On this date in 1945, seven former members of Croatia’s World War II Ustasha regime were hanged in Zagreb by Tito‘s postwar Yugoslav government — the morning after they had all been death-sentenced at a one-day military trial.*
The “minister of culture with a machine gun” in the branding of his leftist literary contemporary Miroslav Krleza, Budak spent the interwar years writing hit novels valorizing the Croatian peasantry (The 1,000-page Ognjište — Hearth — is the magnum opus) and also voluminous copy for far-right periodicals. Thanks to the latter activity, Budak endured an arrest, an attempted assassination, several years’ self-imposed exile to Italy, and (after his return) the murder of his wife.
Small wonder that when Germany broke off from the post-imperial Kingdom of Yugoslavia an “independent” Croatian puppet state, Budak signed up as its chief propagandist. Initially Minister of Education in 1941, he subsequently became its ambassador to Germany, and in 1943 its Foreign Minister.
He’s most notorious for the alleged aphorism “One third of the Serbs we will kill, one third expel, and the last third convert to Catholicism” — and though adherents widely dispute his authorship of any such phrase, Budak’s racial cosmology elevating Croatians (“an intersection of Slav and Gothic blood”) over their South Slav brethren was part of the intellectual scaffolding for his state’s wartime campaign of ethnic cleansing against Serbs. (It goes without saying that Jews and Roma were even more screwed.)
Judgments on the literary merit of Budak’s output appear to be driven heavily by the critic’s sympathy level with Budak’s politics. Post-independence Croatia has a robust far right that has often shown keen to rehabilitate the Ustasha, so it’s no surprise that Budak has been rediscovered as a writer and his name stapled to numerous streets in Croatia** and even to one in the Bosnian city Mostar — strictly in honor of his artistry and not the war business, mind you.
* Indeed, several — Mandic included — were only yielded up from British captivity in mid-May. (Link goes to a Croatian pdf)
On this day in 1650, James Graham, Earl of Montrose, was hanged in Edinburgh.
The tragic “Great Montrose” was renowned for his tactical genius on the battlefield during the civil wars that cost King Charles I both crown and head. Although Montrose would die as a royalist he first entered the lists in the 1630s’ Bishops’ War as part of the Covenanter army resisting the king’s bid to impose top-down religious governance on Scotland.
But Montrose was the moderate and post-Bisops War found himself a leading exponent of the pro-reconciliation faction, bitterly opposed by the chief of the Campbell clan, the Marquess of Argyll.
These two became the opposing poles for the ensuing civil war in Scotland, at once a local clan war and the vortex of a border-hopping conflict that sucked in Ireland and England too. Although Montrose, now King Charles’s lieutenant-general in Scotland, could kicktail in battle his faction was divided and ultimately outnumbered by the Covenanters. Montrose had to flee Scotland for exile in 1646.
The execution of Charles I opened the door for Montrose’s own untimely end, in one of those classic affairs of double-dealing. The exiled Charles II, having now inherited the claim, named Montrose his lieutenant in Scotland and dispatched his family’s longtime paladin back to native soil to try to raise an army. But even as he did so, he was negotiating with Argyll’s Covenanters, who saw a chance to make good their political and religious objectives by playing kingmaker with their former enemy.
So when Montrose landed in 1650, he found little support and was overwhelmed at the Battle of Carbisdale. After several days’ wandering he sought refuge with a former friend who he did not realize was now also on the government’s side, and was promptly arrested and given over to his enemies for execution and for posthumous indignities: his head was mounted on a pike atop Edinburgh’s Tolbooth, and his four limbs nailed to the gates of Stirling, Glasgow, Perth and Aberdeen.
After the end of Cromwell‘s Protectorate, and the actual restoration of Charles II, these scattered remains were gathered up and interred with reverence at St. Giles Cathedral. The present-day Dukes of Montrose are his direct descendants.
The Execution of James Graham, Marquis of Montrose
A Historical Poem
‘Twas in the year of 1650, and on the twenty-first of May,
The city of Edinburgh was put into a state of dismay
By the noise of drums and trumpets, which on the air arose,
That the great sound attracted the notice of Montrose.
Who enquired at the Captain of the guard the cause of it,
Then the officer told him, as he thought most fit,
That the Parliament dreading an attempt might be made to rescue him,
The soldiers were called out to arms, and that had made the din.
Do I, said Montrose, continue such a terror still?
Now when these good men are about my blood to spill,
But let them look to themselves, for after I am dead,
Their wicked consciences will be in continual dread.
After partaking of a hearty breakfast, he commenced his toilet,
Which, in his greatest trouble, he seldom did forget.
And while in the act of combing his hair,
He was visited by the Clerk Register, who made him stare,
When he told him he shouldn’t be so particular with his head,
For in a few hours he would be dead;
But Montrose replied, While my head is my own I’ll dress it at my ease,
And to-morrow, when it becomes yours, treat it as you please.
He was waited upon by the Magistrates of the city,
But, alas! for him they had no pity.
He was habited in a superb cloak, ornamented with gold and silver lace;
And before the hour of execution an immense assemblage of people were round the place.
From the prison, bareheaded, in a cart, they conveyed him along the Watergate
To the place of execution on the High Street, where about thirty thousand people did wait,
Some crying and sighing, a most pitiful sight to see,
All waiting patiently to see the executioner hang Montrose, a man of high degree.
Around the place of execution, all of them were deeply affected,
But Montrose, the noble hero, seemed not the least dejected;
And when on the scaffold he had, says his biographer Wishart,
Such a grand air and majesty, which made the people start.
As the fatal hour was approaching when he had to bid the world adieu,
He told the executioner to make haste and get quickly through,
But the executioner smiled grimly, but spoke not a word,
Then he tied the Book of Montrose’s Wars round his neck with a cord.
Then he told the executioner his foes would remember him hereafter,
And he was as well pleased as if his Majesty had made him Knight of the Garter;
Then he asked to be allowed to cover his head,
But he was denied permission, yet he felt no dread.
He then asked leave to keep on his cloak,
But was also denied, which was a most grievous stroke;
Then he told the Magistrates, if they could invent any more tortures for him,
He would endure them all for the cause he suffered, and think it no sin.
On arriving at the top of the ladder with great firmness,
His heroic appearance greatly did the bystanders impress,
Then Montrose asked the executioner how long his body would be suspended,
Three hours was the answer, but Montrose was not the least offended.
Then he presented the executioner with three or four pieces of gold,
Whom he freely forgave, to his honour be it told,
And told him to throw him off as soon as he uplifted his hands,
While the executioner watched the fatal signal, and in amazement stands.
And on the noble patriot raising his hands, the executioner began to cry,
Then quickly he pulled the rope down from the gibbet on high,
And around Montrose’s neck he fixed the rope very gently,
And in an instant the great Montrose was launched into eternity.
Then the spectators expressed their disapprobation by general groan,
And they all dispersed quietly, and wended their way home
And his bitterest enemies that saw his death that day,
Their hearts were filled with sorrow and dismay.
Thus died, at the age of thirty-eight, James Graham, Marquis of Montrose,
Who was brought to a premature grave by his bitter foes;
A commander who had acquired great military glory
In a short space of time, which cannot be equalled in story.
Both men had in their day been instrumental to winning the independence (de facto, if not yet de jure) that the Low Countries were already enjoying: laandsadvocaat van Oldenbarnevelt as the commanding political personality holding together the potentially fractious provinces in the 1580s and 1590s; stadtholder Maurice as the great general* of those provinces, whose sword-arm in the 1590s and 1600s more or less staked out the borders of the present-day Netherlands.
Thanks to their good offices, the once-desperate Dutch Revolt had triumphed in all but name, and in the 1610s paused to savor the fruits of victory during the Twelve Years’ Truce.**
Increasingly after 1600, the two developed a rivalry that was both personal, and political, andreligious — for in their prominence they also became the chief exponents of the neighborhood schism, van Oldenbarnevelt championing the Remonstrants or Arminians (they remonstrated against some Calvinist doctrines) and Maurice upholding the orthodox Counter-Remonstrants or Gomarist side. The conflict was no joke; the States of Holland at van Oldenbarnevelt’s urging went so far as to hire its own mercenary army, knowing that it could not trust the national army commanded by the Counter-Remonstrant William. William secured the support of the States-General to forcibly disband this rival militia in July 1618† — and from that point until his death in 1625, William was the strongman in the Low Countries.
And van Oldenbarnevelt, well — he got the kangaroo court. See?
Tried by a special (dubiously legal) court comprised of enemies, the grizzled pol was condemned to death as a traitor. On May 13, the day he went to the block at the Binnenhof in The Hague, his home province the States of Holland saluted him as “a man of great business, activity, memory and wisdom — yes, extra-ordinary in every respect.”
He who stands, let him take care that he does not fall
Detail view (click for the full image) of a 17th century engraving of Johan van Oldenbarnevelt’s beheading.
Van Oldenbarnevelt’s son Reinier, lord of Groeneveld was beheaded in 1623 for conspiring to assassinate Maurice in revenge for his father’s execution.
* Maurice of Orange was recognized in his time as perhaps Europe’s greatest and most innovative commander. His introduction of infantry volley fire and highly disciplined drill regimens revolutionized the battlefield — and made the Dutch very difficult for their Spanish masters to handle.
The Indian Ocean island-nation Mauritius, discovered by Dutch explorers in 1598, was named for him.
** Posterity has the luxury of hindsight knowledge that although war would resume for the Low Countries in 1621, the peace of Westphalia would secure an independent Netherlands. However, already during the Twelve Years’ Truce the place was acting as an independent country, and some other states formally recognized it as such.
† One of van Oldenbarnevelt’s supporters was international law pioneer Hugo Grotius. Grotius was clapped in prison with van Oldenbarnevelt’s fall in 1618; he famously escaped this dungeon in 1621 by hiding in a chest of books and lived out his scribbling days in France.
On an unknown date about the spring of 316 BCE, Alexander the Great’s snake-worshipping mother Olympias surrendered to the siege of the former regent’s ambitious son — whereupon she was put to summary death.
Olympias was famed for her snake-handlin: Plutarch says that Philip’s interest in her waned when he beheld “a serpent … lying stretched out by the side of Olympias as she slept,” which led him to fear “that she was the partner of a superior being.” Sigmund Freud, eat your heart out.
Sired by the gods or no, Olympias’s son certainly outstripped his father — but once Alexander’s coruscating star burned itself out, Olympias had another kind of snakepit to contend with: the conqueror’s former generals jockeying for preeminence in their engorged empire.
The patina of dynastic legitimacy Olympias maintained as Alexander’s kin was not sufficient to prevent the situation collapsing into war; indeed, we have met this this civil strife previously in these pages, when Olympias had the upper hand in a battle in 317 BCE and ordered the execution of Alexander’s mentally disabled half-brother. Olympias gets her share of stick as old time Macedonia’s deadly ophiomormous femme fatale, but this was cruelty with a purpose: the addled king was the catspaw in whose name her foe Cassander (as his father Antipater before him) claimed power as “regent”.
Cassander, a mate of Alexander dating back to their Aristotle study group days, was not captured in this affair, nor was he driven from the field by it. Soon thereafter he turned the tables and trapped Olympias in Pydna, where she was obliged to surrender to his discretion. That same logic of murder in statecraft turned now against the queen. First century (BCE) Greek historian Diodorus Siculus:
Although Cassander had shut Olympias into Pydna in Macedonia, he was not able to assault the walls because of the winter storms, but by encamping about the city, throwing up a palisade from sea to sea, and blockading the port, he prevented any who might wish to aid the queen from doing so. And as supplies were rapidly exhausted, he created such famine among those within that they were completely incapacitated. In truth, they were brought to such extreme need that they gave each soldier five choenices of grain per month, sawed up wood and fed the sawdust to the imprisoned elephants, and slaughtered the pack animals and horses for food. While the situation of the city was so serious and while Olympias was still clinging to hopes of rescue from outside, the elephants died from lack of nourishment, the horsemen that were not in the ranks and did not receive any food whatever nearly all perished, and no small number of the soldiers also met the same fate. Some of the non-Greeks, their natural needs overcoming their scruples, found flesh to eat by collecting the bodies of the dead. Since the city was being quickly filled with corpses, those in charge of the queen’s company, though they buried some of the bodies, threw others over the city wall. The sight of these was horrible, and their stench was unbearable, not merely to ladies who were of the queen’s court and addicted to luxury, but also to those of the soldiers who were habituated to hardship.
As spring came on and their want increased from day to day, many of the soldiers gathered together and appealed to Olympias to let them go because of the lack of supplies. Since she could neither issue any food at all nor break the siege, she permitted them to withdraw. Cassander, after welcoming all the deserters and treating them in most friendly fashion, sent them to the various cities; for he hoped that when the Macedonians learned from them how weak Olympias was, they would despair of her cause. And he was not mistaken in his surmise about what would happen: those who had resolved to fight on the side of the besieged forces changed their minds and went over to Cassander; and the only men in Macedonia to preserve their loyalty were Aristonoüs and Monimus, of whom Aristonoüs was ruler of Amphipolis and Monimus of Pella. But Olympias, when she saw that most of her friends had gone over to Cassander and that those who remained were not strong enough to come to her aid, attempted to launch a quinquereme and by this means to save herself and her friends. When, however, a deserter brought news of this attempt to the enemy and Cassander sailed up and took the ship, Olympias, recognizing that her situation was beyond hope, sent envoys to treat of terms. When Cassander gave his opinion that she must put all her interests into his hands, she with difficulty persuaded him to grant the single exception that he guarantee her personal safety. As soon as he had gained possession of the city, he sent men to take over Pella and Amphipolis. Now Monimus, the ruler of Pella, on hearing the fate of Olympias, surrendered his city; but Aristonoüs at first was minded to cling to his position … [until] Olympias wrote to him demanding his loyalty and ordering him to surrender, he perceived that it was necessary to do as ordered and delivered the city to Cassander, receiving pledges for his own safety.
Cassander, seeing that Aristonoüs was respected because of the preferment he had received from Alexander, and being anxious to put out of the way any who were able to lead a revolt, caused his death through the agency of the kinsfolk of Cratevas. He also urged the relatives of those whom Olympias had slain to accuse the aforesaid woman in the general assembly of the Macedonians. They did as he had ordered; and, although Olympias was not present and had none to speak in her defence, the Macedonians condemned her to death. Cassander, however, sent some of his friends to Olympias advising her to escape secretly, promising to provide a ship for her and to carry her to Athens. He acted thus, not for the purpose of securing her safety, but in order that she, condemning herself to exile and meeting death on the voyage, might seem to have met a punishment that was deserved; for he was acting with caution both because of her rank and because of the fickleness of the Macedonians. As Olympias, however, refused to flee but on the contrary was ready to be judged before all the Macedonians, Cassander, fearing that the crowd might change its mind if it heard the queen defend herself and was reminded of all the benefits conferred on the entire nation by Alexander and Philip, sent to her two hundred soldiers who were best fitted for such a task, ordering them to slay her as soon as possible. They, accordingly, broke into the royal house, but when they beheld Olympias, overawed by her exalted rank, they withdrew with their task unfulfilled. But the relatives of her victims, wishing to curry favour with Cassander as well as to avenge their dead, murdered the queen, who uttered no ignoble or womanish plea.
Such was the end of Olympias, who had attained to the highest dignity of the women of her day, having been daughter of Neoptolemus, king of the Epirotes, sister of the Alexander who made a campaign into Italy, and also wife of Philip, who was the mightiest of all who down to this time had ruled in Europe, and mother of Alexander, whose deeds were the greatest and most glorious.
Cassander would emerge from all this mess in a sturdy enough position to declare himself king. His sons, however, were unable to sustain the family in power and this particular general proved merely the precursor of a different general‘s more successful post-Alexander dynasty.
A monumental tomb recently discovered in the Kasta burial mound at Amphipolis — said to beggar the gorgeous Vergina tomb in scale and grandeur — has been speculatively associated with Olympias and/or Alexander. (“Hopefully” might be the better word, since the bare hint of such a link would be a boon for the tourism sector.) The site is still being excavated, and is not yet open to the public.
On this date in 1781, the Spanish social bandit Diego Corrientes Mateos was hanged and quartered in Seville.
A robber who plied the roads from Portugal to his native Seville, Corrientes (English Wikpedia entry | Spanish) was said to be of farmworker stock himself. His consequent good treatment of the rural common folk enabled him to operate with great freedom and situated him as a Robin Hood character; folklore has consequently inflated the valor of his exploits and the bile of Sheriff of Nottinghamesque pursuers like the lieutenant governor of Seville. For example, surprising his adversary on one occasion, Corrientes is supposed to have remarked, “I have learned that you boast you will be able to capture me.”
“Yes, and hang you,” shot back Francisco de Bruna.
“Then I must spare your life so you can fulfill your promise,” the sporting Corrietes allowed. (The reader will discern that Francisco de Bruna soon made good his threat.)
Masuccio’s tale is itself an Italian Renaissance gloss on an old Ovid story; its outline will be instantly recognizable to devotees of the Capulets and Montagues. But instead of dueling suicides, Masuccio ends one of the star-crossed lovers with an executioner’s blade.
In Mariotto and Ganozza, which can be enjoyed for free in the original Italian here or here, the young lovers secretly wed only to find “that wicked and hostile fortune reversed all their present and future desires.”
These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder …
“Fortune’s” inscrutable hand turns out to be that of Mariotto himself, who gets into a fight with some other nobleman and, slaying him, must flee into exile. Posterity must excuse Mariotto/Romeo his hotheadedness, for were he not the type to wreck his own life by murdering a guy in a street fight he also wouldn’t be the type to pursue forbidden tragic romance. That’s art.
Fortune’s fool …
“How great was the supreme grief of the two most wretched lovers, so lately wed, and how bitter their tears at the thought of what they believed to be their endless separation, he alone who has been pricked by such wounds can truly tell.” (Translation source.)
“So deep and bitter it was, that at their last parting, they seemed for a long while to have died in each other’s arms.”
It next comes to pass that Gianozza’s father, ignorant of her secret marriage to the town fugitive, arranges a match for her. This development leads our Juliet figure to seek out the aid of the friar who has secretly wed them in a scheme that is precisely Shakespearean.
The friar “made up a certain water with certain concoctions of various powders that, when the draught was ready and she had drunk it, it would not only make her sleep for three days, but seem to be really dead.” With this potion they stage Gianozza’s death; then, the friar secretly steals her hibernating “corpse” from its tomb, revives her, and packs her off to find her beloved.
He, of course, has separately received word of Gianozza’s death — and (also of course) the courier that had been dispatched pre-death elixir to clue him into the plan has been waylaid by pirates and left his essential plot spoilers at the bottom of the sea.
Disconsolate, Mariotto returns to Siena with the unproductive object of mooning over Gianozza’s grave and “weep[ing] as if their lives were ended.” Don’t worry, he has a backup plan! “If by misfortune he was recognized, he thought he would gladly be condemned as a murderer, knowing that she was already dead whom he loved more than himself and who loved him with equal love.”
This works as well as you expect, albeit with less panache than Shakespeare’s crypt climax: Mariotto gets caught in a transport of the macabre trying to break into Gianozza’s sepulcher, and is recognized as a condemned outlaw.
Before dawn, all Siena was full of the news, which reached the ears of the Court, who ordered the mayor to go and arrest him and quickly do that which the laws and the State commanded.
So, a prisoner in fetters, Mariotto was led to the palace of the mayor. When he was flogged, without needing long tortures, he faithfully confessed the cause of his desperate return. Though all alike had the greatest pity for him, and amongst the women he was bitterly wept for and thought the only perfect lover in the world, and each of them would have willingly redeemed him with her own life, yet he was at once condemned by the law to be beheaded. When the time arrived, without his friends or parents being able to aid him, the sentence was carried out.
Three days later, Gianozza — having reached Mariotto’s former refuge of exile and there learned of his misapprehension — turns up in Siena again only to discover that she is too late. Rather than stabbing herself to death right then and there as the Bard’s heroine would do, she shuts herself up in a convent “with intense grief and tears of blood and little food and no sleep, continually calling for her dear Mariotto, [and] in a very short time ended her wretched days.”
On this date in 1868,* eleven samurai committed seppuku before the French consul in Japan spared their nine comrades.
The affair was stunning punishment for what’s known as the Sakai Incident — an offense eight days prior that occurred during Japan’s Boshin War, a last rearguard battle of loyalists to the (now officially ended) Tokugawa Shogunate against the rising imperial party of the Meiji Restoration.
What’s noteworthy for our purposes in this period is that the Meiji espoused an anti-foreigner policy — one that was not the less intently felt by the Meiji base for being entirely insincere on the part of elites.
It was in this tense context that a boat full of French sailors from the corvette Dupleix called on March 8 at Sakai — a port city whose shogunate forces had routed. It had been recently occupied by imperial troops.
Japan had only been opened to the west 15 years before, and access was still quite restricted; there might have been a misunderstanding between the French sailors and Sakai’s Tosa clan occupiers over whether this city was open at all. There was definitely a misunderstanding once the tourists ran into samurai on shore, and before you know it high words and suspicious glares turned into a street skirmish that left eleven Frenchmen dead.
Illustration from Le Monde Diplomatique (1868)
This Sakai Incident (English Wikipedia entry | French) incensed western powers, and not only the French: the British, Dutch, Prussians, Italians, and Americans all pulled down their embassy colors in solidarity pending adequate satisfaction for the French. Japan at this moment was not at all in a position to take a stand against foreign gunships over this dust-up, and it met the conditions — which consisted of some personal groveling by a state minister, the payment of a 150,000-piastres indemnity, and the execution of the officers and soldiers involed. The punishment would be self-administered by seppuku at a Sakai shrine. This set the scene for a powerful climax, in which the soldiers one by one tore out their own guts in a ceremony that must have played as defiance no less than submission.
Quoting the Moniteur, the London Morning Post of May 19, 1868 (news was slow in those days) describes the operatic punishment.
On the 15th [a Japanese] high functionary brought a written reply from his Government conceding all the satisfaction required. On the following day Captain du Petit-Thouars, commander of the Dupleix, landed at Sakai to witness the execution of two officers, a subaltern, and 17 Japanese soldiers, condemned to death as the principal authors of the aggression. The two chiefs were the first put to death, after which nine others perished successively. Captain du Petit-Thouars then seeing that the Japanese Government was decided on carrying out its engagements to the end, and ceding to a feeling of humanity, stayed the execution, declaring that he considered the reparation sufficient, and that he proposed to ask the Minister of France to intercede for a commutation of punishment in favour of the other condemned.
The last nine beneficiaries of the captain’s clemency were sent into internal exile instead.
On this date in 1926, Weimar Germany beheaded Josef Jakubowski for a murder he did not commit. Though a notorious miscarriage of justice in Germany, it is not widely known elsewhere and most of the links about Jakubowski are in Germany.
A Pole reared in the tsar’s Lithuania, Jakubowski emigrated by way of that great ravager of imperial borders, the First World War: taken as a POW, he preferred sticking around as a Mecklenburg farmhand over returning to a now-Bolshevik Russia engulfed in civil war.
Jakubowski never married, but if he had done it would have been to Ina Nogens, a local woman with whom he fathered a daughter out of wedlock. But his lover died (in non-suspicious circumstances) leaving Jakubowski to support not only the infant girl but also Ina’s three-year-old son by another man, Ewald — who were nonetheless being raised not by Jakubowski but by the Nogens relatives.
On November 9, 1924, Ewald disappeared: he was found outside the village the next day, strangled to death.
The Nogens family immediately made known their suspicions of the almost in-law from a foreign land, and in no time at all Jakubowski was caught in that still-familiar gaze of official tunnel vision and its mirrors of endlessly receding self-vindication. The most substantial evidence against Jakubowski was the shaky — and in fact, manipulated — eyewitness report of a mentally impaired teenager made to sort of put the Pole on the path to the Nogens house on the morning of the little boy’s disappearance. That’s it. It’s the sort of case would have to level up several times to achieve the stature of laughability, but when everyone already knows you did it, actual evidence is really just a luxury. Jakubowski was an outsider who maybe wanted to stop paying child support. Work backward from there!
Two years after the luckless migrant lost his head to the fallbeil, it came out that some of the Nogens clan were the ones really behind the murder, a two birds, one stone scheme to take off their hands both bastard whelp and Auslander. Three were judicially convicted of the very same murder, and one, Ina’s brother August, was actually sentenced to death — although the sentence was remitted. Despite issuing these other convictions, no German state organ has ever officially reversed Jakubowski’s condemnation.
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.