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Nikolai Krylenko

Nikolai Krylenko
People's Commissar for Justice of the USSR
In office
20 July 1936 – 15 September 1937
Premier Vyacheslav Molotov
Preceded by None—position established
Succeeded by Nikolai Ryshkov
Prosecutor General of the Russian SFSR
In office
May 1929 – 5 May 1931
Premier Alexey Rykov
Vyacheslav Molotov
Preceded by Nikolai Janson
Succeeded by Andrey Vyshinsky
Personal details
Born 2 May 1885
Bekhteevo, Russian Empire
Died 29 July 1938(1938-07-29) (aged 53)
Moscow, Soviet Union
Political party All-Union Communist Party (bolsheviks)
Spouse(s) Elena Rozmirovich
Relations Elena Krylenko (sister)
Occupation Lawyer, theorist, writer

Nikolai Vasilyevich Krylenko (Russian: Никола́й Васи́льевич Крыле́нко; May 2, 1885 – July 29, 1938) was a Russian Bolshevik revolutionary and a Soviet politician. Krylenko served in a variety of posts in the Soviet legal system, rising to become People's Commissar for Justice and Prosecutor General of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic.

Krylenko was an exponent of socialist legality and the theory that political considerations, rather than criminal guilt or innocence, should guide the application of punishment. Although a participant in the Show Trials and political repression of the late 1920s and early 1930s, Krylenko was ultimately arrested himself during the Great Purge. Following interrogation and torture by the NKVD, Krylenko confessed to extensive involvement in wrecking and anti-Soviet agitation. He was sentenced to death by the Military Collegium of the Soviet Supreme Court, in a trial lasting 20 minutes, and executed immediately afterwards.


Before the Revolution

Krylenko was born in Bekhteyevo, in Sychyovsky Uyezd of Smolensk Governorate, the son of a populist revolutionary.

He joined the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party in 1904 while studying history and literature at St. Petersburg University where he was known to fellow students as Comrade Abram. He was a member of the short lived St. Petersburg Soviet during the Russian Revolution of 1905 and a member of the Bolshevik St. Petersburg Committee. He had to flee Russia in June 1906, but returned later that year. Arrested by the Tsar's secret police in 1907, he was released for lack of evidence, but soon exiled to Lublin without trial.

Krylenko returned to St. Petersburg in 1909, finishing his degree. He briefly left the RSDLP in 1911, but soon rejoined it. He was drafted in 1912 and made draft dodger and, after a few months in prison, sent to the South West Front in April 1916.


After the February Revolution of 1917 and the introduction of elected committees in the Russian armed forces, Krylenko was elected chairman of his regiment's and then division's committee. On April 15 he was elected chairman of the 11th Army's committee. After Lenin's return to Russia in April 1917, Krylenko adopted the new Bolshevik policy of irreconcilable opposition to the Provisional Government. He consequently had to resign his post on May 26, 1917 for lack of support from non-Bolshevik members of the Army committee.

In June 1917 Krylenko was made a member of the Bolshevik Military Organization and was elected to the First All-Russian Congress of Soviets. At the Congress, he was elected to the permanent All-Russian Central Executive Committee from the Bolshevik faction. Krylenko left Petrograd for the High Command HQ in Mogilev on July 2, but was arrested there by the Provisional government after the Bolsheviks staged an abortive uprising on July 4. He was kept in prison in Petrograd, but was released in mid-September after the Kornilov Affair.

Krylenko took an active part in the preparation of the October Revolution of 1917 in Petrograd as newly elected chairman of the Congress of Northern Region Soviets and a leading member of the Military Revolutionary Committee. On October 16, ten days before the uprising, he reported to the Bolshevik Central Committee that the Petrograd military would support the Bolsheviks in case of an uprising. During the Bolshevik takeover on October 24 and 25, Krylenko was one of the uprising's leaders along with Leon Trotsky, Adolph Joffe, Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko and others.

Head of the Red Army

At the Second All Russian Congress of Soviets on October 25, Krylenko was made a People's Commissar (minister) and member of the triumvirate (with Pavel Dybenko and Nikolai Podvoisky) responsible for military affairs. In early November (Old Style) 1917, immediately after the Bolshevik seizure of power, Krylenko helped Trotsky suppress an attempt by Provisional Government loyalists led by Alexander Kerensky and General Peter Krasnov to retake Petrograd.

After the Provisional Commander in Chief (and Chief of General Staff), General Nikolai Dukhonin, refused to open peace negotiations with the Germans, Krylenko was appointed Commander in Chief on November 9. He started negotiations with the German army on November 12–13. Krylenko arrived at the High Command HQ in Mogilev on November 20 and arrested General Dukhonin, who was bayoneted and trampled to death by Red Guards answering to Krylenko. After the formation of the Red Army on January 15, 1918, Krylenko was also a member of the All-Russian Collegium that oversaw its buildup. He proved to be an excellent public speaker, able to win over hostile mobs with words alone . His organizational talents, however, lagged far behind his oratorical ones.

Krylenko was an active supporter of the policy of democratization of the Russian military, including abolishing subordination, election of officers by enlisted men, and using propaganda to win over enemy units. Although the Red Army had some successes in early 1918 against small and poorly armed anti-Bolshevik detachments, the policy proved unsuccessful when Soviet forces were roundly defeated by the German Army in late February 1918 after the breakdown of the Brest-Litovsk negotiations.

In the wake of the defeats, Trotsky pushed for the formation of a military council of former Russian generals that would function as a Red Army advisory body. Lenin and the Bolshevik Central Committee agreed to create a Supreme Military Council, with former chief of the imperial General Staff Mikhail Bonch-Bruevich at its head, on March 4. At that point the entire Bolshevik leadership of the Red Army, including People's Commissar (defense minister) Nikolai Podvoisky and Krylenko, protested vigorously and eventually resigned. The office of the "Commander in Chief" was formally abolished by the Soviet government on March 13 and Krylenko was reassigned to the Collegium of the Commissariat for Justice.

Legal career (1918-1934)

From May 1918 and until 1922 Krylenko was Chairman of the Revolutionary Tribunal of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee. He simultaneously served as a member of the Collegium of Prosecutors of the Revolutionary Tribunal. On June 23, 1918, he famously explained that there had been no discrepancy between the execution of Admiral Shchastny and the prior abolition of the death penalty by the Bolshevik government in October 1917 since the admiral had not been condemned "to death" but "to be shot". He was an enthusiastic exponent of the Red Terror, whatever his differences with the Cheka, exclaiming, "We must execute not only the guilty. Execution of the innocent will impress the masses even more." [1]

In early 1919, Krylenko was involved in a dispute with the Cheka (the Soviet secret police) and was instrumental in taking away its right to execute people without a trial . In 1922 Krylenko became Deputy Commissar of Justice and assistant Prosecutor General of the RSFSR.

The Cieplak Trial

In the spring of 1923, Krylenko acted as public prosecutor in the Moscow show trial of the Soviet Union's Roman Catholic hierarchy. The defendants included Archbishop Jan Cieplak, Monsignor Konstanty Budkiewicz and Blessed Leonid Feodorov.

According to Father Christopher Lawrence Zugger,
"The Bolsheviks had already orchestrated several 'show trials.' The Cheka had staged the 'Trial of the St. Petersburg Combat Organization'; its successor, the new GPU, the 'Trial of the Socialist Revolutionaries.' In these and other such farces, defendants were inevitably sentenced to death or to long prison terms in the north. The Cieplak show trial is a prime example of Bolshevik revolutionary justice at this time. Normal judicial procedures did not restrict revolutionary tribunals at all; in fact, the prosecutor N.V. Krylenko, stated that the courts could trample upon the rights of classes other than the proletariat. Appeals from the courts went not to a higher court, but to political committees. Western observers found the setting -- the grand ballroom of a former Noblemen's Club, with painted cherubs on the ceiling -- singularly inappropriate for such a solemn event. Neither judges nor prosecutors were required to have a legal background, only a proper 'revolutionary' one. That the prominent 'No Smoking' signs were ignored by the judges themselves did not bode well for legalities." [2]
According to New York Herald correspondent Francis MacCullagh:
Krylenko, who began to speak at 6:10 PM, was moderate enough at first, but quickly launched into an attack on religion in general and the Catholic Church in particular. "The Catholic Church", he declared, "has always exploited the working classes." When he demanded the Archbishop's death, he said, "All the Jesuitical duplicity with which you have defended yourself will not save you from the death penalty. No Pope in the Vatican can save you now." As the long oration proceeded, the Red Procurator worked himself into a fury of anti-religious hatred. "Your religion", he yelled, "I spit on it, as I do on all religions, -- on Orthodox, Jewish, Mohammedan, and the rest." "There is no law here but Soviet Law," he yelled at another stage, "and by that law you must die."[3]

Archbishop Cieplak and Monsignor Budkiewicz were both sentenced to death. The other fifteen defendants were sentenced to long terms in Solovki prison camp. The sentences touched off a massive uproar throughout the Western world.

According to Father Zugger,
"The Vatican, Germany, Poland, Great Britain, and the United States undertook frantic efforts to save the Archbishop and his chancellor. In Moscow, the ministers from the Polish, British, Czechoslovak, and Italian missions appealed 'on the grounds of humanity,' and Poland offered to exchange any prisoner to save the archbishop and the monsignor. Finally, on March 29, the Archbishop's sentence was commuted to ten years in prison, ... but the Monsignor was not to be spared. Again, there were appeals from foreign powers, from Western Socialists and Church leaders alike. These appeals were for naught: Pravda editorialized on March 30 that the tribunal was defending the rights of the workers, who had been oppressed by the bourgeois system for centuries with the aid of priests. Pro-Communist foreigners who intervened for the two men were also condemned as 'compromisers with the priestly servants of the bourgeoisie.' ...Father Rutkowski recorded later that Budkiewicz surrendered himself over to the will of God without reservation. On Easter Sunday, the world was told that the Monsignor was still alive, and Pope Pius XI publicly prayed at St. Peter's that the Soviets would spare his life. Moscow officials told foreign ministers and reporters that the Monsignor's sentence was just, and that the Soviet Union was a sovereign nation that would accept no interference. In reply to an appeal from the rabbis of New York City to spare Budkiewicz's life, Pravda wrote a blistering editorial against 'Jewish bankers who rule the world' and bluntly warned that the Soviets would kill Jewish opponents of the Revolution as well. Only on April 4 did the truth finally emerge: the Monsignor had already been in the grave for three days. When the news came to Rome, Pope Pius fell to his knees and wept as he prayed for the priest's soul. To make matters worse, Cardinal Gasparri had just finished reading a note from the Soviets saying that 'everything was proceeding satisfactorily' when he was handed the telegram announcing the execution. On March 31, 1923, Holy Saturday, at 11:30 PM, after a week of fervent prayers and a firm declaration that he was ready to be sacrificed for his sins, Monsignor Constantine Budkiewicz had been taken from his cell and, sometime before the dawn of Easter Sunday, shot in the back of the head on the steps of the Lubyanka prison.[4]

People's Commissar of Justice

In 1931 he became Commissar of Justice and Prosecutor General of the RSFSR, in which capacity he served as the chief prosecutor at the Moscow show trials of the 1920s and the early 1930s and was widely seen as the public face of the Soviet justice system. Krylenko stepped down as Prosecutor General in 1932 and was replaced by Andrei Vyshinsky. In 1933, he was awarded the Order of Lenin.[5] In January 1933, waxed indignant about the leniency of some Soviet officials who objected to the infamous "five ears law":

We are sometimes up against a flat refusal to apply this law rigidly. One People's Judge told me flatly that he could never bring himself to throw someone in jail for stealing four ears. What we're up against here is a deep prejudice, imbibed with their mother's milk... a mistaken belief that people should be tried in accordance not with the Party's political guidelines but with considerations of "higher justice".[6]

From 1927 to 1934, Krylenko was a member of the Central Control Commission of the Communist Party.

Sport positions

In the 1930s Krylenko headed the Soviet chess, checkers and mountain climbing associations. He was one of the pioneers of the Pamirs mountain climbing, leading the Soviet half of a joint Soviet-German expedition in 1928 as well as expeditions to the Eastern Pamirs in 1931 and to the Lenin Peak in 1934. Krylenko used his positions to carry out the Stalinist line of total control and politicization of all areas of public life:

We must finish once and for all with the neutrality of chess. We must condemn once and for all the formula "chess for the sake of chess", like the formula "art for art's sake". We must organize shockbrigades of chess-players, and begin immediate realization of a Five-Year Plan for chess.

Theorist of the Soviet Justice System

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s Krylenko wrote dozens of books and articles in support of the theory that, under the system of "socialist legality", political considerations and not criminal ones should play the decisive role in deciding questions of guilt, innocence and punishment. He theorized that confession was the ultimate proof of the defendant's guilt and that material evidence, precise definitions of crime, and exact sentences (the so-called "dosage" system) were not needed under socialism.

Mikhail Yakubovich, a defendant in one of the show trials, described meeting with Krylenko after weeks of torture by the OGPU to discuss his upcoming trial:

Offering me a seat, Krylenko said: "I have no doubt that you personally are not guilty of anything. We are both performing our duty to the Party—I have considered and consider you a Communist. I will be the prosecutor at the trial; you will confirm the testimony given during the investigation. This is our duty to the Party, yours and mine. Unforeseen complications may arise at the trial. I will count on you. If the need should arise, I will ask the presiding judge to call on you. And you will find the right words."[7]

Krylenko promoted his views on socialist legality during the work on two drafts of the Soviet Penal Code, one in 1930 and one in 1934. Krylenko's views were opposed by some Soviet theoreticians, including the Soviet Prosecutor General Andrey Vyshinsky, who argued that Krylenko's imprecise definition of crimes and his refusal to define terms of punishment introduced legal instability and arbitrariness and were, therefore, against the interests of the Soviet state. The debate continued throughout 1935 and was inconclusive.

With the start of the Great Purge after Sergei Kirov's assassination on December 1, 1934, Krylenko's star began to fade and he was gradually eclipsed by Vyshinsky. Notably, it was Vyshinsky and not Krylenko who prosecuted the first two high profile Moscow show trials of Old Bolsheviks in August 1936 and January 1937. Krylenko's ally, the Marxist theoretician Eugen Pashukanis, was subjected to severe criticism in late 1936 and arrested in January 1937 (he was shot in September). Soon after Eugen Pashukanis' arrest, Krylenko had to "admit his mistakes" and publicly concede that Vyshinsky and his other critics had been right all along.

In 1936 Krylenko justified the inclusion of a law against male homosexuality in the 1934 Soviet penal code as a measure directed against subversive activities:

So who are the bulk of our clients in these sorts of cases? Is it the working class? No! It's classless hoodlums. Classless hoodlums, either from the dregs of the society, or from the remains of the exploiters' class. They have no place to go. So they take to -- pederasty. Together with them, next to them, under this excuse, in stinky secretive bordellos another kind of activity takes place as well -- counter-revolutionary work.

Fall from power and execution

Krylenko was promoted to Commissar of Justice of the USSR[8] on July 20, 1936 and was not directly affected by the first waves of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union in January 1938 he was attacked by an up-and-coming Stalinist, M. D. Bagirov:

Comrade Krylenko concerns himself only incidentally with the affairs of his commissariat. But to direct the Commissariat of Justice, great initiative and a serious attitude toward oneself is required. Whereas Comrade Krylenko used to spend a great deal of time on mountain-climbing and traveling, now he devotes a great deal of time to playing chess... We need to know what we are dealing with in the case of Comrade Krylenko—the commissar of justice? or a mountain climber? I don't know which Comrade Krylenko thinks of himself as, but he is without doubt a poor people's commissar.

The attack had been clearly coordinated (Molotov endorsed it) and Krylenko was removed from his post on January 19, 1938. After turning the Commissariat over to his replacement, N. M. Rychkov, Krylenko traveled to his dacha outside Moscow with his family. On the evening of January 31, 1938, Krylenko received a phone call from Joseph Stalin in which Stalin reassured him, saying: "Don't get upset. We trust you. Keep doing the work you were assigned to on the new legal code." This phone call calmed Krylenko; however, later that evening his home was surrounded by an NKVD squad and Krylenko and many members of his family were arrested.[7]

After three days in an NKVD prison, Krylenko "confessed" that he had been a wrecker since 1930. On April 3 he made an additional "confession", explaining that he had been an enemy of Lenin's even before the 1917 revolution. At his last questioning on June 28, 1938, he "confessed" that he had recruited thirty Commissariat of Justice employees to his anti-Soviet organization.

Krylenko was tried by the Military Collegium of the Soviet Supreme Court on July 29, 1938. The trial lasted twenty minutes, just enough for Krylenko to retract his "confessions".[9] He was found guilty and immediately shot.


The NKVD officer who had taken Krylenko's testimony, one Kogan (probably, Captain Lazar V. Kogan, who also interrogated Nicolai Bukharin[10] and Genrikh Yagoda[11]), was, in turn, shot in 1939 (probably, on March 2[12]) for "anti-Soviet activity". Krylenko's conviction was one of the first annulled by the Soviet State in 1955, during the Khrushchev thaw.

Krylenko's ex-wife and fellow Old Bolshevik Elena Rozmirovich survived the purges by keeping a low profile and working in the Party archives. His sister Elena Krylenko married American writer Max Eastman and moved to America, thus escaping the purges.


  1. ^ See Arthur Ransome. In 1919, Kessinger Publishing, 2004, ISBN 1-4191-6717-0 p. 49
  2. ^ See Israel Getzler. Martov: A Political Biography of a Russian Social Democrat, Cambridge University Press, 2003, ISBN 0-521-52602-7 p. 177
  3. ^ See Arthur Ransome, op. cit, p. 46
  4. ^ See Audrey Salkeld. On the Edge of Europe: Mountaineering in the Caucasus, London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1993, ISBN 0-89886-388-0 p. 164
  5. ^ Quoted in Robert Conquest. The Great Terror: A Reassessment, Oxford University Press, 1990, ISBN 0-19-507132-8 p. 249
  6. ^ See David Tuller. Cracks in the Iron Closet: Travels in Gay and Lesbian Russia, University of Chicago Press, 1996, ISBN 0-226-81568-4 p. 6
  7. ^ See Hiroshi Oda. "Criminal Law Reform in the Soviet Union under Stalin", in The Distinctiveness of Soviet Law, Dordrecht, the Netherlands, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1987, ISBN 90-247-3576-9 p. 90-92
  8. ^ Quoted from the official protocols published in 1938 by Roy A. Medvedev in "New Pages from the Political Biography of Stalin" published in Stalinism: Essays in Historical Interpretation, edited by Robert C. Tucker, originally published by W.W. Norton and Co in 1977, revised edition published by Transaction Publishers (New Brunswick, New Jersey) in 1999, ISBN 0-7658-0483-2 p. 217
  9. ^ See Donald D. Barry and Yuri Feofanov. Politics and Justice in Russia: Major Trials of the Post-Stalin Era, New York, M. E. Sharpe, 1996, ISBN 1-56324-344-X, p. 233.
  10. ^ See Barbara Evans Clements. Bolshevik Women, Cambridge University Press, 1997, ISBN 0-521-59920-2 p. 287.
  11. ^ See, e.g., Richard Kennedy. Dreams in the Mirror: A Biography of E. E. Cummings, New York, W. W. Norton and Co., 1980, ISBN 0-87140-155-X (2nd, 1994 edition) p. 382


  1. ^ Richard Pipes, The Russian Revolution;page 822
  2. ^ Father Christopher Lawrence Zugger, "The Forgotten: Catholics in the Soviet Empire from Lenin through Stalin," University of Syracuse Press, 2001. Page 182.
  3. ^ Captain Francis McCullagh, The Bolshevik Persecution of Christianity, E.P. Dutton and Company, 1924. Page 221.
  4. ^ Father Christopher Lawrence Zugger, "The Forgotten: Catholics in the Soviet Empire from Lenin through Stalin," University of Syracuse Press, 2001. Pages 187-188
  5. ^
  6. ^ Edvard Radzinsky, Stalin: The First In-Depth Biography Based on Explosive New Documents from Russia's Secret Archives, page 258.
  7. ^ a b
  8. ^ the whole Soviet Union as opposed to just the Russian Federation
  9. ^ Arbitrary Justice: Courts and Politics in Post Stalin Russia
  10. ^ Nikolai Bukharin, George Shriver, Stephen F. Cohen, How It All Began, p. XVIII
  11. ^ Nikita Petrov and Marc Jansen, Stalin’s Loyal Executioner: People’s Commissar Nikolai Ezhov 1895–1940, 04 April 2002, ISBN 978-0-8179-2902-2, page 62 (chapter 3), available online at:
  12. ^ Michael Parrish, Sacrifice of the Generals: Soviet Senior Officer Losses, 1939-1953, p. xxii

Works (in English)

  • N. V. Krylenko. A blow at Intervention. Final indictment in the case of the counter-revolutionary Organisation of the Union of Engineers’ Organisations (the Industrial Party) whereby Ramzin, Kalinnikof, Larichef, Charnowsky, Fedotof, Kupriyánof, Ochkin and Sitnin, the accused, are charged in accordance with article 58, paragraphs 3, 4, and 6 of the Criminal code of the RSFSR. Pref. by Karl Radek. Moscow, State Publishers, 1931.
  • N. V. Krylenko. Red and white terror, London, Communist Party of Great Britain, 1928.
  • N. V. Krylenko. Revolutionary law. Moscow, Co-operative Publishing Society of Foreign Workers in the U.S.S.R., 1933.


  • Anatolii Pavlovich Shikman (А.П. Шикман). Important Figures of Russian History: A Biographical Dictionary (Деятели отечественной истории. Биографический справочник.) in 2 volumes. Moscow, AST, 1997, ISBN 5-15-000087-6 (vol 1) ISBN 5-15-000089-2 (vol 2)
  • Konstantin Aleksandrovich Zalesskii (К.А. Залесский). Stalin's Empire: A Biographical Encyclopedic Dictionary. (Империя Сталина. Биографический энциклопедический словарь.) Moscow, Veche, 2000, ISBN 5-7838-0716-8
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