1939: Aleksei Gastev, Soviet scientific manager

Add comment April 15th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1939, the Old Bolshevik Aleksei Gastev, a theorist of scientific management for the Soviet state, was shot in Stalin’s purges.

Expelled in his youth from tsarist teaching ranks due to his radicalism, Gastev (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) traced his revolutionary bona fides back to the 1905 Revolution (he fought in it) and even before (as an ally and correspondent of Lenin).

With the advent of the latter’s revolution, Gastev founded the Central Institute of Labor (CIT), and CIT’s training firm Ustanovka (“setup” or “installation”) — organs dedicated, respectively, to the study of work, and to the promulgation of the new science of the workplace throughout the Soviet economy.

It was a socialist perspective on Taylorism, that practice of scientific management that was also transforming capitalist production; like Taylor, Gastev aimed to systematize the routine operations on the factory floor, to learn the most efficient way to wield a hammer or a shovel and expel from the labor force the indulgence of artisanal idiosyncracy and rule-of-thumb work; more broadly, Gastev aimed to revolutionize the way work was conceptualized by Soviet people, bending the mental and behavioral orientation of workers to optimize them for the demands of industrial production.

“Even when we exit the gates of the factory, still we carry the factory,” he wrote, positing a question that demanded “a cultural ustanovka.”

Fear of this very thing haunted Europe in this moment and has never left her nightmares in the century since. The CIT juxtaposed curiously with the almost simultaneous publication of some of the seminal dystopian mechanization literature — like Yevgeny Zamyatin‘s We (1921), in which the rational ordering of society annihilates freedom, and Karel Capek‘s R.U.R. (1920), the play that borrowed a Czech term for unfree work to give the world’s lexicon that wonderful word “robot”. Unsettling to many, this twining of man and machine was understood by Gastev as an emancipatory vista.

Gastev’s ideal worker is neither the oxen brute of Taylor’s dreams, nor the lifeless robot of Capek’s nightmare. He is rather an active, sentient, and creative part of the productive process who behaves like a seasoned, conscious, and well-trained warrior. Armed with sharpness of vision, acute hearing, attentiveness to environment and detail, precision and even grace of movement, and “scoutlike” inquisitiveness about the relationship and locations of things and peoples, he enters the factory as though it were a battle-field with commander-like briskness, regimental routine, and a martial strut. For him, no romance, no heroic individual deeds — only a relentless battle waged scientifically for production.

But the robot is present in Gastev’s vision nonetheless: it is the machine itself, not the man. For Gastev, the machine also takes on a life that gives it not only the power to produce and enrich, but also to train, to inspire, to organize. His wildest visions of 1918-19 are previsions of Capek and Zamyatin and celebrations of a coming event often warned about in science fiction: the takeover by machines. Gastev could never quite decide whether the machine was to be the master or the servant of man. Since he continued to use the machine metaphor, he eventually opened himself to attack by those who opposed his policies on other grounds. But Gastevism differed from administrative utopia — the heavy-handed martialing and mobilization of raw labor in a palpably unequal hierarchy. Gastev’s man-machine meant a symbiosis of the two, interacting in a way never wholly understood even by himself. It clearly contained fearful elements. But Gastev himself, by all accounts, was not a cold-hearted machine-like fanatic but a warm and engaging person. He did not fear the power of the machine. He feared backwardness, passivity, and sloth. (Source)


Dziga Vertov‘s 1929 classic Man with a Movie Camera captures the excitement of industrialization and industrial workers.

On the side — to stave off the sloth — Gastev kept up an artistic output of his own as a poet of the Proletarian Culture movement; this exemplar (Order No. 2 from a work called “Ten Orders”) comes to us via Wonderlands of the Avant-Garde: Technology and the Arts in Russia of the 1920s, which notes that “what is produced is never specified; the emphasis rather is on the establishment of a certain pace of work, as if machines manufacture a new time — the rhythm of the new life.”

Chronometer, report to duty.
To the machines.
Rise.
Pause.
A charge of attention.
Supply.
Switch on.
Self-propulsion.
Stop.

The chronometer stopped for Gastev with his fall in late 1938, and he proceeded thence to the familiar fate of Stalin’s prey amongst the intelligentsia. As he associates with the positive, modernizing, and utopian strain of the Soviet experiment but not its failures or horrors his name is not blackened to posterity and the present-day Russian Federation’s Ministry of Economic Development sponsors an “A.K. Gastev Cup” award to honor advances in production.

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1919: Heinrich Bosse

Add comment February 16th, 2019 Headsman

German pastor Heinrich Bosse died for the evangelium at Bolshevik hands 100 years ago today.

Bosse followed his grandfather and father into the clergy and took up a posting to Riga in the last years of the 19th century. Today Riga is the capital of Latvia; at the time, it was a port in the Russian empire — but the former Hanseatic city was heavily German-populated, as it had been for centuries.

This was not an ideal vocation when Latvia’s declaration of independence at the end of World War I triggered Bolshevik invasion. By March 1919, Red forces controlled most of the country. Now, over the months to come the civil war would expel the Communists and secure independence for Latvia, at least for the interwar period.

But none of that big-picture stuff would help Reverend Bosse.

Latvian Bolsheviks had a grudge against Bosse for (so they believed) informing on one of their number who’d been executed by German forces occupying the city during the late World War. A revolutionary tribunal accordingly condemned him to death after a bout of torture; he was taken out of his cell on February 16, 1919, and shot in an unknown location.

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1958: Istvan Angyal, Hungarian revolutionary

Add comment December 1st, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1958, Angyal Istvan was hanged for the failed 1956 Hungarian revolution.

A working-class Jew who survived Auschwitz as a boy — his mother and sister were not so fortunate — Angyal was a convinced leftist who became disaffected with the Hungarian regime not because of its Communism but because of its failure to realize the democratic and egalitarian aspirations of that ideology.

A fixture on the youthful intellectual ferment in Budapest in the early 1950s, he was one of the leaders of street protests against Soviet domination during the doomed Hungarian Revolution of 1956, even conferring personally with Prime Minister Imre Nagy during its last days. In a gesture that not all of his comrades would have supprted, he set out the hammer and sickle along with the Hungarian national flag on November 7, the very eve of the revolution’s defeat, arguing to Soviet troops that they were fighting against true communism.

He’s commemorated today at an Angyal István Park in Budapest; it’s evidently “a modern social place with free Internet” and a nifty paper plane art installation.

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1937: Vincenzo Baccala

Add comment November 29th, 2018 Headsman

Italian Communist Vincenzo Baccala was executed on this date in 1937 … but not by the fascists.

The blackshirted turn of his country in the 1920s had driven Vincenzo into emigre exile, pursued by an in absentia prison sentence for “subversive propaganda tending to insurrection and incitement of class hatred.” He went first in Paris and then in 1931 to the USSR.

Although present in the fortress of Communism at the Party’s direction, and eventually an outright Soviet citizen, Baccala came into trouble after criticizing Stalin in 1933 and had to leave his family in Odessa as he struggled to find work. Come the height of the purges in the later 1930s, he was predictably denounced.

Baccala’s wife Pia Piccioni swallowed a bitter draught of her own; unable to see her husband or find support amid Stalin’s purges, she returned to her native country, finding little comfort either in Mussolini‘s Italy (for obvious reasons) or in postwar Italy (where red comrades shied from traducing the USSR). She wrote a book about her own and Baccala’s experiences, Compagno Silenzio: Una vedova italiana del gulag racconta.

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1949: Nicolae Dabija, anti-communist partisan

Add comment October 28th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1949, the Romanian anti-communist partisan Nicolae Dabija (English Wikipedia entry | Romanian) was shot at Sibiu, along with six other members* of that resistance.

Although cousin to Romania’s pre-Ceausescu Communist ruler Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, Dabija — not to be confused with the 19th century general of that name nor with the latter-day Moldova M.P. of the same name — charted a distinctly separate ideological course.

He was decorated for his service on the Axis’s Eastern Front during World War II, but this same credential got him expelled from the army in the postwar Red takeover.

Nothing daunted, Dabija and some like-minded comrades** formed an armed anti-communist militia a few dozen strong in Transylvania’s Apuseni Mountains named the National Defense Front, Haiducian Corps — a nod to the Balkans’ historical outlaws/rebels. The Securitate reduced them over the course of 1948-1949 months, culminating in a March 3-4, 1949 forest battle that brought Dabija et al into custody.

* Ioan Scridon, Traian Mihaltan, Titus Onea, Augustin Ratiu, Gheorghe Oprita, Silvestru Bolfea. (Source)

** Brothers with the apt surname Macavei.

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1972: Helenira Rezende, Brazil guerrilla

Add comment September 29th, 2018 Headsman

Brazilian Communist guerrilla Helenira Rezende was summarily executed in the field on this date in 1972.

“Preta” to her comrades, she was a silver-tongued student activist at the University of Sao Paulo who had been clapped in prison by the dictatorship.

Rezende was amnestied in December 1968 and went underground, eventually joining the guerrilla movement in the Araguaia River basin.

The 80 or so guerrillas operating in the eastern Amazon aspired to run that Che Guevara rural-insurgency playbook, as it announced in a May 1972 manifesto. It didn’t work: the Brazilian military successfully suppressed the revolution in a series of campaigns over the next two-plus years. Only about 20 of the guerrillas survived.

One of those lucky ones, Angelo Arroyo,* gave an account of her death:

On September 29, there was an ambush that resulted in the death of Helenira Resende. She, along with another companion, was on guard at a high point in the woods. On that occasion, troops came along the road. As they found the passage dangerous, they sent scouts to explore the side of the road, precisely where Helenira and the other companion were. The latter, when he saw the soldiers, fired the machine gun, which did not work. He ran and Helenira did not realize what was happening. When she saw the soldiers were already in front of her. Helenira fired a 16-round shotgun. The other soldier gave a blast of machine-gun fire that struck her. Injured, she pulled out the revolver and shot the soldier, who must have been hit. She was arrested and tortured to death.

Her bayoneted body was secretly buried by sympathetic campesinos and has never been recovered; officially, she’s still considered a fugitive. Her unit adopted the tributary name Destacamento Helenira Rezende; more recently, the University of Sao Paulo’s postgraduate association has been named in her honor.

* He wasn’t lucky for long: Arroyo was assassinated with a fellow Communist leader by military officials in Sao Paulo in 1976.

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1943: Mao Zemin, brother of Mao Zedong

Add comment September 27th, 2018 Headsman

Mao Zemin, younger brother of Communist leader Mao Zedong, was executed on this date in 1943.

A party cadre since 1921, the non-chairman Mao served a variety of economic leadership posts for the Red Army.

As of early 1941, Mao (English Wikipedia entry | the far more voluminous Chinese was detailed to the western province of Xinjiang, where the warlord Sheng Shicai maintained friendly relations with the neighboring Soviet Union.

To Mao’s grief, this “King of Xinjiang” saw in the unfolding global war an opportunity to realign.

After the German invasion of the USSR in 1941, Sheng boldly flipped his affiliation from Moscow to the nationalist Kuomintang government with which he had theretofore maintained only the frostiest of relations. Crackdowns on Communists ensued too, and both Mao Zemin and Chen Tanqiu were both arrested, tortured, and executed as a result.

Needless to say this KMT-Xinjiang axis did not hold the Celestial Empire’s destiny and the whole decision to fade Moscow looks pretty dumb in retrospect. Sheng, however, surely did not much regret the gambit since he was able to follow the nationalists to Taiwan and spend a comfortable retirement writing memoirs like Sinkiang: Pawn or Pivot?

Mao’s son Mao Yuanxin, a still-living pensioner as of this writing, was a political figure in the 1970s who was jailed post-Gang of Four.

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1937: Alexander Shlyapnikov, Workers’ Opposition leader

Add comment September 2nd, 2018 Headsman

September 2 was the execution date during the purge year of 1937 for Old Bolshevik trade unionist Alexander Shlyapnikov.

The metalworker Shlyapnikov was a man who came by his revolutionary politics right from the shop floor. At the age of 10 he left school to work in a foundry, “having learnt to read and write. School was no mother to me, and it was not the teachers who educated me … the teachers were young and very rude, and they often meted out justice to their young charges with their fists. Even during these years, life taught me that there is no justice in this world.” (Source) Born to an Old Believer family, his fervor for justice had an initial religious bent, but after moving from provincial Murom to St. Petersburg/Petrograd* he discarded godliness and became a labor militant of sufficient stature to start turning up on blacklists before he was out of his teens.

During the political chill following Russia’s failed 1905 revolution, the oft-arrested Shliapikov worked abroad in western Europe — by now both a master of his difficult craft, and a Bolshevik who had led an armed rising in his hometown of Murom. Here he became socially and politically close with Lenin and all the brand-name Communist exiles, as well as with European labor unions and left parties.

He also shuttled to and from Russia coordinating the movement’s internal and external actors; he’s left us a memoir of the political maneuvers and adventurous border-crossings of these years. Thanks to this role, Shliapnikov was the most senior Bolshevik on the scene in Petrograd when the February Revolution broke out; he was immediately a key figure in the Petrograd Soviet, and was the Bolshevik state’s first Commissar for Labor.

As the newborn USSR solidified in form and function, Shlyapnikov nursed growing concerns about its distance from — and tendency to run roughshod over — actual workers. He soon became a leading voice for the Workers’ Opposition** around 1919 to 1921. Where the Bolsheviks held that theirs was an ascendant workers’ polity that had subsumed mere guilds, Shlyapnikov insisted on the trade unions as distinct from the Soviet state and the Communist party — “a syndicalist deviation” in Lenin’s charge. The Workers’ Opposition was prescient in its critique of the once-utopian project’s creeping bureaucratizm, with real workers’ material interests, dissenting perspectives, and local idiosyncracies giving way everywhere to the center’s policy orthodoxy dictated through “apparatuses of power … located practically in hands alien to the interests of the working class.” (Source)

Although prominent in its day, the Workers’ Opposition viewpoint was not destined to carry forward into Soviet theory or practice. After bread shortages drove workers and sailors at Kronstadt into a rebellion that the Bolsheviks crushed in 1921, the Workers’ Opposition tendency was quashed within the party. Shlyapnikov thereafter held second-rate posts, and was several times investigated by the Communist Party for “factionalism,” finally being expelled under Stalin in 1933.†

He was favored with a 2016 biography by Barbara C. Allen, Alexander Shlyapnikov, 1885-1937: Life of an Old Bolshevik (review). Allen discussed Shlyapnikov in an interview with the indispensable Sean’s Russia Blog podcast, here. We yield to Allen’s description of Shlyapnikov’s demise among the purging of Old Bolsheviks following the Kirov affair — tragic, banal, and heroic in his plain refusal to gratify his persecutors with any manner of confession or groveling.

In April 1937 he was accused according to article 58-8 and 58-11 of the RSFSR law code of having led a counterrevolutionary group called the Workers’ Opposition, of having linked up with the ‘counterrevolutionary Trotskyist-Zinovievist terrorist bloc’ and of having ‘tried to conclude a bloc with Ruth Fischer for joint struggle against the policy and measures of the Comintern.’ It alleged that he advocated ‘individual terror’ and that groups he directed in Omsk, Rostov-on-Don, Kiev, Odessa, Baku, Kharkov and Moscow had ‘prepared and tried to realise the murder of comrade Stalin.’ Acknowledging that Shlyapnikov did not confess his guilt, the accusation established it through the testimony of Zinoviev, Safarov, Vardin and others. It recommended that the Military Collegium of the USSR Supreme Court should try him and apply the 1 December 1934 law. Applying to cases of terrorist acts, this law ordered the immediate execution of capital-punishment sentences, with no appeals.

The USSR Supreme Court Military Collegium met on 2 September 1937 in closed session to sentence Shlyapnikov, who appeared before the court in a two-hour long session. Refusing to admit his guilt, he also detailed his objections to others’ testimony against him. Given the last word, Shlyapnikov declared that he was ‘not hostile towards soviet power.’ Perhaps as a last ironic remark, he confessed guilt only to ‘a liberal attitude towards those around him.’ Nevertheless, the court on the same day found him guilty under article 58, paragraphs 8 and 11, of having led ‘an anti-Soviet terrorist organisation, the so-called “Workers’ Opposition,”‘ which carried out ‘counterrevolutionary activity directed towards the topping of soviet power.’ He was convicted of having been in contact with ‘leaders of Trotskyist-Zinovievist and Right-Bukharinist terrorist organisations’ and of having ordered members of his ‘anti-Soviet organisation’ to carry out ‘terrorist acts’ against party and government leaders. Then the Military Collegium sentenced him to ‘the highest measure of punishment — execution by shooting with confiscation of all personal property.’ Below this was pencilled: ‘the sentence was carried out on that day in Moscow.’ Despite ‘eyewitness’ tales that he survived for years longer, either abroad or under a false name in the Gulag, documents attest to the fact that shortly after his 1937 execution, Alexander Shlyapnikov’s body was cremated and buried in Donskoy cemetery in a common grave.

* Peter the Great‘s jewel was still St. Petersburg when Shlyapnikov arrived there in the last years of the 19th century; it was renamed Petrograd in 1914 and carried that name during the events of the 1917 revolutions and thereafter. It became Leningrad in 1926, a name that stuck for the remainder of the Soviet era.

** Alexandra Kollontai was also a noteworthy Workers’ Opposition exponent; her apologia makes for sad reading considering the Soviet state’s coming vector towards sclerotic authoritarianism.

† Stalin’s ideological mediocrity is commonplace observation but perhaps its signal instance occurred upon his arrival to revolutionary Petrograd before Lenin: where Shlyapnikov was refusing to entangle the Bolsheviks with the Provisional Government (post-February revolution, pre-October revolution), Stalin insisted on a more moderate and cooperative attitude. When Lenin arrived shortly thereafter, his April Theses famously re-set Bolshevik policy in Shlyapnikov’s more intransigent direction — a defeat to which Stalin owed the Bolshevik conquest of power and his own eventual opportunity to execute men like Shlyapnikov.

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1951: Arno Esch, liberal

Add comment July 24th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1951, liberal East German activist Arno Esch was shot in Lubyanka Prison outside of Moscow.

Plaque at the University of Rostock honoring Esch. (cc) image by Schiwago.

Just 17 when World War II ended, Esch emerged as a leading student activist for the Liberal Democratic Party in the postwar Soviet Occupation Zone — a pacifist who advocated political liberalization and civil rights.

These weren’t times for any common fronts: “a liberal Chinese is closer to me than a German communist,” Esch remarked, denoting a clear and present danger in the communist zone: his party attempted in vain to form a coalition across the nascent Iron Curtain with its like-minded brethren in the western zones.

Esch was arrested in 1949 and prosecuted as a spy and counterrevolutionary by a Soviet military tribunal.

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1931: Xiang Zhongfa, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party

Add comment June 24th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1931, Chiang Kai-shek had the former General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party executed.

Xiang Zhongfa was a dock worker unionist from Hanchuan who came to the fore of the workers’ movement within the CCP during the 1920s.

The Party at that time was united in a common front with the nationalist Kuomintang — an alliance that was destroyed suddenly in April 1927 when the KMT leader Chiang suddenly purged the Communists. This split precipitated the generation-long Chinese Civil War through which the Communists would eventually come to master China.

Soviet sponsorship had been essential to the CCP’s early growth. In the months after the KMT arrangement went by the boards, Chinese Communist leaders were summoned by the Comintern to Moscow where Xiang made a good impression on a hodgepodge Sixth Congress held “in the absence of key Party figures, such as Mao, Peng Pai and Li Weihan; and packed with Chinese students from Soviet universities to make up the delegate count.” (Phillip Short) Though he wound up the titular General Secretary, party leadership at the top level remained in the hands of other men, like Zhou Enlai and Qu Qiubai … while effective leadership in the field was largely in the hands of unit commanders themselves, like Mao.

A rocky early trail along the party’s long march to leadership of China and beyond … but Xiang was not made to enjoy it. During the war, he was arrested in Shanghai by the nationalists, interrogated, and delivered to the KMT’s executioners in the early hours of June 24. Orthodox party historiography holds him in disgrace for allegedly betraying the cause to his captors, speedily and cravenly (his Wikipedia entry reflects this); there are historians who dispute this belief, however.

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