Gorky: A political trial under Articles 70 & 72. March-April 1970 (13.3)

«No 13 : 30 April 1970»

On 25 March hearings began at the Gorky Region Court into the case of three graduates of Gorky University (CCE 11.15, item 13) — Mikhail Kapranov, S[ergei] Ponomaryov, Vladimir Zhiltsov — and Vladlen Pavlenkov, a history lecturer at the same institution (CCE 12.4). They were accused under Articles 70 and 72 of the Russian Criminal Code (anti-Soviet agitation and organised activities with this end in view).

The Chairman of the court was Kharitonov; Procurator [prosecutor] — G. Kolesnikov

Counsel for the defence — Pozdeyev (for Ponomaryov), Dobuzhsky (for Zhiltsov)

Kapranov and Pavlenkov declined the services of a defence counsel.

A Closed Trial

The trial was declared closed. Only Kapranov’s mother, Ponomaryov’s mother, Pavlenkov’s father and Zhiltsov’s sister were admitted to the hearing. The prisoners’ wives were not permitted to be present. Basing his arguments on the appropriate article of the Criminal Procedure Code, Pavlenkov demonstrated the illegality of this procedure in the case before the court and demanded that all the trial materials be made public. The other prisoners and the defence counsels supported Pavlenkov’s statement. The court refused to accept both the protests of the prisoners and the submissions of the defence counsels.

The accused

S[ergei] Ponomaryov was questioned first. He was accused of anti-Soviet agitation by means of samizdat literature, of producing flyers and sticking them up about the city, and of attempting to set up an organisation. During the preliminary investigation, confirmation of the charges and evidence concerning the “leading part” played by Pavlenkov, had been successfully extracted from him. In court he withdrew much of his evidence and stated that he regretted nothing. As previously, he protested against the renascence of Stalinism, against the authorities’ persecution of people on the grounds of their convictions and against the sending of forces into Czechoslovakia. He demanded that the “Raskolnikov Letter [1], with the authorship of which he was charged, should be read out in court.

The 22-year-old Vladimir Zhiltsov was accused of disseminating samizdat works among the students of Gorky University and of attempting to set up an organisation. He stated that the charges were unfounded, denying Pavlenkov‘s “leading part” in the setting up of an organisation and expressing no regret for his dissenting thoughts.

Mikhail Kapranov (25 years old and the father of two children) faced the same charges as Ponomaryov. In addition, he was accused of making a statement in defence of the Crimean Tatars, deprived of their homeland, during the investigation and a protest against the persecution of believers for their religious beliefs.

In court Kapranov stated that he had not indulged in anti-Soviet activities, but only spoken out against infringements of legality and of constitutional norms. He said further that he regarded political trials as illegal, also the fact that the public was kept ignorant of them, and that he saw in this signs of the renascence of Stalinism. He reminded the court that in Stalin’s time 15 million of the most socially active citizens had been locked up in prisons and camps. He admitted authorship of the text of the leaflets and total responsibility for their dissemination. Kapranov denied altogether Pavlenkov‘s complicity, in the charges made against him (Kapranov). He stated that he considered this particular court to have no legal standing.

The last to be questioned was Vladlen Pavlenkov, a historian, and previously headmaster of a school and a lecturer in a technical college. He was accused of disseminating samizdat, of playing the ”leading part” in an attempt to set up an organisation, and of having written a theoretical work of “anti-Marxist, anti-Soviet” content. (The work had been written in the KGB  investigation prison at the Procurator’s request. In it, Pavlenkov set out his theories on economics and society. The work was defined as criminal; the expert witness was one Valery Yakovlevich Dobrokhotov, a D.Phil (history) and professor from Gorky.)

Pavlenkov declared the charges brought against him to be without foundation. He did not agree that his work was anti-Soviet and demanded that it should be read out in court in full. He asked for the data used in his work to be compared with the official statistics. In a separate decision the court pronounced: “All the figures are correct and have been taken from official Soviet sources, but the conclusions are false.”

Pavlenkov demanded that those of his theoretical premises that were considered anti-Soviet should be examined in court point by point. The court declined to examine the work on the grounds that the expert witness’s conclusion was authoritative.


There were 96 witnesses involved in the case. For the most part they were townsfolk who had brought to the relevant authorities the leaflets which they had found and which had been disseminated in Gorky on 4 April 1968, the eve of the university’s anniversary celebration.

Among the prosecution witnesses there were obvious KGB collaborators. Thus two fifth-year students from the history faculty of Moscow University, Kiiko and Shashkov, were called as witnesses from Moscow. Pavlenkov put a question to one of them: “Has it so happened that you have come across people of a critical turn of mind before?” “More than once.” “And you informed the authorities about each of these people?” “About each of them.”

On the fifteenth day of the hearing Pavlenkov’s wife, Svetlana Borisovna, a former university teacher, was called into court as a witness. During the whole trial she was kept under special surveillance [CCE 11.15, item 13]. Svetlana Pavlenkova stated in court that it was not known to her how the samizdat literature had come to be in the house.

Procurator: “Then why did you in your evidence in 1968 say that you and your husband brought the samizdat into the house?”

Pavlenkova: “On 24 April 1968 my flat was invaded and searched. On exactly the same date, 24 April 1944, before the very eyes of the nine-year-old girl I then was, officials of the same institution invaded and searched my parents’ home and took away my father, whom I never saw again. He died in Magadan [Soviet Far East]. My mother returned many years later.

“Knowing your ways, I did not reckon on coming home again on that occasion and for that reason I decided to share my husband’s fate, just as my mother in her time shared my father’s. I brought home no samizdat but, if you need for the case to think that I did, then do so, and I am ready to join my husband in the dock.”

On 13 April, the questioning of witnesses was concluded. The trial was taking place unbeknown to the local population. Only a small group of friends and relations stood near the courtroom. By the court building a squad of police and numerous “civilians” were permanently on duty.

Verdict and sentences

On 24 April the trial came to an end: the accused pleaded not guilty: the court sentenced Pavlenkov and Kapranov to seven years’ imprisonment in strict-regime camps, Ponomaryov to five years, and Zhiltsov to four years. (For the last two the prosecutor had demanded sentences of six and five years respectively.)



[1] The “Raskolnikov Letter”

A reference to the letter of the Bolshevik Raskolnikov (Ilyn), criticising Stalin. Dated August 17, 1939, it “was first published in the Paris émigré newspaper Novaya Rossiya on 1 October 1939,” writes its translator Brian Pearce. “According to Roy Medvedev (Let History Judge), the author’s widow, a resident of France, brought the original of the letter to Moscow in 1964. It circulated widely through samizdat channels in the mid-1960s.” (JC)