1938: Margarita Arsenieva, the explorer’s widow

Add comment August 21st, 2010 Headsman

On this date* in 1938, the widow of the Russian explorer and ethnographer Vladimir Arseniev was convicted in a drumhead trial of espionage and sabotage, and summarily shot at Vladivostok.

Vladimir Arseniev explored the distant Far East on foot with the help of local guides during the last years of the tsar.

Arseniev formed a lifelong friendship with one such guide, and gave the man’s name to the title of a widely-read book about his explorations — Dersu Uzala.

Japanese director Akira Kurosawa adapted Dersu Uzala to the silver screen in a 1975 joint Japanese-Soviet production that pocketed an Oscar as Best Foreign Language Film. (The entire film is available online through Veoh.)

Arseniev died in 1930 — not by the executioner’s offices — and was survived by his wife and scientific assistant Margarita.

As the subsequent, terrible decade unfolded, Margarita and other members of the Far Eastern Academy of Sciences came under official political scrutiny that would eventually lead to a purging.

Arrested once in 1934, and again in 1937, on the usual right-Trotskyist-conspirator stuff (Vladimir Arseniev — a suspect fellow in his later years for a potentially un-Soviet attitude to “the national question” — was the ringleader, dontcha know?), Arsenieva and a number of colleagues waited a year to get their 10-minute trial this date before assizes of the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court. Six in all, including Margarita Arsenieva, were held “subject to immediate execution.”

The Arseniev’s orphaned teenage daughter Natalia was subsequently consigned to the gulag.

Most of the sources about Margarita Arsenieva available online are in Russian, including:

* This German text gives Aug. 23 as the date of the trial and execution, and a couple of other online sources use that date instead.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,History,Russia,Shot,Treason,USSR,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1944: Richard Sorge and Hotsumi Ozaki

11 comments November 7th, 2007 Headsman

On the day of the USSR’s October Revolution holiday in 1944, Stalin’s greatest spies were hanged in Japan.

Renowned among espionage aficionados for supposedly forewarning Moscow of the exact date of Germany’s planned surprise attack in 1941, Richard Sorge‘s work in the pregnant years leading up to World War II produced multiple intelligence coups and could lay claim to the uncommon distinction of having materially affected the course of the war.

His signal achievement was establishing, as a foreigner in a highly xenophobic Japan, a spy ring that for years penetrated the highest levels of the Japanese government and the German embassy, giving Moscow an inside look at Axis planning.

Working under the cover of journalism in the German expat community — he had grown up in a mixed German-Russian household in Berlin and won the Iron Cross for his service in the Kaiser’s army in World War I before embracing communism — Sorge struck Hitler from half a world away. His access to the German embassy was untrammeled — indeed, he had an affair with the ambassador’s wife. His lead Japanese collaborator Hotsumi Ozaki was a major public intellectual similarly privy to sensitive information through his contacts.

The two, along with several other Japanese and foreign collaborators, produced a steady diet of top-shelf intelligence, including the (ignored) forecast of Operation Barbarossa. But the ring’s most important coup — arguably a decisive one in the history of the war as a whole — was to inform Moscow in September 1941 that Japan did not intend to attack the Russian Far East. Relieved of the nightmare prospect of a two-front war, Stalin transfered desperately needed Siberian divisions to help throw back the German advance on Moscow.

Japan by 1941 was a dangerous place to operate, however, and the nerve-rattling work — and the alcoholism to which it contributed — were taking its toll on the master spy just as the authorities were closing in. Sorge and his ring were arrested in October 1941.

Sorge’s decisive communique regarding Japanese intentions in the East had not yet borne its fruit. The war had nearly four years yet to run, and Sorge would languish in prison for most of them — long enough to leave fellow detainees with recollections of the captured operative jubilant at Red Army victories. Soviet tanks were at Germany’s doorstep by the time the two went to the gallows, one after the other, with the few minutes’ notice still customary for Japanese hangings to this day.

The spies in history who can say from their graves, the infomation I supplied to my masters, for better or worse, altered the history of our planet, can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Richard Sorge was in that group.

Spy novelist Frederick Forsythe

Sorge’s personal role in the crucible of world-shaping politics have proven a compelling topic for biographers. Among the notable works:

The Soviet government did not officially acknowledge Sorge until 1964, but the case had immediate and widespread interest in Japan. Ozaki inspired an early Kurosawa film, No Regrets for Our Youth:

The espionage ring’s operations were also the subject of a recent multilingual Japanese epic, Spy Sorge:

Part of the Themed Set: Spies.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,Famous,Germany,Hanged,History,Japan,Russia,Spies,USSR,Wartime Executions

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