1393: Karsten Sarnow, Stralsund mayor

Add comment June 28th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1393 the mayor of Stralsund was beheaded.

From the perspective of that Hanseatic city‘s hereditary patricianate, Karsten Sarnow was a chancer — a burgher who championed the political reforms that enabled his own self to enter the city council.

He cinched his municipal preeminence by taking leadership of the naval campaign against some Baltic pirates and successfully suppressing them, marching a hundred or more of them through town for execution.

With this prestige he attained the mayoralty and attempted to implement an ambitious constitutional reform that chased the leading grandee family from the city.

This house, the Wulflams,* successfully intrigued against Sarnow from the Hanse sister-city of Lübeck and eventually Wulfhard Wulflam had the pleasure of revenging the slights against his station by ordering the decapitation of both Sarnow’s person and his constitutional innovations.

This coup scarcely resolved the simmering class and faction conflicts in Stralsund, as discussed by F.L. Carstein in Essays in German History, which notes that “from the beginning of the 14th century the patrician rule was attacked time and again by movements and revolts of the urban Commons, especially in the most important town of Pomerania, Stralsund.”

The popular movement, however, was not stifled. The council was forced to declare the memory of the executed Sarnow untarnished; his body was exhumed and given a solemn funeral. The populist party triumphed once more, helped by battles against the pirates. Yet after only a short time the rule of the old council was restored; the leaders of the rebellion were executed and 48 burghers were expelled …

The 15th century brought new unrest to Stralsund, of a clearly anticlerical character. The ecclesiastical superintendent of the town was a nobleman, Kurt von Bonow. In 1407 he complained about the low offerings the burghers gave to him, quit the town, assembled his noble friends and appeared with 300 horsemen outside the walls. They cut off the hands and feet of burghers whom they found outside, burnt down the farms beyond the walls and departed triumphantly with cattle and other booty; burning villages marked their path. When the priests in Stralsund added their insults and the rumour spread that they supported their leader with arms and money, the burghers, led by the porters’ guild, rose against the clergy, imprisoned sixteen of them and then attempted to burn the house where they were confined. The council tried to protect the priests, but the enraged crowd shouted they were all knaves and evildoers, they had helped to fan the fires and therefore they must burn. The master of the porters’ guild demanded the death of the three senior priests who were burned in the market place; the others were saved by the council. The news of ‘the priests burning at the Sund’ (i.e. Stralsund) spread throughout Germany. Then the burghers marched out of the town and pillaged the houses and estates of noblemen who had participated in Bonow’s enterprise. The feud between them and the nobility allied with the duke lasted seven years, and several other Pomeranian towns supported Stralsund. All trade languished …

About this time the social conflicts in the Hanseatic towns, especially in Lübeck, became so strong that the League — which meant the ruling merchant aristocracies — at a Diet held in Lübeck stipulated the death penalty for burghers who summoned the Commons to take action or agitated otherwise against the council; any member town in which the council was forcibly deposed by the burghers was to lose the Hanseatic privileges and liberties and was not to receive any help from the other towns. Fear had grown to such an extent that it was further ordained no burgher was to appear in front of the council with more than six companions.

Wulfhard Wulflam himself was murdered in 1409 in a revenge killing by the son of a noble knight whom he, Wulflam, had slain several years prior.

* The family’s Wulflamhaus, an outstanding exemplar of the late Gothic style, is still to be seen in Stralsund.

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1492: Jan van Coppenolle

Add comment June 16th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1492 the Flemish rebel Jan van Coppenolle was beheaded at the Vrijdagmarkt in Ghent.

When the formerly doughty duchy of Burgundy faltered as an independent polity after the death of Charles the Bold in 1477, Ghent and its sister Low Countries trading cities had forced upon Charles’s heir Mary an expansive recognition of those cities’ rights.

It was known as the Great Privilege, and it was greatly dependent on the political weakness of the recognizing authority.

Mary expressed this weakness in another way as well: with her marriage to the Habsburg heir Maximilian I of Austria — tying her patrimony to the Austrian empire. Upon this marriage did the House of Habsburg found a redoubling of its already expansive holdings, for Mary herself brought the wealthy Low Countries into the fold while the couple’s son Philip married a Spanish infanta and founded the line of Habsburg Spanish monarchs.* Apt indeed was the House Habsburg motto: “Leave the waging of wars to others! But you, happy Austria, marry; for the realms which Mars awards to others, Venus transfers to you”

Mary, unfortunately, was not around to enjoy the triumph of her matrimonial arrangements, for in early 1482 a horse threw her while out on a ride, breaking her back. Philip might have had a bright future ahead, but he was only four years old.

It was Maximilian’s flex on direct power in the Low Countries — and in particular his ambition to raise taxes to fund expansionist wars — that brought to the stage our man van Coppenolle (German Wikipedia entry | Dutch). He became a preeminent popular leader of a decade-long Flemish rebellion against the future Holy Roman Emperor that verged towards a war of independence.

Briefly forced to flee to exile in France after Maximilian quelled the initial resistance in 1485, van Coppenolle returned with French backing and controlled Ghent from 1487 when the rebellion re-emerged. This second installment had some legs, especially since Maximilian was imprisoned several months by the city of Bruges, allowing van Coppenolle leave enough to even mint his own coinage, the Coppenollen … before the Habsburgs finally suppressed the risings.

* The present Spanish king, Felipe VI, is a descendant of Philip I.

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1984: James Hutchins

2 comments March 16th, 2019 Headsman

James W. Hutchins was gassedexecuted by lethal injection in North Carolina on this date in 1984.

Hutchins was “credited” with the largest one-day slaughter of North Carolina law enforcement officers in 1979. An altercation with his teenage daughter* led to a domestic disturbance call, which led eventually to three dead cops all killed in separate shootings.

Hutchins shot Captain Roy Huskey by ambush when he responded alone to the 911 call. Several minutes later, a deputy named Owen Messersmith rolled up to check on the situation since Huskey hadn’t checked in. Messersmith quickly realized the reason, but was shot through the window of his patrol car as he slammed into reverse and “the vehicle drifted backwards across the street and came to rest in a ditch with Messersmith’s body slumped over the steering wheel, causing the horn to blow without stop.” (Wikipedia) The third victim, state highway patrolman Robert L. Peterson, pulled Hutchins over for speeding as the latter fled in his car.

Only by this point did the garbled and chaotic communications flying through dispatch radios that day finally coalesce sufficiently to give cops on the scene a full picture of what was going on: Peterson, for instance, is thought to have been entirely innocent of the knowledge that a suspect in a double shooting was at large in the area.

At any rate, the ensuing manhunt brought Hutchins into custody and a postscript as a part of political lore: in a sort of Ricky Ray Rector play, Democratic Governor Jim Hunt theatrically staged Hutchins’s execution date and denial of clemency in the run-up to his 1984 Senate campaign. But Rector’s sacrifice at least had the excuse of success: not so Hutchins’s. No matter Hunt’s tough-on-crime credentials, he was still trounced at the polls by goggle-eyed racist Jesse Helms.

There’s an independent film about the events in this notorious murder spree, titled Damon’s Law.

* Hutchins was pissed that she spiked the punch for her high school graduation party with vodka.

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706: Leontios and Apsimar

Add comment February 15th, 2019 Headsman

Likely around February 706 the Byzantine emperors Leontios (Leontius) and Apsimar were executed by the man they’d deposed.

Although a very lesser member of the Roman Empire’s purple club, they had the honor of sort of sounding the death knell of the century-old dynasty founded by the mighty Heraclius.

Heraclius’s great-great-grandson Justinian II had shown himself over a ten-year reign beginning 685 a high- and a ham-handed prince; indeed, his eventual usurper had felt that wrath in 692 when Justinian threw Leontios in prison for losing a battle to the Arabs.

Later restored as strategos of Hellas, Leontios predictably rebelled almost immediately and deposed the irritating legacy case in 695. While many of Justinian’s ministers were put to death, the new boss made an unwise show of clemency by only mutilating Justinian.

(Justinian’s nose was cut off, a mercy masquerading as a grotesquerie: it was commonly meted out in lieu of execution to potential rival imperial claimants with the understanding that the visible mutilation would make it effectively impossible for that person to effectually claim power in the future. Leontios was destined to experience this “mercy” firsthand.)

Our first usurper marks the start of a tumultuous era known as the Twenty Years’ Anarchy wherein seven different emperors ruled in the course of a single generation — so of course he did not have the perquisites of power very long. (The History of Byzantium podcast covers this period in episodes 65 and 66.)

In 698, after the Arabs conquered Carthage — permanently ending the Roman presence in Africa, which dated to the Roman Republic — an admiral named Apsimar claimed the throne for himself. Perhaps it was a pre-emptive lest he be blamed for the Carthage debacle: like Leontios, he first set his foot upon the dais thanks to a failure in the field. For whatever reason it worked with an ease that speaks to the scant legitimacy that Leontios had established among his subjects. Apsimar — Tiberius III, if you please — went as easy on Leontios as had Leontios on his own predecessor, condemning him only to nasal mutilation and monastic imprisonment.

Apsimar had a bit more success and a bit more longevity, but only a bit — for in the early 700s, the embittered and vengeful Justinian cinematically managed to escape his overseers, strangle two assassins sent to hunt him down, and sail through a deadly storm* on the Black Sea to catch on with the Bulgars.

There, mutilated face and all, he raised an army to take back Constantinople. This he duly achieved by dint of an ill-guarded water channel to re-enthrone the dynasty of Heraclius, then hauled both of the interregnum rulers before him and smugly propped up his feet upon their backs. Justinian got a golden prosthetic nose and imperial power; the now-ex-kings got publicly beheaded in an amphitheater known as the Kynegion.

Justinian’s improbable political second act lasted just six years more, until he was overthrown in 711 for the second and final time. This usurper had the good sense to kill him.

* In fear of his life during the storm, one of Justinian’s companions allegedly called on him to placate God by promising his enemies mercy. “If I spare a single one of them, may God drown me here,” replied the once and future emperor.

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1391: Agnese Visconti and Antonio da Scandiano, adulterous lovers?

Add comment February 7th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1391, the condottiero tyrant of Mantua, Francisco Gonzaga, removed his consort from his right arm by removing her head.

Daughter of the powerful Milanese Visconti family, Agnese Visconti had been dynastically married off to the Mantuan prince by her father. Dad had in 1385 been overthrown and murdered by a kinsman, Gian Galeazzo Visconti, but still this was all in the family: the thing was that Francisco Gonzaga started wanting to cut ties with that family.

No trouble: Francisco simply accused his wife of adultery with a knight,* Antonio da Scandiano, and had both put to death on February 7, 1391 — Agnese via the blade, Antonio at the end of a rope. Then, Francisco switched its allegiance from #TeamMilan to #TeamVenice in the peninsular geopolitics scrum.**

European courts were aghast as news of the divorce proceedings reached her preening chateaux, but “nimble, opportunistic changes of political loyalty like these were typical of Gonzaga foreign policy and helped them to navigate their small state safely in a sea of unpredictable alliances.” (Source)

Consummate survivors, the House of Gonzaga weathered the Visconti wrath and ruled Mantua into the 18th century, producing among other things down the centuries a name check in Hamlet and a pious Jesuit who became namesake to the many educational institutions called “Gonzaga”.

* The headsman is not so cold to the sentiments of the heart that he excludes the possibility of an actual dalliance. Consider him agnostic, beneath his dark cowl.

** Gian Galeazzo Visconti did right by his cousin by assailing Mantua in revenge, leading Gonzaga to throw up the gorgeous Castello di San Giorgio. This fortress was later used as a prison, and in its day has held some figures destined for Executed Today‘s pages, such as Andreas Hofer and the Belfiore martyrs.

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1787: John Bly and Charles Rose, Shaysites

Add comment December 6th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1787, the only two men to hang for the infant American republic’s seminal post-independence rebellion went to the gallows at Lenox, Massachusetts.

The newborn United States emerged from the American Revolution (1776-1783) in a parlous financial condition. Forever short of gold and credit, it had paid George Washington’s Continental Army in worthless scrip* and promises of goodwill. Instead, many a Cincinnatus returned from Yorktown to discover his debtor farm dunned by creditors and taxmen, as desperate as he for hard currency.

Come 1786, protests against unpayable taxes verged into an outright rural insurrection in western Massachusetts. Known for one of its principals, Daniel Shays — who like so many of his fellows was a Continental Army veteran turned penniless farmer — this rebellion continued for several months and took earnest aim at the hated Massachusetts merchant elites. Some 4,000 “Shaysites” would eventually admit to** taking the field as rebel guerrillas. They mounted an attack on a federal armory, and seized weapons where they could for their own use.

A few books about Shays’s Rebellion

It was this last act which occasions our men’s hangings.

The new American authorities, who had not so many years ago been beckoning this same populace to take up their muskets in revolution, exercised in this moment a brittle authority and they would calculate that the proper balance of due regard for their power without unnecessary resentment entailed only a circumscribed approach.

Instead of charging Shaysites wholesale, most were waved away with a free pardon. And instead of charging treason, the Bay State made its demonstration cases with regular criminal offenses — for burglary when our men John Bly and Charles Rose followed some Shaysite militiaman’s order to confiscate guns and powder from nearby houses. In 1787, that was still a potential hanging offense.

Of course, everyone understood well enough the real offense. On the eve of their executions, someone got the condemned men to sign onto a “Last Words & Dying Speeches” broadsheet with a lesson addressed “To the good People of Massachusetts, more especially to Daniel Shays, and other Officers of the Militia, and the Select men of Towns who have been instrumental in raising the Opposition to the Government of this Commonwealth:”

Our fate is a loud and solemn lesson to you who have excited the people to rise against the Government … Advert to those things — live peaceably with all men — be not too jealous of your Rulers — remember that Government is absolutely necessary to restrain the corrupt passions of men — obey your Honest Governors — be not allured by designing men — pay your honest debts and your reasonable taxes — use your utmost endeavours to give peace to your divided, distracted country …

There was another legacy: the outbreak of Shays’s Rebellion — and the federal government’s impotence to respond to it (it was haltingly suppressed by state militia, with the insurgents at points escaping into New York for breathing room) — helped catalyze the Constitutional Convention from May to September of 1787, and informed its creation of a stronger federal state and of the system of checks upon democratic action that a rebellious populace might wish to undertake.

There’s a podcast episode about Shays’s Rebellion here.

* So widely shunned was the depreciated paper Continental currency issued during the Revolution that the phrase “not worth a Continental” entered the parlance of the times; it was these notes that had been given to revolutionary soldiers by way of aspirational salary like so many stock options from a foundering Silicon Valley startup. In 1791, these Continentals were bought out by the new federal government at one cent on the dollar.

** This census arrives via applications for the free amnesty eventually offered to the Shaysite rank and file.

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1856: Six Tennessee slaves, election panic casualties

Add comment December 4th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1856, the white citixens of Dover, Tennessee hanged at least six black slaves in the midst of a regional panic.

They could well sense, as could all Americans, the hollowing authority of slavery in the 1850s with the Civil War looming ahead in 1861. Conflict over the issue had split the country sectionally over the disposition of the huge territory annexed in the Mexican-American War; the matter came to literal blows on the western frontier in the “Bleeding Kansas” bush war.

On the cultural plane, these are the years that germinated the definitive anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852); on the legal plane, they produced the the notorious pro-slavery Dred Scott Supreme Court case (1857).

And on the political plane, the slavery issue tore apart the old Whig Party — and so the 1856 presidential election for the first time featured the new anti-slavery Republican Party as the chief opposition. The very first Republican presidential nominee, John Fremont, carried 11 states on November 4, 1856: not enough to capture the White House, but enough to put the Slave Power in fear for its human chattel and catalyze, in the weeks surrounding the vote, paranoid reactions in various southerly locales to the effect that Fremont-inspired blacks would be coming to dispossess all the masters.

Now it only takes a glance at Twitter to evidence the capacity of a presidential ballot to dominate the public mind, so there can hardly be doubt that seditious rumors of liberty fell from black lips which had never been so close to tasting emancipation. “Wait till Fremont is elected, and den I guess as how, missess, you will have to dew de pots yourself,” a Memphis kitchen-slave supposedly told her mistress on the eve of the election. (New York Herald, December 11, 1856) The masters too would have spoken of the same topic, but with trepidation; nobody knew but what the future could hold, and words overheard would have worked their way to and fro across the color line to shape hope, terror, anticipation. The newspapers from the last weeks of 1856 have reports of rumored insurrections and white vigilance committees in Missouri, in Texas, in Arkansas, in Louisiana.

As is usual in slave rising panics no firm evidence exists that black plots consisted in this moment of anything more substantial than whispered hopes. Whites in scattered localities saw Nat Turner everywhere — and nowhere was this more the case than in western Tennessee. There, slaves around the Cumberland River were believed to be organizing a Christmas Day rising* to cut their masters’ throats, run amok, and rendezvous with an imagined army of Fremont liberators. One correspondent described for northern papers how

the credulity of these poor people is such that, in the belief of the whites who excite them, they imagine that Col. Fremont, with a large army is awaiting at the mouth of the river Cumberland … Certain slaves are so greatly imbued with this fable, that I have seen them smile while they are being whipped, and have heard them say that ‘Fremont and his men can bear the blows they receive.’ (via the Barre (Mass.) Gazette, Dec. 19, 1956)

Against such hope — more blows. A truly horrifying and widely republished editorial in the Clarksville (Tenn.) Jeffersonian that Dec. 3 proposed an overwhelming bloodletting to crush this prospective jacquerie.

It is useless to shut our eyes and deny the facts, or sneer at the developments which have been made. Every hour multiplies the proof and corroborates previous discoveries. It is no Titus Oates affair, but a solemn, fearful and startling reality, and must be dealt with accordingly.

The crimes contemplated should be atoned for precisely as though those crimes had been attmpted and consummated. Fearful and terrible examples should be made, and if need be, the fagot and the flame should be brought into requisition to show these deluded maniacs the fierceness and the vigor, the swiftness and completeness of the white man’s vengeance. Let a terrible example be made in every neighborhood where the crime can be established, and if necessary let every tree in the country bend with negro meat. Temporizing in such cases as this is utter madness. We must strike terror, and make a lasting impression, for only in such a course can we find the guaranties of future security …

The path of future safety must be wet with the blood of those who have meditated these awful crimes. Misplaced clemency, and we believe that any clemency would be misplaced, may at no distant day bring upon this people, the horrors and the inexpressible crimes which marked the enfranchisement of St. Domingo. While retributive justice, sternly and unbendingly enforced, will certainly remove the cause of the evils we now suffer and prove our sure protection against their repetition in all time to come.

So far as this writer can establish it is not certain how many people overall in Tennessee and throughout the Slave Power met the guns and nooses of white vigilantes, but some of the best-established are a sextet hanged at Dover on December 4, 1856. This town on the Cumberland was roiled by rumors that slaves from nearby communities intended to march, armed, on Dover itself, an idea that seems not much less fanciful than that of deliverance by Fremont; it became thereby an epicenter of the suppression, and favors us from a sea of unreliable timelines and misstated figures with a concrete eyewitness description.

Tuesday morning [sic — the writer means Thursday, Dec. 4, having narrated Wednesday, Dec. 3 immediately prior], I went to Dover, and arrived there about 2 o’clock. The people had hung four negroes at 11 o’clock that morning, and two more then in town to be hung. I got to the place of execution in time to see the last one go off. Of the six that were hung, three had been preachers. They were all proved to be ring-leaders. I learned that the men at the forge were at work whipping the truth out of their negroes, so I rode out there that night, and was up with them all night. I never had such feelings in my life. I saw a list of negroes that had been whipped, and was told what they all had stated, and then I heard the balance examined — some taking five and six hundred lashes before they would tell the tale … One of the negroes at the forge died from whipping that night, several hours after the operation.

We are at work here to-day. We have one negro in chains, and will hang him I think, certain; if the committee will not the community are determined to do it. I think we will have quite an exciting time here before we get through. I have no doubt but that it is a universal thing all over the Southern States, and that every negro fifteen years old, either knows of it or is into it … (Louisville Daily Courier, Dec. 29, 1856)

Two key academic sources on this affair are:

  • Harvey Wish, “The Slave Insurrection Panic of 1856,” The Journal of Southern History, May, 1939
  • Charles Dew, “Black Ironworkers and the Slave Insurrection Panic of 1856,” The Journal of Southern History, August 1975

* Shades of Jamaica.

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1943: Mao Zemin, brother of Mao Zedong

Add comment September 27th, 2018 Headsman

Mao Zemin, younger brother of Communist leader Mao Zedong, was executed on this date in 1943.

A party cadre since 1921, the non-chairman Mao served a variety of economic leadership posts for the Red Army.

As of early 1941, Mao (English Wikipedia entry | the far more voluminous Chinese was detailed to the western province of Xinjiang, where the warlord Sheng Shicai maintained friendly relations with the neighboring Soviet Union.

To Mao’s grief, this “King of Xinjiang” saw in the unfolding global war an opportunity to realign.

After the German invasion of the USSR in 1941, Sheng boldly flipped his affiliation from Moscow to the nationalist Kuomintang government with which he had theretofore maintained only the frostiest of relations. Crackdowns on Communists ensued too, and both Mao Zemin and Chen Tanqiu were both arrested, tortured, and executed as a result.

Needless to say this KMT-Xinjiang axis did not hold the Celestial Empire’s destiny and the whole decision to fade Moscow looks pretty dumb in retrospect. Sheng, however, surely did not much regret the gambit since he was able to follow the nationalists to Taiwan and spend a comfortable retirement writing memoirs like Sinkiang: Pawn or Pivot?

Mao’s son Mao Yuanxin, a still-living pensioner as of this writing, was a political figure in the 1970s who was jailed post-Gang of Four.

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1682: Ivan Khovansky

Add comment September 17th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1682, the boyar Ivan Andreyevich Khovansky went from being the power behind the throne to one of the skulls under it.

A veteran military commander, Khovansky (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) became a key figure in the months after the death of Tsar Feodor III of Russia. This perilous political moment left the throne in the hands of two underage half-brothers overseen by a female regent.

With benefit of hindsight we know that 10-year-old (in 1682) Peter will emerge from this troika to become the mighty Tsar Peter the Great. In 1682, it was anybody’s guess whether any of these dubious prospective autocrats might survive at all.

Peter in particular had cause to fear for his life in May 1682 when the Streltsy, a hereditary guard of Moscow musketeers, bloodily rebelled in favor of his co-heir’s privileges and against his own, rampaging through the Kremlin murdering princes in Peter’s circle. And at the head of these furies stood Khovansky.

Many years later, Peter would revenge himself upon the Streltsy for this horror but in the moment it carried the day, incidentally also carrying Khovansky to a preeminent position in the state.

But he was pitted almost immediately against his erstwhile patron and ally, the regent Sophia Alekseyevna.

Even though the Streltsy rebellion had been conducted on Sophia’s behalf, she could see as well as the next tsar the perils of embracing these latter-day praetorians‘ authority to remake the government by force … and the Streltsy made sure to remind her of it almost immediately when the “Old Believer” movement that predominated among its ranks started raising complaints about Sophia’s religious accommodations.*

Fearing an overmighty nobleman at the head of a treasonable host — and Khovansky has been suspected by both his contemporaries and posterity of coveting the regency for himself — Sophia and the young co-tsars briefly fled Moscow “because we could not tolerate the many offences, unlawful and gross actions and violations committed by criminals and traitors.” Meanwhile she maneuvered adroitly to isolate him politically and had the boyar Duma vote his attainder.

His fate was sealed by the discovery of an anonymous (probably fabricated) letter of denunciation. On 17 September, her own name day, Sophia succeeded in luring Ivan Khovansky and his son Ivan to the royal summer residence at Vozdvizhenskoe outside Moscow. The charges against them centred on their ‘evil designs upon the health and authority of the great sovereigns’ which involved no less than plotting to use the strel’tsy to kill the tsars, Tsaritsa Natalia, Sophia and the patriarch, then to raise rebellion all over Moscow and snatch the throne. The lesser charges included association with ‘accursed schismatics’, embezzlement, dereliction of military duty, and insulting the boyars. The charges were full of inconsistencies and illogicalities, but their sheer weight sealed the Khovanskys’ fate and Prince Ivan and his son were beheaded on the spot … The strel’tsy were forced to swear an oath of loyalty based on a set of conditions, the final clause of which threatened death to anyone who ‘speaks approvingly of the deeds of late, or boasts of committing murder or makes up phrases inciting rebellion as before, or stirs up people to commit criminal acts.’ (Source)

He’s the subject of the Mussorgsky opera Khovanshchina.

* Old Believers wanted a rollback of religious reforms decreed in recent years; Sophia said no dice. Once Peter the Great took over, Sophia and Old Believers alike would end up in the same boat.

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1937: Alexander Shlyapnikov, Workers’ Opposition leader

Add comment September 2nd, 2018 Headsman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Politicians,Power,Revolutionaries,Russia,Shot,Treason,USSR

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