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: Titsian Tabidze, poet

Add comment December 16th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1937, the Georgian poet Titsian Tabidze was executed in Stalin’s purges.

“Titsiani”, who co-founded the “Blue Horns” symbolist circle in 1916, is the addressee of fellow dissident litterateur Boris Pasternak’s Letters to a Georgian Friend.

“There is as much soul in his poetry as there was in him, a reserved and complicated soul, wholly attracted to the good and capable of clairvoyance and self-sacrifice,” Pasternak would remember of his comrade. “The memory of Tabidze puts me in mind of the country; landscapes rise in my imagination, the waves of the sea and a vast flowering plain; clouds drifting in a row and, behind them in the distance, mountains rising to the same level.”

The problem was their decidedly less sentimental countryman in the Kremlin.

Georgian security chief Lavrenty Beria put the screws to the Georgian writers’ association, driving fellow Blue Horns alum Paolo Yashvili to suicide when he was pressured to denounce Tabidze.

But of course the only difference that made was for Yashvili’s soul.

Arrested as a traitor a bare two months before his death, Tabidze defiantly betrayed to his interrogators the name of only a single fellow-traveler: 18th century Georgian poet Besiki.

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1936: Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, Old Bolsheviks

4 comments August 25th, 2011 Headsman

During the purges of the 1930s, Josef Stalin showed a particular relish for eliminating the Old Bolsheviks whose red credentials predated the revolution. (And potentially, outshone his own.)

Zinoviev

On this date in 1936, one of the oldest of them, Grigory Zinoviev, was shot with his longtime ally Lev Kamenev.

These guys had been major movers and shakers among the early Bolsheviki, adherents of Lenin during the first decade of the century when the aspiration for a Communist Russia seemed hopelessly far-fetched. Zinoviev rode with Lenin from Switzerland to Petrograd in the famous sealed train after the February Revolution toppled the tsar. (Not so Kamenev: he was serving time in Siberia, but was freed by the revolution.)

In the years that followed, both played leading roles in the Soviet government despite their impolitic opposition to the Bolshevik coup in October.

Kamenev was briefly head of state in 1917, and he married Leon Trotsky’s sister. Zinoviev was the longtime head of the Communist International, in which capacity he showed Moscow’s public face for communist movements in other countries. Bela Kun was another ally of Zinoviev’s.)

In this capacity, he’s known in British history for the “Zinoviev letter”, a purported summons to Anglo agitation that was actually a dirty trick dropped before an election to help the Tories sweep to power.*

Those were the good old days — when Lenin was fading away and Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Stalin were the “troika” running things. They should have checked with the Romans how triumvirates work out.

Because of their alliance, Zinoviev and Kamenev provided the decisive support that enabled Stalin to remain General Secretary of the party after the public airing of Lenin’s Testament warning against him. Without Zinoviev and Kamenev at this crucial moment, Stalin probably could not have survived politically; the name Koba might have gone into history books as little more than a terror to the paperwork of some forgotten bureau. (And the pre-revolutionary Caucasus!)

Talk about hoisted by your own petard.

Having been helpfully maintained in his position against Lenin’s dying wish, Stalin soon marginalized these formerly useful creatures. Their last decade was doomed to a spiral of failing power struggles, sinking rank, furtive dissension, and craven submission to party discipline.

Stalin at length destroyed them at the first great Moscow show trial, the Trial of the Sixteen — which hyped a “Trotskyite-Zinovievite” plot in a nicely Orwellian twist. (Despite Kamenev’s marital connection, Trotsky was actually a political rival.) The charge sheet must have reminded the defendants on every one of their dwindling days of the alliance with Trotsky they could have made back when they mattered.

The Trial of the 16 defendants would help to write the script for succeeding acts of this awful theater: after fighting the allegations, Zinoviev and Kamenev agreed to plead guilty on private assurances that their lives would be spared.

But once he had their “admissions” on the record, Stalin altered the deal.

Not only Zinoviev and Kamenev, but all 16 from the trial of the 16 were shot shortly after midnight this date.

From exile, their “conspirator” Trotsky called it the “end of an epoch”.

His obituary for Zinoviev and Kamenev minces no words about the men’s personal shortcomings (“they lacked sufficient character”), but still achieves a certain elegaic sympathy for these former fellow-travelers and their shared movement, now swallowed by Stalinism.

I have had the occasion to hear tranquil petty bourgeois tell me in the days between the beginnings of the trial and my internment: “It’s impossible to understand Zinoviev … He is so lacking in character!” And I would reply: “Have you yourselves experienced the full weight of the pressure to which he has been subjected for a number of years?” Unintelligent in the extreme are the comparisons, so widespread in intellectual circles, of the conduct in court of Danton, Robespierre and others. These were the instances of revolutionary tribunes who found the knife of justice suspended over them, directly in the midst of the arena of struggle; at a time when they were in the full flower of their strength, with their nervous system almost untouched and, at the same time, when they despaired of all hope of salvation.

[By contrast] For ten years they [Zinoviev and Kamenev] had been enveloped by clouds of slander paid for in heavy gold. For ten years they had swayed between life and death, first in a political sense, then in a moral sense, and lastly in a physical sense. Can one find in all past history examples of such systematic, refined and fiendish destruction of spines, nerves and all the fibers of the soul? Zinoviev or Kamenev would have had more than ample character for a tranquil period. But the epoch of grandiose social and political convulsions demanded an extraordinary firmness of these men, whose abilities secured them a leading place in the revolution. The disproportion between their abilities and their wills led to tragic results.

* There are numerous theories of the Zinoviev Letter’s origin; one has it that spy Sidney Reilly had a hand in it.

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1892: Two Georgian bandits, witnessed by Stalin

6 comments February 13th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1892, two outlaws were hanged (and a third spared at the last moment) in Gori, Georgia — part of the tsarist Russian Empire.

Josef Djughashvili, the future Stalin, was a teenager when he saw an 1892 public hanging in Gori.

The most noteworthy executioner present on this occasion was not on the scaffold, but in the audience: a 14-year-old student at an orthodox church school named Joseph Djugashvili. You know him by his later, steely revolutionist alias: Stalin.

This precocious, ferocious youth attended the public hanging with school mates to whom he was already a natural leader.

He and his friends sympathized with the doomed Caucasians, so insouciant at being strung up by the tsarist oppressor: conversing after the gruesome spectacle, Djugashvili would maintain that the men had not been consigned to hell, for they had suffered enough in the present.

But this boy was not made for theologizing; though he proceeded to seminary school in Tiflis — the best education prospect for an impoverished family — he disappeared thence into the life of professional revolutionary outlawry.

The recent (and well-received) biography Young Stalin recaptures this scene from Joseph Djugashvili’s youth.

The condemned men had stolen a cow and, in the ensuing pursuit, had killed a policeman. But the boys learned that the criminals were actually just three “peasants who had been so oppressed by landowners that they escaped into the forest,” petty Robin Hoods, attacking only local squires and helping other peasants …

The boys were fascinated. “Soso Djugashvili, me and four other schoolboys climbed a tree and watched the terrifying show from there,” remembers one of the group, Grigory Razmadze … Another spectator whom Stalin would later befriend and promote was Maxim Gorky, then a journalist, soon to be Russia’s most celebrated writer.

The Gorelis sympathized with these brave Caucasian bandits … The crowd became menacing; double ranks of Russian soldiers encircled the square. The drums began to beat. “The authorities in uniforms lingered around the scaffold,” wrote Gorky in his article. “Their dreary and severe faces looked strange and hostile.” They had reason to be nervous.

The three bandits in leg irons were marched onto the scaffold. One was separated from the others — he had been reprieved. The priest offered the two condemned men his blessings; one accepted and one refused. Both asked for a smoke and a sip of water. Sandro Khubuluri was silent, but the handsome and strong “ringleader,” Tato Jioshvili, smiled and joked valiantly before the admiring crowd. He leaned on the railings of the gallows and, noticed Gorky, “chatted to people who had come to see hi die.” The crowd threw stones at the hangman, who was masked and clad completely in scarlet. He placed the condemned on stools and tightened the nooses around their necks. Sandro just twirled his moustache and readjusted the noose. The time had come.

The hangman kicked away the stools. As so often with Tsarist repression, it was inept: Sandro’s rope broke. The crowd gasped. The scarlet hangman replaced him on the stool, placed a new noose round his neck and hanged him again. Tato also took a while to die.


Even Joseph Stalin was a child once.

One would have to really like the difficult-to-prove notion that executions have a brutalizing effect encouraging violence in others in order to see in this hanging the germ of the incomprehensible suffering young master Djugashvili would eventually unleash.

It’s not like this was Stalin’s only childhood exposure to brutality, and not too many of those buddies who watched this date’s hanging grew up to kill 20 million people.

Gori was one of the last towns to practise the ‘picturesque and savage custom’ of free-for-all town brawls with special rules but no-holds-barred violence. The boozing, praying and fighting were all interconnected, with drunken priests acting as referees… [At festivals during Stalin’s youth] the males in each family, from children upwards, also paraded, drinking wine and singing until night fell, when the real fun began. This ‘assault of free boxing’—the sport of krivi—was a ‘mass duel with rules'; boys of three wrestled other three-year-olds, then children fought together, then teenagers and finally the men threw themselves into ‘an incredible battle,’ by which time the town was completely out of control, a state that lasted into the following day—even at school, where classes fought classes.


This is Russia, not Georgia: festive Maslenitsa fisticuffs.

The small Georgian town that spawned the first name in Soviet terror actually maintained a public statue to its most famous son until 2010 — when it was finally removed in an apparent anti-Russian gesture in the wake of the South Ossetia war.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Georgia,Hanged,History,Murder,Outlaws,Public Executions,Russia,Theft

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