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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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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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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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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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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1937: Eero Haapalainen, former Finnish Red Guard commander

1 comment November 27th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1937, Finnish communist Eero Haapalainen was shot in Moscow.

Haapalainen (English Wikipedia entry | Finnish) was a prominent socialist, trade unionist, and journalist when World War I tipped Finland into civil war.

Despite a lack of military experience, Haapalainen had momentary command of the Red Guards in that brief but bloody struggle. The Reds lost, necessitating Haapalainen’s escape by motorboat to St. Petersburg in May 1918.

There he settled in for a couple of decades’ middle-management service to the revolution: writing, teaching, paper-pushing.

The almost inevitable end came with stunning speed in the autumn of 1937. Arrested exactly one month before his execution, Haapalainen denied the charges of counterrevolutionary activity under NKVD torture.

Denial, confession … it all amounted to the same thing. Eleven other Finns (Finnish link) got it with Haapalainen at the very same time: Saimi Virtanen, Väinö Turunen, Urho Pitkälahti, Armas Raasu, Anselm Mäkelin, Mikko Lehmus, Toivo Rantanen, Aino Forsten, Väinö Savander, Rauno Koivistoinen, Eskil Kyllänen, Anton Uotinen.

The next year, Eero Haapalainen’s son Toivo, an engineer, was also purged. Father and son were both rehabilitated in the Krushchev era.

Part of the Daily Double: Stalinism East and West.

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1937: Peljidiin Genden, former Mongolia Prime Minister

1 comment November 26th, 2011 Headsman

On earth there are two great geniuses – Buddha and Lenin.

-Peljidiin Genden

On this date in 1937, purged former Mongolia Prime Minister Peljidiin Genden was shot in Moscow.

Genden was in the thick of communist authority in Mongolia, including a forced collectivization that provoked resistance sufficient for Moscow to demand the Mongolians lay off the “leftist deviation.” Eyeballing a likely future conflict with Japan, Russia wanted Mongolia as a buffer zone and couldn’t afford gratuitously upsetting the apple cart.

Genden, himself a former leftist deviant, managed an adroit volte-face and got himself named Prime Minister in 1932.

Stalin’s minions would closely meddle in the business of the Mongolian People’s Republic over the 1930s as it rolled out its own eastern policy. Despite the Comintern’s recent turn towards ideological moderation in those precincts, it soon became concerned that Genden was lax in going after the Buddhist element; in fact, he’d openly declared religious toleration in 1932. But this particular enemy Russia could not abide. “The lama regime,” Stalin tut-tutted, “is stronger than the people’s regime.”

Genden had the ill-chosen moxie to push back against Stalin. On one state visit to Moscow, he got liquored up and bellowed,

“You bloody Georgian, you have become a virtual Russian Czar!”

Other plans for Mongolian leadership were soon put in place, the way cleared via the expedient of framing Genden as the mastermind of a fanciful pro-Japanese plot.

This [Genden] “case” led to the deaths of 639 falsely accused people, including 63 percent of the members of the [Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party] Central Committee and 80 percent of its presidium members … There is evidence that the arrest of many Mongolian leaders on false charges and their “rendition” to the USSR for execution was organized from Moscow by NKVD chief Nikolai Yezhov.

It was estimated that, from 1934 to 1939, about 171 Mongols were arrested in Mongolia but tried and sentenced in Russia. The charges were usually “counterrevolution” or “espionage for Japan.” It is known that 33 were shot near Moscow, 108 received long terms of imprisonment, 13 were released, and four died “under investigation.”

And that’s just on the political side. With Genden out of the way, anti-Buddhist purges really took off in the late 1930s, to the tune of 18,000 lamas killed.

Part of the Daily Double: Stalinism East and West.

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1937: Pavel Vasiliev, peasant poet

Add comment July 16th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1937, Elena Aleksandrovna Vasilieva arrived to Moscow’s Lefortovo Prison to visit her husband, “peasant poet” Pavel Vasiliev.

“He’s been transferred to another place,” she was told.

He had been: six feet under, that very day.

Vasiliev hailed from a Cossack family in Kazakhstan, and he would fight his short life’s literary battles with a pugnacity reflecting his youthful work as a sailor and gold miner in Siberia. He was renowned for his boozing and carousing.

The early 20th century “peasant” literary movement was just the place for him.

While the Futurists waxed eloquent over the wonders of the new machine age, the peasant writers and poets were moved by a strong revulsion for industrialization … [and glorified the village and longed to return to the simple life of rural Russia. At the same time the futility of their dream was evident even to them, and their writings are often of a tragic bent.

And bents tended towards tragedy in the 1930s.

A little too outspoken for his own good, Vasiliev openly defended Nikolay Bukharin (arrested in February 1937) as “the conscience of peasant Russia,” and characterized the politically expedient denunciations made by fellow scribblers as “pornographic scrawls on the margins of Russian literature.”

It’s a remark that would age a lot better than the man who uttered it.

The admiration of many contemporaries — Pasternak considered Vasiliev brilliant (see this Russian biography; most of the information about Vasiliev online is in Russian) — could hardly aid a man coming under official fire for “kulak bohemian ideology.” Vasiliev did prison stints (Russian again) in the early 1930s for counter-revolutionary writing, and then for “malicious hooliganism” after whaling on a former friend who had denounced him in print.

I accept the title of a rumbler,
If the brattle of gusli is thunder.**

Pavel scorned the warning, leaving his widowed Elena to husband his many unpublished verses until they could finally be published (and the poet rehabilitated) in the 1950s, after Stalin died.

* The most famous poet of this school was Sergei Yesenin, whose death at the end of a hangman’s rope at age 30 is unfortunately not eligible for this site … since Yesenin put up the rope himself. Live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse.

** Thanks to Sonechka for the translation assist.

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1937: Jan Sten, Stalin’s tutor

1 comment June 19th, 2011 Headsman

Anyone who has ever had an unedifying experience of pedagogy ought to be able to sympathize with Jan Sten, the Marxist philosopher once hired to tune up Joseph Stalin’s intellectual credentials and who on this date in 1937 was purged by his former pupil.

This account of Sten’s unfortunate (though hardly atypical) fate comes from the archive of Sten’s personal friend, one Yevgeny Frolov and is printed in Let History Judge: The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism.

Hardly anyone knew Stalin better than Sten. Stalin, as we know, received no systematic education. Without success Stalin struggled to understand philosophical questions. And then, in 1925, he called in Jan Sten, one of the leading Marxist philosophers of that time, to direct his study of Hegelian dialectics. Sten drew up a program of study for Stalin and conscientiously, twice a week, dinned Hegelian wisdom into his illustrious pupil. (In those years dialectics was studied by a system that Pokrovsky had worked out at the Institute of Red Professors, a parallel study of Marx’s Capital and Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind.) Often Sten told me in confidence about these lessons, about the difficulties he as the teacher, was having because of his student’s inability to master Hegelian dialectics. Jan often dropped in to see me after a lesson with Stalin, in a depressed and gloomy state, and despite his naturally cheerful disposition, he found it difficult to regain his equilibrium. Sten was not only a leading philosopher but also a political activist, an outstanding member of the Leninist cohort of old Bolsheviks. The meetings with Stalin, the conversations with him on philosophical matters, during which Jan would always bring up contemporary political problems, opened his eyes more and more to Stalin’s true nature, his striving for one-man rule, his craft schemes and methods for putting them into effect … As early as 1928, in a small circle of his personal friends, Sten said: “Koba will do things that will put the trials of Dreyfus and of Beilis in the shade.”This was his answer to his comrades’ request for a prognosis of Stalin’s leadership over ten years’ time. Thus, Sten was not wrong either in his characterization of Stalin’s rule or in the time schedule for the realization of his bloody schemes.


Komar and Melamid‘s ironic 1981-1982 Stalin and the Muses travesties sycophantic Socialist Realism exaltations of Uncle Joe, like these. (More by K&M)

Sten’s lessons with Stalin ended in 1928. Several years later he was expelled from the party for a year and exiled to Akmolinsk. In 1937 he was seized on the direct order of Stalin, who declared him one of the chiefs of the Menshevizing idealists.* At the time the printer had just finished a volume of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia that contained a major article by Sten, “Dialectical Materialism.” The ordinary solution — and such problems were ordinary in those years — was to destroy the entire printing. But in this case the editors of the encyclopedia found a cheaper solution. Only one page of the whole printing was changed, the one with the signature of Jan Sten. “Dialectical Materialism” appeared over the name of M.B. Mitin, the future academician and editor in chief of Problems of Philosophy, thus adding to his list the one publication that is really interesting. On June 19, 1937, Sten was put to death in Lefortovo prison.

Seen in that light, a hostile review on RateMyProfessors.com doesn’t sound so bad at all.

* Menshevizing idealism — here’s an official Soviet definition from the 1970’s — was among Stalin-era “polemical by-words for philosophical heresy.” (Robert Tucker, “The Rise of Stalin’s Personality Cult,” The American Historical Review, Apr. 1979)

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1937: Alexander Yulevich Tivel

1 comment March 7th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1937 — probably — one of the numberless obscurities consumed by Stalin’s purges was convicted and presumably shot for “preparing to commit a terrorist act against [NKVD head] Yezhov.”

Alexander Yulevich Tivel, a Jewish bureaucrat who had the misfortune to have been in a party organ too close to Zinoviev, was disappeared by the NKVD one day in 1936.

His fate forms the opening hook for J. Arch Getty’s The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932-1939 — “the story of the Stalinist terror writ small.” (Here’s a review)

We do not know whether he was physically tortured by his interrogators, but there is ample evidence that countless others were. Even high-ranking officials under arrest were beaten or, as Molotov would put it, “worked over.” Ten years later, a high-ranking police official described interrogation procedures in a letter to Stalin. First, prisoners were offered better conditions — better food, mail, and so on — in return for a confession. If that failed, appeals to the prisoner’s conscience and concern for his family followed. The next step was a solitary-confinement cell without exercise, a bed, tobacco, or sleep for up to twenty days … Finally, the use of “physical pressure” was authorized …

Tivel was probably executed on the same day [of his conviction]. Unlike many others who were badgered and tortured by the NKVD, he had not confessed.

His wife and mother-in-law to internal exile. His son would suffer the stigma of being the child of an executed traitor.

The widow Eva Tivel, reports Getty, grappled for years with the unresponsive bureaucracy until she finally cleared Sasha Tivel’s name.

On 23 May 1957, twenty years after Tivel’s execution and after Eva’s many letters and appeals, Tivel’s sentence and party expulsion were overturned … [as] “based on contradictory and dubious materials.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Innocent Bystanders,Jews,Posthumous Exonerations,Russia,Shot,Torture,Treason,Uncertain Dates,USSR,Wrongful Executions

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Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!