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The trial of Pyatakov and the Trotskyists

Ludo Martens
On September 23, 1936 a wave of explosions hit the Siberian mines, the second in nine months. There were 12 dead. Three days later, Yagoda became Commissar of Communications and Yezhov chief of the NKVD. At least until that time, Stalin had sustained the more or less liberal policies of Yagoda.

Investigations in Siberia led to the arrest of Pyatakov, an old Trotskyist, assistant to Ordzhonikidze, Commissar of Heavy Industry since 1932. Close to Stalin, Ordzhonikidze had followed a policy of using and re-educating bourgeois specialists. Hence, in February 1936, he had amnestied nine `bourgeois engineers', condemned in 1930 during an major trial on sabotage.

On the question of industry, there had been for several years debates and divisions within the Party. Radicals, led by Molotov, opposed most of the bourgeois specialists, in whom they had little political trust. They had long called for a purge. Ordzhonikidze, on the other hand, said that they were needed and that their specialties had to be used.

This recurring debate about old specialists with a suspect past resurfaced with the sabotage in the Siberian mines. Inquiries revealed that Pyatakov, Ordzhonikidze's assistant, had widely used bourgeois specialists to sabotage the mines.

In January 1937, the trial of Pyatakov, Radek and other old Trotskyists was held; they admitted their clandestine activities. For Ordzhonikidze, the blow was so hard that he committed suicide.

Of course, several bourgeois authors have claimed that the accusations of systematic sabotage were completely invented, that these were frameups whose sole rôle was to eliminate political opponents. But there was a U.S. engineer who worked between 1928 and 1937 as a leading cadre in the mines of Ural and Siberia, many of which had been sabotaged. The testimony of this apolitical technician John Littlepage is interesting on many counts.

Littlepage described how, as soon as he arrived in the Soviet mines in 1928, he became aware of the scope of industrial sabotage, the method of struggle preferred by enemies of the Soviet régime. There was therefore a large base fighting against the Bolshevik leadership, and if some well-placed Party cadres were encouraging or simply protecting the saboteurs, they could seriously weaken the régime. Here is Littlepage's description.

`One day in 1928 I went into a power-station at the Kochbar gold-mines. I just happened to drop my hand on one of the main bearings of a large Diesel engine as I walked by, and felt something gritty in the oil. I had the engine stopped immediately, and we removed from the oil reservoir about two pints of quartz sand, which could have been placed there only by design. On several other occasions in the new milling plants at Kochkar we found sand inside such equipment as speed-reducers, which are entirely enclosed, and can be reached only by removing the hand-hold covers.

`Such petty industrial sabotage was --- and still is --- so common in all branches of Soviet industry that Russian engineers can do little about it, and were surprised at my own concern when I first encountered it ....

`Why, I have been asked, is sabotage of this description so common in Soviet Russia, and so rare in most other countries? Do Russians have a peculiar bent for industrial wrecking?

`People who ask such questions apparently haven't realized that the authorities in Russia have been --- and still are --- fighting a whole series of open or disguised civil wars. In the beginning they fought and dispossessed the aristocracy, the bankers and landowners and merchants of the Tsarist régime .... they later fought and dispossessed the little independent farmers and the little retail merchants and the nomad herders in Asia.

`Of course it's all for their own good, say the Communists. But many of these people can't see things that way, and remain bitter enemies of the Communists and their ideas, even after they have been put back to work in State industries. From these groups have come a considerable number of disgruntled workers who dislike Communists so much that they would gladly damage any of their enterprises if they could.'

John D. Littlepage and Demaree Bess, In Search of Soviet Gold (London: George E. Harrap & Co., 1939), pp. 188-189.

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