1937: Nikolai Nikolayevich Durnovo, Slavist

Add comment October 27th, 2020 Headsman

Russian linguist Nikolai Nikolayevich Durnovo was shot during Stalin’s purges on this date in 1937.

The man descended from tsarist nobility — not only the House of Durnovo but his mother’s House of Saltykov — and the Durnovo name might have been hateful to radicals from a key minister involved in the smashing-up of the 1905 revolution.*

Our Durnovo had more modest interests as “one of the pioneers of linguistic and geographical study of East Slavic languages” who did some of the foundational work sorting Russian, Belarussian, and Ukrainian linguistic features. He published a 1915 “Dialectological map of the Russian language in Europe with an essay on Russian dialectology” and (in 1924) the first Russian dictionary of linguistic terms. He had an appointment in Belarus and researched and lectured in Czechoslovakia as well, but was eventually denounced as a “bourgeois nationalist” and struggled for work with the pall of the 1930s.

In 1933-34 a number of Slavic studies intellectuals and especially linguists were arrested in an affair known as the Case of the Slavists — seemingly, as with a previous Case of the Academics, a campaign to enforce discipline upon a field of growing ideological importance to Moscow. Accused of suspect foreign contacts, convicts in this early purge received “mere” prison sentences, some eventually escaping to exile. But the scarlet letter upon them stood all in great danger as purges grew more deadly late in the 1930s, and our man Durnovo was not the only Slavist who was subsequently executed.**

He was shot at Sandarmokh in Karelia, a site with over 9,000 recorded executions from 1937 to 1938. His sons, Andrei and Yevgeny, were also both executed in 1938. All the convictions from the Slavists’ trials were overturned after Stalin’s death.


Memorial stone at Sandarmokh; the inscription implores “People! Do not kill one another!” (cc) image by Semenov.m7.

* That man, Pyotr Durnovo, is also famous for a 1914 memorandum acutely diagnosing the state of imperial rivalry between England and Germany and correctly forecasting that should Russia foolishly ally with England — he wrote in February, before the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand made the imminent onset of war obvious — it would court “social revolution in its most extreme form.”

[T]he trouble will start with the blaming of the Government for all disasters. In the legislative institutions a bitter campaign against the Government will begin, followed by revolutionary agitations throughout the country, with Socialist slogans, capable of arousing and rallying the masses, beginning with the division of the land and succeeded by a division of all valuables and property. The defeated army, having lost its most dependable men, and carried away by the tide of primitive peasant desire for land, will find itself too demoralized to serve as a bulwark of law and order. The legislative institutions and the intellectual opposition parties, lacking real authority in the eyes of the people, will be powerless to stem the popular tide, aroused by themselves, and Russia will be flung into hopeless anarchy, the issue of which cannot be foreseen.

Nicholas II should have listened to him.

** Not all were so unfortunate. Victor Vladimirovich Vinogradov was actually reinstated to the summit of the academy during Stalin’s life (and received the Stalin Prize in 1951). He’s still widely known in his field to this day as one of the seminal Russian linguists.

On this day..

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

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