On this date in 1961,* two 22-year-old Soviet men were — very much to their surprise — shot as black market currency speculators.
Ian Timofeyevich Rokotov and Vladik Petrovich Faibishenko were leaders of a small ring of illicit currency traders who made their bones swapping Soviet rubles with foreign visitors at a handsome markup, earning “wealth” on the scale of moderate personal ease that seems laughable compared to their homeland’s present-day oligarchy. Among this nine-person ring, authorities recovered 344,000 Russian rubles plus about $19,000 in gold coins and a few thousands each of various western European currencies.
These deeds augmented the inherently parasitic act of profiteering by the inherently subversive act of making unchaperoned contact with foreign visitors, at a moment when the Soviet state was particularly sensitive to both infractions. This was nearly the exact apex of the Cold War, in the tense months between the U-2 Crisis and the Cuban Missile Crisis.** “Peaceful coexistence,” Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev said in a 1961 address, means “intense economic, political, and ideological struggle between the proletariat and the aggressive forces of imperialism in the world arena.”
In a 13-day trial concluding on June 15, Rokotov and Faibishenko were sentenced along with another of their circle, Nadia Edlis, to 15 years in prison. You might think that’s a stern message sent, but the excitable Khrushchev took an almost personal offense to their behavior and on viewing the intentionally nettlesome exhibition of the black marketeers’ banknote heaps, exclaimed, “They need to be shot for this!”
The minor matter of having no capital statute on the books for the occasion was resolved on July 1 by the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, which introduced the death penalty for major economic crimes; the statute was then immediately deployed to retroactive effect in a new trial before the Russian Republic Supreme Court.
Many people more would face capital punishment for economic crimes under that 1961 law.
* The official execution date is elusive but press reports indicate that the Soviet news agency TASS announced it on July 26. Given that their final condemnation had occurred only five days previous, we fall at worst within a narrow margin of error.
** Also of note: the USSR had just revalued the ruble as of January 1, 1961.