1738: Baruch Leibov and Alexander Voznitsyn, Jew and convert

Add comment July 15th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1738, the Jewish proselytizer Baruch Leibov was publicly burned in St. Petersburg along with a convert, retired Russian naval officer Alexander Voznitsyn. Most of the linked pages in this post are in Russian.

The nobleman Voznitsyn met the Smolensk merchant Leibov in Moscow and the two became friends and spiritual interlocutors. In 1737, Voznitsyn’s wife denounced him for Judaizing as she began to notice that he’d stopped wearing a cross, would pray facing the wall instead of Orthodox icons, and avoided eating certain foods. It emerged too that his Christian confessor had not heard from him in a very long time, and that he had ordered peasants on his estate to destroy some icons.

Both men denied the charges at first, but Voznitsyn’s genitalia confessed his apostasy and after an application of torture, so did Voznitsyn’s mouth.

The subsequent punishment was remarkably harsh even in contemporaries’ eyes — via the curious insistence of the Empress Anna upon severity.

A rarely-used edict from the pre-Petrine 17th century was invoked against Voznitsyn for blaspheming; in the case of Leibov, it was necessary in order to fit him into the statute to construe his having “seduced” Voznitsyn into the Abrahamic faith during the two men’s religious bull sessions. Since Voznitsyn was a seasoned and educated man with a known predilection for spiritual seeking, this finding negated the entire qualifier; if Voznitsyn was “lured” or “deceived” into Judaizing then it was officially impossible for anyone to Judaize absent deception.

But in practice, it was likely the convert’s exceptional qualities that attracted such a demonstrative punishment — “so that such ungodly deeds are discontinued, and such a blasphemer as Voznitsyn and converter to Judaism as Boruch do not dare to deceive others: for the sake of such blasphemous guilt … both to be executed and burned.”

They died together before a vast concourse of gawkers near St. Petersburg’s Admiralty building.

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1718: Tsarevich Alexei Petrovich condemned and fatally knouted

3 comments June 24th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1718,* Peter the Great’s hand-picked court condemned his son and onetime heir apparent Tsarevich Alexei to death for plotting treason.

Probably no single figure more strikingly underscored Peter’s violent rupture of the old Russia than Alexei: “timid, secretive and lacking in self-confidence,” he was Peter’s opposite in nearly every particular — his nemesis, literally from birth.

The product of Peter’s unsatisfactory first dynastic marriage to a conservative boyar princess, Alexei got abandoned along with his mother Eudoxia Lopukhina when Peter went on his years-long jag through western Europe.

Peter eventually forced the tsaritsa into a convent so he could take up with the ambitious emigre beauty Anna Mons, but the firstborn son was not so easily discarded.

Often malignantly ignored in his youth, Alexei spent his teen years being browbeaten by Peter who rightly despaired of ever making the boy into a king who could carry Peter’s legacy.

Where the father was preternaturally energetic, the son was feeble and reticent; Peter’s irritated letters to Alexei frequently complain of his laziness. (“I am incapable of exertion,” Alexei whinged.) Where the father had a curious mind for the Age of Enlightenment, the son was a dreamer who preferred the mysteries of the Orthodox religion. The boy showed little interest in politics or statecraft, but his position as the firstborn son meant that politics and statecraft were interested in him. Alexei just wanted to go to church and fool around with his Finnish mistress; he feigned or induced illness to avoid the instructional tasks his father appointed him, and once even tried to shoot himself in the hand to duck work.

The father called on all of his legendary severity fruitlessly trying to twist this malformed sapling into a sovereign when the boy’s every characteristic seemed to reproach Peter’s mission of a new and reborn Russia.

“How often have I scolded you for this, and not merely scolded but beaten you,” Peter wrote the boy when the latest assignment was not accomplished to his satisfaction. “Nothing has succeeded, nothing is any use, all is to no purpose, all is words spoken to the wind, and you want to do nothing but sit at home and enjoy yourself.” Start with scolding, proceed to beating — Peter’s philosophy of management as well as child-rearing.

Ever more fearful of his hated father, Alexei in 1716 gave Peter one final and greatest embarrassment by spurning his father’s last ultimatum to join the Russian army on campaign. Instead, the tsarevich fled to the protection of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI. Charles put him up in Naples for a year until Peter’s courtier Count Tolstoy** finally persuaded Alexei to return.

Alexei hoped he had arranged to get out of the royal-succession game and live as a private citizen, but where princes of the blood are concerned this option is more easily conceived than arranged. Peter well knew that the Orthodox clergy and many aristocrats awaited his death as their opportunity to roll back his reforms; the pious Alexei was inevitably a focus of these hopes and the boy embraced rather than shunned the association. Moreover, the twerp had made Peter look the fool before all of Europe with his running-away act.

Instead, the prince — whose return to Russia under the circumstances really was quite naive — found himself faced with a cruel inquisition.


Detail view (click for the full image) of Nikolai Ge’s 1871 painting “Peter the Great Interrogating the Tsarevich Alexei Petrovich in Peterhof” (via Wikimedia Commons)

Gibbon wrote of Marcus Aurelius that in permitting his notorious son Commodus to become his heir, “he sacrificed the happiness of millions to a fond partiality for a worthless boy, [and] chose a successor in his own family, rather than in the republic.”

Peter the Great easily possessed the iron resolution that the ancient Stoic lacked.

The tsar had learned seamanship in his youth by working in European dockyards; had learned soldiery by enrolling himself in the ranks and working his way up from drummer-boy. In his childhood he had seen the palace guard run amok in the Kremlin slaughtering his own family, bided his time until he could topple the power of his half-sister and take Russia in hand, and then wrought on those mutinous soldiers a terrible revenge.

And he had set for his reign a self-consciously world-historic mission, to force an unwilling nation into the European family. This enterprise of relentless, exhausting hubris the tsar applied everywhere from the cut of his noblemen’s facial hair to the whole-cloth creation of the Westward-facing capital city St. Petersburg.

Just so did Peter address himself to his truculent son.

“I will deprive you of the succession, as one may cut off a useless member,” he threatened in a come-to-Jesus letter of 1715, when Alexei was already 25 years old.

Do not fancy that, because I have no other child but you, I only write this to terrify you. I will certainly put it in execution if it please God; for whereas I do not spare my own life for my country and the welfare of my people, why should I spare you who do not render yourself worthy of either? I would rather choose to transmit them to a worthy stranger than to my own unworthy son.

Peter, to borrow a phrase redolent in Russian historiography, mourned not the cracked eggs that made his omelette.

And sometime after Alexei’s flight to Naples, Peter had clearly come to the understanding that for the good of his nation that unworthy son must indeed be spattered.

This episode places Peter in a monstrous light, just as would Marcus Aurelius appear to us had he contrived to murder the future tyrant Commodus when the latter was a mere callow youth. We do not have the luxury of seeing the path not taken, but it ought be said in the towering tsar’s defense that his disdain for the crown prince’s ability is difficult not to share. Alexei’s character stacks flaw upon flaw; no doubt Peter’s upbringing, by turns distant and brutal, was stamped upon it. Let the father bear that failure, but it does not relieve the sovereign’s choice: was he to confide his country and his legacy to the hands of this goblin? Was it even tolerable to leave this firstborn cooling his heels in a monastery, waiting for Peter’s death to cast off cowl and abdication and be acclaimed king by Old Russia?

Peter’s own youth, when he was part of an unresolved dynastic rivalry awkwardly sharing power, had been mired in plots and counterplots. Now, he could scarcely help but suspect that Alexei was also a piece of some conspiracy intending to undo Peter — whether in life or in death.

He forced the son to name his confidantes, then put those confidantes to torture and followed their accusations. In March of 1718, several men were broken on the wheel in Red Square; Alexei’s mother, long ago exiled to a convent, was menaced through her lover who was publicly impaled. Others got off with whippings, brandings, beatings, exile.

Not long after, that Finnish mistress of Alexei returned to the rodina herself. During his mission to Italy, Count Tolstoy had compromised her, and now she willingly supplied Peter the evidence of his son’s treason: that he spoke often of the succession, and how he would abandon St. Petersburg, let the navy rot, and restore the rights of the church; that he thrilled to every rumor of Peter’s illness and even to a mutiny. (Alexei would later acknowledge to his father’s face that had the mutineers acclaimed him tsar, he would have answered the summons.)

Peter empowered a very reluctant secular court to examine Alexei as a traitor without deference to his royal person. In a word, this meant torture — and on June 19, the frail Alexei was lashed 25 times with the knout, a terrible whip reinforced with metal rings that flayed a man’s back into carrion-meat and could even break the spine. Alexei managed to endure it, so on June 24 his suppurating wounds were reopened with another 15 strokes of the cruel scourge.

Under this inhuman torment, Alexei admitted wishing his father’s death — not much of an admission since he had already said as much to dad in the weeks before. But this gave his magistrates enough to condemn the tsarevich to death later that same night, for compassing the death of the king. The reality was that Alexei, vapid and indolent, had only one design on the death of his father: to await it with hope.

What we do not quite know is whether or how this sentence was actually effected. Peter wavered and did not sign the sentence — but as contemporaries saw it, God signed it.

On the morning of June 26, Peter and a number of other court dignitaries went to Peter and Paul Fortress. The fortress’s logs do not specify whether this was yet another round of torture for Alexei; stories would later circulate that Peter or a subaltern murdered the boy here by crudely beating him to death or privately beheading him, sparing the realm the spectacle of the broken crown prince mounting the scaffold.

But the official story, that an already-faltering Alexei begged Peter’s forgiveness as he succumbed to the shock notice of his condemnation, could easily be true: 40 strokes of the knout were enough to take the life of a much firmer constitution than Alexei’s.

By any measure, Peter authored the death of his son under the pall of execution, if not its literal fact — and for all the instances of royal-on-royal violence supplied by the annals, this filicide is nearly unique: Peter the Great, Emperor of All Russia, tortured his disappointing son to death.

Peter the Great died in 1725 at age 52 — according to legend, catching his death by forging into the freezing Finnish Gulf to rescue some drowning soldiers. (“I do not spare my own life for my country and the welfare of my people …”) Peter’s wives had borne him eight legitimate sons over the years, but Alexander, Pavel, Peter, another Pavel, another Peter, yet another Pavel, and yet another Peter had all died in early childhood. This was to be (after the brief reign later in the 1720s of Alexei’s sickly son Peter II) the end of the direct male line of Romanovs.

Instead, Peter was succeeded by his remarkable wife Catherine, by origin a Latvian peasant — and the 18th century would be dominated by female monarchs, culminating with Catherine the Great.

* It was June 24 by the Julian calendar still in use in Russia at that time. By the modern Gregorian calendar, Alexei Petrovich was condemned on July 5, and died on July 7.

** Ancestor of the novelist Leo Tolstoy, a man who did not like executions.

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1879: Alexander Soloviev, bad shot

Add comment May 28th, 2015 Headsman

On this date* in 1879, would-be regicide Alexander Soloviev was hanged

Soloviev (English Wikipedia entry | Russian), a Narodnik revolutionary, was one of the less competent assassins to have a go at Tsar Alexander II.

Surprising the undefended sovereign on the latter’s morning constitutional near Winter Palace, Soloviev couldn’t connect with his revolver from four meters’ distance. As Alexander fled, Soloviev gave chase, firing four more times in the process to no effect before the gathering crowd wrestled him to the cobblestones.

Soloviev admitted the crime — the admission was hardly necessary — and hanged before a crowd of 70,000 souls. Despite the ensuing police crackdown on subversives (resulting in still more executions), many of those 70,000 surely numbered among the gawkers two years later for the hanging of the Narodnaya Volya terrorists who at last successfully assassinated Alexander.

* May 28 was the local (Julian calendar) date for the execution; by the Gregorian calendar prevailing outside Russia, it was June 9.

Part of the Themed Set: Terrorism.

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1864: Nikolay Chernyshevsky’s “civil execution”

Add comment May 19th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1864, the Russian writer Nikolay Chernyshevsky was publicly executed in St. Petersburg.

Then he was shipped to Siberia.

Chernyshevsky’s punishment was only a pantomime “civil execution,” somewhat akin to the symbolic executions by effigy elsewhere in Europe. In this case, the faux death penalty was imposed not upon a peeling portrait but on Chernyshevsky’s actual person: “The hangmen led Chernyshevsky to the scaffold on Mytninskaya Square in St. Petersburg, made him kneel down, broke a sword over his head and then chained him to the pillory. Chernyshevsky stood calmly under the rain waiting for this mockery to come to an end.” (Source)

The pillory, exposed to the hoots and brickbats of an offended populace, was supposed to be a humiliation to its sufferer; occasionally, it even proved lethal. Not so for Chernyshevsky: the crowd stood silently. Someone threw a bouquet of flowers.

This ludicrous theater was enacted to punish Chernyshevsky for his leadership of the St. Petersburg intellectual circle that gave birth to the Narodnik movement. Literally “going to the people,” this was a peasant-focused populist-democratic-socialist philosophy paradoxically germinated among Russia’s small coterie of intellectual elites.

Think Marxism for a feudal society here: the Narodnik adaptation was the hope that Russia’s vast peasantry could be roused to serve the part of a revolutionary working class, and skip Russia directly to a socialism still preserving communal traditions unsullied by that interim period wherein (per Marx in the Communist Manifesto) capitalism had “pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties … [and] left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest.”

This is why Chernyshevsky and the Narodniks viewed the “emancipation” of serfs of 1861 with a gimlet eye: it was a shift towards capitalist property relations, in which the feudal shackles were merely replaced with new, and heavier irons. Chernyshevsky subversively urged his “emancipated” countrymen to view the move as a heist.

It is of course unlikely that many of the actual peasant malcontents stirred up in the wake of the emancipation perused Chernyshevsky’s “To the Manorial Peasants from Their Well-Wishers, Greetings”. But other bourgeois radicals who did read that sort of thing would in due time — after the suppression of the Narodniki in the 1860s and 1870s drove its underground remnants to terrorism — spawn the revolutionary network Narodnaya Volya, and assassinate the tsar who enacted that emancipation, Alexander II.

Chernyshevsky was more a writer than a fighter. He spent his pre-“execution” imprisonment in Peter and Paul Fortress forging his definitive contribution to the movement — the novel What Is To Be Done?.*

(Our own Sonechka regards What Is To Be Done? as quite possibly Russia’s single worst literary product, but the didactic novel imagined (in the dreams of its principal character, Vera Pavlovna) an egalitarian future, including for women. Chernyshevsky himself wrote that he “possess[ed] not one bit of artistic talent … any merit to be found in my tale is due entirely to its truthfulness.”)

Whatever its artistic shortcomings, What Is To Be Done? entered the revolutionary literary canon. Vladmir Ilyich Ulyanov — better known as Lenin — wasn’t even born until 1870 but as a young man he admired What Is To Be Done? In 1902 Lenin himself published a political pamphlet under that same title.

Far less impressed were the likes of Dostoyevsky, himself a former radical who also underwent mock execution in his time. Unlike Chernyshevsky, Dostoyevsky apostasized from his revolutionary credo; Dostoyevsky’s 1864 Notes from the Underground is “a bitter artistic answer” to (and in several spots a direct parody of) Chernyshevsky’s magnum opus.

* What Is To Be Done? responds to Turgenev‘s Fathers And Sons. A previous Narodnik classic by Alexander Herzen asked the parallel question Who Is To Blame?.

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1882: Stepan Khalturin, Winter Palace bomber

Add comment April 3rd, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1882* Stepan Khalturin** was hanged in Odessa, Ukraine … but not for his most (in)famous crime.

Khalturin (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) came from a well-off peasant family near the city of Vyatka (today, Kirov; it was renamed for an assassinated Bolshevik). As a young carpenter in 1870s St. Petersburg, he fell in with revolutionary circles and became a distinguished propagandist and organizer. Khalturin helped found the first political labor labor organization in Russia, the “Northern Russian Workers’ Union”.

He’s said by other leftist agitators who knew him to have “persuaded his student workers with tears in his eyes to continue propagandizing, but in no event go down the path of terror. From this, there is no return.”

If that used to be his sentiment, Khalturin’s thinking … evolved.

By February 1880, Khalturin was for all intents and purposes in on the terrorism strategy. He took advantage of a workman’s gig at the Winter Palace to pack the cellar full of dynamite,† two floors below the imperial dining room.

But Tsar Alexander II and party had not yet returned when it blew. Eleven people, mostly guardsmen in the intervening room below the dining hall, died in the blast; dozens of others were injured.

Khalturin watched in frustration from the iron gates of the Winter Palace, and slipped away — never detected. His co-conspirator Zhelyabov consoled him with the prospects of mass recruitment sure to be unleashed by this spectacular propaganda of the deed. “An explosion in the king’s lair — the first attack on the autocracy! Your deed will live forever.” (Russian source)

The tsar, at any rate, was running out of luck.

A year later, Narodnaya Volya finally succeeded in assassinating Alexander II in St. Petersburg. Zhelyabov and five others hanged for that.

Khalturin wasn’t involved in that plot: he had escaped to Odessa.

There, he shot a police officer named Strelnikov. He was captured and hanged under a bogus alias, nobody realizing that they were also executing the mysterious Winter Palace bomber.

Unusually considering Lenin’s distaste for terrorism and Narodnaya Volya, Khalturin was elevated in post-Soviet times into an officially-approved revolutionary exemplar. The street Millionnaya running to the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg was cheekily renamed for him (it’s subsequently been changed back). Public monuments went up for the bomber, especially in the environs of his native soil around Kirov.


(cc) image from Zeder.

* April 3 by the Gregorian calendar; March 22 by the Julian calendar still in use in 19th century Russia.

** Appropriately given Khalturin’s Winter Palace work, khaltura is Russian for an item of shoddy construction. The word has no etymological connection to our man, however. (Linguistic tip courtesy of Sonechka.)

† He was able to manage the feat by bringing in explosives little by little and secreting them in the room where he bunked on-site.

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1724: Willem Mons, head grafter

1 comment November 16th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1724, Willem Mons was beheaded in St. Petersburg for peculation.

Mons was the brother of the German commoner Anna Mons, a beautiful young woman who segued from being the May-December lover of Peter the Great‘s trusted admiral Franz Lefort to the mistress of the teenage emperor himself. Peter and Anna had a famous (famously scandalous) romance through her twenties, but as she entered her thirties and heard the clock ticking, her bid to make Peter put a ring on it by flirting with a Prussian diplomat came to grief and got her briefly tossed in prison.

Willem Mons was still a minor when his big sister fell from Peter’s graces. He would prove to have an equally adroit instinct for imperial bedchamber politics.

“One of the best-made and most handsome men that I have ever seen,” in the French ambassador’s estimation, Mons hustled his way into the train of the woman Peter had married instead of Anna — Catherine.

There Willem Mons and his other sister Matryona Balk monopolized the access routes to the empress and lucratively tolled all petitioners who traveled them. Wealth and status accumulated; the immigrant bourgeois’s son even stopped going by William in favor of the more impressive “Moens de la Croix”.

Not surprisingly, the emperor himself was the last to discover the open secret of his wife’s household’s river of graft.* Peter, who could be quite the moralist, was incensed; he interrogated the chamberlain so terribly that the young man fainted dead away.

“Moens de la Croix” was no longer. In both senses.

Having issued the confessions to condemn himself under the very credible threat of torture, Mons was socked away in Peter and Paul Fortress. Catherine made bold to defy Peter’s edict that nobody petition him for Mons’s life; in response, the enraged tsar smashed a Venetian mirror with his bare hand and roared, “thus I can annihilate the most beautiful adornment of my palace!” Court observers reported that marital relations between the two were visibly strained well after the scandal.

These weren’t happy days for the oft-sickly Peter; indeed, they were the last months of his life. Early the next year, he would succumb to a gangrenous bladder and leave the throne to this very Catherine. Perhaps his decrepit state accounts for the likely scurrilous rumor that the handsome chamberlain’s real offense wasn’t so much corruption as cuckoldry. It’s fair to say that such an affair would have been an extraordinarily reckless thing for Catherine.

On November 16, 1724, William Mons and Matrena Balk were taken in sledges to the execution site. Mons behaved courageously, nodding and bowing to friends he saw in the crowd. Mounting the scaffold, he calmly took off his heavy fur coat, listened to the reading of the sentence of death and laid his head on the block. After his death, his sister received eleven blows of the knout, very lightly administered so that not much harm was done, and was exiled for life to Tobolsk in Siberia. Her husband, General Balk, was given permission to marry again if he wished. (Source)

The late courtier’s severed head was preserved in alcohol (legend says that the fuming Peter made Catherine contemplate it). It was eventually deposited in the Kunstkamera museum, famous for housing Peter’s gross horde of collected pickled fetuses, dwarves, and other medical curios. Mons’s head still resides there today.

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1866: Dmitry Karakozov

1 comment September 15th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1866 (September 3 O.S.; September 15 N.S.), Russian revolutionary Dmitry Karakozov was hanged in Peter and Paul Fortress for attempting to assassinate Tsar Alexander II.

Karakozov was a son of noble stock — the self-hating variety, obviously, and suicidally disturbed into the bargain. He supposedly hailed from a terrorism cell branding itself “Hell”, although this was bandied about by the police afterwards and conveniently supported a hunt for radicals.

Karakozov, at least, considered the state of tsarist Russia positively infernal, and on April 4, 1866, he went to scourge it — firing a shot at the monarch at St. Petersburg’s Summer Garden. He missed.

The tsar’s guards tackled him as he fled, and the unharmed Alexander walked up to the gunman and asked him, “What do you want?” He may have been genuinely bewildered: Alexander was the guy trying to liberalize Russia. Just a few years before, he had freed the serfs.

“Nothing,” Karakazov replied. “Nothing.”

A statement of implacability: no progress would be bargained with even the most progressive despot. The despotism itself must go. A manifesto addressed to “Friends-Workers” was found in his pocket underscoring the point; it read in part (translated from p. 21 of this Russian pdf):

I have decided to destroy the wicked Tsar, and to die for my beloved people…

If I accomplish this deed, I will die with the thought that in death I did something good for my dear friend, the Russian peasant.

If I do not accomplish it, then others will follow my path. Where I fail, they will succeed, and my death will be their example and inspiration.

Others would follow him, and in time successfully murder Alexander II after all.

Karakozov himself, the first Russian revolutionary to attempt regicide, didn’t seem to have revolutionary satisfaction on his mind at the end. He converted to Orthodox Christianity in prison, sought “as a Christian, of a Christian” his prospective victim’s clemency … and multiple newspaper accounts report him kneeling to kiss a cross presented to him on the scaffold by the priest. (All via Odd Man Karakozov, which argues that all this need not imply such a reversal of conscience as it might appear.)

What certainly did happen — more immediately than those copycat assassinations — was a reactionary wave of national chauvinism, whose more wretched manifestations will not be unfamiliar to the present day. The patriotic Glinka opera Ivan Susanin was staged a few days later at the Bolshoi in Moscow. According to an eyewitness account of Tchaikovsky quoted in Romanov Riches: Russian Writers and Artists Under the Tsars, this salute to a Russian peasant’s sacrifice for the Romanov dynasty went a little bit off-script.

I think the Moscow audience went beyond the bounds of sense in their outburst of enthusiasm. The opera was not really performed, for as soon as the Poles appeared onstage, the whole theater shouted, “Down with the Poles!” and so on. In the last scene of Act 4, when the Poles are supposed to kill Susanin …

… the actor playing him started fighting the chorus members who played Poles, and being very strong, knocked down several of them, while the rest of the extras, seeing that the audience approved this mockery of art, truth, and decency, fell down, and the triumphant Susanin left unharmed, brandishing his arms, to the deafening applause of the Muscovites.

If true, that is little short of fantastic.

The apparatus of state went so far as to build up a new Susanin for the occasion at hand, hyping a questionable story that a young peasant named Osip Komissarov — who was from Susanin’s own province of Kostroma — had jostled Karakozov just as he took the shot, causing it to go awry. The good-natured bumpkin was rewarded with summary ennoblement as “Komissarov-Kostromskoy” and eye-rollingly terrible poetic tributes from the likes of Vyazemsky and Nekrasov. However, Komissarov’s embarrassing stupidity and want of manners would eventually necessitate Komissarov-Kostromskoy’s being packed out of polite society to country estates on a generous pension to bankroll his ample appetite for liquor.

So Dmitry Karakozov did do something for the Russian peasant after all.

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1740: Artemy Volynsky

1 comment June 27th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1740, the Russian politician Artemy Volynsky was beheaded in St. Petersburg.

Volynsky, as famously corrupt as he was famously able, had worked himself up from Peter the Great’s dragoons into the circles of high statecraft but lost a power struggle in the notoriously cruel court of Empress Anna. He’d made it all the way to Anna’s cabinet, but there made himself the rival of powerful Baltic grand chamberlain Ernst Johann von Biron: in political terms, Biron and the fellow Balt who ran foreign policy had a west-facing, German orientation, while Volynsky looked east to Central Asia, India, and China; in personal terms, Biron was the lover of the queen, and Volynsky … was not.

After Volynsky beat up a poet, Biron had the excuse to have him investigated and was able to construct as treasonable some private correspondence about changing the way things are done in Russia, Biron thereby ridding himself of the rival.


Just a few months after Volynsky’s execution, Anna herself died, leaving an ill-starred one-year-old heir and an uncertain political situation.

In the event, Biron and his fellow Germanophiles were driven out of court by the Russian grandees, who then constructed the late Volynsky — by all indications as cutthroat and grasping as anyone else at court — as a patriotic martyr vis-a-vis the detested late ascendancy of the Baltic types.*

As a result, in 1741, a modest monument (later aggrandized) was set up to Volynsky et al at St. Sampson’s Cathedral.**

Further to that same end, the scaffold-bound 19th century Decembrist poet Ryleyev (Ryleev) paid his own tribute to Volynsky in verse. So far, I’ve only found Ryleyev’s “Volynsky” in Russian, but here’s a little taste [courtesy of blog friend Sonechka] of the gist:

He who resists the overweening
Expects no reward and asks for none
And forgetting even himself
Sacrifices all to the motherland.
Against the cruel tyrants
He will be free even in chains
At execution justly proud
And ever after exalted.


In that same vein, Ryleyev’s contemporary Ivan Lazhechnikov featured Volynsky as the protagonist of his historical novel The Ice Palace or The Ice House,† again whitewashing the man’s ample stock of disreputable qualities.

The book’s title alludes to a famous structure put up in the winter of 1739-1740 for the royal court’s amusement, a vast frozen edifice 20 meters tall and 50 meters wide, designed by the architect Pyotr Yeropkin … a Volynsky ally who ultimately shared Volynsky’s fate on June 27, 1740.

This sounds great, but the decadent amusement park soon became the scene for one of imperial Russia’s more infamous and bizarre horrors: Anna forced an ex-prince who had been demoted to court jester for marrying a Catholic to wed a homely Kalmyk serving-girl, with whom he would have to pass a “wedding night” naked in that icebox. (Somehow, they managed to survive.)


The yellow-clad Anna dances merrily while her terrified servants/prey brace to survive a winter night on the ice bed. Detail view; click for the full painting.

Volynsky’s machiavellian contribution to the ghastly scene had been to associate this spectacle with a celebration of Anna’s name day.

This bit of sucking up didn’t buy him quite enough time when it was all said and done, but it reminds of Volynsky’s highly mitigated claim on eternal exaltation.

* Remembered as the Bironovshchina. Compare to the Yezhovshchina, at the height of Stalin’s purges: why don’t these things ever get named for the actual chief executive?

** Saint Sampson the Hospitable has a June 27 feast date; the cathedral was dedicated in his honor because that was also the date, in 1709, of Russia’s watershed victory over Sweden at the Battle of Poltava.

† There’s more about this novel in the context of both 19th century literature and Volynsky’s own era in this pdf dissertation extract, pp. 7-22.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,History,Nobility,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Russia,Torture,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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1976: Valery Sablin, Hunt for Red October inspiration

4 comments August 3rd, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1976, the real-life Soviet political officer whose naval mutiny inspired Tom Clancy’s Cold War thriller The Hunt for Red October was shot in Moscow for treason.

No, unlike his fictional counterpart Marko Ramius (Sean Connery, in the 1990 cinema adaptation excerpted above), Valery Sablin didn’t make it to the West.

But the real Valery Sablin wasn’t trying to make it.

Sablin was the political officer aboard the submarine-killer Storozhevoy. He was also a dedicated Leninist incensed at the notoriously corrupt gerontocracy of the Leonid Brezhnev era.

When he led his mutiny in Riga, his plan was to take the Storozhevoy to St. Petersburg and, Aurora-like, sound the tocsin for a Soviet Tea Party to restore the ideals of the Revolution.

Basically, Sablin had the exact opposite intent of his literary offspring.

This being the 1970s, when figuring out what the devil was happening in the black box of the USSR constituted its own academic discipline, the incident was misinterpreted in the western media — but understandably so.


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The sea route from Riga to St. Petersburg begins in a westerly direction, towards Sweden, and the spectacle of Soviet fighters turning back a vessel steaming for Gotland (combined, of course, with the natural susceptibility of the western audience to the notion) suggested that the mutineers had aimed not at revolution, but at defection.

Under the headline “Newspaper Reports Soviet Ship Mutiny” sourced to Agence France-Presse and datelined Stockholm, Jan. 22, the Jan. 23, 1976 Washington Post reported:

Crewmen on board a Soviet coast guard vessel in the Baltic mutinied and tried to sail the ship into Swedish territorial waters in November, the evening newspaper Expressen said today.

Citing foreign visitors recently returned from Riga, the paper said the mutiny took place Nov. 7 after celebrations in Riga marking the Soviet revolution.

The paper said a Soviet submarine and a number of helicopters forced the ship to return to Riga.

This was the version of the story that aspiring spy novelist Tom Clancy encountered. In his reworking, it became the bold (and successful) defection of a state-of-the-art Soviet submarine and its deft commander … effected, of course, with a little help from the derring-do of the spooks at Langley.

Moscow was pleased to let this be the version that people heard, to the extent they heard anything at all of the incident. Though not exactly flattering, it was much less threatening than the potential storyline of “Soviet officers are so fed up with party corruption that they’re trying to revolt”.

Not until 1990 did the real story get out.

It’s pretty safe to say that the Valery Sablin who died this day would not have had a lot of sympathy for Marko Ramius,* and still less for the Reaganite writer who turned Sablin’s deed inside-out and made it the cornerstone of his own personal mint.

Trust the fact that history will judge events honestly and you will never have to be embarrassed for what your father did. On no account ever be one of those people who criticise but do not follow through their actions. Such people are hypocrites — weak, worthless people who do not have the power to reconcile their beliefs with their actions. I wish you courage, my dear. Be strong in the belief that life is wonderful. Be positive and believe that the Revolution will always win.

-Sablin’s last letter to his son

Russian speakers may enjoy this documentary about the Sablin mutiny.

* Another inversion: in order to make his break for the Free World, the fictional (and, significantly, ethnically Lithuanian) Ramius murders the ethnically Russian political officer, Ivan Putin, assigned to his ship; the real Sablin was himself that zealous political officer, and imprisoned the ship’s captain in the course of the mutiny.

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Entry Filed under: Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Lithuania,Military Crimes,Mutiny,Revolutionaries,Russia,Shot,Soldiers,Treason,USSR

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1880: Ippolit Mlodetsky, Loris-Melikov’s would-be assassin

Add comment February 22nd, 2010 Headsman

If you were a person of any privilege or official authority in late 19th century Russia, chances are that Narodnaya Volya was planning to take a shot at you.

If you were General Loris-Melikov, a Ukrainian Jew did that to you two days before this date in 1880.*

And if you were that errant assassin, Ippolit Mlodetsky, this was your execution date.

Even though Melikov rated as something of a liberal on the Russian autocracy spectrum, he had no qualms about ordering legal proceedings barely this side of summary.

Gen. Melikoff, on Wednesday evening, ordered a court-martial to assemble on Thursday morning. The trial of the prisoner was opened at 11 o’clock in the morning. The prisoner was insolent in his language and demeanor, and refused to stand up or take any part in the proceedings. He said he had nothing to add … that he did not want to be troubled any more, and wanted the matter finished. … at 1 o’clock … judgment was pronounced against him. The judgment on the prisoner sentenced him to be hanged, and his execution was appointed for 10 o’clock this (Friday) morning on the Simeonofsky Plain, near the Tsarskoe-selo Railway terminus.

And so he was.

Mlodetsky’s public hanging was witnessed by novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky in the very square where Dostoyevsky himself had faced mock-execution for revolutionary activity 30 years before.

Dostoyevsky was, even then, pulling together his magnum opus, The Brothers Karamazov.

The very day Mlodetsky tried to kill Melikov found Fyodor Mikhailovich chatting with fellow reactionary journalist Aleksey Suvorin about the plague of terrorism and its accompanying social malaise.

On the day of the attempt by Mlodetsky on Loris Melikov I was with F. M. Dostoyevsky.

… Neither he nor I knew anything about the assassination. But our conversation presently turned to political crimes in general, and a [recent] explosion in the Winter Palace in particular. In the course of talking about this, Dostoyevsky commented on the odd attitude of the public to these crimes. Society seemed to sympathize with them, or, it might be truer to say, was not too clear about how to look upon them … (Quoted here.)

Dostoyevsky in this conversation revealed that for the planned sequel to The Brothers Karamazov — never to be realized in the event —

he was going to write a novel with Alyosha Karamazov as the hero. He planned to bring him out of the monastery and make a revolutionary of him. He would commit a political crime. He would be executed.

(Much more about this sequel in this paper.)

Melikov’s brush with death did not dissuade him from continuing to push for constitutional reforms as the antidote to terrorism, including introduction of a parliament. Tsar Alexander II was on the point of implementing that proposal … when he himself was assassinated by Narodnaya Volya, precipitating a political backlash.

That murder of Alexander II helped put the kibosh on the Karamazov sequel, which would thereafter have become politically problematic.

Nor was that the only artistic casualty of the Russian terrorists.

A discomfiting thematic similarity in Mlodetsky’s execution with that of the protagonist resulted in the cancellation of a just-opened opera: The Merchant Kalashnikov. (It would be a few more decades before that connection could appear ironic.)

* The assassination attempt occurred on February 20, with the execution on February 22, according to the Julian calendar still in use in Russia at that time. By the then-12-days-later Gregorian calendar, the dates were March 3 and March 5, respectively.

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