A Bolshevik Trial

Having learned that old police records are in possession of the Extraordinary Commission, I visited Burov, the predsedatel of the Cheka. Very tall and broad, of coarse features and curt demeanor, he gave me the impression of a gendarme of the Romanov regime. He spoke in an abrupt, commanding tone, avoided my look, and seemed more interested in the large Siberian dog at his side than in my mission. He declined to permit me to examine the archives of the Third Department, but promised to select some material the Museum might be interested in, and asked me to call the next day.

His manner was not convincing, and I felt little faith in his assurances to aid my efforts. The following morning his secretary informed me that Burov had been too busy to attend to my request, but he could be seen at the Revolutionary Tribunal, where a trial was in progress.

On the dais of the Tribunal three men sat at a desk covered with a red cloth, the wall back of them decorated with lithographs of Lenin and Trotsky. At a small table below the dais was the defendant, a slender young man with a diminutive mustache, and near him an older man, his attorney. Burov, with the huge dog at his feet, was acting as the government prosecutor. The benches were occupied by witnesses, and soldiers were stationed in the aisles to preserve order.

The prisoner was charged with “counterrevolutionary activities,” the accusation brought by a young woman on the ground that he had “denounced her as a Communist to the Whites.” The witnesses were questioned first by the defense, then by the prosecutor and the judges. It appeared from their testimony that the prisoner and his accuser had for years lived in the same house and were known to be intimate. The proceedings dragged in a sleepy, uninteresting way until the attorney for the defense attempted to establish the fact that the woman, now a member of the Cheka, had formerly led a disreputable life. Burov slowly rose in his seat and pointing his finger at the lawyer, demanded: “Do you dare to attack the reputation of the Extraordinary Commission?” The attorney timidly appealed to the court for protection. The presiding judge, in high boots and corduroy jacket, looking very tired and sipping cold coffee, expressed his revolutionary sympathy with the social victims of the abolished capitalist order and berated the attorney for persisting in bourgeois prejudices.

Burov examined the defense witnesses regarding their past mode of life and present political adherence. He referred to the prisoner as “that scoundrelly counterrevolutionist” and succeeded in eliciting affirmative replies to questions previously negated by the same witnesses. One of the latter, a young woman, testified to the good reputation of the defendant and his political non-partisanship. She looked frightened as Burov towered above her. He plied her with questions, and she became confused. Under the spell of the Chekist’s commanding voice she finally admitted that the accused was her brother.

A burst of indignation broke from the audience. On the bench in front of me an old man excitedly shouted: “You’ve terrorized her! She is no kin of his⁠—she’s my daughter!” The presiding judge shouted, “Silence!” and ordered the arrest of the interrupter for “behavior insulting to the high tribunal.”

During the noon recess I found an opportunity to speak to Burov. I called his attention to the character of the testimony. It was valueless, I pointed out; the witnesses were intimidated. Burov was much pleased. “There is no fooling with us, and they know it,” he said, indicating that all non-Communists are to be regarded as the natural enemies of the Bolshevik regime.

“The evidence is questionable,” I pursued; “will the prisoner be convicted?”

“I’ll demand the ‘highest measure of punishment,’ ” he replied, employing the official term for the death sentence.

“But the man may be innocent,” I protested.

“How can you speak so, tovarish?” he upbraided me. “You talk of evidence! Why, the uncle of this fellow was a rank bourzhooi, a big banker. He escaped with the Whites, and his whole family are counterrevolutionists. The best thing to do with such fellows is to razmenyat them” (to “change”⁠—the expression used in the South for summary execution).

Leaving the courtroom, I inadvertently stepped into a small chamber where two women sat on a bench. “Tovarish from the center,” one of them greeted me; “I saw you at Burov’s yesterday.”

She evidently took me for an official of the Moscow Cheka, and she at once became confidential. It was she who brought the charge against the prisoner, she said. They had been arrested together by the Whites, and when they were brought to the police station the defendant whispered something to the officer. She could not hear what he said, but she was sure that he had nodded in her direction. Both were locked up, but after a while the man was released while she was to be shot. She was positive the man had denounced her as a Bolshevik⁠—though she was not one at the time. She has become a Communist since, and now she is helping to fight counterrevolutionists, “same as you, tovarish,” she added significantly.

Her face, offensively painted even to her lips, was coarse and sensuous. Her eyes glowed with a vengeful light and the consciousness of power. Her companion, younger and more comely, resembled her in a marked degree.

“Are you sisters?” I asked.

“Cousins,” the younger one replied. “Katya is lying,” she broke out vehemently, “she’s jealous⁠—the man left her⁠—he didn’t care for her⁠—she wants revenge.”

“A lot he cares for you!” the other mocked. “You are younger⁠—that’s all. And he’s a dirty counterrevolutionist.”

The door opened and a woman entered. She looked very old, but her carriage was stately and her sad face beautiful in its frame of snowy white. “Are you a witness?” the Chekist girl demanded. “Have you been called?”

“No, my dear,” the old lady replied quietly; “I came of my own accord.” She smiled benignantly and continued in a soft, melodious voice: “Listen, dear, I am an old woman and I will soon be dying. I came to tell the truth. Why should you cause the death of that boy?” She looked kindly at the Chekist. “Bethink yourself, dear one. He has done you no harm.”

“Hasn’t he, though!” the other retorted angrily.

“My dear one,” the old lady pleaded, putting her hand affectionately on the girl’s arm, “let bygones be bygones. He cared for you and he ceased to care⁠—does he deserve death, dearest? Ah, I am old and I have seen much evil in my lifetime. Must we always go on hating and killing⁠—”

“To court!” a soldier shouted into the room. Both girls hurriedly rose, smoothed their hair, and walked out.

“Must we always be hating and killing?” the old woman repeated as she slowly followed them.