1928: Chen Jue

Add comment October 14th, 2019 Headsman

China Communist revolutionary hero Chen Jue was executed on this date in 1928 by the nationalist Kuomintang.

Chen Jue with his wife Zhao Yunxiao or Yunqi are celebrated revolutionary martyrs for their respective sacrifices of life for the cause in Changsha.

They met pursuing studies of revolutionary praxis in Moscow in the mid-1920s, and returned as revolutionary cadres at just the moment that China fell to open civil war.

In April 1928 both were betrayed to the KMT. Zhao Yunxiao was pregnant; she would be suffered to carry her daughter Qiming to term before quaffing the same cup as her husband. The two swapped red tear-jerking missives before their death, that are preserved at an exhibit at the People’s Revolutionary Military Museum.

“We didn’t believe in ghosts before. Now I am willing to become a ghost,” the man wrote the wife before his execution. “We are here to save the parents, wives and children of the entire Chinese people, so we sacrificed everything. Although we die, our spirits remain with the comrades who yet live.”

“Little baby, your mother will be taken from you when you have no more than a month and a dozen days,” the wife wrote the child months later. “Little baby, I tell you very clearly that your parents were Communists … I hope that when you grow up, you read well and know how your parents died.”*

Their cause, of course, was destined for victory. If history records the destiny of their child, I have not located it.

* Both of these are my amateur-hour translations via online tours, unaided by any actual expertise in Chinese. Caveat emptor.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Martyrs,Power,Revolutionaries,Shot

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1941: Bronislava Poskrebysheva

Add comment October 13th, 2019 Headsman

Endocrinologist Dr. Bronislava Poskrebysheva was shot on this date in 1941.

She was the Jewish Lithuanian wife of Alexander Poskrebyshev, who was Stalin’s longtime aide and Chief of Staff to the Special Section of Central Committee of Communist Party — an organ that coordinated other state bureaus in the implementation of party directives, often sensitive ones. Bronislava, for her part, had a non-political career, although this was scarcely any guarantee of safety during the years of the purges.

At a scientific conference in Paris in 1933, Dr. Poskrebysheva and her brother, Michael Metallikov, had met the communist non grata Leon Trotsky; before the decade was out, the mere fact of this meeting was sufficient to implicate them as spies of the alleged Trotskyite conspiracies forever bedeviling the Soviet Union. Metallikov would ultimately be executed himself in 1939 but while his life hung in the balance, Dr. Poskrebysheva made bold to apply to that dread minister Lavrenty Beria to plead for her brother. She must have spoken a little too loosely in this personal interview of the exile’s charms, for not only did she fail to save him — she was arrested herself.

And her incidental brush with Trotsky proved more harmful to her by far than her intimate relationship with Soviet elites was helpful.

In truth her husband’s position was not nearly so strong a card as one might assume; as the doctor’s own backfiring effort to save her brother proved, there were perils risked by intercessors as well, and this would have been only more true for a man as perilously close to Stalin as was Alexander Poskrebyshev. Even brand-name Bolsheviks found in those years that they could not necessarily shield family from political persecution: Mikhail Kalinin‘s wife Ekaterina was thrown into the gulag, as was Vyacheslav Molotov‘s wife Polina Zhemchuzhina. The best Poskrebyshev could do was to raise the couple’s daughters, Galya and Natasha, even as he labored loyally onward for the state that had put a bullet in his wife. (He eventually became a Politburo member.)

Bronislava Poskrebysheva and Michael Metallikov were both posthumously rehabilitated in the 1950s.

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1942: Mark Retiunin’s rebels of the gulag

Add comment October 12th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1942, the survivors of a remarkable rebellion in a Soviet gulag camp were shot.

The Ust-Usinsky rebellion in Russia’s northern Komi Republic unfolded in the first months of that same year, under the leadership of an Archangel-area peasant named Mark Andreevich Retiunin.

Retiunin wound up in the area in the usual way, sentenced to the work camps for a bank robbery. But he’d been released in 1938 as a model, industrious prisoner, and now as a non-inmate civilian he managed forestry at the “Vorkutlag” camps near the city of Vorkuta.*

“He was one of those peasant guys who were tried as bandits during collectivization,” another prisoner remembered of him.

He walked like a bear, his red-haired shaggy head was slightly tilted forward, and his eyes looked bearish, too. He was a romantic. In his hut, standing on high stilts, lay a volume of Shakespeare. When I took it and opened it, Retiunin exclaimed “Now there was a man!” and began to recite by heart:

Yet better thus, and known to be contemn’d,
Than still contemn’d and flatter’d. To be worst,
The lowest and most dejected thing of fortune,
Stands still in esperance, lives not in fear!**

“Do you understand? We live in hope, the rise is open! This is not given to every worm.”

From late 1941, pressure on the camp had increased frighteningly with the onset of open warfare against Germany: production quotas increased, and political purges pursued the supposed counter-revolutionary saboteurs that had been conjured by the preceding years’ purge trials. In hushed and furtive conversations, Retiunin marshaled fretful associates upon the incredible path of rebellion. “What do we lose if they kill us?” he reasoned. “We will die at labor tomorrow or in battle today. They will all kill one another in the camps, but first they will shoot all those convicted as counterrevolutionaries, including we civilian employees.” For a period of weeks, aided by a fortuitous vacancy in the local NKVD post, Retiunin and company organized their desperate bid to climb the open rise.

“Special Forces 41” named for either or both of the expiring calendar year, or the roster of their conspiracy, mounted their bid on January 24, speedily disarming flat-footed guards. About 50 camp prisoners joined them; many others fled for their lives. For a few impossible days they had the run of the area before word reached the capitals and a force dispatched by Beria arrived to suppress the revolt.

Retiunin himself was chased to ground with the surrounded remnants of Special Forces 41, and shot himself on February 2 after a furious all-day gunfight. Numerous other rebels were killed in combat over the course of those days; an official count has it 48 killed, 6 suicides, and 8 taken prisoner. But the captives were augmented in the months to come by escapees lurking in the wilderness or settlement fringes by ones and twos, rounded up gradually by a now all-too-attentive NKVD. On October 12, approximately 50 people convicted of involvement or complicity in the rebellion were shot en masse. To the extent anyone heard about the rebellion, they were officially slated with aspiring to “establish ties with either fascist Germany or Finland” although interrogations suggested that mere flight from the camps was the true objective of most, and some rebels actually dreamed of making their way to the Soviet front to earn their lives by establishing their patriotic bona fides.

* This city also gives its name to a completely distinct gulag revolt in 1953 — the Vorkuta uprising. Once a mining hub, latter-day Vorkuta has grown grimly depopulated as the coal veins have played out.

** The opening words of Act IV, Scene 1 in King Lear, spoken by Edgar — who will endure his outcast status to become king by the end of the play.

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1938: Vladimir Varankin, Esperantist

Add comment October 3rd, 2019 Headsman

Russian writer Vladimir Varankin was executed on this date in 1938, during Stalin’s purges.

Varankin got interested in the international Esperanto language movement as a secondary school student in Nizhny Novgorod during the ecstatic months following the Bolshevik Revolution, and he founded an Esperantist club there that soon reached throughout the province.* This was the high-water moment for the Esperanto movement, now 30 years mature since its founding: World War I had shattered the international system and spawned small states and revolutionary governments shaping a new world on the fly. Esperanto would have been adopted by the League of Nations for official use but for the furious resistance of jealous France.

For the same reason that it interested visionaries and radicals, the language attracted the suspicion of authoritarians; in Mein Kampf Hitler denounced Esperanto as an insidious Semitic project.

the language spoken at the time by the Jew … is never a means of expressing his thoughts, but for hiding them. When he speaks French, he thinks Jewish, and when he turns out German poetry, he only gives an outlet to the nature of his people.

As long as the Jew has not become the master of the other peoples, he must, whether he likes it or not, speak their languages, and only if they would be his slaves then they might all speak a universal language so that their domination will be made easier (Esperanto!).

Esperantists became targets for political persecution in the Third Reich as a result.

In Soviet Russia, the utopian 1920s offered a far more congenial scene. These were the years Varankin came into himself and as he advanced in life, so did his enthusiasm for the artificial tongue. The late 1920s find him living in Moscow, teaching at the pedagogical institute and churning out a corpus of Esperanto books (Theory of Esperanto, the ideologically calibrated Esperanto for Workers) as well as study curricula. His magnum opus, the 1933 novel Metropoliteno, was also composed in Esperanto.

But Stalin’s purge years soon cast a pall over Esperanto and much else besides — even though Stalin actually studied a little Esperanto himself in his youth, according to Trotsky. (Pray, good reader, for Koba’s Esperanto instructors.) In about 1937 he abruptly reversed the Soviet Union’s formerly benign view of Esperanto; now, the movement’s internationalism would be held to affiliate it with the purported foreign cabals whose subversions furnished the pretext for demolishing so many lives. In Varankin’s case, and facilitated by an unauthorized visit he had made to an Esperanto conference in Germany many years before, the charge — unanswerable in those terrible days — was that his Esperantist circles comprised a network of fascist spies and saboteurs overseen by enemies abroad.

The verdict against him was posthumously reversed in 1957.

* The regional environs of present-day Nizhny Novgorod Oblast, of which the city Nizhny Novgorod is the capital; in Varankin’s youth, this was a gubernia, a regional unit held over from the deposed imperial administration. Russia’s “states” were greatly redrawn and redefined during the first decade of the Soviet experiment, and gubernias were abolished in 1929.

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1951: Sandor Szucs, Hungarian footballer

Add comment June 4th, 2019 Headsman

Twenty-nine-year-old footballer Sandor Szucs was hanged on this date in 1951 for attempting to defect from communist Hungary.

The defender for Ujpest FC, who had also featured internationally for the emerging national team juggernaut destined for legend as the Golden Team, Szucs embarked a politically dangerous extramarital affair with singer Erzsi Kovacs.

When the two attempted to flee the country together, they were arrested just this side of the Yugoslavian border. Kovacs spent four years in prison — she would go on to a successful international career — while Szucs was harshly sentenced to death as a traitor on the strength of a murky military law that had been invoked in no other case. His comrades from the pitch found that their pull did not extend to any effectual aid for him.

It’s presumed that Szucs’s execution was at least in part meant as a warning to these very same mates not to exploit the international team’s travels for any embarrassing defections.

If so, they were right to worry: when the Hungarian Revolution erupted in 1956 while the Golden Team’s primary club mirror was playing an away match in Belgium, several players refused to return to their Soviet-occupied homeland, including superstars Ferenc Puskas, Sandor Kocsis and Zoltan Czibor.

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1952: Jan Bula, Czechoslovakian priest

Add comment May 20th, 2019 Headsman

Catholic priest Jan Bula was hanged on this date in 1952 at Jihlava

A Rokytnice pastor, Bula (English Wikipedia entry | the more detailed Czech and German) put himself in the gunsights of the postwar Communist state by defying its strictures on proselytization and commenting publicly against them.

Although perhaps a gadfly from the state’s perspective he was by no means a dissident consequential enough to have merited his eventual treatment; however, he was cruelly rolled into a notorious 1951 show trial called the Babice Case. Occasioned by a fatal raid launched by anti-Communist terrorists, the Babice trials targeted a huge number of ideological enemies and eventually resulted in 107 convictions and 11 death sentences.* Bula was among them, speciously condemned a traitor for complicity in the attack — a move that also opportunistically accelerated a case that state agents had for some time been attempting with little success to construct by means of entrapment.

“We human beings do not love God enough,” he wrote in a letter to his parents before his hanging. “That is the only thing for which we must ask forgiveness.”

The Catholic Church is currently considering this modern martyr for beatification.

* After the Cold War these sentences were retrospectively overturned or reduced, and a judge in the Babice case, Pavel Vitek, was prosecuted for his role in it.

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1949: Li Bai, PLA spy

Add comment May 7th, 2019 Headsman

Red spy Li Bai was executed in the Pudong district of Shanghai on this date in 1949.

Li Bai and his circuitry immortalized in stone in Shanghai’s Century Park. (cc) image from (checks notes) “Kgbkgbkgb”

A survivor of the Party’s epic Long March Li Bai (English Wikipedia entry | Chinese) was a Party-trained wireless operator who was detailed to Shanghai with the 1937 outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War.

He was fortunate to survive arrest by the Japanese while transmitting from occupied Shanghai in 1942. (The Japanese took him for a mere enthusiast.) Even more fortunate from his handlers’ standpoint was the interest his radio skills subsequently attracted from the nationalist Kuomintang, which recruited him into service that Li Bai was only too happy to accept.

For the next several years, he sent to the Communists voluminous inside information about the disposition of their opponents in the endgame stage of the Chinese Civil War. He was detected in the last days of 1948, sending to the People’s Liberation Army the troop dispositions that would enable it to overrun the capitals in the subsequent months. Not three weeks after Li Bai’s execution in Shanghai that city fell to the Communists; by year’s end, the Kuomintang had evacuated the mainland for its so-far permanent Formosan redoubt.

There’s a 1958 Chinese biopic about him, titled The Unfailing Radio Wave; the embed below is one of many subsequent readaptations:

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1919: Seven Thule Society hostages

Add comment April 30th, 2019 Headsman

A century ago today, seven hostages taken from the German pre-Nazi Thule Society were executed by the short-lived Munich Soviet just before it was crushed by right-wing militias.

The Thule Society (logo at right) was a Bavarian volkisch club with a profound interest in stuff like crackpot race theory and Teutonic mythology; its very name alludes to a legendary territory hypothesized since antiquity to lie at the fringes of the world, often associated with Scandinavia and with the origins of the Aryan race.*

Society members figured in the founding of the German Workers’ Party (DAP), the party which became the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP), better known as the Nazis. Former Thuler Hans Frank was among those eventually hanged via the postwar Nuremberg trial.

One will readily imagine where this lot stood in relation to the Soviet Republic that was declared in Bavaria in early April, and the sentiment was fully returned. As right-wing Freikorps paramilitaries intent on destroying the Red Bavarian statelet surrounded Munich, the Communists seized seven Thule Society members — notably Countess Haila (or Hella) von Westarp and Gustav Franz Maria, Prince of Thurn and Taxis and held them in the basement of the Luitpold Gymnasium.

On April 30, 1919, all these seven were executed by order of the Communist sailor Rudolf Egelhofer, together with either two or three captured Freikorps prisoners, an affair known as the Münchner Geiselmorde (“Munich hostage-murder”).


Countess Haila von Westarp

The very next day, the Freikorps broke through Munich’s defenses and commenced the bloody rout that destroyed the Munich Soviet.

The Thule Society as a body survived and briefly prospered after its brush with the revolutionaries’ muzzles — the eventual Nazi party newspaper Völkischer Beobachter was previously a Thule Society-owned periodical called the Münchener Beobachter — but it fizzled out into a memory during the 1920s.

Still, this esoteric nursemaid to the infancy of national socialism features prominently in histories of Third Reich occultism; aficionados might wish to browse some of its iconography in this Pinterest gallery, or just punch their distinctive name into your search environment of choice and feel that third eye opening.

* The element Thulium is named for Thule, because it was discovered by a Scandinavian chemist; the U.S.’s Thule Air Base in Greenland developed from an Arctic Circle trading post established and named by a Scandinavian explorer. (From which he launched a series of early 20th century “Thule Expeditions”.)

More recently, the word made the news when astronomers controversially christened the most distant observed trans-Neptunian object “Ultima Thule”.

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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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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Latvia,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Religious Figures,Russia,Shot,Torture,USSR,Wartime Executions

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