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.

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1938: Mikhail Viktorov, Soviet naval commander

1 comment August 1st, 2018 Headsman

Soviet admiral* Mikhail Viktorov fell in the purges on this date in 1938.

A young officer fresh from the Naval Academy when World War I broke out, Viktorov (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) made a timely switch to the Bolshevik side during the Civil War and scaled the heights of the Soviet navy.

He commanded the Baltic Fleet in the latter 1920s, and the Pacific Fleet in the 1930s, and finally — fleetingly — became chief of the Soviet navy in 1937, filling dead man’s boots when his predecessor was arrested and executed.**

The same fate awaited Viktorov, a perilous occupational hazard in those days.

He was rehabilitated posthumously in 1956.

* Viktorov’s rank was “Fleet’s Flag Officer, First Rank”; in 1938, this was the equivalent of admiral, and after a 1940 reorganization it was replaced full stop with admiral.

** It appears to me that fully seven consecutive heads of the Soviet Navy eventually ended up executed in the 1930s and 1940s (not all of them directly deposed from running the navy). Pantserzhanskiy, Zof, Muklevich, Orlov, our man Viktorov, and also his successors Smirnov and Frinovsky.

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1938: Vladimir Antonov-Ovseyenko, Winter Palace stormer

1 comment February 10th, 2018 Headsman

Communist revolutionary and Soviet military leader Vladimir Antonov-Ovseyenko (or -Ovseenko) was purged on this date in 1938.

Portrait of Antonov-Ovseyenko by Yuri Annenkov.

The Ukrainian was a radical agitator from youth; he was expelled from military college in 1901 at age 17 for refusing to swear loyalty to Nicholas II and proceeded thereafter upon a cursus honorum of revolutionary tribulations — albeit, until World War I, as a Menshevik.

He stood in some danger of achieving these pages by the hand of the tsarist government rather than the Soviet one, on account of helping orchestrate the Sebastopol mutiny during the 1905 revolution, but his death sentence was commuted to hard labor.

Nothing chastised, Antonov-Ovseyenko escaped and returned to that life of militancy suitable to his badass underground nickname “Bayonet”, organizing workers and publishing illegal newspapers while dodging Stolypin‘s police. After several arrests, he finally fled for exile abroad.

According to Harold Walter Nelson’s Leon Trotsky and the Art of Insurrection, 1905-1917, it was in Paris writing for the red paper Nashe Slove (aka Golos) that the former cadet drew close to Trotsky, finding a common “conviction that the relationship between military events and the development of the revolution was critical,” and thereafter “Antonov-Ovseenko’s enthusiasm for columns on military topics opened the pages of Nashe Slovo to Trotsky’s articles” ultimately amounting to “several hundred pages of commentary on the war [World War I].” Ere long both figures would have opportunity to implement their doctrines on the battlefield.

Nashe Slovo was suppressed in 1916 after mutinying Russian soldiers were found to have read it, an event that also led to Trotsky’s being expelled from France to New York City.*

But the time for revolutionists’ exile was drawing to a close. Barely a year after the indignity of having his subversive exile ‘zine shuttered by the Third Republic, Antonov-Ovseenko — as secretary of the Petrograd Military Revolutionary Committee — led a posse of soldiers and sailors into the Winter Palace and arrested the Provisional Government, consummating the October Revolution.


Despite Sergei Eisenstein‘s epic re-creation in October: Ten Days That Shook the World, and the 1920 live re-enactment staged by Nikolai Evreinov, the Winter Palace was barely defended and Antonov-Ovseenko entered and found the Provisional Government without meeting resistance. He offered amnesty for the surrender of the remaining Winter Palace holdouts, and the offer was accepted.

Now a key military figure in the infant Communist state, Antonov-Ovseyenko helped clinch Soviet victory in the ensuing civil war, routing White armies in the Ukraine in 1918-1919 and putting down the Tambov Rebellion of peasant anti-Bolsheviks in 1920-1921.


Antonov-Ovseyenko (center) chills with Red Army officers.

By the later 1920s his Trotsky affiliation had significantly dimmed his star,** though he was still entrusted in the 1930s as a Soviet consul to several countries — the last of them the Spanish Republic during the Spanish Civil War, before falling prey to the purges mere months after his return.

His son, the lately deceased Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko, survived 13 years in the Gulag to become a dissident historian; his The Time of Stalin, published abroad in 1981 after being smuggled out of the USSR by Russia scholar Stephen Cohen, was one of the milestones along the way toward the public reckoning with Stalinism. “An embattled personality and fearless” in Cohen’s estimation, Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko died in 2013, still directing a Gulag museum in Moscow even though he had long since gone blind.

* Via Spain.

** In The Time of Stalin, Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko alleges that his father considered betting on the loyalty of the army in a coup against the Stalin faction, back when control of the post-Lenin state was still uncertain. “This cannot go on for long,” runs one letter the young Antonov-Ovseyenko quotes. “There remains one alternative — to appeal to the peasant masses dressed in Red Army greatcoats and call to order the leaders who have gone too far.” Trotsky also wrote in his memoir that such a coup was mooted within their circle.

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1937: Georgy Pyatakov, Anti-Soviet Parallel Trotskyist

Add comment January 30th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1937, Georgy Pyatakov was condemned to death and shot in Moscow as a Trotskyist conspirator.

Pyatakov (English Wikipedia entry | the more detailed Russian) was a young Bolshevik activist not long out of his schooling — and his de rigueur Siberian sentence — when the Russian Revolutions of 1917 overturned tsarism. He played an important role in the Communist revolution in Ukraine but his political opinions come the 1920s essentially aligned with Trotsky’s and we know where that will land a Bolshevik once Koba has the state in hand.

Pyatakov would die in the second of the so-called “Moscow Trials”, which was the third of the signal deadly show trials that would herald the frightful acme of Stalinism: preceding it was the First Moscow Trial or the Trial of the Sixteen in August 1936, in which Old Bolsheviks Zinoviev and Kamenev were executed as supposed Trotskysts; it was followed in November 1936 by the Kemerovo Trial in Western Siberia, in which a mining disaster was pinned not on shoddy industrial management but on a Trotskyist “wrecking” conspiracy to sabotage the Soviet economy.

Gleefully did these trials compound upon the web that Trotsky was spinning from exile in Mexico. In principle, Stalin could have chosen simply to purge Zinoviev and Kamenev as rival aspirants and have done with it: in practice, these were merely early stones of an avalanche. The Kemerovo trial expanded the grasp of the Trotskyist conspiracy to compass orchestrating terrorist cells among the whole populace; and even as arrests in locales throughout the USSR vindicated this theory, the Second Moscow Trial — our focus — made the next round of doomed elites the “reserve center” backing up the Zinoviev-Kamenev guys “in case the main center was arrested and destroyed.” It was this junior varsity that had been coordinating for several years “the main work of wrecking, which ruined much in our economy” in coordination not only with Trotsky but with insidious capitalist rulers. (The comments are from the report that secret police chief Yezhov prepared for them, as quoted in 1937: Stalin’s Year of Terror) Hey, Trotsky in his day had put together the Red Army on the fly: the man knew how to organize.

The progress of these official lines put any real or alleged opposition to Stalin on the same plane as treason against the state, the people, Communism, and with links reaching from the humblest disgruntled kulak all the way to a distant demon figure the parallel to Europe’s witch hunts is difficult to resist. The Soviet Union’s burning times would ensue with seasons of wild purging in 1937 and 1938.

The Second Moscow Trial — or, as you might have guessed it is also called, the trial of the “Anti-Soviet Parallel Trotskyist Center” — unfolded from January 23 to 30 of 1937, and featured the entirely fictional tale that Pyatakov had secretly flown to Oslo to huddle with Trotsky on their wrecking strategy. Not everyone suffered Pyatakov’s summary fate at the end; the most famous defendant in this affair, Karl Radek, got a penal labor sentence and was later murdered in the camps.

The “Anti-Soviet Parallel Trotskyist Center” types were posthumously rehabilitated during the Mikhail Gorbachev era.

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1974: Beqir Balluku, Albanian Minister of Defence

Add comment November 5th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1974, the deposed Albanian Defence Minister Beqir Balluku was shot … a bit of an occupational hazard for the post considering a like fate for a predecessor 25 years before.

Balluku (English Wikipedia entry | Albanian | German) fought as an anti-Nazi partisan during World War II and ascended to the brass of the postwar communist state by the late 1940s. Thus positioned, he aided the dictator Enver Hoxha in a notable 1956 purge that earned him a derisive namecheck from Nikita Khrushchev.

The Albanians are worse than beasts — they are monsters. Only later did we learn how the Albanian Communist leaders punished and eliminated members of their own Party. They had a sort of troika: Hoxha, Shehu and Balluku. These three used to bring someone to trial, and Enver Hoxha and Mehmet Shehu would sentence the accused to death themselves, without ever putting anything in writing; then they would look for an opportunity to have their victim murdered secretly, and Balluku would personally carry out the execution. It was all very similar to the system used by Joseph Stalin and Lavrentiy Beria.

The unrepentant Stalinism of this “troika” would lead Albania to its strange Cold War alliance with China against Moscow and the power of Hoxha et al would long outlast that of Khrushchev.

But such things never last forever, after all. By the 1970s, friction between the party and the military (and between Albania and China, a relationship that closely implicated Balluku) led Hoxha increasingly to fear a coup d’etat. Hoxha struck first in 1974 by suddenly felling the entire top ranks of the armed forces: not only Balluku but also generals Hito Cako and Petrit Dume.* Balluku had been 22 years the trusted Minister of Defence and 26 years a member of the Politburo, a dependable ally of the chief the entire time but it needed mere weeks to “eat him alive”. (Albanian link)

* These generals would be executed one month after Balluku.

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1984: Ten members of the Tudeh party

3 comments February 25th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1984, the Islamic Republic of Iran completed its destruction of the Tudeh party with ten executions.

In the 1940s, the Tudeh was Iran’s largest mass party and a fair bet to take power in the near future but state repression after Mossadegh was overthrown in 1953 had largely driven the Communist movement to the skulking margins.

Its fragments hung on underground, preparing and organizing for the proletarian revolution — an orientation that would leave the Tudeh entirely unprepared for the Iranian Revolution that really occurred. In fairness, few from Tehran to Moscow to Washington could read those tea leaves: who in the winter of the Cold War anticipated a great regional prize like Iran being captured by … the mullahs?

The Revolution released the once-banned party onto terra incognita as a minor outlet for leftward sentiment and perhaps a show of democratic good faith. But from the start it awkwardly existed on sufferance of an entirely incompatible regime. The venerable English journalist Robert Fisk, who covered the Iranian Revolution, filed a wry dispatch for the Times (Nov. 26, 1979) from the Tehran offices of Tudeh leader Nouredin Kianouri — unconvincingly trying to position his own movement within the events sweeping everyone along.

Tudeh is involved in “the radical struggle against imperialism”, and “the struggle for the reorganization of social life, especially for the oppressed strata of society” … and in so far as it is possible, Tudeh — Iran’s oldest political party — stands for the same things as Ayatollah Khomeini.

That, at least, is the theory: and Mr Kianouri holds to it bravely.

Tudeh demands a “popular front” government in Iran and Mr Kianouri professes to see little difference between this and Ayatollah Khomeini’s desire for national unity. “Popular Front”, however, is not an expression that has ever crossed the Imam’s lips and it is difficult to see how Iran’s new fundamentalist religious administration could form any cohesion with the materialist aims of Mr Kianouri’s scientific Marxism.

The article’s headline was “Ayatollah tolerates Communists until they become too popular,” but Tudeh never fulfilled its clause: it was blown out in the 1980 election, failing to win even a single seat, and maneuvered ineffectually for two years until a crackdown shattered its remnants with over 1,000 arrests early in 1983,* heavily targeting Tudeh-sympathizing army officers.** (The aforesaid Mr. Kianouri was forced to make a humiliating televised self-denunciation in 1983, although he surprisingly avoided execution.)

Those arrests culminated in a large show trial of 101 Tudeh principals in December 1983-January 1984, followed by smaller trials of lesser Tudeh figures in several cities over the months to come.

Eighty-seven Tudeh officials caught prison sentences ranging from eight months to life; these “lucky” ones, along with hundreds of other Tudeh adherents arrested in the years to come, would later be well-represented among the victims of Iran’s 1988 slaughter of political prisoners.

That left ten† reserved for execution on February 25 on charges compassing espionage, treason, and the weapons they had once naively stockpiled to fight against a monarchist coup. Notable among them were four high-ranking military officers: Col. Houshang Attarian, Col. Bezhan Kabiri, Col. Hassan Azarfar, and the chief catch, former Navy Commander Admiral Bahram Afzali.

Formally banned in Iran, the Tudeh party does still exists to this day, an exile shadow of its former glory.

* The U.S., officially abhorred of Iran, was in this period covertly aiding Tehran to raise funds to illegally bankroll Central American death squads — the Iran-Contra scandal. According to the American Tower Commission investigation of those events, the Tudeh were one of the lesser casualties this foreign policy misadventure when U.S. intelligence about the Tudeh network, largely obtained via a KGB defector, was passed to Tehran as a pot-sweetener: “In 1983, the United States helped bring to the attention of Tehran the threat inherent in the extensive infiltration of the government by the communist Tudeh Party and Soviet or pro-Soviet cadres in the country. Using this information, the Khomeini government took measures, including mass executions, that virtually eliminated the pro-Soviet infrastructure in Iran.” (See Appendix B here.)

** Iran at this moment was two years deep into its war with Saddam Hussein‘s Iraq, having in 1982 stalled out with a bloody and ineffectual offensive.

Other background of note: a different, Maoist party had in early 1982 launched a failed rising against the Islamic Republic.

† This doesn’t add up to 101. According to Tortured Confessions: Prisons and Public Recantations in Modern Iran, “when a Japanese correspondent asked why the numbers of those sentenced did not tally with those originally brought to trial, he [Mohammed Reyshahri] hedged, it was rumoured some had died during their interrogation.”

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1936: Vladimir Mutnykh, Bolshoi director

Add comment November 26th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1937, the director of Moscow’s famed Bolshoi Theater was shot in the Gulag … even as Uncle Joe mangled his greatest commission.

Vladimir Ivanovich Mutnykh is the man whose suffering occasions this post but as with the Terror itself he will for us be a footnote to a different story.

Mutnykh ultimately fell prey to the chill that Stalin cast over Soviet arts — where come the 1930s the only fare liable to pass muster with the censors (or indeed, with the executioners) were creations of turgid doctrinal correctness or cautious revivals from the pre-Revolutionary literary canon.

The strictures on artists also reflected Moscow’s abiding preoccupation with the cultural preeminence of Russia and of Communism.

Among the USSR’s many and varied exertions towards the latter end during the 1930s, not least was a project to induce a return to the motherland by genius (and homesick) composer Sergei Prokofiev, who had been mostly living and working Europe since the Bolshevik Revolution.*

In the mid-1930s, Stalin’s cultural ambassadors finally got their man.** And one of the plums that secured Prokofiev’s permanent repatriation was a commission to create for Mutnykh’s Bolshoi Theater a ballet version of the Shakespeare classic Romeo and Juliet.

Today, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet is one of the best-known and most widely performed of all his considerable output.

Some might even call Romeo and Juliet Prokofiev’s magnum opus. But Prokofiev wouldn’t have called it that.

Having gone to such great trouble to lure back a revolutionary artist, Soviet cultural officers were predictably aghast to discover that he produced a revolutionary reimagining of the Bard. In Prokofiev’s original composition, the star-crossed lovers get a happy ending and escape together instead of dying in the tomb. “Living people can dance, the dead cannot,” Prokofiev explained, unavailingly. The idea is that their love transcends the shackles of their family rivalry; even, that they had transcended the backwards political order that made them enemies. But Soviet bureaucrats were positively hidebound when it came to fiddling with the classics, and the director was forced to return to the tragic ending.

Nor was this the end of the meddling.

In 1936, joyless cultural commissar Platon Kerzhentsev ransacked the Bolshoi leadership, including Mutnykh — who had given the initial green light to Prokofiev’s first, heretical version.

For the next several years, the ballet with the checkerboard floor was twisted into shape by the Soviet bureaucracy, wringing change after change out of a frustrated but powerless Prokofiev. By the time it finally premiered — at the Kirov, not the Bolshoi — Prokofiev’s collaborator dramatist Sergei Radlov disgustedly wrote to friends that “I take no responsibility for this disgrace.”

“The version that’s known and loved around the world is completely incorrect,” said Simon Morrison, a Princeton professor. “There’s an act missing. There are dances orchestrated by people against Prokofiev’s wishes, and other stuff he was forced to put in there against his will.”

In the course of researching his 2010 book on Prokofiev, The People’s Artist, Morrison amazingly dredged up the original Prokofiev composition and documentary trails showing that the composer was forced to scrap three too-exotic dances, to “thicken” the orchestration, and to add elements like a group dance number and solos to show off the Kirov’s talent.† The ballet didn’t debut at the Bolshoi until 1946, when Stalin himself signed off it.

“Once the work was performed, Prokofiev was dismayed at a lot of things, including the sound of the orchestra. He wrote a long letter of protest but none of the changes were made to the score,” Morrison told the London Independent. “It became the canonic version, a reorganised, torn-up work. It’s a testament to how great the melodic writing is – it still became a great classic despite this mangling of it.”

A few books by Simon Morrison on Prokofiev and his world

* Prokofiev was neither an exile nor a refugee; his departure from the USSR in 1918 was voluntary and legally blessed. He had had no problem in the intervening years coming back to Russia and leaving again.

** One immediate product of Prokofiev’s return was the beloved 1936 children’s production Peter and the Wolf.

He also in 1938 gloriously scored Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky.

† Morrison in 2008 staged performances of Prokofiev’s original version of Romeo and Juliet.

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1940: Mikhail Koltsov, Soviet journalist

Add comment February 2nd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1940, Soviet writer Mikhail Koltsov was shot at Lubyanka Prison.

Maybe the premier journalist of the early Bolshevik state, Koltsov (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) founded several magazines in the 1920s — including the still-extant Ogoniok.* His stylistic flair set him apart in an age oppressed by leaden, censorious prose. “If Pravda featured a readable piece in the 1930s, Koltsov was probably the author,” Donald Rayfield puts it in Stalin and His Hangmen. And the man’s charisma didn’t end with pen; he was the lover of (among others) the wife of security chief Nikolai Yezhov.

A convinced communist who had participated in the revolution, his reliability led Stalin to dispatch him to the Spanish Civil War — as a Pravda correspondent but also, of course, a Soviet agent. His role and his many fraught relationships are treated at some length in We Saw Spain Die; one officer of an international brigade wrote that Koltsov and his fellows seemed to breathe freer amid the wild danger of the front — “Here there was none of the slavish terror of the Moscow intellectual. Under the hail of Fascist bullets they forgot the bullet in the back of the neck, the secret executions of the GPU. Their talk was relaxed, uncharged with double meanings, un-Asiatic.”

Be that as it may, Koltsov as Kremlin vizier to a dirty war was on the other end of the death warrant often enough; he also cultivated Ernest Hemingway, and was rewarded with a thinly veiled role in For Whom The Bell Tolls (the character Karkov). His memoir Spanish Diary is a sort of team-Soviet counterpart to Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia.

But Koltsov lived ever in the shadow of Stalin’s terror, and to hear his friend, English correspondent Claud Cockburn tell it, Koltsov too knew it very well: a man for his time who could be a true believer by day and by night crack gallows humor at the creeping purges among friends. “I cannot say I was surprised” by his fall, Cockburn wrote when his onetime comrade disappeared. “And, oddly, I doubt if he was much surprised either. He had lived — and talked and joked — very dangerously, and he had absolutely no illusions so far as I know about the nature of the dangers … He would not, I thought, have been otherwise than satirically amused by some of the almost hysterically sentimental outcries which greeted his removal.” Though difficult to establish with certainty, it is thought that Stalin and Beria broadly suspected their Spanish Civil War emissaries of exposure to Trotskyite machinations, western spies, and other indulgences characteristic of men too far removed from that bullet in the back of the neck. Veterans of this conflict who retured to the USSR were a heavily purged demographic.**

Arrested as a Trotskyite at the end of 1938, he had a year to savor the terrors of interrogation and was made to denounce as western agents former friends like director Vsevolod Meyerhold — who was eventually executed on the same Feb. 1-2 night as Koltsov himself.

His brother, the cartoonist Boris Yefimov,† tried to inquire about him in March 1940 and was told that Koltsov had been interned in the gulag for ten years “without right of correspondence” … a secret police euphemism for a man who would in fact never correspond with anyone again.

* In 1923; this was a re-founding of a periodical dating to 1899, and the magazine naturally claims the earlier vintage for itself.

** Koltsov’s fall also corresponds to Moscow’s pre-World War II rapprochement with Berlin; one of the people his tortured denunciations helped bring down was the Jewish pro-western foreign minister Maxim Litvinov, for whom an anti-fascist alliance had been the policy. Litvinov was succeeded by Molotov — he of the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany.

† Their surname by birth was Fridlyand; their father was a Jewish cobbler in Kiev.

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1937: Titsian Tabidze, poet

Add comment December 16th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1937, the Georgian poet Titsian Tabidze was executed in Stalin’s purges.

“Titsiani”, who co-founded the “Blue Horns” symbolist circle in 1916, is the addressee of fellow dissident litterateur Boris Pasternak’s Letters to a Georgian Friend.

“There is as much soul in his poetry as there was in him, a reserved and complicated soul, wholly attracted to the good and capable of clairvoyance and self-sacrifice,” Pasternak would remember of his comrade. “The memory of Tabidze puts me in mind of the country; landscapes rise in my imagination, the waves of the sea and a vast flowering plain; clouds drifting in a row and, behind them in the distance, mountains rising to the same level.”

The problem was their decidedly less sentimental countryman in the Kremlin.

Georgian security chief Lavrenty Beria put the screws to the Georgian writers’ association, driving fellow Blue Horns alum Paolo Yashvili to suicide when he was pressured to denounce Tabidze.

But of course the only difference that made was for Yashvili’s soul.

Arrested as a traitor a bare two months before his death, Tabidze defiantly betrayed to his interrogators the name of only a single fellow-traveler: 18th century Georgian poet Besiki.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Georgia,History,Intellectuals,Posthumous Exonerations,Russia,Shot,Torture,Treason,USSR

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1937: Alexander Chayanov, economist of the peasantry

Add comment October 3rd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1937, the Soviet economist Alexander Chayanov was shot during Stalin’s purges.

“Our present capitalist form of economy represents only one particular instance of economic life and the validity of the scientific discipline of the national economics as we understand it today, based on the capitalist form and meant for its scientific investigation, cannot and should not be extended to other organizational forms of economic life.” (via)

A specialist in the rural economy, Chayanov was noted for his forward thinking about Russia’s backwards peasantry.

Prevailing Marxist orthodoxy envisioned this class hurtling inevitably towards capitalism as its members sought their own advantage;* against this, Chayanov emphasized the resilience of the peasantry. And not only that, he postulated that the unwaged peasantry operated in an economic constellation alien to the classical model of value maximization — and would rather tend to relax labor once it reached subsistence production, rather than working ever onwards to attain surplus value and Five-Year Plan quotas.

This theory accurately anticipated difficulty for Soviet agricultural policies like collectivization and grain confiscation.

Denounced as an apologist for the refractory kulaks — official agrarian bogeymen of the early Soviet state — Chayanov was arrested in 1930 and found himself shipped to a labor camp in Kazakhstan. He was re-arrested in 1937, tried, condemned, and shot in a single day; his wife Olga also disappeared into the gulag only to be released in 1955, after Stalin’s death. They were officially rehabilitated in 1987 under Mikhail Gorbachev.

Though Chayanov’s own work was cut short by his suppression, his ideas would resurface in the postwar period and find exponents among western economists and social scientists. Nor have those ideas been exclusively of interest to academics studying peasant societies; Chayanov’s emphasis on the family as an essential economic unit found an echo in the New Home Economics field launched in the 1960s by classical economists like Gary Becker, while his appreciation for maintaining a harmonious relationship to the land has been revived in contemporary Russia by Vladimir Megre‘s “Ringing Cedars” eco-cult.

* Marx wrote in Theories of Surplus Value that the “peasant who produces with his own means of production will either gradually be transformed into a small capitalist who also exploits the labor of others, or he will suffer the loss of his means of production … and be transformed into a wage worker.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Intellectuals,Russia,Shot,USSR

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