1950: The Leningrad Affair “culprits”

1 comment October 1st, 2010 Headsman

Fifty-nine minutes after midnight on this date in 1950, five Soviet cadres were condemned to death in a secret trial on trumped-up charges of treason in one of Stalin’s party purges. An hour later, they were shot.

The “Leningrad Affair” saw Uncle Joe — with the urging of other henchmen jockeying for the imminent post-Stalin succession — liquidate the excessively independent leaders of Russia’s other capital.

During the late World War, the “hero city” Leningrad withstood a withering 28-month Nazi siege stretching from the very first weeks of war into 1944.

In those days there was something in a man’s face which told you that he would die within the next twenty-four hours …

I shall always remember how I’d walk every day from my house near the Tauris Garden to my work in the centre of the city, a matter of two or three kilometres. I’d walk for a-while, and then sit down for a rest. Many a time I saw a man suddenly collapse on the snow. There was nothing I could do. One just walked on. And, on the way back, I would see a vague human form covered with snow on the spot where, in the morning, I had seen a man fall down.

One didn’t worry; what was the good? People didn’t wash for weeks; there were no bath houses and no fuel. But at least people were urged to shave. And during that winter I don’t think I ever saw a person smile. It was frightful. And yet there was a kind of inner discipline that made people carry on.

-A survivor of the siege

This horror cost the lives of a million Leningraders, and tour guides will be sure to point out the physical scars still to be seen.

But the city never fell, and its resistance wrote one of the 20th century’s awe-inspiring monuments to human perseverance. Dmitri Shostakovich, caught in the city himself, composed one of the Great Patriotic War’s most famous musical anthems, defiantly performed by the Leningrad symphony itself during the actual siege, and broadcast on Soviet radio and around the world.

One result of a city’s being carved away from its country — and of consequence to this date’s victims — was that it put Leningrad on increasingly autonomous footing.

Voznesensky, who literally wrote the (incautiously heterodox) book on The Economy of the USSR during World War II

And as the war receded, the men who administered Leningrad were left with an unusual scope of action … bolstered by their recent reputation for anti-fascist heroism. The so-called “Leningraders” had become an embryonic rival power center.

The Leningrad Affair corrected that unwelcome-to-Stalin development with a wholesale purge. While the Soviet judiciary harvested the most illustrious heads on this date — economist Nikolai Voznesensky, Party bigwig Aleksei Kuznetsov — Michael Parrish observes in The lesser terror: Soviet state security, 1939-1953 that

[t]he executions of October 1, 1950, were only the tip of the iceberg … The Leningrad Affair probably claimed more than 1,300 victims, including over 100 who were shot, nearly 2,000 people who were dismissed, and many arrseted.

This day’s victims (though not all those persecuted) were officially rehabilitated during the Khrushchev era; responsibility for the Leningrad Affair even served to condemn one of its authors, NKVD torturer Viktor Abakumov, to death in the 1950s.

But compared to the corpse motel of 1930s USSR, this purge was distinctly small potatoes. One of its survivors — a man who could easily have been condemned on the same evidence that doomed the likes of Kuznetsov — was politician Alexei Kosygin, later to emerge as one of the USSR’s leading liberalizers in the 1960s and (in the words of Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau) “the forerunner of Mikhail Gorbachev.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Intellectuals,Lucky to be Alive,Mass Executions,Not Executed,Politicians,Posthumous Exonerations,Power,Russia,Shot,Theft,Treason,USSR,Wrongful Executions

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1671: Stenka Razin, Cossack rebel

2 comments June 6th, 2010 Headsman

On this date* in 1671, famed rebel Stepan (Stenka) Razin was publicly butchered in Moscow.


On that day, following four days of torture, he was led to an executioner’s scaffold in Red Square in the company of his younger brother, Frol. The list of Razin’s crimes and then his sentence were read out to him. The punishment was to be “an evil death befitting the wicked — by quartering.” According to eyewitness accounts, Razin then crossed himself and submitted to the executioner. Normally, death by quartering requires that the executioner first chop off the right arm of the convicted man at the elbow, then his left leg at the knee, then the left arm at the elbow, then the right leg at the knee, ending the whole gruesome process by decapitation. In the case of Razin, the executioner made only the first two cuts when, for some reason — perhaps for fear of Razin’s power over the assembled multitude — he was told to end it all and chop off the head. To complete the sentence, the executioner then went back and severed the remaining limbs of the already headless Razin. The limbs and the severed head were taken to Bolotnaia ploshchad’ across the Moscow River and displayed on spikes. The body was thrown to the dogs. Frol, who was supposed to be executed in a similar manner, began screaming his willingness to cooperate with the authorities midway through his brother’s execution. He was led back to prison, interrogated further, and executed on 26 May 1676.

Playing Robin Hood: The Legend as Performance in Five Centuries

Stenka Razin’s unpleasant end came with the consolation of a ticket to immortality as Russia’s go-to folklore bandit.

In life, Razin led the most renowned internal rising against the Romanovs, lasting from 1667 to 1671.

Marshaling the underclasses (literally, the “naked ones”: the Cossacks had class issues) in the semi-lawless southern reaches of the realm, Razin segued smoothly from from a career of brigandage into suzerainty over a quasi-state around the Volga with the help of a sympathetic peasant uprising.


Stepan Razin on the Volga (1918), by Boris Kustodiev.

Throw back a frosty glass of Stepan Razin beer, brewed in St. Petersburg since 1795.

Razin’s revolt had scope and duration enough to trounce a Persian expedition against him. He bestrode the Volga — sailed the Caspian — raided foreign lands — established a Cossack republic.

It was an impressive run while it lasted. But like most peasant revolts, it was ultimately on the receiving end of the trouncing.

Captured and hailed to Moscow for his demonstrative end, Razin’s story lives strong in Russian culture and folklore even though his body ended up in bits and pieces.

Razin is the subject, for instance, of the first Russian feature film, a 1908 silent.

According to the Russian Wikipedia, Razin was even the subject of the first foreign dissertation about a Russian figure.

During the late 19th century’s reactionary period, Boris Glazunov put Razin’s capture to symphony.

In the Soviet era, poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko wrote about Razin’s execution, and so did Dmitri Shostakovich.

Best-recognized and most universally beloved is the folk tune “Ponizovaya Volnitsa”, which celebrates Stenka and the mighty waterway that bore him to posterity, the Volga.

* June 6, 1671 per the Julian calendar. It was June 16 in those countries that had already adopted the Gregorian calendar.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Dismembered,Execution,Famous,Gruesome Methods,History,Myths,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Russia,Soldiers,Torture,Treason

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1941: Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya

11 comments November 29th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1941, Soviet partisan Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya was hanged by the Wehrmacht for sabotaging buildings behind German lines near Moscow.

A statue of Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya stands vigil over Moscow’s World War II-era Partizanskaya metro station. Image used with permission.

One of the most famous Soviet war heroines and the first woman decorated as Hero of the Soviet Union during World War II, the 18-year-old had quit school to volunteer for a partisan unit only a few weeks before her hanging as Russia mobilized against Hitler’s race towards Moscow.

Known simply as “Tanya”, the nom de guerre which was the only information she volunteered during two days of torture, the power of the press offered her apotheosis into a propaganda coup for the Kremlin, and a symbol of courage that would long outlive Stalin. Before the public execution, the Nazis paused to photograph the scene; Kosmodemyanskaya availed the lull to harangue the Germans — “you can’t hang all 190 million of us!” — and call on the Russian villagers present to resist occupation.

Her bayoneted, mutilated body hung on the gibbet until the Red Army recaptured the village; witnesses related the tale of her dying heroism to a newsman.

It was only after the story of “Tanya” hit the press in January 1942 that her identity was established … and then promulgated widely. Anonymous and obscure in death, Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya would inspire millions and become the heroic emblem of other women partisans.


Soviet propaganda poster unabashedly modeled on the already-iconic image of Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya’s abused corpse.

Zoya, a 1944 Soviet film, was scored by Dmitri Shostakovich.

Part of the Themed Set: Women Against Fascism.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arson,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Germany,Gibbeted,Guerrillas,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Mature Content,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Russia,Soldiers,Torture,USSR,Wartime Executions,Women

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