How the Trotskyists fought and died in Stalin's camps

Suzanne Leonhard, once a militant of the Spartakusbund in Germany and a personal friend of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, was forced to flee Hitler’s Germany because of her underground Communist activities. She sought refuge in the USSR.

In October 1936, Stalin’s secret police arrested her and she spent ten years in Stalin’s forced labour camps. On her liberation (living in Western Germany), she wrote a book on her experiences in these camps, One Quarter of My Life. The following extract tells the story of Yelena Ginsburg, one of many Trotskyists who died in Stalin’s jails.


She was then 24 or 26 years old. And her name was Yelena Ginsburg. I met her in the Shor hospital near Tibizhu during the summer of 1937.

This hospital, administratively, did not belong to the reception camp at Shor, but to the “Shel-Dor-Lag,” that is, the network of the large camps whose prisoners had to construct the railroad from Kotlas to Vorkuta.

During the construction of this railroad, many thousands of prisoners died in the swampy forests, the marshes and the tundra. Those who fell sick were brought to the hospital of Shor only when their recovery was practically excluded, and a few days after their arrival at Shor, most of them met their end.

Nevertheless, the hospital constantly overflowed with sick people, and rarely could room be found for new patients.

Three of us shared a small room: Smirnova, the wife of I N Smirnov, who was condemned to death and executed on the occasion of the first great Moscow (frame-up) trial in 1936; Yelena Ginsburg; and myself. Yelena, or Lola, as she was called, attracted my attention as soon as we became acquainted.

She was not pretty, her features were irregular, and she even squinted a little; but her eyes flamed with the fire of those who struggle for a supreme consciousness, who are ready to sacrifice themselves for their cause and fanatically pursue the goal to which they have dedicated their lives.

The strength of Lola’s conviction and her political seriousness could not fail to influence me; from my early youth I have myself passionately striven for truth, and I have always fought for my ideas, even though my wings no longer carry me as far as in the old days.

Yelena Ginsburg was in the hospital following a hunger-strike which lasted two weeks, but proved ineffective because of forced feeding. Lola still felt rather weak, but she no longer had to remain in bed. As I could get up myself for several hours and had medical permission to get fresh air, we were able to go for walks during which we could converse freely and without witnesses. My limited knowledge of the Russian language was not adequate at all for political discussions, but Lola had some acquaintance with French and German.

I induced her to tell me her life. Her father had been a small Jewish itinerant peddler before the revolution, and later became a construction worker. Lola was the oldest of seven children. She had no recollection of pre-revolutionary times. Her entire childhood was spent in the shadow of infinite misery, which did not recede after the October Revolution of 1917. But unlike her parents, who were illiterate, Lola managed to enter school after the revolution.

During the first post-revolutionary decade, the general level of Soviet education remained very low. There was a dearth of instructors and school-room equipment; there were few buildings; it was impossible to obtain books or writing; paper; there was often not enough coal to heat the schools; children often could not attend for lack of shoes and coats, or because they had to help out at home, or because they were undernourished.

Lola, however, let nothing stand in the way of her enthusiasm and passion for study. She walked to school barefooted, or coatless, or without having eaten. All that mattered was to be able to learn!

A woman teacher took pity on her, gave her some books and taught her languages. Her parents did not approve of their eldest child’s preoccupation with books. They overworked her with domestic chores. Lola found a solution to this difficulty. She got up early in the morning, took care of the younger children, worked with her father after school, stood in the bread-line for hours with a book in her hands, and continued to read or study late into the night, thanks to a small oil-lamp which her teacher filled with fuel.

Lola became a member of the Komsomol (the Russian Young Communist League) and obtained a job with the secretariat of the Komsomol at the end of her studies. She was happy with her education and had no inkling of its inadequacy. She was proud of her knowledge which, she thought, could not only conquer but also improve the world. Lola earned more than her father and mother together, who were unskilled labourers, but the young Communist girl kept not a single kopek for herself. Did not six children have to be fed and sent to school?

The struggles between factions in the Russian Communist Party during Lenin’s illness and after his death; the Fourteenth Party Congress with its decisive political discussions; the Fifteenth Congress where the entire opposition was expelled from the party; and finally Trotsky’s exile to Alma-Ata: all these steps of Stalin’s road to autocratic rule and infallibility had not been consciously lived through as contemporary history by Lola. She gave herself body and soul to the task of building socialism in the world’s only workers’ state.

It was only during the years 1929-30, when the question of the forced “wholesale collectivisation” of agriculture became the issue of the day, that the young Communist girl, then 17 years of age, began to think independently and critically about fundamental political problems. After serious inner struggles, she decided to join the Trotskyist Opposition. As an opponent of Stalin, she was arrested as early as 1934.

The political penitentiary at Verkhni-Uralsk, where she served her sentence, became her political university. In this prison she met the political opposition groups of all tendencies and shades. If her descriptions are trustworthy, the regime was then still very liberal in that prison. The political prisoners had access to a well-stocked library and could discuss freely among themselves. We can easily imagine what heated political discussions must have taken place!

As a result of her two years’ stay in this political penitentiary, Lola Ginsburg acquired a solid Marxist training and a thorough knowledge of the international labour movement and the history of political movements. Her knowledge surprised me again and again.

Many details of the history of the Russian Communist Party and its evolution into the State party of the Soviet Union were made clear to me by Yelena Ginsburg, because I had studied these problems superficially and without method while I was abroad. Lola Ginsburg had become acquainted with the militant Trotskyist, Vladimir Smirnov, in Verkhni-Uralsk. An intimate political and personal friendship had grown between the two, and Lola married him in prison.

In 1937 the wave of arrests took on unheard-of dimensions and hundreds of thousands of political prisoners were sent to forced labor camps. Most of the prisoners at the political penitentiary at Verkhni-Uralsk were sent to far-away regions. Vladimir Smirnov received assurances that he would be interned together with his wife in a camp beyond the polar circle. But they were separated a few days after the transport. During the night Smirnov was sent to the camp of Vorkuta. Lola arrived during the next days in Tibizhu. They had not been allowed to bid each other farewell, or to share their mutual possessions; part of Smirnov’s belongings were left with Lola in the women’s tent.

Lola protested by means of a hunger strike, and bombarded the camp administration with requests in which she explicitly spoke of herself as “the Trotskyist prisoner Yelena Ginsburg.” To appreciate her action, it is necessary to realise that Trotskyism was the most terrible and nefarious crime. A thief, an embezzler, a bandit or even a murderer was considered a person of quality in the camp as compared with any political prisoner; but a “counter-revolutionary agitator” or one “accused of espionage” was judged relatively innocent as compared with a “Trotskyist.” All those whose conviction documents were marked with the fatal letter T attempted to keep it hidden as closely as they could.

But Lola described herself proudly as Trotskyist even in official correspondence, when no one asked for it and when it would have sufficed to sign her letters “prisoner so and so.” In this way she delivered herself gratuitously to her executioners. This can be taken as evidence of a lack of political maturity and great innocence; but the smile disappeared from my lips when I saw the sacred fire in Lola’s eyes. Not only was I moved by the power of her convictions, but I had to admire her.

In the hospital, Lola’s thirst for knowledge was greater than ever. It made her happy to refresh and enrich her linguistic knowledge with my help. She had somewhere obtained a history of French literature but the work had not been written for one who was self-taught, and Lola soon realised that it assumed a more basic knowledge than she could claim. We began to read it together. Lola was happy that I could answer many of her questions.

I gave her a detailed account of the contents of many classics and described their character, style and the epochs which had given them birth.

I acquainted her with the tragedies of Corneille and Racine; retold Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Anatole France’s Crainquebille, and Edmond Rostand’s drama Cyrano de Bergerac, which I remembered well from my studies at the lycee.

The study of this brief history of literature made Lola realise to what extent her knowledge of western writing was limited. She had read nothing of Balzac or Zola, Voltaire or Rousseau, La Fontaine or Boileau. Of the whole of French literature she had a vague knowledge only of Guy de Maupassant and Romain Rolland. She did not even know the names of contemporary authors. The penitentiary library contained but few translations from foreign literature. When we read a summary of one of Moliere’s comedies in which the details of a feast are described, Lola suddenly said with a far-away and child-like tone in her voice: “Roast? I have never eaten roast food in my life.”

Our political discussions were not carried on in the hospital itself. They ranged over all the burning questions of the “permanent revolution,” “socialism in one country,” “spontaneity of the masses,” etc. Lola did not trust our room-mate Smirnova. We walked in the garden or in the forest nearby which was part of the camp’s zone.

Lola’s knowledge of languages often proved inadequate and our discussions would have reached an impasse if the engineer Edelsohn, a 78 year old man well-versed in languages, had not graciously offered his services as interpreter. He liked to join us and translated Lola’s heated speeches for me from the Russian. Old Edelsohn had been in the camp twelve years. He had come from Baku, where he had been a commercial engineer in the oil industry. He had travelled a great deal in this youth, knew almost the entire world, Italy, Germany, France, Spain, England, the United States, and spoke four European languages fluently, an addition to Russian. He loved to converse with me in French, German or English. We exchanged reminiscences of Paris and Vienna, the Alps and the Cote d’Azur.

Politically, Lola and I were far removed from the old engineer. He represented a world which had vanished and considered us at best as two “poor foolish girls.”

This did not prevent him from being humanly very close to us and taking great pity on us, who had become, although for a cause opposed to his own, victims of the regime he detested.

Lola, the militant Trotskyist, dreamed of being indicted in a great political trial. She wanted on such an occasion to tell the truth to the world. She wished to cry out to the world the real aims of Trotskyism, so miserably slandered by Stalin. She wished to demonstrate clearly that the road of Trotsky was the road of world revolution, the only genuine road to Communism in the USSR and Europe, whereas the road of Stalin represented the shameful betrayal of the teachings of Marx.

Her speech accusing Stalin, burning with faithfulness to her doctrine and passion for her convictions, had long since been prepared in detail by Lola. She lacked only an opportunity to deliver it before an attentive world opinion. After clarifying for the Communists of the whole world the true aims of Trotskyism and the reasons for the Trotskyist struggle against Stalin, she was prepared to die.

She knew that her actions would certainly entail death. She did not underestimate the unlimited power of Stalin and the NKVD.

But she hoped that her last words might bring thousands of new militants back into the political arena.

To die a martyr’s death for the cause of Trotskyism, that was young Lola’s life dream. It was then that I began to understand the enthusiasm with which she had followed my account of Karl Liebknecht’s anti-war agitation, the passion with which she had listened again and again to the description of our Spartacist uprising and our struggles on the barricades of Germany. There was the revolutionary spirit she knew so well! But was such activity still possible in the Soviet Union? Lola refused to admit the existence of a police regime so perfected that any martyrdom became impossible.

“She fires toward death as a moth toward a flame,” old man Edelsohn kept telling me, shaking his head. And this is what finally happened.

In September 1937 we learned that we would have to leave the hospital within a few days, as our convoy was leaving for its final destination — Kochmess. Yelena Ginsburg started a new hunger strike. She was waiting for an answer to her requests and refused to leave the hospital. The doctor, a good man by the name of Kukinadze who spoke German well, took me aside and asked what he could do for me. Perhaps I would also prefer to remain in the hospital. As a doctor, he could oppose my departure. I thanked him warmly for this token of humanity but decided to depart for the unknown.

Sooner or later we would get beyond the polar circle, anyway; what difference did it make whether that would be a few weeks earlier or later, I said to myself.

“Never have I taken so much pity on any hospital prisoners as on you two,” sighed Kukinadze. “It is difficult enough for Russian intellectuals to live in such conditions. How much more difficult must it be for you who possess European culture — and as I have been to Germany myself, I know what that means — and for this unhappy and fanatic child, Yelena Mihailovna.

“It breaks my heart. Tomorrow I must resume the forced feedings. I have received orders from my superiors.” The day before my departure I went once more to Lola’s bedside to bid her farewell.

Her lips were swollen with fever, she felt very weak, although she had been forcibly fed for several days. “Suzanne, open my trunk, I want to give you a warm piece of clothing, you cannot leave as you are now dressed, you will die of cold,” she whispered. She calmed down only after I had accepted a warm suit of brown material. It was almost new and had belonged to Vladimir Smirnov. Lola also game me some underwear, socks and handkerchiefs which had belonged to him. “They are men’s things,” she smiled, “but it is better than nothing. I know that we are separated forever. I will never see my husband again and I can’t send him these things. I’d rather give them to you than save them for that gang of GPU bandits.” Deeply moved, I bade Lola farewell.

Two years later I learned that Lola Ginsburg had been shot at Shor during the winter of 1937. With her were a dozen victims of NKVD terror, doctor Kukinadze, the male nurse Noack, a woman nurse, a Polish comrade who had worked in the clothing department, and the camp commander at Shor. “The entire Trotskyist nest was exterminated.” said one of the soldiers of the Okhrana.

The execution was mentioned nowhere, and for a long time nobody knew where the victims had been sent, until the truth came out. It is possible that the victims themselves did not know that they would be shot when they were taken to the forest. Sophie Scholl, a young Munich student who had led an anti-Nazi resistance group at the University and was shot in 1944, managed, from the very top of the Nazi gallows, to cry out words which echo to this day in the hearts of hundreds of men and inspire them to fight totalitarianism. The absolutism of the Tsarist regime could not prevent the words that the courageous Sofia Perovskaya spoke when she was led to her execution from being transmitted to other contemporaries and encouraging them in their struggle against tyranny.

Stalin’s terror alone makes martyrdom impossible. The oppositional youth of the USSR became the target of the NKVD bullets, and the survivors had no news of it.

This is why I am happy to be able to tell the life and death of Lola Ginsburg. May her heroic story, symbol of thousands of brave fighters for the world communist revolution, not have been in vain.

• From the US Trotskyist paper The Militant, 15 January 1951

• Workers’ Liberty 3/40: Germany 1953: Workers rise against Stalinist rule