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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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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1973: Mimi Wong Weng Siu, jealous hostess

1 comment July 27th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1973, former cabaret star Mimi Wong Weng Siu and her husband Sim Woh Kum were hanged for the murder of Wong’s Japanese lover’s wife.

“Overwhelmed by a consuming jealousy” (her prosecutor’s words) for Hiroshi Watanabe, a land reclamation engineer from Osaka who was in Singapore working to prepare Bedok for development, Wong recruited her estranged husband to help her get rid of the competition. (Sim was just in it for the payment Wong promised him.)

On the evening of January 6, 1968, the two broke into the home when Ayako Watanabe was alone there. Sim threw bleach in the victim’s eyes to incapacitate her, as Wong fatally gashed her neck and abdomen with a small knife.

The resulting 26-day trial riveted Singapore with the risque details of the dance hostess’s adulterous trysts. (And said dance hostess’s two courtroom fainting episodes.) But their manifest guilt plus their confessions — each vainly attempting to blame the other — assured their convictions.

While Sim situates as a side character of little lasting interest, Mimi Wong’s hanging was among the few that would really stick with long-tenured Singapore hangman Darshan Singh.

The title character, if you like, of Alan Shadrake’s Singapore death row critique Once a Jolly Hangman, Singh executed more than 850 people in more than four decades on the job and never wavered in his support for the policies that kept him occupied. Even so, Singh felt compassion for the individual humans he was called upon to kill; he was known to go out of his way to get to know condemned prisoners and to comfort them in their distressing situation.

According to an October 2013 AsiaOne profile, Singh had an unusually close pre-execution relationship with the first woman hanged in the only recently (since 1965) independent Singapore.

In prison, she was a difficult inmate who would at times strip naked and refuse to put on her clothes even when ordered by prison guards. She even threw urine at the wardens, said Madam Jeleha.

“Darshan was the only one who could control her. He would say ‘Mimi, wear the blanket and cover yourself. Don’t do this or you won’t be beautiful any more’, and she would listen to him,” Madam Jeleha said.

The two forged an unlikely friendship and other prison officers even joked that Wong was his girlfriend. Mr Singh never minded.

Before her execution, Wong told Mr Singh they should be lovers in the next life and she wanted to take him with her.

“After he hanged Mimi Wong, he fell very sick for a month. He was in Toa Payoh Hospital for more than two weeks,” his wife said.

Even when probed, he refused to tell his wife about Wong’s final moments.

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Feast Day of St. Vitus

Add comment June 15th, 2014 Headsman

June 15 is the feast date of the early Christian saint and martyr Vitus.

The 6th century roster Martyrologium Hieronymianum gives us “In Sicilia, Viti, Modesti et Crescentiae”. From this nub grew a legend of the young child of a Roman Senator who turned to Christianity and would not apostatize, fleeing finally to Lucania with his tutor Modestus and his nanny Crescentia and eventually exorcising a demon possessing the son of the Christian-hunting, Empire-quartering Roman sovereign Diocletian. They were all — boy, tutor, and nanny — tortured to death for their troubles; that occurred either by means of or (manifesting God’s customary disdain for the pagan persecutors) after surviving execution in a boiling pot, which has become Vitus’s most typical iconographical emblem. (For example, as seen on the coat of arms of the Austrian town Sankt Veit im Pongau.)


The Martyrdom of St. Vitus, anonymous c. 1450 painting

This story doesn’t have much historical merit, but shrines and chapels to Vitus date as far back as the 5th century so Vitus, whomever he was, had real importance to early Christians.

His cult became especially prominent in medieval central Europe. Prague’s imposing Gothic cathedral bears his name, because Wenceslaus, Duke of Bohemia* allegedly retrieved for it the saint’s arm in a reliquary.**

While many places are dedicated to St. Vitus in Germany, Hungary, and Croatia, the man has red-letter treatment in Serbia — owing to this also being the date in 1389 that the Serbs’ Tsar Lazar was martyred by the Turks at the Battle of Kosovo. As a result, the feast date Vidovdan is a major celebration in Serbia (and to some extent Bulgaria and Macedonia), where it is observed on June 28th — the Gregorian date presently corresponding to the Julian calendar’s June 15th.

The same Vitus who cheers Balkan nationalists trod a completely different path into medical textbooks.

For centuries, Europeans were known to break out in curious ecstatic mass dancing, even sometimes dancing themselves to death. Generally believed today to be psychosocial afflictions, these dancing manias became widely associated with St. Vitus (his patronage includes both dancers and epileptics), whose intercession would be sought to calm the capering souls.

Dancing manias stopped happening in the 17th century or so, but the link between Vitus and involuntary rollick gave the name St. Vitus’s Dance to the condition Syndenham’s chorea — which is characterized by uncontrolled dance-like movement.

* The very Good King Wenceslaus who looked down on the feast of Stephen.

** Speculatively, Sanct Vid might have been selected for Christian veneration in this area to facilitate replacement of the similarly-named Slavic god Svantovid. An active (albeit declining) pagan community persisted in Prague as late as the 12th century.

As with most Slavic deities, Svantovid’s exact characteristics and the extent of his veneration are very poorly documented; however, in 1168, the Wendish fortress of Arkona was conquered by the Danes and the forced Christianization of its inhabitants is commemorated in Laurits Tuxen‘s late 19th century image of Archbishop Absalon casting down Arkona’s idol of Svantovid. (It’s also commemorated by the name of the neo-pagan Russian metal band Arkona.)

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1683: Yaoya Oshichi, fire horse

2 comments April 25th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1683,* Yaoya Oshichi gave her life for her red-hot love … and the want of a little white lie.

The greengrocer’s daughter Oshichi (English Wikipedia page | Japanese) legendarily fell in love with a priest of the nearby temple while taking refuge there during one of Edo’s many fires (Japanese link), and in a truly adolescent outburst proceeded to start another fire in the hopes of meeting him again. (Alternate version: it was Oshichi’s gesture that actually started the linked conflagration.)

As a 16-year-old, Oshichi was just barely eligible to suffer the full weight of the law for a capital crime.

In an age of scanty documentation, however, the pitying magistrate (Japanese link) hearing her case is supposed to have asked her in a hinting sort of way, “you’re 15, right?”

Either not catching his drift or else honest to a fault, Oshichi replied that, no, she was 16, thank you very much, and reiterated the point when it was followed-up … thus dooming herself to the stake.


Yaoya Oshichi’s execution.

A few years after this outstandingly tragic demise, poet Ihara Saikaku popularized the tale in his Five Women Who Loved. She’s been waxing immortal ever since in every manner of artistic interpretation, and remains a popular figure for joruri and bunraku and kabuki.

(When next in Tokyo, pay your own respects at her tomb.)

Meanwhile, Yaoya Oshichi’s apparent birth in the zodiacal “fire horse” year of 1666 — fire horses are supposed to be an especially passionate, impulsive bunch — followed by her unfortunate fiery end helps make such cycles superstitiously inauspicious for prospective parents, especially prospective parents of girls.

The year of a fire horse only rolls around once every six decades; in the last one, in 1966, Japanese “fertility dropped by over 25%;” even “the fertility rate of Japanese Americans in California and Hawaii also dropped by 3.3% and 1.8%, respectively, in the same year.”** The abortion rate in Japan for that one year spiked nearly 50% above expected without any other apparent cause.† It’s something to watch for when the next batch of little fire horses are due, in 2026.

* “The 29th day of the 3rd month” is widely cited as “March 29”, but it actually appears to refer to the 29th day of the 3rd month of the third year of the “Heaven’s Blessing” era. That third month spanned the Gregorian dates of March 28 through April 26, 1683.

** Jungmin Lee and Myungho Paik, “Sex Preferences and Fertility in South Korea during the Year of the Horse,” Demography, Vol. 43, No. 2 (May, 2006).

† Kanae Kaku, “Increased induced abortion rate in 1966, an aspect of Japanese folk superstition,” Annals of Human Biology, Vol. 2, No. 2 (1975).

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arson,Arts and Literature,Burned,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,History,Japan,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Sex,Women

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