History Photo of the Week: Soviet Judges Volchkov and Nikitchenko

Click to see larger.
Click to see larger.


I’m starting a new series called “History Photo of the Week” in an effort to introduce more historical goodies into my blogging. (Remember, my friends: once a history major, always a history major.)

Today’s photo was taken on November 1, 1945 and depicts Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Fyodorvich Volchkov (left) and Major General Iona Timofeyevich Nikitchenko. As Nikitchenko was the main judge at the trials, let’s talk about him first.

Iona Nikitchenko was born on June 28, 1895 in the small village (khutor in Russian) of Tuzlukov in Rostov Oblast. He briefly studied at the Don Polytechnic Institute, but did not graduate. In 1916, he joined the Bolshevik Party. He fought in the Russian Civil War, both as a soldier and as a political officer. After the Bolsheviks won the war and consolidated their power, Nikitchenko became a member of the legal apparatus, despite having no legal training. He even became a member of the Supreme Court of the USSR and participated in the show trials Stalin initiated during the Great Purge of the 1930s. He sentenced, among others, Grigory Zinovyev and Lev Kamenev to vysshaya mera—that’s Russian for “highest measure” or “maximum penalty,” i.e. execution after a show trial.

It is because of his participation in Stalin’s show trials that some people were opposed to the idea of Nikitchenko serving as a judge at Nuremberg. In the words of writer John Laughland, Nikitchenko brought a “cruel Soviet realism” to the Nuremberg judges’ discussions.* After all, how could one condemn the Germans for killing innocent people when the Soviets did the very same thing? Nevertheless, the Nuremberg Trials went ahead and the Americans, British, and French, the other victors passing judgment on their vanquished enemy, tried not to think about such things.

Alexander Volchkov, the alternate judge, is much less famous and much less politically contentious. Like his counterpart, he didn’t come from a background of law (he worked in the film business), but whether he had any formal legal training, I have been unable to find out. At one point in his life before the Nuremberg Trials, he worked in the Soviet Embassy in Great Britain. He spoke fluent English and his specialty was international law.

Nikitchenko retired in 1951. His only son, Yuri, was arrested in 1948 and found guilty of the ominous crime of “counterrevolutionary activities.” The son died in 1957 and Nikitchenko followed in 1967. Father and son were buried together. As for Volchkov, I don’t know much about his personal life, aside from the fact that he died in 1978.

*See John Laughland, A History of Political Trials: From Charles I to Saddam Hussein, Long Hangborough, England: Peter Lang, 2008, p. 111.