The Road to Stalin’s Witnesses: Seeking Truth through Fiction
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The Road to Stalin’s Witnesses
Seeking Truth through Fiction

In November 1936, shortly after returning with his family from Washington, where he had played the role of an Izvestiia correspondent, veteran Soviet intelligence officer Vladimir Romm found himself locked up in the bowels of the Lubianka. He and four other “witnesses” would soon take the stand at one of the most notorious show trials in history. Presented before diplomats and correspondents from around the world, their coerced testimony helped corroborate the equally false confessions of the accused, sending top Communists to the executioner and leaving Stalin the undisputed leader of the USSR.1

Based on extensive research in North American, European, and Russian archives, interviews with descendants, and secondary sources, my novel Stalin’s Witnesses is a fictionalized yet historically faithful account of how the lives of four Soviet citizens and one German expatriate came to intersect in a Moscow courtroom some three-quarters of a century ago. A third-person narrative chronicles Romm’s life and work from the late tsarist era through the 1937 Moscow show trial. We perch on his shoulders as he agitates for socialism; navigates the treacherous shoals of the revolution; serves as a Soviet correspondent/spy in Japan, Europe, and the United States; and, as his career reaches its zenith, unexpectedly becomes a victim of the Great Terror. In a parallel thread, Romm’s fictional prison diary conveys how authorities gained the cooperation of witnesses and accused, yielding a scenario so persuasive that it convinced Western leaders, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt and U.S. Ambassador Joe Davies, that leading members of the Party had conspired to topple Stalin and abandon the USSR to Germany and Japan. [End Page 365]

Stalin’s Witnesses is intended, in part, as supplementary reading for university courses. Toward that end, a factual appendix, “A Little Bit of History,” reports on the aftermath of the trials. To help readers distinguish between what is real and what was invented, the novel includes a detailed author’s notes section that identifies significant deviations from fact and provides references to source materials.

The Back Story

It may seem unusual for a criminal justice instructor in early 21st-century America to explore these issues, particularly in the form of historical fiction. As in most such journeys, the best explanation is personal. My mother, Bella, a Polish Jew, was liberated from a concentration camp by Soviet troops. So even at the height of the Cold War, when “drop” drills were a weekly classroom ritual and the Evil Empire was supposedly about to plunk the big one on our heads, I could not get angry at the inscrutable Reds. My high-school classmates idolized Salinger, but my literary hero was Dostoevskii. Salvation through degradation. Magnificent!

In 2000, while teaching in the Criminal Justice Department at California State University Fullerton, I pursued my long-standing interest in Soviet justice by designing an elective course about the Moscow show trials of 1936, 1937, and 1938.2 Neither a historian (my Ph.D. is in criminal justice) nor a Russian speaker, I tried to find another faculty member with whom to share the class. Alas, the ranks of Soviet-era experts on campus proved thin, so in the end I went it alone.

Falsification was the lifeblood of Stalinism. Eager to please their superiors, secret policemen built careers on bringing in “counterrevolutionaries,” and the more the merrier.3 While the Great Terror is an admittedly extreme example, I knew from personal experience that pressures to make arrests and gain convictions can distort justice even in a democracy. My hope was that the course would also have some comparative value.4 [End Page 366]

Most of my students had little exposure to world history and were unlikely to know about the show trials. Considering their needs, Peter Kenez’s highly approachable A History of the Soviet Union from the Beginning to the End was used to convey the historical context, and selected chapters from Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror: A Reassessment were assigned to cover the “investigations” and trials.

My students were taking the class to satisfy an upper-division electives requirement. All were...