1951: Arno Esch, liberal

Add comment July 24th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1951, liberal East German activist Arno Esch was shot in Lubyanka Prison outside of Moscow.

Plaque at the University of Rostock honoring Esch. (cc) image by Schiwago.

Just 17 when World War II ended, Esch emerged as a leading student activist for the Liberal Democratic Party in the postwar Soviet Occupation Zone — a pacifist who advocated political liberalization and civil rights.

These weren’t times for any common fronts: “a liberal Chinese is closer to me than a German communist,” Esch remarked, denoting a clear and present danger in the communist zone: his party attempted in vain to form a coalition across the nascent Iron Curtain with its like-minded brethren in the western zones.

Esch was arrested in 1949 and prosecuted as a spy and counterrevolutionary by a Soviet military tribunal.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,East Germany,Execution,Germany,History,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Shot

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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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1939: Evgeny Miller, White Russian

2 comments May 11th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1938, former tsarist Gen. Evgeny Miller was executed in Moscow, having been brazenly kidnapped by the Soviet NKVD from exile in France.

Miller opposed the 1917 Russian Revolutions (both of them) and ended up on the wrong side of the ensuing civil war as Aleksandr Kolchak‘s man in Archangel.

There, Miller (he was half-German) was the beneficiary of the Entente powers’ anti-Soviet incursion of British, French, American and Canadian troops.

These powers soon found that their respective peoples, wearied by the late world war, had little appetite for spilling more blood in the service of enthroning a Romanov, and cut bait in 1920.

Miller wisely did likewise, and watched the great workers’ and peasants’ republic take shape from the safety of Paris — where, in the 1930s, he chaired the anti-communist Russian All-Military Union (ROVS).

Soviet intelligence had infiltrated this body, however, and hatched a bold plot* to shanghai Miller and smuggle him out of the country in order to cause ROVS leadership to pass to the Soviets’ own agent, Nikolai Skoblin. Although they got Miller, they didn’t quite pull off the putsch, since the wary general had left behind a note outlining his suspicions of Skoblin in the event foul play should befall him.

Imprisoned at Lubyanka, Miller was personally interrogated by NKVD boss Nikolai Yezhov, but according to Vladislav Goldin and John Long,

little or nothing of what Miller had to report about the recent activities of the ROVS was unknown to the NKVD … the leaders of the NKVD found themselves saddled with a prominent prisoner of no significant value to Soviet intelligence and from whose capture, at the same time, nothing useful could be derived by way of publicity or propaganda.

The fall of Ezhov sealed the doom of General Miller, whose abduction had from the outset been his inspiration. In these circumstances, given his continuing uselessness to the NKVD, Miller’s elimination became an inevitable element in Commissar Beria‘s liquidation of the so-called Ezhovshchina, an operation which lasted from late 1938 through at least 1940. Although part of this undertaking involved the release of up to 200,000 of Ezhov’s prisoners, no such option was available in the case of General Miller for whose disappearance the Soviet government had consistently denied any responsibility. Accordingly, on 11 May 1939, after more than nineteen months of agonizing solitary confinement, Commissar Beria, with no viable alternative, ordered the trial and execution of the long-suffering General Miller in a process, ironically, that was fully implemented in less than twenty-four hours.

[it was] an ill-conceived, poorly executed and totally unnecessary adventure that, in the end, failed to benefit any of its apparent perpetrators.**

Skoblin, for his part, fled, disappearing to a still-unknown fate. His wife, Nadezhda Plevitskaya, copped a 20-year sentence for helping arrange the kidnapping, and died in prison.

They may not have gotten ROVS, but at least they made celluloid. Skoblin’s shadowy activities in France in this period are the inspiration for the 2004 French film Triple Agent.

* Georgy Kosenko, who we’ve previously met in these pages, helped orchestrate the kidnapping. (Times being dangerous as they were, the wheel of Red Terror turned against Kosenko so quickly that Miller actually outlived him.)

** Goldin, Vladislav I. and Long, John W. “Resistance and Retribution: The Life and Fate of General E.K. Miller”, Revolutionary Russia, 12:2 (1999), pp. 19-40.

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1940: Isaak Babel

1 comment January 27th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1940, Isaak Babel, “the greatest prose writer of Russian Jewry,” was shot in Moscow.

The Odessa-born 45-year-old had managed the difficult trick of maintaining a high-profile writing career in the 1930s Soviet Union without abandoning his artistic integrity. (This meant he published a lot less in that decade, which fact was held against him in his trial: “deliberate sabotage and a refusal to write.”)

A pre-revolutionary friendship with Maxim Gorky and an early affinity for the Bolsheviks had helped see him through such transgressions against Communist ideology as describing Red atrocities during the Russian Civil War, and writing a play about the underbelly of Soviet society.

Babel remains beloved today for that very reason; his Odessa Tales collection of short stories about Jewish gangsters still charms Russians and foreigners alike.

But Gorky died in 1936, and without that elder statesman’s protection, Babel’s insufficiently lockstep scribbling laid him increasingly liable to public denunciation for, e.g., “aestheticism.”

And as sickle follows hammer, miscalibrated revolutionary ardor in Stalin’s Russia led in 1939 to that dread knock on the door, that stay in Lubyanka Prison, that inevitable “confession” of Trotskyism, and that bullet to the head after a perfunctory trial.

Babel’s work is recent enough that it’s mostly not freely available in English. A couple in English and several in Russian are linked here; literary criticisms with plentiful excerpts of Babel’s work are available here, here, and here, among many other places.

Babel was officially rehabilitated during the Khrushchev era.

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1952: Night of the Murdered Poets

2 comments August 12th, 2009 Headsman

As night fell this evening in Moscow, 13 prominent Soviet Jews were shot in Lubyanka Prison on trumped-up charges of treason and espionage.

“The Night of the Murdered Poets”, as it’s come to be remembered, wasn’t so much about the poetry; “only” five of the victims fit that description.

But as Joshua Rubenstein put it, “only the martyred Yiddish writers are mentioned at August 12 commemorations; the other defendants who lost their lives, as well as the sole survivor Lina Shtern, are rarely if ever remembered, perhaps because their careers as loyal Soviet citizens do not fit comfortably into an easy category for Westerners to honor … Stalin repaid their loyalty by destroying them.”

Falling victim to Stalin was such a particularly tragic fate because they were, in the main, good Communists:* good enough to have been part of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, a World War II organ dedicated to rallying support for the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany.

Such national particularism — any port in a storm! — was all well and good when Moscow had the Wehrmacht at its gates and a short supply of friends, but it increasingly ran dangerously afoul Soviet officialdom as the 1940’s progressed. It was a bastion of sectarian identity rather than socialist universalism; its celebration of the Jewish soldier and of Jewish wartime travails cut against the narrative of Soviet sacrifice and heroism; its overseas links to the United States (where it toured in wartime) and the new state of Israel made it suspect, or at least vulnerable.

Thin excuse for mass execution, to be sure, but in a structure of generalized antisemitism run by a trigger-happy dictator …

In 1948-49, fifteen JAC members were arrested. One would die in prison; the aforementioned Lina Stern, a scientist, would receive a term of exile and return to Moscow when this purge’s victims were rehabilitated after Stalin’s death.

The thirteen others were tortured and condemned by a rigged (but secret, since many of the accused wouldn’t cop to public self-denunciations) trial

Years before his arrest, Markish would write words to make a eulogy for many a disillusioned Soviet citizen … and literally so in his case, since the verse was cited at his trial as evidence of his “pessimism”:

Now, when my vision turns in on itself,
My shocked eyes open, all their members see
My heart has fallen like a mirror on
A stone and shatters, ringing, into splinters.

Piece by piece I’ll try to gather them
To make them whole with stabbed and bleeding fingers.
And yet, however skillfully they’re glued,
My crippled, broken image will be seen.

* Naturally, being a good Communist did not keep one safe from Uncle Joe.

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1925: Sidney Reilly

10 comments November 5th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1925, legendary British spy — and subsequent James Bond inspiration — Sidney Reilly was shot in a forest outside Moscow for his efforts to overthrow the Soviet government.

Fact blends insensibly into fiction in Reilly‘s biography; much of what is known or believed about him is conjectural or colored by his posthumous valorization, such the 1967 book Reilly: Ace of Spies written by [the son of] his onetime cloak-and-dagger collaborator Robin Bruce Lockhart — who was himself a close friend of Bond author Ian Fleming.

However, even at the word of less sensational biographers — such as Andrew Cook — Reilly lived a life almost too extraordinary for belief.

A Jewish child of tsarist Russia born in what is now the Ukraine, Reilly claimed to have escaped Odessa by faking his death and hopping a ship bound for Brazil. Like much of Reilly’s life, the story is unverifiable, but by hook or by crook — and possibly by way of a murder in France — he arrived in London in 1895, hitched himself to a wealthy woman a few months after the suspicious death of her husband (discarding the inconvenient surname Rosenblum in the process), and became entangled with British intelligence.

In the first decade of the 20th century, he apparently spied promiscuously on England’s imperial rivals Germany and Russia, though the particulars are disputed. He arrived in Port Arthur, Russia, shortly before the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War and may have provided the Japanese fleet intelligence enabling it to navigate the mined harbor — in addition to a copious side business in war profiteering. He may also have had a hand in capturing British oil concessions in Persia and reconnoitering behind German lines during World War I.

Like his fictional heir 007, he gambled often and left a string of lovers and mistresses in his wake. His true allegiances, and the extent to which his exploits were inflated or outright fabricated, are debated to this day.

The adventures that brought both death and fame were his machinations to overthrow the Bolshevik government in the fraught early months after Lenin took power. A planned coup d’etat in September 1918 came to grief and Reilly fled Russia steps ahead of the authorities, who subsequently condemned him to death in absentia.

Notwithstanding the sentence, which had been ruthlessly visited on his less-fortunate conspirators, Reilly was lured back to the USSR in 1925 by the Soviet counterintelligence project Operation Trust. Intending to meet anti-Bolshevik agitators, he was instead arrested at the border and tortured at the infamous Lubyanka Prison, where he kept notes on cigarette papers about enemy interrogation techniques for the eventuality of an escape or release that never came.

Part of the Themed Set: Spies.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Espionage,Execution,Famous,History,Jews,Popular Culture,Power,Russia,Shot,Spies,Torture,USSR

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