1929: Nikolaus Karlovich von Meck, wrecker

Add comment May 22nd, 2015 Headsman

On or about this date in 1929, Russian railway magnate Nikolaus (Nikolai) Karlovich von Meck was shot as a saboteur.

Von Meck (Russian link) had the iron horse in his blood: his father Karl was among Russia’s first railroad-builders after the Crimean War clock-cleaning motivated the tsar to make with the modernizing.

While von Meck pere was busy laying crossties in the 1860s, the St. Petersburg Conservatory was germinating the young composer Tchaikovsky. In time, the two men would be linked by the union of their kin: our man Nikolaus Karlovich von Meck married Tchaikovsky’s niece, Anna.

It wasn’t just a glancing association with the musical colossus for the von Mecks. Karl’s widow — Nikolaus’s mother — Nadezhda was Tchaikovsky’s main financial patron for 13 years. They weren’t lovers: Tchaikovsky was gay, and the reclusive Nadezhda von Meck demanded as a condition of her patronage that they never meet. But they kept up a voluminous correspondence, and Tchaikovsksy dedicated several works to her — like this Sympohony No. 4 in F minor.

So Nikolaus von Meck was the genius’s patron’s son as well as the genius’s niece’s husband.

He was also a brilliant engineer and entrepreneur in his own right; over the 26 years preceding the Russian Revolution, he chaired the Moscow-Kazan Railway firm that his father had begun back in the 1860s. Under the son’s leadership its rail-mileage multiplied more than tenfold. He was also one of Russia’s first motorists.

Von Meck remained in Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution, continuing to work on developing the now-Soviet state’s rail infrastructure — his means reduced, he remained no less the conscientious and patriotic artificer. That held even after the man was arrested as a counter-revolutionary a few different times in the revolution’s early years; each time he was soon released.

But by the late 1920s, Stalin was in full control and the industrialist would become the first subject of a new Soviet law against “wreckers”.

Ostensibly designed to target the saboteurs that were supposedly retarding economic growth, it would prove its utility in the frightful years ahead as a first-rate instrument of the Terror. The prospect that any economic setback, inefficiency or controversy could be lethally attributed to a cabal of global capitalists intent on strangling communism in the crib made “wrecking” as flexible and as devastating a charge as witchcraft had once been. How do you even begin to rebut that? Wrecking would in time be attributed to innumerable purge victims, great and small, and an implied whip against every worker who might be slacking on his production quota.

This potent juridical apparatus went for its first spin in the North Caucuses city of Shakhty in 1928-29. The Shakhty Trial of 53 engineers and technicians as “wreckers” also has the distinction of being Stalin’s first show trial. Von Meck and four other men* were condemned to die, a comparatively modest harvest of blood next to what was to come; 44 others went to prison.

“What accomplished villains these old engineers were! What diabolical ways to sabotage they found!” Solzhenitsyn mused of those luckless souls in The Gulag Archipelago.

Nikolai Karlovich von Meck of the People’s Commissariat of Railroads, pretended to be terribly devoted to the development of the new economy, and would hold forth for hours on end about the economic problems involved in the construction of socialism, and he loved to give advice. One such pernicious piece of advice was to increase the size of freight trains and not worry about heavier than average loads. The GPU [forerunner of the NKVD, which in turn became the KGB -ed.] exposed von Meck, and he was shot: his objective had been to wear out rails and roadbeds, freight cars and locomotives, so as to leave the Republic without railroads in case of foreign military intervention! When, not long afterward, the new People’s Commissar of Railroads, Comrade Kaganovich, ordered that average loads should be increased, and even doubled and tripled them (and for this discovery received the Order of Lenin along with others of our leaders) — the malicious engineers who protested became known as limiters. They raised the outcry that this was too much, and would result in the breakdown of the rolling stock, and they were rightly shot for their lack of faith in the possibilities of socialist transport.

Nikolaus and Anna’s daughter Galina Nikolayevna von Meck — who did time in Siberian exile herself in the 1930s — wrote a memoir of her famous family in 1973, As I Remember Them.

* Notably Peter Palchinsky, whose life is dealt with in some detail in Loren Graham’s The Ghost of the Executed Engineer: Technology and the Fall of the Soviet Union.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Intellectuals,Milestones,Notable Jurisprudence,Russia,Shot,Torture,Treason,USSR

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1872: Jose Balta, former President of Peru

1 comment July 26th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1872, four days after he was deposed as President of Peru, Jose Balta was summarily shot by the would-be dictatorship of Tomas Gutierrez.

Balta (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish) made his name as a soldier, an ironic background for a martyr to constitutional government.

As a colonel, Balta in 1867 led a revolt against President Mariano Ignacio Prado in Chiclayo (mirrored by a similar revolt by Gen. Pedro Diez Canseco Corbacho in Arequipa). The resistance forced Prado’s resignation, and Balta won the ensuing 1868 election.

(Notably, it was under Balta’s administration that unprincipled American railroad speculator Henry Meiggs got his prolific track-building operations going in Peru. Basically, the government took all the capital it raised on its guano-export contract — appropriate source — and plowed it into Meiggs’ well-hyped railroads, whose returns rarely justified the outlay to construct them. Wealthy and influential at his zenith, this adventurer was widely considered culpable for the disastrous state of the Peruvian economy by the time of his 1877 death, since in the interim the guano market had crashed and Peru found itself buried in debt it would ultimately default on. Oh, and: reason Meiggs was in Peru? He had to flee California after perpetrating a real estate scheme.)

Back to Balta. The soldier-President was adamant about an orderly departure from office (with a handover to an opposition party*) when his term came up in 1872, but others around him were less keen on constitutional precedents when there was power to be kept or lost.

On July 22, 1872, War Minister Tomas Gutierrez and his brother, Col. Silvestre Gutierrez, arrested the president. Tomas Gutierrez proclaimed himself dictator.

He was surely expecting a more appropriately cowed reaction from the country than he got: the President-elect got away on a warship, whose crew declared for him; the Peruvian Congress passed a resolution outlawing the Gutierrez coup; and the public reaction against him was chilly enough that someone gunned down Silvestre Gutierrez in a railway station on July 26.

News of this turn for the worse reached brother Marcelino, who had (ex-)President Balta in his charge at Callao … and Marcelino had Jose Balta immediately shot. This event meets the definition of an execution better by its circumstances than by its ceremony, since there was none of the latter; Balta was simply blasted while lying sick in bed, perhaps even still asleep, and not with the least sense of occasion.

And by no standard did it meet the usurpers’ definition of utility.

Neither of the remaining two Gutierrezes would outlive Jose Balta by so much as a day, and news of Balta’s murder only helped fan the incipient uprising: both were killed by mobs as the would-be dictatorial party collapsed in the hours ahead. All three of Tomas, Silvestre and Marcelino wound up on lampposts in Lima (and then burned to ashes in a public square) as recompense for their four days’ sovereignty.

As one report given out in North America recounted it:

The events of the past week will forever be remembered in Peruvian history. The spectacle of a Constitutional President deposed and imprisoned by a military usurper; of a Congress dispersed at the point of the bayonet, after the members, irrespective of partisan feeling, had united in signing a solemn protest, declaring the new officers of the so-called Government criminals and outlaws; of an entire country gathering together its strength to repel the attack made upon its liberties and legal rights; of the rising of the people when their indignation could no longer be restrained on the news of the cowardly assassination of Balta by the Dictator; of the triumph of moral force and justice over bayonets and a bastard cause; of the terrible vengeance of the populace on their tyrants; of the final re-establishment of peace, order and good government. This wonderful series of events has been witnessed by Lima in the space of five days. The Peruvian people have nobly vindicated their name and their national honor; the country is now on a firmer basis, and presents greater hopes for prolonged tranquility, prosperity and progress than it has for many years past.

(Not exactly. The economy, as mentioned, crashed in the 1870s, and there was a successful coup in 1879.)

* The guy set to succeed Balta was Manuel Pardo — not to be confused with Mariano Prado, whom Balta had supplanted.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Borderline "Executions",Cycle of Violence,Execution,Famous,Heads of State,History,Hostages,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Peru,Politicians,Power,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,The Worm Turns,Wrongful Executions

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