1764: Lt. Vasily Mirovich, for attempting to topple Catherine the Great

3 comments September 26th, 2009 Headsman

On this date* in 1764, one of history’s greatest monarchs cemented her still-uncertain hold on power by beheading a rebellious lieutenant.

Ivan VI: Born under a bad tsar.

Succession in the Russian Empire had been disputatious ever since Peter the Great killed off his last male son, eventually putting far-flung branches of the family into a contest for power.

To skip over much regal jockeying, Peter’s vicious niece Anna, who reigned in the 1730s, had installed her infant nephew Ivan VI as successor just before her own death.

The little Tsar of All the Russias was displaced before his second birthday by Peter the Great’s daughter Elizabeth, who clapped the former emperor in a dungeon in Schlusselburg fortress to grow up ignorant and alone, isolated from the parties who might scheme to bid for power in his name. Two Caesars are too many.

Into this dangerous scene stepped Sophia Augusta Frederica, better known to posterity by the name she took upon her politically savvy conversion to Orthodoxy: Catherine.

This Catherine immigrated to wed Elizabeth’s simpleminded heir, then overthrew him a few months into his reign.

Catherine had ultimate power, but she wasn’t yet “Catherine the Great”: as a foreigner with the late Romanov’s blood on her hands (if only indirectly), it was nowhere written that she would rule Russia for 34 brilliant years. And with the throne came its rival claimants … like Ivan, now an adult and potentially more “legitimate” than this imported German princess.

Ivan was held in secrecy, known only as “Nameless Prisoner Number One”, and his warders had strict orders to murder him on the spot if any attempt were made to liberate him.

Two years into Catherine’s reign, Lt. Vasily Mirovich, “a tormented young officer … with dreams of restoring his family’s fortunes,” attempted just that. As commanded, the guards put an end to Ivan’s troubles.

Those guards got cash rewards and promotions for their diligence. Mirovich got death. (Other soldiers whom he had rallied to his cause were condemned to run the gauntlet; I have been unable to ascertain if any were killed by this punishment.)

Mirovich was executed in St. Petersburg. When his head was held up to the crowd, it had a terrifying impact, the death penalty not actually having been exercised in Russia for 22 years.** Mirovich himself faced his execution calmly, convincing some of the bystanders that he was expecting to be pardoned at the last minute. His remains were left on public display until the evening, when they were burnt along with the gallows.

And so the first two years of the reign of Catherine II, who set so much store by reason and enlightened principles, had included two assassinations and an execution.

The woman of letters, the correspondent of philosophers, the Semiramis of the North … like the age’s other great enlightened despot, Frederick the Great, Catherine had to rule. She had not the luxury to dispense with statecraft’s cruel necessities.

Her admirers would have to be content with making her excuses. Fortunately, admirers always are.

“These are family matters with which I do not meddle,” wrote Voltaire. “Besides, it is not a bad thing to have a fault to repair; this engages her to make great efforts in order to force the public to esteem and admiration”

* September 26 (pdf) was the date on the Gregorian calendar then prevalent in Europe; it was September 15 by the older Julian calendar still used in Russia at the time.

** Not carrying out the death penalty had been a signature policy of Ivan’s usurper Elizabeth. The elimination of capital punishment in “backwards” Russia for an entire generation during the Age of Absolutism surely urges caution against any assumption that death penalty repeal is a one-way street.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Milestones,Power,Public Executions,Russia,Soldiers,Treason

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1881: The assassins of Tsar Alexander II

8 comments April 15th, 2009 Headsman

On this date* in 1881, five members of the Russian terrorist organization Narodnaya Volya were publicly hanged in St. Petersburg, where they had slain the tsar Alexander II a few weeks before.

“The People’s Will” etched in blood its place in the dangerous late 19th century ferment of Russian revolutionaries. In time they would read as the politically immature forerunners of the Bolsheviks, whose turn into terrorism was a political dead end.

But as of this date, they were at the top of their arc.

Every St. Petersburg tourist sees the place Alexander II died: the spot received a picturesque church that is now one of the city’s principal attractions.

On March 13, 1881, Narodnaya Volya assassinated the former tsar with a suicide bombing on the streets of St. Petersburg. With the death of the monarch who had emancipated the serfs, and was on the very day of his murder tinkering with plans to introduce an Assembly, liberalism arguably lost its weak purchase on Russia’s future.

The Nihilists** — who immediately sent an open letter to the new tsar demanding amnesty and a representative political body† — did not prevail in any direct sense.

Their dramatic gesture failed to ignite a social revolution or topple the autocracy, and they would find in Alexander III an implacable foe.

But while this spelled the end for the old man’s five assassins,‡ and even the end of Narodnaya Volya as an effective organization as the 1880’s unfolded, Alexander III’s efficacious repression was a Pyrrhic victory for the Romanov dynasty.

By depending on police operations rather than political reforms, Alexander III bequeathed his doomed successor a hopelessly backward political structure … and a considerably more dangerous revolutionary foe.


Refusal of Confession (Before Execution), by Ilya Repin, 1879-1885. (Via)

Alexander II’s death in the context of the times and its effect for Russia’s fate receive diverting treatment in a BBC In Our Times broadcast

* April 15 was the date on the Gregorian calendar; per the Julian calendar still in use in Russia at the time, the date was April 3.

** A quick summary of the strains of Russian revolutionary thought of the time here.

† Despite their dramatic tyrannicide, the Nihilists’ letter was angled for the consumption of mainstream post-Enlightenment Europeans. Karl Marx noted its “cunning moderation,” and its call for freedom and civil rights commonplace in more developed countries drew considerable support in the west. The Nihilists even took care to underscore their reasonableness a couple months later by condemning the senseless assassination of American President James Garfield. (See Inside Terrorist Organizations.)

Andrei Zhelyabov, Sophia Perovskaya, Nikolai Kibalchich, Nikolai Rysakov and — though he had backed out of the plot — Timofei Mikhailov, whose noose broke twice in the attempt to hang him. A sixth condemned assassin, Gesya Gelfman, escaped hanging due to pregnancy … but she and her child both died shortly after the birth.

Perovskaya gets adulatory treatment in this 1910 New York Times retrospective (pdf) on Russian political violence and repression.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Assassins,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Russia,Terrorists,Treason,Women

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1613: Ivan Susanin, a life for the tsar

5 comments February 24th, 2009 Headsman

On an uncertain date in February (perhaps) 1613 — so says a cherished Russian national legend — a villager met a Polish army intent on deposing the Russian tsar, offered to guide it on a “shortcut,” and proceeded to lead it into a forest or fen where it succumbed to the elements.

A monument to Ivan Susanin in Kostroma. Image courtesy of Barbara Partee (Barbara adds: to help prevent future executions of the wrongly convicted, check out the Innocence Project.)

That peasant, Ivan Susanin, is supposed to have been put to death as the army realized its folly and imminent doom — the fate one would expect, although also not the sort that would leave a lot of corroborating witnesses.

Though the particulars are of doubtful veracity, Susanin’s son-in-law was awarded estates for the man’s tortures by enemy armies seeking the tsar — so the story is not completely baseless.

It was tsarist public relations, however, that gave us Susanin in his dramatic, familiar* form with the trackless wilderness.

This Susanin embodies the Russian people’s sacrificial love for their autocrat … and more specifically, since this was the Time of Troubles when the Russian crown’s succession was contested, for the Romanov dynasty whose first scion chosen in February 1613 would have been the Poles’ target.**

Thus, Glinka’s 19th century opera A Life for the Tsar.

But Glinka and Ivan proved up to the shifting needs of authority as the tsar gave way to the Politburo, and that to the post-Soviet state.

In a fascinating 2006 academic disquisition,† Marina Frolova-Walker dissects A Life for the Tsar‘s transmutation into Ivan Susanin, a Stalin-era opera with the same score but a libretto altered to expunge the tsar — and the success this adaptation of a national classic enjoyed vis-a-vis Soviet artists’ original creations under the impossible aesthetic and political restrictions of official censorship.

Not only did this now-nationalist composition thrive in the USSR, it has been successfully re-staged in its Soviet form, or as a fresh amalgamation of Stalin and Glinka, in the Putin era.‡

From the days of serfdom via the days of the gulag past the fall of the Iron Curtain, here’s Ivan Susanin‘s stirring finale performed by the Russian army at the Vatican, and broadcast on Russian television.

* Familiar to Russians, certainly, and you can call one who gets you lost “susanin”.

** And we all know how they left the throne.

† Marina Frolova-Walker, ‘The Soviet opera project: Ivan Dzerzhinsky vs. Ivan Susanin’, Cambridge Opera Journal (2006), 18:2:181-216

‡ In the Yeltsin era, the opera was staged in its pre-Soviet form. Frolova-Walker argues that the version incorporating Stalinist edits actually speaks to contemporary Russia more aptly than the original, an operatic mirror of the state’s re-adopting the Stalinist national anthem after having used a tsarist piece (written by Glinka!) during the 1990’s.

The reappearance of these cultural tokens is occurring because high Stalinism provides the most easily assimilable model for Russian nationalism today: it is less remote than its nineteenth-century counterpart … The eclectic and confident nationalist of the new Susanin contains the appropriate message for those Russian citizens wealthy enough to attend the Bolshoi today.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Cycle of Violence,Execution,Famous,History,Language,Martyrs,Myths,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Poland,Popular Culture,Put to the Sword,Russia,Summary Executions,Volunteers,Wartime Executions

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1918: Tsar Nicholas II and his family

18 comments July 17th, 2008 Headsman

In the small hours after midnight on the night of July 16-17 90 years ago, the former Tsar Nicholas II, his wife, children, and four family retainers, were shot in a Yekaterinburg basement by their Bolshevik jailers.

Doting family man, vacillating dictator, as weak and rich as Croesus … the doomed Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias was a man small of stature. His reign emerged under a bad star when 1,300 Muscovites were trampled to death in the crush for his coronation largesse; 18 years later, Nicholas‘s support for Serbia against Austria-Hungary was instrumental in pitching Europe into World War I, a blunder for which he reaped a whirlwind long in the making.

When an anti-Bolshevik force approached Yekaterinburg (or Ekaterinburg), where the deposed royals had been stashed in a commandeered private residence,* Yakov Sverdlov (for whom the city was subsequently renamed) ordered the prisoners shot — not only the tsar, but his beloved wife, their hemophiliac heir, and those four daughters who had to be bayoneted because the state jewels secreted in their corsets shielded them from the gunfire.

The executioners (here’s the account of their leader; here’s another guard’s version) did their best to destroy and conceal the remains, helping fuel subsequent rumors that one of the children had survived and escaped.

Those rumors are only now, with post-Soviet investigation and DNA forensics, being debunked, and not yet to the satisfaction of all comers. This very week, Moscow affirmed (though the Orthodox church has not accepted) that the last of Nicholas’s family had been accounted for:

Modern nostalgia for this unimpressive sovereign is making a minor comeback, with Nicholas absurdly contending in a current poll for the title of “greatest Russian” … supported not only by the miseries of the state that succeeded his, but by the family’s decent and accessible private life.

Even a monarchist — especially a monarchist! — shouldn’t reason that the greatest monarch is the one who drove the bus over the cliff. But much is forgiven a martyr. Indeed, like Charles I of England, the last Romanov monarch has been posthumously saddled with divine sanction; he and all the family are certified “passion bearers”. (Update: And possible future relics!)

A handful of the many books about the Romanovs and their fall

* The Ipatiev House where the tsar was held (and shot) no longer stands. On its spot is a church consecrated five years ago yesterday to the Romanov canonization.

Update: The Romanovs were officially rehabilitated by the Russian Supreme Court on October 1, 2008.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Heads of State,History,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Milestones,No Formal Charge,Notable Participants,Political Expedience,Popular Culture,Posthumous Exonerations,Power,Put to the Sword,Royalty,Russia,Shot,Summary Executions,The Worm Turns,USSR,Wartime Executions,Women

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