On this date in 1944, Wehrmacht Oberst Rudolf Körpert, his deputy Hauptmann Carl Frister, and officers Fritz Müsenthin, Otto Mäder, Richard Seidlitz and Kurt Wohlfarth, were shot in the Soviet Union for their treatment of Russian prisoners of war at Stalingrad.
This was nearly two years on since the Germans had surrendered the eastern front’s horrific signature battle.
The six captured men were principals at the little-known Dulag-205, a transit camp the Wehrmacht erected at Stalingrad for Soviet prisoners of war pending westward deportation to less extemporaneous prisons. (And less extemporaneous mistreatment.)
A minuscule 10 acres, the camp was eventually crammed with up to 3,400 prisoners, triple its anticipated capacity. There was nowhere to send them once the Germans were fatally encircled, and as supplies failed in the last terrible weeks of the besieged Kessel (“cauldron”), the subsistence prisoner rations of putrefying-horseflesh soup were cut off entirely.
Several dozen dropped dead of starvation, overwork, and summary execution each day thence until the merciful end. When the Red Army finally took control of the camp on Jan. 22, 1943, it discovered corpses with obvious signs of cannibalism.
Frank Ellis has the definitive treatment of this affair in “Dulag-205: The German Army’s Death Camp for Soviet Prisoners at Stalingrad” (Journal of Slavic Military Studies, March 2006), and the facts in this posts are drawn from Ellis’s examination of the Dulag-205 interrogation and trial records.*
Our captured men enjoyed the company of NKVD and SMERSH interrogators for a number of months, under what duresses one shudders to imagine.
The rescued Soviet soldiers — who were themselves suspect in the eyes of Stalinist authorities merely for having been captured — provided ample firsthand corroboration of Dulag-205′s miserable conditions.
“The guards were allowed to shoot without any warning at prisoners who approached the barbed wire barrier, who tried to jump the queue for food and at prisoners who tried to have a piss in the wrong place,” one POW told his Soviet interrogators. “Hardly any water or bread was given to the prisoners. The prisoners slept in the dugouts without any bedding, jammed tight. The prisoners were never able to rest since they had to sleep standing and sitting. … There were no baths in the camp. During my whole time in the camp — about 5 months — I did not wash once.”
Moscow had by this time already begun rolling out war crimes trials relating to the German invasion. The guys who were captured with starving Red Army prisoners cannibalizing one another were going to be a prime target.
The subaltern officers, according to Ellis, generally tried to put the blame on Körpert and further up the chain of command, and understandably so. Mäder was a mere adjutant. Siedlitz was the director of camp construction. They weren’t the ones who got the Sixth Army encircled or cut prisoner rations or even made camp-specific decisions like when to set the dogs on a disobedient captive. They had no ability to transfer the prisoners back to the Soviets or to any less horrible detention on their side of the lines. Otto Mäder:
My service in the Dulag was a great spiritual torment for me. It was dreadful to see the terrible condition of Russian prisoners.
I stand before the court at that time when the main culprits responsible for the death of 3,000 Soviet prisoners — Field Marshall Paulus, the army’s chief-of-staff, General Schmidt, Lieutenant-Colonel Kunowski
and the army quartermaster — do not stand before the court. They are not only guilty of the death of Soviet prisoners-of-war, but have put us on the accused’s bench!
You’d expect the guy to say that to a Soviet tribunal, certainly — especially a lawyer, which Mäder was also — but that doesn’t make it untrue. This case was actually evaluated in post-Soviet Russia for possible posthumous rehabilitation. (No dice.)
Intriguingly, the Wehrmacht officers were not tried for violations of the Geneva Conventions; indeed, the USSR had not ratified all of the Geneva Conventions, and this put Germany (which had ratified them) in an ambiguous position relative to its non-ratifying belligerent. (A less kind way to say it might be that the difference served to rationalize dreadfully inhumane treatment.)
Rather, Körpert et al were charged under Soviet laws promulgated only after the Battle of Stalingrad, a sketchy maneuver which Ellis thinks suggests that prosecutors hoped to avoid setting a precedent that could be cited by Germany relative to the USSR’s none-too-gentle treatment of its own prisoners of war.
This entry in our Corpses Strewn series on the October 1698 extirpation of the Streltsy is courtesy of the diaries of Austrian diplomat Johann Georg Korb, an eyewitness to the events.
To this exhibition of avenging justice the Czar’s Majesty invited all the ambassadors of foreign fovereigns, as it were to aflert anew on his return that fovereign prerogative of life and death which the rebels had disputed with him.
The barracks in Bebraschentsko end in a bare field which rises to the summit of a rather steep hill. This was the place appointed for the executions. Here were planted the gibbet stakes, on which the foul heads of these confessedly guilty wretches were to be fet, to protract their ignominy beyond death. There the first scene of the tragedy lay exposed. The strangers that had gathered to the spectacle were kept aloof from too close approach; the whole regiment of guards was drawn up in array under arms. A little further off, on a high tumulus in the area of the place, there was a multitude of Muscovites, crowded and crushing together in a dense circle. A German Major was then my companion; he concealed his nationality in a Muscovite dress, besides which he relied upon his military rank and the liberty that he might take in consequence of being entitled by reason of his being in the service of the Czar to share in the privileges of the Muscovites. He mingled with the thronging crowd of Mufcovites, and when he came back announced that five rebel heads had been cut off in that spot by an axe that was swung by the noblest arm of all Muscovy. [i.e., Peter's own] The river Jaufa flows pall the barracks in Bebraschentsko, and divides them in two.
On the opposite fide of this stream there were a hundred criminals set upon those little Muscovite carts which the natives call Sbosek, awaiting the hour of the death they had to undergo. There was a cart for every criminal, and a soldier to guard each. No prieftly office was to be seen; as if the condemned were unworthy of that pious compassion. But they all bore lighted tapers in their hands, not to die without light and cross. The horrors of impending death were increased by the piteous lamentations of their women, the sobbing on every fide, and the shrieks of the dying that rung upon the sad array. The mother wept for her fon, the daughter deplored a parent’s fate, the wife lamenting a husband’s lot, bemoaned along with the others, from whom the various ties of blood and kindred drew tears of sad farewell. But when the horses, urged to a sharp pace, drew them off to the place of their doom, the wail of the women rose into louder sobs and moans. As they tried to keep up with them, forms of expression like these bespoke their grief, as others explained them to me: “Why are you torn from me so soon? Why do you desert me? Is a last embrace then denied me? Why am I hindered from bidding him farewell?” With complaints like these they tried to follow their friends when they could not keep up with their rapid course. From a country seat belonging to General Schachin [Shein] one hundred and thirty more Strelitz were led forth to die. At each side of all the city gates there was a gibbet erected, each of which was loaded with six rebels on that day.
When all were duly brought to the place of execution, and the half dozens were duly distributed at their several gibbets, the Czar’s Majesty, dressed in a green Polish cloak, and attended by a numerous suite of Muscovite nobles, came to the gate where, by his Majesty’s command, the imperial Lord Envoy had flopped in his own carriage, along with the representatives of Poland and Denmark. Next them was Major-General de Carlowiz, who had conducted his Majesty on his way from Poland, and a great many other foreigners, among whom the Muscovites mingled round about the gate. Then the proclamation of the sentence began, the Czar exhorting all the bystanders to mark well its tenor. As the executioner was unable to dispatch so many criminals, some military officers, by command of the Czar, came under compulsion to aid in this butcher’s task. The guilty were neither chained nor fettered; but logs were tied to their legs, which hindered them from walking fast, but still allowed them the use of their feet. They strove of their own accord to ascend the ladder, making the sign of the cross towards the four quarters of the world; they themselves covered their eyes and faces with a piece of linen (which is a national cuftom); very many putting their necks into the halter sprang headlong of themselves from the gallows, in order to precipitate their end. There were counted two hundred and thirty that expiated their flagitious conduct by halter and gibbet.
Sometime in early October 1943, fifteen-year-old Yitskhok Rudashevski and his entire family were rousted out of their hiding place in the Vilna Ghetto, taken to nearby Ponary, shot to death and buried in a mass grave.
The Rudashevski family were among the last remnants of a once-vibrant Jewish community in the city once known as “the Jerusalem of the north” for its culture and scholarship. People came there from as far away as the United States to study in its highly regarded yeshivas.
After the start of World War II, Vilna was annexed by the Soviet Union. It became a sanctuary to Jews fleeing from the Nazis, who occupied western Poland.
All of that changed on June 22, 1941, when Operation Barbarossa began. On the day Germany invaded the USSR, there were approximately 80,000 Jews living in Vilna, many of them refugees from the Nazi terror. By the time the Red Army arrived and kicked the Nazis out three years later, Vilna’s Jewish population had been reduced –through starvation, disease, deportation and executions — to zero.
Yitskhok (also spelled Yitzhak, Yitzak, etc., or anglicized to Isaac), was thirteen years old at the time his city was occupied by the Germans.
An only child, he was the son of a typesetter and a seamstress. Talented in writing, history and languages, he was also a faithful Communist and a member of the Pioneers, the Communist youth organization.
From June 1941 to April 1943 he kept a diary in Yiddish. Yitskhok had a sense of the significance of his account; at one point he wrote, “I consider that everything must be recorded and noted down, even the most gory, because everything will be taken into account.”
He not only wrote about his own life and his family and friends, but about the wider community events and the devastation the Germans wrought on his people. The historian Allan Gerald Levine called him “an astute and passionate observer of the times,” and compared him to Anne Frank.
Nor was the diary Yitskhok’s only writing project.
When one of his teachers, a beloved figure in the ghetto, died, he wrote a eulogy for the man and read it out before a large audience. He was a member of a literary group and was also attached to the ghetto’s history project, for which he interviewed ghetto residents about their lives:
I got a taste of the historian’s task. I sit at the table and ask questions and record the greatest sufferings with cold objectivity. I write, I probe into details, and I do not realize at all that I am probing into wounds … And this horror, this tragedy is formulated by me … coldly and dryly. I become absorbed in thought, and the words stare out of the paper crimson with blood.
The Vilna Ghetto, whose population initially numbered 40,000, had a rich cultural life, just like prewar Jewish Vilna had. There were theaters, cabarets, the symphony, art exhibits, a library, public lectures, and underground schools for both children and adults.
Vilna Jews saw art, music, literature and the pursuit of knowledge as a form of resistance. As Jacob Gens, head of the “ghetto’s Judenrat, put it, cultural activity gave a person “the opportunity to free himself from the ghetto for a few hours … We are passing through dark and difficult days. Our bodies are in the ghetto, but our spirit has not been enslaved.”
Reality intruded, however, and in the final analysis the Vilna Jews were doomed to extinction.
Yitskhok’s final diary entry was dated April 7, 1943, two days after five thousand Vilna Jews had been rounded up and shot at Ponary. He was understandably in a very grim mood. His prophetic last line was, “We may be fated for the worst.”
On September 23, 1943, the Nazis began the final liquidation of the Vilna Ghetto, which had by then been reduced to about 10,000 people. After a selection, those who could work were sent off to labor camps in Estonia and Latvia, where almost all of them died due to the brutal conditions there.
Children, the elderly, and the sick were shot at Ponary or sent to the extermination camp Sobibor and gassed.
Yitskhok, his parents and his uncle’s family chose to go into hiding rather than take their chances at the selection. In hiding he sank into apathy and said very little. After about two weeks in the hideout, they were discovered and taken to their deaths.
The only surviving member of Yitskhok’s family was his teenage cousin, Sarah “Sore” Voloshin. Somewhere on the route to Ponary she was able to escape. She joined a partisan group in the forest and survived until the Red Army liberated the area in the summer of 1944. After the war was over, she returned to the family’s hiding place and found Yitskhok’s diary. As of 2010, Sore Voloshin was still alive in Israel.
And the diary she retrieved had become one of the major sources on day-to-day life in the Vilna Ghetto.
Yitskhok Rudashevski suffered and died in just the same way as hundreds of thousands of others, but unlike them he did not remain anonymous: he is one of the ghetto’s most famous inhabitants. His writings have been published in their original Yiddish and in Hebrew, German and English translations. Extracts of his diary can be found in several anthologies, and it’s available in its entirety under the title The Diary of the Vilna Ghetto.
Stalin was already a wanted Bolshevik revolutionary at this time, but so was Svanidze. Kato was a homebody with no known political interest, and sufficient piety to force her communist groom to say his vows in an Orthodox church. Afterwards, his priorities reasserted themselves.
While Stalin agitated, propagandized, and politicked against Menshevism in the wild oil boom city of Baku,** his pretty wife kept an empty apartment tidy and fretted the omnipresent danger of her husband’s arrest. “When he was involved, he forgot everything,” fellow-Bolshevik Mikheil Monoselidze remembered. Many revolutionaries’ wives walked similarly lonely roads.
Kato did not have to walk hers very long: she contracted a horrible stomach/bowel disease and wasted rapidly away late in 1907. Stalin’s own indifference might have been the ultimate cause, for when she was unwell the young cadre took her on a sweltering 13-hour train ride back to Tiflis that greatly worsened her condition — all so that her family could care for her, and free Stalin’s time for his plots. Kato died in Stalin’s arms, but only when he had been urgently summoned back from Baku with word that her condition had become dire.
Whatever his actions said about him as a family man, the future dictator really loved his neglected wife. He “was in such despair that his friends were worried about leaving him with his Mauser,” writes Simon Montefiore in Young Stalin.
“This creature,” [Stalin] gestured at the open coffin [at her funeral], “softened my heart of stone. She died and with her died my last warm feelings for humanity.” He placed his hand over his heart: “It’s all so desolate here, so indescribably desolate.”
At the burial, Soso’s habitual control cracked. He threw himself into the grave with the coffin. The men had to haul him out. Kato was buried — but, just then, revolutionary konspiratsia disrupted family grief. Soso noticed some Okhrana agents sidling towards the funeral. He scarpered towards the back of the graveyard and vaulted over the fence, disappearing from his own wife’s funeral — an ironic comment on his marital negligence.
For two months, Stalin vanishes from the record. “Soso sank into deep grief,” says Monoselidze. “He barely spoke and nobody dared speak to him” … “He cried like a brat, hard as he was.”
Stalin’s deep grief did not change his life’s work. If anything, he would seem in later years almost too aghast by the whole experience (and his uncharacteristic bout of sentiment) to grapple with it. He abandoned little Yakov to the Svanidzes, and would curiously dislike his son so much that he eventually permitted Yakov to die as a German POW during World War II rather than exchange prisoners for his release.
By the time of the great purges, then, being Stalin’s brother-in-law was of little help to Alexander Svanidze. It might have been an outright detriment; certainly Svanidze’s own prominence — he had served as People’s Commissar for Finances of the Georgian SSR, and found a scholarly journal in his capacity as a historian — were of a kind with Old Bolsheviks who had also attracted denunciations.
In 1937, most of the beloved Kato’s family was arrested: Alexander Svanidze, but also Alexander’s wife Maria, and opera singer, and his sister Mariko. Svanidze defiantly refused NKVD blandishments to confess to spying for Berlin to save himself, perhaps realizing that such a deal would merely sell his pride for a mess of pottage. “Such aristocratic pride!” Stalin is supposed to have tutted upon hearing the way Svanidze went to his execution still insisting he had done nothing wrong. (Svanidze’s ancestors were petty nobility.)
* There are some other dates out there for Svanidze’s execution. I’ve had difficulty identifying a primary source for any of them, but am prepared to be corrected if an alternative possibility can be strongly documented.
† Revolutionary Russia produced a number of similarly curious neologisms on birth certificates, such as “Vladlen” (crudely blending “Vladimir Lenin”), and even the outlandish “Electralampochka” (“light bulb”, inspired by the Soviet electrification campaign).
The most recent execution in the Russian Federation was that of serial killer Sergey Golovkin on this date in 1996.
Known as “The Fisher” or “The Boa”, Golovkin (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) grew up in Moscow as a shy outsider type (Russian link) with a noticeable slump and a predilection for animal cruelty, the kind of whom oblivious classmates will later say that they never saw it coming. He graduated from an agricultural academy and worked as a horse-breeding expert: people skills just weren’t his thing.
But people killing skills …
Golovkin committed his first murder in 1986,* forcing a 16-year-old boy into the woods near a north Moscow train station where he raped and strangled him and then mauled the corpse. Months later, the same treatment befell a 12-year-old whom Golovkin kidnapped from a summer camp, with even more horrible mutilations: the dead child was beheaded, emasculated and disemboweled. A third victim he killed in 1989.
But Golovkin really got going in 1990, after he bought a car and dug a garage cellar — a spot which he soon realized doubled as a dungeon. There he had the privacy for eight more homicides in the ensuing two years, each of the grisliest particulars.
One example to suffice: after having had his fill of raping, he proceeded to hang one victim to death with a makeshift noose; then, Golovkin trussed the carcass upside-down like a slab of meat, and savaged it from head to toe. Ears, nose, and genitals he sliced off, the skull prised open and the brain torched.** Golovkin even indulged a bit of experimental cannibalism on this occasion, but found he didn’t like the taste and left that particular grotesquerie out of his repertoire thereafter.
Reports and rumors of a monster at work by this time drew the attention of a police force that had been notoriously slow to figure out how to investigate serial killers. Golovkin had his garage in (and, hence, the victims had disappeared from) the vicinity of the outlying horse-stud farm where he worked; however, his registered residence was in Moscow itself, and this discrepancy helped investigators to overlook him as a suspect for a time.
But post-Chikatilo, the police were learning fast. The investigating team was soon able to put together a profile of the killer, and link the furtive and opportunistic 1986 killings to the more methodical maniac at work in the early 1990s. Golovkin was finally arrested in October 1992 and soon confessed all — a confession scarcely required given the macabre artifacts disgorged by his homemade abattoir.
Golovkin was shot on 2 August 1996, with the traditional “single bullet to the back of the head” method. Russia at that time was in the process of implementing a moratorium on executions as part of its entrance into the Council of Europe. Though the moratorium has wavered at times, it has held ever since. Golovkin, as of writing, is the last person judicially executed on Russian soil to date. Even so, the moratorium has never quite become a full de jure abolition of the death penalty.
There the matter rests, for now. For the future, who knows? There’s no indication of a real push to restore the death penalty on the horizon, but it bears remembering that absolutist Russia actually abolished the death penalty for 22 years in the 18th century. That moratorium didn’t stick.
* Golovkin attempted a similar murder in 1984, but the 17-year-old victim whom he raped managed to escape, prompting the rattled newbie predator to lay low for a while. That boy would later testify at Golovkin’s 1993 trial.
** Golovkin worked with animals professionally, and had beyond that the human anatomical expertise appropriate to his avocation. On one occasion when he kidnapped multiple boys together, he dismembered the one in front of the other, giving a little impromptu instructional to the survivor using the viscera. Golovkin later told investigators that the (temporarily) surviving child took it all in with odd calmness.
Muscovy’s long march to supremacy among the early Russian polities reached a decisive turn on 14 July 1471 when it defeated longtime rival Novgorod at the Battle of Shelon.
Ten days after that defeat, Novgorod’s commander Dmitry Isakevich Boretsky was put to death by the will of Ivan III.
Novgorod the Great had been losing ground to its neighbor for generations. Matters came in the end to the “Mayoress” Marfa Boretskaya, the widow of Novgorod’s former mayor (posadnik) Isaac Boretsky; she emerged in the 1460s as the charismatic leader of the hardline anti-Muscovite types.
Struggling to find a political foothold upon which to resist burgeoning Moscow, Marfa Boretskaya intrigued with the friendly — and similarly Muscophobic — Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. This drew Ivan III into what would prove to be the decisive military showdown between these venerable cities.
Marfa’s son Dmitry, our date’s unfortunate executed, would have stood to garner the glory of it had he prevailed.
Bummer: Klavdy Lebedev‘s 1889 panorama of Marfa Boretskaya surveying the destruction of Novgorod.
Marfa Boretskaya was not put to death herself, but taken prisoner to Moscow upon Novgorod’s formal annexation in 1478 and socked away in a convent.
This speech inaugurated some of the darkest days of the Cold War … but they were probably even worse for Oleg Penkovsky, who was arrested just hours before Kennedy delivered it. He might have been shopped by a U.S. intelligence mole working for Moscow.
Penkovsky and his British contact, businessman Greville Wynne, faced a public show trial in May 1963 — resulting in the spy’s prompt execution. (Wynne got a prison sentence, and was later exchanged back to the West for Portland Spy Ring principal Gordon Lonsdale.)
As befits the shadow world of espionage, Penkovsky’s activities and motivations are still disputed to this day. While some consider him among the most valuable/damaging spies in the Cold War, former MI5 officer Peter Wright claimed that Penkovsky was a loyal Moscow agent all along actually trafficking disinformation — and that he was not executed at all but cashiered to a comfortable secret retirement after his show trial “condemnation.”
We’ve touched in these pages — one of our earliest posts, in fact — on Soviet war heroine Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya, a teenager executed by the advancing German army in November 1941 for conducting partisan attacks behind enemy lines.
Zoya’s story became known after the Red Army recaptured village of Petrishchevo, where she was hanged. A January 27, 1942 Pravda article recounted the gallows defiance of the young guerrilla, whom villagers knew only by her nom de guerre, “Tanya”. She had withstood German torture, refused to give them any information, and at her hanging incited her countrymen and -women to resist the invaders. She’s still to this day a beloved national martyr in Russia.
Zoya’s instant Joan of Arc-like legend invited investigation of the precise circumstances of her capture and death … and this in turn meant extremely dangerous scrutiny for any Soviet citizen in her environs whose behavior in those last days could be held to be in any way sub-heroic.
This brings us to today’s unfortunate entry, Vasily Klubkov, a humble mail-sorter before the war whose picture belongs in the dictionary next to “poor luckless sod.” Just him, Zoya, and everyone else on the terrible Eastern Front.
It was on this date* in 1942 that Klubkov paid the penalty for Zoya’s sacrifice.
Vasily Klubkov and Boris Krainov were other partisans who had been detailed along with Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya to torch some enemy assets on the same mission around Petrishchevo. Practically children all, they each acted independently from the others; long story short, Zoya and Vasily Klubkov were both captured.
Zoya fiercely endured every torture the Germans could throw at her, but Klubkov was made of softer stuff. When an officer pointed a gun at his head and demanded some answers, Klubkov started talking.
“I was a coward,” he later admitted. “I was scared I would be shot.”
Now, this admission very much against his own safety was made to the NKVD in March 1942, and since we already know that Vasily Klubkov was the sort to fold under torture, we can well imagine that the NKVD also got whatever it wanted out of the misfortunate young man. Considering the politicized quality of the trial and the circumstances of the “confession,” it has to be treated with caveats.
Under NKVD pressure, Klubkov signed off on a version of events that just so happened to mesh beautifully with the iconography already forming around the hanged “Tanya”: namely, that he was brought face-to-face with his fellow-prisoner and confirmed her identity, whereas she refused to breathe a word to her captors; that he saw her stripped naked and bashed with truncheons for hours and still summon the fortitude to refuse her interrogators the least satisfaction. Pavel Klubkov gave posterity firsthand evidence of Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya’s heroism in captivity.
“Klubkov may have been telling the truth, since it’s easy to imagine a terrified teenager on his first mission agreeing to his German captors’ demands,” notes Andrew Nagorski in The Greatest Battle: Stalin, Hitler, and the Desperate Struggle for Moscow That Changed the Course of World War II. “But there’s no way of knowing for sure how he really behaved, since he surely was just as terrified when he was interrogated by the NKVD. Or how much of what he said about Zoya was accurate, since the NKVD may already have been preparing the transcript with the idea of her elevation to mythic status.”
Heck, the reason the NKVD even had Klubkov to interrogate was that he escaped German custody, another big character red flag as far as the Soviets were concerned. That he escaped from the same custody that martyred Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya probably sealed his fate before he received his first pistol-whipping. NKVD records paint a kid who has already given up.
Well he might have. The verdict of the court was surely ordained from the start, but it was formally delivered on April 3: “Execution by shooting, without confiscation of property due to its absence.”
* Though there are some cites for April 3 out there, it appears that April 3 was the date of his conviction by a military tribunal and April 16 his execution date. This is a bit of a protracted delay by wartime Soviet tribunal standards, but then, Klubkov would have been a person of relevance to the state itself. The highest-ranking official who thought he could approve Klubkov’s execution without asking anyone else might have been a little further up the food chain than for your run-of-the-mill deserter.
Pavlik Morozov was one of the must well-known figures in the Soviet Union. Every Soviet schoolchild learned his name and the story of his heroic life and tragic death. On April 7, 1933, his alleged killers — his own grandparents, uncles and cousin — were executed by firing squad for his murder.
A postage stamp honoring the Moscow statue honoring little Pavlik Morozov. Many more Pavlik propaganda images are here.
The legendary Pavlik, a Russian boy who lived in the remote village of Gerasimovka in western Siberia, was a member of the Young Pioneers, a kind of Communist version of the Boy Scouts designed in indoctrinate youth into the Soviet way of thinking. When the superlatively loyal child found out his father, Trofim, was acting against the state, he denounced him to the secret police, the OGPU. (Accounts differ as to what Trofim’s misdeeds actually were; he may have hoarded grain, or sold forged documents, or both.) The result was that Trofim was sent to a labor camp, never to be heard from again.
The Morozov family, not being good Communists like he was, were furious with him for the denunciation. Soon after his father’s trial, in early September 1932, his grandparents, his uncle and his cousin murdered him while he and his eight-year-old brother Fyodor were picking berries in the woods. (Fyodor was taken out too, as he was a witness.) The boys’ bodies weren’t located for several days and it’s unclear when they actually died.
An OGPU officer, Ivan Potupchik, who was another of Pavlik’s cousins, found them. The murderers were arrested in due course, and Pavlik became a martyr and an example for every Soviet child to look up to — a Stalinist passion play, the horrid little saint of denunciation. As Soviet dissident writer Yuri Druzhnikov wrote in this article,
Indeed, it is virtually impossible for someone not born and raised in the USSR to appreciate how all-pervasive a figure Morozov was … [E]veryone in the Soviet Union, young and old alike, used to know about Pavlik Morozov. His portraits appeared in art museums, on postcards, on match-books and postage stamps. Books, films, and canvases praised his courage. In many cities, he still stands in bronze, granite, or plaster, holding high the red banner. Schools were named after him, where in special Pavlik Morozov Halls children were ceremoniously accepted into the Young Pioneers. Statuettes of the young hero were awarded to the winners of sports competitions. Ships, libraries, city streets, collective farms, and national parks were named after Pavlik Morozov.
A reconstruction of the suppressed Eisenstein film based on the Pavlik Morozov story, Bezhin Meadow. Aptly, its supposed ideological flaws got some of its own participants arrested.
The Cult of Pavlik declined significantly once World War II began and there were other youngheroes to exalt, and even more so after Stalin’s death. Still, even into the 1980s public figures praised the child as an “ideological martyr.”
The problem, as you might have guessed already, is that almost none of the accepted story about Pavlik is true. While not entirely made up, his Soviet-official biography was always thick with exaggerations, distortions and outright lies.
This Los Angeles Times article explains that Druzhnikov first got interested in Pavlik Morozov in the mid-1970s, when he attended a conference that included a discussion of “positive heroes of Soviet culture.” Pavlik was mentioned, and Druzhnikov asked just what was so positive about someone who had betrayed his own father. A few days later, he was summoned to KGB headquarters and two agents told him very firmly, “do not touch this subject.” It backfired: more curious than ever, Druzhnikov began secretly researching the case.
The book that resulted, Druzhnikov’s Informer 001: The Myth of Pavlik Morozov, was written in the early 1980s, but it was too politically sensitive for publication at the time. Instead it circulated privately among intellectuals and dissidents as Samizdat. It finally saw publication in Russian in 1988, and was then translated into English in 1993. (The full text of this book is available online for free here … in Russian.)
British historian Catriona Kelly published a second book on the subject in 2005, Comrade Pavlik: The Rise and Fall of a Soviet Boy Hero. By then, nearly all the surviving witnesses were dead. But unlike Druzhnikov, Kelly was able to obtain access to the official records of the Morozov murder trial and used them as a major resource.
These two authors got as close to the truth as one is able to get at this late date.
The Real Pavlik’s Life and Death
Pavlik Morozov’s story is sordid and mysterious as only a grand Soviet propaganda myth can be.
There really was a boy named Pavel Morozov (his name was the Russian equivalent of “Paul”) in Gerasimovka, but his nickname was Pasha or Pashka, not Pavlik. He was not ethnically Russian but of Belorussian descent on both sides of his family, as were most of the inhabitants of Gerasimovka. He could not have been member of the Pioneers, since there was no Pioneers troop where he lived.
When Yuri Druzhnikov began picking apart the Pavlik Morozov myth in the 1980s, he was able to talk to those still alive who had known the youth. In addition to the elderly villagers in Gerasimovka, he also interviewed Pavlik’s mother and his sole surviving brother, Alexei. (Another brother, Roman, was killed in World War II.)
Druzhnikov developed the following data points:
The exact date of Pavlik’s birth is unknown; his own mother didn’t remember it when asked in her old age. He was probably between twelve and fourteen at the time of his death.
The villagers of Gerasimovka who knew Pavlik and were interviewed by Druzhnikov did not remember him fondly: he was variously described as a “hoodlum,” a “rotten kid” and a “miserable wretch, a louse” who enjoyed smoking cigarettes and singing obscene songs.
Pavlik enjoyed denouncing his neighbors for breaking the rules; he “terrorized the whole village, spying on everybody.”
According to his former schoolteacher, he was almost illiterate; in fact, Druzhnikov believed he may have been slightly mentally retarded.
Pavlik’s whole family was the Russian equivalent of poor white trash. Tatiana was a mentally unstable and quarrelsome woman who was widely disliked in the village. After Trofim’s arrest, the state seized all his property and so the family went from mere penury to the brink of starvation.
Druzhnikov’s witnesses from Gerasimovka remembered Trofim Morozov’s denunciation, trial, and exile, which was central to the Pavlik-the-martyr myth. They remembered the boy testifying and said he didn’t seem to understand what was going on.
Kelly, however, examining the historical records twenty years after Druzhnikov, could find no documentary evidence of any trial — nor any proof that Pavlik had denounced his father to the OGPU or that Trofim had been convicted of political offenses and exiled.
Trofim had definitely disappeared from Gerasimovka by the time of his sons’ murders, but Kelly believes it’s entirely possible that he simply walked out of little Pavel’s life and wasn’t put in a labor camp at all. If Pavlik did in fact denounce his father, it was probably at the behest of his mother, Tatiana, and not for political reasons: Trofim had deserted the family and moved in with a mistress.
Tatiana was bitterly angry about her husband’s defection, and Pavlik, as the oldest male member of the household, was stuck with the exhausting household and farm chores his father had once performed. The family certainly did not want for points of friction … and Pavlik Morozov’s murder certainly had nothing to do with politics.
However, one of the four people put to death for the crime might actually have been involved after all.
After the Murders
The murdered boys were buried quickly, before the police even arrived to investigate. No photographs were taken, experts consulted or forensic tests performed. No doctor examined the bodies, and it isn’t even known how many wounds the victims suffered.
Within short order, however, investigators had rounded up five suspects: Pavlik’s uncles, Arseny Silin and Arseny Kulukanov; his grandparents, Sergei and Ksenia Morozov, both of whom were in their eighties; and his nineteen-year-old cousin, Danila, who lived with Sergei and Ksenia.
The only physical evidence to implicate them was a bloodstained knife and some bloody clothes found in Pavlik’s grandparents’ house. As Druzhnikov records:
The prosecution had at its disposal two pieces of material evidence that were found in the home of Sergei Morozov: the knife, which was pulled out from behind the icons during the search, and the blood-spattered trousers and shirt — though whose clothes they were, Danila’s, the grandfather’s, or someone else’s, and whose blood was on them remained unknown. The court did not demand a laboratory examination of the blood stains.
It’s worth noting here that Danila had recently slaughtered a calf for Pavlik’s mother; this would provide an alternative, innocent explanation for the bloody clothes.
During their nationally publicized show trial in November 1932, the defendants presented incriminating yet often wildly conflicting statements abut the murders, and virtually no other evidence was presented. Druzhnikov details the farcical proceedings, which lasted four days:
Witnesses for the prosecution (about ten people) … did not introduce facts but demanded that the court employ “the highest measure of social defense” — execution. In fact, there were no defense witnesses at all. At the trial there was only one defense counsel, but during one of the court sessions he stepped forward and announced to the hall that he was revolted by the conduct of his clients and refused to defend them further. After this the lawyer withdrew with a flourish, and the trial concluded without him.
Four of the five were convicted and sentenced to death for “terrorism against representatives of the Soviet Government.” Sergei, Ksenia, and Danila Morozov, and Arseny Kulukanov, were all shot in April after the inevitable rejection of their appeals. (Arseny Silin was able to produce a credible alibi and was acquitted.)
Tatiana supported the convictions and testified against the defendants. Stalin later purchased her a resort home in the Crimea, where she lived until her death in 1983.
Were They Guilty?
Druzhnikov, researching the case fifty years later, concluded that Pavlik and his brother were deliberately set up to be murdered by agents of the OGPU, who treated the murders as political and the children as martyrs, bringing righteous proletarian wrath upon a fiercely independent village which had so far successfully resisted collectivization.
“The murder,” he wrote towards the end of his book, “could only have been committed, or at least provoked, by the hands of the OGPU.”
Stalin’s regime would become famous for its terrifyingshow trials. “A show trial in the Urals,” Druzhnikov suggests, “called for a show murder.” Because, in Gerasimovka, “there really was no crime. The peasants living there were peaceful; they didn’t want to kill one another. So they needed help.”
Kelly, on the other hand, suggested that the appearance of the crime scene, with no attempt to hide the bodies by burying them or dumping them in the nearby swamp, suggests an impulsive act of violence probably committed by a local teenager or teenagers. (One wonders, however, why it took so long for searchers to find bodies supposedly lying in plain sight.)
Kelly’s best guess was that Pavlik’s cousin Danila may have actually been guilty after all, possibly acting in concert with another villager his own age, Efrem Shatrakov: Danila and Pavlik had a very nasty argument over a horse harness only a few days before Pavlik and Fyodor disappeared, and Pavlik had allegedly denounced the Shatrakov family for possessing an unlicensed gun, which was confiscated.
In fact, Danila’s statements to the authorities made reference to his fight with Pavlik about the harness, and Shatrakov actually confessed to the murders, but later retracted his statements and was let go.
In any case, as Kelly wrote, if one or more of the defendants convicted at the trial happened to be guilty, either of committing the murders or as accessories after the fact, “they most certainly did not receive a fair trial, and the corpus delicti upon which the sentence was based was without question seriously flawed.”
No matter who killed Pavlik, as Druzhnikov says, the final result is this: “It is a historical commonplace that Stalin ruthlessly converted living people into corpses. In this instance, he effected the conversion of a corpse into a living symbol.”
The only known real-life photograph of Pavlik Morozov, at center under the arrow, taken as a school class portrait by a wandering photographer in 1930.