1937: Alexander Shlyapnikov, Workers’ Opposition leader

Add comment September 2nd, 2018 Headsman

September 2 was the execution date during the purge year of 1937 for Old Bolshevik trade unionist Alexander Shlyapnikov.

The metalworker Shlyapnikov was a man who came by his revolutionary politics right from the shop floor. At the age of 10 he left school to work in a foundry, “having learnt to read and write. School was no mother to me, and it was not the teachers who educated me … the teachers were young and very rude, and they often meted out justice to their young charges with their fists. Even during these years, life taught me that there is no justice in this world.” (Source) Born to an Old Believer family, his fervor for justice had an initial religious bent, but after moving from provincial Murom to St. Petersburg/Petrograd* he discarded godliness and became a labor militant of sufficient stature to start turning up on blacklists before he was out of his teens.

During the political chill following Russia’s failed 1905 revolution, the oft-arrested Shliapikov worked abroad in western Europe — by now both a master of his difficult craft, and a Bolshevik who had led an armed rising in his hometown of Murom. Here he became socially and politically close with Lenin and all the brand-name Communist exiles, as well as with European labor unions and left parties.

He also shuttled to and from Russia coordinating the movement’s internal and external actors; he’s left us a memoir of the political maneuvers and adventurous border-crossings of these years. Thanks to this role, Shliapnikov was the most senior Bolshevik on the scene in Petrograd when the February Revolution broke out; he was immediately a key figure in the Petrograd Soviet, and was the Bolshevik state’s first Commissar for Labor.

As the newborn USSR solidified in form and function, Shlyapnikov nursed growing concerns about its distance from — and tendency to run roughshod over — actual workers. He soon became a leading voice for the Workers’ Opposition** around 1919 to 1921. Where the Bolsheviks held that theirs was an ascendant workers’ polity that had subsumed mere guilds, Shlyapnikov insisted on the trade unions as distinct from the Soviet state and the Communist party — “a syndicalist deviation” in Lenin’s charge. The Workers’ Opposition was prescient in its critique of the once-utopian project’s creeping bureaucratizm, with real workers’ material interests, dissenting perspectives, and local idiosyncracies giving way everywhere to the center’s policy orthodoxy dictated through “apparatuses of power … located practically in hands alien to the interests of the working class.” (Source)

Although prominent in its day, the Workers’ Opposition viewpoint was not destined to carry forward into Soviet theory or practice. After bread shortages drove workers and sailors at Kronstadt into a rebellion that the Bolsheviks crushed in 1921, the Workers’ Opposition tendency was quashed within the party. Shlyapnikov thereafter held second-rate posts, and was several times investigated by the Communist Party for “factionalism,” finally being expelled under Stalin in 1933.†

He was favored with a 2016 biography by Barbara C. Allen, Alexander Shlyapnikov, 1885-1937: Life of an Old Bolshevik (review). Allen discussed Shlyapnikov in an interview with the indispensable Sean’s Russia Blog podcast, here. We yield to Allen’s description of Shlyapnikov’s demise among the purging of Old Bolsheviks following the Kirov affair — tragic, banal, and heroic in his plain refusal to gratify his persecutors with any manner of confession or groveling.

In April 1937 he was accused according to article 58-8 and 58-11 of the RSFSR law code of having led a counterrevolutionary group called the Workers’ Opposition, of having linked up with the ‘counterrevolutionary Trotskyist-Zinovievist terrorist bloc’ and of having ‘tried to conclude a bloc with Ruth Fischer for joint struggle against the policy and measures of the Comintern.’ It alleged that he advocated ‘individual terror’ and that groups he directed in Omsk, Rostov-on-Don, Kiev, Odessa, Baku, Kharkov and Moscow had ‘prepared and tried to realise the murder of comrade Stalin.’ Acknowledging that Shlyapnikov did not confess his guilt, the accusation established it through the testimony of Zinoviev, Safarov, Vardin and others. It recommended that the Military Collegium of the USSR Supreme Court should try him and apply the 1 December 1934 law. Applying to cases of terrorist acts, this law ordered the immediate execution of capital-punishment sentences, with no appeals.

The USSR Supreme Court Military Collegium met on 2 September 1937 in closed session to sentence Shlyapnikov, who appeared before the court in a two-hour long session. Refusing to admit his guilt, he also detailed his objections to others’ testimony against him. Given the last word, Shlyapnikov declared that he was ‘not hostile towards soviet power.’ Perhaps as a last ironic remark, he confessed guilt only to ‘a liberal attitude towards those around him.’ Nevertheless, the court on the same day found him guilty under article 58, paragraphs 8 and 11, of having led ‘an anti-Soviet terrorist organisation, the so-called “Workers’ Opposition,”‘ which carried out ‘counterrevolutionary activity directed towards the topping of soviet power.’ He was convicted of having been in contact with ‘leaders of Trotskyist-Zinovievist and Right-Bukharinist terrorist organisations’ and of having ordered members of his ‘anti-Soviet organisation’ to carry out ‘terrorist acts’ against party and government leaders. Then the Military Collegium sentenced him to ‘the highest measure of punishment — execution by shooting with confiscation of all personal property.’ Below this was pencilled: ‘the sentence was carried out on that day in Moscow.’ Despite ‘eyewitness’ tales that he survived for years longer, either abroad or under a false name in the Gulag, documents attest to the fact that shortly after his 1937 execution, Alexander Shlyapnikov’s body was cremated and buried in Donskoy cemetery in a common grave.

* Peter the Great‘s jewel was still St. Petersburg when Shlyapnikov arrived there in the last years of the 19th century; it was renamed Petrograd in 1914 and carried that name during the events of the 1917 revolutions and thereafter. It became Leningrad in 1926, a name that stuck for the remainder of the Soviet era.

** Alexandra Kollontai was also a noteworthy Workers’ Opposition exponent; her apologia makes for sad reading considering the Soviet state’s coming vector towards sclerotic authoritarianism.

† Stalin’s ideological mediocrity is commonplace observation but perhaps its signal instance occurred upon his arrival to revolutionary Petrograd before Lenin: where Shlyapnikov was refusing to entangle the Bolsheviks with the Provisional Government (post-February revolution, pre-October revolution), Stalin insisted on a more moderate and cooperative attitude. When Lenin arrived shortly thereafter, his April Theses famously re-set Bolshevik policy in Shlyapnikov’s more intransigent direction — a defeat to which Stalin owed the Bolshevik conquest of power and his own eventual opportunity to execute men like Shlyapnikov.

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1938: Mikhail Viktorov, Soviet naval commander

1 comment August 1st, 2018 Headsman

Soviet admiral* Mikhail Viktorov fell in the purges on this date in 1938.

A young officer fresh from the Naval Academy when World War I broke out, Viktorov (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) made a timely switch to the Bolshevik side during the Civil War and scaled the heights of the Soviet navy.

He commanded the Baltic Fleet in the latter 1920s, and the Pacific Fleet in the 1930s, and finally — fleetingly — became chief of the Soviet navy in 1937, filling dead man’s boots when his predecessor was arrested and executed.**

The same fate awaited Viktorov, a perilous occupational hazard in those days.

He was rehabilitated posthumously in 1956.

* Viktorov’s rank was “Fleet’s Flag Officer, First Rank”; in 1938, this was the equivalent of admiral, and after a 1940 reorganization it was replaced full stop with admiral.

** It appears to me that fully seven consecutive heads of the Soviet Navy eventually ended up executed in the 1930s and 1940s (not all of them directly deposed from running the navy). Pantserzhanskiy, Zof, Muklevich, Orlov, our man Viktorov, and also his successors Smirnov and Frinovsky.

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1938: Vladimir Antonov-Ovseyenko, Winter Palace stormer

1 comment February 10th, 2018 Headsman

Communist revolutionary and Soviet military leader Vladimir Antonov-Ovseyenko (or -Ovseenko) was purged on this date in 1938.

Portrait of Antonov-Ovseyenko by Yuri Annenkov.

The Ukrainian was a radical agitator from youth; he was expelled from military college in 1901 at age 17 for refusing to swear loyalty to Nicholas II and proceeded thereafter upon a cursus honorum of revolutionary tribulations — albeit, until World War I, as a Menshevik.

He stood in some danger of achieving these pages by the hand of the tsarist government rather than the Soviet one, on account of helping orchestrate the Sebastopol mutiny during the 1905 revolution, but his death sentence was commuted to hard labor.

Nothing chastised, Antonov-Ovseyenko escaped and returned to that life of militancy suitable to his badass underground nickname “Bayonet”, organizing workers and publishing illegal newspapers while dodging Stolypin‘s police. After several arrests, he finally fled for exile abroad.

According to Harold Walter Nelson’s Leon Trotsky and the Art of Insurrection, 1905-1917, it was in Paris writing for the red paper Nashe Slove (aka Golos) that the former cadet drew close to Trotsky, finding a common “conviction that the relationship between military events and the development of the revolution was critical,” and thereafter “Antonov-Ovseenko’s enthusiasm for columns on military topics opened the pages of Nashe Slovo to Trotsky’s articles” ultimately amounting to “several hundred pages of commentary on the war [World War I].” Ere long both figures would have opportunity to implement their doctrines on the battlefield.

Nashe Slovo was suppressed in 1916 after mutinying Russian soldiers were found to have read it, an event that also led to Trotsky’s being expelled from France to New York City.*

But the time for revolutionists’ exile was drawing to a close. Barely a year after the indignity of having his subversive exile ‘zine shuttered by the Third Republic, Antonov-Ovseenko — as secretary of the Petrograd Military Revolutionary Committee — led a posse of soldiers and sailors into the Winter Palace and arrested the Provisional Government, consummating the October Revolution.


Despite Sergei Eisenstein‘s epic re-creation in October: Ten Days That Shook the World, and the 1920 live re-enactment staged by Nikolai Evreinov, the Winter Palace was barely defended and Antonov-Ovseenko entered and found the Provisional Government without meeting resistance. He offered amnesty for the surrender of the remaining Winter Palace holdouts, and the offer was accepted.

Now a key military figure in the infant Communist state, Antonov-Ovseyenko helped clinch Soviet victory in the ensuing civil war, routing White armies in the Ukraine in 1918-1919 and putting down the Tambov Rebellion of peasant anti-Bolsheviks in 1920-1921.


Antonov-Ovseyenko (center) chills with Red Army officers.

By the later 1920s his Trotsky affiliation had significantly dimmed his star,** though he was still entrusted in the 1930s as a Soviet consul to several countries — the last of them the Spanish Republic during the Spanish Civil War, before falling prey to the purges mere months after his return.

His son, the lately deceased Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko, survived 13 years in the Gulag to become a dissident historian; his The Time of Stalin, published abroad in 1981 after being smuggled out of the USSR by Russia scholar Stephen Cohen, was one of the milestones along the way toward the public reckoning with Stalinism. “An embattled personality and fearless” in Cohen’s estimation, Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko died in 2013, still directing a Gulag museum in Moscow even though he had long since gone blind.

* Via Spain.

** In The Time of Stalin, Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko alleges that his father considered betting on the loyalty of the army in a coup against the Stalin faction, back when control of the post-Lenin state was still uncertain. “This cannot go on for long,” runs one letter the young Antonov-Ovseyenko quotes. “There remains one alternative — to appeal to the peasant masses dressed in Red Army greatcoats and call to order the leaders who have gone too far.” Trotsky also wrote in his memoir that such a coup was mooted within their circle.

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1937: Georgy Pyatakov, Anti-Soviet Parallel Trotskyist

Add comment January 30th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1937, Georgy Pyatakov was condemned to death and shot in Moscow as a Trotskyist conspirator.

Pyatakov (English Wikipedia entry | the more detailed Russian) was a young Bolshevik activist not long out of his schooling — and his de rigueur Siberian sentence — when the Russian Revolutions of 1917 overturned tsarism. He played an important role in the Communist revolution in Ukraine but his political opinions come the 1920s essentially aligned with Trotsky’s and we know where that will land a Bolshevik once Koba has the state in hand.

Pyatakov would die in the second of the so-called “Moscow Trials”, which was the third of the signal deadly show trials that would herald the frightful acme of Stalinism: preceding it was the First Moscow Trial or the Trial of the Sixteen in August 1936, in which Old Bolsheviks Zinoviev and Kamenev were executed as supposed Trotskysts; it was followed in November 1936 by the Kemerovo Trial in Western Siberia, in which a mining disaster was pinned not on shoddy industrial management but on a Trotskyist “wrecking” conspiracy to sabotage the Soviet economy.

Gleefully did these trials compound upon the web that Trotsky was spinning from exile in Mexico. In principle, Stalin could have chosen simply to purge Zinoviev and Kamenev as rival aspirants and have done with it: in practice, these were merely early stones of an avalanche. The Kemerovo trial expanded the grasp of the Trotskyist conspiracy to compass orchestrating terrorist cells among the whole populace; and even as arrests in locales throughout the USSR vindicated this theory, the Second Moscow Trial — our focus — made the next round of doomed elites the “reserve center” backing up the Zinoviev-Kamenev guys “in case the main center was arrested and destroyed.” It was this junior varsity that had been coordinating for several years “the main work of wrecking, which ruined much in our economy” in coordination not only with Trotsky but with insidious capitalist rulers. (The comments are from the report that secret police chief Yezhov prepared for them, as quoted in 1937: Stalin’s Year of Terror) Hey, Trotsky in his day had put together the Red Army on the fly: the man knew how to organize.

The progress of these official lines put any real or alleged opposition to Stalin on the same plane as treason against the state, the people, Communism, and with links reaching from the humblest disgruntled kulak all the way to a distant demon figure the parallel to Europe’s witch hunts is difficult to resist. The Soviet Union’s burning times would ensue with seasons of wild purging in 1937 and 1938.

The Second Moscow Trial — or, as you might have guessed it is also called, the trial of the “Anti-Soviet Parallel Trotskyist Center” — unfolded from January 23 to 30 of 1937, and featured the entirely fictional tale that Pyatakov had secretly flown to Oslo to huddle with Trotsky on their wrecking strategy. Not everyone suffered Pyatakov’s summary fate at the end; the most famous defendant in this affair, Karl Radek, got a penal labor sentence and was later murdered in the camps.

The “Anti-Soviet Parallel Trotskyist Center” types were posthumously rehabilitated during the Mikhail Gorbachev era.

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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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1938: Janis Berzins, Soviet military intelligence chief

Add comment July 29th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1938, the Soviet intelligence agent Janis Berzin(s) was shot in the basement of Moscow’s Lubyanka Prison.

A Latvian radical back to Riga’s chapter of the 1905 revolution,* Berzins became a trusted associate of Lenin in exile, and transitioned with the 1917 Revolution into a variety of political-security-military leadership positions in the new Soviet state.

For most of the 1924-1937 period, Berzins directed — indeed, practically createdSoviet military intelligence. He’s credited with personally recruiting the legendary World War II spy Richard Sorge; in 1936-1937 he was the chief Soviet military advisor in the Spanish Civil War under the nom de guerre “Grishin”. Russians fighting in Spain just referred to him as “the old man.” (Source)

Of course, no degree of seniority was sufficient safety during the frightful purging years of the Yezhovshchina. Once back in Moscow, Berzins fell instantly, almost randomly, over a spurious accusation of internal espionage.

His conviction was reversed after Stalin died.

* But not one of the Latvian revolutionaries who ended up in a shootout with London police.

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1938: Vladimir Kirshon, Bulgakov antagonist

Add comment July 28th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1938, Soviet playwright Vladimir Kirshon was shot at the Kommunarka “special object” shooting range outside Moscow.

Kirshon (English Wikipedia entry | Russian), purged as a “Trotskyist counter-revolutionary” as one might assume from the date and place. And like many peers in those terrible years, it was Kirshon’s to suffer the martyr’s fate without the merit of the martyr’s service.

In his day — which ran up to the spring 1937 fall of his patron, NKVD chief Genrikh Yagoda — Kirshon had distinguished himself with servility.

In his capacity as a Soviet writer’s guild bigwig, the ideologically rigorous Kirshon had been a point man in the depressing 1929-1932 campaign against the early Soviet Union’s rich literary heterodoxy. (Sample slogan: “For the hegemony of Proletarian literature! Liquidate backwardness!”)

This chilly period drove dystopian novelist Yevgeny Zamyatin to exile, and futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky to suicide.* The novelist and playwright Mikhail Bulgakov, a writer whose manuscripts from the furnace of Stalinism were forged for immortality, was also long harried by Kirshon. Kirshon’s pull nearly ruined Bulgakov’s career at what should have been its peak.

Bulgakov returned the contempt of his persecutor from a position of considerable literary superiority. Kirshon’s own work tended to the glorification of doctrinaire communism — he produced a verse celebrating the Civil War’s martyred 26 Baku commissars; Bulgakov has on his c.v. perhaps the signal achievement of 20th century Russian letters, The Master and Margarita. Little wonder to find Bulgakov complaining in private correspondence of the waste Kirshon has made of a trip to Europe, churning out the sort of tendentious and formulaic Soviet-man-abroad literature that any loyal commissar could have written without setting foot from Moscow. But despite the very real injuries Kirshon had done to him, Bulgakov found the baying denunciation theater so distasteful that he declined to say a public word against Kirshon when the latter fell.

The diary of Bulgakov’s wife Elena is not quite so diplomatic.

21 April 1937

A rumour that Kirshon and [Alexander] Afinogenov are in trouble. They say that [Leopold] Averbakh has been arrested. Is it possible that Nemesis has been visited upon Kirshon?

23 April 1937

Yes, Nemesis has come. There are very bad stories in the press about Kirshon and Afinogenov.

(These entries, quoted via J.A.E. Curtis’s Manuscripts Don’t Burn: Michael Bulgakov: a Life in Letters and Diaries, refer only to Kirshon’s professional fall. He was not arrested until that August.)

Kirshon was posthumously rehabilitated in the Khrushchev era and some of his work has even been performed in post-Communist Russia. But according to this Russian-language Bulgakov trove, that old foe made perhaps Kirshon’s lasting literary monument by using him as the model for the character Polievkt Eduardovich in Bulgakov’s short story “It Was May” (Russian link): it’s a story about a foppish critic who returns from abroad with specious critiques that force the narrator to ruin his own play by diverting the story to the arrest and purging of its principal character.

Thanks to friend of the blog Sonechka for translation and background.

* Mayakovsky shot himself at age 37; there’s also a popular hypothesis that he did this to check out at the same age as Pushkin.

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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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1938: Branislaw Tarashkyevich, Belarusian linguist

Add comment November 29th, 2012 Headsman

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

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


Tarashkyevich, and his grammar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Belarus,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Intellectuals,Politicians,Russia,Shot,USSR

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