Posts filed under 'Capital Punishment'

1932: Jose Feliciano Ama, Izalco indigenous peasant

Add comment January 28th, 2020 Headsman

El Salvador campesino Jose Feliciano Ama was hanged in the town square of Izalco on this date in 1932 during a ferocious repression of the peasantry.

In an environment of desperate economic immiseration for nearly all Salvadorans below the landed oligarchy, the heavily indigenous western peasantry rebelled on January 22, 1932 — aided or led by the Communist Party.*

This fate of this rebellion might be inferred by its historiographical sobriquet, the Salvadoran peasant massacre — or simply la Matanza, the slaughter.

In numerical terms, it ran to well into the tens of thousands, maybe up to 40,000 — indiscriminately visited on peasants of originario complexion in the zone of rebellion, batches of them summarily shot into mass graves they’d been forced to dig for themselves.

In the Pipil town of Izalco, where coffee latifundias dominated the best agricultural land,* up to a quarter of the population was butchered. None of those put to la Matanza were more recognizable nor more vividly recalled than the local rebel leader Feliciano Ama English Wikipedia entry | Spanish), extrajudicially noosed in front of the Izalco church. Today a small plaque in this square honors him as a popular martyr.

* See States and Social Evolution: Coffee and the Rise of National Governments in Central America. An heiress of coffee magnate and former president Tomas Regalado allegedly forced our Feliciano Ama off his lands by dint of brute force.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,El Salvador,Execution,Hanged,History,Mature Content,No Formal Charge,Power,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Revolutionaries,Summary Executions,Torture

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1872: George “Charcoal” Botts

Add comment January 27th, 2020 Headsman

It’s the old, old story: conniving war profiteer helps client get divorce, conniving war profiteer installs divorced client as mistress, rival lover also awaiting divorced client’s divorce shoots conniving war profiteer, rival lover winds up on Executed Today.

It’s the story of George Botts (hanged January 27, 1872) and D.C. Civil War gadabout Oliver “Pet” Halsted. Friends of the site Murder By Gaslight has the details.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Murder,New Jersey,Sex,USA

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1866: The Nashville murderers of William Hefferman

Add comment January 26th, 2020 Headsman

Blood accumulates upon us. Verily, it does seem that the reins of justice have been loosely thrown to the devil, and that we are all driving at breakneck speed in the same direction.

-Nashville Banner (via)

On this date in 1866, four youths employed as teamsters in the Army corrals of Union-occupied Nashville were hanged for a brutal highway robbery/murder.

The victim was William Hefferman, a wealthy railway contractor. His assailants were George Crabb/Craft, James Lysaught, Thomas Perry/Ferry, and James Knight; Knight at 20 was the only one out of his teens. On the night of November 22, 1865, they held up Hefferman’s carriage. The situation turned deadly when Hefferman’s son-in-law, attempting to protect the old man from the blows of the assailants when he refused to give them any money, fired a shot that wounded Crabb — which led to a return shot that mortally wounded Hefferman. He succumbed to the wound a few days later.

This was the immediate, unsettled aftermath of the U.S. Civil War, occasion for a robust crime wave that held Middle Tennessee in terror. “Nashville is infested by bands of robbers and murderers,” complained the Ohio newspaper The Spirit of Democracy (Dec. 6, 1865). Hefferman’s murder would be one of the signal crimes of that interim and draw nationwide outrage — all of which helped the killers’ associates to shop them very speedily. The army’s drumhead court-martial was gaveled in within a week and the hoodlums were lucky to get that far. “Great excitement exists in the city,” a dispatch to the Daily Ohio Statesman (Nov. 28, 1865) reported. “The streets are thronged with men vowing vengeance and threatening lynch law. Tonight meetings are being held in each ward to form a citizen patrol. A spark may incite the crowd to mob law.”

As it was a military trial, the appeal went up the chain of command to U.S. President Andrew Johnson,* who denied it. However, such a proceeding would not have been licit under the imminent (April 1866) U.S. Supreme Court holding in Ex Parte Milligan — which held that military courts cannot try civilians wherever civilian courts are open.

It is their youth, their boyishness, that leaps off the page in the accounts of their last hours — such as this from the Cleveland Daily Leader of January 29:

The four Heffernan [sic] murderers were hung to-day, at thirteen minutes past twelve o’clock. Their real names are James Knight, Thomas Perry, George Crab and James Lysaught. Two had been in the rebel army.

Yesterday several orthodox ministers called, conversed and prayed with the prisoners, who exhibited some emotion. Afterward, Father Begrath, of the Catholic Church, was with them. They all professed the Roman Catholic faith. Knight and Perry were baptised. The other two had been baptised in infancy. The prisoners had previously shown great hardihood, singing such pieces as “Bold Jack Dunaho” and “Bingen on the Rhine.” The past two days had tamed them down, but they were still stolid, frivolous and careless, joking about their doom.

This morning, Perry’s brother brought him clothing. The parting scene between them was heart-rending, Perry giving way to tears and sobs. Colonel Innis provided the others with clothing. Lysaught said, at first, that he didn’t want any pants, as those he had on were good as gold to hang in. Crab was asked to tell who shot Hefferman. He replied, “That is not a fair question; I’ll never tell that in this world.”

Father Begrath came about ten o’clock to attend them in their last moments. Lysaught said he felt as gay as a lay. He said he had been badly treated, else he would be with his parents now. Father Begrath read a touching letter from Lysaught’s parents to the Bishop, asking him to have James’ grave marked that some day they might take the body away. He was earnestly exhorted to repentance, but he remained almost stolid. Some one in the room having a looking-glass, he jumped up, exclaiming, “By golly, I must look at my face once more.” Then turning to Crab, he remarked, “Look at yours — it is your last chance.”

Crab replied, “It aint any use.” Lysaught asked, laughingly, “afraid you’ll break the glass?” when all four seemed much tickled. Crab having eased Lysaught’s handkerchief, the latter playfully snatched it away, saying, “let me smell it everlasting.” Then, turning to Crab, said, “you’re enough to make a monkey grin.”

Perry was asked if he feared to die. He replied “I don’t dread it a bit. It’s best to take it easy, it’s got to come.”

Crab indicted the following letter to Byron Heston, Oswego, New York:

George Crab, the boy who used to run on the packet with you, in 1861, is about to be hung. He requests to be remembered, kindly, to yourself and family.

Perry took his brother aside at parting, and advised him never to indulge in sinful, lazy ways, never to swear, and to let alone whisky, cards and bad houses, “for the like of this has brought me to the gallows. I want you to take my body home and let mother see me. I am sorry she did not see me before I was hung. Tell her to meet me in a better world, as I am prepared to die. God bless you! Good-bye!”

When the priest left them for a few moments they began to chat and joke about the ropes that would hang them, the feeling of contrition being evanescent.

An immense crowd, numbering fifteen thousand persons, were on the ground. At twenty minutes past eleven, the prisoners were brought to the gallows, which they mounted with a firm step, and stood gazing around for nineteen minutes, while the charges and specifications and sentence were read. Perry composedly leaned against one of the uprights, and surveyed the crowd. Crabb took hold of the noose before him, and viewed it with a comic look, testing its strength with his thumb, and rubbing his head against the rope.

Knight buttoned his coat, chewing his cud of tobacco violently and showing nervousness. As his arms were bound he quivered a moment. During the prayer he knelt, bowing his head and holding his handkerchief to his nose, which was bleeding. His last words were: “I have no hard feelings against any one. I am going to a better world.” Lysaught took a farewell chew of tobacco, saying “Pretty rough, ain’t it?” He asked forgiveness of all whom he had injured, adding, “I am glad we had time for repentance; I am glad we were removed from the jail to the Penitentiary. If I had stayed at the jail I would have starved to death.” Crab also asked forgiveness for his misdeeds, and thanked Mr. Johnson, keeper of the Penitentiary, for his kindness. Just before the drop fell, he shrugged his shoulders and exclaimed, “It’s kind o’ cold.” A chum called on him on the platform, and was affectionately kissed by Knight and Crab; as he went down the steps, the former called out, “Take warning by this.”

Just before the drop fell, Perry held out his hat and said, “Jim Johnson give my brother that.”

At thirteen minutes after 12 o’clock the rope was cut, and the four bodies fell with a heavy thump. Lysaught’s neck was broken. The knot slipped with Knight and Crab, who died with many struggles and convulsive writhings. Perry died by strangulation, but did not move much.

After hanging twenty minutes the bodies were cut down and placed in common pauper coffins.

An early attempt was made to erect whisky, candy and apple stands among the crowd of spectators, but the military promptly interfered.

The bearing of the condemned showed that they had agreed to brave it out. Their highest estimation of conduct on such occasions seems to have been to die game. They certainly met death with as little show of fear as it possible to imagine in youths not out of their teens.

* By coincidence, Johnson had been the military governor of Tennessee during the war.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Tennessee,U.S. Military,USA

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1522: Didrik Slagheck

Add comment January 24th, 2020 Headsman

Danish scheming archbishop Didrik Slagheck was burned in Copenhagen on this date in 1522 — sacrificed to his sovereign’s convenience.

Slagheck rolled into Stockholm in 1517 in the train of the papal legate who had been vainly dispatched to calm tempers during the run-up to what became the Swedish War of Liberation.

That’s liberation from Denmark, the effective overlord via the Kalmar Union joining those two countries and Norway besides. In 1520, with ecclesiastical mediation a bust and Sweden restive, the Danish king Christian II invaded. Slagheck made his villainous historical reputation by opportunistically hitching on with the vengeful king, the same king who would execute him in the end.

Things went great for Slagheck at first: he helped queue up the enemies list for the victorious Christian’s demonstrative mass beheading, the Stockholm Massacre. And he got his 30 pieces of krona right away in the form of an archbishopric which had come open along with its former owner’s neck on the occasion of said massacre. Thereafter he commanded troops in the field during the rebellion of Gustav Vasa. By 1521 he’d been kicked upstairs,

promoted to the position of archbishop of Lund, then a Danish see, entering the cathedral at his installation on November 25th with great pageantry and to the sound of martial music. During the same autumn, however, a papal legation in Copenhagen had been investigating what had taken place in Stockholm after the coronation, and five days after his installation as archbishop Slagheck was summoned to give an account of the advice he had given and the manner in which he had acted. Christian II decided to abandon him in an attempt to clear his own reputation, and Slagheck was executed and burnt in Copenhagen on January 24th 1522. (Source)

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Denmark,Execution,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Political Expedience,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Sweden

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1952: Võ Thị Sáu

Add comment January 23rd, 2020 Headsman

Eighteen- or nineteen-year-old student and revolutionary Võ Thị Sáu was shot by the French on this date in 1952.

(cc) image from Michal Manas.

A Viet Minh activist from childhood, Sáu (English Wikipedia entry | the more extensive Vietnamese) got her start in revolutionary praxis chucking a grenade at a group of French soldiers when she was 14.

She did three different turns in French custody over the very few years remaining her, the last of which was at Côn Đảo Prison* awaiting execution for murdering a French officer and a number of Vietnamese collaborators — “crimes” committed before she had attained majority. She poured invective upon the court that condemned her, correctly prophesying that Vietnamese resistance would defeat it.

Today Sáu is well-represented in monuments around Vietnam where she is of course honored as a patriotic hero; her tomb in Côn Đảo receives a steady tribute of offerings from admirers. She’s valorized in the 1994 film Daughter of the Red Earth:

* Later infamous as the location where the next imperial power kept its political prisoners in tiny “tiger cages”.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,Execution,France,History,Martyrs,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Shot,Terrorists,Vietnam,Wartime Executions,Women

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1779: Claudius Smith, Cowboy of the Ramapos

Add comment January 22nd, 2020 Headsman

Claudius Smith, a feared Tory guerrilla during the American, was hanged in Goshen, N.Y., on this date in 1779.

“The Cowboy of the Ramapos” for his penchant for livestock-rustling in the Ramapo Mountains, Smith headlined a gang of pro-British criminals/partisans operating out of Monroe, N.Y., near the New Jersey border — a zone of dirty irregular warfare.

Quite a lot of legends apparently proliferated about this guy, including in his own time: one wanted poster described him as seven feet tall.

If you were a British loyalist in his neighborhood you might have figured him along the lines of an Anglo hajduk — the Balkan freebooters who straddled the line between social bandit and hero insurgent. To a Patriot, he was little better than a brigand, and not satisfied with riding off cattle and horses ventured also to invade farm houses for plunder. After one of his band’s deadly raids, Orange County Whigs complained to New York Gov. George Clinton, “we have not thought ourselves secure for a long time. We live so scattered that they can come in the dead of night to any one family & do what they please.”

So unsettled were the wartime frontiers that Gov. Clinton was notably unable to satisfy their petition for quite some time, and Smith’s raids, sometimes working in concert with the pro-British Mohawk commander Joseph Brant, continued to frighten those scattered revolutionists.

A Continental Army major named Jesse Brush finally captured Smith on Long Island late in 1778, and delivered him back to authorities at Orange County who gave him a proper trial and condemned him to hang for several robberies. (Murder wasn’t on the rap sheet.)

One month later, Smith’s son Richard with a band of cowboys revenged the execution by slaying a Goshen man named Richard Clark — and pinning to his corpse a warning to their persecutors.

A Warning to the Rebels

You are hereby warned from hanging any more friends to the government as you did Claudius Smith. You are warned likewise to use James Smith, James Flewelling, and William Cole well and ease them from their irons, for we are determined to hang six for one, for the blood of the innocent cries aloud for vengeance. Your noted friend, Capt. Williams and his crew of robbers and murders we have got in our power, and the blood of Claudius Smith shall be repaid. There are particular companies of us who belong to Col. Butler’s army, Indians as well as white men, and particularly numbers from New York that are resolved to be revenged on you for your cruelty and murders. We are to remind you that you are the beginners and aggressors, for by your cruel oppressions and bloody actions drive us to it. This is the first and we are determined to pursue it on your heads and leaders to the last till the whole of you is massacred.

Dated New York February 1779.

It was tall talk that the raiders couldn’t back up: rewards and informants soon broke up the band, leaving the cowboys and Claudius Smith to pass into history.

Ramblers might enjoy a visit to Claudius Smith’s Den, a cave that formerly served as a refuge for Smith’s gang. Beware of ghosts!


(cc) image from The Turducken.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guerrillas,Hanged,History,Murder,New York,Occupation and Colonialism,Outlaws,Public Executions,Soldiers,Terrorists,Theft,USA,Wartime Executions

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2014: Li Hao

Add comment January 21st, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 2014, China executed a man named Li Hao “for keeping six women in a dungeon as sex slaves and killing two of them,” per CNN’s gloss on Xinhua reports.

A Luoyang government clerk, this Gary Heidnik-like monster turned his basement into a cramped prison where he held six women lured into his clutches from nightclubs and karaoke bars. All were subjected to rape and forced prostitution; two he eventually forced their fellow-inmates to murder.* His spree ended only when one of his captives managed to escape and take the report to police — whose failure to have detected the predator earlier became a public scandal.

“The victims ranged from about 16 to 23 in age, and one who was 20 at the time of kidnap became pregnant,” according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Their lengths of captivity in Li Hao’s personal hell ranged from two months to nearly two years.

* Three of the women Li kidnapped were also convicted of murder. In view of their coercion, they received light sentences (three years for one of them; probation for two others). While this is certainly preferable to execution, there was also understandable protest about victims in such a desperate and traumatic circumstance being prosecuted at all.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,China,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Lethal Injection,Murder,Rape,Sex

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1877: Dato Maharaja Lela, Perak War rebel

Add comment January 20th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1877, the British put a bow on a suppressed rebellion in Malaysia by executing one of its leaders.

The conflict is known as the Perak War. Perak was a sultanate on the Malaysian peninsula that had been torn by conflict for much of the 19th century and in 1874 sought protectorate status from the trade-hungry British who were only too happy to grant it.

Many Malayans were much less happy, and the very next year the first British Resident of Perak, James W. W. Birch, was assassinated by nationalists chuffed at his meddling — launching in the process the brief and unsuccessful Perak War.

The sultan-appointed mufti Dato Maharaja Lela (English Wikipedia entry | Malaysian) was the author of this murder* and then one of the primary leaders of a very short-lived rebellion. It was all done and dusted in a matter of weeks with the British carrying a couple of decisive early engagements and our Maharaja sinking into the wilderness for a few months as a fugitive. Add in some mopping up and there’s your war.

He’d be captured and eventually executed for the Birch assassination, in Taiping, Perak (Not to be confused with Taiping Island, in Taiwan); in this he had a better fate than the sultan, whom the British merely exiled to the Seychelles — where the deposed sovereign occupied his time adapting a French ditty into what became the Malaysian national anthem.

* Birch’s ham-handed carelessness of local mores is the stock motivation imputed to his killers, but some have pointed to his move towards outlawing the slave trade as a serious ding to Dato Maharaja Lela’s bottom line.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Malaysia,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Separatists,Soldiers,Wartime Executions

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1957: József Dudás, Hungarian Revolution wild card

Add comment January 19th, 2020 Headsman

Hungarian politician József Dudás was hanged on this date in 1957, for participation in the previous year’s abortive Hungarian Revolution.

Although he’d been a Communist in his prewar youth, Dudás won election to the postwar government on the Independent Smallholders line. This agrarian opposition party was gradually pushed out of power and eventually suppressed over the course of the late 1940s; Dudás himself ended up getting arrested and detailed for a long visit to the feared Romanian Securitate.

He’d long since been repatriated as a non-political engineer when the Hungarian Revolution briefly cracked open the horizon of possibilities in the autumn of 1956.

Dudás immediately proved himself not so non-political — and a distinct thorn in the side of the Imre Nagy government. He advocated not only for Hungarian Independence (which was also the title of his newspaper) but also for a multiparty reformulation of the Hungarian state, which was a bit much for Nagy to process during the revolution’s two-week lease on life. Dudás’s penchant for off-script revolutionary improvisations, such as putting out feelers to Soviet commanders and also having his militia lynch agents of the temporarily disempowered secret police, made him an unwelcome wild card and Nagy had him arrested shortly before Soviet tanks re-established control.

The Soviets, of course, also had no use themselves for the peasants’ party deputy who’d been trying to subvert Nagy from the right.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Hungary,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Power,Revolutionaries,Russia,Treason,USSR

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1938: Vladimir Beneshevich, Byzantinist

Add comment January 17th, 2020 Headsman

One of Russia’s most cherished national myths is that of the “Third Rome” — Russia (via its protean polity, Muscovy) as the successor to Byzantium, which in turn succeeded Rome. Modern humans might no longer do the thing where the official lineage of the sitting dynasty traces to the loins of the local war-god, but claiming a through line all the way back to Romulus and Remus is a pretty good simulacrum.

Like all national mythologies, it’s an idea with a history of its own — and not one that enjoyed anything like its contemporary popularity at the moment that, say, Byzantium fell to the Turks. After all, those Byzantines were were an emblem of defeat.

“Political thinkers of this period, for example Ivan Peresvetov, warned Ivan the Terrible against imitating the Byzantine basileis [emperors], who had lost their empire because they had ceded their prerogatives to their magnates,” as S.A. Ivanov puts it in a chapter of The Reception of Byzantium in European Culture since 1500 — our primary source for this post. “Generally speaking, Byzantium was viewed ultimately as a failure, and nobody particularly cherished that pedigree. The same Peresvetov presented Mehmet the Conqueror as a true role model for the Muscovite tsar.”

It was a Pskov monk named Filofei (Philotheus) who formulated the Rome-Constantinople-Moscow succession around the turn of the 16th century but according to Ivanov the appeal to Byzantium was no more than occasionally and superficially grasped at in the centuries that followed, and then completely binned by Peter the Great — oriented as he was towards those counter-Byzantine values of efficiency, modernity and the west. (It’s only quite recently that western interest in Byzantium has revived.)

Only in the 19th century did Byzantium as a kindred civilization emerge widely for Russians in something like the shape of the myth as it exists today. No surprise, the scholarly field associated with it, fascinated as it was with kingship and Orthodox Christianity, became associated in the subsequent generations with right-wing politics … and by the end of this post, we will come to the execution during the Stalinist purges of an eminent scholar of Byzantium named Vladimir Beneshevich. While this fate is not surprising on its face for the circumstances, we think the journey of the idea — continuing as it does down to the present day — is well worth the taking. The following is excerpted from Ivanov:

The Byzantine question reappeared in the nineteenth century, when the Russian elite became aware of Russia’s uncertain status among the civilizations of the world. Yet the tone of the discussion had changed: in 1836 the philosopher Pyotr Chaadaev in his ‘Philosophical Letters’, asserted that the very choice made by Rus’ in favour of Constantinople, not Rome, had rendered inevitable the misfortune of Russia: … ‘Driven by a baneful fate, we turned to Byzantium, wretched and despised by nations, for a moral code that was to become the basis of our education’. This was the opening of the debate that has continued until today without any substantial variations in its terms or arguments …

Byzantium as an empire once again gained importance in the middle of the nineteenth century. When the notorious Jakob Fallmerayer [a race theorist later beloved of the Nazis -ed.] enunciated his theory regarding the Slavicization of the Balkans in Byzantine times, he wanted to warn the West against the ‘Russian menace’; the Russophobic nature of his theory notwithstanding, the new trend of thought in Russia, the so-called Slavophiles used it to substantiate their claim to the Byzantine legacy. The earliest Slavophile and the great Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev had many conversations with Fallmerayer in Munich ‘de fatis byzantinis’, as the latter notes in his diary, in which he also briefly recorded Tyutchev’s ideas: ‘Byzanz Heilige Stadt. Pruritus Rezidenz zu verlegen’. For Tyutchev, as for the other ‘Slavophiles’, Constantinople was a ‘natural’ goal, but it was not an end in itself: in his poem ‘Prophesy’ (1850) Tyutchev implored the Russian tsar: ‘And the vaults of ancient Sophia / In resurrected Byzantium / Will again shelter the altar of Christ. / Throw yourself down in front of it, oh, Tsar of Russia, / And rise as the Tsar of all the Slavs’. The fact that the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1853 coincided with the 400th anniversary of the Fall of Byzantium inspired a new upswing of imperialistic dreams. The poet Apollon Maikov wrote: ‘Let everyone know that the dream of Christian Byzantium is still alive in Russia!’

There were two facets to the Russian debate on the Byzantine legacy: the political one dealt with the fate of Constantinople and the Orthodox Christians after the imminent demise of the Ottoman Empire. Some, like Fyodor Dostoevsky, insisted that ‘Constantinople must become Russian’; others thought that it should become the capital of a Pan-Slavic federation. Saltykov-Shchedrin, a great Russian satirist of the second half of the nineteenth century, mocked the Russian obsession with Byzantium in ‘The History of a Town’. Yet, this discussion on the fate of Constantinople seemed exciting and flattering to wide circles of learned society, especially in the 1870s, when a successful war with Turkey brought Russian troops to the very outskirts of Istanbul.

The other aspect of the Byzantine debate concerned domestic issues: is Russia a unique civilization, with only one predecessor, Byzantium, or is it part of Europe? When the famous German historian Zacharia von Lingenthal proposed a theory that the Byzantine peasant commune had been a Slavic innovation, this hypothetical construct was enthusiastically embraced by the Slavophiles. However, not everyone in Russia regarded the Slavic ‘link’ as indispensable. Konstantin Leontiev, a diplomat and philosopher, despised the Slavs and adored Byzantium. He used it as a symbol of theocracy, which he then offered as a model for emulation. ‘Byzantium gave us all our strength’, he wrote. ‘Under its banner we shall withstand the onslaught of the entire Europe if indeed it dares impose on us the rot and filth of its prescriptions for an earthly paradise’. Of course, he knew next to nothing about Byzantium — to him it was but an ideal construct. In his book Byzantism and Slavdom, which has been highly respected, praised and criticized ever since its publication in 1875, Byzantium proper is mentioned just a few times. Yet Leontiev was the first to coin the term ‘Byzantism’ (as opposed to ‘Byzantinism’), which became commonly used by the admirers of the Empire as a label for a benign tyranny. As a counterbalance, another new coinage, ‘byzantischina’,* emerged as the equivalent of the Western derogatory epithets, such as the German ‘Byzantinismus’ or the French ‘Byzantiner’. The debate about the Byzantine legacy involved prominent public figures such as Alexander Herzen, who condemned Byzantium for ‘debility’, as well as Vladimir Soloviev and Vasilii Rozanov. Rozanov, one of the greatest and most original thinkers of the Russian ‘Silver Age’, objected to Leontiev’s utopian constructs; his observations were so sharp that they are worth quoting at some length:

When, in what epoch were we particularly imbued with Byzantine principles? Wouldn’t everyone agree that it was during the time when Moscow was building the Russian state? But if that is so, why did we absorb these principles not during the period of our child-like receptiveness when Byzantium was alive and close to us, but at the time of our distrustful seclusion when Byzantium had already fallen? … Don’t the Byzantine origins of the Muscovite way of life represent a phenomenon that is far more illusory than real? … So when Byzantium was transformed from a powerful and attractive empire into a slave of Islam … that’s when we want Russia to be imbued with the principles of Byzantium. Isn’t that an illusion? Aren’t we ascribing to the imitation our deeply original and unique aspects? … Sophisticated and depraved Byzantium that mixed abstract disputes of theological and philosophical nature with orgies, with the noise and debauchery of the circus, can hardly be seriously regarded as an antecedent and prototype for Muscovy — morosely silent, stubbornly persistent, far more forceful than devious, so universally unrefined in its thought, taste and emotional inclinations.

Never afraid of internal contradictions, Rozanov in his later writings embraced the idea that Byzantium in fact did play a great role in Russian history, but that its role was negative: ‘Has the millennium of Byzantism in Russia done any good? One can answer with one’s hand on one’s heart: no, it has not! Then be consistent and help liberate Russia from the yoke of Byzantism’.

As the Russian Empire entered the twentieth century, Russian Byzantinism was at its peak: the conquest of the Straits (Bosphoros/Dardanelles) and the erection of a cross over St Sophia were the prime goals of Russian foreign policy. The public sentiments of the time can be illustrated by the fact that in 1912, a young Osip Mandelshtam, whose family tradition barely had any connection with the imperial Orthodox yearnings — he was a Jew who had recently moved with his parents from Poland to St Petersburg — wrote enthusiastic poems about Sophia of Constantinople:

1.
Hagia Sophia — here to stop and stare
The Lord has ordered people and the tsars!
Your dome, as an eyewitness once described it,
As if by chains is hanging from the stars.

2.
To all a shining light — age of Justinian,
When to steal off for foreign gods unseen
Dedicated Diana the Ephesian
Hundred and seven marble columns green.

3.
To what aspired your generous creator,
When high in spirit and in reason blessed,
He laid your features on the ground
And pointed them directions east and west?

4.
The temple shines, in the world’s aura bathing,
And forty windows — triumph of the light;
On sails under the dome the four archangels
Finest of all and basking in delight.

5.
This building will outlast people and ages
So wise and spherical and nobly built
And incandescent weeping of the angels
Will not corrode away the darkened gilt.

The idea that Russia itself was the reincarnation of Byzantium was mot graphically reflected in the architectural style referred to as ‘Byzantine’. This emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century and reached its peak in the first decade of the twentieth century, when 40 ‘Byzantine’ cathedrals were completed all across the Russian Empire as well as beyond Russian borders: in Greece, in Bulgaria, and even in France and Germany (in Biarritz and Kissingen). The most ostentatious and grand among them was the Naval Cathedral of St Nicholas in Kronstadt, whose similarity to Hagia Sophia of Constantinople, both in its exterior and interior decorations, is striking.

Byzantine Studies was one of the pillars of the Russian humanities. In Turkey, the Russian Archaeological Institute in Constantinople held a leading position among the city’s European academic institutions. Naturally the vast majority of scholars involved in Byzantine Studies were monarchists or at least conservatives. The only republican among them was Pavel Bezobrazov, whose book about Michael Psellos was a veiled critique of the Russian imperial bureaucracy. This tradition of ‘Aesopian language’, talking of Byzantium but implying Russia, was later used by Soviet Byzantinists.

The outbreak of World War I further spurred public debate. In 1915, the leading Byzantinist Fyodor Uspenskii submitted to Tsar Nicholas II a memo detailing the urgent steps to be taken after the Russian takeover of Constantinople. In the same year, Archbishop Antonii Khrapovitskii, one of Russia’s most influential clerics (he was the first contender for the Patriarchate) published a plea for the restoration of the Byzantine Empire in its original borders — in a sense, his dreams were even bolder than the appetites of the [Greek irredentist -ed.] ‘Megali Idea’. Yet the official position on Istanbul was less favourable to the Greeks. On 3 March 1915, Tsar Nicholas II told the French ambassador (whose name, ironically, was Paleologue), ‘The city of Constantinople and southern Thrace must be annexed to my Empire’. After the Entente Cordiale accepted his claim, the capture of Tsar’grad looked imminent. On Christmas Day, 1916, the mystical poet Vyacheslav Ivanov implored, ‘Oh Rus’, when you wrap yourself in the purple robes of Tsar’grad, do not serve worldly interests’.

The February revolution of 1917 did not stop the imperial hysteria; instead, the Byzantine question became even more acute. In the atmosphere of overwhelming uncertainty after the fall of the monarchy, some theologians blamed Byzantium for excessive gnosticism and asceticism, which, in their minds, were later planted into the Russian psyche.

The Bolsheviks who came to power in October 1917 could not have cared less about Byzantium, but those on the other side of the barricades did not forget about it: the abrupt collapse of the formidable edifice of the Russian Empire compelled religious and political thinkers to search for the roots of this catastrophe. The famous theologian Sergii Bulgakov,** for example, blamed Byzantium for the loneliness of the Russian culture, which made it vulnerable to pernicious influences.

Together with Christianity, at that fateful moment Russia also adopted all Byzantine insularity and its constraints; it became separated from the whole Western, Christian Europe by a “Great Wall” and remained isolated … Meanwhile, Byzantium’s attitude towards Russia was never sincere or warm, but always arrogant and hollow-hearted.

Bulgakov’s book At the Walls of Chersonnesos, written at the end of the brutal Civil War, in the atmosphere of terror and despair, was all about Byzantium and its legacy, as if they were the primary concerns of the time. The writer Alexei Tolstoy, one of the Russian emigres in Constantinople in 1920, describes the bitter disappointment of a White-Guard officer in this deceptive imperial dream: ‘Byzantium, may it go to hell! So much of our Russian blood has been spilled for this damn Byzantium. It’s the usual Russian stupidity all over again!’

To the Bolsheviks, Byzantium was one of the attributes of tsarism; more generally, for people of the new, avant-garde era, it became a symbol of everything dilapidated, moth-eaten and dusty. From the late 1920s through to the late 1930s, the very word ‘Byzantine’ was banned and was used only in quotation marks. Byzantine scholars became the targets of repressions; Vladimir Beneshevich, the most prominent among them, was executed.

* Russian uses the -schina suffix to attach an evaluative negative judgment to a period or concept; for example, a term like Stalinism (whatever its specific connotations) is a neutral description, whereas Stalinschina conveys the speaker’s scorn. One common way to refer to Stalinism’s apex of secret policing and internal purges is by reference to his notorious police chief, Nikolai Yezhov — hence, the yezhovschina.

** No relation to the novelist Mikhail Bulgakov.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Byzantine Empire,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Intellectuals,Russia,Shot,USSR

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