Posts filed under 'Russia'

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.

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

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1942: Mark Retiunin’s rebels of the gulag

Add comment October 12th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1942, the survivors of a remarkable rebellion in a Soviet gulag camp were shot.

The Ust-Usinsky rebellion in Russia’s northern Komi Republic unfolded in the first months of that same year, under the leadership of an Archangel-area peasant named Mark Andreevich Retiunin.

Retiunin wound up in the area in the usual way, sentenced to the work camps for a bank robbery. But he’d been released in 1938 as a model, industrious prisoner, and now as a non-inmate civilian he managed forestry at the “Vorkutlag” camps near the city of Vorkuta.*

“He was one of those peasant guys who were tried as bandits during collectivization,” another prisoner remembered of him.

He walked like a bear, his red-haired shaggy head was slightly tilted forward, and his eyes looked bearish, too. He was a romantic. In his hut, standing on high stilts, lay a volume of Shakespeare. When I took it and opened it, Retiunin exclaimed “Now there was a man!” and began to recite by heart:

Yet better thus, and known to be contemn’d,
Than still contemn’d and flatter’d. To be worst,
The lowest and most dejected thing of fortune,
Stands still in esperance, lives not in fear!**

“Do you understand? We live in hope, the rise is open! This is not given to every worm.”

From late 1941, pressure on the camp had increased frighteningly with the onset of open warfare against Germany: production quotas increased, and political purges pursued the supposed counter-revolutionary saboteurs that had been conjured by the preceding years’ purge trials. In hushed and furtive conversations, Retiunin marshaled fretful associates upon the incredible path of rebellion. “What do we lose if they kill us?” he reasoned. “We will die at labor tomorrow or in battle today. They will all kill one another in the camps, but first they will shoot all those convicted as counterrevolutionaries, including we civilian employees.” For a period of weeks, aided by a fortuitous vacancy in the local NKVD post, Retiunin and company organized their desperate bid to climb the open rise.

“Special Forces 41” named for either or both of the expiring calendar year, or the roster of their conspiracy, mounted their bid on January 24, speedily disarming flat-footed guards. About 50 camp prisoners joined them; many others fled for their lives. For a few impossible days they had the run of the area before word reached the capitals and a force dispatched by Beria arrived to suppress the revolt.

Retiunin himself was chased to ground with the surrounded remnants of Special Forces 41, and shot himself on February 2 after a furious all-day gunfight. Numerous other rebels were killed in combat over the course of those days; an official count has it 48 killed, 6 suicides, and 8 taken prisoner. But the captives were augmented in the months to come by escapees lurking in the wilderness or settlement fringes by ones and twos, rounded up gradually by a now all-too-attentive NKVD. On October 12, approximately 50 people convicted of involvement or complicity in the rebellion were shot en masse. To the extent anyone heard about the rebellion, they were officially slated with aspiring to “establish ties with either fascist Germany or Finland” although interrogations suggested that mere flight from the camps was the true objective of most, and some rebels actually dreamed of making their way to the Soviet front to earn their lives by establishing their patriotic bona fides.

* This city also gives its name to a completely distinct gulag revolt in 1953 — the Vorkuta uprising. Once a mining hub, latter-day Vorkuta has grown grimly depopulated as the coal veins have played out.

** The opening words of Act IV, Scene 1 in King Lear, spoken by Edgar — who will endure his outcast status to become king by the end of the play.

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

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1636: Johann Albrecht Adelgrief, king-scourged

Add comment October 11th, 2019 Headsman

October 11, 1636 was a grievous date for self-proclaimed prophet Johann Albrecht Adelgrief, who was burned as a sorcerer and heretic.

Adelgrief (English Wikipedia entry | the equally terse German) was the educated son of a Protestant minister and could wield multiple ancient languages including whatever tongue was the address of seven heavenly angels who “had come down from heaven and given him the commission to banish evil from the world, and to scourge the monarchs with rods of iron.” Not going to lie, there are some a few monarchs out there that could use a good scourging.

Alas, the nearest potential scourgee, the Duke of Prussia, made sure the rods were wielded in their customary direction. Adelgrief met his fate aptly in Königsberg (“King’s Mountain”: it’s modern-day Kaliningrad, Russia), where he was condemned for witchcraft. All his writings were suppressed.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Heresy,History,Prussia,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Revolutionaries,Russia,Witchcraft

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1938: Vladimir Varankin, Esperantist

Add comment October 3rd, 2019 Headsman

Russian writer Vladimir Varankin was executed on this date in 1938, during Stalin’s purges.

Varankin got interested in the international Esperanto language movement as a secondary school student in Nizhny Novgorod during the ecstatic months following the Bolshevik Revolution, and he founded an Esperantist club there that soon reached throughout the province.* This was the high-water moment for the Esperanto movement, now 30 years mature since its founding: World War I had shattered the international system and spawned small states and revolutionary governments shaping a new world on the fly. Esperanto would have been adopted by the League of Nations for official use but for the furious resistance of jealous France.

For the same reason that it interested visionaries and radicals, the language attracted the suspicion of authoritarians; in Mein Kampf Hitler denounced Esperanto as an insidious Semitic project.

the language spoken at the time by the Jew … is never a means of expressing his thoughts, but for hiding them. When he speaks French, he thinks Jewish, and when he turns out German poetry, he only gives an outlet to the nature of his people.

As long as the Jew has not become the master of the other peoples, he must, whether he likes it or not, speak their languages, and only if they would be his slaves then they might all speak a universal language so that their domination will be made easier (Esperanto!).

Esperantists became targets for political persecution in the Third Reich as a result.

In Soviet Russia, the utopian 1920s offered a far more congenial scene. These were the years Varankin came into himself and as he advanced in life, so did his enthusiasm for the artificial tongue. The late 1920s find him living in Moscow, teaching at the pedagogical institute and churning out a corpus of Esperanto books (Theory of Esperanto, the ideologically calibrated Esperanto for Workers) as well as study curricula. His magnum opus, the 1933 novel Metropoliteno, was also composed in Esperanto.

But Stalin’s purge years soon cast a pall over Esperanto and much else besides — even though Stalin actually studied a little Esperanto himself in his youth, according to Trotsky. (Pray, good reader, for Koba’s Esperanto instructors.) In about 1937 he abruptly reversed the Soviet Union’s formerly benign view of Esperanto; now, the movement’s internationalism would be held to affiliate it with the purported foreign cabals whose subversions furnished the pretext for demolishing so many lives. In Varankin’s case, and facilitated by an unauthorized visit he had made to an Esperanto conference in Germany many years before, the charge — unanswerable in those terrible days — was that his Esperantist circles comprised a network of fascist spies and saboteurs overseen by enemies abroad.

The verdict against him was posthumously reversed in 1957.

* The regional environs of present-day Nizhny Novgorod Oblast, of which the city Nizhny Novgorod is the capital; in Varankin’s youth, this was a gubernia, a regional unit held over from the deposed imperial administration. Russia’s “states” were greatly redrawn and redefined during the first decade of the Soviet experiment, and gubernias were abolished in 1929.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Artists,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,History,Posthumous Exonerations,Russia,Shot,Torture,Treason,USSR

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1941: Alexandru Bessarab, fascist artist

Add comment July 8th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1941, the fascist artist Alexandru Bassarab was killed in World War II — generally believed to be among captured Romanian prisoners of war summarily executed by Soviet troops.

A woodcut/linocut specialist — as evidenced by his gaunt self-portrait to the right — Bassarab was an early adherent of the Iron Guard and became one of its outstanding propagandists.

His very Deus Vult-vibing work Arhangel, for example, was used by the Guard as a banner at the 1940 state funeral it threw for far-right martyr Corneliu Codreanu. (The Iron Guard was shorthand nomenclature for an organ formally named the Legion of the Archangel Michael — and its members hence known as Legionnaires.)

But the Iron Guard’s moment at the political apex was a brief one, and when it was sidelined by a different right-wing strongman, Ian Antonescu, Bessarab found himself arrested and forced into a front-line army unit recapturing (appropriately) Bessarabia. He disappeared into presumed Soviet custody and execution near Tiganca, in present-day Moldova.

His work, including apolitical pieces, was taboo in postwar Communist Romania, but has enjoyed a bit of rediscovery since the end of the Cold War

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Execution,History,No Formal Charge,Romania,Russia,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,USSR,Wartime Executions

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1939: Aleksei Gastev, Soviet scientific manager

Add comment April 15th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1939, the Old Bolshevik Aleksei Gastev, a theorist of scientific management for the Soviet state, was shot in Stalin’s purges.

Expelled in his youth from tsarist teaching ranks due to his radicalism, Gastev (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) traced his revolutionary bona fides back to the 1905 Revolution (he fought in it) and even before (as an ally and correspondent of Lenin).

With the advent of the latter’s revolution, Gastev founded the Central Institute of Labor (CIT), and CIT’s training firm Ustanovka (“setup” or “installation”) — organs dedicated, respectively, to the study of work, and to the promulgation of the new science of the workplace throughout the Soviet economy.

It was a socialist perspective on Taylorism, that practice of scientific management that was also transforming capitalist production; like Taylor, Gastev aimed to systematize the routine operations on the factory floor, to learn the most efficient way to wield a hammer or a shovel and expel from the labor force the indulgence of artisanal idiosyncracy and rule-of-thumb work; more broadly, Gastev aimed to revolutionize the way work was conceptualized by Soviet people, bending the mental and behavioral orientation of workers to optimize them for the demands of industrial production.

“Even when we exit the gates of the factory, still we carry the factory,” he wrote, positing a question that demanded “a cultural ustanovka.”

Fear of this very thing haunted Europe in this moment and has never left her nightmares in the century since. The CIT juxtaposed curiously with the almost simultaneous publication of some of the seminal dystopian mechanization literature — like Yevgeny Zamyatin‘s We (1921), in which the rational ordering of society annihilates freedom, and Karel Capek‘s R.U.R. (1920), the play that borrowed a Czech term for unfree work to give the world’s lexicon that wonderful word “robot”. Unsettling to many, this twining of man and machine was understood by Gastev as an emancipatory vista.

Gastev’s ideal worker is neither the oxen brute of Taylor’s dreams, nor the lifeless robot of Capek’s nightmare. He is rather an active, sentient, and creative part of the productive process who behaves like a seasoned, conscious, and well-trained warrior. Armed with sharpness of vision, acute hearing, attentiveness to environment and detail, precision and even grace of movement, and “scoutlike” inquisitiveness about the relationship and locations of things and peoples, he enters the factory as though it were a battle-field with commander-like briskness, regimental routine, and a martial strut. For him, no romance, no heroic individual deeds — only a relentless battle waged scientifically for production.

But the robot is present in Gastev’s vision nonetheless: it is the machine itself, not the man. For Gastev, the machine also takes on a life that gives it not only the power to produce and enrich, but also to train, to inspire, to organize. His wildest visions of 1918-19 are previsions of Capek and Zamyatin and celebrations of a coming event often warned about in science fiction: the takeover by machines. Gastev could never quite decide whether the machine was to be the master or the servant of man. Since he continued to use the machine metaphor, he eventually opened himself to attack by those who opposed his policies on other grounds. But Gastevism differed from administrative utopia — the heavy-handed martialing and mobilization of raw labor in a palpably unequal hierarchy. Gastev’s man-machine meant a symbiosis of the two, interacting in a way never wholly understood even by himself. It clearly contained fearful elements. But Gastev himself, by all accounts, was not a cold-hearted machine-like fanatic but a warm and engaging person. He did not fear the power of the machine. He feared backwardness, passivity, and sloth. (Source)


Dziga Vertov‘s 1929 classic Man with a Movie Camera captures the excitement of industrialization and industrial workers.

On the side — to stave off the sloth — Gastev kept up an artistic output of his own as a poet of the Proletarian Culture movement; this exemplar (Order No. 2 from a work called “Ten Orders”) comes to us via Wonderlands of the Avant-Garde: Technology and the Arts in Russia of the 1920s, which notes that “what is produced is never specified; the emphasis rather is on the establishment of a certain pace of work, as if machines manufacture a new time — the rhythm of the new life.”

Chronometer, report to duty.
To the machines.
Rise.
Pause.
A charge of attention.
Supply.
Switch on.
Self-propulsion.
Stop.

The chronometer stopped for Gastev with his fall in late 1938, and he proceeded thence to the familiar fate of Stalin’s prey amongst the intelligentsia. As he associates with the positive, modernizing, and utopian strain of the Soviet experiment but not its failures or horrors his name is not blackened to posterity and the present-day Russian Federation’s Ministry of Economic Development sponsors an “A.K. Gastev Cup” award to honor advances in production.

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

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1919: Heinrich Bosse

Add comment February 16th, 2019 Headsman

German pastor Heinrich Bosse died for the evangelium at Bolshevik hands 100 years ago today.

Bosse followed his grandfather and father into the clergy and took up a posting to Riga in the last years of the 19th century. Today Riga is the capital of Latvia; at the time, it was a port in the Russian empire — but the former Hanseatic city was heavily German-populated, as it had been for centuries.

This was not an ideal vocation when Latvia’s declaration of independence at the end of World War I triggered Bolshevik invasion. By March 1919, Red forces controlled most of the country. Now, over the months to come the civil war would expel the Communists and secure independence for Latvia, at least for the interwar period.

But none of that big-picture stuff would help Reverend Bosse.

Latvian Bolsheviks had a grudge against Bosse for (so they believed) informing on one of their number who’d been executed by German forces occupying the city during the late World War. A revolutionary tribunal accordingly condemned him to death after a bout of torture; he was taken out of his cell on February 16, 1919, and shot in an unknown location.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Latvia,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Religious Figures,Russia,Shot,Torture,USSR,Wartime Executions

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1886: The leadership of the Proletariat Party

Add comment January 28th, 2019 Headsman

A quartet of revolutionary socialists were executed by the tsarist authorities at Warsaw Citadel on this date in 1886.

Poland’s first socialist party of any consequence, the Proletariat was founded in 1882 by Ludwik Warynski.

“Small in number and very young in age,” were these founding socialists, “sons and daughters of a shattered class and a defeated nation.” But Moscow had long feared the diffusion of revolutionary ideologies in Poland, for as an 1873 Russian security brief observed, “of all the lands belonging to his Imperial Majesty the Kingdom of Poland more than any other constitutes a favorable ground for the Internationale.” (Both quotes from The Origins of Polish Socialism: The History and Ideas of the First Polish Socialist Party 1878-1886.)

The Proletariat Party went some way to vindicating the fears of the secret police by gaining several hundred members in its first years and conducting some successful protest campaigns in Warsaw. Naturally this invited state violence on the heads of the leadership; Warynski was in irons by the end of 1883, and would die in prison six years later.

This in turn brought new and more implacable men to the fore of the movement, like one of our day’s principals Stanislaw Kunicki (English Wikipedia entry | Polish) — who better inclined to ally the Proletariat Party with the anti-autocrat terrorist organization Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will). Eventually in the course of the 1880s crackdown

several hundred members of Proletariat were arrested, of whom twenty-nine from the industrial areas of Poland were selected as being principally responsible for the direction of the party. The trial of 23 November to 20 December 1885 produced its first socialist martyrs. In the end the Russian Piotr Bardovsky, Stanislaw Kunicki, the shoemaker Michal Ossowski and the weaver Jan Petrusinski were hanged on 28 January 1886.


A plaque at Warsaw Citadel commemorates the Proletariat martyrs ((cc) image by Mateusz Opasinski.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Poland,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Russia,Treason

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