Most any sequence of days on the calendar would do for capturing Soviet citizens destroyed in Stalin’s terrible purges of the late 1930s. There are, of course, the great names — Zinoviev, the Old Bolshevik senior to Stalin; the Red Army Marshal Tukhachevsky; eventually, inevitably, also the security minister who had run the bloodbath at its peak.
1937 propaganda poster: “Eradicate spies and saboteurs! Trotsky-Bukharin agents of fascism. (via)
From our distance, they are little but a blur in the impossibly vast register of fatalistic mugshots — men and women high and low ripped from the forgotten banality of their lives, delivered to unspeakable tortures lost in the lines of endless dusty archives. Those we touch the next two days were loyal Communist functionaries and people of national importance in their spheres.
To be fair, only the specialist today has any cause to remember the names of their 1930s opposite numbers in France, Britain, or America, political operatives with competent careers who faded away giving university lectures instead of being beat all to hell and shot in a cellar. But to contemporaries in Stalin’s Russia these were people who wielded authority and prestige; their destructions would have been stunning were not midnight knocks emptying Muscovite apartments by the thousands in those days, and anyone — everyone — understood that he might be next.
For the next two days, we draw a pair of odd cases from the ranks of Her Majesty’s men at arms.
Recently spooked by debacles in the Crimean War and a barely-suppressed Indian mutiny — both of which strained the army’s entire manpower — Britain’s Secretary of War spent the late 1860s and early 1870s putting the empire on new military footing.
These “Cardwell Reforms” ramped up recruitment, lowered enlistment barriers, eliminated inefficiencies and shifted more self-defense burdens onto Commonwealth dominions. (This is also when the Royal Navy got rid of flogging.)
The result was a British army both larger and leaner, and better-suited to its task of running the Pax Britannia.
Our next two days find two products of that force making their unfortunate intersection with another field’s titan of industrial-age rationalization: William Marwood, the dread hangman even then in the process of introducing the long drop and moving the ancient art of hanging towards a rational formula for scientifically breaking a man’s neck.
One of this site’s recurring themes and criminology’s iconic trappings, the poison arsenic carried off many a soul.
Poison has been around forever, of course, but “inheritance powder” was a slow-motion moral panic in the Victorian years — when a man on the make could be imperceptibly nudged into an early grave by a friend or a spouse or a maid using a product that could be had for pennies from the local apothecary.
Who can feel safe, when little old ladies could make a murder spree of afternoon tea?
For the next several days, we’ll remember a few of the arsenic era’s more notable nudges … and a few of the distinct minority of poisoners who found that stealthy powder equally fatal to the hand that stirred it.
They suffer, of course, from the keen paradox that burning a fellow for his wrongthink is a great way to advertise his doctrines. Paul Friedland has lately noted the way that Protestant martyrdoms changed the way audiences interacted with the scaffold, and in turn changed the performance of the public execution as a whole.
“I will burn,” theologian Michael Servetus allegedly told his Calvinist persecutors. “Bbut this is a mere event. We shall continue our discussion in eternity.”
Servetus might have meant the disputatious souls involved in his own case and who’s to say they’re not deep in an astral bull session as we speak. But in the material world that conversation is scarcely guaranteed: despite what they say, it’s many the martyr that’s been long forgotten. The paradox for heretics is that the anti-orthodox deviation they reckon is worth their lives is only likely to be comprehended, never mind embraced, by their descendants if it captures enough adherents to become its own orthodoxy — if it fits in that narrow band of heterodoxy between what’s worth capital punishment and what’s just too bonkers to attract new proselytes. Some part of this might be the implacable chance arrangements of history, Luther succeeding because he came on the heels of humanism and the printing press and so forth. Another part might be sheer luck: just think where Christianity itself would be without Saint Paul. Talk about the ultimate example of missionary martyrdom.
Occasionally, when the Zeitgeist is just right, the sacrifice of the faithful will multiply new adherents like hydra-heads. But if the example is just more fearful than inspirational or just plain nobody is buying he heresy, the spectacle of human flesh charred away might prove just the thing to sear off the stump.
Peter the Great’s ruthless destruction of the Streltsy played out as bloody public theater in October of 1698.
A strelets (or strelitz in a more Germanic transliteration) was a professional guardsman stationed in the Russian capital. Ivan the Terrible had formed the corps initially in the 16th century to give himself a standing musketeer* force when he otherwise had to depend on dicey peasant recruits.
By the 18th century, they were just one more sclerotic Russian bureaucracy.
Their nominal duty to garrison Moscow against invaders was nearly superfluous. Top-level Streltsy had ample time to exploit their tax-favored treatment to become merchants … from which some made enough money to hire out other underemployed Streltsy to fill their occasional duty shifts. Once elite recruits, they now handed down their cushy appointments father to son. Further down the lists, rank-and-file Streltsy politicized as pro-peasant, anti-foreigner, and supportive of the Old Believer movement.
So an institution of 22,000 armed men in the capital with grievances and free time: any government would find this dangerous.
The fall of the Streltsy is connected intimately with the rise of Peter the Great, and some backstory on the latter will be necessary to make sense of the former.
Peter’s father was Alexis I, who ruled Russia from 1645 to 1676. (He’s notable for backing the church reforms that opened the schism between mainline Orthodoxy and the unreconstructed Old Believers.)
Alexis had two wives and sixteen legitimate children, but at his death he left a shaky succession. The crown passed initially to the sickly teenager Fyodor III, but Fyodor died in 1682 without an heir of his own.
Who would rule next? The families of Tsar Alexis’s two wives, the Miloslavskys and the Naryshkins, contended for power.
A boyar duma selected Peter, the younger son of the younger wife.
On this, the Miloslavsky family incited the Streltsy to revolt with rumors that the upstart Naryshkins had poisoned off Fyodor and shoved aside the legitimate heir, nicely marrying these grievances to long-overdue Streltsy back pay the cash-poor government had been withholding. The result was a savage May 1682 mutiny of guardsmen who ran amok through the undefended Kremlin. Scenes of unspeakable horror played out before young Peter’s own eyes: shaggy praetorians ransacking the palace in search of noblemen whom Peter had grown up around, and who were now wildly accused of regicide, treason, and tight-fistedness. These men would be put to savage and summary death by the armed mob: hurled onto spearpoints, tortured to death in the dungeons, or just cut apart on the streets. To abate the rampaging death squad after several harrowing days, Peter’s mother was forced to give up her own brother Ivan — especially hated of the Streltsy — to torture and murder.
Alexei Korzukhin’s 1882 depiction of the Streltsy dragging Ivan Naryshkin to his death as a young Peter the Great consoles his mother.
The Streltsy had threatened to slaughter every last boyar in the Kremlin had she not done so.
Their depredations forced the appointment of the infirm Miloslavsky candidate Ivan as Peter’s co-tsar, both sovereigns under the regency of Ivan’s strong-willed elder sister Sophia.
They carried that day and, by virtue of Sophia’s rule, the remainder of the 1680s. But as Peter aged into manhood, the two parties were bound for confrontation once again, and Peter finally took Russia in hand and forced Sophia into a convent in 1689.
So that’s the scene: Peter’s in charge. He has a living rival locked up in a nunnery. And the Streltsy have a definite preference between them.
For obvious reasons, Peter returned the low opinion of the Streltsy.
Due care for his throne dovetailed conveniently with payback for uncle Ivan’s murder, and Peter took every opportunity to reduce the privileged position of this dangerous body in favor of his new Preobrazhensky and Semenovsky regiments. After the Azov campaigns in the mid-1690s, Peter returned in triumph with his prized western-trained armies, leaving Streltsy to garrison his Black Sea outpost.
Disaffected Streltsy started thinking that Sophia would look real good back on the throne.
In June 1698, incensed by an order to march hundreds of miles to the Polish-Lithuanian frontier — and having been secretly in contact with Sophia — four Streltsy regiments mutinied and made for the capital. Peter was away in Vienna, but his general Alexei Shein intercepted the rebels 30 miles from the city and routed them. “Not one got away,” in the words of the communique to Peter. Shein himself executed well over 100 of the captured Streltsy right in the field. Another nineteen hundred were left to wait the pleasure of their returning sovereign and enemy.
Peter was not a man for half-measures; his city, St. Petersburg, remains today a monument to his vision but was thrown up on a fetid quagmire over the bones of countless laborers. Progressive despots don’t always encounter a backward army whose claims to semi-feudal privileges throw the country into commotion, but when they do, they purge wholesale.
“How sharp was the pain, how great the indignation to which the Czar’s Majesty was mightily moved, when he knew of the rebellion of the Strelitz, betrayed openly a mind panting for vengeance,” wrote the Austrian diplomat Johann Georg Korb — present in Moscow for the occasion, and a man whom the xenophobic Streltsy might well have lynched given the opportunity.
[Peter] began to have suspicions of everybody’s loyalty, and began to cogitate about a fresh investigation. The rebels that were kept in custody, in various places in the environs, were all brought in by four regiments of the guards, to a fresh investigation and fresh tortures … No day, holy or profane, were the inquisitors idle; every day was deemed fit and lawful for torturing. As many as there were accused there were knouts, and every inquisitor was a butcher.
The Morning of the Execution of the Streltsy by Vasily Surikov (1881). In fact, there were several different Streltsy executions in October 1698, which Surikov has pictorially conflated.
The journal of the astonished Korb is our guide for the Streltsy executions. “The whole month of October was spent in butchering the backs of the culprits with knout and with flames: no day were those that were left alive exempt from scourging or scorching, or else they were broken upon the wheel, or driven to the gibbet, or slain with the axe,” he notes.
For the occasion, we’re introducing a new post series concept. These executions did not occur on consecutive days, but on several different days over the course of October 1698 — each occasion with a macabre new twist on the proceedings to make the lesson really stick. Intermingled with our regular fare, we’ll cover each distinct execution anniversary as the days come, looping back to this parent series post on each occasion.
In all, 1,182 Streltsy prisoners were put to death. Most of the rest were exiled to Siberia. By 1705 the Streltsy force had been completely abolished.
One last footnote: Peter interrogated his half-sister Sophia personally over her role in the potential coup, and he threatened to handle her like Queen Elizabeth handled Mary, Queen of Scots. (Kinship was no safeguard from brutality where Peter was concerned.) In the end he decided to spare her — but forced her into a cloister under heavy guard, never allowed to receive visitors until her death six years later.
* Strelets derives from the Russian verb to shoot; when formed around 1550, they were armed with arquebuses.
Come with us now to a bygone New York State, before the days when it pioneered the electric chair, before the days when it was the world oligarchy capital — back when high crime in New York was a minor scoundrel who had gone so far as murder, and justice for same was the trusty old noose.
In that contested first year, the Revolution’s liberals resisted with futility the onset of revolutionary courts, with judges-as-prosecutors who dispatched foreordained summary justice to characters high and low. Bloodthirsty crowds often packed the proceedings: not a few of the attendees wanted whatever comeuppance the courts could visit on the Shah for the deaths of loved ones disappeared, tortured, or gunned down in the streets.
There was not much mercy in the Iranian revolution: all the courts did was sentence men to death. But then there hadn’t been much mercy before the revolution, when the Shah’s imperial guard, the Javidan, or “immortals,” slaughtered the crowds. I remember another court, in Tehran, where a man shouted at a torturer from the notorious Savak security service: “You killed my daughter. She was burned all over her flesh until she was paralysed. She was roasted.” And the torturer looked back at the bereaved man and said quietly: “Your daughter hanged herself after seven months in custody.”
Photographs of the condemned, and even the executions, would hit the next day’s papers even while the next trial was underway.
The world press in that pregnant year has a steady drumbeat of execution announcements — six here, eleven there, and ballpark-only running counts mounting into the hundreds. For the most part, those that saw ink in the West were a random assortment of faceless ex-policemen or alleged spies on a day when the World roundup had a spare column-inch. But for the next two days, we have particularly noteworthy exemplars of justice in revolutionary Iran.
If to the city sped – What waits him there?
To see the profusion that he must not share;
To see ten thousand baneful arts combined
To pamper luxury, and thin mankind;
To see those joys the sons of pleasure know,
Extorted from his fellow-creature’s woe.
Here, while the courtier glitters in brocade,
There the pale artist plies his sickly trade;
Here, while the proud their long-drawn pomps display,
There the black gibbet glooms beside the way.
The “Bloody Code” — England’s profusion of sanguinary capital punishment laws and the terrifying quantities of hangings that resulted — can be variously dated.
The 1688 Glorious Revolution makes for convenient periodization, aligning as it does with the the stirrings that would make a burgeoning London the heart of the industrial revolution. As capital crimes multiplied from about 50 when the House of Stuart fled, to well over 200 by 1815, property crimes featured heavily: commercial burglary past five shillings’ value, or shoplifting at the same threshold, became “non-clergyable” hanging crimes as soon as the 1690s.
To give force to unpoliced laws, London depended upon the outsized threat of the rope (mitigated in the breach by “pious perjury”: the readiness of jurors to mercifully deflate the value of offended property just below the hanging threshold in many cases). The statutes multiplied organically upon themselves across the years, little bulwarks thrown up higgledy-piggledy to defend multiplying forms of commerce, property, and merchants in a city whose disorder grew side by side with her wealth.
However one charts the Bloody Code’s subsequent growth, its root in the last decades of the 17th century and the start of the 18th lay in the classic crimes of violence dating back to before William and Mary — murder, rape, highway robbery, crimes of state including coining — as well as significant thefts, to which the new varieties of larceny were gradually to be adjoined. Across the century, London’s Tyburn gallows bent for all these men and women.
Our next few posts visit offenders in this time, not really so different from those who followed: people sucked into the city from every quarter, bound by their offenses large and small to blaze a trail for posterity to the deadly tree.