1941: Alexander Svanidze, Stalin’s brother-in-law

Add comment August 20th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1941,* Stalin’s own brother-in-law was shot in the gulags.

In 1906, a whole lifetime before, the Georgian Alexander Svanidze introduced young Joseph Dzhugashvili to his, Svanidze’s, sister, Kato. She and Dzhugashvili wed that year, and Kato soon bore her husband’s firstborn, Yakov.

Stalin was already a wanted Bolshevik revolutionary at this time, but so was Svanidze. Kato was a homebody with no known political interest, and sufficient piety to force her communist groom to say his vows in an Orthodox church. Afterwards, his priorities reasserted themselves.

While Stalin agitated, propagandized, and politicked against Menshevism in the wild oil boom city of Baku,** his pretty wife kept an empty apartment tidy and fretted the omnipresent danger of her husband’s arrest. “When he was involved, he forgot everything,” fellow-Bolshevik Mikheil Monoselidze remembered. Many revolutionaries’ wives walked similarly lonely roads.

Kato did not have to walk hers very long: she contracted a horrible stomach/bowel disease and wasted rapidly away late in 1907. Stalin’s own indifference might have been the ultimate cause, for when she was unwell the young cadre took her on a sweltering 13-hour train ride back to Tiflis that greatly worsened her condition — all so that her family could care for her, and free Stalin’s time for his plots. Kato died in Stalin’s arms, but only when he had been urgently summoned back from Baku with word that her condition had become dire.

Whatever his actions said about him as a family man, the future dictator really loved his neglected wife. He “was in such despair that his friends were worried about leaving him with his Mauser,” writes Simon Montefiore in Young Stalin.

“This creature,” [Stalin] gestured at the open coffin [at her funeral], “softened my heart of stone. She died and with her died my last warm feelings for humanity.” He placed his hand over his heart: “It’s all so desolate here, so indescribably desolate.”

At the burial, Soso’s habitual control cracked. He threw himself into the grave with the coffin. The men had to haul him out. Kato was buried — but, just then, revolutionary konspiratsia disrupted family grief. Soso noticed some Okhrana agents sidling towards the funeral. He scarpered towards the back of the graveyard and vaulted over the fence, disappearing from his own wife’s funeral — an ironic comment on his marital negligence.

For two months, Stalin vanishes from the record. “Soso sank into deep grief,” says Monoselidze. “He barely spoke and nobody dared speak to him” … “He cried like a brat, hard as he was.”

Stalin’s deep grief did not change his life’s work. If anything, he would seem in later years almost too aghast by the whole experience (and his uncharacteristic bout of sentiment) to grapple with it. He abandoned little Yakov to the Svanidzes, and would curiously dislike his son so much that he eventually permitted Yakov to die as a German POW during World War II rather than exchange prisoners for his release.

By the time of the great purges, then, being Stalin’s brother-in-law was of little help to Alexander Svanidze. It might have been an outright detriment; certainly Svanidze’s own prominence — he had served as People’s Commissar for Finances of the Georgian SSR, and found a scholarly journal in his capacity as a historian — were of a kind with Old Bolsheviks who had also attracted denunciations.

In 1937, most of the beloved Kato’s family was arrested: Alexander Svanidze, but also Alexander’s wife Maria, and opera singer, and his sister Mariko. Svanidze defiantly refused NKVD blandishments to confess to spying for Berlin to save himself, perhaps realizing that such a deal would merely sell his pride for a mess of pottage. “Such aristocratic pride!” Stalin is supposed to have tutted upon hearing the way Svanidze went to his execution still insisting he had done nothing wrong. (Svanidze’s ancestors were petty nobility.)

Svanidze’s son, Johnreed** — as in the American radical who chronicled the Bolshevik Revolution in Ten Days That Shook The Worlddenounced his doomed father to save his own skin, but was sent to the gulag just the same. Johnreed was released, and Alexander posthumously rehabilitated, after Stalin’s death in 1953.

* There are some other dates out there for Svanidze’s execution. I’ve had difficulty identifying a primary source for any of them, but am prepared to be corrected if an alternative possibility can be strongly documented.

** They moved to Baku from Tiflis, where Stalin had helped to orchestrate a huge bank robbery.

† Revolutionary Russia produced a number of similarly curious neologisms on birth certificates, such as “Vladlen” (crudely blending “Vladimir Lenin”), and even the outlandish “Electralampochka” (“light bulb”, inspired by the Soviet electrification campaign).

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1939: Mikayil Mushfig, Azerbaijani poet

Add comment March 12th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1939, Azerbaijani poet Mikayil Mushfig was shot during Stalin’s purges.

The 30-year-old former schoolteacher was a socialist enthusiast as a youth in the 1920s; his work celebrated officially sanctioned subjects like virtuous peasants and workers, and modernization of the alphabet.

How far to go to put aside the backward old ways? Poets debated in verse whether the traditional instrument tar ought to be banned.

[O]ne poet, Suleyman Rustam, wrote, “Stop tar, stop tar, You’re not loved by proletar!” Another poet, Mikayil Mushfig, countered, “Sing tar, sing tar! Who can forget you!”

The tar wasn’t banned, but Mushfig’s enthusiasm for the Soviet project was deemed (however genuine) insufficient, “petit-bourgeois”.

The nightingale is sorrowing near the rose,
Though autumn comes-it lingers to depart,
Life, life! This cry of longing ever grows:
With love, with burning passion how to part?

With feelings new, you string your singing lute
My youthful pen, now just about to start!
O friends, give answer to my pain acute:
With this great seething fire flame, how to part?

Here‘s a pdf of some Mushfig poetry in Azerbaijani.

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1918: The 26 Baku Commissars

2 comments September 20th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1918, 26 Bolsheviks and Left SRs were shot in what is now Turkmenistan, their bid to establish Soviet power in Baku defeated — temporarily.


The Execution of the Twenty-Six Baku Commissars, by Isaak Brodsky (1925)

The 26 Baku Commissars were the men of the Baku Commune, a short-lived Communist government in 1918 led by the “Caucasian Lenin,” Stepan Shahumyan. (He was a good buddy of the Russian Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov.)

In a cauldron of ethnic violence and against the military interventions of Turkey and Britain, these worthies were tasked with extending Soviet writ to the stupendous Azerbaijani oil fields* — the predominant source of tsarist Russia’s oil, and destined to be the engine of Soviet industry as well.

The Baku Soviet was expelled by the British, who inherited the bloody fight against an advancing Ottoman army.

Shahumyan and his fellow commissars, meanwhile, fled by ship across the Caspian Sea to Krasnovodsk (now Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan), where they fell into the hands of a the anti-Soviet factions — backed, once again, by the British — of a brand new locale’s incarnation of civil war.

The commissars’ “presence in Krasnovodsk was a matter of great concern to the [anti-Bolshevik] Ashkhabad Committee, the members of which were seriously alarmed that opposition elements in Transcaspia might take advantage of the presence of the Commissars to stage a revolt against the government.” Said concern was relieved by the expedient of escorting the Baku Soviet to the desert and shooting them en masse.

The Red Army recaptured Baku in 1920, this time for good, and Shahumyan and friends were raised to the firmament of Communist martyrology, and not only in the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. Streets and schools throughout the USSR bore their names.

As with many Soviet icons, the commissars had a rough come-down after the Iron Curtain fell. Their monument in Baku stood untended for many years, its eternal flame extinguished … until it was finally (and somewhat controversially) torn down earlier this year.


The Baku Commissars’ monument and its dead eternal flame, prior to its early 2009 demolition. Image (c) denn22 and used with permission.

* The Nobel family, which established the Nobel Prize, had a significant presence in the Baku petrol industry.

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