1938: Margarita Arsenieva, the explorer’s widow

On this date* in 1938, the widow of the Russian explorer and ethnographer Vladimir Arseniev was convicted in a drumhead trial of espionage and sabotage, and summarily shot at Vladivostok.

Vladimir Arseniev explored the distant Far East on foot with the help of local guides during the last years of the tsar.

Arseniev formed a lifelong friendship with one such guide, and gave the man’s name to the title of a widely-read book about his explorations — Dersu Uzala.

Japanese director Akira Kurosawa adapted Dersu Uzala to the silver screen in a 1975 joint Japanese-Soviet production that pocketed an Oscar as Best Foreign Language Film. (The entire film is available online through Veoh.)

Arseniev died in 1930 — not by the executioner’s offices — and was survived by his wife and scientific assistant Margarita.

As the subsequent, terrible decade unfolded, Margarita and other members of the Far Eastern Academy of Sciences came under official political scrutiny that would eventually lead to a purging.

Arrested once in 1934, and again in 1937, on the usual right-Trotskyist-conspirator stuff (Vladimir Arseniev — a suspect fellow in his later years for a potentially un-Soviet attitude to “the national question” — was the ringleader, dontcha know?), Arsenieva and a number of colleagues waited a year to get their 10-minute trial this date before assizes of the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court. Six in all, including Margarita Arsenieva, were held “subject to immediate execution.”

The Arseniev’s orphaned teenage daughter Natalia was subsequently consigned to the gulag.

Most of the sources about Margarita Arsenieva available online are in Russian, including:

* This German text gives Aug. 23 as the date of the trial and execution, and a couple of other online sources use that date instead.

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