1906: Ivan Kalyayev, moralistic assassin

Add comment May 23rd, 2010 Headsman

On this date* in 1906, Ivan Kalyayev (also transliterated Kaliayev, or Kaliaev) was hanged by his own assent for assassinating Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich in Moscow.

The Warsaw-born Kalyayev tread the usual path of student radicals — expulsion, arrest, internal exile — into the camp of the Socialist-Revolutionary Party and the trendy propaganda-of-the-deed philosophy.

He was the very epitome there of what Chaliand and Blin call “the moralistic approach to terrorism”; he would slay, of course, from a profound sense of moral outrage, but contextualized that terrible act with a no less dramatic sense of personal moral responsibility.

Revolutionary fellow-traveler Boris Savinkov remembered** of our day’s principal that he

loved the revolution with the tender, profound love felt for it only by those who have made it an offering of the whole of their lives.

Kalyayev voluntarily aborted his first attempt to murder the Grand Duke when he beheld his target’s wife and child riding along in the carriage where he meant to toss his bomb. Upon successfully carrying out the hit two days later, he made no attempt to flee, and at trial requested the death sentence for himself.†

In this behavior, Kalyayev presents the fascinating specter of a terrorist whose certainty of the justice of his crime does not excuse himself from moral responsibility for the crime.

For Kalyayev, the murder itself and its mortal expiation completed its own redemptive cycle. As the murderer wrote to his mother,

I am happy to know I acted in obedience to the call of my duty … It would be ridiculous to think of saving my life now, when my end makes me so happy. I refused to sign the petition for pardon, and you know why. It was not because I have spent all my physical and mental powers; on the contrary, I have preserved all that life gave me for my last triumph in death … I could not accept pardon because it is against my convictions.

This striking attitude recommended him to Camus, who featured it in Les Justes (The Just Assassins), a 1949 play exploring the morality of terrorism.

The second act of the play features Kalyayev’s revolutionary cell disputing his decision not to follow through on his first opportunity to kill the Grand Duke. Ignacio Gotz describes our killer’s posture as, “kill only when absolutely necessary and then accept your own death as proof that murder is not permitted.”

That’s what love is — giving everything, sacrificing everything, without any hope of it being returned.

-The character Ivan Kalyayev, in Les Justes

This was not the only ethos competing for purchase on the story and the soul of Ivan Kalyayev.

The widowed Grand Duchess Elizabeth Fyodorovna visited her husband’s assassin in prison and unavailingly attempted to convert him to Orthodox Christianity. (The Grand Duchess would take her own solace in a religious life, ultimately being martyred by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War; she has since been canonized.)

The Russian paper Novaya Gazeta published a fairly lengthy Russian-language biography of Kalyayev on the centennial of his entry into the executioner’s annals.

* May 23 was the Gregorian date of the execution; it was May 10 by the Julian calendar still in use in Russia at the time.

** Cited in The History of Terrorism: From Antiquity to Al Qaeda.

† With the requisite grandstanding, of course — a moral indictment given added depth by Kalyayev’s personal conduct.

We are separated by mountains of corpses, by hundreds of thousands of broken lives, by an ocean of tears and blood that is flooding the entire country in a torrent of outrage and horror. You have declared war on the people. We have taken up the challenge … You are prepared to say that there are two moralities, one for mere mortals, stating, “Thou shalt not kill; thou shalt not steal,” and another, political, morality for the rulers, for whom it permits everything.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Revolutionaries,Russia,Terrorists,Volunteers

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1945: Robert Brasillach, intellectual traitor

3 comments February 6th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1945, and notwithstanding a partial outcry in French literary circles, fascist intellectual and Vichy collaborator Robert Brasillach was shot for treason in Montrouge.

Novelist, journalist and llitterateur Robert Brasillach (English Wikipedia entry | French) was the “James Dean of French fascism,” fashionable apostle of the interwar far-right movement Action Fran├žaise.

A proper James Dean dies young, which fate was supplied courtesy of Brasillach’s editorship of the anti-semitic rag Je Suis Partout (“I Am Everywhere”) and enthusiastic support of the Vichy government.

Inasmuch as his collaboration had been in the form of ideas propagated, Brasillach’s case engaged the French polity in the challenging question of whether “intellectual crime” — and even “intellectual treason” — could exist categorically.

Given another year, when occupation was not so fresh a memory and the Nazis were no longer knocking at the door, the puzzle would probably not have been a life and death one.

But then, ideas are sometimes life and death matters themselves, and nowhere is that more true than in France.

Many anti-fascist intellectuals appealed to de Gaulle for Brasillach’s life — many, but not all. Death penalty opponent Albert Camus signed the petition for clemency; Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir refused.

Between fellow-feeling among the literary set, ideological enmity, and the searing experience of the occupation only just lifted lay a test for the conscience of many a French thinker — aphorized by the very words de Gaulle would use in turning aside the appeal.

“Talent is a responsibility.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,France,History,Infamous,Intellectuals,Notable Jurisprudence,Occupation and Colonialism,Shot,Treason,Wartime Executions

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