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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1936: Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, Old Bolsheviks

4 comments August 25th, 2011 Headsman

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

Zinoviev

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talk about hoisted by your own petard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

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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Unspecified year: Snowball’s animal fifth column

2 comments April 10th, 2011 Headsman

“Four days” after an unspecified “early spring” date in George Orwell’s classic allegory of Soviet communism, Animal Farm, a show trial and mass execution of animals purporting to work for the book’s Trotsky figure signals the titular farm’s unmistakable collapse into dystopia.

In the book, a revolution of animals displaces the farm’s human owner, Jones — the hated ruler of the ancien regime.

The farm’s early cooperative elan soon shatters, with a pig bearing the unsubtle name of Napoleon becoming the revolution’s autocrat, and fostering a paranoid security climate against phantasmal plots by his fellow swine and onetime comrade, the exiled Snowball.

Let’s watch.

Napoleon ordered all the animals to assemble in the yard. When they were all gathered together, Napoleon emerged from the farmhouse, wearing both his medals (for he had recently awarded himself “Animal Hero, First Class”, and “Animal Hero, Second Class”), with his nine huge dogs frisking round him and uttering growls that sent shivers down all the animals’ spines. They all cowered silently in their places, seeming to know in advance that some terrible thing was about to happen.

Napoleon stood sternly surveying his audience; then he uttered a high-pitched whimper. Immediately the dogs bounded forward, seized four of the pigs by the ear and dragged them, squealing with pain and terror, to Napoleon’s feet.0 …

The four pigs waited, trembling, with guilt written on every line of their countenances. Napoleon now called upon them to confess their crimes. … Without any further prompting they confessed that they had been secretly in touch with Snowball ever since his expulsion, that they had collaborated with him in destroying the windmill, and that they had entered into an agreement with him to hand over Animal Farm to Mr. Frederick. They added that Snowball had privately admitted to them that he had been Jones’s secret agent for years past. When they had finished their confession, the dogs promptly tore their throats out, and in a terrible voice Napoleon demanded whether any other animal had anything to confess.

The three hens who had been the ringleaders in the attempted rebellion over the eggs now came forward and stated that Snowball had appeared to them in a dream and incited them to disobey Napoleon’s orders. They, too, were slaughtered. Then a goose came forward and confessed to having secreted six ears of corn during the last year’s harvest and eaten them in the night. Then a sheep confessed to having urinated in the drinking pool — urged to do this, so she said, by Snowball — and two other sheep confessed to having murdered an old ram, an especially devoted follower of Napoleon, by chasing him round and round a bonfire when he was suffering from a cough. They were all slain on the spot. And so the tale of confessions and executions went on, until there was a pile of corpses lying before Napoleon’s feet and the air was heavy with the smell of blood, which had been unknown there since the expulsion of Jones.

When it was all over, the remaining animals, except for the pigs and dogs, crept away in a body. They were shaken and miserable. They did not know which was more shocking — the treachery of the animals who had leagued themselves with Snowball, or the cruel retribution they had just witnessed. In the old days there had often been scenes of bloodshed equally terrible, but it seemed to all of them that it was far worse now that it was happening among themselves. Since Jones had left the farm, until today, no animal had killed another animal.

Animal Farm was published in 1945. In this 1954 British animated feature, the downer of an ending — with the corrupt pig rulers becoming literally indistinguishable from people — was dumped in favor of an ending where the animals revolt again.

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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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1937: Mikhail Tukhachevsky and seven other Soviet commanders purged

7 comments June 12th, 2008 Headsman

Early this date in 1937,* Soviet Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky was executed by a gunshot to the head for allegedly plotting a coup d’etat against Stalin.

One of the most infamous trials** of the Soviet Union’s Great Purge, which would strip the Red Army of much of its officer corps on the eve of its existential test against the Wehrmacht, the Case of the Trotskyist Anti-Soviet Military Organization has always offered fodder for debating the whys and wherefores.

The bare facts are that nine extremely high-ranking members of the military brass were suddenly arrested and within a few weeks (except the one who committed suicide first) shot on the staggering charge of counterrevolutionary conspiracy. Foremost among the victims was Marshal of the Soviet Union Mikhail Tukhachevsky, notable in the annals of military history for pioneering (along with several other Soviet officers, notably Triandafillov) the military doctrine of “deep battle” or “deep operations”.

Deep Battle

Reflecting on the grinding, indecisive struggles of attrition that characterized World War I and the Russian Civil War (both conflicts Tukhachevsky served in), he sought a theory of offensive warfare for modern armies fighting in large and complex engagements — the operational art. In an early (1923) formulation, Tukhachevsky noted

the impossibility in the presence of modern wide fronts to destroy an enemy army by a single blow compels us to achieve this by a series of successive operations … A series of annihilating operations, introduced successively and combined by continuous pursuit, can replace the annihilating engagement, which in former armies was a better type of combat. (Cited here.)

Deep operations would require sophisticated application of technology to strike an opposing army’s entire support structure behind its lines in coordinated operations, rather than the unproductive World War I tactic of throwing waves of cannon fodder across No Man’s Land in the hope of achieving a breakthrough by sheer mass alone. It ripened into official Red Army doctrine in the 1930’s, decreeing

[s]imultaneous assault on enemy defenses by aviation and artillery to the depths of the defense, penetration of the tactical zone of the defense by attacking units with widespread use of tank forces and violent development of tactical success into operational success with the aim of the complete encirclement and destruction of the enemy. The main role is performed by the infantry, and the mutual support of all types of forces are organized in its interests. (Cited here.)

What Happened?

The mystery has always been exactly why Stalin should shoot Tukhachevsky, even if any question beginning “why should Stalin shoot …” nearly answers itself.

Explanations particular to Tukhachevsky range from rivalries within the army (early blocs of officers appointed by Trotsky and Stalin formed professional rivalries; Trotsky had given Tukhachevsky his first Soviet command) to purely personal enmity between the two men. Many have speculated that a genuine “plot” of some sort — whether a coup or assassination, or more mundane political scheming — was indeed afoot against the Soviet dictator. Tukhachevsky’s (officially sanctioned) links with a German military then developing its own similar operational concepts have told against him in some readings.

Author Robert Conquest put about the theory that Heinrich Himmler’s intelligence operatives had contrived to pass the Soviets forged documents pointing to Tukhachevsky’s German collaboration, the better to weaken the Bolshevik defenses. Conversely — and in his diary, Goebbels attributed this riff on the Dolchstosslegende to Hitler himself — a contrarian take has long defended at least this particular purge as a judicious one by Uncle Joe, insuring that wartime Russia would not be hamstrung by “defeatist” elements or other players who might develop both the means and motive for ending the war on German terms.

Inquiries along these lines, of course, expand beyond the particular case into the larger questions of why Stalin purged the army as a whole, and what ultimate effect that purge had on the Soviets’ military readiness in 1941.

Legacy

With Tukhachevsky’s fall, accompanied by other military reformers, the “deep operations” school acquired sufficient taint to abjure the company of the judicious officer. Nevertheless, Tukhachevsky’s influence would play its part in the Great War: his onetime associate Georgy Zhukov, who may have only accidentally avoided being purged himself, deployed Tukhachevskian mobile tactics to crush Japan’s Siberian aspirations at the Battle of Khalkhin-Gol in 1939; duly elevated for this victory to the precarious post of Marshal of the Soviet Union, Zhukov was a crucial commander in the defeat of Nazi Germany.

Tukhachevsky, along with all those shot this day, was rehabilitated during the Khrushchev era.

Sorry about shooting you in the head. Here’s a commemorative stamp.

* The condemned received their death sentence at 23:35 on June 11, the sentence to be carried out “immediately” — it seems likely but not completely certain that it had become the 12th by the time the executions actually took place, and different sources report different different dates of death. According to the contemporaneous New York Times report, Soviet authorities announced that the executions had taken place on the 12th. (As an interesting side note, the Times that day also blurbed exiled Stalin rival Leon Trotsky reading in the tea leaves of Tukhachevsky’s death “the beginning of the end for the Stalinist dictatorship.”)

** Not, however, a show trial — Tukhachevsky et al were tried in secret.

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1938: Seventeen former Bolshevik officials from the Trial of the 21

22 comments March 15th, 2008 Dmitri Minaev

(Thanks to Dmitri Minaev of De Rebus Antiquis Et Novis for the guest post. Be sure to read his corollary piece on cameos by some of this day’s victims in Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita.)

On 15 March 1938, 17 former executives of the Communist Party were executed at the “special object” Kommunarka near Moscow.

As head of the NKVD, Yagoda had arranged show trials before. This time, the shoe was on the other foot.

The names of some of them are found in any history book’ others were totally unknown even in 1930s. Alexey Rykov and Nikolay Bukharin were the topmost (well, almost) leaders of the USSR. Nikolai Krestinsky was a member of the Central Committee Secretariat and the Soviet ambassador to Germany. Christian Rakovsky was a diplomat, the head of the government of the Ukrainian SSR. Genrikh Yagoda was the minister of internal affairs, head of NKVD (the late name of Cheka). P. Kryuchkov was an officer of OGPU (an NKVD department) and the secretary of Maxim Gorky, the “official writer” of the communist USSR.

The others were ex-finance minister of the USSR Grigory Grinko, the general secretary of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan Vladimir Ivanov, ex-prime-minister of the Uzbek SSR Faizullo Hojayev, ex-minister of foreign trade of the USSR Arkady Rozengoltz, ex-minister of agriculture Mikhail Chernov, Isaac Zelensky, S. Bessonov, Akmal Ikramov, Vasily Sharangovich, Prokopy Zubarev, Pavel Bulanov, Veniamin Maksimov-Dikovsky and the doctors Lev Levin, Ignaty Kazakov and Dmitri Pletnyov (one of the founders of the Soviet cardiology).

There were 21 of them under trial, but three (Pletnyov, Rakovsky and Bessonov) were sentenced to imprisonment* and the date of execution of Yagoda remains unknown. The others all died this day.

Railroaded

“The trial of the 21″ was officially known as “the case of the anti-Soviet right-Trotskyite block”. They were accused of “treason, espionage, sabotage, terror, undermining Soviet military power and provoking foreign countries to attack the USSR”. The other accusations were: a conspiracy to restore capitalism and to separate the Soviet republics and the Far East from the USSR; ties with foreign intelligence (including that of Nazi Germany, via Trotsky or directly); preparation of military aggression against the USSR; organizing peasants’ revolts in the USSR; the murders of Kirov, Menzhinsky, Kuibyshev, Maxim Gorky and his son Maxim Peshkov; and attempts to assassinate Lenin, Stalin and N. Yezhov (note this name).

After having his memory jogged, Krestinsky remembered that he really was part of the right-Trotskyite conspiracy.

Only the three doctors were provided with a legal defense. The others “voluntarily” refused.

All of them confessed to committing most of the various supposed crimes, although several had unavailing caveats. Krestinsky denied the charges, but it took only one day to convince him of his “failing” memory. “I fully and completely admit that I am guilty of all the gravest charges brought against me personally, and I admit my complete responsibility for the treason and treachery I have committed,” he said on the next day. Bukharin denied some of the charges brought against him. The doctors insisted that they killed Menzhinsky because of fear of Yagoda. Yagoda himself confirmed that he participated in the murder of Gorky’s son Peshkov, but said that motives were personal and not anti-Soviet.

According to the documents found in the archives, Bukharin, Rykov and Krestinsky were sentenced to death on 2 March, on the first day of the process. It could be an error, but on the other hand, it could indicate that the sentence was determined before the trial.

Neverending Story

The first draft of this article started like this: “This story began in …”

Then I stopped and scratched my head. The date when this story really began is not very clear. Some would argue that it began in 1922 when Stalin became the general secretary of VKP(b), others might say that it started in 1918, when the Bolsheviks dissolved the Constituent Assembly, and so on. What is clear is that 1937, when many of those twenty one were arrested, was not the beginning.

Then I decided to begin the other way round: “This story ended in…”

And once again I stopped. This trial had too many interesting corollaries and, of course, the story did not end in 1938. So, in the end the article became a mess of jumps in time to and fro. We are nearly as far removed today from Stalin’s purges as the purges were from the age of Russian serfdom — and those trials throw a shadow across the entire span of time.

Terror

Here’s a small extract from the series of events that preceded and followed the trial. In 1936 Bukharin and Rykov zealously supported the prosecutions of Zinoviev and Kamenev, two other old faithful Bolsheviks, accused by Stalin in opposing the policy of the party. The campaign ended with their trial and execution. Bukharin wrote letters to Stalin:

“I have always sincerely supported the line of the party and Stalin … These are the glorious milestones: industrialization, collectivization, elimination of kulaks, two great five-year plans, concern for the working man, new technologies and stakhanovism, wealthy life, the new constitution.”

“It’s great that the rascals [Zinoviev and Kamenev] were shot. The air became cleaner.”

Bukharin kept busy awaiting trial by writing Philosophical Arabesques … and three other books.

In 1925-1926, when Stalin organized the first campaign against Zinoviev and Kamenev, Bukharin and Rykov also applauded him. “I hand the broom to comrade Stalin,” said Rykov, “to wipe our enemies away.” Yet earlier, Bukharin and Rykov together with these “enemies” Zinoviev and Kamenev helped Stalin to repel the attempts of Trotsky to become the leader of the Soviet state after the death of Lenin.

Bukharin was not an idiot. He understood that he was not any different from Zinoviev. He was the first candidate to replace Stalin if something happened to Stalin — which made him automatically suspect in the eyes of the boss.

Moreover, he was a Bolshevik and he knew the habits of Bolsheviks very well. Caricaturist Boris Yefimov recalled that on 1 December 1934, when Bukharin learned of the assassination of Kirov, he told the other people who were in the room: “Kirov was killed in Leningrad. Now Koba will shoot us all.” (Koba was Stalin’s nom de guerre) But, being a professional revolutionary and conspirator, he knew only one strategy for survival: hypocrisy.

In this 1927 photo at Lenin’s mausoleum, two of today’s victims — Rykov (on the far left) and Bukharin (by his side) — share the platform with Joseph Stalin (far right). Between them is Kalinin, the rare old Bolshevik who managed to survive the 1930’s. (Source)

This strategy did not guarantee success with Stalin. The proof for this may be found in what happened during and after the trial.

Ostracism

Let’s have a look at the newspapers of 1938.

From the resolution of the meeting of the workers of the institute of physiology of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences and the institute of experimental biology and pathology of the Ukrainian ministry of health care.

With the deepest resentment and indignation we hold up to shame the traitors of their motherland, the mercenaries of the fascist secret services, mean Trotskyite-Bukharin’s scoundrels. The history of humanity hardly knows other examples of similar crimes.

We proclaim that the fascist mercenaries will never succeed in dismembering the great Soviet Union and in handing the flourishing socialist Ukraine to the capitalists. We add our voices to the voice of the many million Soviet people demanding to exterminate all the mean traitors, spies and murderers.

From the resolution of the third conference on physiology of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR.

The traitors Bukharin, Rykov, Yagoda and others did not disdain any means in their vile job. These traitors never eschewed any mostrous crime.

The doctors Pletnyov, Kazakov, Vinogradov and Levin in this repellent union consciously used the trust of their patients to kill them. History never saw such crimes. Death to these murderers! Destroy all the gang of the “right-trotskyite” block!

From the article “We demand merciless retaliation against the vile traitors of our great Motherland”.

Having sold themselves to the fascists, plotting with the diplomats and the general staffs of some aggressive imperialist states, a despicable handful of human degenerates, servants of the fascist cannibals, led by a Gestapo agent, gangster Trotsky, sold our socialist motherland and its treasures to the most evil enemies of the human progress.

We demand from our Soviet court merciless retaliation against the vile traitors! We demand the extermination of the despicable degenerates!

The last article was signed by many outstanding scientists: the chairman of the Academy of sciences Komarov, professor Valeskalns, academics Keller, Bach, Vavilov, Gorbunov and others. N. Vavilov died in prison in 1943. N. Gorbunov was sentenced to death and executed in 1938. I am not certain about the others, but about 70% of the members of the Central Committee of the Communist party who supported Stalin’s proposal to arrest Bukharin and Rykov were later arrested themselves, and many of them died or were killed.

Here’s another quotation from a newspaper:

While accepting responsibility for the endless chain of dreadful bloody crimes which history never saw before, Bukharin attempts to give an abstract, ideological, sissy nature to his concrete criminal guilt. He fails to do so, the court and the prosecutor easily discern these attempts, but this trick is very typical for Bukharin’s nature of the right-Trotskyite political prostitute.

The pretensions of the garrulous, hypocritically vile murderer Bukharin to look as an “ideologist” lost in theoretical blunders are hopeless. He will not succeed in separating himself from the gang of his accomplices. He will not succeed in averting full responsibility for the chain of monstrous crimes. He will not wash his academic hands. These hands are stained with blood. These are the hands of a murderer.

I ask myself, “If you must die, what are you dying for?” With startling vividness a black void immediately rises before my eyes. “There is nothing to die for, if one wants to die unrepentant. If, on the contrary, one repents, everything fine and good that shines in the Soviet Union acquires in one’s mind a new dimension.” In the end it was this thought that completely disarmed me. I went down on my knees before the Party.
-Bukharin

This article was written by a gifted poet, journalist Mikhail Koltsov on 7 March 1938. He was shot by NKVD on 2 February 1940, less than two years later.

By the way, N. Yezhov (the “assassination” target of Bukharin’s party), who replaced Yagoda as the head of NKVD, was also arrested and executed in 1940 as a spy and conspirator.

Krestinsky, Ikramov, Hojayev and Zelensky were acquitted in 1963.

On 4 February 1988 the Supreme Court of the USSR ruled that confession cannot be interpreted as a proof of guilt and acquitted ten out of twenty one victims. (I could not find information on the cases of Grinko, Bessonov, Sharangovich, Zubarev and Pletnyov.) The sentence against Yagoda, to whose ruthless secret police history has been less generous, was left in force.

* Pletnyov, Rakovsky and Bessonov, the three to avoid death sentences at the Trial of the 21, were later summarily executed together with 154 other political prisoners when the Nazi armies approached the city Oryol in September 1941.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,History,Intellectuals,Mass Executions,Other Voices,Politicians,Posthumous Exonerations,Power,Revolutionaries,Russia,Shot,Torture,Treason,USSR,Wrongful Executions

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1939: Georgy Nikolayevich Kosenko (aka Kislov), NKVD spy

2 comments February 20th, 2008 Dmitri Minaev

(Thanks to Dmitri Minaev of De Rebus Antiquis Et Novis for the guest post.)

One thing about the first years of Soviet history that always puzzled me is how the Bolsheviks managed to create a wide and reliable network of foreign intelligence and counter-intelligence so fast. Below is a history of life and death of a typical spy from the early Soviet years.

Georgy Nikolayevich Kosenko was born on 12 May 1901 in Stavropol. He was a smart schoolboy. Foreign languages, especially French, were among his favorite subjects. He graduated from school when the Russian Civil War began and his parents became active Bolsheviks.

Stavropol was a region of fierce struggle between the Whites and the Reds. On the one hand, the anti-Bolshevik Volunteer Army had good support in Southern Russia, but on the other hand, the factory workers who concentrated in the cities tended to support the Bolsheviks.

Georgy’s father participated in the revolt in Stavropol and in 1918 he was executed by the Whites. Georgy’s sister was a Bolshevik since 1914 and actively worked for the revolutionary underground. Soon after the death of their father she too was caught and hanged. I don’t know what was her crime, but most probably it was sabotage.

So, choosing sides in the civil war was not difficult for young Georgy. In 1920 he became a secret agent of Cheka in Stavropol; in 1921 he joined the RCP(b) (Russian Communist Party, bolsheviks) and became a private in the OGPU military detachment. From 1924 he was a full-fledged officer of OGPU (the new name of Cheka) and continued his work in Stavropol and other cities: Novorossiysk, Vladikavkaz, Rostov, Sverdlovsk and Moscow.

A Lethal Career

In 1933 the Foreign department of OGPU noticed the young officer with good command of French and offered him a post in Soviet foreign intelligence. On 30 April 1933 he was appointed the deputy of the chief agent of OGPU in Kharbin in Manchuria, then occupied by the Japanese. According to the usual practice of the OGPU, he received false documents and became Georgy Nikolayevich Kislov. He became the secretary of the Soviet embassy in Kharbin. In June 1935 he was promoted to the chief agent and, automatically, to the vice-consul of the USSR.

Anti-communist forces were still active in Siberia in the 1930s and the main task of Soviet agents in Kharbin was identifying organized groups of Whites. There was a large colony of Russian emigrants in Manchuria and many of them eagerly helped the anti-Soviet fighters. By the end of 1935 Kosenko-Kislov and his colleagues had identified about 180 members of this movement. The gathered information helped to intercept three armed groups on the border of the USSR. Another important target of Soviet counter-intelligence was Japanese spies. Kosenko identified about 300 of them. He also helped to prevent an operation of Japanese saboteurs who planned to destroy a railroad tunnel.

In the end of 1935 Kosenko fell ill and was evacuated to Moscow. Having spent some months in a hospital he got better and in May was sent to Paris.

The French Connection

France played a crucial role in international politics and the main goal of Soviet intelligence was to learn more about the position of the French government toward Germany and USSR. The network led by Kosenko received information from government sources, from the president’s office and from the French army and intelligence. They also gathered important information on new models of tanks, aeroplanes and handguns.

Another target of Soviet intelligence was the so called Russian All-Military Union (ROVS, Rossiyskiy Obshche-Voinskiy Soyuz). This organization united the soldiers and officers of the Russian army who were forced to leave Russia in 1920 but who still hoped to return. The organization was then headed by General Yevgeny Miller. NKVD thought that if they could make Miller disappear, the leadership would go to General Skoblin, who was an agent of Soviet intelligence. Miller was kidnapped to the USSR in an operation assisted by Alexander Orlov — remember that name — the head of Soviet intelligence in Spain and by Georgy Kosenko.

Kosenko was awarded the order of the Red Banner — but the most important operation of his life was still to come.

Another anti-Soviet organization also located in Paris was the international secretariat of the Fourth International, founded by Leo Trotsky. The secretariat was managed by Leo Sedov, Trotsky’s son. An agent of Soviet intelligence, Mark Zborovsky, became Sedov’s personal secretary and transferred to NKVD the letters of Trotsky and Sedov. In August 1936 Sedov left Paris and left all his papers to Zborovsky. Zborovsky got access to the list of Trotsky’s correspondents in many countries and immediately sent it to NKVD. He also informed Soviet intelligence that Trotsky sent a large part of his personal archive to the Institute of Historical Research in Paris. Stalin ordered the archive captured. A special NKVD group headed by Yakov Serebryansky was sent to Paris and Kosenko organized the operation. On 6-7 November 1936 Kosenko received the archive — about 80 kilograms of documents, articles and letters — and sent it to Moscow with the diplomatic mail.

In February 1937 Kosenko received a report from Mark Zborovsky that Sedov had asked Zborovsky to organize Stalin’s assassination. When Kosenko sent this information to Moscow, Stalin was infuriated and ordered Trotsky and his top aides killed. Among other operations to this end, Moscow sent Trotsky’s eventual murderer Ramon Mercader from Spain to France. Kosenko had to help him to enter the circle of Trotsky’s close friends.

Although this intrigue turned out to be a success, it would claim Kosenko’s life before Trotsky’s.

Purged

In July 1938, Kosenko’s Spanish opposite number and sometime collaborator Alexander Orlov fled to the USA, guaranteeing his own safety (and that of the mother he left in the USSR) by threatening to reveal Soviet intelligence secrets if pursued. Orlov sent a letter to Trotsky warning him that a Soviet agent named Mark had penetrated his son’s circle, and that the NKVD was preparing the assassination of Trotsky at the hands of either Mark or an unknown Spaniard. (Trotsky thought the tip was a provocation, and fatefully ignored it.)

Stalin went mad. He ordered the new head of NKVD Lavrentiy Beria to punish all spies involved in the debacle. Kosenko was one of them. In November 1938 Kosenko received an order to return to Moscow and on 27 December he was put to the same jail where General Miller was still imprisoned. Kosenko was accused of participation in a counter-revolutionary organization and on 20 February he was sentenced to death. That same night of 20-21 February 1939 he was shot and his body was buried in an tomb without any name or date.

So, this story does not answer the question I asked in the beginning, but rather dismisses it by proving that the Soviet intelligence network was wide but far from reliable and that eventually these spies either eagerly got rid of each other or simply fled as far as they could.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,History,Other Voices,Revolutionaries,Russia,Shot,Spies,The Worm Turns,Treason,USSR

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