The murder of a Russian diplomat in the Hotel Cecil on 10 May 1923 rocked Lausanne. So did the failure of the Swiss courts to convict his killer, who made no attempt to escape. Gonçalo Ferreira Rodrigues, Yann Bourquard and Hugo Aghte explain how the trial was reported in the Swiss media.

Vatslas Vorovsky’s murderer, Moritz Conradi, told the police his act was one of vengeance on the Bolshevik regime, whom he held responsible for the deaths of several family members. A Swiss-Russian, Conradi had been born in St Petersburg, but his family hailed from the canton of the Grisons. He described his crime as drawing attention to the “many thousands of Russian migrants now suffering in every corner of the world”, as well as “the hundreds of innocents dying under the inhuman domination of the Bolshevists.”

The editor-in-chief of Le Journal de Genève, Edouard Chapuisat was close to Théodore Aubert, who acted as legal defense for Conradi’s accomplice, Arcadius Polounine. Chapuisat had been a founding member of the Entente Internationale Anticommuniste. For the Journal the accused were Swiss patriots, and their “bourgeois terrorism a response to Bolshevik terrorism”. Aubert called several witnesses to attest to the “horrors” unleashed by the Bolshevik regime.

Why did Conradi and Polounine do what they did? Because Europe lacked moral and physical courage. If collective justice fails to step up, individual justice must do so. Had there been any justice in the early days of our own canton William Tell would not have had to kill Gessler.

Journal de Genève

Left-wing newspapers dubbed Conradi’s acquittal a “lamentable, monstruous caricature of justice.” For Le Droit du Peuple the stance taken by the Journal would stand as evidence “that you did nothing in this affair but serve as lackeys to a reactionary clique.” As it happened, Conradi’s acquittal was not unique; it had a curious mirror image in that of French anarchist Germaine Berton. In January 1923 Berton shot and killed Marius Plateau, a far-right French journalist. Despite confessing, she was acquitted later that year. Taken together, the two murders and the media coverage they garnered point to a broader polarization of European opinion around 1923.

Translated from the French by Jonathan Conlin

This is the first in a series of blogposts contributed by postgraduate students of Lausanne University, drawing on the police archives of the Canton of Vaud and other local archives as part of their study of Global History. To find out more about this innovative pedagogical response to the Covid emergency, click here. We would like to thank Guillaume Beausire and Thomas David for making this collaboration possible.

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