The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Russia is counting on the media to spread propaganda about show trials

How the media can avoid getting lured into a trap

An image, taken from footage of the Supreme Court of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, shows Britons Aiden Aslin, Shaun Pinner and Moroccan Brahim Saadoun in a courtroom cage at a location given as Donetsk, Ukraine. (Reuters)
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Since the start of the war against Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin and other Russian leaders have been calling for a “Nuremberg 2.0” of Ukrainian leaders, whom they falsely smear as “neo-Nazis.” Russian officials in Donetsk and Luhansk in recent weeks have launched sham trials of foreigners while planning a “Mariupol Tribunal” of Ukrainian prisoners-of-war, including the Azovstal soldiers. They have described such proceedings as “intermediate trials” that will prepare the way for a larger “international tribunal” in Moscow.

In laying out their plans in the Russian press, local officials have announced that the Mariupol Tribunal will be modeled on Soviet war crimes trials of the early 1940s, which, the officials emphasize, “set an international precedent” that laid a foundation for Nuremberg. Looking at these trials, and at early Soviet political trials of all sorts, can give us a sense of how Russia will present the trial of Ukrainian prisoners-of-war to the world. We can expect this to be a highly staged event at which individual soldiers publicly confess to war crimes and the prosecution uses their cases to tell a larger story. The trial will be targeted at Russians as well as an international audience — and the organizers will be counting on extensive coverage in the world press. In fact, they’ve already invited the international media to attend the “Mariupol Tribunal.”

The Krasnodar Trial, the first public Soviet war crimes trial, was held in July 1943 in the North Caucasus. Eleven men, Russians and Ukrainians, all local Nazi collaborators, were charged with committing treason during the German occupation. Eyewitnesses provided general testimony about Nazi atrocities in the region. The defendants, who had served in SS Special Detachment 10a (which had murdered thousands of Soviet citizens in poison gas vans), confessed the details of their crimes before hundreds of spectators, including foreign journalists. All were found guilty, and eight were hanged before a crowd of 30,000. Cameramen filmed the spectacle; the footage was shown throughout the Soviet Union.

The Kharkov Trial convened five months later, in December 1943, in Ukraine. Three Gestapo officials and a Ukrainian collaborator were tried for the slaughter of civilians. This was the first public trial of German nationals held by any Allied power. The trial unfolded over four days before a large rotating audience that once again included foreign correspondents. All four defendants were found guilty and hanged in public. Life magazine ran a two-page photo essay with grisly images of the convicted men swinging from the scaffolds. Soviet filmmakers produced a documentary of the trial, “Sud idet!” (The Trial Begins!), released in English as “The Kharkov Trials” and shown in New York and London.

The Soviets used these war crimes trials to bring international attention to German atrocities, including the slaughter of thousands of civilians, in the occupied Soviet Union. They also used them to hone a particular narrative about the war. While most of the victims in Krasnodar and Kharkov were Jews, they were referred to during the trials as “peaceful Soviet citizens” to emphasize the shared suffering of the entire Soviet people.

Legally, the Soviets saw these trials as important building blocks for further war crimes trials, and used the Kharkov Trial to establish the invalidity of the plea of “following superior orders”— which was still a standard defense in international law. From early in the war, Soviet lawyers had been denouncing this defense as a “saving bunker” for war criminals “during the stern hour of vengeance” and arguing that rank-and-file soldiers who “plunder and kill on the orders of their superiors” were no less guilty than those who do so “of their own accord.” When the accused attempted to enter this plea at Kharkov, the tribunal rejected it as inadmissible.

Such strategies worked. With Krasnodar and Kharkov, the Soviets revealed the horrors of the Nazi occupation and showed the world that they were serious about prosecuting Nazi war crimes. They pressed the other Allied powers to join with them to convene a “special international tribunal” to try to punish the leaders of Nazi Germany with “all of the severity of criminal law.” After the victory, when the United States and Britain came around to this idea, the U.S. chief prosecutor for the Nuremberg Trials, Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson, had his staff watch the Soviet film on the Kharkov Trial to learn about the Soviet approach to postwar justice.

The Krasnodar and Kharkov Trials did not hew to Western legal standards: The accused were given neither a robust defense nor the right to appeal. But it was generally understood (and still is) that the defendants had committed actual war crimes. In other words, these were war crimes trials with clear political goals — but they were not kangaroo courts. The difference is significant.

A Mariupol Tribunal, by contrast, would be a kangaroo court, plain and simple — and a travesty of justice. Russia’s effort to present it as the “successor” to Krasnodar and Kharkov is straight-up propaganda. Ukraine is not Nazi Germany. Ukrainian leaders are not Nazis. Ukraine is not attempting to carry out a genocide of Russians — nor has it aggressed against Russia in any way.

It is Russia that’s the aggressor in this war, guilty of violating international law by invading another country. The Ukrainian prisoners-of-war were defending their country from Russian aggression and trying to stop Russian atrocities. Russian officials are preparing for a Mariupol Tribunal in an effort to control the narrative of the war: to turn reality on its head and propagate Putin’s falsehoods.

A Mariupol Tribunal will be more akin to Soviet show trials like the Moscow Trials of 1936-1938, which were instrumental to Joseph Stalin’s consolidation of power. These are its real antecedents and the true inspiration for any kind of Moscow-sponsored “Nuremberg 2.0.” Innocent men were arrested and tortured and compelled to publicly confess to heinous crimes. These show trials were grand charades, spectacles designed to support Stalin’s domestic and foreign policy goals.

The three Moscow Trials, staged in August 1936, January 1937 and March 1938, were not the first Soviet show trials, but they were the most sensationalist ones. The defendants — Nikolai Bukharin, Karl Radek and other members of the Bolshevik elite — were tried on trumped-up charges as “spies” and as “foreign collaborators” plotting with Adolf Hitler “to establish a fascist dictatorship in Russia.” All were convicted and most were executed. Stalin invited international observers to watch the trials, including diplomats and members of the press corps.

Most Western newspapers, including the New York Times, treated the Moscow Trials as legitimate. Times reporter Walter Duranty drew out the details of the prosecution’s case with awe and admiration. He took the “evidence” and the confessions at face value. In an article on the 1937 trial, Duranty deemed the prosecutor, Andrei Vyshinsky, to have “marshaled his facts effectively” to prove that the defendants were “a gang of spies, bandits, murderers, crooks and traitors who had behaved with the most disgusting indecency.” Duranty is a model of what not to do when reporting on a show trial. Through his uncritical reporting, the New York Times served as a mouthpiece for Stalin’s falsehoods.

Unfortunately, Duranty was not alone in disseminating the official Soviet line. U.S. Ambassador Joseph E. Davies, who attended the 1937 trial, reported to President Franklin D. Roosevelt that the confessions of the accused “bore the hallmark of credibility” and that Stalin had uprooted “a clear conspiracy against the government.” The International Association of Lawyers came to a similar conclusion after the first Moscow Trial, in 1936, stating that the prosecution had “fully proven” the links between the accused and the Gestapo. Stalin had every reason to be pleased. By the end of the 1930s, show trials had become a reliable tool of propaganda and political repression for the Stalinist state.

If Russia goes forward with a Mariupol Tribunal, this history teaches us that how the press covers it will be crucial. If journalists get sucked in by Russia’s falsehoods and treat this as an actual war crimes trial (like Krasnodar or Kharkov), they will play into Putin’s hands and legitimize his illegal invasion. If, however, they see Russia’s present-day show trials for what they are — a deep injustice violating all legal norms and punishing Ukrainians for bravely defending their country — they can help puncture Putin’s attempts at selling the world on his fictional version of reality.