Posts filed under 'Belarus'
March 2nd, 2017
On this date in 1942, the start of Purim,* Nazi forces occupying Minsk massacred approximately 5,000 Jews from the Minsk Ghetto at a site known simply as Yama, “the Pit”.
The site, which hosts memorial events every March 2, was marked with a somber obelisk in the immediate postwar years; unusually for a Stalin-era monument, it is overt about the Jewish character of the victims — for Soviet propaganda often obfuscated this with a technically-correct formulation such as “Russian citizens”. In this case, the 1940s memorial obelisk remarkably had a Yiddish inscription to mirror its Russian one. (The sculpture of a column of faceless people tragically descending the slope into the pit was added in the post-Soviet period.)
All images (cc) Dennis Jarvis.
Minsk’s pre-war Jewish population of more than 50,000 was almost entirely annihilated during World War II.
* It was not the only place in the Reich’s occupation to mark Purim with blood.
On this day..
Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Belarus,Borderline "Executions",Children,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Germany,History,Jews,Known But To God,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Russia,Shot,Summary Executions,USSR,Wartime Executions,Women
Tags: 1940s, 1942, march 2, minsk, world war ii
September 25th, 2016
(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)
On this date in 1987* in the Belarusian SSR, highly prolific serial killer Gennady Modestovich Mikhasevich was put to death by firing squad. Police were able to prove he’d committed 36 murders; he confessed to 43, but the actual total may have been 55 deaths or perhaps more.
Robert Keller notes in his book Murder By Numbers: The 100 Most Deadly Serial Killers From Around The World that, as was in the case with Mikhasevich’s contemporary, Andrei Chikatilo, the investigation was seriously hindered by the authorities’ insistence that serial killers were a decadent capitalist phenomenon and didn’t exist in their socialist paradise:
“The murders are separate incidents,” the police insisted, “not connected at all.” And so off they went to arrest a suspect, four in fact over a fourteen-year period, one of whom was executed. It was an arcane and inept stance, one that allowed a killer to massacre at least 33 young women in 14 years.
On the surface, Mikhasevich (English Wikipedia entry | Russian | Belarussian) was an ordinary enough man: born in the village of Ist in the Vitebsk Oblast’ in 1947, as an adult he served in the military, graduated college, got a job in a machine repair shop, married and sired two children.
He was conscientious at his work, a caring father, and didn’t drink. He was a Communist Party member — in fact, he was chosen to be secretary of the local committee — and also a member of the Voluntary People’s Druzhina, a sort of Soviet equivalent to the Neighborhood Watch.
But who watches the watchmen?
Mikhasevich committed his first murder on May 14, 1971. He came home from his stint in the army and discovered that his girlfriend back in Ist had left him and married another man.
Devastated, a few days later he decided to hang himself. He was walking to a nearby forest to do the deed, carrying the rope, when he met a woman on the road. Rather had commit suicide, Mikhasevich took his anger out on the stranger, dragging her off into the woods and strangling her.
He must have liked it, because he killed again later that year, and twice more in 1972.
And the list kept growing.
With his early murders, he would wait at an isolated spot, hoping that a woman would chance along. Now he had a car, a red Zaporozhets, so he cruised the roads looking for victims. None of the women ever refused to get into his car. In a backwater like Ist, a ride in a motor vehicle was a real treat. (Keller)
Mikhasevich would drive his victim to an isolated spot and then turn on her. Throttling her into unconsciousness. He’d then rape the woman before strangling her with a rope. Then he’d rob the victim of money and valuables, toss the body at the side of the road and drive off. In common with many serial killers, he often kept souvenirs.
By the 1980s, the police had finally conceded that the murders were related, and witnesses reported the killer drove a red Zaporozhets. Investigators started checking who in the oblast’ owned that particular vehicle, and called on the Voluntary People’s Druzhina for help with their inquiries.
Thus, Mikhasevich began investigating his own crimes.
Authorities were stopping and questioning anyone seen driving a red Zaporozhets, but the investigation went nowhere; the killer appeared to be invisible. Mikhasevich, as a druzhina, was of course aware of where the cops were and when, and he evaded them easily. He claimed fourteen victims in 1984 and twelve more the following year.
He was growing a bit nervous, though, so to derail the investigation he sent a letter to a local newspaper, supposedly written by members of an organization called the “Patriots of Vitebsk.” The letter said the murders were being committed by them and they were trying to rid the oblast’ of “lewd women.”
The police were inclined to write the letter off as a sick joke. But then a note turned up at one of the crime scenes, written in the same hand. It was signed, “the patriots of Vitebsk.”
Galvanized, the cops decided to check the handwriting of all the men living in the oblast. After sorting through 556,000 samples, graphologists found a match: Gennady Mikhasevich.
He was arrested on December 9, 1985, fourteen and a half years after his first murder. As the police were hauling him away in handcuffs, he told his wife, “This is a mistake. I’ll be right back.” Taken to the prosecutor’s office, he was asked, “Are you the patriot of Vitebsk?”
He ultimately broke down and confessed, leading investigators to the place where he’d hidden some of his victims’ belongings. He’d given other items to his wife as gifts; in one case, he even melted down two wedding rings from women he’d murdered and used them to make dental fillings and crowns for his wife.
According to Mikhasevich, although he did rape his victims, he got the most satisfaction out of killing them.
From there on it was a short trip to the firing squad.
The case was widely remembered in the area, not only for the terrible crimes Mikhasevich committed, but for the wrongfully convicted men and the ineptitude of the police. Several officials were dismissed from their posts, and one prosecutor was himself prosecuted for abuse of power.
Who watches the watchmen?
* Many Soviet executions were conducted in secrecy and have elusive dating as a result. In September 25 we’re going with the most commonly attributed date and the one favored at present by Russian and Belarussian Wikipedia. However, alternate dates as late as February 3, 1988 are also out there.
On this day..
Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Belarus,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,History,Murder,Other Voices,Rape,Russia,Serial Killers,Shot,USSR
Tags: 1980s, 1987, gennady mikhasevich, september 25
March 22nd, 2015
On this date in 1864, Kastus Kalinouski was hanged in a public square in Vilnius.
A peasant revolutionary from the European frontiers of tsarism, Kalinouski is a present-day independence hero for Poland, Belarus, and Lithuania. (His name is variously rendered Konstanty Kalinowski, Kastus Kalinouski, and Konstantinas Kalinauskas for those respective homelands.)
These various polities had been joint constituents of the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, gobbled up by Russia at the end of the 18th century.
Dissatisfaction with membership in this adoptive empire progressed differently among different demographics of the old Commonwealth, but it really blossomed in the wreckage of the 1850s Crimean War. Chastened after being drubbed by an industrial power, Russia finally emancipated her serfs — but the emancipation proved to bear as much confiscation as liberation, to the chagrin of the emancipatees.
In Poland, Belarus, and Lithuania, peasant anger at the raw deal dovetailed nicely with stirring national sentiment. Kalinouski, a young barrister, launched the flagship (clandestine) publication for that audience, Muzyckaja Prauda (Peasant’s Truth). It was one of the first periodicals published in Belarusian, and it was not calculated to reconcile his countrymen to Moscow.
Six years have passed since the peasants’ freedom began to be talked about. They have talked, discussed, and written a great deal, but they have done nothing. And this manifesto which the tsar, together with the Senate and the landlords, has written for us, is so stupid that the devil only knows what it resembles-there is no truth in it, there is no benefit whatsoever in it for us.
-From the first issue of Peasant’s Truth
Kalinouski’s literary adventures mirrored a prominent role among the leadership of the January Uprising to throw off the Romanov yoke.
But it proved to be the case that, although scrapping with Great Britain might be one thing, the Russian army was more than a match for her internal foes. It crushed the January Uprising.
In prison awaiting execution, Kalinouski bequeathed one last literary vindication, his Letters from Beneath the Gallows.
Friends, my brothers!
From under the Russian gallows I am writing to you for the last time. It is sad to leave my native land and you, my dear people. My breast sighs and my heart is sore, but it is not a sad lot to perish for your truth. Hear my last words in sincerity, my people, for it is as if they were written from this world only for your good … as day and night do not reign together, so also true learning does not go together with Russian slavery. As long as this lies over us, we shall have nothing. There will be no truth, no riches, no learning. They will only drive us like cattle not to our well-being, but to our perdition.
… go and fight with the whole people for your human and national rights, for your faith, for your native land. For I say to you from beneath the gallows, my people, you will only then live happily, when no Russian remains over you! (Source)
A plaque in Vilnius marks the spot of Kastus Kalinouski’s execution on 22 March 1864 (10 March by the Julian calendar).
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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Belarus,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Hanged,History,Intellectuals,Lithuania,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Russia,Treason,Wartime Executions
Tags: 1860s, 1864, march 22, vilnius
January 15th, 2015
On this date in 1944, Soviet partisan Zinaida Portnova was executed by the Germans occupying Belarus.
The youngest-ever female Hero of the Soviet Union (she was posthumously decorated in 1958), the Leningrad-born Portnova had a rude start in insurgency when the German blitz swept past her summer camp in Belarus and trapped her behind lines.
Said to have been radicalized when occupying soldiers struck her grandmother, the girl joined the youth arm of the local resistance, dubbed the “Young Avengers”.
From surveilling enemy troop deployments and assembling weapons caches, Zinaida Portnova graduated to sabotage and ambushes … and capture. Even then she pulled off an action hero escape by snatching a gun and shooting her way out of custody, only to be re-arrested shortly thereafter.
She was shot a month shy of her 18th birthday.
A large number of Pioneer youth groups were subsequently dedicated to Zinaida Portnova, as was a museum of the Komsomol underground and a public monument in Minsk. She remains to this day an honored martyr of the Great Patriotic War.
On this day..
Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Belarus,Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Guerrillas,History,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Russia,Shot,Soldiers,Spies,Terrorists,Torture,USSR,Wartime Executions,Women
Tags: 1940s, 1944, january 15, world war ii, zinaida portnova
November 29th, 2012
On this date in 1938, linguist and politician Branislaw Tarashkyevich was shot at the Kommunarka execution range outside Moscow: another victim of Stalin’s purges.
Tarashkyevch (English Wikipedia page | Russian | Belarusian) is best remembered today for “Taraskevica”.
That’s the familiar name for Tarashkyevich’s 1918 grammar (Belarusian link) that standardized the tongue, or rather the collection of related “Belarusian” dialects.
Its creator also happened to be a political leftist; he served briefly in the parliament of Poland (which then controlled West Belarus), then became a leader of the Belarus Peasant and Worker Masses, a communist movement. Tarashkyevich was arrested in 1928 and subsequently exchanged for a Belarusian journalist whom the Soviets had imprisoned.
His career as a Soviet appartchik in Moscow was short-lived, however, before those guys clapped him in prison, too, with the outcome typical to that frightening time and place.
A like deletion was supposed to befall taraskevica when the Stalin-era Belarus SSR ordered a standardization with grammar and orthography that more closely resembled Russian; this version (“narkomawka”) still remains the official “Belarusian” to this day.
However, the taraskevica variant has established a stubborn foothold among users who consider it more authentic than its Russified rival.*
* See Curt Woolhiser, “Communities of Practice and Linguistic Divergence: Belarusophone Students as Agents ofLinguistic Change,” Harvard Ukrainian Studies, Vol. 29, No. 1/4 (2007).
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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Belarus,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Intellectuals,Politicians,Russia,Shot,USSR
Tags: 1930s, 1938, branislaw tarashkyevich, communism, linguistics, november 29, red terror, stalinism
April 1st, 2011
(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)
On this day in 1942, the Nazis issued an ultimatum to the Judenrat of the Minsk Ghetto in Belarus: turn over Hersh Smolar for torture and execution by noon, or they would all face execution themselves.
Smolar, a dedicated Communist who was a writer and editor in civilian life, had been a problem for the Germans for quite some time. He was a leader in the resistance of the Minsk Ghetto, and that resistance was a force to be reckoned with. Smolar and others like him formed an underground organization that printed leaflets about Soviet successes in the war, occasionally hid non-Jewish Communists and escaped Russian prisoners of war within the ghetto (the infectious disease ward of the hospital was a great hiding place: the Germans never went there), and above all tried to save the lives of as many Jews as possible.
The Minsk Ghetto underground formed links with underground resistance organizations on the outside and they worked together. Unlike the rest of Eastern Europe, the general population of Belarus was as a whole sympathetic and helpful to the Jews. The result was that Jews were able to escape the ghetto and join partisan groups in the forest by the thousands, surviving and taking out Nazis at the same time.
The Minsk Ghetto leaked like a sieve. By the time it was liquidated, 10,000 of its residents had joined partisan groups in the forest.
Smolar, of course, had tried to keep his activities a secret from the Nazis, but he couldn’t avoid their attention forever. Unfortunately the Minsk Ghetto Underground wasn’t very good at keeping itself a secret and twice it was decimated by mass arrests.
By the spring of 1942, Smolar was a hunted man, and in hiding. On April 1 he was in the hospital’s infectious disease ward, disguised as a typhus patient, meaning his face could be covered. (Typhus patients suffer extreme sensitivity to light.) The Judenrat paid him a visit and told him about the Nazis’ ultimatum.
Some of the Judenrat members were prepared to turn Smolar in, so only one person would have to die. Of course, the ideal solution would be where no one would die. They turned to the Tanakh for guidance, specifically the story of Joseph. When Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt and told their father he had died, they dipped his coat in the blood of a kid and presented this as proof of his death.
Displaying the sincerest and brassiest form of flattery, one of the Judenrat members took a blank passport, filled it out with Smolar’s photograph and details, smeared it with blood from a recent Nazi victim, and took it to the Gestapo officers. He explained that they had apparently gotten Smolar in a random shooting, as the passport had just been found on a mutilated body at the cemetery.
And the Germans actually fell for this. April Fools!
Barbara Epstein’s excellent book The Minsk Ghetto 1941-1943: Jewish Resistance and Soviet Internationalism records the rest of the story: Smolar remained in hiding in the hospital for another four months. Eventually he left the infectious disease ward and moved to a specially constructed hiding place in the attic chimney, which was only large enough to stand in.
Presumably he was very happy in August 1942, when the time came for him to leave the ghetto and join a partisan group in the forest. He survived the war … as did about 4,500 other Jewish partisans from the Minsk Ghetto.
Smolar wrote a memoir about his experiences and the Minsk Ghetto Underground in general, titled The Minsk Ghetto: Soviet-Jewish Partisans Against the Nazis. He died in Israel in 1993, age 88.
On this day..
Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Belarus,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Escapes,Execution,Germany,Guest Writers,History,Jews,Lucky to be Alive,No Formal Charge,Not Executed,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Power,Revolutionaries,Russia,Shot,Summary Executions,Treason,USSR,Wartime Executions
Tags: 1940s, 1942, april 1, hersh smolar, holocaust, minsk, minsk ghetto, world war ii
October 26th, 2009
On this date in 1941, the German occupiers of Minsk conducted an infamous public hanging of partisans — perhaps the first such salutary public execution of resistance members of the war.
Jewish* 17-year-old Maria (Masha) Bruskina was the central figure of the grim tableau, and wore the placard announcing “We are partisans and have shot at German soldiers.” Evidently, she also attracted the most attention** from the onlookers to whom the scene was addressed.
Before noon, I saw the armed German and Lithuanian soldiers appear on the street. From over the bridge they escorted three people with their arms tied behind their backs. In the middle there was a girl with a sign-board on her chest. They were led up to the yeast factory gate. I noticed how calmly these people walked. The girl did not look around … The first one led to the gallows was the girl.
She was hanged with bewhiskered World War I vet Kiril Trus and the 16-year-old Volodia Shcherbatsevich. The men were members of a partisan cell organizing anti-fascist resistance; Masha Bruskina was a nurse who had been caught aiding the partisans by providing civilian clothes and papers for wounded Red Army soldiers under her care to smuggle them back to the resistance.
The scene of their deaths was captured in a series of powerful photographs taken by one of the Lithuanian Wehrmacht collaborators.
(More images here and here.)
* Phototextualities: Intersections of Photography and Narrative claims that Bruskina lightened her hair and changed her name to prevent her Jewishness affecting her resistance work; even though she was a Minsk native, her initial identification didn’t happen until 1968. The men who suffered with her were named almost immediately after the war.
** Despite the eye-catching place of the girl, she was officially unidentified for decades even after the name Masha Bruskina surfaced. In “A Historical Injustice: The Case of Masha Bruskina,” (Holocaust Genocide Studies 1997, 11:3) Nechama Tec and Daniel Weiss argued that Soviet authorities, and later Belarusian ones, found her Jewishness problematic and resisted identifying her because of it — while an ethnically Russian female partisan like Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya could be more conveniently accepted as a heroine. Maybe, but bureaucratic inertia and simple precedence (since Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya was known immediately while Masha Bruskina was not) are also plausible contributing factors.
A plaque unveiled at the Minsk yeast factory in 2009 finally called her Maria Bruskina.
On this day..
Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Belarus,Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous,Germany,Guerrillas,Hanged,History,Jews,Martyrs,Mature Content,Milestones,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Soldiers,Torture,USSR,Wartime Executions
Tags: 1940s, 1941, anti-semitism, fascism, kiril trus, maria bruskina, masha bruskina, minsk, naziism, october 26, partisans, volodia shcherbatsevich, world war ii
November 21st, 2008
On an uncertain date in November 1942, this photograph of an SS unit executing anti-Nazi partisans in Belarus was taken.
Behind this striking but all too typical image of brutal field executions on the eastern front lies the sordid story of one of the strangest military formations in the Nazi service.
The Dirlewanger brigade was formed under a man whose fortuitous early enrollment in the NSDAP had enabled him to pull strings to get himself out of Dachau, where he had been sent after his second molestation conviction, and where unfolding events could have easily seen him on the other end of the firing squad.
Instead, Oskar Dirlewanger formed a unit of criminals and reprobates: poachers at first, and eventually, as it grew into the SS-Sonderbatallion Dirlewanger, men culled from the camps or soldiers condemned by the army, some literally trading the likelihood of execution themselves for service under one of the most disreputable commanders in the field.
Oh, and, just incidentally — it stuck them into a lawless environment where they could probably practice and refine their pathologies unchecked. Some “rehabilitation.”
As of this relatively early date, the convict floodgates weren’t yet entirely open, and the existing German volunteers were supplemented by a goodly portion of Soviet citizens recruited in the occupied territories. From 1942 to 1944, they hung around Belarus hunting guerrillas and doing to them — well, you know. (The original notion of using poachers was to exploit their ranger-like woodsman talents for anti-partisan warfare.)
Oh, and civilians. Tens of thousands of civilians. That almost goes without saying.
Sadly for Dr. Dirlewanger, events further south were undoing all his bloody work, for it was also in the November 1942 that the Red Army decisively turned the tide of the war with its counterattack at Stalingrad — in fact, it was this very date in 1942 that it completed its encirclement, stranding a quarter-million freezing Wehrmacht regulars on the banks of the Volga, only a handful ever to see Germany again.
The Dirlewanger brigade would have its own turn being minced by the Soviet war machine, though not before it had a notorious hand in drowning the Warsaw Uprising in blood.
Dirlewanger himself was tortured to death by Polish guards a few weeks after the war ended.
Part of the Themed Set: The “Ex” Stands For “Extrajudicial”.
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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Belarus,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Guerrillas,History,Known But To God,Mature Content,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Russia,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,USSR,Wartime Executions
Tags: 1940s, 1942, battle of stalingrad, dachau, nazi, naziism, nazis, oskar dirlewanger, partisans, sonderbatallion dirlewanger, ss, warsaw, warsaw uprising, wola massacre, world war ii
August 11th, 2008
On this date in 1978, a young Soviet girl’s desperate collaboration with the Wehrmacht caught up with a 55-year-old mother.
A village girl and the first in her family to go to school, young Antonina Parfenova was dubbed “Makarova” (after her father, Makar) by a teacher when the girl forgot or was too shy to say her surname. This childhood switcheroo would follow her into adulthood and ultimately buy her half a lifetime and a family to mourn her.
At 19, she had moved to Moscow when the German onslaught against the Soviet Union erupted, and like many young people in similar straits, she volunteered to help fight the Nazis. But as the front swept past her, she found herself in enemy territory, and was nabbed by the SS and persuaded to become the Germans’ executioner of Russians at Lokot, a village near the Ukrainian and Belarussian borders for which a short-lived Nazi-controlled “republic” was named.
A 2005 Pravda article (with a somewhat prurient concern over the young woman’s sexual incontinence) delves into her activities:
Usually Antonina Makarova was ordered to execute a group of 27 people, the number of partisans which a local prison could house. Death sentences were carried out on the edge of a pit half a kilometer from the prison. She never knew people whom she executed and they had no notion who the executioner was either. Antonina executed the first group of partisans being absolutely drunk and the girl could hardly realize what she was doing. She often kept clothes of those whom she killed if the things were good; she carefully washed them and heaped them in her room.
In the evenings after work Antonina loved to dress up and enjoy her time dancing with German officers together with other girls who came there as prostitutes. Antonina boasted she used to live in Moscow that is why other girls kept aloof from her.
At dawn, Antonina often came to the prison and peered into the faces of people whom she was to execute in the morning. The woman just did her job when executing people and believed that the war would write her crimes off.*
“Antonina Makarova” was implicated in some 1,500 executions, and formally charged in around 200 cases with identifiable victims. The KGB turned up scores of women of the right age with the right name, but none of them fit the bill: the real Makarova’s passport said “Parfenova.”
Not until 1976 did the case break, when a relative applying for a travel visa named her in a routine list of relatives. Now named Antonina Ginsburg — she had married a veteran and taken his name — she was living quietly in Belarus, but hardly in hiding: the pair attended parades and town functions in the honor accorded World War II survivors.
Viktor Ginsburg would be in for a bit of a shock.
Even 35 years after her spell with the Germans ended, the wounds of the Great Patriotic War were raw enough to spell her death in very quick order in Briansk, the capital of Lokot’s district. She was the last World War II traitor of any note executed in the Soviet Union, and according to this page, the only Soviet woman ever judicially executed by shooting. (I’d take that claim cautiously without more corroboration.)
The Pravda article cited above is about the only original English source readily available online; Russian speakers (or people prepared to grapple with an online translator’s inelegance) can read much more at her Russian Wikipedia page as well as here, here and here.
Update: Courtesy of Executed Today’s own Sonechka, a translation from this Russian story of Makarova’s daughter’s heartbreaking remembrance of a woman she only knew as a mother:
Pain, pain, pain … She spoiled the life of four generations … You would like to know whether I would take her back if she returned? I would. She is my mother after all… I really don’t know how to remember her — as if she’s alive or dead. According to the tacit law, women were not shot. Maybe she’s alive somewhere? And if not, tell me — I’ll finally light a candle for her soul.
(Candles in Orthodox churches are lit for “zdravie” — literally “good health, well being” — or “upokoi” — “peace of a soul.” The former is intended for living beings, the latter for dead ones.)
* This, at least, is what she told her interrogators.
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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Belarus,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Executioners,Germany,History,Milestones,Notable for their Victims,Notable Sleuthing,Occupation and Colonialism,Russia,Shot,Soldiers,USSR,War Crimes,Women
Tags: 1978, antonina makarova, antonina perferova, august 11, briansk, fascism, identity, lokot, names, operation barbarossa, world war ii
March 30th, 2008
On this date in 1689, in a Warsaw marketplace, Kazimierz Lyszczynski had his tongue torn out, his head struck off and his body burned to ashes which were shot from a cannon — all for scratching a few words with the whiff of atheism.
Lyszczynski — less dauntingly rendered “Cazimir Liszinski” — was convicted of holding such heretical doctrines as:
God is not the creator of man; but man is the creator of a God gathered together from nothing.
His actual writings are not known directly — his books were burned along with his flesh — but only from the transcripts of his rather hysterical trial, so it’s uncertain what he actually believed; for that matter, he vigorously (albeit unsuccessfully) abjured atheism. Some sources say that he was nailed for as little as irreverent marginal notations in a theological tract he found unconvincing; others report that he actually wrote a heretical text.
According to Valerian Krasinski’s Historical Sketch Of The Rise, Progress And Decline Of The Reformation In Poland V1 (available free from Google books)
Cazimir Lyszczynski, a noble and landowner of Lithuania, a man of a very respectable character, was perusing a book entitled Theologia Naturalis, by Henry Aldsted, a Protestant divine, and finding that the arguments which the author employed in order to prove the existence of divinity, were so confused that it was possible to deduce from them quite contrary consequences, he added on the margin the following words — “ergo non est Deus,” evidently ridiculing the arguments of the author. This circumstance was found out by Brzoska, nuncio of Brest in Lithuania, a debtor of Lyszczynski, who denouned him as an atheist, delivering, as evidence of his accusation, a copy of the work with the above-mentioned annotation to Witwicki, bishop of Posnania, who took up this affair with the greatest violence … nothing could shelter the unfortunate man against the fanatical rage of the clergy … On the simple accusation of his debtor, supported by the bishops, the affair was brought before the diet of 1689, before which the clergy, and particularly the bishop Zaluski, accused Lyszczynski of having denied the existence of God, and uttered blasphemies against the blessed Virgin and the saints. The unfortunate victim, terrified by his perilous situation, acknowledged all that was imputed to him, made a full recantation of all he might have said and written against the doctrine of the Roman Catholic church, and declared his entire submission to its authority. This was, however, of no avail to him, and his accusers were even scandalized that the diet permitted him to make a defence, and granted the term of three days for collecting evidence of his innocence, as the accusation of the clergy ought, in their judgment, to be sufficient evidence on which to condemn the culprit.
Pope Innocent XI at least salvaged the performance of the Catholic hierarchy in the affair by condemning, rather than promoting, the ambitious bishops.
Whatever the doomed man’s actual doctrines and writings, it is likely not coincidence that one finds this atrocious affair during at the moment of his country’s political collapse. The heretical knight’s 55 years corresponded to Poland’s fall from central Europe’s dominant power into the plaything of neighboring hegemons. The Polish-Lithuanian Empire stood at its maximum extent at his birth; during Lyszczynski’s boyhood, the Zaporozhian Cossacks broke free of Warsaw; as a young man, he saw the Swedes, the Russians, and Poland’s former vassal Prussia strip the empire of peoples and land.
By the time of Lyszczynski’s misfortunate death, Poland was a second-rate power on the brink of irrelevance — an abyss into which it would plunge in the century to come. Corwin’s Political History of Poland (another Google Books freebie) lays the scene:
The constant internal dissensions caused and nourished by foreign intrigues were in no mean measure responsible for the King’s failures in his final campaigns and in his diplomacy. They resulted in the loss of territory and the decline of Poland’s position as a great European power. French and Austrian money supported Polish anarchy. Diets were constantly torn up some even before the presiding officer could be elected. No law could be enacted. Corruption was rampant. Several attempts were made to depose the King. Religious intolerance became intensified and the first and last auto da fe in Poland was executed in 1689, on one Casimir Lyszczynski for his atheistic proclivities. The country became a theatre of constant strife between the various magnate families. At times the clashes resulted in formal civil wars.
It might be small consolation for having one’s head chopped off, but Lyszczynski’s reputation has far outrun his persecutors’, and in the lands of the old Polish-Lithuanian Empire, he cuts a pathbreaking figure for secularists and freethinkers.
There’s a substantial article about Lyszczynski on a Polish freethinkers’ site. As his hometown Brest lies in modern Belarus, he also enjoys a monumental biography on a Belarussian atheism site (and even favorite-son treatment on the city of Brest’s own page).
Lyszczynski’s gravestone — image (c) Irina Shvets and used with permission. The inscription reads, “Oh, travelers! Do not pass these stones. You will not stumble upon them if you don’t stumble upon the truth. Recognize the truth: for even those who know that it is the truth teach that it is a lie. The teachings of the wise are bound by deceit.”
On this day..
Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Auto de Fe,Beheaded,Belarus,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous,Freethinkers,God,Heresy,History,Intellectuals,Lithuania,Milestones,Nobility,Poland,Public Executions,Soldiers