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.
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.
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.
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 thestyleatthetime, 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:
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.
(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.
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.
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.
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.
On this date in 1690, the Russian stolnik (an administrative office in the Russian court) Andrei Ilyich Bezobrazov was put to death with the magicians he allegedly contracted to bewitch Tsar Peter the Great.
Whatever its other sins, Russia enjoys a reputation for having largely steered clear of the frightful witch-hunts that broke out elsewhere in Europe. Certainly tsars issued many decrees against witchcraft and even prescribed the death penalty in law. But unlike courts in western Europe, Russia does not seem ever to have folded the entire swath of extra-Christian folk beliefs and everyday peasant “magic” together into a juridical theory of omnipresent diabolical terrorism stretching from the neighborhood midwife to the Prince of Darkness himself. Perhaps for that reason, its historical record of witch persecutions presents fewer and more scattered data points.
Elites, write Valerie Kivelson and Jonathan Shaheen,* “demonstrated no interest in formulating a systematized or theorized framework for explaining the uncanny power of magic [and] they also made no effort in their courtrooms to unearth evidence of such a framework … Instead of pursuing connections to the devil, Muscovite judges exerted themselves to track the lineages and results of magic: Who taught you? Whom have you taught? Whom have you bewitched? The judges’ concerns were concrete and this-worldly: who were the victims and who were the victimizers?”
Unfortunately for Bezobrazov, his victim was the tsar himself.
Bezobrazov allegedly obtained the service of “sorcerers and witches” who worked magic “on bones, on money and on water” to enspell the new 17-year-old sovereign during the uncertain period after Peter threw off the regency of his older sister Sophia. Despite Peter’s ultimate reputation as Russia’s great westernizer, the immediate effect of this transition was an oppressive interregnum wherein conservative religious interests took advantage of the new sovereign’s distraction from internal Russian politics to reassert themselves violently.
For Bezobrazov, political turnover augured personal uncertainty. The innocent explanation for his “witchcraft” was invoking a little ritual in hopes of catching a favorable assignment in Peter the Great’s new Russia. It didn’t work.
Bezobrazov was beheaded on Red Square on this date at the same time two folk healers went to the stake with their magic talismans and healing herbs at a swamp across the Moskva from the Kremlin. An essay in this Festschrift describes what it’s like to be a peasant folk healer suddenly under investigation for regicide.
Dorofei Prokofiev … had treated animals belonging to the Bezobrazov household. But when arrested and interrogated, Dorofei did not identify himself as a “sorcerer,” but rather as a posadskii chelovek (artisan), specifically a horse-trainer (konoval) and a blood-letter (rudomet’). He admitted to practicing bean divination and palm reading in addition to treating the illnesses of children and adults with herbs and incantations. His bag contained beans, incense (for protecting brides and grooms from sorcerers, Dorofei said), and a variety of herbs. The herb bogoroditskaia (= royal fern) he gathered himself on St. John’s Day, while reciting the charm “whatever you, herb, are good for, be good for that.” But he denied ever casting a spell to harm the sovereign, and he claimed not to be acquainted with Andrei Bezobrazov — a lie that was quickly uncovered when Dorofei was subjected to torture. At that point Dorofei changed his story: Bezobrazov had asked him to cast a spell on the tsar, but only to make him feel favorably towards Bezobrazov, not to damage the sovereign’s health. Dorofei gave his interrogators examples of the incantations that he used in fortune-telling, all intertwined invocations of Christian figures with sympathetic magic. In short, Dorofei tried to rescue himself by claiming that his healing and fortune-telling activities were all well-intentioned. But the investigators, and Peter himself, were convinced of Bezobrazov’s guilt, which meant Dorofei was guilty as well. Bezobrazov was beheaded, and Dorofei was burned at the stake as a witch.
For everyday folks like Dorofei Prokovie, the author notes, “well-positioned patrons could be either a source of protection or of danger.”
According to Crime and Punishment in Early Modern Russia, which is also the source of the January 8 date, Bezobrazov’s wife was punitively tonsured for not reporting the “plot” and several other of Bezobrazov’s peasants were knouted and sent to Siberia.
* “Prosaic Witchcraft and Semiotic Totalitarianism: Muscovite Magic Reconsidered” in Slavic Review, vol. 70, no. 1 (Spring 2011)
These were the casualties that marked the end of the Zhidovstvuyushchiye, a little-known late 15th century circle of “Judaizers” or “Jewish-thinking people.” We know them mostly through their enemies so the precise nature of their beliefs is hard to pin down, but they don’t look like actual converts. “There was nothing Jewish about them,” Philip Longworth contends. “‘Judaizer’ was simply a term of ideological abuse, like ‘Trotskyist’ in the 1930s.”
According to this thesis by Cambridge Slavonic lecturer Jana Howlett, the term itself dates to a Byzantine (meaning not labyrinthine, but historically related to Byzantium) typology of heresies and didn’t necessarily have any direct reference to practicing Judaism even within its own context. It just meant that they’d strayed from orthodoxy into heresy.
Be that as it may, they’re recorded to history as “the Judaizers”. Exactly what these so-called Judaizers thought and where to situate them among the various factions and interests within Russian society at the time has long been a matter of dispute among scholars of the period. (Again, see the Howlett paper for a survey of the historiography — at least, as it stood in the 1970s.)
There’s a putative Hebrew association in the form of a scholar named “Skhariya the Jew” whom Mikhail Olelkovich brought to Novgorod. “Skhariya” — or Zacharia ben Aharon ha-Cohen — translated a variety of Hebrew astronomy and philosophy texts into Russian, and seems to have contributed to a burgeoning intellectual current. We might perhaps consider this ferment in the vein of western Europe’s humanism or its abortive pre-Protestant “heretical” religious innovations, or that of the contemporaneous Orthodox conflict between “Non-Possessors” and “Possessors” — respectively, those rejecting or criticizing institutional monasticism and its enormously wealthy estates, and those defending same. Some of the Judaizers’ attributed beliefs, such as anti-trinitarianism and privileging direct study and individual interpretation of the Biblical text, hint at the coming wave of Protestantism; others, such as renouncing the divinity of Christ and immortality of the human soul, are more radical still.
These people have not left us their own voices, and even their persecutors have barely done better, so who really believed what remains at bottom conjectural.
The recently independent Novgorod had in the 1470s been taken over by the state-building Ivan III. Its new prelate Archbishop Gennady,* noted for forcing Moscow-friendly reforms onto the Novgorod clergy, thrust Judaizers into the ecclesiastical cross-hairs by declaring the discovery of the heresy and demanding church councils “not to debate them, but to burn them.” Such councils were held, with executions of Novgorod heretics following, in 1488 and 1490. Considering the city’s political situation one has to entertain the possibility that doctrinal outrages were exaggerated or concocted as pretext for punishing people whose real sin was resisting Gennady.
Even if the heretics themselves are obscure to us, one can imagine the interests here: churchmen keeping the doctrinal line, statesmen keeping their new conquest in line.
More strangely, the Judaizers charge re-emerged years later not in Novgorod but in Moscow. The facts, as usual here, are open to interpretation: were these two different circles, or were they connected? Was there anything plausibly heretical, or was it just recycling the “Trotskyism” charge?
No less a person than Metropolitan Zosimus, who coined the famous conception of Moscow as the “Third Rome” (inheriting from the second Rome, Constantinople, lately fallen into Turkish hands) was hounded out of his position as a heretic in 1494. Zosimus died before any trial, so he doesn’t get a blog entry. Not all were so fortunate.
Yet another council reconvened in 1503-04. It was headed by a very aged Ivan III with his son and heir Vasily and Zosimus’s successor Metropolitan Simon.
The Russian polity had changed in the meanwhile. Moscow fought a war against Lithuania in 1492-94, seized lands as a result, and negotiated an “eternal peace” that lasted all of six years … when Moscow went back to war and gobbled up more Lithuanian land. Lithuania had a predominantly Orthodox population living under a Catholic monarchy, and it was under the banner of defending the faithful that Ivan’s armies advanced.
Fyodor Kuritsyn had long been one of Ivan’s trusted diplomats; indeed, he had negotiated the end of hostilities with Lithuania in 1494. He was also supposed to have nursed a longstanding interest in dangerous heterodox philosophies and had been mentioned as a possible heretic in the 1490 proceedings. Ivan protected him at that time.
Fyodor disappears from the written record in about 1503; his fate is unknown. But Fyodor and his brother Ivan Volk Kuritsyn both appear to have been associated with Ivan’s daughter-in-law Elena of Moldavia. Elena was the mother of the previous official heir Dmitry — who had been surprisingly disinherited and clapped in prison in 1502 to make way for Vasily, Ivan’s son by his second wife. Elena’s fall might have exposed the Kuritsyns to political blowback, and whether it was actually “heresy”-related or not, the old heretical whiff from the previous generation’s investigations would have been there for the taking.
Hung up in cages and burnt along with Ivan Volk Kuritsyn were (at least) two other men: Ivan Maksimov, who like the Kuritsyns was associated with Elena of Moldavia; and, Dmitry Konoplev, who like the Kuritsyns was involved in the diplomatic service. There’s just enough to hear the grinding of unseen whetstones in the bowels of the Kremlin, but not quite enough to know whose knives are being sharpened. Still others were burned on the same occasion in Novgorod.
“The real reasons for the execution of Ivan Volk Kuritsyn, Ivan Maksimov and Dmitry Konoplev in 1504 cannot be ascertained,” Howlett concludes. “It can be said, however, that there is little reason to accept the view that they were executed for heresy, Judaizing or otherwise.”
Ivan III died the next year at the age of 65.
* Gennady is today an Orthodox saint notable for composing the first complete Biblical codex in Old Church Slavonic — the Gennady Bible.
The World War II occupation of the Latvian town of Liepaja (Libau, to the Germans) produced mass executions throughout 1941.
This date in 1941 commenced one of the largest such actions: over 2,700 Jews as well as 23 Communists forced over the course of two-plus days to strip on the freezing Skede dunes overlooking the Baltic and there shot by German and Latvian teams into a vast pit. It’s one of the most recognizable Holocaust atrocities because it was extensively photographed.*
As one can see from the pictures, the victims here were mostly women.
Some of the women in this photographs can be identified by name (pdf). Left to right: (1) Sorella Epstein; (2) presumably Rosa Epstein, her mother; (3) unknown; (4) Mia Epstein; (5) unknown. Alternate identification makes Mia Epstein (5) instead of (4), and (2) Pauline Goldman.
After a stint in the army in the first years of the 20th century, the Polish Catholic Malinovsky went to work as a lathe operator in a St. Petersburg factory, in one of the militant pockets of Russia’s small urban proletariat.
Malinovsky proved a gifted labor organizer — enough that under the Stolypin crackdown, he was arrested in 1909 and expelled from St. Petersburg. Then he was arrested in 1910 in Moscow.
No later than this point, though possibly even before it, he was recruited by tsarist Russia’s secret police. Now Malinovsky’s considerable energies were turned to spying on the communists, and to deepening mistrust between Mensheviks and Bolsheviks. “The whole purpose of my direction [to Malinovsky] is summed up in this: to give no possibility of the Party’s uniting,” the police director Beletsky later explained.
Malinovsky was an adroit mole.
He got himself elected to the Bolsheviks’ Central Committee, and ingratiated himself with Lenin so thoroughly that when Malinovsky was openly accused of spying for the Okhrana in 1913, Lenin came to his defense.
Malinovsky’s proximity to Lenin enabled him to tip to cc the police on the latter’s correspondence, but for posterity the mystery is on the other side of the relationship. Was Lenin in denial? Or did he already know that Malinovsky was a spy?
The double games being played around Malinovsky fade into a fog in the 1910s. The Okhrana mysteriously forced Malinovsky to resign from the state Duma — another powerful seat he had obtained — which was such a grievous loss for the Bolsheviks that it further multiplied the suspicions of his leftist comrades. Did the Okrana take this seemingly counterproductive step because Malinovsky was compromised as a spy, or was this just a change of policy? When Malinovsky was taken prisoner by the Germans during World War I, his agitations among fellow-POWs earned Lenin’s admiration. Was this sincere conviction after all, or a maneuver?
Accounts of associates paint Lenin as horribly torn on the accusations against a man whom Lenin plainly admired, even rationalizing that Malinovsky’s organizational talents on behalf of the movement had still outweighed the injury he might have done it by spying.
Nor was this merely a personal consideration, since accusations against Malinovsky — an uncompromising Bolshevik in his party persona, further to the cause of preventing intra-party reconciliation — had emerged earliest from Mensheviks. Their eventual vindication on this matter was an obvious irritant to Lenin, and even late in the war years Lenin downplayed the spying charges.
Most mysteriously of all — at least in retrospect — Malinovsky voluntarily returned to post-Revolution Moscow knowing that his role as an informant had been definitively exposed in Russian newspapers following a sack of the Okrana offices and its revealing files. It was to “wash away the sins of his life with blood,” he told his interrogators, agents of the new secret police — the Cheka. Or was it that he thought he had, via Lenin (who had even sent clothes to the disgraced Malinovsky’s POW camp) an angle on rehabilitation?
Maybe in the end Malinovsky was the victim of his own con. Ralph Carter Elwood’s biography suggests that Malinovsky took Lenin’s surprisingly congenial behavior to mean that he had been forgiven since the fact could no longer be denied … when it might really have meant that Lenin was in denial about the fact itself, almost to to the last. “The last” being, in this case, the courtroom* of Nov. 5 which Lenin himself attended. Malinovsky defended himself for hours, but admitted all; if he anticipated clemency, he did not receive any more of it than the few hours necessary to put his affairs in order.
More tantalizing still, though well into the realm of speculation, is the idea that Lenin did indeed understand what Malinovsky was up to, but wanted to keep the door closed on espionage and counter-espionage vis-a-vis the tsarist police for fear of disgracing old Bolshevik revolutionaries with compromised pasts who had now become men of state. Stalin himself might have been in this same boat, perhaps making this moment yet another missed opportunity to pre-empt the terrifying era yet to come.
“I couldn’t see through that scoundrel Malinovsky,” Lenin later told Gorky, a sentiment we might today echo in retrospect. “It was a very fishy affair, that Malinovsky business.”
* His prosecutor was former comrade Nikolai Krylenko. Krylenko ultimately died in 1938; you may well guess how.