David Riazanov and the tragic fate of Isaak Rubin

Re­portedly, the Rus­si­an re­volu­tion­ary and pi­on­eer­ing Marx­o­lo­gist Dav­id Riazan­ov once in­sul­ted Stal­in to his face at a party meet­ing held dur­ing the mid-1920s. At the time, the ma­jor top­ic of de­bate was over the feas­ib­il­ity of so­cial­ism ab­sent a re­volu­tion in the West. In the years that fol­lowed Oc­to­ber 1917 the fledgling So­viet re­gime had sur­vived bru­tal win­ters, food short­ages, and an in­ter­na­tion­al block­ade while fight­ing off a bloody do­mest­ic coun­ter­re­volu­tion staged by dis­par­ate ele­ments of the old re­gime (the Whites) with the sup­port of for­eign powers (the Al­lied In­ter­ven­tion). The civil war was over, but re­volu­tion had else­where stalled out as the USSR’s bor­ders sta­bil­ized: the European pro­let­ari­at failed to over­throw the crisis-rid­den bour­geois gov­ern­ments of France, Ger­many, Eng­land, Aus­tria, and a host of oth­er na­tions. Now the ques­tion on every­one’s mind where the Bolshev­iks should go from there. Could so­cial­ism could be es­tab­lished in one (re­l­at­ively back­wards) na­tion?

Bukhar­in was the chief ar­chi­tect of the pro­gram for those who af­firmed that it could. His days as a left com­mun­ist be­hind him, Nikolai Ivan­ovich had mean­while suc­cumbed to prag­mat­ism and un­ima­gin­at­ive Real­politik. Mar­ket re­forms put in place by Len­in un­der the New Eco­nom­ic Policy after 1921 were to be con­tin­ued, and the trans­ition to “a high­er stage of com­mun­ist so­ci­ety” delayed, but its achieve­ment no longer de­pended on the spread of world re­volu­tion. Eager to make a name for him­self as a lead­ing the­or­eti­cian, Stal­in in­ter­jec­ted with some com­ments of his own. “Stop it, Koba,” Riazan­ov acerbically replied. “You’re mak­ing a fool of your­self. We all know the­ory isn’t ex­actly your strong suit.” Little won­der, then, that Stal­in would later want Riazan­ov’s head on a plat­ter; he’d in­flic­ted a deep nar­ciss­ist­ic wound. For as Trot­sky would later point out, in a two-part art­icle mock­ing “Stal­in as a The­or­eti­cian,” noth­ing was more im­port­ant to the Gen­er­al Sec­ret­ary than to be re­garded as well-versed in the sci­ence of dia­lect­ic­al ma­ter­i­al­ism.

Years earli­er, Riazan­ov had pro­voked the wrath of Len­in by fail­ing to pick a side in the fam­ous Men­shev­ik-Bolshev­ik split that res­ul­ted from the party con­gress in 1902. Oth­ers had also de­cided to re­main in­de­pend­ent, of course, most not­ably Lev Dav­idovich. But Riazan­ov’s re­fus­al to fall in with either tend­ency es­pe­cially en­raged Len­in. In 1909, the Bolshev­ik lead­er re­ferred to Trot­sky as “a despic­able ca­reer­ist and fac­tion­al­ist of the Riazan­ov-and-co. type” in a let­ter ad­dressed to Zinoviev. Goldendakh, as Riazan­ov was ori­gin­ally known, was con­sid­er­ably older than either Len­in or Trot­sky, however, be­com­ing a Marx­ist while abroad in 1889. He’d ini­tially been close with Plekhan­ov, but the two had a fall­ing out after the former ar­gued for a stricter stance to­ward party mem­ber­ship un­der the pen-name Riazan­ov in the pages of Bor’ba [Struggle]. Bor’ba, an émigré pa­per based out of Par­is, wasn’t all that far off from Len­in’s Iskra in terms of its line, and the two col­lab­or­ated in the lead-up to the 1902 con­gress. This is per­haps why Len­in scol­ded Riazan­ov so harshly after this point, ex­pect­ing him to rally to the side of the Bolshev­iks dur­ing the con­tro­versy. When Riazan­ov va­cil­lated, in­stead tak­ing on a “con­cili­at­ory” role, Len­in was deeply dis­ap­poin­ted.

Nev­er­the­less, upon re­turn­ing to Rus­sia in 1917, both men came to an agree­ment. Riazan­ov was stuck in Eng­land for a time, so Len­in ar­rived earli­er. From Feb­ru­ary on­ward, though, he be­longed to the Bolshev­iks. After the Oc­to­ber Re­volu­tion, Len­in ap­poin­ted Riazan­ov to a pres­ti­gi­ous re­search po­s­i­tion charged with pub­lish­ing the re­main­ing works of Marx and En­gels. Dur­ing the twen­ties and thirties, then, Riazan­ov headed the renowned Marx-En­gels In­sti­tute in Mo­scow. Un­der his su­per­vi­sion, schol­ars like the eco­nom­ist Isaak Ru­bin and the crit­ic Georg Lukács would un­cov­er a vast fund of archiv­al ma­ter­i­al. Carl Grünberg, first chair of the Frank­furt In­sti­tute for So­cial Re­search, co­ordin­ated the pho­tostat copy­ing of doc­u­ments still in the pos­ses­sion of Eduard Bern­stein and Karl Kaut­sky. In Vi­enna, a young Ro­man Ros­dol­sky would serve as a cor­res­pond­ent to the Mo­scow In­sti­tute from 1928 to 1931. Len­in fre­quently wrote to Riazan­ov with ques­tions about un­pub­lished let­ters and rare art­icles by the founders of sci­entif­ic so­cial­ism. “Do you at the lib­rary have a col­lec­tion of all the let­ters of Marx and En­gels from the news­pa­pers and sep­ar­ate magazines? For ex­ample, about ma­ter­i­al­ism in Leipzieger Volk­szei­tung (1894)?” Etc.

Vic­tor Serge in his 1947 Mem­oirs of a Re­volu­tion­ary re­called meet­ing Lukács and his wife “in 1928 or 1929 [Serge mis­re­membered the date; it must have been 1930 or 1931], in a Mo­scow street. He was then work­ing at the Marx-En­gels In­sti­tute; his books were be­ing sup­pressed, and he lived bravely in the gen­er­al fear. Al­though he was fairly well-dis­posed to­wards me, he did not care to shake my hand in a pub­lic place, since I’d been ex­pelled and a known Op­pos­i­tion­ist. Lukács en­joyed a phys­ic­al sur­viv­al, and wrote short, spir­it­less art­icles in Comin­tern journ­als.” Riazan­ov ap­par­ently joked, Lukács re­vealed in an in­ter­view dec­ades later, that he’d been “Comin­terned… that is, put out to non­polit­ic­al pas­ture.” Ques­tioned about Riazan­ov’s fate, Lukács glumly re­marked that “noth­ing fur­ther was known” after the 1931 con­vic­tion in the in­fam­ous Men­shev­ik tri­al. Serge de­tailed this a bit fur­ther in his Mem­oirs:

I was on very close terms with sev­er­al of the sci­entif­ic staff at the Marx-En­gels In­sti­tute, headed by Dav­id Bor­iso­vich Riazan­ov, who had cre­ated there a sci­entif­ic es­tab­lish­ment of note­worthy qual­ity. Riazan­ov, one of the founders of the Rus­si­an work­ing-class move­ment, was, in his six­tieth year, at the peak of a ca­reer whose suc­cess might ap­pear ex­cep­tion­al in times so cruel. He had de­voted a great part of his life to a severely scru­pu­lous in­quiry in­to the bio­graphy and works of Marx — and the Re­volu­tion heaped hon­or on him, and in the Party his in­de­pend­ence of out­look was re­spec­ted. Alone, he had nev­er ceased to cry out against the death pen­alty, even dur­ing the Ter­ror, nev­er ceased to de­mand the strict lim­it­a­tion of the rights of the Cheka and its suc­cessor, the GPU. Heretics of all kinds, Men­shev­ik so­cial­ists or op­pos­i­tion­ists of Right or Left, found peace and work in his In­sti­tute, provided only that they had a love of know­ledge. He was still the man who had told a con­fer­ence to its face: “I am not one of those Old Bolshev­iks who for twenty years were de­scribed by Len­in as old fools…”

I had met him a num­ber of times: stout, strong-fea­tured, beard and mus­tache thick and white, at­tent­ive eyes, Olympi­an fore­head, stormy tem­pera­ment, iron­ic ut­ter­ance… Of course his heretic­al col­leagues were of­ten ar­res­ted, and he de­fen­ded them, with all due dis­cre­tion. He had ac­cess to all quar­ters and the lead­ers were a little afraid of his frank way of talk­ing. His repu­ta­tion had just been of­fi­cially re­cog­nized in a cel­eb­ra­tion of his six­tieth birth­day and his life’s work when the ar­rest of the Men­shev­ik sym­path­izer Sher, a neur­ot­ic in­tel­lec­tu­al who promptly made all the con­fes­sions that any­one pleased to dic­tate to him, put Riazan­ov be­side him­self with rage. Hav­ing learned that a tri­al of old so­cial­ists was be­ing set in hand, with mon­strously ri­dicu­lous con­fes­sions fois­ted on them, Riazan­ov flared up and told mem­ber after mem­ber of the Polit­buro that it was a dis­hon­or to the re­gime, that all this or­gan­ized frenzy simply did not stand up and that Sher was half-mad any­way.

Dur­ing the tri­al of the so-called “Men­shev­ik cen­ter,” the de­fend­ant [Isaak] Ru­bin, one of Riazan­ov’s protégés, sud­denly brought his name in­to the case, ac­cus­ing him of hav­ing hid­den in the In­sti­tute doc­u­ments of the So­cial­ist In­ter­na­tion­al con­cerned with war against the So­viet Uni­on! Everything that was told to the audi­ence was en­gin­eered in ad­vance, so this sen­sa­tion­al rev­el­a­tion was in­ser­ted to or­der. Summoned on that very night be­fore the Polit­buro, Riazan­ov had a vi­ol­ent ex­change with Stal­in. “Where are the doc­u­ments?” shouted the Gen­er­al Sec­ret­ary. Riazan­ov replied vehe­mently, “You won’t find them any­where un­less you’ve put them there your­self!” He was ar­res­ted, jailed, and de­por­ted to a group of little towns on the Volga, doomed to pen­ury and phys­ic­al col­lapse; lib­rar­i­ans re­ceived the or­der to purge his writ­ings and his edi­tions of Marx from their stocks. To any­body who knew the policy of the So­cial­ist In­ter­na­tion­al and the char­ac­ter of its lead­ers, Fritz Adler, Vandervelde, Ab­ramovich, Otto Bauer, and Bracke, the fab­ric­ated charge was ut­terly and grot­esquely im­plaus­ible. If it had to be ad­mit­ted as true, Riazan­ov de­served to die as a trait­or, but they merely ex­iled him. As I write this book I learn that he died a couple of years ago (in 1940?) alone and cap­tive, nobody knows where.

Ru­bin did not give up his ment­or will­ingly. In­deed, his per­se­cu­tion at the hands of Stal­in’s men was pos­sibly even more bru­tal and tra­gic. From 1905 on, Ru­bin had been in­volved in the Marx­ist move­ment in Rus­sia as part of the Men­shev­ik fac­tion. Though not quite as en­cyc­lo­ped­ic as Riazan­ov, in terms of his breadth of know­ledge, Ru­bin was a far more ori­gin­al the­or­ist. You can down­load his Es­says on Marx’s The­ory of Value (1926), his lec­ture “On Ab­stract Labor” (1927), and his His­tory of Eco­nom­ic Thought (1928) by clicking here. But the sad story of what happened to Ru­bin between 1930 and 1937 is re­coun­ted be­low by his sis­ter, in testi­mony com­piled in 1971 by the dis­sid­ent his­tor­i­an Roy Med­ve­dev (who’s now a shill for Putin). This is then fol­lowed by an art­icle Trot­sky wrote in Riazan­ov’s de­fense upon learn­ing of his ar­rest in 1931.

Con­cern­ing my broth­er, Isaak Rubin

B.I. Rubina
Circa 1971

This is what I learned from my broth­er. When he was ar­res­ted on Decem­ber 23, 1930, he was charged with be­ing a mem­ber of the “Uni­on Bur­eau of Men­shev­iks.” This ac­cus­a­tion seemed so ri­dicu­lous that he im­me­di­ately sub­mit­ted a writ­ten ex­pos­i­tion of his views, which he thought would prove the im­possib­il­ity of such an ac­cus­a­tion. When the in­vest­ig­at­or read this state­ment, he tore it up right there. A con­front­a­tion was ar­ranged between my broth­er and Yak­ubovich, who had been ar­res­ted earli­er and had con­fessed to be­ing a mem­ber of the “Uni­on Bur­eau.” My broth­er did not even know Yak­ubovich. At the con­front­a­tion, when Yak­ubovich said to my broth­er, “Isaac Il’ich, we were to­geth­er at a ses­sion of the Uni­on Bur­eau,” my broth­er im­me­di­ately asked, “And where was this meet­ing held?” This ques­tion caused such a dis­rup­tion in the ex­am­in­a­tion that the in­vest­ig­at­or in­ter­rup­ted the ex­am­in­a­tion right there, say­ing, “What are you, a law­yer, Isaak Il’ich?”

My broth­er in fact was a law­yer, had worked in that field for many years. After that con­front­a­tion the charge that Ru­bin was a mem­ber of the “Uni­on Bur­eau” was dropped. Soon after, my broth­er was trans­ferred to Su­zdal. The cir­cum­stances of that trans­fer were so un­usu­al that they were bound to in­spire alarm and fear. On the sta­tion plat­form there was not a single per­son; in an empty rail­road car he was met by an im­port­ant GPU of­fi­cial, Gai. To all of Gai’s at­tempts at per­sua­sion my broth­er replied with what was really true: that he had no con­nec­tions with the Men­shev­iks. Then Gai de­clared that he would give him forty-eight hours to think it over. Ru­bin replied that he didn’t need forty-eight minutes…

The ex­am­in­a­tion at Su­zdal also failed to give the in­vest­ig­at­ors the res­ults they wanted. Then they put Ru­bin for days in the kartser, the pun­ish­ment cell. My broth­er at forty-five was a man with a dis­eased heart and dis­eased joints. The kartser was a stone hole the size of a man; you couldn’t move in it, you could only stand or sit on the stone floor. But my broth­er en­dured this tor­ture, too, and left the kartser with a feel­ing of in­ner con­fid­ence in him­self, in his mor­al strength… Then he was put in the kartser for a second time, which also pro­duced no res­ults. At that time Ru­bin was shar­ing a cell with Yak­ubovich and Sher. When he came back from the kartser, his cell­mates re­ceived him with great con­cern and at­ten­tion; right there they made tea for him, gave him sug­ar and oth­er things, and tried in every way to show their sym­pathy. Telling me about this, Ru­bin said that he was so amazed: these same people told lies about him and at the same time treated him so warmly.

Soon Ru­bin was put in­to sol­it­ary con­fine­ment; in those cir­cum­stances he was sub­jec­ted to every kind of tor­ment­ing hu­mi­li­ation. He was de­prived of all the per­son­al things he had brought with him, even handker­chiefs. At that time he had the flu and walked about with a swollen nose, with ul­cers, filthy. The pris­on au­thor­it­ies of­ten in­spec­ted his cell, and as soon as they found any vi­ol­a­tion of the rule for main­tain­ing the cell they sent him to clean the lat­rines. Everything was done to break his will… They told him his wife was very sick, to which he replied: “I can’t help her in any way, I can’t even help my­self.” At times the in­vest­ig­at­ors would turn friendly and say: “Isaac Il’ich, this is ne­ces­sary for the party.” At the same time they gave him night­time in­ter­rog­a­tions, at which a man is not al­lowed to fall asleep for a minute. They would wake him up, wear him out with all sorts of in­ter­rog­a­tions, jeer at his spir­itu­al strength, call him the “Men­shev­ik Je­sus.”

This went on un­til Janu­ary 28, 1931. On the night of Janu­ary 28-29, they took him down to a cel­lar, where there were vari­ous pris­on of­fi­cials and a pris­on­er, someone named Vas­ilyevskii, …to whom they said, in the pres­ence of my broth­er; “We are go­ing to shoot you now, if Ru­bin does not con­fess.” Vas­ilyevskii on his knees begged my broth­er: “Isaac Il’ich, what does it cost you to con­fess?” But my broth­er re­mained firm and calm, even when they shot Vas­ilyevskii right there. His feel­ing of in­ner right­ness was so strong that it helped him to en­dure that fright­ful or­deal. The next night, Janu­ary 29, they took my broth­er to the cel­lar again. This time a young man who looked like a stu­dent was there. My broth­er didn’t know him. When they turned to the stu­dent with the words, “You will be shot be­cause Ru­bin will not con­fess,” the stu­dent tore open his shirt at the breast and said, “Fas­cists, gen­darmes, shoot!” They shot him right there; the name of this stu­dent was Dorod­nov.

The shoot­ing of Dorod­nov made a shat­ter­ing im­pres­sion on my broth­er. Return­ing to his cell, he began to think. What’s to be done? My broth­er de­cided to start ne­go­ti­ations with the in­vest­ig­at­or; these ne­go­ti­ations las­ted from Feb­ru­ary 2 to 21, 1931. The charge that Ru­bin be­longed to the Uni­on Bur­eau had already been dropped in Mo­scow, after the con­front­a­tion with Yak­ubovich. Now they agreed that my broth­er would con­sent to con­fess him­self a mem­ber of a pro­gram com­mis­sion con­nec­ted with the Uni­on Bur­eau, and that he, Ru­bin, had kept doc­u­ments of the Men­shev­ik Cen­ter in his of­fice at the In­sti­tute, and when he was fired from the In­sti­tute, he had handed them over in a sealed en­vel­ope to [Dav­id] Riazan­ov, as ma­ter­i­als on the his­tory of the So­cial Demo­crat­ic move­ment. Ru­bin had sup­posedly asked Riazan­ov to keep these doc­u­ments for a short time. In these ne­go­ti­ations every word, every for­mu­la­tion was fought over. Re­peatedly the “con­fes­sion” writ­ten by Ru­bin was crossed out and cor­rec­ted by the in­vest­ig­at­or. When Ru­bin went to tri­al on March 1, 1931, in the side pock­et of his jack­et was his “con­fes­sion,” cor­rec­ted with the in­vest­ig­at­or’s red ink.

Ru­bin’s po­s­i­tion was tra­gic. He had to con­fess to what had nev­er ex­is­ted, and noth­ing had: neither his former views; nor his con­nec­tions with the oth­er de­fend­ants, most of whom he didn’t even know, while oth­ers he knew only by chance; nor any doc­u­ments that had sup­posedly been en­trus­ted to his safe­keep­ing; nor that sealed pack­age of doc­u­ments which he was sup­posed to have handed over to Riazan­ov.

In the course of the in­ter­rog­a­tion and ne­go­ti­ations with the in­vest­ig­at­or it be­came clear to Ru­bin that the name of Riazan­ov would fig­ure in the whole af­fair, if not in Ru­bin’s testi­mony, then in the testi­mony of someone else. And Ru­bin agreed to tell the whole story about the myth­ic­al pack­age. My broth­er told me that speak­ing against Riazan­ov was just like speak­ing against his own fath­er. That was the hard­est part for him, and he de­cided to make it look as if he had fooled Riazan­ov, who had trus­ted him im­pli­citly. My broth­er stub­bornly kept to this po­s­i­tion in all his de­pos­itions: Riazan­ov had trus­ted him per­son­ally, and he, Ru­bin, had fooled trust­ful Riazan­ov. No one and noth­ing could shake him from this po­s­i­tion. His de­pos­ition of Feb­ru­ary 21 con­cern­ing this mat­ter was prin­ted in the in­dict­ment and signed by Krylen­ko on Feb­ru­ary 23, 1931. The de­pos­ition said that Ru­bin handed Riazan­ov the doc­u­ments in a sealed en­vel­ope and asked him to keep them for a while at the In­sti­tute. My broth­er stressed this po­s­i­tion in all his state­ments be­fore and dur­ing the tri­al. At the tri­al he gave a num­ber of ex­amples which were sup­posed to ex­plain why Riazan­ov trus­ted him so much…

Put­ting the prob­lem in such a way ruined the pro­sec­utor’s plan. He asked Ru­bin point-blank: “Didn’t you es­tab­lish any or­gan­iz­a­tion­al con­nec­tion?” Ru­bin replied, “No, there was no or­gan­iz­a­tion­al con­nec­tion, there was only his great per­son­al trust in me.” Then Krylen­ko asked for a re­cess. When he and the oth­er de­fend­ants got to an­oth­er room, Krylen­ko said to Ru­bin: “You did not say what you should have said. After the re­cess I will call you back to the stand, and you will cor­rect your reply.” Ru­bin answered sharply: “Do not call me any more. I will again re­peat what I said.” The res­ult of this con­flict was that, in­stead of the agreed three years in pris­on, Ru­bin was giv­en five, and in his con­clud­ing speech Krylen­ko gave a dev­ast­at­ing char­ac­ter­iz­a­tion of Ru­bin like that of no one else. Every­one in­ter­ested in the case could not un­der­stand why there was so much spite and venom in this char­ac­ter­iz­a­tion.

Ru­bin set him­self the goal of do­ing everything in his power to “shield” Riazan­ov… At the tri­al the pos­sib­il­ity of de­fin­ing in this way his po­s­i­tion with re­spect to Riazan­ov gave Ru­bin a cer­tain mor­al sat­is­fac­tion. But these leg­al sub­tleties made little sense to any­one else. Polit­ic­ally, Riazan­ov was com­prom­ised, and Ru­bin was stricken from the list of people who have the right to a life worthy of man. Ru­bin him­self, in his own con­scious­ness, struck him­self from the list of such people as soon as he began to give his “testi­mony.” It is in­ter­est­ing what my broth­er felt when they took him back to Mo­scow from Su­zdal. When, sick and tor­tured, he was put in­to the sleigh, he re­membered, in his words, how self-as­sured and in­tern­ally strong he had been when he came to Su­zdal and how he was leav­ing mor­ally broken, des­troyed, de­graded to a state of com­plete hope­less­ness. Ru­bin un­der­stood per­fectly well that by his “con­fes­sion” he had put an end to his life as an hon­or­able, un­cor­rup­ted work­er and achiev­er in his chosen field of schol­ar­ship.

But that was not the main thing; the main thing was that he was des­troyed as a man. Ru­bin un­der­stood per­fectly well what re­per­cus­sions his con­fes­sion would have. Why had Ru­bin borne false wit­ness against him­self? Why had he also named Riazan­ov? Why had he vi­ol­ated the most ele­ment­ary, most prim­it­ive con­cepts of hu­man be­ha­vi­or? Every­one knew with what mu­tu­al re­spect these two men were con­nec­ted, Ru­bin and Riazan­ov. Riazan­ov, who was con­sid­er­ably older than Ru­bin, saw in him a tal­en­ted Marx­ist schol­ar who had de­voted his life to the study and pop­ular­iz­a­tion of Marx­ism. Riazan­ov had trus­ted him un­re­servedly; he him­self was be­wildered by what had happened. Here I want to re­count an epis­ode, a very pain­ful one, the con­front­a­tion between Ru­bin and Riazan­ov. The con­front­a­tion took place in the pres­ence of an in­vest­ig­at­or. Ru­bin, pale and tor­men­ted, turned to Riazan­ov, say­ing, “Dav­id Bor­iso­vich, you re­mem­ber I handed you a pack­age.” Wheth­er Riazan­ov said any­thing and pre­cisely what, I don’t re­mem­ber for sure. My broth­er right then was taken to his cell; in his cell he began to beat his head against the wall. Any­one who knew how calm and self-con­trolled Ru­bin was can un­der­stand what a state he had been brought to. Ac­cord­ing to ru­mors, Riazan­ov used to say that he could not un­der­stand what had happened to Isaac Il’ich.

The de­fend­ants in the case of the “Uni­on Bur­eau” were sen­tenced to vari­ous terms of im­pris­on­ment, and all four­teen men were trans­ferred to the polit­ic­al pris­on in the town of Verkh­neur­al­sk. Ru­bin, sen­tenced to five years, was sub­jec­ted to sol­it­ary con­fine­ment. The oth­ers, who re­ceived terms of ten, eight, and five years, were placed sev­er­al men to a cell. Ru­bin re­mained in sol­it­ary con­fine­ment throughout his im­pris­on­ment. Dur­ing his con­fine­ment he con­tin­ued his schol­arly work. Ru­bin be­came sick in pris­on, and lip can­cer was sus­pec­ted. In con­nec­tion with this sick­ness, in Janu­ary, 1933. he was taken to Mo­scow, to the hos­pit­al in Bu­tyrskaia Pris­on. While in the hos­pit­al Ru­bin was vis­ited twice by GPU of­fi­cials who offered to make his situ­ation easi­er, to free him, to en­able him to do re­search. But both times Ru­bin re­fused, un­der­stand­ing the price that is paid for such fa­vors. After spend­ing six to eight weeks in the pris­on hos­pit­al, he was taken back to the polit­ic­al pris­on in Verkh­neur­al­sk… A year later, in 1934, Ru­bin was re­leased on a com­muted sen­tence and ex­iled to the town of Tur­gai, then an al­most un­pop­u­lated set­tle­ment in the desert. Aside from Ru­bin there were no oth­er ex­iles there.

After sev­er­al months at Tur­gai, Ru­bin was per­mit­ted to settle in the town of Ak­ty­u­b­insk… He got work in a con­sumer co­oper­at­ive, as a plan eco­nom­ist. In ad­di­tion he con­tin­ued to do his own schol­arly work. In the sum­mer of 1935 his wife be­came ser­i­ously sick. My broth­er sent a tele­gram ask­ing me to come. I went right away to Ak­ty­u­b­insk; my broth­er’s wife lay in the hos­pit­al, and he him­self was in a very bad con­di­tion. A month later, when his wife had re­covered, I went home to Mo­scow… My broth­er told me that he did not want to re­turn to Mo­scow, he did not want to meet his former circle of ac­quaint­ances. That showed how deeply he was spir­itu­ally shaken by all that he had been through. Only his great op­tim­ism that was char­ac­ter­ist­ic of him and his deep schol­arly in­terests gave him the strength to live.

In the fall of 1937, dur­ing the mass ar­rests of that time, my broth­er was again ar­res­ted. The pris­on in Ak­ty­u­b­insk was over­crowded, the liv­ing con­di­tions of the pris­on­ers were ter­ri­fy­ing. After a short stay in the pris­on, he was trans­ferred some­where out­side of Ak­ty­u­b­insk. We could find out noth­ing more about him.

The case of com­rade Riazan­ov

Leon Trotsky
March 1931

At the mo­ment we write these lines, we know noth­ing about the ex­pul­sion from the party of Riazan­ov ex­cept what is com­mu­nic­ated in the of­fi­cial dis­patches by Tass. Riazan­ov has been ex­pelled from the party, not for any dif­fer­ences with the so-called gen­er­al line, but for “treas­on” to the party. Riazan­ov is ac­cused — no more and no less — of hav­ing con­spired with the Men­shev­iks and the So­cial Re­volu­tion­ar­ies who were al­lied with the con­spir­at­ors of the in­dus­tri­al bour­geois­ie. This is the ver­sion in the of­fi­cial communiqué. What does not seem clear at first sight is that for Riazan­ov the af­fair is lim­ited to ex­pul­sion from the party. Why has he not been ar­res­ted and ar­raigned be­fore the Su­preme Tribunal for con­spir­acy against the dic­tat­or­ship of the pro­let­ari­at? Such a ques­tion must pose it­self to every thought­ful per­son, even to those who do not know the ac­cused. The latest communiqués say that Riazan­ov is named in the in­dict­ment by Krylen­ko. To be a de­fend­ant to­mor­row?

The Men­shev­iks and the So­cial Re­volu­tion­ar­ies rep­res­ent parties which seek the rees­tab­lish­ment of cap­it­al­ism. The Men­shev­iks and the So­cial Re­volu­tion­ar­ies are dis­tin­guished from oth­er parties of cap­it­al­ist res­tor­a­tion by the fact that they hope to give the bour­geois re­gime in Rus­sia “demo­crat­ic” forms. There are very strong cur­rents in these parties which be­lieve that any re­gime in Rus­sia, re­gard­less of its polit­ic­al form, would be more pro­gress­ive than the Bolshev­ik re­gime. The po­s­i­tion of the Men­shev­iks and the So­cial Re­volu­tion­ar­ies is coun­ter­re­volu­tion­ary in the most pre­cise and ob­ject­ive sense of the word, that is, in the class sense. This po­s­i­tion can­not but lead to at­tempts to util­ize the dis­con­tent of the masses for a so­cial up­ris­ing. The activ­ity of the Men­shev­iks and the So­cial Re­volu­tion­ar­ies is noth­ing but the pre­par­a­tion for such an up­ris­ing. Are blocs of the Men­shev­iks and the So­cial Re­volu­tion­ar­ies with the in­dus­tri­al bour­geois­ie ex­cluded? Not at all. The policy of the so­cial demo­cracy throughout the world is based upon the idea of a co­ali­tion with the bour­geois­ie against the “re­ac­tion” and the re­volu­tion­ary pro­let­ari­at. The policy of the Men­shev­iks and the So­cial Re­volu­tion­ar­ies in 1917 was en­tirely based upon the prin­ciple of the co­ali­tion with the lib­er­al bour­geois­ie, re­pub­lic­an as well as mon­arch­ic­al. The parties which be­lieve that there is no way out for Rus­sia oth­er than a re­turn to a bour­geois re­gime can­not but make a bloc with the bour­geois­ie. The lat­ter can­not re­fuse aid, in­clud­ing fin­an­cial aid, to its demo­crat­ic aux­il­i­ar­ies. With­in these lim­its everything is clear, for it flows from the very nature of things. But how could Com­rade Riazan­ov hap­pen to be among the par­ti­cipants in the Men­shev­ik con­spir­acy? Here we are con­fron­ted by an ob­vi­ous en­igma.

When Syrtsov was ac­cused of “double-deal­ing,” every con­scious work­er must have asked: How could an Old Bolshev­ik who, not so long ago, was put by the Cent­ral Com­mit­tee in­to the post of chair­man of the Coun­cil of People’s Com­mis­sars sud­denly be­come the il­leg­al de­fend­er of opin­ions which he re­futed and con­demned of­fi­cially? From this fact one could only es­tab­lish the ex­treme du­pli­city of the Sta­lin­ist re­gime, in which the real opin­ions of the mem­bers of the gov­ern­ment are es­tab­lished only by the in­ter­ven­tion of the GPU.

But in the Syrtsov case, it was only a mat­ter of a con­flict between the cent­rists and the right-wing­ers of the party, and noth­ing more. The Riazan­ov “case” is in­com­par­ably more sig­ni­fic­ant and more strik­ing. All of Riazan­ov’s activ­ity was mani­fes­ted in the realm of ideas, of books, of pub­lic­a­tions, and by that fact alone it was un­der the con­stant scru­tiny of hun­dreds of thou­sands of read­ers throughout the world. Fi­nally, and most im­port­antly, Riazan­ov is ac­cused not of sym­pathy for the de­vi­ation of the right-wing­ers in the party, but of par­ti­cip­a­tion in the coun­ter­re­volu­tion­ary con­spir­acy.

That nu­mer­ous mem­bers of the Com­mun­ist Party of the So­viet Uni­on, the­or­eti­cians and prac­ti­tion­ers of the gen­er­al line, are Men­shev­iks without know­ing it; that nu­mer­ous former Men­shev­iks, who have changed their names but not their es­sence, suc­cess­fully oc­cupy the most re­spons­ible posts (people’s com­mis­sars, am­bas­sad­ors, etc.); and that with­in the frame­work of the CPSU no mean place is oc­cu­pied, along­side the Besse­dovskys, the Agabekovs, and oth­er cor­rup­ted and de­mor­al­ized ele­ments, by dir­ect agents of the Men­shev­iks — on that score we have no doubts at all. The Sta­lin­ist re­gime is the breed­ing ground of all sorts of germs of de­com­pos­i­tion in the party. But the Riazan­ov “case” can­not be­set in­to this frame­work. Riazan­ov is not an up­start, an ad­ven­tur­ist, a Besse­dovsky, or any sort of agent of the Men­shev­iks. Riazan­ov’s line of de­vel­op­ment can be traced year by year, in ac­cord­ance with facts and doc­u­ments, art­icles and books. In the per­son of Riazan­ov we have a man who for more than forty years has par­ti­cip­ated in the re­volu­tion­ary move­ment; and every stage of his activ­ity has in one way or an­oth­er entered in­to the his­tory of the pro­let­ari­an party. Riazan­ov had ser­i­ous dif­fer­ences with the party at vari­ous times, in­clud­ing the time of Len­in or, rather, es­pe­cially in the time of Len­in, when Riazan­ov par­ti­cip­ated act­ively in the day-to-day for­mu­la­tion of party policy. In one of his speeches Len­in spoke dir­ectly of the strong side of Riazan­ov and of his weak side. Len­in did not see Riazan­ov as a politi­cian. Speak­ing of his strong side, Len­in had in mind his ideal­ism, his deep de­vo­tion to Marx­ist doc­trine, his ex­cep­tion­al eru­di­tion, his hon­esty in prin­ciples, his in­transigence in de­fense of the her­it­age of Marx and En­gels. That is pre­cisely why the party put Riazan­ov at the head of the Marx-En­gels In­sti­tute which he him­self had cre­ated. The work of Riazan­ov had in­ter­na­tion­al im­port­ance, not only of a his­torico-sci­entif­ic but also a re­volu­tion­ary and polit­ic­al char­ac­ter. Marx­ism is in­con­ceiv­able without the ac­cept­ance of the re­volu­tion­ary dic­tat­or­ship of the pro­let­ari­at. Men­shev­ism is the bour­geois-demo­crat­ic re­fut­a­tion of this dic­tat­or­ship. In de­fend­ing Marx­ism against re­vi­sion­ism, Riazan­ov, by all of his activ­ity, con­duc­ted a struggle against the so­cial demo­cracy and con­sequently against the Rus­si­an Men­shev­iks. How then is Riazan­ov’s prin­cipled po­s­i­tion to be re­con­ciled with his par­ti­cip­a­tion in the Men­shev­ik con­spir­acy? To this ques­tion there is no reply. And we think that there can­not be a reply. We are ab­so­lutely cer­tain that Riazan­ov did not par­ti­cip­ate in any con­spir­acy. But in that case, where does the ac­cus­a­tion come from? If it is in­ven­ted, then by whom and to­ward what end?

To this we can give only hy­po­thet­ic­al ex­plan­a­tions, based, nev­er­the­less, upon a suf­fi­ciently ad­equate ac­quaint­ance with the people and the cir­cum­stances. We will as­sist ourselves, moreover, with polit­ic­al lo­gic and re­volu­tion­ary psy­cho­logy. Neither the one nor the oth­er can be ab­ol­ished by Tass dis­patches.

Com­rade Riazan­ov dir­ec­ted a vast sci­entif­ic in­sti­tu­tion. He re­quired nu­mer­ous qual­i­fied per­son­nel as col­lab­or­at­ors: people ini­ti­ated in Marx­ism, the his­tory of the re­volu­tion­ary move­ment, the prob­lems of the class struggle, and those who knew for­eign lan­guages. Bolshev­iks hav­ing the same qual­it­ies oc­cupy, al­most without ex­cep­tion, re­spons­ible ad­min­is­trat­ive posts and are not avail­able for a sci­entif­ic in­sti­tu­tion. On the oth­er hand, among the Men­shev­iks there are nu­mer­ous idle politi­cians who have re­tired from the struggle or who, at least pre­tend to have re­tired. In the do­main of his­tor­ic­al re­search, of com­ment­ary, of an­nota­tion, of trans­la­tion, of im­port­ant cor­rec­tion, etc., Com­rade Riazan­ov based him­self to a cer­tain ex­tent on this type of Men­shev­ik in re­treat. In the in­sti­tute they played about the same role that the bour­geois en­gin­eers play in the State Plan­ning Com­mis­sion and the oth­er eco­nom­ic bod­ies. A com­mun­ist who dir­ects any in­sti­tu­tion, as a gen­er­al rule de­fends “his” spe­cial­ists, some­times even those who lead him around by the nose. The most il­lu­min­at­ing ex­ample of this is giv­en by the former chair­man of the State Plan­ning Com­mis­sion, mem­ber of the Cent­ral Com­mit­tee Krzhyzhan­ovsky, who for many years, foam­ing at the mouth, de­fen­ded against the Op­pos­i­tion the min­im­um pro­grams and plans of his saboteur-sub­or­din­ates. The dir­ect­or of the Marx-En­gels In­sti­tute felt im­pelled to as­sume the de­fense of his Men­shev­ik col­lab­or­at­ors when they were threatened with ar­rest and de­port­a­tion. This role of de­fend­er, not al­ways crowned with suc­cess, has not been prac­ticed by Riazan­ov only since yes­ter­day. Every­body, in­clud­ing Len­in, knew it; some joked about it, un­der­stand­ing per­fectly well the “ad­min­is­trat­ive” in­terests that guided Riazan­ov.

There is no doubt that cer­tain Men­shev­ik col­lab­or­at­ors, per­haps the ma­jor­ity, used the in­sti­tute to cov­er up their con­spir­at­ori­al work (con­ceal­ment of archives and doc­u­ments; cor­res­pond­ence, con­tacts abroad, etc.). One can ima­gine that Riazan­ov was not al­ways suf­fi­ciently at­tent­ive to the ad­mon­i­tions com­ing from the party, and showed an ex­cess­ive be­ne­vol­ence to­ward his per­fi­di­ous col­lab­or­at­ors. But we think that this is the ex­treme lim­it of the ac­cus­a­tion that might be leveled against Com­rade Riazan­ov. The books ed­ited by Riazan­ov are be­fore the eyes of every­body: there is neither Men­shev­ism nor sab­ot­age in them, as in the eco­nom­ic plans of Stal­in-Krzhyzhan­ovsky.

But if one ac­cepts the fact that Riazan­ov’s mis­take does not ex­ceed cred­u­lous pro­tec­tion of the Men­shev­ik spe­cial­ists, where then does the ac­cus­a­tion of treas­on come from? We know from re­cent ex­per­i­ence that the Sta­lin­ist GPU is cap­able of send­ing an of­ficer of Wran­gel in­to the ranks of ir­re­proach­able re­volu­tion­ists. Men­zh­in­sky and Ya­goda would not hes­it­ate for a mo­ment to at­trib­ute any crime what­so­ever to Riazan­ov as soon as they were ordered to do so. But who ordered it? Who would have gained by it? Who sought this in­ter­na­tion­al scan­dal around the name of Riazan­ov?

It is pre­cisely on this that we can ad­vance ex­plan­a­tions that are com­pel­lingly dic­tated by all the cir­cum­stances. In re­cent years Riazan­ov had with­drawn from act­ive polit­ics. In this sense he shared the fate of many old mem­bers of the party who, des­pair in their hearts, left the in­tern­al life of the party and shut them­selves up in eco­nom­ic or cul­tur­al work. It is only this resig­na­tion that per­mit­ted Riazan­ov to in­sure his in­sti­tute against dev­ast­a­tion in the whole post-Len­in­ist peri­od. But in the last year it be­came im­possible to main­tain one­self in this po­s­i­tion. The life of the party, es­pe­cially since the Six­teenth Con­gress, has been con­ver­ted in­to a con­tinu­al ex­am­in­a­tion of loy­alty to the chief, the one and only. In every unit, there now are agents fresh from the plebis­cite who on every oc­ca­sion in­ter­rog­ate the hes­it­ant and the ir­res­ol­ute: Do they re­gard Stal­in as an in­fal­lible chief, as a great the­or­eti­cian, as a clas­sic of Marx­ism? Are they ready on the New Year to swear loy­alty to the chief of the party — to Stal­in? The less the party shows it­self cap­able of con­trolling it­self through ideo­lo­gic­al struggle, the more the bur­eau­cracy is forced to con­trol the party with the aid of agent pro­vocateurs.

For many years Riazan­ov was able to hold his tongue very prudently — too prudently — on a whole series of burn­ing ques­tions. But Riazan­ov was or­gan­ic­ally in­cap­able of cow­ardice, of plat­it­udes; any os­ten­ta­tious dis­play of the sen­ti­ment of loy­alty was re­pug­nant to him. One can ima­gine that in the meet­ings of the in­sti­tute he of­ten flew in­to a pas­sion against the cor­rup­ted young­sters of that in­nu­mer­able or­der of young pro­fess­ors who usu­ally un­der­stand very little of Marx­ism but can ex­cel in false­hood and in­form­ing. This type of in­tern­al clique, no doubt, for a long time had its can­did­ate for the post of dir­ect­or of the in­sti­tute and, what is still more im­port­ant its con­nec­tions with the GPU and the sec­ret­ari­at of the Cent­ral Com­mit­tee. Had Riazan­ov al­luded some­where, even if only in a few words, to the fact that Marx and En­gels were only fore­run­ners of Stal­in, then all the stratagems of these un­scru­pu­lous young­sters would have col­lapsed and no Krylen­ko would have dared to make a com­plaint against Riazan­ov for his be­ne­vol­ence to­ward the Men­shev­ik trans­lat­ors. But Riazan­ov did not ac­cept this. As for the gen­er­al sec­ret­ari­at, it was un­able to make any fur­ther con­ces­sions.

Hav­ing ac­quired the power of the ap­par­at­us, Stal­in feels him­self weak­er than ever in­tern­ally. He knows him­self well and that is why he fears his own po­s­i­tion. He needs daily con­firm­a­tion of his role of dic­tat­or. The plebis­cit­ary re­gime is piti­less: it does not re­con­cile it­self with doubts, it de­mands per­petu­al en­thu­si­ast­ic ac­know­ledg­ment. This is why Riazan­ov’s turn came. If Bukhar­in and Rykov fell vic­tim to their “plat­form,” which it is true they have re­nounced two or three times, Riazan­ov fell vic­tim to his per­son­al hon­esty. The old re­volu­tion­ist said to him­self to serve while hold­ing one’s tongue with clenched teeth — good; to be an en­thu­si­ast­ic lackey — im­possible. That is why Riazan­ov fell un­der the justice of the party of the Yaroslavskys. Then Ya­goda fur­nished the ele­ments of the ac­cus­a­tion. In con­clu­sion, Riazan­ov was de­clared a trait­or to the party and an agent of the coun­ter­re­volu­tion.

In the Com­mun­ist Party of the So­viet Uni­on and in the West­ern parties of the Comin­tern, there are many who ob­serve with con­sterna­tion the activ­it­ies of the Sta­lin­ist bur­eau­cracy. But they jus­ti­fy their passiv­ity, say­ing: “What can be done? One must hold one’s tongue in or­der not to shake the found­a­tion of the dic­tat­or­ship.” This pos­sib­il­ism is not only cow­ardly, it is blind. In­stead of the found­a­tion of the dic­tat­or­ship, the ap­par­at­us of the of­fi­cial party is more and more be­ing con­ver­ted in­to an in­stru­ment for its dis­in­teg­ra­tion. This pro­cess can­not be ar­res­ted by si­lence. In­tern­al ex­plo­sions are oc­cur­ring more and more fre­quently, each time in a more threat­en­ing form. The struggle against the Sta­lin­ist re­gime is a struggle for the Marx­ist found­a­tion of a pro­let­ari­an policy. This can­not be won without party demo­cracy. The plebis­cit­ary re­gime of Stal­in by its very nature is not dur­able. So that it shall not be li­quid­ated by class en­emies, it is in­dis­pens­able to li­quid­ate it by the ef­forts of the ad­vanced ele­ments of the Com­mun­ist In­ter­na­tion­al. This is the les­son of the Riazan­ov “case”!

2 thoughts on “David Riazanov and the tragic fate of Isaak Rubin

  1. Pauvre Rubin! whatever one thinks of his theoretical work on the value form, he saw the significance of value as a social form as the veritable basis of capitalist social relations. His destruction was both one basis for seeing Stalinism as the veritable counter-revolution, and the value form as the historical basis of capitalist social relations. In that sense, it is to Rubin that one must look for the historical genesis of a value-form analysis of capital, whatever disagreements one might have with the specifics of his analysis.

    Mac Intosh

  2. The first critic of Rubin’s book on Marx’s theory of value was Sokrat Gevorkyan (1903–38, Сократ Геворкьян Аванесович), a brilliant expert of theoretical economy, but it wasn’t published. It is referred to in a footnote of an article in the Journal of the Communist Academy (online on libcom, scanned by E. Pavlov) – the authors felt compelled to credit Gevorkyan, as by then it had already become sort of a sport to criticize Rubin (and did they did criticize Rubin too).

    Gevorkyan joined the party in 1917, organizer of illegal (Trotskyist) opposition 1926-27, exiled in 1928, in 1929 locked in Upper-Ural isolator up to 1934, again imprisoned in 1935. His fate in Vorkuta is recounted here: https://www.bolshevik.info/trotskyists-stalin-concentration-vorkuta.htm

    I must link to my translations of a couple of other critiques of Rubin:


    Isaak Dashkovskij survived almost three decades in prison and exile (in 1930 the fourth edition of Rubin’s book appeared with an appendix containing a response to Dashkovskij, though by then the latter was imprisoned). The fate of Vladimir Dunaevsky is unknown.

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