1937: Alexander Shlyapnikov, Workers’ Opposition leader

Add comment September 2nd, 2018 Headsman

September 2 was the execution date during the purge year of 1937 for Old Bolshevik trade unionist Alexander Shlyapnikov.

The metalworker Shlyapnikov was a man who came by his revolutionary politics right from the shop floor. At the age of 10 he left school to work in a foundry, “having learnt to read and write. School was no mother to me, and it was not the teachers who educated me … the teachers were young and very rude, and they often meted out justice to their young charges with their fists. Even during these years, life taught me that there is no justice in this world.” (Source) Born to an Old Believer family, his fervor for justice had an initial religious bent, but after moving from provincial Murom to St. Petersburg/Petrograd* he discarded godliness and became a labor militant of sufficient stature to start turning up on blacklists before he was out of his teens.

During the political chill following Russia’s failed 1905 revolution, the oft-arrested Shliapikov worked abroad in western Europe — by now both a master of his difficult craft, and a Bolshevik who had led an armed rising in his hometown of Murom. Here he became socially and politically close with Lenin and all the brand-name Communist exiles, as well as with European labor unions and left parties.

He also shuttled to and from Russia coordinating the movement’s internal and external actors; he’s left us a memoir of the political maneuvers and adventurous border-crossings of these years. Thanks to this role, Shliapnikov was the most senior Bolshevik on the scene in Petrograd when the February Revolution broke out; he was immediately a key figure in the Petrograd Soviet, and was the Bolshevik state’s first Commissar for Labor.

As the newborn USSR solidified in form and function, Shlyapnikov nursed growing concerns about its distance from — and tendency to run roughshod over — actual workers. He soon became a leading voice for the Workers’ Opposition** around 1919 to 1921. Where the Bolsheviks held that theirs was an ascendant workers’ polity that had subsumed mere guilds, Shlyapnikov insisted on the trade unions as distinct from the Soviet state and the Communist party — “a syndicalist deviation” in Lenin’s charge. The Workers’ Opposition was prescient in its critique of the once-utopian project’s creeping bureaucratizm, with real workers’ material interests, dissenting perspectives, and local idiosyncracies giving way everywhere to the center’s policy orthodoxy dictated through “apparatuses of power … located practically in hands alien to the interests of the working class.” (Source)

Although prominent in its day, the Workers’ Opposition viewpoint was not destined to carry forward into Soviet theory or practice. After bread shortages drove workers and sailors at Kronstadt into a rebellion that the Bolsheviks crushed in 1921, the Workers’ Opposition tendency was quashed within the party. Shlyapnikov thereafter held second-rate posts, and was several times investigated by the Communist Party for “factionalism,” finally being expelled under Stalin in 1933.†

He was favored with a 2016 biography by Barbara C. Allen, Alexander Shlyapnikov, 1885-1937: Life of an Old Bolshevik (review). Allen discussed Shlyapnikov in an interview with the indispensable Sean’s Russia Blog podcast, here. We yield to Allen’s description of Shlyapnikov’s demise among the purging of Old Bolsheviks following the Kirov affair — tragic, banal, and heroic in his plain refusal to gratify his persecutors with any manner of confession or groveling.

In April 1937 he was accused according to article 58-8 and 58-11 of the RSFSR law code of having led a counterrevolutionary group called the Workers’ Opposition, of having linked up with the ‘counterrevolutionary Trotskyist-Zinovievist terrorist bloc’ and of having ‘tried to conclude a bloc with Ruth Fischer for joint struggle against the policy and measures of the Comintern.’ It alleged that he advocated ‘individual terror’ and that groups he directed in Omsk, Rostov-on-Don, Kiev, Odessa, Baku, Kharkov and Moscow had ‘prepared and tried to realise the murder of comrade Stalin.’ Acknowledging that Shlyapnikov did not confess his guilt, the accusation established it through the testimony of Zinoviev, Safarov, Vardin and others. It recommended that the Military Collegium of the USSR Supreme Court should try him and apply the 1 December 1934 law. Applying to cases of terrorist acts, this law ordered the immediate execution of capital-punishment sentences, with no appeals.

The USSR Supreme Court Military Collegium met on 2 September 1937 in closed session to sentence Shlyapnikov, who appeared before the court in a two-hour long session. Refusing to admit his guilt, he also detailed his objections to others’ testimony against him. Given the last word, Shlyapnikov declared that he was ‘not hostile towards soviet power.’ Perhaps as a last ironic remark, he confessed guilt only to ‘a liberal attitude towards those around him.’ Nevertheless, the court on the same day found him guilty under article 58, paragraphs 8 and 11, of having led ‘an anti-Soviet terrorist organisation, the so-called “Workers’ Opposition,”‘ which carried out ‘counterrevolutionary activity directed towards the topping of soviet power.’ He was convicted of having been in contact with ‘leaders of Trotskyist-Zinovievist and Right-Bukharinist terrorist organisations’ and of having ordered members of his ‘anti-Soviet organisation’ to carry out ‘terrorist acts’ against party and government leaders. Then the Military Collegium sentenced him to ‘the highest measure of punishment — execution by shooting with confiscation of all personal property.’ Below this was pencilled: ‘the sentence was carried out on that day in Moscow.’ Despite ‘eyewitness’ tales that he survived for years longer, either abroad or under a false name in the Gulag, documents attest to the fact that shortly after his 1937 execution, Alexander Shlyapnikov’s body was cremated and buried in Donskoy cemetery in a common grave.

* Peter the Great‘s jewel was still St. Petersburg when Shlyapnikov arrived there in the last years of the 19th century; it was renamed Petrograd in 1914 and carried that name during the events of the 1917 revolutions and thereafter. It became Leningrad in 1926, a name that stuck for the remainder of the Soviet era.

** Alexandra Kollontai was also a noteworthy Workers’ Opposition exponent; her apologia makes for sad reading considering the Soviet state’s coming vector towards sclerotic authoritarianism.

† Stalin’s ideological mediocrity is commonplace observation but perhaps its signal instance occurred upon his arrival to revolutionary Petrograd before Lenin: where Shlyapnikov was refusing to entangle the Bolsheviks with the Provisional Government (post-February revolution, pre-October revolution), Stalin insisted on a more moderate and cooperative attitude. When Lenin arrived shortly thereafter, his April Theses famously re-set Bolshevik policy in Shlyapnikov’s more intransigent direction — a defeat to which Stalin owed the Bolshevik conquest of power and his own eventual opportunity to execute men like Shlyapnikov.

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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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1864: Nikolay Chernyshevsky’s “civil execution”

Add comment May 19th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1864, the Russian writer Nikolay Chernyshevsky was publicly executed in St. Petersburg.

Then he was shipped to Siberia.

Chernyshevsky’s punishment was only a pantomime “civil execution,” somewhat akin to the symbolic executions by effigy elsewhere in Europe. In this case, the faux death penalty was imposed not upon a peeling portrait but on Chernyshevsky’s actual person: “The hangmen led Chernyshevsky to the scaffold on Mytninskaya Square in St. Petersburg, made him kneel down, broke a sword over his head and then chained him to the pillory. Chernyshevsky stood calmly under the rain waiting for this mockery to come to an end.” (Source)

The pillory, exposed to the hoots and brickbats of an offended populace, was supposed to be a humiliation to its sufferer; occasionally, it even proved lethal. Not so for Chernyshevsky: the crowd stood silently. Someone threw a bouquet of flowers.

This ludicrous theater was enacted to punish Chernyshevsky for his leadership of the St. Petersburg intellectual circle that gave birth to the Narodnik movement. Literally “going to the people,” this was a peasant-focused populist-democratic-socialist philosophy paradoxically germinated among Russia’s small coterie of intellectual elites.

Think Marxism for a feudal society here: the Narodnik adaptation was the hope that Russia’s vast peasantry could be roused to serve the part of a revolutionary working class, and skip Russia directly to a socialism still preserving communal traditions unsullied by that interim period wherein (per Marx in the Communist Manifesto) capitalism had “pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties … [and] left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest.”

This is why Chernyshevsky and the Narodniks viewed the “emancipation” of serfs of 1861 with a gimlet eye: it was a shift towards capitalist property relations, in which the feudal shackles were merely replaced with new, and heavier irons. Chernyshevsky subversively urged his “emancipated” countrymen to view the move as a heist.

It is of course unlikely that many of the actual peasant malcontents stirred up in the wake of the emancipation perused Chernyshevsky’s “To the Manorial Peasants from Their Well-Wishers, Greetings”. But other bourgeois radicals who did read that sort of thing would in due time — after the suppression of the Narodniki in the 1860s and 1870s drove its underground remnants to terrorism — spawn the revolutionary network Narodnaya Volya, and assassinate the tsar who enacted that emancipation, Alexander II.

Chernyshevsky was more a writer than a fighter. He spent his pre-“execution” imprisonment in Peter and Paul Fortress forging his definitive contribution to the movement — the novel What Is To Be Done?.*

(Our own Sonechka regards What Is To Be Done? as quite possibly Russia’s single worst literary product, but the didactic novel imagined (in the dreams of its principal character, Vera Pavlovna) an egalitarian future, including for women. Chernyshevsky himself wrote that he “possess[ed] not one bit of artistic talent … any merit to be found in my tale is due entirely to its truthfulness.”)

Whatever its artistic shortcomings, What Is To Be Done? entered the revolutionary literary canon. Vladmir Ilyich Ulyanov — better known as Lenin — wasn’t even born until 1870 but as a young man he admired What Is To Be Done? In 1902 Lenin himself published a political pamphlet under that same title.

Far less impressed were the likes of Dostoyevsky, himself a former radical who also underwent mock execution in his time. Unlike Chernyshevsky, Dostoyevsky apostasized from his revolutionary credo; Dostoyevsky’s 1864 Notes from the Underground is “a bitter artistic answer” to (and in several spots a direct parody of) Chernyshevsky’s magnum opus.

* What Is To Be Done? responds to Turgenev‘s Fathers And Sons. A previous Narodnik classic by Alexander Herzen asked the parallel question Who Is To Blame?.

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1918: Roman Malinovsky, tinker, tailor, soldier, spy

Add comment November 6th, 2013 Headsman

In the early morning hours this date in 1918, Roman Malinovsky was shot in the Kremlin on the verdict of his trial the previous day.

In the years before the Russian Revolution Malinovsky (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) was a steelworker who was actually a Bolshevik revolutionary, who was actually an Okhrana agent codenamed “Tailor”.

After a stint in the army in the first years of the 20th century, the Polish Catholic Malinovsky went to work as a lathe operator in a St. Petersburg factory, in one of the militant pockets of Russia’s small urban proletariat.

Malinovsky proved a gifted labor organizer — enough that under the Stolypin crackdown, he was arrested in 1909 and expelled from St. Petersburg. Then he was arrested in 1910 in Moscow.

No later than this point, though possibly even before it, he was recruited by tsarist Russia’s secret police. Now Malinovsky’s considerable energies were turned to spying on the communists, and to deepening mistrust between Mensheviks and Bolsheviks. “The whole purpose of my direction [to Malinovsky] is summed up in this: to give no possibility of the Party’s uniting,” the police director Beletsky later explained.

Malinovsky was an adroit mole.

He got himself elected to the Bolsheviks’ Central Committee, and ingratiated himself with Lenin so thoroughly that when Malinovsky was openly accused of spying for the Okhrana in 1913, Lenin came to his defense.

Malinovsky’s proximity to Lenin enabled him to cc the police on the latter’s correspondence, but for posterity the mystery is on the other side of the relationship. Was Lenin in denial? Or did he already know that Malinovsky was a spy?

The double games being played around Malinovsky fade into a fog in the 1910s. The Okhrana mysteriously forced Malinovsky to resign from the state Duma — another powerful seat he had obtained — which was such a grievous loss for the Bolsheviks that it further multiplied the suspicions of his leftist comrades. Did the Okhrana take this seemingly counterproductive step because Malinovsky was compromised as a spy, or was this just a change of policy? When Malinovsky was taken prisoner by the Germans during World War I, his agitations among fellow-POWs earned Lenin’s admiration. Was this sincere conviction after all, or a maneuver?

Accounts of associates paint Lenin as horribly torn on the accusations against a man whom Lenin plainly admired, even rationalizing that Malinovsky’s organizational talents on behalf of the movement had still outweighed the injury he might have done it by spying.

Nor was this merely a personal consideration, since accusations against Malinovsky — an uncompromising Bolshevik in his party persona, further to the cause of preventing intra-party reconciliation — had emerged earliest from Mensheviks. Their eventual vindication on this matter was an obvious irritant to Lenin, and even late in the war years Lenin downplayed the spying charges.

Most mysteriously of all — at least in retrospect — Malinovsky voluntarily returned to post-Revolution Moscow knowing that his role as an informant had been definitively exposed in Russian newspapers following a sack of the Okhrana offices and its revealing files. It was to “wash away the sins of his life with blood,” he told his interrogators, agents of the new secret police — the Cheka. Or was it that he thought he had, via Lenin (who had even sent clothes to the disgraced Malinovsky’s POW camp) an angle on rehabilitation?

Maybe in the end Malinovsky was the victim of his own con. Ralph Carter Elwood’s biography suggests that Malinovsky took Lenin’s surprisingly congenial behavior to mean that he had been forgiven since the fact could no longer be denied … when it might really have meant that Lenin was in denial about the fact itself, almost to to the last. “The last” being, in this case, the courtroom* of Nov. 5 which Lenin himself attended. Malinovsky defended himself for hours, but admitted all; if he anticipated clemency, he did not receive any more of it than the few hours necessary to put his affairs in order.

More tantalizing still, though well into the realm of speculation, is the idea that Lenin did indeed understand what Malinovsky was up to, but wanted to keep the door closed on espionage and counter-espionage vis-a-vis the tsarist police for fear of disgracing old Bolshevik revolutionaries with compromised pasts who had now become men of state. Stalin himself might have been in this same boat, perhaps making this moment yet another missed opportunity to pre-empt the terrifying era yet to come.

“I couldn’t see through that scoundrel Malinovsky,” Lenin later told Gorky, a sentiment we might today echo in retrospect. “It was a very fishy affair, that Malinovsky business.”

* His prosecutor was former comrade Nikolai Krylenko. Krylenko ultimately died in 1938; you may well guess how.

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1938: Yakov Peters, Siege of Sidney Street survivor

1 comment April 25th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1938, a Soviet purge claimed (among others*) Yakov (Jacob) Peters, former Cheka executioner and once the subject of a headline-grabbing trial in England.

Peters was a trusted (and ruthless) operator in the Soviet internal police from the start of the Revolution: he helped interrogate Lenin‘s would-be assassin Fanya Kaplan in 1918.

And he was the guy Trotsky had on speed-dial when Cheka founder Felix Dzerzhinsky was arrested by the Left SRs during their abortive 1918 uprising against their erstwhile revolutionary allies, the Bolsheviks.**

Dzerzhinsky was disarmed and locked in a room. his assistant, M.I. Latsis, was captured in the Cheka Lubianka headquarters. “No point in taking him anywhere, put this scum against the wall!” shouted a sailor, but one of the leaders, Alexandrovich, intervened, saying, “There is no need to kill, comrades; arrest him, but do not kill.” Dzerzhinsky’s assistant Yakov Peters was urgently summoned by Trotsky, who ordered him to crush the uprising by attacking the Left Eser headquarters. Alexandrovich was caught at a railway station, and Latsis, whom he had saved from execution, personally shot him. Mass executions in Cheka prisons followed. (Source)

Like a lot of old Bolsheviks, Peters’s early service to the cause didn’t age too well. He ran afoul of some bureaucratic intrigue or point of party discipline or other and caught a bullet in 1938. (Khrushchev rehabilitated him.)

For anyone in England watching the fate of this distant apparatchik, the proximity to bloodbaths would have had a familiar hue.

Peters was one of a gang of Latvian revolutionaries who came to cinematic public attention in London when, in the course of being rounded up for a December 1910 murder, they engaged the police in a stupendous East End firefight on January 2, 1911 — the Siege of Sidney Street. (It’s also known as the Battle of Stepney.)

Armed like soldiery, the Latvians easily outgunned the bobbies who had them hemmed into a cul-de-sac, and they fired on John Law with ruthless effect. This necessitated a call to the Scots Guard — whose deployment was okayed by Home Secretary Winston Churchill, the latter captured on film that day awkwardly milling about the scene of the urban combat.


(Translated directly to the city’s cinemas as soon as that same evening, Churchill’s image came in for public catcalls owing to his support for a relatively open immigration policy for eastern Europeans.)

This incident was a landmark in crime, policing, media — recognizably modern in its trappings of nefarious immigrant terrorists, politicized state funerals for policemen, and of course, the live-on-the-scenes camera work.

Since Britain was a ready hand with the noose at this time, one might think an execution would have been just the denouement.

However, responsibility for the policememen slain in the affray had been officially assigned to a different gang member, George Gardstein — who was killed when the besieged house burned down — and there was little usable evidence against those who were finally put on trial for the gang’s various crimes. Most of the witnesses were dead, fled, or completely unreliable, so the surviving Latvians all walked.

(Since the identity of one of the first guys to start shooting when the police rang always remained murky, there are some theories — such as in this out-of-print book — that Peters himself had been one of the gunmen on-site, and/or that he could be identified with the absconded and never-captured gang leader “Peter the Painter”.)

Whatever the exact measure of blood on Yakov Peters’s hands from Sidney Street, there would be a lot more where it came from.

While Peters went off to his different fate in revolutionary Russia, the dramatic scene he left behind has naturally attracted continuing retrospective attention in England. The testimony of witnesses, who also recollect the shootout’s anti-immigrant fallout, is preserved in this BBC Witness radio program:

[audio:http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/worldservice/witness/witness_20110127-0950a.mp3]

And, on this BBC Four television special:

* e.g., Russian Civil War officer Nikolay Gikalo and Romanian Jewish revolutionary Leon Lichtblau.

** And in favor of resuming Russia’s ruinous involvement in World War I!

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1905: Rebellious workers of the Red Presnia district

5 comments December 31st, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1905,* the last bastion of the abortive 1905 Russian Revolution was smashed with mass executions of the radical Russian proletariat who constituted Moscow’s Presnia district.

The long, uphill struggle of tsarist Russia to adapt its economy and political institutions to modernity was nearing its final failure.

A shadow play of that approaching cataclysm would unfold in 1905, when popular dissatisfaction won a short-lived period of constitutional government.

Radicals disdained these half-measures, however, and shook the realm with a general strike in December 1905 — a small quake only, since Russia’s proletariat was still too small to constitute a real threat to the state.

And the capital of insurrectionary labor was Muscovite factory district of Presnia or Presnya. There, a botched attempt to suppress strikers resulted in an armed standoff; “Red Presnia” (Krasnaia or Krasnaya Presnia) ended in carnage when the overmatched workers were besieged by the Semyonovsky Guard.




A political cartoon trilogy on the annihilation of Red Presnia: from the top, The Entrance, The Battle, and The Pacification (picturing the Kremlin sinking in blood). They’re from this public domain Google book; scroll up from the link to pp. 35-38 for more unflattering drawings of the tsar as a tinhorn murderer.

Trotsky recounted the last days of Red Presnia.

On the night of the sixteenth Presnya was encircled in an iron ring of government troops. Soon after 6:00 a.m. on the seventeenth these troops opened a remorseless cannonade. Guns were fired as much as seven times a minute. This continued, with an hour’s respite, until 4:00 p.m. Many factories and houses were destroyed and set on fire. The barrage was conducted from two sides. Houses and barricades were in flames, women and children darted about the streets in clouds of black smoke, the air was filled with the roar and clatter of firing.


Detail view (click for the full image) of an illustration of a Red Presnia barricade under fire from the Semenovsky Guard. (Source)

The glow was such that miles away it was possible to read in the streets late at night, as though it were day. Until noon the druzhiny [the workers’ militia] conducted successful operations against the troops, but continuous enemy fire forced them to stop. Only a small group of druzhinniki remained under arms on their own initiative and at their own risk.

By the morning of the eighteenth Presnya had been cleared of barricades. The “peaceful” population were allowed to leave Presnya; the troops were careless enough to allow people to leave without searching them. The druzhinniki were the first to leave, some of them still with arms. Later, there were shootings and other violence by the soldiers, but by then not a single druzhinnik remained in the area.

The “pacification troops” of the Semyonovsky regiment, who were sent to “pacify” the railway, were ordered not to make arrests and to proceed with out mercy.** They met with no resistance anywhere. Not a single shot was fired against them, yet they killed approximately 150 persons on the railway line. The shootings were carried out without investigation or trial. Wounded men were taken from ambulance wagons and finished off. Corpses lay around without anyone daring to carry them away. One of those shot by the Petersburg guards was the engine-driver Ukhtomsky, who saved the lives of a group of druzhinniki by driving them away on his engine at colossal speed under machine-gun fire. Before they shot him, he told his executioners what he had done: “All are safe,” he concluded with calm pride, “you’ll never get them now.”

“No single act during this period of governmental vengeance,” one chronicle remarked, “stands out more senseless than the punitive expeditions of the Semyonovsky Regiment on the Moscow-Kazan railroad.”

And no single victim exemplified the butchery like the legendary Engineer Ukhtomsky. A journalist relates the story:

In the course of my inquiries about the activities of the Semyonovski regiment along the Moscow-Kazan line, I heard many stories about Engineer Ukhtomski, who showed heroic firmness in the last moments of his life. Part of this information was given by the captain of the Semyonovski regiment which executed him in Lubertzy,† together with three other workingmen. The captain, who observed him in his last moments, was charmed by his personality; the soldiers felt a deep reverence for him, their esteem being expressed in the fact that after the first volley he remained untouched. Not one bullet had grazed him.

His appearance was in no way striking. Of medium height, with vivid, clever eyes, he gave the impression of a very modest, almost bashful, man.

It was a mere accident that he fell into the hands of the punitive expedition. He was traveling in a carriage, when he stopped in the Lubertzy inn, ignorant of the presence of soldiers at the station. He was searched and a revolver was found in his pocket, which caused his arrest. He was brought before the officer in charge.

Questioned as to his name, he refused to reveal it. The officer went over the lists and the photographs of the revolutionists, comparing them with the live original before him. then he exclaimed:

‘You are Engineer Ukhtomski; you will be shot!’

‘I thought so,’ Ukhtomski answered coolly.

This happened in the afternoon, about three o’clock. He was asked whether he did not want to take the communion, and expressed his desire to do so.

After the communion he was taken, together with three workingmen of the Lubertzy brake-factory, to the place of execution. He made the following statement, addressing the officer:

‘I knew that, once in your hands, I should be shot; I was prepared for death, and that is why I am so calm. … ‘

At the place of execution they wanted to blindfold Ukhtomski. He asked the favor of meeting death squarely, face to face. He also refused to turn his back to the soldiers.

The soldiers fired. The workingmen dropped. Ukhtomski was not hurt. He stood erect, arms folded on his breast.

The soldiers fired again. He fell on the snow, but he was still alive and fully conscious. He looked around, with eyes full of anguish.

The captain gave him the coup de grace.

Months later, another Russian revolutionary avenged the Presnia charnel house by assassinating the general who orchestrated it. The tsar reaped a still more fearful whirlwind.


Mother, a 1926 silent film by Vsevolod Pudovkin valorizing the 1905 revolution.

Standing just thirteen years later over the remains of that vanquished tsarism, V.I. Lenin paid the martyrs of Presnia tribute for sacrifices “not in vain”:

Before the armed insurrection of December 1905, the people of Russia were incapable of waging a mass armed struggle against their exploiters. After December they were no longer the same people. They had been reborn. They had received their baptism of fire. They had been steeled in revolt. They trained the fighters who were victorious in 1917 and who now, despite the incredible difficulties, and overcoming the torments of hunger arid devastation caused by the imperialist war, are fighting for the world victory of socialism.

Long live the workers of Red Presnya, the vanguard of the world workers’ revolution!


Moscow metro station Krasnopresnenskaya. (cc) image from Pavel Popov.

* New Year’s Eve by the Gregorian calendar; tsarist Russia was still on the archaic, 13-days-slower Julian calendar, so the dates within Russia were (as reflected in the Trotsky passage) Dec. 17 for the storming of Red Presnia, and Dec. 18 for this date’s slaughter.

** “Act without mercy. There will be no arrests.”

† Summary executions continued for some days, but a Jan. 2, 1906 London Times wire dispatch datelined Jan. 1 appears to situate the particular slaughter that would have claimed Ukhtomsky:

The majority of the revolutionaries in the Presnia quarter succeeded in escaping. About 100 surrendered to General Min to save the houses of the poor from destruction. Artillery and troops are clearing the Kazan railway and are capturing station after station. Three hundred railwaymen have been killed and yesterday 70 were summarily shot at Lubertsy. Moscow is becoming quiet.

“The river Moskva at the Presnia Verck,” the correspondent observed, “is covered with corpses of revolutionaries scattered over the ice.”

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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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1932: Paul Gorguloff, who assassinated the French President

Add comment September 14th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1932, deranged Russian emigre Paul Gorguloff was guillotined for murdering President Paul Doumer four months before.


The forgettable Paul Doumer — distinguished for reasons quite beyond his control as the penultimate President of the Third Republic — was a week short of his one-year anniversary in office when the nutbar gunned him down at a Parisian book fair.

Disturbed 37-year-old Gorguloff had some impenetrably incoherent justification for the murder having to do with some “Idea” formed in a trance-like state.

From the moment of my arrival in Paris, and even in the train, I had a sort of hypnotic obsession that I must kill the President. I went and prayed in Notre Dame; then I drank heavily, and gradually decided to kill myself, the idea almost supplanting that of assassination. After drinking I conceived the idea of getting arrested to prevent me from committing the crime, so I asked a policeman on the Boulevard Saint-Michel a lot of stupid questions, hoping that he would ask for my papers and, finding them not to be in order, arrest me. All the time the Devil was saying: “Kill yourself, if you like, but only after you have killed the President.” Until 2 o’clock in the afternoon on the day of the crime I drank in a bar, emptying a bottle of cognac in the hope that I would get too drunk to do anything. Nevertheless I finally went to the book exhibition in the Rue Berryer, where the President was expected. After I had spoken with M. Farrere [he was later shot in the arm by Gorguloff] and looked at a few books, the President arrived. I was in a kind of hypnotic sleep, and fired without really knowing what I was doing. (The Times of London, May 18, 1932)

Whatever this daemon may have amounted to in Gorguloff’s mind, he cherished it; the brief trial was punctuated by repeated invocation of the never-explicated “Idea”:

France, listen to me! I am the apostle of my Idea. My crime was a great protest in the name of the miserable ones who wait ‘over there’ [in Russia] … My Idea is more precious than my life. Take my life, but save my Idea. (The Times of London, July 26, 1932)

The “idea” may have been fame. Gorguloff’s defense counsel — understandably pinning its hopes on an insanity defense (French link) — entered into the record a request the assassin had forwarded Czech authorities to be launched in a rocket to the moon; a correspondent for Le Matin discovered that the killer had nursed similarly half-baked plots to do in Hindenburg, Lenin, and Czech President Thomas Masaryk instead/as well.

Gorguloff was beheaded just before 6 a.m. outside La Sante Prison in Paris.

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1918: Fanya Kaplan, Lenin’s would-be assassin

4 comments September 3rd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1918, a 28-year-old Jewish revolutionary was shot in Moscow for attempting to murder Vladimir Lenin.

Fanya (“Fanny”) Kaplan had actually drawn a life sentence for trying the same trick on a tsarist official 12 years before, so you couldn’t say she was a reactionary element.

No, she was a member of the peasant-based Socialist Revolutionary Party, the SRs — the Bolsheviks’ onetime coalition partners who had splintered into left and right factions, the latter being shut out of power when the Constituent Assembly was closed.

A peasant herself, Kaplan was incensed at the Bolshevik power grab and shot Lenin twice at close range as he left a factory on August 30.

Taken immediately, Kaplan clammed up in interrogation.

My name is Fanya Kaplan. Today I shot at Lenin. I did it on my own. I will not say whom I obtained my revolver. I will give no details. I had resolved to kill Lenin long ago. I consider him a traitor to the Revolution. I was exiled to Akatoi for participating in an assassination attempt against a Tsarist official in Kiev. I spent eleven years at hard labour. After the Revolution I was freed. I favoured the Constituent Assembly and am still for it.

Realizing there was no information to be had from her, the Cheka had her executed four days after her crime — an affair organized by Yakov Sverdlov, the same guy who had recently disposed of the tsar.

On the same day Kaplan took her shots at Lenin, Bolshevik Moisei Uritsky was (successfully) assassinated. The two murders helped justify the Red Terror officially initiated on September 2 — which saw thousands of politically-motivated arrests and executions as the Bolsheviks consolidated their hold on power.


YouTube hosts a great many dreadful student dramatizations of historical events, but this one of Fanya Kaplan by Georgia Tech students is remarkably watchable.

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1871: The Paris Commune falls

15 comments May 28th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1871, the last barricade of the Paris Commune fell to the onslaught of the army — and a legion of Parisians fell to the army’s firing squads.

On the evening of that bright Sunday when the insurrection finally collapsed, a Sunday when the streets of central Paris were crowded with returning bourgeois, all expressing their satisfaction that the struggle was at last over, the city’s walls were placarded with a proclamation emanating from MacMahon. “Inhabitants of Paris,” said he, “the Army of France has come to save you. Paris is delivered. At four o’clock our soldiers carried the last position occupied by the insurgents. Today the struggle is over, order, work and security will now revive.

I read that announcement in the Rue de Rivoli, not far from the Hotel-de-Ville. A moment later, however, I heard a discharge of musketry … Several insurgents who had been taken fighting were being shot. (My Adventures in the Commune, Paris, 1871, an anti-Commune source)

The day was climax and curtains for the first working-class seizure of power in industrial Europe, but in truth indiscriminate reprisal executions had been underway since troops of the conservative Versailles government first breached rebellious Paris on May 21.

What followed was semaine sanglante, the “bloody week” — each barricade’s surviving defenders executed summarily, and anyone in the city liable to a similar fate if the nearest French officer disliked the cut of his or her jib. Rumors swept the city that women of the Commune were torching buildings, for instance, and suddenly any woman in the street could be killed as an arsonist; some firefighters were shot as saboteurs when the “water” they threw on such flames failed to speedily quench them,* and was consequently adjudged to be kerosone.

And heaven help he who should chance to resemble one of the wanted Communard leaders!

Any passer-by calling a man by a revolutionary name caused him to be shot by soldiers eager to get the premium … Members and functionaries of the Commune were thus shot, and often several times over, in the persons of individuals who resembled them more or less.


Un rue de Paris en 1871, by Maximilien Luce.

The total body counts are guesswork: the killing ran far ahead of the record-keeping. Twenty thousand, or thirty, or more are thought to perished by summary execution. Even the press of the bourgeoisie, whose sword arm the Versailles men comprised, was aghast. London’s Times filled its broadsheets with calumnies upon the Commune, but noted on May 29:

“The Revolution is crushed;” but at what a cost, and amid what horrors! … the Communists seem not very much worse than their antagonists. It sounds like trifling for M. Thiers to be denouncing the Insurgents for having shot a captive officer “without respect for the laws of war.” The laws of war! They are mild and Christian compared with the inhuman laws of revenge under which the Versailles troops have been shooting, bayoneting, ripping up prisoners, women and children, during the last six days.

Whatever the true death toll, it massively surpassed that of the much more eagerly commemorated Revolutionary Terror.

Not for Executed Today to number what the butchers themselves could not. In a city turned charnel house in the midst of a Week of Blood, a few scenes of mortality from the day the Commune fell. (Heavily sourced to the very pro-Commune — hence potentially sensational — History of the Commune of 1871)

This people, heroes in the face of the foreigner, must therefore by called assassins, criminals, wretches, because they died for the Universal Republic, because in defense of their beliefs, their conscience, their idea, they preferred, in their fierce enthusiasm, to bury themselves in the ruins of Paris rather than abandon it to the coalition of despots a thousand times more cruel and more lasting than any foreigner.

-Lissagaray

The 147 Fédérés at Communards’ Wall

At a wall still consecrated to leftists in the Pere Lachaise cemetery of Belleville, 147 were summarily shot.

The 147 are acclaimed as the last defenders of the Commune.

the Commune is in its death throes. Like the dragon of fairy lore, it dies, vomiting flames … What must these men feel who are killing and being killed in the cemetery! To die among the dead seems horrible. But they never give it a thought; the bloody thirst for destruction which possesses them allows them only to think of one thing, of killing! Some of them are gay, they are brave, these men. That makes it only the more dreadful; these wretches are heroic! Behind the barricades there have been instances of the most splendid valour. A man at the Porte Saint-Martin, holding a red flag in his hand, was standing, heedless of danger, on a pile of stones. The balls showered around him, while he leant carelessly against an empty barrel which stood behind. — “Lazy fellow,” cried a comrade. ‘”No,” said he, “I am only leaning that I may not fall when I die.”

Paris Under the Commune, an anti-Commune source

Communard Eugene Varlin

Varlin, alas! was not to escape. On Sunday the 28th May he was recognized in the Rue Lafayette, and led, or rather dragged, to the foot of the Buttes Montmartre before the commanding general. The Versaillese sent him to be shot in the Rue des Rosiers. For an hour, a mortal hour, Varlin was dragged through the streets of Montmartre, his hands tied behind his back, under a shower of blows and insults. His young, thoughtful head, that had never harboured other thoughts than of fraternity, slashed open by the sabres, was soon but one mass of blood, of mangled flesh, the eye protruding from the orbit. On reaching the Rue des Rosiers, he no longer walked; he was carried. They set him down to shoot him. The wretches dismembered his corpse with blows of the butt-ends of their muskets.

Varlin was shot along with a nameless batch of others to whom the March 18 execution of Generals Lecomte and Thomas had been hastily imputed (they were held at the generals’ execution site, to contemplate their sin). A pro-government paper allowed that Varlin “died game.”


L’execution de Varlin, another Maximilien Luce scene.

Many at the stock exchange

According to the Paris Francais as quoted by this Marxist review of the events

It is at the Bourse that there was to-day the largest number of executions. The doomed men who attempted to resist were bound to the iron railing.

The stock exchange is “a fit place, to be sure, for this sort of business,” observes our interlocutor.

Eighty-plus defenders of Belleville, at the Arc de Triomphe

The London Times editorialized on May 31 upon this incident when the Marquis de Gallifet plucked from the mass of Belleville’s May 28 captives “eighty prisoners, principally soldiers of every arm, linesmen, artillerymen, and Zouaves, [who] were set apart and afterwards led to the right of the rampart to be shot.”

The French are filling up the darkest page in the book of their own or the world’s history. The charge of ruthless cruelty is no longer limited to one party or to one class of persons. The Versailles troops seem inclined to outdo the Communists in their lavishness of human blood. The Marquis de Gallifet is escorting a column of prisoners to Versailles or Satory. He “picks out eighty-two of them, and shoots them at the Arc de Triomphe.” Next came a lot of 20 firemen, then a dozen women, one aged 70. On another spot our Correspondent came upon “80 corpses, piled upon each other, a mass of arms and legs and distorted faces, while the roads and gutter literally flowed with blood.” About 1,000 are said to have thus suffered. By this wholesale and summary execution of prisoners in batches of 50 and 100, not only must the innocent perish with the guilty, but many must bear the penalty of imaginary guilt.

An utterly disconnected Englishman, according to the paper’s correspondent, was accidentally among the four score at the Arc, and only saved by the fortuitous intervention of a Belgian attache.

an English officer somehow got mixed up in the procession, and was forced to keep in it by the escort, who, out of 5,000 prisoners, could not, of course, be expected to recognize one innocent man … it so happened that some of the prisoners tried to escape, and to make an example the leader of the cavalry escort, the Marquis de Gallifet, a man who is not prone to err on the side of mercy, had then and there 81 shot, and the English officer was all but one of them, his explanations being at first refused the slightest attention. Human life has, in fact, become so cheap that a man is shot more readily than a dog.

Socialist physician Tony Moilin

One single fact was Tony Moilin reproached with: that of having on the 18th March taken possession of the mairie of his arrondissement, and having thus had a share in giving the signal for the insurrection …

The court-martial condescended to tell him that the fact of the mairie, the only one he could be reproached with, had in itself not much importance, and did not merit death, but that he was one of the chiefs of the Socialist party, dangerous through his talents, his character, and his influence over the masses; one of those men, in short, of whom a prudent and wise Government must rid itself when it finds a legitimate occasion to do so

[A] respite of twelve hours was granted him in order that he might make his testament, write a few words of farewell to his father, and finally [marry his pregnant lover] … on the 28th May, in the morning, Tony Moilin was led into the garden a few steps from the palace and shot. His body, which his widow claimed, the surrender of which had been at first promised, was refused her. (History of the Commune of 1871)

The unnumbered dead of Lobau Barracks

Since morning a strong cordon is being formed round the theatre (Châtelet); where a court-martial is permanently established. From time to time one sees a band of fifteen to twenty individuals coming out, composed of National Guards, civilians, women and children fifteen to sixteen years old.

These individuals are condemned to death. They march two by two, escorted by a platoon of chasseurs, who lead and bring up the rear. This cortege goes up the Quai de Gevres and enters the Republican Barracks in the Place Lobau. A minute after one hears from within the fire of platoons and successive musketry discharges; it is the sentence of the court-martial which has just been executed.

The detachment of chasseurs returns to the Chatelet to fetch other prisoners. The crowd seems deeply impressed on hearing the noise of the shootings.

This is another publication’s story cited in the History of the Commune of 1871, which itself also details the court-martial procedures of this drumhead tribunal:

Thousands of prisoners who were led there were first of all penned in upon the stage and in the auditorium, under the guns of the soldiers placed in the boxes; then, little by little, like sheep driven to the door of the slaughter-house, from wing to wing they were pushed to the saloon, where, round a large table, officers of the army and the honest National Guard were seated, their sabres between their legs, cigars in their mouths. The examination lasted a quarter of a minute. ‘Did you take arms? Did you serve the Commune? Show your hands.’ If the resolute attitude of a prisoner betrayed a combatant, if his face was unpleasant, without asking for his name, his profession, without entering any note upon any register, he was classed. ‘You?’ was said to the next one, and so on to the end of the file, without excepting the women, children, and old men. When by a caprice a prisoner was spared, he was said to be ordinary, and reserved for Versailles. No one was liberated.

The classed ones were at once delivered to the executioners, who led them into the nearest garden or court. From the Châtelet, for instance, they were taken to the Lebau Barracks. There the doors were no sooner closed than the gendarmes fired, without even grouping their victims before a platoon. Some, only wounded, ran along by the walls, the gendarmes chasing and shooting at them till they fell dead. … There were so many victims, that the soldiers, tired out, were obliged to rest their guns actually against the sufferers. The wall of the terrace was covered with brains; the executioners waded through pools of blood.


Summary executions — death squads — continued for days or weeks afterwards in Paris; martial law throttled left organizing in the city; and those “fortunate” enough to have been captured alive were processed in a steady stream of judicial executions over the months yet to come.

The Commune, a palpably subversive example even in the present day, was destroyed in every way possible for the Versailles government. But its example could hardly be forgotten.

Marx would write The Civil War in France of the only proletarian revolution he would actually witness in his lifetime.

The next generation’s subversives also took inspiration from the Parisian example … and lessons from its mistakes. Lenin — a fond student of the Commune, who was eventually buried wrapped in a Communard banner — said that

two mistakes destroyed the fruits of the splendid victory. The proletariat stopped half-way: instead of setting about “expropriating the expropriators”, it allowed itself to be led astray by dreams of establishing a higher justice in the country united by a common national task; such institutions as the banks, for example, were not taken over … The second mistake was excessive magnanimity on the part of the proletariat: instead of destroying its enemies it sought to exert moral influence on them; it underestimated the significance of direct military operations in civil war, and instead of launching a resolute offensive against Versailles that would have crowned its victory in Paris, it tarried and gave the Versailles government time to gather the dark forces and prepare for the blood-soaked week of May.

“The lesson learnt by the proletariat will not be forgotten,” Lenin vowed, and his own revolution gained a vital object lesson in the Bloody Week of Paris, and an anthem besides: Communard Eugene Pottier, fleeing the Versailles army’s slaughter, wrote the verses that have been sung ever since by millions dreaming of a better world — the Internationale.

* Water can accelerate a fire, under the right circumstances.

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