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Bukharin and the question of the coup d'état


During his trial, Bukharin  admitted in front of the tribunal that in 1918, after the Brest-Litovsk Treaty, that there was a plan to arrest Lenin,  Stalin and Sverdlov,  and to form a new government composed of `left-communists' and Social Revolutionaries. But he firmly denied that there was also a plan to execute them.


Court Proceedings ... ``Bloc of Rights and Trotskyites'',  op. cit. , pp. 377--378.

So Bukharin  was ready to arrest Lenin  at the time of the Brest-Litovsk crisis in 1918.

Eighteen years later, in 1936, Bukharin  was a completely demoralized man. With the world war just over the horizon, tension was extreme. Coup d'état attempts against the Party leadership were more and more probable. Bukharin,  with his prestige of `Old Bolshevik'; Bukharin,  the only `rival' of the same stature as Stalin; Bukharin,  who detested the `extreme hardness' of Stalin's régime; who was afraid that the `Stalinists' would form a `new aristocracy'; who thought that only `democracy' could save the Soviet Union; how would he not have accepted to cover with his authority a possible `democratic' anti-Stalinist coup d'état? How could the man who was ready to arrest Lenin  in 1918 not be ready, at a much more tense and dramatic time, to cover up the arrests of Stalin, Zhdanov,  Molotov  and Kaganovich? 

The problem was exactly that. A demoralized and politically finished man, Bukharin  clearly had no more energy to lead an important struggle against Stalin. But others, right-wing revolutionaries, were ready to act. And Bukharin  could be useful for legitimacy. Colonel Tokaev's  book helps understand this division of labor.

In 1939, Tokaev  and five of his companions, all superior officers, met in the apartment of a professor of the Budyenny  Military Academy. They discussed a plan to overthrow Stalin in case of war. `Schmidt  (a member of the Voroshilov  Leningrad Military Academy) regretted a lost opportunity: had we moved at the time of the trial of Bukharin  the peasants would have risen in his name. Now we had no one of his stature to inspire the people'. One of the conspirators suggested giving the position of Prime Minister to Beria,  given his popularity because he had liberated many people arrested by Yezhov. 


Tokaev,  op. cit. , p. 159.

This passage clearly shows that the military conspirators needed, at least at the beginning, a `Bolshevik flag' to succeed with their anti-Communist coup d'état. Having good relations with Bukharin,  these right-wing military were convinced that he would have accepted the fait accompli if Stalin had been eliminated.

In fact, in 1938, during Bukharin's  trial, Tokaev  and his group already had this strategy in mind. When Radek  confessed after his arrest, Comrade X succeeded in reading the report. Tokaev  wrote:

`(Radek)  provided the culminating `evidence' on which Bukharin  was arrested, tried and shot ....

`We had known of Radek's  treachery at least a fortnight before (Bukharin's  arrest on October 16, 1936), and we tried to save Bukharin. A precise and  unambiguous offer was made to him: `After what Radek  has now said against you in writing, Yezhov  and Vishinsky  will soon have you arrested in preparation for yet another political trial. Therefore we suggest that you should ``vanish'' without delay. Here is how we propose to effect this ....

`No political conditions were attached to the offer; it was made ... because it would be a mortal blow if the NKVD transformed Bukharin  on trial into another Kameniev, Zinoviev  or Radek.  The very conception of opposition would have been discredited throughout the U.S.S.R.

`Bukharin  expressed his warm gratitude for the offer but refused it.'


Ibid. , pp. 68--69.

`If (Bukharin)  could not stand up to this and prove the charges false, it would be a tragedy: through Bukharin  all the other moderate opposition movements would be tarnished.'


Ibid. , p. 85.

Before Bukharin's  arrest, the military conspirators thought of using Bukharin  as their flag. At the same time, they understood the danger of a public trial against Bukharin.  Kamenev,  Zinoviev  and Radek  had admitted their conspiratorial activity, they had `betrayed' the opposition's cause. If Bukharin  admitted in front of a tribunal that he was implicated in attempts to overthrow the régime, the anti-Communist opposition would suffer a fatal blow. Such was the implication of Bukharin's  trial, as it was understood at the time by Bolshevism's worst enemies, infiltrated in the Party and the Army.

At the time of the Nazi invasion, Tokaev  analyzed the atmosphere in the country and within the army: `we soon realised that the men at the top had lost their heads. They knew only too well that their reactionary régime was totally devoid of real popular support. It was based on terror and mental automatism and depended on peace; war had changed all that'. Then Tokaev  described the reactions of several officers. Beskaravayny  proposed to divide the Soviet Union: an independent Ukraine and an independent Caucasus would fight better! Klimov  proposed to get rid of the Politburo, then the people would save the country. Kokoryov  thought that the Jews were the source of all the problems.


Ibid. , pp. 174--175.

`(O)ur problem as revolutionary democrats was very much in our minds. Was not this perhaps the very moment to attempt to overthrow Stalin? Many factors had to be considered'.


Ibid. , p. 187.

In those days Comrade X was convinced that it was touch and go for Stalin. The pity of it was that we could not see Hitler  as a liberator. Therefore, said Comrade X, `we must be prepared for Stalin's régime to collapse, but we should do nothing whatever to weaken it'.


Ibid. , p. 188.

It is clear that the great disarray and the extreme confusion provoked by the first defeats against the Nazi invader created a very precarious political situation. Bourgeois nationalists, anti-Communists and anti-Jewish racists all thought that their time had come. What would have happened if the purge had not been firmly carried out, if an opportunist opposition had held important positions at the head of the Party, if a man such as Bukharin  had remained available for a `change of régime'? In those moments of extreme tension, the military conspirators and opportunists would have been in a strong position to risk everything and put into action the coup d'état for which they had so long planned.

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Fri Aug 25 09:03:42 PDT 1995