Surprising the undefended sovereign on the latter’s morning constitutional near Winter Palace, Soloviev couldn’t connect with his revolver from four meters’ distance. As Alexander fled, Soloviev gave chase, firing four more times in the process to no effect before the gathering crowd wrestled him to the cobblestones.
Soloviev admitted the crime — the admission was hardly necessary — and hanged before a crowd of 70,000 souls. Despite the ensuing police crackdown on subversives (resulting in still more executions), many of those 70,000 surely numbered among the gawkers two years later for the hanging of the Narodnaya Volya terrorists who at last successfully assassinated Alexander.
* May 28 was the local (Julian calendar) date for the execution; by the Gregorian calendar prevailing outside Russia, it was June 9.
He fought in several battles, and a 40-man mounted unit he had personally raised was in the field until the end of 1864 — well after Russia had quelled most other resistance.
Finally cornered in April 1865 and captured in a gunfight, he was executed before a crowd of thousands. Later generations, with an independent Poland to call their own, have garlanded Brzoska’s memory with various markers and statues.
Polish speakers might enjoy this presentation of the hero-priest’s life:
On or about this date in 1929, Russian railway magnate Nikolaus (Nikolai) Karlovich von Meck was shot as a saboteur.
Von Meck (Russian link) had the iron horse in his blood: his father Karl was among Russia’s first railroad-builders after the Crimean War clock-cleaning motivated the tsar to make with the modernizing.
While von Meck pere was busy laying crossties in the 1860s, the St. Petersburg Conservatory was germinating the young composer Tchaikovsky. In time, the two men would be linked by the union of their kin: our man Nikolaus Karlovich von Meck married Tchaikovsky’s niece, Anna.
It wasn’t just a glancing association with the musical colossus for the von Mecks. Karl’s widow — Nikolaus’s mother — Nadezhda was Tchaikovsky’s main financial patron for 13 years. They weren’t lovers: Tchaikovsky was gay, and the reclusive Nadezhda von Meck demanded as a condition of her patronage that they never meet. But they kept up a voluminous correspondence, and Tchaikovsksy dedicated several works to her — like this Sympohony No. 4 in F minor.
So Nikolaus von Meck was the genius’s patron’s son as well as the genius’s niece’s husband.
He was also a brilliant engineer and entrepreneur in his own right; over the 26 years preceding the Russian Revolution, he chaired the Moscow-Kazan Railway firm that his father had begun back in the 1860s. Under the son’s leadership its rail-mileage multiplied more than tenfold. He was also one of Russia’s first motorists.
Von Meck remained in Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution, continuing to work on developing the now-Soviet state’s rail infrastructure — his means reduced, he remained no less the conscientious and patriotic artificer. That held even after the man was arrested as a counter-revolutionary a few different times in the revolution’s early years; each time he was soon released.
Ostensibly designed to target the saboteurs that were supposedly retarding economic growth, it would prove its utility in the frightful years ahead as a first-rate instrument of the Terror. The prospect that any economic setback, inefficiency or controversy could be lethally attributed to a cabal of global capitalists intent on strangling communism in the crib made “wrecking” as flexible and as devastating a charge as witchcraft had once been. How do you even begin to rebut that? Wrecking would in time be attributed to innumerable purge victims, great and small, and an implied whip against every worker who might be slacking on his production quota.
This potent juridical apparatus went for its first spin in the North Caucuses city of Shakhty in 1928-29. The Shakhty Trial of 53 engineers and technicians as “wreckers” also has the distinction of being Stalin’s first show trial. Von Meck and four other men* were condemned to die, a comparatively modest harvest of blood next to what was to come; 44 others went to prison.
“What accomplished villains these old engineers were! What diabolical ways to sabotage they found!” Solzhenitsyn mused of those luckless soulsin The Gulag Archipelago.
Nikolai Karlovich von Meck of the People’s Commissariat of Railroads, pretended to be terribly devoted to the development of the new economy, and would hold forth for hours on end about the economic problems involved in the construction of socialism, and he loved to give advice. One such pernicious piece of advice was to increase the size of freight trains and not worry about heavier than average loads. The GPU [forerunner of the NKVD, which in turn became the KGB -ed.] exposed von Meck, and he was shot: his objective had been to wear out rails and roadbeds, freight cars and locomotives, so as to leave the Republic without railroads in case of foreign military intervention! When, not long afterward, the new People’s Commissar of Railroads, Comrade Kaganovich, ordered that average loads should be increased, and even doubled and tripled them (and for this discovery received the Order of Lenin along with others of our leaders) — the malicious engineers who protested became known as limiters. They raised the outcry that this was too much, and would result in the breakdown of the rolling stock, and they were rightly shot for their lack of faith in the possibilities of socialist transport.
By the 1630s, Russia had her shit back together under the first Romanov tsar, and when the Polish king died in 1632 saw an opportunity to return stripe for stripe on its opportunistic neighbor.
This was the Smolensk War, so named because the recapture of that city was its primary objective. Shein, the respected elder military statesman who had lost Smolensk to a Polish siege twenty-odd years before, was just the man to lead the campaign.
The span of time tested by the 1632-1633 Russian siege was not merely that measured by the larder of Smolensk’s vastly outnumbered garrison — but that of Poland-Lithuania’s unwieldy succession process. Although the successor king was self-evident, the span required for his actual election left a six-month interregnum: nothing compared to the Time of Troubles, but perhaps enough for a frontier reversal.
But as it happened, Shein could not force Smolensk’s capitulation in 1633 and by the latter half of that year a superior Polish army was arriving. By October of 1633, a year after the Russians had begun hostilities, not only was the siege of Smolensk broken, but the Russian camp itself was encircled by the Poles. Having no prospect of a relief force such had just delivered his enemies, Shein could not hold out for even a single Friedman Unit and soon surrendered. He received liberal terms: the Russians had to abandon their artillery, but Shein’s army returned to Moscow unharmed, with its standards.
The Surrender of the Russian Garrison of Smolensk before Vladislaus IV Vasa of Poland, by an unknown Polish artist (c. 1634)
Having seen their jolly war of choice come to such a humilitating pass, the Moscow boyars received their defeated commander in a rage. A tribunal vengefully condemned Shein, his second-in-command Artemii Vasilevich Izmailov, and Izmailov’s son Vasili, to death for treason and incompetence in command.
In even the most slightly longer term, the debacle proved to be only a minor strategic setback. Poland was unable to follow up its victory with any inroads on Russian soil. That June, the two belligerents came to a peace restoring the status quo ante bellum — and they managed to pass a whole generation before they fought again.
A peasant revolutionary from the European frontiers of tsarism, Kalinouski is a present-day independence hero for Poland, Belarus, and Lithuania. (His name is variously rendered Konstanty Kalinowski, Kastus Kalinouski, and Konstantinas Kalinauskas for those respective homelands.)
Dissatisfaction with membership in this adoptive empire progressed differently among different demographics of the old Commonwealth, but it really blossomed in the wreckage of the 1850s Crimean War. Chastened after being drubbed by an industrial power, Russia finally emancipated her serfs — but the emancipation proved to bear as much confiscation as liberation, to the chagrin of the emancipatees.
In Poland, Belarus, and Lithuania, peasant anger at the raw deal dovetailed nicely with stirring national sentiment. Kalinouski, a young barrister, launched the flagship (clandestine) publication for that audience, Muzyckaja Prauda (Peasant’s Truth). It was one of the first periodicals published in Belarusian, and it was not calculated to reconcile his countrymen to Moscow.
Six years have passed since the peasants’ freedom began to be talked about. They have talked, discussed, and written a great deal, but they have done nothing. And this manifesto which the tsar, together with the Senate and the landlords, has written for us, is so stupid that the devil only knows what it resembles-there is no truth in it, there is no benefit whatsoever in it for us.
-From the first issue of Peasant’s Truth
Kalinouski’s literary adventures mirrored a prominent role among the leadership of the January Uprising to throw off the Romanov yoke.
But it proved to be the case that, although scrapping with Great Britain might be one thing, the Russian army was more than a match for her internal foes. It crushed the January Uprising.
In prison awaiting execution, Kalinouski bequeathed one last literary vindication, his Letters from Beneath the Gallows.
Friends, my brothers!
From under the Russian gallows I am writing to you for the last time. It is sad to leave my native land and you, my dear people. My breast sighs and my heart is sore, but it is not a sad lot to perish for your truth. Hear my last words in sincerity, my people, for it is as if they were written from this world only for your good … as day and night do not reign together, so also true learning does not go together with Russian slavery. As long as this lies over us, we shall have nothing. There will be no truth, no riches, no learning. They will only drive us like cattle not to our well-being, but to our perdition.
… go and fight with the whole people for your human and national rights, for your faith, for your native land. For I say to you from beneath the gallows, my people, you will only then live happily, when no Russian remains over you! (Source)
A plaque in Vilnius marks the spot of Kastus Kalinouski’s execution on 22 March 1864 (10 March by the Julian calendar).
On this date in 1942, German troops in Russia’s Pskov Oblast summarily executed 83-year-old peasant Matvey Kuzmin for leading them into an ambush.
World War II’s real-life Ivan Susanin was conscripted as a guide for the occupying Wehrmacht intending to approach a Soviet position at the village of Makino.
Kuzmin cunningly sent his son ahead to Malkino to alert his countrymen of the attack while guiding the Germans circuitously. By the time Kuzmin et al reached the outskirts, a Soviet ambush was waiting for them.
An enraged German officer shot Kuzmin during the ensuing firefight.
On this date in 1691, Russian Orthodox priest Sylvester Medvedev was beheaded on Red Square.
Medvedev was a protege of the great progressive clergyman, poet, and educator Symeon of Polotsk, one of the intellectual champions of the reforming faction of Orthodoxy’s Great Schism.
The Schism in question was the widespread disaffection of the faithful (now known as “Old Believers”) for changes dictated from on high whose effect was to centralize the Russian Orthodox church and to alter its services.
The Patriarch of Moscow had underaken to revise the liturgy, the prayer-books, and the church services in Russian Orthodoxy in order to bring them in line (so he said) with their proper Greek antecedents. It provoked a furious reaction by Russian traditionalists. Perhaps the most vividly symbolic flashpoint of the Schism was the simple-seeming distinction between making the sign of the cross with three fingers (as the Patriarch demanded), or with two. It was all down to what Nikon said was a mistranslation of the original Greek when the rite had first been established hundreds of years before.
That reform and others were enforced, and opposed, violently: floggings, executions, and desecrations of now-outlaw icons were met by Old Believers willing to mutilate their own hands, or kill themselves, or go to the stake rather than bend. Some 20,000 people are said to have self-immolated in resistance.
“Come, Orthodox People,” thundered Protopope and soon-to-be Old Believer martyr Avvakum Petrov. “Suffer tortures for the two-finger sign of the cross … Although I have not much understanding I am not a learned man yet I know that the Church which we have received from our Holy Fathers is pure and sacred. As it came to me, so shall I uphold my faith until the end.”
Boyarina Feodosia Morozova concurred with Avvakum Petrov (who was her confessor): in this famous painting of her by Vasily Surikov, she makes a defiant two-fingered blessing to onlookers as she the authorities drag her away.
Peter, of course, was not yet “the Great”: he was just a vulnerable kid with a potential legitimacy problem. As one consequence, his mother, Natalyz Naryshkina, was able to dictate the appointment of a very conservative patriarch when that post opened in 1690.
That man, Adrian, would be the last Moscow patriarch until the Bolshevik Revolution in large measure due to his conflicts with the grown Peter over the latter’s blasphemously western orientation.
Adrian was no Old Believer but he bitterly opposed Peter’s attempts to get Russians to dress like Europeans and shave off their beards. And given the ferocity of religious feeling when the stakes are a matter of a single finger, it will go without saying that an inveterate liberalizer like Sylvester Medvedev would have no purchase with the patriarch.
This is indeed a strange interim in Russian history; Russian’s great westernizing and secularizing autocrat has reached the throne but with him ascends, just for a moment, the staunchest conservatives ecclesiastics.
What was Medvedev up to that got the new patriarch in a twist? If you liked the three-finger thing, you’ll love this: Medvedev maintained that the transubstantiation/metousiosis of ceremonial bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ was accomplished during liturgy by the Words of Institution (“Take, eat, this is my body …”), which was also the Catholic perspective — in contrast to the orthodox Orthodox position that this was achieved by the Epiclesis invoking the Holy Spirit.
His real crime might well have been to align himself politically with the lately deposed Sophia, for Medvedev inherited his mentor’s place as court poet and education paladin when Symeon of Polotsk died in 1680. Sycophantish verse like this, written in Medvedev’s unuccessful attempt to gain leadership of an academy to promulgate western learning, can’t have done him any favors in the end:
You have been given the name of wisdom,
For Sophia was named wisdom by God.
It befits you to begin the sciences,
To pursue them, most wise one!
In response, some 100 local teens banded together into an anti-fascist underground — the Molodaya Gvardiya, or Young Guard. (English Wikipedia entry) | Russian) Most of their number would give their lives in resistance.
During the few months of occupation, the Young Guards managed an impressive record of sabotage operations and propaganda coups. It busted 90 people out of the Germans’ concentration camp, and got the hammer and sickle hung up on government buildings to mark the silver anniversary of Red October. In December, the Young Guards managed to destroy the labor bureau (and its list of intended conscripts) on the eve of a planned deportation, sparing 2,000 people that dreadful fate.
The Germans finally got their hooks into the Young Guards and started mass arrests at the start of January. They brought in most of the Young Guards for torture and execution — smashing up the organization in their very last weeks in town.
The five put to death this date were the last of those martyrs, and the more tragic in that the occupiers were even then gearing up to evacuate as the Red Army closed in. (The Soviets took the city on February 15.) They were:
Oleg Koshevoy’s interrogation. Image from MolodGuard.ru’s stupendous images collection.
In September 1943, three Soviet citizens were publicly executed in the liberated city on charges of having aided the Germans in suppressing the Young Guards.
The Young Guards’ youth and intrepidity made them extremely congenial to the Soviets’ wartime demand for martyrs. At the urging of his Ukrainian deputy Nikita Khrushchev — who himself hailed from the Donbass — Stalin approved a number of the Young Guards (including this date’s Koshevoy and Shevtsova) as Heroes of the Soviet Union.
The Guards valorized in a 1945 novel, and then a 1948 film based on that novel. (Russian links, both.)
They’ve featured in postage stamps, public artwork, and every manner of patriotic commemoration ever since. They’ve even come in for a bit of post-Soviet “ownership” conflict (over the Guards’ degree of Communist Party affiliation) between Ukraine’s Russian- and Soviet-leaning east and the nationalist-sympathizing west.
Today the “Molodaya Gvardiya” brand might be most immediately recognizable as a youth organ of Vladimir Putin’s party — no connection to the young partisans, of course.
* Not to be confused with the Russian city of Krasnodar.
On this date in 1944, Soviet partisan Zinaida Portnova was executed by the Germans occupying Belarus.
The youngest-ever female Hero of the Soviet Union (she was posthumously decorated in 1958), the Leningrad-born Portnova had a rude start in insurgency when the German blitz swept past her summer camp in Belarus and trapped her behind lines.
Said to have been radicalized when occupying soldiers struck her grandmother, the girl joined the youth arm of the local resistance, dubbed the “Young Avengers”.
From surveilling enemy troop deployments and assembling weapons caches, Zinaida Portnova graduated to sabotage and ambushes … and capture. Even then she pulled off an action hero escape by snatching a gun and shooting her way out of custody, only to be re-arrested shortly thereafter.