Book Review

The Courts of Honour in the Soviet Union

Yuri Yemelianov

Despite the fact that 55 years that have passed since the death of Joseph Stalin, the interest in his life and work does not abate in Russia. Almost every month articles and books dedicated to Stalin and the Soviet history connected with his activity are published. Stalin is constantly present in TV and Internet materials. Different aspects of Stalin’s history are the subjects of heated discussions which reveal the divergent ideological and political positions of their participants.

The book ‘Stalinist “Courts of Honour”. The Case of K.R’ by V. D. Yesakov and E. S. Levina (Moscow, 2005) is an example of a liberal approach to Stalin and his time. The authors claim that ‘the Courts of Honour’, which were set up in 1947, ‘established the absolute dictatorial rule of the state in all spheres of the Soviet society’. The authors assert that Stalin’s decision to set up ‘Courts of Honour’ reflected his arbitrary style of government and his suspicion of the intelligentsia.

What are the real facts and what are the products of malicious fantasy in the assertions of Yesakov and Levina? The Courts of Honour really existed and came into being in accordance with the decree of the USSR Council of Ministers and the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party (Bolsheviks) issued on March 28 1947. The decree stated:

‘In order to promote education of workers of the state bodies in the spirit of the Soviet patriotism, devotion to the interests of the Soviet state and awareness of their social duty, in order to fight against the acts which mar the honour and dignity of the Soviet working person, the Courts of Honour are set up in the Ministries and central government bodies...’

The decree also stated that the Courts of Honour would not deal with cases which concern criminal law and demand only moral judgement. After hearing of the sides the Courts should pass their decisions. If the accused were found guilty they might be censured or reprimanded. In case the hearing showed that the accused committed a crime related to penal law, the case would be transferred to the appropriate criminal investigation bodies. The decree was signed by the Chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers Joseph Stalin and the Central Committee Secretary Andrey Zhdanov.

It is obvious that the decree expressed grave concern over the moral principles and patriotic sentiments of some of the Soviet people. What was the reason for such a concern? One may think that such an anxiety was groundless. During the Great Patriotic War the great majority of the Soviet people displayed their patriotism and devotion to the socialist order. This was recognised by Stalin in a number of his statements made in 1941-1945. While explaining the reasons of the victory over Nazi Germany and its allies Stalin in his speeches on May 24, 1945 and on February 9, 1946 stressed the superior qualities of the Soviet system and patriotic sentiments of the Soviet peoples. Immediately after the War the Soviet people, despite the heavy ravages caused by the alien invasion, displayed their readiness to implement the gigantic programme of restoration and further development of the economy put forward by the Communist party leadership. What then caused preoccupation over ‘acts which mar honour and dignity of the Soviet working person’?

One should take into account that in the middle of the 1940s the Soviet Union was not the only country whose leaders felt that the War proved the superior qualities of their particular country. The end of the War coincided with the US bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The bombs which brought deaths and sufferings to half a million people were used in order to demonstrate to the whole world the US scientific, technical, industrial and military superiority. The fact that the USA had a monopoly over atomic weapons made the US business, mass media and political leaders believe in their ability to rule the world. A leading banker and the private advisor of all US presidents from W. Wilson to D. Eisenhower, Bernard Baruch, stated in 1945: ‘Due to the might of its military forces, its superiority in economics, its resources and moral strength, brought about by the American way of life, America is able to establish its leadership over the whole world’. The owner of the most popular US magazines Henry Luce announced in 1945: ‘20th century is the American century... It is the first century, when America has become the dominating world power’. On the 27 of October 1945 the US President Harry Truman declared: ‘We are the greatest national power on the Earth’. In April 1946 he said: ‘The United States is the greatest power. There is none equal to us’.

And yet the existence of the Soviet Union, devastated by the War but victorious, hindered the American march towards world hegemony. The US rulers began to prepare war against the USSR under the guise of friendly statements and gestures. While in October 1945 Truman continued warm correspondence with Stalin and asked for his permission to let an American artist come to Moscow in order to paint Stalin’s portrait, the American generals submitted to the US President their first secret plan of using atomic bombs against the USSR.

In December the US Joint Chiefs of Staff issued a new secret directive N 432/d. It proposed to use 196 atomic bombs against 20 Soviet cities. The authors of the directive pointed out that the bombs should be used before the USSR build up its own strategic Air Force and atomic weapons. Later new and more devastating plans of nuclear warfare against the USSR were developed.

The preparation for war against the USSR continued with the efforts to weaken it materially and psychologically. Already in the end of 1945 the USA began to cut down commercial trade with the USSR. But the ban on US imports did not cover mass media materials. Truman’s advisor C. Clifford wrote to the US President on September 24, 1946: ‘We must send to the USSR books, magazines, newspapers, films and continue radio broadcasting as much as the Soviet government let us do it’. This propaganda was to be used in order to undermine the devotion of the Soviet people to their socialist country. The experience of the Second World War convinced the US rulers that even in the case of devastation caused by atomic bombing the Soviet people would continue their resistance against invaders. Therefore it was important to break down the fighting spirit of the Soviet people by psychological means.

Soon the US government developed a broad programme of psychological warfare against the USSR. Since 1947 ‘Voice of America’ began its constant broadcasting in Russian over the Soviet territory. Its political programmes constantly dwelled upon two points: 1) The USSR threatens other countries of the world; 2) The Soviet regime is unstable, its economy is on the brink of collapse, the Government is unpopular among the Soviet population and the opposition to it is growing.

The American plans took into account the traditional good attitude of the Soviet people to Americans. The Second World War increased the reserve of these good feelings since the USA was an ally of the USSR in the Anti-Fascist coalition. Though the Soviet people were upset by the fact that the Allies were slow to open the Second Front, they appreciated the goods sent from the USA in accordance with the lend-lease programme. Though the lend-lease programme contributed only mildly to the armament of the Red Army, the American supply of lorries, food and clothing was substantial.

Since the beginning of the War the Soviet people received also a good share of American propaganda and mass culture. In 1942 the US information agency started to publish its magazine ‘America’ which showed the brightest side of American life. At the same time the Soviet mass media did its best to introduce the Soviet people to American life. The publishing houses issued many books by American authors and their plays were staged in many theatres. Jazz melodies from America were quite popular in the USSR. One could hear often American songs in Russian translations over Soviet radio. Hollywood success stories were shown in Soviet movie-houses. The films about modern American Cinderellas who have become happy and prosperous overnight, bright pictures of an easy-going life, merry songs and melodies were in constant supply in the USSR and they were associated with US lend-lease products. Quite a good number of the Soviet people came to think of the USA as a fabulously rich country where a human being may easily become happy and prosperous.

The cold war announced by W. Churchill in his Fulton speech on 5 March 1946 did not lead to immediate reciprocal measures on the Soviet part. In a number of his statements made during his meetings with US and British correspondents and political figures Stalin time and again spoke in 1946 about the need to develop relations on the basis of peaceful coexistence. At the same time the Soviet political propaganda tried to keep up the atmosphere of optimism thus playing down the deadly menace of atomic warfare threatening the very existence of the Soviet people.

Thus the Soviet people for some time were not aware of the transformation of their Western allies into mortal enemies. The Soviet soldiers returning home told stories of how they had met American soldiers as their friends in Germany and Austria. They did not know at that time that the Allies did not disarm large German troops so that they may use them against the Red Army in summer 1945. The Soviet people for a long time were not aware of the secret US plans to bomb the USSR and believed in the friendliness of the USA and other Western powers towards their country.

Stalin and other Soviet leaders began to warn the Soviet people, especially those responsible for mass-media about changes in the relations with the wartime allies and the need to display better judgement in the choice of materials for mass reading and hearing. This may be illustrated by the discussion which took place at the session of Organisation Bureau of the Party’s Central Committee on 9th of August 1946. While discussing the work of the literary magazine ‘Leningrad’ Stalin said to its editor B. Licharev: ‘In your magazine people walk on tip-toe before foreign authors... You develop in the Soviet people the feeling that they are second-rate folk, while the foreigners are the first-rate people. You make us believe that we are just ignorant pupils and they are our teachers. This is quite wrong’. (It is noteworthy that Stalin expected objections from Licharev. When the editor noted that he ‘just wanted to remark...’, Stalin interrupted him and said: ‘Show your teeth when defending your position. Otherwise it would seem that you completely agree with my criticism’. Therefore when the poet A. Prokofeev resolutely objected to Stalin, the latter displayed readiness to proceed to discussion with the poet in the same spirit. This shows that Stalin wanted an open and honest exchange of opinion.)

The result of this discussion was a resolution of the USSR Communist Party Central Committee on the literary magazines ‘The Star’ and ‘Leningrad’ which criticised the ‘worshipping’ of foreign culture and spoke about the need to develop Soviet patriotism.

Yet lack of taste in the choice of foreign authors, gullibility, inadequate information and political education, were aggravated by other problems. As it is always the case the War which revealed the best qualities of some people, also demonstrated the worst features of others. The heroism and self-abnegation of the great majority of the Soviet people existed side by side with examples of rapaciousness, selfishness and corruption. Some Soviet people were eager to gain personal profit in their business dealings with Americans sometimes at the expense of the interests of the Soviet country.

The first case which was tried by the Court of Honour set up in the USSR Ministry of Health concerned the transfer of written materials written by N. G. Klueva and G. I. Roskin to Americans. The manuscript was devoted to new methods of treatment of cancer. (Later it turned out that the authors grossly exaggerated the effectiveness of their method of treatment).

It must be said that at first the scientists realised the need to develop their medicine in the USSR without outside help and were eager to provide the Soviet priority in development of the much needed cure. Thus in December 1945 Klueva and Roskin wrote a memorandum which they sent to the Soviet Government. It stated: ‘1. We discovered and prepared a medicine which has no analogies in the world science. 2. The testing of the medicine goes too slowly and in disorderly manner. 3. There are grounds to suppose that the USA may use our methods and will overtake us in its preparation. 4. It will cause harm to the USSR...’ The scientists urged the authorities to help them in promoting their discovery.

In 1946 Klueva and Roskin published some information about their work in a Soviet newspaper ‘Moscow Bolshevik’ and a popular magazine ‘Ogonyok’. Soon the US Ambassador in Moscow B. Smith visited the medical laboratory where Klueva and Roskin worked and offered to organise a joint US-Soviet project to promote their method. After this visit Klueva and Roskin wrote a note which radically differed from their 1945 memorandum. Now the scientists welcomed Smith’s proposals and agreed to cooperate with American experts in their laboratory.

Klueva and Roskin’s note received the support of the Deputy Minister of the USSR Health Ministry G. A. Miterev and the Academician-Secretary of the USSR Academy of the Medical Sciences, V. V. Parin. Both considered that it was possible to give to the Americans the medicine developed by Klueva and Roskin as well as their manuscript ‘The biological therapy of cancer’... because their methods are ‘imperfect and unfinished’. The two high officials wanted to present Americans things which they themselves considered to be of no use in order to produce good impression on American public. The two did not even consider the obvious frustration of the American scientists when they would learn that they were deceived in their expectations. Neither did they understand the obvious harm of such an act to Soviet prestige. While visiting the USA Parin presented American scientists with the book and 10 samples of the medicine. Later it was proved that Parin received about $1800 from his American hosts.

Meanwhile most members of the Soviet government believed in the good properties of the Klueva-Roskin medicine. The information that what they consider to be a universal cure of cancer was delivered to the USA free of charge caused shock among high Soviet officials. They were sure that the USA with their superior technical and industrial base would become the first to produce a cure against cancer and the Soviet people would have to get this medicine only at a high price in dollars. Only then measures were taken to impose strict security measures upon the laboratory where Klueva and Roskin worked.

By that time there were revealed several similar cases when employees of the Soviet state easily shared with Americans information which was considered very valuable. On the one hand this was caused by the fact that most Soviet people were not aware of how seriously relations between our countries had deteriorated after the end of the War. On the other hand many of the Soviet people involved in such deals wanted to gain something (Klueva and Roskin mostly cared for the development of their laboratory and did not gain anything materially for themselves). This was the principal reason for setting up the Courts of Honour.

The first session of such a Court was devoted to the case of Klueva and Roskin. After detailed discussion the Court announced its sentence: N. G. Klueva and G. I. Roskin were ‘reprimanded’.

Miterev was also tried by a similar Court and received a similar sentence. Parin who got paid by Americans for the transfer of the information on the medicine was tried by a court dealing with criminal cases and received a prison term.

There were a number of other Courts of Honour which dealt with similar cases (in the Higher Education Ministry, Geology Ministry, State Control Ministry and others). By the end of 1947 the Soviet Navy admirals N. G. Kuznetzov, L. M. Galler, V. A. Alafusov and G. A. Stepanov were accused of the illegal transfer to Americans of vital information about a new type of torpedo. The Court made a decision to pass the case to the military college of the USSR Supreme Court. All of them except N. Kuznetzov were tried by the Supreme Court and received imprisonment sentences. Kuznetzov was demoted in his rank but in 1951 he was restored as an admiral and became the USSR Navy Minister.

Contrary to what V. D. Yesakov and E. S. Levina assert in their book the Courts of Honour did not establish the ‘absolute dictatorial rule of the state in all spheres of the Soviet society’. The sentences of these Courts were mild (censure and reprimand). There were just several cases when the Courts of Honour asked for further criminal investigation of their cases. One should also remember that in 1947 the death penalty was abolished in the USSR. As the Courts of Honour were meant to be bodies of moral judgement only, they acted as such.

The case of Klueva and Roskin was used for the plot of a popular play ‘The Court of Honour’ by A. P. Schtein which was staged in many Soviet theatres. The author tried to show that lack of patriotic feeling might lead some ambitious people to conclude shady deals with Western businessmen. The lessons of the Courts of Honour and propaganda campaign which followed them were made clear to the general Soviet public. Besides at that time the Cold War became a stark reality. There was hardly anybody in Government agencies who would treat representatives of the Western powers as persons from whom there should not be secrets and thus get involved in dubious dealings with them.

The Courts of Honour played a significant role in the mobilising of vigilance of the Soviet people at the initial stage of the Cold War. However the potential of the Courts of Honour was not used sufficiently. There was an attempt in 1948 to convene a Court of Honour in connection with the case of the USSR Minister of Transport I. V. Kovalev. He was accused of using state money for remodelling his personal country-house. But the charges were not substantially based and were soon dropped. Unfortunately there was not any other attempt to use the Courts of Honour apart from the cases of dealings with the Western countries.

Since the end of 1948 the Courts of Honour ceased to function. Thus the Soviet state failed to use fully what might have been an effective weapon to fight the decline of moral spirit which slowly corroded the Soviet society. These negative processes gathered momentum after the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953. The evils which Stalin and other Soviet leaders tried to stop by Courts of Honour and other measures developed. After the XXth CPSU Congress many Soviet people began to treat the Courts of Honour as ‘aberrations’ of ‘Stalin’s personality cult’ disregarding the concrete historical realities which made them necessary. The growth of bourgeois sentiments was fostered by subtle Western anti-Soviet propaganda and many believed it wholeheartedly. The spirit of the Soviet patriotism and devotion to the socialist principles of Soviet society gradually gave way to bourgeois values and surrender to capitalist ideology. This eventually contributed to the decline and fall of the USSR.

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