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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1941: Alexander Svanidze, Stalin’s brother-in-law

Add comment August 20th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1941,* Stalin’s own brother-in-law was shot in the gulags.

In 1906, a whole lifetime before, the Georgian Alexander Svanidze introduced young Joseph Dzhugashvili to his, Svanidze’s, sister, Kato. She and Dzhugashvili wed that year, and Kato soon bore her husband’s firstborn, Yakov.

Stalin was already a wanted Bolshevik revolutionary at this time, but so was Svanidze. Kato was a homebody with no known political interest, and sufficient piety to force her communist groom to say his vows in an Orthodox church. Afterwards, his priorities reasserted themselves.

While Stalin agitated, propagandized, and politicked against Menshevism in the wild oil boom city of Baku,** his pretty wife kept an empty apartment tidy and fretted the omnipresent danger of her husband’s arrest. “When he was involved, he forgot everything,” fellow-Bolshevik Mikheil Monoselidze remembered. Many revolutionaries’ wives walked similarly lonely roads.

Kato did not have to walk hers very long: she contracted a horrible stomach/bowel disease and wasted rapidly away late in 1907. Stalin’s own indifference might have been the ultimate cause, for when she was unwell the young cadre took her on a sweltering 13-hour train ride back to Tiflis that greatly worsened her condition — all so that her family could care for her, and free Stalin’s time for his plots. Kato died in Stalin’s arms, but only when he had been urgently summoned back from Baku with word that her condition had become dire.

Whatever his actions said about him as a family man, the future dictator really loved his neglected wife. He “was in such despair that his friends were worried about leaving him with his Mauser,” writes Simon Montefiore in Young Stalin.

“This creature,” [Stalin] gestured at the open coffin [at her funeral], “softened my heart of stone. She died and with her died my last warm feelings for humanity.” He placed his hand over his heart: “It’s all so desolate here, so indescribably desolate.”

At the burial, Soso’s habitual control cracked. He threw himself into the grave with the coffin. The men had to haul him out. Kato was buried — but, just then, revolutionary konspiratsia disrupted family grief. Soso noticed some Okhrana agents sidling towards the funeral. He scarpered towards the back of the graveyard and vaulted over the fence, disappearing from his own wife’s funeral — an ironic comment on his marital negligence.

For two months, Stalin vanishes from the record. “Soso sank into deep grief,” says Monoselidze. “He barely spoke and nobody dared speak to him” … “He cried like a brat, hard as he was.”

Stalin’s deep grief did not change his life’s work. If anything, he would seem in later years almost too aghast by the whole experience (and his uncharacteristic bout of sentiment) to grapple with it. He abandoned little Yakov to the Svanidzes, and would curiously dislike his son so much that he eventually permitted Yakov to die as a German POW during World War II rather than exchange prisoners for his release.

By the time of the great purges, then, being Stalin’s brother-in-law was of little help to Alexander Svanidze. It might have been an outright detriment; certainly Svanidze’s own prominence — he had served as People’s Commissar for Finances of the Georgian SSR, and founded a scholarly journal in his capacity as a historian — were of a kind with Old Bolsheviks who had also attracted denunciations.

In 1937, most of the beloved Kato’s family was arrested: Alexander Svanidze, but also Alexander’s wife Maria, and opera singer, and his sister Mariko. Svanidze defiantly refused NKVD blandishments to confess to spying for Berlin to save himself, perhaps realizing that such a deal would merely sell his pride for a mess of pottage. “Such aristocratic pride!” Stalin is supposed to have tutted upon hearing the way Svanidze went to his execution still insisting he had done nothing wrong. (Svanidze’s ancestors were petty nobility.)

Svanidze’s son, Johnreed† — named for the American radical who chronicled the Bolshevik Revolution in Ten Days That Shook The Worlddenounced his doomed father to save his own skin, but was sent to the gulag just the same. Johnreed was released, and Alexander posthumously rehabilitated, after Stalin’s death in 1953.

* There are some other dates out there for Svanidze’s execution. I’ve had difficulty identifying a primary source for any of them, but am prepared to be corrected if an alternative possibility can be strongly documented.

** They moved to Baku from Tiflis, where Stalin had helped to orchestrate a huge bank robbery.

† Revolutionary Russia produced a number of similarly curious neologisms on birth certificates, such as “Vladlen” (blending “Vladimir Lenin”), and even the outlandish “Electralampochka” (“light bulb”, inspired by the Soviet electrification campaign).

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1938: Bela Kun, Hungarian Communist leader

2 comments August 29th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1938 — so the Soviet government finally announced in 1989, after decades of opacity — the Hungarian Communist leader Bela Kun was secretly shot by firing squad in the gulag.

The pudgy and pugnacious* onetime journalist whose capture by the Russians during World War I enabled him to get in on the ground floor with the Bolshevik Revolution became the de facto leader of the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic. For a few months in 1919, it was the world’s second Soviet state after Russia itself.

Bela Kun’s moment in the sun was particularly notorious for his advocacy late in the Soviet Republic’s brief life of a Red Terror against internal opposition. Several hundred people were killed over the last few weeks of the state’s existence, until a Romanian invasion toppled the reds and sent Bela Kun fleeing back to the Soviets. There, he’s supposed to have brought his gift for wholesale murder to surrendered White prisoners in the Crimea.

Still, Hungary was an insurrectionary success next to most everywhere else, and Bela Kun was detailed to Germany to revive the flagging fortunes of a revolution that the Bolsheviks thought would be critical to sustaining their own. Modeling on Lenin’s own coup d’etat in 1917, Kun pushed the Germans to go all-in on an aggressive 1921 “March Action” offensive to capture state power — which backfired catastrophically, essentially marking the end of the post-World War I revolutionary window. Vladimir Ilyich gave his Magyar counterpart a dressing-down for that gambit at that summer’s Comintern summit.

He’d become associated in this time with Zinoviev, an Old Bolshevik whose comradeship would blow an ill wind come the killing time of the 1930s. Kun himself was long past his sell-by date at this stage, knocking around Moscow feuding with other Hungarian exiles.

Stalin eventually had him arrested for “Trotskyism”, and he disappeared into the Gulag never to be seen again.

Like many purge victims, Bela Kun was rehabilitated under Khrushchev, which also made him fitting source material for statuary congenial to the post-World War II Hungary, situated (however unhappily) within Moscow’s sphere. Some of the detritus of this age can be found at Budapest’s Mememto Park outdoor fairgrounds of discarded Communist kitsch.


Bela Kun, marshaling the Magyar masses. The streetlamp behind him (a literary symbol of hanging) alludes to his martyrdom. Wider views of the entire monument: 1 | 2

* He had a rep in his youth for fighting duels.

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1938: Arkadi Berdichevsky, Jon Utley’s father

8 comments March 30th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1938, Arkadi (or Arcadi) Berdichevsky, a Russian Jew run afoul of the (pre-KGB) NKVD, was executed in the Arctic Circle prison town of Vorkuta for leading a prisoners’ hunger strike.

Though the powerful whom Stalin purged are well-known to the student of Russian history, Berdichevsky is just one of the countless obscure Soviet citizens who disappeared into the gulag never to emerge again.

Berdichevsky had something most of his fellow-victims did not: an English wife.

Freda Utley and her son Jon Utley — the couple cannily gave the boy his mother’s foreign last name to make it easier to emigrate if it should come to that, as indeed it did — left the USSR and Freda’s communist youth for fame as (paleo)conservative giants.

While young Jon — just two years old when his father was whisked out of their Moscow flat by the spooks — came of age, Freda Utley naturalized as an American and turned against her former ideology with the zeal of the converted.

Berdichevsky’s widow, Freda Utley, published this book in 1940 about her disillusionment with communism. This work and many others by Utley are also available as free pdfs from FredaUtley.com.

She savaged the U.S. government officials who “lost China”, and testified at Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s behest in the latter’s 1950’s red-hunt. (Utley also supplied McCarthy some research. She defended Tailgunner Joe until her death in 1978.)

Along the way, Freda Utley learned the date of her husband’s death, but never the circumstances.

That discovery fell to Jon Utley, who made his own fortune in business and became a conservative activist/intellectual himself, notable for his anti-imperialist position. (Utley writes regularly for antiwar.com, and opposed the recent Iraq blunder.)

In 2004, Jon Utley finally obtained the remarkably detailed records revealing that it was a firing squad rather than cold or malnutrition that took his father’s life. Utley then personally visited the sites of that Calvary in the Komi region of Russia.

Jon Utley gives a video interview about the experience and about his own path as an anti-communist here, but most especially recommended for our purposes is his written account of finding his father: HTML form here; pdf here.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Jews,Mass Executions,Notably Survived By,Posthumous Exonerations,Russia,Shot,Treason,USSR

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