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Economic Trials

Cases mounted in the first half of the 1960s in the Soviet Union involving a disproportionately high number of Jewish defendants. The nature of the Soviet regime—in which state ownership of all capital was a basic ingredient, and every sphere of life became highly politicized—made economic offenses political crimes of the first order. The phenomenon of economic trials dates from the regime’s inception, although the types of economic crime for which people were indicted and the harshness of the sentences varied from period to period.

As ever more institutions, posts, and entire fields of professional activity were closed to Jews beginning in the mid-1940s, many turned to underground dealings in the economic sphere. During the years of late Stalinism (1948–1953), Jews comprised a disproportionately high percentage of individuals accused of economic crimes—theft or sabotage of state property, speculation, bribery, and other fraudulent practices, as well as evasion of work—especially in Ukraine. In the most serious economic trial, held in Kiev in November 1952, defendants were tried by a military court rather than by a people’s or district court. Indicted for “activity of counterrevolutionary sabotage” in the sphere of commerce and supply, three of the five defendants (four of whom had clearly Jewish names, with the fifth also possibly Jewish) were ultimately sentenced to death. Following the announcement of the Doctors’ Plot, the press emphasized the Jewish nationality of individuals accused in economic crimes.

In the immediate post-Stalin period, economic trials were largely stripped of their political dimension and did not receive the same broad publicity. This situation began to change in 1958, however, when coverage of such trials was exploited anew to stress defendants’ Jewish origins. Yet criminal legislation was relatively liberal until 1961, when the death penalty was reinstated for large-scale theft of state property and for forgery or manufacture of banknotes and securities. Capital punishment was soon applied for dealing extensively in foreign currency, for submitting false economic reports, and for bribe taking. These measures were intended to reduce corruption and theft of state property, and simultaneously to arouse the public to the ensuing threats to progress in the raising of living standards. Economic criminals, some of them high-ranking officials and technocrats, became scapegoats for the failure of Khrushchev’s economic reforms and decentralization.

The annual number of trials involving Jews jumped from 38 in 1961 to 112 in 1962, peaking at 145 in 1963. There was a slight decline in 1964, but a major downward shift occurred only in 1965, when there were 36. Although the press refrained from naming all of the defendants in every trial, the percentage of Jews mentioned was not only disproportionate to their share of the population but was also far higher than that of non-Jews. The principal indictments in trials involving Jews were for the “self-manufacture” of goods; the use of materials stolen or illegally purchased and their sale on the black market or through state manufacturing offices; the theft of state property for purposes of self-manufacture or sale; commerce in gold, precious stones, and foreign currency; bribery; and the falsification of documents and reports.

Of 84 persons sentenced to death for economic crimes in 1962, 54 percent were Jews (in the 1959 census, 1.08% of the population was reported as Jewish); between 1960 and 1963, 90 percent of individuals sentenced to death in Ukraine were Jews, and in the RSFSR—64 percent. Though the media claimed that Jews headed a significant number of groups involved in theft, speculation, and receipt of bribes, this assertion does not satisfactorily explain the fact that so high a percentage of Jews was sentenced to death.

Some of the cases acquired characteristics of show trials, notably one that lasted for months in Frunze (mod. Bishkek), capital of the Kyrgyz SSR, which was conducted by the Supreme Court of the USSR rather than by that of the Kyrgyz SSR. The wide coverage of the trial in the central and local press underscored the defendants’ Jewish-sounding surnames or, in the absence of these, common Jewish first names and patronymics. Press reports and prosecution statements emphasized the defendants’ connections with relatives and banks in the West (as well as with tourists)—allegations designed to imply alienation and disloyalty.

Economic show trials were held in the capitals of most Soviet republics, as well as in other cities. In addition to demonstrating that Jews had amassed considerable wealth, reports often implicated the Jewish religion or Zionism: many dark dealings were reportedly conducted in synagogues with the knowledge of rabbis and other synagogue officials, or involved Israeli tourists or embassy personnel. Frequently, too, the trials employed crude stereotypes to underscore characteristics among the accused traditionally associated in the public mind with Jews, and to portray Jews as money grubbers who held nothing sacred, whose only god was gold, and who were antisocial and cunningly manipulative at the expense of Soviet citizenry.

Despite official Soviet denials, the policy behind these trials was manifestly motivated by an anti-Jewish bias, which Khrushchev’s attempts to whitewash in his correspondence with Bertrand Russell, who protested it, merely highlighted.

Suggested Reading

“Economic Crimes in the Soviet Union,” Journal of the International Commission of Jurists 5.1 (Summer 1964): 3–47; Evgeniia Evel’son, Sudebnye protsessy po ekonomicheskim delam v SSSR (60-e gg.) (London, 1986); Benjamin Pinkus, The Soviet Government and the Jews, 1948–1967 (Cambridge and New York, 1984).