Posts filed under 'Georgia'

1629: Giorgi Saakadze

Add comment October 3rd, 2017 Headsman

Larger-than-life Georgian warrior Giorgi Saakadze was put to death in Aleppo on this date in 1629.

Through friendship with the royal family and talent on the battlefield, (English Wikipedia entry | Georgian), Saakadze had risen from the petty nobility to become one of the leading figures in the Kingdom of Kartli (centered on the city of Tbilisi, Georgia’s present-day capital). He even married his sister to the king himself.

Kartli was a minor principality under the sway of the adjacent Persian Safavids but that doesn’t mean they were thrilled about the idea. Saakadze would embark on a treacherous (in both senses) career when he was accused by rival Georgian lords of Persian subterfuge, and had to flee to Persia to a chorus of told-you-sos.

In this Benedict Arnold posture, Saakadze would then help direct the campaign that pacified Georgia for the Persians, and deposed the Georgian king.* Through Persian arms he became the de facto ruler of his prostrated homeland, and you’d be forgiven for wondering how that sort of behavior has earned him a monumental equestrian statue dominating a Tbilisi city square named to his honor.

Well, Saakadze redeemed his reputation and then some by turning coat on a massive Persian invasion dispatched to put down another Georgian rebellion in the 1620s, crippling the operation while the former satrap turned guerrilla. Savvy empires know how to play the divide-and-conquer game, however, and before you knew it they had rival Georgian factions literally at one another’s throats. Saakadze had to flee again — this time, he headed west to the Ottomans.

The wheel of fortune that had spun so dizzyingly for Saakadze time after time had one more revolution yet in store. Our fugitive/refugee now carried Turkish arms into the field, against the Persians and with his customary aptitude, but a figure of Saakadze’s malleable allegiances was always at risk of being damned a traitor by some palace enemy. That’s exactly what happened in 1629.

What to make of such a figure? Saakadze did not want for daring, and his defections had not been so piratical and opportunistic as a Alcibiades — thus, even by the end of the 17th century, this larger-than-life adventurer was celebrated in verse with an aggrandizement upon his original Georgian office: the “Grand Mouravi“. It was not long before he had entered Georgians’ pantheon of patriotic heroes.

Saakadze’s legend really took off in the 20th century, aided by that inescapable scion of Georgia, Joseph Stalin. The man was always up for reappropriating a hero out of modernity’s nascence into a nation-galvanizing icon for the Soviet state.

Packaging Saakadze as a martyr to a backwards time of squabbling princes, Stalin commissioned a film that centers its subject as a Georgian hero — which was a sentiment needed when Giorgi Saakadze was released in 1943 because the Wehrmacht was also using the man’s name to brand a battalion of Georgian recruits.

* The martyr-king Luarsab was no longer family for Saakadze, having put aside Saakadze’s sister with the family’s disgrace.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Georgia,Guerrillas,History,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Ottoman Empire,Politicians,Separatists,Soldiers,Syria

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1937: Titsian Tabidze, poet

Add comment December 16th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1937, the Georgian poet Titsian Tabidze was executed in Stalin’s purges.

“Titsiani”, who co-founded the “Blue Horns” symbolist circle in 1916, is the addressee of fellow dissident litterateur Boris Pasternak’s Letters to a Georgian Friend.

“There is as much soul in his poetry as there was in him, a reserved and complicated soul, wholly attracted to the good and capable of clairvoyance and self-sacrifice,” Pasternak would remember of his comrade. “The memory of Tabidze puts me in mind of the country; landscapes rise in my imagination, the waves of the sea and a vast flowering plain; clouds drifting in a row and, behind them in the distance, mountains rising to the same level.”

The problem was their decidedly less sentimental countryman in the Kremlin.

Georgian security chief Lavrenty Beria put the screws to the Georgian writers’ association, driving fellow Blue Horns alum Paolo Yashvili to suicide when he was pressured to denounce Tabidze.

But of course the only difference that made was for Yashvili’s soul.

Arrested as a traitor a bare two months before his death, Tabidze defiantly betrayed to his interrogators the name of only a single fellow-traveler: 18th century Georgian poet Besiki.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Georgia,History,Intellectuals,Posthumous Exonerations,Russia,Shot,Torture,Treason,USSR

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1955: Six Beria men

Add comment November 22nd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1955, eight former officials of the Georgia — the country Georgia — secret police were tried publicly in Tbilisi, and six* of them convicted and promptly shot.

Officially, they were in the dock post-Stalin for their various depredations during the late ascendancy of the notorious Lavrentiy Beria. (Both Beria and Stalin himself were native Georgians.)

All their frightening offices for the NKVD had been re-branded, post-Stalin, as counterrevolutionary and terroristic, the same sort of chilling police-state lingo they used to turn against enemies back in their day.

A.N. Rapava, for instance

… was Deputy Head of the NKVD in Georgia. In July 1945, he received the rank of Lt. General. From late 1938 until 1948, he was the Head of NKVD/NKGB/MGB** in Georgia when he was removed under a cloud. (Source)

Georgia’s Stalin-era apparatchiks had vicious infighting, aggravated by a growing rift between Stalin and Beria late in Stalin’s life. (Indeed, if you like some hypotheses, this was why it was late in Stalin’s life: Beria might have poisoned off Uncle Joe to protect himself from purging.)

Rapava was a Beria man, but when Stalin swept his own people into place† in the late 1940s to early 1950s, a Stalin guy named N.M. Rukhadze arrested and replaced Rapava.

A few weeks before Stalin died, when the biography of Beria is thick with curious maneuverings, Beria got Rukhadze replaced; once Stalin kicked off, Beria was free to flat-out arrest Rukhadze.

It was a bit of an irony that when the post-Stalin Bolsheviks came round to mop up in Georgia, the rivals Rapava and Rukhadze had to stand in the dock together, both allegedly part of Beria’s organization. It would have been a bit inconvenient to detail how it was Beria himself who ordered Rukhadze’s arrest.

The others who shared their fate:

  • A.S. Khazani, NKVD political department officer who wrote a book with the title The Moral Outlook of a Soviet Man
  • N.A. Krimian, who served in the NKVD in Georgia and later in Ukraine, where he orchestrated the execution of political prisoners ahead of the invading Germans in World War II
  • K.S. Savitsky, NKVD Georgia official
  • Sh.O. Tsereteli, a tsarist officer turned Bolshevik and a Beria ally dating back to the early 1920s

All were shot for the victims of the Georgian purges they had conducted. A translator and a bodyguard were also convicted at the same trial, drawing prison sentences.

* Evidently, the official press initially reported only five executions.

** NKVD, NKGB and MGB is for our thumbnail essentially the same state security entity under various names and reorganizations from the 1930s to the 1950s. It became in the last analysis the KGB.

† See, for example, the Mingrelian Affair.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Georgia,History,Mass Executions,Murder,Power,Russia,Shot,USSR

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1892: Two Georgian bandits, witnessed by Stalin

6 comments February 13th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1892, two outlaws were hanged (and a third spared at the last moment) in Gori, Georgia — part of the tsarist Russian Empire.

Josef Djughashvili, the future Stalin, was a teenager when he saw an 1892 public hanging in Gori.

The most noteworthy executioner present on this occasion was not on the scaffold, but in the audience: a 14-year-old student at an orthodox church school named Joseph Djugashvili. You know him by his later, steely revolutionist alias: Stalin.

This precocious, ferocious youth attended the public hanging with school mates to whom he was already a natural leader.

He and his friends sympathized with the doomed Caucasians, so insouciant at being strung up by the tsarist oppressor: conversing after the gruesome spectacle, Djugashvili would maintain that the men had not been consigned to hell, for they had suffered enough in the present.

But this boy was not made for theologizing; though he proceeded to seminary school in Tiflis — the best education prospect for an impoverished family — he disappeared thence into the life of professional revolutionary outlawry.

The recent (and well-received) biography Young Stalin recaptures this scene from Joseph Djugashvili’s youth.

The condemned men had stolen a cow and, in the ensuing pursuit, had killed a policeman. But the boys learned that the criminals were actually just three “peasants who had been so oppressed by landowners that they escaped into the forest,” petty Robin Hoods, attacking only local squires and helping other peasants …

The boys were fascinated. “Soso Djugashvili, me and four other schoolboys climbed a tree and watched the terrifying show from there,” remembers one of the group, Grigory Razmadze … Another spectator whom Stalin would later befriend and promote was Maxim Gorky, then a journalist, soon to be Russia’s most celebrated writer.

The Gorelis sympathized with these brave Caucasian bandits … The crowd became menacing; double ranks of Russian soldiers encircled the square. The drums began to beat. “The authorities in uniforms lingered around the scaffold,” wrote Gorky in his article. “Their dreary and severe faces looked strange and hostile.” They had reason to be nervous.

The three bandits in leg irons were marched onto the scaffold. One was separated from the others — he had been reprieved. The priest offered the two condemned men his blessings; one accepted and one refused. Both asked for a smoke and a sip of water. Sandro Khubuluri was silent, but the handsome and strong “ringleader,” Tato Jioshvili, smiled and joked valiantly before the admiring crowd. He leaned on the railings of the gallows and, noticed Gorky, “chatted to people who had come to see hi die.” The crowd threw stones at the hangman, who was masked and clad completely in scarlet. He placed the condemned on stools and tightened the nooses around their necks. Sandro just twirled his moustache and readjusted the noose. The time had come.

The hangman kicked away the stools. As so often with Tsarist repression, it was inept: Sandro’s rope broke. The crowd gasped. The scarlet hangman replaced him on the stool, placed a new noose round his neck and hanged him again. Tato also took a while to die.


Even Joseph Stalin was a child once.

One would have to really like the difficult-to-prove notion that executions have a brutalizing effect encouraging violence in others in order to see in this hanging the germ of the incomprehensible suffering young master Djugashvili would eventually unleash.

It’s not like this was Stalin’s only childhood exposure to brutality, and not too many of those buddies who watched this date’s hanging grew up to kill 20 million people.

Gori was one of the last towns to practise the ‘picturesque and savage custom’ of free-for-all town brawls with special rules but no-holds-barred violence. The boozing, praying and fighting were all interconnected, with drunken priests acting as referees… [At festivals during Stalin’s youth] the males in each family, from children upwards, also paraded, drinking wine and singing until night fell, when the real fun began. This ‘assault of free boxing’—the sport of krivi—was a ‘mass duel with rules’; boys of three wrestled other three-year-olds, then children fought together, then teenagers and finally the men threw themselves into ‘an incredible battle,’ by which time the town was completely out of control, a state that lasted into the following day—even at school, where classes fought classes.


This is Russia, not Georgia: festive Maslenitsa fisticuffs.

The small Georgian town that spawned the first name in Soviet terror actually maintained a public statue to its most famous son until 2010 — when it was finally removed in an apparent anti-Russian gesture in the wake of the South Ossetia war.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Georgia,Hanged,History,Murder,Outlaws,Public Executions,Russia,Theft

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555: Rusticus and John

Add comment November 5th, 2010 Headsman

On an uncertain date in the autumn of 555, a Byzantine commander and his brother were put to death for the treacherous murder of the vassal king of Lazica.

Rusticus, the commander, probably had good cause to be annoyed with Gubazes II, who ruled a borderlands realm on the eastern edge of the Black Sea, in modern-day Georgia.

Gubazes had gone from calling in Persian aid in 541 against Lazica’s Byzantine masters, to summoning Byzantine help against the Persians a few years later. Now, he was kvetching to Byzantine Emperor Justinian about the Byzantine generals he’d called for.

We’ll let J.B. Bury take it from here:

King Gubazes, who had been engaged in frequent quarrels with the Roman commanders, sent a complaint to Justinian accusing them of negligence in conducting the war. Bessas, Martin, and Rusticus were specially named. The Emperor deposed Bessas from his post, but assigned the chief command to martin and did not recall Rusticus. This Rusticus was the Emperor’s pursebearer who had been sent to bestow rewards on soldiers for special merit. He and Martin determined to remove Gubazes. To secure themselves from blame, they despatched John, brother of Rusticus, to Justinian with the false message that Gubazes was secretly favouring the Persians. Justinian was surprised, and determined to summon the king to Constantinople. “What,” asked John, “is to be done, if he refuses?” “Compel him,” said the Emperor; “he is our subject.” “But if he resist?” urged the conspirator. “Then treat him as a tyrant.” And will he who should slay him have naught to fear?” “Naught, if he act disobediently and be slain as an enemy.” Justinian signed a letter to this effect, and armed with it John returned to Colchis. The conspirators hastened to execute their treacherous design. Gubazes was invited to assist in an attack on the fortress of Onoguris, and with a few attendants he met the Roman army on the banks of the Chobus. An altercation arose between the king and Rusticus, and on the pretext that the gainsayer of a Roman general must necessarily be a friend of the enemy, John drew his dagger and plunged it in the royal breast. The wound was not mortal but it unhorsed the king, and when he attempted to rise from the ground, a blow from the squire of Rusticus killed him outright.

The Lazi silently buried their king according to their customs, and turned away in mute reproach from their Roman protectors. They no longer took part in the military operations, but hid themselves away as men who had lost their hereditary glory. The other commanders, Buzes and Justin the son of Germanus, concealed the indignation which they felt, supposing that the outrage had the Emperor’s authority. Some months later, when winter had begun, the Lazi met in secret council in some remote Caucasian ravine, and debated whether they should throw themselves on the protection of Chosroes. But their attachment to the Christian religion as well as their memory of Persian oppression forbade them to take this step, and they decided to appeal for justice and satisfaction to the Emperor, and at the same time to supplicate him to nominate Tzath, the younger brother of Gubazes, as their new king. Justinian promptly complied with both demands. Athanasius, a senator of high repute, was sent to investigate the circumstances of the assassination, and on his arrival he incarcerated Rusticus and John, pending a trial. In the spring (A.D. 555) Tzath arrived in royal state, and when the Lazi beheld the Roman army saluting him as he rode in royal apparel, a tunic embroidered with gold reaching to his feet, a white mantle with a gold stripe, red shoes, a turban adorned with gold and gems, and a crown, they forgot their sorrow and escorted him in a gay and brilliant procession. It was not till the ensuing autumn that the authors of the death of the late king were brought to justice, and the natives witnessed the solemn procedure of a Roman trial. Rusticus and John were executed. Martin’s complicity was not so clear, and the Emperor, to whom his case was referred, deposed him from his command in favour of his own cousin Justin, the son of Germanus. Martin perhaps would not have been acquitted if he had not been popular with the army and a highly competent general. (link)

“The historical importance of the Lazic War,” Bury says, “lay in the fact that if the Romans had not succeeded in holding the country and thwarting the design of Chosroes, the great Asiatic power would have had access to the Euxine and the Empire would have had a rival on the waters of that sea. The serious menace involved in this possibility was fully realised by the Imperial government and explains the comparative magnitude of the forces which were sent to the defence of the Lazic kingdom.”

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Entry Filed under: Assassins,Byzantine Empire,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Early Middle Ages,Execution,Georgia,History,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Soldiers,Uncertain Dates,Wartime Executions

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1289: Demetre II the Self-Sacrificer

4 comments March 12th, 2008 dogboy

On this date in 1289, Georgia’s King Demetre II, beholden to the Mongol regional ruler Arghun Khan, earned the name “Self-Sacrificer” (tavdadebuli) by giving himself up for execution in a bid to spare his nation the ruins which befell other resistors of Mongolian rule. He was tortured and beheaded for allegedly participating in a plot to overthrow the khan. The Georgian Orthodox church canonized Demetre a martyr and saint.

Demetre sat on the Georgian throne in tumultuous days, when its influence spanned only the eastern half of present-day Georgia. His nation’s position in the Caucuses Mountains between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea placed it at the center of action during the Dark Ages, crushed between European Crusades from the west, Mongolian military expansion from the north and east, and Turkish and Iranian influence from the south.

This left the so-called Caucasian isthmus a political boiler room from the 9th to 18th centuries, during which its dominion waxed several times, and waned even more spectacularly twice as often (a rather complete description is given by Ronald Grigor Suny in The Making of the Georgian Nation).

The Christian polygamist was a fifth-generation descendant of “golden age” Georgian ruler King David II, III, or IV (depends on who you ask), who earned the only name he would need as Georgian ruler for refusing to cede power to Byzantium and expelling the Seljuk Turks — considered the dreaded Muslim invaders — from Georgia, northern Armenia, and some of present-day Azerbaijan. King David the Builder united these nearby Transcaucasian cultures under a single banner shortly after 1100. A century later, in 1204, after the inception of the Byzantine Empire of Trebizond (now in western neighbor Turkey), Georgia reached its zenith under the reign of Queen T(h)amar the Great: from the ruins of Constantinople after the fourth Crusade, in the Eastern center of Orthodox Christianity, the dynastic Kingdom of Georgia entered its glory days.

Georgia at its height under Queen Tamar.

But such days did not last. T(h)amar’s son had no children when he fell fatally ill after a defeat in support of the persistent Crusaders. Within six decades, the Mongols would conquer Georgia at least twice, demanding gold in tribute to protect the once mighty kingdom from the Turks, and eventually other Mongolian factions. The nation’s religious heart felt more threatened by the Muslim onslaught than by the prospect of Mongolian overlords, and residents frequently took up arms alongside the Mongols to repel the southern invaders. Which is not to suggest that rebellion against the region’s ruler, the Mongolian Ilkhanate, was unknown.

Indeed, Demetre II was sired during just such a time and held the dubious distinction of taking power immediately after David VII (David Ulu, “the Senior”), whose efforts at revolt resulted in a three-way carving of Georgia. In 1262, David Ulu and his cousin David VI (David Narin, “the Junior”) ended their largely unsuccessful attempt to pry away the Mongol thumb after being forced to hole up in Kutaisi, the birth city of David the Builder. Ulu and Narin made peace with the Mongols and ruled the eastern and western partitions, respectively.

Their surrender was precipitated largely by the kidnapping of large portions of their families at the invaders’ hands, but it was a year too late to save Demetre’s mother. Three years after the surrender, in a show of pure subjugation, David Ulu agreed to aid the local Ilkahn — himself a subordinate to the Mongolian khan — in battle against the Golden Horde in the neighboring northern Azerbaijani region of Shirvan. Still attempting to exert his own pressure over the kingdom, David Ulu watched his domain shrink further as the southern province of Samtskhe broke away to submit more immediately to the Ilkahnate.

Coins dating to the reign of Demetre II. (From the National Bank of Georgia)

In 1270, David Ulu died, and his 11-year old son ascended to the throne, regency passing to Demetre’s uncle Sadun Mankaberdeli while Demetre was schooled at the court of the khan. At 18, Demetre took control. He had stood side-by-side under Mongol Buddhist-maybe-turned-Christian Abaqa Khan with his Armenian brethren (under the rule of Leon II [or III, depending on the counter]) in four years of service. He distinguished himself in a losing march on Syria at the Second Battle of Homs (1281), yet another Ilkhanate attempt at opening the Crusade routes. This curious cast at a connection with Europe — mirrored through the dispatch of the likes of ambassador Rabban Bar Sauma to the West — ended poorly for both sides: the Mongolians saw their influence diminish even further in the southern Caucases, but the subjugated, Christian Georgia still needed their services. Demetre maintained a relationship with the Mongols, the only way to retain a semblance of power in a time of flux in the region.

Demetre was a prolific breeder in his day, likely managing to produce more subsequent Georgian kings than any other ruler while earning the ire of the church thanks to a trio of wives. His polygamy was decried by another Georgian saint, Basil Ratishvili, who predicted the ruin of the nation from these ungodly acts. It started with a classic merger of adjoining empires through a marriage to a daughter of Manuel I of Trebizond, which by that time was on the rise as a political center (it would become a stop on Marco Polo’s famous wander in the years immediately prior to its moment in the sun at the start of the 14th century); two of their children shared the title of King of Georgia, David VIII taking the half formerly claimed by David Narin, Vakhtang III acquiring Tbilisi and the western side.

Demetre’s second wife was Solghar, a Mongol princess who produced a son and two daughters — including one who married Trebizond’s most dominant ruler, Alexius III. His third marriage yielded a two-time leader in King Giorgi [George] V, who was brought up at his grandfather’s court after Demetre’s execution; his ascent to the throne in 1299 was a brief affair, but when he returned to power in 1314, his campaigns rid Transcaucasia of all Mongolian traces, united the previous factions, eliminated opposing nobles, secured access to Georgian Orthodox sites in the Holy Land, connected Georgia with Egypt and the Byzantine Empire as well as the Republics of Genoa and Venice, introduced the precursor to the modern Georgian flag, and resulted in his informal titles “Giorgi the Brilliant”, “Giorgi the Magnificent”, and “Giorgi the Illustrious.”

For Demetre II, Demetre the Devoted, Demetre the Self-Sacrificer, none of those achievements would be known, thanks to Solghar, daughter of Bugha Chingsang. Chingsang served as prime minister under Arghun Khan, who seized power in 1285 from his uncle after accusing the latter of poisoning Arghun’s father, Abaqa. Bugha’s attempted ouster of the new Khan ended with a resounding defeat, and Bugha and several co-conspirators were beheaded on January 17, 1289. Immediately, the Khan called on Demetre, who was advised by many that an ill fate awaited him if he complied. It is questionable whether Demetre was in any way complicit in the plot, but it is not questionable that Demetre knew what would happen at the court of Arghun Khan. The regional patriarch/bishop Catholicos Abraam reportedly offered the only support:

If you sacrifice your own life for your nation, we, the bishops of this land, will bear your sins, and will pray to God that you be numbered among the holy martyrs. For the Lord Himself said, Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13). And if it is good for a man to lay down his life for just one neighbor, how profitable is it for a man to die for the sake of many?

Demetre agreed, taking Abraam, the priest Mose, his sons David (later VIII) and Giorgi (later V), and several other members of his court. The Georgian Orthodox church officially presents the events thusly:

At the ordu [the Khan’s camp in Azerbaijan] the Mongols could find no fault in the young Georgian king, but they imprisoned him nevertheless. Then a group of Georgian faithful forced their way into the prison to see him and offered to help him escape. The king was deeply moved by their compassion, but nevertheless he told them, “I knew from the beginning the death I would suffer, and I offered my life for this nation. If I escape now, the nation will be destroyed. For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? (Mark 8:36).”

The khan ordered his execution. Fully prepared to meet death, King Demetre prayed fervently, received the Holy Gifts, and gave up his soul to the Lord. Those present witnessed a divine miracle: the sun grew dark and an ominous gloom enshrouded the whole city.

The holy relics of the Royal Martyr Demetre were guarded until the catholicos and the priest Mose secretly retrieved the body and, with the help of a group of Tbilisi fishermen, returned the king to his homeland. He was buried in Mtskheta, in the burial vault of his forefathers at Svetitskhoveli Cathedral.

O Holy Demetre, martyr and king, pray to God that our souls may be saved!

Whether the souls of those who pray to the doomed Demetre II are saved or not, the Georgian Orthodox saint lives on largely through his efforts to revive his nation’s church and restore its places of worship. One of his more enduring acts as sovereign was to order the building of the Metekhi Church in Tbilisi on the site of an extant 5th-century church; its transformation from church to jail to theater and back to church as the fortunes of Georgia swayed may be one of the more apt reflections of the nation itself, if not the most flattering.

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Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Georgia,Guest Writers,Heads of State,History,Martyrs,Mongol Empire,Mongolia,Myths,No Formal Charge,Notably Survived By,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Popular Culture,Power,Royalty,Torture,Treason

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