1938: Arkadi Berdichevsky, Jon Utley’s father

8 comments March 30th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1938, Arkadi (or Arcadi) Berdichevsky, a Russian Jew run afoul of the (pre-KGB) NKVD, was executed in the Arctic Circle prison town of Vorkuta for leading a prisoners’ hunger strike.

Though the powerful whom Stalin purged are well-known to the student of Russian history, Berdichevsky is just one of the countless obscure Soviet citizens who disappeared into the gulag never to emerge again.

Berdichevsky had something most of his fellow-victims did not: an English wife.

Freda Utley and her son Jon Utley — the couple cannily gave the boy his mother’s foreign last name to make it easier to emigrate if it should come to that, as indeed it did — left the USSR and Freda’s communist youth for fame as (paleo)conservative giants.

While young Jon — just two years old when his father was whisked out of their Moscow flat by the spooks — came of age, Freda Utley naturalized as an American and turned against her former ideology with the zeal of the converted.

Berdichevsky’s widow, Freda Utley, published this book in 1940 about her disillusionment with communism. This work and many others by Utley are also available as free pdfs from FredaUtley.com.

She savaged the U.S. government officials who “lost China”, and testified at Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s behest in the latter’s 1950’s red-hunt. (Utley also supplied McCarthy some research. She defended Tailgunner Joe until her death in 1978.)

Along the way, Freda Utley learned the date of her husband’s death, but never the circumstances.

That discovery fell to Jon Utley, who made his own fortune in business and became a conservative activist/intellectual himself, notable for his anti-imperialist position. (Utley writes regularly for antiwar.com, and opposed the recent Iraq blunder.)

In 2004, Jon Utley finally obtained the remarkably detailed records revealing that it was a firing squad rather than cold or malnutrition that took his father’s life. Utley then personally visited the sites of that Calvary in the Komi region of Russia.

Jon Utley gives a video interview about the experience and about his own path as an anti-communist here, but most especially recommended for our purposes is his written account of finding his father: HTML form here; pdf here.

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1938: Han Fuqu, Koumintang general

2 comments January 24th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1938, Chinese warlord Han Fuqu (or Fuju, or Fu-chu) was executed by the Koumintang for cravenly surrendering Shandong Province to the Japanese without a fight.

Han cut his teeth during China’s Warlord Era, and though he made a timely adherence to Chiang Kai-shek‘s central government that gave him rule over Shandong, he was never exactly in love with the KMT. He ran his fief like a dictator and got rich.

When Japan and China went to war in 1937, it wasn’t a gung-ho nationalist heart throbbing beneath his decorated breast.

Commanded by this still-alien central government to defend Shandong and its capital Jinan at all costs, the former warlord instead bargained secretly with the Japanese for a way to keep his prerogatives.

Why, after all, should he throw away his own position against an overwhelming foe merely for the better advantage of the distant Chiang Kai-shek?

When Han couldn’t pull off a deal and the Japanese set about simply taking his province by force, Han withdrew without firing a shot — forcing other KMT units in Shandong to likewise fall back. To top it off, Han himself then ditched the army he’d taken a-retreatin’.

Chiang, no dummy, could see an example waiting to be made. A couple weeks after arresting Han, Chiang’s trusted aide Hu Zongnan shot him in the back of the head in what is now Wuhan for flouting superior orders.

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1938: Robert Lee Cannon and Albert Kessell, the first gassed in California

5 comments December 2nd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1938, California debuted the latest in killing technology when its brand new gas chamber consumed Robert Lee Cannon and Albert Kessel for the previous year’s riot in Folsom Prison.


Folsom Prison.

Already near 15 years in service in Nevada and previously mammal-tested in the Golden State, the gas chamber made California’s gallows a thing of the past.

First up were five convicts in three installments: Cannon and Kessel on Friday, Dec. 2; Wesley Eudy and Fred Barnes the following Friday, Dec. 9; and Ed Davis by his lonesome on Dec. 16. (The gas chamber only seated two at a time, and had to be aired out for hours after completing an execution.)

They were the five survivors of a bloody rising at Folsom in September 1937 that had killed Warden Clarence Larkin, plus a prison guard and two inmates. And they earned thereby the distinction of being blogged about in the 21st century as Californian pioneers.

Though the gas chamber’s maiden run doesn’t appear to have experienced what we might call an actual botch (a later article would report that they “stoically shuddered to their deaths”), the unfamiliar procedure made plenty of witnesses queasy. According to the Dec. 3, 1938 Los Angeles Times,

Prison attendants, used to watching men die, said the exhibition sickened them. It led almost immediately to a movement to have the new law repealed and hanging reinstuted as the method of capital punishment in this State.

The Times‘ “Daily Mirror” history blog helpfully provides several of the eyewitness reactions (along with ancient newsprint pictures of the condemned).

Kessell’s death was visibly unpleasant. He “appeared to be trying to hold his breath. He was rigid and his hands gripped the arms of his chair as the gas hit him. He gasped: ‘It’s bad!'” Cannon’s seems to have been less so.

But the real source of spectator revulsion was the audience’s aesthetic experience — in this case, of excessively prolonged and intimate proximity to the dying men.

What several witnesses said made today’s executions so terrible was the fact that the condemned men were not masked or blindfolded and that it took so long,* from the time they entered the chamber to be strapped into the chairs until they were pronounced dead.

The movement to restore the gallows never got, er, off the ground; California kept gassing condemned men and women into the 1990’s, when it switched to lethal injection.

Killed in San Quentin for crimes in Folsom? Here’s the mandatory Johnny Cash callout.

* A couple of minutes to strap down, and another 16 minutes from the start of the execution until death was pronounced. This same newspaper article said hangings clocked in at under 15 minutes for the entire procedure.

Everything is relative, of course. Renowned British hangman Albert Pierrepoint had to conduct a few executions for the U.S. military, and he found the American hanging ritual to be intolerably prolonged and personal compared to his baseline assumption.

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1938: The terrified John Deering

3 comments October 31st, 2009 Headsman

We meet people in these pages who go to the scaffold joking, or sarcastic, or cocksure.

Humans bear up to proximity of death with every psychological defense in the book, but even if surprisingly few die in naked terror, make no mistake this Halloween: there’s a reason the executioner is scary.

Shot Through the Heart

Habitual criminal John Deering had a date with a Salt Lake City firing squad this date in 1938.

If anyone should be nonchalant about being ripped open by bullets, it’s a guy who eschewed a prison sentence in Michigan and confessed to murder to get himself extradited to Utah to face capital murder charges — saying that he and the world would both be better off with him dead.

The 39-year-old put on a cool front, but how steady was he, really? In a weird experiment, Deering agreed to be hooked to an electrocardiogram that measured his heart rate during his last moments.

Here comes the science!

The heart of John W. Deering, holdup murderer, beat three times faster than normal just before he was put to death today by a firing squad in the state prison here. The unprecedented recording was termed valuable to heart disease specialists as it showed clearly the effect of fear.

An electro-cardiograph film, recorded with the condemned man’s permission, showed that Deering’s heart beat jumped from normal 72 to 180, although he appeared outwardly calm. It maintained that rate for the several minutes required to complete preliminaries for the execution.

When the doomed man was asked for a last statement his heart beat fluttered wildly, then calmed after he spoke until bullets ended his life. The heart beat stopped 15.6 seconds after the bullets struck, but he was not pronounced dead until two and a half minutes after the five shots rang out. (Chicago Tribune, Nov. 1, 1938)

Still no cure for cancer.

This guy is obviously not to be confused with his tragic Hollywood contemporary of the same name.

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1938: A pig, experimentally

3 comments March 19th, 2009 Headsman

EXECUTION TEST MADE WITH PIG

San Quentin’s Lethal Chamber Tried Out

SAN QUENTIN, March 19 [1938]. (AP) A runt pig* died today in a slow-motion test of San Quentin’s lethal gas chamber.

The test required thirty-five minutes before the pig was formally pronounced dead, but prison officials said “nowhere near that time” would be necessary for execution of a condemned convict in the gas chamber.

The trial execution was conducted in slow motion to enable prison officials and guards to learn details of the operation. The test was conducted by representatives of the manufacturers of the chamber.

* According to the Los Angeles Times (whose March 24, 1938 edition captions a photograph of Warden Court Smith peering inquisitively through the gas chamber’s window), it was “a little thirty-pound brown pig.” According to the backgrounder in When You Read This, They Will Have Killed Me — which concerns an altogether more famous gas chamber subject — the swine was “a 155-pound pig named Oscar, raised on the prison farm.”

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1938: Nikolai Kondratiev, purged economist

1 comment September 17th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1938, Stalin’s purges claimed Soviet economist Nikolai Kondratiev.

Not the most recognizable name in the Soviet Union’s 1930’s bloodletting, Kondratiev — also transliterated Kondratieff — was a pre-Keynesian economist of some note, who had a prominent hand in the fledgling USSR’s early agricultural direction.

Thus far goes the portfolio of many a forgotten academic or bureaucrat shot by Stalin.

But Kondratiev made a contribution still much remembered — and one that might just be due to re-emerge from its occult hibernation.

In a series of 1920’s papers, Kondratiev worked out the theory that capitalism had 50-to-60-year economic supercycles. Though not strictly the first to so hypothesize, he put the idea on the map; the (alleged) pattern still bears the name “Kondratiev wave” or “Kondratiev cycle”.

His belief that the intermittent major crises punctuating capitalism were not building towards systemic implosion but clearing the economic debris of bygone ages and allowing new growth were not the least of what got him into hot water with Stalin.

“Creative destruction,” as Joseph Schumpeter would call it, adapting the idea.

Though sidelined from mainline economics for much of the 20th century, Kondratiev waves have never gone entirely out of fashion. Congenial to any number of collateral theoretical hobbyhorses — technological innovation, entrepreneurship, generational psychology, statecraft, and the eternal bracing for end times right around the corner — Kondratiev waves are a niche player in economic theory both conventional and otherwise.

Here’s a site that lovingly describes them.

Its problem, even if you happen to buy into the concept, is its near uselessness as a predictive tool: half-century cycles don’t just arrive like clockwork, and the timing and very existence of particular cyclical epochs is highly dependent on the interpreter’s choice of data. The margins of error run out to decades. You never know at any given moment what you’re looking at — so you can find the supercycle crashing in 1998, or beginning its springtime of growth in this decade.

That very uncertainty accounts for Kondratiev’s intermittent mainstream resuscitation during economic crisis: when worried about Where Things Are Headed, some version of a Long Wave theory is almost sure to have a story to tell.

According to the New York Times‘ database of past articles, the word “Kondratieff” (its preferred transliteration; “Kondratiev” yields stories about New York Rangers prospect Maxim Kondratiev) went essentially unmentioned in the post-World War II paper before appearing in 20 articles from 1973 through 1984 — the period when the capitalist core was buffeted by energy crisis, stagflation, and the punishing Paul Volcker recession of the early Eighties.

And then Kondratiev/Kondratieff faded from the Grey Lady; after a few appearances during Wall Street’s woes in the late 80’s, it doesn’t seem to have appeared in print there since an offhanded reference in a 1992 William Safire column.

Have you seen the news lately? It’s mighty Kondratiev-friendly. His cycle of exclusion has probably just about run its course, and if you’re the wagering type, I’ll take Thomas Friedman against the field.

Behind the theorems, of course, there was the flesh-and-blood man; it so happens that not many dismal scientists went as poignantly as our principal.

Initially imprisoned in 1930, Kondratiev served eight years before he was re-sentenced and executed; he ached for the separation with his family. Kondratiev’s daughter, Elena — Alyona or Alyonushka in the Russian diminutive — preserved his correspondence to her, the only remnants of her father in her life.

The last letter — as it turned out; plainly the writer had no inkling of it — was dated August 31, 1938.

My sweet darling Alyonushka.

Probably your holidays are over now and you are back at school. How did you spend the summer? Did you get stronger, put on weight, get tanned? I very much want to know. And I would like very, very much to see you and kiss you many, many times. I still do not feel well, I am still ill. My sweet Alyonushka, I want you not to get sick this winter. I also want you to study hard, as you did before. Read good books. Be a clever and a good little girl. Listen to your mother and never disappoint her. I would also be happy if you managed not to forget about me, your papa, altogether. Well, be healthy! Be happy! I kiss you without end.

Your papa.

(From Orlando Figes’ The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia.)

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1938: Seventeen former Bolshevik officials from the Trial of the 21

22 comments March 15th, 2008 Dmitri Minaev

(Thanks to Dmitri Minaev of De Rebus Antiquis Et Novis for the guest post. Be sure to read his corollary piece on cameos by some of this day’s victims in Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita.)

On 15 March 1938, 17 former executives of the Communist Party were executed at the “special object” Kommunarka near Moscow.

As head of the NKVD, Yagoda had arranged show trials before. This time, the shoe was on the other foot.

The names of some of them are found in any history book’ others were totally unknown even in 1930s. Alexey Rykov and Nikolay Bukharin were the topmost (well, almost) leaders of the USSR. Nikolai Krestinsky was a member of the Central Committee Secretariat and the Soviet ambassador to Germany. Christian Rakovsky was a diplomat, the head of the government of the Ukrainian SSR. Genrikh Yagoda was the minister of internal affairs, head of NKVD (the late name of Cheka). P. Kryuchkov was an officer of OGPU (an NKVD department) and the secretary of Maxim Gorky, the “official writer” of the communist USSR.

The others were ex-finance minister of the USSR Grigory Grinko, the general secretary of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan Vladimir Ivanov, ex-prime-minister of the Uzbek SSR Faizullo Hojayev, ex-minister of foreign trade of the USSR Arkady Rozengoltz, ex-minister of agriculture Mikhail Chernov, Isaac Zelensky, S. Bessonov, Akmal Ikramov, Vasily Sharangovich, Prokopy Zubarev, Pavel Bulanov, Veniamin Maksimov-Dikovsky and the doctors Lev Levin, Ignaty Kazakov and Dmitri Pletnyov (one of the founders of the Soviet cardiology).

There were 21 of them under trial, but three (Pletnyov, Rakovsky and Bessonov) were sentenced to imprisonment* and the date of execution of Yagoda remains unknown. The others all died this day.

Railroaded

“The trial of the 21” was officially known as “the case of the anti-Soviet right-Trotskyite block”. They were accused of “treason, espionage, sabotage, terror, undermining Soviet military power and provoking foreign countries to attack the USSR”. The other accusations were: a conspiracy to restore capitalism and to separate the Soviet republics and the Far East from the USSR; ties with foreign intelligence (including that of Nazi Germany, via Trotsky or directly); preparation of military aggression against the USSR; organizing peasants’ revolts in the USSR; the murders of Kirov, Menzhinsky, Kuibyshev, Maxim Gorky and his son Maxim Peshkov; and attempts to assassinate Lenin, Stalin and N. Yezhov (note this name).

After having his memory jogged, Krestinsky remembered that he really was part of the right-Trotskyite conspiracy.

Only the three doctors were provided with a legal defense. The others “voluntarily” refused.

All of them confessed to committing most of the various supposed crimes, although several had unavailing caveats. Krestinsky denied the charges, but it took only one day to convince him of his “failing” memory. “I fully and completely admit that I am guilty of all the gravest charges brought against me personally, and I admit my complete responsibility for the treason and treachery I have committed,” he said on the next day. Bukharin denied some of the charges brought against him. The doctors insisted that they killed Menzhinsky because of fear of Yagoda. Yagoda himself confirmed that he participated in the murder of Gorky’s son Peshkov, but said that motives were personal and not anti-Soviet.

According to the documents found in the archives, Bukharin, Rykov and Krestinsky were sentenced to death on 2 March, on the first day of the process. It could be an error, but on the other hand, it could indicate that the sentence was determined before the trial.

Neverending Story

The first draft of this article started like this: “This story began in …”

Then I stopped and scratched my head. The date when this story really began is not very clear. Some would argue that it began in 1922 when Stalin became the general secretary of VKP(b), others might say that it started in 1918, when the Bolsheviks dissolved the Constituent Assembly, and so on. What is clear is that 1937, when many of those twenty one were arrested, was not the beginning.

Then I decided to begin the other way round: “This story ended in…”

And once again I stopped. This trial had too many interesting corollaries and, of course, the story did not end in 1938. So, in the end the article became a mess of jumps in time to and fro. We are nearly as far removed today from Stalin’s purges as the purges were from the age of Russian serfdom — and those trials throw a shadow across the entire span of time.

Terror

Here’s a small extract from the series of events that preceded and followed the trial. In 1936 Bukharin and Rykov zealously supported the prosecutions of Zinoviev and Kamenev, two other old faithful Bolsheviks, accused by Stalin in opposing the policy of the party. The campaign ended with their trial and execution. Bukharin wrote letters to Stalin:

“I have always sincerely supported the line of the party and Stalin … These are the glorious milestones: industrialization, collectivization, elimination of kulaks, two great five-year plans, concern for the working man, new technologies and stakhanovism, wealthy life, the new constitution.”

“It’s great that the rascals [Zinoviev and Kamenev] were shot. The air became cleaner.”

Bukharin kept busy awaiting trial by writing Philosophical Arabesques … and three other books.

In 1925-1926, when Stalin organized the first campaign against Zinoviev and Kamenev, Bukharin and Rykov also applauded him. “I hand the broom to comrade Stalin,” said Rykov, “to wipe our enemies away.” Yet earlier, Bukharin and Rykov together with these “enemies” Zinoviev and Kamenev helped Stalin to repel the attempts of Trotsky to become the leader of the Soviet state after the death of Lenin.

Bukharin was not an idiot. He understood that he was not any different from Zinoviev. He was the first candidate to replace Stalin if something happened to Stalin — which made him automatically suspect in the eyes of the boss.

Moreover, he was a Bolshevik and he knew the habits of Bolsheviks very well. Caricaturist Boris Yefimov recalled that on 1 December 1934, when Bukharin learned of the assassination of Kirov, he told the other people who were in the room: “Kirov was killed in Leningrad. Now Koba will shoot us all.” (Koba was Stalin’s nom de guerre) But, being a professional revolutionary and conspirator, he knew only one strategy for survival: hypocrisy.

In this 1927 photo at Lenin’s mausoleum, two of today’s victims — Rykov (on the far left) and Bukharin (by his side) — share the platform with Joseph Stalin (far right). Between them is Kalinin, the rare old Bolshevik who managed to survive the 1930’s. (Source)

This strategy did not guarantee success with Stalin. The proof for this may be found in what happened during and after the trial.

Ostracism

Let’s have a look at the newspapers of 1938.

From the resolution of the meeting of the workers of the institute of physiology of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences and the institute of experimental biology and pathology of the Ukrainian ministry of health care.

With the deepest resentment and indignation we hold up to shame the traitors of their motherland, the mercenaries of the fascist secret services, mean Trotskyite-Bukharin’s scoundrels. The history of humanity hardly knows other examples of similar crimes.

We proclaim that the fascist mercenaries will never succeed in dismembering the great Soviet Union and in handing the flourishing socialist Ukraine to the capitalists. We add our voices to the voice of the many million Soviet people demanding to exterminate all the mean traitors, spies and murderers.

From the resolution of the third conference on physiology of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR.

The traitors Bukharin, Rykov, Yagoda and others did not disdain any means in their vile job. These traitors never eschewed any mostrous crime.

The doctors Pletnyov, Kazakov, Vinogradov and Levin in this repellent union consciously used the trust of their patients to kill them. History never saw such crimes. Death to these murderers! Destroy all the gang of the “right-trotskyite” block!

From the article “We demand merciless retaliation against the vile traitors of our great Motherland”.

Having sold themselves to the fascists, plotting with the diplomats and the general staffs of some aggressive imperialist states, a despicable handful of human degenerates, servants of the fascist cannibals, led by a Gestapo agent, gangster Trotsky, sold our socialist motherland and its treasures to the most evil enemies of the human progress.

We demand from our Soviet court merciless retaliation against the vile traitors! We demand the extermination of the despicable degenerates!

The last article was signed by many outstanding scientists: the chairman of the Academy of sciences Komarov, professor Valeskalns, academics Keller, Bach, Vavilov, Gorbunov and others. N. Vavilov died in prison in 1943. N. Gorbunov was sentenced to death and executed in 1938. I am not certain about the others, but about 70% of the members of the Central Committee of the Communist party who supported Stalin’s proposal to arrest Bukharin and Rykov were later arrested themselves, and many of them died or were killed.

Here’s another quotation from a newspaper:

While accepting responsibility for the endless chain of dreadful bloody crimes which history never saw before, Bukharin attempts to give an abstract, ideological, sissy nature to his concrete criminal guilt. He fails to do so, the court and the prosecutor easily discern these attempts, but this trick is very typical for Bukharin’s nature of the right-Trotskyite political prostitute.

The pretensions of the garrulous, hypocritically vile murderer Bukharin to look as an “ideologist” lost in theoretical blunders are hopeless. He will not succeed in separating himself from the gang of his accomplices. He will not succeed in averting full responsibility for the chain of monstrous crimes. He will not wash his academic hands. These hands are stained with blood. These are the hands of a murderer.

I ask myself, “If you must die, what are you dying for?” With startling vividness a black void immediately rises before my eyes. “There is nothing to die for, if one wants to die unrepentant. If, on the contrary, one repents, everything fine and good that shines in the Soviet Union acquires in one’s mind a new dimension.” In the end it was this thought that completely disarmed me. I went down on my knees before the Party.
Bukharin

This article was written by a gifted poet, journalist Mikhail Koltsov on 7 March 1938. He was shot by NKVD on 2 February 1940, less than two years later.

By the way, N. Yezhov (the “assassination” target of Bukharin’s party), who replaced Yagoda as the head of NKVD, was also arrested and executed in 1940 as a spy and conspirator.

Krestinsky, Ikramov, Hojayev and Zelensky were acquitted in 1963.

On 4 February 1988 the Supreme Court of the USSR ruled that confession cannot be interpreted as a proof of guilt and acquitted ten out of twenty one victims. (I could not find information on the cases of Grinko, Bessonov, Sharangovich, Zubarev and Pletnyov.) The sentence against Yagoda, to whose ruthless secret police history has been less generous, was left in force.

* Pletnyov, Rakovsky and Bessonov, the three to avoid death sentences at the Trial of the 21, were later summarily executed together with 154 other political prisoners when the Nazi armies approached the city Oryol in September 1941.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,History,Intellectuals,Mass Executions,Other Voices,Politicians,Posthumous Exonerations,Power,Revolutionaries,Russia,Shot,Torture,Treason,USSR,Wrongful Executions

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