1918: Roman Malinovsky, tinker, tailor, soldier, spy

Add comment November 6th, 2013 Headsman

In the early morning hours this date in 1918, Roman Malinovsky was shot in the Kremlin on the verdict of his trial the previous day.

In the years before the Russian Revolution Malinovsky (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) was a steelworker who was actually a Bolshevik revolutionary, who was actually an Okhrana agent codenamed “Tailor”.

After a stint in the army in the first years of the 20th century, the Polish Catholic Malinovsky went to work as a lathe operator in a St. Petersburg factory, in one of the militant pockets of Russia’s small urban proletariat.

Malinovsky proved a gifted labor organizer — enough that under the Stolypin crackdown, he was arrested in 1909 and expelled from St. Petersburg. Then he was arrested in 1910 in Moscow.

No later than this point, though possibly even before it, he was recruited by tsarist Russia’s secret police. Now Malinovsky’s considerable energies were turned to spying on the communists, and to deepening mistrust between Mensheviks and Bolsheviks. “The whole purpose of my direction [to Malinovsky] is summed up in this: to give no possibility of the Party’s uniting,” the police director Beletsky later explained.

Malinovsky was an adroit mole.

He got himself elected to the Bolsheviks’ Central Committee, and ingratiated himself with Lenin so thoroughly that when Malinovsky was openly accused of spying for the Okhrana in 1913, Lenin came to his defense.

Malinovsky’s proximity to Lenin enabled him to cc the police on the latter’s correspondence, but for posterity the mystery is on the other side of the relationship. Was Lenin in denial? Or did he already know that Malinovsky was a spy?

The double games being played around Malinovsky fade into a fog in the 1910s. The Okhrana mysteriously forced Malinovsky to resign from the state Duma — another powerful seat he had obtained — which was such a grievous loss for the Bolsheviks that it further multiplied the suspicions of his leftist comrades. Did the Okhrana take this seemingly counterproductive step because Malinovsky was compromised as a spy, or was this just a change of policy? When Malinovsky was taken prisoner by the Germans during World War I, his agitations among fellow-POWs earned Lenin’s admiration. Was this sincere conviction after all, or a maneuver?

Accounts of associates paint Lenin as horribly torn on the accusations against a man whom Lenin plainly admired, even rationalizing that Malinovsky’s organizational talents on behalf of the movement had still outweighed the injury he might have done it by spying.

Nor was this merely a personal consideration, since accusations against Malinovsky — an uncompromising Bolshevik in his party persona, further to the cause of preventing intra-party reconciliation — had emerged earliest from Mensheviks. Their eventual vindication on this matter was an obvious irritant to Lenin, and even late in the war years Lenin downplayed the spying charges.

Most mysteriously of all — at least in retrospect — Malinovsky voluntarily returned to post-Revolution Moscow knowing that his role as an informant had been definitively exposed in Russian newspapers following a sack of the Okhrana offices and its revealing files. It was to “wash away the sins of his life with blood,” he told his interrogators, agents of the new secret police — the Cheka. Or was it that he thought he had, via Lenin (who had even sent clothes to the disgraced Malinovsky’s POW camp) an angle on rehabilitation?

Maybe in the end Malinovsky was the victim of his own con. Ralph Carter Elwood’s biography suggests that Malinovsky took Lenin’s surprisingly congenial behavior to mean that he had been forgiven since the fact could no longer be denied … when it might really have meant that Lenin was in denial about the fact itself, almost to to the last. “The last” being, in this case, the courtroom* of Nov. 5 which Lenin himself attended. Malinovsky defended himself for hours, but admitted all; if he anticipated clemency, he did not receive any more of it than the few hours necessary to put his affairs in order.

More tantalizing still, though well into the realm of speculation, is the idea that Lenin did indeed understand what Malinovsky was up to, but wanted to keep the door closed on espionage and counter-espionage vis-a-vis the tsarist police for fear of disgracing old Bolshevik revolutionaries with compromised pasts who had now become men of state. Stalin himself might have been in this same boat, perhaps making this moment yet another missed opportunity to pre-empt the terrifying era yet to come.

“I couldn’t see through that scoundrel Malinovsky,” Lenin later told Gorky, a sentiment we might today echo in retrospect. “It was a very fishy affair, that Malinovsky business.”

* His prosecutor was former comrade Nikolai Krylenko. Krylenko ultimately died in 1938; you may well guess how.

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1937: Martemyan Ryutin, for his affair

1 comment January 10th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1937, Martemyan Ryutin was condemned to death and immediately executed in Stalinist USSR.

Ryutin (English Wikipedia entry | Russian | another Russian bio) was a revolutionary from the Far East who by the late 1920s was in the Bolsheviks’ heretical right wing; his affiliation with Bukharin and Rykov got him temporarily booted out of the Communist party in 1930.

Not content to keep his head safely down as Stalin’s star ascended, Ryutin typed out an anti-Stalin pamphlet and the 200-page “Ryutin Platform” denouncing Josef Djugashvili as “the gravedigger of the Revolution” and urging that he be removed — even by force.*

Weeks after Ryutin began circulating this incendiary samizdat the secret police busted him.

Though open discussion of the so-called Ryutin Affair was nonexistent in the Soviet Union until the Gorbachev era, it was a matter of dire importance for the Politburo in 1932; indeed, fleeting as it was, it’s one of the few organized elite attempts to thwart Stalin discernible during the 1930s. Stalin wanted Ryutin executed, but he was outvoted; this is a small milepost on the way to the Yezhovschina indicating that Stalin’s power still had its limits … and Bolsheviks still recoiled at the prospect of killing other party members.** These constraints were not very long for the scene.

Even so, Ryutin got a 10-year prison sentence and anyone else who had read the Ryutin platform without informing on it to the Party was in seriously hot water. Twenty-four were expelled from the party in October 1932 for this reason, including once-proud and soon-doomed Old Bolsheviks Zinoviev and Kamenev.

Ryutin, for his part, had only a few years to wait before the deteriorating political climate dispensed with those taboos about internecine bloodletting. The Supreme Court signed off on his execution this day with just a few minutes’ hearing, and it was immediately carried out.

Ryutin’s two sons were also executed in 1937, and his wife died in a labor camp. Only his daughter Lyubov survived the Ryutin Affair — which convictions were posthumously reversed in 1988.

* Bukharin’s widow later wrote that Stalin’s agents later added the most inflammatory material — like that violent overthrow stuff.

** Had Stalin had his way in 1932, Ryutin would have had the distinction of being the first Central Committee member to be executed, according to Suzi Weissman.

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1936: Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, Old Bolsheviks

4 comments August 25th, 2011 Headsman

During the purges of the 1930s, Josef Stalin showed a particular relish for eliminating the Old Bolsheviks whose red credentials predated the revolution. (And potentially, outshone his own.)

Zinoviev

On this date in 1936, one of the oldest of them, Grigory Zinoviev, was shot with his longtime ally Lev Kamenev.

These guys had been major movers and shakers among the early Bolsheviki, adherents of Lenin during the first decade of the century when the aspiration for a Communist Russia seemed hopelessly far-fetched. Zinoviev rode with Lenin from Switzerland to Petrograd in the famous sealed train after the February Revolution toppled the tsar. (Not so Kamenev: he was serving time in Siberia, but was freed by the revolution.)

In the years that followed, both played leading roles in the Soviet government despite their impolitic opposition to the Bolshevik coup in October.

Kamenev was briefly head of state in 1917, and he married Leon Trotsky’s sister. Zinoviev was the longtime head of the Communist International, in which capacity he showed Moscow’s public face for communist movements in other countries. Bela Kun was another ally of Zinoviev’s.)

In this capacity, he’s known in British history for the “Zinoviev letter”, a purported summons to Anglo agitation that was actually a dirty trick dropped before an election to help the Tories sweep to power.*

Those were the good old days — when Lenin was fading away and Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Stalin were the “troika” running things. They should have checked with the Romans how triumvirates work out.

Because of their alliance, Zinoviev and Kamenev provided the decisive support that enabled Stalin to remain General Secretary of the party after the public airing of Lenin’s Testament warning against him. Without Zinoviev and Kamenev at this crucial moment, Stalin probably could not have survived politically; the name Koba might have gone into history books as little more than a terror to the paperwork of some forgotten bureau. (And the pre-revolutionary Caucasus!)

Talk about hoisted by your own petard.

Having been helpfully maintained in his position against Lenin’s dying wish, Stalin soon marginalized these formerly useful creatures. Their last decade was doomed to a spiral of failing power struggles, sinking rank, furtive dissension, and craven submission to party discipline.

Stalin at length destroyed them at the first great Moscow show trial, the Trial of the Sixteen — which hyped a “Trotskyite-Zinovievite” plot in a nicely Orwellian twist. (Despite Kamenev’s marital connection, Trotsky was actually a political rival.) The charge sheet must have reminded the defendants on every one of their dwindling days of the alliance with Trotsky they could have made back when they mattered.

The Trial of the 16 defendants would help to write the script for succeeding acts of this awful theater: after fighting the allegations, Zinoviev and Kamenev agreed to plead guilty on private assurances that their lives would be spared.

But once he had their “admissions” on the record, Stalin altered the deal.

Not only Zinoviev and Kamenev, but all 16 from the trial of the 16 were shot shortly after midnight this date.

From exile, their “conspirator” Trotsky called it the “end of an epoch”.

His obituary for Zinoviev and Kamenev minces no words about the men’s personal shortcomings (“they lacked sufficient character”), but still achieves a certain elegaic sympathy for these former fellow-travelers and their shared movement, now swallowed by Stalinism.

I have had the occasion to hear tranquil petty bourgeois tell me in the days between the beginnings of the trial and my internment: “It’s impossible to understand Zinoviev … He is so lacking in character!” And I would reply: “Have you yourselves experienced the full weight of the pressure to which he has been subjected for a number of years?” Unintelligent in the extreme are the comparisons, so widespread in intellectual circles, of the conduct in court of Danton, Robespierre and others. These were the instances of revolutionary tribunes who found the knife of justice suspended over them, directly in the midst of the arena of struggle; at a time when they were in the full flower of their strength, with their nervous system almost untouched and, at the same time, when they despaired of all hope of salvation.

[By contrast] For ten years they [Zinoviev and Kamenev] had been enveloped by clouds of slander paid for in heavy gold. For ten years they had swayed between life and death, first in a political sense, then in a moral sense, and lastly in a physical sense. Can one find in all past history examples of such systematic, refined and fiendish destruction of spines, nerves and all the fibers of the soul? Zinoviev or Kamenev would have had more than ample character for a tranquil period. But the epoch of grandiose social and political convulsions demanded an extraordinary firmness of these men, whose abilities secured them a leading place in the revolution. The disproportion between their abilities and their wills led to tragic results.

* There are numerous theories of the Zinoviev Letter’s origin; one has it that spy Sidney Reilly had a hand in it.

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1938: Yakov Peters, Siege of Sidney Street survivor

1 comment April 25th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1938, a Soviet purge claimed (among others*) Yakov (Jacob) Peters, former Cheka executioner and once the subject of a headline-grabbing trial in England.

Peters was a trusted (and ruthless) operator in the Soviet internal police from the start of the Revolution: he helped interrogate Lenin‘s would-be assassin Fanya Kaplan in 1918.

And he was the guy Trotsky had on speed-dial when Cheka founder Felix Dzerzhinsky was arrested by the Left SRs during their abortive 1918 uprising against their erstwhile revolutionary allies, the Bolsheviks.**

Dzerzhinsky was disarmed and locked in a room. his assistant, M.I. Latsis, was captured in the Cheka Lubianka headquarters. “No point in taking him anywhere, put this scum against the wall!” shouted a sailor, but one of the leaders, Alexandrovich, intervened, saying, “There is no need to kill, comrades; arrest him, but do not kill.” Dzerzhinsky’s assistant Yakov Peters was urgently summoned by Trotsky, who ordered him to crush the uprising by attacking the Left Eser headquarters. Alexandrovich was caught at a railway station, and Latsis, whom he had saved from execution, personally shot him. Mass executions in Cheka prisons followed. (Source)

Like a lot of old Bolsheviks, Peters’s early service to the cause didn’t age too well. He ran afoul of some bureaucratic intrigue or point of party discipline or other and caught a bullet in 1938. (Khrushchev rehabilitated him.)

For anyone in England watching the fate of this distant apparatchik, the proximity to bloodbaths would have had a familiar hue.

Peters was one of a gang of Latvian revolutionaries who came to cinematic public attention in London when, in the course of being rounded up for a December 1910 murder, they engaged the police in a stupendous East End firefight on January 2, 1911 — the Siege of Sidney Street. (It’s also known as the Battle of Stepney.)

Armed like soldiery, the Latvians easily outgunned the bobbies who had them hemmed into a cul-de-sac, and they fired on John Law with ruthless effect. This necessitated a call to the Scots Guard — whose deployment was okayed by Home Secretary Winston Churchill, the latter captured on film that day awkwardly milling about the scene of the urban combat.


(Translated directly to the city’s cinemas as soon as that same evening, Churchill’s image came in for public catcalls owing to his support for a relatively open immigration policy for eastern Europeans.)

This incident was a landmark in crime, policing, media — recognizably modern in its trappings of nefarious immigrant terrorists, politicized state funerals for policemen, and of course, the live-on-the-scenes camera work.

Since Britain was a ready hand with the noose at this time, one might think an execution would have been just the denouement.

However, responsibility for the policememen slain in the affray had been officially assigned to a different gang member, George Gardstein — who was killed when the besieged house burned down — and there was little usable evidence against those who were finally put on trial for the gang’s various crimes. Most of the witnesses were dead, fled, or completely unreliable, so the surviving Latvians all walked.

(Since the identity of one of the first guys to start shooting when the police rang always remained murky, there are some theories — such as in this out-of-print book — that Peters himself had been one of the gunmen on-site, and/or that he could be identified with the absconded and never-captured gang leader “Peter the Painter”.)

Whatever the exact measure of blood on Yakov Peters’s hands from Sidney Street, there would be a lot more where it came from.

While Peters went off to his different fate in revolutionary Russia, the dramatic scene he left behind has naturally attracted continuing retrospective attention in England. The testimony of witnesses, who also recollect the shootout’s anti-immigrant fallout, is preserved in this BBC Witness radio program:

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And, on this BBC Four television special:

* e.g., Russian Civil War officer Nikolay Gikalo and Romanian Jewish revolutionary Leon Lichtblau.

** And in favor of resuming Russia’s ruinous involvement in World War I!

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Espionage,Execution,Executioners,History,Lithuania,Politicians,Posthumous Exonerations,Power,Revolutionaries,Russia,Shot,The Worm Turns

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1918: Tsar Nicholas II and his family

18 comments July 17th, 2008 Headsman

In the small hours after midnight on the night of July 16-17 90 years ago, the former Tsar Nicholas II, his wife, children, and four family retainers, were shot in a Yekaterinburg basement by their Bolshevik jailers.

Doting family man, vacillating dictator, as weak and rich as Croesus … the doomed Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias was a man small of stature. His reign emerged under a bad star when 1,300 Muscovites were trampled to death in the crush for his coronation largesse; 18 years later, Nicholas‘s support for Serbia against Austria-Hungary was instrumental in pitching Europe into World War I, a blunder for which he reaped a whirlwind long in the making.

When an anti-Bolshevik force approached Yekaterinburg (or Ekaterinburg), where the deposed royals had been stashed in a commandeered private residence,* Yakov Sverdlov (for whom the city was subsequently renamed) ordered the prisoners shot — not only the tsar, but his beloved wife, their hemophiliac heir, and those four daughters who had to be bayoneted because the state jewels secreted in their corsets shielded them from the gunfire.

The executioners (here’s the account of their leader; here’s another guard’s version) did their best to destroy and conceal the remains, helping fuel subsequent rumors that one of the children had survived and escaped.

Those rumors are only now, with post-Soviet investigation and DNA forensics, being debunked, and not yet to the satisfaction of all comers. This very week, Moscow affirmed (though the Orthodox church has not accepted) that the last of Nicholas’s family had been accounted for:

Modern nostalgia for this unimpressive sovereign is making a minor comeback, with Nicholas absurdly contending in a current poll for the title of “greatest Russian” … supported not only by the miseries of the state that succeeded his, but by the family’s decent and accessible private life.

Even a monarchist — especially a monarchist! — shouldn’t reason that the greatest monarch is the one who drove the bus over the cliff. But much is forgiven a martyr. Indeed, like Charles I of England, the last Romanov monarch has been posthumously saddled with divine sanction; he and all the family are certified “passion bearers”. (Update: And possible future relics!)

A handful of the many books about the Romanovs and their fall

* The Ipatiev House where the tsar was held (and shot) no longer stands. On its spot is a church consecrated five years ago yesterday to the Romanov canonization.

Update: The Romanovs were officially rehabilitated by the Russian Supreme Court on October 1, 2008.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Heads of State,History,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Milestones,No Formal Charge,Notable Participants,Political Expedience,Popular Culture,Posthumous Exonerations,Power,Put to the Sword,Royalty,Russia,Shot,Summary Executions,The Worm Turns,USSR,Wartime Executions,Women

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