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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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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1939: Alexander Kosarev, Spartak Moscow patron

1 comment February 23rd, 2013 Headsman

Set against the background of the Soviet moderisation process, the development of sport in the two decades from the early 1930s to the early 1950s not only established the world-recognised pattern of sport in the Soviet Union and, later, in many other communistcountries (like China, Cuba and the GDR), it also resulted in a phenomenon unprecedentedin world sports history: the arrest and execution of a host of sports personalities. No one knows the exact numberof victims; but the purges carried off five sports ministers, Olympic Committee members for the Baltic states, heads of the major physical education colleges, eminent sports scientists and medics4 and probably thousands of leading athletes.

-Jim Riordan*

Sports and the physical body emerged early in Soviet history as a major doctrinal focus. A 1925 party resolution (quoted in this pdf) declared it

“essential to consider physical culture not only from the standpoint of physical education and health, and as one aspect of our youth’s cultural-industrial and military training, but also as a method of educating the masses.”


Dziga Vertov’s Soviet silent masterpiece Man With A Movie Camera (1929). This clip should cue up at the sports bit (45:26), but the entire film is a must-watch.

In the Stalin years, Soviet athletics took on the institutional patterns that continue to structure Russian sport to this day.

Given his position during the time of purges, Alexander Kosarev might have been bound for a bad end regardless. At least he had the consolation of leaving his fingerprints on a sporting institution that still thrives to this day.

We get to Kosarev by way of another man, Nikolai Starostin, an elite athlete of the 1920s and 1930s.**

A hockey star as well as a footballer, Starostin supported his family with his athletic gifts in the 1920s, and in 1922 helped found the local sports club that eventually developed into one of Europe’s most storied champions.

After juggling sponsorships and team names for a decade, Starostin approached Kosarev about bringing the club under the patronage of the Communist Party’s youth organ Komsomol, which Kosarev headed. He also suggested the name by which the team is still known, Spartak Moscow — paying tribute to the ancient rebel Spartacus.†

Komsomol support was not Komsomol control, however: Spartak remained basically independent, and this set it starkly apart from the other top Soviet teams, each controlled by a state ministry and its associated industry. (e.g., Lokomotiv Moscow, or the Red Army team CSKA.‡)

The football bully on the block at the time was Dynamo Moscow, a club dating to the tsarist age that was in the ambit of the internal security services. Dynamo won the first Soviet championship in 1936.

But Spartak quickly stepped over the Lokomotivs and established itself as Dynamo’s top rival.

Football matches, like everything else in Stalinist Moscow, were about politics, bureaucratic infighting, and the characteristic through-the-looking-glass rules of the dictatorship. Spartak used a controversial goal to beat Dynamo Tblisi (there were six Dynamo teams in the top division) in a Soviet Cup semifinals in 1939, the last before World War II. After Spartak went on to win the final, the Dynamo teams’ scary patron, NKVD boss Lavrenty Beria, ordered the semifinal match replayed. Spartak, already the tournament champion, then proceeded to win its semifinal a second time, compounding Beria’s fury. The referee from the first match was later arrested.

Beria was a passionate fan of the beautiful game — the ultimate football hooligan, you might say. He frequently attended Dynamo matches.

The secret police chief had even played for a Georgian club in his youth; in fact, he had played against (and lost to) a Starostin team. (Starostin thought Beria was a dirty player. Truly the Georgian was a man who tackled life studs-up.)

In contrast to Dynamo’s establishment backing, independent Spartak didn’t even have a home stadium until 1956. Nevertheless, it soon began attracting a sizable popular following. Its tactics were less stodgy; its persona less institutionally leaden; its star, Starostin, was a legend. And Spartak won, a lot.

“The people’s team” became a pole for — not resistance, exactly. But something a little bit alienated. A little bit defiant. Sport might not be your thing, but you have to appreciate any team that can embarrass the national torturer-in-chief. You have to appreciate the opportunity to hiss the secret police under cover of innocent fandom.

Unfortunately, Spartak’s Komsomol patron Kosarev fell. There’s an apocryphal story that Kosarev’s fate was football-related; surely the rivalry did him no favors when his life was hanging in the balance.

But it was actually just the routine infighting that did Soviet bureaucrats in throughout the late 1930s. His power eroded; a Komsomol official whom Kosarev had previously booted went over his head to Stalin himself, and Uncle Joe’s apparatchiks brought him down at a November 1938 Komsomol plenum with accusations of favoritism and alcoholism. (Stalin popped in briefly to see if “maybe this is a system and not a mistake?”)

Kosarev spent November 19-22 desperately fending off accusations at the rostrum, was removed from his post by the end of the session, and resided in a Lubyanka dungeon before the month was out. And you thought your committee meetings were awful.§

Kosarev got the bullet. Spartak lived on.

So did Starostin, who was not executed but sent to the Gulag. In 1948, Stalin’s son Vasily extracted Starostin to use as a coach for the Soviet Air Force’s football team, leading to a bizarre saga as a, well, human football between Vasily and Beria. (Beria’s security services kept trying to arrest Starostin, leaving the coach shuttled from city to city as the political winds shifted — and sometimes even bunking with his young protector and the revolver Vasily kept under his pillow. All for football!)

Kosarev was rehabilitated shortly after Stalin died. Khrushchev mentioned him by name in his “secret speech” denouncing the previous years’ terror.

Book CoverAnd since Stalin’s death precipitated Beria’s own execution, Starostin was rehabilitated as well. “It was like the sun rising in the Far North after the long Polar night,” Starostin remembered of 1953.

The exiled football legend returned to coach and manage Spartak Moscow — from 1955 until 1992, when he retired at age 90. Nikolai Starostin was associated with the club he helped create in 1922 almost as long as the Soviet Union was associated with Russia: 70 years … minus those lost to the Arctic labor camps.

“Camp bosses, arbiters of the life and death of thousands upon thousands of human beings, personifications of the GULAG brutalities and horrors, were so benevolent to anything concerning soccer,” said Starostin in his memoirs of the starstruck commandants who treated their special prisoner with kid gloves and invariably recruited Starostin to coach local clubs. (Dynamo clubs, ironically.) “Their unbridled power over human lives was nothing compared to the power of soccer over them.”

“The soccer ball was always out of Beria’s reach.”

* “The Strange Story of Nikolai Starostin, Football and Lavrentii Beria,” Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 46, No. 4 (1994). Riordan, a Briton, played for Spartak in the 1960s. (He wote an autobiography about it.)

** Nikolai was the oldest of four Kosarev brothers, all four of whom played for Spartak. All four were also arrested and tortured in 1942. Nikolai was the only one of them to remain involved in football after his release.

† Spartak was a change from the previous name, Red Presnya — an equally revolutionary nomenclature.

‡ In the 1930s, the Red Army team was known as CDKA. The reason its name changed was because a CDKA-based national team lost to Tito’s Yugoslavia in the 1952 World Cup, and Stalin in a huff ordered the CDKA club dissolved.

§ Information on Kosarev’s fall and the November 1938 Komsomol plenum from Seth Bernstein’s 2011 University of Toronto graduate paper “‘Lifestyle Cannot Be Separate from Politics': Degeneracy and Promotion in the Purge of the Soviet Komsomol Leadership, 1934-1938″. This paper no longer appears to be available online.

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1938: Branislaw Tarashkyevich, Belarusian linguist

Add comment November 29th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1938, linguist and politician Branislaw Tarashkyevich was shot at the Kommunarka execution range outside Moscow: another victim of Stalin’s purges.

Tarashkyevch (English Wikipedia page | Russian | Belarusian) is best remembered today for “Taraskevica”.


Tarashkyevich, and his grammar.

That’s the familiar name for Tarashkyevich’s 1918 grammar (Belarusian link) that standardized the tongue, or rather the collection of related “Belarusian” dialects.

Its creator also happened to be a political leftist; he served briefly in the parliament of Poland (which then controlled West Belarus), then became a leader of the Belarus Peasant and Worker Masses, a communist movement. Tarashkyevich was arrested in 1928 and subsequently exchanged for a Belarusian journalist whom the Soviets had imprisoned.

His career as a Soviet appartchik in Moscow was short-lived, however, before those guys clapped him in prison, too, with the outcome typical to that frightening time and place.

A like deletion was supposed to befall taraskevica when the Stalin-era Belarus SSR ordered a standardization with grammar and orthography that more closely resembled Russian; this version (“narkomawka”) still remains the official “Belarusian” to this day.

However, the taraskevica variant has established a stubborn foothold among users who consider it more authentic than its Russified rival.*

* See Curt Woolhiser, “Communities of Practice and Linguistic Divergence: Belarusophone Students as Agents ofLinguistic Change,” Harvard Ukrainian Studies, Vol. 29, No. 1/4 (2007).

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1937: Andrei Stepanovich Arzhilovsky, counterrevolutionary kulak

Add comment September 5th, 2012 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1937, a 51-year-old Russian peasant by the name of Andrei Stepanovich Arzhilovsky was executed by firing squad, having been convicted of membership in a “counterrevolutionary kulak sabotage organization.”

Arzhilovsky, who had five young children by the time of his death, was evidently a nefarious thought-criminal with a record. He had sufficient literacy to join the regional administration in the nineteen-teens, which led to his arrest in 1919 in the wake of the October Revolution of two years previously.

He denied having ever persecuted Communist sympathizers, but a revolutionary tribunal sentenced him to eight years in prison.

Released after an amnesty in 1923, Arzhilovsky returned home, took up farming again, joined the peasant cooperative and took up a number of other minor civic posts. He owned 8.1 hectares of cultivated land, a house and outbuildings, two horses, two cows and other livestock. He was classified as a farmer of average means — that is, not a kulak or class enemy — but in 1929 he was convicted of “counterrevolutionary agitation” and sentenced to a decade in a labor camp.

In 1936, Arzhilovsky was released from detention early for health reasons. They expected him to go home and die, but instead he took an accounting job at a factory.

Perhaps frustrated by Arzhilovsky’s refusal to expire, the NKVD “uncovered” the “conspiracy” that lead to his death sentence. Under interrogation, he had to admit his opinions weren’t purely Soviet. Perhaps that alone was enough.

Arzhilovsky was a simple farmer, just one of the millions who died during Stalin’s Great Terror from 1936-1938. He probably would have been forgotten entirely today were it not for the forty-page diary he kept during the year prior to his death.

It was confiscated by NKVD agents when they searched his home. The diary was translated and published in 1995 in an anthology of several others from that period, under the title Intimacy and Terror: Soviet Diaries of the 1930s.

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1937: Martemyan Ryutin, for his affair

1 comment January 10th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1937, Martemyan Ryutin was condemned to death and immediately executed in Stalinist USSR.

Ryutin (English Wikipedia entry | Russian | another Russian bio) was a revolutionary from the Far East who by the late 1920s was in the Bolsheviks’ heretical right wing; his affiliation with Bukharin and Rykov got him temporarily booted out of the Communist party in 1930.

Not content to keep his head safely down as Stalin’s star ascended, Ryutin typed out an anti-Stalin pamphlet and the 200-page “Ryutin Platform” denouncing Josef Djugashvili as “the gravedigger of the Revolution” and urging that he be removed — even by force.*

Weeks after Ryutin began circulating this incendiary samizdat the secret police busted him.

Though open discussion of the so-called Ryutin Affair was nonexistent in the Soviet Union until the Gorbachev era, it was a matter of dire importance for the Politburo in 1932; indeed, fleeting as it was, it’s one of the few organized elite attempts to thwart Stalin discernible during the 1930s. Stalin wanted Ryutin executed, but he was outvoted; this is a small milepost on the way to the Yezhovschina indicating that Stalin’s power still had its limits … and Bolsheviks still recoiled at the prospect of killing other party members.** These constraints were not very long for the scene.

Even so, Ryutin got a 10-year prison sentence and anyone else who had read the Ryutin platform without informing on it to the Party was in seriously hot water. Twenty-four were expelled from the party in October 1932 for this reason, including once-proud and soon-doomed Old Bolsheviks Zinoviev and Kamenev.

Ryutin, for his part, had only a few years to wait before the deteriorating political climate dispensed with those taboos about internecine bloodletting. The Supreme Court signed off on his execution this day with just a few minutes’ hearing, and it was immediately carried out.

Ryutin’s two sons were also executed in 1937, and his wife died in a labor camp. Only his daughter Lyubov survived the Ryutin Affair — which convictions were posthumously reversed in 1988.

* Bukharin’s widow later wrote that Stalin’s agents later added the most inflammatory material — like that violent overthrow stuff.

** Had Stalin had his way in 1932, Ryutin would have had the distinction of being the first Central Committee member to be executed, according to Suzi Weissman.

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1937: Eero Haapalainen, former Finnish Red Guard commander

1 comment November 27th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1937, Finnish communist Eero Haapalainen was shot in Moscow.

Haapalainen (English Wikipedia entry | Finnish) was a prominent socialist, trade unionist, and journalist when World War I tipped Finland into civil war.

Despite a lack of military experience, Haapalainen had momentary command of the Red Guards in that brief but bloody struggle. The Reds lost, necessitating Haapalainen’s escape by motorboat to St. Petersburg in May 1918.

There he settled in for a couple of decades’ middle-management service to the revolution: writing, teaching, paper-pushing.

The almost inevitable end came with stunning speed in the autumn of 1937. Arrested exactly one month before his execution, Haapalainen denied the charges of counterrevolutionary activity under NKVD torture.

Denial, confession … it all amounted to the same thing. Eleven other Finns (Finnish link) got it with Haapalainen at the very same time: Saimi Virtanen, Väinö Turunen, Urho Pitkälahti, Armas Raasu, Anselm Mäkelin, Mikko Lehmus, Toivo Rantanen, Aino Forsten, Väinö Savander, Rauno Koivistoinen, Eskil Kyllänen, Anton Uotinen.

The next year, Eero Haapalainen’s son Toivo, an engineer, was also purged. Father and son were both rehabilitated in the Krushchev era.

Part of the Daily Double: Stalinism East and West.

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1936: Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, Old Bolsheviks

4 comments August 25th, 2011 Headsman

During the purges of the 1930s, Josef Stalin showed a particular relish for eliminating the Old Bolsheviks whose red credentials predated the revolution. (And potentially, outshone his own.)

Zinoviev

On this date in 1936, one of the oldest of them, Grigory Zinoviev, was shot with his longtime ally Lev Kamenev.

These guys had been major movers and shakers among the early Bolsheviki, adherents of Lenin during the first decade of the century when the aspiration for a Communist Russia seemed hopelessly far-fetched. Zinoviev rode with Lenin from Switzerland to Petrograd in the famous sealed train after the February Revolution toppled the tsar. (Not so Kamenev: he was serving time in Siberia, but was freed by the revolution.)

In the years that followed, both played leading roles in the Soviet government despite their impolitic opposition to the Bolshevik coup in October.

Kamenev was briefly head of state in 1917, and he married Leon Trotsky’s sister. Zinoviev was the longtime head of the Communist International, in which capacity he showed Moscow’s public face for communist movements in other countries. Bela Kun was another ally of Zinoviev’s.)

In this capacity, he’s known in British history for the “Zinoviev letter”, a purported summons to Anglo agitation that was actually a dirty trick dropped before an election to help the Tories sweep to power.*

Those were the good old days — when Lenin was fading away and Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Stalin were the “troika” running things. They should have checked with the Romans how triumvirates work out.

Because of their alliance, Zinoviev and Kamenev provided the decisive support that enabled Stalin to remain General Secretary of the party after the public airing of Lenin’s Testament warning against him. Without Zinoviev and Kamenev at this crucial moment, Stalin probably could not have survived politically; the name Koba might have gone into history books as little more than a terror to the paperwork of some forgotten bureau. (And the pre-revolutionary Caucasus!)

Talk about hoisted by your own petard.

Having been helpfully maintained in his position against Lenin’s dying wish, Stalin soon marginalized these formerly useful creatures. Their last decade was doomed to a spiral of failing power struggles, sinking rank, furtive dissension, and craven submission to party discipline.

Stalin at length destroyed them at the first great Moscow show trial, the Trial of the Sixteen — which hyped a “Trotskyite-Zinovievite” plot in a nicely Orwellian twist. (Despite Kamenev’s marital connection, Trotsky was actually a political rival.) The charge sheet must have reminded the defendants on every one of their dwindling days of the alliance with Trotsky they could have made back when they mattered.

The Trial of the 16 defendants would help to write the script for succeeding acts of this awful theater: after fighting the allegations, Zinoviev and Kamenev agreed to plead guilty on private assurances that their lives would be spared.

But once he had their “admissions” on the record, Stalin altered the deal.

Not only Zinoviev and Kamenev, but all 16 from the trial of the 16 were shot shortly after midnight this date.

From exile, their “conspirator” Trotsky called it the “end of an epoch”.

His obituary for Zinoviev and Kamenev minces no words about the men’s personal shortcomings (“they lacked sufficient character”), but still achieves a certain elegaic sympathy for these former fellow-travelers and their shared movement, now swallowed by Stalinism.

I have had the occasion to hear tranquil petty bourgeois tell me in the days between the beginnings of the trial and my internment: “It’s impossible to understand Zinoviev … He is so lacking in character!” And I would reply: “Have you yourselves experienced the full weight of the pressure to which he has been subjected for a number of years?” Unintelligent in the extreme are the comparisons, so widespread in intellectual circles, of the conduct in court of Danton, Robespierre and others. These were the instances of revolutionary tribunes who found the knife of justice suspended over them, directly in the midst of the arena of struggle; at a time when they were in the full flower of their strength, with their nervous system almost untouched and, at the same time, when they despaired of all hope of salvation.

[By contrast] For ten years they [Zinoviev and Kamenev] had been enveloped by clouds of slander paid for in heavy gold. For ten years they had swayed between life and death, first in a political sense, then in a moral sense, and lastly in a physical sense. Can one find in all past history examples of such systematic, refined and fiendish destruction of spines, nerves and all the fibers of the soul? Zinoviev or Kamenev would have had more than ample character for a tranquil period. But the epoch of grandiose social and political convulsions demanded an extraordinary firmness of these men, whose abilities secured them a leading place in the revolution. The disproportion between their abilities and their wills led to tragic results.

* There are numerous theories of the Zinoviev Letter’s origin; one has it that spy Sidney Reilly had a hand in it.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Heads of State,History,Murder,Politicians,Power,Revolutionaries,Russia,Shot,Torture,Treason,USSR

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1977: Girma Kebede in the Ethiopian Red Terror

Add comment April 2nd, 2011 Headsman

There’s a reason why “may you live in interesting times” is a curse.

The eras we call a “Terror” — Stalin’s Russia, Robespierre‘s France, Pol Pot’s Cambodia — are pretty interesting.

Ethiopia in the mid-1970’s was one of the most interesting places in the world.

After the Derg, a shadowy committee of leftist officers, toppled the monarchy in 1974, factional violence between Ethiopia’s two main Marxist parties soon came to the fore.

Long story short, All-Ethiopian Socialist Movement (MEISON) backed the Derg — while its rival the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP) denounced it as fascistic.

And when Mengistu assumed dictatorial power in February 1977, it was Red Terror on.

It was as dirty as it sounds, “one of the most systematic uses of mass murder by the state ever witnessed in Africa” according to Human Rights Watch. This was the context of Mengistu’s most notorious public appearance, at an Addis Ababa rally later this same month of April 1977 when he theatrically smashed bottles of (apparently) blood while inciting his supporters against “enemies.”

Now that is red terror.

The Derg-MEISON alliance* built up Kebeles, small neighborhood militias — “essentially a matter of arming the lumpenproletariat against members of the urban intelligentsia,” writes Christopher Clapham.

But even these MEISON-allied goon squads were liable to run afoul of revolutionary justice if their indiscriminate mayhem failed to discriminate at the most essential moment.

On two occasions, March and again in May 1977, house-to-house searches were carried out in Addis Ababa, and suspected EPRP members rounded up for execution. Attempts by the EPRP to launch a school strike were likewise countered by the execution of students who failed to attend classes. The press regularly reported the execution of ‘anarchists’ and ‘paid assassins’. Along with the conflict between the rival political factions went the settling of personal scores, and gratuitous killings by psychotics on either side. The most notorious of these, Girma Kebede, was a Meison kebelle chairman in the Arat Kilo area of Addis Ababa, and the well-educated son of a former high official; he overreached himself by taking away for execution a group of ‘reactionaries’ from the Ministry of Education who included Mengistu’s uncle, and was then shot on the charge of seeking ‘to alienate the people from the Government and incite the broad masses against the revolution’.

On this date in 1977, Girma Kebede paid the forfeit. His, er, strategy of killing scores of humans to alienate the people from the government would take many more years and bodies to succeed.

* Later that year, the Derg-MEISON alliance also fell apart, Mengistu cemented his power, and MEISON got the same treatment it had once meted out to its EPRP enemies.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Ethiopia,Execution,Executioners,History,Political Expedience,Power,Shot,Terrorists,Wartime Executions

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