Posts filed under 'Intellectuals'

1938: Vladimir Beneshevich, Byzantinist

Add comment January 17th, 2020 Headsman

One of Russia’s most cherished national myths is that of the “Third Rome” — Russia (via its protean polity, Muscovy) as the successor to Byzantium, which in turn succeeded Rome. Modern humans might no longer do the thing where the official lineage of the sitting dynasty traces to the loins of the local war-god, but claiming a through line all the way back to Romulus and Remus is a pretty good simulacrum.

Like all national mythologies, it’s an idea with a history of its own — and not one that enjoyed anything like its contemporary popularity at the moment that, say, Byzantium fell to the Turks. After all, those Byzantines were were an emblem of defeat.

“Political thinkers of this period, for example Ivan Peresvetov, warned Ivan the Terrible against imitating the Byzantine basileis [emperors], who had lost their empire because they had ceded their prerogatives to their magnates,” as S.A. Ivanov puts it in a chapter of The Reception of Byzantium in European Culture since 1500 — our primary source for this post. “Generally speaking, Byzantium was viewed ultimately as a failure, and nobody particularly cherished that pedigree. The same Peresvetov presented Mehmet the Conqueror as a true role model for the Muscovite tsar.”

It was a Pskov monk named Filofei (Philotheus) who formulated the Rome-Constantinople-Moscow succession around the turn of the 16th century but according to Ivanov the appeal to Byzantium was no more than occasionally and superficially grasped at in the centuries that followed, and then completely binned by Peter the Great — oriented as he was towards those counter-Byzantine values of efficiency, modernity and the west. (It’s only quite recently that western interest in Byzantium has revived.)

Only in the 19th century did Byzantium as a kindred civilization emerge widely for Russians in something like the shape of the myth as it exists today. No surprise, the scholarly field associated with it, fascinated as it was with kingship and Orthodox Christianity, became associated in the subsequent generations with right-wing politics … and by the end of this post, we will come to the execution during the Stalinist purges of an eminent scholar of Byzantium named Vladimir Beneshevich. While this fate is not surprising on its face for the circumstances, we think the journey of the idea — continuing as it does down to the present day — is well worth the taking. The following is excerpted from Ivanov:

The Byzantine question reappeared in the nineteenth century, when the Russian elite became aware of Russia’s uncertain status among the civilizations of the world. Yet the tone of the discussion had changed: in 1836 the philosopher Pyotr Chaadaev in his ‘Philosophical Letters’, asserted that the very choice made by Rus’ in favour of Constantinople, not Rome, had rendered inevitable the misfortune of Russia: … ‘Driven by a baneful fate, we turned to Byzantium, wretched and despised by nations, for a moral code that was to become the basis of our education’. This was the opening of the debate that has continued until today without any substantial variations in its terms or arguments …

Byzantium as an empire once again gained importance in the middle of the nineteenth century. When the notorious Jakob Fallmerayer [a race theorist later beloved of the Nazis -ed.] enunciated his theory regarding the Slavicization of the Balkans in Byzantine times, he wanted to warn the West against the ‘Russian menace’; the Russophobic nature of his theory notwithstanding, the new trend of thought in Russia, the so-called Slavophiles used it to substantiate their claim to the Byzantine legacy. The earliest Slavophile and the great Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev had many conversations with Fallmerayer in Munich ‘de fatis byzantinis’, as the latter notes in his diary, in which he also briefly recorded Tyutchev’s ideas: ‘Byzanz Heilige Stadt. Pruritus Rezidenz zu verlegen’. For Tyutchev, as for the other ‘Slavophiles’, Constantinople was a ‘natural’ goal, but it was not an end in itself: in his poem ‘Prophesy’ (1850) Tyutchev implored the Russian tsar: ‘And the vaults of ancient Sophia / In resurrected Byzantium / Will again shelter the altar of Christ. / Throw yourself down in front of it, oh, Tsar of Russia, / And rise as the Tsar of all the Slavs’. The fact that the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1853 coincided with the 400th anniversary of the Fall of Byzantium inspired a new upswing of imperialistic dreams. The poet Apollon Maikov wrote: ‘Let everyone know that the dream of Christian Byzantium is still alive in Russia!’

There were two facets to the Russian debate on the Byzantine legacy: the political one dealt with the fate of Constantinople and the Orthodox Christians after the imminent demise of the Ottoman Empire. Some, like Fyodor Dostoevsky, insisted that ‘Constantinople must become Russian’; others thought that it should become the capital of a Pan-Slavic federation. Saltykov-Shchedrin, a great Russian satirist of the second half of the nineteenth century, mocked the Russian obsession with Byzantium in ‘The History of a Town’. Yet, this discussion on the fate of Constantinople seemed exciting and flattering to wide circles of learned society, especially in the 1870s, when a successful war with Turkey brought Russian troops to the very outskirts of Istanbul.

The other aspect of the Byzantine debate concerned domestic issues: is Russia a unique civilization, with only one predecessor, Byzantium, or is it part of Europe? When the famous German historian Zacharia von Lingenthal proposed a theory that the Byzantine peasant commune had been a Slavic innovation, this hypothetical construct was enthusiastically embraced by the Slavophiles. However, not everyone in Russia regarded the Slavic ‘link’ as indispensable. Konstantin Leontiev, a diplomat and philosopher, despised the Slavs and adored Byzantium. He used it as a symbol of theocracy, which he then offered as a model for emulation. ‘Byzantium gave us all our strength’, he wrote. ‘Under its banner we shall withstand the onslaught of the entire Europe if indeed it dares impose on us the rot and filth of its prescriptions for an earthly paradise’. Of course, he knew next to nothing about Byzantium — to him it was but an ideal construct. In his book Byzantism and Slavdom, which has been highly respected, praised and criticized ever since its publication in 1875, Byzantium proper is mentioned just a few times. Yet Leontiev was the first to coin the term ‘Byzantism’ (as opposed to ‘Byzantinism’), which became commonly used by the admirers of the Empire as a label for a benign tyranny. As a counterbalance, another new coinage, ‘byzantischina’,* emerged as the equivalent of the Western derogatory epithets, such as the German ‘Byzantinismus’ or the French ‘Byzantiner’. The debate about the Byzantine legacy involved prominent public figures such as Alexander Herzen, who condemned Byzantium for ‘debility’, as well as Vladimir Soloviev and Vasilii Rozanov. Rozanov, one of the greatest and most original thinkers of the Russian ‘Silver Age’, objected to Leontiev’s utopian constructs; his observations were so sharp that they are worth quoting at some length:

When, in what epoch were we particularly imbued with Byzantine principles? Wouldn’t everyone agree that it was during the time when Moscow was building the Russian state? But if that is so, why did we absorb these principles not during the period of our child-like receptiveness when Byzantium was alive and close to us, but at the time of our distrustful seclusion when Byzantium had already fallen? … Don’t the Byzantine origins of the Muscovite way of life represent a phenomenon that is far more illusory than real? … So when Byzantium was transformed from a powerful and attractive empire into a slave of Islam … that’s when we want Russia to be imbued with the principles of Byzantium. Isn’t that an illusion? Aren’t we ascribing to the imitation our deeply original and unique aspects? … Sophisticated and depraved Byzantium that mixed abstract disputes of theological and philosophical nature with orgies, with the noise and debauchery of the circus, can hardly be seriously regarded as an antecedent and prototype for Muscovy — morosely silent, stubbornly persistent, far more forceful than devious, so universally unrefined in its thought, taste and emotional inclinations.

Never afraid of internal contradictions, Rozanov in his later writings embraced the idea that Byzantium in fact did play a great role in Russian history, but that its role was negative: ‘Has the millennium of Byzantism in Russia done any good? One can answer with one’s hand on one’s heart: no, it has not! Then be consistent and help liberate Russia from the yoke of Byzantism’.

As the Russian Empire entered the twentieth century, Russian Byzantinism was at its peak: the conquest of the Straits (Bosphoros/Dardanelles) and the erection of a cross over St Sophia were the prime goals of Russian foreign policy. The public sentiments of the time can be illustrated by the fact that in 1912, a young Osip Mandelshtam, whose family tradition barely had any connection with the imperial Orthodox yearnings — he was a Jew who had recently moved with his parents from Poland to St Petersburg — wrote enthusiastic poems about Sophia of Constantinople:

1.
Hagia Sophia — here to stop and stare
The Lord has ordered people and the tsars!
Your dome, as an eyewitness once described it,
As if by chains is hanging from the stars.

2.
To all a shining light — age of Justinian,
When to steal off for foreign gods unseen
Dedicated Diana the Ephesian
Hundred and seven marble columns green.

3.
To what aspired your generous creator,
When high in spirit and in reason blessed,
He laid your features on the ground
And pointed them directions east and west?

4.
The temple shines, in the world’s aura bathing,
And forty windows — triumph of the light;
On sails under the dome the four archangels
Finest of all and basking in delight.

5.
This building will outlast people and ages
So wise and spherical and nobly built
And incandescent weeping of the angels
Will not corrode away the darkened gilt.

The idea that Russia itself was the reincarnation of Byzantium was mot graphically reflected in the architectural style referred to as ‘Byzantine’. This emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century and reached its peak in the first decade of the twentieth century, when 40 ‘Byzantine’ cathedrals were completed all across the Russian Empire as well as beyond Russian borders: in Greece, in Bulgaria, and even in France and Germany (in Biarritz and Kissingen). The most ostentatious and grand among them was the Naval Cathedral of St Nicholas in Kronstadt, whose similarity to Hagia Sophia of Constantinople, both in its exterior and interior decorations, is striking.

Byzantine Studies was one of the pillars of the Russian humanities. In Turkey, the Russian Archaeological Institute in Constantinople held a leading position among the city’s European academic institutions. Naturally the vast majority of scholars involved in Byzantine Studies were monarchists or at least conservatives. The only republican among them was Pavel Bezobrazov, whose book about Michael Psellos was a veiled critique of the Russian imperial bureaucracy. This tradition of ‘Aesopian language’, talking of Byzantium but implying Russia, was later used by Soviet Byzantinists.

The outbreak of World War I further spurred public debate. In 1915, the leading Byzantinist Fyodor Uspenskii submitted to Tsar Nicholas II a memo detailing the urgent steps to be taken after the Russian takeover of Constantinople. In the same year, Archbishop Antonii Khrapovitskii, one of Russia’s most influential clerics (he was the first contender for the Patriarchate) published a plea for the restoration of the Byzantine Empire in its original borders — in a sense, his dreams were even bolder than the appetites of the [Greek irredentist -ed.] ‘Megali Idea’. Yet the official position on Istanbul was less favourable to the Greeks. On 3 March 1915, Tsar Nicholas II told the French ambassador (whose name, ironically, was Paleologue), ‘The city of Constantinople and southern Thrace must be annexed to my Empire’. After the Entente Cordiale accepted his claim, the capture of Tsar’grad looked imminent. On Christmas Day, 1916, the mystical poet Vyacheslav Ivanov implored, ‘Oh Rus’, when you wrap yourself in the purple robes of Tsar’grad, do not serve worldly interests’.

The February revolution of 1917 did not stop the imperial hysteria; instead, the Byzantine question became even more acute. In the atmosphere of overwhelming uncertainty after the fall of the monarchy, some theologians blamed Byzantium for excessive gnosticism and asceticism, which, in their minds, were later planted into the Russian psyche.

The Bolsheviks who came to power in October 1917 could not have cared less about Byzantium, but those on the other side of the barricades did not forget about it: the abrupt collapse of the formidable edifice of the Russian Empire compelled religious and political thinkers to search for the roots of this catastrophe. The famous theologian Sergii Bulgakov,** for example, blamed Byzantium for the loneliness of the Russian culture, which made it vulnerable to pernicious influences.

Together with Christianity, at that fateful moment Russia also adopted all Byzantine insularity and its constraints; it became separated from the whole Western, Christian Europe by a “Great Wall” and remained isolated … Meanwhile, Byzantium’s attitude towards Russia was never sincere or warm, but always arrogant and hollow-hearted.

Bulgakov’s book At the Walls of Chersonnesos, written at the end of the brutal Civil War, in the atmosphere of terror and despair, was all about Byzantium and its legacy, as if they were the primary concerns of the time. The writer Alexei Tolstoy, one of the Russian emigres in Constantinople in 1920, describes the bitter disappointment of a White-Guard officer in this deceptive imperial dream: ‘Byzantium, may it go to hell! So much of our Russian blood has been spilled for this damn Byzantium. It’s the usual Russian stupidity all over again!’

To the Bolsheviks, Byzantium was one of the attributes of tsarism; more generally, for people of the new, avant-garde era, it became a symbol of everything dilapidated, moth-eaten and dusty. From the late 1920s through to the late 1930s, the very word ‘Byzantine’ was banned and was used only in quotation marks. Byzantine scholars became the targets of repressions; Vladimir Beneshevich, the most prominent among them, was executed.

* Russian uses the -schina suffix to attach an evaluative negative judgment to a period or concept; for example, a term like Stalinism (whatever its specific connotations) is a neutral description, whereas Stalinschina conveys the speaker’s scorn. One common way to refer to Stalinism’s apex of secret policing and internal purges is by reference to his notorious police chief, Nikolai Yezhov — hence, the yezhovschina.

** No relation to the novelist Mikhail Bulgakov.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Byzantine Empire,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Intellectuals,Russia,Shot,USSR

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1836: Pierre François Lacenaire, Manfred of the gutter

Add comment January 9th, 2020 Headsman

The French murderer Pierre François Lacenaire, guillotined on this date in 1836, aspired to be a man of letters … and at least ended up a man in letters.

Lacenaire (English Wikipedia entry | the more considerable French) was a respectable merchants’ son turned ne’er-do-well, dipping in and out of prison after deserting the army in 1829 to wallow in the vices of crime and poetry.

The ensuing years alternate prison stints for various thefts with scrabbling attempts to make a go of it with his quill on the outside that invariably collapse into more thefts. As criminal biographies go, his silverware-robberies and such scarcely leap off the page but his writings in prison flashed even before his homicidal infamy — notably his Villonesque “Petition d’un Voleur a un Roi Voisin” (“Petition of a Thief to his Neighbor, the King”)

Sire, de grâce, écoutez-moi!
Sire, je reviens des galères …
Je suis voleur, vous êtes roi,
Agissons ensemble en bons frères …
Les gens de bien me font horreur,
J’ai le coeur dur et l’âme vile,
Je suis sans pitié, sans honneur,
Ah! faites-moi sergent de ville.

Bon, je me vois déjà sergent,
Mais, sire, c’est bien peu, je pense,
L’appétit me vient en mangeant,
Allons, sire, un peu d’indulgence.
Je suis hargneux comme un roquet,
D’un vieux singe j’ai la malice;
En France, je vaudrais Gisquet,
Faites-moi préfet de police.

Grands dieux! que je suis bon préfet!
Toute prison est trop petite.
Ce métier pourtant n’est pas fait
Pour un homme de mon mérite;
Je sais dévirer un budget,
Je sais embrouiller un registre,
Je signerai “Votre sujet”
Ah! Sire, faites-moi ministre.

Sire! que Votre Majesté
No se mette pas en colére!
Je compte sur votre bonté,
Car ma demande est téméraire.
Je suis hypocrite et vilain,
Ma douceur n’est qu’une grimace;
J’ai fait… se pendre mon cousin,
Sire, cédez-moi votre place.n

Sire, please, listen to me!
Sire, I return from the galleys
I am a thief, you are king,
Let’s act together like brothers …
Good people abhor me,
I have a hard heart and a vile soul,
I am without pity, without honor,
Ah! make me a city sergeant.

Well, I already see myself as a sergeant,
But, sire, it’s very little, I think,
Appetite comes to me while eating,
Come, sire, a little indulgence.
I’m snarling like a pug,
As malicious as a monkey;
In France, I would be worth Gisquet,
Make me the prefect of police.

Great gods! such a good prefect am I!
Any prison is too small.
However, this job is not done
For a man of my merit;
I know how to divert a budget,
I know how to confuse a register,
I will sign myself “Your subject”
Ah! Sire, make me minister.

Sire! that your majesty
Does not anger!
I count on your kindness,
Because my request is reckless.
I’m hypocritical and naughty,
My sweetness is only a grimace;
I made … hang my cousin,
Sire, cede me your place.

His cells, he said, were his “university of crime” although they scarcely turned him into a mastermind. He earned the valedictory hood in December 1834 when with an accomplice named Victor Avril he ax-butchered a transvestite pauper and his mother in Passage du Cheval-Rouge. Lacenaire and Avril had the mistaken belief that the victims were flush with cash.

What he lacked in criminal chops he atoned for in theatrical flair. At the men’s trial in November 1835, Lacenaire made the courtroom the anteroom of a society salon where he delighted fashionable intellectuals, taking “command of the proceedings by confessing all of his crimes in detail and stunned the courtroom with an improvised closing soliloquoy. Rumors circulated that he was to be pardoned after conviction and be made chief of a special branch of police. This sounded much like the familiar case of the bandit, Vidocq. In fact, Lacenaire claimed to have been inspired by Vidocq’s memoirs.”

“I kill a man like I drink a glass of wine,” he exaggeratedly memed to the journalist Jacques Arago — one of numerous philosophical bon mots. (“Whilst I had the capacity to write a play, I had also the capacity to kill. I chose the easiest.” “I love life and its pleasures, but if it ends, what does it matter? The punishment of death? A contradiction in terms: it is no punishment to send a being back again to insensibility and nothingness.”)

He occupied his last weeks producing poems and memoirs that were published after his death but the true success of his performance lay in its echoes through 19th century literature: Baudelaire would call him “one of the heroes of modern life,” and no wonder — in the judgment of Executed Today guest-blogger Henry Brodribb Irving, “no French criminal, except perhaps Cartouche, has left so distinct an impression on the minds of his countrymen.”

Gautier wrote a poem about his hand, which although uncomplimentary also salutes its owner the “Manfred of the gutter”; Balzac made room for this Manfred in La Muse du Departement; Stendahl modeled the brigand Valbayre in Lamiel upon him. Victor Hugo, apparently unimpressed with the guy’s literary pretensions, worked him into Les Miserables as the crowning monster of society’s underbelly, “what is called in theaters a third sub-stage. It is the grave of the depths. It is the cave of the blind.”

The savage outlines which prowl over this grave, half brute, half phantom, have no thought for universal progress, they ignore ideas and words, they have no care but for individual glut. They are almost unconscious, and there is in them a horrible defacement. They have two mothers, both step-mothers, ignorance and misery. They have one guide, want; and their only form of satisfaction is appetite. They are voracious as beasts, that is to say ferocious, not like the tyrant, but like the tiger. From suffering these goblins pass to crime; fated filiation, giddy procreation the logic of darkness. What crawls in the third sub-stage is no longer the stifled demand for the absolute, it is the protest of matter. Man there becomes a dragon. Hunger and thirst are the point of departure: Satan is the point of arrival. From this cave comes Lacenaire.

Nor in the 19th century could a touchstone of French literature remain confined within the Republic’s borders. Oscar Wilde referenced Lacenaire in The Picture of Dorian Gray; and Dostoyevsky mentioned Lacenaire in The Idiot and perhaps modeled the famous axe murder in Crime and Punishment upon the same.

Although his fame has faded somewhat this curious figure remains of interest to more contemporary eyes. Michel Foucault juxtaposed him against the Vidocq — an underworld creature who becomes an agent of law, the opposite of Lacenaire’s path from respectability to gutter — and perhaps captured the man’s appeal to his era’s novelists.

As for Lacenaire, he is the token of another phenomenon, different from but related to the first — that of the aesthetic and literary interest beginning to be felt in crime: the aesthetic cult of crime.

Up to the eighteenth century crimes were only heroised in two modes: a literary mode when, and because, they were the crimes of a king, and a popular mode found in the broadsheets which narrate the exploits of Mandrin, or of a great murderer. Two genres which absolutely do not communicate with each other.

Around 1840 there appears the figure of the criminal hero, a hero because a criminal, and neither aristocratic nor plebeian. The bourgeoisie produces its own criminal heroes. This is the same moment when the separation is effected between criminals and the popular classes: the criminal cannot be allowed to be a popular hero, he must be an enemy of the poor. The bourgeoisie constitutes for itself an aesthetic in which crime no longer belongs to the people, but is one of those fine arts of which the bourgeoisie alone is capable.

Lacenaire is the model for this new kind of criminal. His origins are bourgeois or petit-bourgeois.

His parents have done some bad things, but he has been properly brought up, he has been to school, he can read and write. This enabled him to act the leader in his milieu. The way he speaks of other criminals is typical: they are brutal animals, cowards and incompetents. He, Lacenaire, is the cold, lucid brain. Thus the new hero is created, displaying all the signs and tokens of the bourgeoisie. That brings us in turn to Gaboriau and the detective novel, in which the criminal is always of bourgeois origins. You never find a working class criminal in nineteenth-century detective novels.

Cinemaphiles should look to Lacenaire in the 1945 classic film Les Enfants du Paradis (clip below) as well as a 1990 biopic, Lacenaire.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Intellectuals,Murder,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Theft

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2010: Li Haito, reliquarian

Add comment November 19th, 2019 Headsman

From IANS on Friday, Nov. 19 of 2010. (via)

China executes official for plundering cultural relics

Beijing, Nov 19 (IANS) China Friday executed an official for stealing and selling cultural relics protected by the state, reports Xinhua.

Li Haitao was the chief of the cultural relics protection authority of the imperial garden in the Hebei provincial capital of Chengde.

He was executed after China’s Supreme People’s Court approved the death penalty on a conviction of embezzlement, the Intermediate People’s Court of Chengde said.

By taking advantage of his post between 1993 and 2002, Li had stolen 259 cultural relics stored in the depository of the Eight Outer Temples, an imperial compound built on the three-century old Summer Mountain Resort.


Putuo Zongcheng, one of the Eight Outer Temples. (cc) image from Ana Paula Hirama.

Li, 50, replaced the relics with copies, inferior or incomplete objects, and asked his subordinates to alter the records.

The stolen items included gold gilded Buddha statues, five of which were listed as state relics under first class protection, 56 were in the second grade and 58 in the third.

Li pocketed more than 3.2 million yuan ($482,240) after selling 152 stolen pieces.

Police have seized 202 relics and are still hunting for 57 other items.

Li’s four accomplices — Wang Xiaoguang, Yan Feng, Zhang Huazhang and Chen Fengwei — were given jail terms of up to seven years with fines.

His crimes went unnoticed until a Chinese expert found two royal cultural relics belonging to Beijing’s Palace Museum at an auction in Hong Kong in 2002.

The expert reported his discovery to the state cultural heritage authorities, which prompted a probe that found Chengde was the source of the relics.

Covering an area of 5.6 million sq metres, the Summer Mountain Resort was the temporary imperial palace of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) emperors Kangxi and Qianlong.

The mountain villa, the largest remaining classical imperial garden architecture in China, and the outlying temples were placed on the World Heritage list in 1994.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,China,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Intellectuals,Lethal Injection,Pelf,Ripped from the Headlines,Theft

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1661: Jin Shengtan, literary scholar

Add comment August 7th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1661, scholar Jin Shengtan — the “father of vernacular Chinese literature” — was

Jin Shengtan (English Wikipedia entry | Chinese) had the misfortune of reaching his intellectual maturity amid the collapse of the Ming Dynasty and the ensuing chaotic transition to the Qing.

In those years he contributed a perspicacious literary commentary that resides to this day in the canon of Chinese letters; his criticism is credited with raising the stature of Chinese vernacular literature, for instance via his meticulous analysis of Water Margin — now rated as one of the four classic Chinese novels.

In 1661, Jin took part in a protest against official corruption whose violent suppression is remembered to Chinese history as the “Lamenting at the Temple of Confucius”. Jin’s particular lament — probably apocryphal but too good not to repeat — has been remembered as a jest from the edge of the grave: “Being beheaded is the most painful thing, but for some reason it’s going to happen to me. Fancy that!”

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Gallows Humor,History,Intellectuals,Power

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1861: Melchor Ocampo, liberal statesman

Add comment June 3rd, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1861, the Mexican statesman Melchor Ocampo was summarily executed by right-wing guerrillas.

Once a seminarian, Ocampo (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish) turned his face towards public life, becoming a most eloquent exponent of the era’s movement of liberalism and anticlericalism.

He was among the faction who rebelled in 1854 against recurrent strongman Santa Anna; he served in the ensuing epochal presidency of Benito Juarez and helped to draft the liberal constitution that governed Mexico until 1917. Secular, egalitarian marriage vows promulgated in 1859 by Ocampo are still used in many marriage ceremonies to this day.

The revolutionary social reordering of these years was achieved only by civil war, a conflict remembered as the Reform War which ended only when the conservatives surrendered Mexico City on New Year’s Day of 1861.* Ocampo, who had the stature to stand for president himself, preferred to consolidate the victory by throwing his support to Benito Juarez in the ensuing elections.

Retiring thereafter to private life, he was targeted by one of the numerous remnant right-wing militias that still persisted in the countryside months after the putative conclusion of the Reform War. These abducted him from his home in Michoacan on May 30 and held him for some days, permitting him to write his last letters, before having him shot and strung up on June 3. His remains currently repose in honor at Mexico City’s Rotunda of the Illustrious … as are those of Ocampo’s longtime comrade Santos Degollado, who undertook to hunt down and revenge himself upon his friend’s killers but instead became their prey.

The town of Melchor Ocampo is, quite obviously, named for the man; his surname has been attached as an honorific to his home region of Michoacan, one of Mexico’s 32 states (officially called Michoacan de Ocampo) and to Tepeji del Rio de Ocampo, the place where he was executed.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Execution,Famous,History,Intellectuals,Lawyers,Martyrs,Mexico,No Formal Charge,Politicians,Popular Culture,Power,Revolutionaries,Shot,Wartime Executions

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1975: Nine Iranian communists

Add comment April 18th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1975,* Iran extrajudicially executed nine political prisoners.


This photo is a dramatic re-staging — evocative of a famous photo of executions in revolutionary Iran a few years later, or perhaps in the white-clad central prisoner’s raised arms, the Goya painting that forms this very blog‘s frontispiece. (Contrary to the reconstruction, the executioners had just one Uzi and took turns spraying it at their victims.) It’s part of a fascinating project by Azadeh Akhlaghi to portray 17 pivotal deaths in Iran’s history.
We took the prisoners to the high hills above Evin. They were blind-folded and their hands were tied. We got them off the minibus and had them sit on the ground. Then, [SAVAK agent Reza] Attarpour told them that, just as your friends have killed our comrades, we have decided to execute you — he was the brain behind those executions. Jazani and the others began protesting. I do not know whether it was Attarpour or Colonel Vaziri who first pulled out a machine gun and started shooting them. I do not remember whether I was the 4th or 5th person to whom they gave the machine gun. I had never done that before. At the end, Sa’di Jalil Esfahani [another SAVAK agent, known as Babak] shot them in their heads [to make sure that they were dead].

Account of a former Savak agent, Bahman Naderipour, who was executed after the Iranian Revolution. The New York Times report of Naderipour’s public trial has him recounting:

“We took them out of the jail and put them in a minibus and drove them to the hills. We had only one submachine gun, an Uzi, among us, so we took turns shooting them … we didn’t give them a chance to make a last declaration. We blindfolded them and handcuffed them and then shot them. I think was the fourth to shoot. We took the bodies back to the prison. and we had the newspapers print that they were killed during a jailbreak. We had the coroner confirm this version.”

The victims were Ahmad Jalil-Afshar, Mohammad Choupanzadeh, Bijan Jazani, Mash’oof (Saeed) Kalantari (Jazani’s maternal uncle), Aziz Sarmadi, Abbas Sourki, Hassan Zia Zarifi, Mostafa Javan Khoshdel and Kazem Zolanvar.\
The last two named were members of the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, the still-extant MEK back when it was still a standard Marxist revolutionary movement and not a cult.

The first seven named were members of the Organization of Iranian People’s Fedai Guerrillas, a proscribed Communist guerrilla organization.

One of those seven, Bijan Jazani, was a co-founder of that organ and one of the greatest Communist intellectuals Iran ever produced. (For a flavor of his thought kick back with the Jazani collection in Capitalism and Revolution in Iran.) With him was Hassan Zia-Zarifi, long a collaborator in leftist circles.

The proceedings that had landed them in prison in the first place had already put them in the global spotlight especially given the horrific torture applied to the defendants. (Among other things, these seven were adopted by Amnesty International as watchlist political prisoners.) International pressure had staved off juridical death sentences … so the matter was handled extra-juridically instead, with the standard insulting cover story, “shot trying to escape.”

Iran reaped a considerable diplomatic fallout from these murders. Its embassies around the world were rocked by protests of emigres and human rights campaigners in the ensuing weeks; that May, a team of communist assassins gunned down two American Air Force officers stationed in Tehran to train the Shah’s security forces — claiming responsibility “in retaliation for the murder of nine of our members.” (UPI dispatch from Boston (US) Globe, May 21, 1975)

There’s a lengthy lecture on Jazani et al by Communist historian Doug Greene.

* Some sources give April 19 instead. I have not been able to resolve the discrepancy to my satisfaction.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Guerrillas,History,Intellectuals,Iran,Martyrs,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Power,Revolutionaries,Shot,Summary Executions,Terrorists,Torture

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1939: Aleksei Gastev, Soviet scientific manager

Add comment April 15th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1939, the Old Bolshevik Aleksei Gastev, a theorist of scientific management for the Soviet state, was shot in Stalin’s purges.

Expelled in his youth from tsarist teaching ranks due to his radicalism, Gastev (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) traced his revolutionary bona fides back to the 1905 Revolution (he fought in it) and even before (as an ally and correspondent of Lenin).

With the advent of the latter’s revolution, Gastev founded the Central Institute of Labor (CIT), and CIT’s training firm Ustanovka (“setup” or “installation”) — organs dedicated, respectively, to the study of work, and to the promulgation of the new science of the workplace throughout the Soviet economy.

It was a socialist perspective on Taylorism, that practice of scientific management that was also transforming capitalist production; like Taylor, Gastev aimed to systematize the routine operations on the factory floor, to learn the most efficient way to wield a hammer or a shovel and expel from the labor force the indulgence of artisanal idiosyncracy and rule-of-thumb work; more broadly, Gastev aimed to revolutionize the way work was conceptualized by Soviet people, bending the mental and behavioral orientation of workers to optimize them for the demands of industrial production.

“Even when we exit the gates of the factory, still we carry the factory,” he wrote, positing a question that demanded “a cultural ustanovka.”

Fear of this very thing haunted Europe in this moment and has never left her nightmares in the century since. The CIT juxtaposed curiously with the almost simultaneous publication of some of the seminal dystopian mechanization literature — like Yevgeny Zamyatin‘s We (1921), in which the rational ordering of society annihilates freedom, and Karel Capek‘s R.U.R. (1920), the play that borrowed a Czech term for unfree work to give the world’s lexicon that wonderful word “robot”. Unsettling to many, this twining of man and machine was understood by Gastev as an emancipatory vista.

Gastev’s ideal worker is neither the oxen brute of Taylor’s dreams, nor the lifeless robot of Capek’s nightmare. He is rather an active, sentient, and creative part of the productive process who behaves like a seasoned, conscious, and well-trained warrior. Armed with sharpness of vision, acute hearing, attentiveness to environment and detail, precision and even grace of movement, and “scoutlike” inquisitiveness about the relationship and locations of things and peoples, he enters the factory as though it were a battle-field with commander-like briskness, regimental routine, and a martial strut. For him, no romance, no heroic individual deeds — only a relentless battle waged scientifically for production.

But the robot is present in Gastev’s vision nonetheless: it is the machine itself, not the man. For Gastev, the machine also takes on a life that gives it not only the power to produce and enrich, but also to train, to inspire, to organize. His wildest visions of 1918-19 are previsions of Capek and Zamyatin and celebrations of a coming event often warned about in science fiction: the takeover by machines. Gastev could never quite decide whether the machine was to be the master or the servant of man. Since he continued to use the machine metaphor, he eventually opened himself to attack by those who opposed his policies on other grounds. But Gastevism differed from administrative utopia — the heavy-handed martialing and mobilization of raw labor in a palpably unequal hierarchy. Gastev’s man-machine meant a symbiosis of the two, interacting in a way never wholly understood even by himself. It clearly contained fearful elements. But Gastev himself, by all accounts, was not a cold-hearted machine-like fanatic but a warm and engaging person. He did not fear the power of the machine. He feared backwardness, passivity, and sloth. (Source)


Dziga Vertov‘s 1929 classic Man with a Movie Camera captures the excitement of industrialization and industrial workers.

On the side — to stave off the sloth — Gastev kept up an artistic output of his own as a poet of the Proletarian Culture movement; this exemplar (Order No. 2 from a work called “Ten Orders”) comes to us via Wonderlands of the Avant-Garde: Technology and the Arts in Russia of the 1920s, which notes that “what is produced is never specified; the emphasis rather is on the establishment of a certain pace of work, as if machines manufacture a new time — the rhythm of the new life.”

Chronometer, report to duty.
To the machines.
Rise.
Pause.
A charge of attention.
Supply.
Switch on.
Self-propulsion.
Stop.

The chronometer stopped for Gastev with his fall in late 1938, and he proceeded thence to the familiar fate of Stalin’s prey amongst the intelligentsia. As he associates with the positive, modernizing, and utopian strain of the Soviet experiment but not its failures or horrors his name is not blackened to posterity and the present-day Russian Federation’s Ministry of Economic Development sponsors an “A.K. Gastev Cup” award to honor advances in production.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Intellectuals,Power,Revolutionaries,Russia,Shot,USSR

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Feast Day of Saint Pigmenius

Add comment March 24th, 2019 Headsman

March 24 is the feast date of Saint Pigmenius, the patron saint of pigmen.

In the hagiography, Pigmenius was a Christian scholar who numbered among the instructors of the young royal relative destined to switch back to paganism and become reviled of Christians as the Emperor Julian the Apostate.

Fleeing the new order, Pigmenius headed to Persia and as the Roman martyrology recounts it, there

he lived four years and went blind. After four years he was addressed in a dream vision by the Lord Jesus Christ, saying: “Pigmenius, return to Rome, and there you will regain your sight.” Getting up the following morning, he had no fear, but immediately got into a ship and came to Rome. After four months, he entered the city; he began to ascend the hill on the Via Salaria with a boy, feeling his way with a cane. And behold, Julian the emperor, travelling in his golden robes, saw Pigmenius from afar; recognizing him, he ordered him to be summoned. When he had been brought, Julian said to Pigmenius: “Glory be to my gods and goddesses that I see you.” Pigmenius replied: “Glory to my Lord, Jesus Christ, the crucified Nazarene, that I do not see you.” In a rage, Julian ordered him to be thrown off a bridge into the Tiber.

So he got to dunk on the emperor, before he got dunked by the emperor.*

However, this book (French) makes the interesting argument that the fourth century Pigmenius was a reinvention of a 1st century Roman saint of similar name, to whom subsequent legends attributed a fictitious eastern sojourn.** “It is this ‘orientalization’ of Pigmenius that connected it to the time of Julian,” runs the argument. For, once Julian’s death in battle in those precincts made the East an overwhelming shadow in Roman minds, “Julian’s story melded somehow with the legends which ran over the distant lands where it had unfolded and the oriental traditions, were ‘Julianized'” — Pigmenius’s among them.

* As the editor of this martyrology remarks in a footnote, this snappy retort was actually borrowed by the hagiographer from stories of Maris, Bishop of Chalcedon, to whom is attributed a similar exchange:

Julian: Thy Galilean God will not heal thy sight.

Maris: I thank God for depriving me of the power of beholding thy face.

** Comparable, the author claims, to the Persian excursions of Saint Cyriacus.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Drowned,Execution,Famous Last Words,God,Intellectuals,Italy,Martyrs,Power,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Summary Executions,Uncertain Dates

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1595: Robert Southwell

Add comment February 21st, 2019 Headsman

February 2O, 1594-5, [Father Robert] Southwell, a Jesuit, that long time had lain prisoner in the Tower of London, was arraigned at the King’s-bench bar. He was condemned, and on the next morning drawn from Newgate to Tyburn, and there hanged, bowelled and quartered.

-Chronicle of John Stow

Youngest child in a gentry household of Catholic-leaning Norfolk, Robert Southwell was for holy orders and martyr’s laurels from the jump; in 1576 at the tender age of 15, he made for Douai and its English seminary, noted for training missionary priests who would return secretly to Elizabethan England to court torture and death for the Word. Within a decade he was a prefect at the English College in Rome and a fully armed and operational member of the Society of Jesus.

In 1586, Southwell sailed for his homeland with fellow Jesuit Henry Garnet, who would one day go to the gallows for Guy Fawkes’s Gunpowder Plot.

For Southwell, the pen was mightier than such detonations.

“St. Peter’s Complaint” (Excerpt)
by Robert Southwell

Ah! life, sweet drop, drown’d in a sea of sours,
A flying good, posting to doubtful end;
Still losing months and years to gain new hours,
Fain times to have and spare, yet forced to spend;
Thy growth, decrease; a moment all thou hast.
That gone ere known; the rest, to come, or past.

Ah! life, the maze of countless straying ways,
Open to erring steps and strew’d with baits.
To bind weak senses into endless strays,
Aloof from Virtue’s rough, unbeaten straits
A flower, a play, a blast, a shade, a dream,
A living death, a never-turning stream.

Quietly nestled in as the house confessor to Catholic noblewoman Anne Howard, Southwell scratched out page after page to fortify the hearts of the beleaguered Old Faith — standard stuff like martyrology testimony concerning his brother priests, overt manifestos like An humble supplication to Her Maiestie, and literary bestsellers admired by Protestant countrymen like Mary Magdalene’s Funeral Tears and his verse collection St. Peter’s Complaint, and Other Poems.*

This last appeared posthumously. After three years’ imprisonment — “I am decayed in memory with long and close imprisonment, and I have been tortured ten times,” the imminent martyr said of his handling by notorious Catholic-hunter Richard Topcliffe; “I had rather have endured ten executions” — Southwell was brought to the bar on February 20, 1595, to answer as a traitor and put to the traitor’s death the very next day.

Though less widely familiar now, his literary output was well-known and highly regarded long after he died, and perhaps influenced many other writers including Shakespeare. The Catholic Church elevated Southwell to sainthood in 1970.

* A couple of Southwell’s epistles are preserved in the 1741 volume Memoirs of Missionary Priests.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,God,Gruesome Methods,History,Intellectuals,Martyrs,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Torture,Treason

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1572: Johann Sylvan, Antitrinitarian

Add comment December 23rd, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1572, Antitrinitarian Calvinist Johann Sylvan lost his head in a Heidelberg market.

Sylvan — or Johannes Slyvanus — was a pastor and theologian in the service of Calvinist Elector Frederick III.

Frederick’s own Calvinist scruples were theoretically anathema in a Holy Roman Empire whose writ of tolerance did not extend past Lutheranism.

But Sylvan gravitated towards a circle of reformers whose concept of the divine left orthodox Calvinism far behind — “a group of ministers within the Palatine church, who were not only prepared to deny the eternal divinity of Christ, but secretly aspired to promote a further reformation of received doctrine with a view to restoring the pristine monotheism of the faith,” according to this pdf volume, The Heidelberg Antitrinitarians.

This rejection of the long-canonical Christian mystery of threefold godhead formed a recurring subtheme of Europe’s Reformations, its exponents — like Michael Servetus — forever prone to martyrdoms administered by any respectable sect.

This proved to be the case for Sylvan as well; given his dubious theological position within the empire, Elector Frederick might have felt it politically necessary to come down hard on these radicals.

Still, while Sylvan was made the example, others in his Antitrinitarian circle lived to expound their heresies in other lands. Matthias Vehe fled to Transylvania — where a Unitarian Church was founded in 1568, protected by a sympathetic prince — and then to other fellow-travelers in Poland. Adam Neuser also escaped, later converting to Islam and defecting to Ottoman Istanbul, an event that did a lot of lifting for anti-Anti-trinitarian propagandists.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,God,Heresy,History,Holy Roman Empire,Intellectuals,Martyrs,Public Executions,Religious Figures

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