opens his statement by saying that he has now broken all ties with anti-Soviet forces, both domestically and abroad. Having disarmed fully and given up his struggle – having repented, he now wishes to reveal the whole truth. Their activities were, he confesses, aimed at overthrowing the Soviet government, in collaboration with the French government and white emigre circles. Their aim was to cause and deepen a crisis within transport, agriculture, finance. As Ramzin, as one of the defendants who most convincingly plays along with the trial plot, states:
«Without these activities and counter-revolutionary resistance, our economic difficulties wouldn’t have been so evident, and the pace of industrialization and stride towards socialism would have been even faster.»
Tide of times
As a contrasting ’character’ to Ramzin, we find defendant Sitnin, who is apparently utterly lost. Confronted by the prosecutor’s questions regarding the fact that he now pleads guilty to being a member of The Industrial Party, after initially claiming he did not know of such a party, Sitnin nods. Yes, he was initially astonished when presented with the list of activities this party was supposedly involved in, «But now you say you were indeed member of such a party,» the prosecutor insists. «Yes, apparently I was,» Sitnin meakly responds.
I could not say, since I am no Soviet history expert, whether the story was entirely fake or not; whether an organisation such as The Industrial Party existed or not; whether it had precisely the aim the prosecutors seek to establish in the trial; or whether the accused were in fact guilty of anything remotely related to the crimes they were charged for and convicted of.
Evidently, many innocent people were persecuted and maltreated in Stalin’s Soviet Union, and evidently, many plotted to bring down the Socialist State through methods including economic sabotage. What I can say, however, is that if the trial of 1930 against the scientists never proved their guilt, The Trial, with its inscrutable editing of archival material, does not prove the opposite: instead, both trials ride on the ideological tide of their times.