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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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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1937: Titsian Tabidze, poet

Add comment December 16th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1937, the Georgian poet Titsian Tabidze was executed in Stalin’s purges.

“Titsiani”, who co-founded the “Blue Horns” symbolist circle in 1916, is the addressee of fellow dissident litterateur Boris Pasternak’s Letters to a Georgian Friend.

“There is as much soul in his poetry as there was in him, a reserved and complicated soul, wholly attracted to the good and capable of clairvoyance and self-sacrifice,” Pasternak would remember of his comrade. “The memory of Tabidze puts me in mind of the country; landscapes rise in my imagination, the waves of the sea and a vast flowering plain; clouds drifting in a row and, behind them in the distance, mountains rising to the same level.”

The problem was their decidedly less sentimental countryman in the Kremlin.

Georgian security chief Lavrenty Beria put the screws to the Georgian writers’ association, driving fellow Blue Horns alum Paolo Yashvili to suicide when he was pressured to denounce Tabidze.

But of course the only difference that made was for Yashvili’s soul.

Arrested as a traitor a bare two months before his death, Tabidze defiantly betrayed to his interrogators the name of only a single fellow-traveler: 18th century Georgian poet Besiki.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Georgia,History,Intellectuals,Posthumous Exonerations,Russia,Shot,Torture,Treason,USSR

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1937: Alexander Chayanov, economist of the peasantry

Add comment October 3rd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1937, the Soviet economist Alexander Chayanov was shot during Stalin’s purges.

“Our present capitalist form of economy represents only one particular instance of economic life and the validity of the scientific discipline of the national economics as we understand it today, based on the capitalist form and meant for its scientific investigation, cannot and should not be extended to other organizational forms of economic life.” (via)

A specialist in the rural economy, Chayanov was noted for his forward thinking about Russia’s backwards peasantry.

Prevailing Marxist orthodoxy envisioned this class hurtling inevitably towards capitalism as its members sought their own advantage;* against this, Chayanov emphasized the resilience of the peasantry. And not only that, he postulated that the unwaged peasantry operated in an economic constellation alien to the classical model of value maximization — and would rather tend to relax labor once it reached subsistence production, rather than working ever onwards to attain surplus value and Five-Year Plan quotas.

This theory accurately anticipated difficulty for Soviet agricultural policies like collectivization and grain confiscation.

Denounced as an apologist for the refractory kulaks — official agrarian bogeymen of the early Soviet state — Chayanov was arrested in 1930 and found himself shipped to a labor camp in Kazakhstan. He was re-arrested in 1937, tried, condemned, and shot in a single day; his wife Olga also disappeared into the gulag only to be released in 1955, after Stalin’s death. They were officially rehabilitated in 1987 under Mikhail Gorbachev.

Though Chayanov’s own work was cut short by his suppression, his ideas would resurface in the postwar period and find exponents among western economists and social scientists. Nor have those ideas been exclusively of interest to academics studying peasant societies; Chayanov’s emphasis on the family as an essential economic unit found an echo in the New Home Economics field launched in the 1960s by classical economists like Gary Becker, while his appreciation for maintaining a harmonious relationship to the land has been revived in contemporary Russia by Vladimir Megre‘s “Ringing Cedars” eco-cult.

* Marx wrote in Theories of Surplus Value that the “peasant who produces with his own means of production will either gradually be transformed into a small capitalist who also exploits the labor of others, or he will suffer the loss of his means of production … and be transformed into a wage worker.”

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

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1937: Douglas Van Vlack

Add comment December 9th, 2013 Robert Elder

(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. This post originally appeared on the Last Words blog here. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)

“I have a right to choose the way I die!”

— Douglas Van Vlack, convicted of murder, hanging, Idaho.
Executed December 9, 1937

Van Vlack kidnapped his ex-wife and killed her, as well as two police officers. A few hours before his hanging was scheduled, Van Vlack broke away from his guards and scrambled over the cell block to cling to the ceiling rafters. He stayed in the ceiling for a half an hour as his lawyer and the prison chaplain begged for him to come down; he jumped thirty feet below just before the guards entered the cell block with a net. Van Vlack’s hanging was unsuccessful; technically he died the next day, December 10, after a few hours in a coma.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Idaho,Murder,Other Voices,USA

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1937: Helmut Hirsch, secret bomber

Add comment June 4th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1937, the German-American Jewish terrorist Helmut “Helle” Hirsch was decapitated at Plotzensee Prison.

Hirsch (English Wikipedia entry | German) was an architecture student who had been driven from Germany by anti-Semitic laws and studied, therefore, in Prague. (Before the Reich gobbled up Czechoslovakia, of course.)

There he became involved in the Strasserite anti-Hitler “Black Front”. To Hirsch’s grief, this organization had been thoroughly penetrated by pro-Hitler spies.

In December 1936, Hirsch embarked on a train. His mission was to bomb something in Germany. The details of the plan remain murky to this day; Hirsch’s subsequent trial was held in secret and his worried family only learned the whereabouts of their son three months missing when they heard a radio broadcast in March announcing his condemnation for “preparation of high treason and criminal use of explosives endangering the public.”

It seems that Hirsch was supposed to have disembarked in Nuremberg and there picked up some left luggage deposited by a fellow conspirator; he may have been meant to deliver this payload Nazi party headquarters in Nuremberg, or perhaps to the offices of Julius Streicher’s propaganda sheet Der Stürmer.

The young would-be terrorist would tell his family in prison letters that he had instead bypassed Nuremberg and kept going all the way to Stuttgart to meet a friend, hoping the latter would talk him out of his wavering commitment to the plot. Instead, he was arrested that night by the Gestapo.

This case made news in the United States during the spring of ’37 because Hirsch’s father, Siegfried, was a naturalized American. That made Helmut a U.S. citizen, too, even though the son had never set foot in the United States.* U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull and the American ambassador to Germany William Dodd lobbied the Nazi government to spare Hirsch** — but to no avail.

Hirsch’s sister Kaete Hirsch Sugarman later donated her brother’s papers — letters, photos, architectural drawings — to Brandeis University, which maintains them as the Helmut Hirsch Collection. They include this touching final letter the young man wrote to his family on the eve of his execution.

Dear Mother, dear Father,

I have just been told that my appeal for clemency was turned down. I must die then.

We need not say anything any more to each other. You know that in these last months I have really found the way to myself and to life. Real beauty must stand before unswerving honesty. You know that I have lived every moment fervently and that I have remained true to myself until the end. You must live on. There can be no giving up for you. No becoming soft or sentimental. In these days I have learned to say “yes” to life. Not only to endure it but to love life as it is. It is our own inner gravity, the force by which we have entered life.

It must help you in some way that I know I have finally reached my own inner image and feel complete. And in this feeling is much of our time and our world.

The only way I know how to thank you is by showing you until the last moment that I have used all your love and goodness towards becoming a whole being of my time and my heritage. Do not think of the unused possibilities, but take my life as a whole. A great search, a foolish error, but on its path to finding of final truth, final peace.

Please care for Vally [his girlfriend, Valerie Petrova] as for a child. I embrace you, dear mother and you, my father, once more for a long, long time. Only now have I realized how much I love you.

Yours forever,

Helmut.

* Siegfried Hirsch was a naturalized American who had lived in the U.S. for a decade prior to World War I. Siegfried’s U.S. citizenship had been revoked in 1926 because he had left to live abroad, but when the matter came to prominence in 1937 it was reinstated and Helmut Hirsch explicitly acknowledged as a U.S. national.

** The shoe has been on the other foot for death-sentenced German nationals in the present-day U.S.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,History,Jews,Terrorists,Treason

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1937: Camillo Berneri, anarchist intellectual

Add comment May 5th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1937, the Italian anarchist Camillo Berneri was kidnapped from his home by in Barcelona by armed paramilitaries. Berneri was shot that night.

Berneri (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish | timeline) had once been a University of Florence professor, but was forced into exile for opposing the fascist conquest of power in Italy.

When a coup threatened a similar right-wing conquest of power in Spain, Berneri organized the first column of Italian volunteers to oppose it.

International brigades poured into Spain to fight for the Republican government, but not everybody in the “popular front” was on the same side — a fact which became horrifyingly clear during Barcelona’s “May Days”, a week of internecine bloodletting in Republican Catalonia.

Anarcho-syndicalists of the CNT party and anti-Stalinist communists of POUM were the ones whose blood was mostly let; indeed, it might better be called a purge. The Moscow-backed Communist Party opposed the power of its putative comrades as much as or more than that of Franco. During the May Days, the Communists’ Catalan ally, a party called the PSUC, essentially took over Barcelona with the help of thousands of Assault Guards and killed, arrested, or dispersed the anarchists and Trotskyites.

Berneri clearly saw it coming, quoting Pravda in an April 1937 letter to the anarchist Health Minister criticizing his participation in the Popular Front government: “As for Catalonia, the purging of Trotskyist and anarcho-syndicalist elements has begun; this work will be carried out with the same energy with which it was done in the USSR.”

The British writer George Orwell served in a POUM unit, and the last third or so of his Spanish Civil War memoir Homage to Catalonia attempts to make sense of the chaotic scene.

Smitten when he arrived in Barcelona the previous December — “the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle”* — the writer scoffed at the Communists’ official justification that anarchists and friends were a “counter-revolutionary” element, or even in actual league with their nationalist enemies.

It seemed queer, in the barber’s shop, to see the Anarchist notice still on the wall, explaining that tips were prohibited. ‘The Revolution has struck off our chains,’ the notice said. I felt like telling the barbers that their chains would soon be back again if they didn’t look out.

I wandered back to the centre of the town. Over the P.O.U.M. buildings the red flags had been torn down, Republican flags were floating in their place, and knots of armed Civil Guards were lounging in the doorways. At the Red Aid centre on the corner of the Plaza de Cataluña the police had amused themselves by smashing most of the windows. The P.O.U.M. book-stalls had been emptied of books and the notice-board farther down the Ramblas had been plastered with an anti-P.O.U.M. cartoon — the one representing the mask and the Fascist face beneath.

Down at the bottom of the Ramblas, near the quay, I came upon a queer sight; a row of militiamen, still ragged and muddy from the front, sprawling exhaustedly on the chairs placed there for the bootblacks. I knew who they were — indeed, I recognized one of them. They were P.O.U.M. militiamen who had come down the line on the previous day to find that the P.O.U.M. had been suppressed, and had had to spend the night in the streets because their homes had been raided. Any P.O.U.M. militiaman who returned to Barcelona at this time had the choice of going straight into hiding or into jail — not a pleasant reception after three or four months in the line.

Also a fighter of the liquidated POUM, Orwell too was proscribed: he had a job to make it out of Barcelona without winding up in someone’s dungeon or firing range. His disgust with what revolutionary Barcelona had come to would help to inform his subsequent anti-Soviet literary efforts.

Berneri, too, was an outspoken anti-Communist. Long a major intellectual in the anarchist camp, he was clearly targeted by name, and hauled from his house along with his brother-in-law Francesco Barbieri by a death squad. Their bodies turned up riddled with bullet holes the next morning.

There’s a collection of Berneri’s writings in English translation here, including one piece dated to the very day of his disappearance; also see this pdf of Berneri’s work. He was survived by his daughter, Marie-Louise Berneri, who herself became a noted anarchist activist of the 1940s.

* Orwell on Barcelona circa December 1936: “Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt … Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. Nobody said ‘Señor’ or ‘Don’ or even ‘Usted’ … Tipping was forbidden by law … revolutionary posters were everywhere, flaming from the walls in clean reds and blues that made the few remaining advertisements look like daubs of mud. Down the Ramblas, the wide central artery of the town where crowds of people streamed constantly to and fro, the loudspeakers were bellowing revolutionary songs all day and far into the night. And it was the aspect of the crowds that was the queerest thing of all. In outward appearance it was a town in which the wealthy classes had practically ceased to exist. Except for a small number of women and foreigners there were no ‘well-dressed’ people at all. Practically everyone wore rough working-class clothes, or blue overalls, or some variant of the militia uniform. All this was queer and moving. There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Execution,History,Intellectuals,No Formal Charge,Shot,Spain,Summary Executions,Uncertain Dates,Wartime Executions

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1937: Andrei Stepanovich Arzhilovsky, counterrevolutionary kulak

Add comment September 5th, 2012 Meaghan

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

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.

It was confiscated by NKVD agents when they searched his home. The diary was translated and published in 1995 in an anthology of several others from that period, under the title Intimacy and Terror: Soviet Diaries of the 1930s.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,History,Other Voices,Russia,Shot,USSR

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1937: Tom Steinbock and Juan Mirbol in Sartre’s The Wall

Add comment February 12th, 2012 Headsman

On an uncertain date in the Spanish Civil War, two principal characters are shot in Jean-Paul Sartre‘s first short story, “The Wall”.

“Le Mur” in French, a title also suggesting the dead spirits of Roman mythology, “The Wall” was penned in 1937 as Sartre’s personal response* to the Spanish Civil War.


Sartre published “The Wall” at almost the exact same time — summer 1937 — as Picasso finished Guernica. (Guernica was bombed in April 1937.)

“The Wall” is highly non-specific as to time and circumstance; a mention of “winter” — as of writing, the winter of 1937 was the only one yet elapsed in the conflict — and a few disembodied calendar indicators like “the 9th” and “Tuesday”.

Instead, it’s an existential reflection on the inscrutability of death. The narrator, one Pablo Ibbieta, awaits the morning’s firing squad with an International Brigade volunteer named Tom Steinbock and a Spanish innocent named Juan Mirbal.

All three of us watched [a Belgian doctor] because he was alive. He had the motions of a living human being, the cares of a living human being; he shivered in the cellar the way the living are supposed to shiver; he had an obedient, well-fed body. The rest of us hardly felt ours — not in the same way anyhow. I wanted to feel my pants between my legs but I didn’t dare; I watched the Belgian, balancing on his legs, master of his muscles, someone who could think about tomorrow. There we were, three bloodless shadows; we watched him and we sucked his life like vampires. …

In the state I was in, if someone had come and told me I could go home quietly, that they would leave me my life whole, it would have left me cold: several hours or several years of waiting is all the same when you have lost the illusion of being eternal. I clung to nothing, in a way I was calm. But it was a horrible calm — because of my body; my body, I saw with its eyes, I heard with its ears, but it was no longer me; it sweated and trembled by itself and I didn’t recognize it any more. I had to touch it and look at it to find out what was happening, as if it were the body of someone else. …

[Juan] wept: I could clearly see he was pitying himself; he wasn’t thinking about death. For one second, one single second, I wanted to weep myself, to weep with pity for myself. But the opposite happened: I glanced at the kid, I saw his thin sobbing shoulders and I felt inhuman: I could pity neither the others nor myself. I said to myself, “I want to die cleanly.”

Tom and Juan go to the wall that morning.

Pablo, an anarchist, is subjected to one last interrogation before he’s shot: the fascists are hunting a confederate of his, and they offer Pablo his life in exchange for giving up the whereabouts of this Ramon Gris. “His life had no more value than mine; no life had value,” Pablo muses. “They were going to slap a man up against a wall and shoot at him till he died, whether it was I or Gris or somebody else made no difference.” Impulsively, almost whimsically, he directs them to a cemetery as a bogus location: “It was a farce. I wanted to see them stand up, buckle their belts and give orders busily.”

Except … unbeknownst to Pablo, Ramon Gris had just moved his hiding place to that very cemetery. For reasons as nonsensical as Ibbieta’s own initial condemnation, his life is swapped for Gris’s at the last moment.

* Specifically, according to Sartre, Self-Formation, and Masculinities, after a student asked for help sneaking into Spain to fight the fascists.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Fictional,History,Last Minute Reprieve,Lucky to be Alive,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Revolutionaries,Shot,Soldiers,Spain,Wartime Executions

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1937: Martemyan Ryutin, for his affair

1 comment January 10th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1937, Martemyan Ryutin was condemned to death and immediately executed in Stalinist USSR.

Ryutin (English Wikipedia entry | Russian | another Russian bio) was a revolutionary from the Far East who by the late 1920s was in the Bolsheviks’ heretical right wing; his affiliation with Bukharin and Rykov got him temporarily booted out of the Communist party in 1930.

Not content to keep his head safely down as Stalin’s star ascended, Ryutin typed out an anti-Stalin pamphlet and the 200-page “Ryutin Platform” denouncing Josef Djugashvili as “the gravedigger of the Revolution” and urging that he be removed — even by force.*

Weeks after Ryutin began circulating this incendiary samizdat the secret police busted him.

Though open discussion of the so-called Ryutin Affair was nonexistent in the Soviet Union until the Gorbachev era, it was a matter of dire importance for the Politburo in 1932; indeed, fleeting as it was, it’s one of the few organized elite attempts to thwart Stalin discernible during the 1930s. Stalin wanted Ryutin executed, but he was outvoted; this is a small milepost on the way to the Yezhovschina indicating that Stalin’s power still had its limits … and Bolsheviks still recoiled at the prospect of killing other party members.** These constraints were not very long for the scene.

Even so, Ryutin got a 10-year prison sentence and anyone else who had read the Ryutin platform without informing on it to the Party was in seriously hot water. Twenty-four were expelled from the party in October 1932 for this reason, including once-proud and soon-doomed Old Bolsheviks Zinoviev and Kamenev.

Ryutin, for his part, had only a few years to wait before the deteriorating political climate dispensed with those taboos about internecine bloodletting. The Supreme Court signed off on his execution this day with just a few minutes’ hearing, and it was immediately carried out.

Ryutin’s two sons were also executed in 1937, and his wife died in a labor camp. Only his daughter Lyubov survived the Ryutin Affair — which convictions were posthumously reversed in 1988.

* Bukharin’s widow later wrote that Stalin’s agents later added the most inflammatory material — like that violent overthrow stuff.

** Had Stalin had his way in 1932, Ryutin would have had the distinction of being the first Central Committee member to be executed, according to Suzi Weissman.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Intellectuals,Politicians,Posthumous Executions,Power,Russia,Shot,USSR

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