1979: Hafizullah Amin

7 comments December 27th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1979, the 104-day term of Afghan president Hafizullah Amin met a violent end as a Soviet-engineered coup raised the curtain on a war destined to bring misery to both Cold War combatants.

The Soviet Union’s ongoing intervention in Afghan politics had through the 1970’s steadily mired it deeper into an unstable political situation.

Now, it was running out of patience with the country’s president, Hafizullah Amin.

He’d got the best of rival Nur Mohammad Taraki in a power struggle that September, but to the political chaos and the blossoming Islamic insurgency roiling his country, Amin added a level of brutality that was all his own, and a streak of diplomatic independence that was distinctly unwelcome in Moscow.

Amin was a Communist himself, and both he and the predecessor he’d murdered had wanted ever-increasing Soviet aid to keep the country stable.

But that proved to be a Faustian bargain.

Though Kabul radio would announce that Amin had been tried and summarily executed for “crimes against the state,” the short-lived dictator’s fate had been decided two weeks before when the Soviet Politburo passed a secret resolution for his ouster — having lost whatever confidence it had once held in him as a dependable satellite governor.

“The Soviet Union,” said the New York Times in a more innocent time,

has seemed deeply troubled by the inability of either the Taraki or Amin governments to put down the rebellions in Afghanistan, which have been largely tribal but also militantly anti-Communist.

Amin survived a KGB poisoning, so the Red Army dispensed with subtlety by raiding the palace, plucking their preferred satrap out of exile in eastern Europe to take Amin’s place.

It would not see the last of Afghanistan until 10 years, 15,000 Soviet dead, and hundreds of thousands of Afghan casualties later.


A memorial in Ekaterinburg, Russia, to the Soviet dead in the Afghan war. Image courtesy of beatdrifter (Andy Holmes).

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Afghanistan,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Heads of State,History,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Power,Russia,Shot,Summary Executions,Treason,USSR,Wartime Executions

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1918: Tsar Nicholas II and his family

18 comments July 17th, 2008 Headsman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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