The first two “Moscow Trials” ended with high ranking Bolsheviks publicly confessing to crimes such as conspiring with the Nazis; some defendants begged for death sentences.
Investigations into the particulars of the crimes the defendants were confessing to yielded confusing information. One conspirator (Georgy Pyatakov) supposedly flew to Oslo to personally receive terrorist instructions from Trotsky on a commercial flight that did not exist. Another conspirator (Ivan Smirnov) was a key operative in the assassination of Sergei Kirov that took place while he was imprisoned by the very Soviets who accepted his confession; he had, in fact, been imprisoned for over a year at the time of Kirov’s assassination.
Despite the problems with reality the trials proved convincing to influential people. The US Ambassador to Moscow, Joseph E. Davies, witnessed the first two trials and judged them fair:
“In view of the character of the accused, their long terms of service, their recognized distinction in their profession, their long-continued loyalty to the Communist cause, it is scarcely credible that their brother officers…should have acquiesced in their execution, unless they were convinced that these men had been guilty of some offense.* It is generally accepted by members of the Diplomatic Corps that the accused must have been guilty of an offense which in the Soviet Union would merit the death penalty.”
British MP D. N. Pritt observed:
“We can feel confident that when the smoke has rolled away from the battlefield of controversy it will be realized that the charge was true, the confessions correct and the prosecution fairly conducted”.
The sentences handed down during the second trial were more lenient than those handed down during the first. All sixteen defendants of the first trial were sentenced to death and executed. Only thirteen of the seventeen defendants of the second were sentenced to death; the others were sentenced to labor camps. The reason for the leniency was, in part, that confessions at the second trial named names used in the third. The defendants who went to labor camps died shortly after arriving at the camps. Documents released after the fall of the USSR confirm that they were executed by undercover Soviet agents sent to the camps to kill them.
The spectacularly confessing defendants in the trials had been tortured for months. Nikita Khrushchev said of the trials:
“They were only so stigmatized and often, no longer able to bear barbaric tortures, they charged themselves (at the order of the investigative judges – falsifiers) with all kinds of grave and unlikely crimes”Some of the defendants, notably first trial defendant Grigory Zinoviev, were apparently given assurances that their lives would be spared and their families left undisturbed. Zinoviev was executed within days of sentencing. His family was then rounded up and executed.
For each defendant in the “Moscow Trials” tens of thousands of unnamed individuals were also executed. Since the fall of the USSR mass gravesites have been uncovered yielding almost a quarter million corpses.