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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1937: Lev Karakhan, Marina Semyonova’s husband

Add comment September 20th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1937, the dancer Marina Semyonova lost her husband to the Great Purge.

Semyonova was perhaps the premier Soviet ballerina in the interwar era before the ascent of Maya Plitsetskaya* but artistic genius conferred no safety from the purges.

Least of all was that so for family members who happened to be that choicest of Stalin’s prey, an Old Bolshevik.

Semyonova’s husband Lev Karakhan (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) was an Armenian revolutionary and former Menshevik who joined the Bolsheviks before the October Revolution. He spent the 1920s and 1930s in various foreign policy roles, right up until the end: just a few months before his death, he had been the USSR’s ambassador to Turkey, when he received that ominous recall.

He even gave his name to a 1919 “Karakhan Manifesto”, which was Moscow’s attempt to get friendly with China.

Its author was more successful getting friendly with the Bolshoi’s prima ballerina around 1930, when both were married to other people. Their affair turned civil marriage without hampering the career of either partner; indeed, Semyonova had the honor and terror of accepting the Order of the Red Banner from Stalin’s own hands in June 1937, just a month after her husband had been arrested.

Semyonova just continued performing, because what choice did one have? She only recently died, in 2010, just shy of her 102nd birthday — as one of the legends of her craft.

* Maya Plisetskaya was also touched by Stalin’s terror: in 1937, when Maya was only 11, her father was disappeared into the gulag and killed; her mother was arrested shortly after and survived a forced labor camp in Kazakhstan.

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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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1937: Titsian Tabidze, poet

Add comment December 16th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1937, the Georgian poet Titsian Tabidze was executed in Stalin’s purges.

“Titsiani”, who co-founded the “Blue Horns” symbolist circle in 1916, is the addressee of fellow dissident litterateur Boris Pasternak’s Letters to a Georgian Friend.

“There is as much soul in his poetry as there was in him, a reserved and complicated soul, wholly attracted to the good and capable of clairvoyance and self-sacrifice,” Pasternak would remember of his comrade. “The memory of Tabidze puts me in mind of the country; landscapes rise in my imagination, the waves of the sea and a vast flowering plain; clouds drifting in a row and, behind them in the distance, mountains rising to the same level.”

The problem was their decidedly less sentimental countryman in the Kremlin.

Georgian security chief Lavrenty Beria put the screws to the Georgian writers’ association, driving fellow Blue Horns alum Paolo Yashvili to suicide when he was pressured to denounce Tabidze.

But of course the only difference that made was for Yashvili’s soul.

Arrested as a traitor a bare two months before his death, Tabidze defiantly betrayed to his interrogators the name of only a single fellow-traveler: 18th century Georgian poet Besiki.

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1937: Alexander Chayanov, economist of the peasantry

Add comment October 3rd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1937, the Soviet economist Alexander Chayanov was shot during Stalin’s purges.

“Our present capitalist form of economy represents only one particular instance of economic life and the validity of the scientific discipline of the national economics as we understand it today, based on the capitalist form and meant for its scientific investigation, cannot and should not be extended to other organizational forms of economic life.” (via)

A specialist in the rural economy, Chayanov was noted for his forward thinking about Russia’s backwards peasantry.

Prevailing Marxist orthodoxy envisioned this class hurtling inevitably towards capitalism as its members sought their own advantage;* against this, Chayanov emphasized the resilience of the peasantry. And not only that, he postulated that the unwaged peasantry operated in an economic constellation alien to the classical model of value maximization — and would rather tend to relax labor once it reached subsistence production, rather than working ever onwards to attain surplus value and Five-Year Plan quotas.

This theory accurately anticipated difficulty for Soviet agricultural policies like collectivization and grain confiscation.

Denounced as an apologist for the refractory kulaks — official agrarian bogeymen of the early Soviet state — Chayanov was arrested in 1930 and found himself shipped to a labor camp in Kazakhstan. He was re-arrested in 1937, tried, condemned, and shot in a single day; his wife Olga also disappeared into the gulag only to be released in 1955, after Stalin’s death. They were officially rehabilitated in 1987 under Mikhail Gorbachev.

Though Chayanov’s own work was cut short by his suppression, his ideas would resurface in the postwar period and find exponents among western economists and social scientists. Nor have those ideas been exclusively of interest to academics studying peasant societies; Chayanov’s emphasis on the family as an essential economic unit found an echo in the New Home Economics field launched in the 1960s by classical economists like Gary Becker, while his appreciation for maintaining a harmonious relationship to the land has been revived in contemporary Russia by Vladimir Megre‘s “Ringing Cedars” eco-cult.

* Marx wrote in Theories of Surplus Value that the “peasant who produces with his own means of production will either gradually be transformed into a small capitalist who also exploits the labor of others, or he will suffer the loss of his means of production … and be transformed into a wage worker.”

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1933: The “killers” of Pavlik Morozov

7 comments April 7th, 2013 Meaghan

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

Pavlik Morozov was one of the must well-known figures in the Soviet Union. Every Soviet schoolchild learned his name and the story of his heroic life and tragic death. On April 7, 1933, his alleged killers — his own grandparents, uncles and cousin — were executed by firing squad for his murder.

A postage stamp honoring the Moscow statue honoring little Pavlik Morozov. Many more Pavlik propaganda images are here.

While most Morozov monuments have long since been destroyed or removed from public view, apparently a few still persist.

The legendary Pavlik, a Russian boy who lived in the remote village of Gerasimovka in western Siberia, was a member of the Young Pioneers, a kind of Communist version of the Boy Scouts designed in indoctrinate youth into the Soviet way of thinking. When the superlatively loyal child found out his father, Trofim, was acting against the state, he denounced him to the secret police, the OGPU. (Accounts differ as to what Trofim’s misdeeds actually were; he may have hoarded grain, or sold forged documents, or both.) The result was that Trofim was sent to a labor camp, never to be heard from again.

The Morozov family, not being good Communists like he was, were furious with him for the denunciation. Soon after his father’s trial, in early September 1932, his grandparents, his uncle and his cousin murdered him while he and his eight-year-old brother Fyodor were picking berries in the woods. (Fyodor was taken out too, as he was a witness.) The boys’ bodies weren’t located for several days and it’s unclear when they actually died.

An OGPU officer, Ivan Potupchik, who was another of Pavlik’s cousins, found them. The murderers were arrested in due course, and Pavlik became a martyr and an example for every Soviet child to look up to — a Stalinist passion play, the horrid little saint of denunciation. As Soviet dissident writer Yuri Druzhnikov wrote in this article,

Indeed, it is virtually impossible for someone not born and raised in the USSR to appreciate how all-pervasive a figure Morozov was … [E]veryone in the Soviet Union, young and old alike, used to know about Pavlik Morozov. His portraits appeared in art museums, on postcards, on match-books and postage stamps. Books, films, and canvases praised his courage. In many cities, he still stands in bronze, granite, or plaster, holding high the red banner. Schools were named after him, where in special Pavlik Morozov Halls children were ceremoniously accepted into the Young Pioneers. Statuettes of the young hero were awarded to the winners of sports competitions. Ships, libraries, city streets, collective farms, and national parks were named after Pavlik Morozov.


A reconstruction of the suppressed Eisenstein film based on the Pavlik Morozov story, Bezhin Meadow. Aptly, its supposed ideological flaws got some of its own participants arrested.

The Cult of Pavlik declined significantly once World War II began and there were other young heroes to exalt, and even more so after Stalin’s death. Still, even into the 1980s public figures praised the child as an “ideological martyr.”

The problem, as you might have guessed already, is that almost none of the accepted story about Pavlik is true. While not entirely made up, his Soviet-official biography was always thick with exaggerations, distortions and outright lies.

This Los Angeles Times article explains that Druzhnikov first got interested in Pavlik Morozov in the mid-1970s, when he attended a conference that included a discussion of “positive heroes of Soviet culture.” Pavlik was mentioned, and Druzhnikov asked just what was so positive about someone who had betrayed his own father. A few days later, he was summoned to KGB headquarters and two agents told him very firmly, “do not touch this subject.” It backfired: more curious than ever, Druzhnikov began secretly researching the case.

The book that resulted, Druzhnikov’s Informer 001: The Myth of Pavlik Morozov, was written in the early 1980s, but it was too politically sensitive for publication at the time. Instead it circulated privately among intellectuals and dissidents as Samizdat. It finally saw publication in Russian in 1988, and was then translated into English in 1993. (The full text of this book is available online for free here … in Russian.)

British historian Catriona Kelly published a second book on the subject in 2005, Comrade Pavlik: The Rise and Fall of a Soviet Boy Hero. By then, nearly all the surviving witnesses were dead. But unlike Druzhnikov, Kelly was able to obtain access to the official records of the Morozov murder trial and used them as a major resource.

These two authors got as close to the truth as one is able to get at this late date.

The Real Pavlik’s Life and Death

Pavlik Morozov’s story is sordid and mysterious as only a grand Soviet propaganda myth can be.

There really was a boy named Pavel Morozov (his name was the Russian equivalent of “Paul”) in Gerasimovka, but his nickname was Pasha or Pashka, not Pavlik. He was not ethnically Russian but of Belorussian descent on both sides of his family, as were most of the inhabitants of Gerasimovka. He could not have been member of the Pioneers, since there was no Pioneers troop where he lived.

When Yuri Druzhnikov began picking apart the Pavlik Morozov myth in the 1980s, he was able to talk to those still alive who had known the youth. In addition to the elderly villagers in Gerasimovka, he also interviewed Pavlik’s mother and his sole surviving brother, Alexei. (Another brother, Roman, was killed in World War II.)

Druzhnikov developed the following data points:

  • The exact date of Pavlik’s birth is unknown; his own mother didn’t remember it when asked in her old age. He was probably between twelve and fourteen at the time of his death.
  • The villagers of Gerasimovka who knew Pavlik and were interviewed by Druzhnikov did not remember him fondly: he was variously described as a “hoodlum,” a “rotten kid” and a “miserable wretch, a louse” who enjoyed smoking cigarettes and singing obscene songs.
  • Pavlik enjoyed denouncing his neighbors for breaking the rules; he “terrorized the whole village, spying on everybody.”
  • According to his former schoolteacher, he was almost illiterate; in fact, Druzhnikov believed he may have been slightly mentally retarded.
  • Pavlik’s whole family was the Russian equivalent of poor white trash. Tatiana was a mentally unstable and quarrelsome woman who was widely disliked in the village. After Trofim’s arrest, the state seized all his property and so the family went from mere penury to the brink of starvation.

Druzhnikov’s witnesses from Gerasimovka remembered Trofim Morozov’s denunciation, trial, and exile, which was central to the Pavlik-the-martyr myth. They remembered the boy testifying and said he didn’t seem to understand what was going on.

Kelly, however, examining the historical records twenty years after Druzhnikov, could find no documentary evidence of any trial — nor any proof that Pavlik had denounced his father to the OGPU or that Trofim had been convicted of political offenses and exiled.

Trofim had definitely disappeared from Gerasimovka by the time of his sons’ murders, but Kelly believes it’s entirely possible that he simply walked out of little Pavel’s life and wasn’t put in a labor camp at all. If Pavlik did in fact denounce his father, it was probably at the behest of his mother, Tatiana, and not for political reasons: Trofim had deserted the family and moved in with a mistress.

Tatiana was bitterly angry about her husband’s defection, and Pavlik, as the oldest male member of the household, was stuck with the exhausting household and farm chores his father had once performed. The family certainly did not want for points of friction … and Pavlik Morozov’s murder certainly had nothing to do with politics.

However, one of the four people put to death for the crime might actually have been involved after all.

After the Murders

The murdered boys were buried quickly, before the police even arrived to investigate. No photographs were taken, experts consulted or forensic tests performed. No doctor examined the bodies, and it isn’t even known how many wounds the victims suffered.

Within short order, however, investigators had rounded up five suspects: Pavlik’s uncles, Arseny Silin and Arseny Kulukanov; his grandparents, Sergei and Ksenia Morozov, both of whom were in their eighties; and his nineteen-year-old cousin, Danila, who lived with Sergei and Ksenia.


The accused.

The only physical evidence to implicate them was a bloodstained knife and some bloody clothes found in Pavlik’s grandparents’ house. As Druzhnikov records:

The prosecution had at its disposal two pieces of material evidence that were found in the home of Sergei Morozov: the knife, which was pulled out from behind the icons during the search, and the blood-spattered trousers and shirt — though whose clothes they were, Danila’s, the grandfather’s, or someone else’s, and whose blood was on them remained unknown. The court did not demand a laboratory examination of the blood stains.

It’s worth noting here that Danila had recently slaughtered a calf for Pavlik’s mother; this would provide an alternative, innocent explanation for the bloody clothes.

During their nationally publicized show trial in November 1932, the defendants presented incriminating yet often wildly conflicting statements abut the murders, and virtually no other evidence was presented. Druzhnikov details the farcical proceedings, which lasted four days:

Witnesses for the prosecution (about ten people) … did not introduce facts but demanded that the court employ “the highest measure of social defense” — execution. In fact, there were no defense witnesses at all. At the trial there was only one defense counsel, but during one of the court sessions he stepped forward and announced to the hall that he was revolted by the conduct of his clients and refused to defend them further. After this the lawyer withdrew with a flourish, and the trial concluded without him.

Four of the five were convicted and sentenced to death for “terrorism against representatives of the Soviet Government.” Sergei, Ksenia, and Danila Morozov, and Arseny Kulukanov, were all shot in April after the inevitable rejection of their appeals. (Arseny Silin was able to produce a credible alibi and was acquitted.)

Tatiana supported the convictions and testified against the defendants. Stalin later purchased her a resort home in the Crimea, where she lived until her death in 1983.

Were They Guilty?

Druzhnikov, researching the case fifty years later, concluded that Pavlik and his brother were deliberately set up to be murdered by agents of the OGPU, who treated the murders as political and the children as martyrs, bringing righteous proletarian wrath upon a fiercely independent village which had so far successfully resisted collectivization.

“The murder,” he wrote towards the end of his book, “could only have been committed, or at least provoked, by the hands of the OGPU.”

Stalin’s regime would become famous for its terrifying show trials. “A show trial in the Urals,” Druzhnikov suggests, “called for a show murder.” Because, in Gerasimovka, “there really was no crime. The peasants living there were peaceful; they didn’t want to kill one another. So they needed help.”

Kelly, on the other hand, suggested that the appearance of the crime scene, with no attempt to hide the bodies by burying them or dumping them in the nearby swamp, suggests an impulsive act of violence probably committed by a local teenager or teenagers. (One wonders, however, why it took so long for searchers to find bodies supposedly lying in plain sight.)

Kelly’s best guess was that Pavlik’s cousin Danila may have actually been guilty after all, possibly acting in concert with another villager his own age, Efrem Shatrakov: Danila and Pavlik had a very nasty argument over a horse harness only a few days before Pavlik and Fyodor disappeared, and Pavlik had allegedly denounced the Shatrakov family for possessing an unlicensed gun, which was confiscated.

In fact, Danila’s statements to the authorities made reference to his fight with Pavlik about the harness, and Shatrakov actually confessed to the murders, but later retracted his statements and was let go.

In any case, as Kelly wrote, if one or more of the defendants convicted at the trial happened to be guilty, either of committing the murders or as accessories after the fact, “they most certainly did not receive a fair trial, and the corpus delicti upon which the sentence was based was without question seriously flawed.”

No matter who killed Pavlik, as Druzhnikov says, the final result is this: “It is a historical commonplace that Stalin ruthlessly converted living people into corpses. In this instance, he effected the conversion of a corpse into a living symbol.”


The only known real-life photograph of Pavlik Morozov, at center under the arrow, taken as a school class portrait by a wandering photographer in 1930.

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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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1934: Leonid Nikolaev, Kirov’s assassin

3 comments December 29th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1934, Leonid Nikolaev was convicted and (an hour later) shot for the murder of Leningrad communist leader Sergei Kirov.

Nikolaev was a disaffected young man who’d come of age during the Revolution and latterly been expelled from the Party for his bad attitude. He took his frustration out on December 1, 1934, when he stalked into the (suspiciously unguarded) office of Kirov and shot him dead.

The victim was much the more consequential figure in this transaction — both in life, and in death. Kirov’s murder would stand as a Reichstag fire moment unleashing the darkest years of Stalinist purges.

Kirov was an old Bolshevik agitator from way back. Widely respected, he’d been the party boss of Leningrad for nearly a decade, and a few months before his murder was overwhelmingly elected to the Communist Party’s Central Committee at the party Congress.

He was also, perhaps, seen by anti-Stalin factions within the party as a potential pole of resistance to Stalin* — though his weight as an “opposition” figure has also grown with the hindsight knowledge of what came next.

Kirov’s assassination was a double gift to the Kremlin, for not only did it remove the impediment himself, it licensed a furious security crackdown against the “terrorists” who orchestrated it. Said terrorists conveniently turned out to be dozens upon dozens (and indirectly, thousands upon thousands) of officials whom Stalin found convenient to destroy. “Kirov was killed in Leningrad,” Bukharin remarked upon hearing the news. “Now Koba [Stalin] will shoot us all.”

Within weeks of the murder, the exiled Trotsky was coming to the same conclusion, and charged that the Kirov investigation’s purposes was

to terrorize completely all critics and oppositionists, and this time not by expulsion from the party, nor by depriving them of their daily bread, nor even by imprisonment or exile, but by the firing squad. To the terrorist act of Nikolaev, Stalin replies by redoubling the terror against the party.

Stalin personally oversaw the investigation, even personally interrogated Nikolaev. And no surprise: the investigation’s casualties multiplied with alacrity.

The first commissar who made it to the murder scene “fell out of a truck” the very next day. Nikolaev’s mother, wife, siblings, and other associates were all disappeared and executed. 104 prisoners already under lock and key at the time of Kirov’s murder were judged guilty of conspiring with the assassin and shot out of hand. (Source)

In January 1935, Stalin had his long-neutered old rivals Zinoviev and Kamenev** preposterously convicted for “moral responsibility” for Kirov’s murder. Though they weren’t death-sentenced directly for this “responsibility” their condemnation set them up for their fatal show trial the following year. (Which included public confessions of involvement in the Kirov affair.) Guilt in Kirov’s death would be routinely bolted onto the show trials of political opponents for the remainder of the 1930s.

Stalin mined this terrorism panic so nakedly and purged so widely that the belief that Stalin himself ordered Kirov’s murder has long predominated. This theory of Stalin’s master orchestration also happened to be very convenient (pdf) for the post-Stalin party; Khrushchev directly hinted at his predecessor’s complicity in the secret speech.

That theory remains highly contestable. Matthew Lenoe in particular has vigorously disputed the idea that Stalin ordered everything in his acclaimed The Kirov Murder and Soviet History; there’s an informative interview with Lenoe on the invaluable Sean’s Russia Blog here, and a bit of background on Lenoe’s research here.

* Foreshadowing the unwelcome independence Leningraders enjoyed post-World War II … until Stalin smashed it.

** Nikolaev, the disaffected party member, was a Leningrader himself. That meant that when he was still in the party, it was in Zinoviev’s Leningrad party, since that city happened to be Zinoviev’s base and stomping-ground. And that meant that he must ipso facto have been part of the “Zinovievite Opposition”.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Russia,Shot,Terrorists,USSR

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1955: Six Beria men

Add comment November 22nd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1955, eight former officials of the Georgia — the country Georgia — secret police were tried publicly in Tbilisi, and six* of them convicted and promptly shot.

Officially, they were in the dock post-Stalin for their various depredations during the late ascendancy of the notorious Lavrentiy Beria. (Both Beria and Stalin himself were native Georgians.)

All their frightening offices for the NKVD had been re-branded, post-Stalin, as counterrevolutionary and terroristic, the same sort of chilling police-state lingo they used to turn against enemies back in their day.

A.N. Rapava, for instance

… was Deputy Head of the NKVD in Georgia. In July 1945, he received the rank of Lt. General. From late 1938 until 1948, he was the Head of NKVD/NKGB/MGB** in Georgia when he was removed under a cloud. (Source)

Georgia’s Stalin-era apparatchiks had vicious infighting, aggravated by a growing rift between Stalin and Beria late in Stalin’s life. (Indeed, if you like some hypotheses, this was why it was late in Stalin’s life: Beria might have poisoned off Uncle Joe to protect himself from purging.)

Rapava was a Beria man, but when Stalin swept his own people into place† in the late 1940s to early 1950s, a Stalin guy named N.M. Rukhadze arrested and replaced Rapava.

A few weeks before Stalin died, when the biography of Beria is thick with curious maneuverings, Beria got Rukhadze replaced; once Stalin kicked off, Beria was free to flat-out arrest Rukhadze.

It was a bit of an irony that when the post-Stalin Bolsheviks came round to mop up in Georgia, the rivals Rapava and Rukhadze had to stand in the dock together, both allegedly part of Beria’s organization. It would have been a bit inconvenient to detail how it was Beria himself who ordered Rukhadze’s arrest.

The others who shared their fate:

  • A.S. Khazani, NKVD political department officer who wrote a book with the title The Moral Outlook of a Soviet Man
  • N.A. Krimian, who served in the NKVD in Georgia and later in Ukraine, where he orchestrated the execution of political prisoners ahead of the invading Germans in World War II
  • K.S. Savitsky, NKVD Georgia official
  • Sh.O. Tsereteli, a tsarist officer turned Bolshevik and a Beria ally dating back to the early 1920s

All were shot for the victims of the Georgian purges they had conducted. A translator and a bodyguard were also convicted at the same trial, drawing prison sentences.

* Evidently, the official press initially reported only five executions.

** NKVD, NKGB and MGB is for our thumbnail essentially the same state security entity under various names and reorganizations from the 1930s to the 1950s. It became in the last analysis the KGB.

† See, for example, the Mingrelian Affair.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Georgia,History,Mass Executions,Murder,Power,Russia,Shot,USSR

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