On this date in 1955, eight former officials of the Georgia — the country Georgia — secret police were tried publicly in Tbilisi, and six* of them convicted and promptly shot.
Officially, they were in the dock post-Stalin for their various depredations during the late ascendancy of the notorious Lavrentiy Beria. (Both Beria and Stalin himself were native Georgians.)
All their frightening offices for the NKVD had been re-branded, post-Stalin, as counterrevolutionary and terroristic, the same sort of chilling police-state lingo they used to turn against enemies back in their day.
A.N. Rapava, for instance
… was Deputy Head of the NKVD in Georgia. In July 1945, he received the rank of Lt. General. From late 1938 until 1948, he was the Head of NKVD/NKGB/MGB** in Georgia when he was removed under a cloud. (Source)
Georgia’s Stalin-era apparatchiks had vicious infighting, aggravated by a growing rift between Stalin and Beria late in Stalin’s life. (Indeed, if you like some hypotheses, this was why it was late in Stalin’s life: Beria might have poisoned off Uncle Joe to protect himself from purging.)
Rapava was a Beria man, but when Stalin swept his own people into place† in the late 1940s to early 1950s, a Stalin guy named N.M. Rukhadze arrested and replaced Rapava.
A few weeks before Stalin died, when the biography of Beria is thick with curious maneuverings, Beria got Rukhadze replaced; once Stalin kicked off, Beria was free to flat-out arrest Rukhadze.
It was a bit of an irony that when the post-Stalin Bolsheviks came round to mop up in Georgia, the rivals Rapava and Rukhadze had to stand in the dock together, both allegedly part of Beria’s organization. It would have been a bit inconvenient to detail how it was Beria himself who ordered Rukhadze’s arrest.
The others who shared their fate:
A.S. Khazani, NKVD political department officer who wrote a book with the title The Moral Outlook of a Soviet Man
N.A. Krimian, who served in the NKVD in Georgia and later in Ukraine, where he orchestrated the execution of political prisoners ahead of the invading Germans in World War II
K.S. Savitsky, NKVD Georgia official
Sh.O. Tsereteli, a tsarist officer turned Bolshevik and a Beria ally dating back to the early 1920s
All were shot for the victims of the Georgian purges they had conducted. A translator and a bodyguard were also convicted at the same trial, drawing prison sentences.
On this date in 1724, Willem Mons was beheaded in St. Petersburg for peculation.
Mons was the brother of the German commoner Anna Mons, a beautiful young woman who segued from being the May-December lover of Peter the Great‘s trusted admiral Franz Lefort to the mistress of the teenage emperor himself. Peter and Anna had a famous (famously scandalous) romance through her twenties, but as she entered her thirties and heard the clock ticking, her bid to make Peter put a ring on it by flirting with a Prussian diplomat came to grief and got her briefly tossed in prison.
Willem Mons was still a minor when his big sister fell from Peter’s graces. He would prove to have an equally adroit instinct for imperial bedchamber politics.
“One of the best-made and most handsome men that I have ever seen,” in the French ambassador’s estimation, Mons hustled his way into the train of the woman Peter had married instead of Anna — Catherine.
There Willem Mons and his other sister Matryona Balk monopolized the access routes to the empress and lucratively tolled all petitioners who traveled them. Wealth and status accumulated; the immigrant bourgeois’s son even stopped going by William in favor of the more impressive “Moens de la Croix”.
Not surprisingly, the emperor himself was the last to discover the open secret of his wife’s household’s river of graft.* Peter, who could be quite the moralist, was incensed; he interrogated the chamberlain so terribly that the young man fainted dead away.
“Moens de la Croix” was no longer. In both senses.
Having issued the confessions to condemn himself under the very credible threat of torture, Mons was socked away in Peter and Paul Fortress. Catherine made bold to defy Peter’s edict that nobody petition him for Mons’s life; in response, the enraged tsar smashed a Venetian mirror with his bare hand and roared, “thus I can annihilate the most beautiful adornment of my palace!” Court observers reported that marital relations between the two were visibly strained well after the scandal.
These weren’t happy days for the oft-sickly Peter; indeed, they were the last months of his life. Early the next year, he would succumb to a gangrenous bladder and leave the throne to this very Catherine. Perhaps his decrepit state accounts for the likely scurrilous rumor that the handsome chamberlain’s real offense wasn’t so much corruption as cuckoldry. It’s fair to say that such an affair would have been an extraordinarily reckless thing for Catherine.
On November 16, 1724, William Mons and Matrena Balk were taken in sledges to the execution site. Mons behaved courageously, nodding and bowing to friends he saw in the crowd. Mounting the scaffold, he calmly took off his heavy fur coat, listened to the reading of the sentence of death and laid his head on the block. After his death, his sister received eleven blows of the knout, very lightly administered so that not much harm was done, and was exiled for life to Tobolsk in Siberia. Her husband, General Balk, was given permission to marry again if he wished. (Source)
The late courtier’s severed head was preserved in alcohol (legend says that the fuming Peter made Catherine contemplate it). It was eventually deposited in the Kunstkamera museum, famous for housing Peter’s gross horde of collected pickled fetuses, dwarves, and other medical curios. Mons’s head still resides there today.
Sometime in the autumn of 1943, a refined actor had a family of Vilna/Vilnius Jews summarily hanged on a public gallows.
Vilna* was one of the major Jewish ghettos in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe.
Noted for its rich cultural life, the Vilna Ghetto, which at its peak contained approximately 40,000 people, lasted from September 6, 1941 to September 24, 1943. By the end of its existence, however, through starvation, overwork, disease, and bullets, the ghetto’s population had been reduced by three-quarters.
In late September 1943, the ghetto was liquidated. Most of the inhabitants were taken to the nearby forest in Ponar and shot, or sent to extermination camps in Poland or work camps in Estonia, where almost all of them died.
The convivial Bruno Kittel
The liquidation was supervised by German Oberscharführer Bruno Kittel. (He is not to be confused with Otto “Bruno” Kittel, the Luftwaffe flying ace.)
Kittel was an actor. He graduated from the theater school in Berlin and from the plundering school in Frankfurt. On Sundays he played songs on his saxophone at the Vilna radio station. Kittel was not only the youngest of his colleagues; he was the most zealous … [His] reputation extended from Riga to Lodz to Warsaw.
At first glance, you would never guess that Kittel was an executioner. Constantly smiling with his dazzling white teeth, he was perfumed, elegant, polite, and refined.
After the ghetto was no more, a few skilled craftsmen and artisans whose work was essential to the war effort remained within the city at one of three labor camps.
Karl Plagge, a German major in charge of the HKP 562 camp, was sympathetic to the plight of his workers and worked to save their lives, albeit without much success. For this, he would later be honored as a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem.
During the liquidation, in an attempt to avoid capture, many of the Vilna Jews concealed themselves in hiding places and bunkers, called “malines” or “malinas”. Sadly, the Nazis caught almost all of them, but a few were able to wait out the carnage and then escape.
The Zalkind family were among the fortunate people who were able to remain in hiding throughout the liquidation.
But they did not survive for very long afterwards.
Journalists and historians began gathering eyewitness statements before the war was even over, and Ilya Ehrenburg and Vasily Grossman assembled and edited the accounts and finished the Black Book in 1946. It was the first major documentary work on the Holocaust. However, Stalin refused to allow its publication and had the type-plates and galley proofs destroyed in 1948.
A few copies survived, and the book was finally published in Russian in 1993. The English translation came out in 2002.
The full names of the Mr. and Mrs. Zalkind and their son are not recorded. Yad Vashem’s Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names lists a Masha Zalkind, age 34, a store manager who was married to Moshe, and Hone Khona Zalkind, 2, whose parents were Masha and Moshe. Both lived in Vilna during the war and were killed in 1943; they might well be the mother and son from this story.
There are several Moshe Zalkinds listed. One, a tailor who was born in 1907, lived in Vilna and was married to Masha. He’s the closest match, but it says he was in Estonia during the war and was killed in 1944.
In any case, the Zalkinds were on the Aryan side of Vilna, probably posing as Christians with forged identity papers, when they were spotted in the street by Bruno Kittel. The Black Book records::
Suspecting they were Jews, Kittel stopped them and had them sent to the concentration camp [at 37 Suboch Street], where he determined that their name was Zalkind and that up until now they had been hiding in a malina. He ordered a gallows to be erected in the middle of the yard and summoned sixty SS men from the Gestapo. When everything was ready and the yard was full of SS surrounding the doomed Zalkinds — husband, wife and child — Kittel said:
“For having violated my order and hiding in the city, you will now be hanged in front of everyone.”
Kittel went over to the gallows to be sure that the rope was strong; then he began the execution process. The child was the first to be hanged. Then the mother. When the noose was tightened around the father’s neck, the rope broke.
Kittel ordered a new noose to be made. But as soon as Zalkind was hanging from it, the rope broke again.
Kittel was simply amused by it all.
“If the rope should break a hundred times, I’ll hang you a hundred times,” he said. And he ordered the hangman to prepare another rope.
Following the rule of collective responsibility, after Mr. Zalkind finally died, Kittel randomly selected fifty inmates of the camp, loaded them into a van and hauled them off to their deaths at Ponar.
Only a few hundred of the Vilna Ghetto’s Jews, mostly those assisted by Major Plagge, survived the Nazi era. Some of the Germans who helped wipe out this city’s once-vibrant Jewish community were apprehended after the war and prosecuted.
Bruno Kittel, however, disappeared without a trace and was never found at all.
* At the time, Vilna was part of Poland. Vilna was its Yiddish name; the Polish name was Wilnow. The city is now the capital of Lithuania and called Vilnius.
On this date in 1907* an audacious would-be suicide bomber was executed by tsarist Russia.
Thousands of Russians immersed themselves in the late 1900s in revolutionary struggle after the Romanovs bloodily stopped the 1905 revolution. So many of them were executed that the gallows became known as “Stolypin’s Necktie”, after the sitting Prime Minister.
Twenty-one-year-old conservatory pianist and singer Evstolia Ragozinnikova got involved in a plot to assassinate the said Stolypin. (It was only one among several such plots, one of which finally succeeded in 1911.)
But “Tolia” feigned madness and then escaped the psychiatric hospital where she’d been confined. She rejoined her Socialist-Revolutionary conspirators, some of whom tried to get her to flee to Milan to further her musical studies.
Instead of concert houses, Ragozinnikova raised the curtain on her magnum opus on October 28* with a bid to land a Guy Fawkes-like blow against the autocracy.
Communist-turned-anticommunist Whittaker Chambers would, much later, remember in his correspondence with William F. Buckley the power that deeds like Ragozinnikova’s had to inspire, notwithstanding Lenin’s eventually-orthodox disavowal of terrorism. For Chambers, it was not material immiseration but spiritual disinheritance, existential despair — the sort that made artists into suicide bombers — that was the true midwife of Communism.
I may presume in supposing that the name of Ragozinikova is unknown to you. But the facts are these. In 1907, the Russian government instituted a policy of systematically beating its political prisoners. One night, a fashionably dressed young woman called at the Central Prison in Petersburg and asked to speak with the commandant, Maximovsky. This was Ragozinikova, who had come to protest the government’s policy. Inside the bodice of her dress were sewed thirteen pounds of dynamite and a detonator. When Maximovsky appeared, she shot him with her revolver and killed him. The dynamite was for another purpose. After the murder of Maximovsky, Ragozinikova asked the police to interrogate her at the headquarters of the Okhrana. She meant to blow it up together with herself; she had not known any other way to penetrate it. But she was searched and the dynamite discovered. She was sentenced to be hanged.
Awaiting execution., she wrote her family: ‘Death itself is nothing, … Frightful only is the thought of dying without having achieved what I could have done How good it is to love people. How much strength one gains from such love.’
Chambers aside, she’s not so well attested on the English-lanuage Internet; there’s a bit about her in Russian here and here, as well as some references to both Ragozinnikova and her peers in an academic pdf, “Women in the World of Gender Stereotypes: The Case of the Russian Female Terrorists at the Beginning of the 20th Century” by Nadezda Petrusenko in International Journal of Humanities and Social Science, April 2011.
* Gregorian dates. By the local Julian calendar in Russia, she committed her murder on October 15, and was hanged on October 18.
Vladimir was Ivan’s (barely) younger cousin, both of them grandsons of Russia’s state-building Ivan the Great.
Ivan the Terrible, of course, was the heir to the throne, an inheritance he received at the tender age of three when his father died unexpectedly — leading to Ivan’s famously miserable childhood of being kicked around by the boyars.
The dreadful relationship thereby fostered between throne and nobles came to a crossroads in 1553, when Ivan the Terrible appeared to be on his deathbed. The fading tsar tried to get those boyars to swear loyalty to Ivan’s infant son. Most of the boyars openly preferred the adult Vladimir of Staritsa.
This dramatic encounter is a pivotal episode in Sergei Eisenstein’s classic film Ivan the Terrible.
Instead of dying, Ivan surprisingly recovered. Awkward!
Vladimir actually survived this episode, and he himself may not even have been actively trying to claim the throne: the boyars hated Ivan plenty without his seditious assistance.
And for a while it look like any ill feelings were water under the bridge. Vladimir swore loyalty to Ivan upon the latter’s recovery, fought military campaigns alongside Ivan, and was even depended upon by Ivan as a guarantor of peace among Ivan’s own several potentially rivalrous sons.*
But that was the 1550s.
As the 1560s unfolded, Ivan grew increasingly mistrustful of his boyars’ loyalty.** According to this volume, an elevation of Vladimir to the throne was the object of at least one plot during those years. As Ivan’s only male cousin, he was a natural successor should Ivan be deposed, and therefore a natural focal point for Ivan’s enemies.
When Ivan eventually gave rein to his paranoia and unleashed the bloody purges of the oprichnina, Vladimir inevitably succumbed to it. Ivan decreed his death and forced him to administer the sentence by his own hand with a draught of poison, even going so far as to extirpate Vladimir’s wife and children, too.†
In a twist of the cruel irony Russian history is so susceptible to, Ivan the Terrible’s homicidal suspicion of his relations helped to doom Ivan’s own Rurik dynasty: after Ivan accidentally killed his own son and heir in a fit of pique, the succession which might have found a backup option in Vladimir and his offspring instead utterly collapsed — plunging Russia into the “Time of Troubles” out of which one of those former boyar families, the Romanovs, emerged with the throne after all.
* See Sergei Bogatyrev, “Reinventing the Russian Monarchy in the 1550s: Ivan the Terrible, the Dynasty, and the Church”, The Slavonic and East European Review, Apr. 2007. (pdf here)
** Ivan’s nasty turn after 1560 might trace to the untimely death of his wife Anastasia Romanovna, whom Ivan suspected might have been poisoned by those hated boyars.
On this date in 1866 (September 3 O.S.; September 15 N.S.), Russian revolutionary Dmitry Karakozov was hanged in Peter and Paul Fortress for attempting to assassinate Tsar Alexander II.
Karakozov was a son of noble stock — the self-hating variety, obviously, and suicidally disturbed into the bargain. He supposedly hailed from a terrorism cell branding itself “Hell”, although this was bandied about by the police afterwards and conveniently supported a hunt for radicals.
Karakozov, at least, considered the state of tsarist Russia positively infernal, and on April 4, 1866, he went to scourge it — firing a shot at the monarch at St. Petersburg’s Summer Garden. He missed.
The tsar’s guards tackled him as he fled, and the unharmed Alexander walked up to the gunman and asked him, “What do you want?” He may have been genuinely bewildered: Alexander was the guy trying to liberalize Russia. Just a few years before, he had freed the serfs.
“Nothing,” Karakazov replied. “Nothing.”
A statement of implacability: no progress would be bargained with even the most progressive despot. The despotism itself must go. A manifesto addressed to “Friends-Workers” was found in his pocket underscoring the point; it read in part (translated from p. 21 of this Russian pdf):
I have decided to destroy the wicked Tsar, and to die for my beloved people…
If I accomplish this deed, I will die with the thought that in death I did something good for my dear friend, the Russian peasant.
If I do not accomplish it, then others will follow my path. Where I fail, they will succeed, and my death will be their example and inspiration.
Karakozov himself, the first Russian revolutionary to attempt regicide, didn’t seem to have revolutionary satisfaction on his mind at the end. He converted to Orthodox Christianity in prison, sought “as a Christian, of a Christian” his prospective victim’s clemency … and multiple newspaper accounts report him kneeling to kiss a cross presented to him on the scaffold by the priest. (All via Odd Man Karakozov, which argues that all this need not imply such a reversal of conscience as it might appear.)
What certainly did happen — more immediately than those copycat assassinations — was a reactionary wave of national chauvinism, whose more wretched manifestations will not be unfamiliar to the present day. The patriotic Glinka opera Ivan Susanin was staged a few days later at the Bolshoi in Moscow. According to an eyewitness account of Tchaikovsky quoted in Romanov Riches: Russian Writers and Artists Under the Tsars, this salute to a Russian peasant’s sacrifice for the Romanov dynasty went a little bit off-script.
I think the Moscow audience went beyond the bounds of sense in their outburst of enthusiasm. The opera was not really performed, for as soon as the Poles appeared onstage, the whole theater shouted, “Down with the Poles!” and so on. In the last scene of Act 4, when the Poles are supposed to kill Susanin …
… the actor playing him started fighting the chorus members who played Poles, and being very strong, knocked down several of them, while the rest of the extras, seeing that the audience approved this mockery of art, truth, and decency, fell down, and the triumphant Susanin left unharmed, brandishing his arms, to the deafening applause of the Muscovites.
If true, that is little short of fantastic.
The apparatus of state went so far as to build up a new Susanin for the occasion at hand, hyping a questionable story that a young peasant named Osip Komissarov — who was from Susanin’s own province of Kostroma — had jostled Karakozov just as he took the shot, causing it to go awry. The good-natured bumpkin was rewarded with summary ennoblement as “Komissarov-Kostromskoy” and eye-rollingly terrible poetic tributes from the likes of Vyazemsky and Nekrasov. However, Komissarov’s embarrassing stupidity and want of manners would eventually necessitate Komissarov-Kostromskoy’s being packed out of polite society to country estates on a generous pension to bankroll his ample appetite for liquor.
So Dmitry Karakozov did do something for the Russian peasant after all.
On this date* in French-occupied Moscow of the War of 1812, many alleged arsonists — unnamed and unnumbered — were shot by Napoleon’s army in the ashes of Moscow.
Although real, flesh-and-blood Muscovites died, they are best known via their bespectacled fictional companion, Pierre Bezukhov, whose miraculous escape is one of the pivotal episodes of Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
Merely the greatest novel in history by some reckonings — we’ll just let Tolstoy fight it out with Dostoyevsky for top of table in the competitive 19th Century Russia literary scene — the epic War and Peace tracks that country’s transformation under the revolutionary pressures of the Napoleonic age.
In Russian director Sergey Bondarchuk’s sprawling cinematic adaptation of War and Peace, the part of Pierre Bezukhov is played by Bondarchuk himself.
Pierre Bezukhov (“without ears”) is one of the book’s central figures, the illegitimate son of a count who unexpectedly inherits, forever consumed with his next impulsive, passionate quest for meaning (boozing around, freemasonry, religion …).
Pierre finds himself present in Moscow when the Grande Armeerolls in following its Pyrrhic victory at the Battle of Borodino. His fancy of the moment is to assassinate Napoleon: “he suddenly felt that what before had seemed to him merely a possibility had now become absolutely necessary and inevitable. He must remain in Moscow, concealing his name, and must meet Napoleon and kill him, and either perish or put an end to the misery of all Europe.” And to think, a younger Pierre actually used to admire Napoleon.
Historically, the city of Moscow started burning as soon as the French occupied it. The reasons for this conflagration have been widely disputed; Tolstoy detours in War and Peace to characterize it as nothing more than the natural consequence of the occupation, when the city’s civil infrastructure has broken down and the everyday fires that spark in wooden buildings are more liable to grow out of control.
The French blamed terrorists.
A bulletin of the Grande Armee dated September 20 (Gregorian date; this corresponds to the Julian date September 8) reports on the successful efforts to bring arsonists to heel through the expedient of mass executions.
Three hundred incendiaries have been arrested and shot; they were provided with fuse six inches long, which they had between two pieces of wood: they had also squibs, which they threw upon the roofs of the houses. The wretch Rastapchin had these prepared, on the pretence that he wished to send a balloon, full of combustible matter, amidst the French army …
The fires subsided on the 19th and 20th; three quarters of the city are burned; among other palaces that beautiful one of Catherine, which had been newly furnished: not above a quarter of the houses remain. …
Manufactures were beginning to flourish at Moscow: they are destroyed. The conflagration of this capital will throw Russia one hundred years back. The weather is becoming rainy: the greatest part of the army is in barracks in Moscow.
In this paranoid occupation, the fictional Pierre, wandering Moscow armed without a good excuse, gets himself picked up by French troops.
The travail of his resulting drumhead trial offers the anti-authoritarian (and anti-death penalty) Tolstoy the opportunity to reflect on the “legal” arrangements, a passage Tolstoy dates September 8 on the Julian calendar — the same day that army bulletin above was penned.
[Pierre] learned that all these prisoners (he, probably, among them) were to be tried for incendiarism. On the third day he was taken with the others to a house where a French general with a white mustache sat with two colonels and other Frenchmen with scarves on their arms. With the precision and definiteness customary in addressing prisoners, and which is supposed to preclude human frailty, Pierre like the others was questioned as to who he was, where he had been, with what object, and so on.
These questions, like questions put at trials generally, left the essence of the matter aside, shut out the possibility of that essence’s being revealed, and were designed only to form a channel through which the judges wished the answers of the accused to flow so as to lead to the desired result, namely a conviction. As soon as Pierre began to say anything that did not fit in with that aim, the channel was removed and the water could flow to waste. Pierre felt, moreover, what the accused always feel at their trial, perplexity as to why these questions were put to him. He had a feeling that it was only out of condescension or a kind of civility that this device of placing a channel was employed. He knew he was in these men’s power, that only by force had they brought him there, that force alone gave them the right to demand answers to their questions, and that the sole object of that assembly was to inculpate him. And so, as they had the power and wish to inculpate him, this expedient of an inquiry and trial seemed unnecessary. It was evident that any answer would lead to conviction.
It’s only by Pierre’s chance ability to forge a human connection with the officer detailed to condemn him that he’s mysteriously, and arbitrarily, not sentenced to death — a fact that Pierre doesn’t even realize until he’s led out with the rest of the prisoners only to see that it’s “only” the others who are being shot. This is the narration at length from Book XII, Chapters 10-11.
On the eighth of September an officer- a very important one judging by the respect the guards showed him- entered the coach house where the prisoners were. This officer, probably someone on the staff, was holding a paper in his hand, and called over all the Russians there, naming Pierre as “the man who does not give his name.” Glancing indolently and indifferently at all the prisoners, he ordered the officer in charge to have them decently dressed and tidied up before taking them to the marshal. An hour later a squad of soldiers arrived and Pierre with thirteen others was led to the Virgin’s Field. It was a fine day, sunny after rain, and the air was unusually pure. The smoke did not hang low as on the day when Pierre had been taken from the guardhouse on the Zubovski rampart, but rose through the pure air in columns. No flames were seen, but columns of smoke rose on all sides, and all Moscow as far as Pierre could see was one vast charred ruin. On all sides there were waste spaces with only stoves and chimney stacks still standing, and here and there the blackened walls of some brick houses. Pierre gazed at the ruins and did not recognize districts he had known well. Here and there he could see churches that had not been burned. The Kremlin, which was not destroyed, gleamed white in the distance with its towers and the belfry of Ivan the Great. The domes of the New Convent of the Virgin glittered brightly and its bells were ringing particularly clearly. These bells reminded Pierre that it was Sunday and the feast of the Nativity of the Virgin. But there seemed to be no one to celebrate this holiday: everywhere were blackened ruins, and the few Russians to be seen were tattered and frightened people who tried to hide when they saw the French.
Pierre had been taken by one set of soldiers and led first to one and then to another place with dozens of other men, and it seemed that they might have forgotten him, or confused him with the others. But no: the answers he had given when questioned had come back to him in his designation as “the man who does not give his name,” and under that appellation, which to Pierre seemed terrible, they were now leading him somewhere with unhesitating assurance on their faces that he and all the other prisoners were exactly the ones they wanted and that they were being taken to the proper place. Pierre felt himself to be an insignificant chip fallen among the wheels of a machine whose action he did not understand but which was working well.
He and the other prisoners were taken to the right side of the Virgin’s Field, to a large white house with an immense garden not far from the convent. This was Prince Shcherbatov‘s house, where Pierre had often been in other days, and which, as he learned from the talk of the soldiers, was now occupied by the marshal, the Duke of Eckmuhl (Davout).
They were taken to the entrance and led into the house one by one. Pierre was the sixth to enter. He was conducted through a glass gallery, an anteroom, and a hall, which were familiar to him, into a long low study at the door of which stood an adjutant.
Davout, spectacles on nose, sat bent over a table at the further end of the room. Pierre went close up to him, but Davout, evidently consulting a paper that lay before him, did not look up. Without raising his eyes, he said in a low voice:
“Who are you?”
Pierre was silent because he was incapable of uttering a word. To him Davout was not merely a French general, but a man notorious for his cruelty. Looking at his cold face, as he sat like a stern schoolmaster who was prepared to wait awhile for an answer, Pierre felt that every instant of delay might cost him his life; but he did not know what to say. He did not venture to repeat what he had said at his first examination, yet to disclose his rank and position was dangerous and embarrassing. So he was silent. But before he had decided what to do, Davout raised his head, pushed his spectacles back on his forehead, screwed up his eyes, and looked intently at him.
“I know that man,” he said in a cold, measured tone, evidently calculated to frighten Pierre.
The chill that had been running down Pierre’s back now seized his head as in a vise.
“You cannot know me, General, I have never seen you…”
“He is a Russian spy,” Davout interrupted, addressing another general who was present, but whom Pierre had not noticed.
Davout turned away. With an unexpected reverberation in his voice Pierre rapidly began:
“No, monseigneur,” he said, suddenly remembering that Davout was a duke. “No, monseigneur, you cannot have known me. I am a militia officer and have not quitted Moscow.”
“Your name?” asked Davout.
“What proof have I that you are not lying?”
“Monseigneur!” exclaimed Pierre, not in an offended but in a pleading voice.
Davout looked up and gazed intently at him. For some seconds they looked at one another, and that look saved Pierre. Apart from conditions of war and law, that look established human relations between the two men. At that moment an immense number of things passed dimly through both their minds, and they realized that they were both children of humanity and were brothers.
At the first glance, when Davout had only raised his head from the papers where human affairs and lives were indicated by numbers, Pierre was merely a circumstance, and Davout could have shot him without burdening his conscience with an evil deed, but now he saw in him a human being. He reflected for a moment.
“How can you show me that you are telling the truth?” said Davout coldly.
Pierre remembered Ramballe, and named him and his regiment and the street where the house was.
“You are not what you say,” returned Davout.
In a trembling, faltering voice Pierre began adducing proofs of the truth of his statements.
But at that moment an adjutant entered and reported something to Davout.
Davout brightened up at the news the adjutant brought, and began buttoning up his uniform. It seemed that he had quite forgotten Pierre.
When the adjutant reminded him of the prisoner, he jerked his head in Pierre’s direction with a frown and ordered him to be led away. But where they were to take him Pierre did not know: back to the coach house or to the place of execution his companions had pointed out to him as they crossed the Virgin’s Field.
He turned his head and saw that the adjutant was putting another question to Davout.
“Yes, of course!” replied Davout, but what this “yes” meant, Pierre did not know.
Pierre could not afterwards remember how he went, whether it was far, or in which direction. His faculties were quite numbed, he was stupefied, and noticing nothing around him went on moving his legs as the others did till they all stopped and he stopped too. The only thought in his mind at that time was: who was it that had really sentenced him to death? Not the men on the commission that had first examined him — not one of them wished to or, evidently, could have done it. It was not Davout, who had looked at him in so human a way. In another moment Davout would have realized that he was doing wrong, but just then the adjutant had come in and interrupted him. The adjutant, also, had evidently had no evil intent though he might have refrained from coming in. Then who was executing him, killing him, depriving him of life — him, Pierre, with all his memories, aspirations, hopes, and thoughts? Who was doing this? And Pierre felt that it was no one.
It was a system — a concurrence of circumstances.
A system of some sort was killing him — Pierre — depriving him of life, of everything, annihilating him.
From Prince Shcherbatov’s house the prisoners were led straight down the Virgin’s Field, to the left of the nunnery, as far as a kitchen garden in which a post had been set up. Beyond that post a fresh pit had been dug in the ground, and near the post and the pit a large crowd stood in a semicircle. The crowd consisted of a few Russians and many of Napoleon’s soldiers who were not on duty- Germans, Italians, and Frenchmen, in a variety of uniforms. To the right and left of the post stood rows of French troops in blue uniforms with red epaulets and high boots and shakos.
The prisoners were placed in a certain order, according to the list (Pierre was sixth), and were led to the post. Several drums suddenly began to beat on both sides of them, and at that sound Pierre felt as if part of his soul had been torn away. He lost the power of thinking or understanding. He could only hear and see. And he had only one wish- that the frightful thing that had to happen should happen quickly. Pierre looked round at his fellow prisoners and scrutinized them.
The two first were convicts with shaven heads. One was tall and thin, the other dark, shaggy, and sinewy, with a flat nose. The third was a domestic serf, about forty-five years old, with grizzled hair and a plump, well-nourished body. The fourth was a peasant, a very handsome man with a broad, light-brown beard and black eyes. The fifth was a factory hand, a thin, sallow-faced lad of eighteen in a loose coat.
Pierre heard the French consulting whether to shoot them separately or two at a time. “In couples,” replied the officer in command in a calm voice. There was a stir in the ranks of the soldiers and it was evident that they were all hurrying — not as men hurry to do something they understand, but as people hurry to finish a necessary but unpleasant and incomprehensible task.
A French official wearing a scarf came up to the right of the row of prisoners and read out the sentence in Russian and in French.
Then two pairs of Frenchmen approached the criminals and at the officer’s command took the two convicts who stood first in the row. The convicts stopped when they reached the post and, while sacks were being brought, looked dumbly around as a wounded beast looks at an approaching huntsman. One crossed himself continually, the other scratched his back and made a movement of the lips resembling a smile. With hurried hands the soldiers blindfolded them, drawing the sacks over their heads, and bound them to the post.
Twelve sharpshooters with muskets stepped out of the ranks with a firm regular tread and halted eight paces from the post. Pierre turned away to avoid seeing what was going to happen. Suddenly a crackling, rolling noise was heard which seemed to him louder than the most terrific thunder, and he looked round. There was some smoke, and the Frenchmen were doing something near the pit, with pale faces and trembling hands. Two more prisoners were led up. In the same way and with similar looks, these two glanced vainly at the onlookers with only a silent appeal for protection in their eyes, evidently unable to understand or believe what was going to happen to them. They could not believe it because they alone knew what their life meant to them, and so they neither understood nor believed that it could be taken from them.
Again Pierre did not wish to look and again turned away; but again the sound as of a frightful explosion struck his ear, and at the same moment he saw smoke, blood, and the pale, scared faces of the Frenchmen who were again doing something by the post, their trembling hands impeding one another. Pierre, breathing heavily, looked around as if asking what it meant. The same question was expressed in all the looks that met his.
On the faces of all the Russians and of the French soldiers and officers without exception, he read the same dismay, horror, and conflict that were in his own heart. “But who, after all, is doing this? They are all suffering as I am. Who then is it? Who?” flashed for an instant through his mind.
“Sharpshooters of the 86th, forward!” shouted someone. The fifth prisoner, the one next to Pierre, was led away- alone. Pierre did not understand that he was saved, that he and the rest had been brought there only to witness the execution. With ever-growing horror, and no sense of joy or relief, he gazed at what was taking place. The fifth man was the factory lad in the loose cloak. The moment they laid hands on him he sprang aside in terror and clutched at Pierre. (Pierre shuddered and shook himself free.) The lad was unable to walk. They dragged him along, holding him up under the arms, and he screamed. When they got him to the post he grew quiet, as if he suddenly understood something. Whether he understood that screaming was useless or whether he thought it incredible that men should kill him, at any rate he took his stand at the post, waiting to be blindfolded like the others, and like a wounded animal looked around him with glittering eyes.
Pierre was no longer able to turn away and close his eyes. His curiosity and agitation, like that of the whole crowd, reached the highest pitch at this fifth murder. Like the others this fifth man seemed calm; he wrapped his loose cloak closer and rubbed one bare foot with the other.
When they began to blindfold him he himself adjusted the knot which hurt the back of his head; then when they propped him against the bloodstained post, he leaned back and, not being comfortable in that position, straightened himself, adjusted his feet, and leaned back again more comfortably. Pierre did not take his eyes from him and did not miss his slightest movement.
Probably a word of command was given and was followed by the reports of eight muskets; but try as he would Pierre could not afterwards remember having heard the slightest sound of the shots. He only saw how the workman suddenly sank down on the cords that held him, how blood showed itself in two places, how the ropes slackened under the weight of the hanging body, and how the workman sat down, his head hanging unnaturally and one leg bent under him. Pierre ran up to the post. No one hindered him. Pale, frightened people were doing something around the workman. The lower jaw of an old Frenchman with a thick mustache trembled as he untied the ropes. The body collapsed. The soldiers dragged it awkwardly from the post and began pushing it into the pit.
They all plainly and certainly knew that they were criminals who must hide the traces of their guilt as quickly as possible.
Pierre glanced into the pit and saw that the factory lad was lying with his knees close up to his head and one shoulder higher than the other. That shoulder rose and fell rhythmically and convulsively, but spadefuls of earth were already being thrown over the whole body. One of the soldiers, evidently suffering, shouted gruffly and angrily at Pierre to go back. But Pierre did not understand him and remained near the post, and no one drove him away.
When the pit had been filled up a command was given. Pierre was taken back to his place, and the rows of troops on both sides of the post made a half turn and went past it at a measured pace. The twenty-four sharpshooters with discharged muskets, standing in the center of the circle, ran back to their places as the companies passed by.
Pierre gazed now with dazed eyes at these sharpshooters who ran in couples out of the circle. All but one rejoined their companies. This one, a young soldier, his face deadly pale, his shako pushed back, and his musket resting on the ground, still stood near the pit at the spot from which he had fired. He swayed like a drunken man, taking some steps forward and back to save himself from falling. An old, noncommissioned officer ran out of the ranks and taking him by the elbow dragged him to his company. The crowd of Russians and Frenchmen began to disperse. They all went away silently and with drooping heads.
“That will teach them to start fires,” said one of the Frenchmen.
Pierre glanced round at the speaker and saw that it was a soldier who was trying to find some relief after what had been done, but was not able to do so. Without finishing what he had begun to say he made a hopeless movement with his arm and went away.
* It’s our practice (although we’re sure it’s been violated here and there) to utilize Gregorian dates universally after the mid-18th century, even for executions in Orthodox Christendom where the Julian calendar prevailed into the 20th century. For this post, seeing as it’s straight from the text of Tolstoy himself, in his magnum opus, channeling the soul of the Russian rodina, we’re making an exception: the 12-day-slower, local-to-Russia Julian calendar prevails … just like the Russians themselves did.
On this date in 1937, a 51-year-old Russian peasant by the name of Andrei Stepanovich Arzhilovsky was executed by firing squad, having been convicted of membership in a “counterrevolutionary kulak sabotage organization.”
Arzhilovsky, who had five young children by the time of his death, was evidently a nefarious thought-criminal with a record. He had sufficient literacy to join the regional administration in the nineteen-teens, which led to his arrest in 1919 in the wake of the October Revolution of two years previously.
He denied having ever persecuted Communist sympathizers, but a revolutionary tribunal sentenced him to eight years in prison.
Released after an amnesty in 1923, Arzhilovsky returned home, took up farming again, joined the peasant cooperative and took up a number of other minor civic posts. He owned 8.1 hectares of cultivated land, a house and outbuildings, two horses, two cows and other livestock. He was classified as a farmer of average means — that is, not a kulak or class enemy — but in 1929 he was convicted of “counterrevolutionary agitation” and sentenced to a decade in a labor camp.
In 1936, Arzhilovsky was released from detention early for health reasons. They expected him to go home and die, but instead he took an accounting job at a factory.
Perhaps frustrated by Arzhilovsky’s refusal to expire, the NKVD “uncovered” the “conspiracy” that lead to his death sentence. Under interrogation, he had to admit his opinions weren’t purely Soviet. Perhaps that alone was enough.
Arzhilovsky was a simple farmer, just one of the millions who died during Stalin’s Great Terror from 1936-1938. He probably would have been forgotten entirely today were it not for the forty-page diary he kept during the year prior to his death.
On this day in 1941, seventeen-year-old Shaya “Shaike” Iwensky came within seconds of being shot by the Einsatzgruppen outside the city of Daugavpils, Latvian SSR. Sheer dumb luck — and a slight miscalculation by the Germans — saved his life.
Shaike was born and raised in Jonava, Lithuania and fled to Daugavpils with his brother when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. On June 29, he was arrested along with the other Jewish male adults in town. His brother, who was fifteen years old, was arrested alongside him, but released the same day because of his age.
For the next week and a half, Shaike was held in a crowded prison cell, fed almost nothing, and forced to work during the day.
On July 8, he noted “a change for the worse in our guards, an extraordinary meanness … In my worst fears, I could not have conjured up the kind of hell in which I now found myself.”
That day he and his comrades were stuck in a truly Sisyphean ordeal: forced to roll rocks up a hill, three men to a rock. They kept losing their grip and the rocks would slide back.
That night some other prisoners told him they had been forced to dig huge ditches, which were covered in chlorine.
The next day, the eighteenth day of Operation Barbarossa, Shaike found out what the ditches were for:
A series of shots … a short interruption and again shots … and again … It wasn’t long before we got the confirmation of what we’d been suspecting all along. One of the men in a neighboring cell stuck his head in the doorway, and said, “They are killing Jews. From the washroom window someone saw people lined up in the yard. They are from the first floor.”
Though this testimony specifically concerns a different massacre, in November of 1941, it gives a sense of the environment.
A couple of hours later, Shaike and the others from his part of the prison were ordered to leave and take all their belongings. They were marched down to the basement and made to empty their pockets into the “knee-deep rows of wallets, documents, pictures, watches, trinkets worthless to anyone else.” Then they were marched into the yard and formed into groups of twenty. Hoping to at least die with people he knew, Shaike stuck together with his old friends from Jonava.
The blue sky was almost clear, with only here and there a wisp of cloud. I looked up, and the thought hit me hard: I will never see the sky again.
It is said that, when a person faces death, his whole life flashes before him. But my thoughts were disjointed, disorderly; they tumbled through my mind rather like the flimsy clouds above, forming, changing shape, disappearing and reappearing … Catching myself picking at a hangnail, I thought, How silly. In a few minutes it will make no difference at all …
It occurred to me that reality was often quite unlike what we expect it to be. People standing in line to be killed didn’t look very different from those waiting to buy bread. Their faces, their eyes betray nothing of what is going on in their minds. People stand in line under the hot sun, they move ahead, then their times comes to die, and it is over.
Shaike and his friends waited in line for over two hours in the heat. He had not thrown out his handkerchief and was glad to have it to wipe the sweat from his face. Finally he and his group of twenty arrived at the gate … but when the soldiers came out, they didn’t escort them to the ditches. Instead they ordered everyone to turn around and march back to the prison.
That evening, the prisoners were ordered out again and taken to the killing ground, and then they realized what had happened: the Nazis had spared them because they had run out of ditches. The Jews had to cover the mass graves with earth, stamping down on the bodies and packing them together, and also to dig new trenches, presumably for themselves, until evening when they were sent back to the prison again.
That night, Shaike and some of his friends hid in an empty cell under blankets. The Nazis didn’t find them the next morning when they ordered the survivors out to get shot. They hid in the cell for two days before they were caught. Fortunately the Latvian guards who found them didn’t realize who they were, and merely beat them and tossed them in with some prisoners who’d arrived that same day.
Eventually, Shaike was released from the prison and taken to the Daugavpils Ghetto. He would eventually escape from there and spent some time living in the woods with a Soviet partisan detachment, going back and forth between there and the ghetto. Finally he was captured and taken first to the Stutthof Concentration Camp, then to Dachau. There he was liberated by Americans on April 29, 1945. At twenty years old, he was the sole survivor of his family.
On this date in 1740, the Russian politician Artemy Volynsky was beheaded in St. Petersburg.
Volynsky, as famously corrupt as he was famously able, had worked himself up from Peter the Great’s dragoons into the circles of high statecraft but lost a power struggle in the notoriously cruel court of Empress Anna. He’d made it all the way to Anna’s cabinet, but there made himself the rival of powerful Baltic grand chamberlain Ernst Johann von Biron: in political terms, Biron and the fellow Balt who ran foreign policy had a west-facing, German orientation, while Volynsky looked east to Central Asia, India, and China; in personal terms, Biron was the lover of the queen, and Volynsky … was not.
After Volynsky beat up a poet, Biron had the excuse to have him investigated and was able to construct as treasonable some private correspondence about changing the way things are done in Russia, Biron thereby ridding himself of the rival.
Just a few months after Volynsky’s execution, Anna herself died, leaving an ill-starred one-year-old heir and an uncertain political situation.
In the event, Biron and his fellow Germanophiles were driven out of court by the Russian grandees, who then constructed the late Volynsky — by all indications as cutthroat and grasping as anyone else at court — as a patriotic martyr vis-a-vis the detested late ascendancy of the Baltic types.*
Further to that same end, the scaffold-bound 19th century Decembrist poet Ryleyev (Ryleev) paid his own tribute to Volynsky in verse. So far, I’ve only found Ryleyev’s “Volynsky” in Russian, but here’s a little taste [courtesy of blog friend Sonechka] of the gist:
He who resists the overweening
Expects no reward and asks for none
And forgetting even himself
Sacrifices all to the motherland.
Against the cruel tyrants
He will be free even in chains
At execution justly proud
And ever after exalted.
In that same vein, Ryleyev’s contemporary Ivan Lazhechnikov featured Volynsky as the protagonist of his historical novel The Ice Palace or The Ice House,† again whitewashing the man’s ample stock of disreputable qualities.
The book’s title alludes to a famous structure put up in the winter of 1739-1740 for the royal court’s amusement, a vast frozen edifice 20 meters tall and 50 meters wide, designed by the architect Pyotr Yeropkin … a Volynsky ally who ultimately shared Volynsky’s fate on June 27, 1740.
This sounds great, but the decadent amusement park soon became the scene for one of imperial Russia’s more infamous and bizarre horrors: Anna forced an ex-prince who had been demoted to court jester for marrying a Catholic to wed a homely Kalmyk serving-girl, with whom he would have to pass a “wedding night” naked in that icebox. (Somehow, they managed to survive.)
The yellow-clad Anna dances merrily while her terrified servants/prey brace to survive a winter night on the ice bed. Detail view; click for the full painting.