1906: Pyotr Schmidt, Sevastopol uprising leader

1 comment March 19th, 2011 Headsman

On this date* in 1906, tsarist Russia executed the naval officer who had made bold to style himself Commander of the rebellious Black Sea Fleet.

During the unsuccessful 1905 Russian Revolution, our firebrand Pyotr Schmidt was lieutenant commander of a destroyer stationed at the Black Sea port of Sebastopol/Sevastopol.

Schmidt made an impassioned revolutionary speech that got him arrested, and was in turn freed by protesting workers and soldiers.

So they knew just the guy to call when a collection of Black Sea Fleet vessels finally out and mutinied. And Pyotr Schmidt knew how to talk the talk.

The glorious Black Sea Fleet, sacredly devoted to the people, demands Your Majesty to immediately call a meeting of the Constituent Assembly, and no longer obeys orders of Your ministers.

Commander of the Fleet P. Schmidt.

Nicholas II decided he was better advised to just order the mutinying ships stormed, and Schmidt was taken prisoner.

The most famous ship under Schmidt’s “command” was, of course, the battleship Potemkin, which trumps the cruiser Aurora as the revolutionariest hulk of floating steel in the Russian fleet by virtue of Sergei Eisenstein‘s silent cinematic celebration of the Sevastopol mutiny, The Battleship Potemkin.

With this sort of insurrectionary credential, Schmidt was a popular choice for Soviet-era naming and renaming — streets, bridges, other naval vessels.

(And come this, er, sea change in fortunes, the commander of the firing squad that did Pyotr Schmidt to death was himself arrested, and shot in 1923 by the Cheka.)

Schmidt thereby contributed his name to an entirely different innovation in the Russian language: in one Ostap Bender novel, there’s a “Children of Lieutenant Schmidt” network of con artists each claiming (in a different part of that vast country) to be the martyred mutineer’s progeny and mooching the material comforts due such an impressive lineage.

So striking and popular was this portrayal that “children (or sons) of Lt. Schmidt” remains a going Russian idiom for anyone running a similar scam.

* March 19 was the Gregorian date; it was March 6 by the obsolete Julian calendar still hanging on in Russia at this time.

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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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1906: Zinaida Konoplyannikov, assassin

1 comment August 29th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1906, less than three weeks after she had assassinated tsarist general Georgiy Alexandrovich Min (Russian biography), revolutionary Zinaida Vasilevna Konoplyannikov was hanged at Schlisselburg fortress near St. Petersburg.

Konoplyannikov is mostly noted in Russian sources online (for instance, here and here).

The daughter of a soldier and a peasant, she was educated — hardly a given for a low-born girl in the late 19th century — and taught in the Baltics and St. Petersburg around the turn of the century. By her profession, the plight of her similarly unprivileged students helped radicalize her.

She had a couple arrests for the usual subversive stuff (distributing illicit propaganda and the like) during Russia’s brief flowering towards liberalism in the 20th century’s early years. Those years would be bloodily reversed as tsarism reasserted itself after the revolutionary moment of 1905.

Konoplyannikov avenged herself on one of the great villains (from her standpoint) of that reversal, G.A. Min — commander of the Semenyovsky Life Guards regiment which bloodily bombarded Moscow’s Red Presnia working-class district to crush the last bastion of revolutionary sentiment in December 1905 at the cost of more than 1,000 lives.

Konoplyannikov gunned him down at a Peterhof train station the following August; in a closed military courtroom (giving her no opportunity to use the trial as an oratorical platform), the assassin was condemned to hang in less than an hour.

She was reported to have died calm, sure in the approaching victory of her cause:

the history of the Russian nation is a record of blood … the autocratic and bureaucratic structures are maintained only by violence … You cannot build anything upon the place of the old without first destroying the old. If it is impossible to catch ideas with bayonets, it is also impossible to resist bayonets with ideas only …

No repressions, no arrests, no prisons, no exiles, no shootings, no punitive expeditions, no pogroms, will stop the rising national movement.

I die with one thought: forgive me, forgive me, my people! I have so little to give you — only this, my life. I die full of faith in what will come … when the throne will crumble, and over the Russian plain, a broad, bright sun of freedom arise.

According to Abraham Ascher, Min’s assassination so spooked Tsar Nicholas II that for a time he refused to leave his room … a evocative and emblematic summary of the Romanov dynasty’s ultimately fatal dilemma.

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1918: Tsar Nicholas II and his family

18 comments July 17th, 2008 Headsman

In the small hours after midnight on the night of July 16-17 90 years ago, the former Tsar Nicholas II, his wife, children, and four family retainers, were shot in a Yekaterinburg basement by their Bolshevik jailers.

Doting family man, vacillating dictator, as weak and rich as Croesus … the doomed Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias was a man small of stature. His reign emerged under a bad star when 1,300 Muscovites were trampled to death in the crush for his coronation largesse; 18 years later, Nicholas‘s support for Serbia against Austria-Hungary was instrumental in pitching Europe into World War I, a blunder for which he reaped a whirlwind long in the making.

When an anti-Bolshevik force approached Yekaterinburg (or Ekaterinburg), where the deposed royals had been stashed in a commandeered private residence,* Yakov Sverdlov (for whom the city was subsequently renamed) ordered the prisoners shot — not only the tsar, but his beloved wife, their hemophiliac heir, and those four daughters who had to be bayoneted because the state jewels secreted in their corsets shielded them from the gunfire.

The executioners (here’s the account of their leader; here’s another guard’s version) did their best to destroy and conceal the remains, helping fuel subsequent rumors that one of the children had survived and escaped.

Those rumors are only now, with post-Soviet investigation and DNA forensics, being debunked, and not yet to the satisfaction of all comers. This very week, Moscow affirmed (though the Orthodox church has not accepted) that the last of Nicholas’s family had been accounted for:

Modern nostalgia for this unimpressive sovereign is making a minor comeback, with Nicholas absurdly contending in a current poll for the title of “greatest Russian” … supported not only by the miseries of the state that succeeded his, but by the family’s decent and accessible private life.

Even a monarchist — especially a monarchist! — shouldn’t reason that the greatest monarch is the one who drove the bus over the cliff. But much is forgiven a martyr. Indeed, like Charles I of England, the last Romanov monarch has been posthumously saddled with divine sanction; he and all the family are certified “passion bearers”. (Update: And possible future relics!)

A handful of the many books about the Romanovs and their fall

* The Ipatiev House where the tsar was held (and shot) no longer stands. On its spot is a church consecrated five years ago yesterday to the Romanov canonization.

Update: The Romanovs were officially rehabilitated by the Russian Supreme Court on October 1, 2008.

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