Unit 15: Era of World Wars / Soviet Union
The Great Terror
From Bukharin, Nikolai. "Letter to Stalin." As reproduced in The Road to Terror, trans. Benjamin Sher, ed. J. Arch Getty and Oleg Naumov (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999), 556-560.


The 1934 assassination of Sergei Kirov, the Leningrad Party leader, prompted Stalin to order a wave of purges within the Communist Party. In the most dramatic episode of these purges, Stalin had many of the Old Bolsheviks arrested, imprisoned, tried in show trials, and then executed. The wave of arrests soon expanded beyond the party, however, and touched thousands of people throughout the Soviet Union. Nikolai Bukharin (1888-1938), one of the leaders of the October Revolution and a staunch supporter of Stalin throughout the 1920s, fell victim to the terror. In this letter written to Stalin on the eve of his execution, Bukharin appeals to his former comrade.

Bukharin's Letter to Stalin, 10 December 1937

VERY SECRET [ves'ma sekretno]
Request no one be allowed to read this letter without the express permission of I. V. Stalin.
To: I.V. Stalin. 7 pages + 7 pages of memoranda.

Iosif Vissarionovich:

This is perhaps the last letter I shall write to you before my death. That's why, though I am a prisoner, I ask you to permit me to write this letter without resorting to officialese, all the more so since I am writing this letter to you alone: the very fact of its existence or nonexistence will remain entirely in your hands.

I've come to the last page of my drama and perhaps of my very life. I agonized over whether I should pick up pen and paper--as I write this, I am shuddering all over from disquiet and from a thousand emotions stirring within me, and I can hardly control myself. But precisely because I have so little time left, I want to take my leave of you in advance, before it's too late, before my hand ceases to write, before my eyes close, while my brain somehow still functions.

In order to avoid any misunderstandings, I will say to you from the outset that, as far as the world at large (society) is concerned: a) I have no intention of recanting anything I've written down [confessed]; b) In this sense (or in connection with this), I have no intention of asking you or of pleading with you for anything that might derail my case from the direction in which it is heading. But I am writing to you for your personal information. I cannot leave this life without writing to you these last lines because I am in the grip of torments which you should know about.

1) Standing on the edge of a precipice, from which there is no return, I tell you on my word of honor, as I await my death, that I am innocent of those crimes which I admitted to at the investigation.

2) Reviewing everything in my mind--insofar as I can--I can only add the following observations to what I have already said at the plenum:

. . . c) I was . . . guilty of engaging in duplicity in 1932 in my relations with "followers," believing sincerely that I would thereby win them back wholly to the party. Otherwise, I'd have alienated them from the party. That was all there was to it. In saying this, I am clearing my conscience totally. All the rest either never took place or, if it did, then I had no inkling of it whatsoever.

So at the plenum I spoke the truth and nothing but the truth, but no one believed me. And here and now I speak the absolute truth: all these past years, I have been honestly and sincerely carrying out the party line and have learned to cherish and love you wisely.

3) I had no "way out" other than that of confirming the accusations and testimonies of others and elaborating them. Otherwise, it would have turned out that I had not "disarmed."

4) Apart from extraneous factors and apart from argument #3 above, I have formed, more or less, the following conception of what is going on in our country:

There is something great and bold about the political idea of a general purge. It is a) connected with the prewar situation and b) connected with the transition to democracy. This purge encompasses 1) the guilty; 2) persons under suspicion; and 3) persons potentially under suspicion. This business could not have been managed without me. Some are neutralized one way, others in another way, and a third group in yet another way. What serves as a guarantee for all this is the fact that people inescapably talk about each other and in doing so arouse an everlasting distrust in each other. . . . In this way, the leadership is bringing about a full guarantee for itself.

For God's sake, don't think that I am engaging here in reproaches, even in my inner thoughts. I wasn't born yesterday. I know all too well that great plans, great ideas, and great interests take precedence over everything, and I know that it would be petty for me to place the question of my own person on a par with the universal-historical tasks resting, first and foremost, on your shoulders. But it is here that I feel my deepest agony and find myself facing my chief, agonizing paradox.

5) If I were absolutely sure that your thoughts ran precisely along this path, then I would feel so much more at peace with myself. Well, so what! If it must be so, then so be it! But believe me, my heart boils over when I think that you might believe that I am guilty of these crimes and that in your heart of hearts you yourself think that I am really guilty of these horrors. In that case, what would it mean? Would it turn out that I have been helping to deprive [the party] of many people (beginning with myself!)--that is, that I am wittingly committing an evil?! In that case, such action could never be justified. My head is giddy with confusion, and I feel like yelling at the top of my voice. I feel like pounding my head against the wall: for, in that case, I have become a cause for the death of others. What am I to do? What am I to do?

6) I bear not one iota of malice toward anyone, nor am I bitter. I am not a Christian. But I do have my quirks. I believe that I am suffering retribution for those years when I really waged a campaign. And if you really want to know, more than anything else I am oppressed by one fact, which you have perhaps forgotten: Once, most likely during the summer of 1928, I was at your place, and you said to me: "Do you know why I consider you my friend? After all, you are not capable of intrigues, are you?" And I said: "No, I am not." At that time, I was hanging around with Kamenev. Believe it or not, but it is this fact that stands out in my mind as original sin does it for a Jew [sic]. Oh, God, what a child I was! What a fool! And now I'm paying for this with my honor and with my life. For this forgive me, Koba. I weep as I write. I no longer need anything, and you yourself know that I am probably making my situation worse by allowing myself to write all this. But I just can't, I simply can't keep silent. I must give you my final "farewell." It is for this reason that I bear no malice toward anyone, not toward the [party-state] leadership nor the investigators nor anyone in between. I ask you for forgiveness, though I have already been punished to such an extent that everything has grown dim around me, and darkness has descended upon me.

7) When I was hallucinating, I saw you several times and once I saw Nadezhda Sergeevna [Stalin's late wife]. She approached me and said: "What have they done with you, Nikolai Ivanovich? I'll tell Iosif to bail you out." This was so real that I was about to jump and write a letter to you and ask you to . . . bail me out! Reality had become totally mixed up in my mind with delusion. I know that Nadezhda Sergeevna would never believe that I had harbored any evil thoughts against you, and not for nothing did the subconscious of my wretched self cause this delusion in me. We talked for hours, you and I. . . . Oh, Lord, if only there were some device which would have made it possible for you to see my soul flayed and ripped open! If only you could see how I am attached to you, body and soul. . . . Well, so much for "psychology"–forgive me. No angel will appear now to snatch Abraham's sword from his hand. My fatal destiny shall be fulfilled.

8) Permit me, finally, to move on to my last, minor, requests.

a) It would be a thousand times easier for me to die than to go through the coming trial: I simply don't know how I'll be able to control myself--you know my nature: I am not an enemy either of the party or of the USSR, and I'll do all within my powers [to serve the party's cause], but, under such circumstances, my powers are minimal, and heavy emotions rise up in my soul. I'd get on my knees, forgetting shame and pride, and plead with you not to make me go through with it [the trial]. But this is probably already impossible. I'd ask you, if it were possible, to let me die before the trial. Of course, I know how harshly you look upon such matters.

b) If I'm to receive the death sentence, then I implore you beforehand, I entreat you, by all that you hold dear, not to have me shot. Let me drink poison in my cell instead. (Let me have morphine so that I can fall asleep and never wake up.) For me, this point is extremely important. I don't know what words I should summon up in order to entreat you to grant me this as an act of charity. After all, politically, it won't really matter, and, besides, no one will know a thing about it. But let me spend my last moments as I wish. Have pity on me! Surely you'll understand–knowing me as well as you do. Sometimes I look death openly in the face, just as I know very well that I am capable of brave deeds. At other times, I, ever the same person, find myself in such disarray that I am drained of all strength. So if the verdict is death, let me have a cup of morphine. I implore you. . . .

c) I ask you to allow me to bid farewell to my wife and son. No need for me to say good-bye to my daughter. I feel sorry for her. It will be too painful for her. It will also be too painful to Nadya [Bukharin's first wife] and my father. Anyuta [his current wife], on the other hand, is young. She will survive. I would like to exchange a few last words with her. I would like permission to meet her before the trial. My argument is as follows: if my family sees what I confessed to, they might commit suicide from sheer unexpectedness. I must somehow prepare them for it. It seems to me that this is in the interests of the case and its official interpretation.

d) If, contrary to expectation, my life is to be spared, I would like to request (though I would first have to discuss it with my wife) the following:

*) That I be exiled to America for x number of years. My arguments are: I would myself wage a campaign [in favor] of the trials, I would wage a mortal war against Trotsky, I would win over large segments of the wavering intelligentsia, I would in effect become Anti-Trotsky and would carry out this mission in a big way and, indeed, with much zeal. You could send an expert security officer with me and, as added insurance, you could detain my wife here for six months until I have proven that I am really punching Trotsky and Company in the nose, etc.

**) But if there is the slightest doubt in your mind, then exile me to a camp in Pechora or Kolyma, even for 25 years. I could set up there the following: a university, a museum of local culture, technical stations, and so on, institutes, a painting gallery, an ethnographic museum, a zoological and botanical museum, a camp newspaper and journal.

In short, settling there with my family to the end of my days, I would carry out pioneering, enterprising, cultural work.

In any case, I declare that I would work like a dynamo wherever I am sent.

However, to tell the truth, I do not place much hope in this since the very fact of a change in the directive of the February plenum speaks for itself (and I see all too well that things point to a trial taking place any day now).

And so these, it seems, are my last requests. . . .

Iosif Vissarionovich! In me you have lost one of your most capable generals, one who is genuinely devoted to you. But that is all past. . . . It is bitter to reflect on all this. But I am preparing myself mentally to depart from this vale of tears, and there is nothing in me toward all of you, toward the party and the cause, but a great and boundless love. I am doing everything that is humanly possible and impossible. I have written to you about all this. I have crossed all the t's and dotted all the i's. I have done all this in advance, since I have no idea at all what condition I shall be in tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, etc. Being a neurasthenic, I shall perhaps feel such universal apathy that I won't be able even so much as to move my finger.

But now, in spite of a headache and with tears in my eyes, I am writing. My conscience is clear before you now, Koba. I ask you one final time for your forgiveness (only in your heart, not otherwise). For that reason I embrace you in my mind. Farewell forever and remember kindly your wretched

N. Bukharin

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