On this date in 1940, Soviet writer Mikhail Koltsov was shot at Lubyanka Prison.
Maybe the premier journalist of the early Bolshevik state, Koltsov (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) founded several magazines in the 1920s — including the still-extant Ogoniok.* His stylistic flair set him apart in an age oppressed by leaden, censorious prose. “If Pravda featured a readable piece in the 1930s, Koltsov was probably the author,” Donald Rayfield puts it in Stalin and His Hangmen. And the man’s charisma didn’t end with pen; he was the lover of (among others) the wife of security chief Nikolai Yezhov.
A convinced communist who had participated in the revolution, his reliability led Stalin to dispatch him to the Spanish Civil War — as a Pravda correspondent but also, of course, a Soviet agent. His role and his many fraught relationships are treated at some length in We Saw Spain Die; one officer of an international brigade wrote that Koltsov and his fellows seemed to breathe freer amid the wild danger of the front — “Here there was none of the slavish terror of the Moscow intellectual. Under the hail of Fascist bullets they forgot the bullet in the back of the neck, the secret executions of the GPU. Their talk was relaxed, uncharged with double meanings, un-Asiatic.”
But Koltsov lived ever in the shadow of Stalin’s terror, and to hear his friend, English correspondent Claud Cockburn tell it, Koltsov too knew it very well: a man for his time who could be a true believer by day and by night crack gallows humor at the creeping purges among friends. “I cannot say I was surprised” by his fall, Cockburn wrote when his onetime comrade disappeared. “And, oddly, I doubt if he was much surprised either. He had lived — and talked and joked — very dangerously, and he had absolutely no illusions so far as I know about the nature of the dangers … He would not, I thought, have been otherwise than satirically amused by some of the almost hysterically sentimental outcries which greeted his removal.” Though difficult to establish with certainty, it is thought that Stalin and Beria broadly suspected their Spanish Civil War emissaries of exposure to Trotskyite machinations, western spies, and other indulgences characteristic of men too far removed from that bullet in the back of the neck. Veterans of this conflict who retured to the USSR were a heavily purged demographic.**
Arrested as a Trotskyite at the end of 1938, he had a year to savor the terrors of interrogation and was made to denounce as western agents former friends like director Vsevolod Meyerhold — who was eventually executed on the same Feb. 1-2 night as Koltsov himself.
His brother, the cartoonist Boris Yefimov,† tried to inquire about him in March 1940 and was told that Koltsov had been interned in the gulag for ten years “without right of correspondence” … a secret police euphemism for a man who would in fact never correspond with anyone again.
* In 1923; this was a re-founding of a periodical dating to 1899, and the magazine naturally claims the earlier vintage for itself.
** Koltsov’s fall also corresponds to Moscow’s pre-World War II rapprochement with Berlin; one of the people his tortured denunciations helped bring down was the Jewish pro-western foreign minister Maxim Litvinov, for whom an anti-fascist alliance had been the policy. Litvinov was succeeded by Molotov — he of the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany.
† Their surname by birth was Fridlyand; their father was a Jewish cobbler in Kiev.
One last coda to our recent Iraqi coup series occurred after a day’s pause in the hecatombs, as reported by the New York Times on Jan. 25, 1970:
BEIRUT, Lebanon, Jan. 24 — Three more men were executed in Baghdad at dawn today bringing to 44 the number shot or hanged since the leftist Baath Government in Iraq headed off a rightist plot on Tuesday.
The three-man special court that has sentenced 37 conspirators said the three were the last of those apprehended. Others, it added, are still at large.
An Iraqi military aircraft landed here this afternoon with a token gift of 30 submachine guns confiscated from the plotters. Iraq has promised to turn over all 3,000 submachine guns captured to the Palestinian commandos.
More blood was spilled in Baghdad this week than after any comparable attempted coup since World War II, and many Arab commentators expressed dismay and horror.
OTHER MASSACRES RECALLED
The nearest approach was 18, shot after a Nasserite rising against a Baathist Government in Syria in July, 1963.
The Baghdad executions fitted the context of Iraq’s violent history, which has led some historians to compare the current regime with that of the eighth-century Abbasid governor Al Hajjaj Ben Yussef, who declared, when he took office, that the Iraqis were a mean people and he was “going to wring their necks.” Great numbers of executions followed.
In more recent times the Iraqis in 1933 killed several thousand Assyrians who had volunteered for armed service with the British. In 1941 several hundred Jews were killed in a major pogrom in Baghdad.
In contrast to Egypt’s bloodless overthrow of King Farouk, the Iraqis in 1958 shot King Faisal and his family in the garden of their palace and went on to drag the bodies of Prince Abdul Illah and Premier Nuri al Said through the streets.
Iraq’s execution mill worked without let-up today with 36 people put to death in 24 hours — all but seven of them accused of plotting to overthrow the Government.
Seven of the men, not connected with the plot, were convicted in November of spying for the U.S., Radio Baghdad said.
It identified one of them, Albert Nounou, as a Jew.
The 29 people who were accused of trying to overthrow the leftist regime of President Ahmed Hassan al Bakr on Tuesday night and early yesterday faced firing squads or hangmen.
Mr. Bakr addressed crowds outside the Presidential palace, saying that any plot against his Government would “only lead to the cutting of the plotters’ throats,” Radio Baghdad said.
The executioners worked past midnight yesterday, carrying out death sentences given to 22 persons convicted of the coup attempt.
Then at dawn, the seven people convicted in November were put to death. A few hours later, Radio Baghdad said six Army officers and a civilian were doomed by a special court for taking part in the attempted coup. Shortly thereafter, the military men were shot by firing squad and the civilian was hanged.
The Government newspaper, “Al Thawra,” said firing squads were using the plotters’ own weapons for the executions.
The Baghdad broadcast said that in addition to the six military men and civilians executed this morning, the court had sentenced three other people to life imprisonment. –U.N.I.
From the Jan. 23, 1970 London Times, under the headline “Toll of executions in Iraq reaches 41″:
Baghdad, Jan. 22. — The abortive coup d’etat in Iraq on Tuesday was engineered with the assistance of the Israel, American, and Iranian secret services, the Iraq news agency said tonight. It made the accusation after the executions of two more soldiers and three civilians, bringing to 41 the total number of alleged plotters executed in Baghdad either by firing squads or hanging since yesterday morning.
Two more men were waiting execution after sentence.
Some 3,000 sub-machineguns, 650,000 rounds of ammunition, and a mobile radio transmitted had been seized, the agency stated.
Earlier today Iraq accused the Iranian Ambassador and four members of his Embassy staff of being implicated in the coup attempt, and ordered them to leave the country within 24 hours.
In Teheran, Iran retaliated by giving the Iraq Ambassador, the military attache, and his three assistants 24 hours to leave Iranian soil. It also ordered the closure of all Iraq consulates in Iran. — Agence France Presse and Reuter
Baghdad, Jan 21. — Twenty-two people were executed in Baghdad today for plotting to overthrow the Iraq Government.
First of all three retired Army men and two serving officers were executed by firing squad. Seventeen more executions were carried out tonight and Baghdad radio said a special three-man tribunal set up to try the plotters was still meeting.
The radio had interrupted its programmes to announce the discovery of a plot, crushed by tanks last night, against the ruling Baath Party. All the plotters were arrested, it said.
Two Government soldiers had died in putting down the conspiracy, the radio said. An official funeral for them will be held in Baghdad tomorrow, and the radio called on the people to attend in thousands.
Although there were no details of how many plotters were arrested, the fact that clashes occurred suggested to observers that an actual attempt had been made against the Government when the Army moved in. Tanks from Rashid Army camp, on the fringes of the capital’s suburbs, foiled the plot, according to the official Iraq news agency.
The radio claimed that the United States, Britain and West Germany were behind the attempted coup.
The Middle East News Agency said some Army officers pretended to join the conspirators and then reported them to the authorities.
The executed men were accused of plotting against the socialist regime of President Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr in the interests of “imperialism and Zionism”. –Reuter, A.P. and U.P.I.
On this date in 1983, Wang Zhong, once the Communist Party Secretary and district head of Haifeng county, Guangdong, was executed for corruption.
The first official of his rank to be so punished, Wang did business on a truly paltry scale relative to the titanicgraft compassed by China’s latter-day oligarchs: his first booty was a 17″ black-and-white TV in 1979. In the end, between payola extorted and contraband expropriated, Wang sold his life for 69,000 yuan — a little over US $10,000.
His crimes were read out and his sentence before more than 17,300 people at a rally at Swatow, 200 miles east of Canton.
Wang then was driven in a truck to an execution ground about 25 minutes away.
Between 600 and 700 bicycles were parked near the execution ground, and some people ran on foot to watch after the truck and its escorts passed by thousands of spectators along the route.
A cold wind blew and a light rain fell as the convoy arrived and a policeman asked Wang if he had any last words. It [was?] said he asked police to tell his children not to follow his examples.
At 2:45, Wang Zhong knelt facing south. The policeman carrying out the execution once again confirmed his identity. Then he picked up an automatic rifle and, ‘peng,’ a bullet pierced Wang Zhong’s heart.
Laszlo Bardossy, one of Hungary’s several wartime Prime Ministers, was shot on this date in 1946.
Bardossy was a longtime diplomat who had become Minister of Foreign Affairs under Pal Teleki — the Count fate tragically cast to lead Hungary into the Second World War’s meatgrinder.
An esteemed geographer in his non-political life, Teleki foresaw the whirlwind Hungary might reap should she ally herself with Germany. But the conservative governments he affiliated with drew much of its vitality from a restive irredentist movement wishing to retrieve for “Little Hungary” remnants of its historical empire that had been stripped away after World War I.
Under Teleki’s predecessor Bela Imredy, Hungary gratefully reclaimed sovereignty over parts of Slovakia and Ruthenia as its price for supporting Hitler’s seizure of Czechoslovakia in 1938; two years later, German arbitrators returned northern Transylvania from Romania to Hungary.
These were halcyon days for Hungary: for the pleasure of doubling its territory it had not been required to accept German occupation or political direction.
But those days changed for Teleki, whose ministry from 1941-1942 was characterized by an increasingly uphill struggle to maintain a free hand in the shadow of Berlin’s growing strength. In the end he couldn’t manage it, and when (with the support of Hungary’s regent and many of his peers in government) Germany marched into Hungary in 1941 en route to invading Yugoslavia, a country Hungary had a peace treaty with, Teleki shot himself and left behind an anguished note: “We broke our word, out of cowardice … we have thrown away our nation’s honor. We have allied ourselves to scoundrels … We will become body-snatchers! A nation of trash. I did not hold you back. I am guilty.”
With Teleki’s death, Hungary now became a firm partner of the Axis powers — a move personified by the immediate elevation of our man Bardossy.
His first order of business was joining the invasion of Yugoslavia, once again snatching back a piece of territory Budapest considered rightfully hers. He also tightened Hungary’s anti-Semitic laws — Bardossy’s Third Jewish Law basically attempted to cut Jews out of the economic life of the kingdom — and began approving deportations to Germany and direct massacres by Hungarian troops.
The enthusiasm of Bardossy’s participation in Germany’s project might have been his undoing — in the immediate political sense as well as his eventual fate. By the next spring, with Hungarian troops taking casualties as the junior associates in a dangerous invasion of the Soviet Union, Prince Regent Miklos Horthy was again looking to put some daylight between Hungarian policy and German, and he sacked Bardossy. Bardossy joined the leadership of a fascist party that eventually supported the pro-Nazi government installed by German invasion in 1944.
On this date in 2006, the People’s Republic of China executed a gentleman by the name of Qiu Xinghua.
Qiu’s offense, at bottom, was one of anger management: believing the abbot at a mountain temple in the interior province of Shaanxi was making time with his wife, Qiu went on a homicidal rampage at said temple where he
cut out the abbot’s eyes, heart and lungs and fried them in a wok. He had used the victims’ blood to write “Deserved to die” on the temple wall.
“The victims” comprised nine other people besides the abbot, plus another one killed while on the run from the law for five weeks after his temple frenzy. (He also torched the temple.)
The enormity of the crime, and the attempts by Qiu’s team to raise doubts about his sanity, attracted wide public attention in China.
Days earlier, Jang Sung-taek (alternatively, Song-taek, Sung-thaek, and various similar transliterations) had suffered an extremely visible fall when, in a Saddam-like twist, he was arrested on live television in the midst of a politburo meeting.
Image from KCTV (North Korea) shows Jang Sung-taek being arrested during a politburo meeting in Pyongyang.
Even so, the severity of his treatment was a surprise given his family tie to the supreme leader (he was the husband of Kim Jong-il‘s sister).
Long one of the secretive state’s top officials — his prestige recovered from two previous falls from favor in the late 1980s and early 2000s — Jang was among the officials involved in the transfer of power from the late Kim Jong-il to the young dictator Kim Jong-un. Though it is uncertain exactly what brought about his destruction — speculation ran to differing philosophies of economic development and/or raw power rivalry — a denounced by North Korea as “despicable human scum … worse than a dog” for his “thrice-cursed acts of treachery” and “decadent capitalist lifestyle.”
Jang was executed by shooting: machine gun fire in the “normal” version, or the more spectacular novelty of anti-aircraft fire by some accounts. (Reports to the effect that Jang was executed by being fed to a pack of wild dogs can still be found, but this story was fabricated by a satirist and its subsequent circulation cautions against a propensity to give credence to every lurid rumor about North Korea.)
The New York Evening Post published this item excerpted from the Philadelphia Democratic Press on Thursday, December 17, 1812.
On Friday, a large concourse of people assembled at Fort Mifflin, to witness the execution of John Rickey and Benjamin Jackson, soldiers of the 16th Regt. U.S. Infantry, sentenced to be shot for desertion, the former having deserted three times, the latter once.
They were conducted to the fatal spot at 1 o’clock, attended by about 600 soldiers of the 2d Artillery and 16th infantry. Rickey’s sentence having been carried into effect, Jackson was pardoned by the commanding officer.
We trust the execution of Rickey, and the exercise of mercy to Jackson, will operate as a warning to the deserters in and about this city. It is stated upon good authority, that every reasonable indulgence will be extended to such deserters as may deliver themselves up voluntarily, but those who are taken cannot expect to be shielded from the penalty of the law.
On this date in 1986, during the opening months of a guerrilla war that would last until 1992, a 70-man detachment of Suriname soldiers raided the village of Moiwana, home of the rebel leader Ronnie Brunswijk, and massacred dozens of people.
Drawing made c. 1990 by an eight-year-old refugee of Moiwana. Image from Richard Price’s “The Killings in Suriname”, Cultural Anthropology, November 1995.
Sealing the roads, the team went house to house for four hours, torching houses and slaughtering any of the Ndyuka civilians who couldn’t escape into the surrounding jungle.
“Everyone was shot — the unarmed women, pregnant women, a baby barely seven months old,” goes the account in Memre Moiwana, a publication of the NGO Moiwana ’86. “No distinctions were made.” Some were mowed down with automatic weapons; others slashed to death with machetes. At least 38 people died, though various sources posit estimates running to upwards of 50.
In the weeks following, nearby Ndjuka villages in eastern Suriname shared a like fate, often bombarded by helicopters and finished off with bulldozers while death squads hunted suspected guerrillas. The U.S. State Department reported 244 Ndyuka people killed that December. A United Nations investigator entering the area months later reported that “no human being or living creature was seen apart from starving dogs in [one such town] Albina. The jungle vegetation had taken over the destroyed buildings.”
A police inspector named Herman Eddy Gooding who had the temerity to investigate these massacres while the guerrilla war was still ongoing was found mysteriously shot dead in 1990. (See Rainforest Warriors: Human Rights on Trial) In 2005, however, survivors of Moiwana won a suit against the army of Suriname before the Inter American Court of Human Rights.