|Russia||Russian Revolution||Soviet Union 1920-45|
Lev Kamenev was born in Moscow, Russia, on 18th July, 1883. The son of a Jewish engine-driver on the Moscow-Kursk Railway. Both his parents had been active in the radical student movement in the 1870s and had known the people involved in the assassination of Alexander II.
Kamenev became involved in radical politics while still at the Tiflis Gymnasium and this appeared on his school reports and initially stopped him from entering university. After an appeal to the Minister of Education, Kamenev was allowed to study law at Moscow University.
At university Kamenev had articles published in magazines calling for students to join with workers to fight for democracy. In February 1902 Kamenev took part in student demonstrations against Nicholas II. The following month he was arrested at another demonstration and was imprisoned in Butyrki. He was released a few months later but was not allowed to continue his university studies. Leon Trotsky, who got to know him during this period compared him to Gregory Zinoviev: "Zinoviev and Kamenev are two profoundly different types. Zinoviev is an agitator. Kamenev a propagandist. Zinoviev was guided in the main by a subtle political instinct. Kamenev was given to reasoning and analyzing. Zinoviev was always inclined to fly off at a tangent. Kamenev, on the contrary, erred on the side of excessive caution. Zinoviev was entirely absorbed by politics, cultivating no other interests and appetites. In Kamenev there sat a sybarite and a aesthete. Zinoviev was vindictive. Kamenev was good nature personified."
Kamenev worked as a propagandist among railway workers in Russia before moving to Paris in 1902. He met Vladimir Lenin and together they moved to Geneva in Switzerland. Kamenev soon emerged as one of the leaders of the Social Democratic Party in exile. At the Second Congress of the Social Democratic Party in London in 1903, there was a dispute between Lenin and Julius Martov, two of the party's main leaders. Lenin argued for a small party of professional revolutionaries with a large fringe of non-party sympathizers and supporters. Martov disagreed believing it was better to have a large party of activists. Martov won the vote 28-23 but Lenin was unwilling to accept the result and formed a faction known as the Bolsheviks. Those who remained loyal to Martov became known as Mensheviks.
Kamenev joined the Bolsheviks. So also did Gregory Zinoviev, Anatoli Lunacharsky, Joseph Stalin, Mikhail Lashevich, Nadezhda Krupskaya, Alexei Rykov, Yakov Sverdlov, Mikhail Frunze, Maxim Litvinov, Vladimir Antonov, Felix Dzerzhinsky, Gregory Ordzhonikidze, and Alexander Bogdanov. Whereas George Plekhanov, Pavel Axelrod, Leon Trotsky, Lev Deich, Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko, Irakli Tsereteli, Moisei Uritsky, Noi Zhordania and Fedor Dan supported Julius Martov.
After the meeting in London Kamenev returned to Tiflis where he organised a strike on the Transcaucasian Railway. This resulted in his arrest by the Okhrana and he remained in custody for five months before being deported from Moscow. Although under police supervision in Tiflis he continued to write for Bolshevik newspapers. Kamenev toured Russia making propaganda speeches in support of the Bolsheviks and during the 1905 Revolution organised railway strikes in St. Petersburg. Over the next couple of years he played a prominent role in the campaign against the limited power of the Duma.
In December, 1908, Kamenev moved to Geneva where he worked with Vladimir Lenin and Gregory Zinoviev in the publication of Proletary. He also wrote a book, The Two Parties, that explained the split between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks.
After the overthrow of Nicholas II in 1917, Kamenev, Gregory Zinoviev and Vladimir Lenin returned to Russia and joined with Leon Trotsky and others in plotting against the government being led by Alexander Kerensky. Soon after arriving in St. Petersburg, Lenin and Kamenev published their views on how to achieve a Marxist revolution. Kamenev also joined Zinoviev as editor of Pravda.
At a meeting of the Central Committee on 9th October, Kamenev and Gregory Zinoviev were the only members opposed to Lenin's call for revolution. He later changed his mind and took part in the October Revolution that brought the Bolsheviks to power.
In December, 1918, Lenin sent Kamenev to London to explain the policies of the new Soviet government. After one week he was deported by the British government. He moved on the Finland where he was arrested and imprisoned. Kamenev was held until January, 1918, when he was released in exchange for Finns imprisoned in Russia.
On his return to Russia he was elected Chairman of the Moscow Soviet and became a member of the party's five-man ruling Politburo. He reached the peak of his power in 1923 when with Joseph Stalin and Gregory Zinoviev he became one of the Triumvirate that planned to take over from Lenin when he died.
After the death of in Lenin 1924, Kamenev joined forces with Gregory Zinoviev and Joseph Stalin to keep Leon Trotsky from power. In 1925 Stalin was able to arrange for Trotsky to be dismissed as commissar of war and the following year the Politburo.
With the decline of Trotsky, Joseph Stalin felt strong enough to stop sharing power with Kamenev and Zinoviev. Stalin now began to attack Trotsky's belief in the need for world revolution. He argued that the party's main priority should be to defend the communist system that had been developed in the Soviet Union. This put Zinoviev and Kamenev in an awkward position. They had for a long time been strong supporters of Trotsky's theory that if revolution did not spread to other countries, the communist system in the Soviet Union was likely to be overthrown by hostile, capitalist nations. However, they were reluctant to speak out in favour of a man whom they had been in conflict with for so long.
When Joseph Stalin was finally convinced that Kamenev and Gregory Zinoviev were unwilling to join forces with Leon Trotsky against him, he began to support openly the economic policies of right-wing members of the Politburo like Nikolay Bukharin, Mikhail Tomsky and Alexei Rykov. They now realized what Stalin was up to but it took them to summer of 1926 before they could swallow their pride and join with Trotsky against Stalin.
When Kamenev and Gregory Zinoviev eventually began attacking his policies, Joseph Stalin argued they were creating disunity in the party and managed to have them expelled from the Central Committee. The belief that the party would split into two opposing factions was a strong fear amongst active communists in the Soviet Union. They were convinced that if this happened, western countries would take advantage of the situation and invade the Soviet Union.
Under pressure from the Central Committee, Kamenev and Gregory Zinoviev agreed to sign statements promising not to create conflict in the movement by making speeches attacking official policies. Leon Trotsky refused to sign and was banished to the remote area of Kazhakstan.
In 1935 Kamenev was arrested and charged with being involved in the assassination of Sergy Kirov. Found guilty he was sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment. The following year he was charged with forming a terrorist organization to kill Joseph Stalin and other leaders of the government.
At the first of what became known as show trials, the men made confessions of their guilt. Kamenev said: "I Kamenev, together with Zinoviev and Trotsky, organised and guided this conspiracy. My motives? I had become convinced that the party's - Stalin's policy - was successful and victorious. We, the opposition, had banked on a split in the party; but this hope proved groundless. We could no longer count on any serious domestic difficulties to allow us to overthrow. Stalin's leadership we were actuated by boundless hatred and by lust of power."
The The New Statesman reported: "Very likely there was a plot. We complain because, in the absence of independent witnesses, there is no way of knowing. It is their (Zinoviev and Kamenev) confession and decision to demand the death sentence for themselves that constitutes the mystery. If they had a hope of acquittal, why confess? If they were guilty of trying to murder Stalin and knew they would be shot in any case, why cringe and crawl instead of defiantly justifying their plot on revolutionary grounds? We would be glad to hear the explanation."
Lev Kamenev was found guilty and executed in Moscow on 25th August, 1936.
(1) The Granat Encyclopaedia of the Russian Revolution was published by the Soviet government in 1924. The encyclopaedia included a collection of autobiographies and biographies of over two hundred people involved in the Russian Revolution.
Kamenev's acquaintance with Lenin and the impression made by the series of lectures and papers the latter gave during the visit, had a decisive influence on his future career. Learning that Iskra would in future be published by Lenin in Geneva rather than London, Kamenev left Paris for Switzerland, where he spent several months on a detailed study of revolutionary social democratic literature.
(2) Victor Serge, Year One of the Russian Revolution (1930)
In the last days of September the Central Committee of the Bolsheviks (Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Sverdlov, Yakovleva, Oppokov, Zinoviev, Kamenev) met in Petrograd, in the apartment of Sukhanov. Even the principle of the insurrection was in dispute. Kamenev and Zinoviev (Nogin and Rykov, who were of the same opinion, being absent from this meeting) stated their view that the insurrection might perhaps itself be successful, but that it would be almost impossible to maintain power afterwards owing to the economic pressures and crisis in the food supply. The majority voted for the insurrection, and actually fixed the date for 15 October.
(3) In his book Stalin, Isaac Deutscher described the way Lev Kamenev and Gregory Zinoviev defended Joseph Stalin from the attacks made on him by Lenin just before his death.
Zinoviev addressed the Central Committee, "Comrades, every word of Lenin is law to us. We have sworn to fulfill everything the dying Lenin ordered us to do. You know perfectly well that we shall keep that vow. But we are happy to say that in one point Lenin's fears have proved baseless. I have in mind the point about our General Secretary (Stalin). You have all witnessed our harmonious cooperation in the last few months; and, like myself, you will be happy to say that Lenin's fears have proved baseless."
Kamenev followed with an appeal to the Central Committee that Stalin be left in office. But if this was to happen it was not advisable to publish Lenin's will at the congress. Krupskaya protested against the suppression of her husband's testament, but in vain. Trotsky, present at the meeting, was too proud to intervene in a situation which affected his own standing too.
(4) Walter Duranty, I Write As I Please (1935)
In August, 1925, I returned to Moscow and found the country in a state of bewildering confusion. I had been absent a full year, and although I had tried to keep in touch with Soviet affairs through the Moscow newspapers I soon saw that much had happened and was about to happen to which I had no clue. I felt lost, like a blind man groping. Thereupon I determined to test my new resolutions about thinking for myself and to see whether I could not turn my disadvantage into profit, as Bolitho had advised. The weakness of my position was that I had been too remote from the Soviet scene to gauge the meaning of events, but surely that gave me the advantage of detachment? Unable to distinguish separate trees I ought therefore to see the wood more clearly as a whole. And so, before running round to see people and get facts second-hand, I sat down to think things out for myself, and reached four major conclusions, which I have never had reason to change, as follows: -
1. That inside the Bolshevik Party there was a hard central core which had never wavered from the intention to create and develop a successful proletarian State upon Socialist foundations.
2. That the Party controversy did not affect this determination, but was concerned with three points: by whom, how, and at what speed the socialisation process should be conducted; and that all these points were of vital moment.
3. That N.E.P., it was now clear, was no more than a temporary measure, the ostensible purpose of which was to give the whole country a breathing space, but whose real purpose was to enable the Bolsheviks to build up enough industry and commerce, and store up enough reserve to enable them to tackle the work of building a Socialist State with greater success than in 1918-21.
4. That a new reckoning with the peasants was inevitable and not far distant.
Having reached these conclusions, I thought about them. My first conclusion was chiefly important as background; I must never lose sight of it for a moment, but it was henceforth to me too axiomatic - as it was too fundamental - to have much practical news value. My second conclusion, I thought, was the most important thing in my world from the point of news and everything else, because, until the problem it presented was solved no other problems could be solved. NEP I thought was doomed, at least as far as urban private traders were concerned, and all the rest of the private enterprises which had danced like grasshoppers in the sun during the past four years. NEP, therefore, had a diminishing value, both politically and as news. Finally, the peasant question was not, I could see, yet acute, but, I told myself, I must keep it also in mind as a big future issue and more immediately as a key pawn in the merciless chess game that was being played between Stalin and Trotsky. Continuing my thought, I concluded that there was no reason for me to change my opinion that Stalin would beat Trotsky in the long run - had not the latter been removed from the Commissariat of War a few months earlier and replaced by Frunze - although I had read and admired Trotsky's pamphlet called The Lessons of October which he had published in the previous autumn. It was a strong and subtle piece of work, which the Stalinists not only found it difficult to answer but which later disintegrated their forces considerably.
In this pamphlet Trotsky called for a return to the fundamental principles of Marxism, of which he said the Bolsheviks were losing sight. His main thesis was that the Revolution must be dynamic, not static, that it could not mark time but must always, everywhere, push forward. Trotsky utilised this theoretically sound Marxist basis for a telling attack upon the home and foreign policies of the Stalinists and more particularly upon the theory, which they had not yet fully adopted, although it was in process of formation, that it was possible to "build Socialism in a single country". This theory, be it said, Marx had once described as rank heresy, although Stalin's apologists later argued with evident justice that in speaking of "a country" Marx had in mind the comparatively small States of Europe rather than such vast and economically self-sufficient continental units as the United States and the USSR. Trotsky thus appealed to Marxist internationalism and the ideal of World Revolution against Stalin's policy as ruler of Russia; he was trying to drive a wedge between the Bolshevik as Bolshevik, that is Marxist revolutionary, and the Bolshevik as statesman directing the destinies of a nation. To this apple of discord flung into the midst of his victorious opponents in the Central Committee, Trotsky added a grain of mustard seed, which later grew and flourished exceedingly, in the shape of a question about class differentiation in the villages and the right course to be adopted towards the kulaks and middle peasants.
I thought about the pamphlet for a long time, and the more I thought the more I felt sure that the Party controversy was big news. The next day I went out to gather information. I have found since that there are two dangers in the practice of "doping things out" for yourself; first, you are liable to twist facts to suit your conclusion; secondly, if your conclusion is erroneous the deductions you draw from it are more erroneous still. In this case, however, it seemed that I had guessed right, especially about the Party squabble. I heard that the Kamenev-Zinoviev group in the Stalin bloc were showing signs of restiveness, partly because they saw that Stalinism was progressing from Leninism (as Leninism had progressed from Marxism) towards a form and development of its own, partly because they were jealous and alarmed by Stalin's growing predominance. All my informants agreed that the Party fight would be the news centre for the coming winter.
Sure enough, as events proved, Zinoviev and Kamenev spent the autumn in creating inside the majority bloc a new opposition movement and, what is more, they concealed their doings so dexterously that it was not until the delegates to the December Party Congress had been elected that Stalin perceived how the wind was blowing. Kamenev's case was relatively unimportant; he had a fair measure of support in the Moscow delegation but nothing like a majority. Zinoviev, however, had long been undisputed boss of Leningrad and had packed the delegation from top to bottom with his own henchmen. It was too late to change the delegations, but the Party Secretariat (i.e. Stalin) lost not a moment in cutting the ground from under Zinoviev's feet. There was a radical change in personnel amongst the permanent officials of the Leningrad Party machine, particularly in the Communist Youth organisation, where pro-Zinoviev tendencies were most marked. The editorial staff of the two Party organs, the Leningrad Pravda and the Leningrad Communist Youth Pravda, were sweepingly reformed; and a vigorous "educational campaign' (i.e. propaganda drive) was begun in every factory and office in the city. These measures were decided at a secret meeting of the Central Committee of the Party in November and embodied in a resolution of twenty-four points, carried, but with half a dozen significant abstentions. At this point I myself, inadvertently, came into the game. Among the newspapers I read daily was a little sheet in tabloid form called The Workers' Gazette. One morning I was startled to find on its back page, unheralded by headlines, the report of a Central Committee resolution in twenty-four paragraphs "concerning the administrative organisation of the Leningrad Party and Communist Youth organisation". It was strongly worded; phrases like "grave ideological errors," "weakness of discipline and Party control", "failure of the Party executives to appreciate correctly", and so forth were followed by the blunt announcement that the Leningrad Party machine and Press would be reorganised; individuals "dismissed with blame" were named and their successors appointed. This document, I understood, was a direct frontal attack upon Zinoviev and the administration of the Leningrad Party; which could only mean that Zinoviev and his chief colleagues in the Leningrad Party who had been Stalin's strongest supporters against Trotsky, were now themselves in Opposition. This was interesting news, although of course I did not dream that it was the first step towards the formation of the bloc of all opposition movements, however mutually disparate, which developed in the following year. That I could not guess, but I did know, to my regret, that the "somewhat Byzantine squabbles of the Bolsheviks", as a New York Times editorial had cuttingly described them, were of little greater interest to the mass of my readers than the Arian heresy which convulsed the early Christian Church.
(5) Leon Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev (December, 1936)
Zinoviev and Kamenev are two profoundly different types. Zinoviev is an agitator. Kamenev a propagandist. Zinoviev was guided in the main by a subtle political instinct. Kamenev was given to reasoning and analyzing. Zinoviev was always inclined to fly off at a tangent. Kamenev, on the contrary, erred on the side of excessive caution. Zinoviev was entirely absorbed by politics, cultivating no other interests and appetites. In Kamenev there sat a sybarite and a aesthete. Zinoviev was vindictive. Kamenev was good nature personified.
I do not know what their mutual relations were in emigration. In 1917 they were brought close together for a time by their opposition to the October revolution. In the first few years after the victory, Kamenev's attitude toward Zinoviev was rather ironical. They were subsequently drawn together by their opposition to me, and later, to Stalin. Throughout the last thirteen years of their lives, they marched side by side and their names were always mentioned together.
With all their individual differences, outside of their common schooling gained by them in emigration under Lenin's guidance, they were endowed with almost an identical range of intellect and will. Kamenev's analytical capacity served to compliment Zinoviev's instinct; and they would jointly explore for a common decision. Both of them were deeply and unreservedly devoted to the cause of socialism. Such is the explanation for their tragic union.
(6) Lev Kamenev, speech at his trial (August, 1936)
I Kamenev, together with Zinoviev and Trotsky, organised and guided this conspiracy. My motives? I had become convinced that the party's - Stalin's policy - was successful and victorious. We, the opposition, had banked on a split in the party; but this hope proved groundless. We could no longer count on any serious domestic difficulties to allow us to overthrow. Stalin's leadership we were actuated by boundless hatred and by lust of power.
(7) The Observer, (23rd August, 1936)
It is futile to think the trial was staged and the charges trumped up. The government's case against the defendants (Zinoviev and Kamenev) is genuine.
(8) The New Republic (2nd September, 1936)
Some commentators, writing at a long distance from the scene, profess doubt that the executed men (Zinoviev and Kamenev) were guilty. It is suggested that they may have participated in a piece of stage play for the sake of friends or members of their families, held by the Soviet government as hostages and to be set free in exchange for this sacrifice. We see no reason to accept any of these laboured hypotheses, or to take the trial in other than its face value. Foreign correspondents present at the trial pointed out that the stories of these sixteen defendants, covering a series of complicated happenings over nearly five years, corroborated each other to an extent that would be quite impossible if they were not substantially true. The defendants gave no evidence of having been coached, parroting confessions painfully memorized in advance, or of being under any sort of duress.
(9) The New Statesman (5th September, 1936)
Very likely there was a plot. We complain because, in the absence of independent witnesses, there is no way of knowing. It is their (Zinoviev and Kamenev) confession and decision to demand the death sentence for themselves that constitutes the mystery. If they had a hope of acquittal, why confess? If they were guilty of trying to murder Stalin and knew they would be shot in any case, why cringe and crawl instead of defiantly justifying their plot on revolutionary grounds? We would be glad to hear the explanation.
(10) Leon Trotsky, interviewed by St. Louis Post-Dispatch (17th January, 1937)
The Western attorneys of the GPU represent the confessions of Zinoviev and the others as spontaneous expressions of their sincere repentance. This is the most shameless deception of public opinion that can be imagined. For almost 10 years, Zinoviev, Kamenev and the others found themselves under almost insupportable moral pressure with the menace of death approaching ever closer and closer. If an inquisitor judge were to put questions to this victim and inspire the answers, his success would be guaranteed in advance. Human nerves, even the strongest, have a limited capacity to endure moral torture.
(11) Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary (1945)
And on 14 August, like a thunderbolt, came the announcement of the Trial of the Sixteen, concluded on the 25th - eleven days later - by the execution of Zinoviev, Kamenev, Ivan Smirnov, and all their fellow-defendants. I understood, and wrote at once, that this marked the beginning of the extermination of all the old revolutionary generation. It was impossible to murder only some, and allow the others to live, their brothers, impotent witnesses maybe, but witnesses who understood what was going on.
(12) Robin Page Arnot, The Labour Monthly (November 1937)
In December 1934 one of the groups carried through the assassination of Sergei Mironovich Kirov, a member of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Subsequent investigations revealed that behind the first group of assassins was a second group, an Organisation of Trotskyists headed by Zinoviev and Kamenev. Further investigations brought to light definite counter-revolutionary activities of the Rights (Bucharin-Rykov organisations) and their joint working with the Trotskyists. The group of fourteen constituting the Trotskyite-Zinovievite Terrorist Centre were brought to trial in Moscow in August 1936, found guilty, and executed. In Siberia a trial, held in November, revealed that the Kemerovo mine had been deliberately wrecked and a number of miners killed by a subordinate group of wreckers and terrorists. A second Moscow trial, held in January 1937, revealed the wider ramifications of the conspiracy. This was the trial of the Parallel Centre, headed by Pyatakov, Radek, Sokolnikov, Serebriakov. The volume of evidence brought forward at this trial was sufficient to convince the most sceptical that these men, in conjunction with Trotsky and with the Fascist Powers, had carried through a series of abominable crimes involving loss of life and wreckage on a very considerable scale. With the exceptions of Radek, Sokolnikov, and two others, to whom lighter sentences were given, these spies and traitors suffered the death penalty. The same fate was meted out to Tukhachevsky, and seven other general officers who were tried in June on a charge of treason. In the case of Trotsky the trials showed that opposition to the line of Lenin for fifteen years outside the Bolshevik Party, plus opposition to the line of Lenin inside the Bolshevik Party for ten years, had in the last decade reached its finality in the camp of counter-revolution, as ally and tool of Fascism.
© John Simkin, March 2013