Grigori Evseevich Zinoviev

The Soviet politician Grigori Evseevich Zinoviev (1883-1936) served the Russian Communist party in several high positions between 1901 and 1927. Opposed by Stalin, he was executed after a dramatic purge trial.

Although he did not possess Lenin's decisive leadership abilities and strong will, Grigori Zinoviev was a man of intense ambition. An indefatigable and brilliant public speaker, he used his skills in collaboration with V. I. Lenin throughout the prerevolutionary era. To a large extent his senior position within the party elite rested on his reputation as Lenin's closest supporter during the dark and hungry days after the failure of the Revolution of 1905 and before the outbreak of the Revolution of 1917.

Zinoviev, whose real family name was Radomyslsky, was born in the southern Russian town of Elizavetgrad (Kirovgrad). His parents were middle-class Jews able to provide him with an exceptionally good education as well as a financial headstart. In spite of this, as early as 1901 he made his first contacts with the illegal Russian Social Democratic Workers' party. By 1903 he had become a close disciple of Lenin. From that time until the Revolution of 1917, Zinoviev is generally believed to have followed Lenin more closely than any other member of the Bolshevik political leadership.


Early Career

As a consequence of his close affiliation with Lenin and other leading Bolsheviks, Zinoviev was at the center of decision making during the Revolution of 1917. For example, together with Leon Trotsky, Joseph Stalin, and others, he was a member of the first Politburo of the Communist party. As the political position of the Bolsheviks improved during the fall of 1917, plans were laid for a seizure of power. Zinoviev argued forcefully against such plans. When his pleas went unheeded, he made a public appeal which had the effect of betraying the previously secret insurrection to the provisional government. For this, Zinoviev was to be haunted throughout the remainder of his political life with Lenin's epithet of "strikebreaker" of the Revolution.

Immediately following the successful revolution, Zinoviev clashed with Lenin again. At issue was whether the new Bolshevik government could or should survive as a one-party government, as Lenin wanted, or whether it should be a coalition government, including the major leftist parties. Failing to secure their point with the Politburo and the party's Central Committee, several proponents of the coalition government resigned their posts in government and party. Prominent among these was Zinoviev.

A third political crisis which arose at this time concerned the means of concluding Russia's continuing role in the world war. The Soviet leadership was split over whether to go on fighting this costly, losing war or to sue for peace on terms extremely unfavorable to the Revolutionary government ment. In this issue, Lenin supported the option for peace at virtually any price—a breathing space, as it were, for the Bolshevik government. Zinoviev supported Lenin strongly in this position and was thus able to reestablish close relations with him. From this time until 1925, Zinoviev, as chairman of the Petrograd Soviet, member of both the Politburo and the Executive of the Communist International (Comintern) played a highly visible and authoritative role in Soviet politics.

Struggle for Power

In 1923 Lenin was incapacitated by a cerebral hemorrhage. The Politburo, and later a small group within the Politburo, began making the day-to-day high-level decisions of government in Lenin's absence. Gradually, a triumvirate, consisting of Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev, and Stalin, emerged from the Politburo as a whole, with Zinoviev being recognized as the senior member of this group. As later events were to show, the emergence and maintenance of the triumvirate is to be principally explained by two crucial factors: first, Zinoviev and Kamenev tended to reflect Lenin's attitudes, ideological prejudices, and interests closely, and they were known for this throughout the party; second, all three members were strongly antagonistic to Trotsky and his ambitions to become Lenin's successor. As long as common enemies threatened the interests of the triumvirate, it tended to function cohesively. Difficulties arose, however, when Trotsky was isolated and removed from his position as commissar of war in 1925. Soon, Zinoviev found it increasingly difficult to maintain his position of seniority in the triumvirate. In part this directly resulted from the fact that there was no longer a common enemy against whom Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Stalin could cooperate. In addition, however, it resulted from the fact that Stalin was now cooperating with new allies against Zinoviev and Kamenev.

In the spring of 1926 Zinoviev and his old enemy, Trotsky, found it expedient to stand together against Stalin in a "Joint Opposition." By this time, however, Stalin had deprived both men of their bases of authority within the government and party. Although the Joint Opposition remained a notable force in Soviet politics for a year and a half (spring 1926 to fall 1927), it suffered a decisive defeat within the Communist party apparatus at the Central Committee meeting of July 14-23, 1926. Defeated within the party, the Joint Opposition appealed to the public in Leningrad and Moscow, only to be met with indifference or the hostility of well-organized Stalinist mobs. At a joint meeting of the party's Central Control Commission and the Central Committee (Nov. 14, 1927), Zinoviev and Trotsky were expelled from the party. Shortly thereafter Zinoviev publicly recanted his position and was later readmitted to the party until 1932, when Stalin again found it possible to expel him. This time he was not readmitted until 1933.


Trial and Execution

In December 1934 Sergei Kirov, a close collaborator with Stalin in arranging the downfall of Zinoviev, was assassinated. Almost immediately Zinoviev was expelled again from the party and this time arrested, tried, and sentenced to imprisonment for complicity in the assassination. In 1936 Zinoviev was removed from prison long enough to be tried again for treason in one of the most famous purge trials conducted by Andrei Vishinsky under Stalin's direction. Having admitted to the most humiliating and demeaning acts against the Soviet state and the party, Zinoviev was condemned and executed.

Further Reading on Grigori Evseevich Zinoviev

As is the case with most of the old Bolsheviks (except Trotsky), there is little book-length material in English on Zinoviev's life. Lewis Chester and others, The Zinoviev Letter (1968), deals with an episode in diplomatic history which has little more than passing significance in Zinoviev's life. His early career and his role in the struggle for power is covered in Isaac Deutscher's works The Prophet Armed: Trotsky, 1879-1921 (1954) and The Prophet Unarmed: Trotsky, 1921-1929 (1959). Additional material on Zinoviev and the historical background is in Leonard B. Schapiro, The Communist Party of the Soviet Union (1960), and Edward Hallett Carr, A History of Soviet Russia (9 vols., 1951-1969).