1570: Ivan Viskovaty among hundreds on Red Square during the Oprichnina

4 comments July 25th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1570, Russian tsar Ivan IV GroznyIvan the Terrible — carried out one of his most infamous and horrible atrocities with hundreds executed on Red Square.

Ivan the Terrible, by Viktor Vasnetsov. (Cropped image; click for the full painting.)

We find ourselves in 1570 almost a quarter-century into the reign of this complicated, frightening figure. It is the oprichnina, the bloodiest spell of Ivan’s authority: years of torture, purges, and political violence vividly symbolized by the tsar’s black-clad personal Gestapo, the oprichniki.

“Children of darkness,” the exiled noble Kurbsky called these dreadful Praetorians. “Hundreds and thousands of times worse than hangmen.”

A dangerous time to draw breath, but a particularly dangerous time for any boyar, men of the feudal nobility whom Ivan set his iron hand to mastering. This, after all, was the historical task of monarchs at this time, and it was everywhere accomplished with bloodshed.

For Ivan, having come of age an orphan at the mercy of rival boyars, it was a vengeful personal obsession.

Already stung by the defection — and subsequent nasty correspondence — of one such noble, Andrei Kurbsky, Ivan was downright paranoid about disloyalty during the long-running Livonian War against Muscovy’s western neighbors, Poland, Lithuania and Sweden.

Ivan became ever readier to equate dissent with treason and to ascribe his military reverses to conspiracies on the part of his aristocratic commanders, rather than to the shortcomings of his war-machine in general. A vicious circle thus emerged – of military failures; suspected treachery; the suspects’ fear of condemnation and liquidation, and flight abroad.*


The innocent have nothing to fear!

Taking it into his head that the ancient, rival city of Novgorod — one of the cradles of Russian civilization — was scheming to deliver itself to the newly-formed Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Ivan led an army there that in early 1570 massacred thousands of Novgorodians.**

He wasn’t done yet.

Returning to Moscow with his blood up, Ivan subjected his numerous Novgorodian prisoners to a savage regimen meant to uncover the extent of their nefarious doings. And it wasn’t long before the locals (who were, after all, just as suspect in Ivan’s eyes) got swept up in it, too. Politically-motivated magistrates with torture-induced confessions and denunciations did the dreadful things they always do.

This date in 1570 turned out to be the affair’s crowning carnival of barbarism.

“The Russian capital had seen many horrors in its time,” wrote Soviet-era historian A.A. Zimin (cited in this biography of Ivan IV). “But what happened in Moscow on 25 July, in all its cruelty and sadistic refinement, outdid all that had gone before and can perhaps be explained only by the cruel temperament and the sick imagination of Ivan the Terrible.”

Ivan Viskovaty (English Wikipedia link | French) had been one of Russia’s leading men on foreign affairs for a generation, as well as a longstanding ally of the tsar.

Nevertheless, he would be the first and most prominent victim on Red Square this date. Viskovaty’s rival Andrei Shchelkalov, who succeeded Viskovaty as the foreign affairs minister, neatly stitched up the senior diplomat for being in on the Novgorod “plot” as well as more exotic schemes to hand over southern cities to Turkey and the Khanate.

Historian Nikolai Karamzin related the scene (quoted here):

On July 25, in the middle of the market-place, eighteen scaffolds were erected, a number of instruments of torture were fixed in position, a large stack of wood was lighted, and over it an enormous cauldron of water was placed. Seeing these terrible preparations, the people hurried away and hid themselves wherever they could, abandoning their opened shops, their goods and their money. Soon the place was void but for the band of opritchniks gathered round the gibbets, and the blazing fire. Then was heard the sound of drums: the Tsar appeared on horseback, accompanied by his dutiful son, the boyards, some princes, and quite a legion of hangmen. Behind these came some hundreds of the condemned, many like spectres; others torn, bleeding, and so feeble they scarce could walk. Ivan halted near the scaffolds and looked around, then at once commanded the opritchniks to find where the people were and drag them into the light of day. In his impatience he even himself ran about here and there, calling the Muscovites to come forward and see the spectacle he had prepared for them, promising all who came safety and pardon. The inhabitants, fearing to disobey, crept out of their hiding-place, and, trembling with fright, stood round the scaffold. Some having climbed on to the walls, and even showing themselves on the roofs, Ivan shouted: “People, ye are about to witness executions and a massacre, but these are traitors whom I thus punish. Answer me: Is this just?” And on all sides the people shouted approval. “Long live our glorious King! Down with traitors! Goiesi, Goida!”

Ivan separated 180 of the prisoners from the crowd and pardoned them. Then the first Clerk of the Council unrolled a scroll and called upon the condemned to answer. The first to be brought before him was Viskovati, and to him he read out: “Ivan Mikhailovich, formerly a Counsellor of State, thou hast been found faithless to his Imperial Highness. Thou has written to the King Sigismund offering him Novgorod; there thy first crime!” He paused to strike Viskovati on the head, then continued reading: “And this thy second crime, not less heinous than thy first, O ungrateful and perfidious one! Thou hast written to the Sultan of Turkey, that he may take Astrakhan and Kazan,” whereupon he struck the condemned wretch twice, and continued: “Also thou hast called upon the Khan of the Krim Tartars to enter and devastate Russia:† this thy third crime.” Viskovati called God to witness that he was innocent, that he had always served faithfully his Tsar and his country: “My earthly judges will not recognize the truth; but the Heavenly Judge knows my innocence! Thou also, O Prince, thou wilt recognise it before that tribunal on high!” Here the executioners interrupted, gagging him. He was then suspended, head downwards, his clothes torn off, and, Maluta Skutarov, the first to dismount from his horse and lead the attack, cut off an ear, then, little by little, his body was hacked to pieces.

The next victim was the treasurer, Funikov-Kartsef, a friend of Viskovati, accused with him of the same treason, and as unjustly. He in his turn said to Ivan, “I pray God will give thee in eternity a fitting reward for thy actions here!” He was drenched with boiling and cold water alternately, until he expired after enduring the most horrible torments. Then others were hanged, strangled, tortured, cut to pieces, killed slowly, quickly, by whatever means fancy suggested. Ivan himself took a part, stabbing and slaying without dismounting from his horse. In four hours two hundred and been put to death, and then, the carnage over, the hangmen, their clothes covered with blood, and their gory, steaming knives in their hands, surrounded the Tsar and shouted huzzah. “Goida! Goida! Long live the Tsar! Ivan for ever! Goida! Goida!” and so shouting they went round the market-place that Ivan might examine the mutilated remains, the piled-up corpses, the actual evidences of the slaughter. Enough of bloodshed for the one day? Not a bit of it. Ivan, satiated for the moment with the slaughter, would gloat over the grief of the survivors. Wishing to see the unhapy wives of Funikov-Kartsef and of Viskovati, he forced a way into their apartments and made merry over their grief! The wife of Funikov-Kartsef he put to the torture, that he might have from her whatever treasures she possessed. Equally he wished to torture her fifteen-year-old daughter, who was groaning and lamenting at their ill fortune, but contented himself with handing her over to the by no means tender mercies of the Tsarevich Ivan. Taken afterwards to a convent, these unhappy beings shortly died of grief — it is said.

Thanks to this sort of wholesale purging, Ivan the Terrible became in the 20th century something of an allegorical shorthand for Joseph Stalin, whose own reign of terror was a touchier subject for direct commentary. By that same token, and capturing the multifaceted meaning of the word Grozny, (both awful and awe-inspiring) Soviet patriotic mythology co-opted Ivan and his allegedly farsighted cruelty as a state- and nation-builder.

Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible — a planned trilogy of films of which only two were completed, due to Stalin’s distaste for his greatest director’s interpretation — captures a view of Ivan IV Grozny from the shadow of wartime Stalinist Russia. (The two extant films can be seen in their entirety on YouTube, and are well worth the watching.)

The more conventional take is that, especially by his later years, the guy’s tyrannical paranoia had metastasized enough to send him plum off his rocker. In 1581, that favorite son who had accompanied Tsar Ivan to Novgorod, and to Red Square on this date, piqued his father’s rage during an argument — and in a fury, Ivan struck him dead.


Detail view (click for the full, gorgeous canvas) of Ilya Repin‘s emotional painting of Ivan the moment after he has mortally wounded his son. Incited to his own act of lunacy by the tsar’s riveting madman expression, iconographer and Old Believer Abram Balashov slashed these faces with a knife (image) in the Tretyakov Gallery in 1913.

The capable young heir’s senseless death effectively spelled the end for Russia’s Rurikid Dynasty descended from the half-mythical Norse founder of Rus’, Rurik. That argument from order and progress in favor of Ivan’s ferocity inconveniently runs up against the fact that what he actually bequeathed to the next generations of Russians was the rudderless, war-torn Time of Troubles, when rival claimants struggled for the throne.

Ivan IV is sure to remain a controversial, compelling figure for many a year to come. Released just a few months ago as of this writing, and in a time when Ivan comparisons are coming back into vogue for the ominous contemporary Russian state, Pavel Lungin’s Tsar (review) mounts a gory critique of its subject.

* Jonathan Shepard, book review in The Historical Journal, vol. 25, no. 2 (June 1982).

** Novgorod by 1570 was not as important as it had once been, but Ivan’s sack massively depopulated the city, essentially destroying its remaining strength as an independent commercial center.

† The allied Ottoman Turks and Crimean Khanate did in fact devastate Russia (and pillage Moscow) the very next year.

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1939: Stanislav Kosior, Vlas Chubar and Pavel Postyshev

6 comments February 26th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1939, a couple of “New Bolsheviks” recently flying high after helping purge the Old Bolsheviks had their own reversals of fate culminate with a bullet to the head.

Stanislav Kosior* (or Kossior), a Pole who ran the Ukrainian Communist Party for much of the 1930’s, and Vlas Chubar, a Ukrainian politburo member who had once served as Prime Minister, were shot this day along with Pavel Postyshev,** once Stalin’s personal representative to the Ukraine.

Left to right: Kosior, Chubar, and Postyshev — the first and last on post-rehabilitation Soviet stamps.

Though these obviously died because of parochial party politics under the terrifying reign of Stalin — and all were accordingly rehabilitated after Stalin’s death — posterity has another bone to pick with them: the Ukrainian famine known as the Holodomor.

Their portfolios included carrying out the forced collectivization to which the famine is generally attributed. Participation was strongly encouraged.

“Join the collective farm or else off to the Solovets Islands.”

Chubar

It was a grim time: starving peasnts dared not touch collectivized foodstuffs slated for use elsewhere on pain of execution themselves.† (Kosior won the Order of Lenin for his achievements in agriculture.) These Soviet VIPs themselves faced very similar pressure to implement Moscow policy and party line with exactitude … and very similar consequences for any perceived failure. (Kosior, too steely to succumb to torture, finally broke when his captors raped his teenage daughter in front of him.)

State organs adapted to the fall of these powerful men with Orwellian aplomb. “Radio Kosior” was renamed “Radio Kiev” overnight with its namesake’s arrest. Secret police chief Lavrenty Beria personally expropriated Chubar’s dacha. And

there is an account of a case in the Ukraine in which fifty students were charged with forming an organization to assassinate Kossior, who had been named as one of the senior intended victims in the great Moscow Trials. A year’s work on this case, which was a structure of great intricacy, had been performed by the interrogators. In 1938, however, it became known that Kossior himself had been arrested as a Trotskyite. Everyone thought that the students would be released. But a new interrogation immediately started, and they were beaten up for having lied to the NKVD. After a few days, the stool pigeons in the cells let them know what they were supposed to confess this time. It was to change their deposition, putting the name of Kaganovich for that of Kossior. The NKVD could not face the trouble of constructing a completely new fabrication. Finally everything was in order, and the students were sent off to labor camps.

A Ukrainian court recently named Kosior, Chubar and Postyshev among eight individuals personally responsible for the Holodomor.

* When Kosior was assigned to Moscow in 1938, he was replaced in the Ukraine by a good friend: future Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. (According to Nikita’s son.) To judge by the ferocity and extent of the purges Khrushchev oversaw, he took to heart the lesson from his predecessors’ fall.

** But on the plus side, Russians’ and eastern Slavs’ (continuing) tradition of putting up New Year’s trees in at least partly attributable (Russian link) to a Postyshev epistle to Pravda in 1935 calling for same. (The New Year’s yolka was a religious/tsarist tradition that had been discontinued after the Russian Revolution, but like many such cultural artifacts proved amenable — with Postyshev’s nudging — to secular/Communist reappropriation.)

† The nature of the Holodomor is the subject of furious present-day wrangling: can the mass starvation accurately be classed as a “genocide”? Especially given that such a finding could expose Russia and/or Russians to legal liability, there’s something of a difference of opinion on the matter between Kiev and Moscow.

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1953: Lavrenty Beria, Stalin henchman

6 comments December 23rd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1953, Stalin’s feared minister Lavrenty Beria was shot — finally on the receiving end of the cruelty he had administered to countless Soviet citizens.

Lavrenty Pavlovich was, like Stalin, a Georgian peasant, albeit one generation younger.

He won his way into Stalin’s confidence from the 1920’s, and in 1938 replaced Nikolai Yezhov as head of the KGB predecessor NKVD. Yezhov did much of the bloody work of the Great Purge, and was himself in turn purged. The cunning Beria must have taken note.

Though his initial project was to clean up the excesses of the Yezhovshchina — releasing thousands of innocent convicts, making the gulag camps less homicidal and more effective and keeping prisoners alive long enough to get some work out of them, that sort of thing — it wasn’t long before Beria cast a terrifying shadow of his own. (Beria was Yezhov’s deputy, so it’s not like he walked into the job without the requisite qualifications for mass murder.) He wrote the memo proposing the execution of Polish officers that led to the Katyn massacre.

To the more everyday repressive operations of the Soviet secret police, Beria added his notorious (perhaps propagandistically exaggerated?) personal peccadilloes: nothing to trouble the boss, just a little penchant for seducing, or raping, and at his pleasure murdering, comely young lasses.

Soviet author Sergei Dovlatov sketched his character in this imagined vignette (translated by Executed Today friend Sonechka from the Russian original here):

As is well known, winsome high school girls were delivered to Lavrenty Beria’s house. Then his chauffeur presented a bouquet of flowers to the next victim. And rendered her home. This was an established ceremony. Suddenly, one of the damsels became unruly. She began to struggle and scratch. In short, held her ground and did not succumb to the charms of the Internal Affairs minister. Beria told her:

-You can leave.

The young woman descended the stairs. The chauffeur, not expecting such a turn of events, handed her over the prepared bouquet. The girl, somewhat more composed now, addressed the minister who was standing on the balcony:

-You see, Lavrenty Pavlovich! Your chauffeur is more courteous than you are. He gave me a bouquet of flowers.

Beria sneered and dully uttered:

-You are mistaken. It is not a bouquet. It is a funeral wreath.

More consequential for his fate was his position among the handful of Stalin’s closest associates, in which capacity he maintained himself for a remarkably extended period of time. This made him one of the people with a shot at succeeding Stalin, which in turn put him in the middle of the furious political infighting Uncle Joe was pleased to subject his subordinates to.

And the natural enmity between sovereign and heir — the one whose interest is the other’s death — may have even led Beria to poison Stalin in March 1953 when he was on the verge of a falling-out himself. Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov (he of the pact, and the cocktail) remembered in his memoir Beria boasting after Stalin’s sudden and mysterious death,

“I did him in! I saved all of you!”

Briefly the official #2 man in the post-Stalin state, he would again preside over a political liberalization that belied his monstrous personal reputation.

But this pallbearer of Stalin soon followed his former master to the grave. Outmaneuvered by rivals Nikita Khrushchev, Georgy Malenkov, and Molotov, Beria was purged as a traitor in the summer of 1953 and secretly executed Dec. 23, 1953 with six confederates after a summary trial before the Supreme Court. (One of the expedients laid at his feet in that affair was a set of executions he had ordered in a 1941 purge).

According to a chapter by Michael Ross and Anne E. Wilson in Memory, Brain and Belief, after Beria’s fall, subscribers to the Great Soviet Encyclopedia

were instructed to destroy the article on Beria and were provided additional information on the Bering Strait to fill the gap in the pages.

Beria’s heirs actually applied to the post-Soviet government for a reversal of the conviction under laws granting victims of politically motivated prosecutions right of redress. The Russian judiciary turned them down.

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1952: Night of the Murdered Poets

2 comments August 12th, 2009 Headsman

As night fell this evening in Moscow, 13 prominent Soviet Jews were shot in Lubyanka Prison on trumped-up charges of treason and espionage.

“The Night of the Murdered Poets”, as it’s come to be remembered, wasn’t so much about the poetry; “only” five of the victims fit that description.

But as Joshua Rubenstein put it, “only the martyred Yiddish writers are mentioned at August 12 commemorations; the other defendants who lost their lives, as well as the sole survivor Lina Shtern, are rarely if ever remembered, perhaps because their careers as loyal Soviet citizens do not fit comfortably into an easy category for Westerners to honor … Stalin repaid their loyalty by destroying them.”

Falling victim to Stalin was such a particularly tragic fate because they were, in the main, good Communists:* good enough to have been part of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, a World War II organ dedicated to rallying support for the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany.

Such national particularism — any port in a storm! — was all well and good when Moscow had the Wehrmacht at its gates and a short supply of friends, but it increasingly ran dangerously afoul Soviet officialdom as the 1940’s progressed. It was a bastion of sectarian identity rather than socialist universalism; its celebration of the Jewish soldier and of Jewish wartime travails cut against the narrative of Soviet sacrifice and heroism; its overseas links to the United States (where it toured in wartime) and the new state of Israel made it suspect, or at least vulnerable.

Thin excuse for mass execution, to be sure, but in a structure of generalized antisemitism run by a trigger-happy dictator …

In 1948-49, fifteen JAC members were arrested. One would die in prison; the aforementioned Lina Stern, a scientist, would receive a term of exile and return to Moscow when this purge’s victims were rehabilitated after Stalin’s death.

The thirteen others were tortured and condemned by a rigged (but secret, since many of the accused wouldn’t cop to public self-denunciations) trial

Years before his arrest, Markish would write words to make a eulogy for many a disillusioned Soviet citizen … and literally so in his case, since the verse was cited at his trial as evidence of his “pessimism”:

Now, when my vision turns in on itself,
My shocked eyes open, all their members see
My heart has fallen like a mirror on
A stone and shatters, ringing, into splinters.

Piece by piece I’ll try to gather them
To make them whole with stabbed and bleeding fingers.
And yet, however skillfully they’re glued,
My crippled, broken image will be seen.

* Naturally, being a good Communist did not keep one safe from Uncle Joe.

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1952: Nikos Beloyannis, the man with the carnation

3 comments March 30th, 2009 Headsman

Before dawn on this date in 1952, four Greek Communists were shot outside Athens for treason.

Nikos (Nicholas) Beloyannis (or Mpeloyannis), the most prominent among them, spent a goodly portion of his adult life in prison for his subversive opinions — first at the hands of the interwar Greek nationalist government, then the Nazi occupation, then the British.

His many years’ service to communism was, unbeknownst to him, even then being horse-traded away as Stalin and Churchill carved up post-World War II spheres of influence.

Uncle Joe ceded Greece to the West — so the reds were left dangling during the Greek Civil War, and guys like Nikos got fitted for left martyrology.


The Execution of Beloyannis, by Peter de Francia.

“The man with the carnation” — it was his signature prop at the mass show trial where he drew a death sentence for “conspiring to overthrow by force the present regime in Greece.”

The trial, and the outcry that greeted its swift and questionable resolution, helped establish an enduring international reputation among fellow-travelers.

(From The Man With The Carnation, released after the fall of the Papadapoulos dictatorship.)

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1937: Alexander Yulevich Tivel

1 comment March 7th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1937 — probably — one of the numberless obscurities consumed by Stalin’s purges was convicted and presumably shot for “preparing to commit a terrorist act against [NKVD head] Yezhov.”

Alexander Yulevich Tivel, a Jewish bureaucrat who had the misfortune to have been in a party organ too close to Zinoviev, was disappeared by the NKVD one day in 1936.

His fate forms the opening hook for J. Arch Getty’s The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932-1939 — “the story of the Stalinist terror writ small.” (Here’s a review)

We do not know whether he was physically tortured by his interrogators, but there is ample evidence that countless others were. Even high-ranking officials under arrest were beaten or, as Molotov would put it, “worked over.” Ten years later, a high-ranking police official described interrogation procedures in a letter to Stalin. First, prisoners were offered better conditions — better food, mail, and so on — in return for a confession. If that failed, appeals to the prisoner’s conscience and concern for his family followed. The next step was a solitary-confinement cell without exercise, a bed, tobacco, or sleep for up to twenty days … Finally, the use of “physical pressure” was authorized …

Tivel was probably executed on the same day [of his conviction]. Unlike many others who were badgered and tortured by the NKVD, he had not confessed.

His wife and mother-in-law to internal exile. His son would suffer the stigma of being the child of an executed traitor.

The widow Eva Tivel, reports Getty, grappled for years with the unresponsive bureaucracy until she finally cleared Sasha Tivel’s name.

On 23 May 1957, twenty years after Tivel’s execution and after Eva’s many letters and appeals, Tivel’s sentence and party expulsion were overturned … [as] “based on contradictory and dubious materials.”

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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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1937: Masao Sudo, since rehabilitated

Add comment December 4th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1937, Japanese emigre Masao Sudo was shot in Moscow as a spy.

The executed man’s son, Dr. Mikhail Masaovich Sudo.

A true-red Communist who had fled increasingly right-wing Japan in the 1920’s and become a labor organizer in the far east, Sudo shared the tragic fate of the Japanese community in Stalin’s USSR, decimated by denunciations of one another.

Sudo was the father of Russian geologist Mikhail Masaovich Sudo, author of several abstruse texts (and also, it would appear, Japanese language primers for Russian speakers) — and under whom, apparently, you can take classes at the International Independent University of Environmental and Political Sciences.

Masao Sudo was rehabilitated in 1956.

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1938: Seventeen former Bolshevik officials from the Trial of the 21

23 comments March 15th, 2008 Dmitri Minaev

(Thanks to Dmitri Minaev of De Rebus Antiquis Et Novis for the guest post. Be sure to read his corollary piece on cameos by some of this day’s victims in Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita.)

On 15 March 1938, 17 former executives of the Communist Party were executed at the “special object” Kommunarka near Moscow.

As head of the NKVD, Yagoda had arranged show trials before. This time, the shoe was on the other foot.

The names of some of them are found in any history book’ others were totally unknown even in 1930s. Alexey Rykov and Nikolay Bukharin were the topmost (well, almost) leaders of the USSR. Nikolai Krestinsky was a member of the Central Committee Secretariat and the Soviet ambassador to Germany. Christian Rakovsky was a diplomat, the head of the government of the Ukrainian SSR. Genrikh Yagoda was the minister of internal affairs, head of NKVD (the late name of Cheka). P. Kryuchkov was an officer of OGPU (an NKVD department) and the secretary of Maxim Gorky, the “official writer” of the communist USSR.

The others were ex-finance minister of the USSR Grigory Grinko, the general secretary of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan Vladimir Ivanov, ex-prime-minister of the Uzbek SSR Faizullo Hojayev, ex-minister of foreign trade of the USSR Arkady Rozengoltz, ex-minister of agriculture Mikhail Chernov, Isaac Zelensky, S. Bessonov, Akmal Ikramov, Vasily Sharangovich, Prokopy Zubarev, Pavel Bulanov, Veniamin Maksimov-Dikovsky and the doctors Lev Levin, Ignaty Kazakov and Dmitri Pletnyov (one of the founders of the Soviet cardiology).

There were 21 of them under trial, but three (Pletnyov, Rakovsky and Bessonov) were sentenced to imprisonment* and the date of execution of Yagoda remains unknown. The others all died this day.

Railroaded

“The trial of the 21” was officially known as “the case of the anti-Soviet right-Trotskyite block”. They were accused of “treason, espionage, sabotage, terror, undermining Soviet military power and provoking foreign countries to attack the USSR”. The other accusations were: a conspiracy to restore capitalism and to separate the Soviet republics and the Far East from the USSR; ties with foreign intelligence (including that of Nazi Germany, via Trotsky or directly); preparation of military aggression against the USSR; organizing peasants’ revolts in the USSR; the murders of Kirov, Menzhinsky, Kuibyshev, Maxim Gorky and his son Maxim Peshkov; and attempts to assassinate Lenin, Stalin and N. Yezhov (note this name).

After having his memory jogged, Krestinsky remembered that he really was part of the right-Trotskyite conspiracy.

Only the three doctors were provided with a legal defense. The others “voluntarily” refused.

All of them confessed to committing most of the various supposed crimes, although several had unavailing caveats. Krestinsky denied the charges, but it took only one day to convince him of his “failing” memory. “I fully and completely admit that I am guilty of all the gravest charges brought against me personally, and I admit my complete responsibility for the treason and treachery I have committed,” he said on the next day. Bukharin denied some of the charges brought against him. The doctors insisted that they killed Menzhinsky because of fear of Yagoda. Yagoda himself confirmed that he participated in the murder of Gorky’s son Peshkov, but said that motives were personal and not anti-Soviet.

According to the documents found in the archives, Bukharin, Rykov and Krestinsky were sentenced to death on 2 March, on the first day of the process. It could be an error, but on the other hand, it could indicate that the sentence was determined before the trial.

Neverending Story

The first draft of this article started like this: “This story began in …”

Then I stopped and scratched my head. The date when this story really began is not very clear. Some would argue that it began in 1922 when Stalin became the general secretary of VKP(b), others might say that it started in 1918, when the Bolsheviks dissolved the Constituent Assembly, and so on. What is clear is that 1937, when many of those twenty one were arrested, was not the beginning.

Then I decided to begin the other way round: “This story ended in…”

And once again I stopped. This trial had too many interesting corollaries and, of course, the story did not end in 1938. So, in the end the article became a mess of jumps in time to and fro. We are nearly as far removed today from Stalin’s purges as the purges were from the age of Russian serfdom — and those trials throw a shadow across the entire span of time.

Terror

Here’s a small extract from the series of events that preceded and followed the trial. In 1936 Bukharin and Rykov zealously supported the prosecutions of Zinoviev and Kamenev, two other old faithful Bolsheviks, accused by Stalin in opposing the policy of the party. The campaign ended with their trial and execution. Bukharin wrote letters to Stalin:

“I have always sincerely supported the line of the party and Stalin … These are the glorious milestones: industrialization, collectivization, elimination of kulaks, two great five-year plans, concern for the working man, new technologies and stakhanovism, wealthy life, the new constitution.”

“It’s great that the rascals [Zinoviev and Kamenev] were shot. The air became cleaner.”

Bukharin kept busy awaiting trial by writing Philosophical Arabesques … and three other books.

In 1925-1926, when Stalin organized the first campaign against Zinoviev and Kamenev, Bukharin and Rykov also applauded him. “I hand the broom to comrade Stalin,” said Rykov, “to wipe our enemies away.” Yet earlier, Bukharin and Rykov together with these “enemies” Zinoviev and Kamenev helped Stalin to repel the attempts of Trotsky to become the leader of the Soviet state after the death of Lenin.

Bukharin was not an idiot. He understood that he was not any different from Zinoviev. He was the first candidate to replace Stalin if something happened to Stalin — which made him automatically suspect in the eyes of the boss.

Moreover, he was a Bolshevik and he knew the habits of Bolsheviks very well. Caricaturist Boris Yefimov recalled that on 1 December 1934, when Bukharin learned of the assassination of Kirov, he told the other people who were in the room: “Kirov was killed in Leningrad. Now Koba will shoot us all.” (Koba was Stalin’s nom de guerre) But, being a professional revolutionary and conspirator, he knew only one strategy for survival: hypocrisy.

In this 1927 photo at Lenin’s mausoleum, two of today’s victims — Rykov (on the far left) and Bukharin (by his side) — share the platform with Joseph Stalin (far right). Between them is Kalinin, the rare old Bolshevik who managed to survive the 1930’s. (Source)

This strategy did not guarantee success with Stalin. The proof for this may be found in what happened during and after the trial.

Ostracism

Let’s have a look at the newspapers of 1938.

From the resolution of the meeting of the workers of the institute of physiology of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences and the institute of experimental biology and pathology of the Ukrainian ministry of health care.

With the deepest resentment and indignation we hold up to shame the traitors of their motherland, the mercenaries of the fascist secret services, mean Trotskyite-Bukharin’s scoundrels. The history of humanity hardly knows other examples of similar crimes.

We proclaim that the fascist mercenaries will never succeed in dismembering the great Soviet Union and in handing the flourishing socialist Ukraine to the capitalists. We add our voices to the voice of the many million Soviet people demanding to exterminate all the mean traitors, spies and murderers.

From the resolution of the third conference on physiology of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR.

The traitors Bukharin, Rykov, Yagoda and others did not disdain any means in their vile job. These traitors never eschewed any mostrous crime.

The doctors Pletnyov, Kazakov, Vinogradov and Levin in this repellent union consciously used the trust of their patients to kill them. History never saw such crimes. Death to these murderers! Destroy all the gang of the “right-trotskyite” block!

From the article “We demand merciless retaliation against the vile traitors of our great Motherland”.

Having sold themselves to the fascists, plotting with the diplomats and the general staffs of some aggressive imperialist states, a despicable handful of human degenerates, servants of the fascist cannibals, led by a Gestapo agent, gangster Trotsky, sold our socialist motherland and its treasures to the most evil enemies of the human progress.

We demand from our Soviet court merciless retaliation against the vile traitors! We demand the extermination of the despicable degenerates!

The last article was signed by many outstanding scientists: the chairman of the Academy of sciences Komarov, professor Valeskalns, academics Keller, Bach, Vavilov, Gorbunov and others. N. Vavilov died in prison in 1943. N. Gorbunov was sentenced to death and executed in 1938. I am not certain about the others, but about 70% of the members of the Central Committee of the Communist party who supported Stalin’s proposal to arrest Bukharin and Rykov were later arrested themselves, and many of them died or were killed.

Here’s another quotation from a newspaper:

While accepting responsibility for the endless chain of dreadful bloody crimes which history never saw before, Bukharin attempts to give an abstract, ideological, sissy nature to his concrete criminal guilt. He fails to do so, the court and the prosecutor easily discern these attempts, but this trick is very typical for Bukharin’s nature of the right-Trotskyite political prostitute.

The pretensions of the garrulous, hypocritically vile murderer Bukharin to look as an “ideologist” lost in theoretical blunders are hopeless. He will not succeed in separating himself from the gang of his accomplices. He will not succeed in averting full responsibility for the chain of monstrous crimes. He will not wash his academic hands. These hands are stained with blood. These are the hands of a murderer.

I ask myself, “If you must die, what are you dying for?” With startling vividness a black void immediately rises before my eyes. “There is nothing to die for, if one wants to die unrepentant. If, on the contrary, one repents, everything fine and good that shines in the Soviet Union acquires in one’s mind a new dimension.” In the end it was this thought that completely disarmed me. I went down on my knees before the Party.
Bukharin

This article was written by a gifted poet, journalist Mikhail Koltsov on 7 March 1938. He was shot by NKVD on 2 February 1940, less than two years later.

By the way, N. Yezhov (the “assassination” target of Bukharin’s party), who replaced Yagoda as the head of NKVD, was also arrested and executed in 1940 as a spy and conspirator.

Krestinsky, Ikramov, Hojayev and Zelensky were acquitted in 1963.

On 4 February 1988 the Supreme Court of the USSR ruled that confession cannot be interpreted as a proof of guilt and acquitted ten out of twenty one victims. (I could not find information on the cases of Grinko, Bessonov, Sharangovich, Zubarev and Pletnyov.) The sentence against Yagoda, to whose ruthless secret police history has been less generous, was left in force.

* Pletnyov, Rakovsky and Bessonov, the three to avoid death sentences at the Trial of the 21, were later summarily executed together with 154 other political prisoners when the Nazi armies approached the city Oryol in September 1941.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,History,Intellectuals,Mass Executions,Other Voices,Politicians,Posthumous Exonerations,Power,Revolutionaries,Russia,Shot,Torture,Treason,USSR,Wrongful Executions

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1939: Georgy Nikolayevich Kosenko (aka Kislov), NKVD spy

2 comments February 20th, 2008 Dmitri Minaev

(Thanks to Dmitri Minaev of De Rebus Antiquis Et Novis for the guest post.)

One thing about the first years of Soviet history that always puzzled me is how the Bolsheviks managed to create a wide and reliable network of foreign intelligence and counter-intelligence so fast. Below is a history of life and death of a typical spy from the early Soviet years.

Georgy Nikolayevich Kosenko was born on 12 May 1901 in Stavropol. He was a smart schoolboy. Foreign languages, especially French, were among his favorite subjects. He graduated from school when the Russian Civil War began and his parents became active Bolsheviks.

Stavropol was a region of fierce struggle between the Whites and the Reds. On the one hand, the anti-Bolshevik Volunteer Army had good support in Southern Russia, but on the other hand, the factory workers who concentrated in the cities tended to support the Bolsheviks.

Georgy’s father participated in the revolt in Stavropol and in 1918 he was executed by the Whites. Georgy’s sister was a Bolshevik since 1914 and actively worked for the revolutionary underground. Soon after the death of their father she too was caught and hanged. I don’t know what was her crime, but most probably it was sabotage.

So, choosing sides in the civil war was not difficult for young Georgy. In 1920 he became a secret agent of Cheka in Stavropol; in 1921 he joined the RCP(b) (Russian Communist Party, bolsheviks) and became a private in the OGPU military detachment. From 1924 he was a full-fledged officer of OGPU (the new name of Cheka) and continued his work in Stavropol and other cities: Novorossiysk, Vladikavkaz, Rostov, Sverdlovsk and Moscow.

A Lethal Career

In 1933 the Foreign department of OGPU noticed the young officer with good command of French and offered him a post in Soviet foreign intelligence. On 30 April 1933 he was appointed the deputy of the chief agent of OGPU in Kharbin in Manchuria, then occupied by the Japanese. According to the usual practice of the OGPU, he received false documents and became Georgy Nikolayevich Kislov. He became the secretary of the Soviet embassy in Kharbin. In June 1935 he was promoted to the chief agent and, automatically, to the vice-consul of the USSR.

Anti-communist forces were still active in Siberia in the 1930s and the main task of Soviet agents in Kharbin was identifying organized groups of Whites. There was a large colony of Russian emigrants in Manchuria and many of them eagerly helped the anti-Soviet fighters. By the end of 1935 Kosenko-Kislov and his colleagues had identified about 180 members of this movement. The gathered information helped to intercept three armed groups on the border of the USSR. Another important target of Soviet counter-intelligence was Japanese spies. Kosenko identified about 300 of them. He also helped to prevent an operation of Japanese saboteurs who planned to destroy a railroad tunnel.

In the end of 1935 Kosenko fell ill and was evacuated to Moscow. Having spent some months in a hospital he got better and in May was sent to Paris.

The French Connection

France played a crucial role in international politics and the main goal of Soviet intelligence was to learn more about the position of the French government toward Germany and USSR. The network led by Kosenko received information from government sources, from the president’s office and from the French army and intelligence. They also gathered important information on new models of tanks, aeroplanes and handguns.

Another target of Soviet intelligence was the so called Russian All-Military Union (ROVS, Rossiyskiy Obshche-Voinskiy Soyuz). This organization united the soldiers and officers of the Russian army who were forced to leave Russia in 1920 but who still hoped to return. The organization was then headed by General Yevgeny Miller. NKVD thought that if they could make Miller disappear, the leadership would go to General Skoblin, who was an agent of Soviet intelligence. Miller was kidnapped to the USSR in an operation assisted by Alexander Orlov — remember that name — the head of Soviet intelligence in Spain and by Georgy Kosenko.

Kosenko was awarded the order of the Red Banner — but the most important operation of his life was still to come.

Another anti-Soviet organization also located in Paris was the international secretariat of the Fourth International, founded by Leo Trotsky. The secretariat was managed by Leo Sedov, Trotsky’s son. An agent of Soviet intelligence, Mark Zborovsky, became Sedov’s personal secretary and transferred to NKVD the letters of Trotsky and Sedov. In August 1936 Sedov left Paris and left all his papers to Zborovsky. Zborovsky got access to the list of Trotsky’s correspondents in many countries and immediately sent it to NKVD. He also informed Soviet intelligence that Trotsky sent a large part of his personal archive to the Institute of Historical Research in Paris. Stalin ordered the archive captured. A special NKVD group headed by Yakov Serebryansky was sent to Paris and Kosenko organized the operation. On 6-7 November 1936 Kosenko received the archive — about 80 kilograms of documents, articles and letters — and sent it to Moscow with the diplomatic mail.

In February 1937 Kosenko received a report from Mark Zborovsky that Sedov had asked Zborovsky to organize Stalin’s assassination. When Kosenko sent this information to Moscow, Stalin was infuriated and ordered Trotsky and his top aides killed. Among other operations to this end, Moscow sent Trotsky’s eventual murderer Ramon Mercader from Spain to France. Kosenko had to help him to enter the circle of Trotsky’s close friends.

Although this intrigue turned out to be a success, it would claim Kosenko’s life before Trotsky’s.

Purged

In July 1938, Kosenko’s Spanish opposite number and sometime collaborator Alexander Orlov fled to the USA, guaranteeing his own safety (and that of the mother he left in the USSR) by threatening to reveal Soviet intelligence secrets if pursued. Orlov sent a letter to Trotsky warning him that a Soviet agent named Mark had penetrated his son’s circle, and that the NKVD was preparing the assassination of Trotsky at the hands of either Mark or an unknown Spaniard. (Trotsky thought the tip was a provocation, and fatefully ignored it.)

Stalin went mad. He ordered the new head of NKVD Lavrentiy Beria to punish all spies involved in the debacle. Kosenko was one of them. In November 1938 Kosenko received an order to return to Moscow and on 27 December he was put to the same jail where General Miller was still imprisoned. Kosenko was accused of participation in a counter-revolutionary organization and on 20 February he was sentenced to death. That same night of 20-21 February 1939 he was shot and his body was buried in an tomb without any name or date.

So, this story does not answer the question I asked in the beginning, but rather dismisses it by proving that the Soviet intelligence network was wide but far from reliable and that eventually these spies either eagerly got rid of each other or simply fled as far as they could.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,History,Other Voices,Revolutionaries,Russia,Shot,Spies,The Worm Turns,Treason,USSR

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