Posts filed under 'Russia'

1986: Adolf Tolkachev, the Billion-Dollar Spy

Add comment September 24th, 2016 Headsman

The U.S.S.R. executed alleged* U.S. mole Adolf Tolkachev on this date in 1986.

Tolkachev (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) had grown up during the Stalin years — background he would cite by way of explaining his subsequent actions against the Soviet state and its “impassable, hypocritical demagoguery.” (His wife had been orphaned by the purges of the 1930s.)

Inspired, he said, by the dissidence of writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974) and bomb engineer Andrei Sakharov (prevented from leaving the Soviet Union to collect his 1975 Nobel Peace Prize), Tolkachev in the late 1970s boldly made contact** with U.S. intelligence officers at the Moscow petrol station where they fueled their cars. He immediately became one of the Americans’ most valuable assets — literally so; the 2015 book about him is titled The Billion Dollar Spy.

Tolkachev’s day job for a top-secret aviation laboratory gave him access to priceless documents on the development of the Soviet aircraft, radar, and weapons guidance and using a James Bond-esque miniature Pentax supplied him by Langley, Tolkachev snapped photos of those secrets for delivery to the Americans. It’s claimed — this is the reason for the billion-dollar stuff — that Tolkachev’s tips drove research and development in American military technology in vastly more effective directions.

The spy himself was paid for his risks in rubles and in a U.S. escrow fund pending his eventual defection.

But his last payment turned out to be a bullet, courtesy of betrayal by CIA turncoat Edward Lee Howard and/or that bane of spies Aldrich Ames.

* The date is supplied courtesy of a September 25, 1986 Politburo document referring to Tolkachev’s execution “yesterday”.

Note however that the prevailing Tolkachev story as presented in this post is disputed by CIA historian Benjamin Fischer, who has argued that “Adolf Tolkachev” was a KGB prank on its opposite number in the Cold War’s Spy vs. Spy game.

** Tolkachev really had to insist upon himself to his American handlers: the first four times he approached US embassy personnel with overtures he was rebuffed or ignored as a probable Soviet plant.

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

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1937: Lev Karakhan, Marina Semyonova’s husband

Add comment September 20th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1937, the dancer Marina Semyonova lost her husband to the Great Purge.

Semyonova was perhaps the premier Soviet ballerina in the interwar era before the ascent of Maya Plitsetskaya* but artistic genius conferred no safety from the purges.

Least of all was that so for family members who happened to be that choicest of Stalin’s prey, an Old Bolshevik.

Semyonova’s husband Lev Karakhan (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) was an Armenian revolutionary and former Menshevik who joined the Bolsheviks before the October Revolution. He spent the 1920s and 1930s in various foreign policy roles, right up until the end: just a few months before his death, he had been the USSR’s ambassador to Turkey, when he received that ominous recall.

He even gave his name to a 1919 “Karakhan Manifesto”, which was Moscow’s attempt to get friendly with China.

Its author was more successful getting friendly with the Bolshoi’s prima ballerina around 1930, when both were married to other people. Their affair turned civil marriage without hampering the career of either partner; indeed, Semyonova had the honor and terror of accepting the Order of the Red Banner from Stalin’s own hands in June 1937, just a month after her husband had been arrested.

Semyonova just continued performing, because what choice did one have? She only recently died, in 2010, just shy of her 102nd birthday — as one of the legends of her craft.

* Maya Plisetskaya was also touched by Stalin’s terror: in 1937, when Maya was only 11, her father was disappeared into the gulag and killed; her mother was arrested shortly after and survived a forced labor camp in Kazakhstan.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Execution,History,Notably Survived By,Politicians,Revolutionaries,Russia,Shot,Torture,Treason,USSR

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1921: Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg

Add comment September 15th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1921, the Mad Baron* of the Russian Civil War was shot in Novosibirsk.


“Before fleeing the Red Army, Whites torch the grain”: civil war propaganda poster from this spellbinding collection.

Were you a Bolshevik propagandist during that war, interested in portraying the tsarist rearguard as literally a gaggle of psychopathic foreigners, Roman von Ungern-Sternberg was some kind of godsend. (Here’s his English Wikipedia page | German | Russian)

A German-descended lord in Estonia whose family owed its ennoblement to the exercises of the “crusaders and privateers” (the baron’s words, perhaps holding more of self-promotion than truth) up the family tree. One ancestor was supposedly a notorious Baltic Sea pirate.

Ungern — he’s often known simply by the one name — had the courage of rash irascibility; as a tsarist officer in the years ahead of the Great War he was notorious for his hard drinking and penchant for fighting duels.** Expelled from his regiment, he wandered in the transbaikal and beyond, picking up the Mongolian tongue and Buddhist occultism into the bargain.† He returned to fight in the European front up to 1917 like a loyal Russian, and got court martialed for attempted murder after one of his furies, but his destiny lay in the East.

The man was a ferocious monarchist and a disdainer of the “morally deficient” West — unto which he would make a terrible scourge when the hated Communists seized the state. Ungern had been at that time collaborating with Grigory Semenov to raise non-Russian troops from the peoples on the fringes of Moscow’s empire; now they would become with those troops warlords holding out against the Reds, Ungern returning to establish himself in Mongolia — indeed, as the power in an unsettled frontier itself between two revolutions. Prior to his execution in 1921, he was the dictator of Mongolia, the power behind the throne of the very last khan — and that wasn’t the half of it for Ungern also positioned himself as an avatar of the very God of War.

Certainly he strove to justify this colorful apotheosis by dint of a legendary bloodthirstiness, now that he had armies and states into which to pour his violent passions instead of merely rival barracks-mates.

Reports of Ungern’s sadism almost beggar belief and might have profited by extra embroidery since both the man and his enemies inclined to show him in the most implacable light imaginable. As James Boyd points out in “‘A Very Quiet, Outspoken, Pleasant Gentleman[sic]': The United States Military Attache’s Reports on Baron von Ungern-Sternberg, March 1921″ in Inner Asia, vol. 12, no. 2 (2010), much of what we think we know of his behavior traces ultimately to the less than reliable (albeit firsthand) pen of a traveler named Ferdinand Antoni Ossendowski.

The latter was a Polish wanderer who went to Mongolia. Ossendowski became Ungern’s friend, but he’d already been born a prose-purpler. Ossendowski’s account of his and his soon-to-be-ex-traveling companion first encountering “the terrible general, the Baron” would curl your hair.

After a talk with Kazagrandi the Baron invited Colonel N. N. Philipoff and me into his presence. Colonel Kazagrandi brought the word to me. I wanted to go at once but was detained about half an hour by the Colonel, who then sped me with the words:

“Now God help you! Go!”

It was a strange parting message, not reassuring and quite enigmatical. I took my Mauser and also hid in the cuff of my coat my cyanide of potassium. The Baron was quartered in the yurta of the military doctor. When I entered the court, Captain Veseloffsky came up to me. He had a Cossack sword and a revolver without its holster beneath his girdle. He went into the yurta to report my arrival.

“Come in,” he said, as he emerged from the tent.

At the entrance my eyes were struck with the sight of a pool of blood that had not yet had time to drain down into the ground — an ominous greeting that seemed to carry the very voice of one just gone before me. I knocked.

“Come in!” was the answer in a high tenor. As I passed the threshold, a figure in a red silk Mongolian coat rushed at me with the spring of a tiger, grabbed and shook my hand as though in flight across my path and then fell prone on the bed at the side of the tent.

“Tell me who you are! Hereabouts are many spies and agitators,” he cried out in an hysterical voice, as he fixed his eyes upon me. In one moment I perceived his appearance and psychology. A small head on wide shoulders; blonde hair in disorder; a reddish bristling moustache; a skinny, exhausted face, like those on the old Byzantine ikons. Then everything else faded from view save a big, protruding forehead overhanging steely sharp eyes. These eyes were fixed upon me like those of an animal from a cave. My observations lasted for but a flash but I understood that before me was a very dangerous man ready for an instant spring into irrevocable action.

He is a warrior in the 20th century’s great ideological battle, yes, but it is difficult to capture in an excerpt like this the spellbinding and queer monster that Ossendowski presents us, a European landlord able to bend Asiatic mythology to his person until charges who were convinced that Ungern could not be slain were “rushing about in long blue coats; Mongols and Tibetans in red coats with yellow epaulets bearing the swastika of Jenghiz Khan and the initials of the Living Buddha.”

Ossendowski would describe the Baron’s savagery in lurid reverence in his Beasts, Men and Gods

Thus lived this camp of martyrs, refugees pursued by events to their tryst with Death, driven on by the hate and contempt of this offspring of Teutons and privateers! And he, martyring them, knew neither day nor night of peace. Fired by impelling, poisonous thoughts, he tormented himself with the pains of a Titan, knowing that every day in this shortening chain of one hundred thirty links brought him nearer to the precipice called “Death.” also permit Ungern to have his own say for himself.

— but also sympathetically channel Ungern’s self-vindication:

“Some of my associates in the movement do not like me because of my atrocities and severity,” he remarked in a sad voice. “They cannot understand as yet that we are not fighting a political party but a sect of murderers of all contemporary spiritual culture. Why do the Italians execute the ‘Black Hand’ gang? Why are the Americans electrocuting anarchistic bomb throwers? and I am not allowed to rid the world of those who would kill the soul of the people? I, a Teuton, descendant of crusaders and privateers, I recognize only death for murderers!”

Ungern’s khanate became increasingly squeezed between the Red Army and Chinese nationalist forces, and he was finally driven out by a mutiny to eventual capture by the Soviets — who found the white War-God alone in the deserts that had answered his mastery, clad in the saffron robes of his deposed estate. There was none of his rage on display at his short trial; Ungern full well knew his fate, and when mockingly offered his life by the judge if he would humiliate himself by singing the “Internationale,” the defendant cleverly countered by daring the judge first to sing the tsarist national anthem. As it should for any mystic, Ungern’s enigma outlived his fleshing form.

“You can interpret Ungern as you wish,” Leonid Yuzefovich wrote,‡

as a hero of the anti-Bolshevik struggle, a brigand-chief, a Eurasian in the saddle; as a predecessor to fascism, a medieval fossil, a herald of future global clashes between East and West, a creator of one of the darkest utopias of the twentieth century; as one of the tyrants that grow on the remnants of great empires, or as a maniac, inebriated with the crude extracts of great ideas. But whatever you think, in all these variants the fate of that Baltic baron who became the ruler of Mongolia, in all its frightening unreality conceals some answers to the crucial questions of the epoch.

* Not to be confused with the Black Baron, a stone-faced Germanic nobleman named Peter Wrangel who wound up commanding White forces in southern Russia during the same war. Wrangel (as “Vrangel”) enjoyed a prominent role as public enemy no. 1 in anti-White propaganda.


“Vrangel is coming!” (same site)

** In one such fray, Ungern-Sternberg picked up a nasty saber knock to the noggin. It’s been speculated that the unbalanced behavior of his later life owed a lot to that head injury: concussions are no joke.

† Biographical details heavily cribbed from Canfield Smith, “The Ungernovshchina — How and Why?” in Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas, Bd. 28, H. 4 (1980), pp. 590-595.

‡ Quote via a review of The Autocrat of the Desert by Julia Latynina in History Workshop Journal, no. 39 (Spring 1995).

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Mongolia,Nobility,Power,Russia,Shot,Soldiers,Treason,USSR,Wartime Executions

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1878: Ivan Kovalsky, nihilist martyr

Add comment August 14th, 2016 Headsman


London Times, Aug. 26, 1878.

On this date in 1878,* Odessa nihilist Ivan Kovalsky was shot by directive of a military tribunal.

A “propaganda of the deed” type, Kovalsky advocated and practiced armed resistance to what one of his leaflets called “this vile government.” When tsarist police raided his printing press in January 1878, Kovalsky dramatically fought back with a revolver and a dagger while his comrades destroyed documents.

They did not slay a policeman in the process of repelling arrest, so the harsh decision to shoot Kovalsky for resisting made him a wholly political martyr — actually one of the very first in Russia’s running internal battle against her revolutionaries.

Two days later, secret police general Nikolai Mezentsov was daggered to death disembarking a carriage in broad daylight by Sergei Stepniak-Kravchinsky, leaving propaganda of the word to match that of his bloody deed: a manifesto titled “Death for Death” and dedicated “to the memory of Martyr Ivan Martynovich Kovalsky, shot by the secret police for defending his freedom”:

The chief of gendarmes, the leader of a gang that has all of Russia under its heel, has been killed. Few have not guessed whose hands dealt the fatal blow. But in order to avoid any confusion, we announce for general information that gendarme chief Adjutant General Mezentsov was in fact killed by us, revolutionary socialists … We tried the perpetrators and inciters of the brutalities done to us. The trial was as just as the ideas we are defending. This trial found Adjutant General Mezentsov deserving of death for his villainous deeds against us, and the sentence was carried out on Mikhailovsky Square on the morning of August 4, 1878. (Source)

The murderer successfully fled the scene and escaped into exile where he founded the Anglo-American Society of Friends of Russian Freedom and wrote widely on his estranged homeland.

* Gregorian date. The date in Russia, still on the Julian calendar at the time, was August 2.

** Submitted without comment: Stepniak’s interview in exile describing the escape from the assassination, which he attributed to “one of my friends”:

My friend rushed upon the General, stabbed him with a knife, and jumped into a carriage which was waiting for him. As you may imagine, the comrade who drove lashed the horse furiously, for rapid flight was the only alternative to being hung. Nevertheless, my friend the assassin took the whip out of the driver’s hand, saying ‘Don’t lash him, the animal is doing what he can.’ And my friend was afterwards pleased with himself for having felt this pity, for he said to himself, ‘After all, I am not altogether a bad fellow.'”

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Martyrs,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Russia,Shot,Treason,Ukraine

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1988: Dmitri Polyakov, Cold War spy

Add comment March 15th, 2016 Headsman

Although it would not be publicly known until two years later, the retired Soviet Gen. Dmitri Polyakov was on March 15, 1988 executed for treason.

A World War II artillerist, Polyakov (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) was a military intelligence officer working as an embassy attache when he made contact with American agents in New York in 1961. For the next quarter-century — across assignments to Burma, India, the U.S., and back in Moscow — he would ship to the CIA and FBI some of its choicest morsels of the Cold War.

“Polyakov was the jewel in the crown,” former CIA chief James Woolsey lamented of his loss. Polyakov-supplied documents underscoring the extent of Russia’s split with China have been credited with spurring Richard Nixon’s overtures to Beijing.

The spy code-named Bourbon, Roam, and Top Hat had idiosyncratic motivations; he was not an ideological true believer like a Sorge nor a man afflicted by demons like a Vetrov. He accepted only a little bit of money from his handlers, mostly to support an innocuous wordworking hobby.

This Russian article indulges a variety of hypotheses — contempt for Khrushchev, the death of a son, an appetite for risk-taking — but nothing his U.S. contacts could learn of him rebutted the presentation he made of himself as a Russian patriot chagrined at the prospect that the corrupt Communist state could win the Cold War.

His revelations did much to check that possibility.

Polyakov retired as a general in 1980, having operated under the Kremlin’s nose for a phenomenally long period of time. (His U.S. contacts made sure to feed him some career-advancing secrets, too.) But he was betrayed in the 1980s by the USSR’s own moles, Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames and arrested in 1986.

His fate, imposed by the Military Collegium of the Soviet Supreme Court, thereafter was a mystery to his former handlers. Two months after his secret execution, U.S. President Ronald Reagan sought Polyakov’s pardon or his exchange for a captured Soviet mole at his May-June 1988 arms control summit with Mikhail Gorbachev. The solicitation was politely deferred.

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1951: Ants Kaljurand, Estonian Forest Brother

Add comment March 13th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1951, the Estonian anti-Soviet partisan Ants Kaljurand was executed by the NKVD with comrades Arved Pildin and Juhan Metsäären.

Renowned for his ferocity and derring-do, “Ants the Terrible” was among 12,000 to 15,000 or so Estonian “Forest Brothers” who organized armed resistance to the Soviet Union.

The small Baltic state had won a two-decade interwar independence rudely terminated by Soviet occupation in 1940 under the carving-up done by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Moscow did not have long to enjoy its mastery of the place before Germany’s invasion swapped one occupation for the other.

German mastery appeared the more congenial than Russian,* and vice versa: Tallinn-born Nazi race theorist Alfred Rosenberg celebrated “the true culture bearer for Europe … the Nordic race. Great heroes, artists and founders of states have grown from this blood. It built the massive fortresses and sacred cathedrals. Nordic blood composed and created those works of music which we revere as our greatest revelations. … Germany is Nordic, and the Nordic element has had an effect, type forming, also upon the western, Dinaric and east Baltic races.”**

Germany had some traction recruiting SS volunteers locally, and Estonia’s small Jewish population was exterminated so efficiently with the aid of right-wing militias that the country was officially Judenfrei by the time of the Wannsee Conference. (Kaljurand himself was an Omakaitse paramilitary.)

Once Germany was pushed back out by the Red Army in 1944 there were thousands of Estonian fighting-men prepared to bear arms against the new-old boss: one part a desperate hope of resuming the pre-war independence, two parts fatalistic principle. “We understood that it is better to die in the forest with a weapon in your hands than in a Soviet camp,” an ex-Forest Brother pensioner told the New York Times in 2003.

For a few years** after World War II, the harassment of Forest Brothers pricked Soviet authority, but as elsewhere in the Baltics the contest was impossibly unequal for guerrillas far from any hope of aid in a post-Yalta world. Ants the Terrible was captured in 1949 by which time the movement, ruthlessly hunted, was waning away. It was finally stamped out in the early 1950s, but in the post-Soviet Estonia — independent once again — these resisters have been belatedly celebrated as patriots.

* “In Estonia it was hard for us to live, much less operate,” a Soviet partisan in Estonia reported. “At partisan training, they told us that the people were waiting for us to drive out the Germans … But we were never told that we’d be assaulted by the Estonians themselves.” (From War in the Woods: Estonia’s Struggle for Survival 1944-1956, a source extremely laudatory of the Forest Brothers.)

** From Rosenberg’s magnum opus, The Myth of the Twentieth Century. It’s not all sunshine for the eastern Baltic race in Rosenberg’s cosmology; “mixed as it is with a Mongol element,” these types are “pliant clay either in the hands of Nordic leadership or under Jewish and Mongol tyrants. [The eastern Baltic] sings and dances, but as easily murders and ravages.”

† One of the last Forest Brothers in the field, August Sabbe, was only caught in 1978 at the age of 69. He died in the arrest, either murdered by his KGB pursuers or resolutely quick-witted enough to drown himself to escape interrogation.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Estonia,Execution,Guerrillas,History,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Rus',Russia,Shot,Soldiers,Terrorists,Treason

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1940: Mikhail Koltsov, Soviet journalist

Add comment February 2nd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1940, Soviet writer Mikhail Koltsov was shot at Lubyanka Prison.

Maybe the premier journalist of the early Bolshevik state, Koltsov (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) founded several magazines in the 1920s — including the still-extant Ogoniok.* His stylistic flair set him apart in an age oppressed by leaden, censorious prose. “If Pravda featured a readable piece in the 1930s, Koltsov was probably the author,” Donald Rayfield puts it in Stalin and His Hangmen. And the man’s charisma didn’t end with pen; he was the lover of (among others) the wife of security chief Nikolai Yezhov.

A convinced communist who had participated in the revolution, his reliability led Stalin to dispatch him to the Spanish Civil War — as a Pravda correspondent but also, of course, a Soviet agent. His role and his many fraught relationships are treated at some length in We Saw Spain Die; one officer of an international brigade wrote that Koltsov and his fellows seemed to breathe freer amid the wild danger of the front — “Here there was none of the slavish terror of the Moscow intellectual. Under the hail of Fascist bullets they forgot the bullet in the back of the neck, the secret executions of the GPU. Their talk was relaxed, uncharged with double meanings, un-Asiatic.”

Be that as it may, Koltsov as Kremlin vizier to a dirty war was on the other end of the death warrant often enough; he also cultivated Ernest Hemingway, and was rewarded with a thinly veiled role in For Whom The Bell Tolls (the character Karkov). His memoir Spanish Diary is a sort of team-Soviet counterpart to Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia.

But Koltsov lived ever in the shadow of Stalin’s terror, and to hear his friend, English correspondent Claud Cockburn tell it, Koltsov too knew it very well: a man for his time who could be a true believer by day and by night crack gallows humor at the creeping purges among friends. “I cannot say I was surprised” by his fall, Cockburn wrote when his onetime comrade disappeared. “And, oddly, I doubt if he was much surprised either. He had lived — and talked and joked — very dangerously, and he had absolutely no illusions so far as I know about the nature of the dangers … He would not, I thought, have been otherwise than satirically amused by some of the almost hysterically sentimental outcries which greeted his removal.” Though difficult to establish with certainty, it is thought that Stalin and Beria broadly suspected their Spanish Civil War emissaries of exposure to Trotskyite machinations, western spies, and other indulgences characteristic of men too far removed from that bullet in the back of the neck. Veterans of this conflict who retured to the USSR were a heavily purged demographic.**

Arrested as a Trotskyite at the end of 1938, he had a year to savor the terrors of interrogation and was made to denounce as western agents former friends like director Vsevolod Meyerhold — who was eventually executed on the same Feb. 1-2 night as Koltsov himself.

His brother, the cartoonist Boris Yefimov,† tried to inquire about him in March 1940 and was told that Koltsov had been interned in the gulag for ten years “without right of correspondence” … a secret police euphemism for a man who would in fact never correspond with anyone again.

* In 1923; this was a re-founding of a periodical dating to 1899, and the magazine naturally claims the earlier vintage for itself.

** Koltsov’s fall also corresponds to Moscow’s pre-World War II rapprochement with Berlin; one of the people his tortured denunciations helped bring down was the Jewish pro-western foreign minister Maxim Litvinov, for whom an anti-fascist alliance had been the policy. Litvinov was succeeded by Molotov — he of the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany.

† Their surname by birth was Fridlyand; their father was a Jewish cobbler in Kiev.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,History,Notably Survived By,Revolutionaries,Russia,Shot,Torture,Treason,USSR

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1946: Gen. Leopold Okulicki murdered in Soviet prison

1 comment December 24th, 2015 Headsman

The fate of the last Commander in Chief of Home Army General Leopold Okulicki “Niedzwiadka”, imprisoned in Moscow and murdered there, symbolize the postwar fate of the Home Army and of Poland.

-2012 resolution of the Polish parliament

On this date in 1946, Polish Home Army General Leopold Okulicki was murdered by the NKVD in a Moscow prison.

Okulicki (English Wikipedia entry | the much more detailed Polish) embarked his military career at the tender age of 16, when he ditched school in favor of an Austrian legion on the eastern front of World War I — then segued directly into newly independent Poland‘s subsequent war against the Soviets.

Already a veteran soldier, Okulicki proceeded to the Warsaw military academy and made soldiering his career. He had advanced to the brass by the time Hitler and Stalin destroyed Poland in 1939. Okulicki had the tragic honor to maintain the hopeless defense of Warsaw, but went underground thereafter with the remains of the Polish state — hunted by Germans and Soviets alike.

The NKVD caught him in January 1941, but his residence in the discomfiting environs of Lubyanka prison was ended by the Soviet Union’s arrangement with Poland following Operation Barbarossa. Paroled back into the field, he played a leading part for the Polish Home Army for the balance of the war — finally becoming its supreme commander in the last weeks of the war.

Now that the Nazis were no longer knocking on the gates of Moscow, the Soviets renewed their interest in detaining Okulicki, which was again effected with relative ease. (Comparing German and Soviet secret police, Okulicki would say that the NKVD made the Gestapo look like child’s play.) Sentenced “only” to a 10-year prison term at the Russians’ postwar show trial of Polish leadership, Okulicki disappeared into Soviet detention and was never seen again.

In the Khrushchev era, the USSR revealed that Okulicki had died on Christmas eve of 1946 at Butyrka prison; subsequent revelations of the medical records there revealed that he had succumbed to organ damage suggestive of having been beaten to death — perhaps as punishment for hunger-striking.

The post-Communist Russian state has posthumously exonerated Okulicki of his show-trial conviction; he is, of course, an honored figure in post-Communist Poland where many streets and squares bear his name.


Plaque honoring Gen. Okulicki in Warsaw. (cc) image from Tadeusz Rudzki.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Bludgeoned,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Guerrillas,History,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Poland,Posthumous Exonerations,Russia,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Torture,USSR

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Feast Day of St. Nicholas

1 comment December 6th, 2015 Headsman

Today is the feast day of Santa Claus himself, St. Nicholas.

Nicholas was a real-life bishop in fourth century Asia Minor. He’s among the prelates to sign off on the Nicene Creed, Christianity’s official profession of orthodox doctrine hammered out at the emperor Constantine’s epochal Council of Nicaea.

Living as he did amid the triumph of his once-persecuted faith, Saint Nick was not called upon to offer God his own martyrdom. Our death penalty context comes from one of the stories in his hagiography — that on one occasion, returning to the seat of his diocese at Myra, Nicholas discovered that three innocent men had been condemned to imminent execution by a wicked magistrate. Hastening to the scene, he dramatically averted their beheading by seizing the executioner’s sword.

The great Russian artist Ilya Repin depicted the scene.


St. Nicholas Saves Three Innocents from Death, by Ilya Repin (1888).

Repin did not love this painting — he slinked out of its 1889 exhibition, allegedly dissatisfied with its ridigity and melodrama* — but it did express the liberal-minded artist’s distaste for capital punishment. The era we now know to be the late tsarist period in Russia saw violent (and sometimes indiscriminate) crackdowns on revolutionary terrorism following the 1881 assassination of Tsar Alexander II, to the great grief of her dissident intelligentsia. Philosopher Vladimir Solovyov called the death penalty “absolute murder”; with a like attitude, tsarist Russia’s “liberal politicians, academics and journalists repeatedly campaigned against this form of punishment.” (Source)

Around the time that Repin depicted St. Nicholas’s great act of clemency, Leo Tolstoy — who abhorred capital punishment — wrote of his youthful experience witnessing the guillotine in action in Paris, “at the moment the head and body separated and fell into the box I gasped, and realized not with my mind nor with my heart but with my whole being, that all the arguments in defence of capital punishment are wicked nonsense … [that] murder remains murder, and that this crime had been committed before my eyes.”**

Repin was forever being read and misread by the ideologues afoot in Russia, but this Tolstoyan horror at the scaffold he shared unambiguously. In a later era, by which time Repin was the established senior figure of the Russian art scene, the painter was exercised enough by Stolypin‘s wholesale use of capital punishment following Russia’s abortive 1905 revolution to issue a public denunciation of executions. But it was only ever by the hand of St. Nicholas that he had the experience of preventing one.

* See David Jackson, “The ‘Golgotha’ of Ilya Repin in Context”, Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University, Vol. 50, No. 1 (1991).

** Repin also painted Tolstoy in 1887.

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1638: Stepan Ostryanin, Cossack hetman

Add comment October 14th, 2015 Headsman

(Thanks to friend of the blog Sonechka for research, translation, and background information touching this post. -ed.)

October 14 (October 1 O.S.) is a liturgical feast celebrating the protective intercession of the Virgin Mary, a date of particular significance in Russia and Ukraine. Indeed, Red Square’s St. Basil’s Cathedral is actually the Cathedral of the Intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos [i.e., Mary] on the Moat, just one of many Orthodox churches so named.

Also known as Pokrov — a quaint Slavic term for covering, denoting safeguarding — the holiday celebrates an incident from 10th century Byzantium when a saint beheld Mary descend through the dome of the church, then spread her garment protectively over the entire congregation.

It is of special significance in Ukraine where the ecclesiastical celebration pulls double duty as the Day of the Ukrainian Cossacks. And it is in honor of Pokrov that we dedicate this post.


17th century icon of the Madonna’s broad cloak protecting Ukrainians.

On an unspecified date in 1638, a Cossack named Ostryanin was broken on the wheel in Warsaw … maybe.

The Ostryanin Uprising of 1638 was one of the ongoing cycle of Cossack disturbances in the southern reaches of the Polish-Lithuanian Empire — modern-day Ukraine. Like many of these, it was a short-lived affair considered on its own, but the pattern of disaffected Cossacks struggling against the Polish crown for some combination of recognition, largesse, and autonomy was an ongoing pattern in the 17th century — and by the 1650s it would begin tearing apart the formerly mighty Polish-Lithuanian realm and transferring Ukrainian territory from Polish to Russian domination.

Tradition held that after the rising was stamped out in the summer of 1638, Stepan Ostryanin himself was treacherously seized and taken to Warsaw for execution. A late 18th century chronicle* of a distinctly patriotic bent called Istoriya Russov embroiders upon that death by breaking-wheel with racist gusto:

in accord with their treachery, insidious and duplicitous, having learned through their Jew spies that hetman Ostryanin’s would travel unguarded … the Lyakhs [term for “Poles”; it’s derogatory in present-day Russian but may have been less so at the time -ed.] surrounded him in Kanev monastery with a host of men. They, having tied the hetman and his men, altogether thirty seven people, … prepared an execution for them in Warsaw unprecedented in its cruelty, which posterity will scarcely believe to be true, because it would not occur to even the most barbarous and ferocious Japanese (!) and the reality of which would terrify the very beasts and monsters.

On the other hand, a Cossack named Yakiv Ostryanin was to be found on Russian soil in the subsequent years, until he was murdered in 1641. Some historians think that he was the very same namesake Cossack rebel escaped from Polish vengeance, and the story about him being broken on the wheel in Poland is pure sentimental folklore; alternatively, Stepan and Yakiv might have just been two different Cossacks named Ostryanin who met two different fates.

Quite a difference for our supposed Stepan Ostryanin, but a minor mystery from this distance in time. Nevertheless, our man, whoever he was, had a posthumous contribution yet to make to the letters of his Slavic brethren.

Polish historian Szymon Okolski rode along with the Polish commander Mikolaj Potocki in Potocki’s successful campaign of the spring-summer 1638 to suppress this rebellion. Okolski’s field diaries of the campaign are a key historical source on the Cossacks and are thought to have been used extensively by the Cossack-descended writer Nikolai Gogol in composing his short story Taras Bulba.

A product of Gogol’s youth, Taras Bulba has a rough romanticism — and a romanticism for the Cossack (read: national Ukrainian) cause specifically that nonplussed Russian authorities at the time. (And probably now, too.)

Taras Bulba‘s title character is a mature Cossack patriot who with his two sons joins the Cossack risings against Poland. Its location in time is indeterminate, not unlike the unending cycle of risings themselves. Taras Bulba is a nearly eternal character, almost a fixture of nature, because his war seemed eternal too.

And of course it contains some cracking execution scenes. The execution by breaking-wheel of Taras Bulba’s son might have been inspired by the Istoriya Russov‘s outraged account of that full Japanese barbarism. The excerpt below hails from this public-domain English translation.


Ostap had been seized and bound before his very eyes, and that he was now in the hands of the Lyakhs. Grief overpowered him. He pulled off and tore in pieces the bandages from his wounds, and threw them far from him; he tried to say something, but only articulated some incoherent words. Fever and delirium seized upon him afresh, and he uttered wild and incoherent speeches. Meanwhile his faithful comrade stood beside him, scolding and showering harsh, reproachful words upon him without stint. Finally, he seized him by the arms and legs, wrapped him up like a child, arranged all his bandages, rolled him in an ox-hide, bound him with bast, and, fastening him with ropes to his saddle, rode with him again at full speed along the road.

“I’ll get you there, even if it be not alive! I will not abandon your body for the Lyakhs to make merry over you, and cut your body in twain and fling it into the water. Let the eagle tear out your eyes if it must be so; but let it be our eagle of the steppe and not a Polish eagle, not one which has flown hither from Polish soil. I will bring you, though it be a corpse, to the Ukraine!”

Thus spoke his faithful companion. He rode without drawing rein, day and night, and brought Taras still insensible into the Zaporozhian Setch itself. There he undertook to cure him, with unswerving care, by the aid of herbs and liniments. He sought out a skilled Jewess, who made Taras drink various potions for a whole month, and at length he improved. Whether it was owing to the medicine or to his iron constitution gaining the upper hand, at all events, in six weeks he was on his feet. His wounds had closed, and only the scars of the sabre-cuts showed how deeply injured the old Cossack had been. But he was markedly sad and morose. Three deep wrinkles engraved themselves upon his brow and never more departed thence. Then he looked around him. All was new in the Setch; all his old companions were dead. Not one was left of those who had stood up for the right, for faith and brotherhood. And those who had gone forth with the Koschevoi in pursuit of the Tatars, they also had long since disappeared. All had perished. One had lost his head in battle; another had died for lack of food, amid the salt marshes of the Crimea; another had fallen in captivity and been unable to survive the disgrace. Their former Koschevoi was no longer living, nor any of his old companions, and the grass was growing over those once alert with power. He felt as one who had given a feast, a great noisy feast. All the dishes had been smashed in pieces; not a drop of wine was left anywhere; the guests and servants had all stolen valuable cups and platters; and he, like the master of the house, stood sadly thinking that it would have been no feast. In vain did they try to cheer Taras and to divert his mind; in vain did the long-bearded, grey-haired guitar-players come by twos and threes to glorify his Cossack deeds. He gazed grimly and indifferently at everything, with inappeasable grief printed on his stolid face; and said softly, as he drooped his head, “My son, my Ostap!”

The square on which the execution was to take place was not hard to find: for the people were thronging thither from all quarters. In that savage age such a thing constituted one of the most noteworthy spectacles, not only for the common people, but among the higher classes. A number of the most pious old men, a throng of young girls, and the most cowardly women, who dreamed the whole night afterwards of their bloody corpses, and shrieked as loudly in their sleep as a drunken hussar, missed, nevertheless, no opportunity of gratifying their curiosity. “Ah, what tortures!” many of them would cry, hysterically, covering their eyes and turning away; but they stood their ground for a good while, all the same. Many a one, with gaping mouth and outstretched hands, would have liked to jump upon other folk’s heads, to get a better view. Above the crowd towered a bulky butcher, admiring the whole process with the air of a connoisseur, and exchanging brief remarks with a gunsmith, whom he addressed as “Gossip,” because he got drunk in the same alehouse with him on holidays. Some entered into warm discussions, others even laid wagers. But the majority were of the species who, all the world over, look on at the world and at everything that goes on in it and merely scratch their noses. In the front ranks, close to the bearded civic-guards, stood a young noble, in warlike array, who had certainly put his whole wardrobe on his back, leaving only his torn shirt and old shoes at his quarters. Two chains, one above the other, hung around his neck. He stood beside his mistress, Usisya, and glanced about incessantly to see that no one soiled her silk gown. He explained everything to her so perfectly that no one could have added a word. “All these people whom you see, my dear Usisya,” he said, “have come to see the criminals executed; and that man, my love, yonder, holding the axe and other instruments in his hands, is the executioner, who will despatch them. When he begins to break them on the wheel, and torture them in other ways, the criminals will still be alive; but when he cuts off their heads, then, my love, they will die at once. Before that, they will cry and move; but as soon as their heads are cut off, it will be impossible for them to cry, or to eat or drink, because, my dear, they will no longer have any head.” Usisya listened to all this with terror and curiosity.

The upper stories of the houses were filled with people. From the windows in the roof peered strange faces with beards and something resembling caps. Upon the balconies, beneath shady awnings, sat the aristocracy. The hands of smiling young ladies, brilliant as white sugar, rested on the railings. Portly nobles looked on with dignity. Servants in rich garb, with flowing sleeves, handed round various refreshments. Sometimes a black-eyed young rogue would take her cake or fruit and fling it among the crowd with her own noble little hand. The crowd of hungry gentles held up their caps to receive it; and some tall noble, whose head rose amid the throng, with his faded red jacket and discoloured gold braid, and who was the first to catch it with the aid of his long arms, would kiss his booty, press it to his heart, and finally put it in his mouth. The hawk, suspended beneath the balcony in a golden cage, was also a spectator; with beak inclined to one side, and with one foot raised, he, too, watched the people attentively. But suddenly a murmur ran through the crowd, and a rumour spread, “They are coming! they are coming! the Cossacks!”

They were bare-headed, with their long locks floating in the air. Their beards had grown, and their once handsome garments were worn out, and hung about them in tatters. They walked neither timidly nor surlily, but with a certain pride, neither looking at nor bowing to the people. At the head of all came Ostap.

What were old Taras’s feelings when thus he beheld his Ostap? What filled his heart then? He gazed at him from amid the crowd, and lost not a single movement of his. They reached the place of execution. Ostap stopped. He was to be the first to drink the bitter cup. He glanced at his comrades, raised his hand, and said in a loud voice: “God grant that none of the heretics who stand here may hear, the unclean dogs, how Christians suffer! Let none of us utter a single word.” After this he ascended the scaffold.

“Well done, son! well done!” said Bulba, softly, and bent his grey head.

The executioner tore off his old rags; they fastened his hands and feet in stocks prepared expressly, and—We will not pain the reader with a picture of the hellish tortures which would make his hair rise upright on his head. They were the outcome of that coarse, wild age, when men still led a life of warfare which hardened their souls until no sense of humanity was left in them. In vain did some, not many, in that age make a stand against such terrible measures. In vain did the king and many nobles, enlightened in mind and spirit, demonstrate that such severity of punishment could but fan the flame of vengeance in the Cossack nation. But the power of the king, and the opinion of the wise, was as nothing before the savage will of the magnates of the kingdom, who, by their thoughtlessness and unconquerable lack of all far-sighted policy, their childish self-love and miserable pride, converted the Diet into the mockery of a government. Ostap endured the torture like a giant. Not a cry, not a groan, was heard. Even when they began to break the bones in his hands and feet, when, amid the death-like stillness of the crowd, the horrible cracking was audible to the most distant spectators; when even his tormentors turned aside their eyes, nothing like a groan escaped his lips, nor did his face quiver. Taras stood in the crowd with bowed head; and, raising his eyes proudly at that moment, he said, approvingly, “Well done, boy! well done!”

But when they took him to the last deadly tortures, it seemed as though his strength were failing. He cast his eyes around.

O God! all strangers, all unknown faces! If only some of his relatives had been present at his death! He would not have cared to hear the sobs and anguish of his poor, weak mother, nor the unreasoning cries of a wife, tearing her hair and beating her white breast; but he would have liked to see a strong man who might refresh him with a word of wisdom, and cheer his end. And his strength failed him, and he cried in the weakness of his soul, “Father! where are you? do you hear?”

“I hear!” rang through the universal silence, and those thousands of people shuddered in concert. A detachment of cavalry hastened to search through the throng of people. Yankel turned pale as death, and when the horsemen had got within a short distance of him, turned round in terror to look for Taras; but Taras was no longer beside him; every trace of him was lost.


Despite his cunning escape on this occasion, Taras Bulba himself is also in the end put to death: the story ends with him going to the stake as his soul summons the brethren he can still see in the distance to resume the fight, again and again.


[A] band of Lyakhs suddenly rushed up, and seized him by the shoulders. He struggled with all might; but he could not scatter on the earth, as he had been wont to do, the heydukes who had seized him. “Oh, old age, old age!” he exclaimed: and the stout old Cossack wept. But his age was not to blame: nearly thirty men were clinging to his arms and legs.

“The raven is caught!” yelled the Lyakhs. “We must think how we can show him the most honour, the dog!” They decided, with the permission of the hetman, to burn him alive in the sight of all. There stood hard by a leafless tree, the summit of which had been struck by lightning. They fastened him with iron chains and nails driven through his hands high up on the trunk of the tree, so that he might be seen from all sides; and began at once to place fagots at its foot. But Taras did not look at the wood, nor did he think of the fire with which they were preparing to roast him: he gazed anxiously in the direction whence his Cossacks were firing. From his high point of observation he could see everything as in the palm of his hand.

“Farewell, comrades!” he shouted to them from above; “remember me, and come hither again next spring and make merry in the same fashion! What! cursed Lyakhs, have ye caught me? Think ye there is anything in the world that a Cossack fears? Wait; the time will come when ye shall learn what the orthodox Russian faith is! Already the people scent it far and near. A czar shall arise from Russian soil, and there shall not be a power in the world which shall not submit to him!” But fire had already risen from the fagots; it lapped his feet, and the flame spread to the tree…. But can any fire, flames, or power be found on earth which are capable of overpowering Russian strength?

Broad is the river Dniester, and in it are many deep pools, dense reed-beds, clear shallows and little bays; its watery mirror gleams, filled with the melodious plaint of the swan, the proud wild goose glides swiftly over it; and snipe, red-throated ruffs, and other birds are to be found among the reeds and along the banks. The Cossacks rowed swiftly on in the narrow double-ruddered boats—rowed stoutly, carefully shunning the sand bars, and cleaving the ranks of the birds, which took wing—rowed, and talked of their hetman.

* The Istoriya Russov had a great influence on young writers in the early 19th century. The text can be read as advancing a nationalism of all the Russias, or as speaking in a more specifically Ukrainian voice. See The Cossack Myth: History and Nationhood in the Age of Empires.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Poland,Power,Public Executions,Russia,Soldiers,Treason,Ukraine,Wartime Executions

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