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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1938: Janis Berzins, Soviet military intelligence chief

Add comment July 29th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1938, the Soviet intelligence agent Janis Berzin(s) was shot in the basement of Moscow’s Lubyanka Prison.

A Latvian radical back to Riga’s chapter of the 1905 revolution,* Berzins became a trusted associate of Lenin in exile, and transitioned with the 1917 Revolution into a variety of political-security-military leadership positions in the new Soviet state.

For most of the 1924-1937 period, Berzins directed — indeed, practically createdSoviet military intelligence. He’s credited with personally recruiting the legendary World War II spy Richard Sorge; in 1936-1937 he was the chief Soviet military advisor in the Spanish Civil War under the nom de guerre “Grishin”. Russians fighting in Spain just referred to him as “the old man.” (Source)

Of course, no degree of seniority was sufficient safety during the frightful purging years of the Yezhovshchina. Once back in Moscow, Berzins fell instantly, almost randomly, over a spurious accusation of internal espionage.

His conviction was reversed after Stalin died.

* But not one of the Latvian revolutionaries who ended up in a shootout with London police.

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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 found 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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1933: The “killers” of Pavlik Morozov

7 comments April 7th, 2013 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

Pavlik Morozov was one of the must well-known figures in the Soviet Union. Every Soviet schoolchild learned his name and the story of his heroic life and tragic death. On April 7, 1933, his alleged killers — his own grandparents, uncles and cousin — were executed by firing squad for his murder.

A postage stamp honoring the Moscow statue honoring little Pavlik Morozov. Many more Pavlik propaganda images are here.

While most Morozov monuments have long since been destroyed or removed from public view, apparently a few still persist.

The legendary Pavlik, a Russian boy who lived in the remote village of Gerasimovka in western Siberia, was a member of the Young Pioneers, a kind of Communist version of the Boy Scouts designed in indoctrinate youth into the Soviet way of thinking. When the superlatively loyal child found out his father, Trofim, was acting against the state, he denounced him to the secret police, the OGPU. (Accounts differ as to what Trofim’s misdeeds actually were; he may have hoarded grain, or sold forged documents, or both.) The result was that Trofim was sent to a labor camp, never to be heard from again.

The Morozov family, not being good Communists like he was, were furious with him for the denunciation. Soon after his father’s trial, in early September 1932, his grandparents, his uncle and his cousin murdered him while he and his eight-year-old brother Fyodor were picking berries in the woods. (Fyodor was taken out too, as he was a witness.) The boys’ bodies weren’t located for several days and it’s unclear when they actually died.

An OGPU officer, Ivan Potupchik, who was another of Pavlik’s cousins, found them. The murderers were arrested in due course, and Pavlik became a martyr and an example for every Soviet child to look up to — a Stalinist passion play, the horrid little saint of denunciation. As Soviet dissident writer Yuri Druzhnikov wrote in this article,

Indeed, it is virtually impossible for someone not born and raised in the USSR to appreciate how all-pervasive a figure Morozov was … [E]veryone in the Soviet Union, young and old alike, used to know about Pavlik Morozov. His portraits appeared in art museums, on postcards, on match-books and postage stamps. Books, films, and canvases praised his courage. In many cities, he still stands in bronze, granite, or plaster, holding high the red banner. Schools were named after him, where in special Pavlik Morozov Halls children were ceremoniously accepted into the Young Pioneers. Statuettes of the young hero were awarded to the winners of sports competitions. Ships, libraries, city streets, collective farms, and national parks were named after Pavlik Morozov.


A reconstruction of the suppressed Eisenstein film based on the Pavlik Morozov story, Bezhin Meadow. Aptly, its supposed ideological flaws got some of its own participants arrested.

The Cult of Pavlik declined significantly once World War II began and there were other young heroes to exalt, and even more so after Stalin’s death. Still, even into the 1980s public figures praised the child as an “ideological martyr.”

The problem, as you might have guessed already, is that almost none of the accepted story about Pavlik is true. While not entirely made up, his Soviet-official biography was always thick with exaggerations, distortions and outright lies.

This Los Angeles Times article explains that Druzhnikov first got interested in Pavlik Morozov in the mid-1970s, when he attended a conference that included a discussion of “positive heroes of Soviet culture.” Pavlik was mentioned, and Druzhnikov asked just what was so positive about someone who had betrayed his own father. A few days later, he was summoned to KGB headquarters and two agents told him very firmly, “do not touch this subject.” It backfired: more curious than ever, Druzhnikov began secretly researching the case.

The book that resulted, Druzhnikov’s Informer 001: The Myth of Pavlik Morozov, was written in the early 1980s, but it was too politically sensitive for publication at the time. Instead it circulated privately among intellectuals and dissidents as Samizdat. It finally saw publication in Russian in 1988, and was then translated into English in 1993. (The full text of this book is available online for free here … in Russian.)

British historian Catriona Kelly published a second book on the subject in 2005, Comrade Pavlik: The Rise and Fall of a Soviet Boy Hero. By then, nearly all the surviving witnesses were dead. But unlike Druzhnikov, Kelly was able to obtain access to the official records of the Morozov murder trial and used them as a major resource.

These two authors got as close to the truth as one is able to get at this late date.

The Real Pavlik’s Life and Death

Pavlik Morozov’s story is sordid and mysterious as only a grand Soviet propaganda myth can be.

There really was a boy named Pavel Morozov (his name was the Russian equivalent of “Paul”) in Gerasimovka, but his nickname was Pasha or Pashka, not Pavlik. He was not ethnically Russian but of Belorussian descent on both sides of his family, as were most of the inhabitants of Gerasimovka. He could not have been member of the Pioneers, since there was no Pioneers troop where he lived.

When Yuri Druzhnikov began picking apart the Pavlik Morozov myth in the 1980s, he was able to talk to those still alive who had known the youth. In addition to the elderly villagers in Gerasimovka, he also interviewed Pavlik’s mother and his sole surviving brother, Alexei. (Another brother, Roman, was killed in World War II.)

Druzhnikov developed the following data points:

  • The exact date of Pavlik’s birth is unknown; his own mother didn’t remember it when asked in her old age. He was probably between twelve and fourteen at the time of his death.
  • The villagers of Gerasimovka who knew Pavlik and were interviewed by Druzhnikov did not remember him fondly: he was variously described as a “hoodlum,” a “rotten kid” and a “miserable wretch, a louse” who enjoyed smoking cigarettes and singing obscene songs.
  • Pavlik enjoyed denouncing his neighbors for breaking the rules; he “terrorized the whole village, spying on everybody.”
  • According to his former schoolteacher, he was almost illiterate; in fact, Druzhnikov believed he may have been slightly mentally retarded.
  • Pavlik’s whole family was the Russian equivalent of poor white trash. Tatiana was a mentally unstable and quarrelsome woman who was widely disliked in the village. After Trofim’s arrest, the state seized all his property and so the family went from mere penury to the brink of starvation.

Druzhnikov’s witnesses from Gerasimovka remembered Trofim Morozov’s denunciation, trial, and exile, which was central to the Pavlik-the-martyr myth. They remembered the boy testifying and said he didn’t seem to understand what was going on.

Kelly, however, examining the historical records twenty years after Druzhnikov, could find no documentary evidence of any trial — nor any proof that Pavlik had denounced his father to the OGPU or that Trofim had been convicted of political offenses and exiled.

Trofim had definitely disappeared from Gerasimovka by the time of his sons’ murders, but Kelly believes it’s entirely possible that he simply walked out of little Pavel’s life and wasn’t put in a labor camp at all. If Pavlik did in fact denounce his father, it was probably at the behest of his mother, Tatiana, and not for political reasons: Trofim had deserted the family and moved in with a mistress.

Tatiana was bitterly angry about her husband’s defection, and Pavlik, as the oldest male member of the household, was stuck with the exhausting household and farm chores his father had once performed. The family certainly did not want for points of friction … and Pavlik Morozov’s murder certainly had nothing to do with politics.

However, one of the four people put to death for the crime might actually have been involved after all.

After the Murders

The murdered boys were buried quickly, before the police even arrived to investigate. No photographs were taken, experts consulted or forensic tests performed. No doctor examined the bodies, and it isn’t even known how many wounds the victims suffered.

Within short order, however, investigators had rounded up five suspects: Pavlik’s uncles, Arseny Silin and Arseny Kulukanov; his grandparents, Sergei and Ksenia Morozov, both of whom were in their eighties; and his nineteen-year-old cousin, Danila, who lived with Sergei and Ksenia.


The accused.

The only physical evidence to implicate them was a bloodstained knife and some bloody clothes found in Pavlik’s grandparents’ house. As Druzhnikov records:

The prosecution had at its disposal two pieces of material evidence that were found in the home of Sergei Morozov: the knife, which was pulled out from behind the icons during the search, and the blood-spattered trousers and shirt — though whose clothes they were, Danila’s, the grandfather’s, or someone else’s, and whose blood was on them remained unknown. The court did not demand a laboratory examination of the blood stains.

It’s worth noting here that Danila had recently slaughtered a calf for Pavlik’s mother; this would provide an alternative, innocent explanation for the bloody clothes.

During their nationally publicized show trial in November 1932, the defendants presented incriminating yet often wildly conflicting statements abut the murders, and virtually no other evidence was presented. Druzhnikov details the farcical proceedings, which lasted four days:

Witnesses for the prosecution (about ten people) … did not introduce facts but demanded that the court employ “the highest measure of social defense” — execution. In fact, there were no defense witnesses at all. At the trial there was only one defense counsel, but during one of the court sessions he stepped forward and announced to the hall that he was revolted by the conduct of his clients and refused to defend them further. After this the lawyer withdrew with a flourish, and the trial concluded without him.

Four of the five were convicted and sentenced to death for “terrorism against representatives of the Soviet Government.” Sergei, Ksenia, and Danila Morozov, and Arseny Kulukanov, were all shot in April after the inevitable rejection of their appeals. (Arseny Silin was able to produce a credible alibi and was acquitted.)

Tatiana supported the convictions and testified against the defendants. Stalin later purchased her a resort home in the Crimea, where she lived until her death in 1983.

Were They Guilty?

Druzhnikov, researching the case fifty years later, concluded that Pavlik and his brother were deliberately set up to be murdered by agents of the OGPU, who treated the murders as political and the children as martyrs, bringing righteous proletarian wrath upon a fiercely independent village which had so far successfully resisted collectivization.

“The murder,” he wrote towards the end of his book, “could only have been committed, or at least provoked, by the hands of the OGPU.”

Stalin’s regime would become famous for its terrifying show trials. “A show trial in the Urals,” Druzhnikov suggests, “called for a show murder.” Because, in Gerasimovka, “there really was no crime. The peasants living there were peaceful; they didn’t want to kill one another. So they needed help.”

Kelly, on the other hand, suggested that the appearance of the crime scene, with no attempt to hide the bodies by burying them or dumping them in the nearby swamp, suggests an impulsive act of violence probably committed by a local teenager or teenagers. (One wonders, however, why it took so long for searchers to find bodies supposedly lying in plain sight.)

Kelly’s best guess was that Pavlik’s cousin Danila may have actually been guilty after all, possibly acting in concert with another villager his own age, Efrem Shatrakov: Danila and Pavlik had a very nasty argument over a horse harness only a few days before Pavlik and Fyodor disappeared, and Pavlik had allegedly denounced the Shatrakov family for possessing an unlicensed gun, which was confiscated.

In fact, Danila’s statements to the authorities made reference to his fight with Pavlik about the harness, and Shatrakov actually confessed to the murders, but later retracted his statements and was let go.

In any case, as Kelly wrote, if one or more of the defendants convicted at the trial happened to be guilty, either of committing the murders or as accessories after the fact, “they most certainly did not receive a fair trial, and the corpus delicti upon which the sentence was based was without question seriously flawed.”

No matter who killed Pavlik, as Druzhnikov says, the final result is this: “It is a historical commonplace that Stalin ruthlessly converted living people into corpses. In this instance, he effected the conversion of a corpse into a living symbol.”


The only known real-life photograph of Pavlik Morozov, at center under the arrow, taken as a school class portrait by a wandering photographer in 1930.

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1934: Leonid Nikolaev, Kirov’s assassin

3 comments December 29th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1934, Leonid Nikolaev was convicted and (an hour later) shot for the murder of Leningrad communist leader Sergei Kirov.

Nikolaev was a disaffected young man who’d come of age during the Revolution and latterly been expelled from the Party for his bad attitude. He took his frustration out on December 1, 1934, when he stalked into the (suspiciously unguarded) office of Kirov and shot him dead.

The victim was much the more consequential figure in this transaction — both in life, and in death. Kirov’s murder would stand as a Reichstag fire moment unleashing the darkest years of Stalinist purges.

Kirov was an old Bolshevik agitator from way back. Widely respected, he’d been the party boss of Leningrad for nearly a decade, and a few months before his murder was overwhelmingly elected to the Communist Party’s Central Committee at the party Congress.

He was also, perhaps, seen by anti-Stalin factions within the party as a potential pole of resistance to Stalin* — though his weight as an “opposition” figure has also grown with the hindsight knowledge of what came next.

Kirov’s assassination was a double gift to the Kremlin, for not only did it remove the impediment himself, it licensed a furious security crackdown against the “terrorists” who orchestrated it. Said terrorists conveniently turned out to be dozens upon dozens (and indirectly, thousands upon thousands) of officials whom Stalin found convenient to destroy. “Kirov was killed in Leningrad,” Bukharin remarked upon hearing the news. “Now Koba [Stalin] will shoot us all.”

Within weeks of the murder, the exiled Trotsky was coming to the same conclusion, and charged that the Kirov investigation’s purposes was

to terrorize completely all critics and oppositionists, and this time not by expulsion from the party, nor by depriving them of their daily bread, nor even by imprisonment or exile, but by the firing squad. To the terrorist act of Nikolaev, Stalin replies by redoubling the terror against the party.

Stalin personally oversaw the investigation, even personally interrogated Nikolaev. And no surprise: the investigation’s casualties multiplied with alacrity.

The first commissar who made it to the murder scene “fell out of a truck” the very next day. Nikolaev’s mother, wife, siblings, and other associates were all disappeared and executed. 104 prisoners already under lock and key at the time of Kirov’s murder were judged guilty of conspiring with the assassin and shot out of hand. (Source)

In January 1935, Stalin had his long-neutered old rivals Zinoviev and Kamenev** preposterously convicted for “moral responsibility” for Kirov’s murder. Though they weren’t death-sentenced directly for this “responsibility” their condemnation set them up for their fatal show trial the following year. (Which included public confessions of involvement in the Kirov affair.) Guilt in Kirov’s death would be routinely bolted onto the show trials of political opponents for the remainder of the 1930s.

Stalin mined this terrorism panic so nakedly and purged so widely that the belief that Stalin himself ordered Kirov’s murder has long predominated. This theory of Stalin’s master orchestration also happened to be very convenient (pdf) for the post-Stalin party; Khrushchev directly hinted at his predecessor’s complicity in the secret speech.

That theory remains highly contestable. Matthew Lenoe in particular has vigorously disputed the idea that Stalin ordered everything in his acclaimed The Kirov Murder and Soviet History; there’s an informative Q&A with Lenoe on the invaluable Sean’s Russia Blog here, and a podcast interview on the New Books Network here. For a bit of background on Lenoe’s research, click here.

* Foreshadowing the unwelcome independence Leningraders enjoyed post-World War II … until Stalin smashed it.

** Nikolaev, the disaffected party member, was a Leningrader himself. That meant that when he was still in the party, it was in Zinoviev’s Leningrad party, since that city happened to be Zinoviev’s base and stomping-ground. And that meant that he must ipso facto have been part of the “Zinovievite Opposition”.

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1955: Six Beria men

Add comment November 22nd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1955, eight former officials of the Georgia — the country Georgia — secret police were tried publicly in Tbilisi, and six* of them convicted and promptly shot.

Officially, they were in the dock post-Stalin for their various depredations during the late ascendancy of the notorious Lavrentiy Beria. (Both Beria and Stalin himself were native Georgians.)

All their frightening offices for the NKVD had been re-branded, post-Stalin, as counterrevolutionary and terroristic, the same sort of chilling police-state lingo they used to turn against enemies back in their day.

A.N. Rapava, for instance

… was Deputy Head of the NKVD in Georgia. In July 1945, he received the rank of Lt. General. From late 1938 until 1948, he was the Head of NKVD/NKGB/MGB** in Georgia when he was removed under a cloud. (Source)

Georgia’s Stalin-era apparatchiks had vicious infighting, aggravated by a growing rift between Stalin and Beria late in Stalin’s life. (Indeed, if you like some hypotheses, this was why it was late in Stalin’s life: Beria might have poisoned off Uncle Joe to protect himself from purging.)

Rapava was a Beria man, but when Stalin swept his own people into place† in the late 1940s to early 1950s, a Stalin guy named N.M. Rukhadze arrested and replaced Rapava.

A few weeks before Stalin died, when the biography of Beria is thick with curious maneuverings, Beria got Rukhadze replaced; once Stalin kicked off, Beria was free to flat-out arrest Rukhadze.

It was a bit of an irony that when the post-Stalin Bolsheviks came round to mop up in Georgia, the rivals Rapava and Rukhadze had to stand in the dock together, both allegedly part of Beria’s organization. It would have been a bit inconvenient to detail how it was Beria himself who ordered Rukhadze’s arrest.

The others who shared their fate:

  • A.S. Khazani, NKVD political department officer who wrote a book with the title The Moral Outlook of a Soviet Man
  • N.A. Krimian, who served in the NKVD in Georgia and later in Ukraine, where he orchestrated the execution of political prisoners ahead of the invading Germans in World War II
  • K.S. Savitsky, NKVD Georgia official
  • Sh.O. Tsereteli, a tsarist officer turned Bolshevik and a Beria ally dating back to the early 1920s

All were shot for the victims of the Georgian purges they had conducted. A translator and a bodyguard were also convicted at the same trial, drawing prison sentences.

* Evidently, the official press initially reported only five executions.

** NKVD, NKGB and MGB is for our thumbnail essentially the same state security entity under various names and reorganizations from the 1930s to the 1950s. It became in the last analysis the KGB.

† See, for example, the Mingrelian Affair.

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1940: Nikolai Yezhov, terror namesake

5 comments February 4th, 2012 Headsman

In the terrible years of the Yezhovshchina, I spent seventeen months in lines outside the prison in Leningrad [queuing to deliver food to or get news of imprisoned loved ones: in her case, her son Lev]. One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind me was a woman, with lips blue from cold, who had, of course, never heard me called by name before. Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there):
‘And can you describe this?’
And I said: ‘I can.’
Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.

-Poet Anna Akhmatova

On this date in 1940, the first name in Stalin’s terror got his just deserts.

Well. The first name after Stalin’s own, a point energetically made by Nikolai Yezhov’s daughter* in her fruitless post-Soviet attempts to rehabilitate the man.

But clearing a fellow’s name is a tough task when that name is the mother tongue’s very metonym for political persecution: the Soviet Union’s mind-bending late-1930s witch hunt for internal enemies, known as the Yezhovshchina.

From late 1936, when he eliminated his predecessor Genrikh Yagoda (later executed, of course), until his own fall from power in at the end of 1938, Yezhov presided over the apex of Stalinist terror, averaging hundreds of political killings daily — perhaps north of 600,000 for the two-year period, plus a like number disappeared into the Gulag’s freezers. (Just browse this here site’s ‘1937’ tag for a taste.)

Departments and regions received quotas for executions as if they were tractor factories. Security officials well understood that their own heads would be next on the block for any perceived shortcoming; Yezhov had thousands of them arrested, too. (pdf)**

We are launching a major attack on the Enemy; let there be no resentment if we bump someone with an elbow. Better that ten innocent people should suffer than one spy get away. When you chop wood, chips fly.

-Yezhov

The “Bloody Dwarf” — surely there is some of Yezhov in the Master and Margarita character Azazello, the Satan/Stalin figure’s murderous and diminutive attendant — rode this tiger unto his own destruction.


Stalin and other Soviet VIPs with (front right) Nikolai Yezhov.

The same photo ‘updated’ after Yezhov’s fall. (For a similarly chilling photographic disappearance, see Vladimir Clementis.)

As Yezhov had once displaced and killed his mentor Yagoda, so Yezhov’s own nominal underling Beria would displace Yezhov.

Power in the NKVD shifted towards Beria over the course of 1938 until Yezhov’s own resignation that November. The former boss was quietly arrested the next April and barely troubled his skilled torturers before copping to the usual litany of official self-denunciations: corruption, economic sabotage and “wrecking”, treasonable collaboration with the Germans, plus a bisexual personal life. (That last one was true.)

Bound for historical infamy, Yezhov salvaged a shred of dignity in the last, when he was “tried” a few hours before death and renounced those confessions — albeit from the twisted standpoint of a man still unquestioningly committed to the man and the system that had destroyed him.

It is better to die, but to leave this earth as an honorable man and to tell nothing but the truth at the trial. At the preliminary investigation I said that I was not a spy, that I was not a terrorist, but they didn’t believe me and applied to me the strongest beating. During the 25 years of my party work I have fought honorably against enemies and have exterminated them. I have committed crimes for which I might well be executed … But those crimes which are imputed to me by the indictment in my case I did not commit …

My fate is obvious. My life, naturally, will not be spared since I myself have contributed to this at my preliminary investigation. I ask only one thing: shoot me quietly, without tortures …Tell Stalin that I shall die with his name on my lips.

And indeed, Yezhov knew from plenty of personal experience how this script ended. It was called the Yezhovshchina for a reason.

The judges pretended to deliberate for half an hour. Ezhov fainted at the verdict, then scrawled a petition for mecy; it was read out over the telephone to the Kremlin and rejected. Ezhov was taken in the dead of night to a slaughterhouse he himself had built near the Lubianka. Dragged screaming to a special room with a sloping cement floor and a log-lined wall, he was shot by the NKVD’s chief executioner, Vasili Blokhin. Beria gave Stalin a list of 346 of Ezhov’s associates to be shot. Sixty of them were NKVD officers, another fifty were relatives and sexual partners. (From Stalin and His Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him

* Natalia Khayutina is actually Yezhov’s adoptive daughter. Her birth parents were killed … in the Yezhovschina.

** “I purged 14,000 chekists,” Yezhov later said. “But my guilt lies in the fact that I did not purge enough of them.”

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1937: Martemyan Ryutin, for his affair

1 comment January 10th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1937, Martemyan Ryutin was condemned to death and immediately executed in Stalinist USSR.

Ryutin (English Wikipedia entry | Russian | another Russian bio) was a revolutionary from the Far East who by the late 1920s was in the Bolsheviks’ heretical right wing; his affiliation with Bukharin and Rykov got him temporarily booted out of the Communist party in 1930.

Not content to keep his head safely down as Stalin’s star ascended, Ryutin typed out an anti-Stalin pamphlet and the 200-page “Ryutin Platform” denouncing Josef Djugashvili as “the gravedigger of the Revolution” and urging that he be removed — even by force.*

Weeks after Ryutin began circulating this incendiary samizdat the secret police busted him.

Though open discussion of the so-called Ryutin Affair was nonexistent in the Soviet Union until the Gorbachev era, it was a matter of dire importance for the Politburo in 1932; indeed, fleeting as it was, it’s one of the few organized elite attempts to thwart Stalin discernible during the 1930s. Stalin wanted Ryutin executed, but he was outvoted; this is a small milepost on the way to the Yezhovschina indicating that Stalin’s power still had its limits … and Bolsheviks still recoiled at the prospect of killing other party members.** These constraints were not very long for the scene.

Even so, Ryutin got a 10-year prison sentence and anyone else who had read the Ryutin platform without informing on it to the Party was in seriously hot water. Twenty-four were expelled from the party in October 1932 for this reason, including once-proud and soon-doomed Old Bolsheviks Zinoviev and Kamenev.

Ryutin, for his part, had only a few years to wait before the deteriorating political climate dispensed with those taboos about internecine bloodletting. The Supreme Court signed off on his execution this day with just a few minutes’ hearing, and it was immediately carried out.

Ryutin’s two sons were also executed in 1937, and his wife died in a labor camp. Only his daughter Lyubov survived the Ryutin Affair — which convictions were posthumously reversed in 1988.

* Bukharin’s widow later wrote that Stalin’s agents later added the most inflammatory material — like that violent overthrow stuff.

** Had Stalin had his way in 1932, Ryutin would have had the distinction of being the first Central Committee member to be executed, according to Suzi Weissman.

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1937: Jan Sten, Stalin’s tutor

1 comment June 19th, 2011 Headsman

Anyone who has ever had an unedifying experience of pedagogy ought to be able to sympathize with Jan Sten, the Marxist philosopher once hired to tune up Joseph Stalin’s intellectual credentials and who on this date in 1937 was purged by his former pupil.

This account of Sten’s unfortunate (though hardly atypical) fate comes from the archive of Sten’s personal friend, one Yevgeny Frolov and is printed in Let History Judge: The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism.

Hardly anyone knew Stalin better than Sten. Stalin, as we know, received no systematic education. Without success Stalin struggled to understand philosophical questions. And then, in 1925, he called in Jan Sten, one of the leading Marxist philosophers of that time, to direct his study of Hegelian dialectics. Sten drew up a program of study for Stalin and conscientiously, twice a week, dinned Hegelian wisdom into his illustrious pupil. (In those years dialectics was studied by a system that Pokrovsky had worked out at the Institute of Red Professors, a parallel study of Marx’s Capital and Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind.) Often Sten told me in confidence about these lessons, about the difficulties he as the teacher, was having because of his student’s inability to master Hegelian dialectics. Jan often dropped in to see me after a lesson with Stalin, in a depressed and gloomy state, and despite his naturally cheerful disposition, he found it difficult to regain his equilibrium. Sten was not only a leading philosopher but also a political activist, an outstanding member of the Leninist cohort of old Bolsheviks. The meetings with Stalin, the conversations with him on philosophical matters, during which Jan would always bring up contemporary political problems, opened his eyes more and more to Stalin’s true nature, his striving for one-man rule, his craft schemes and methods for putting them into effect … As early as 1928, in a small circle of his personal friends, Sten said: “Koba will do things that will put the trials of Dreyfus and of Beilis in the shade.”This was his answer to his comrades’ request for a prognosis of Stalin’s leadership over ten years’ time. Thus, Sten was not wrong either in his characterization of Stalin’s rule or in the time schedule for the realization of his bloody schemes.


Komar and Melamid‘s ironic 1981-1982 Stalin and the Muses travesties sycophantic Socialist Realism exaltations of Uncle Joe, like these. (More by K&M)

Sten’s lessons with Stalin ended in 1928. Several years later he was expelled from the party for a year and exiled to Akmolinsk. In 1937 he was seized on the direct order of Stalin, who declared him one of the chiefs of the Menshevizing idealists.* At the time the printer had just finished a volume of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia that contained a major article by Sten, “Dialectical Materialism.” The ordinary solution — and such problems were ordinary in those years — was to destroy the entire printing. But in this case the editors of the encyclopedia found a cheaper solution. Only one page of the whole printing was changed, the one with the signature of Jan Sten. “Dialectical Materialism” appeared over the name of M.B. Mitin, the future academician and editor in chief of Problems of Philosophy, thus adding to his list the one publication that is really interesting. On June 19, 1937, Sten was put to death in Lefortovo prison.

Seen in that light, a hostile review on RateMyProfessors.com doesn’t sound so bad at all.

* Menshevizing idealism — here’s an official Soviet definition from the 1970’s — was among Stalin-era “polemical by-words for philosophical heresy.” (Robert Tucker, “The Rise of Stalin’s Personality Cult,” The American Historical Review, Apr. 1979)

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1949: Koci Xoxe, Titoist

2 comments June 11th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1949, Albania’s former defense minister was purged.

One of the first purge victims in the Soviet satellites — though scarcely the last — Xoxe was induced to admit having labored “against the Party and the people.”

The ethnic Macedonian’s real offense had been a pro-Yugoslav orientation.

That put Xoxe on the wrong side of the emerging rift in the Communist bloc, between Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and independent-minded Yugoslav strongman Josip Tito.

After Tito broke with Stalin in 1948, Moscow froze the naughty Yugoslavs out of the international communist club and began suppressing “Titoist” elements whose national political or economic orientation augured potential annoyance for Soviet supremacy.

Albanian chief Enver Hoxha in later years would become somewhat notorious as the last unabashed Stalinist leader in Europe. (Hoxha took an “anti-revisionist” stance on Khrushchev’s later denunciation of Stalin.) So you can see the bind Koci Xoxe was about to be in.

Hoxha’s own pro-Soviet orientation was akin in its way to Tito’s anti-Soviet orientation: for Tito, Moscow meant domination, but for Hoxha, Yugoslavia was the resented aspiring regional hegemon. Albanian economic ministers complained that trade links disproportionately benefited Belgrade, and Yugoslavia once high-handedly marched troops into Albania to contain a conflict in neighboring Greece.

At any rate, Hoxha went energetically along with Uncle Joe on the Tito question … whose answer, on this date, was a bullet for Hoxha’s former Defense Minister.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Albania,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Politicians,Power,Shot,Torture,Treason

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