Posts filed under 'Russia'

1246: Mikhail of Chernigov, Miracle-Worker

Add comment September 20th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1246, the Russian prince Mikhail of Chernigov was put to death by the Mongol commander Batu Khan for refusing to make an idolatrous gesture of submission.

In its time, prosperous Chernigov (or “Chernihiv” in a more Ukrainian transliteration) vied with neighboring Kiev for the the pride of place in Rus’.

But Chernigov’s time ended with Mikhail’s time, because the Mongols came crashing through the gates. The “Tatar Yoke” descended on Chernigov, and on Rus’, in the 1230s, and would not be lifted for a quarter of a millennium.

The nomadic Mongols weren’t there to commit genocide or displace the Russian civilization; they just wanted the tribute payments, thank you very much. But the local rulers the Mongols left to collect for them were selected for compliance like any good ploughman would do — and Mikhail found the yoke too disagreeable for his shoulders.

Mikhail knew full well that the Mongols were no joke. He was present at the 1223 Battle of the Kalka River, when the Rus’ principalities had caught word of a horde from the east advancing into present-day Ukraine, rode out to repel them, and lost 10,000 dead.* One of them was the previous prince of Chernigov, which is how Mikhail got the job.

Rus’ had a reprieve because this force was merely the vanguard; the Mongols had business elsewhere. Mikhail would return to the trade negotiations and regional political jockeying that made up the workaday life of a knyaz, thinking who knows what about the mysterious barbarians.

Then the Mongols returned in force.

From December 1237, they overwhelmed and sacked city after city: Ryazan, Kolomna, Moscow, and Vladimir just by March of 1238, and then dozens of cities to follow.** Some held out fiercely; some gave way quickly — but each in its turn succumbed. The “Grand Principality of Chernigov” was no more by 1239.

As the Mongols swept onwards towards Bulgaria, Poland, and Hungary,† the Mongol ruler Batu Khan (grandson of Genghis) set up a capital where the Russian princes would be made to give their ceremonial submissions. Mikhail was one of the last to do so but in 1246 to forestall the prospect of another Mongol attack, he too made the trip.

Although Mikhail consented to kowtow to the Mongol prince, he incensed his host by refusing to prostrate himself before heathen idols. For this he was slaughtered along with an equally faithful boyar named Fedor, their bodies cast into the wilds for animals and elements to devour.


Michael of Chernigov at the camp of Batu Khan, by Vasiliy Smirnov (1883)

For this sacrifice, they became honored as Christian saints and martyrs, with September 20 fixed as the “Feast of the Miracle-Workers of Chernigov” — a liturgical expression of Russian resistance to that Tatar Yoke. When Ivan the Terrible put the Tatars of Kazan and Astrakhan to rout in the 16th century, he also translated the Miracle-Workers’ relics from Chernigov to Moscow — a political expression of their national import.

* Or possibly several times that. Body counts from chroniclers are notoriously unreliable.

** It was to save itself from the Mongols that the mythical city of Kitezh is supposed to have sunk itself like Atlantis into Lake Svetloyar near Nizhny Novgorod.

† As well as points south.

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1946: Ernst Lohmeyer, theologian

Add comment September 19th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1946, the Soviets occupying East Germany executed Bible scholar Ernst Lohmeyer.

A fifty-five-year-old professor when the NKGB whisked him out of his apartment without explanation to his dumbfounded wife, Lohmeyer (English Wikipedia entry | German) was an important Protestant theologian of the interwar period with a knack for eschewing the opportunistic choice.

By refusing to disavow Jewish associates, his academic career got derailed in the 1930s, despite his producing influential critical commentary on the Gospel of Mark;* by patriotically serving in the Wehrmacht despite his reservations about the Third Reich, he set himself up to profile as an undesirable after World War II.

For a long time, Lohmeyer’s fate was, if not difficult to guess, obscure in its particulars. Not until 1957 was his execution in a forest near Hanshagen officially confirmed; he had been condemned by a military tribunal for participating in the German occupation of Sloviansk even though he wasn’t personally associated with any known atrocities.

The post-Soviet Russian state officially exonerated Lohmeyer in 1996. The University of Greifswald, where Lohmeyer was teaching when arrested, has a theology faculty building named for him.

* Lohmeyer postulated that the Gospel of Mark reflected a contemporary-to-the-evangelist (that is, post-Jesus) conflict between Christian communities in different locales, and that Mark himself was associated with Galilee’s Christians and therefore structured his narrative to exalt this location.

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1944: Three Soviet infiltrators, the last in Finland

Add comment September 3rd, 2014 Headsman

The last executions in Finland occurred on this date in 1944, claiming the lives of three Soviet spies who had been parachuted behind Finnish lines.

I have been unable to locate the names of these men. They’re invariably presented simply in connection with — or as the denouement following — the September 2 execution of Finnish deserter Olavi Laiho.

The next morning (Russian link), Finland announced its disengagement from its problematic German alliance, an arrangement brokered by the western Allies who wanted to keep Finland democratic and non-communist despite sitting in Russia’s back yard and joining the wrong team in World War II. The Soviet Union immediately redeployed its forces away from the Finnish theater; a formal armistice was signed before September was out and prisoner transfers began in October.

Finland abolished the death penalty for all peacetime crimes in 1949, for all crimes full stop in 1972, and wrote the abolition into its constitution in 2000.

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1879: Joseph Davidenko, Sergei Chubarov, and Dmitri Lizogoub

Add comment August 22nd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1879, three Russian nihilists were hanged for an attempted regicide.

Revolutionary nihilism flowered in 1870s Russia; in the words of the movement’s expatriate crier Stepniak,

In 1870 the whole of advanced Russia was anarchist … The socialists of this epoch based all their hopes upon the peasants. Thousands of young people of both sexes went upon a crusade among the peasants; the more exalted with the object of calling them to open rebellion, the more moderate with the intention of preparing the ground for future revolution by peaceful socialist propaganda. This was one of the most touching and characteristic episodes of the younger movement, when the motto “All for the people and nothing for ourselves” was the order of the day.

This socialist crusade was a complete failure. … In the course of 1873 and 1874 fifteen hundred propagandists and agitators, or their friends and supposed accomplices, were arrested in the thirty-seven provinces of the empire, and thrown into prison. Half of them were released after a few months’ detention; the rest were kept in preliminary confinement from two to four years, during which seventy-three either died or lost their reason. In 1877 one hundred ninety-three were tried and condemned to various punishments, from simple exile to ten years of hard labor in the mines of Siberia …

But theories, once adopted, do not disappear so easily. The passions spoke first; and men began to act in the right direction before they had reasoned out their action. The wanton cruelty with which political prisoners were treated, the horrors of preliminary detention, the barbarous punishment inflicted for trifling offences — all this proved unendurable even to the mild, patient Russians. The spirit of revenge was kindled, giving birth to the first attacks upon the Government, known by the name of terrorism.

We have met these passionate Russians time and again in these pages, of course. And like this group, the movement’s ne plus ultra objective was taking out the tsar himself.

The reader will have noticed that Stepniak’s leading players are elites gone to rouse the masses to rebellion rather than creatures of the masses themselves. One of the leading figures in this date’s group, Dmitri Lizogoub — many transliterations are possible: Lissogub, Lizogoob, etc. — was a wealthy nobleman; indeed, he was one of his comrades’ chief financiers. The “Saint of Nihilism” was turned in by his own steward for the opportunity to collect as his bounty the small remainder of Lizogoub’s estate. Sergei Chubarov, another nobleman, instigated the assassination plan for which they die: to greet a state visit by the much-targeted Alexander II to Nikolaev explosively.

After a dragnet of putative subversives in the wake of Soloviev‘s April 1879 assassination attempt that our batch for today was rounded up and put before a military proceeding among a group of 28 terrorists. Others received terms of prison or Siberian exile; Lizogoub, Chubarov, and a Black Sea fleet deserter named Joseph Davidenko publicly hanged together at the Odessa race-course. Two others of their circle, Wittenberg and Lobovenko, were executed in the subsequent days at Nikolaev.

This particular conspiracy was detected in time, but conspiracies in general did not abate in the wake of harsh punishment: if anything, dreams of tyrannicide redoubled. Given the sheer volume of plots against the Autocrat of All the Russias, one, inevitably, finally got through.

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1938: Janis Berzins, Soviet military intelligence chief

Add comment July 29th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1938, the Soviet intelligence agent Janis Berzin(s) was shot in the basement of Moscow’s Lubyanka Prison.

A Latvian radical back to Riga’s chapter of the 1905 revolution,* Berzins became a trusted associate of Lenin in exile, and transitioned with the 1917 Revolution into a variety of political-security-military leadership positions in the new Soviet state.

For most of the 1924-1937 period, Berzins directed — indeed, practically createdSoviet military intelligence. He’s credited with personally recruiting the legendary World War II spy Richard Sorge; in 1936-1937 he was the chief Soviet military advisor in the Spanish Civil War under the nom de guerre “Grishin”. Russians fighting in Spain just referred to him as “the old man.” (Source)

Of course, no degree of seniority was sufficient safety during the frightful purging years of the Yezhovshchina. Once back in Moscow, Berzins fell instantly, almost randomly, over a spurious accusation of internal espionage.

His conviction was reversed after Stalin died.

* But not one of the Latvian revolutionaries who ended up in a shootout with London police.

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1938: Vladimir Kirshon, Bulgakov antagonist

Add comment July 28th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1938, Soviet playwright Vladimir Kirshon was shot at the Kommunarka “special object” shooting range outside Moscow.

Kirshon (English Wikipedia entry | Russian), purged as a “Trotskyist counter-revolutionary” as one might assume from the date and place. And like many peers in those terrible years, it was Kirshon’s to suffer the martyr’s fate without the merit of the martyr’s service.

In his day — which ran up to the spring 1937 fall of his patron, NKVD chief Genrikh Yagoda — Kirshon had distinguished himself with servility.

In his capacity as a Soviet writer’s guild bigwig, the ideologically rigorous Kirshon had been a point man in the depressing 1929-1932 campaign against the early Soviet Union’s rich literary heterodoxy. (Sample slogan: “For the hegemony of Proletarian literature! Liquidate backwardness!”)

This chilly period drove dystopian novelist Yevgeny Zamyatin to exile, and futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky to suicide.* The novelist and playwright Mikhail Bulgakov, a writer whose manuscripts from the furnace of Stalinism were forged for immortality, was also long harried by Kirshon. Kirshon’s pull nearly ruined Bulgakov’s career at what should have been its peak.

Bulgakov returned the contempt of his persecutor from a position of considerable literary superiority. Kirshon’s own work tended to the glorification of doctrinaire communism — he produced a verse celebrating the Civil War’s martyred 26 Baku commissars; Bulgakov has on his c.v. perhaps the signal achievement of 20th century Russian letters, The Master and Margarita. Little wonder to find Bulgakov complaining in private correspondence of the waste Kirshon has made of a trip to Europe, churning out the sort of tendentious and formulaic Soviet-man-abroad literature that any loyal commissar could have written without setting foot from Moscow. But despite the very real injuries Kirshon had done to him, Bulgakov found the baying denunciation theater so distasteful that he declined to say a public word against Kirshon when the latter fell.

The diary of Bulgakov’s wife Elena is not quite so diplomatic.

21 April 1937

A rumour that Kirshon and [Alexander] Afinogenov are in trouble. They say that [Leopold] Averbakh has been arrested. Is it possible that Nemesis has been visited upon Kirshon?

23 April 1937

Yes, Nemesis has come. There are very bad stories in the press about Kirshon and Afinogenov.

(These entries, quoted via J.A.E. Curtis’s Manuscripts Don’t Burn: Michael Bulgakov: a Life in Letters and Diaries, refer only to Kirshon’s professional fall. He was not arrested until that August.)

Kirshon was posthumously rehabilitated in the Khrushchev era and some of his work has even been performed in post-Communist Russia. But according to this Russian-language Bulgakov trove, that old foe made perhaps Kirshon’s lasting literary monument by using him as the model for the character Polievkt Eduardovich in Bulgakov’s short story “It Was May” (Russian link): it’s a story about a foppish critic who returns from abroad with specious critiques that force the narrator to ruin his own play by diverting the story to the arrest and purging of its principal character.

Thanks to friend of the blog Sonechka for translation and background.

* Mayakovsky shot himself at age 37; there’s also a popular hypothesis that he did this to check out at the same age as Pushkin.

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1902: Hirsh Lekert, Jewish assassin

Add comment June 10th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1902, the Jewish socialist Hirsh Lekert was hanged in Vilna (Vilnius) for his attempt on that city’s governor.

The 22-year-old shoemaker, active in the Bund since childhood, was aggrieved along with many others by repressive measures taken against that leftist council by Vilna governor Victor von Wahl — culminating with the calculated humiliation he inflicted by personally overseeing the flogging of 20 Jews and 6 Poles arrested at a May Day demonstration.

As was the style at the time, Lekert took some retaliatory potshots at the municipal dictator on May 18, 1902. He scored a couple of flesh wounds before the police on hand beat him all to hell.

And that was pretty well that. Lekert got sent to face a military tribunal with a foreordained result. But he made his bones with posterity by refusing to apologize and instead fearlessly vindicating his action as a defense of the Jewish worker’s dignity.

This carried his legend in the early 20th century Jewish community much further than one might assume.

For Jewish Workers Bund, “the first great attempt at the organization of the Jewish masses for secular and independent political activity,”* Lekert’s uncompromising embrace of revolutionary violence created an internal controversy: radical workers saw a martyred hero; elites, and the Bund officially, were much more wary of terrorism provoking official backlash in an empire where Jewish communities were still liable to be targeted by pogroms at any time. All this during a renaissance of cultural and political thought among Eastern European Jewry.

Even decades later, the esteem remaining Lekert from his sacrifice gave his name power. Another generation of Jewish terrorists — in Mandate Palestine — was incensed at the British for flogging some Irgun members, leading Menachem Begin to invoke Lekert as his justification for kidnapping several British soldiers and flogging them. (Source) The British had no stomach for this, and desisted with floggings.

Artistic tributes followed as well — folk songs; plays by Arn Kushnirov and H. Leyvik; the bust that illustrates this post; a monument in Soviet Minsk; even this appearance in a 1927 silent film called His Excellency:

And from the hellish Vilna Ghetto under Nazi occupation, the great poet of the Holocaust Abraham Sutzkever depicted his “Teacher Mira” trying to keep her students’ heads up by reminding them of the Vilna cobbler who fought back.

Her skin, a windowpane in stains of dusk,
Mira must not reveal the darkness thus.
She bites her lip, of courage she will tell:
About Hirsh Lekert, how he fought and fell.

* Koppel Pinson, “Arkady Kremer, Vladimir Medem, and the Ideology of the Jewish ‘Bund'”, Jewish Social Studies July 1945.

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1864: Nikolay Chernyshevsky’s “civil execution”

Add comment May 19th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1864, the Russian writer Nikolay Chernyshevsky was publicly executed in St. Petersburg.

Then he was shipped to Siberia.

Chernyshevsky’s punishment was only a pantomime “civil execution,” somewhat akin to the symbolic executions by effigy elsewhere in Europe. In this case, the faux death penalty was imposed not upon a peeling portrait but on Chernyshevsky’s actual person: “The hangmen led Chernyshevsky to the scaffold on Mytninskaya Square in St. Petersburg, made him kneel down, broke a sword over his head and then chained him to the pillory. Chernyshevsky stood calmly under the rain waiting for this mockery to come to an end.” (Source)

The pillory, exposed to the hoots and brickbats of an offended populace, was supposed to be a humiliation to its sufferer; occasionally, it even proved lethal. Not so for Chernyshevsky: the crowd stood silently. Someone threw a bouquet of flowers.

This ludicrous theater was enacted to punish Chernyshevsky for his leadership of the St. Petersburg intellectual circle that gave birth to the Narodnik movement. Literally “going to the people,” this was a peasant-focused populist-democratic-socialist philosophy paradoxically germinated among Russia’s small coterie of intellectual elites.

Think Marxism for a feudal society here: the Narodnik adaptation was the hope that Russia’s vast peasantry could be roused to serve the part of a revolutionary working class, and skip Russia directly to a socialism still preserving communal traditions unsullied by that interim period wherein (per Marx in the Communist Manifesto) capitalism had “pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties … [and] left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest.”

This is why Chernyshevsky and the Narodniks viewed the “emancipation” of serfs of 1861 with a gimlet eye: it was a shift towards capitalist property relations, in which the feudal shackles were merely replaced with new, and heavier irons. Chernyshevsky subversively urged his “emancipated” countrymen to view the move as a heist.

It is of course unlikely that many of the actual peasant malcontents stirred up in the wake of the emancipation perused Chernyshevsky’s “To the Manorial Peasants from Their Well-Wishers, Greetings”. But other bourgeois radicals who did read that sort of thing would in due time — after the suppression of the Narodniki in the 1860s and 1870s drove its underground remnants to terrorism — spawn the revolutionary network Narodnaya Volya, and assassinate the tsar who enacted that emancipation, Alexander II.

Chernyshevsky was more a writer than a fighter. He spent his pre-“execution” imprisonment in Peter and Paul Fortress forging his definitive contribution to the movement — the novel What Is To Be Done?.*

(Our own Sonechka regards What Is To Be Done? as quite possibly Russia’s single worst literary product, but the didactic novel imagined (in the dreams of its principal character, Vera Pavlovna) an egalitarian future, including for women. Chernyshevsky himself wrote that he “possess[ed] not one bit of artistic talent … any merit to be found in my tale is due entirely to its truthfulness.”)

Whatever its artistic shortcomings, What Is To Be Done? entered the revolutionary literary canon. Vladmir Ilyich Ulyanov — better known as Lenin — wasn’t even born until 1870 but as a young man he admired What Is To Be Done? In 1902 Lenin himself published a political pamphlet under that same title.

Far less impressed was the likes of Dostoyevsky, himself a former radical who also underwent mock execution in his time. Unlike Chernyshevsky, Dostoyevsky apostasized from his revolutionary credo; Dostoyevsky’s 1864 Notes from the Underground is “a bitter artistic answer” to (and in several spots a direct parody of) Chernyshevsky’s magnum opus.

* What Is To Be Done? responds to Turgenev‘s Fathers And Sons. A previous Narodnik classic by Alexander Herzen asked the paralle question Who Is To Blame?.

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1905: An unknown spy in the Russo-Japanese War

Add comment March 18th, 2014 Headsman

In the late 1890s and early 1900s, Russia’s imperial ambitions in the east drew it inexorably towards conflict with Japan. This was the period when Russia began constructing the continent-spanning Trans-Siberian Railway linking Moscow to the Pacific port of Vladivostok.

Russian troops came right along with the rails.

On the pretext of protecting its construction gangs, Russian troops occupied Manchuria — and the weakened Chinese Qing dynasy couldn’t do much about it.

But the Japanese could.

Manchuria and Korea (which Russia’s presence also threatened) Tokyo conceived as her sphere of influence. The rising hegemon in East Asia would serve notice in the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War that it had now to be reckoned among the world’s great powers.

The decisive land battle in this conflict was the Battle of Mukden, February 20 through March 10, 1905 — a gigantic engagement involving more than 600,000 troops.

In it, Japan cleaned the Russian clock.

The defeat sent a shattered Russian army on a disordered retreat north, to the city of Tieling. The Japanese followed in hot pursuit, so defensive regrouping became impossible and within a couple of days the Russians abandoned Tieling, too.

We are everywhere driving the Russians before us to Kaiyuan,” gloated an official Japanese telegram of Thursday, March 16.

The underwhelming Russian general Aleksey Kuropatkin was there just long enough to get word that Moscow had relieved him of command. By Saturday, March 18, Kaiyuan too was in Japanese hands.*

So it was likely on or about this date in 1905 that a handful of those Japanese forces harrying the Russian flight paused on the outskirts of Kaiyuan to behead an alleged spy.

If this individual’s name is known, I have not been able to locate it — but small wonder. In the charnel house of Russia’s catastrophic defeat, the dead were too numerous to bury.

After Mukden, there would not be many more. It was the last major land battle, and after Japan followed it up with a crushing naval victory that May, hostilities came to a close.


“On the Hills of Manchuria”, a mournful 1906 waltz by Ilya Shatrov.

* The pursuit didn’t last much longer; Japanese forces were themselves too battered and exhausted from the Battle of Mukden.

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1942: Senitsa Vershovsky, Mayor of Kremenchuk

1 comment January 16th, 2014 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1942, Senitsa Vershovsky was shot in the city of Kremenchuk in the Soviet Union, in what is now the Ukraine.

Vershovsky was the mayor of Kremenchuk and was also a major in the Red Army. His executioners were members of Einsatzgruppe A, one of Nazi Germany’s mobile killing squads: they killed Vershovsky for “carry[ing] out his duties in gross defiance of German orders … [and] sabotaging the handling of the Jewish problem by having a great number of Jews baptized in order to remove them from German control.”

Approximately 30,000 Jews lived in Kremenchuk, constituting 40% of the city’s population and they had good cause to remove themselves as far as possible from German control. The Einsatzgruppen, as they did in countless other cities throughout the Soviet Union, rounded up the Jewish population, forced them to dig their own graves, and machine-gunned them by the thousands.

Vershovsky’s attempts to help the Jews under his charge, futile though his efforts may have been, nevertheless deserve a footnote in history. For, as historian Raul Hilberg noted, in all the situation reports filed by the Einsatzgruppen during their 22 months of operation,

This incident appears to be the only one of its kind. The counterpressure was evidently too great. Whoever attempted to aid the Jews acted alone and exposed himself as well as his family to the possibility of a death sentence from a German Kommando. There was no encouragement for a man with an awakened conscience.

In a time of great adversity, Senitsa Vershovsky showed himself to be a courageous and fundamentally decent human being, and he paid for it with his life. The least we can do is remember him.

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