1906: Ivan Kalyayev, moralistic assassin

Add comment May 23rd, 2010 Headsman

On this date* in 1906, Ivan Kalyayev (also transliterated Kaliayev, or Kaliaev) was hanged by his own assent for assassinating Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich in Moscow.

The Warsaw-born Kalyayev tread the usual path of student radicals — expulsion, arrest, internal exile — into the camp of the Socialist-Revolutionary Party and the trendy propaganda-of-the-deed philosophy.

He was the very epitome there of what Chaliand and Blin call “the moralistic approach to terrorism”; he would slay, of course, from a profound sense of moral outrage, but contextualized that terrible act with a no less dramatic sense of personal moral responsibility.

Revolutionary fellow-traveler Boris Savinkov remembered** of our day’s principal that he

loved the revolution with the tender, profound love felt for it only by those who have made it an offering of the whole of their lives.

Kalyayev voluntarily aborted his first attempt to murder the Grand Duke when he beheld his target’s wife and child riding along in the carriage where he meant to toss his bomb. Upon successfully carrying out the hit two days later, he made no attempt to flee, and at trial requested the death sentence for himself.†

In this behavior, Kalyayev presents the fascinating specter of a terrorist whose certainty of the justice of his crime does not excuse himself from moral responsibility for the crime.

For Kalyayev, the murder itself and its mortal expiation completed its own redemptive cycle. As the murderer wrote to his mother,

I am happy to know I acted in obedience to the call of my duty … It would be ridiculous to think of saving my life now, when my end makes me so happy. I refused to sign the petition for pardon, and you know why. It was not because I have spent all my physical and mental powers; on the contrary, I have preserved all that life gave me for my last triumph in death … I could not accept pardon because it is against my convictions.

This striking attitude recommended him to Camus, who featured it in Les Justes (The Just Assassins), a 1949 play exploring the morality of terrorism.

The second act of the play features Kalyayev’s revolutionary cell disputing his decision not to follow through on his first opportunity to kill the Grand Duke. Ignacio Gotz describes our killer’s posture as, “kill only when absolutely necessary and then accept your own death as proof that murder is not permitted.”

That’s what love is — giving everything, sacrificing everything, without any hope of it being returned.

-The character Ivan Kalyayev, in Les Justes

This was not the only ethos competing for purchase on the story and the soul of Ivan Kalyayev.

The widowed Grand Duchess Elizabeth Fyodorovna visited her husband’s assassin in prison and unavailingly attempted to convert him to Orthodox Christianity. (The Grand Duchess would take her own solace in a religious life, ultimately being martyred by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War; she has since been canonized.)

The Russian paper Novaya Gazeta published a fairly lengthy Russian-language biography of Kalyayev on the centennial of his entry into the executioner’s annals.

* May 23 was the Gregorian date of the execution; it was May 10 by the Julian calendar still in use in Russia at the time.

** Cited in The History of Terrorism: From Antiquity to Al Qaeda.

† With the requisite grandstanding, of course — a moral indictment given added depth by Kalyayev’s personal conduct.

We are separated by mountains of corpses, by hundreds of thousands of broken lives, by an ocean of tears and blood that is flooding the entire country in a torrent of outrage and horror. You have declared war on the people. We have taken up the challenge … You are prepared to say that there are two moralities, one for mere mortals, stating, “Thou shalt not kill; thou shalt not steal,” and another, political, morality for the rulers, for whom it permits everything.

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1939: Mikayil Mushfig, Azerbaijani poet

Add comment March 12th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1939, Azerbaijani poet Mikayil Mushfig was shot during Stalin’s purges.

The 30-year-old former schoolteacher was a socialist enthusiast as a youth in the 1920s; his work celebrated officially sanctioned subjects like virtuous peasants and workers, and modernization of the alphabet.

How far to go to put aside the backward old ways? Poets debated in verse whether the traditional instrument tar ought to be banned.

[O]ne poet, Suleyman Rustam, wrote, “Stop tar, stop tar, You’re not loved by proletar!” Another poet, Mikayil Mushfig, countered, “Sing tar, sing tar! Who can forget you!”

The tar wasn’t banned, but Mushfig’s enthusiasm for the Soviet project was deemed (however genuine) insufficient, “petit-bourgeois”.

The nightingale is sorrowing near the rose,
Though autumn comes-it lingers to depart,
Life, life! This cry of longing ever grows:
With love, with burning passion how to part?

With feelings new, you string your singing lute
My youthful pen, now just about to start!
O friends, give answer to my pain acute:
With this great seething fire flame, how to part?

Here‘s a pdf of some Mushfig poetry in Azerbaijani.

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1942: Mykhailo and Olena Teliha, Ukrainian artists

Add comment February 21st, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1942, poet Olena Teliha and her husband Mykhailo were shot by the Nazis at Babi Yar for their Ukrainian nationalist activism.


Olena Teliha (top) and her husband, Mykhailo Teliha.

Having lived in Czechoslovakia (where they met and married) and then Poland during the interwar period, the Telihas weren’t present for the worst of Soviet depredations in Ukraine. Mykhailo, a bandurist, might have been in an especially bad way, since his musical genre of choice harkened to subversive themes of Cossack insurrection, and was therefore heavily persecuted.

Instead, they moved to Kiev as the German invasion opened the prospect of returning to their ancestral homeland. There they found their affiliation with the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists quite unwelcome to the new occupiers.

Olena kept writing for a prohibited nationalist paper, and Mykhailo gamely stuck by her.

Without a Name

Neither love, nor caprice nor adventure–
Not everything must be named.
As not always in abysmal waters
Can one find a motionless floor.

And when Your reawakened soul
Again rushes to a luminous path,
Do not question whose inspired oars
Were able to cast aside the dark shore.

Neither love, nor tenderness, nor passion,
Only heart — tumultuous eagle!
Drink then splashes, fresh, effervescent,
Of nameless, joyful sources.

(Executed Today friend Sonechka’s original translation from the Ukrainian text, found among this collection of Olena Teliha’s work)

Their execution this date is not to be confused with the mass execution of thirty thousand-plus Jews in September 1941, the atrocity with which Babi Yar is most frequently associated. This ravine continued to be used for Nazi executioners throughout the occupation of Kiev, including for more than 600 Ukrainian nationalists — who are today honored at the site with this monument:

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1794: Andre Chenier, poet

5 comments July 25th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1794, proto-Romantic poet Andre Chenier went to the guillotine the unfortunate victim of his father’s love.

In the operatic version of this Istanbul-born poet‘s life story, Chenier is accused by a rival in love, convicted, and guillotined the next day together with his beloved Maddalena, who effects a Sydney Carton-like swap into the lot of the condemned in order to share his fate.

Chenier’s real end was both more mundane, and far more tragic.

A revolutionary of the constitutional monarchist variety and an open opponent of the Jacobins bold enough to compose an ode to Marat’s murderess, Chenier had spent a year staying out of sight when the police picked him up almost accidentally.

Prisoners suffocating in the Paris jails were suspended horribly between life and death, but the anonymity of this living tomb offered — as with Tom Paine — a measure of occasional safety.

When Chenier’s father blunderingly appealing to the authorities for his son, he accidentally stripped away that anonymity. Chenier had been under lock and key for three-plus months — writing, the whole time, in minuscule letters on scraps of paper he arranged to have smuggled out to his father — but once reminded of the writer’s existence, the authorities promptly had it snuffed out. (A friend and fellow poet, Jean-Antoine Roucher, shared his tumbril.)

Chenier’s prison verses are among the most affecting of his 32 years — like the acidic Iambes blistering his persecutors, and the heartbreaking “La Jeune Captive”, in which he gives voice to the young fellow-prisoner who has smitten him, excerpted here:

Mon beau voyage encore est si loin de sa fin!
Je pars, et des ormeaux qui bordent le chemin
J’ai passé les premiers à peine.
Au banquet de la vie à peine commencé,
Un instant seulement mes lèvres ont pressé
La coupe en mes mains encor pleine.

Je ne suis qu’au printemps, je veux voir la moisson;
Et comme le soleil, de saison en saison,
Je veux achever mon année.
Brillante sur ma tige et l’honneur du jardin,
Je n’ai vu luire encor que les feux du matin:
Je veux achever ma journée.

Chenier was not broadly published or extremely well-known in his own lifetime; many critics think he was pinched out while still maturing. The poet himself told a friend in parting, “I leave nothing for posterity; and yet, (touching his forehead) I had something there.” In the backstory to one of the tales in Balzac’s La Comedie Humaine, a grocer who annoys one of Robespierre‘s associates is also among this day’s batch and arouses more notice than the man of letters:

Though Descoings died, he had the honour, at any rate, of going to the scaffold with Andre de Chenier. There, no doubt, grocery and poetry embraced for the first time in the flesh; for they have always had, and will always have, their private relations. Descoings’ execution made a far greater sensation than Andre de Chenier’s. Thirty years elapsed before it was recognised that France had lost more by Chenier’s death than by that of Descoings.

Robespierre’s sentence had this good result — until 1830 grocers were still afraid of meddling in politics.

The salutary effect upon grocers has long faded, but Chenier’s reputation has steadily ripened like wine since his demise. And the title part of the late-19th century opera Andrea Chenier — however scant its resemblance to the man who inspired it — is one of the most gorgeous tenor roles in opera.

Part of the Themed Set: Thermidor.

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1957: Evagoras Pallikarides, teenage guerrilla poet

3 comments March 14th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1957, Cypriot guerrilla Evagoras Pallikarides was hanged by British colonial authorities for gun possession.

As it was throughout the Empire in the middle 20th century, independence was the order of the day in Cyprus. But it was not simply whether there would be self-rule in Cyprus: the form and terms of independence were themselves hotly contested.

Cyprus would be a fresh battleground between those bitter rivals Turkey and Greece, each asserting an interest in their ethnic cousins on the island; overlapping that, it would be a battleground between the institutional Communist opposition AKEL, which opposed military action for separatism, and the nationalist EOKA, demanding not simply independence but enosis, union with Greece as part of the pan-Hellenic project so inflammatory to the Turks.

From 1955 to 1959, EOKA conducted a four-year campaign of bombing, assassinations and military engagements.

As a 17-year-old, Palikarides — already facing trial and likely prison time for his resistance activities — disappeared to join an EOKA guerrilla cell. A poetic young soul, he bid his classmates farewell with this note left to explain his absence on their first morning without him:

Old classmates. At this time, someone is missing from among you, someone who has left in search of freedom’s air, someone who you might not see alive again. Don’t cry at his graveside. It won’t do for you to cry. A few spring flowers scatter on his grave. This is enough for him …

I’ll take an uphill road
I’ll take the paths
To find the stairs
That lead to freedom

I’ll leave brothers, sisters
My mother, my father
In the valleys beyond
And the mountainsides

Searching for freedom
I’ll have as company
The white snow
Mountains and torrents

Even if it’s winter now
The summer will come
Bringing Freedom
To cities and villages

I’ll take an uphill road
I’ll take the paths
To find the stairs
That lead to freedom

I’ll climb the stairs
I’ll enter a palace
I know it will be an illusion
I know it won’t be real

I’ll wonder in the palace
Until I find the throne
Only a queen
Sitting on it

Beautiful daughter, I will say,
Open your wings
And take me in your embrace
That’s all I ask …

Pallikarides fought for a year before being apprehended with a gun illegally in his possession — a hanging crime under British anti-terrorism laws, but as Pallikarides was just the ninth (and last) EOKA man executed, it seems plain that law was not receiving draconian enforcement. At least one author claims that the authorities threw the book at him on the gun charge because of a murder they believed he committed as a guerrilla but could not prove.

The fact that he turned 19 a fortnight before his execution likewise did not avail him clemency — as the young rebel predicted in court:

I know you will hang me. Whatever I did, I did as a Cypriot Greek fighting for liberty.

As youthful martyrs to nationhood are wont to become, Pallikarides (along with his poetry) lives on as a potent symbol to Greek Cypriots. Shortly after Cyprus achieved independence in 1960, his name and visage were affiliated with a Cyprus football club, Evagoras (which later merged with another club to become AEP Paphos).

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1302: Dante Alighieri condemned

6 comments March 10th, 2008 Jeffrey Fisher

(Thanks to Jeffrey Fisher [jeffreyfisher at me.com] for the guest post.)

On this day in 1302, the governing commune of the city of Florence condemned to death Dante Alighieri, statesman, philosopher, and above all, poet. Arguably the greatest mind of his generation, Dante is most famous for his authorship of the Divine Comedy, relating his journeys through, successively, hell, purgatory, and heaven.

Born in 1265 to a noble family of Florence that, while not the city’s most prominent family, had already seen several of his ancestors banished as a result of political turmoil, Dante could hardly have avoided becoming embroiled in public life had he even wanted to. In brief, a long-running struggle between pro-imperial (the so-called Holy Roman Empire) and pro-papal factions was finally won by the pro-papal forces, known as the Guelphs. Two decisive battles in 1289 established both Florence’s independence (particularly from their old nemesis, Pisa) and the rule of the Guelphs, Dante’s own party.

Dante is likely to have taken part in those battles and was active in city politics in the following decade, culminating in a turn in 1300 as prior (one of six key counsellors to the city, serving a two-month term). Florence prided itself on a tradition of democratic rule going back to the death of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in 1250.

Persona Non Grata

Giotto painted Dante prior to his exile — the oldest portrait of Dante known.

Unfortunately, by the time Dante took on the priorate, the old rivalries had reshaped themselves into new factions eerily parallel to their predecessors: the so-called “Black” Guelphs, who aligned themselves with the Pope (as of 1294, Boniface VIII), and “White” Guelphs, who took a more moderate political stance and saw themselves as defending an independent Florence from the Pope and his allies (namely, the Blacks).

Things got so bad that, at the time of Dante’s priorate, the city’s ruling body banished leaders of both sides in an effort to stabilize the city. The pope took the opportunity to send emissaries to Florence on the pretext of negotiating a peace. After more than a year of this maneuvering, the commune sent Dante and two others to have words with Boniface in Rome in 1301.

The Pope “invited” Dante to stay in Rome while his companions returned to Florence to try to bring the commune around. In the meantime, the Pope’s key man had got himself into Florence and helped the Blacks take power, whereupon they confiscated properties and levied fines.

Dante was ordered to appear before a tribunal to answer for his alleged crimes. When he did not show up, he was banished to two years of exile, permanently banned from holding city office, and ordered to pay a further fine of some five thousand florins–a staggering sum–within three days. When that did not happen, either (Dante was apparently in Siena, a short ways from Florence, when he heard this news), the commune confiscated all of his goods and condemned him to death by burning should he ever return.

Fortunately, there were others in Italy at the time who had more sense, but Dante spent the rest of his life–almost another twenty years–wandering from city to city with his sons. He was excluded from an amnesty in 1311, and when he refused the terms of another in 1315, his death sentence was not only reaffirmed, but extended to include his sons. Despite all this, he still held out hope of returning to Florence to be crowned as poet, declining to be so crowned in Bologna as little as a year or two before he died.

Art in Exile

It was over the course of that time in exile that Dante composed his political and philosophical works, together with what must be considered his single greatest contribution to letters, the three-volume Divina Commedia.

There is no way to do justice to any of these works, much less all of them, but in the present context it is worth noting that in three key works — the Commedia (Dante’s title is this simple), Il Convivio (or The Banquet), and De Monarchia (On Monarchy) — Dante develops a serious, even strikingly modern, religious political philosophy.

In contrast to many of his religious contemporaries, taking issue with the great St. Augustine even as he espouses positions derived from Thomas Aquinas, Dante argues in favor of a strong central secular authority, specifically an emperor, and even more particularly, that this authority should be understood by Christians as co-equal with, not subordinate to, the spiritual authority of the Church: “two suns,” he says, rather than the sun and the moon (which merely reflects the light of the sun).

Indeed, he held out an almost messianic hope for the return of an emperor who would restore peace and order. He even wrote public letters to the Emperor Henry VII requesting that he restore justice in Florence (and this is surely a factor in the commune’s treatment of him with respect to amnesty). When Henry died before accomplishing these things, much of Dante’s hope for imperial cohesion died along with him.

(Consider this Open Yale Courses podcast series for more Dante appreciation.)

He Knew Beatrice All Along

It would be nothing short of travesty to write anything of this length about Dante and not mention Beatrice, the love of his life from the age of nine, when he first laid eyes on her, to the day he died in exile. Beatrice, who only spoke to Dante once and who died an early death, directly inspired his poetic-explicatory work, the Vita Nuova (New Life), an exemplar of the dolce stil nuovo (“sweet new style”) movement in poetry. As a character in the Commedia, Beatrice sends Virgil to rescue Dante from a dark forest in the Inferno, and guides him through the spheres of Heaven in Paradiso.

“Dante and Beatrice in the Constellation of Gemini and the Sphere of Flame”, one of William Blake‘s (uncompleted) series of watercolors illustrating Dante’s magnum opus.

Despite two decades of exile, Dante never gave up hope of returning to Florence in his lifetime, and clearly hoped (perhaps “expected” is more accurate) to be united with his other true love in the next. His body remains in Ravenna, where he died and was buried in 1321.

Florentines wish they could have him back.

Part of the Themed Set: The Written Word.

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