1911: Dmitry Bogrov, Stolypin’s assassin

2 comments September 25th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1911,* Dmitry Bogrov was hanged in Kiev for assassinating Russian Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin.

Many could diagnose the long-advancing rot of the Russian state, but few had the physic to abate it. Stolypin, a resolute conservative landowner, might have been tsarism’s last, best hope.

During the cataclysmic 1905 revolution, Stolypin was governor of Saratov and kept his province notably free from disturbances.

That earned him a kick upstairs in 1906 in hopes that he could work the same magic on the turbulent country. To a greater extent than most, he did: Stolypin was tsarist Russia’s last great statesman, notably introducing capitalistic land reforms in an effort to germinate a new rural middle class of small, freeholding landowners with skin in the Romanov dynasty. To break liberal obstruction, he also mounted a coup to weight the Duma in favor of propertied classes. “Give me 20 years of peace,” he vowed, “and you won’t recognize Russia.”

It’s left to the speculation of posterity whether he could have pulled the trick: in the event, Stolypin did not get 20 years and Russia did not get peace.

For some, like Solzhenitsyn, Stolypin is the lost chance for a Russia without either despotism or revolution: “He brought light to the world and the world rejected him.” For many others, that Great Man theory is a bit much. Russia’s issues with class and governance were a pretty long-term concern.

One of its long-term products was Russia’s energetic radical underground, and this Stolypin harried Russia’s revolutionaries from pillar to post, greatly intensifying police surveillance and infiltration of agitators’ circles to prevent a repeat of 1905. His secret courts meted out punishment with a greater regard for swiftness than certainty; a staggering 3,000 radicals were hanged for alleged involvement in terrorism from 1906 to 1909, generating worldwide condemnation and causing the phrase “Stolypin’s necktie” to enter the lexicon as a synonym for the noose.

Of course, there was plenty of real terrorism, no small part of it directed at Stolypin himself. He survived or avoided several assassination attempts, including a bomb that took the life of his daughter. In turn-of-the-century Russia, though, there was always a next man or woman up when it came to the propaganda of the deed.

In September 1911, at festivities marking the quinquagenary of the liberation of the serfs, Stolypin attended the Kiev opera’s performance of The Tale of Tsar Saltan.


The (obviously non-operatic) cartoon adaptation of The Tale of Tsar Saltan; the source material for both opera and cartoon is a Pushkin poem.

As the third intermission drew to a close, a young bourgeois approached Stolypin, drew a Browning pistol, and shot the Prime Minister. Legend has it that Stolypin opened his bloodied waistcoat and addressed the close-enough-to-witness-it sovereign with the words, “I am happy to die for the tsar.” The prime minister would linger on and die a few days later; his murderer did not long outlive him.

Despite Stolypin’s reputation as public enemy no. 1 for revolutionaries, the reason for Dmitry Bogrov to commit this particular murder has long remained murky. (pdf)

Bogrov (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) was a revolutionary, but he was also an informer for the Okhrana, the tsarist secret police whose augmentation had been a key Stolypin priority. Just where Bogrov stood at any given time in the vast foggy marches between compromised true believer and agent provocateur is difficult to pinpoint.

The Kiev opera on the night Bogrov shot Stolypin was thick with military personnel, but nobody at all stood watch on the oft-targeted politician — even though there was specific intelligence of a possible threat, issued in his capacity as an informer by the Janus-faced Bogrov himself. The eventual assassin was admitted to the theater that night on a ticket provided by his police handlers.

Considering Bogrov’s very swift execution, and the fact that the tsar suspiciously shut down the investigation (Russian link), many believe that elements of the state security apparatus were the true authors of Stolypin’s death, whether or not Bogrov himself realized it. Russia’s great landholders, never noted for farsightedness, widely opposed the reductions of their estates demanded by Stolypin’s agricultural reforms and rightly saw him as about the only man with the clout to move policy against their considerable opposition. They weren’t sorry to see him go.

As for Bogrov, his departure was a mere footnote. He asked for a rabbi before his hanging, but when he found out that this presumably confessional meeting would be monitored by the public prosecutor, he withdrew the request. (London Times, September 26, 1911) He reportedly died almost indifferently, his last words a disarmingly casual inquiry to the executioner about how best to position his head within his Stolypin’s necktie.

* September 12 by the local Julian calendar; September 25 by the Gregorian calendar.

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1826: The Decembrists

7 comments July 25th, 2009 Headsman

On this date* in 1826, five leaders of the Decembrist revolt were hanged at St. Petersburg’s Peter and Paul fortress for their abortive eponymous uprising eight months before.

The most renowned and romantic of Russia’s hapless liberals, the Decembrists were a secret clique of idealistic young officers, many of whom had cut their teeth chasing Napoleon’s grande armee out of Russia in 1812.

In Russia’s complex interaction with the West — its ideas, its political institutions, its ways of life — these were the westernizers, who saw constitutionalism as the way of the future.

Upon the mysteriously sudden death of Tsar Alexander I, an irregular succession to the second-oldest surviving brother, Nicholas I, gave our day’s doomed and gallant youth cause to occupy St. Petersburg’s Senatskaya Square to uphold the rights of the first brother — and more to the point, to uphold the constitution to the extent of constraining the monarchy.


Decembrists at Senate Square, as depicted by Karl Kolman.

Uh … Now What?

This badly organized affair failed in its aim to attract the mass of soldiery and, constitutionalists as its organizers were, did not even aim at mobilizing the general populace.

After the initial heady rush of marching into the square in the name of liberty, the Decembrists were left in a standoff against a much larger force of loyalists. When the latter started shooting, that was that.

Those that survived faced trial, with five — Peter Kakhovsky, Kondraty Ryleyev, Sergei Muravyov-Apostol, Mikhail Bestuzhev-Ryumin and Pavel Pestel — initially sentenced to drawing and quartering.

“Mere” hanging was deemed sufficient for the purpose. That would be about the maximum embrace of liberalism by the Russian autocracy, whose lesson from the uprising was to crack down against any hint of forward-thinking politics — ultimately an unsuccessful strategy for the Romanov dynasty.

St. Petersburg’s Senate Square — renamed Decembrist Square by the Soviet government — where the action happened. The iconic equestrian statue of Peter the Great, commissioned by Catherine the Great and unveiled in 1782, witnessed it all; the statue acquired its enduring moniker, “The Bronze Horseman”, from a poem of the same title penned in 1833 by Alexander Pushkin, a friend of several Decembrists.

One of the greatest works of Russian literature, Pushkin’s “Bronze Horseman” weaves an ambiguous Decembrist-tinged critique of cruel imperial power and overreach into a complex narrative of St. Petersburg whose upshot is still up for lively literary debate. “The Bronze Horseman’s crag rose up before the poet on an empty square,” wrote one historian, “washed with the blood of those who rebelled on December 14, 1825″

Appalling there
He sat, begirt with mist and air.
What thoughts engrave His brow! what hidden
Power and authority He claims!
What fire in yonder charger flames!
Proud charger, whither art thou ridden,
Where leapest thou? and where, on whom,
Wilt plant thy hoof?

“They don’t even know how to hang you …”

When the hangings were carried out, Kakhovsky, Muravyov-Apostol and Ryleyev all had their ropes break; while some in the crowd anticipated the old prerogative of mercy for any prisoner who survives an execution, they just got re-hung instead. “Unhappy country,” quipped Ryleyev as the fresh nooses were fixed up, “where they don’t even know how to hang you.”**

Other Decembrists not condemned to the unreliable craftmanship of the Russian gallows were shipped to Siberia, where they invigorated the cultural life of the Lake Baikal city of Irkutsk — many of them famously followed by their “Decembrists’ wives,” an iconic type that continues to denote heroically sacrificial loyalty since the women had to renounce their own right to return to European Russia.

These, at least, had a place to call their own, however distant. But the class of Russian elites to which they belonged would be thrust into a trackless wilderness by their failure (in the Decembrist rising and otherwise) to carve out some distinct place for themselves. Russia’s long reckoning with modernity still had many years to run.


A worn postcard of a 19th century Russian painting depicting (perhaps) a political prisoner in the Peter and Paul Fortress.

* July 25 was the date on the Gregorian calendar; per the Julian calendar still in use in Russia at the time, the date was July 13.

** Ryleyev was quite the saucy one, having fought a “mysterious” duel with Pushkin in 1823, and instigated (and served as second at) a famous St. Petersburg jilted-love duel in 1825 that cost the lives of both antagonists.

A poet himself and a romantic to the point of fanaticism, Ryleyev wrote odes extolling executed national heroes like Artemy Volynsky and Severyn Nalyvaiko, seemingly alluding (as in this excerpt from the latter work) to his anticipation of joining them.

I know full well the dire fate
Which must upon the patriot wait
Who first dare rise against the foe
And at the tyrant aim the blow.
This is my destined fate

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1775: Yemelyan Pugachev

4 comments January 10th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1775, the Russian Empress Catherine the Great had Cossack rebel Yemelyan Pugachev chopped to pieces in Moscow for sustaining a major insurrection whose effects would haunt Russia for decades to come.

Pugachev’s Rebellion was the most spectacular specimen in populous family tree of 18th century peasant uprisings.

Most such disturbances were local and fundamentally unthreatening. Pugachev’s was neither.

The Cossack commander raised a revolt in the Urals in 1773, styling himself the long-lost tsar Catherine had overthrown a decade before.

Catherine was slow to see the import, but this hinterlands pretender set up a state-like bureaucracy and began issuing ukases as tsar — and one can readily discern from their content why he attracted a following:

We bestow on all those who formerly were peasants and in subjugation to the landowners, along with Our monarchic and paternal compassion … tenure of the land and the forests and the hay meadows and the fisheries and the salt lakes, without purchase and without obrok, and we liberate all the aforementioned from the villainous nobles and from the bribe takers in the city–the officials who imposed taxes and other burdens on the peasants and the whole people … [T]hose who formerly were nobles living on estates are enemies to Our power and disrupters of the empire and oppressors of the peasantry, and they should be caught, executed and hanged, they should be treated just as they, who have no Christianity, dealt with you peasants.

The insurrection speedily metastasized, and by the time a force sufficient to quash it was deployed, it had stretched itself from the Urals to the Volga.

Alexander Pushkin used the story of Pugachev’s rebellion for The Captain’s Daughter (text in English | Russian), which has been adapted to film several times — most recently in 2000.

Catherine the Great, for her part, was deeply shaken by the affair, and the “enlightened despot”, while maintaining traffic with the era’s liberal intellectual ferment, decisively turned against any reform to serfdom. Catherine’s choice, reinforced by her successors, to uphold their security with nothing but repression maintained Russian serfdom until 1861 on a staggering scale — an anchor dragging down the economy just as industrializing western Europe opened a development gap whose effects persist to this day.

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