1936: Vladimir Mutnykh, Bolshoi director

Add comment November 26th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1937, the director of Moscow’s famed Bolshoi Theater was shot in the Gulag … even as Uncle Joe mangled his greatest commission.

Vladimir Ivanovich Mutnykh is the man whose suffering occasions this post but as with the Terror itself he will for us be a footnote to a different story.

Mutnykh ultimately fell prey to the chill that Stalin cast over Soviet arts — where come the 1930s the only fare liable to pass muster with the censors (or indeed, with the executioners) were creations of turgid doctrinal correctness or cautious revivals from the pre-Revolutionary literary canon.

The strictures on artists also reflected Moscow’s abiding preoccupation with the cultural preeminence of Russia and of Communism.

Among the USSR’s many and varied exertions towards the latter end during the 1930s, not least was a project to induce a return to the motherland by genius (and homesick) composer Sergei Prokofiev, who had been mostly living and working Europe since the Bolshevik Revolution.*

In the mid-1930s, Stalin’s cultural ambassadors finally got their man.** And one of the plums that secured Prokofiev’s permanent repatriation was a commission to create for Mutnykh’s Bolshoi Theater a ballet version of the Shakespeare classic Romeo and Juliet.

Today, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet is one of the best-known and most widely performed of all his considerable output.

Some might even call Romeo and Juliet Prokofiev’s magnum opus. But Prokofiev wouldn’t have called it that.

Having gone to such great trouble to lure back a revolutionary artist, Soviet cultural officers were predictably aghast to discover that he produced a revolutionary reimagining of the Bard. In Prokofiev’s original composition, the star-crossed lovers get a happy ending and escape together instead of dying in the tomb. “Living people can dance, the dead cannot,” Prokofiev explained, unavailingly. The idea is that their love transcends the shackles of their family rivalry; even, that they had transcended the backwards political order that made them enemies. But Soviet bureaucrats were positively hidebound when it came to fiddling with the classics, and the director was forced to return to the tragic ending.

Nor was this the end of the meddling.

In 1936, joyless cultural commissar Platon Kerzhentsev ransacked the Bolshoi leadership, including Mutnykh — who had given the initial green light to Prokofiev’s first, heretical version.

For the next several years, the ballet with the checkerboard floor was twisted into shape by the Soviet bureaucracy, wringing change after change out of a frustrated but powerless Prokofiev. By the time it finally premiered — at the Kirov, not the Bolshoi — Prokofiev’s collaborator dramatist Sergei Radlov disgustedly wrote to friends that “I take no responsibility for this disgrace.”

“The version that’s known and loved around the world is completely incorrect,” said Simon Morrison, a Princeton professor. “There’s an act missing. There are dances orchestrated by people against Prokofiev’s wishes, and other stuff he was forced to put in there against his will.”

In the course of researching his 2010 book on Prokofiev, The People’s Artist, Morrison amazingly dredged up the original Prokofiev composition and documentary trails showing that the composer was forced to scrap three too-exotic dances, to “thicken” the orchestration, and to add elements like a group dance number and solos to show off the Kirov’s talent.† The ballet didn’t debut at the Bolshoi until 1946, when Stalin himself signed off it.

“Once the work was performed, Prokofiev was dismayed at a lot of things, including the sound of the orchestra. He wrote a long letter of protest but none of the changes were made to the score,” Morrison told the London Independent. “It became the canonic version, a reorganised, torn-up work. It’s a testament to how great the melodic writing is – it still became a great classic despite this mangling of it.”

A few books by Simon Morrison on Prokofiev and his world

* Prokofiev was neither an exile nor a refugee; his departure from the USSR in 1918 was voluntary and legally blessed. He had had no problem in the intervening years coming back to Russia and leaving again.

** One immediate product of Prokofiev’s return was the beloved 1936 children’s production Peter and the Wolf.

He also in 1938 gloriously scored Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky.

† Morrison in 2008 staged performances of Prokofiev’s original version of Romeo and Juliet.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Russia,Shot,Treason,USSR

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1937: Lev Karakhan, Marina Semyonova’s husband

Add comment September 20th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1937, the dancer Marina Semyonova lost her husband to the Great Purge.

Semyonova was perhaps the premier Soviet ballerina in the interwar era before the ascent of Maya Plitsetskaya* but artistic genius conferred no safety from the purges.

Least of all was that so for family members who happened to be that choicest of Stalin’s prey, an Old Bolshevik.

Semyonova’s husband Lev Karakhan (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) was an Armenian revolutionary and former Menshevik who joined the Bolsheviks before the October Revolution. He spent the 1920s and 1930s in various foreign policy roles, right up until the end: just a few months before his death, he had been the USSR’s ambassador to Turkey, when he received that ominous recall.

He even gave his name to a 1919 “Karakhan Manifesto”, which was Moscow’s attempt to get friendly with China.

Its author was more successful getting friendly with the Bolshoi’s prima ballerina around 1930, when both were married to other people. Their affair turned civil marriage without hampering the career of either partner; indeed, Semyonova had the honor and terror of accepting the Order of the Red Banner from Stalin’s own hands in June 1937, just a month after her husband had been arrested.

Semyonova just continued performing, because what choice did one have? She only recently died, in 2010, just shy of her 102nd birthday — as one of the legends of her craft.

* Maya Plisetskaya was also touched by Stalin’s terror: in 1937, when Maya was only 11, her father was disappeared into the gulag and killed; her mother was arrested shortly after and survived a forced labor camp in Kazakhstan.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Execution,History,Notably Survived By,Politicians,Revolutionaries,Russia,Shot,Torture,Treason,USSR

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Unspecified date: Mariotto Mignarelli, proto-Romeo

Add comment March 21st, 2016 Headsman

On a never-specified date in 15th century Siena, the tragic lover Mariotto Mignarelli was beheaded in Masuccio Salernitano‘s story Mariotto and Ganozza — the apparent wellspring (via an English interlocutor) for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.


Mid-16th century translation of Romeus and Juliet by Arthur Brooke. (via)

Masuccio’s tale is itself an Italian Renaissance gloss on an old Ovid story; its outline will be instantly recognizable to devotees of the Capulets and Montagues. But instead of dueling suicides, Masuccio ends one of the star-crossed lovers with an executioner’s blade.

In Mariotto and Ganozza, which can be enjoyed for free in the original Italian here or here, the young lovers secretly wed only to find “that wicked and hostile fortune reversed all their present and future desires.”


These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder …

“Fortune’s” inscrutable hand turns out to be that of Mariotto himself, who gets into a fight with some other nobleman and, slaying him, must flee into exile. Posterity must excuse Mariotto/Romeo his hotheadedness, for were he not the type to wreck his own life by murdering a guy in a street fight he also wouldn’t be the type to pursue forbidden tragic romance. That’s art.


Fortune’s fool …

“How great was the supreme grief of the two most wretched lovers, so lately wed, and how bitter their tears at the thought of what they believed to be their endless separation, he alone who has been pricked by such wounds can truly tell.” (Translation source.)

“So deep and bitter it was, that at their last parting, they seemed for a long while to have died in each other’s arms.”

It next comes to pass that Gianozza’s father, ignorant of her secret marriage to the town fugitive, arranges a match for her. This development leads our Juliet figure to seek out the aid of the friar who has secretly wed them in a scheme that is precisely Shakespearean.

The friar “made up a certain water with certain concoctions of various powders that, when the draught was ready and she had drunk it, it would not only make her sleep for three days, but seem to be really dead.” With this potion they stage Gianozza’s death; then, the friar secretly steals her hibernating “corpse” from its tomb, revives her, and packs her off to find her beloved.

He, of course, has separately received word of Gianozza’s death — and (also of course) the courier that had been dispatched pre-death elixir to clue him into the plan has been waylaid by pirates and left his essential plot spoilers at the bottom of the sea.

Disconsolate, Mariotto returns to Siena with the unproductive object of mooning over Gianozza’s grave and “weep[ing] as if their lives were ended.” Don’t worry, he has a backup plan! “If by misfortune he was recognized, he thought he would gladly be condemned as a murderer, knowing that she was already dead whom he loved more than himself and who loved him with equal love.”

This works as well as you expect, albeit with less panache than Shakespeare’s crypt climax: Mariotto gets caught in a transport of the macabre trying to break into Gianozza’s sepulcher, and is recognized as a condemned outlaw.

Before dawn, all Siena was full of the news, which reached the ears of the Court, who ordered the mayor to go and arrest him and quickly do that which the laws and the State commanded.

So, a prisoner in fetters, Mariotto was led to the palace of the mayor. When he was flogged, without needing long tortures, he faithfully confessed the cause of his desperate return. Though all alike had the greatest pity for him, and amongst the women he was bitterly wept for and thought the only perfect lover in the world, and each of them would have willingly redeemed him with her own life, yet he was at once condemned by the law to be beheaded. When the time arrived, without his friends or parents being able to aid him, the sentence was carried out.

Three days later, Gianozza — having reached Mariotto’s former refuge of exile and there learned of his misapprehension — turns up in Siena again only to discover that she is too late. Rather than stabbing herself to death right then and there as the Bard’s heroine would do, she shuts herself up in a convent “with intense grief and tears of blood and little food and no sleep, continually calling for her dear Mariotto, [and] in a very short time ended her wretched days.”


Prokofiev’s unwilling balletic finale

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Fictional,Italy,Murder,Myths,Nobility,Popular Culture,Sex,Torture,Uncertain Dates

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Special: One Thousand and One Nights for One Thousand and One Deaths

3 comments July 27th, 2010 Headsman

July 26, 2010 marked the 1,000th consecutive consecutive day of fresh death content delivered since this here site debuted on Halloween 2007.

Since rounding the milestone of 500, traffic has grown (nearly 80% of this site’s pageviews have occurred during the second half of its existence to date), awards have been garnered, and many, many heads have been harvested.

Quite a journey.

To celebrate the start of Executed Today‘s second thousand days, we are pleased to welcome scholar Elizabeth M. Hull for a feature excursion into what we flatter ourselves is our literary mirror, One Thousand and One Nights … which is the story of 1,001 stories, each related by the wife of the sultan to stave off her own execution.

By the way: the post below checks in right at 1,001 words.


1,001 Arabian Nights, when no one (real) was executed.

Once there was a young girl named Shahrazad who outwitted death and an angry king. But like all stories, this one begins long before that.

It is said that Shah Zamán returned home unexpectedly and found his wife asleep in the arms of their black cook slave. Naturally, Shah Zamán “drew his scymitar and, cutting the two in four pieces with a single blow, left them on the carpet and returned presently to his camp.”

Sick from dwelling “on the deed of his wife,” Shah Zamán witnessed the daily orgy between his brother Shahryár’s concubines and slaves, while Shahryár’s Queen’s “slobbering” slave “winding his legs round hers, as a button loop clasps a button, … threw her and enjoyed her.”

King Shahryár’s greater power should have made him safe from women’s treachery; it did not. When the brothers discovered that even the wife of a powerful Jinn had cuckolded her husband 600 times, they concluded that “they all do it and that there is no woman but who cuckoldeth her husband.”

After slaying his wife, his ten concubines, and their lovers, Shahryár initiated his famous wedding policy, “marrying a maiden every night and killing her the next morning” before she could betray him. The slaughter went on every day for three years, until “there remained not in the city a young person fit for carnal copulation.”

The real story of Shahrazad is the story of damaged masculine honor and the holocaust it requires: 1,108 women and 11 men, until there is no one left to kill. The fundamental condition of this fictional world is men’s inability to control women’s sexuality — or even to control their own sexual desires. After all, the king does not give up sex; instead he kills his partners. His shame, jealousy, grief, rage, and power empty his city of life.

Shahrazad’s own story begins in this empty city.

The virgin whose father has carried out the executions volunteers to marry Shahryár. Her father warns her not to be like the Bull in the tale, and she eagerly asks for the story, which he frames in another cautionary tale. She still marries the king, but her father’s stories set the pattern for her stratagem: play upon natural human curiosity and the love of a good yarn, wrapped in another good yarn, rolled into a tangle of story threads.

Shahrazad tells her husband the story of the Trader who mistakenly killed his wife, and, famously, dawn comes just as he is about to kill his son, “knife in hand — And Shahrazad perceived the dawn of day. … ‘What is this to that I could tell thee on the coming night, were I to live and the King would spare me?’ Then said the King in himself, ‘By Allah, I will not slay her, until I shall have heard the rest of her tale.’ So they slept the rest of that night in mutual embrace.”

The cliffhanger involves the trader’s love for his wife and his child, feelings Shahryár long ago killed in himself, since by executing his wives he has eliminated any children they might have borne. An empty city, and a sterile palace.

A complicated dance develops between Shahrazad and Shahryár, its rhythm set by the nights he spends with her between the setting and rising of the sun, metaphorical death and birth.

The classic Richard Francis Burton translations of the Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night are also available free on Gutenberg.org.

The stories themselves are a kind of life, not just in the liveliness of adventure, love, sexual humor, and trade. Like life they are full of interruptions, new stories springing from old ones, proliferating, fertile, oozing the kindness and evil in the hearts of man and woman.

The tales reflect the conflict between men and women in Shahryár’s past. Often, women are adulterous, jealous, abusive, and rapacious; occasionally men are angry and brutally violent. Most especially, death fills the tales, thousands of deaths, mostly murders and executions. The famous hero Sindbad, for example, cast into the tomb with his dead wife, murders other widows and widowers for their food and water, takes their valuables, and becomes rich. Sharazad’s world is Darwinian: survival justifies killing.

Sometimes, women govern better than men. In the final story, Ma’aruf finds a ring that controls a Jinn, loses it to his father-in-law, who loses it to his Wazir, who loses it to Ma’aruf’s wife. When her husband tells her to give the ring to him or to her father, she says: “I will keep the ring myself, and belike I shall be more careful of it than you. … So fear no harm so long as I live.” Indeed, they remain happy until she dies.

The point could have been that Shahryár’s life will be happy as long as Shahrazad lives –- if her story ended there. Instead, Ma’aruf’s jealous first wife tries to steal the ring; she is killed by his son in one last conflict with a wicked stepmother. The story ultimately suggests that good women protect their husbands, but so do children.

Sharazad will base her appeal for clemency not just on her own value and but also on her children’s. By now, “Shahrazad had borne the King three boy children … one walking, one crawling and one sucking.” Connecting the stories to their sons, she says to Shahryár, “‘these thousand nights and a night have I entertained thee with stories,'” and asks him for her life: “‘for, an thou kill me, they will become motherless and will find none among women to rear them as they should be reared.’ When the King heard this, he wept and straining the boys to his bosom said, ‘… Shahrazad, I pardoned thee before the coming of these children, for that I found thee chaste.'”

We never learn how he knows that she is chaste. Perhaps giving him life, life created just for him, not only through children but through the stories that restored his own desire for tomorrow, was enough.

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Entry Filed under: Administrative Messages,Arts and Literature,Fictional,Guest Writers,Other Voices

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1792: Jacques Cazotte, occultist

2 comments September 25th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1792, Jacques Cazotte, a writer distinctly out of step with his times, was guillotined for treason in Paris.

The Martinique-born Cazotte (English Wikipedia entry | French) was into his 40s when he launched the writing career that earns him notice enough for this blog.

He wasn’t a liberte, egalite, fraternite kind of guy: Cazotte’s works, like Le Diable Amoureux (The Devil in Love),* were fantastical, Gothic — far from the rationalist fare of the Enlightenment.

And that wasn’t exclusively a literary posture.

Cazotte fancied himself gifted with prophecy — enthusiasts’ accounts have him prophesying the course of the Revolution — and preferred the mystical enlightenment of the illuminati to the Voltairean kind.** He viewed the onset of the French Revolution with horror.

When some scribblings to that effect were discovered in his papers, the mystical goose was cooked. The French Wikipedia entry credits his daughter with saving his life during the September Massacres … buying the 72-year-old only a few weeks of life.

Cazotte’s Le Diable Amoureux has the devil as a young man’s servant girl, endeavoring to seduce him. Here is Cesare Pugni‘s balletic rendition, Satanella, with its grand pas de deux, “Le Carnaval de Venise,” from the Kirov:

Cazotte finds his way to us, as the dark arts are wont to do, through more meandering channels as well.

Le Diable Amoureux inspired supernatural mystery The Club Dumas by Spanish author Arturo Perez-Reverte. That novel in turn was riffed by Roman Polanski for the weird 1999 flick The Ninth Gate (review), starring Johnny Depp. (Cazotte’s book is explicitly referenced in both its progeny.)

Although only tangentially related, this digression into the occult gives us leave to notice one of the many cultural ephemera of executions linked to no particularly blog-friendly date. The Club Dumas and The Ninth Gate make use of striking woodcuts of modern vintage but after a style of centuries past that help unlock the central puzzle.

Charged with esoterica, the topical-looking “hanged man” print comes clearly modeled after its tarot cousin … although the tarot version, in most instances, is hoped to be of less deadly effect upon the plot.

* Available free in the original French at Project Gutenberg.

** Voltairean rationalism had its own ways of getting in trouble. It may have been an age of ideas, but it was hardly safe to have them.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,20th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,Hanged,History,Murder,Power,Public Executions,Treason

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