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DISPUTATIONS: Defending Bukharin

A response to Paul Berman.

Click here to read Berman's response to Stephen F. Cohen, and click here to read Paul Berman's original article.

Paul Berman is known as a scourge of intellectuals who disregard facts for the sake of ideological preconceptions, and yet he has, it seems, committed that very offence in his review of Michael Scammell's biography of Arthur Koestler ("The Prisoner Intellectuals," May 27).

It's necessary for Berman to believe that Nikolai Bukharin confessed to Stalin's false charges against him at the 1938 Moscow show trial because of Bukharin's own corrupt ideas, "exactly" as Rubashov does in Koestler’s novel Darkness at Noon. According to Berman, "Koestler got every little detail right," and "some big details right as well." Actually, Koestler did not get them right, and nor has Berman.

Scholars, myself among them, have long since presented evidence that Bukharin did not really confess in that tightly controlled, terror-ridden courtroom but instead waged a determined verbal duel with Stalin's prosecutor to the inexorable end. The evidence includes eyewitness accounts by a British observer and a New York Times correspondent who were in the courtroom, uncensored partial transcripts of the trial, and the conclusion of the Soviet judge who reviewed the original records and exonerated Bukharin in 1988. Koestler omitted another "detail." Throughout Bukharin’s tormented year in prison and eleven days on trial, his large family, which included his young wife and two children, were in effect Stalin's hostages.

Writing in 1940, Koestler could not have known all this, but Berman should have. Still more surprising, considering his expressed interest in "prison writing … as a pillar of Russian literature," Berman seems entirely unaware of the four book-length manuscripts Bukharin wrote in Lubyanka Prison while being "prepared" for the trial—an autobiographical novel, two volumes of philosophical and political commentary, and a thick volume of poetry. Each in its own way makes clear that he did not "confess" because of his corrupting ideas.

Bukharin's prison manuscripts were retrieved from Stalin's secret archive only in the early 1990s, so, again, Koestler did not know them. Berman, however, should have, all having now been published in English: How It All Began (Columbia University Press, 1998); Philosophical Arabesques (Monthly Review Press, 2005); Socialism and Its Culture (Seagull Books, 2006); and The Prison Poems of Nikolai Bukharin (Seagull Books, 2009).

Presumably, as Berman might say of his intellectual opponents, he chose not to know these remarkable writings—or simply disregarded them.

Stephen F. Cohen is a professor of Russian studies and history at New York University.

Click here to read Berman's response to Stephen F. Cohen, and click here to read Paul Berman's original article.