1636: Johann Albrecht Adelgrief, king-scourged 1941: Bronislava Poskrebysheva

1942: Mark Retiunin’s rebels of the gulag

October 12th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1942, the survivors of a remarkable rebellion in a Soviet gulag camp were shot.

The Ust-Usinsky rebellion in Russia’s northern Komi Republic unfolded in the first months of that same year, under the leadership of an Archangel-area peasant named Mark Andreevich Retiunin.

Retiunin wound up in the area in the usual way, sentenced to the work camps for a bank robbery. But he’d been released in 1938 as a model, industrious prisoner, and now as a non-inmate civilian he managed forestry at the “Vorkutlag” camps near the city of Vorkuta.*

“He was one of those peasant guys who were tried as bandits during collectivization,” another prisoner remembered of him.

He walked like a bear, his red-haired shaggy head was slightly tilted forward, and his eyes looked bearish, too. He was a romantic. In his hut, standing on high stilts, lay a volume of Shakespeare. When I took it and opened it, Retiunin exclaimed “Now there was a man!” and began to recite by heart:

Yet better thus, and known to be contemn’d,
Than still contemn’d and flatter’d. To be worst,
The lowest and most dejected thing of fortune,
Stands still in esperance, lives not in fear!**

“Do you understand? We live in hope, the rise is open! This is not given to every worm.”

From late 1941, pressure on the camp had increased frighteningly with the onset of open warfare against Germany: production quotas increased, and political purges pursued the supposed counter-revolutionary saboteurs that had been conjured by the preceding years’ purge trials. In hushed and furtive conversations, Retiunin marshaled fretful associates upon the incredible path of rebellion. “What do we lose if they kill us?” he reasoned. “We will die at labor tomorrow or in battle today. They will all kill one another in the camps, but first they will shoot all those convicted as counterrevolutionaries, including we civilian employees.” For a period of weeks, aided by a fortuitous vacancy in the local NKVD post, Retiunin and company organized their desperate bid to climb the open rise.

“Special Forces 41” named for either or both of the expiring calendar year, or the roster of their conspiracy, mounted their bid on January 24, speedily disarming flat-footed guards. About 50 camp prisoners joined them; many others fled for their lives. For a few impossible days they had the run of the area before word reached the capitals and a force dispatched by Beria arrived to suppress the revolt.

Retiunin himself was chased to ground with the surrounded remnants of Special Forces 41, and shot himself on February 2 after a furious all-day gunfight. Numerous other rebels were killed in combat over the course of those days; an official count has it 48 killed, 6 suicides, and 8 taken prisoner. But the captives were augmented in the months to come by escapees lurking in the wilderness or settlement fringes by ones and twos, rounded up gradually by a now all-too-attentive NKVD. On October 12, approximately 50 people convicted of involvement or complicity in the rebellion were shot en masse. To the extent anyone heard about the rebellion, they were officially slated with aspiring to “establish ties with either fascist Germany or Finland” although interrogations suggested that mere flight from the camps was the true objective of most, and some rebels actually dreamed of making their way to the Soviet front to earn their lives by establishing their patriotic bona fides.

* This city also gives its name to a completely distinct gulag revolt in 1953 — the Vorkuta uprising. Once a mining hub, latter-day Vorkuta has grown grimly depopulated as the coal veins have played out.

** The opening words of Act IV, Scene 1 in King Lear, spoken by Edgar — who will endure his outcast status to become king by the end of the play.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Mass Executions,Power,Russia,Shot,Treason,USSR,Wartime Executions

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