Posts filed under 'USSR'

1943: Maria Kislyak, honeytrapper

Add comment June 18th, 2017 Headsman

Soviet resistance operatives Maria Kislyak, Fedor Roudenko and Vasily Bougrimenko hanged on this date in 1943 by Nazi occupation.

Kislyak, an 18-year-old from Kharkov, Ukraine who is esteemed a Hero of the Soviet Union,* is the best-known of them and made herself the poisoned honey in a trap for German officers.

As ferocious Eastern Front fighting raged near her city, Kislyak feigned affection for a German lieutenant and thereby lured him to a woodland rendezvous where her friend Roudenko ambushed him and bludgeoned him to death.

Kislyak endured German torture without admitting anything and was even released since the man’s comrades couldn’t be sure that the local flirt had anything to do with the murder. But when she and her friends pulled the trick a second time, the Germans forced the assassins to reveal themselves by threatening to shoot random hostages en masse.

* One of three women so honored for their service during World War II, all of whom have been featured in these grim annals; the others are Klava Nazarova and Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Hanged,History,Mature Content,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Summary Executions,Torture,Ukraine,USSR,Wartime Executions,Women

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1943: The massacre of Janowa Dolina

3 comments April 23rd, 2017 Headsman

On or very near this date in 1943, a Ukrainian militia massacred the Poles of the village of Janowa Dolina (Yanova Dolina).


Janowa Dolina in the 1930s. The village was a model settlement for workers at the nearby basalt quarry, jobs given at that time by official preferences to Poles. It was created in the 1920s, and featured an orderly plot with running water and electricity throughout.

In World War II, each theater of the war was unhappy in its own way. For the beautiful region of Volhynia long straddling the blood-soaked marches between Poland and Ukraine, it meant a ghastly local war under the umbrella of German occupation.

Mostly Polish in the interwar years, when Ukrainian residents chafed under “Polonization” policies, Volhynia had come fully under Soviet control when Berlin and Moscow carved up Poland in 1939, and then, of course, fully under German control in 1941. In these years of ash and bone, ethnic compositions in Volhynia were redrawn with every desperate ferocity nationalism could muster: pogroms visited neighbor upon neighbor, or ethnic cleansing visited state upon subject. It would be Ukrainian ultras positioned in the end to fantasize about ethnic purity by dint of their collaboration with the conquering Reich.

Come 1943, Poles comprised a shrinking minority in Volhynia. The prospect of purging this borderlands to cinch its place in a Ukrainian homeland made those Poles an inviting target for a campaign of ethnic slaughter that’s remembered now as the Volhynia or Volyn Massacres. And with the German defeat at Stalingrad and the Red Army’s advance on eastern Ukraine, Reich administration further west had become sufficiently distracted by more urgent priorities that genocidaires* perceived their moment to strike.

“We should undertake a great action of extermination of the Polish element. As the German armies withdraw, we should take advantage of this convenient moment to exterminate the entire male population from 16 to 60 years of age,” thundered Dmytro Klyachkivsky, a commander of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), military organ of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN-B).** “As the German armies withdraw, we should take advantage of this convenient moment for liquidating the entire male population from the age of 16 up to 60 years. We cannot lose this battle, and it is necessary to diminish Polish forces at all costs. Forest villages and those near forests, should disappear from the face of the earth.”

Many specific atrocities, beginning in February 1943 and continuing well into 1944, comprise this liquidation drive.

The one of interest for this post is the invasion on the night of April 22-23 — the eve and morning of Good Friday — of Janowa Dolina, a predominantly Polish village where 600 were massacred by the UPA and the village put to the torch.†

This horror is commemorated by a monument at the site …


The 1990 monument commemorating Poles murdered by UPA. Here’s a closer view of the stone marker, and here’s the inscription on the adjacent cross.

… but there seems to be a slight difference of opinion: the event is also memorialized by a rival stone erected by Ukrainian nationalists which “gives glory to the Ukrainian heroes” of the UPA for “destroying the fortifications of the Polish-German occupiers.”‡


(Thanks to Sonechka for translation help.)

As anyone holding even passing familiarity with events in present-day Ukraine will surely know this is no mere historiographical quibble; the legacy of the OUN from World War II and of its descendants on the modern far right remain deeply contentious in and out of Ukraine.

* Poland officially (and to the dismay of Ukraine) considers this campaign a genocide. There’s also a Polish film on the horrors of Wolyn.

** The OUN split factionally; the “-B” suffix in this case stands for Stepan Bandera, leader of the most militant faction; his surname is still today a byword and/or slur (“Banderists”) for Ukrainian fascism. Its rival faction was the more moderate OUN-M, led by Andriy Melnyk.

† The territory became Ukrainian — which at the time meant Soviet — after World War II and remains so today, so Janowa Dolina is now the Ukrainian town of Bazaltove. There’s a Flickr album tour of the muddy mining village, including photos of the Polish monument and a separate marker for Soviet POWs, but not the UPA monument, here.

‡ The UPA stone also cites April 21-22 as the date. It appears to me, a distant non-specialist, that the Ukrainian construction on what adherents prefer to more neutrally describe as the “tragedy” of Janowa Valley spreads action over two days and emphasizes alleged guerrilla actions by the UPA against German occupation targets prior to destroying the village.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Disfavored Minorities,Germany,History,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Poland,Put to the Sword,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Shot,Summary Executions,Ukraine,USSR,Wartime Executions

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1942: The massacre at the Pit

Add comment March 2nd, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1942, the start of Purim,* Nazi forces occupying Minsk massacred approximately 5,000 Jews from the Minsk Ghetto at a site known simply as Yama, “the Pit”.

The site, which hosts memorial events every March 2, was marked with a somber obelisk in the immediate postwar years; unusually for a Stalin-era monument, it is overt about the Jewish character of the victims — for Soviet propaganda often obfuscated this with a technically-correct formulation such as “Russian citizens”. In this case, the 1940s memorial obelisk remarkably had a Yiddish inscription to mirror its Russian one. (The sculpture of a column of faceless people tragically descending the slope into the pit was added in the post-Soviet period.)


All images (cc) Dennis Jarvis.

Minsk’s pre-war Jewish population of more than 50,000 was almost entirely annihilated during World War II.

* It was not the only place in the Reich’s occupation to mark Purim with blood.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Belarus,Borderline "Executions",Children,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Germany,History,Jews,Known But To God,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Russia,Shot,Summary Executions,USSR,Wartime Executions,Women

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1942: Six aspiring escapees from Dulag-205

1 comment December 18th, 2016 Headsman

On about the 18th December 1942 a group of about 6 prisoners intended to escape but were betrayed by somebody. All six prisoners were led out ofthe camp beyond the wire, taken about 20 metres to a pit and shot without any hearing. Before the execution the interpreter told the prisoners that the 6 men had wanted to escape from the camp and for that they would be executed. This would happen to anyone who tried to escape from the camp. The surnames of those who died are not known to me.

This is the testimony of Konstantin Krupachenko, a Red Army prisoner-of-war retrieved from the Germans’ “Dulag-205″ camp — a transit facility behind German lines at Stalingrad which was liberated as the Soviets overran the encircled German position.

Krupachenko’s testimony was part of the evidence prepared against six Wehrmacht officers taken prisoner at that camp and ultimately executed, men whose case we have previously detailed.

Though not well-known and hardly by scale a major contributor to the ghastly death toll among Soviet POWs, Dulag-205 was horror aplenty for those who survived it. Starvation rations gave way to no rations at all in the dead of winter, and the skeletal inmates cannibalized the dead. Harassment by guard-dogs, capricious beatings, and the usual regimen of dawn-to-dusk forced labor were the lot of the lucky ones.

The less fortunate, well …

On about the 25th November 1942 while working on a road which led to Gumrak three kilometres from the camp a group of prisoners of about 50-60 was levelling and clearing the road. One prisoner whose name I don’t know collapsed from tiredness and exhaustion and couldn’t work. The guard tried to force the exhausted man to stand and work but the prisoner couldn’t get up. Then the guard shot the prisoner dead with a sub-machine gun and ordered that he be buried in a ditch at the side ofthe road. (Krupachenko again)


There were public executions in the camp. In January 1943 on about the lOth-llth a former senior Lieutenant of the Red Army, his surname I don’t know, was executed for allegedly organising an escape attempt. (Anatoly Alexeev)


In all cases the Germans would shoot prisoners without any warnings at all. In the month of October 1942 I personally saw up to 30 prisoners shot. They shot people every day for falling behind to and from work, and sometimes for breaking ranks. I am unable to give the surnames of the prisoners shot by the Germans. Moreover, when we were herded from the Alekseevka camp to the area of Karpovka village, then several prisoners were shot dead by German officers for the fact that when we were working we were bombarded by Soviet troops and several prisoners took cover. After the firing had stopped the officers came out of their trench dug-outs and shot them on the spot. Three prisoners were shot dead for taking some tobacco while working on a dump. (Ivan Kosinov)


As one of the Germans on trial for these abuses agreed (Otto Mäder was trying to throw blame onto the camp commanders),

[t]here was no trial of any kind, they [prisoners] were shot without any trial on the order of [Dulag-205 commandant] Colonel Korpert. I am a lawyer by education and I understand perfectly that this these shootings were illegal, simply murder in fact.

All these quotations are via Frank Ellis’s “Dulag-205: The German Army’s Death Camp for Soviet Prisoners at Stalingrad” (Journal of Slavic Military Studies, March 2006),

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Concentration Camps,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Russia,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,USSR,Wartime Executions

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1936: Vladimir Mutnykh, Bolshoi director

Add comment November 26th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1937, the director of Moscow’s famed Bolshoi Theater was shot in the Gulag … even as Uncle Joe mangled his greatest commission.

Vladimir Ivanovich Mutnykh is the man whose suffering occasions this post but as with the Terror itself he will for us be a footnote to a different story.

Mutnykh ultimately fell prey to the chill that Stalin cast over Soviet arts — where come the 1930s the only fare liable to pass muster with the censors (or indeed, with the executioners) were creations of turgid doctrinal correctness or cautious revivals from the pre-Revolutionary literary canon.

The strictures on artists also reflected Moscow’s abiding preoccupation with the cultural preeminence of Russia and of Communism.

Among the USSR’s many and varied exertions towards the latter end during the 1930s, not least was a project to induce a return to the motherland by genius (and homesick) composer Sergei Prokofiev, who had been mostly living and working Europe since the Bolshevik Revolution.*

In the mid-1930s, Stalin’s cultural ambassadors finally got their man.** And one of the plums that secured Prokofiev’s permanent repatriation was a commission to create for Mutnykh’s Bolshoi Theater a ballet version of the Shakespeare classic Romeo and Juliet.

Today, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet is one of the best-known and most widely performed of all his considerable output.

Some might even call Romeo and Juliet Prokofiev’s magnum opus. But Prokofiev wouldn’t have called it that.

Having gone to such great trouble to lure back a revolutionary artist, Soviet cultural officers were predictably aghast to discover that he produced a revolutionary reimagining of the Bard. In Prokofiev’s original composition, the star-crossed lovers get a happy ending and escape together instead of dying in the tomb. “Living people can dance, the dead cannot,” Prokofiev explained, unavailingly. The idea is that their love transcends the shackles of their family rivalry; even, that they had transcended the backwards political order that made them enemies. But Soviet bureaucrats were positively hidebound when it came to fiddling with the classics, and the director was forced to return to the tragic ending.

Nor was this the end of the meddling.

In 1936, joyless cultural commissar Platon Kerzhentsev ransacked the Bolshoi leadership, including Mutnykh — who had given the initial green light to Prokofiev’s first, heretical version.

For the next several years, the ballet with the checkerboard floor was twisted into shape by the Soviet bureaucracy, wringing change after change out of a frustrated but powerless Prokofiev. By the time it finally premiered — at the Kirov, not the Bolshoi — Prokofiev’s collaborator dramatist Sergei Radlov disgustedly wrote to friends that “I take no responsibility for this disgrace.”

“The version that’s known and loved around the world is completely incorrect,” said Simon Morrison, a Princeton professor. “There’s an act missing. There are dances orchestrated by people against Prokofiev’s wishes, and other stuff he was forced to put in there against his will.”

In the course of researching his 2010 book on Prokofiev, The People’s Artist, Morrison amazingly dredged up the original Prokofiev composition and documentary trails showing that the composer was forced to scrap three too-exotic dances, to “thicken” the orchestration, and to add elements like a group dance number and solos to show off the Kirov’s talent.† The ballet didn’t debut at the Bolshoi until 1946, when Stalin himself signed off it.

“Once the work was performed, Prokofiev was dismayed at a lot of things, including the sound of the orchestra. He wrote a long letter of protest but none of the changes were made to the score,” Morrison told the London Independent. “It became the canonic version, a reorganised, torn-up work. It’s a testament to how great the melodic writing is – it still became a great classic despite this mangling of it.”

A few books by Simon Morrison on Prokofiev and his world

* Prokofiev was neither an exile nor a refugee; his departure from the USSR in 1918 was voluntary and legally blessed. He had had no problem in the intervening years coming back to Russia and leaving again.

** One immediate product of Prokofiev’s return was the beloved 1936 children’s production Peter and the Wolf.

He also in 1938 gloriously scored Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky.

† Morrison in 2008 staged performances of Prokofiev’s original version of Romeo and Juliet.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Russia,Shot,Treason,USSR

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1937: Panfiliya Tanailidi, Azerbaijani actress

Add comment October 15th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1937, Azerbaijani actress Panfiliya Tanailidi (various other transliterations are possible) was purged during Stalin’s terror.

Born in a tsarist governorate to Greek emigres, Tanailidi (English Wikipedia entry | Azerbaijani) was treading the Caucasus boards as a teenager in the pregnant century’s first decade.

She became an accomplished stage and screen actress, starring in 1930s silents Ismet and Almaz.

Come the Stalin years when any pretext was enough to destroy a body, the pretext against Tanailidi was apparently her affiliations with an Iran then taking a concerted anti-Soviet line: the actress had toured Iran in 1917 and had friends like Govhar Aliyeva who had fled the Soviet Union for Iran. This was more than enough to cast the pall of espionage about her.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Azerbaijan,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,History,Russia,Shot,USSR,Women

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1987: Gennady Modestovich Mikhasevich, Belarus serial killer

Add comment September 25th, 2016 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1987* in the Belarusian SSR, highly prolific serial killer Gennady Modestovich Mikhasevich was put to death by firing squad. Police were able to prove he’d committed 36 murders; he confessed to 43, but the actual total may have been 55 deaths or perhaps more.

Robert Keller notes in his book Murder By Numbers: The 100 Most Deadly Serial Killers From Around The World that, as was in the case with Mikhasevich’s contemporary, Andrei Chikatilo, the investigation was seriously hindered by the authorities’ insistence that serial killers were a decadent capitalist phenomenon and didn’t exist in their socialist paradise:

“The murders are separate incidents,” the police insisted, “not connected at all.” And so off they went to arrest a suspect, four in fact over a fourteen-­year period, one of whom was executed. It was an arcane and inept stance, one that allowed a killer to massacre at least 33 young women in 14 years.

On the surface, Mikhasevich (English Wikipedia entry | Russian | Belarussian) was an ordinary enough man: born in the village of Ist in the Vitebsk Oblast’ in 1947, as an adult he served in the military, graduated college, got a job in a machine repair shop, married and sired two children.

He was conscientious at his work, a caring father, and didn’t drink. He was a Communist Party member — in fact, he was chosen to be secretary of the local committee — and also a member of the Voluntary People’s Druzhina, a sort of Soviet equivalent to the Neighborhood Watch.

But who watches the watchmen?

Mikhasevich committed his first murder on May 14, 1971. He came home from his stint in the army and discovered that his girlfriend back in Ist had left him and married another man.

Devastated, a few days later he decided to hang himself. He was walking to a nearby forest to do the deed, carrying the rope, when he met a woman on the road. Rather had commit suicide, Mikhasevich took his anger out on the stranger, dragging her off into the woods and strangling her.

He must have liked it, because he killed again later that year, and twice more in 1972.

And the list kept growing.

With his early murders, he would wait at an isolated spot, hoping that a woman would chance along. Now he had a car, a red Zaporozhets, so he cruised the roads looking for victims. None of the women ever refused to get into his car. In a backwater like Ist, a ride in a motor vehicle was a real treat. (Keller)

Mikhasevich would drive his victim to an isolated spot and then turn on her. Throttling her into unconsciousness. He’d then rape the woman before strangling her with a rope. Then he’d rob the victim of money and valuables, toss the body at the side of the road and drive off. In common with many serial killers, he often kept souvenirs.

By the 1980s, the police had finally conceded that the murders were related, and witnesses reported the killer drove a red Zaporozhets. Investigators started checking who in the oblast’ owned that particular vehicle, and called on the Voluntary People’s Druzhina for help with their inquiries.

Thus, Mikhasevich began investigating his own crimes.

Authorities were stopping and questioning anyone seen driving a red Zaporozhets, but the investigation went nowhere; the killer appeared to be invisible. Mikhasevich, as a druzhina, was of course aware of where the cops were and when, and he evaded them easily. He claimed fourteen victims in 1984 and twelve more the following year.

He was growing a bit nervous, though, so to derail the investigation he sent a letter to a local newspaper, supposedly written by members of an organization called the “Patriots of Vitebsk.” The letter said the murders were being committed by them and they were trying to rid the oblast’ of “lewd women.”

The police were inclined to write the letter off as a sick joke. But then a note turned up at one of the crime scenes, written in the same hand. It was signed, “the patriots of Vitebsk.”

Galvanized, the cops decided to check the handwriting of all the men living in the oblast. After sorting through 556,000 samples, graphologists found a match: Gennady Mikhasevich.

He was arrested on December 9, 1985, fourteen and a half years after his first murder. As the police were hauling him away in handcuffs, he told his wife, “This is a mistake. I’ll be right back.” Taken to the prosecutor’s office, he was asked, “Are you the patriot of Vitebsk?”

He ultimately broke down and confessed, leading investigators to the place where he’d hidden some of his victims’ belongings. He’d given other items to his wife as gifts; in one case, he even melted down two wedding rings from women he’d murdered and used them to make dental fillings and crowns for his wife.

According to Mikhasevich, although he did rape his victims, he got the most satisfaction out of killing them.

From there on it was a short trip to the firing squad.

The case was widely remembered in the area, not only for the terrible crimes Mikhasevich committed, but for the wrongfully convicted men and the ineptitude of the police. Several officials were dismissed from their posts, and one prosecutor was himself prosecuted for abuse of power.

Who watches the watchmen?

* Many Soviet executions were conducted in secrecy and have elusive dating as a result. In September 25 we’re going with the most commonly attributed date and the one favored at present by Russian and Belarussian Wikipedia. However, alternate dates as late as February 3, 1988 are also out there.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Belarus,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,History,Murder,Other Voices,Rape,Russia,Serial Killers,Shot,USSR

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1986: Adolf Tolkachev, the Billion-Dollar Spy

Add comment September 24th, 2016 Headsman

The U.S.S.R. executed alleged* U.S. mole Adolf Tolkachev on this date in 1986.

Tolkachev (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) had grown up during the Stalin years — background he would cite by way of explaining his subsequent actions against the Soviet state and its “impassable, hypocritical demagoguery.” (His wife had been orphaned by the purges of the 1930s.)

Inspired, he said, by the dissidence of writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974) and bomb engineer Andrei Sakharov (prevented from leaving the Soviet Union to collect his 1975 Nobel Peace Prize), Tolkachev in the late 1970s boldly made contact** with U.S. intelligence officers at the Moscow petrol station where they fueled their cars. He immediately became one of the Americans’ most valuable assets — literally so; the 2015 book about him is titled The Billion Dollar Spy.

Tolkachev’s day job for a top-secret aviation laboratory gave him access to priceless documents on the development of the Soviet aircraft, radar, and weapons guidance and using a James Bond-esque miniature Pentax supplied him by Langley, Tolkachev snapped photos of those secrets for delivery to the Americans. It’s claimed — this is the reason for the billion-dollar stuff — that Tolkachev’s tips drove research and development in American military technology in vastly more effective directions.

The spy himself was paid for his risks in rubles and in a U.S. escrow fund pending his eventual defection.

But his last payment turned out to be a bullet, courtesy of betrayal by CIA turncoat Edward Lee Howard and/or that bane of spies Aldrich Ames.

* The date is supplied courtesy of a September 25, 1986 Politburo document referring to Tolkachev’s execution “yesterday”.

Note however that the prevailing Tolkachev story as presented in this post is disputed by CIA historian Benjamin Fischer, who has argued that “Adolf Tolkachev” was a KGB prank on its opposite number in the Cold War’s Spy vs. Spy game.

** Tolkachev really had to insist upon himself to his American handlers: the first four times he approached US embassy personnel with overtures he was rebuffed or ignored as a probable Soviet plant.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,History,Russia,Shot,Spies,USSR

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1937: Lev Karakhan, Marina Semyonova’s husband

Add comment September 20th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1937, the dancer Marina Semyonova lost her husband to the Great Purge.

Semyonova was perhaps the premier Soviet ballerina in the interwar era before the ascent of Maya Plitsetskaya* but artistic genius conferred no safety from the purges.

Least of all was that so for family members who happened to be that choicest of Stalin’s prey, an Old Bolshevik.

Semyonova’s husband Lev Karakhan (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) was an Armenian revolutionary and former Menshevik who joined the Bolsheviks before the October Revolution. He spent the 1920s and 1930s in various foreign policy roles, right up until the end: just a few months before his death, he had been the USSR’s ambassador to Turkey, when he received that ominous recall.

He even gave his name to a 1919 “Karakhan Manifesto”, which was Moscow’s attempt to get friendly with China.

Its author was more successful getting friendly with the Bolshoi’s prima ballerina around 1930, when both were married to other people. Their affair turned civil marriage without hampering the career of either partner; indeed, Semyonova had the honor and terror of accepting the Order of the Red Banner from Stalin’s own hands in June 1937, just a month after her husband had been arrested.

Semyonova just continued performing, because what choice did one have? She only recently died, in 2010, just shy of her 102nd birthday — as one of the legends of her craft.

* Maya Plisetskaya was also touched by Stalin’s terror: in 1937, when Maya was only 11, her father was disappeared into the gulag and killed; her mother was arrested shortly after and survived a forced labor camp in Kazakhstan.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Execution,History,Notably Survived By,Politicians,Revolutionaries,Russia,Shot,Torture,Treason,USSR

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1921: Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg

Add comment September 15th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1921, the Mad Baron* of the Russian Civil War was shot in Novosibirsk.


“Before fleeing the Red Army, Whites torch the grain”: civil war propaganda poster from this spellbinding collection.

Were you a Bolshevik propagandist during that war, interested in portraying the tsarist rearguard as literally a gaggle of psychopathic foreigners, Roman von Ungern-Sternberg was some kind of godsend. (Here’s his English Wikipedia page | German | Russian)

A German-descended lord in Estonia whose family owed its ennoblement to the exercises of the “crusaders and privateers” (the baron’s words, perhaps holding more of self-promotion than truth) up the family tree. One ancestor was supposedly a notorious Baltic Sea pirate.

Ungern — he’s often known simply by the one name — had the courage of rash irascibility; as a tsarist officer in the years ahead of the Great War he was notorious for his hard drinking and penchant for fighting duels.** Expelled from his regiment, he wandered in the transbaikal and beyond, picking up the Mongolian tongue and Buddhist occultism into the bargain.† He returned to fight in the European front up to 1917 like a loyal Russian, and got court martialed for attempted murder after one of his furies, but his destiny lay in the East.

The man was a ferocious monarchist and a disdainer of the “morally deficient” West — unto which he would make a terrible scourge when the hated Communists seized the state. Ungern had been at that time collaborating with Grigory Semenov to raise non-Russian troops from the peoples on the fringes of Moscow’s empire; now they would become with those troops warlords holding out against the Reds, Ungern returning to establish himself in Mongolia — indeed, as the power in an unsettled frontier itself between two revolutions. Prior to his execution in 1921, he was the dictator of Mongolia, the power behind the throne of the very last khan — and that wasn’t the half of it for Ungern also positioned himself as an avatar of the very God of War.

Certainly he strove to justify this colorful apotheosis by dint of a legendary bloodthirstiness, now that he had armies and states into which to pour his violent passions instead of merely rival barracks-mates.

Reports of Ungern’s sadism almost beggar belief and might have profited by extra embroidery since both the man and his enemies inclined to show him in the most implacable light imaginable. As James Boyd points out in “‘A Very Quiet, Outspoken, Pleasant Gentleman[sic]': The United States Military Attache’s Reports on Baron von Ungern-Sternberg, March 1921″ in Inner Asia, vol. 12, no. 2 (2010), much of what we think we know of his behavior traces ultimately to the less than reliable (albeit firsthand) pen of a traveler named Ferdinand Antoni Ossendowski.

The latter was a Polish wanderer who went to Mongolia. Ossendowski became Ungern’s friend, but he’d already been born a prose-purpler. Ossendowski’s account of his and his soon-to-be-ex-traveling companion first encountering “the terrible general, the Baron” would curl your hair.

After a talk with Kazagrandi the Baron invited Colonel N. N. Philipoff and me into his presence. Colonel Kazagrandi brought the word to me. I wanted to go at once but was detained about half an hour by the Colonel, who then sped me with the words:

“Now God help you! Go!”

It was a strange parting message, not reassuring and quite enigmatical. I took my Mauser and also hid in the cuff of my coat my cyanide of potassium. The Baron was quartered in the yurta of the military doctor. When I entered the court, Captain Veseloffsky came up to me. He had a Cossack sword and a revolver without its holster beneath his girdle. He went into the yurta to report my arrival.

“Come in,” he said, as he emerged from the tent.

At the entrance my eyes were struck with the sight of a pool of blood that had not yet had time to drain down into the ground — an ominous greeting that seemed to carry the very voice of one just gone before me. I knocked.

“Come in!” was the answer in a high tenor. As I passed the threshold, a figure in a red silk Mongolian coat rushed at me with the spring of a tiger, grabbed and shook my hand as though in flight across my path and then fell prone on the bed at the side of the tent.

“Tell me who you are! Hereabouts are many spies and agitators,” he cried out in an hysterical voice, as he fixed his eyes upon me. In one moment I perceived his appearance and psychology. A small head on wide shoulders; blonde hair in disorder; a reddish bristling moustache; a skinny, exhausted face, like those on the old Byzantine ikons. Then everything else faded from view save a big, protruding forehead overhanging steely sharp eyes. These eyes were fixed upon me like those of an animal from a cave. My observations lasted for but a flash but I understood that before me was a very dangerous man ready for an instant spring into irrevocable action.

He is a warrior in the 20th century’s great ideological battle, yes, but it is difficult to capture in an excerpt like this the spellbinding and queer monster that Ossendowski presents us, a European landlord able to bend Asiatic mythology to his person until charges who were convinced that Ungern could not be slain were “rushing about in long blue coats; Mongols and Tibetans in red coats with yellow epaulets bearing the swastika of Jenghiz Khan and the initials of the Living Buddha.”

Ossendowski would describe the Baron’s savagery in lurid reverence in his Beasts, Men and Gods

Thus lived this camp of martyrs, refugees pursued by events to their tryst with Death, driven on by the hate and contempt of this offspring of Teutons and privateers! And he, martyring them, knew neither day nor night of peace. Fired by impelling, poisonous thoughts, he tormented himself with the pains of a Titan, knowing that every day in this shortening chain of one hundred thirty links brought him nearer to the precipice called “Death.” also permit Ungern to have his own say for himself.

— but also sympathetically channel Ungern’s self-vindication:

“Some of my associates in the movement do not like me because of my atrocities and severity,” he remarked in a sad voice. “They cannot understand as yet that we are not fighting a political party but a sect of murderers of all contemporary spiritual culture. Why do the Italians execute the ‘Black Hand’ gang? Why are the Americans electrocuting anarchistic bomb throwers? and I am not allowed to rid the world of those who would kill the soul of the people? I, a Teuton, descendant of crusaders and privateers, I recognize only death for murderers!”

Ungern’s khanate became increasingly squeezed between the Red Army and Chinese nationalist forces, and he was finally driven out by a mutiny to eventual capture by the Soviets — who found the white War-God alone in the deserts that had answered his mastery, clad in the saffron robes of his deposed estate. There was none of his rage on display at his short trial; Ungern full well knew his fate, and when mockingly offered his life by the judge if he would humiliate himself by singing the “Internationale,” the defendant cleverly countered by daring the judge first to sing the tsarist national anthem. As it should for any mystic, Ungern’s enigma outlived his fleshing form.

“You can interpret Ungern as you wish,” Leonid Yuzefovich wrote,‡

as a hero of the anti-Bolshevik struggle, a brigand-chief, a Eurasian in the saddle; as a predecessor to fascism, a medieval fossil, a herald of future global clashes between East and West, a creator of one of the darkest utopias of the twentieth century; as one of the tyrants that grow on the remnants of great empires, or as a maniac, inebriated with the crude extracts of great ideas. But whatever you think, in all these variants the fate of that Baltic baron who became the ruler of Mongolia, in all its frightening unreality conceals some answers to the crucial questions of the epoch.

* Not to be confused with the Black Baron, a stone-faced Germanic nobleman named Peter Wrangel who wound up commanding White forces in southern Russia during the same war. Wrangel (as “Vrangel”) enjoyed a prominent role as public enemy no. 1 in anti-White propaganda.


“Vrangel is coming!” (same site)

** In one such fray, Ungern-Sternberg picked up a nasty saber knock to the noggin. It’s been speculated that the unbalanced behavior of his later life owed a lot to that head injury: concussions are no joke.

† Biographical details heavily cribbed from Canfield Smith, “The Ungernovshchina — How and Why?” in Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas, Bd. 28, H. 4 (1980), pp. 590-595.

‡ Quote via a review of The Autocrat of the Desert by Julia Latynina in History Workshop Journal, no. 39 (Spring 1995).

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Mongolia,Nobility,Power,Russia,Shot,Soldiers,Treason,USSR,Wartime Executions

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