Elsey, George

Kane, Jim


Lunghi, Hugh

Roberts, Frank


Interview with Professor George F. Kennan


INT: I'd like to take you back to the 1937 purge trials for just a minute, which you witnessed and I know that you reported on. And I wonder if you could simply convey for us some sense of what the atmosphere of that remarkable occasion was, just what it was like to sit in on those trials awhat was going through your head as you witnessed those trials?

GK: I attended only one of the three trials. I realised after attending this one and looking over the record which they put out of the three trials, that in these three trials Stalin tried to avoid with the people within his own movement, he tried to avoid, or rather to try to get rid of the people within his own movement who he felt were secretly opposing him. First of all there were the... The first trial I think was really the Trotskyites. He felt that there was a strong strain of Trotskyite feeling against him within the higher reaches of the party, and he was determined to get rid of these people. The second trial was aimed, I think, at the first... actually the first was against so-called Communists. You know, Stalin never liked St. Petersburg, he never trusted it. It was a Leninist city and he had to overcome the legacy of Lenin before he could do what he wanted in Russia. The capital had been moved to Moscow and in many ways he literally tried to set upon the city of Leningrad to deprive it of its glamour, of its importance in the scheme of things and this went for the Leningrad Party organisation too. He felt people had been corrupted, somehow or other by the atmosphere of that city, they're not going to gain... be good servants of Stalin, so that the first trial was against them, the second was against the Trotskyites and the third was against what was called the Right opposition, the Conservative opposition within the party, particularly Bukharin and other party members who felt that he was going much too far, who tried to restrain him and tried to get support for restraining him, which particularly infuriated him.

INT: The trial that you sat in on as a personal witness, were you surprised, were you astonished, were you horrified? Was it what you expected? I'm thinking about personal reactions here to this event.

GK: Well, I had had enough experience in Russia to know what must have been happening to these men who were placed on the dock. I could see them there, and their pale faces, their twitching lips, their evasive eyes. These were the faces of men who had been, if not tortured, then terrified in many ways and often by threats to take it out on their families if they didn't confess. But they had been through hell, and they knew that these were likely to be their last hours. They were indeed, the same men that we saw standing up there by the time the darkness fell, they were no longer in this world. I don't know what their feelings were. Like most of those Russian Communists of that time, and like the partisans of a great dictatorship anywhere, they had found it a matter of convenience to believe in their own cause and so did these people. So I think they were quite bewildered in a way why this should have happened to them. They regarded themselves as faithful followers and here they were, having all this happen to them. Their reactions were varied, Radek was arrogant few of them were, some were eloquent, some tried to, in their testimony, to get it through to the audience that they were confessing in order to save their families. But it was a terrible spectacle. To any of us who knew Russia, we knew that this was a whole contrived event. This was not the trial. The trial had gone on in behind the scenes, in party circles and in police circles long before these people appeared on the docket. It is regrettable that the other foreign advisers there, foreign visitors who were invited to that trial, that not all of them even understood this.

INT: Good, that's fine. Can I get you to do about a once sentence physical description of Stalin which we could use with the earlier part of the answer, but just start out by saying, Stalin looked... or just use the words so that we can use that as a reference for that earlier clip.

GK: I saw many photographs of Stalin, saw him from a distance on other occasions. Only on the two or three occasions that I take people up to see him and therefore sat at the table with him, he was a smaller man than he liked to appear. He did have, strangely enough, as did the old German Kaiser, a somewhat withered, I think, left arm, I'm not sure I'm right about this, but I think he did. He was very controlled, very polite. He got up from the table and shook hands with his guests, invited them to sit down, listened very patiently to what they had said and often responded outwardly quite reasonably to it. These were cautious responses, the others shouldn't notice this, because when the event was over, a new problem would begin to get them to behave in the way that they hoped people thought they would behave. But he... I saw him very impressive... You must remember one thing, that Stalin was distrustful, in a pathological way, of anyone who professed friendship or fidelity to him. Those abnormal reactions did not affect the foreign statesmen who came to see him. They had never said that they were partisans of his and then he couldn't punish them, anyway. So he treated them in quite a different way than he did his own people and some of them fell for this and they were really influenced by it, and I think a number of people came out saying, well, this is quite a reasonable man. And if he had only been exposed more to my particular personality and my arguments, we might have been able to deal with him. Well, all I can say is what Bohlen once said, those are famous last words, like drinking doesn't affect me!