The long, uphill struggle of tsarist Russia to adapt its economy and political institutions to modernity was nearing its final failure.
A shadow play of that approaching cataclysm would unfold in 1905, when popular dissatisfaction won a short-lived period of constitutional government.
Radicals disdained these half-measures, however, and shook the realm with a general strike in December 1905 — a small quake only, since Russia’s proletariat was still too small to constitute a real threat to the state.
And the capital of insurrectionary labor was Muscovite factory district of Presnia or Presnya. There, a botched attempt to suppress strikers resulted in an armed standoff; “Red Presnia” (Krasnaia or Krasnaya Presnia) ended in carnage when the overmatched workers were besieged by the Semyonovsky Guard.
A political cartoon trilogy on the annihilation of Red Presnia: from the top, The Entrance, The Battle, and The Pacification (picturing the Kremlin sinking in blood). They’re from this public domain Google book; scroll up from the link to pp. 35-38 for more unflattering drawings of the tsar as a tinhorn murderer.
On the night of the sixteenth Presnya was encircled in an iron ring of government troops. Soon after 6:00 a.m. on the seventeenth these troops opened a remorseless cannonade. Guns were fired as much as seven times a minute. This continued, with an hour’s respite, until 4:00 p.m. Many factories and houses were destroyed and set on fire. The barrage was conducted from two sides. Houses and barricades were in flames, women and children darted about the streets in clouds of black smoke, the air was filled with the roar and clatter of firing.
Detail view (click for the full image) of an illustration of a Red Presnia barricade under fire from the Semenovsky Guard. (Source)
The glow was such that miles away it was possible to read in the streets late at night, as though it were day. Until noon the druzhiny [the workers’ militia] conducted successful operations against the troops, but continuous enemy fire forced them to stop. Only a small group of druzhinniki remained under arms on their own initiative and at their own risk.
By the morning of the eighteenth Presnya had been cleared of barricades. The “peaceful” population were allowed to leave Presnya; the troops were careless enough to allow people to leave without searching them. The druzhinniki were the first to leave, some of them still with arms. Later, there were shootings and other violence by the soldiers, but by then not a single druzhinnik remained in the area.
The “pacification troops” of the Semyonovsky regiment, who were sent to “pacify” the railway, were ordered not to make arrests and to proceed with out mercy.** They met with no resistance anywhere. Not a single shot was fired against them, yet they killed approximately 150 persons on the railway line. The shootings were carried out without investigation or trial. Wounded men were taken from ambulance wagons and finished off. Corpses lay around without anyone daring to carry them away. One of those shot by the Petersburg guards was the engine-driver Ukhtomsky, who saved the lives of a group of druzhinniki by driving them away on his engine at colossal speed under machine-gun fire. Before they shot him, he told his executioners what he had done: “All are safe,” he concluded with calm pride, “you’ll never get them now.”
“No single act during this period of governmental vengeance,” one chronicle remarked, “stands out more senseless than the punitive expeditions of the Semyonovsky Regiment on the Moscow-Kazan railroad.”
In the course of my inquiries about the activities of the Semyonovski regiment along the Moscow-Kazan line, I heard many stories about Engineer Ukhtomski, who showed heroic firmness in the last moments of his life. Part of this information was given by the captain of the Semyonovski regiment which executed him in Lubertzy,† together with three other workingmen. The captain, who observed him in his last moments, was charmed by his personality; the soldiers felt a deep reverence for him, their esteem being expressed in the fact that after the first volley he remained untouched. Not one bullet had grazed him.
His appearance was in no way striking. Of medium height, with vivid, clever eyes, he gave the impression of a very modest, almost bashful, man.
It was a mere accident that he fell into the hands of the punitive expedition. He was traveling in a carriage, when he stopped in the Lubertzy inn, ignorant of the presence of soldiers at the station. He was searched and a revolver was found in his pocket, which caused his arrest. He was brought before the officer in charge.
Questioned as to his name, he refused to reveal it. The officer went over the lists and the photographs of the revolutionists, comparing them with the live original before him. then he exclaimed:
‘You are Engineer Ukhtomski; you will be shot!’
‘I thought so,’ Ukhtomski answered coolly.
This happened in the afternoon, about three o’clock. He was asked whether he did not want to take the communion, and expressed his desire to do so.
After the communion he was taken, together with three workingmen of the Lubertzy brake-factory, to the place of execution. He made the following statement, addressing the officer:
‘I knew that, once in your hands, I should be shot; I was prepared for death, and that is why I am so calm. … ‘
At the place of execution they wanted to blindfold Ukhtomski. He asked the favor of meeting death squarely, face to face. He also refused to turn his back to the soldiers.
The soldiers fired. The workingmen dropped. Ukhtomski was not hurt. He stood erect, arms folded on his breast.
The soldiers fired again. He fell on the snow, but he was still alive and fully conscious. He looked around, with eyes full of anguish.
Standing just thirteen years later over the remains of that vanquished tsarism, V.I. Lenin paid the martyrs of Presnia tribute for sacrifices “not in vain”:
Before the armed insurrection of December 1905, the people of Russia were incapable of waging a mass armed struggle against their exploiters. After December they were no longer the same people. They had been reborn. They had received their baptism of fire. They had been steeled in revolt. They trained the fighters who were victorious in 1917 and who now, despite the incredible difficulties, and overcoming the torments of hunger arid devastation caused by the imperialist war, are fighting for the world victory of socialism.
Long live the workers of Red Presnya, the vanguard of the world workers’ revolution!
* New Year’s Eve by the Gregorian calendar; tsarist Russia was still on the archaic, 13-days-slower Julian calendar, so the dates within Russia were (as reflected in the Trotsky passage) Dec. 17 for the storming of Red Presnia, and Dec. 18 for this date’s slaughter.
† Summary executions continued for some days, but a Jan. 2, 1906 London Times wire dispatch datelined Jan. 1 appears to situate the particular slaughter that would have claimed Ukhtomsky:
The majority of the revolutionaries in the Presnia quarter succeeded in escaping. About 100 surrendered to General Min to save the houses of the poor from destruction. Artillery and troops are clearing the Kazan railway and are capturing station after station. Three hundred railwaymen have been killed and yesterday 70 were summarily shot at Lubertsy. Moscow is becoming quiet.
“The river Moskva at the Presnia Verck,” the correspondent observed, “is covered with corpses of revolutionaries scattered over the ice.”
On this day in 1818 in Edinburgh, Scotland, 22-year-old Robert Johnston faced capital punishment for the robbery of a candlemaker. The authorities were nothing if not zealous: that day, Johnston would be hanged no less than four times.
Alex Young, in his book The Encyclopaedia of Scottish Executions 1750 to 1963, provides an account of the gruesome debacle that was Robert Johnston’s execution:
After praying and shaking hands with the clergymen, he mounted the scaffold and looked boldly around him, before helping the executioner adjust the rope, and giving the signal.
The drop fell – but the excessively short length of rope enabled him to stand on the platform. As the Magistrates ordered carpenters to cut a wider opening, cries of “Murder” came from the crowd.
The cries were followed by a shower of stones, which sent the Magistrates and the carpenters to the shelter of the Tolbooth Church doorway, through which they passed into the police office.
Almost every window glass in the church suffered from the stones, as did Johnston who had been abandoned on the platform.
“Cut him down—he’s alive!” rang out, as the crowd took possession of the scaffold. Johnston, despite hanging many minutes, was alive, and after taking the rope from his neck and arms and the cap from his head, he was carried off towards High Street. The scaffold structure proved too robust, but Johnston’s waiting coffin was broken up and thrown through the church windows.
The police and military combined forces to wrest the hapless Johnston from his would-be saviors and took him, unconscious, to the police office, where a surgeon bled him until he was determined fit to be re-hanged.
This time Johnston was carried by six men and the scaffold, surrounded by soldiers.
Again the executioner made a bungle of it. The rope was now too long and Johnston had to be lifted while the rope was shortened by winding it around the hook.
Again, shouts of “Murder!” and “Shame! Shame!” rang out, and only the military presence prevented another riot. Johnston struggled for many minutes before passing into eternity.
The next day, the Magistrates fired both the master of works and the executioner, who was named John Simpson. They also issued a fifty-guinea reward for information leading to the identification of Johnston’s rescuers. It went unclaimed.
On this date in 1479, a fugitive of the previous year’s Pazzi Conspiracy — an ill-starred attempt by the Pazzi family to overthrow the Medici — was hanged in Florence.
Bernardo Baroncelli had actually struck the first blow on the Pazzi conspiracy’s big day, planting a dagger in the chest of Giuliano di Piero de’ Medici in the theatrical setting of Florence’s Duomo, with the theatrical declaration, “Here, traitor!”
Must’ve been a sight to see. Giuliano wound up dead, but the rest didn’t work out so well.
Baroncelli, however, managed to evade the resulting paroxysm of civic vengeance and hightail it to Ottoman Istanbul, where he had some contacts.
Unfortunately for Bernardo, Florence had some contacts there, too. Ottoman relations with the various Italian city-states were actually quite strong, and Florence in particular enjoyed lucrative trade arrangements bringing its wool textiles to Bursa to exchange for silk.
By letters of Bernardo Peruzzi we have learned with great pleasure how that most glorious prince [Mehmet] has seized Bernardo Bandini, most heinous parricide and traitor to his country, and declares himself willing to do with him whatever we may want — a decision certainly in keeping with the love and great favor he has always shown toward our Republic and our people as well as with the justice of his most serene Majesty … although as a result of the innumerable benefits done by his most glorious Majesty in the past for the Republic and our people, we owe him the greatest indebtedness and are the most faithful and obedient sons of his Majesty, nevertheless because of this last benefit it would be impossible to describe the extent to which our obligation to his most serene Majesty has grown.
A Florentine representative quickly sailed for the Ottoman capital to make the arrangements, and returned with the hated Bandini on Dec. 24. Five days later, he was hanged over the side of the Bargello.
A tan colored skull-cap, a doublet of black serge, a black jerkin, lined and the collar covered with a black and red stippled velvet.
A blue coat lined with fur of fox’s breasts.
Bernardo di Bandino Baroncelli.
On this date in 1888, “Prado” — also known as “Count Linska de Castillon”; he never copped to his real identity — was beheaded as a thief and murderer at Paris.
The trial of this intrepid criminal promised, in the London Times‘ Nov. 6, 1888 preview, to be “one of the most extraordinary of our times”
He [Prado] is a Spaniard, and was brought up at Gijon, but he refused to say who he was. When 14 years of age he visited Mozambique, India, China, California, the West Indies, and North America. In 1872 he was a sub-lieutenant in the Carlist bands. He then lived by his wits. He once crossed the French frontier and stole 8,000f. At the battle of Somorrostro he was wounded by a shell, and removed to a hospital, from which he enticed the sister of the Order of Saint Vincent de Paul who nursed him. She belonged to one of the first families in England. He married her, and with her visited the Holy Land, but her health failed, and she died on their return to Italy. Prado says he married a second wife at Lima, with a dowry of 1,200,000f., and that after her death he committed many daring robberies.
He’s the most interesting man in the world.
This vagabond upon the overgrown lost highways of fortune eventually ditched wife #2 in penury in Spain and proceeded to France where he mooched off a local girl and her absentee American sugar daddy, until one night he slashed the throat a dame named Marie Aguetant, the lover of a late-working croupier, and plundered their domicile of chattels.
Prado eluded capture for some time, keeping his lover, taking another — both of whom ended up in the dock with their insolent Don Juan, along with various male intimates in various aspects of accesorizing. None of those others drew a death sentence, but as the interest of the London Times suggests — it fronted near-daily trial dispatches from Paris — all this stuff about cabals of swarthy men ravishing women of their virtue and their valuables made globalnews.
It also moved Third Republic bodice-ripping true crime like this zippy little volume, “Prado ou Le Tueur de Filles,” with a copyright notice as late as 1931.
A savage crime by a strange character, but now that it’s long departed all living memory, it scarcely stands out. Legion are the lotharios who have slain for the pedestrian motivation of gold.
In a post-bourgeois order, “we will no longer see men like Pranzini, Prado, Berland, Anastay and others who kill in order to have this metal,” the French terrorist Ravachol‘s suppressed address to the courtroom declared in 1892. “The cause of all crimes is always the same, and you have to be foolish not to see this.”
Yes, I repeat it: it is society that makes criminals and you, jury members, instead of striking you should use your intelligence and your strength to transform society. In one fell swoop you’ll suppress all crime. And your work, in attacking causes, will be greater and more fruitful than your justice, which belittles itself in punishing its effects.
Just a few days before this headline-grabbing execution, impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh undertook the most famous thing he ever did off-canvas: after his latest dispute with roommate and fellow-artist Paul Gauguin, van Gogh sliced off his own left earlobe.*
It was in this abnormal circumstance that Gauguin, fresh to Paris fleeing from the scene of the self-mutilation in Arles, attended Prado’s beheading, even forcing his way through a line of gendarmes to obtain a closer view.
“[H]e may have had the counterphobic desire to reassure himself of his courage by taking an unflinching look at Prado’s execution,” writes Bradley Collins. “Gauguin may have identified with both the executioner and his victim. On the one hand, by watching the state kill a man, he could vicariously release some of his pent-up aggression toward Vincent. On the other, by identifying with Prado he could vicariously atone for the guilt he felt about precipitating Vincent’s breakdown and abandoning [Arles].”
Aptly for Gauguin’s personal demons, the guillotine managed to botch this job, too — giving Prado a non-fatal facial injury and requiring the now-wounded condemned to be repositioned for another chop.
All this pate-slashing sure seems to have found its way into Gauguin’s next creation:
* Latter-day revisionist hypothesis: Gauguin actually cut off van Gogh’s ear in a fight, but both painters kept to a cover story to keep everyone out of trouble. That version would only thicken the psychological stew for Gauguin’s pilgrimage to the guillotine and subsequent “self-portrait”.
He was twenty-five years old and had been caught attempting to escape.
Sim Kessel (called “Sam” in some accounts), a French Jew who boxed professionally, had been at Auschwitz for two years — a staggering period of time where the normal lifespan of a prisoner was at most three months — and had already escaped the gas chambers on two occasions.
The first time, he was in the infirmary recuperating from a severe beating and torture at the hands of the SS (one of his fingers had been cut off), and a Nazi doctor judged him incapable of recovery and took his number down. Then, a miracle: somehow, his chart was misplaced.
Four days later Kessel was selected again and this time actually marched to the gas chamber with other hopeless cases. As they were lined up, naked and shivering, waiting their turn to die, an SS man happened to pass on a motorcycle and stopped to have a look at them. Kessel recognized something in him:
Unmistakable. The stigmata of the ring. He also had muscular shoulders and a springy way of walking. I hesitated for a second and then thought, oh, what the hell!
Naked and shivering I walked up to him. I don’t know if it was a dim hope behind my overture, or some irrational kinship felt by boxers the world over, across all boundaries. I simply blurted out in German:
He didn’t wait for an explanation, he understood. […] “Get on!” he bellowed.
Kessel’s savior, whose name he never knew, took him back to camp and to the infirmary, where he made a full recovery from his injuries and rejoined the working prisoners. The two men never saw each other again. Kessel had no illusions about the character of the man who had saved his life:
This act of mercy which he had performed in the name of boxing meant something totally different to each of us. Obviously to me it was everything; for him, nothing at all. I was like a worm that one doesn’t step on at the last minute.
In December 1944, Kessel and four Polish prisoners tried to escape. He reflected later on that “the strategy could have succeeded despite its apparent idiocy.”
The idiotic strategy will be familiar to high school delinquents the world over: they casually walked out of camp together, in broad daylight, acting as if they had a legitimate destination in mind, and no one tried to stop them.
Unfortunately, they were caught the next day and sent back to Auschwitz. A public execution was the only punishment for escapees, and so the five were lined up on the scaffold in front of a crowd of some 25,000 prisoners. They each had to take their turn to die and Kessel was the last.
And then the rope broke.
Not that I knew it; I didn’t realize a thing, having lost consciousness from shock. I didn’t even know they had hanged me. […]
I came to. Or partly came to. It was as if I were in a dream, still unable to realize what was going on around me, aware mainly of the excruciating pain in my neck and back.
In some countries, if a person survives an execution they’re granted a reprieve and allowed to keep their lives. Not so in Auschwitz: you were simply hauled away and shot, this time without ceremony.
Kessel was left to the tender mercies of Jacob, described as “the camp’s official killer.” He knew his executioner’s reputation in camp and also out of it, for Jacob was also a professional boxer and had helped train the famous German champion Max Schmeling. Having nothing to lose, and remembering what had happened before, Kessel argued with him:
So I appealed to him, half in German, half in French. I argued that one boxer could not kill another boxer. That he, a former champion, a sparring partner of Schmeling’s, could not degrade himself by simply slaughtering me in cold blood.
Jacob listened and then walked away without a word. When he returned he carried a new camp uniform. Kessel was to put it on and simply rejoin the mass of prisoners outside.
Officially, Kessel was dead, and someone else’s body would be put in the crematorium ovens in place of his own. Certainly there were many bodies to choose from.
It probably wouldn’t have worked were it not for the fact that the Third Reich was in its death throes. The Wehrmacht was on the run, besieged by the Russians on one side and the Americans on the other, and within days Auschwitz would be evacuated.
Kessel survived two death marches and other dangers before he was liberated on May 7, 1945, five months after the rope broke.
On this date in 1870, Japanese samurai Kumoi Tatuo was beheaded for attempting to topple the Meiji government.
Briefly a bureaucrat under the restored emperor, Tatsuo like manysamurai grew disillusioned with the new state and its eclipse of the old ways.
Suspected of plotting an attack on senior government officials, he was arrested and beheaded with eleven others.
At death, I fear no dying;
In life embrace not living;
The brilliance of the sun
Is rivaled by integrity.
Execution has no terror,
Though it be a boiling cauldron;
But how insignificant my poor person,
Against the Great Wall!
You are only twenty-seven or -eight of age and your future is greatly promising. Above all, you must aim to be a great man in maturity and, without becoming content with temporary honor, work hard from this moment, striving to leave a name imperishable for a thousand years in the history of English literature. Tatsuo … has left nothing for the history of Japan, let alone for the history of the world. It is merely that because his poems are inept (they are, yes, inept when viewed in Chinese literature), because they meet the taste of those without a discerning eye as readers, a handful of students, who just want to feel good, recite them. You must draw your own conclusion from Tatsuo’s example.
It was perhaps on this date in 317 that the half-brother and successor of Alexander the Great was put to death, just another casualty as the conqueror’s vast empire fragmented.
The half-witted Philip III Arrhidaeus (or Arridaeus) didn’t exactly seem like he was born to rule — or maybe he was and that was just the problem. Plutarch juicily speculated that the boy was muddled intentionally by the snake-worshiping wife of Macedonian conqueror Philip II, Olympias. Olympias was the mother of a kid named Alexander whom she was trying to advance to the throne ahead of his half-siblings; Angelina Jolie made an apt choice to depict her at her ruthless harem-politicking best.
Arrhidaeus was the son of Philip by a courtesan named Philinna, a woman of low birth. His deficiency in understanding was the consequence of a distemper, in which neither nature nor accident had any share. For it is said, there was something amiable and great in him, when a boy; which Olympias perceiving, gave him potions that disturbed his brain.
The problem for Macedon as for Arrhidaeus came after Alexander the Great’s brilliant career closed with his unexpected, youthful death.
The stupendous empire had no obvious heir, and different factions of Alexander’s military backed different candidates. Long story short, the Arrhidaeus succeeded as the titular, but powerless, king, under a succession of regents who were prone to untimely deaths.
“Merely” titular kingship is a pretty powerful post in itself, though, and Arrhidaeus’s wife Eurydice began maneuvering to gain a wider sphere of action from her now-allied, now-enemy regents, who were themselves fighting one another. In 317, Eurydice backed the wrong horse, and she and the hubby were put to death after capture by his rival, who was at the time allied with Olympias.
Alexander’s empire was fracturing, and would soon come completely apart (one of Alexander’s generals founded the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt, which ended with Cleopatra‘s asp). It was a dangerous environment for everyone within a pikestaff of power, which meant that at least Arrhidaeus and Eurydice could take solace from the next world when the very same fate befell Olympias herself.
(More posthumous consolation: the Rimae Ariadaeus lunar crater is named for this short-lived figurehead.)
The funerary tumulus at Vergina, one of Greece’s most spellbinding archaeological treasures, features an in situ tomb whose occupant — though grandly claimed to be the more impressive Philip II — might, in fact, be Philip III. The contents of this tomb have been the subjected of spirited academic, and even nationalist, disputation, on which topics this blog is blessedly destitute of authority.
This Yule, we present an ancient Danish ballad which “is probably too true a picture of the lawless conduct of men of the highest rank, and of a state of things not confined at that period to the islands of Denmark.”
The Robbers at Nordenshaw
The Robbers lurking at Nordenshaw*
From out the green-wood creep,
And march by night to the farmer’s house,
Their Yule with him to keep.**
They’ve march’d away to the farmer’s house
With each in hand a spear;
“Come, cousin, see, we are kith and kin,
“Tap us thy Christmas beer.
“And, farmer, lodge us all tonight,
“And well with liquor ply,
“And with us leave thy pretty wife,
“Or, farmer, thou shalt die.”
“I’ll freely pour my mead and ale,
“And well I’ll serve you too;
“But, Sirs, by all that’s good above,
“No outrage on us do.
“Now if upon my house ye seize,
“And lord it at your will,
“And if ye put my wife to shame,
“That were outrageous ill.”
Some on the table threw their swords,
Some cloaks of fur so fine,
Some bade the honest farmer’s wife
Bring in the beer and wine.
A cloth of woven silk she took,
And over the table spread;
And there her ale and wine they drank,
And ate her meat and bread.
A cautious wife was Oaselille,
And used her words with care;
She rose and told the robber guests
She would their beds prepare.
No thought had she, good Oaselille,
With them to share her bed;
But left them feasting, and for help
Through the dark forest sped.
With hurried step through bush and field
Ran on the lusty dame,
And after four long weary miles
To Drost Sir Peter’s† came.
She reach’d Sir Peter’s courtyard gate,
Drew on her mantle blue,
And boldly up to the upper room,
Sir Peter’s chamber, flew.
“Wake up, Drost Peter Hoseale, wake,
“No moment longer sleep;
“The thieves, that lurk’d at Nordenshaw,
“With us their Christmas keep.
“What! still, Sir Peter, slumbering on
“Nor yet but half awake?
“Those robbers twelve are at the Grange,
“All twelve are now to take.”
Then rose the Drost and call’d his men,
And bade them all to arm;
“Wake up, my men, there’s come tonight
“Good news from yonder farm.
“Wake up, no moment more delay,
“And d’on your trusty mail;
“For Nilus Ufridson is there,
And not the man to quail.”
“Where,” ask’d those sturdy robbers twelve,
They’d drunk of ale so deep,
“Where’s now the farmer’s pretty wife?
“We’ll have her here to sleep.”
“Chide not, good Sirs, a short delay”
The grey-coat farmer said;
“She is even now to the chamber gone
“To make her guests their bed.”
The farmer out of his window look’d,
And saw the Drost’s array;
“There stop here thirty men at arms,
“Are dress’d like cushats gray.”
Then answer’d Nilus Ufridson,
“Of such I’m not afraid,
“If but my comrades stand as firm,
“And faithful prove my blade.”
“No,” answer’d Lave Rimordson,
“And scann’d the troop afield,
“For such men care we not a bean,
“To them we’ll never yield.”
They beat the door with sword and spear
And rais’d a fearful shout;
“Up up, Sir Nilus Ufridson!
“Thy gang and thou come out.”
“Seven tons of gold I’ll give thee, Drost,
“And silver other five,
“To let us hence in peace depart
“My men and me alive.”
“Thy silver, Nilus, heed I not,
“As little heed thy gold;
“Through thee weeps many an orphan child
“For friends beneath the mould.”
Hard fought Sir Nilus Ufridson,
And well he kept his ground,
And heavy were from bar and beam
The blows he dealt around.
Nor less did Lave Rimordson,
But fought with might and main
Till at the hilt by dint of blows
He broke his sword in twain.
He dash’d the hilt against a stone,
The blade stuck in the mould;
“And now, my only chance of life,
“I’ll try good words and gold.
“Drost Peter Hoseale, spare my life,
“And do me no disgrace;
“I’m near of kin to the Danish Queen
“And of an Emperor’s race.”
“If near of kin to the Queen thou art,
“And all so nobly born,
“Why to the Farmer’s didst thou go,
“And treat his rights with scorn?”
So seized Sir Peter all the twelve,
And townward march’d them off;
And set them side by side on poles,
The people’s jest and scoff.
And there they lie on rack and wheel
To bear the heat and cold;
But to the King the Drost has brought
Twelve heavy chests of gold.
On this day in 1942 in Stalingrad, Russia, seventeen-year-old shoemaker and spy Sasha Fillipov was executed by the German Army for espionage. The Battle of Stalingrad, which had been in progress since July, was bleeding the city white and would continue to do so until the following February. Young Sasha would be just one of over two million casualties.
One death, millions of deaths. Stalin had a quote about that.
Sasha, who had already become a master cobbler, simultaneously volunteered his shoemaking services for the invading German Army and his spying services for the Russian Army. He became a regular behind German lines, and as he made and repaired their shoes and boots he also stole documents, made note of whatever military activity he could see, eavesdropped on conversations and reported it all to the Russians.
Eventually he was discovered, and two days before Christmas he and two other teenagers were led barefoot through the snow and hung from acacia trees on Bryanskaya Street. His parents were there to witness the execution, but his father couldn’t bear to watch and ran away. He also left a ten-year-old brother.
In 1944 he was posthumously awarded the Order of the Red Banner for his services to Russia. The street where he died was renamed after him, as was a school on that street. Today, however, Sasha is most remembered for being a minor character in the wildly-inaccurate-but-still-a-thrill-to-watch film, Enemy at the Gates. Sasha in the movie is portrayed as a much younger boy, about twelve years old, and is played by Gabriel Thomson.
On this date in 1815, the Catholic priest turned revolutionary leader Jose Maria Morelos was shot for rebellion.
Morelos was born in New Spain — the town of his nativity was posthumously named in his honor — and entered adulthood a humble agricultural laborer* before engaging the career in letters necessary to undertake Holy Orders.
Designated to save his countrymen’s souls, he proposed instead to save their liberties and ungratefully joined up with fellow-priest Miguel Hidalgo when the latter sounded the tocsin for the Mexican War of Independence.
Morelos distinguished himself rapidly in the revolutionary army, and upon Hidalgo’s capture attained its leadership, complete with Generalissimo status.
Upon capture, he was handled first — and rather meticulously — by the Inquisition, which defrocked him in an auto de fe before relaxing him to the secular authority for the inevitable punishment.
Without a dissentient voice it [was] agreed that … [Morelos] be declared guilty of malicious and pertinacious imperfect confession, a formal heretic who denied his guilt, a disturber and persecutor of the hierarchy and a profaner of the sacraments; that he was guilty of high treason, divine and human, pontifical and royal … his property should be confiscated to the king … His three children were declared subject to infamy and the legal disabilities of descendants of heretics.
* “His morals were those of his class,” remarks our source on the Inquisition. “He admitted to having three children, born of different mothers during his priesthood, but he added that his habits, though not edifying, had not been scandalous, and the tribunal seemed to think so, for little attention was paid to this during his trial.”