Posts filed under 'Russia'

1918: Paul von Rennenkampf, tsarist general

Add comment April 1st, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1918, General Paul von Rennenkampf dug his own grave by the side of the railway tracks near Taganrog, then was shot by the Bolsheviks for declining a promotion.

The Baltic German with the glorious Hungarian had spent a career in the tsarist officer corps; he took part in the multinational suppression of China’s Boxer Rebellion, and then the entirely domestic suppression of the abortive 1905 revolution.

Less well did the motherland fare against the Japanese in 1904 (where Rennenkampf’s shin and Russia’s infantry were both shattered) or against history in the Great War (which saw Rennenkampf sacked for command failures in the Battle of Lodz).

Although it seems that the latter result was the consequence of political infighting moreso than verifiable incompetence, the man was still cooling his heels in forced retirement when the revolutions of 1917 arrived. Both the February and the October revolutionaries detained him for a time and then released him, finding insufficient interest in those weighty days in a cashiered sexagenarian no matter how backwards his political priors.

But the Bolsheviks found him interesting when they took over Taganrog, where Rennenkampf was parked. This was his wife’s home town, near the southern industrial center Rostov-on-Don — a place that would be intensely contested in the unfolding civil war between communist Red and tsarist White armies. Such moments entail a choice of sides, so when the Bolsheviks offered this veteran senior commander a role in the Red Army, it was understood to be an offer he couldn’t refuse. He refused it, with bold words that were patriotic but not prophetic.

I’m old. I have not much left to live, for the salvation of my life, I will not become a traitor and will not go against my own. Give me a well-armed army, and I will go against the Germans, but you have no army; to lead this army would mean leading people to slaughter, I will not take this responsibility on myself.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,No Formal Charge,Russia,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1947: Jonas Noreika, “General Storm”

Add comment February 26th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1947, Lithuanian anti-Soviet partisan Jonas Noreika was executed in Moscow.

Memorial plaque honoring Jonas Noreika in Vilnius; it was destroyed in 2019 by an anti-fascist politician. (cc) image from Alma Pater.

Long held as a hero of Lithuanian patriots, “General Storm”* has been headline news in recent years having his legacy complicated.

It all started when author Silvia Foti, Noreika’s granddaughter, took up her late mother’s unfinished project to write a biography of their famous kinsman. At the time, she accepted the received lore that Jonas Noreika had been an anti-Nazi resister during the Second World War, prior to being an anti-Communist resister afterwards — a story facilitated by Noreika’s 1943 arrest and detention in the Stutthof concentration camp among dozens of other high-profile Lithuanians taken as hostages.

But Foti’s understanding of events evolved painfully, as she described in a wrenching 2018 Salon article with the spoiler-alert title “My grandfather wasn’t a Nazi-fighting war hero — he was a brutal collaborator”.

According to Foti’s research in conjunction with the (since-deceased) director of Vilnius’s Sugihara House and Holocaust researcher Grant Gochin, Noreika was a principal of the anti-Soviet June Uprising sparked by the Nazi invasion of the USSR, but preceding the Wehrmacht’s actual arrival; in those days, Lithuanian militia seized control of towns, often massacring Jews (or, which was tantamount to the same thing, preventing their escape to the Soviet Union). Foti believes that Noreika did exactly this in his town of Plungė in the Samogitia region where he was later appointed as a county administrator during the German occupation.

[Sugihara House director Simon] Dovidavičius; was the first to suggest that my grandfather conducted the initial akcija (action) during World War II before the Germans arrived. It coincided with Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941, when Hitler invaded Russia, the same day Lithuania began its uprising with the Germans against the Soviets, marking the start of a Holocaust there, where 95 percent of its 200,000 Jews were murdered, the highest percentage of any country in Europe. (About 3,000 Jews remain in Lithuania today.)

Within three weeks, 2,000 Jew had been killed in Plungė, half the town’s population, and where my grandfather led the uprising. This preceded the January 1942 Wannsee Conference, when Nazi Germany decided to make mass-murder its state policy. Put in more chilling terms, Dovidavičius claimed that my grandfather, as captain, taught his Lithuanian soldiers how to exterminate Jews efficiently: how to sequester them, march them into the woods, force them to dig their own graves and shove them into pits after shooting them. My grandfather was a master educator …

By the end of the trip [to Lithuania] I came to believe that my grandfather must have sanctioned the murders of 2,000 Jews in Plungė, 5,500 Jews in Šiauliai and 7,000 in Telšiai.

Foti’s revelations have been roughly received in a country where the Holocaust complicity of anti-Soviet national heroes remains a very sore subject; there are still monuments to and streets named after her grandfather in Lithuania, and apparently a military academy there even published a prewar antisemitic essay by Noreika in 2016 in a wholly uncritical light.

* Not to be confused with a Philadelphia property repair contractor.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Lithuania,Power,Ripped from the Headlines,Russia,Shot,Soldiers,USSR

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1938: Herman Hurmevaara, Finnish Social Democrat

Add comment February 16th, 2020 Headsman

Finnish parliamentarian Herman Hurmevaara was shot during Stalin’s purges on this date in 1938.

Hurmevaara (English Wikipedia entry | the more detailed Finnish) sat in parliament for the Social Democrats from 1917 to 1919, which was also the period when long-restive Finland broke away from Russia’s grasp while the latter was preoccupied with deposing its tsar.

This rupture brought Finland into a nasty Whites-versus-Reds civil war. The Whites won, and Hurmevaara ended up knocking about in exile in Sweden and (after expulsion in 1930) the USSR. There, he worked in publishing.

Shot as a spy in the capital of Russia’s Finland-adjacent Karelian Republic, he was among numerous emigre Finns destroyed during the late 1930s nadir of Stalinism. Hurmevaara was posthumously rehabilitated in the Khrushchev era.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,Finland,History,Politicians,Russia,Shot,USSR

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1957: József Dudás, Hungarian Revolution wild card

Add comment January 19th, 2020 Headsman

Hungarian politician József Dudás was hanged on this date in 1957, for participation in the previous year’s abortive Hungarian Revolution.

Although he’d been a Communist in his prewar youth, Dudás won election to the postwar government on the Independent Smallholders line. This agrarian opposition party was gradually pushed out of power and eventually suppressed over the course of the late 1940s; Dudás himself ended up getting arrested and detailed for a long visit to the feared Romanian Securitate.

He’d long since been repatriated as a non-political engineer when the Hungarian Revolution briefly cracked open the horizon of possibilities in the autumn of 1956.

Dudás immediately proved himself not so non-political — and a distinct thorn in the side of the Imre Nagy government. He advocated not only for Hungarian Independence (which was also the title of his newspaper) but also for a multiparty reformulation of the Hungarian state, which was a bit much for Nagy to process during the revolution’s two-week lease on life. Dudás’s penchant for off-script revolutionary improvisations, such as putting out feelers to Soviet commanders and also having his militia lynch agents of the temporarily disempowered secret police, made him an unwelcome wild card and Nagy had him arrested shortly before Soviet tanks re-established control.

The Soviets, of course, also had no use themselves for the peasants’ party deputy who’d been trying to subvert Nagy from the right.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Hungary,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Power,Revolutionaries,Russia,Treason,USSR

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1938: Vladimir Beneshevich, Byzantinist

Add comment January 17th, 2020 Headsman

One of Russia’s most cherished national myths is that of the “Third Rome” — Russia (via its protean polity, Muscovy) as the successor to Byzantium, which in turn succeeded Rome. Modern humans might no longer do the thing where the official lineage of the sitting dynasty traces to the loins of the local war-god, but claiming a through line all the way back to Romulus and Remus is a pretty good simulacrum.

Like all national mythologies, it’s an idea with a history of its own — and not one that enjoyed anything like its contemporary popularity at the moment that, say, Byzantium fell to the Turks. After all, those Byzantines were were an emblem of defeat.

“Political thinkers of this period, for example Ivan Peresvetov, warned Ivan the Terrible against imitating the Byzantine basileis [emperors], who had lost their empire because they had ceded their prerogatives to their magnates,” as S.A. Ivanov puts it in a chapter of The Reception of Byzantium in European Culture since 1500 — our primary source for this post. “Generally speaking, Byzantium was viewed ultimately as a failure, and nobody particularly cherished that pedigree. The same Peresvetov presented Mehmet the Conqueror as a true role model for the Muscovite tsar.”

It was a Pskov monk named Filofei (Philotheus) who formulated the Rome-Constantinople-Moscow succession around the turn of the 16th century but according to Ivanov the appeal to Byzantium was no more than occasionally and superficially grasped at in the centuries that followed, and then completely binned by Peter the Great — oriented as he was towards those counter-Byzantine values of efficiency, modernity and the west. (It’s only quite recently that western interest in Byzantium has revived.)

Only in the 19th century did Byzantium as a kindred civilization emerge widely for Russians in something like the shape of the myth as it exists today. No surprise, the scholarly field associated with it, fascinated as it was with kingship and Orthodox Christianity, became associated in the subsequent generations with right-wing politics … and by the end of this post, we will come to the execution during the Stalinist purges of an eminent scholar of Byzantium named Vladimir Beneshevich. While this fate is not surprising on its face for the circumstances, we think the journey of the idea — continuing as it does down to the present day — is well worth the taking. The following is excerpted from Ivanov:

The Byzantine question reappeared in the nineteenth century, when the Russian elite became aware of Russia’s uncertain status among the civilizations of the world. Yet the tone of the discussion had changed: in 1836 the philosopher Pyotr Chaadaev in his ‘Philosophical Letters’, asserted that the very choice made by Rus’ in favour of Constantinople, not Rome, had rendered inevitable the misfortune of Russia: … ‘Driven by a baneful fate, we turned to Byzantium, wretched and despised by nations, for a moral code that was to become the basis of our education’. This was the opening of the debate that has continued until today without any substantial variations in its terms or arguments …

Byzantium as an empire once again gained importance in the middle of the nineteenth century. When the notorious Jakob Fallmerayer [a race theorist later beloved of the Nazis -ed.] enunciated his theory regarding the Slavicization of the Balkans in Byzantine times, he wanted to warn the West against the ‘Russian menace’; the Russophobic nature of his theory notwithstanding, the new trend of thought in Russia, the so-called Slavophiles used it to substantiate their claim to the Byzantine legacy. The earliest Slavophile and the great Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev had many conversations with Fallmerayer in Munich ‘de fatis byzantinis’, as the latter notes in his diary, in which he also briefly recorded Tyutchev’s ideas: ‘Byzanz Heilige Stadt. Pruritus Rezidenz zu verlegen’. For Tyutchev, as for the other ‘Slavophiles’, Constantinople was a ‘natural’ goal, but it was not an end in itself: in his poem ‘Prophesy’ (1850) Tyutchev implored the Russian tsar: ‘And the vaults of ancient Sophia / In resurrected Byzantium / Will again shelter the altar of Christ. / Throw yourself down in front of it, oh, Tsar of Russia, / And rise as the Tsar of all the Slavs’. The fact that the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1853 coincided with the 400th anniversary of the Fall of Byzantium inspired a new upswing of imperialistic dreams. The poet Apollon Maikov wrote: ‘Let everyone know that the dream of Christian Byzantium is still alive in Russia!’

There were two facets to the Russian debate on the Byzantine legacy: the political one dealt with the fate of Constantinople and the Orthodox Christians after the imminent demise of the Ottoman Empire. Some, like Fyodor Dostoevsky, insisted that ‘Constantinople must become Russian’; others thought that it should become the capital of a Pan-Slavic federation. Saltykov-Shchedrin, a great Russian satirist of the second half of the nineteenth century, mocked the Russian obsession with Byzantium in ‘The History of a Town’. Yet, this discussion on the fate of Constantinople seemed exciting and flattering to wide circles of learned society, especially in the 1870s, when a successful war with Turkey brought Russian troops to the very outskirts of Istanbul.

The other aspect of the Byzantine debate concerned domestic issues: is Russia a unique civilization, with only one predecessor, Byzantium, or is it part of Europe? When the famous German historian Zacharia von Lingenthal proposed a theory that the Byzantine peasant commune had been a Slavic innovation, this hypothetical construct was enthusiastically embraced by the Slavophiles. However, not everyone in Russia regarded the Slavic ‘link’ as indispensable. Konstantin Leontiev, a diplomat and philosopher, despised the Slavs and adored Byzantium. He used it as a symbol of theocracy, which he then offered as a model for emulation. ‘Byzantium gave us all our strength’, he wrote. ‘Under its banner we shall withstand the onslaught of the entire Europe if indeed it dares impose on us the rot and filth of its prescriptions for an earthly paradise’. Of course, he knew next to nothing about Byzantium — to him it was but an ideal construct. In his book Byzantism and Slavdom, which has been highly respected, praised and criticized ever since its publication in 1875, Byzantium proper is mentioned just a few times. Yet Leontiev was the first to coin the term ‘Byzantism’ (as opposed to ‘Byzantinism’), which became commonly used by the admirers of the Empire as a label for a benign tyranny. As a counterbalance, another new coinage, ‘byzantischina’,* emerged as the equivalent of the Western derogatory epithets, such as the German ‘Byzantinismus’ or the French ‘Byzantiner’. The debate about the Byzantine legacy involved prominent public figures such as Alexander Herzen, who condemned Byzantium for ‘debility’, as well as Vladimir Soloviev and Vasilii Rozanov. Rozanov, one of the greatest and most original thinkers of the Russian ‘Silver Age’, objected to Leontiev’s utopian constructs; his observations were so sharp that they are worth quoting at some length:

When, in what epoch were we particularly imbued with Byzantine principles? Wouldn’t everyone agree that it was during the time when Moscow was building the Russian state? But if that is so, why did we absorb these principles not during the period of our child-like receptiveness when Byzantium was alive and close to us, but at the time of our distrustful seclusion when Byzantium had already fallen? … Don’t the Byzantine origins of the Muscovite way of life represent a phenomenon that is far more illusory than real? … So when Byzantium was transformed from a powerful and attractive empire into a slave of Islam … that’s when we want Russia to be imbued with the principles of Byzantium. Isn’t that an illusion? Aren’t we ascribing to the imitation our deeply original and unique aspects? … Sophisticated and depraved Byzantium that mixed abstract disputes of theological and philosophical nature with orgies, with the noise and debauchery of the circus, can hardly be seriously regarded as an antecedent and prototype for Muscovy — morosely silent, stubbornly persistent, far more forceful than devious, so universally unrefined in its thought, taste and emotional inclinations.

Never afraid of internal contradictions, Rozanov in his later writings embraced the idea that Byzantium in fact did play a great role in Russian history, but that its role was negative: ‘Has the millennium of Byzantism in Russia done any good? One can answer with one’s hand on one’s heart: no, it has not! Then be consistent and help liberate Russia from the yoke of Byzantism’.

As the Russian Empire entered the twentieth century, Russian Byzantinism was at its peak: the conquest of the Straits (Bosphoros/Dardanelles) and the erection of a cross over St Sophia were the prime goals of Russian foreign policy. The public sentiments of the time can be illustrated by the fact that in 1912, a young Osip Mandelshtam, whose family tradition barely had any connection with the imperial Orthodox yearnings — he was a Jew who had recently moved with his parents from Poland to St Petersburg — wrote enthusiastic poems about Sophia of Constantinople:

1.
Hagia Sophia — here to stop and stare
The Lord has ordered people and the tsars!
Your dome, as an eyewitness once described it,
As if by chains is hanging from the stars.

2.
To all a shining light — age of Justinian,
When to steal off for foreign gods unseen
Dedicated Diana the Ephesian
Hundred and seven marble columns green.

3.
To what aspired your generous creator,
When high in spirit and in reason blessed,
He laid your features on the ground
And pointed them directions east and west?

4.
The temple shines, in the world’s aura bathing,
And forty windows — triumph of the light;
On sails under the dome the four archangels
Finest of all and basking in delight.

5.
This building will outlast people and ages
So wise and spherical and nobly built
And incandescent weeping of the angels
Will not corrode away the darkened gilt.

The idea that Russia itself was the reincarnation of Byzantium was mot graphically reflected in the architectural style referred to as ‘Byzantine’. This emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century and reached its peak in the first decade of the twentieth century, when 40 ‘Byzantine’ cathedrals were completed all across the Russian Empire as well as beyond Russian borders: in Greece, in Bulgaria, and even in France and Germany (in Biarritz and Kissingen). The most ostentatious and grand among them was the Naval Cathedral of St Nicholas in Kronstadt, whose similarity to Hagia Sophia of Constantinople, both in its exterior and interior decorations, is striking.

Byzantine Studies was one of the pillars of the Russian humanities. In Turkey, the Russian Archaeological Institute in Constantinople held a leading position among the city’s European academic institutions. Naturally the vast majority of scholars involved in Byzantine Studies were monarchists or at least conservatives. The only republican among them was Pavel Bezobrazov, whose book about Michael Psellos was a veiled critique of the Russian imperial bureaucracy. This tradition of ‘Aesopian language’, talking of Byzantium but implying Russia, was later used by Soviet Byzantinists.

The outbreak of World War I further spurred public debate. In 1915, the leading Byzantinist Fyodor Uspenskii submitted to Tsar Nicholas II a memo detailing the urgent steps to be taken after the Russian takeover of Constantinople. In the same year, Archbishop Antonii Khrapovitskii, one of Russia’s most influential clerics (he was the first contender for the Patriarchate) published a plea for the restoration of the Byzantine Empire in its original borders — in a sense, his dreams were even bolder than the appetites of the [Greek irredentist -ed.] ‘Megali Idea’. Yet the official position on Istanbul was less favourable to the Greeks. On 3 March 1915, Tsar Nicholas II told the French ambassador (whose name, ironically, was Paleologue), ‘The city of Constantinople and southern Thrace must be annexed to my Empire’. After the Entente Cordiale accepted his claim, the capture of Tsar’grad looked imminent. On Christmas Day, 1916, the mystical poet Vyacheslav Ivanov implored, ‘Oh Rus’, when you wrap yourself in the purple robes of Tsar’grad, do not serve worldly interests’.

The February revolution of 1917 did not stop the imperial hysteria; instead, the Byzantine question became even more acute. In the atmosphere of overwhelming uncertainty after the fall of the monarchy, some theologians blamed Byzantium for excessive gnosticism and asceticism, which, in their minds, were later planted into the Russian psyche.

The Bolsheviks who came to power in October 1917 could not have cared less about Byzantium, but those on the other side of the barricades did not forget about it: the abrupt collapse of the formidable edifice of the Russian Empire compelled religious and political thinkers to search for the roots of this catastrophe. The famous theologian Sergii Bulgakov,** for example, blamed Byzantium for the loneliness of the Russian culture, which made it vulnerable to pernicious influences.

Together with Christianity, at that fateful moment Russia also adopted all Byzantine insularity and its constraints; it became separated from the whole Western, Christian Europe by a “Great Wall” and remained isolated … Meanwhile, Byzantium’s attitude towards Russia was never sincere or warm, but always arrogant and hollow-hearted.

Bulgakov’s book At the Walls of Chersonnesos, written at the end of the brutal Civil War, in the atmosphere of terror and despair, was all about Byzantium and its legacy, as if they were the primary concerns of the time. The writer Alexei Tolstoy, one of the Russian emigres in Constantinople in 1920, describes the bitter disappointment of a White-Guard officer in this deceptive imperial dream: ‘Byzantium, may it go to hell! So much of our Russian blood has been spilled for this damn Byzantium. It’s the usual Russian stupidity all over again!’

To the Bolsheviks, Byzantium was one of the attributes of tsarism; more generally, for people of the new, avant-garde era, it became a symbol of everything dilapidated, moth-eaten and dusty. From the late 1920s through to the late 1930s, the very word ‘Byzantine’ was banned and was used only in quotation marks. Byzantine scholars became the targets of repressions; Vladimir Beneshevich, the most prominent among them, was executed.

* Russian uses the -schina suffix to attach an evaluative negative judgment to a period or concept; for example, a term like Stalinism (whatever its specific connotations) is a neutral description, whereas Stalinschina conveys the speaker’s scorn. One common way to refer to Stalinism’s apex of secret policing and internal purges is by reference to his notorious police chief, Nikolai Yezhov — hence, the yezhovschina.

** No relation to the novelist Mikhail Bulgakov.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Byzantine Empire,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Intellectuals,Russia,Shot,USSR

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1573: Hans Boije af Gennäs

Add comment January 1st, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1573, the Swedish commander of Weissenstein (present-day Paide, Estonia), Hans Boije af Gennäs was executed when his fortress was overrun by Russian troops, during the Livonian War.


Ruins of (cc) image from Ivo Kruusamägi.

A walled city with a Teutonic Knights-built keep, Weissenstein sat at a crossroads in interior Livonia and changed hands several times during this decades-long multilateral conflict involving Russia, Sweden, Denmark-Norway, Poland, and Lithuania — the latter two of which united into a Commonwealth during the war.

Big picture, the Livonian War ran from 1558 to 1583; the stakes were, as one might guess, control of Livonia — essentially, the present-day Baltic states of Estonia and Latvia. Long ago this precinct had been the medieval remit of those same Teutonic Knights; after 1561, it was controlled in the south by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (that’s Latvia), and in the north by Sweden (that’s Estonia, containing Weissenstein).

Needless to say, this brought enormous suffering to Livonian, which Livonian chroniclers like Johann Renner, Balthasar Russow and Salomon Henning blamed mostly on the Russians. As Charles Halperin summarizes,

To the Livonian chroniclers, the Russians were barbaric, sadistic monsters, whose atrocities they described in graphic, sensational detail. According to Renner, the Russians were cruel, bloodthirsty, and inhumane. They massacred men, women, and children among fishermen. They hanged Livonian women from trees and robbed them of their clothing, silver, and gold. They impaled babies on stakes or sharp picket fences, and hacked little children in two and left them, or hacked adults into pieces. They placed a huge stone on the stomach of a pregnant women [sic] to force her foetus from her womb. They burned alive a woman hiding in an oven. They cut off the breasts of maidens and women and hacked off the hands and feet of men. They threw fifty children into a well and filled it with stones. They flayed a man and cut open his side, poured in gunpowder, and blew him apart. They decapitated captives after flaying them and cutting off their fingers and toes. They massacred peasants young and old. They flayed captives in Moscow with whips of braided flails, marched them five miles to a cemetery and then beheaded them with axes. They drove naked peasants into great fires and nailed one peasant to a post and suffocated him with smoke. They tied a captured noble to a tree, cut open his body, and let his intestines fall out. They nailed a ferryman to a door and then killed him with arrows. They killed an old forest overseer by cutting open his body, nailing one end of his intestines to a tree, and then beating him with whips to make him run, pulling out his intestines and bringing about his death. Peasants were drawn and quartered. They murdered captives by snapping their necks in such a way that they suffered for one, two, or three days before expiring. The Tatars cut out the heart of one prisoner (killing him, of course), and ate it, saying that doing so would give them courage.

Russow adds that Russians committed terrible acts of murder, theft, and arson during their invasion. They tortured and tormented Livonians, massacred them, threw poor peasant, their wives and children to their deaths off city walls, hacked to death servitors of Magnus,* roasted captives on spits for days, stole the blanket off a dead woman, deposited children on the ice to die of overexposure or drown, put out a noble’s eyes before flaying him to death, drowned, tortured, and executed captives, sabered captives, plucked out the heart of the living body of a mayor, ripped a preacher’s tongue from his throat, sold captives into slavery, raped maidens and women, threw captives to their deaths off the walls of conquered cities, and starved captives nearly to death. They left the bodies of their victims for wild beasts to eat …

According to Henning, the Russians were bloodthirsty “ignorant barbarians”, who raged like savages, and tortured and killed their enemies in inhuman fashion, including stretching them and breaking them on the wheel. They cut down even the young and the old, women and children, who surrendered with their hands raised, or subjected them to inhuman barbarities and atrocities, and then barbaric slavery. Everywhere they went, they plundered, slew, roasted, and burned. They hacked pregnant women in two, impaled foetuses on fence stakes, slit men’s sides, inserted gunpowder and blew them up, and slit men’s throats and let them bleed to death. They smeared people with thick pine pitch, bound them, and burned them. They gang-raped women and girls, and sold the survivors into slavery to the Tatars. They tore nursing babes from their mothers’ breasts, chopped off hands, feet, and heads, and gutted the remainder of the bodies, stuck bodies on spits and roasted or baked them, and then ate them to satisfy their “diabolical, bloodthirsty hunger” … They massacred innocent Livonian townsmen, wives, and children in retribution for anti-Russian plots in which they had no part. They butchered poor little schoolchildren. Despite safe-conducts to the surrendered occupants of assaulted cities, they sabered them as they departed. Captives too old or infirm to be led into captivity, even nobles, were killed on the spot. Survivors of a castle whose occupants chose to blow themselves up rather than surrendered were sabered, hacked to bits, mutilated, and left unburied to be eaten by birds, dogs, and other wild beasts.

To skip past various twists of state- and warcraft, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was taking a breather from the fight in the early 1570s, leaving Russia and Sweden mano a mano.

The Russians invaded Swedish-defended Estonia in 1572 with Tsar Ivan the Terrible personally leading the army, and put the small garrison of Weissenstein/Paide to irresistible siege. Nevertheless, it did resist, and these defenders have the distinction of killing during this siege the sinister operative of the tsar — Malyuta Skuratov, so much the emblem of Ivan’s terrible Oprichnina that in Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, the titular Margarita at an infernal ball can’t help but notice one “face ringed by a fiery beard, the face of Malyuta Skuratov”.


Portrait of Skuratov by a contemporary painter, the late Pavel Ryzhenko.

Considering the flaying and intestine-ripping that mere passersby were liable to expose themselves to, the Swedes earned no quarter from Ivan for compounding their resistance with the death of the tsar’s hand. Our man Hans Boije af Gennais (English Wikipedia entry | Swedish) and his chief aides were all impaled and slowly roasted over flames immediately upon Weissenstein’s New Year’s Day capture.

* Magnus, Duke of Holstein was Ivan’s unsuccessful puppet king in Livonia in the early 1570s, but he lost favor after being repeatedly thumped by the Swedes and eventually outright turned against the Russians. Ivan captured him and (alas for Executed Today) did not put him to death, but gratuitously brutalized anyone in Magnus’s train.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Estonia,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Impaled,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Russia,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Sweden,Torture,Wartime Executions

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1954: Jonas Žemaitis, Lithuanian Forest Brother

Add comment November 26th, 2019 Headsman

Lithuanian anti-Soviet partisan Jonas Žemaitis was shot in Moscow’s Butyrka prison on this date in 1954. He’s one of the big names in the Forest Brothers movement that kept up a hopeless fight against Moscow from 1944 into the 1950s.

An artillerist of Polish ancestry who deserted the retreating Red Army and surrendered himself the Wehrmacht arriving in the summer 1941, Žemaitis is breezily credited in state histories (and as of this writing, both English and Lithuanian Wikipedia pages) of essentially taking the war years off because “he did not want to serve the Nazis.” That was sure considerate of the Nazis! Instead the fellow just mined peat since he preferred not to get involved.

Now, peat production was and is an important economic sector in Lithuania; indeed, even this seemingly innocuous activity hints at exploitation of Jewish slave labor. But there is circumstantial and even eyewitness evidence that Žemaitis’s participation in one of the Reich’s most thorough exterminations was quite a bit more nefarious than vegetation management.

One could turn here to Joseph Melamed, a survivor of the Kovno Ghetto who collected witness testimonies and published thousands of names of alleged Lithuanian “Jew-Shooters” (zydsaudys). Melamed has charged that Žemaitis put his Polish fluency to use facilitating genocide and “having proved his efficiency and diligence in murdering Jews, was rewarded by the SS and promoted to the rank of Colonel” in the Police Battalions, Lithuanian paramilitaries that worked hand in glove with Nazi executioners.*

Or alternatively, one could rely on the plain fact that Žemaitis was a trained, early-30s officer in a desperate war zone where everyone was being pressed into action, and that anti-Soviet fighters afterwards treated him as a General. That’s not the profile of a figure who simply kept his head down while the Great War raged past him.

The post-USSR independent state of Lithuania, which has not been shy about whitewashing Holocaust collaborators, absolutely rejects such inferences and has retroactively elevated Žemaitis to its officially recognized head of state during his postwar resistance; there’s a Vilnius military academy that’s named for him.

* Melamed is now deceased but during his latter years Vilnius accused him of slander. Modern Lithuania is ferociously determined about apotheosizing the Forest Brothers; officially, the Venn diagram between wartime genocidaires and the postwar anti-Soviet resistance consists of two different shapes on two different planets.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Guerrillas,Heads of State,History,Lithuania,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Russia,Shot,Soldiers,Torture,USSR

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1941: Shura Chekalin, Hero of the Soviet Union

Add comment November 6th, 2019 Headsman

Sixteen-year-old partisan Alexander Chekalin earned his martyrs’ crown as a Hero of the Soviet Union when he was executed by the occupying Third Reich on this date in 1941.

“Shura” (English Wikipedia entry | the predictably better-appointed Russian) joined along with his father a unit of guerrillas in the vicinity of Tula just weeks into the terrible German onslaught.

The city of Tula, a transport hub 200 kilometers south of Moscow, was a key target for the German drive on the Soviet capital in those pivotal months; the Wehrmacht’s eventual inability to take it from determined defenders was crucial to thrwarting the attack on Moscow by protecting her from the southern tong of the intended pincer maneuver.*

Chekalin didn’t live long enough to see any of this come to fruition but in his moment he did what any one man could do: ambushes, mining, and other harassment of the occupation army in the Tula oblast (region) with his comrade irregulars. Our principal was found out by the Germans recuperating from illness in a town called Likhvin — see him defending his house of refuge against hopeless odds in the commemorative USSR stamp below — and then suffered the usual tortures and interrogations before he was publicly strung up on November 6. He hung there for 20 days before the Red Army took the town back and buried him with honors

In 1944, the tiny town of Likhvin was renamed in his honor: to this day, it’s still called Chekalin.

* Tula was recognized as a Hero City of the USSR for the importance of its defence.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Gibbeted,Guerrillas,Hanged,History,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Russia,Soldiers,Torture,USSR,Wartime Executions

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1675: Boyarina Morozova, Old Believer

2 comments November 2nd, 2019 Headsman

Boyarina Feodosia Morozova starved to death in the early hours past midnight on the night of November 1-2, 1675.

This wealthy “Old Believer” noblewoman (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) is one of art history’s most famous religious dissidents thanks to Vasily Surikov‘s iconic painting of her being hauled away by the authorities, defiantly making the outlawed two-fingered sign of the cross.

This was big game hunted by Orthodoxy’s controversial reform movement: Boyarina Morozova’s brother-in-law was Boris Morozov, who during Tsar Alexei‘s minority had wielded the power behind the throne; her confessor was the protopope Avvakum Petrov, whose eventual martyrdom at the stake in 1682 rates an appearance on the Executed Today playing cards.

But her writ of privilege had long since run out, for she had been arrested and tortured back in 1671 together with her sister Evdokia Urusova and a fellow-travelling friend, Boyarina Maria Danilova. (This is the event captured by Surikov’s painting.) Perhaps her position saved her from outright execution — which all-grown-up Tsar Alexei reportedly contemplated — but not from being done to death by the state.

After all three women were arrested and so dramatically dragged away, they were locked up in the cellars of a small-town monastery where their guards were eventually ordered to permit them to waste away by deprivation.

Her movement did not carry its contest for religious primacy and was violently persecuted for many years thereafter, but Old Believers still exist to this day — thought to number about one to two million worldwide. As of the 20th century, Old Believers are longer anathema to mainline Orthodoxy, and a fearless martyr such as Boyarina Morozova cannot but inspire respect no matter how many fingers you use to make the blessing. She’s still well-known in Russia and is the subject of a 2006 choral opera.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Famous,God,History,Martyrs,Nobility,Power,Religious Figures,Russia,Starved,Torture,Women

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1941: Bronislava Poskrebysheva

Add comment October 13th, 2019 Headsman

Endocrinologist Dr. Bronislava Poskrebysheva was shot on this date in 1941.

She was the Jewish Lithuanian wife of Alexander Poskrebyshev, who was Stalin’s longtime aide and Chief of Staff to the Special Section of Central Committee of Communist Party — an organ that coordinated other state bureaus in the implementation of party directives, often sensitive ones. Bronislava, for her part, had a non-political career, although this was scarcely any guarantee of safety during the years of the purges.

At a scientific conference in Paris in 1933, Dr. Poskrebysheva and her brother, Michael Metallikov, had met the communist non grata Leon Trotsky; before the decade was out, the mere fact of this meeting was sufficient to implicate them as spies of the alleged Trotskyite conspiracies forever bedeviling the Soviet Union. Metallikov would ultimately be executed himself in 1939 but while his life hung in the balance, Dr. Poskrebysheva made bold to apply to that dread minister Lavrenty Beria to plead for her brother. She must have spoken a little too loosely in this personal interview of the exile’s charms, for not only did she fail to save him — she was arrested herself.

And her incidental brush with Trotsky proved more harmful to her by far than her intimate relationship with Soviet elites was helpful.

In truth her husband’s position was not nearly so strong a card as one might assume; as the doctor’s own backfiring effort to save her brother proved, there were perils risked by intercessors as well, and this would have been only more true for a man as perilously close to Stalin as was Alexander Poskrebyshev. Even brand-name Bolsheviks found in those years that they could not necessarily shield family from political persecution: Mikhail Kalinin‘s wife Ekaterina was thrown into the gulag, as was Vyacheslav Molotov‘s wife Polina Zhemchuzhina. The best Poskrebyshev could do was to raise the couple’s daughters, Galya and Natasha, even as he labored loyally onward for the state that had put a bullet in his wife. (He eventually became a Politburo member.)

Bronislava Poskrebysheva and Michael Metallikov were both posthumously rehabilitated in the 1950s.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Doctors,Espionage,Execution,History,Notably Survived By,Russia,Shot,USSR,Women

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