Andrei Vyshinsky

Andrei Vyshinsky (1883-1954) was the state prosecutor in Stalin's purge trials in the 1930s and later served as head of the U.S.S.R.'s foreign ministry and as Soviet ambassador to the United Nations.

Andrei lanuar'evich Vyshinsky, also spelled Vyshinskii, became one of the Soviet Union's best known political figures in the early 1950s when he served as head of the Soviet mission to the United Nations (UN). A master of inflamatory rhetoric, combative, scornful, and ready in an instant to heap the most undiplomatic abuse on other UN spokesmen, Vyshinsky drew wide attention, none of it favorable. Visitors to the UN hoped to catch him in the act of banging his fist or flailing his arms. Delegates complained that he attacked them like criminals. At his death a few weeks before his 71st birthday on November 22, 1954, the New York Times called him a "master of the vitriolic word." Other editorialists, remembering as well the role he had played as state prosecutor in Stalin's purge trials, thought this too kind. A living symbol of the worst of Stalinism, Vyshinsky died unmourned and unmissed in the Soviet Union as well as abroad. His official biographers emphasize the "serious mistakes" and "violations of socialist legality" he made in interpreting and implementing Soviet law.

Vyshinsky was born December 12, 1883, in Odessa, on the Black Sea. Because he joined the Menshevik wing of the Social Democratic Party in 1903, rivalling the Bolsheviks, it is hard to know whether the accounts of his early life are accurate or designed to protect him from an undesirable past. He is said to have come from a relatively wealthy family, to have become active among militant Mensheviks in Baku at the time of the first Russian revolution in 1905, and to have served a year in jail for political activities in 1906. He is also reported to have been wounded in an attack by the right-wing "Black Hundreds" group in 1907. We do know for sure that he found his way to Kiev, entered Kiev University, and graduated in law in 1913. In all likelihood, he was expelled from graduate study because of renewed political activities. Throughout World War I and the October Revolution he worked in the Ukraine and elsewhere as a political activist, lecturing and writing, and working for a time in the food distribution apparatus. According to one account, he volunteered for the Red Army and served in 1919 and 1920.

Vyshinsky joined the Bolshevik Party only at the end of the civil war in 1920. Whether his Menshevik past affected the strength of his new commitment to Bolshevism is difficult to tell, but he soon became a strident partisan and an ardent supporter of Stalin. In the 1920s he lectured, served as a prosecuting attorney, and held several important educational posts, including the deanship of the Plekhanov Economic Institute (1923-1925) and the post of rector (chancellor) of Moscow State University (1925-1928). His metier, however, was the courtroom. In 1928 Stalin chose Vyshinsky to head a special office attached to the U.S.S.R. supreme court to investigate and prosecute "wrecking" (disloyalties to the state), and he soon became famous as the state's attorney in the first of Stalin's notorious show trials.

Thereafter, Vyshinsky was constantly in the public eye. Writing and lecturing about the principles of socialist legality, and author of the leading Soviet textbook on criminal law, he revealed in practice that Stalinist law meant whatever the prosecutor's office said it meant. Between 1935 and 1939 prosecutor Vyshinsky took each of Stalin's leading victims to the dock, haranguing Nikoli Bukharin and Aleksei Rykov, castigating Sergei Kamenev and Gregori Zinoviev, attacking the old Bolshevik cadre as traitors and "swine." Compulsion and torture became the instruments of investigation and prosecution; false confessions the symbol of the prosecutor's "success." Even those inclined at first to believe in the trials, like the American ambassador Joseph Davies, found Vyshinsky's conduct appalling and demonic.

Had Stalin been consistent in these matters, Vyshinsky himself would have followed NKVD police chiefs Yezhov and Yagoda into prison along with the other leading purgers, but Stalin spared his slavish prosecutor, preferring instead to apply his talents to foreign affairs. In 1940 Vyshinsky became deputy foreign minister, a post which brought him in close contact with Western leaders during World War II, and from 1949 until Stalin's death in 1953 he headed the foreign ministry. In this capacity he represented the U.S.S.R. on various Allied commissions. In 1945 he signed the document of German surrender on behalf of his government. He also led the Soviet delegation to peace talks in Paris and to the initial United Nations meeting in New York, where his oratorical skills helped secure an "independent" status in the UN for the Soviet republics Ukraine and Belorussia.

From 1947 until 1953 Foreign Minister Vyshinsky headed the Soviet UN delegation, and he resumed his post in New York after Stalin's death despite being stripped of his ministerial position. The old Menshevik had, by this time, become an old Stalinist. He must have known when he died that his usefulness to Stalin's successors was limited, but his personal insecurities, if any, remained hidden, as always, behind a constant stream of angry bluster. His ashes are buried in the Kremlin wall.

Further Reading on Andrei Vyshinsky

Vyshinsky's career is best pursued through studies of Soviet law and foreign relations. See especially Harold J. Berman, Justice in the U.S.S.R. (1966); Peter Juviler, Revolutionary Law and Order: Politics and Social Change in the U.S.S.R. (1976); and Peter H. Solomon, "Soviet Penal Policy, 1917-1934: A Reinterpretation," in Slavic Review (June 1980). On Soviet foreign policy under Vyshinsky see Adam B. Ulam, The Rivals: America and Russia since World War II (1971) and Walter LaFeber, America, Russia and the Cold War, 1945-1966 (1967). Vyshinsky's own writings are voluminous. His most important work in English is The Law of the Soviet State (1939, 1948).

Additional Biography Sources

Vaksberg, Arkadiei, The prosecutor and the prey: Vyshinsky and the 1930s' Moscow show trials, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1990.

Vaksberg, Arkadiei, Stalin's prosecutor: the life of Andrei Vyshinsky, New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1991.